An Excerpt from the Biography of a Pure Devotee
by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
The Swami (as Srila Prabhupada was known to the hip crowd who visited his Bowery loft) continued with his Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening lectures on Bhagavad-gita. He would begin punctually at eight o’clock, and those who attended the full program would join him for half an hour of chanting Hare Krsna, followed by a lecture from Bhagavad-gita (usually forty-five minutes long), a question-and-answer period, and finally another half hour of chanting, with everything ending by ten. Some of these evening programs Srila Prabhupada recorded on tape.
Sri Krsna is just trying to place Arjuna on the platform of working in pure consciousness. [Thus Prabhupada spoke in April, 1966.] We have already discussed for so many days that we are not this dull body but we are consciousness. Somehow or other we are in contact with matter. Therefore our freedom is checked.
Attendance at the evening lectures was better now than it had been uptown. The loft offered a larger space; in fact, the platform where Srila Prabhupada sat nearly equaled the area of his entire office cubicle on Seventy-second Street. The dingy loft, its rafters unpainted, was more like an old warehouse than a temple. The members of his audience, most of them musicians, had come to meditate on the mystical sounds of the Swami’s kirtana, his chanting. The kirtana having just ended, Swamiji was speaking.
As spiritual beings we are free to act, free to have anything. Pure, no contamination—no disease, no birth, no death, no old age. And besides that, we have got many, many other qualifications in our spiritual life.
When he spoke he was pure spiritual form. The Vedic scriptures say that a sadhu, a saint, is not seen but heard. If the people in the audience wanted to know Prabhupada, they would have to hear him. But even though they heard him, some heard only an old man with an Indian-British accent. The attentive, however, heard him saying that we are all spiritual but have now become material and are therefore encountering problems.
When he spoke he was no longer the old Indian svami who lived on the other side of the partition of this loft, hanging his clothes there to dry and barely getting his meals. That he was also, but now he was speaking as the emissary of Lord Krsna, beyond time and space, and hundreds of spiritual masters in the chain of disciplic succession spoke through him. He had entered amidst New York’s bohemians in 1966 saying that 1966 was temporary and illusory, that he was eternal and they were eternal, that he was not an old Indian holy man and they were not young artists and musicians, for each person is an eternal spiritual being. This was the meaning in the vibrations of the kirtana, and now he was explaining it philosophically, advocating a total change in consciousness, a total change in life, and nothing less. Yet he knew that they could not take it all, so he urged them to take whatever they could.
You will be glad to hear that this process of spiritual realization, once begun, guarantees one to have his next life as a human being. Once karma-yoga is begun it will continue. It doesn’t matter—even if one fails to complete the course, still he is not loser, he is not loser. Now, if someone begins this yoga of self-realization but unfortunately cannot prosecute this task in a nice way—if he falls down from the path—still there is encouragement that you are not a loser. You will be given a chance next life, and that next life is not an ordinary next life. And for one who is successful—oh, what to speak of him! The successful goes back to Godhead. So we are holding this class, and although you have multifarious duties, you come here thrice a week and try to understand. And this will not go in vain. Even if you stop coming here, that impression will never go. I tell you, the impression will never go. If you do some practical work, that is very, very nice. But even if you do not do any practical work, simply if you give your submissive aural reception and understand what is the nature of God—if you simply hear and have an idea even—then you will be free from this material bondage.
He was talking to a crowd deeply set in their hip life. He knew they couldn’t give up taking dope, and there they sat with their common-law wives. Some had said frankly that they couldn’t take up this orthodox philosophy. Their path was to play music, live with a woman, and meditate sometimes. And be free. They were musicians and artists. They’d hear him speak in the evening, and then they’d stay up all night with their instruments, their women, their drugs, their bohemian scene. Yet somehow they were drawn to him. He had the good vibrations of the kirtana, and they wanted to help him out. They were glad to help him out, because he had no one else; but they weren’t looking to become his disciples or change their style and follow his rules. So Prabhupada was saying to them, “That’s all right. Even if you can only do a little, it will be good for you. We are all pure spirit souls. But you have forgotten. You have fallen into the cycle of birth and death. Whatever you can do towards reviving your original consciousness is good for you. There will be no loss.”
Prabhupada’s main stress was on what he called “dovetailing your consciousness with the Supreme Consciousness.” Consciousness was a popular word in the 1960’s. There was consciousness expansion and cosmic consciousness and altered states of consciousness and now, dovetailing the individual consciousness with the Supreme Consciousness. This, Prabhupada explained, was the perfection of consciousness. This was the love and peace that everyone was really after. And yet Prabhupada talked of it in terms of war….
Krsna is the Supreme Consciousness. And Arjuna, as a representative individual consciousness, is asked to act intelligently in collaboration with the Supreme Consciousness. Then he will be free from the bondage of birth, death, old age, and disease. They were talking on the battlefield, and Arjuna says, “I will not fight. I will not fight with my relatives and brothers for the sake of achieving some kingdom. No, no.”
Therefore, to the ordinary man it appears that, “Oh, Arjuna is a very nice man, nonviolent. He has given everything up for the sake of his relatives. Oh, what a nice man he is.” This is the ordinary calculation. But what does Krsna say? He says, “You are damned fool number one.” Now just see. The things which are estimated in the public eye as very nice, very good—that is here condemned by God. So you have to see whether the Supreme Consciousness is pleased with your actions. And Arjuna’s action was not approved by Lord Krsna. It was for his own whim, sense gratification, that at first he would not fight. But in the end, for Krsna’s satisfaction, he did fight. And that is our perfection—when we act for the satisfaction of the Supreme Consciousness.
This idea was difficult for the people in his audience, who were all opposed to the United States’ role in Vietnam. Like Arjuna, they wanted peace. And they wondered why a Swami was sanctioning war.
He had to explain: Yes, Arjuna’s idea not to fight was good, but then Krsna, the Supreme Consciousness, instructed him to fight anyway. Therefore, Arjuna’s fighting was above mundane ethics; it was absolute. If we follow Arjuna, give up our self-centered ideas of “good” and “bad” and act for Krsna, not for our sense gratification, then that is perfect—because Krsna is the Supreme Consciousness. This was Prabhupada’s answer.
Still, they wanted to know his political views. Did he support America’s involvement in Vietnam? Was he antiwar? But Prabhupada was neither hawk nor dove. He had no political motive behind his example of Krsna and Arjuna. His theme was simple and pure: Beyond the good or the bad is the Absolute, and to act in accord with the Absolute is also beyond good and bad.
But what about Vietnam—did Krsna say to fight there? No, Prabhupada said. The Vietnam war was different from the Kuruksetra war. In the battle of Kuruksetra, Krsna was personally present, asking Arjuna to fight. It was a different war.
But his audience had yet another objection. If he was not addressing the Vietnam war, then why not? After all, this was 1966. If he was not talking about the war, then what was his relevancy? Prabhupada replied that his message was the most urgent and relevant. The Vietnam war was an inevitable karmic reaction; it was one symptom, not the whole problem. And only this philosophy—surrender to the Supreme Consciousness—addressed the real problem:
But for many, the reference to fighting was so emotionally charged that they could not go beyond the immediate politics of Vietnam to Prabhupada’s real message of surrender to the Supreme Consciousness. They had respect for the Swami—they realized he was referring to a deeper philosophy—yet the story of Arjuna and the war made things difficult. Nonetheless, Prabhupada continued to refer to Arjuna’s fighting as the classical example of Bhagavad-gita’s basic teaching.
No one objected to the basic teaching. But the example! Prabhupada had deliberately handed his audience a volatile example. He hadn’t come to join their peace movement, and he did not accept their shortsighted concept of peace. He confronted them. It would be better to fight in Krsna consciousness than to live in a so-called peace devoid of God realization. Yes, the example was hard for them to accept. It made them think. And if they did accept, then they might come near to understanding the Absolute.
But Prabhupada was not suggesting that to dovetail with the Supreme Consciousness they would have to go fight in Vietnam or perform some other horrible act on behalf of God. In fact, he knew that spiritual life would have to be more attractive than material life, or his audience would never take to it. So he wanted to bring the theme of dovetailing with the Supreme Consciousness down to something practical, something all-attractive and beautiful, something anyone could do and would want to do. He wanted to encourage them by explaining that they could do their thing—but for Krsna. Arjuna was, after all, a warrior by occupation. Krsna was not asking him to give up his work, but to do it for the Supreme. Prabhupada was asking the same thing of his audience. And they could begin with something as simple as offering their food to God and chanting His holy names.
Is it very difficult, dovetailing our consciousness with the Supreme Consciousness? Not at all. Not at all! No sane man will say, “Oh, it is not possible.” Because everyone has to eat. So God wants to eat something. Why don’t you first offeryour food to God? Then you eat. But you may say, “But if God takes it away, then how shall I eat?” No, no. God will not take it. Daily, after preparing our foodstuffs, we are offering to Krsna. There is a witness: Mr. David* [David Allen, who shared the loft at 94 Bowery with Srila Prabhupada.] has seen. [Srila Prabhupada laughs.] God eats! But His spiritual eating is such that even after His eating, the whole thing is still there.
So we shall not suffer a pinch if we dovetail our desires with the Supreme Lord. We simply have to learn the art—how to dovetail. Nothing has to be changed. The fighting man did not change into an artist or musician. If you are a musician, you remain a musician. If you are a medical man, you remain a medical man. Whatever you are, you remain. But dovetail it. If by my eating the Lord is satisfied, then that is my perfection. If by my fighting the Lord is satisfied, then that is my perfection. So in every sphere of life, we have to know whether the Lord is satisfied. That technique we have to learn. Then it is as easy as anything. We have to stop creating our own plans and thoughts and take the perfect plans from the Supreme Lord and then execute them. That will become the perfection of our life.
And Lord Caitanya has made acting on the platform of pure consciousness very easy. Just as there are some note-makers of school books—”Easy Study “—so Lord Caitanya has recommended that you be engaged in whatever occupation, but just hear about Krsna. Continue to hear the Bhagavad-gita and chant Hare Krsna. It is for this that we are trying to organize this institution. So you have come, and whatever work you do, it doesn’t matter. Everything will be adjusted by and by, as our mind becomes clear simply by hearing. If you continue this process, chanting the Krsna name, you will practically see how much your heart is becoming clear and how much you are making progress towards spiritual realization, the real identity of pure consciousness.
Prabhupada spoke on behalf of the Supreme Consciousness, although to some of his hearers he seemed more the helpless old mendicant who depended on them for assistance. When he spoke to them, he presented the full force of Krsna’s transcendental message. He was beyond all temporary designations, and he urged them to understand that they also did not belong to the temporary scene. Yet Carl Yeargens, James Greene, Carol Bekar, and others saw him in a familiar way. To think of him as a poor Indian sadhu who needed their help and who complemented their scene with his mystical Indian chants was one thing, but to accept him as a representative of God was too heavy. (Actually the word guru means “heavy.” The guru is one who is heavy with knowledge.) Prabhupada cautioned them, “One should not keep a guru as a fashion—’Oh, yes I have got my guru.'” Accepting a spiritual master was not a cheap thing. The spiritual master must be bona fide; he must be fully dovetailed with the Supreme Consciousness. Prabhupada offered his day-to-day activities as credentials:
I am here always working at something, reading or writing, some kind of reading or writing—twenty-four hours. Simply when I feel hungry, I take some food. And simply when I feel sleepy, I go to bed. Otherwise, I don’t feel fatigued. You can ask Mr. David whether I am not doing this.
Of course, Prabhupada’s daily routine didn’t require certification from David Allen. Any of Prabhupada’s regular visitors could see that although he appeared frail and old or dependent on others for his maintenance, he was somehow always transcendental. And even though they might not want to adhere to his orthodox philosophy or accept his demands of surrender, his personal life was a perfect example of dovetailing with the Supreme Consciousness.
As for himself, Prabhupada knew he was dovetailed. He had been fully dovetailed in Vrndavana also, and he had no personal need or motive to come to America and live on the Bowery. It was for these others that he had come. His spiritual master and Lord Krsna desired that the materially conditioned souls come out of their illusion before it was too late. Speaking vigorously, even until he was physically exhausted—sometimes shouting, sometimes laughing, sometimes pleading—Prabhupada gave his audience as much as he thought they could take. As the emissary of Krsna and the disciplic succession, he could shout that everyone should dovetail with the Supreme. He could speak as strongly as he liked for as long as they were willing to listen. He was a sadhu (which in Sanskrit means “a saintly person” and “one who cuts”), and he was speaking the same message that for thousands of years the sadhus of the original Vedic culture had spoken. Now, in 1966, Prabhupada was reviving the eternal spirit of the Vedic wisdom—and cutting the knots of ignorance and illusion.
So everything is illusion, from the beginning of our birth. And that illusion is so strong it is very difficult to get out of. The whole thing is illusion. Birth is illusion. The body is illusion. The bodily relationship and the country are illusion. The father is illusion. The mother is illusion. The wife is illusion. The children are illusion. Everything is illusion. And we are contacting that illusion, thinking we are very learned, advanced. We are imagining so many things. But as soon as death comes—the actual fact—then we forget everything. We forget our country. We forget our relatives. We forget our wife, children, father, mother. Everything is gone.