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Becoming Pure — Conversations with a Peace Corps worker in India

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Srila Prabhupada preaches to Bob Cohen, a Peace Corps worker in Mayapur, India. 1974.

Conversations about spiritual life between Bob Cohen, a young Peace Corps worker in India, and His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Recorded at the ISKCON International Center at Lord Caitanya’s Birthplace, Mayapur, India

Bob Cohen, a Peace Corps worker in India. 1974.I have always been interested in religion, but before I met the devotees, I did not have the intelligence or proper perspective needed to inquire fruitfully about spiritual life. I had been to Hebrew School and had studied Oriental philosophy, but I could never get satisfying answers to my questions.

After graduating college with a B.S. in Chemistry, I joined the Peace Corps and went to India as a science teacher. In India I inquired about the Hare Krishna movement. I was curious about its authenticity. Attracted by the chanting and intrigued by the philosophy, I had visited the Radha-Krishna temple in New York several times before going to India, but I did not consider the seemingly austere life of a devotee for myself.

In India I first met the Krishna conscious devotees in Calcutta during October of 1972. The devotees could clearly explain to me the purpose of yoga and the need to inquire about spiritual life. I began to feel that the rituals and ceremonies they practiced were not dull, sentimental obligations, but a real, sensible way of life.

At first, however, it was very difficult for me to understand the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. In so many subtle ways, my Western upbringing prevented me from seeing things that were as plain as the nose on my face! Fortunately, the devotees convinced me of the need to practice some few basic austerities, and thus I was able to gain the intelligence and desire to understand spiritual life. I can now recall how distant and tenuous my concepts of spiritual and transcendental existence were. I met Prabhupada briefly at this time, and shortly thereafter I decided to become a vegetarian. (I was proud of being a vegetarian, but later Prabhupada reminded me that even pigeons are vegetarians.)

In February I met some devotees in Calcutta, and they invited me to a festival in Mayapur (a holy island ninety miles north of Calcutta) in honor of the appearance day of Lord Caitanya, who is considered an incarnation of Krishna Himself. I left for Mayapur planning to stay two days at the most, but ended up staying a week. There I met Prabhupada again. I was the only Western nondevotee on the island, and since I was living with the devotees on their land, this was a unique opportunity to learn intimately about Krishna consciousness. When I met Prabhupada, he asked me how I was and if I had any questions. The devotees had explained to me that Prabhupada could answer any questions about spiritual life because he represents a disciplic succession of spiritual masters. I thought that Prabhupada might really know what is going on in the world. After all, his devotees claimed this, and I admired and respected his devotees. So with this in mind I began to ask my question. Inadvertently, I had approached a spiritual master (guru) in the proper manner, submissively asking questions about spiritual matters.

Prabhupada was pleased, and over the next several days he answered my questions. I asked them mostly from an academic point of view, but Prabhupada always gave me personal answers so that I would take to spiritual life. Prabhupada was patiently trying to help me understand that Krishna (God) is the supreme enjoyer, supreme friend and supreme proprietor. I put forward many impediments to accepting the obvious: that I would have to become serious about God consciousness to understand God. But Prabhupada relentlessly yet kindly urged me on.

Now I am back in the United States working for my master’s degree in geology at Rutgers, sponsoring Krishna conscious activities on the campus, chanting Hare Krishna myself every day, and associating with the devotees at the temple in New York. Gradually, am overcoming material impediments. Due to the kindness of Srila Prabhupada, I have realized the importance of inquiring about spiritual life from a genuinely self-realized person. Spiritual life has thus become more real to me and less sentimental.

Bob Cohen

Bob: Thank you so much for allowing me to ask my questions.

Srila Prabhupada: That is my mission. People should understand the science of God. Unless we cooperate with the Supreme Lord, our life is baffled. I have given the example many times that a screw which has fallen from a machine has no value. But when the same screw is again attached to the machine, it has value. Similarly, we are part and parcel of God. So without God, what is our value? No value! We should again come back to our position of attachment to God. Then we have value.

Bob: I met a fellow today who came in the afternoon. His reason for coming—you may find it humorous—was that he heard the hippies were in Mayapur.

Srila Prabhupada: What?

Bob: He heard that hippies were in Mayapur. I was talking to him, and then some devotees were talking to him. He had said some things to me which I could find no answer for. And he said he would come back tomorrow and meet some devotees. But let me tell you what he said. This is confusing. When he was young. . .

Srila Prabhupada: He’s Indian?

Bob: Yes, Indian. He lives nearby and speaks English fairly well. When he was young he worshiped Kali [a popular demigoddess] every day very rigorously, and then the floods came. When the floods came, the people saw hardship, and now he has no religion, and he says he finds his happiness in trying to develop love among people. And I couldn’t think of what to say to him to add God and religion to his life. He says that after he dies, “maybe I’ll become part of God, maybe not,” but he can’t worry about it now. He says he’s tried these religious experiences, but they didn’t work. One reason I ask this is because when I go back to America, a lot of people I come across are like this. They see that religion, like his worship of Kali or other kinds of religion they’ve experienced, doesn’t work. And I don’t know what to say to them to convince them it’s worth trying.

Srila Prabhupada preaches to Bob Cohen, a Peace Corps worker in Mayapur, West Bengal, India. 1974.Srila Prabhupada: Do not try at the present moment. You try to be convinced yourself.

Bob: Yes. I asked him to see devotees, but then on the way out, as he was leaving down the road, I met him again and told him, “Come back,” but. . . Oh, I see.

Srila Prabhupada: You first of all be convinced. And then try to convince others. Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s instruction is that you can improve the welfare of others when your own life is a success:

bharata-bhuite haila manusya-janma yara
janma sarthaka kari’ kara para-upakara

First make your life perfect. Then try to teach others.

Bob: The devotees have said to me that without consciousness of Krishna all the time, you cannot be happy. But at times I feel happy.

Srila Prabhupada: At times. Not always.

Bob: Yes.

Srila Prabhupada: But if you become Krishna conscious, you will feel happy always.

Bob: They had implied that you cannot feel happy without Krishna consciousness.

Srila Prabhupada: That is a fact. For example, if you are an animal of the land and you are thrown into the water, you cannot be happy in water in any condition. When you are again taken up to the land, then you’ll be happy. Similarly, we are part and parcel of Krishna. We cannot be happy without being part and parcel of Krishna. The same example: the machine part, without the machine, has no value; but when it is again put into the machine, it has value. We are part of Krishna; we must join Krishna. And you can join Krishna immediately by your consciousness, simply by thinking, “I am Krishna’s, Krishna is mine.” That’s all.

Bob: What is that? Krishna is. . .

Srila Prabhupada: Krishna is mine!

Bob: Mine?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Mine. My Krishna.

Bob: Ah.

Srila Prabhupada: Krishna is mine. Krishna is mine.

Bob: Yes.

Srila Prabhupada: And I am Krishna’s. That is our actual position.

Bob: We are part of Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Everything is part and parcel of Krishna. Because everything is generated by the energy of Krishna and everything is the energy of Krishna.

An Indian gentleman: Srila Prabhupada, I have one question. What is the status of service minus devotion?

Srila Prabhupada preaches to Bob Cohen, a Peace Corps worker in Mayapur, West Bengal, India. 1974.Srila Prabhupada: Hmm? That is not service, that is business. [Everyone laughs.] For example, here in Mayapur we have employed a contractor. That is not service-that is business. Is it not? Sometimes they will advertise, “Our customers are our masters.” Is it not? But in spite of the flowery language-“Our customers are our masters”—this is business, because nobody is a qualified customer unless he pays. But service is not like that. Service—Caitanya Mahaprabhu prays to Krishna:

yatha tatha va vidadhati lampato
mat-prana-nathas tu sa eva naparah

“You do whatever You like, but still You are my worshipable Lord.” That is service. “I don’t ask any return from You.” That is service. When you expect some return, that is business.

Bob: I wish to ask you to advise me on how I can come to feel closer to God. I’ll be leaving you soon. And I’m. . .

Srila Prabhupada: You have to be purified.

Bob: I come to the temple at times, and then I leave, and I’m not sure how much I take with me.

Srila Prabhupada: It does not take much time. Within six months you will realize your progress. But you have to follow the regulative principles. Then it will be all right. Just like these boys and girls are doing.

Bob: Yes, I see.

Srila Prabhupada: They have no tendency for going to the cinema or going to a hotel. No. They have stopped all anarthas, all unnecessary things.

Bob: I feel that when I go back, they’ll-

Srila Prabhupada: The whole human life is meant for purification.

Bob: Yes.

Srila Prabhupada: Tapo divyam putraka yena sattvam suddhyed yasmad brahma-saukhyam tv anantam, Sattva means existence. So if you don’t purify your existence, then you will have to change your body. From this body to that. Sometimes it may be higher, sometimes lower. For example, if you don’t cure a disease, it can put you into trouble in so many ways. Similarly, if you don’t purify your existence, then you will have to transmigrate from one body to another. There are very subtle laws of nature. Now there is no guarantee that you will get a very comfortable body or an American body. Therefore, it is essential for the human being to purify his existence. Unless you purify your existence, you will hanker after happiness but will not always be happy.

Bob: When I go back to my job in New York, I hope I’ll become pure, but I’m sure that I won’t become as pure as your devotees here. I-I don’t see myself doing that.

Srila Prabhupada: You can do as they are doing. They were not pure in the beginning; now they are pure. Similarly, you can become pure. For example, in your childhood you were not educated-but now you are educated.

Bob: So, what are the things that I may do? When I go back, I must. . .

Srila Prabhupada: When do you go back?

Bob: I’ll be going back to Chaibasa to do my work there, and. . .

Srila Prabhupada preaches to Bob Cohen, a Peace Corps worker in Mayapur, West Bengal, India. 1974.Srila Prabhupada: What is there in Chaibasa?

Bob: That is where I do my teaching. I live there.

Srila Prabhupada: So better not to teach—because you do not know what to teach.

Bob: [laughs] I’ll be going-I don’t like this teaching so much, and I’ll be returning to America in May, but while I’m here, this is my agreement for staying in India.

Srila Prabhupada: If you are serious, you can keep yourself pure anywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you stay in America or India. But you must know how to keep yourself purified. That’s all.

Bob: You mean by following these principles?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. I went to America, for instance, but either in America or India, I am the same man.

Bob: I have tried somewhat to follow since I met you the first time [a brief visit in Calcutta during November, 1971].

Srila Prabhupada: Hmm. But follow— you must strictly follow if you are serious.

Bob: Maybe—okay, maybe—what I say now is—well—the most foolish of all I’ve said. But let me tell you how I feel.

Srila Prabhupada: No, no, not foolish. I don’t say foolish—but imperfect.

Bob: Okay. [He laughs.] Imperfect. But let me tell you. I feel that right now I admire and respect your devotees, but I don’t feel as if I am part of them, or even that I have a great desire to be part of them. I feel that I just— want—I want to do what is right, come closer to God, and if—and if I just go to a better life next time—I’d be satisfied.

Srila Prabhupada: Very good.

Bob: I guess it’s material clinging, but. . .

Srila Prabhupada: So, you just follow in their footsteps, and your desire will be fulfilled. We are training them how to become purified and happy. That is our mission. We want to see everyone happy. Sarve sukhino bhavantu. People do not know how to become happy. They do not take the standard path to become happy. They manufacture their own way. That is the difficulty. Therefore, Rsabhadeva gave this advice to his sons: “My dear boys, just undergo austerity for transcendental realization.” Everyone is performing austerity. This boy I know—he had to go to a foreign country to learn commercial management. Now he is well situated. In this way, everyone must undergo some austerity for future life. So why not take that austerity for permanent happiness? You have to purify your existence and your body. As many times as you accept a material body, you will have to change it. But as soon as you get a spiritual body, there is no question of change. You already have a spiritual body. Now, due to our material contamination, we are developing the material body. But if we associate with spiritual life, then we shall develop a spiritual body. The same example I have several times given is that if you put an iron rod within fire, it will become like fire. Is it not?

Bob: Put the iron rod into fire?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, and it will become like fire.

Bob: Yes.

Srila Prabhupada: Although iron.

Bob: Yes.

Srila Prabhupada: Similarly, if you always keep yourself spiritually engaged, your body will act spiritually, although it is material. The same example: when an iron rod is red hot, touch it anywhere, and it will burn. It takes on the quality of fire. Similarly, if you always keep yourself in Krishna consciousness, then you will become spiritualized. You will act spiritually. No more material demands.

Bob: How do I do this?

Srila Prabhupada: This process. They are doing it. You have seen these boys, our six boys who have been initiated today. It is very simple. You have to follow the four restrictive regulations and chant these beads. Very easy.

Bob: Well, but, see—when I am back in Bihar and following my lifestyle there, I—if I follow all these regulative principles—some I follow now, but not all—

Srila Prabhupada: Some means?

Bob: Some?

Srila Prabhupada: There are only four regulative principles. Some means three, or two?

Bob: Two or three.

Srila Prabhupada: So why not the other one?

Bob: No, no. I mean I follow one or two. One or two I follow now.

Srila Prabhupada: [laughs] Why not the other three? What is the difficulty? Which one do you follow?

Bob: Which one do I follow? Well, I’m almost vegetarian, but I eat eggs.

Srila Prabhupada: Then that is also not complete.

Bob: No, not even complete. Since last time [November], I’ve become vegetarian, but. . .

Srila Prabhupada: Vegetarian is no qualification.

Bob: Not much.

Srila Prabhupada: The pigeon is vegetarian. [Bob laughs in relief.] The monkey is vegetarian-the most rubbish creature.. .

Bob: Well. . .

Srila Prabhupada: The monkey is vegetarian. This naked sannyasi lives in the forest-the most mischievous. . .

Bob: I—I felt that it was a little bit of progress because it was somewhat difficult at first, then easy, and I had returned to. . .

Srila Prabhupada: No, you can stick to all the regulative principles, provided you take to the Krishna consciousness process—otherwise it is not possible.

Bob: Yes, this is it. I have-when I’m back in Bihar, and-um-my friends may say. . .We’re sitting in the evening, and there’s nothing to do but fight mosquitoes, and they say, “How about smoking some marijuana?” And I say, “Sure, there’s nothing else to do,” and then I sit down, and I enjoy myself for the evening. Now we did this, we got carried away, we were doing it every day and realizing we were hurting ourselves and stopped, but still on occasion we. . .

Srila Prabhupada: You have to live with us. Then your friends will not ask you, “What about marijuana?” [Bob laughs.] Keep the association of devotees. We are opening centers to give people a chance to associate with us. Why have we taken so much land [in Mayapur]? Those who are seriously desirous-they will come and live with us. Association is very influential, if you associate with drunkards, you become drunk; if you associate with sadhus, then you become a sadhu.

Syamasundara [Srila Prabhupada’s secretary]: He can come and stay with you in Bombay.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, you can stay with us in Bombay. But he wants friends with marijuana. That is the difficulty.

Bob: Let me ask you about something else; then maybe I’ll comeback to this. I find that I think of myself too much, and this way I can’t think of God so much. I think of myself in too many places. How can I forget about myself so I can concentrate on other, more important things?

Srila Prabhupada: As they [the devotees] have done.

Bob: [laughs] You are saying to me that my path—I think what you’re saying is that my path to purity is to become a devotee.

Srila Prabhupada: Do you hesitate?

Bob: Well, I. . .

Srila Prabhupada: Is it very difficult to become a devotee?

Bob: For myself—it is. I don’t feel so much the desire. First the devotees tell me that they have given up material life. These four regulative principles, they have explained to me, entail giving up material life, and that I see. And in place of this they have. . .

Srila Prabhupada: What do you mean by material life?

[Bob is silent.]

Srila Prabhupada: I am sitting on this bed. Is it material or spiritual?

Bob: Material.

Srila Prabhupada: Then how have we given up material life?

Bob: I think how I interpreted it was a desire for our material gains. . .

Srila Prabhupada: What is material?

Bob: Working towards material gains and not giving up all materials.

Srila Prabhupada: Material life means—when you desire to gratify your senses, that is material life. And when you desire to serve God, that is spiritual life. That is the difference between material life and spiritual life. Now we are trying to serve our senses. But instead of serving the senses, when we serve God, that is spiritual life. What is the difference between our activities and others’ activities? We are using everything-table, chair, bed, tape recorder, typewriter—so what is the difference? The difference is that we are using everything for Krishna.

Bob: The devotees have said that the sensual pleasures they have given up are replaced with spiritual kinds of pleasures, but—see—I haven’t felt this.

Srila Prabhupada: Spiritual pleasures come when you desire to please Krishna. That is spiritual pleasure. For example, a mother is more pleased by feeding her son. She’s not eating, but when she sees that her son is eating very nicely, then she becomes pleased.

Bob: Hmmm. Spiritual pleasure, then, is pleasing God.

Srila Prabhupada: Spiritual pleasure means the pleasure of Krishna.

Bob: Pleasing Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Material pleasure means the pleasure of the senses. That’s all. This is the difference. When you simply try to please Krishna, that is spiritual pleasure.

Bob: I had viewed this as—my thought of pleasing God was to. . .

Srila Prabhupada: Don’t manufacture your ways of pleasing God. Don’t manufacture. Suppose I want to please you. Then I shall ask you, “How can I serve you?” Not that I manufacture some service. That is not pleasing. Suppose I want a glass of water, if you concoct the idea, “Swamiji will be more pleased if I give him a glass of milk, hot milk,” that will not please me. if you want to please me, then you should ask me, “How can I please you?” And if you do what I order, that will please me.

Bob: And pleasing Krishna, then, is being a devotee of Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada: A devotee is one who is always pleasing Krishna. He has no other business. That is a devotee.

Bob: Can you tell me some more about chanting Hare Krishna? I have for quite sometime chanted, but never regularly—just a little bit here and there. I just got beads very recently, and once in a while I feel comfortable chanting, and once in a while not comfortable at all. Maybe I don’t chant properly. I don’t know.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, everything has a process. You have to adopt the process.

Bob: The devotees tell me of the ecstasy they feel when chanting.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, the more you become purified, the more you will feel ecstasy. This chanting process is the purifying process.

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