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The Biography of a Pure Devotee — The Excursion

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The Excursion

Prabhupada began talking somehow about lion tamers.
The boys were delighted—city kids, taken to the country
by their guru and having a good time.

by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami

1980-09-19

The small storefront temple at 26 Second Avenue had begun to thrive. Srila Prabhupada, by his chanting, his strong preaching, his delicious meals of prasadam, but most of all by his transcendental loving personality, had attracted a few sincere followers. Now he held and increased their affection by giving them both philosophical and personal advice.

Inevitably, meeting with Srila Prabhupada meant a philosophical discussion.

Chuck: I asked Swamiji, “Can you teach me raja-yoga?” “Oh,” he said. “Here is Bhagavad-gita.” He handed me a copy of the Gita. “Turn to the last verse of the Sixth Chapter, “he said, “and read.” read the translation out loud. ‘And of all yogis, he who is worshiping Me with faith and devotion I consider to be the best.” I could not comprehend what ‘faith” and “devotion “meant, so I said, “Sometimes I’m getting some light in my forehead.” “That is hallucination!” he said. So abruptly he said it—although he did not strain his person, the words came at me so intensely that it completely shocked me. Raja means ‘king ‘—king yoga,” he said. “but this is emperor yoga.

I knew that he had attained such a high state not by using chemicals from a laboratory or by any Western speculative process, and this was certainly what I wanted. ‘Are you giving classes?” asked. He said, “Yes, if you come at six in the morning am giving classes in the Gita. And bring some flower or fruit for the Deity” I looked into the adjoining room, which was bare with a wooden parquet floor, bare walls, and a tiny table, and on the table was a picture of five humanlike figures with their arms raised above their heads. Somehow, they didn’t look like any mortal that I’d ever seen, knowing that the picture was looking at me.

When I came out on the street in front of the storefront there were a few people standing around, and I said, “I don’t think I’m going to take LSD any more.” I said it out loud to myself but some other people heard me.

Steve: I wanted to show my appreciation for spiritual India, so I presented to Swamiji that I had read the autobiography of Gandhi. “It was glorious,” I said. “What was glorious about it?” Swamiji challenged. When he asked this, there were others present in the room. Although I was a guest, he had no qualms about challenging me for having said something foolish. I searched through my remembrances of Gandhi’s autobiography to answer his challenging question, “What is glorious?” I began to relate that one time Gandhi, as a child, although raised as a vegetarian, was induced by some of his friends to eat meat, and that night he felt that a lamb was howling in his belly. Swamiji dismissed this at once, saying, “Most of India is vegetarian. That is not glorious.” I couldn’t think of anything else glorious to say, and Swamiji said, “His autobiography is called Experiments with Truth. But that is not the nature of truth. It is not to be found by someone’s experimenting. Truth is always truth.”

Although it was a blow to my ego, being exposed and defeated by Swamiji seemed to be a gain for me. I wanted to bring before him many different things for his judgment, just to see what he had to say about them. I showed him the paperback edition of the Bhagavad-gita that I was reading and carrying in my back pocket. He perused the back cover. There was a reference to “the eternal faith of the Hindus,” and Swamiji began to take the phrase apart. He explained how the word Hindu was a misnomer and does not occur anywhere in the Sanskrit literature itself He also explained that Hinduism and Hindu beliefs were not eternal.

Bruce: After I talked about my desire for religious life, I began telling him about a conflict I had had with one of my professors in English literature. He was a Freudian, so he would explain the characters in all the novels and so on in a Freudian context and with Freudian terminology. Everything was sexual—the mother for the son, this one for that one, and so on. But I would always see it in terms of a religious essence. I would see it in terms of a religious impulse, or some desire to understand God. I would write my papers in that context, and he would always say, “The religious can also be interpreted as Freudian.” So I didn’t do very well in the course. I was mentioning this to the Swami, and he said, “Your professor is correct.” I was surprised—I am going to an Indian swami, and he is saying that the professor was correct, that everything is based on sex and not religion! This kind of pulled the rug out from under me when he said that. Then he qualified what he’d said. He explained that in the material world everyone is operating on the basis of sex ,’ everything that everyone is doing is being driven by the sex impulse. “So, “he said, “Freud is correct. Everything is on the basis of sex.” Then he clarified what material life is and what spiritual life is. In spiritual life, there is a complete absence of sex desire. So this had a profound effect on me.

He wasn’t confirming my old sentimental ideas, but he was giving me new ideas. He was giving me his instructions, and I had to accept them. Talking to the Swami was very nice. I found him completely natural, and I found him to be very artistic. The way he held his head, the way he enunciated his words—very dignified, very gentlemanly.

The boys found Swamiji not only philosophical, but personal also.

Steve: A few nights later, I went to see the Swami and told him I was reading his book. One thing that had especially caught my attention was a section where the author of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Vyasadeva, was admitting that he was feeling despondent. Then his spiritual master, Narada, explained that his despondency had come because although he had written so many books, he had neglected to write in such a way as to fully glorify Krsna. After hearing this, Vyasadeva compiled the Srimad-Bhagavatam.

When I read this, I identified with the fact that Vyasadeva was a writer, because I considered myself a writer also and I knew that I’ was also despondent. “This was very interesting about the author, Vyasadeva,” I said. “He wrote so many books, but still he was not satisfied. because he had not directly praised Krsna.” Although I had very little understanding of Krsna consciousness, Swamiji opened his eyes very wide, surprised that I was speaking on such an elevated subject from the Srimad-Bhagavatam. He seemed pleased.

Chuck: I had come by in the afternoon. and Swamiji had given me a plate of prasadam. So I was eating, and a chili burned my mouth. Swamiji said, “Is it too hot?” “Yes,” I said. So he brought me a tiny teacup with some milk, and then he took some rice off my plate and took a piece of banana and crushed it all up together with his fingers and said, “Here, eat this. It will kill the action of the chilies.”

Bruce: There wasn’t anything superficial about him, nor was he ever contrived, trying to make some impression. He was just completely himself In the Swamis’ room there was no furniture, so we sat on the floor. And I found this to be very attractive and simple. Everything was so authentic about him. Uptown at another swami’s place we had sat on big, stuffed living room chairs, and the place had been lavishly furnished. But here was the downtown swami, wearing simple cloth robes. He had no business suit on-he wasn’t covering up a business suit with those saffron robes. And he wasn’t affected. as the other swami was. So I found myself asking him if I could be his student, and he said yes. I was very happy, because he was so different from the other swami. With the uptown swami I was wanting to become his student because I wanted to get something from him-I wanted to get knowledge. It was selfishly motivated. But here I was actually emotionally involved. I was feeling that I wanted to become the Swami’s student. I actually wanted to give myself because I thought he was great and what he was giving was pure and pristine and wonderful. It was a soothing balm for the horrible city life. Uptown I had felt like a stranger.

On one occasion, our conversation turned to my previous trip to India in 1962, and I began talking about how much it meant to me, now much it moved me. I even mentioned that I had made a girl friend there. So we got to talking about that, and I told him that I had her picture—I was carrying the girls’ picture in my wallet. So Swamiji asked to see. I took out the picture, and Swamiji looked at it and made a sour face and said, “Oh, she is not pretty. Girls in India are more beautiful than that.” Hearing that from the Swami just killed any attachment I had for that girl. I felt ashamed that I had an interest in a girl that the Swami did not consider pretty. I don’t think I ever looked at the photograph again, and certainly I never gave her another thought.

Bruce was a newcomer and had only been to one week of meetings at the storefront, so no one had told him that the members of Ananda Ashram, Dr. Mishra’s yoga retreat, had invited Swamiji and his followers for a day in the upstate country-side. Bruce had just arrived at the storefront one morning when he heard someone announce, “The Swami is leaving!” And Prabhupada came out of the building and stepped into a car. In a fit of anxiety, Bruce thought that the Swami was leaving them for good-for India! “No,” Howard. told him, “we’re going to a yoga asrama in the country.” But the other car had already left, and there was no room in Swamiji’s car. Just then Steve showed up. He had expected the boys to come by his apartment to pick him up. They both had missed the ride.

Bruce phoned a friend up in the Bronx and convinced him to drive them up to Ananda Ashram. But when they got to Bruce’s friend’s apartment, the friend had decided he didn’t want to go. Finally he lent Bruce his car, and Swamiji’s two new followers set out for Ananda Ashram.

By the time they arrived, Prabhupada and his group were already taking prasadam, sitting around a picnic table beneath the trees. Ananda Ashram was a beautiful place, with sloping hills and lots of trees and sky and green grass and a lake. The two latecomers came walking up to Swamiji, who was seated like the father of a family, at the head of the picnic table. Keith was serving from a big wok onto the individual plates. When Prabhupada saw his two stragglers, he asked them to sit next to him, and Keith served them. Prabhupada took Steve’s capati and heaped it up with a mound of sugar, and Steve munched on the bread and sugar, while everyone laughed.

Prabhupada began talking somehow about lion tamers, and he recalled that once at a fair he had seen a man wrestling with a tiger, rolling over and over with it down a hill. The boys, who rarely heard Swamiji speak anything but philosophy, were surprised. They were delighted—city kids, taken to the country by their guru and having a good time.

Steve: I was walking with Swamiji across a long, gentle slope. I wanted him to see and approve a picture of Radha and Krsna I had found in a small book, Narada-bhakti-sutra. I had planned to get a color reproduction of it to give to each of his followers. So as we were walking across the grass I showed him the picture and asked him whether it was a nice picture of Radha and Krsna for reproducing. He looked at the picture, smiled, nodded, and said yes.

Bruce: I walked with Swamiji around the grounds. All the others were doing something else, and Swamiji and myself were walking alone. He was talking about building a temple there.

Prabhupada walked across the scenic acreage, looking at the distant mountains and forests, and Keith walked beside him. Prabhupada spoke of how Dr. Mishra had offered him the island in the middle of the asrama‘s lake to build a temple on. “What kind of temple were you thinking of?” Keith asked. “How big?” Prabhupada smiled and gestured across the horizon. “As big as the whole horizon?” Keith laughed. “Yes,” Prabhupada replied.

A few Ananda Ashram men and women came by. One woman was wearing a sari. Prabhupada turned to the other women and said, “A woman who wears a sari looks very feminine.”

It was late afternoon when some of Swamiji’s followers gathered by the lake and began talking candidly about Swamiji and speculating about his relation to God and their relation to him.

“Well,” said Wally, “Swami never claimed to be God or an incarnation, but he says that he is a servant of God, teaching love of God.”

“But he says that the spiritual master is not different from God,” said Howard. They stood at the edge of the mirrory calm lake and concluded that it was not necessary to talk about this. The answers would be revealed later. None of them really had much spiritual knowledge, but they wanted their faith to deepen.

Afterward, Keith, Wally, and Howard wandered into the meditation room. There was a seat with a picture of Dr. Mishra, who was away in Europe. But the most remarkable thing was a blinking strobe light. “I feel like I’m in a head shop on St. Mark’s Place,” said Wally. “What kind of spiritual meditation is this?” Howard asked. A Mishra follower, wearing a white kurta and white bell-bottoms, replied that their guru had said they could sit and meditate on this light. “Swamiji says you should meditate on Krsna,” said Keith.

After sunset, everyone gathered in the large room of the main building to watch a slide show. It was a loose collection, mostly of assorted slides of India and the Ananda Ashram. A record by a popular Indian sitarist was playing in the background. Some of the slides were of Visnu temples, and when one slide passed by quickly, Prabhupada asked, “Let me see that. Can you go back and let me see that temple again?” This happened several times when he recognized familiar temples in India. later in the show, there were several slides of a girl, one of the members of Dr. Mishra’s asrama, demonstrating Indian dance poses. As one of her pictures passed, an asrama man joked, “Turn back and let me see that temple again.” The joke seemed at Swamiji’s expense and in poor taste. His followers didn’t laugh.

Then came Swamiji’s lecture. He sat up cross-legged on the couch in the largest room in the mansion. The room was filled with people—the Swami’s followers from the lower East Side as well as the Ananda Ashram yogis-sitting on the floor or standing along the walls and in the doorway. He began his talk by criticizing democracy. He said that because people are attached to sense gratification, they vote for a leader who will fulfill their own lust and greed—and that is their only criterion for picking a leader. He went on for forty-five minutes to explain about the importance of Krsna consciousness, his reel-to-reel tape recorder moving silently.

Then he led a kirtana that bridged all differences and brought out the best in everyone that night. Several nights before, in his apartment on Second Avenue, Prabhupada had taught his followers how to dance. They had formed a line behind him while he demonstrated the simple step. Holding his arms above his head, he would first swing his left foot forward across the right foot, and then bring it back again in a sweeping motion. Then he would swing his right foot over the left and bring it back again. With his arms upraised, Prabhupada would walk forward, swinging his body from side to side, left foot to right side, right foot to left side, in time with the one-two-three rhythm. He had shown them the step in regular time and in a slow, halftime rhythm. Keith had called it “the Swami step,” as if it were a new ballroom dance.

Prabhupada’s followers began dancing, and soon the others joined them, moving around the room in a rhythmic circle of ecstasy, dancing, swaying, sometimes leaping and whirling. It was a joyous hour-long kirtana, the Swami encouraging everyone to the fullest extent. A visitor to the asrama happened to have his stringed bass with him, and he began expertly turning out his own swinging bass improvisations beneath the Swami’s melody, while another man played the tablas.

The Ananda Ashram members had been divided of late into two tense, standoffish groups. There was the elderly crowd, similar to the old ladies who had attended the Swami’s uptown lectures, and there was the young crowd, mostly hip couples. But in the kirtana their rifts were forgotten and, as they discovered later, even healed. Whether they liked it or not, almost all of those present were induced to rise and dance.

Then it was late. The Swami took rest in the guest room, and his boys slept outside in their sleeping bags.

Howard: I awaken three or four times, and each time I am flat on my back looking up at the stars, which are always in different positions. My sense of time is confused. The sidereal shifts dizzy me. Then, just before morning, I dream. I dream of devotees clustered about a beautiful golden youth. To see him is to be captivated. His transcendental body radiates an absolute beauty unseen in the world. Stunned, I inquire, “Who is he?” ‘Don ‘t you know?” someone says. “That’s the Swami.” I look carefully, but see no resemblance. The youth appears around eighteen, straight out of Vaikuntha [the spiritual world]. “If that’s Swamiji,” I wonder to myself “why doesn ‘t he come to earth like that?” A voice somewhere inside me answers: “People would follow me for my beauty, not for my teachings.” And I awake, startled. The dream is clear in my mind—more like a vision than a dream. I feel strangely refreshed, bathed in some unknown balm. Again I see that the constellations have shifted and that the dimmer stars have faded into the encroaching dawn. I remember Swamiji telling me that although most dreams are simply functions of the mind, dreams of the spiritual master are of spiritual significance.

Keith also had a dream that night.

Keith: I saw Krsna and Arjuna on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra. Arjuna was inquiring from Krsna and Krsna was reciting the Bhagavad-gita to him. Then that picture phased out, and the images changed. And there was Swamiji, and I was kneeling in front of him, and the same dialogue was going on. I had the understanding that now is the time, and Swamiji is presenting the same thing as Krsna and we are all in the position of Arjuna. The dream made it very clear that hearing from Swamiji was as good as hearing from Krsna.

The sun rose over the mountains, streaking the morning sky above the lake with colors. Wally and Keith were walking around the grounds saying to Prabhupada how beautiful it all was. “We are not so Concerned with beautiful scenery,” said Prabhupada. “We are concerned with the beautiful one who has made the beautiful scenery.”

Later. . . Prabhupada sat next to Bruce in the Volkswagen returning to the city. The car went winding around on a ribbon of smooth black mountain road, with lush green forests close in and intermittent vistas of mountains and expansive sky. It was a rare occasion for Bruce to be driving Prabhupada in a car, because none of the Swami’s boys had cars. They would always travel by bus or subway. It seemed fitting for the Swami to have a car to ride in, but this was only a little Volkswagen. and Bruce winced whenever they hit a bump and it jostled Prabhupada. As they wound their way on through the mountains, Bruce recalled something he had read in a book by Aldous Huxley’s wife about the best places for meditation. One opinion had been that the best place to meditate was by a large body of water, because of the negative ions in the air, and the other opinion was that it was better to meditate in the mountains, because you are higher up and closer to God. “Is it better for spiritual realization to meditate in the mountains?” Bruce asked. Prabhupada replied. “This is nonsense. There is no question of ‘better place.’ Are you thinking that God is up on some planet or something and you have to go up high? No. You can meditate anywhere. Just chant Hare Krsna.”

After some time the drive became tiring for Prabhupada, and he dozed, his head resting forward.

(To be continued)

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