I graduated from Brooklyn College in 1961, spent two years on an aircraft carrier in the Navy, and subsequently returned to the New York City’s Lower East Side and its LSD, marijuana and “free” sex. When I ran out of money I took a job as a social worker. However, such vague descriptions of my life are of little value because they neglect the inner self. My inner self was very much present and used to wonder, “Who am I?” but I had no guidance in finding out. Certainly my parents could not guide me; they were interested only in external matters: television, good grades, and a successful job and family. My teachers and professors were not willing to sit down and talk with me—and even if they were willing to do so, they had no understanding of what life was all about. So I took solace in friends who were bound together by their rejection of life.
The latter experiences are not very outstanding or unusual. What is significant is that somehow I got out of the disillusionment by which they were symptomized. I found someone who knew the path of satisfaction, and he was able to show me real peace and happiness—a hope of eternal life. How I found these treasures of life and how I rid myself of the uncomfortable task of trying to live honestly in a false world is of the greatest value to tell. This resurgence of life will be explained by first telling you about the guide, the spiritual master. When one thinks of the guru, the mind immediately conjures up pictures of bogus teachers who mystify and hypnotize our honesty and fill us with the unreality of pseudo-yoga, who take our money, encourage us to escape into meditation, and who preach renunciation of personal life. “Personal life is unreal; it’s alien and unloving.” But so are they, these false rascals, and so I rejected them too. But I want to talk of the real guide, the pure devotee of God who showers unlimited love and mercy upon all living entities because he is the dearmost representative of God. The Lord states in the scriptures: “The spiritual master is to be worshiped as My very Self.” This is the version of all revealed scriptures. Do you doubt the existence of a person, who can impart the knowledge of the science of God realization pursuant to love of God? I have met him, and hundreds of others have also.
In 1966 I stumbled into twenty-six Second Avenue, New York City, where, at the time, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada held classes in bhakti-yoga and chanted the transcendental sound vibration Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The boys chanted, and Srila Prabhupada sat on a straw mat leading. I was swept up into praise of the Lord by this song, which wipes all the dust from the mind. It is true that the mahamantra is the great chant for deliverance because the mantra reveals one to be the deathless loving servant of God by nature. Doubts still plague the mind. The prejudices and the countless births and deaths that we have gone through are all so painful. If we only realized this and surrendered unto Krsna, the eternal God, then relief would be assured, and even in this lifetime we would always relish nectar by singing His praises.
The first night I heard that song of God, I took it home. Although I was still indulging in the inebrieties of Lower East Side life and was still without hope beyond death, things were different. I did not want to fool myself into believing that everything was now blissful because of my chanting Hare Krsna in that little storefront—but nevertheless the song of Hare Krsna was not an unhappy addition to my consciousness. To remember it during the day, while in the office, was like the coming of spring after the long winter. I looked forward to going back to chant with Srila Prabhupada and the boys who gathered there. I sat at my desk as a social worker, answering phone calls, writing out checks for welfare clients, listening to the advice of my boss and to office jokes, and then I recalled Srila Prabhupada’s talking. I recalled him saying, “How can there be any progress as long as the scientists, technologists, reformers and politicians cannot find a solution to these four things—birth, death, disease and old age?” He proposed that there was an actual solution to birth, death, disease, and old age and that until we had it we could not claim to be happy or progressing. How could one be happy amidst such disadvantages? He told the story of a person in a hospital who was visited by a friend. The patient was sick in bed, unable to move. He was being fed intravenously, and his body stank. He had to urinate in a bed pan, and the nurses had to aid him in moving. Yet when a friend came and asked him, “How are you?” he answered, “I’m all right.” But what kind of all right is that? He is in an abominable state, unable even to move, and is surrounded by bad smells, yet he says that he is all right! Similarly, under the spell of illusion, a person in material life, although suffering, says that everything is all right and that he is happy, although in fact he is suffering in so many ways.
Srila Prabhupada said that the solution to all suffering is Lord Krsna. Who is Krsna? Krsna is God, the supreme controller, who does everything so expertly that it seems to happen automatically. Every autumn Krsna changes all the leaves to gold within a few days; if a painter were to attempt the same thing, it would take months. Krsna also directs the movements of the planets and galaxies and holds up the sun in a corner of the sky. The atheists foolishly claim that God is dead, yet the whole universe is God’s body. So how can He be dead if His body is working and moving so nicely? Srila Prabhupada also said that our real self, each of us, is a spiritual spark of the same quality as the spiritual whole, Krsna, and that to engage in loving service to the spiritual whole is the natural, blissful, constitutional occupation of each living entity.
Srila Prabhupada gave me typing tasks, typing up his manuscripts for publication. I understood this typing to be yoga (linking with God), and so I sat at the typewriter hour after hour,meditating and working. After attending classes, I decided that I could no longer keep my job, which entailed being eight hours a day away from the association of Srila Prabhupada. The other boys, who had no jobs, could see him all day. They would sit around him in his clean, sunny apartment while he talked about Krsna, the most relishable Supreme Personality of Godhead. He asked them to help him spread this love of Krsna, God, and together they made plans. I wanted to join and renounce the material world with its birth, death, disease and old age. I filled out my resignation, and I gave notice that in two weeks I would leave in order to study with my spiritual master. During my lunch hour I ran to see Srila Prabhupada. He was seated on his sleeping mat behind a small desk, and the boys were gathered around him, asking questions and listening. “Actually, this Krsna consciousness,” he said, “is the highest service to mankind, but they take it to be some sentimental religion, mere singing and dancing.”
“I want to quit my job,” I told him.
“Oh? Why is that? You are offering such nice service.”
“But I want to come daily and be part of the camp. I want to learn Krsna consciousness.”
Seeing my predicament, the boys present said that they would take jobs and let me spend more time listening to the spiritual master. They suggested alternating their employment. But Srila Prabhupada kept my attention and told me a story. He told me that there was once a faithful wife who had an ugly husband with a morose disposition. One day his wife asked, “Why are you morose? I do anything you want, and stillyou feel morose. Why is that?” “I wish to have sex with a certain prostitute,” he admitted, “but she costs thousands of dollars just for a night, and I cannot afford her.” The faithful wife said to him, “Don’t worry. I shall arrange it.” She immediately went to the prostitute’s house and began to personally attend her, cleaning her room and performing other such services. When the prostitute came and noticed her activity, the faithful wife explained, “My husband desires to enjoy you, and I hope that you will take my services as payment, so that he might spend a night with you.” The prostitute laughed, “Don’t you realize that I cost ten thousand dollars a night? How can you ever raise the money?”
So in addition to serving the prostitute, the wife herself turned to prostitution and eventually raised the required amount of money. She returned to her husband and said, “All right You can go to that prostitute now,” and he went at once.
Srila Prabhupada said that although people may say that the wife was crazy and immoral, nevertheless she was unquestionably faithful. He asked me to keep my job, even though the association was abominably boring and kept me away from him all day, and said that by contributing the earnings from my job, I was rendering the best service possible. I reported back to my office and told them that I had changed my mind and would keep the job That afternoon, visiting clients on my job, I walked through the streets in the bliss of responsibility. I felt deeply entrusted with a duty from my father, my spiritual master, and to discharge it faithfully was my eternal duty Due to his words I could work at my ordinary civil service job with a firm sense of eternal life because it was God’s work, as confirmed by the spiritual master.
Morning classes at the storefront temple were at 6 a.m. The devotees began with the chanting of Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The chanting was followed by a talk about Krsna’s pastimes and about Lord Caitanya, the most liberal and munificent incarnation of Krsna. I used to go to work chanting on my beads, with the words of the Absolute Truth in my ears and the vision of the spiritual master’s holy form fresh in my mind’s eye.
Very easily I took to the four regulative principles. As I engaged more in Krsna consciousness, I no longer hankered after intoxicants or illicit sex. Daily at noon, I would leave the office and hurry to the temple for prasadam. Srila Prabhupada would be in his upstairs room with the boys gathered. The food would be placed in open pots before a small table. This table served as his altar and displayed a picture of Lord Caitanya and His eternal associates. It was decorated with vases of flowers. Srila Prabhupada would suddenly bow all the way down to the floor, onto his hands and knees, and we would all follow suit. We repeated the following prayer after him and thus offered the foodstuffs to Krsna, who accepts the offering made by His pure devotee:
This material body is a lump of ignorance, and the senses are networks of paths unto death. We have fallen into the ocean of material sense enjoyment, and of all the senses the tongue is the most voracious and difficult to control. It is very difficult to conquer over the tongue in this world, but Krsna is very kind to us. He has sent us this nice prasadam to control the tongue. Now let us take this prasadam to our full satisfaction and glorify Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha and Krsna and in love call for Lord Caitanya and Nityananda to help us.
Food offered to Krsna is called prasadam. Eating this food gives spiritual strength. Usually on a weekday we took dahl, rice and chapatis, and it was always very, very delicious. Chapatis looked like pancakes, but they were made simply with whole wheat and water, with a little salt and butter. Dahl is spiced soup, made with split peas. Srila Prabhupada encouraged us to “take more,” including rice, always seasoned with turmeric, and vegetables. The foodstuff was always honored as being nondifferent from Krsna Himself.
My existence was becoming rarefied, and yet it was practical. Just by my eating prasadam and working in the office with the knowledge that my paycheck would support the temple, and by my chanting and hearing the lectures, all the filth and wolf-like viciousness in my heart was being cleansed away. I didn’t need a certificate to tell me that I was enrolled in Krsna consciousness. Just as a hungry man feels satisfied when eating and doesn’t have to be told, so I knew the change taking place. It cleansed me and refreshed my whole being and engaged me in work of consequence. It revived my whole person.
Weeks went by, and as I heard and chanted, my desire for hearing and chanting increased. One of the boys attending the classes painted a picture of Radha and Krsna. Radharani is the girl always seen with Krsna, and She is His greatest eternal devotee, who teaches us how to love Krsna. She can help us to reach Him through pure affection or transcendental loving service. Chanting on beads, fingering each bead while saying the mantra aloud, brought concentration to hearing and touching, while looking at the picture of Radha and Krsna brought concentration to seeing. Having all the senses thus totally engaged brought me into blissful meditation upon Krsna. Srila Prabhupada emphasized that just by adding the Hare Krsna mantra to his life, anyone can feel this purification in mind and spirit, without renouncing his job, family or way of life. This chanting is recommended by the Vedic scriptures and by the incarnation of Krsna, Lord Caitanya, who appeared 500 years ago and from whom Srila Prabhupada descends in a line of successive disciples or spiritual masters. “Just try chanting,” he said. “If you are a businessman, remain a businessman; if you are a doctor, remain a doctor; if you are a student, housewife, etc., remain in your station. But try chanting Hare Krsna as a regular daily function and reading Bhagavad-gita As It Is. These will help anyone realize the fulfillment of real pleasure and eventually achieve the purpose of life, which is to love God.”
After several months, Srila Prabhupada announced that he would hold initiations, which would make us his disciples in Krsna consciousness and connect us with the disciplic succession. I personally did not feel I was ready for such a commitment, and so on the day that initiations were held I stayed at home and instead dutifully performed the task of typing essays for Srila Prabhupada. The next day I brought two completed essays to his apartment. I knocked on his door. He opened it to let me in: “You didn’t come yesterday for initiation?”
“No,” I said.
“That’s all right,” he said kindly, and let me inside. When he sat down at his mat, I then placed before him the two essays, and he thanked me. He then invited me to a wedding of two of his disciples that was to be held the following night. I was very happy that he had personally made sure that I would attend. He gave me more manuscripts for typing, and I began to take my leave. Srila Prabhupada walked me to the door of his apartment and then said, “This is not automatic, not simply taking this work and doing it mechanically.” I knew what he meant. Then he said “If you love me, then I’ll love you.” I cannot remember if I said anything in reply, but I left him and ran down the stairs and onto the street. I was so happy! Why? Just because he had said, “You love me, and I’ll love you.” I realized that he loved me, just as Krsna loves everyone. We rot and sulk in this material world, maneuvering to become God. But, if we are willing to have personal exchange with Krsna through His representative, the spiritual master, then we will feel released from stoneheartedness, the dried-up joylessness, false ego and hallucinations of grandeur. In short, we get relief by being loved. To be loved is only half of the exchange. Srila Prabhupada is certainly loving us now, still, freely giving us prasadam, giving us Krsna philosophy, chanting and dancing. As persons, we can also give love. When the love is felt, it can overcome the entire material universe in a second. From that moment on, my desire to take to Krsna consciousness greatly increased; I was determined not to let anything hinder me from engaging in transcendental loving service for the pleasure of my spiritual master.
The bona fide spiritual master is coming from God. We must have a little initial faith in this process. Srila Prabhupada has all the credentials of the spiritual master. This can be seen by the example he sets. He is called, in the Sanskrit language, acarya. An acarya is one who teaches by example. So his good example was apparent in those first days and has endured to spread Krsna consciousness throughout the world. This process of bhakti-yoga, devotional service to God, is distributed through his literature, his words and his actions. One will always find him talking about Krsna, and what he says is in complete accordance with scripture. Krsna says, “Surrender to Me,” and the pure devotee says the same thing “Surrender to Krsna.” The spiritual master is fixed in love of God. Every Sunday in Tompkins Square Park he chanted with us for one and a half hours, and after a break, we chanted for another hour and a half, while he played the drum. He talked to everyone and anyone—cab drivers, priests, newsmen, politicians, children—about Krsna, and he handled their questions with grave concern. One night I bought him mangos, and he accepted one from my hand before a roomful of his students. He said, “Very good boy!” in a humorous way, treating me like a four-year-old boy, which gave those assembled a good laugh. But then he said seriously, “No. This is a token of love. This is Krsna consciousness.” And he praised me for my meager efforts at donating money and typing. In this way I entered into the nectar of devotion, the ocean of bliss. My spiritual master assured me from the beginning that Krsna was blessing me in my personal efforts to serve Him through the spiritual master, and I never doubted it. I was undergoing a change in heart, from a self-centered imitation god to an agent of God working under the direction of a master.
At the next opportunity, which was on the appearance day of Radharani in 1966, I was accepted by Srila Prabhupada as his disciple. He chanted on my beads and asked me to always chant Hare Krsna, and I bowed down and repeated, nama om visnu-padaya krsna presthaya bhutale / srimate bhaktivedanta svamin iti namine. “I offer my respectful obeisances to His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who is very dear to Lord Krsna, having taken shelter at His lotus feet.” “Your name,” he said, “is Satsvarupa dasa Brahmacari.”
Later, in a lecture, he described the significance of initiation. “Lord Caitanya asked His disciple Rupa Gosvami to go to Vrndavana to preach and sustain His mission. This is disciplic succession. Not that one thinks, ‘I have understood everything from my spiritual master; let me now sit tight.’ That is also nice, but no. Lord Caitanya’s mission is to spread the teaching … It is your duty. When a disciple receives instruction from the spiritual master, he has an obligation to the spiritual master to do the same. After being instructed, the disciple will offer, ‘My dear master, what can I do for you?’ I am indebted to my spiritual master for the knowledge that was given to me; therefore, I must serve him.” When I heard this, I was astounded. In Krsna consciousness the spiritual master is always revealing new knowledge about the nature of devotional service. Just when one thinks himself sufficiently engaged in the Lord’s service, the spiritual master reveals how to serve infinitely more in an entirely new capacity. One wonders, “How can I do that much? How can I surrender to Krsna? What will happen to me? How can I expand my personality to meet this task?” But Srila Prabhupada says, “All it takes is sincerity. Simply follow the instructions and be humble.”
This science of God can be taken personally and applied to anyone’s life. The householder can make a little altar with pictures of Krsna, and without interruption to family life, all can become Krsna conscious. Indeed, without God consciousness one cannot be a qualified family man. In the same way, the student can extend his sincere desire to learn beyond good grades. He can read scriptures and their commentaries by transcendental scholars on the nature of the Absolute Truth, and he can introduce it into his classes. A big businessman can chant to relieve tension and donate his earnings to become a life member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The offer of reciprocation or exchange can be taken up by anyone who preaches Krsna consciousness at every opportunity, such as with friends and colleagues.
The essence of this philosophy will hold true in any time or place because the Truth revealed is absolute. Questions such as what is the self, what is God and what is the purpose of life, as well as how to become happy, are answered. It is beyond the sectarian religious designations, such as Christian, Hindu, Jew, etc. It is for everyone, regardless of sect. What I have related is not a fleeting encounter. It is the description of my second birth. The first birth occurs when one is born of his mother and father. But a second birth is required for complete happiness and fulfillment. The second birth occurs when one accepts a spiritual master and begins his eternal occupation as a servant of God. Such a renewal of energy, the rebirth of transcendental loving service, awaits every one of us. You can have this highest love just by chanting Hare Krsna.