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The Peace Vigil — The Biography of a Pure Devotee

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The Peace Vigil

“If people will take to this chanting, peace will automatically come.”

by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami

1980-10-14

New York’s Lower East Side in the late ’60s had proved a fertile field for Srila Prabhupada’s planting the first seeds of Krsna consciousness in the West. Now the intensifying war in Vietnam, bringing forth a widespread clamor for peace, provided him an opportunity to present Krsna consciousness as the real peace formula.

The United States’ recently increased involvement in Vietnam was creating an increase of opposition to the war. On July 29, American planes had bombed North Vietnam’s two major population centers, Hanoi and Haiphong—an escalation which brought expressions of regret from several allied countries, including Canada, France, and Japan. United Nations Secretary General U Thant openly criticized America’s policy in Vietnam. Further opposition to the war ranged from the U.S. Senate down to newly formed pacifist groups, and dissenters held peace marches, sit-ins, and rallies in protest of the war and draft.

Religious protest was led by Pope Paul VI. And the World Council of Churches decried America’s involvement in Vietnam and called for a halt in the fighting as “the most effective step” toward negotiation. On August 6 (the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima) there were demonstrations in many major American cities, including a peace vigil at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

On August 31, there would begin an other two-week-long peace vigil before the United Nations General Assembly Building and Mr. Larry Bogart had invited Prabhupada and his followers to open the vigil of “praying for peace.” Larry Bogart, who worked at the United Nations Headquarters, had become friends with the Swami and had volunteered his help by arranging to print stationery for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The letterhead was designed by James Greene with a sketch of Radha and Krsna, and Mr. Bogart’s name also appeared on the stationery at the head of the list of ISKCON trustees.

Prabhupada accepted Mr. Bogart’s invitation to the peace vigil. Prabhupada saw it as an opportunity to publicly chant Hare Krsna, so he was glad to attend. He announced to his congregation that Monday the thirty-first, instead of the usual morning class at 6:30, everyone should meet at the United Nations Headquarters for a special kirtana.

August 31

Some met at the storefront and went by bus, carrying karatalas, a tambourine, and the Swami’s bongo. Swamiji rode with a few of his followers in a taxi. The typical dress of his followers consisted of well-worn sneakers, black pants or blue jeans, and T-shirts or button-down sport shirts. Traveling uptown in the early morning put the boys in a lighthearted spirit, and when they saw Swamiji at the U.N. in his flowing saffron robes they became inspired. Swamiji began the chanting, but right away the peace vigil organizers stepped in and asked him to stop. This was a “silent vigil,” they said, and it should have prayerful, non-violent silence. The boys were crushed, but Swamiji accepted the restriction and began silently chanting on his beads.

A dignitary stood up before the assembly and made a short speech in which he mentioned Gandhi, and then he turned to Prabhupada and indicated that he could now speak about peace. Standing erectly, the U.N. skyscraper looming behind him, Swamiji spoke in a soft voice. The world must accept that God is the proprietor of everything and the friend of everyone, he said. Only then can we have real peace. Mr. Bogart had scheduled the Swami for two hours of silent prayer. Prabhupada had the devotees sit together and softly chant japa until their two scheduled hours were up. Then they left.

As Prabhupada rode back downtown in the heavy morning traffic, he said New York reminded him of Calcutta. Amid the start-and-stop motion and noise of the traffic he explained, “We have nothing to do with peace vigils. We simply want to spread this chanting of Hare Krsna, that’s all. If people take to this chanting, peace will automatically come. Then they won’t have to artificially try for peace.”

September 1

The New York Post ran a picture of Swamiji’s group at the United Nations Building. Steve-brought the clipping in to Prabhupada: “Swamiji, look. They have referred to you here as ‘Sami Krishna’!”

Prabhupada: “‘Sami Krishna’? That’s all right.”

In the picture, some of the boys were sitting with their heads resting on their arms. “Where are you?” Prabhupada asked. Steve pointed. “Oh, you chant like this, with your head down?” Prabhupada had participated in the peace vigil to oblige his contact, Mr. Bogart. Now Mr. Bogart was phoning to offer his appreciation and agreeing to visit the storefront. He wanted to help, and he would discuss how the Swami could solicit help from important people for his movement of Indian culture and peace.

Prabhupada regarded Mr. Bogart’s imminent visit as very important, and he wanted to cook for him personally and receive him in his apartment with the best hospitality. When the day arrived, Prabhupada and Keith cooked together in the small kitchen for several hours, making the best Indian delicacies. Prabhupada posted Stanley downstairs and told him not to allow anyone to come up while he was cooking the feast for Mr. Bogart. Stanley assented, blinking his eyes with his far-off “saintly” look.

Stanley stationed himself downstairs in the storefront. A few of the boys were there, and he told them, “You can’t go up to see the Swami—no one can.” About twelve noon, Larry Bogart arrived, pale, elderly, and well dressed, by Lower East Side standards. He said he wanted to see Swami Bhaktivedanta. “Sorry,” Stanley informed him, his boyish face trying to impress the stranger with the seriousness of the order, “the Swami is busy now, and he said no one can see him.” Mr. Bogart decided he would wait. There was no chair in the storefront, but Stanley brought him a folding chair. It was a hot day. Mr. Bogart looked at his watch several times. A half hour passed. Stanley sat chanting and sometimes staring off blankly. After an hour, Mr. Bogart asked if he could see the Swami now. Stanley assured him that he could not, and Mr. Bogart left in a huff.

Upstairs, Swamiji had become anxious, wondering why Mr. Bogart had not arrived. Finally, he sent Keith downstairs, and Stanley told him about the man whom he had turned away. “What?” Keith exploded. “But that was . . .”

Within moments, Swamiji heard what had happened. He became furious. He came down to the storefront: “You fool! You silly fool!” He turned and angrily rebuked everyone in the room, but mostly Stanley. No one had ever seen the Swami so angry. Then Swamiji walked away in disgust and returned to his apartment.

Stanley had been going off the deep end for some time, and now he became even more abstracted in his behavior. Stanley’s mother knew her son had been troubled for years, and she had therefore requested Prabhupada to keep a very close watch on him. But now the boy deteriorated in his responsibilities and stopped cleaning the kitchen and storefront. He would stand alone looking at something. He was gloomy and sometimes spoke of suicide. And he stopped chanting regularly. The boys didn’t know what to do, but they thought perhaps he should be sent home to his mother.

One day, Stanley went up to see the Swami. He came in and sat down.

Prabhupada: “Yes?”

Stanley: “May I have fifty dollars?”

Prabhupada: “Why?”

Prabhupada used to handle all the money himself, so when his boys needed something, even if it were only twenty-five cents for the bus, they had to see Swamiji. He was never wasteful. He was so frugal that whenever he received a letter, he would carefully tear the envelope apart and use the reverse side as writing paper. So he wanted to know why Stanley wanted fifty dollars. Stanley replied in a small voice, “I want to purchase some gasoline and set myself on fire.” Prabhupada saw Chuck at the doorway and told him to call Bruce at once. Bruce quickly came up and sat with Prabhupada and Stanley. Prabhupada told Bruce—whom he had recently appointed to handle petty cash—to give Stanley fifty dollars, and he had Stanley repeat why he wanted the money.

“But Swamiji,” Bruce protested, “we don’t have that much money.”

“There, you see, Stanley,” Prabhupada spoke very calmly. “Bruce says we don’t have the money.” Then they phoned Stanley’s mother. Later Prabhupada said that because Stanley had asked for fifty dollars for gasoline, which cost only thirty-five cents, he could therefore understand Stanley was crazy. (To be continued)

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