Srila Prabhupada had come to America to speak about Krsna. From the beginning of his stay he had found opportunities—the living-room gatherings at the home of the Agarwals (his first hosts in America), the lecture appearances in churches, schools, and the Lion’s Club of Butler, Pennsylvania. He had spent an hour at the University of Pennsylvania talking to Dr. Norman Brown’s Hinduism class. In New York he had given lectures at the Tagore Society and at the Misra Yoga Society. But he did not attach great importance to giving speeches in places where people gathered to hear him only once and then went away. This was the main reason he wanted a New York building: so that people could regularly come, chant the Hare Krsna mantra, take prasada (sanctified food) in his company, and regularly, repeatedly hear him speak from Bhagavad-gitaand Srimad-Bhagavatam.
When Srila Prabhupada moved out of Dr. Misra’s studio into a small office, he had what he was looking for—his own place—but not even euphemistically could his room be called a temple. His name was on the door, and anyone seeking him could find him there. But who would come to such a place? The idea of a temple was to attract people to Krsna by the temple’s opulence, but Room 307 of 100 West Seventy-second Street was just the opposite—bare poverty. Even someone interested in spiritual topics would find it uncomfortable to sit on the rugless floor of a room shaped like a narrow railroad car.
But Srila Prabhupada’s spiritual master had told him years before not to be despondent if few people attended the kirtana (chanting) or lecture. “Even if no one attends,” Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had told him, “you can go on chanting to the four empty walls.” Thus it was Srila Prabhupada’s personal duty to glorify Lord Krsna in whatever setting He had provided.
The first people who came to see Srila Prabhupada in his third-floor room were a few of Dr. Misra’s students who had met him at Dr. Misra’s yoga studio. One of them donated a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and Srila Prabhupada began recording his talks. He taped several hours of an essay called “Introduction to Gitopanisad,” which he later used in his published translation of Bhagavad-gita. He also recorded his chanting and singing of bhajanas (devotional songs), singing along to his own accompaniment with karatalas (hand cymbals). In talks punctuated with sounds of car horns and occasional sirens from the street, Srila Prabhupada began his first regular lectures on Bhagavad-gita in America, starting from the Second Chapter.
Now Arjuna is perplexed. (Thus Prabhupada speaks on March 19, 1966.) He is perplexed about whether to fight or not to fight. After seeing in front of him his relatives with whom he was to fight, he was perplexed. And there was some argument with Krsna. Now here is a point: Krsna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
(Prabhupada’s voice is earnest—sometimes it becomes high-pitched and breaks with urgency to communicate to his listeners. His voice is sincere and convincing. His cultured British diction bears a heavy Bengali accent.
Srila Prabhupada suddenly pauses in his lecture and addresses someone in the room.)
Prabhupada: What is that?
Man in the room: What?
Prabhupada: What is this book?
Man: Well, this is a translation of the Bhagavad-gita.
(Prabhupada is obviously displeased that while he is speaking someone is looking through a book. This is hardly like the respect offered to the learned speakers described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam.)
Prabhupada: Well, no, you can hear me.
Man: I AM hearing.
Prabhupada (taking the role of a teacher and correcting his student): Yes, don’t turn your attention. Just hear me.
(Srila Prabhupada at this time is not an established spiritual master of many disciples [he has no disciples in America], and there is no compelling reason why any of his casual guests should feel obliged to obey or listen to him. He simply begs for their attention—and yet demands it [“Just hear me”]—as he attempts to convince people to become Krsna conscious devotees.)
You have heard that one must accept the spiritual master after careful examination (Prabhupada continues), just as one selects a bride or a bridegroom after careful examination. In India they are very careful. Because the marriage of boys and girls takes place under the guidance of the parents, so the parents very carefully see to it. Similarly, if one has to accept the spiritual master … It is necessary. According to Vedic injunctions, everyone should have a spiritual master. Perhaps you have seen a sacred thread. We have got sacred thread. Mr. Cohen? You have seen? Sacred thread.
(Srila Prabhupada pauses. His audience may not have noted the thin white cords he wears across the upper part of his body—they can be seen around his neck. For thousands of years brahmanas in India have worn such threads, which are placed diagonally across the torso, looped over the left shoulder and down to the right waist. A brahmana holds his thread in his right hand while chanting the sacred Gayatri mantra three times a day. But this is all strange indeed to Americans. Prabhupada himself is exotic to them. His grey chada (shawl) around his shoulders, he sits cross-legged and erect on a thin pillow, and they sit facing him on the other side of his trunk, which now functions as a desk and lectern. They are close together in the narrowness of the room, under a dim light. He is frail and small and foreign to them, yet somehow he is completely assured, in a way that has nothing to do with being a foreigner in New York—and they can sense it. Two white lines of painted clay run neatly vertical on his forehead. His pale peach clothes are gathered in loose folds around his body. He pauses only a few seconds to inquire whether they have ever seen a white sacred thread.)
That sacred thread is a sign that a person has a spiritual master. Here, of course, there is no such distinction, but according to the Hindu system a married girl also has some sign so that people can understand that this girl is married. She wears a red mark so that others may know that she is married. And according to the division in the hair… What is this line called?
Prabhupada: What is the spelling?
Prabhupada: Part. This parting also has some meaning. (They know English, and he knows the Gita. But he knows a good deal of English, whereas they know practically nothing of the Gita, which he has to spoonfeed to them. But occasionally he asks in reciprocation, and they supply him English words.) When the part is in the middle, then the girl has her husband, and she is coming from a respectable family. And if the part is here (with a slight gesture he indicates a part on the side of he head), then she is a prostitute. And then again when a girl is well dressed it should be understood that she has her husband at home, and when she is not well dressed it is to be understood that her husband is away from home. You see? And a widow’s dress … There are so many symptoms. So, similarly, the sacred thread s a sign that a person has accepted a spiritual master, just as the red mark symbolizes that a girl has a husband.
(One could say Srila Prabhupada is approaching a very heavy topic at an early point in his meeting. What is the need of taking a spiritual master? Is this just for India? But he says, “Everyone should have a spiritual master.” What is a spiritual master, anyway? Most of the audience probably doesn’t take this matter seriously; it is not as if they are faced with a personal decision. They may look upon the idea of accepting a spiritual master as another cultural item from Hinduism, like the thread, or the part in the woman’s hair, or the widow’s dress. The audience can easily regard his discussion as a kind of cultural exposition, just as one comfortably watches a film about the living habits of people in a foreign land although one has no intention of adopting these habits as one’s own. The svami, as a Hindu, is wearing a brahmana’s thread, but one doesn’t have to think that Americans should wear them. Actually, Srila Prabhupada has no motive but to present the Absolute Truth as he has heard it in disciplic succession. And if anyone in that railroad car-shaped room were actually to ask himself, “Should I surrender to a spiritual master?” he would be confronted by the existential presence of a genuine guru, Srila Prabhupada. One is free to regard his talk as one likes.)
In every step of one’s lifethe spiritual master guides him (Prabhupada continues). Now, to give such guidance the spiritual master should also be a very perfect man. Otherwise how can heguide? Now, here Arjuna knows that Sri Krsna is the perfect person. So therefore he is accepting Him—sisyas te ‘ham sadhi mam tvam prapannam. (Sanskrit! No one knows a word of it! But there is never any question for Srila Prabhupada—even if they don’t understand, the sound of sastra, scripture, will purify them and make them pious. It is his authority, and he cannot omit it. Anyway, he will translate everything. And Prabhupada thinks they will feel the weight of the scholarly Sanskrit authority, the original though foreign words of the sages.)
“I am just surrendering unto You, and You accept me as Your disciple,” Arjuna says. Friendly talks cannot make a solution to perplexity. Friendly talks may be going on for years together, but with no solution. So here Arjuna accepts Krsna as the spiritual master. This means that whatever Krsna will decide he has to accept. One cannot deny the order of’ his spiritual master. Therefore one has to select a spiritual master by whose orders one will not commit a mistake. Suppose you accept the wrong person as spiritual master and he guides you wrongly. Then your whole life is spoiled. So one has to accept a spiritual master whose guidance will make one’s life perfect. That is the relationship between spiritual master and disciple. It is not a formality; it is a great responsibility, both for the disciple and for the spiritual master. And… yes?
Student:But ifthe disciple is in ignorance before. . .
Prabhupada: Yes. (Srila Prabhupada acknowledges a serious question. Yes. It is for answering questions like this from “disciples in ignorance” that he has left retirement in India and come to America.)
Student: … how does he know which master to choose?—he doesn’t have the knowledge to make a wise decision.
Prabhupada: Yes. So the first thing is that one should be searching after a spiritual master, just as when you search after some school, you must have at least some preliminary knowledge of what a school is. So that knowledge is like this:
tad-vijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacchet
samit-panih srotriyam brahma-nistham
According to this verse, the spiritual master is required for a person who is inquisitive about transcendental knowledge. There is another verse in Srimad-Bhagavatam. Tasmad gurum prapadyeta jijnasuh sreya uttamam: one should search after a spiritual master if one is inquisitive about transcendental subject matters. Unless one is at least conversant with preliminary knowledge of transcendental matters, how can he inquire from his spiritual master? And he has to inquire.
After discussing the spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada went on to describe Krsna as Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As always, his lectures were grave and thorough in scholarship. In one talk he would cover a number of ideas. His talks were not prepared lectures on a single specialized subject. Nor did he pause to grope for something to say. It was only a question of how much his audience could take. Otherwise, Srila Prabhupada knew exactly what he wanted to say. Now the constraints of Butler, Pennsylvania, and the Ananda Ashram were behind him. He was free to speak about the Absolute Truth in full. Throughout his life he had prepared for this, yet he was still exploring his Western audience, testing their reactions and discovering the best ways to present Krsna.
But we should always remember that He is God. He is all-powerful…. In strength no one could conquer Him. In beauty … as far as beauty is concerned, when He was on the battlefield—have any of you seen a picture of Krsna? Have you seen? Have any of you ever seen Krsna ? Oh . . . no?
No one had ever seen Krsna. Srila Prabhupada’s voice faded, and he paused as he looked out at his audience. None of them had the slightest previous knowledge of Lord Krsna. In India hundreds of millions worshiped Lord Krsna as the eternal form of all beauty and truth and viewed His graceful form daily in temples, in sculpture, in painting, and in dance. His philosophical teachings in Bhagavad-gita were all-famous, and Prabhupada was His intimate emissary. Yet the ladies and gentlemen at Seventy-second Street looked at him blankly.
Sometimes during a talk an outsider would open the door and hesitantly glance inside. Srila Prabhupada would stop his lecture and invite the visitor further with words and gestures: “Yes, yes, come in. You can come here.” Sometimes he would commiserate with his “fellow New Yorkers,” chuckling about the discomforts they shared. “Suppose there is a heavy snowfall, the whole New York City is flooded with snow, and you are all put into inconvenience. This is a sort of suffering, but you have no control.”
Sometimes he praised Dr. Misra’s students for having learned so nicely from their teacher: “Now, what Dr. Misra is teaching is very nice. He is teaching that first of all you must know, ‘Who am I?’ That is very good, but that ‘Who am I?’ can be known from Bhagavad-gita also—’I am not this body.’ “
Sometimes, while Srila Prabhupada was talking, a guest would suddenly speak out with an irrelevant question, and Srila Prabhupada would patiently try to consider it. At the same time, behind the tolerance Prabhupada’s mood was always one of a personal urgency. Sometimes he spoke very fast, and one sensed his desire to establish Krsna consciousness in the West as soon as possible. He had no followers, a few books, no temples, and he openly stated that his was a race against time. “I am ah old man,” he would say. “I could leave at any time.” And so behind the formal delivery of the Krsna conscious philosophy was an anxiety, an almost desperate desire to convince at least one soul to take up Krsna consciousness immediately.
In a second lecture delivered on the same verse of Bhagavad-gita, Srila Prabhupada discussed the real meaning of going to a sacred place in India.
One should go to a sacred place in order to find some intelligent scholar living there in spiritual knowledge and make association with him. Just like I … my residence is at Vrndavana. So at Vrndavana there are many big scholars and saintly persons living. So one should go to such holy places not simply to take bath in the water; one must be intelligent enough to find some spiritually advanced man living there and take instruction from him and be benefited by that. If a man has attachment to going to a place of pilgrimage to take a bath but has no attraction for hearing from learned people there, he is considered to be an ass. [He laughs.] Sa eva go-kharah. Go means “cow, ” and khara means “ass. ” So the whole civilization is moving like a civilization of cows and asses. Everyone is identifying with the body. Yes, you want to speak?
Woman with an English accent: In the places known as secret places—
Prabhupada: Sacred. Yes.
Woman: Is it “sacred” places?
Woman:—isn’t it also a fact that there is more magnetism because of the meeting of saints and more advanced people?
Prabhupada: Oh, yes, certainly. Certainly. Therefore the place itself has got some magnetism.
Woman: Yes, and when—
Prabhupada: Just like at Vrndavana. That is practical. Now here I am sitting in New York, the world’s greatest city, such a magnificent city, but my heart is always hankering after that Vrndavana.
Woman: Yes. [Laughs.]
Prabhupada: Yes. I am not happy here.
Woman: Yes, I know.
Prabhupada: I shall be very happy to return to my Vrndavana, that sacred place. But then, “Why are you here?” Now, because it is my duty; I have brought some message for you people. Because I have been ordered by my superior, my spiritual master,“Whatever you have learned you should go to the Western countries, and you must distribute this knowledge. ” So in spite of all my difficulties, all my inconveniences, I am here, because I am obligated by duty. If I go and sit down in Vrndavana, that will be good for my personal convenience; I shall be very comfortable there, and I will have no anxiety, nothing of the sort. But I have taken all the risk in this old age because I am dutybound. I am dutybound, so I have to execute my duty, despite all my inconveniences.
“Despite inconveniences” meant that Srila Prabhupada was willing to undergo any difficulty for himself, if only he could fulfill his spiritual master’s order. It was not that for himself he needed anything, but for preaching he needed a more impressive presentation of Krsna culture, complete with music, food distribution, a meeting hall, and money with which to print and distribute books vigorously. But simply the chance to speak was a source of life for him. Even when there were no disciples, Srila Prabhupada was very hopeful. At least he was speaking, and someone was listening.
Srila Prabhupada expressed his optimism in a letter to Sumati Morarjee, dated March 18, 1966: “I was very much encouraged when you wrote to say, ‘I feel that you should stay there until you fully recover from your illness and return only after you have completed your mission.’ I think these lines dictated by you are the words of Lord Bala Krsna expressed through your goodness.
“You will be pleased to know that I have improved my health to normal, and my missionary work is nicely progressing. I hope my project to start a temple of Sri Sri Radha-Krsna will also be realized by the grace of the Lord.
“Since I came to New York from Butler, Pennsylvania, I have rented the above room at seventy dollars per month, and I am delivering lectures on the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad–Bhagavatam, accompanied by sankirtana [chanting the names of Lord Krsna], and the American ladies and gentlemen come to hear me. You will be surprised to know that they do not understand the language of sankirtana yet they hear with attention. The movement which I have started here is completely new to them, because the Americans are generally acquainted with the Indian yoga gymnastics as performed by some Indian yogis here. They never heard of the bhakti [devotional yoga] cult or the science of Krsna before, and still they are hearing me. This is a great success for me.”
Things were looking up, but still most of the people who came to the classes were not really interested in the full commitment Srila Prabhupada was looking for. One of Dr. Misra’s followers describes the Misra people at that time as being “middle-class types merely into intellectual hair-splitting.” Srila Prabhupada was not unaware of this, and apparently he was looking for people who could help him more directly.