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Waves of Ecstasy in California

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Waves of Ecstasy
Four California Episodes

Spring, 1967: San Francisco. Whether in the temple, on the beach, at a hippie farm, or at San Francisco Airport, Srila Prabhupada was the focus of his disciples’ affection and an inspiration for love of Krsna.

by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami

1981-11-05

Srila Prabhupada had planted the seed of Krsna consciousness in the fertile ground of New York’s Lower East Side and seen it take root and flourish. But when he came to San Francisco, his International Society for Krishna Consciousness truly began to blossom. Just a few days after he arrived, in January 1967, Srila Prabhupada found himself on center stage in the Avalon Ballroom, leading thousands of young people in the chanting of Hare Krsna, accompanied by exciting new “acid-rock” bands like the Jefferson Airplane.

Srila Prabhupada soon developed his small storefront temple on Frederick Street, in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury district, into a spiritual haven for the troubled youth living in local crash pads and on the streets. His chanting in Golden Gate Park brought a good response, as did his free-lunch program at the temple, and when he installed. Jagannatha deities there he increased the devotion of his disciples and guests alike.

And all through these adventures—up until his emotion-packed departure after just two and a half months—Srila Prabhupada showed a spiritual depth, a warmth of personality, and a loving concern that endeared him to all who met him.

Govinda dasi had a question for Swamiji. He had mentioned briefly that Lord Caitanya used to cry in separation from Krsna and had once even thrown Himself into a river, crying, “Where is Krsna?” She was unsure whether her question would be proper, but she waited for an opportunity to ask it.

One evening after the lecture, when Prabhupada asked for questions and there were none, Govinda dasi thought, “This is my chance.” But she hesitated. Her question wasn’t on the subject of the lecture, and besides, she didn’t like to ask questions in public.

“No question?” Srila Prabhupada looked around. Govinda dasi thought Swamiji seemed disappointed that there were no questions. He had several times said that they should ask questions and clear up any doubts. Again he asked, “Have you got any questions?”

Govinda dasi: “Uh, well, could you tell about Lord Caitanya asking …”

Prabhupada: “Hmm?”

Govinda dasi: “… asking where is Krsna?”

Prabhupada: “Hmm?”

Govinda dasi: “Could you tell about Lord Caitanya asking where is Krsna and falling in the water? Or would that be not…”

Prabhupada smiled. “Yes, yes. Very nice. Your question is very nice. Oh, I am very glad.

“Lord Caitanya—He was the greatest symbol of krsna-bhakti, a devotee of Krsna. So just see from His life. He never said that, ‘I have seen Krsna.’ He was mad after Krsna; That is the process of Caitanya philosophy. It is called viraha. Viraha means separation . . . separation: ‘Krsna, You are so good, You are so merciful, You are so, nice. But I am so rascal, I am so full of sin, that I cannot see You. I have no qualification to see You.’ So in this way, if one feels the separation of Krsna—’Krsna, I want to see You, but I am so disqualified that I cannot see You’—these feelings of separation will make you enriched in Krsna consciousness. Feelings of separation. Not that ‘Krsna, I have seen You. Finished. All right. I have understood You. Finished. All my business finished.’ No! Perpetually. Think of yourself that’ I am unfit to see Krsna.’ That will enrich you in Krsna consciousness.

“Caitanya Mahaprabhu displayed this—these feelings of separation. This is Radharani’s separation.* (*Radharani, the daughter of King Vrsabhanu, is the most devoted of all of Lord Krsna’s devotees in Vrndavana, His supreme abode.) When Krsna went from Vrndavana to His father’s place, Radharani was feeling in that way—always mad after Krsna. So Krsna Caitanya, Caitanya Mahaprabhu, took the separation feeling of Radharani. That is the best way of worshiping Krsna, becoming Krsna conscious. So you know that Lord Caitanya fell into the sea: ‘Krsna, if You are here. Krsna, if You are here.’

“Similarly, the next devotees. Lord Caitanya’s direct disciples, the Gosvamis—Rupa Gosvami, Sanatana Gosvami—they also, the same disciplic succession, they also worship Krsna in that separation feeling. There is a nice verse about them…”

Srila Prabhupada sang:

he radhe vraja-devike ca lalite he nanda-suno kutah
sri govardhana-kalpa-padapa-tale kalindi-vanye kutah
ghosantav iti sarvato vraja-pure khedair maha-vihvalau
vande rupa-sanatanau raghu-yugau sri-jiva gopalakau

“I offer my respectful obeisances to the six Gosvamis, namely, Sri Rupa Gosvami, Sri Sanatana Gosvami, Sri Raghunatha Bhatta Gosvami, Sri Raghunatha dasa Gosvami, Sri Jiva Gosvami, and Sri Gopala Bhatta Gosvami, who were chanting very loudly everywhere in Vrndavana, shouting, ‘O Radharani, Queen of Vrndavana! O Lalita! O Krsna, son of Nanda Maharaja! Where are you all now? Are you just on the hill of Govardhana, or are you under the trees on the bank of the Yamuna? Where are you?’ These were their moods in executing Krsna consciousness.” Vrndavana, Lord Krsna’s eternal abode in the spiritual world, also has its counterpart on earth, in a village area ninety miles south of Delhi. This song sung by Srila Prabhupada describes how Lord Caitanya’s followers the Gosvamis, living in Vrndavana on earth, expressed their ecstatic feelings.

“These Gosvamis also, later on when they were very much mature in devotional service—what were they doing? They were daily wandering in the Vrndavana dhama, just like madmen: ‘Krsna, where are You?’ That is the quality.

“It is a very nice question.”

Srila Prabhupada paused and uttered a thoughtful mmm. He remained silent. The devotees also remained silent, watching him. He sat cross-legged on the black velvet pillow on the redwood dais. His hands were folded, his eyes closed. And he became overpowered by inner feelings of ecstasy. Although the simple devotees present could not know what was happening, they could feel the atmosphere transform into awesome devotional stillness. They kept their eyes fixed on him.

A minute and a half passed. Srila Prabhupada uttered another thoughtful mmm and opened his eyes—they were filled with tears. He reached over and grasped his karatalas, hand cymbals, which rattled in his hand. But he moved no further. Again he withdrew from external consciousness.

Another minute of silence passed. The minute seemed extremely calm, yet intense and long. Another minute passed. After almost four minutes, Prabhupada cleared his throat and struck the karatalas together, beginning the slow rhythm. A devotee began the one-note drone on the harmonium. Prabhupada sang: govinda jaya jaya gopala jaya jaya radha-ramana hari govinda jaya jaya, (“All glories to Lord Krsna, Govinda, the reservoir of all pleasure. All glories to Lord Krsna, the protector of the cows. All glories to Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the enjoyer of Radharani. All glories to Lord Krsna, the reservoir of transcendental pleasure.”) building the chanting to a lively pace. After about ten minutes the kirtana (chanting) stopped, and Prabhupada left the room.

As the devotees rose and began their various duties—some leaving through the front door behind Prabhupada and going to the kitchen, others coming together for conversation—they all knew that their spiritual master had been intensely feeling separation from Krsna. They had no doubt that it was a deep ecstasy, because just by being in his presence during that long and special stillness they also had felt a glimmer of the same love for Krsna.

* * *

On the invitation of his disciples, Srila Prabhupada agreed to hold kirtana on the beach. On a Tuesday night, with no kirtana or lecture scheduled in the temple, he got into the back seat of one of the devotees’ cars. About a dozen initiated followers and a couple of dogs got into other cars, and together they traveled to the beach. When they arrived, some devotees were running across the beach, gathering driftwood and building a fire in the shelter of a sand dune.

The late afternoon air was cool, and there was a seaside wind. Prabhupada was dressed in a long checkered coat over a hooded sweatshirt. During the kirtana, he clapped and danced while the devotees joined hands, forming a circle around him. As the sun was setting, all the devotees faced the ocean, raising their arms and singing as loudly as they could. But with the surf pounding in on the coast and with the great expanse of windy air around them, their kirtana sound very small.

Gathering around the fire, the devotees buried foil-wrapped potatoes and foil-wrapped apples filled with raisins and brown sugar under the coals. It was their idea, but Prabhupada was happy to comply with their ideas of California kirtana fun.

Walking together along the beach, they came upon an old dilapidated Dutch windmill. “Mukunda,” Prabhupada said, “you should approach the government and tell them that we will restore this windmill if they let us build a temple on this site.” Mukunda took it as a joke at first, but then he saw that Prabhupada was completely serious. Mukunda said he would inquire about it.

Prabhupada, in his oversized checkered coat buttoned up to the neck, was the beloved center of the devotees’ outing. After their walk, he sat with them on a big log, eating baked potatoes smeared with melted butter; and when he finished he threw his remnants to the dogs.

As the night grew dark, stars appeared high over the ocean, and the devotees stood close around Prabhupada for a last kirtana. Then, just as in the temple, they bowed down, and Prabhupada called out the prayers to the Lord and the disciplic succession. But he ended: “All glories to the assembled devotees! All glories to the assembled devotees! All glories to the Pacific Ocean!”

They all laughed. Swamiji was doing what his disciples wanted: enjoying an evening kirtana-cookout at the beach with them. And they were doing what he wanted: chanting the maha-mantra, becoming devotees of Krsna, becoming happy.

* * *

On Saturday, April 1, near the end of his stay in San Francisco, Prabhupada accepted an invitation from Lou Gottlieb, head of the Morningstar Ranch, a nudist hippie commune. Morningstar was a bunch of young people living in the woods, the devotees explained to Prabhupada. The hippies there had spiritual aspirations. They grew vegetables and worshiped the sun. They would hold hands and listen to the air. And naturally they were involved in lots of drug-taking and free sex.

When Lou came in the morning to pick up the Swami, they talked, and Prabhupada gave him a rasagulla (a bite-sized ball of curd simmered in sugar water). After a few minutes together in Prabhupada’s room, they started for Morningstar, sixty miles north of San Francisco.

Lou Gottlieb: On the way out I was showing off all my vast erudition in having read a biography of Ramakrishna. That’s when Bhaktivedanta gave the best advice to the aspirant I ever heard. We were talking about Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and Aurobindo and this and that. So he said, “You know, ” putting a gentle hand on my knee, “when you have found your true path, all further investigation of comparative religion is merely sense enjoyment. “

Situated in a forest of redwoods more than two hundred feet tall, Morningstar Ranch occupied what had once been .an egg farm. Some of the land had been cleared for farming. There were a few tents, some insubstantial little huts, a couple of tree houses, but the only decent, insulated building was Lou’s place, an old chicken house. The commune had about one hundred full-time members, with the number of residents rising to as many as three hundred on the weekends in the warm weather, when people would come out to work in the garden or just walk around naked and get high.

Prabhupada arrived at one in the afternoon on a beautiful sunny day. He first wanted to rest, so Lou offered his own house. Walking to Lou’s place, Prabhupada noticed a few nude men and women hoeing in the garden. One of the workers, a short, stocky young man, Herbie Bressack, stopped his work in the garden and came to greet the Swami.

Herbie: Lou Gottlieb introduced us. We were planting potatoes at the time. He said, “This is Swami Bhaktivedanta.” I came out of the garden and shook Swami’s hand. I said, “Hello Swami. ” He asked me, “What are you doing?” I told him that I was just planting potatoes. He then asked me what I was doing with my life. I didn’t answer.

After resting for a few minutes, Prabhupada was ready for the kirtana. He and Lou went to a hilly pasture where the hippies had placed a wooden seat for Prabhupada before a bower of wild flowers arranged like a band shell. Prabhupada took his seat and began chanting. The commune members, all of whom had been anticipating the Swami’s visit, gathered eagerly for the group meditation.

Mike Morrisey: Some people had clothes on, some people didn’t. Some were dancing around. But Swamiji wasn’t looking at our bodies; he was looking at our souls and giving us the mercy we needed.

The kirtana was well received. One of the members of the commune was so enthralled by the kirtana that he decided to put on his clothes and go back to San Francisco with the Swami. Prabhupada spoke very briefly, and then he prepared to leave, shaking hands and exchanging courtesies as he walked to the car.

Although Srila Prabhupada hadn’t spoken much philosophy, his kirtana left a deep impression on the hippies at Morningstar. While leaving he had told one of the young men, “Keep chanting this Hare Krsna mantra here.” And they did.

Lou Gottlieb: The Swami was an extremely intelligent guy with a job to do. There was no sanctimony or holy pretension, none of that eyes-lifted-silently-to-the-sky. All I remember is just a very pleasant, incredibly safe feeling. There’s no doubt that the maha-mantra—once you get the mantra into the head, it’s there. It never stops. It’s in the cells. It awakens the DNA or something. Shortly thereafter, half of the people at Morningstar got seriously into chanting. Those that did were extremely sincere God-seekers. Their aspiration was a thousand percent sincere, considering the circumstances in which they were found. They were all dopers, that’s for sure, but they definitely gave that up once they got in touch with the maha-mantra.

* * *

His top cloth wrapped loosely around his shoulders, Prabhupada stood a last moment by the open door of the car and looked back in farewell to the devotees and the storefront temple. It was no longer a mere storefront but had become something worthy: New Jagannatha Puri, the new home of Lord Jagannatha—Krsna, Lord of the universe. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had asked Srila Prabhupada to come here. Who among his Godbrothers could imagine how crazy these American hippies were—hallucinating on drugs, crying out, “I am God!” So many girls and boys—unhappy, mad, despite their wealth and education. But now, through Krsna consciousness, some were finding happiness.

The first day he had arrived the reporter had asked him why he had come to Haight-Ashbury. “Because the rent is cheap,” he had replied. His desire was to spread the movement of Lord Caitanya; why else would he have come to such a dilapidated little storefront to live next to a Chinese laundry and the Diggers’ Free Store? The reporters had asked if he were inviting the hippies and Bohemians to take to Krsna consciousness. “Yes,” he had said, “everyone.” But he had known that once joining him, his followers would become something different from what they had been before.

Now the devotees were a family. If they followed his instructions they would remain strong. If they were sincere, Krsna would help them. Lord Jagannatha was present, and the devotees would have to worship Him faithfully. They would be purified by chanting Hare Krsna and following their spiritual master’s instructions.

Prabhupada got into the car, accompanied by some of his disciples, and a devotee drove him to the airport. Several carloads of devotees followed behind.

At the airport the devotees were crying. But Prabhupada assured them he would return if they would hold a Ratha-yatra festival. “You must arrange a procession down the main street,” he told them. “Do it nicely. We must attract many people. They have such a procession yearly in Jagannatha Puri. At this time the Deity may leave the temple.”

He would have to return, he knew, to tend the delicate devotional plants he had placed in their hearts. Otherwise, how could he expect these neophytes to survive in the ocean of material desires known as Haight-Ashbury? Repeatedly he promised them he would return. He asked them to cooperate among themselves—Mukunda, Syamasundara, Guru dasa, Jayananda, Subala, Gaurasundara, Hayagriva, Haridasa, and the girls.

Only two and a half months ago he had arrived here at this terminal, greeted by a throng of chanting young people. Many were now his disciples, although just barely assuming their spiritual identities and vows. Yet he felt no compunction about leaving them. He knew that some of them might fall away, but he couldn’t stay with them always. His time was limited.

Srila Prabhupada, the father of two small bands of neophytes, tenderly left one group and headed East, where the other group waited in a different mood, a mood of joyful reception.

(Next month we shall begin serializing Volume One of Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, recounting the sixty-nine years Srila Prabhupada spent in India before coming West.)

(Excerpted from Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami. © 1981 by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.)

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