Coming to Krishna: Peace Corps worker follows the transcendental call
Brahmatirtha dasa at Sridhama Mayapur, ISKCON’s flourishing spiritual project in West Bengal. Here, more than fourteen years ago, he received valuable instructions about spiritual life from His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
One hot smoggy day in the summer of 1968, 1 went for a walk in New York’s Greenwich Village, browsing through the occult bookstores. As I stood inside one store, reading a small pocket copy of Bhagavad-gita, I saw an incredible sight: a group of young men and women in robes and saris, dancing double-file down the sidewalk. The men had shaved heads, and they were playing clay drums and cymbals. They were singing a song that they repeated to a simple melody, and it seemed to me I had heard this song before. I was very attracted.
All the way home, I tried to remember where I’d heard that song before. I went through all my record albums, and then finally it came to me-the Hair soundtrack. I played it time and time again: “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna. Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare.”
My parents had already planned a future for me: a good education and a good job. It wasn’t that I consciously rebelled against them, but some unknown force seemed to be leading me in another direction–India. The dream of visiting India had grown with me since childhood. I’d seen pictures in National Geographic of lush tropical forests and jungles, magnificent temples, and fabulous festivals. By the time I finished a college course on Eastern philosophy, I was convinced I had to go. There were questions that I just had to find the answers to, and I sensed that the answers were hidden somewhere in that ancient tradition.
I couldn’t just tell my parents that I was going to India for a spiritual search. So I decided to join the Peace Corps as a teacher and work in India. On the application form were three blank spaces for desired assignments, and I wrote India in all three spaces. Six months later I was on a plane bound for Delhi.
One day on a crowded Calcutta train, I saw a poster advertising a Hare Krsna festival at Deshapriya Park. I was elated; weren’t these the people I had seen singing on the streets in New York? I turned to a Sikh gentleman in a large turban and asked, “Deshapriya Park-where?” Silently he pointed back in the direction we had just come. I struggled to get off the overcrowded train. Hurrying through the streets, I began asking everyone – sweepers, stall owners, police-where I could find the park. But by evening I still had not located it.
Finally I began to look for a taxi, abandoning the search for the day. It was now evening rush hour. I ran up to a taxi that had stopped at a traffic light, although it was too dark to see if there were passengers inside or not.
“Take me to Free School Street,” I said, jumping in. I glanced over to my side, and there in the corner, amid piles of books and magazines, was a shaven-headed devotee in orange robes.
“Hare Krsna!” I shouted excitedly.
“Hare Krsna,” he replied, somewhat surprised.
“I’ve been looking for you people all day,” I said. “I saw a poster advertising a festival in Deshapriya Park, but I can’t find the place.”
“It’s just nearby,” he said. “You came within two minutes of it. I’m going there now. ” Within two minutes we pulled up in front of what looked like a large park. The entire park was covered with a huge circus tent, and under its canopy crowded almost fifteen thousand people. At the far end of the pavilion was a big stage, and at its center was a simple raised dais. There sat the founder and spiritual master of the Hare Krsna movement, His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada, regally wearing scores of flower garlands offered by his disciples. He sat silently as one of his disciples introduced him to the crowd. When the disciple explained that Srila Prabhupada had traveled alone at the age of seventy to boldly preach Krsna consciousness in America, the audience responded with a standing ovation. The devotees jumped to their feet to lead them in the chanting of Hare Krsna.
When the program was over and Srila Prabhupada was being driven away in his car, I ran up to the devotee who had spoken. “Can I come?” I begged. “I’d like to meet the guru.” “Sure, jump in,” he replied, smiling.
We sped off, arriving fifteen minutes later at a huge old Victorian mansion, a remnant of the British raj. The interior had been converted into a temple. As we entered the temple, the devotees invited me to meet Srila Prabhupada and to ask him any questions I might have.
Srila Prabhupada was sitting on a cushion behind a low desk. Six or seven Indian gentlemen surrounded him. I had always thought that if I ever met a guru I would ask him all the many questions that had haunted me over the years. But as I entered Srila Prabhupada’s room, I couldn’t remember a single question. I folded my palms and sat down nervously before him. Srila Prabhupada looked at me and smiled warmly.
“You have some questions?” he asked in a deep but gentle voice.
I couldn’t remember any of my questions. Suddenly, something inside inspired me to challenge him. Considering myself somewhat knowledgeable in Buddhism, I thought to ask him about another, equally valid spiritual path.
“What about Buddhism?” I challenged. “Speak about Buddhism,” he replied, totally undisturbed by my attack.
Fool that I was, I had to answer. I began to rattle off something I had read in a book about the eightfold mystic path. But soon I exhausted my knowledge of the matter and felt totally deflated.
Srila Prabhupada’s face broke into a broad, radiant grin. He briefly explained that Buddhism was impractical because the soul is eternal and has personality, being part and parcel of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna. The soul can never be extinguished by the philosophical process of negation. Srila Prabhupada defeated me not out of a desire to establish his own erudition but out of concern and compassion. Immediately I felt great respect for him. Srila Prabhupada returned to his discussion with the other gentlemen, and I paid my obeisances and left the room.
The next day I had to return to my Peace Corps work in Bihar, about two hundred-fifty miles west of Calcutta. Already I was developing a bad taste for my life there. I seemed to be just killing time, living from day to day. I began to feel that my existence was bland compared to the fresh and colorful lives of Srila Prabhupada and his devotees.
Within a month I returned to Calcutta and went straight to the temple. Srila Prabhupada wasn’t there, but the devotees welcomed me like a prodigal son returned. They fed me delicious vegetarian food and answered my barrage of questions and philosophical doubts with incredible patience. That evening, as I prepared to leave for my hotel, one of the devotees told me about a festival they were holding in Mayapur. Srila Prabhupada was there, as were many devotees from all over the world. An Indian boy named Manohara offered to take me with him the following day. Happily I accepted.
The next day we boarded a steam train that must have been left over from the Second World War. It was a five-hour journey to a country town called Navadvipa, where we hired a ricksha that took us through the town’s center. Next we had to take a small wooden boat across the river Ganges. After thirty minutes of utter silence, except for the gentle splash of the water against the bottom of the boat, we had crossed the congruence of two Ganges branches. Paying the boatman a few coins, we again boarded a ricksha.
The azure sky was dotted with wispy clouds. Birds whistled and chattered in the dense undergrowth that practically engulfed the narrow road. Finally we stopped at a small encampment of rugged canvas tents.
“This is Mayapur,” said Manohara, leading me to Srila Prabhupada’s hut.
Srila Prabhupada remembered me from our brief meeting in Calcutta and welcomed me warmly. It was wonderful to see him again. He sat on a clean white cushion, and he exuded an aura of perfect peace and tranquillity.
“So, do you have some questions?” he asked me.
I didn’t want to foolishly challenge him again. Within my mind I decided to at least theoretically accept that this person knew the Absolute Truth. It wasn’t real surrender, only an intellectual adjustment. But it was a large step for me.
I asked Srila Prabhupada about science as a way of finding truth, and he began to explain about the all-attractive spiritual nature of God, Krsna and about how everything has its source in Him.
Everything about Srila Prabhupada enthralled me. The movements of his hands and the expressions of his mouth and eyes seemed to indicate a person whose consciousness was fixed beyond the limitations of the mundane sphere. When he spoke, I felt obliged to ponder deeply his profound and logical statements. As I sat there at his feet trying to understand, he destroyed my intellectual pride.
Each evening I would go to Srila Prabhupada’s hut. How fortunate I was, I thought, to have come in contact with this person. Slowly, methodically, he was removing all of my misconceptions, bringing me to the platform of a sincere, inquisitive student of spiritual science.
One evening I took a walk along the front of the property. The moon was full, illuminating everything, and the Ganges shimmered in the distance like a thread of silver. A mild breeze blew, and the atmosphere felt somehow purifying. Walking alone, I began to consider how my consciousness was changing. Looking back on my life, I could see how kind God had been to me; it seemed that every stage had been a step in His plan to bring me to this point. I stood by the side of the shining Ganges, watching her flow down to the ocean. Yes, I thought, now I must begin my journey back to Krsna.
The next evening as we gathered at Srila Prabhupada’s feet, I tried to explain that I would be leaving the next day to return to my work. Nervously I said, “Tommorrow I’ll have to leave you and . . . “
Looking lovingly at me, he said, “Don’t talk I-e-a-v-e, but talk 1-i-v-e.”
Inconceivably, he seemed to address my soul directly. I suddenly became overwhelmed with love and appreciation for him. I felt such emotion that I had to excuse myself. Sitting down on the edge of a rice field, my eyes brimming with tears of happiness and relief, I knew my life would never be the same again. Srila Prabhupada wanted me to become a devotee, and I knew deep inside that this was all I had ever wanted.
Although I returned to my work with the Peace Corps, I spent as much time with the devotees as possible. Finally I returned to New York. The devotees assured me that there was a temple in New York and that Srila Prabhupada would come there to visit. I wrote to Srila Prabhupada and explained what I was doing. I felt that by writing I had a direct link with him.
Within a week I received his reply:
My dear Bob,
Please accept my blessings. I thank you very much for your letter dated June 12, 1972 . I have noted the sentiments expressed therein with great pleasure. I am very glad to hear that you are associating with us. I know that you are a very good boy, very intelligent, and your behavior is gentle, so I have all confidence that very quickly Krishna will bestow all His blessings upon you, and you will feel yourself becoming perfectly happy in Krishna consciousness… Any man with a good scientific and philosophical mind, like your good self, must first appreciate what transcendental knowledge is… To get knowledge is the first item for anyone who is hoping to find the perfection of his life…
We are just now typing up the tapes of those conversations we held in Mayapur, and we shall be publishing them as a book. It will be called “PERFECT QUESTIONS, PERFECT ANSWERS… I shall be very much engladdened to meet you in New York once again.
Your ever well-wisher,
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
This was a great surprise. Srila Prabhupada considered the questions I had asked in my foolishness and ignorance to he perfect transcendental inquiries’ It was an incredible honor, although I felt somewhat embarrassed.
A month later Srila Prabhupada came to the New York temple. I went with my wife, Barbara, wanting her to meet him. Srila Prabhupada entered the hallway, and we all scattered flower petals and bowed down to offer respects
In my heart I was feeling very much ashamed, because although I had received so much instruction and encouragement from him, I had still not fully committed myself. I felt that I was letting him down. As he approached me. I bowed down to the floor, hoping that he would not see me. I kept my head down and offered the Sanskrit prayers very. slowly After saying the prayers, I raised my head. thinking he had passed by. Then I saw two bronzecolored feet before me. and I looked up to see Srila Prabhupada’s beaming face.
“Oh, it’s you!” he exclaimed as I rose to my feet. He put his arms around my shoulders and gave me a welcoming embrace like a loving father. Everyone gave a loud exclamation of pleasure and jubilation that I had achieved such a place of affection in Srila Prabhupada’s heart. He had literally embraced me into his fold.
Two years later. when my wife and I were fully ready. Srila Prabhupada accepted us both as his formally initiated disciples.