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The First Initiation — The Biography of a Pure Devotee

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The First Initiation

by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami

1980-11-03In March 1966 Srila Prabhupada had begun America’s first Krsna conscious temple, in a little storefront on New York’s Lower East Side. A small band of followers had gathered around him, and now, in September, some of them felt ready to become his disciples.

Keith was cooking lunch in the kitchen as usual, but today Swamiji was standing by the kitchen stove, watching his pupil. Keith paused and looked up from his cooking: “Swamiji, could I become your disciple?”

“Yes,” Prabhupada replied. “Why not? Your name will be Krsna dasa.”

This simple exchange was the first request for discipleship and Prabhupada’s first granting of initiation. But there was more to it than that. Prabhupada announced that he would soon hold an initiation. “What’s initiation, Swamiji?” one of the boys asked, and Prabhupada replied, “I will tell you later.”

First they had to have beads. Keith went to Tandy’s Leather Company and bought half-inch wooden beads and cord to string them on. It was much better, Swamiji said, to count on beads while chanting—a strand of 108 beads, to be exact. This employed the sense of touch, and like the Vaisnavas of India one could count how many times one chanted the mantra. Some devotees in India had a string of more than a thousand beads, he had said, and they would chant through them again and again. He taught the boys how to tie double knots between the 108 beads. The number 108 had a special significance: there were 108 Upanisads, as well as 108 principal gopis, the chief devotees of Lord Krsna.

The initiates would be taking vows, he said, and one vow would be to chant a prescribed number of rounds on the beads each day. About a dozen of Swamiji’s boys were eligible, but there was no strict system for their selection: if they wanted to they could do it.

Steve: Although I was already doing whatever Swamiji recommended, I sensed that initiation was a heavy commitment. And with my lost strong impulses to remain completely independent, I hesitated to take initiation.

Prabhupada’s friends saw the initiation in different ways. Some saw it as very serious, and some took it to be like a party or a happening. While stringing their beads in the courtyard, Wally and Howard talked a few days before the ceremony.

Wally: It’s just a formality. You accept Swamiji as your spiritual master.

Howard: What does that entail?

Wally: Nobody’s very sure. In India it’s a standard practice. Don’t you think you want to take him as a spiritual master?

Howard: I don’t know. He would seem to be a good spiritual master—whatever that is. I mean, I like him and his teachings a lot, so I guess in a way he’s already my spiritual master. I just don’t understand how it would change the situation.

Wally: Neither do I. I guess it doesn’t. It’s just a formality.

September 8

Janmastami day, the appearance day of Lord Krsna. One year before, Prabhupada had observed Krsna’s birthday at sea aboard the Jaladuta, just out of Colombo. Now, exactly one year later, he had a small crew of Hare Krsna chanters. He would gather them all together, have them observe a day of chanting, reading scripture, fasting, and feasting—and the next day would be initiation.

At six o’clock, Prabhupada came down and was about to give his morning class as usual, when one of the boys asked if he would read from his own manuscript. Prabhupada appeared shy, yet he did not hide his pleasure at having been asked to read his own Bhagavad-gita commentary. Usually he would read a verse from Dr. Radhakrishnan’s Oxford edition of the Gita; Although the commentary presented impersonalist philosophy, the translations, Prabhupada said, were ninety-percent accurate. But this morning he sent Roy up to fetch his manuscript, and for an hour he read from its typewritten pages.

For observing Janmastami there were special rules: there should be no eating, and the day was to be spent chanting, reading, and discussing Krsna consciousness. If anyone became too weak, he said, there was fruit in the kitchen. But better that they fast until the feast at midnight, just like the devotees in India. He said that in India, millions of people—Hindus, Muslims, or whatever—observed the birthday of Lord Krsna. And in every temple there were festivities and celebrations of the pastimes of Krsna.

“And now,” he said at length, “I will tell you what is meant by initiation. Initiation means that the spiritual master accepts the student and agrees to take charge, and the student accepts the spiritual master and agrees to worship him as God.” He paused. No one spoke. “Any questions?” And when there were none, he got up and walked out.

The devotees were stunned. What had they just heard him say? For weeks he had stressed that when anyone claims to be God he should be considered a dog.

“My mind’s just been blown,” said Wally. “Everybody’s mind is blown,” said Howard. “Swamiji just dropped a bomb.”

They thought of Keith. He was wise. Consult Keith. But Keith was in the hospital. Talking among themselves, they became more and more confused. Swamiji’s remark had confounded their judgment. Finally, Wally decided to go to the hospital to see Keith.

Keith listened to the whole story: how Swamiji had told them to fast and how he had read from his manuscript and how he had said he would explain initiation and how everybody had leaned forward, all ears… and Swamiji had dropped a bomb:

“The student accepts the spiritual master and agrees to worship him as God.” “Any questions?” Swamiji had asked softly. And then he had walked out. “I don’t know if I want to be initiated now,” Wally confessed. “We have to worship him as God.”

“Well, you’re already doing that by accepting whatever he tells you,” Keith replied, and he advised that they talk it over with Swamiji… before the initiation. So Wally went back to the temple and consulted Howard, and together they went up to Swamiji’s apartment. “Does what you told us this morning,” Howard asked, “mean we are supposed to accept the spiritual master to be God?”

“That means he is due the same respect as God, being God’s representative,” Prabhupada replied, calmly.

“Then he is not God?”

“No,” Prabhupada said, “God is God. The spiritual master is His representative. Therefore, he is as good as God because he can deliver God to the sincere disciple. Is that clear?” It was.

It was a mental and physical strain to go all day without eating. Jan was restless. She complained that she couldn’t possibly stay any longer but had to go take care of her cat. Prabhupada tried to overrule her, but she left anyway.

Most of the prospective initiates spent several hours that day stringing their shiny red wooden beads. Having tied one end of the string to a window bar or a radiator, they would slide one bead at a time up the string and knot it tightly, chanting one mantra of Hare Krsna for each bead. It was devotional service-chanting and stringing your beads for initiation. Every time they knotted another bead it seemed like a momentous event. Prabhupada said that devotees in India chanted at least sixty-four rounds of beads a day. Saying the Hare Krsna mantra on each of the 108 beads constituted one round. His spiritual master had said that anyone who didn’t chant sixty-four rounds a day was fallen. At first some of the boys thought that they would also have to chant sixty-four rounds, and they became perplexed: that would take all day! How could you go to a job if you had to chant sixty-four rounds? How could anyone chant sixty-four rounds? Then someone said Swamiji had told him that thirty-two rounds a day would be a sufficient minimum for the West. Wally said he had heard Swamiji say twenty-five-but even that seemed impossible. Then Prabhupada offered the rock-bottom minimum: sixteen rounds a day, without fail. Whoever got initiated would have to promise.

The bead-stringing, chanting, reading, and dozing went on until eleven at night, when everyone was invited up to Swamiji’s room. As they filed through the courtyard, they sensed an unusual calm in the atmosphere, and Houston Street, just over the wall, was quiet. There was no moon.

As his followers sat on the floor, contentedly eating prasadam from paper plates, Swamiji sat among them, telling stories about the birth of Lord Krsna.

Krsna had appeared on this evening five thousand years ago. He was born the son of Vasudeva and Devaki in the prison of King Kamsa at midnight, and His father, Vasudeva, immediately took Him to Vrndavana, where He was raised as the son of Nanda Maharaja, a cowherd man.

Prabhupada also spoke of the necessity of purification for spiritual advancement. “It is not enough merely to chant holy words,” he said. “One must be pure inside and out. Chanting in purity brings spiritual advancement. The living entity becomes impure because he wants to enjoy material pleasure. But the impure can become pure by following Krsna, by doing all works for Krsna. Beginners in Krsna consciousness have a tendency to relax their efforts in a short time, but to advance spiritually you must resist this temptation and continually increase your efforts and devotion.”

Michael Grant: I first heard about the initiation just one day before it was to take place. I had been busy with my music and hadn’t been attending. I was walking down Second Avenue with one of the prospective initiates, and he mentioned to me that there was going to be something called an initiation ceremony. I asked what it was about, and he said, “All I know is it means that you accept the spiritual master as God.” This was a big surprise to me, and I hardly knew how to take it. But I didn’t take it completely seriously, and the way it was mentioned to me in such an offhand way made it seem not very important. He asked me very casually whether I was going to be involved, and I, also being very casual about it, said, “Well, I think I will. Why not? I’ll give it a try.”

Jan didn’t think she would make an obedient disciple, and initiation sounded frightening. She liked the Swami, especially cooking with him. But it was Mike who convinced her—he was going, so she should come along with him.

Carl Yeargens knew something about initiation from his readings, and he, more than the others, knew what a serious commitment it was. He was surprised to hear that Swamiji was offering initiation, and he was cautious about entering into it. He knew that initiation meant no illicit sex, intoxication, or meat-eating, and an initiated disciple would have new responsibilities for spreading the teachings to others. Carl was already feeling less involved since the Swami had moved to Second Avenue, but he decided to attend the initiation anyway.

Bill Epstein had never professed to be a serious disciple. Holding initiation was just another part of the Swami’s scene, and you were free to take it seriously or not. He figured it was all right to take initiation, even if you weren’t serious. He decided to try it.

Carol Bekar was surprised to hear that some people would be taking initiation even though they had no intentions of giving up their bad habits. She had stopped coming around regularly ever since the Swami had moved, and she felt no desire to ask for initiation. The Swami probably wouldn’t initiate women anyway, she figured.

Robert Nelson hadn’t forgotten the Swami and always liked to help whenever he could. But except for an occasional friendly visit, he had stopped coming. He mostly stayed to himself. He still lived uptown and wasn’t into the Lower East Side scene.

James Greene thought he wasn’t pure enough to be initiated: “Who am I to be initiated?” But the Swami had asked him to bring something over to the storefront. “I came, and it was just understood that I was supposed to be initiated. So, I thought, why not?”

Stanley had been chanting regularly again and had come out of his crazy mood. He was sticking with the Swami and his followers. He asked his mother if he could be initiated, and she said it would be all right.

Steve wanted some more time to think about it.

Keith was in the hospital.

Bruce had only been attending for a week or two, and it was too soon.

Chuck was on a week’s vacation from the regulated spiritual life at the temple, so he didn’t know about the initiation.

No one was asked to shave his head or even cut his hair or change his dress. No one offered Prabhupada the traditional guru-daksina, the donation a disciple is supposed to offer as a gesture of his great obligation to his master. Hardly anyone even relieved him of his chores, so Swamiji himself had to do most of the cooking and other preparations for the initiation. He was perfectly aware of the mentality of his boys, and he didn’t try to force anything on anyone. Some of the initiates didn’t know until after the initiation, when they had inquired, that the four rules—no meat-eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication, and no gambling-were mandatory for all disciples. Prabhupada’s reply then was, “I’m very glad that you are finally asking me that.”

It was to be a live Vedic sacrifice, with a ceremonial fire right there in the front room of Swamiji’s apartment. In the center of the room was the sacrificial arena, a platform of bricks, four inches high and two feet square, covered with a mound of dirt. The dirt was from the courtyard, and the bricks were from a nearby gutted building. Around the mound were eleven bananas, clarified butter, sesame seeds, whole barley grains, five colors of powdered dyes, and a supply of kindling. The eleven initiates took up most of the remaining space in the front room as they sat on the floor knee to knee around the sacrificial arena. The guests in the hallway peered curiously through the open door. For everyone except the Swami, this was all new and strange, and every step of the ceremony took place under his direction. When some of the boys had made a mess of trying to apply the Vaisnava tilaka to their foreheads, Prabhupada had patiently guided his finger up their foreheads, making a neat, narrow “V.”

He sat before the mound of earth, looking out at his congregation. They appeared not much different from any other group of young hippies from the Lower East Side who might have assembled at any number of happenings—spiritual, cultural, musical, or whatever. Some were just checking out a new scene. Some were deeply devoted to the Swami. But everyone was curious. He had requested them to chant the Hare Krsna mantra softly throughout the ceremony, and the chanting had now become a continuous drone, accompanying his mysterious movements as head priest of the Vedic rite.

He began by lighting a dozen sticks of incense. Then he performed purification with water. Taking a spoon in his left hand, he put three drops of water from a goblet into his right and sipped the water. He repeated the procedure three times. The fourth time he did not sip but flicked the water onto the floor behind him. He then passed the spoon and goblet around for the initiates, who tried to copy what they had seen. When some of them placed the water in the wrong hand or sipped in the wrong way, Swamiji patiently corrected them.

“Now,” he said, “repeat after me.” And he had them repeat, one word at a time, a Vedic mantra of purification:

om apavitrah pavitro va
sarvavastham gato ‘pi va
yah smaret pundarikaksam
sa bahyabhyantara-sucih
sri visnu sri visnu sri visnu

The initiates tried falteringly to follow his pronunciation of the words, which they had never heard before. Then he gave the translation: “Unpurified or purified, or even having passed through all situations, one who remembers the lotus-eyed Supreme Personality of Godhead is cleansed within and without.” Three times he repeated the sipping of water, the drone of the Hare Krsna mantra filling the room as the goblet passed from initiate to initiate and back again to him, and three times he led the chanting of the mantra: om apavitrah . . . Then he raised a hand, and as the buzzing of the chanting trailed off into silence, he began his lecture.

After the lecture, he asked the devotees one by one to hand him their beads, and he began chanting on them—Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The sound of everyone chanting filled the room. After finishing one strand, he would summon the owner of the beads and hold the beads up while demonstrating how to chant. Then he would announce the initiate’s spiritual name, and the disciple would take back the beads, bow to the floor, and recite:

nama om visnu-padaya krsna-presthaya bhu-tale
srimate bhaktivedanta-svamin iti namine

“I offer my respectful obeisances unto His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, who is very dear to Lord Krsna, having taken shelter at His lotus feet.” There were eleven initiates and so eleven sets of beads, and the chanting lasted for over an hour. Prabhupada gave each boy a strand of neck beads, which he said were like dog collars, identifying the devotee as Krsna’s dog.

After Wally received his beads and his new name (Umapati), he returned to his place beside Howard and said, “That was wonderful. Getting your beads is wonderful.” In turn, each initiate received his beads and his spiritual name. Howard became Hayagriva, Wally became Umapati, Bill became Ravindra Svarupa, Carl became Karlapati, James became Jagannatha, Mike became Mukunda, Jan became Janaki, Roy became Raya Rama, and Stanley became Stryadhisa. Another Stanley, a Brooklyn boy with a job, and Janos, a college student from Montreal, both of whom had rather peripheral relationships with the Swami, appeared that night and took initiation with the rest—receiving the names Satyavrata and Janardana.

Then Swamiji began the sacrifice by sprinkling the colored dyes across the mound of earth before him. With fixed attention his congregation watched each mysterious move, as he picked up the twigs and wooden splinters, dipped them into clarified butter, lit them in a candle flame, and built a small fire in the center of the mound. He mixed sesame seeds, barley, and clarified butter in a bowl and then passed the mixture around. Each new disciple took a handful of the mixture to offer into the fire. He then began to recite Sanskrit prayers, asking everyone please to repeat them, each prayer ending with the responsive chanting of the word “svaha” three times. And with svaha the initiates would toss some of the sesame-barley mixture into the fire. Swamiji kept pouring butter, piling up wood, and chanting more prayers, until the mound was blazing. The prayers kept coming and the butter kept pouring and the fire got larger and the room got hotter.

After fifteen or twenty minutes, he asked each of the initiates to place a banana in the fire. With eleven bananas heaped on the fire, the flames began to die, and the smoke thickened. A few of the initiates got up and ran coughing into the other room, and the guests retreated into the hallway. But Swamiji went on pouring the remaining butter and seeds into the fire. “This kind of smoke does not disturb.” he said. “Other smoke disturbs, but this kind of smoke does not.” Even though everyone’s eyes were watering with irritation, he asked that the windows remain closed. So most of the smoke was contained within the apartment, and no neighbors complained.

Swamiji smiled broadly, rose from his seat before the sacrificial fire, the blazing tongue of Visnu, and began clapping his hands and chanting Hare Krsna. Placing one foot before the other and swaying from side to side, he began to dance before the fire. His disciples joined him in dancing and chanting, and the smoke abated. He had each disciple touch his beads to the feet of Lord Caitanya in The Panca-tattva picture on the table, and finally he allowed the windows opened. As the ceremony was finished and the air in the apartment was clearing, Swamiji began to laugh: “There was so much smoke I thought they might have to call the fire brigade.”

Prabhupada was happy. He arranged that prasadam be distributed to all the devotees and guests. The fire, the prayers, the vows, and everyone chanting Hare Krsna had all created an auspicious atmosphere. Things were going forward. Now there were initiated devotees in the Western world. Finally most of the disciples went home to their apartments, leaving their spiritual master to clean up after the initiation ceremony.

(To be continued)

From Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, by Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami. © 1980 by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

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