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The Lord of the Universe Comes to Haight-Ashbury

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The Lord of the Universe Comes to Haight-Ashbury

by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami

1981-10-04

(Excerpted from Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami.)

San Francisco, 1967. Srila Prabhupada’s temple at 518 Frederick Street had become an integral part of the youth scene in the Haight-Ashbury district. His hour-long chanting sessions, thought-provoking talks on the philosophy of Krsna consciousness, and especially his free-lunch program were drawing many people every day. Now, unexpectedly, the Lord of the universe came to the temple through the agency of a local import store.

One day Malati hurried into Srila Prabhupada’s apartment, took a small item out of her shopping bag, and placed it on Prabhupada’s desk for his inspection. “What is this, Swamiji?”

Srila Prabhupada looked down and beheld a three-inch wooden doll with a flat head, a black smiling face, and big round eyes. The figure had stubby, forward-jutting arms, and a simple green and yellow torso with no visible feet. Srila Prabhupada immediately folded his palms and bowed his head, offering the little figure respects.

“You have brought Lord Jagannatha, the Lord of the universe,” he said, smiling and bright-eyed. “He is Krsna. Thank you very much.” Srila Prabhupada beamed with pleasure, while Malati and the others sat amazed at their good fortune of seeing Swamiji so pleased. Prabhupada explained that this was Lord Jagannatha, a Deity of Krsna worshiped all over India for thousands of years. Jagannatha, he said, is worshiped along with two other deities: His brother, Balarama, and His sister, Subhadra.

Excitedly, Malati confirmed that there were other, similar figures at Cost Plus, the import store where she had found the little Jagannatha, and Srila Prabhupada said she should go back and buy them. Malati told her husband, Syamasundara, and together they hurried back and bought the other two dolls in the set.

Srila Prabhupada placed the black-faced, smiling Jagannatha on the right. In the center he placed the smallest figure, Subhadra. The third figure, Balarama, Prabhupada placed next to Subhadra. As Prabhupada looked at them together on his desk. he asked if anyone knew how to carve. Syamasundara said he was a wood sculptor, and Prabhupada asked him to carve three-foot-high copies of the little Jagannatha, Balarama, and Subhadra.

More than two thousand years ago, Srila Prabhupada told them, there was a king named Indradyumna, a devotee of Lord Krsna. Maharaja Indradyumna wanted a statue of the Lord as He had appeared when He and His brother and sister had traveled on chariots to the holy field of Kuruksetra during a solar eclipse. When the king requested a famous artist from the heavenly planets, Visvakarma, to sculpture the forms, Visvakarma agreed—on the condition that no one interrupt his work. The king waited for a long time, while Visvakarma worked behind locked doors. One day, however, the king felt that he could wait no longer, and he broke in to see the work in progress. Visvakarma, true to his word, vanished, leaving behind the uncompleted forms of the three deities. The king was nevertheless so pleased with the wonderful forms of Krsna. Balarama, and Subhadra that he decided to worship them as they were. He installed them in a temple and began worshiping them with great opulence.

Since that time, Srila Prabhupada continued, Lord Jagannatha has been worshiped all over India, especially in the province of Orissa. where there is a great temple of Lord Jagannatha at Puri. Each year at Puri, during the gigantic Ratha-yatra festival, millions of pilgrims come to worship Lord Jagannatha, Balarama, and Subhadra. as the deities ride in procession on three huge carts. Lord Caitanya, who spent the last eighteen years of His life at Puri, used to dance and chant in ecstasy before the Deity of Lord Jagannatha during the yearly Ratha-yatra festival.

Seeing this appearance of Lord Jagannatha in San Francisco as the will of Krsna, Prabhupada said that they should be careful to receive and worship Lord Jagannatha properly. If Syamasundara could carve the forms, Prabhupada said, he would personally install them in the temple, and the devotees could then begin worshiping the deities. San Francisco, he said, could be renamed New Jagannatha Puri. He chanted, jagannathah svami nayana-patha-gami bhavatu me. “This is a mantra for Lord Jagannatha,” he said. “Jagannatha means ‘Lord of the universe.’ ‘O Lord of the universe, kindly be visible unto me.’ It is very auspicious that He has chosen to appear here.”

Syamasundara bought three large blocks of hardwood, and Prabhupada made a sketch and pointed out a number of details. Using the small statues, Syamasundara calculated ratios and new dimensions and began carving on the balcony of his apartment. Meanwhile, the devotees bought the rest of the tiny Jagannathas from Cost Plus, and it became a fashion to glue a little Jagannatha to a simple necklace and wear Him around the neck. Because Lord Jagannatha was very liberal and merciful to the most fallen, Srila Prabhupada explained, the devotees would soon be able to worship Him in their temple. The worship of the forms of Radha and Krsna in the temple required very high, strict standards, which the devotees were not yet able to meet. But Lord Jagannatha was so merciful that He could be worshiped in a simple way (mostly by chanting Hare Krsna), even if the devotees weren’t very much advanced.

Prabhupada set March 26, the appearance day of Lord Caitanya as the day for installing the deities. The devotees would have a big feast and begin worshiping Lord Jagannatha.

March 26

Prabhupada said that during the morning they would stay together in the temple, read about Lord Caitanya, and hold kirtana (congregational chanting), and in the evening they would have a ceremony for installing Lord Jagannatha. Having fasted until moonrise, they would then break fast with a feast of prasadam (food offered to Krsna).

That evening, devotees and hippie guests filled the room to capacity. Prabhupada was present, and the mood was reverential and festive. It was a special event. The just-finished deities sat on the altar, and everyone was glancing at them as they stood on their redwood shelf beneath a yellow canopy, their features illumined by spotlights. The deities wore no clothes or ornaments, but were freshly painted in bright black, red, white, green, yellow, and blue. They were smiling. Srila Prabhupada was also glancing at them, looking up to their high altar.

Prabhupada lectured about the four social and four spiritual orders described in the Vedic literatures. According to one’s quality and work, he said, each person has a certain occupational duty. “But the ultimate goal of that duty,” he explained, “is to satisfy the Supreme Lord. It doesn’t matter if one is lowborn or poor. Material qualification has nothing to do with spiritual evolution. Spiritual evolution is that with your talent, with your capacity, with your work, you have to satisfy the Supreme Lord.

“Paying attention to Bhagavan, the Supreme Person, is practical,” Srila Prabhupada said. “Here is Krsna. Krsna’s form is there. Krsna’s color is there. Krsna’s helmet is there. Krsna’s advice is there. Krsna’s instruction is there. Krsna’s sound is there. Everything Krsna. Everything Krsna. There is no difficulty.

“But if you turn your attention to the impersonal and to the Supersoul in the heart, as the yogis do, then it is very difficult. It is very difficult. You cannot fix your attention to the impersonal. In the Bhagavad-gita it is said that, kleso ‘dhikataras tesam avyaktasakta-cetasam. ‘Those who are attached to the impersonal feature of the Absolute Truth—their business is very troublesome.’ It is not like chanting, dancing, and eating—this is very nice. But that is very troublesome. And even if you speculate on the impersonal, the result achieved by working hard for so many, many lives is that you will have to eventually come to Krsna.”

Srila Prabhupada continued describing Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, citing evidence from scriptures like Bhagavad-gita and Brahma-samhita. The first step in spiritual life, he explained, was to hear from Krsna Himself. But Prabhupada warned that if one heard the class and then went outside and forgot, he could not improve. “Whatever you are hearing, you should say to others,” Prabhupada said. And he gave the example of how disciples were writing in back to godhead what they had heard from their spiritual master. And to speak or write what one has heard, a person has to be thoughtful. . . .

“You are hearing about Krsna, and you have to think. Then you have to speak. Otherwise, it will not work. And you should worship. Therefore, you require this Deity for worshiping. And we should do this occasionally? No. Nityada: regularly. Regularly. This is the process. So anyone who adopts this process—he can understand the Absolute Truth. This is the clear declaration of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Thank you very much. Any question?”

A young boy raised his hand and began earnestly: “Well, you mentioned about how we should follow the supreme law, how we should be like what your spirit tells you? Or what you … I mean . . . if you meditate a lot, you feel you should do … something…”

Prabhupada: “It is not something. It must be actual fact.”

Boy: “Yeah, I mean like …”

Prabhupada: “So, there is no question of something.”

Boy: “Well, I see …”

Prabhupada: “Something is vague. You must speak what is that something.”

Boy: “Well, let’s say, be … uh …”

Prabhupada: “That you cannot express. That means you have no idea. So you have to learn. This is the process. I am speaking of the process. If you want to have knowledge of the Absolute Truth, the first thing is faith. Then you must be thoughtful. Then you must be devoted, and you must hear from authentic sources. These are the different methods. And when you come to the ultimate knowledge—from Brahman platform to Paramatma platform, then to the Supreme Personality of Godhead—then your duty shall be to satisfy the Supreme Personality of Godhead. That is the perfection of your active life.

“And how can we satisfy? We have to hear about Him, we have to speak about Him, we have to think about Him, we have to worship Him—and that is regularly. This will help you. But if you have no worship, if you have no thought, if you have no hearing, if you have no speaking, and you are simply thinking of something, something, something—that something something is not God.”

Boy: “I mean, well, you know, I’m so young. I didn’t know what I meant. I didn’t know what…”

Prabhupada: “Don’t know. That I am speaking—that you have to know by these processes. We are all ‘don’t knows.’ So we have to know. This is the process.”

Young woman: “Since we don’t yet understand the supreme law, because we are young and just new to this, then how can we speak about it?”

Prabhupada: “Therefore you have to hear! The first thing is srotavyah, hearing. Unless you hear, how can you speak?”

Upendra: “Srila Prabhupada … so we have to hear, I understand. But do we speak, or do we first listen for a long time and then speak?”

Prabhupada: “No. Why a long time? Suppose you hear two lines. You repeat that two lines. And aside from everything else, you hear Hare Krsna. So you can chant Hare Krsna. What is the difficulty there? If you cannot remember all the topics which we are speaking from the Bhagavad-gita or Srimad-Bhagavatam, you can at least remember this: Hare Krsna. Therefore it is the easiest process. You simply hear Hare Krsna and then chant Hare Krsna. The other things will come automatically.”

Srila Prabhupada paused. The philosophical talk had been rigorous, lasting about forty-five minutes. He wasn’t tired—he could have gone on—but now he wanted to conduct the Deity installation. Everything necessary for spiritual life was here: the temple, the devotees, the books, the Deity, prasadam. He wanted these young people to take advantage of it. Why should they remain living like animals and thinking of spiritual life as a vague groping for “something”? They should take advantage of Krsna’s mercy and be successful and happy. And for this, Prabhupada was their tireless servant.

Prabhupada: “So, Hayagriva? Come here.” Prabhupada had had devotees arrange for a large candle on a plate. The ceremony he had planned would be simple, with devotees and guests, one by one, coming up and offering the flame in circles before the Jagannatha deities.

Srila Prabhupada. from his seat, guided Hayagriva in approaching the deities with the lit candle. Prabhupada began playing karatalas and singing the Hare Krsna mantra to the popular melody he had introduced in America. Devotees and guests began rising to their feet and dancing, arms raised, bodies swaying rhythmically as they faced the bright, personal forms of the deities and chanted. Colored lights within the canopy began flashing intermittently blue, red, and yellow, highlighting the extraordinary eyes of Lord Jagannatha, Subhadra, and Balarama. Mukunda, who had arranged the lights, smiled and looked to Prabhupada, hoping for approval. Prabhupada nodded and continued forcefully singing Hare Krsna.

The young hippies were enthusiastic in singing and dancing, knowing that the kirtana usually lasted an hour. Some had grasped the Swami’s words when he had spoken of fixing the mind on the personal form of the Supreme Lord; and they had understood when he had looked up at the deities and said, “Here is Krsna.” Others hadn’t followed, but thought that it was just great and blissful to sing Hare Krsna and look at the grinning, big-eyed deities up on the altar, amid the flowers and billowing incense.

Prabhupada watched with pleasure as one person after another took a turn at offering the candle before Lord Jagannatha. This was a simple procedure for installing the Deity. Although in big temples in India the installation of the Deity was a complex procedure, requiring several days of continuous rituals directed by highly paid priests, in San Francisco there were no brahmana priests to pay, and many other standards would be impossible to maintain.

For non-Hindus to handle Lord Jagannatha and conduct His worship would be considered heresy by the caste-conscious brahmanas of India. Except for Prabhupada, none of the persons present would have been allowed even to enter the temple at Jagannatha Puri. The white man, the Westerner, was not allowed to see Lord Jagannatha except once a year as He rode on His cart during the Ratha-yatra festival. But these restrictions were social customs, not scriptural injunctions. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had introduced Deity worship and initiation for anyone, regardless of caste, race, or nationality. And Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s father, had longed for the day when the people of the West would mingle with their Indian brothers and chant Hare Krsna.

Srila Prabhupada had come to the West to fulfill the desires and the vision of his spiritual master and of Bhaktivinoda Thakura by creating Vaisnavas among the Westerners. Now, if the Westerners were to become actual devotees, they would have to be given the Deity worship. Otherwise it would be more difficult for them to become purified. Srila Prabhupada was confident in his spiritual master’s direction and in the scriptures. He had faith that Lord Jagannatha was especially merciful to the fallen. He prayed that the Lord of the universe would not be offended by His reception at New Jagannatha Puri.

When the kirtana ended, Srila Prabhupada explained further: “This process which we just now introduced on the advent of Lord Jagannatha Svami means that now this temple is completely fixed. So this is the worshiping process. And this simple process, if you follow, you just see how you realize the Absolute Truth.

“Another thing I request you: All the devotees—when you come to the temple, you bring one fruit and one flower. If you can bring more, it is very good. If not, it is not very expensive to bring one fruit and one flower—whatever you can afford—and offer it to the Deity.”

He paused, looking around the room: “Yes, now you can distribute prasadam.”

The guests sat in rows on the floor, and the devotees began serving prasadam, offering the first plate to Prabhupada. The food preparations were those Prabhupada had personally taught the devotees in his kitchen: samosas, halavah, puris, rice, several cooked vegetables, fruit chutney, sweets—all the Sunday specials. The guests loved the prasadam and ate as much as they could get. While the devotees served prasadam, the guests relaxed and enjoyed an evening of feasting and convivial conversation. After Prabhupada tasted all the preparations, he looked up with raised eyebrows: “Very nice preparations. All glories to the cookers.”

When Prabhupada noticed an older, respectably dressed man leaving the room without receiving a feast plate, Prabhupada became concerned: “Oh, why is he going away? Ask him to come.”

A boy ran after him, opening the temple door, and calling, “Please don’t leave. Swamiji requests …”

As the man reentered the storefront, Prabhupada requested, “Please, please, take prasadam.” And turning to the servers, he instructed, “Give him first.” And so the feasting continued beneath the altar of Lord Jagannatha and under the auspices of His servant, Srila Prabhupada.

Lord Jagannatha’s presence quickly beautified the temple. Devotees made garlands for Him daily. Paintings arrived, and devotees also put Indian prints of Krsna on the walls. The lights flashing on Lord Jagannatha made His eyes seem to pulsate and His colors jump, and He became a special attraction in the psychedelic neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury.

As Prabhupada had requested, devotees and guests began bringing offerings before the altar of Lord Jagannatha. Hippies would come by and leave whatever they could: a stalk of wheat, half a loaf of bread, a box of Saltines, a piece of fudge, candles, flowers, or fruit. Hearing that before using something for yourself you should first offer it to God, some hippies began bringing their new clothes and offering them with a prayer to Lord Jagannatha before wearing them. These hippies didn’t follow Lord Jagannatha’s instructions, but they wanted His blessings.

Each night, the devotees performed the ceremony Prabhupada had taught them, taking turns offering a candle before Lord Jagannatha. When the devotees asked whether they could add anything to the ceremony, Prabhupada said yes, they could also offer incense. He said there were many more details of Deity worship, numerous enough to keep the devotees busy all day; but if he were to tell them everything at once, they would faint.

Speaking privately in his room to one of his disciples, Prabhupada said that during kirtana in the temple he thought of Lord Caitanya dancing before Lord Jagannatha. He told how Lord Caitanya had traveled to Puri and danced before Lord Jagannatha in such ecstasy that He had been unable to say anything more than “Jaga—. . . Jaga—.” Lord Caitanya had been thinking, “Krsna, for so long I wanted to see You. And now I am seeing You.” When Lord Caitanya had lived in Puri, as many as five hundred men at a time would visit Him, and every evening there would be a huge kirtana with four parties, each with four mrdanga players and eight karatala players. “They would all dance, and the four parties would chant Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna. . . . That was going on every evening so long He stayed at Jagannatha Puri.”

The devotees understood that there was a great difference between themselves and Srila Prabhupada. He had never been a hippie. He wasn’t at home amid the illusion of Haight-Ashbury’s LSD, psychedelic posters, rock musicians, hippie jargon and street people. They knew he was different, though sometimes they forgot. He spent so much time with them every day—eating with them, joking with them, depending on them. But then sometimes they would remember his special identity. When they chanted with him in the temple before Lord Jagannatha, he, unlike them, would be thinking of Lord Caitanya’s kirtana before Lord Jagannatha in Puri. When Lord Caitanya had seen Jagannatha, He had seen Krsna, and His love for Krsna had been so great that He had gone mad. Prabhupada thought of these things to a degree far beyond what his disciples could understand—and yet he remained with them as their dear friend and spiritual instructor. He was their servant, teaching them to pray, like him, to be able to serve Krsna: “O Lord of the universe, kindly be visible unto me.” (To be continued.)

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