A New York City Festival Diary
Friday night, and I’ve come to see the chariots. Three colorful Jagannatha chariots standing in a dark parking lot. I encourage the workers who will stay up all night. They are dirty and tired in their work clothes—assembling the colorful chariots for Krsna to ride in. Anticipation of tomorrow. Four hundred devotees will be coming from Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Washington.
* * *
HARE KRSNA CENTER—the twelve-story Manhattan temple. I sit in the lobby waiting for the elevator and hear of a girl whose mother came to the temple crying because her daughter joined Krsna. Devotees are coming through the glass doors. I hear of a hybrid ape born in Atlanta. The New York Times says the ape is a breakthrough. Scientists are said to be thinking of crossing an ape with a human. They are trying to deny God. The New York temple is involved in a big court case; some people want to stop us from distributing our books.
In my room on the eleventh floor I take rest under a smiling picture of Lord Krsna.
* * *
Saturday noon. At Fifty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue the chariots are waiting. Forty feet high with spires atop. I bow to the statue of Srila Prabhupada which sits on an elegant throne in the second chariot. He is dressed in a saffron dhoti and short-sleeved kurta. He wears a wrist watch, and the soles of his soft feet show from beneath the dhoti. I take my seat beside him, and no sooner do I sit down than I discover a peacock fan beside me and begin fanning Prabhupada as we proceed down The Avenue.
Young men, girls in saris, Indians, New Yorkers—all are pulling the chariots. Silken towers billowing in the wind—yellow, green, red, and blue. Slowly, majestically, we sail south. The sky is open above Fifth Avenue—it’s like being in a canyon and above is the blue, luminous, distant sky, with white clouds. The Lord of the Universe rides in splendor, and I am His servant’s servant.
What will I tell the people in Washington Square Park? It will be whatever Krsnaallows me to say.
The police seem to be eyeing me curiously. They almost all wear mustaches, and all wear light blue shirts and dark blue pants, strapped with a waistload of gun, handcuffs, club, and pad for writing violations—our official protectors, walking peacefully along with the parade. Captain Coyle is the in-charge, stuck with the job.
“Stuck with it? I requested it,” says Captain Coyle. “Every year, somehow or other, the whole parade happens. You don’t know how it works and I don’t know how it works but every year it’s worked so far. Do you know why this parade happens?”
Captain Coyle: “Because the Swami said to have the parade down Fifth Avenue, and therefore the parade goes down Fifth Avenue. I saw your faces when the Swami joined the parade on Thirty-fourth Street back in ’76. I saw there was something special.”
* * *
Washington Square Park. Brahmananda Swami is manning the Question-and-Answer Booth. The police break up a bunch of “Jesus People” giving out pamphlets against Krsna consciousness. A policeman tells them, “One day out of the year the Hare Krsnas hold this festival, and everyone in New York likes it—so why bother them?”
At the booth someone asks Brahmananda Swami what he thinks of N.Y U.
Brahmananda Swami: “As a graduate of N.Y U., I can say that I didn’t learn anything of value. Anything worthwhile I learned was from Srila Prabhupada.”
Question: “Then how come you are speaking so intelligently?”
Brahmananda Swami: “It was only after I met Srila Prabhupada that I learned anything.”
Question: “Why does the media treat you so badly?”
Brahmananda Swami: “That’s the media’s business. They are not going to tell you to chant Hare Krsna. But we have our own media—our books. That’s the real media.”
Question: “Why do you always hassle us for money?”
Brahmananda Swami: “What right do you have to challenge my right to ask you for money? The I.R.S. demands your money on behalf of the government. We do the same. We are Krsna’s taxation department, and you have no right to challenge our right to ask for money.” Thousands of free plates of prasada are distributed, and a big crowd stays to watch a two-hour play of the Ramayana. In my lecture to the crowd, I remind them: Washington Square Park was the sight of the first public kirtana in America held by Srila Prabhupada in 1966.
* * *
“Are there any questions?” I ask. The small gathering of newcomers sit shyly, reluctant to answer. Now I am back in my room at the center, and Lord Jagannatha is back on His marble throne downstairs. Silence. No questions. Then . . . “Why doesn’t a spiritual master show miracles?”
Answer: “A yogi or devotee can develop mystic powers, such as being able to walk on water or to produce any object he desires, but such siddhis do not grant the actual goal of spiritual life: pure love of God. Often such powers mislead the yogi, and his followers begin to worship him as God. One who can awaken love of God in others is the real miracle worker. One time in India, at a large gathering, a man asked Srila Prabhupada whether he could produce miracles. Prabhupada, who was sitting on a stage surrounded by many of his Western disciples, gestured to his disciples and replied, ‘This is my miracle.’ “
* * *
The eleven o’clock news. A doctor from Westchester is pulling on the chariot ropes, straining and sweating, his face bulging. As he pulls, a newscaster asks, “Do you think that this is a genuine religious experience?” “Yes, definitely. This is definitely a genuine religious experience.”
None of us even know who the guy is. Like thousands of others, he had just grabbed the rope and pulled. He got Lord Jagannatha’s mercy.
* * *
It is warm, maybe ninety degrees. Alone, I walk to my window and look out at the proud, futile tower of the Empire State Building, its crowning floors lit up with floodlights. It is Saturday night, but the town seems different. A feeling as if the beast has a heart, the sinful machine has a soul within it somewhere. And it has been touched by the Ratha-yatra festival. SDG