The Biography of a Pure Devotee
by Srila Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
By the summer of 1966, a fair number of people were making their way to Srila Prabhupada’s Bowery loft to chant Hare Krsna with him and hear him lecture on Bhagavad-gita. But his potential supporters in India remained less than helpful, and soon something tragic happened to his roommate.
Sitting cross-legged, his back to the shelf with its assortment of potted plants, a whitish chada wrapped in wide, loose folds across his body, Prabhupada looked grave, almost sorrowful. The picture and an accompanying article appeared in a June 1966 issue of the Village Voice. The article read:
The meeting of the mystical East and practical West comes alive in the curious contrast between A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami and his American disciples. The Swami, a cultivated man of 70 with a distinguished education, is here for a year to preach his gospel of peace, good will, nearness to God, and more practically, to raise money for his American church…. Like his teachings, the Swami is sensible and direct. His main teaching is that mankind may come closer to God by reciting His holy name.
Despite the fact that the Swami came to America to seek out the roots of godless materialism—a disease, he says, that has already enveloped India—he is a realistic man. “If there is any place on Earth with money to build a temple, it is here.”. . The Swami wishes to found in America an International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which will be open for anyone—including women.
“His American church”—yes, Srila Prabhupada had hope and determination. There was life in his lectures and kirtanas (chantings), his morning and evening gatherings in the loft. At least he was acquiring a small, regular following. But from India there was no hope. He had continued corresponding with Sumati Morarji (his patron in India), his Godbrothers, and the Indian Central Government, but their replies had not been encouraging.
In the faith that Padmapat Singhania, the Indian industrialist, would agree to his plans for a Krsna temple in Manhattan and finance its construction, Srila Prabhupada had petitioned New Delhi to sanction the release of foreign exchange. He had written to the Reserve Bank of India, New Delhi, “I want to establish this cultural center, and for this I wish to get some exchange from India. I think there are good prospects all over the world for propagating the culture of how to love God in these days of forgetfulness.” A month later the Indian bank had advised him to resubmit his request through the Indian Embassy in Washington, to the Finance Minister of the Indian Central Government. Prabhupada had complied. And another month had passed, with no word from the Government.
One of his Godbrothers had written that Swamiji should come back to India and work personally to get government sanction. But Prabhupada didn’t want to leave America now. He wrote to Sumati Morarji, “I’m trying to avoid the journey to India and again coming back. Especially for the reason that I am holding at the above address classes thrice a week and training some American youth in the matter of sankirtana and devotional service to the Lord. Some of them are taking the lessons very sincerely and in the future they may be very good Vaisnavas according to the rigid standards.”
One day a curious, unsolicited correspondent wrote to Prabhupada from India. His name was Mangalniloy Brahmacari. Introducing himself as a disciple of one of Srila Prabhupada’s Godbrothers, Madhava Maharaja, and reminding Prabhupada of their past, slight acquaintance, Mangalniloy wrote of his eagerness to join Srila Prabhupada in America. Certainly Prabhupada still had hopes for getting assistance from his Godbrothers in India—”This mission is not simply one man’s job:’ Therefore, he invited Mangalniloy to come to America and asked him to request Madhava Maharaja to cooperate by working personally to secure government sanction for the release of foreign exchange. Mangalniloy wrote back, reaffirming his eagerness but expressing doubts that his spiritual master would give him permission. Mangalniloy thought he should first come to the United States and then request his spiritual master’s help. Prabhupada was annoyed. He sent an immediate reply:
Is preaching in America my private business? Srila Prabhupada Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati wanted to construct some temples in foreign countries as preaching centers of the message of Srila Rupa-Raghunatha, and I am trying to do this in this part of the world. The money is ready and the opportunity is open. If by seeing the Finance Minister this work can be facilitated, why should we wait because you cannot talk with your Guru Maharaja about cooperation because you are afraid your journey may be canceled? Please do not think in that way. Take everything as Srila [Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati] Prabhupada’s work and try to do the needful. Do not think for a moment that my interest is different from that of your Guru Maharaja.
Mangalniloy submitted the entire proposal before his spiritual master, and as predicted, Madhava Maharaja canceled the trip. Although Madhava Maharaja was Srila Prabhupada’s Godbrother, he did not want to be involved, and he doubted that Prabhupada would actually get a donation from Mr. Singhania. And now Mangalniloy Brahmacari also doubted: “If your program is not bona fide, the approach to a big personality will be a ludicrous one no doubt.”
On the same day that Srila Prabhupada received the “ludicrous” letter, he also received the final blow of noncooperation from the Indian government. Second Secretary Prakash Shah of the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., wrote, “Due to existing conditions of foreign exchange stringency, it is not possible for the government of India to accede to your request for release of foreign exchange. You may perhaps like to raise funds from residents in America:’
It was confirmed: Prabhupada would have to work without outside help. He would continue alone in New York City. His last letter to Mangalniloy Brahmacari reveals his deep faith and determination.
So the controversy is now closed, and there is no need of help from anyone else. We are not always successful in our attempts at preaching work, but such failures are certainly not ludicrous. In the absolute field both success and failure are glorious. Even Lord Nityananda pretended to be a failure at converting Jagai and Madhai in the first attempt. Rather, He was personally injured in such an attempt. But that was certainly not ludicrous. The whole thing was transcendental, and it was glorious for all parties concerned.
If Krsna consciousness were ever to take hold in America, it would have to be without assistance from the Indian government or Indian financiers. Not even a lone Indian brahmacari would join him. Krsna was revealing His plan to Prabhupada in a different way. With the Singhania-sanction schemes finished and behind him, Srila Prabhupada would turn all his energy toward the young men and women who were coming to him in his Bowery loft. “I have decided to struggle here in New York to the end of my life,” he wrote to Sumati Morarji. “I am now trying to incorporate one corporation of the local friends and admirers under the name International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Incorporated.”
Of all his friends and admirers, Srila Prabhupada gave his roommate, David Allen, the most personal attention and training. He felt he was giving David a special chance to become America’s first genuine Vaisnava. Prabhupada would eventually return to India, and he wanted to take David to Vrndavana. He would show him temple worship and train him more fully for future preaching in the West.
He had requested Sumati Morarji to provide free passage for David as well as for himself. “You will be pleased to see this American boy,” he wrote. “He is coming of a good family and is a sincere soul to this line of culture. There are others also in the class I am holding here, but I wish to take with me only one of them.”
I am very glad to say [Prabhupada said one evening in his lecture] that our Mr. David says sometimes, “Swamiji, I want to increase my spiritual life immediately.” [Prabhupada laughed as he imitated David’s urgency.] “Take patience, take patience, “I tell him. “It will be done, of course. When you have got such desire, God will help you. He is within you. He is simply trying to see how sincere you are. Then He will give you all opportunities to increase your spiritual life.”
At first David and Srila Prabhupada lived together peacefully in the large hall, Prabhupada working concentratedly on his side of the partition, David ranging throughout the large open space. David, however, continued taking marijuana, LSD, and amphetamines, and Prabhupada had no choice but to tolerate it. Several times he told David that drugs and hallucinations would not help his spiritual life, but David would look distracted. He was becoming estranged from the Swami. But Prabhupada had a plan to use the loft as a temple—to transform it into New York’s first temple of Radha-Krsna—and he wanted David’s cooperation. Although the neighborhood was one of the most miserable in the world, Prabhupada talked of bringing Deities from Jaipur or Vrndavana and starting temple worship, even on the Bowery. He thought David might help. After all, they were roommates, so there could be no question of David’s not cooperating; but he would have to give up his bad habits.
Prabhupada was trying to help David. But David was too disturbed. He was headed for disaster, and so were Prabhupada’s plans for the loft. Sometimes, even not under the influence of a drug, he would pace around the loft. Other times he appeared to be deep in thought. One day, on a dose of LSD, he went completely crazy. As Carl Yeargens put it, “He just flipped out, and the Swami had to deal with a crazyman.” Things had been leading to this—”he was a crazy kid who always took too much”—but the real madness happened suddenly.
Prabhupada was working peacefully at his typewriter when David “freaked out.” David started moaning and pacing around the large open area of the loft. Then he began yelling, howling, and running all around. He went back to where the Swami was. Suddenly Prabhupada found himself face to face not with David—nice David, whom he was going to take to India to show the brahmanas in Vrndavana—but a drugged, wild-eyed stranger, a madman.
Prabhupada tried to speak to him—”What is the matter?”—but David had nothing to say. There was no particular disagreement. Just madness….
Prabhupada moved quickly down the four flights of stairs. He had not stopped to gather up any of his belongings or even to decide where he would go or if he would return. There had been no time to consider anything. He had taken quite a shock, and now he was leaving the arena of David’s madness. The usual group of bums were sitting in the doorway, and with their customary flourish of courtesy they allowed him to pass. They were used to the elderly Swami’s coming in and out, going shopping and returning, and they didn’t bother him. But he was not going shopping today. Where was he going? He didn’t know. He had come onto the street without knowing where he would go….
He wasn’t going back to the loft—that was for sure. But where could he go? The pigeons flew from roof to roof. Traffic rumbled by, and the ever-present bums loitered about, getting drunker on cheap poisonous alcohol. Although Prabhupada’s home in the loft had suddenly become an insane terror, the street at its door was also a hellish, dangerous place. He was shaken. He could call Dr. Misra’s, and they might take him in. But that chapter of his life was over, and he had gone on to something better. He had his own classes, young people chanting and hearing. Was it all over now? After nine months in America, he had finally gotten a good response to his preaching and kirtana. He couldn’t just quit now.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaja—whom everyone knew and respected in Vrndavana as a distinguished scholar and devotee, who had an open invitation to see the Vice President of India and many other notables—now had to face starkly that he had not one friend of stature in the United States. Suddenly he was as homeless as any derelict on the street. In fact many of them, with their long-time berths in flophouses, were more secure than he. They were ruined, but settled. The Bowery could be a chaotic hell if you weren’t on a very purposeful errand—going directly to the store, or back to your place. It was no place to stand wondering where you would live or whether there were a friend you could turn to. But that was Srila Prabhupada’s predicament. He wasn’t on his way to Chinatown to shop, nor was he taking a stroll, soon to return to the shelter of the loft. If he couldn’t go to the loft, he had no place.
How difficult it was becoming to preach in America amid these crazy people! He had written prophetically in his poem the day he had arrived in Boston Harbor, “My dear Lord, I do not know why You have brought me here. Now You can do with me whatever You like. But I guess You have some business here, otherwise why would You bring me to this terrible place?” What about his scheduled classes? What about David—should Prabhupada go back and try to talk with him? This had been David’s first fit of violence, but there had been other tense moments. David had a habit of leaving the soap on the floor of the shower stall, and Prabhupada had asked him not to, because it was a hazard. But David wouldn’t listen. Prabhupada had continued to remind him, and one day David had gotten very angry and shouted at him. But there was no real enmity. Even today’s incident had not been a matter of personal differences—the boy was a victim.
Prabhupada walked quickly. He had free passage on the Scindia Line. He could go back to India. He could go home to Vrndavana. But his spiritual master had ordered him to come here. While crossing the Atlantic, Prabhupada had written a Bengali verse: “By the strong desire of Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, the holy name of Lord Gauranga, Lord Caitanya, will spread throughout all the countries of the Western world.” Before nightfall he would have to find someplace to stay—a way to keep up the momentum of his preaching. This is what it meant to be working without government sponsorship, without the support of any religious organization, without a patron. It meant being vulnerable and insecure. Prabhupada faced the crisis as a test from Krsna. The instruction of Bhagavad-gita was to depend upon Krsna for protection: “In all activities just depend upon Me and work always under My protection. In such devotional service be fully conscious of Me…. You will pass over all the obstacles of conditional life by My grace.”