The path from the hatha-yoga ashram to the Radha-Krishna temple is a well-worn one. Many people who are now ISKCON devotees had in the past performed various stretchings, contortions, breathing exercises, headstands, and silent meditations—before they learned of the higher yoga of Krishna consciousness. But Amala-bhakta’s case is extraordinary: not only was he an expert hatha-yogi when he came to the Los Angeles temple in February of 1976, but he was also in the most respected order of spiritual life sannyasa), and he had been running a major yoga center in New York for almost thirteen years. Here is his account of why he took up hatha-yoga—and then left it and his teacher for Krishna consciousness.
In 1957 my life was pretty much up in the air. I had dropped out of New York University at twenty-five and had gone to Los Angeles to “find myself.” I was working at odd jobs and reading a lot of philosophy when, in July of that year, I began to read a book on yoga. This book set off a volcanic eruption in my life. I suddenly realized—very starkly, very pointedly—that all of us fear death. We may not know we fear death, but our every step, our every glance, our every gesture, our every word betrays this fear. And I realized that I certainly feared death. I also saw that no one, myself included, was really happy, and that I could achieve happiness only by giving myself to God and His work—in other words, by realizing Him. I felt that since God is eternal and transcendental to the world’s miseries, I could conquer fear and gain happiness by becoming God conscious.
With this idea burning in my mind, I hitchhiked back to my parents’ country home in New Jersey and started practicing hatha-yoga and meditation. But soon it became clear that I needed some personal instruction. One day, after some searching, I stopped into a book shop in downtown Manhattan and saw an ad for a yoga teacher. Soon I began studying under him. My teacher showed me hatha-yoga, which included a lot of stretching and bending exercises, and also breath control and meditation. He didn’t instruct me in bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion to God. But before coming to him I had read about some of the techniques of bhakti-yoga, and I had felt impressed and charmed by them. Since my basic desire was to realize God, meditation on God’s form, or on His holy names, appealed to me more than meditation on silence or light, which was what my teacher showed me. So I began incorporating some of the bhakti techniques into my own program.
In 1963, after five years in the United States, my teacher went back to India. At that time he asked me to take charge of the yoga ashram he had begun in a Manhattan hotel. The same classes I had been studying in I was now teaching. Now it was my responsibility to carry on my teacher’s lecture program and classes in hatha-yoga and meditation, and to talk with people who felt they wanted guidance.
During the first few years I headed the ashram, I gradually added more of the devotional practices of bhakti-yoga. I considered them enjoyable and effortless ways to concentrate the mind. Then, in 1967, I started noticing the Hare Krishna devotees on Fifth Avenue. (Srila Prabhupada had founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness a year earlier on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.) The place where they chanted every day was close to my ashram. And although I looked upon them as an odd bunch and thought they were too far-out to succeed in the West, I was nonetheless fascinated by their cymbal and drum playing and chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. So I thought the best thing to do would be simply to adopt some of ISKCON’s practices in my own program and see if I could interest my own students in devotional yoga.
I began giving over a portion of each evening—from about 7:00 to 9:30—to congregational chanting of God’s holy names. At that time I was also deeply immersed in editing an English translation of the Ramayana (the story of Lord Ramacandra, an incarnation of God who lived millions of years ago). I was becoming enraptured by the pastimes of Lord Rama and His consort, Sita. So, in imitation of the Hare Krishna devotees I had seen on Fifth Avenue, I would chant “Sita Rama, Sita Rama …” several times, my students would answer, and we would go on like that for some time, in call-and-response fashion.
Also, on Sunday nights, I would read to my students from an abridged version of the Ramayana. Some time previously I had also read the story of Krishna, and I knew that He and Rama were actually the same divine person. So another thing I did to increase my devotion was to mount beautiful posters of Krishna and Rama on the walls of the classroom where I taught hatha-yoga.
Unfortunately, my teacher had not taught me how to devote myself to a personal God. He wasn’t a bhakta, a devotee; basically he was an impersonalist. He neither wrote, talked, nor acted in the mood of a devotee. Rather, he acted like a cool businessman. So I began feeling more and more that the devotion I had cultivated by reading Lord Ramacandra’s pastimes and chanting His holy names needed a new outlet.
Then, in June of 1975, someone sent me a back to godhead magazine. I carefully read an article by Srila Prabhupada, entitled “What is a Guru?” After studying the Vedic principles Srila Prabhupada revealed there, I concluded that my teacher was a cheater, a charlatan—he was exploiting gullible seekers, squeezing money out of them under the pretense of spirituality. I further understood that Srila Prabhupada was not using such deceitful methods. He was giving the Vedic philosophy straight—speaking boldly yet compassionately, without caring what anyone thought. Srila Prabhupada was trusting completely that the Lord’s mercy would sustain the big projects he had started. He was sincere, and he was attracting the sincere.
Just after I read that back to godhead, something happened that quickened my coming to Krishna consciousness. One day a man came to me for a consultation. He was contemplating suicide. (He was out of money and out of work and had about six kids to take care of.) He had known of my fifteen-dollar-for-fifteen-minutes consultation fee—a policy set up by my teacher—but he had been too embarrassed to ask for a “pay later” appointment. Finally, after two weeks, he had been able to scrape up the money. When I saw him he cried like a baby for a long time. Finally, he told me how desperate he was to talk to me because he considered me his spiritual advisor. He said that if he had had to wait another day, he just might have finished himself off. I then told him that from then on, he could see me whether he could pay or not. I decided this was simply what I had to do. I no longer cared about the rules or the regulations or the principles or the policies.
This incident really stung my conscience. I realized that this consultation-fee policy could have killed a man! And I also thought, “How can I inspire this man to love God if my love for him is conditional?” I knew beyond a doubt that I could not produce a change in his heart unless I gave freely of my understanding and knowledge. At the same time, I was well aware that the Krishna devotees would never think of charging anything for consultation and guidance. The contrast with my own teacher’s policy had a very powerful effect on me.
That wasn’t my teacher’s only shortcoming. For one thing, he would offer initiation only to people who could pay him $191.00. You didn’t have to take any vows, follow any principles, or serve him before initiation, nor did you have to serve him even afterward. The whole thing seemed like an assembly line: it took just five or ten minutes to turn out each new disciple, and then my teacher would call the next candidate into his room.
On the other hand, the initiation that Srila Prabhupada gives is free, but generally one must serve faithfully for six months. At Srila Prabhupada’s initiation ceremony the disciple vows to abstain from meat, fish, eggs, and intoxicants, as well as gambling and illicit sex. He also promises to chant sixteen rounds of japa (1,728 repetitions of the Hare Krishna mantra) each day. There is a beautiful fire ceremony, along with a lecture on the real meaning of initiation and the eternal obligations of the disciple toward the spiritual master.
Another thing that disturbed me was that whenever my teacher visited the United States, he would stay at a first-class Manhattan hotel. Once he stayed there for six months at seventeen hundred dollars a month, when he could have stayed at our ashram at no expense. On the other hand, I noted that Srila Prabhupada always stayed with his devotees at the temples. He wanted all available money to be used for educating people in the science of bhakti-yoga, which would alleviate their suffering.
Finally, for one thousand dollars my teacher would sell a “mystic amulet” to disciples who lived outside our ashram. He claimed they could “get more benediction and protection from God” if they wore this amulet. In other words, the name of God that they had received through initiation wasn’t powerful enough—the amulet had a little something extra going for it! God’s name needed help from an amulet? This was totally illogical to me.
Srila Prabhupada, however, emphasized that if you sincerely chanted the holy names and steadily performed devotional service, that was all you needed to receive the mercy of God. Srila Prabhupada did not deprecate God’s name by saying that some cheap charm could enhance its power.
So all these contrasts had a huge effect upon my life. It became obvious that my so-called teacher was not really interested in spreading the science of yoga. Rather, he was interested in spreading out his pocket, filling it up, and carrying away the cash.
Somehow, before 1976 I had never actually visited an ISKCON temple. (I had gathered all my information from some fellow disciples who would visit temples and report back to me.) By this time I had been in the sannyasa order, the senior order of spiritual life, for three years. Consequently, I had vowed to follow my teacher’s instructions as if they were God’s, and I did not want to break my vow by visiting another yoga center. But as I watched my teacher’s crookedness come to light, I began to think seriously of leaving.
Finally, I paid a visit to the New York Krishna temple, on 55th Street. I had a four-hour discussion with Kapindra dasa, the receptionist, and after talking with him I no longer had any question in my mind: I would leave my cheating “guru” and take up Krishna consciousness. So, at four the next morning I packed a couple of bags and left the quarters of the yoga society I had been part of for eighteen years. Glad to be out of this intolerably depressing environment, I checked into a hotel near the New York temple.
That night I attended the arati ceremony, in which the devotees lavishly worship the Deities of Radha and Krishna. What a beautiful experience! As I watched the devotees singing and dancing for the Deities, I felt enthralled.
The next day I attended the morning program, which began with an arati at 4:30 a.m. and continued with an inspiring talk by Hrdayananda Gosvami. The wealth of Vedic philosophy he expounded greatly impressed me—and cleared up any lingering doubts I might have had that Krishna consciousness was really what I wanted. The next day I left for Los Angeles to visit my mother, who had moved there from New York. And two days later I moved into the Los Angeles Radha-Krishna temple.
As the weeks flew by, I discovered the world of Krishna consciousness—especially in Srila Prabhupada’s books. It was then that the full magnitude of my former teacher’s cheating became clear to me. This so-called “guru” had taught that everyone was God, though each of us had “forgotten” his divinity. Supposedly, when our impurities dissolved we would regain our true, divine position. As he had explained it, God realization meant realizing “I am God” and merging with the “infinite light.”
Now, in view of what I had learned from reading Srila Prabhupada’s books, nothing seemed more absurd than the idea that the Absolute Truth—who controls the entire universe—could become deluded and forget His divinity. Had God forgotten His divinity just to undergo the pain of birth and death? Could He be fond of suffering? No, the whole idea that the individual soul and God are identical was patently ridiculous.
Actually, the living entity is an infinitesimal particle of spirit. As such, he is never equal to God, the Supreme Spirit. So to equate the living entity with God is nonsense; it’s just a disguised form of atheism. The real reason why someone poses himself as God is so that he won’t have to worship anyone but himself. This is generally what people like, especially in the present degraded age of Kali. People don’t want to serve God; they want to be God. They want to be served, adored, and glorified—like my teacher in that lavish hotel suite.
But the whole idea is absurd. The part can never be equal to the whole, any more than the hand can be equal to the entire body. Nor can we enjoy like the Lord—although we try to, and this is our downfall. Our real enjoyment is to give enjoyment to the Lord, just as the hand’s enjoyment is to give enjoyment to the whole body.
Suppose your hand had a will of its own, and that it tried to directly enjoy your food—instead of placing it in your mouth and letting it go to your stomach. Could the hand enjoy the food that way? No, of course not, and if it persisted it would simply wither away from lack of nourishment. Similarly, people today are withering away from a lack of spiritual pleasure—because instead of giving whatever they have to God, they’re trying to hoard it for themselves.
How different Krishna consciousness is. I am now directly experiencing that the more I serve Krishna through Srila Prabhupada, the more blissful I become. Every day I’m learning more about my personal relationship with Krishna. (That’s what makes the relationship with Him so beautiful’ it’s personal.) I’m reading about Krishna every day, and the more I learn about the way Krishna looks and talks and acts, the more I realize that serving Krishna is infinitely more pleasurable than the best of this world’s pleasures. Everything here is limited and temporary, but our relationship with Krishna is eternal and full of bliss and knowledge.
We have to realize that our relationship with Krishna is the only thing that will last, and that hearing about Him, chanting about Him, remembering Him, serving Him, worshiping Him, offering prayers to Him, carrying out His orders, establishing friendship with Him, and surrendering everything to Him are the only activities that can make our lives full.
Now my goal is to serve Srila Prabhupada purely—realizing that the little drop of gratitude I offer him can never compare with the ocean of mercy he has given me. May I always remember how fortunate he has made me, and more, may I always remember to tell other people about Krishna, so that they may one day become just as fortunate.