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Srila Prabhupada: Guru in a Manhattan Monastery

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The Biography of a Pure Devotee

He was maestro of the chanting,
head of the kitchen, and spiritual father to a band of wild,
candid young Americans.

by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami

1980-07-04

Having transplanted Krsna consciousness to a small storefront in New York. Srila Prabhupada carefully nurtured his first disciples with a variety of spiritual activities.

August 1966

It was makeshift—a storefront-turned-temple and a two-room apartment transformed into the guru’s residence and study—but it was complete nonetheless. It was a complete monastery amid the city slums. The temple (the storefront) was quickly becoming known among the hip underground of the Lower East Side; the courtyard was a strangely peaceful place for aspiring monks, with its little garden, bird sanctuary, and trees, squeezed in between the front and rear buildings; the Swami’s back room was the inner sanctum of the monastery. Each room had a flavor all its own-or rather, it took on its particular character from Swami’s activities there.

The temple room was his kirtana and lecture hall. The lecture was always serious and formal. Even from the beginning. when there was no dais and he had to sit on a straw mat facing a few guests, it was clear he was here to instruct, not to invite casual give-and-take dialogue. Questions had to wait until he finished speaking. The audience would sit on the floor and listen for forty-five minutes as he delivered the Vedic knowledge intact, always speaking on the basis of Vedic authority—quoting Sanskrit, quoting the previous spiritual masters, giving perfect knowledge based on reason and argument. While contending with noises of the street, he lectured with exacting scholarship and deeply committed devotion. It seemed he had long ago mastered all the references and conclusions of his predecessors and had even come to anticipate all intellectual challenges.

He also held kirtanas in the storefront. Like the lectures, the kirtanas were serious, but they were not so formal: Prabhupada was lenient during kirtana.

Visitors would bring wooden flutes, harmoniums, guitars, and they would follow the melody or create their own improvisations. Someone brought an old string bass and bow, and an inspired guest could always pick up the bow and play along. Some of the boys had found the innards of an upright piano, waiting on the curb with someone’s garbage, and they had brought it to the temple and placed it near the entrance. During a kirtana, freewheeling guests would run their hands over the wires, creating strange vibrations. Robert Nelson had brought a large cymbal that now hung from the ceiling, dangling close by the Swami’s dais. But there was a limit to the extravagance. Sometimes when a newcomer picked up the karatalas and played them in a beat other than the standard one two-three, Swamiji would ask one of the boys to correct him, even at the risk of offending the guest. Prabhupada led the chanting and drummed with one hand on a small bongo. Even on this little bongo drum, he played Bengali mrdanga rhythms so interesting that a local conga drummer used to come just to hear: “The Swami gets in some good licks.”

The Swami’s kirtanas were a new high, and the boys would glance at each other with widening eyes and shaking heads as they responded to his chanting, comparing it to their previous drug experiences and signalling each other favorably: “This is great. It’s better than LSD!” “Hey, man, I’m really getting high on this.” And Prabhupada encouraged their new-found intoxication.

As maestro of these kirtanas, he was also acting expertly as guru. Lord Caitanya had said, “There are no hard-and-fast rules for chanting the holy name,” and Prabhupada brought the chanting to the Lower East Side just that way. “A kindergarten of spiritual life,” he once called the temple. Here he taught the ABCs of Krsna consciousness, lecturing from Bhagavad-gita and leading the group chanting of Hare Krsna. Sometimes, after the final kirtana he would invite those who were interested to join him for further talks in his apartment.

In the back room of his apartment Prabhupada was usually alone, especially in the early morning hours—two, three, and four a.m.—when almost no one else was awake. In these early hours his room was silent, and he worked alone in the intimacy of his relationship with Krsna. He would sit on the floor behind his suitcase-desk, worshiping Krsna by typing the translations and purports of his Srimad-Bhagavatam.

But this same back room was also used for meetings, and anyone who brought himself to knock on the Swami’s door could enter and speak with him at any time, face to face. Prabhupada would sit back from his typewriter and give his time to talking, listening, answering questions, sometimes arguing or joking. A visitor might sit alone with him for half an hour before someone else would knock and Swamiji would invite the newcomer to join them. New guests would come and others would go, but Swamiji stayed and sat and talked.

Generally, visits were formal-his guests would ask philosophical questions, and he would answer, much the same as after a lecture in the storefront. But occasionally some of the more committed boys would monopolize his time -especially on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, when there was no evening lecture in the temple. Often they would ask him personal questions: What was it like when he first came to New York? What about India? Did he have followers there? Were his family members devotees of Krsna? What was his spiritual master like? And then Prabhupada would talk in a different way—quieter, more intimate and humorous.

He told how one morning in New York he had first seen snow and thought someone had whitewashed the buildings. He told how he had spoken at several churches in Butler, and when the boys asked what kind of churches they were he smiled and replied, I don’t know,” and they laughed with him. He would reminisce freely about the British control of India and about Indian politics. He told them it was not so much Gandhi as Subhas Chandra Bose who had liberated India. Subhas Chandra Bose had gone outside of India and started the Indian National Army: he entered into an agreement with Hitler that Indian soldiers fighting for British India who surrendered to the Germans could be returned to the Indian National Army to fight against the British. And it was this show of force by Bose, more than Gandhi’s non-violence, which led to India’s independence.

He talked of his childhood at the turn of the century, when street lamps were gas-lit and carriages and horse-drawn trams were the only vehicles on Calcutta’s dusty streets. These talks charmed the boys even more than the transcendental philosophy of Bhagavad-gita and drew them affectionately to him. He told about his father. Gour Mohan De, a pure Vaisnava. His father had been a cloth merchant, and his family had been intimately related with the aristocratic Mulliks of Calcutta. The Mulliks had a Deity of Krsna. and Prabhupada’s father had given him a Deity to worship as a child. He used to imitate the worship of the Govinda Deity in the Mullik’s temple. As a boy, he had held his own Ratha-yatra festivals each year, imitating in miniature the gigantic festival at Jagannatha Puri, and his father’s friends used to joke: “Oh, the Ratha-yatra ceremony is going on at your home, and you do not invite us? What is this?” His father would reply, “This is a child’s play, that’s all.” But the neighbors said, “Oh, child’s play? You are avoiding us by saying it’s for children?”

Prabhupada fondly remembered his father, who had never wanted him to be a worldly man, who had given him lessons in mrdanga, and who had prayed to visiting sadhus that one day the boy would grow up to be a devotee of Radharani.

One night he told how he had met his spiritual master. He told how he had begun his own chemical business but had left home and in 1959 had taken sannyasa. The boys were interested, but so ignorant of the things Prabhupada was talking about that at the mention of a word like mrdanga or sannyasa they would have to ask what it meant, and he would go on conversational tangents describing Indian spices, Indian drums, even Indian women. And whatever he spoke about, he would eventually shine upon it the light of the sastra. He did not ration out such talk, but gave it out abundantly by the hour, day after day, as long as there was a real, live inquirer.

At noon the front room became a dining hall and in the evenings a place of intimate worship. Prabhupada had kept the room, with its twelve-foot-square hardwood parquet floor, clean and bare; the solitary coffee table against the wall between the two courtyard windows was the only furniture. Daily at noon a dozen men were now taking lunch here with him. The meal was cooked by Keith, who spent the whole morning in the kitchen.

At first Keith had cooked only for the Swami. He had mastered the art of cooking dal, rice, and sabji in the Swami’s three-tiered boiler, and usually there had been enough for one or two guests as well. But soon more guests had begun to gather, and Prabhupada had told Keith to increase the quantity (abandoning the small three-tiered cooker) until he was cooking for a dozen hungry men. The boarders, Raphael and Don, though not so interested in the Swami’s talk, would arrive punctually each day for prasadam, usually with a friend or two who had wandered into the storefront. Steve would drop by from his job at the welfare office. The Mott Street group would come. And there were others.

The kitchen was stocked with standard Indian spices: fresh chilies, fresh gingerroot, whole cumin seeds, turmeric, and asafetida. Keith mastered the basic cooking techniques and passed them on to Chuck, who became his assistant. Some of the other boys would stand at the doorway of the narrow kitchenette to watch Keith, as one thick, pancake-like capati after another blew up like an inflated football over the open flame and then took its place in the steaming stack.

While the fine bhasmati rice boiled to a moist, fluffy-white finish and the sabji simmered, the noon cooking would climax with “the chaunce.” Keith prepared the chaunce exactly as Swamiji had shown him. Over the flame he set a small metal cup, half filled with clarified butter, and then put in cumin seeds. When the seeds turned almost black he added chilies, and as the chilies blackened, a choking smoke began to pour from the cup. Now the chaunce was ready. With his cook’s tongs,

Keith lifted the cup, its boiling, crackling mixture fuming like a sorcerer’s kettle, and brought it to the edge of the pot of boiling dal. He opened the tight cover slightly, dumped the boiling chaunce into the dal, and immediately replaced the lid …. POW! The meeting of the chaunce and dal created an explosion, which was then greeted by cheers from the doorway, signifying that the cooking was now complete. This final operation was so volatile that it once blew the top of the pot to the ceiling with a loud smash, causing minor burns to Keith’s hand. Some of the neighbors complained of acrid, penetrating fumes. But the devotees loved it.

When lunch was ready, Swamiji would wash his hands and mouth in the bathroom and come out into the front room, his soft, pink-bottomed feet always bare, his saffron dhoti reaching down to his ankles. He would stand by the coffee table, which held the picture of Lord Caitanya and His associates, while his own associates stood around him against the walls. Keith would bring in a big tray of capatis, stacked by the dozens, and place it on the floor before the altar table along with pots of rice, dal, and sabji. Swamiji would then recite the Bengali prayer for offering food to the Lord, and all present would follow him by bowing down, knees and head to the floor, and approximating the Bengali prayer one word at a time. While the steam and mixed aromas drifted up like an offering of incense before the picture of Lord Caitanya, the Swami’s followers bowed their heads to the wooden floor and mumbled the prayer.

Prabhupada then sat with his friends, eating the same prasadam as they. with the addition of a banana and a metal bowl full of hot milk. He would slice the banana by pushing it downward against the edge of the bowl, letting the slices fall into the hot milk.

Prabhupada’s open decree that everyone should eat as much prasadam as possible created a humorous mood and a family feeling. No one was allowed simply to sit, picking at his food, nibbling politely. They ate with a gusto Swamiji almost insisted upon. If he saw someone not eating heartily, he would smilingly protest, “Why are you not eating? Take prasadam.” And he would laugh. “When I was coming to your country on the boat:’ he said. “I thought, ‘How will the Americans ever eat this food?”‘ And as the boys pushed their plates forward for more, Keith would serve seconds—more rice, dal, capatis, and sabji.

After all, it was spiritual. You were supposed to eat a lot. It would purify you. It would free you from maya. Besides, it was good, delicious, spicy. This was better than American food. It was like chanting. You got high from eating this food.

They ate with the right hand, Indian style. Keith and Howard had already learned this and had even tasted similar dishes, but as they told the Swami and a room full of believers, the food in India had never been this good.

1980-07-05

The ceremony of “bells.” Srila Prabhupada would ring brass bells in his left hand while waving sticks of incense with the other. He would perform the ancient arati ceremony each night, although none of his young followers knew what it was or what it meant..

One boy, Stanley, was quite young, and Prabhupada, almost like a doting father, watched over him as he ate. Stanley’s mother had personally met Prabhupada and said that only if he took personal care of her son would she allow him to live in the monastery. Prabhupada complied. He diligently encouraged the boy until Stanley gradually took on a voracious appetite and began consuming ten capatis at a sitting (and would have taken more had Swamiji not told him to stop). But aside from Swamiji’s limiting Stanley to ten capatis, the word was always, “More … take more.” When Prabhupada was finished, he would rise and leave the room, Keith would catch a couple of volunteers to help him clean, and the others would leave.

Occasionally, on a Sunday, Prabhupada himself would cook a feast with special Indian dishes.

Steve: Swamiji personally cooked the prasadam and then served it to us upstairs in his front room. We all sat in rows, and I remember him walking up and down in between the rows of boys. passing before us with his bare feet and serving us with a spoon from different pots. He would ask what did we want—did we want more of this? And he would serve us with pleasure. These dishes were not ordinary, but sweets and savories-like sweet rice and kacauris—with special tastes. Even after we had all taken a full plate, he would come back and ask us to take more. Once he came up to me and asked what I would like more of—would I like some more sweet rice? In my early misconception of spiritual life, I thought I should deny myself what I liked best, so I asked for some more plain rice. But even that “Plain” rice was fancy yellow rice with fried cheese balls.

On off nights his apartment was quiet. He might remain alone for the whole evening, typing and translating Srimad-Bhagavatam, or talking in a relaxed atmosphere to just one or two guests until ten. But on meeting nights-Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—there was activity in every room. He wasn’t alone any more. His new followers were helping him, and they shared in his spirit of trying to get people to chant Hare Krsna and hear about Krsna consciousness.

In the back room, he worked on his translation of the Bhagavatam or spoke with guests up until six, when he would go to take his bath. Sometimes he would have to wait until the bathroom was free. He had introduced his young followers to the practice of taking two baths a day, and now he was sometimes inconvenienced by having to share his bathroom.

After his bath he would come into the front room, where his assembled followers would sit around him. He would sit on a mat facing his picture of the Panca-tattva, and after putting a few drops of water in his left palm from a small metal spoon and bowl, he would rub a lump of Vrndavana clay in the water, making a wet paste. He would then apply the clay markings of Vaisnava tilaka, dipping into the yellowish paste in his left hand with the ring finger of his right. He would scrape wet clay from his palm, and while looking into a small mirror which he held deftly between the thumb and pinkie of his left hand, he would mark a vertical clay strip up his forehead and then trim the clay into two parallel lines by placing the little finger of his right hand between his eyebrows and running it upward past the hairline, clearing a path in the still-moist clay. Then he marked eleven other places on his body, while the boys sat observing, sometimes asking questions or sometimes speaking their own understandings of Krsna consciousness.

Prabhupada: My Guru Maharaja used to put on tilaka without a mirror.

Devotee: Did it come out neat?

Prabhupada: Neat or not neat. that does not matter. Yes, it was also neat.

Prabhupada would then silently recite the Gayatri mantra. Holding his brahmana’s sacred thread and looping it around his right thumb, he would sit erect, silently moving his lips. His bare shoulders and arms were quite thin, as was his chest, but he had a round, slightly protruding belly. His complexion was as satiny smooth as a young boy’s, except for his face, which bore signs of age. The movements of his hands were methodical, aristocratic, yet delicate.

He picked up two brass bells in his left hand and began ringing them. Then, lighting two sticks of incense from the candle near the picture of Lord Caitanya and His associates, he began waving the incense slowly in small circles before Lord Caitanya, while still ringing the bells. He looked deeply at the picture and continued cutting spirals of fragrant smoke, all the while ringing the bells. None of the boys knew what he was doing, although he did it every evening. But it was a ceremony. It meant something. The boys began to call the ceremony “bells.”

After bells Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it would usually be time for the evening kirtana. Some of the devotees would already be downstairs greeting guests and explaining about the Swami and the chanting. But without the Swami, nothing could begin. No one knew how to sing or drum, and no one dared think of leading the mantra—chanting without him. Only when he entered at seven o’clock could they begin.

Freshly showered and dressed in his clean Indian hand-woven cloth, his arms and body decorated with the arrowlike Vaisnava markings, Prabhupada would leave his apartment and go downstairs to face another ecstatic opportunity to glorify Krsna. The tiny temple would be crowded with wild, unbrahminical, candid young Americans.

(To be continued)

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

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