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Srila Prabhupada in New York City, 1965 – Struggling Alone

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The Biography of a Pure Devotee

by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami

For a while Srila Prabhupada lived In this building, in a windowless fifth floor room.

For a while Srila Prabhupada lived
In this building, in a windowless fifth floor room.

On arriving in New York, Srila Prabhupada had nowhere to stay but the asrama of an impersonalist svami. To see students submissively listening to a speaker who denied the Personality of Godhead was painful for the pure devotee. But was he to go homeless and beg in the streets? A holy man might have been able to do that in India, but not in Manhattan.

1979-01-05

Srila Prabhupada

Srila Prabhupada knew no one in New York City, but at least he had a contact. In India he had met a publisher of religious books, Paramananda Mehra of Bombay, who had, written a note introducing him to a guru based in New York City, Dr. Rammurti Misra, While still in Butler, Pennsylvania, Srila Prabhupada had sent Mr. Mehra’s note and one of his own to Dr. Misra. He had also phoned Dr. Misra, who had told him he was welcome to come join him in New York.

A student of Dr. Misra’s met Srila Prabhupada on his arrival, from Butler and brought him directly to an Indian festival in the city. There he was introduced to Dr. Misra, as well as to Ravi Shankar and his brother, the dancer Uddhar Shankar. Srila Prabhupada then accompanied Dr. Misra to his apartment at 33 Riverside Drive, beside the Hudson River, The apartment was on the fourteenth floor and had large windows facing the river. Dr. Misra gave Srila Prabhupada a room to himself,

Dr. Misra was perhaps the first Hindu svami Srila Prabhupada met in America. Like Srila Prabhupada, he wore the traditional saffron dhoti At forty-four, he was young enough to be Prabhupada’s son. His complexion was darker than Prabhupada’s, and his black hair hung down to his shoulders. He was a dramatic, showy personality, given to flashing glances and frequent gestures with his hands and he regularly used words like “lovely” and “beautiful.” Presenting an artfully polished image of what a guru should be, he was what some New Yorkers in the 1960’s referred to as “an uptown swami.” Before coming to America, Dr. Misra had been a Sanskrit scholar and guru, as well as a doctor. He had written a number of books, such as The Textbook of Yoga Psychology and Self-Analysis and Self-Knowledge, a work based on the teachings of the monistic philosopher Sankara. When he came to the United States, he continued to practice neurology, psychology, and acupuncture, but after he began to take on disciples, he gradually dropped his medical practice.

Often he would walk down Seventy-second Street to the West End Superette and buy produce and spices.

Often he would walk down Seventy-second Street to the West End Superette and buy produce and spices.

When Srila Prabhupada came into his life, Dr. Misra had been suffering from bad health. Srila Prabhupada seemed the perfect medicine. “His Holiness Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta Gosvamiji really knocked me down with love,” Dr. Misra says. ‘”He was really an incarnation of love: My body had become a skeleton, and he really brought me back to life. His cooking, and especially his love and devotion to Lord Krsna. I was very lazy in the matter of cooking, but he would get up and have ready.”

Dr. Misra liked the fact that Prabhupada, cooking with the precision of a chemist, would prepare many dishes, and that he had a gusto for eating. “It was not bread he gave me,” Dr. Misra remembers. “He gave me prasada (the mercy of Krsna]. This was life, and he saved my life. At that time I was not sure I would live, but his to eat on time, whether I was hungry or-not—that I very much liked, He’d get up and say, ‘All right, this is bhagavat-prasada [the mercy of the Supreme Lord],’ and I would say, ‘All right.’

Joan Suval, an old student of Dr. Misra’s, remembers seeing Srila Prabhupada and her teacher together at the Riverside Drive apartment.

I have a memory of Svamiji as a “child” in the sense of his being very innocent, a very simple person, very pure. The impression I have from Dr. Misra is that he (Dr. Misra) regarded him as a father figure who was kindly and good. But basically the words most often used referring to Svamiji were “like a child,” meaning that he was simple in a classical, beautiful sense. Dr. Misra mentioned to me when I was first introduced to Svamiji that he was a very holy man, very religious, rapt in God consciousness.

Svamiji was very sweet, I myself remember him as a very, very good man, even in the practical details of living in New York, which involved him very much because he was a practical man and was looking for the best place to begin his work. I remember very well that he was very careful about washing his clothes out every night. I would come in and find a group of students in the living area of Dr. Misra’s apartment, but in the bathroom were hung Svamiji’s orange robes, which he carefully prepared every night.

When Dr. Misra asked Srila Prabhupada about the aim of his visit to America, Srila Prabhupada expressed his spiritual master’s vision of preaching Krsna consciousness in the West, and he requested Dr. Misra to help him. But Dr. Misra replied that he was very busy with his own teaching and that in fact he was planning to leave the country. After a few weeks, when it became inconvenient for Dr. Misra to maintain Srila Prabhupada at the apartment, he shifted Srila Prabhupada to his hatha yoga studio on the fifth floor at 100 West Seventy-second Street, near Columbus Avenue. Located in the center of the building, with no windows, this large studio included an office and an adjoining private room, which is where Srila Prabhupada stayed.

Philosophically, Dr. Misra was at complete odds with Srila Prabhupada. According to the Vedic literatures, the Absolute Truth is known in three aspects—as the impersonal Brahman, as the Paramatma (the form of the Lord seen in the heart by mystic yogis), and as Sri Bhagavan (the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna). As a devotee of Lord Krsna, Prabhupada accepted the Bhagavad-gita‘s statement that Bhagavan is the highest aspect of the Absolute Truth. The Gita (14.27) declares that the impersonal, all-pervading Brahman is subordinate to Bhagavan and is an emanation from Him, just as the sunshine is an emanation from the sun.

That the realization of Bhagavan is the supreme conclusion of the Vedas is accepted by all the leading acaryas (saintly teachers) of ancient India, such as Ramanuja and Madhva, and Srila Prabhupada was coming in disciplic succession from them. Dr. Misra, on the other hand, followed Sankara, who taught that the impersonal presence of the Absolute Truth is the all in all and that the Personality of Godhead is ultimately an illusion. According to this view, the spiritual self (atma) is not individual. Rather, each person is identical with God, the Supreme Brahman, and there is no need of worshiping the Supreme Lord, as do bhakti-yogis. In other words, as Dr. Misra would put it, “Everything is one.”

Srila Prabhupada, however, challenged this idea. “If each of us is actually the same Supreme,” he would say, “then why is this ‘Supreme’ now struggling in the material world?” When Dr. Misra would answer that the Supreme is temporarily covered by illusion but can become enlightened by hatha-yoga and meditation and some day come to know that “it is all Supreme,” Srila Prabhupada would again challenge him. “If we are nondifferent from the Supreme,” he would say, “then how can we be covered, even temporarily, by illusion? If the Supreme were covered by maya, this would mean that illusion is greater than God, greater than the Supreme—and that is absurd.” Srila Prabhupada considered Dr. Misra a “Mayavadi,” a name the Vaisnavas use to refer to impersonalists and at the same time point out the flaw in their philosophy. Because the impersonalist philosophers deny the supremacy of Bhagavan Sri Krsna and inadvertently assert that maya, illusion, is greater than the Absolute, the Vaisnavas refer to them as Mayavadis (followers of maya, spokesmen of illusion).

Srila Prabhupada pointed out that in Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna clearly refutes the Mayavadi conclusion. “Unintelligent men who know Me not,” Krsna says, “think that I have assumed this form and personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is changeless and supreme…. Fools deride Me when I appear in this human form. They do not know My transcendental nature and My supreme dominion over all that be.” (Bg. 7.24, 9.11) Lord Caitanya also strongly refuted the Mayavadis. He said, “Everything about the Supreme Personality of Godhead is spiritual, including His body, opulence, and paraphernalia. Mayavadi philosophy, however, covers His spiritual opulence and advocates the theory of impersonalism.”

By 1965 Srila Prabhupada had already written volumes of commentary on Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam in which he had thoroughly discussed the distinction between the Vaisnava and Mayavadi philosophies. In his purports to Srimad-Bhagavatam he had written, “The ambitious Mayavadi philosophers desire to merge into the existence of the Lord. This form of mukti (liberation) means denying one’s individual existence. In other words it is a kind of spiritual suicide. This is absolutely opposed to the philosophy of bhakti-yoga. Bhakti-yoga offers immortality to the individual conditioned soul. If one follows the Mayavadi philosophy he misses his opportunity to become immortal after giving up the material body.” In the words of Lord Caitanya, mayavadi krsne aparadhi “Mayavadi impersonalists are great offenders unto Lord Krsna.” Thus Lord Caitanya had concluded that if one hears the commentary of Sankara, one’s entire spiritual life is spoiled.

As a mendicant with no followers or residence, Srila Prabhupada was temporarily dependent on the good will of his Mayavadi acquaintance, with whom he regularly ate and conversed and from whom he accepted his shelter. But what a great inconvenience it was to the pure Vaisnava! He who had come to America to speak purely and boldly about Krsna found himself again in a situation in which he could not really discourse. Whereas in Butler, Pennsylvania, he had been confined by his hosts’ middle-class materialistic sensibilities, now he was silenced in a different way: though treated kindly, he was considered a threat. Dr. Misra could not allow his students to hear the exclusive praise of Lord Krsna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

According to Dr. Misra, Srila Prabhupada was busy most of the time typing in his room, but would sometimes come out and give a lecture or lead kirtana (congregational chanting). A boy named Robert Nelson, perhaps the first young sympathizer Srila Prabhupada met in New York, had his own impression of Srila Prabhupada’s presence in Dr. Misra’s yoga society.

I first went to Dr. Misra’s service, and Dr. Misra talked. Prabhupada was sitting on a bench, and then all of a sudden Dr. Misra stops the service and gets a big smile and says, “Svamiji will sing us a song. “But I think Misra wouldn’t let him speak. Somebody told me Dr. Misra didn’t want him to preach.

Srila Prabhupada had his own reminiscences. “I used to sit in the back and listen to his meetings silently. He was speaking all impersonal nonsense, but I kept my silence. Then one day he asked if I would like to speak, and I spoke about Krsna consciousness. I challenged that he was speaking manufactured philosophy and all nonsense from Sankaracarya. He tried to back out and said it was not him who was speaking but Sankaracarya. I said, ‘You are representing him. That is the same thing.’ He then said to me, Svamiji, I like you very much, but you cannot speak here.’ But although our philosophies differed and he would not let me speak, he was kind, and I was nice to him.”

Lord Caitanya warned Vaisnavas never to hear from an impersonalist, yet there was no danger of Srila Prabhupada’s being converted or contaminated by impersonalistic thought. Rather, it was the impersonalist who would be affected by tasting krsna-prasada.

To see students submissively listening to a speaker who denied the Personality of Godhead was certainly painful to the pure devotee. Still, what was the alternative? Was he to go homeless and beg for food in the streets? This might have been acceptable behavior for wandering sannyasis in Indian villages, but it was impossible in Manhattan. So for the time being, Srila Prabhupada accepted the arrangement provided by Krsna. He carried America’s future Krsna consciousness within himself, a baby yet to be born, a bomb about to go off. The Bhagavad-gita had been read for thousands of years in India and hundreds of years in the West (it had been admired by Emerson and Thoreau), and now it was being preached in New York (by Mayavadis, who didn’t believe in Krsna), but the real Gita had yet to be spoken. Americans had not heard the real message of Krsna—as it is—and Srila Prabhupada fervently desired to speak it, as ordered by his spiritual master. But he had to struggle and wait.

1979-01-08On weekends Srila Prabhupada would accompany Dr. Misra to his Ananda Ashram in Monroe, New York, an hour’s drive north. Joan Suval, who used to drive them, remembers the two sannyasis holding animated conversations in the back seat of her car. Although she could not understand their Hindi, she could hear their discussions turn into loud, shouting arguments.

But afterwards, she said, they would again become friends.

On many occasions, Prabhupada would ask Dr. Misra to take part in spreading Lord Caitanya’s movement, but Dr. Misra would sidestep Prabhupada by saying that he considered him an incarnation of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and therefore not in need of help. Srila Prabhupada, however, would say that since Misra was the name of Lord Caitanya’s father, Dr. Misra should help spread Lord Caitanya’s movement. Srila Prabhupada offered to engage him in checking the Sanskrit to his translations of Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Dr. Misra now says he repents that he did not take up the offer.

The Ananda Ashram lies in a peaceful wooded setting of sixty acres in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. The place includes a lake with an island. Whenever Srila Prabhupada would go to the asrama, he would hold kirtana, and the yoga students would join him in chanting and even dancing. Dr. Misra was particularly fond of Srila Prabhupada’s chanting. “I have never seen or met any devotee who sang so much,” Dr. Misra says. “And his kirtana was just ambrosial. If you pay attention and become relaxed, that voice has very electrical vibrations on your heart. You cannot avoid it. Ninety-nine percent of the students, whether they liked it or not, they got up and danced and chanted. And I felt very pleased to meet such a great soul.” Naturally Dr. Misra would give lectures carrying the impersonal interpretation of Bhagavad-gita according to Sankara. When allowed to speak before Dr. Misra and his students, Srila Prabhupada would criticize the impersonal interpretation, although in a tactful way, describing it as “the beginning step in appreciating the Supreme Person.” Hurta Lurch, a woman who attended the Ananda Ashram when Srila Prabhupada was visiting, recalls his presence there.

My direct encounter with him was in the kitchen. He was very particular and very definite that he would only eat what he cooked himself. He would come and say, “Give me pots. ” So when I brought him a pot, he’d say, “No, bigger. ” And so I brought a bigger pot, and he’d say, “No, smaller. ” Than he would say, “Give me potato, ” so I would bring a potato. He prepared food very, very quietly. He never spoke very much. He prepared potatoes and then some vegetables and then capatis. He used the pots at the asrama. After cooking, he would eat outside when the weather was warm. He would usually cook enough to go around for Dr. Misra and about five or six other people. Every day he would cook that much when he was there. I learned to make capatis from him. He usually stayed only for the weekends. Perhaps during the warm weather he may have stayed for a whole week, but most of the time he went back to the city. I think he felt that was where his main work was to be done.

Srila Prabhupada’s work was certainly in the city, but what could he do there with no money or support? He was thinking of staying for only a few weeks and then going back to India. In the meantime, he spent most of his hours working on his Srimad-Bhagavatam manuscripts, writing letters, and walking in Manhattan.

Since Dr. Misra’s studio had no cooking facilities, Srila Prabhupada had to walk daily about seven blocks to cook in the kitchen of Dr. Misra’s Riverside Drive apartment. He would walk north on Columbus Avenue amid a steady flow of pedestrians. As he stopped at each intersection, he could feel the sweeping breeze from the Hudson. Instead of the small-town scenery of Butler, Pennsylvania, he first passed by a section of thirty-story office buildings on Columbus Avenue. On the street level were shoe repair shops, candy stores, laundries, and continental restaurants. The upper stories held the professional suites of doctors, dentists, and lawyers. At Seventy-fifth Street, Srila Prabhupada would turn west and walk through a neighborhood of brownstone apartments whose entranceways were three or four steps below street level. Then he would cross Amsterdam and come to Broadway. Here a thin strip of park area where old men sat on benches separated Broadway’s northbound and southbound traffic. The greenery in this area could more accurately be described as “blackery,” since it was covered with soot and city grime. Here Broadway displayed produce shops and butcher shops whose stands extended onto the sidewalk. The last block toward Riverside Drive held high-rises with doormen standing at the entrances. Thirty-three Riverside Drive also had a doorman.

Sometimes Srila Prabhupada would walk in Riverside Park. He was still concerned about the condition of his heart, and he liked the long stretches of flat walking area in that park. Besides the daily walk to and from Dr. Misra’s apartment, Srila Prabhupada frequently walked from Dr. Misra’s studio down Seventy-second Street to Amsterdam Avenue, where the West End Superette is located. There, with what little money he had gathered, Srila Prabhupada would sometimes buy produce and spices for his cooking. On other occasions he would wander through the streets of Manhattan without any set direction or sometimes take buses to different areas of the city.

He had been in New York for a month and a half, without money or any support but Dr. Misra’s. Cooking and distributing prasada to the Mayavadis was surely a kind of preaching, but he could not regard it as an engagement serious enough to keep him in America. Time was passing, with no great result, and his return to India seemed inevitable. But although he did not have a home or headquarters, he did have an impressive-sounding New York City address—”Studio 51, 100 West 72nd St., New York City.” He began writing letters to India.

On November 8 he wrote Tirtha Maharaja, his Godbrother, who had become president of the Gaudiya Matha, the institution formed by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. Typing on a small manual machine while the city roared around him, he reminded his Godbrother that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, their spiritual master, had cherished a strong desire to open preaching centers in the Western countries. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had several times attempted to do this by sending sannyasis to England and other countries in Europe, but, Prabhupada noted, “without any tangible results.”

“I have come to this country with the same purpose in view,” he wrote, “and as far as I can see it, here in America there is good scope for preaching the message of Lord Caitanya.” Srila Prabhupada pointed out that Mayavadi groups like the Ramakrishna Mission had buildings but were really not attracting many followers. He reported that he had talked with Swami Nikhilananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, who had given the opinion that the Americans were suitable for bhakti-yoga.

“I am here and see a good field for work,” Srila Prabhupada wrote, “but I am alone, without men and money. To start a center here, we must have our own building.” If the leaders of the Gaudiya Matha would consider opening their own branch in New York, Srila Prabhupada offered, he himself would be willing to manage it. Speaking from his own experience, he reported that without their own house they could not conduct a mission in the city. Srila Prabhupada wrote to convince them, citing his confidence that they could open many centers in cities throughout the country if they agreed to cooperate. He repeatedly pointed out that although other groups did not have the genuine spiritual philosophy of India, they were buying many buildings, whereas the Gaudiya Matha had nothing. “if you agree to cooperate with me,” he wrote, “as I have suggested above, then I shall extend my visa period. My present visa period ends by the end of this November. But if I receive your confirmation immediately, then I shall extend my visa period. Otherwise I shall return to India.”

Although there were many reasons why Srila Prabhupada could expect disappointment in approaching his Godbrothers for support, he thought it was their duty to help him. But if he did not get a favorable response soon, it seemed he would have to give up trying to introduce Krsna consciousness in America. He could not go on struggling alone indefinitely.

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