January 31, 2003
The Bhagavat Dharma Discourse in New Vrindaban, September 1972, was the high point of my life in terms of personal association with Srila Prabhupada. Not that I got a private darshan with His Divine Grace, or received some individualized instruction from him, or even rendered direct personal service to him. What happened in this period from August 31 to September 7 was that Srila Prabhupada trained me how to preach. For thirty years hence, I've been building a personal style of preaching upon the philosophical foundation he laid in my heart via his lectures of these days. I'm known in ISKCON to be a philosophical sort of devotee, but that too really started here, at the Bhagavat Dharma Discourse. Before then I was just a hearer of other devotees' realizations. Afterward I wanted to explain my own realizations too.
Realizations? In reality I was, and still am, a big fool. Gurudeva! Yogyata-vicare, kichu nahi pai, tomara karuna-sara. Karuna na hoile, kandiya kandiya, prana na rakhibo ara.
Assorted memories of New Vrindaban, August 31-September 7, 1972
Keshava and Buddhimanta Prabhus
For two weeks, during the middle of summer '72, Keshava and Buddhimanta Prabhus visited our Boston temple. These two blonde, square-jawed, powerfully-built brahmacaris were instrumental in sparking the big book distribution revolution that began in their home temple of San Francisco and then spread to other temples in California. Now they were on tour to teach the rest of us ISKCONians in America (and soon in Europe) the secret of how Srila Prabhupada's hardbound books could be sold in great quantity on the street. Many times, Buddhimanta Prabhu had distributed in just one day a hundred Krsna books. In Boston they empowered each of us five or seven sankirtana brahmacaris there to do 20 to 50 big books per day.
So when we pulled up at New Vrindaban on August 31 in our Boston temple preaching bus, we were happy to see Keshava and Buddhimanta already there. Like two Special Forces commandos, they were camped in a tent on the grass. (More than a thousand visitors had come for the Bhagavat Dharma Discourse, and most of them had their own transportable living spaces in the form of vans or tents. New Vrindaban had no guesthouse then. )
From as far away as San Diego, sankirtana devotees had converged at New Vrindaban to see Srila Prabhupada. The tent of Keshava and Buddhimanta became a popular place for book distributors to gather. Due to the vira-rasa that these two prabhus emanated, these gatherings reminded me of soldiers swapping stories at base camp.
The bathing hole
As we Boston boys were getting our bus ready for living in, Keshava warned me: "Wait until you see the men's bathing facility. All I can say is, you can't keep a brahmana thread clean in this place. "
New Vrindaban was a patchwork of several farms in the hilly countryside outside Moundsville, West Virginia. At that time the main farm was Bahulaban, where the beautiful Deities of Sri-Sri Radha-Vrindaban-chandra presided in Their converted farmhouse of a temple. The Bhagavat Dharma Discourse was held in a huge festival tent on top of a hill that overlooked Bahulaban. To get there you walked a dirt road that snaked up the hill from the temple. At the bottom of the hill, just next to a curve in the road, a pukkur had been dug for the men to do their ablutions in. A pukkur is a Bengali-style bathing pond; it's really just a big hole in the ground that is filled from a natural source, like a stream or a spring.
The chilly water of the Bahulaban pukkur was soupy with mud. When you bathed before sunrise or after sunset, you had to bring your own flashlight because there was no other illumination. Between the pukkur and the nearby dirt road, canvas blinds had been erected to give the bathers the illusion of privacy.
At this time in ISKCON in America, the male devotees had not yet learned the Indian custom of taking bath with a gamcha on to keep the body covered from the waist to the knees. As I soon learned with my own eyes, everything going on in the pukkur during daylight hours was entirely visible to someone walking the dirt road down the hill. Coming down, you were for a good stretch of road in a position to see over the canvas blinds in front of the pukkur. . The ladies used the road too, of course. If I could see into the pukkur, so could they. It was shameful.
Outdoor kitchen service
I knew cooking from my early days in the Boston kitchen; but what's more, when I traveled with Keshava and Buddhimanta Prabhus, they trained me in their own "powerhouse book distribution style" of cooking. One preparation I learned from them consisted of chunks of eggplant boiled with chopped tomatoes in a big pot of butter. Not deep-fried in ghee, but boiled in foamy yellow butter. A favorite sweet of theirs was called Eagle Rock. Make a pound of caramel by boiling a bunch of unopened cans of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk for three hours in a pot of water, then open the cans and mix the contents with a gallon of sour cream. These preps were for one sankirtana party of five or seven boys. Anyway, having trained me up in his extravagant culinary style, now Keshava considered me a chef of sorts, so we worked together preparing huge quantities of prasadam for the festival, particularly on Janmastami Day. This we did outside on portable gas burners fed by gas bottles. Here I first met Sri Galim Prabhu, who had come from Texas to stay in New Vrindaban as a cook. I also met Radhanatha Prabhu (now Maharaja) for the first time. Such a sweet, humble sadhu.
A sea of mud One morning we Boston brahmacaris thanked the Lord that we were all able to fit into our bus each night, for when we got up, we found that a heavy overnight rain had turned Bahulaban into a sea of mud. The many visiting devotees who slept in tents were soaked and chilled to the bone. Being in hill country, New Vrindaban is often uncomfortably cold at night even during the summer; and if a drenching rain falls, it is almost intolerable for outdoor campers. But in those days devotees really believed in austerity, especially if the austerity was for getting Srila Prabhupada's association.
A near-death experience
A strange thing happened to me. When we arrived, we were directed to park the bus in a grassy lot on the far side of the paved public road that ran in front of Bahulaban. A day later, on a bright warm early afternoon, we were told the bus had to be moved to another parking place. The weather being nice, most of the Boston boys-including the regular driver-were not to be found. So it fell upon my head to drive the bus to the new spot. I had never driven such a large vehicle before.
To get the bus off the grassy lot and on the road in the right direction, I had to back up and do a Y-turn. The bus wasn't the only vehicle on the lot, so it was tricky. As I got on board I posted a bhakta (who was known to be sort of spaced out) as a lookout outside. Then, in the driver's seat, I revved up the engine, shoved the big gearshift lever into reverse, and let out the clutch. The bus lurched for an instant, then with a metallic whine, rolled to the rear. Fine. I twisted the steering wheel to the right and began easing into the Y-turn. All at once there was a soft bump, then a scream. I tromped on the brake pedal. What happened?
The bhakta rushed to the driver's side window. "Suhotra Prabhu, you ran the bus over Tom Prabhu! He was sleeping in the grass off to the side, and when you turned you put the back wheels right on him!" Tom Prabhu was a new devotee who belonged to our bus party.
I was horrified but also incredulous. "Didn't I tell you to keep a watch out so that I wouldn't run into anything?"
His eyes and mouth formed perfect o's in his face. It was as if at that moment only, he understood what he should have done. "Uh I did see him back there, but well, I guess I thought it would be OK. " Abruptly he tuned me out and drifted away, yammering his japa in a loud voice.
"K R I S H N A!" I jumped out the door and found Tom Prabhu on the right side of the bus crouched next to the big double back wheels. He was clutching his midsection with a shocked look on his face. Those twin tires had rolled across his stomach. Miraculously, as it turned out, he wasn't injured. But for the rest of the day he did have a whopper of a bellyache.
After seeing to it that Tom was OK, I managed to get the bus to the new parking lot. Feeling terrible, I parked next to a vehicle with Texas license plates. Some brahmacaris were standing beside it, talking. They were from the Austin temple. As I disembarked, one of them noticed my unhappy face. It was Prahladananda Prabhu (now Maharaja).
"Something the matter?" he asked me with a concerned glance.
I pointed to the bus and said, "I just drove that over the stomach of a sleeping devotee. "
"We're not the doer, Prabhu," he said. That didn't exactly make me feel better.
Srila Prabhupada Nectar
The hilltop lectures
Srila Prabhupada delivered his first lecture on August 31. This was when he was received at the Bahulaban farm upon his arrival at New Vrindaban by automobile from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The devotees greeted him with joyous kirtana; he sat in a large red-velvet vyasasana they had readied for him under a tree near the temple and gave an arrival address. Then he got in his car again and was driven a mile down the road to another New Vrindaban farm called Madhuban. Here he lived during the Bhagavat Dharma Discourse festivities.
We Boston brahmacaris missed Srila Prabhupada's arrival. Driving hundreds of miles from Massachusetts to West Virginia in a ponderous school bus, we didn't reach New Vrindaban until later that day.
In any case, the actual festival began the next morning. At about 7:00 AM Srila Prabhupada arrived by car from Madhuban and walked up the dirt road to the top of the hill, accompanied by an entourage of "big guns" (Kirtanananda Maharaja plus a number of GBC men and sannyasis). He entered the big festival tent and ascended a wooden stage to mount his vyasasana. A great crowd of devotees and guests greeted him with kirtana. Srila Prabhupada's vyasasana was to our left; to the right were big Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra Deities from New Vrindaban, and the Radha-Damodara Deities from the Transcendental Road Show.
After the welcoming kirtana, Srila Prabhupada chanted Jaya Radha Madhava and began the first Bhagavat Dharma Discourse. Today he spoke about the potency of the Vedic sound vibration, that this sound, which is the origin of creation, is given by God, that God has a spiritual body, and that we too are spiritual. The Discourse was concluded with another great kirtana. Srila Prabhupada walked back down the hill and returned to Madhuban.
In each successive Discourse, His Divine Grace took us deeper and deeper into the meaning of Srimad-Bhagavatam. The Vedic sound is manifest as many scriptural texts; Srila Vyasadeva compiled these texts and then gave a conclusive summary of them in the form of Vedanta-sutra, which is the highest education. Yet after he completed his compilation of the Vedic knowledge he was still not satisfied. His spiritual master Narada Muni informed him that he was dissatisfied because he had failed to glorify the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Thus Vyasa composed Srimad-Bhagavatam. This literature teaches only the topmost dharma, which is the religion of the pure soul: devotional service to Vasudeva , who is adhoksaja, of a personal form and nature that is not material. Ordinary people miss this most valuable knowledge because of being absorbed in the false material conception of the self. They are like Hiranyakasipu, who was only after gold and comfortable bedding upon which to enjoy the company of women. The Bhagavatam teaches liberation (vimukti) from all such nonsense, but ordinary people go after the false liberation offered by science and technology. The Vedas also allow for sense enjoyment on the path called pravrtti-marga, but our real, spiritual life is to be found on the nivrtti-marga. This marga culminates in bhakti. Srimad-Bhagavatam teaches pure bhakti which is ahaituki or without any material motivation. Pure bhakti brings one to the stage of perfect renunciation in devotional service to the Lord, and pure consciousness of the Lord as Bhagavan--that Person who possesses all opulences. By performing one's duty free of the bodily concept of life and by knowing God scientifically, one will love Bhagavan Sri Krsna, because He is all-attractive to the purified soul. To love God means to glorify His holy names throughout the world.
How perfect an outline of the philosophy of Srimad-Bhagavatam! Every devotee should study these lectures to study the logic of the Bhagavat philosophy, to see how every element of the philosophy is fundamentally connected to all other elements.
Here are two noteworthy questions and answers from the Discourse.
Devotee: I've heard it explained that the body is made up of many, many different living entities, and the soul is just like a controlling soul.
Prabhupada: What is that?
Pradyumna: He's heard it explained that the body is made up of many, many different entities, living entities, or that each cell is a living entity.
Prabhupada: That's all right. What is the wrong there?
Devotee: Why is maya so very, very strong if our purpose in life is to be with God?
Prabhupada: What is that?
Hrdayananda: Why is maya so strong if our purpose is to be with God?
Prabhupada: Your purpose is not strong.
Devotees: (laughter) Jaya! Haribol.
Prabhupada: Thank you. Now have kirtana.
Devotees: Thank you! Jaya!
An ecstatic kirtana
Janmastami fell that year on September 2. I am pretty certain that it was on that day Visnujana Maharaja and the electrified Road Show Band led the devotees and guests in an exceptionally heavenly kirtana. Everyone danced like madmen and madwomen in front of Srila Prabhupada and the Deities. On his vyasasana, Srila Prabhupada chanted along with the devotees, playing his karatalas and following Visnujana Maharaja's lead. Ecstasy overwhelmed Prabhupada and he took over the lead, tears flooding his eyes. Everyone's eyes became wet as His Divine Grace lifted us into a whole new realm of communion with the holy name of the Lord. Why does my heart remain a stone in my breast even as I remember his mercy? Everything Srila Prabhupada taught us led to this: crying for Krsna!
After lecture and kirtana in the hilltop tent in the morning, there was a big initiation in the Bahulaban temple before the Deities of Sri-Sri Radha-Vrindaban-chandra. I didn't attend it because I was cooking. I heard that when Srila Prabhupada arrived there, nothing was ready-no yajna-kunda, no paraphernalia; the only thing that had arrived was a mass of devotees too big for the modest-sized temple room. These conditions greatly delayed the initiation. But at last our Boston bhaktas got their names and beads along with many other candidates from temples all across the country
Janmastami evening, September 2, 1972, is forever emblazoned in my memory. Srila Prabhupada, seated on his vyasasana in Radha-Vrindaban-candra's temple room, requested his sannyasi disciples who were seated on the marble floor before him to read out loud the first three chapters of Krsna book. This reading took hours! It lasted almost until the midnight arati. As I noted, the temple room was not very large, so most of the devotees were outside in the dark listening through the windows. Fortunately I got a ring-side seat right behind the sannyasis. It had been a hard day of service and fasting, so many devotees, even some of the sannnyasis, were nodding out during the reading. But not me! I was focused on His Divine Grace, and he was focused on the nectar of Sri Krsna's appearance at Mathura before Vasudeva and Devaki. His association was so electric that I sat fully alert for all those hours.
When the reading of Lord Krsna's appearance came to an end, Srila Prabhupada joked that he would like to go on hearing, but we had no patience for it. Then Kirtanananda Swami stood up to make a short speech. He pledged the entire New Vrindaban project to Srila Prabhupada's lotus feet. It was touching; his voice cracked with emotion as he spoke. Srila Prabhupada got up from his vyasasana and with a broad smile embraced Kirtanananda, who nearly fell over with surprise. How wonderful!
Srila Prabhupada's Vyasa-puja
The day after Janmastami is Srila Prabhupada's appearance day. This was celebrated in the hilltop tent. Srila Prabhupada had to interrupt the proceedings because we, his American disciples, didn't know what we were doing. Finally we got ourselves organized and in order of seniority (sannyasis, GBCs, temple presidents, older brahmanas, and so on) we ascended the stage in single file to place flowers at his lotus feet and offer our prostrated obeisances. A lot of younger male devotees didn't get the chance to do a direct offering, due to time limitations. Only one Mataji did-Silavati dasi, who at that time was an authority for Deity worship. It's dumb to have to admit this, but I don't remember if I got the opportunity to offer Srila Prabhupada flowers and obeisances or not. It's possible, since I was a brahmana by that time (I got my second initiation in the mail a month after my first initiation). But I think that if I had gotten the chance to worship Srila Prabhupada directly on this day, I would recollect it. I don't, so it may be that I worshiped him in my heart only.
A big feast was laid out on the stage before His Divine Grace and formally offered. Then there was guru-arati with kirtana. When the ceremonies were over, Srila Prabhupada walked down the hill with his entourage. But the big American automobile that usually drove him to and from his Madhuban residence was nowhere to be seen. Hrdayananda Maharaja ran to his own car, a yellow Volkswagen "bug. " He brought it around in front of Srila Prabhupada, got out, and opened the passenger door for him. Prabhupada graciously accepted a ride in the humble little vehicle. (Some GBCs were displeased with Hrdayananda Maharaja for this; they thought Srila Prabhupada should have waited for his limosine. )
At Madhuban, Srila Prabhupada asked for a plate of the Vyasa-puja feast. With great embarrassment the devotees discovered that the feast that was offered to His Divine Grace in the festival tent had been completely distributed to the devotees. He for whom the feast was prepared didn't taste a bite of it. Prabhupada tolerantly waited as a new feast was prepared there in Madhuban, for him and him alone.
All glories to Srila Prabhupada!