Srila Prabhupada’s Encounters at 26 Second Avenue


The Biography of a Pure Devotee

by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami

1980-01-07Now that Srila Prabhupada’s young friends had rented him a Lower East Side storefront (America’s first Hare Krsna temple), he started giving his lectures there. But the situation was anything but serene.

Now today we shall begin the Fourth Chapter—what Lord Krsna says to Arjuna.

His lecture is very basic and yet (for restless youth) heavily philosophical. Some can’t take it, and they rise to leave. Some, upon hearing his first words, have already risen rudely, put on their shoes at the front door, and returned to the street. Others left as soon as they saw the singing was over. Still, this is his best group yet. A few of the Bowery congregation are present. The boys from Mott Street are here, and they’re specifically looking for a guru. Many in the group have already read Bhagavad-gita—and they’re not too proud to hear and admit that they didn’t understand it.

It’s another hot and noisy July evening outside his door. Children are on summer vacation, and they stay out on the street until dark. Nearby, a big dog is barking—”RAU! RAU! RAU!” The traffic creates constant rumbling, just outside the window little girls are shrieking, and all this makes lecturing difficult. Yet despite the distraction of children, traffic, and dogs, he wants the door open. If it is closed he says, “Why is it closed? People may come in.” He continues undaunted, quoting Sanskrit, holding his audience, and developing his urgent message, while the relentless cacophony rivals his every word….


“EEE EEE EEEK! YAA AAA AAAA!” Shrieking like little witches, the girls disturb the whole block. In the distance, a man shouts from his window: “Get outta here! Get outta here!”

Prabhupada: Ask them not to make noise.

Roy (one of the boys in the temple): The man is chasing the kids now.

Prabhupada: Yes, yes, these children are making a disturbance. Ask them …

Roy: Yes, that’s what . . . the man’s chasing them right now.

The man chases the children away, but they’ll be back. You can’t chase the children off the street—they live there. And the big dog never stops barking. And who can stop the cars? The cars are always there. Prabhupada uses the cars to give an example. When a car momentarily comes into our vision on Second Avenue, we certainly don’t think that it had no existence before we saw it or that it ceases to exist once it has passed from view; similarly, when Krsna goes from this planet to another, it doesn’t mean He no longer exists, although it may appear that way. Actually, He has only left our sight. Krsna and His incarnations constantly appear and disappear on innumerable planets throughout the innumerable universes of the material creation.

The cars are always passing, roaring and rumbling through every word Prabhupada speaks. The door is open, and he is poised at the edge of a river of carbon monoxide, asphalt, rumbling tires, and constant waves of traffic. He has come a long way from the banks of his Yamuna and Vrndavana, where great saints and sages have gathered through the ages to discuss Krsna consciousness. But his audience lives here amidst this scene, so he has come here, beside Second Avenue’s river of traffic, to speak loudly the ageless message.

He is still stressing the same point: Whatever you do in Krsna consciousness, however little it may be, is eternally good for you. Yet now, more than uptown or on the Bowery, he is calling his hearers to take to Krsna consciousness fully and become devotees. But he encourages them….

Anyone can become a devotee and friend of Krsna like Arjuna. You will be surprised that Lord Caitanya’s principal disciples were all so-called fallen in society. He appointed Haridasa Thakura to the highest position in His spiritual mission, although he happened to take birth in a Muhammadan family. So there is no bar for anyone. Everyone can become spiritual master, provided he knows the science of Krsna. This is the science of Krsna, this Bhagavad-gita. And if anyone knows it perfectly, then he becomes a spiritual master.

And this transcendental vibration, Hare Krsna, will help us by cleaning the dust from the mirror of our mind. On the mind we have accumulated material dust. Just like on the Second Avenue, due to the constant traffic of motorcars, there’s always a creation of dust over everything. Similarly, by our manipulation of materialistic activities, there are some material dusts which are accumulated on the mind, and therefore we are unable to see things in true perspective. So this process, the vibration of the transcendental sound—Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—will cleanse the dust. And as soon as the dust is cleared, then, as you see your nice face in the mirror, similarly you can see your real constitutional position as spirit soul. In Sanskrit language it is said, ceto-darpana-marjanam. Lord Caitanya said that. Lord Caitanya’s picture you have seen on the bookcase. He is dancing and chanting Hare Krsna. So, it doesn’t matter what a person was doing before, what sinful activities. A person may not be perfect at first, but if he is engaged in service, then he will be purified.

Suddenly a Bowery derelict enters, whistling and drunkenly shouting. The audience remains seated, not knowing what to make of it.

Drunk: How are ya? I’ll be right back. I brought another thing.

Prabhupada: Don’t disturb. Sit down. We are talking seriously.

Drunk: I’ll put it up there. In a church? All right. I’ll be right back.

The man is white-haired, with a short, grizzly beard and frowzy clothing. His odor reeks through the temple. But then he suddenly careens out the door and is gone. Prabhupada chuckles softly and returns immediately to his lecture.

So it doesn’t matter what a person is doing before, if he engages in Krsna consciousness—chanting Hare Krsna and Bhagavad-gita—it should be concluded that he is a saint. He is a saintly person. Api cet suduracaro. Never mind if he may have some external immoral habit due to his past association. It doesn’t matter. Some way or other, one should become Krsna conscious, and then gradually he will become a saintly person as he goes on executing this process of Krsna consciousness.

There is a story about how habit is second nature. There was a thief, and he went on pilgrimage with some friends. So at night when the others were sleeping, because his habit was to steal at night, he got up and was taking someone’s baggage. But then he was thinking, “Oh, I have come to this holy place of pilgrimage, but still I am committing theft by habit. No, I shall not do it.”

So then he took someone’s bag and put it in another’s place, and for the whole night the poor fellow moved the bags of the pilgrims from here to there. But due to his conscience, because he was on a holy pilgrimage, he did not actually take anything. So in the morning when everyone got up, they looked around and said, “Where is my bag? I don’t see it.” And another man says, “I don’t see my bag.” And then someone says, “Oh, there is your bag.” So there was some row, so they thought, “What is the matter? How has it so happened?”

Then the thief rose up and told all of the friends, “My dear gentlemen, I am a thief by occupation, and because I have that habit to steal at night, I couldn’t stop myself. But I thought, I have come to this holy place, so I won’t do it.’ Therefore I placed one person’s bag in another man’s place. Please excuse me.”

So this is habit. He doesn’t want to, but he has a habit of doing it. He has decided not to commit theft anymore, but sometimes he does, habitually. So Krsna says that in such conditions, when one has decided to stop all immoral habits and just take to this process of Krsna consciousness, if by chance he does something which is immoral in the face of society, that should not be taken account of. In the next verse Krsna says, ksipram bhavati dharmatma: because he has dovetailed himself in Krsna consciousness, it is sure that he will be saintly very soon.

Suddenly the old derelict returns, announcing his entrance: “How are ya?” He is carrying something. He maneuvers his way through the group, straight to the back of the temple, where Prabhupada is sitting. He opens the toilet room door, puts two rolls of bathroom tissue inside, closes the door, and then turns to the sink, sits some paper towels on top of it, and puts two more rolls of bathroom tissue and some more paper towels under the sink. He then stands and turns around toward the Swami and the audience. The Swami is looking at him and asks, “What is this?” The bum is silent now; he has done his work. Prabhupada begins to laugh, thanking his visitor, who is now moving towards the door: “Thank you. Thank you very much.” The bum exits. “Just see,” Prabhupada now addresses his congregation. “It is a natural tendency to give some service. Just see, he is not in order, but he thought that, ‘Here is something. Let me get some service.’ Just see how automatically it comes. This is natural.”

The young men in the audience look at one another. This is really far out—first the chanting with the brass cymbals, the Swami looking like Buddha and talking about Krsna and chanting, and now this crazy stuff with the bum. But the Swami stays cool, he’s really cool, just sitting on the floor like he’s not afraid of anything, just talking of his philosophy about the soul and us becoming saints and even the old drunk becoming a saint!

After almost an hour, the dog still barks, and the kids still squeal.

Prabhupada is asking his hearers, who don’t even qualify as laymen, to become totally dedicated preachers of Krsna consciousness: “In the Bhagavad-gita you will find that anyone who preaches the gospel of Bhagavad-gita to the people of the world is the most dear, the dearest person to Krsna. Therefore it is our duty to preach the principles of this Bhagavad-gita to make people Krsna conscious.” It’s as if he can’t wait to tell them—even if they aren’t ready. It’s too urgent. The world needs Krsna conscious preachers.

People are suffering for want of Krsna consciousness. Therefore, each and every one of us should be engaged in the preaching work of Krsna consciousness for the benefit of the whole world. Lord Caitanya, whose picture is in the front of our store, has very nicely preached the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. The Lord says, “Just take My orders, all of you, and become a spiritual master.” Lord Caitanya gives the order that in every country you go and preach Krsna consciousness. So if we take up this missionary work to preach Bhagavad-gita, without interpretation and without any material motives behind it—as it is—then Krsna says it shall be done. We should not have any attraction for worldly activities, otherwise we can’t have Krsna. But it doesn’t mean that we should be inimical to the people of the world. No, it is our duty to give them the highest instruction, that you become Krsna conscious and …

A young man in the audience seems unable to contain himself and begins making his own incoherent speech.

Prabhupada: No. You cannot disturb just now.

Man (standing up): Now wait a minute, man. (A quarrel begins as others try to quiet him.)

Prabhupada: No, no, no. No, no, no, no. Not just now. No, no, you cannot ask just now.

Man: Well, I am trying to talk.

Prabhupada: No, just now you cannot ask.

Man: But wait a minute, man. Wait.

Prabhupada: Why do you interfere just now? We have a regular question time.

Others in the audience: Let the man finish. Yeah, let him talk. (The man has gained some supporters, who defend his right to speak. Others try to silence him.)

Second Man: I have just one question, please. How long is an individual allowed or expected to go on without any type of thought? How long?

Prabhupada: I am not finished. We’ll give question time after finishing the talk. (The parties go on quarreling.) All right, I am very glad you are curious, but please wait. Have some patience, because we have not finished. As soon as we finish, after five minutes, ten minutes, I will tend to your question. Don’t be impatient. Sit down. (The audience quiets down, and Prabhupada goes on with his talk.)

After five minutes …

Prabhupada: All right. This gentleman is impatient. We shall stop here. Now what is your question, sir?

Man: Practically we tend to place emphasis on those we identify with the fact itself. Many people are meant to explain the whyfores and the wherefores of the metaphysical truth, that I think, therefore I am.

Prabhupada: What is your particular question?

Man: I have no answer to that question. Rather, but that I attempt, I move, I live, I breathe.

Prabhupada: Yes.

Man: So ability—tell me why I have nothing to do with it. May I understand the whyfores and wheres?

Prabhupada: That’s all right.

Man: I have difficulty in you. I have difficulty in saying.

Prabhupada: So long as we are in this material world there are so many problems.

Man: Not many problems. It is not many problems. This is the greatest fact. I have … I know. . .

Prabhupada: Yes.

Man: I also know that the whys and wherefores of my particular…

Prabhupada: Yes.

Man: I didn’t come here … But let me explain my position. This isn’t necessarily … I feel I must … I think the difference is to learn . . . You’ll find it innumerable times, by the same token … Maybe we are able to reconcile the fact of individual being for a long time to find out why we are existing …

Prabhupada (turning to one of the boys): Roy, can you answer his question? It is a general question. You can answer, yes?

Roy turns sympathetically to the rambling questioner, and Srila Prabhupada addresses his audience: “Enough questions.” His voice now seems tired and resigned: “Let us have kirtana.” And the Lower East Side once again abates. The chanting begins: the brass cymbals, Prabhupada’s voice carrying the melody, and the audience responding. It goes for half an hour and then stops.

It is now 9:00. The audience sits before Prabhupada while a boy brings him an apple, a small wooden bowl, and a knife. As most of the audience still sits and watches, gauging the aftereffects of the chanting as though it had been some new drug, Prabhupada cuts the apple in half, then in fourths, then in eighths, until there are many pieces. He takes one himself and asks one of the boys to pass the bowl around. Prabhupada holds back his head and deftly pops a slice of apple into his mouth, without touching his fingers to his lips. He chews a bit, ruminating, his lips closed.

The members of the congregation munch silently on little pieces of apple. Prabhupada stands, slips into his shoes, and exits through the side door.

(To be continued.)

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