In college I was a would-be humanitarian, always getting myself into one altruistic group or another. I leafleted with grape and lettuce workers, read books to blind people, demonstrated against the war in Vietnam, and quit jobs when it became clear my employers were discriminating against minorities.
Later I wanted to go into humanitarian work full-time, and I looked into the Peace Corps and VISTA. “Who’s the most needy?” I thought. “The Appalachian poor? The hungry children in Peru? Or maybe the Bangladesh refugees, or the handicapped?” With so many problems that needed solving—addiction, racism, crime, unemployment, poverty, war—it was a real mind-boggler deciding where to put my energy.
In the fall of 1970, my search took me to the Krsna center in Buffalo, New York, where I talked awhile with the coordinator, Gunagrahi dasa. I told him I wanted to work with people and help solve problems, and he told me I was going about it the wrong way.
“You’re like a mother putting drops in her child’s ear,” he said. “The thing is, the infection has probably traveled there from some other part of the body. So even though the drops stop the pain for a while, it’s going to start again. You’ve got to treat the real cause of the pain, not just the symptoms, you know? So the world’s problems are just symptoms of the real disease—that we’ve forgotten our link with the Supreme—and welfare work is only patchwork.”
These sounded like sweeping statements, and I wasn’t sure which way I was being swept, but I kept listening.
“See,” Gunagrahi went on, “in one part of the world you might solve the hunger problem, but a war or an epidemic is going to crop up somewhere else. It’s kind of like stepping down on an air bubble in your carpet. You keep stepping down, and it keeps popping up in some new spot. Finally you’ve got to lift the carpet and get rid of the bubble altogether. So ordinary welfare work doesn’t get to the real problem—it doesn’t help people revive their God consciousness, their love for Krsna.”
I picked up some of what he was saying, but there was still something bothering me. “You’re talking about love for Him, but if He’s so loving,what are we doing with all these problems? Why so much suffering?”
He didn’t seem to mind the question. “He’s like a father who asks his kids not to fool around with matches. If they do it anyway and get burned, whose fault is that? In Bhagavad-gita and other spiritual texts, like the Bible or the Koran, the Lord explains that we should use all the world’s resources not just for surviving but for reviving—our God consciousness. Then there’d be no shortage of anything. The only thing we’re short of now is God consciousness. Take paper, for instance. All over the world we cut down so many trees and print so many magazines and novels that are only good for lining wastebaskets—stuff that tells you zero about God consciousness and if anything, brings you down to dog consciousness. So now there’s a paper shortage, and young people who’ve read all this trash literature are committing all sorts of crimes. And whose fault is that? We’ve misused what God has given us.”
“Wait, though,” I said. “Why has He put us into this situation? Hasn’t He more or less abandoned us?”
“He didn’t ask us to come here,” Gunagrahi answered. “We wanted to come. We’ve abandoned Him. So the best welfare work you can do is to teach people how to link up again with God. That’s what yoga means—’linking up.’ It’s the greatest art and the greatest science, the greatest welfare work.”
“But if I did that,” I objected, “how would I be helping with starvation, crime, poverty, racism, drug addiction. … These are the things millions of people have to live with day in and day out. Are you asking me to look the other way, to forget about all these things?”
“Did you ever try to water a tree leaf by leaf?” he said. “It would take you forever, and the tree wouldn’t get any water. It would start shriveling up … until you started watering the root. The world is just like that: a big tree with so many leaves—all of us. And the root is the Supreme Lord. He’s the source. So if we satisfy Him, we can satisfy everyone in the world. Everything’s coming from Him anyway, so why not give everything back to Him? Satisfy Krsna, learn to love Him again. And He’ll take care of all our needs—material and spiritual-without our even asking. But our leaders have so many independent schemes that can only fail.”
My mind was straining for a more complex answer. He seemed to notice but kept going.
“Or say your eyes are getting a little sore,” he said, “and you get some carrots to heal them. Now, you don’t want to stick the carrots right into your eyes. That would really make them sore, You put the carrots into your stomach, and then your eyes get the benefit. So all of us are like a huge body, and the Lord is like the stomach. If we satisfy Krsna, then we automatically satisfy everyone.”
What could I say?
“In the Krsna consciousness movement,” Gunagrahi went on, “we’re trying to help people see that our real problem is spiritual: we’ve forgotten our link with the Supreme. All those problems you mentioned—addiction, crime, war—we’ve got all those problems because we’ve lost sight of who we really are: the family members of the Supreme Spirit. What the addict or the criminal or the warmonger is craving is really spiritual happiness—the lasting peace and satisfaction that Krsna will give us when we devote ourselves to Him.”
Gradually Gunagrahi convinced me that I shouldn’t dedicate my life to an ordinary welfare cause. He capped things with a story about a sick boy and his well-meaning brother. It seems their mother had left word that her sick son should stay away from solid foods, but still the boy asked his brother to bring him some cake. So the brother brought the cake, figuring that he was being terribly kind, and of course, the sick boy got sicker. When their mother found out what had happened, she gave the well-meaning brother a beating. In other words, if you don’t know the prescription for the problem, then don’t try to treat it. You’ll just make the problem worse and get yourself into trouble. Again, the world’s real problem is spiritual,and the prescription has to be spiritual.
By the end of my talk with Gunagrahi, I felt sure that the best thing I could do was to work with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. I moved to the Buffalo center, and I’ve spent the past few years in Los Angeles at the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, where I operate a type-composing computer. It’s direct involvement with the publishing of my spiritual master’s translations of the Vedic literatures, the books that fully explain the science of spiritual welfare work. Srila Prabhupada once wrote me, “Just go on in this way, trying to please Krsna, and you will find yourself becoming happier and happier.” He was right, and if you come and help us, you’ll find out just how right.