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of a Traveling Preacher, Vol 3. Chapter 29
By Indradyumna Swami
March 27, Sri Prahald, Rukmini Priya, Dauji Krishna dasi and myself arrived in
New York City after a six-hour flight from Phoenix, Arizona. It was cold and
raining and the bleak New York City skyline was a sharp contrast to the beauty
and simplicity of the Arizona desert from where we had come. We were picked up
by Bhakta Pankaj, an Indian devotee who lives with the brahmacaris running the
original ISKCON storefront, "Matchless Gifts,” at 26 Second Avenue.
we drove into the city we got stuck in traffic and had time to study the
thousands of pedestrians on the busy streets, the towering skyscrapers, and the
other sights and sounds that make New York the unique place that it is. Dwarfed
as we were by so many massive buildings, my impression was that the city had
developed sporadically into a congested concrete jungle. Milan Kundera once
wrote, "The beauty of New York is unintentional; it arose independent of
human design, like a stalagmite cavern. "
its overbearing appearance, New York effectively serves as the great capital of
business, entertainment and fashion for America. It is also the port of entry
for most immigrants, beckoned by the Statue of Liberty (representing liberty as
a woman with a torch upraised in one hand and a book in the other arm) who
stands on Liberty Island in New York harbor. An inscription on the statue reads:
me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The
wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed
to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door. " [Emma Lazarus, The New
person who took advantage of her invitation was His Divine Grace, A. C.
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. However, he didn't come to America in 1965 a
tired and homeless beggar, seeking shelter in the "land of the free. "
Rather he came to give the people of America the benediction of achieving the
ultimate goal of life. In a newspaper interview in the 1970s, Srila Prabhupada
was asked by a reporter why he came to the United States. Srila Prabhupada
boldly replied: "To remind you of what you have forgotten - God. "
being the materialistic place it is, New York holds a special charm for ISKCON
devotees around the world, because it is the place that Srila Prabhupada began
his preaching in the West. Srila Prabhupada himself had an affection for New
York is very much attractive for me because New York is the starting place of my
activities in your country. " [Srila Prabhupada, letter to a disciple,
the minds of devotees there are many holy places of pilgrimage in New York, such
as "Matchless Gifts,” where ISKCON started in 1966; Tompkins Square Park,
where Srila Prabhupada introduced public chanting of the holy names; Washington
Square Park, where he sat on the grass to preach; and the Bowery loft where he
at the devotees' apartment a few blocks away from Second Avenue, we settled in
and met our hosts. Yajna Purusa das, a disciple of Nirajana Swami, has a crew of
four brahmacaris who do regular harinama in the Lower East Side, hold house
programs, and give classes at "Matchless Gifts. " Hearing of their
preaching from that historic base made me eager to join in the programs. Just as
the places of Krishna's pastimes are considered sacred, so the places where His
pure devotees like Srila Prabhupada preach also become sanctified:
bhagavatas tirtha-bhutah svayam vibho tirthi-kurvanti tirthani svantah-sthena
Lord, devotees like your good self are verily holy places personified. Because
you carry the Personality of Godhead within your heart, you turn all places into
places of pilgrimage. " [SB 1. 13. 10]
Friday afternoon we all assembled in front of "Matchless Gifts" for a
harinama through the Lower East Side. As we chanted through the streets, I could
see not much had changed since the time Srila Prabhupada lived there in the
mid-1960s. The district is still a haven for young people living alternative
lifestyles. Most were dressed in unusual clothes, many of the girls had hair
dyed bright colors, and the boys wore oversized jeans and rings in their ears.
People congregated everywhere, talking or drinking coffee and tea in small
cafes. There was a relaxed mood on the street, and I could smell marijuana in
the air as we passed underground bookstores and music shops.
by far, the most "far out" dressed people with the "coolest"
music were the devotees, as we chanted and danced in ecstasy through the
colorful and upbeat neighborhood. Everyone enjoyed the kirtan, and on several
occasions young people followed us chanting for some time as we weaved in and
out of the crowds. Others waved or gave thumbs-up signals as we passed by. Some
more "enlightened" people called out "Hare Krishna!" We
chanted for several hours, and knowing that all of New York was as congested as
this one area, I quickly concluded that the city was undoubtedly the harinama
capital of the world. In my mind, I was trying to figure out how I could
organize my yearly schedule so as to include a month-long harinama program in
the Lower East Side with devotees from all over the world. I told Yajna Purusa,
"If we could have a big, well-organized, colorful and blissful harinama
here on a regular basis, we'd take over the city. At least we'd touch the hearts
of millions of New Yorkers!" Of course, I knew it was unlikely, with my
present responsibilities, that I could do such a thing. But I'll keep it as an
alternative should things ever change drastically for me in eastern Europe and
Russia. Who knows what the future holds?
Saturday we drove to New Jersey and did an evening program at my god-brother,
Samika Rsi's house. There were more than 300 devotees from the Indian community,
and the atmosphere was electric in anticipation of our arrival. The mood made me
eager to reciprocate, and I led a big kirtan and gave a long class full of
transcendental stories. Afterwards, Dauji Krishna dasi, my 16-year-old disciple
from Vrindavan who is traveling with us, did a beautiful Oriyan dance for all
the devotees and guests. She touched their hearts by introducing the dance in
fluent Hindi. When she danced everyone was amazed at the professionalism of her
performance. Sri Prahlad concluded the evening with a rousing kirtan for arati,
which left everyone exhausted on the floor.
was a "normal" program for Sri Prahald and myself - but it seemed
something out of the ordinary for the congregation in New Jersey. Afterwards,
one devotee came up to me and thanked me for "the most ecstatic program of
his life. " He said he had heard so much about me and had been praying to
Krishna to have the opportunity to meet me one day. As he spoke I experienced a
moment of pride, but quickly coming to my senses realized that his words, though
spoken with good intention, had entered like poison into my heart. Embarrassed
that I had momentarily taken credit for something that was, in fact, only the
causeless mercy of my spiritual master, I softly recited one prayer of Srila
Ragunatha das Goswami to purify my mind:
dhrsta svapaca ramani me hrdi na tet katham sadhu prema sprsati sucir etan nanu
manah sada tvam sevasva prabhu dayita samantam atulam yatha tam niskasya
tvaritam iha tam vesayati sah
long as the impudent untouchable prostitute of the desire for fame dances in my
heart, why should pure love for Radha-Krishna touch me? O mind, continuously
serve my spiritual master, the leader of those who are dear to the Lord. Then my
master will quickly kick out that harridan and allow that pure love to enter.
" [Manah Siska, Verse 7]
Prabhupada, please never allow me to take credit for what is yours. May I always
remember that whatever success I have in devotional service is simply your
mercy, somehow or other coming through a fallen soul like me.
next day I had a few hours free, so I asked Bhakta Pankaj to take me into town
to purchase a few things I needed. It wasn't so much that I wanted to do the
shopping myself, but I wanted to see the city and meet the people. As we walked
around, at first I was struck by the relative peace and tranquillity of the city
streets. Generally big cities mean big crime, which one can easily sense in
other places I've been like Moscow, Warsaw or Johannesburg. However, Bhakta
Pankaj told me that the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Guiliani, has worked hard to
curb the criminal elements in the city. The police are famous (or infamous) for
their effort in this regard. Although it was a mundane observation, it is
actually a principle of Vedic culture that the government rule in such a way
that the citizens have no fear of criminals. Srila Prabhupada touched on this in
a lecture in Vrindavan in 1976:
ksatriya's duty is to give protection from injury to the citizens. The citizens
should feel so safe, that they think: 'We have such a nice king that we have no
danger at all. Not being injured, nor our property being stolen nor any
injustice given. ' That is the real government - when the citizens feel
completely safe. " [Vrindavan, September 28, 1976]
ISKCON started here, and because devotees have been active on the streets with
harinama, prasadam and book distribution for years, our movement has been
accepted by the people as part of the New York scene. Srila Prabhupada once said
that you can judge a pot of rice by testing one single grain. In the same way,
the effect of Krishna consciousness on New York throughout the years became
apparent as we encountered the populace.
we walked around some people greeted us saying, "Hare Krishna!" One
older man approached me and said, "Do you have any of those sweet-balls you
used to give out in the 1970s. I loved those things!"
by a market place, an Afro-American man selling fruit called me over. He said,
"You tell me what Krishna means. OK?"
him to be a simple man, I replied, "Krishna is a name for the Supreme Lord.
satisfied with that answer, he said, "No, sir! Krishna is a Sanskrit word!
What is the actual meaning?"
little taken aback, this time I said, "Krishna means that God is all
replied, "You're close! Actually, the literal meaning of Krishna is 'black.
' And black is beautiful. Therefore, Krishna is beautiful!"
few minutes later we took a taxi to a destination in the heart of the city. A
short way into the ride, the driver looked back and said, "Is the
Ratha-yatra parade coming soon?"
Pankaj said, "It will take place sometime in late June. "
want to know the exact date,” he retorted.
Pankaj said, "Well, I'm not sure of the exact date. Are you going to come
and watch and take some of the food we distribute?"
driver replied, "No. I just come for the music - only the music. I love the
music at that parade, and how those boys and girls dance so nicely for hours
down Fifth Avenue. Here's my card. Contact me when you know the date. I want to
hear that music again!"
Tuesday evening I felt honored to sit and give a lecture next to the same dais
that Srila Prabhupada spoke from in "Matchless Gifts" in the 1960s.
The storefront is not large, but somehow more than 100 devotees and guests
squeezed in. Upon arriving, I had not yet decided exactly what I would speak
about, but when I sat down in that holy tirtha it became very clear to me: I
would speak of my association with Srila Prabhupada. It wasn't the first time I
had recounted my memories of Srila Prabhupada, but because the atmosphere was
surcharged with his presence, I was particularly inspired to do so. At times I
struggled a little with emotions that surfaced upon remembering Srila
Prabhupada's mercy on me. In fact, after describing the most significant and
memorable moment in my entire existence in the material world, I concluded my
talk. It is a moment I treasure daily, and one that gives me strength and
inspiration - even in the midst of the greatest difficulties.
1971, I flew with Srila Prabhupada and several god-brothers from New York to
London. As our plane descended into Heathrow Airport, I was looking forward to
seeing the ISKCON temple at 7 Bury Place and participating in the devotees'
reception for Srila Prabhuapda. However, when we arrived at the airport, one of
Srila Prabhupada's suitcases was missing. It was the suitcase that contained the
books of commentaries by the previous acarayas that he used in his translation
work. I was devastated when Syamasundara prabhu asked me to remain behind to
wait for the suitcase and bring it to the temple. As the airport reception party
escorted Srila Prabhupada to his car, I sat dejected on a bench waiting for the
suitcase to show up.
hours later it was located, and I caught a taxi into London. It was raining as
we drove into the city, and by the time we reached the temple it was evening and
dark outside. Dragging the heavy suitcase into the temple, I found a number of
devotees sitting on the floor just finishing a big feast. When I asked for some
prasadam, they sheepishly replied that nothing was left. When I asked for some
help to take Srila Prabhupada's suitcase up to his room they all declined,
saying that they were too full from the feast. Tired and hungry, I made an
effort to pull the suitcase up the stairs to Srila Prabhupada's room. A little
dazed from so much exertion, I didn't think to knock on his door first, and
opening it proceeded to pull the suitcase into his room backwards.
Srila Prabhupada's secretary, Nanda Kumara prabhu, called out, "Watch out,
you're about to bump into Srila Prabhupada!"
around, I found myself face to face with His Divine Grace. I fell down to the
ground at his lotus feet and began offering my obeisances. While reciting my
prayers, I suddenly felt a strong slap on my back and heard Srila Prabhupada say
a few words. After a few moments, Srila Prabhupada walked away to his bathroom
and I cautiously got up. I found Nanda Kumara standing there looking at me
incredulously, his mouth wide open.
said, "Boy, did you get some mercy. Srila Prabhupada slapped you on the
back. I never saw him do that before. "
was even more amazed - and blissful too. I replied, "What did he say?"
Kumara answered, "He told you, 'So much endeavor in this material world,
but when I take you home, back to Godhead, everything will be easy and sublime.
words remain forever within my heart, and each time I recount the story I
appreciate them more and more. They took on a special meaning that evening at
"Matchless Gifts. " Speaking of Srila Prabhupada in that sacred place
of ISKCON's beginning, I didn't feel as if I was in New York. I felt I was in
the spiritual sky. This is His Divine Grace's mercy: that wherever we go in his
service we may remain in Krishna consciousness, untouched by the modes of
nature. No doubt New York remains one of the concrete bastions of Kali-yuga,
fraught with quarrel and hypocrisy like any other place in the world, but those
devotees who serve Srila Prabhupada there live not in New York, but in the
spiritual sky. Srila Prabhupada explained this when answering a disciple's
question during a lecture in 1968:
"I heard it said that you are in this world without being a part of it,
like the lotus flower which floats on the water. "
Srila Prabhupada: "Yes, that is the understanding. I am in America [but] I am not adopting the way of life as Americans do. So I am not in America. Not only myself, but all my disciples who are following me, they are also not Americans. They're different. I am in Vrindavan because wherever I go, in my apartment or in my temple, I live with Krishna, in Krishna consciousness. And I teach my disciples to do that also. " [Bhagavad-gita lecture, December 16, 1968]
© CHAKRA 4-July-2001
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