“He sat on a raised dais with an Arabic tapestry behind him,
and his powerful presence dominated the assembly.”
by Tamal Krishna Goswami
On that cool, windy mid-March evening, as I walked the five blocks from my residence to the San Francisco Radha-Krsna temple, I was not aware of the great fortune that awaited me: the first meeting with my eternal spiritual master, His Divine Grace Om Visnupada 108 Sri Srimad A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. I could not imagine how the course of my destiny would be totally shaped by the event which was about to take place. The previous day I had attended the Sunday Love Feast and with great pleasure had consumed plate after plate of delicious prasadam, food that had first been offered to Lord Krsna. The devotees had invited me to the next evening’s program, when their spiritual master would be personally present to lead kirtana (chanting) and deliver a lecture. Walking through the thick San Francisco mist, I tried to anticipate what the meeting would be like.
* * *
I was raised by my parents without any religious training. Though they had discouraged any form of religious practice, even as a child, in the privacy of my room I would lie in bed at night and pray to God to protect those I loved. My parents were fairly moral, and by American standards modest in their habits. They were nonsmokers, drank little, and were inclined toward intellectual and cultural pursuits.
They maintained a liberal open-minded, and as I grew of age they placed few restrictions upon me. At nineteen, when I left the shelter of their home to seek my own path, they made no objection.
In college I had delved into the thoughts of the great philosophers and literary personalities of the past. Echoing my godless upbringing, I would argue with my logic professor, a devout Catholic, against the rationality of the existence of a God. Though seemingly irritated by my strong protests, he confidentially admitted enjoying such discussions and was certain that I was actually a theist at heart. In fact, I was most impressed studying the works of those who were mystical in their visions—men like Aquinas, Strindberg, and Hesse. Being eager for my own “spiritual visions,” I tried to induce these with the aid of intoxicants, but ultimately my independent quest for higher truth remained unfulfilled.
I tried practicing macrobiotic dieting, nearly starving my body by eating only dried grains to increase my “yang nature.” But I was unable to maintain the severe restrictions and would break my week-long fasts with ice cream and doughnuts. Practicing hatha-yoga had hardly been more successful. The asanas and pranayamas had not brought me the lofty goals promised in the yoga books.
* * *
In 1966 New York’s Lower East Side became a mecca for poets, philosophers, musicians, pseudospiritualists, and just plain dropouts. I was a mixture of all these. A well-advertised Cosmic Love-In attracted me to Tompkins Square Park one October afternoon. I had brought my flute and was improvising music along with the other musicians present. We were playing intently, our eyes closed, when suddenly a great vibration was heard throughout the park. It was the Hare Krsna mantra, chanted by the devotees who had come to participate in the festival on the order of their spiritual master. For the rest of the afternoon their kirtana entirely dominated the festival, and willingly or unwillingly I was swept up in the chanting for nearly two hours. Being unfamiliar with the mantra, I could not make out the exact words. Therefore, sometimes I accompanied the kirtana by playing my flute, while at other times I joined in with the singing, imitating the sounds as best I could, while dancing along with the devotees.
Though at the time I could not understand the significance of the event, an informal initiation had taken place. The initiators, guru and Krsna, had both been present. The spiritual master had been represented by his disciples, who were empowered to chant by his order. And Krsna had been present in the form of His holy names.
It was not the first time I had heard of Krsna. When in high school, I had been attracted to reading books on Brahmanism and Hinduism, and in college my favorite course had been an art history elective on the art and architecture of Indian temples. The character of Krsna had frequently appeared in the numerous wall paintings, bas-reliefs, and sculptures of ancient India. To my art history professor, as well as in the books I had read, Krsna had been merely a mythological hero of a bygone age, but for the devotees who had dedicated their lives in His service, Krsna was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the cause of all causes, and the goal of their existence. Hearing the name of Krsna from their lips was a totally different experience. Because they had firm faith in chanting Hare Krsna, their association caused the holy name of the Lord to enter my heart.
After the Cosmic Love-In, some of my friends began attending the early-morning meditation at the small storefront temple on Second Avenue. Although I was living only a few blocks away, I did not take advantage of this opportunity. I preferred to practice yoga and meditation in the privacy of my own apartment. Once, perhaps a month after the park kirtana, a sincere friend showed me a picture of the Swami who was leading the programs at the temple. I looked upon the beautiful, compassionate face of Srila Prabhupada, his eyes beckoning, seeming to say, “There is no need to suffer any longer. Give up your stubborn pride and surrender. Just follow me; I will lead you.” But I could sense that Prabhupada’s gaze, while soft and kind, nevertheless demanded a surrendered adherence I was not yet ready to offer. At the time I could not recognize that I was seeing my eternal spiritual master, whose service would one day become the heart and soul of my life. I was unwilling to yet give up my false independence; therefore I suffered unnecessarily through the winter of 1966, although I had ample opportunity to accept the safe shelter of Prabhupada’s lotus feet.
* * *
By the time spring arrived, I had decided to leave New York for the more natural, inviting atmosphere of the West Coast. But I was disappointed to find San Francisco similar to what I had hoped to leave behind in New York. A chance acquaintance led me north, to Mendocino County, where a free-thinking bohemian, Lou Gottlieb, had opened his large, wooded, hilly farm to the public as “an act of love and peace.” Anyone could come and live at Morning Star Ranch and do whatever he pleased.
Wanting to be alone, I found a secluded place within the woods and made my residence in the hollow of a giant redwood tree. With the cement-and-harsh-steel world far in the distance, I learned to survive without electricity, running water, and all the conveniences afforded by modern civilization. I now turned to nature for all my provisions, adopting the ways of the forest’s other inhabitants, the trees, birds, and animals. I forged a close bond with the elements: the clear, cold mountain water that flowed in the brook, and the deep, penetrating warmth of the sun. And at night I gazed up to the heavens. The steady movements of the planets and stars, each in its own orbit, the changing of the seasons providing water, heat, and light to the countless inhabitants of earth—all bore testimony to a great master plan. The man-made, artificial environment of New York City had hidden this truth. Certainly, I thought, there is a God whose supreme intelligence has made such wonderful arrangements!
Living in such a natural setting, free from so many of the disturbances of city life, my mind became more tranquil and contemplative. It was actually Krsna’s arrangement to prepare me for chanting Hare Krsna.
Srila Prabhupada had visited Morning Star a month before my arrival, and his presence had left an indelible impression upon the residents. Daily they would hold impromptu kirtanas, chanting enthusiastically with whatever instruments were available. By now I was ready, and I would emerge from the forest to join in the chanting whenever the kirtanas took place. To remain living in the forest seemed a lonely prospect. There was no one to whom I could express my new-found realizations. And how was I going to make further advancement?
At the Unitarian Church, Srila Prabhupada sat on a raised area and the devotees sat before him, between the pews and the altar. Just as in the temple, he began by chanting prayers to the previous spiritual masters and then chanted Hare Krsna. I felt more closely identified with the devotees than with the persons in the audience.
I returned to the city, spending the winter of ’67 in San Francisco, moving from one friend’s house to another. My last residence was a small room in the Haight-Ashbury section of town, which I shared with my good friend Mark.
On the one solid wall of my room I tacked various occult and astrological charts. The two small cots placed on either end for sleeping were, along with a makeshift table, the room’s only pieces of furniture. From this setting I would launch out onto my “spiritual” voyages through astrological calculations, tarot and I-Ching readings, meditation, music, and dance. By now I had almost given up the use of intoxicants, and since my stay in the forest I had become a vegetarian. Most significantly, I had continued to chant Hare Krsna.
It was while I was walking through Golden Gate Park one day that I had encountered a devotee who had stayed at Morning Star Ranch for some time. And it was at his invitation that I had visited the temple at Frederick Street for the Sunday Love Feast.
* * *
I was eager to reach the meeting. Quickly covering the five blocks between my residence and the temple. I crossed Stanyan, the broad street bordering Golden Gate Park. The small shops that formed the ground floors of the first half-dozen tenement buildings were all closed for the night. All, that is, except number 518, the Radha-Krsna temple. The door of the temple was different from the others on the street. Constructed by the devotees. it had a rustic, homemade look, as the devotees had preferred to leave the raw wood unfinished instead of painting it, It was designed in two parts, so that during the day the bottom half could be closed, leaving the top open as a way of welcoming guests. Now the top half was also shut, to keep out the cold night air.
When I entered, it was like stepping into another world. The very long rectangular temple room was bathed in a light that seemed especially bright compared with the outside darkness. The air was heavy with incense. At the far end, opposite the door, I saw the Deities of Krsna. The room was filled with young people, their casual, offbeat appearance easily identifying them as residents of Haight-Ashbury.
And then I saw Srila Prabhupada. He sat on a raised dais with an Arabic tapestry behind him, and his powerful presence dominated the assembly. The meeting had just begun, so I quickly found a place to sit near the middle of the room. Prabhupada began playing karatalas (hand cymbals) softly in a one-two-three rhythm as he chanted the evening prayers to his spiritual master and the disciplic succession. Lord Caitanya, and Radha and Krsna. Although this was the first time I had seen Srila Prabhupada, I had heard his voice before, on the Happening record album, which Mark and I owned, and I had sung and danced along in accompaniment. Now, as I sat in Srila Prabhupada’s personal presence, listening to his rich, sweet voice accompanied only by the sound of his karatalas, I closed my eyes to enter into the mood of his singing.
As the prayers came to an end, other instruments began to sound. Then finally came the maha-mantra—Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The opening prayers had created a meditative mood, but now the Hare Krsna mantra, chanted by everyone, filled the temple room and took command. As the volume and tempo increased, the devotees stood up and began to dance backward and forward. I also stood up, eager to take part. The whole room became a sea of swaying bodies, like so many waves moving back and forth to the chanting of Hare Krsna. Srila Prabhupada led the kirtana, striking his karatalas strongly, increasing the beat, while surveying the enthusiastic congregation with a knowing satisfaction. I was enjoying the kirtana, feeling exhilarated by the dancing and chanting. My heart felt light, my mind free from any worries. The chanting continued for more than a half hour, and then, when it seemed to have reached a great crescendo, Prabhupada struck his karatalas in a final note, and gradually the instruments faded, one by one, like an ebbing tide. As he pronounced the final prayers, his congregation settled, lulled by the waves of ecstatic kirtana. Now it was time for the lecture.
Mark, who had also attended the meeting, signaled to me. We had another appointment. We had prearranged to stay only for the kirtana, after which we had to rush to attend a different spiritual meeting.
Mark and I had been participating regularly in the sessions of a self-styled spiritualist, an American physicist named Ron Lamerick, who claimed to have had mystical experiences. His blend of science and Christianity attracted wealthy Californian conservatives as well as a small following of hip young people. To satisfy such diametrically opposed followers, Ron held separate meetings for each. The programs for the elderly conservatives were conducted at the homes of various influential persons. For them his style more resembled that of a university lecturer rather than a minister of religion, and it seemed to appeal to an audience grown tired of the usual church sermons. But for the hip young followers he adjusted his approach. holding informal meditation sessions while sitting with us on the floor in a circle. Since Mark and I were two of his main assistants, we attended both types of programs.
We had left the temple and driven to a large mansion on the outskirts of San Francisco, where Ron was giving a lecture. On Wednesday evening we repeated the same formula, first attending the kirtana at the temple and then, just before Srila Prabhupada’s lecture, leaving for Ron Lamerick’s meeting. But that evening Ron’s lecture seemed distant and unappealing compared to the exciting kirtana we had just experienced. We returned home late at night, and as we sat in our small room. Mark and I discussed the evening’s events, comparing the two meetings. We concluded that Friday we would stay to hear the Swami’s lecture.
* * *
Srila Prabhupada’s exposition of the Krsna conscious philosophy was not at all like the lectures of the “Western guru“ we had been attending. Prabhupada began the Friday evening lecture by reading in Sanskrit from a large book from which he continued to draw references throughout his talk. Although to me the Sanskrit was incomprehensible, I was impressed with its authoritative sound. It was clear that Srila Prabhupada was expounding an ancient philosophy. His constant references to the text indicated that he was not speculating, trying to create his own brand of philosophy. And very clearly his points about how we were all suffering in this material world made sense. Krsna consciousness, he said, would solve all problems of material existence. The easy method of chanting Hare Krsna would raise us to the spiritual platform, beyond happiness and distress. Each one of us, he explained, could practically experience the transcendental effect by chanting Hare Krsna. Yes, I had experienced this.
The lecture was deep, and at times beyond my comprehension. But much that was said was common sense, and I could relate it to my own life. I felt that Prabhupada’s talk was directed at actually trying to benefit his audience. He was not trying to impress anyone by boasting of his own realizations, though it was clear he was speaking from personal conviction. There was no need for him to advertise himself, because he was not calling for followers but rather was appealing to the audience to try to improve their present condition and end their suffering way of life. It was practical.
I began to attend all the evening lectures at the temple. As I became familiar with the terms Prabhupada used, the whole subject matter became more comprehensible. I purchased a set of Srila Prabhupada’s books. Reading them each day confirmed what Prabhupada was speaking in his lectures.
In each of his lectures, Prabhupada stressed the importance of avoiding sinful activities, particularly intoxication, meat-eating, illicit sex, and gambling. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone explain that such behavior would impair spiritual development. Srila Prabhupada was not compromising the absolute truth. He had come to deliver the timeless teachings of the spiritual world as he had heard them from the disciplic succession, and there was nothing to be gained by watering down the process simply to increase the number of his followers. He was not a cheater, like the other gurus I had seen or heard of. He had full faith that Krsna consciousness could deliver anyone who was sincere. Hearing only one lecture gave me the strength to avoid all of the sinful activities I had been habituated to for years. In Prabhupada’s straightforward presentation of the four regulative principles, I found the proper direction I needed.
* * *
Krsna-prasadam. food offered to Lord Krsna. was also an essential part of Srila Prabhupada’s rehabilitation program. Whether it be a large Love Feast or just some cut pieces of fruit, no one visited the temple without receiving prasadam. Since that first Love Feast I had come on a number of occasions to take lunch at the temple. I began to find that whatever I prepared on my own seemed bland and unattractive in comparison with the Vedic recipes followed by the devotees, and it was at this point that Krsna made an arrangement to help me surrender.
The upstairs tenants, who were allowing me the use of their kitchen, decided they were tired of being vegetarians, and after they began cooking meat again, I sensed that they felt my presence to be an intrusion on their privacy. With the loss of my cooking facilities, I was forced to come to the temple every morning for breakfast—a bowl of hot cereal with fresh fruit and milk. Once at the temple, I would stay for the rest of the morning. reading the Srimad-Bhagavatam or chanting on the large wooden japa beads made available to any guest who wished to chant for a while. All the devotees would engage in their various duties, and I was left alone with the entire temple room to myself. Sitting against the wall I would chant softly, fingering each bead, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.
Chanting japa was a wonderful experience. It brought to mind a book I had once read, Hesse’s Bead Game. It described the meeting in a far distant retreat of powerful, great-minded souls who by playing the bead game received the wisdom by which to guide the future of the world. Unfortunately, the author never revealed the secret of how to play the game. It was intriguing to think of whether such a game could actually exist. Now, chanting Hare Krsna on the one hundred eight beads of the japa-mala, I smiled. Had Hesse known about chanting?
For myself, the chanting seemed to resolve all problems. I was amazed at how this could be so. The more I chanted, the more I found my mind freed from any doubts or uneasiness. I looked for a long time at the paintings of Prabhupada, his spiritual master, and Radha-Krsna. In their presence I felt a happiness and security as never before—this was where I belonged.
As the days passed, I began to get to know the different devotees. In exchange for taking my meals at the temple, they asked me to help by doing some service, and they engaged me in washing the cooking pots. My favorite pot was the largest of all, used for cooking the dal, the split-pea soup. The yellow split peas would be hardened onto the bottom in a thick crust, which required forceful scrubbing and even scraping to remove. But I enjoyed every minute of it, for the devotees told me that by scrubbing Krsna’s pots I was cleansing the dirt from my heart. Sometimes, when I had done the pots, I would help in cleaning the kitchen floor, and I was impressed at how much emphasis was given to keeping everything spotlessly clean.
Doing these services gave me an opportunity to associate intimately with the devotees and hear about Krsna consciousness from them. More and more, the temple was becoming my home, and I would return to my small room only to sleep at night. I acquired my own japa beads, and whenever I left the temple I would chant on the beads, feeling that they kept me connected with Krsna. I was beginning to appreciate that by chanting Hare Krsna I could be Krsna conscious anywhere, at any time.
* * *
Apart from the regular evening classes, the devotees sometimes arranged outside engagements. These were aimed at audiences, who, while open-minded, would not ordinarily come to the Haight-Ashbury district to hear a swami speak. Public schools and Unitarian churches seemed to be the most ready to invite Srila Prabhupada. On the nights that Prabhupada was not giving class, I would usually go back to my room, but one evening, hearing that Prabhupada would be speaking at a nearby Unitarian Church, I decided to attend.
The church was large, with high arched ceilings—a very good facility—but the many rows of pews remained empty that evening. However, although only five or six people came to hear him speak, Srila Prabhupada was not disturbed. With the devotees sitting on the floor in the area between the pews and altar, Prabhupada sat above them, on a raised area. Just as in the temple, he began by chanting the prayers to the disciplic succession and then led a long kirtana. I felt more closely identified with the devotees than with the few persons in the audience, and I sat nearby on the floor. After the kirtana, Prabhupada gave a lecture explaining the Krsna consciousness philosophy and the movement he had begun in America. When he called for questions, there was silence. The small audience had listened respectfully, but they did not seem interested enough to make any inquiry.
One doubt had been lingering in my mind. Seeing that Prabhupada was asking for questions, I thought that this would be a good opportunity. I raised my hand, and when he nodded in acknowledgement, I stood up and asked, “If someone takes to Krsna consciousness but is not completely successful—not perfect—what happens? What will be his fate?”
Prabhupada nodded his head, understanding my question. He seemed pleased with the opportunity to speak more about Krsna. He again explained that, as eternal spirit souls, we do not die at the time of passing away from our body. Unlike the body, which is only an external covering, consciousness is an actual extension of the soul. Krsna consciousness is our original, eternal consciousness, and it can never be lost. Once revived, it becomes a permanent asset. Whereas in the material world, unless one is one-hundred-percent successful, his business may fail, in Krsna consciousness whatever we do for Krsna is our success. Even one percent done in devotional life is never lost, and one will begin from the point of two percent in his next life.
Prabhupada was looking directly at me. Smiling, he asked, “Is that all right?”
I was satisfied and thanked him for this reassurance. I had already tried so many paths and never persevered in any one of them. And despite all my labor, what had I gained? I knew from years of experience that practicing any discipline was not easy. I was not sure I could be successful in Krsna consciousness, and I wanted to be certain that by taking up the practice I would not be left empty-handed at the end.
As I later found out, Srila Prabhupada had appreciated my inquiry. It was the same question that Sri Arjuna had placed before the original spiritual master, Lord Sri Krsna. Now, five thousand years later, Srila Prabhupada had delivered to me the same knowledge Krsna had spoken to Arjuna, as recorded in the Sixth Chapter of the Bhagavad-gita. Hearing from Prabhupada had been as good as hearing from Krsna Himself because of Prabhupada’s qualification as a pure devotee repeating without change the message received in disciplic succession from Krsna. On his way home from the meeting, Prabhupada had told his servant. “That boy will become a devotee.”
This article has been condensed from the first chapter of Servant of the Servant, a multi-volume memoir by Tamal Krishna Goswami. The first volume is available in paperback (227 pages, $5.00, plus 50 (postage in America) from ISKCON Houston, Jill Rosalie Street, Houston, Texas 77004.
(Excerpted from Servant of the Servant, by Srila Tamal Krishna Goswami. Copyright 1982 by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.)