JOINING THE HARE KRISHNAS

January 29, 2014 in Nityananda Dasa by KHD

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By Nityananda das

After Srila Prabhupada’s April 1969 visit to our university in Buffalo, NY, my friend Loren became much more involved with the Hare Krishna temple. It was all he would talk about, and he drew people into constant philosophical discussions, repeating what he had heard at the temple, inserting his own doubts and views, and trying to get others to help him sort it all out. But not many of the students were very philosophical, myself included; still somehow Loren would gradually dispense with his uncertainties and he became more and more convinced of the transcendental knowledge of Bhagavad Gita. He relished the exercise of these deliberations, and this went on for many months. Meanwhile I was rather uninterested in his ongoing “should I, shouldn’t I” join the Hare Krishnas dilemma. He tried to get me to join him on the campus lawn where the devotees would be engaged in kirtan, sitting and swaying with closed eyes in a circle. I watched from a distance but was too shy; the strangely exotic sound of the drum and hand cymbals was attractive but I could not overcome my social awkwardness. Then the devotees would chant in the Student Union hallway, and Loren was again there with them, enjoying the publicity and the meditational singing of the Hare Krishna mantra. I struggled to walk by without making eye contact. Whenever there was a chance, I would distract Loren with other agendas.
A total of sixteen students from SUNY at Buffalo eventually became devotees, drawn from the sixty enrolled students and some auditing students who also attended Rupanuga’s Transcendental Meditation class, plus others who watched through the glass windows from the hallway. Trivikram, Bhurijan, Prahladananda, Jagadish, Bhagavan, Krishna Bhamini, Janmanjaya, Taradasi, Satchitananda, Laxmimoni, Satyanarayan, Gunagrahi, Narottamananda (Loren), myself, and a few others. Rupanuga’s confidence, seriousness, and academic demeanor was very effective in holding the students attention and attracting them to the process of chanting (kirtan), which began and ended each class session. Finally, Rupanuga would cut up an apple or two into small pieces, mix it with raisins, and pass it around as a sort of ritual sacrament, but I did not like unpeeled apples.
I would sometimes listen to the discussions from my hidden retreat behind the chairs in the rear of the classroom, as the students expressed their views, asked questions, and as Rupanuga deftly managed their skepticism and inquiries. Over the months, despite my disinterest and unattentiveness, I began to get a hint of the Gita’s basic philosophy. It had to do with material attachments versus spiritual enlightenment. One evening class near the end of the course, I found myself mystically drawn into the kirtan, as the purity of the spiritual sound vibrations captivated my wandering, disturbed mind. The students had mastered the kirtan techniques of hand clapping, playing kartal cymbals, following tunes, and many brought various instruments like guitars, castanets, tambourines, or folk guitars. It was very dynamic and lively, intense and heartfelt. That night I caught a first little taste of bliss, and I wondered if perhaps Loren was far ahead of me in perceiving the true value of the chanting process. Looking back, it is amazing to me how clouded and obstructed my consciousness and intelligence were at the time. My jaded skepticism and vague impression of the Hare Krishnas as religious dogmatists and zealots was largely shattered by the unexpected experience of being transported into a headspace of carefree peace and transcendence. It was a turning point, and I began to take interest.
On one warm Sunday afternoon in May I went with Loren to the Hare Krishna temple program and tremendously enjoyed the feast prasadam- including strawberry halavah, thick sweet rice, and soft puris. Here were tastes I had not imagined could exist as I zipped back in line for seconds and thirds. Tall and thin, I was the typical half-starved student who could never seem to find or afford any decent food. Krishna prasadam changed everything for me, and I was an instant addict. It was the taste for which I had always been anxious to find.
The temple at 15 LaSalle Street, near campus and next to the sprawling railroad yard, was an old, run-down, small two story house, and the early summer feasts were served outside on the spacious lawn. Several other acquaintances were there also and I quickly forgot all fears that had confused my mind all these months. The Sunday feast became a regular event, and I came to know the devotees better. The only one I avoided was Prahladananda, who usually asked for donations, insisting on at least a dollar. Loren would argue with him about whether a donation was mandatory or voluntary.
Sometimes I returned to nearby Rochester to check in with old high school friends; I heard my younger brother and other high school buddies were shooting heroin. I was disappointed- I failed to dissuade them, and could not locate my brother. Drugs were used to go beyond normal reality, uppers (amphetamines, meth), downers (heroin, barbiturates), and psychedelics (LSD, peyote, mushrooms, psilocybin, mescaline) were often mixed and alcohol was widely imbibed as well. We were experimenting on ways to alter our consciousness, hoping to achieve something we sensed was missing in our conventional lives. Ouija boards, tossing coins for the I-Ching, palm reading, tarot cards, meditating on Aum (Om), daredevil acts like Russian roulette, toying with suicide, Hathayoga exercises, intellectual wrangling via speculative books such as those by Nietsche, Watts, Sartre, using art or music for emotional stimulation, fasting or following extreme diets like macrobiotic- these were some of the methods which were applied to find something better than ordinary existence in the material world. LSD was a favorite and drastic technique for exploring new realms of consciousness, although those who took too much LSD ended up seriously unbalanced or outright crazy, unable to speak cohesively, think clearly, or function in the real world. Loren would debate their virtues or negatives, and compared them to chanting Hare Krishna, which was supposed to be the best process for self-realization.
Although Loren was the best of friends, my world actually revolved around Sandy, who I took as my soulmate and partner since the end of my first year in college. She saw me one night at a campus carnival and wanted to be with me. I became deeply attached and we were always together. She was also from Rochester. Loren, Sandy, and I were a constant threesome. Once on a Saturday we took Loren to Rochester with us and left him alone, high up in a leafless oak tree in the middle of the great Genesee Valley Park while he assimilated the results of several LSD tablets. At dusk we came back and he came down from his perch. He shared with us his experiences and how they might be related to his transcendental aspirations and Krishna consciousness. On another occasion we spent a day at someone’s house in the hilly New York countryside- while I chose to wander alone in the forest, Sandy took her first LSD and laughed with the others. All in all, illusionary distraction) were very strong even while we dallied with the idea of becoming some sort of yoga practioners.
One night the three of us went to Bill’s (Bhagavan) apartment He was up in a loft accessible only by a ladder, and a strobelight flashed in the dark. While I was shy, quiet, and tagged along, Loren was the ever-smiling, joking socialite as we made the rounds to the homes of various students- all of whom were immersed in the new psychedelic counterculture of drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll music. Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and Andy Warhol were the heroes of the times. News moved quickly on the campus grapevine as to new shipments of hashish, acid, “weed,” or who was having a party, who was “dealing” (selling drugs), and what new music releases had just come out. Most of this took place off campus where students had rented apartments. It was a college town, and the locals accepted that college students looked and acted differently.
Seven months before, I had flown to San Francisco for a few days and I had wandered through Golden Gate Park and the Haight-Ashbury district, mixing with the throngs of youth who had gravitated to the mecca of the hippie movement. I also had grown a beard and shoulder length hair, had well-worn blue jeans, denim jacket, moccasins, silver and turquoise jewelry, and a native American-Indian beaded headband. Rather than a Harley-Davidson, I had opted for a larger Triumph motorcycle, following in the fatal footsteps of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). The windy cruel Buffalo, New York winter of late 1968 induced me to trade my treasured Triumph for a compact 4-door Renault, although its heater quickly failed, still leaving me in the cold. The struggle against the material elements was futile.
As the second year of college drew to an end, my year-long relationship with Sandy was not going well- she had decided I was not what she wanted after all. I was groundless and aimless, not a really good prospect as a future companion who would be economically successful. I was entertaining radical, non-conventional concepts adopted from Ken Kesey and others about communal living in the mountains and dropping out of normal society. I sensed something was wrong, but when Sandy suddenly, as it seemed to me, broke our relationship and told me she “did not love me anymore,” I was crushed. She allowed no discussion- she had been withdrawing herself for months and there was no question of reconciliation. My attachment was far deeper than I had understood, and my grounding was uprooted. Although I had no malice towards her, she had cruelly broken my heart, and I knew not what to do when she rejected me so coldly. My pain was enormous. Adding insult to injury, in the next few days I had to witness her in the company of a “dude” who roared in from out of town with a cherry-red, souped-up sports convertible. Day and night, I felt the loneliness and torment of a wounded heart; I was very alone, and very emotionally damaged. Somehow I contained it privately while friends would sympathize tritely and then go about their own affairs. After all, what could they do anyway?
Sandy had given me two things when we were doing well together- a Cat’s Eye ring and a skull-n crossbones pendant. She was gone but I clung to these tokens hoping she would come back. On the highway somewhere I stopped the motorcycle at a rest stop, and forgot the Cat’s Eye ring on the washroom counter. A few minutes later I rushed back, but like Sandy, someone had taken it- the symbolism was obvious and the pain increased. The tears blew sideways on my face as my Triumph rushed down the interstate highway going nowhere.
I passed the Gita course final exam, but skipped several other course exams since I had stopped going to the classes. I no longer cared much about grades, course credits, college records, or choosing a study major or life career. I had enrolled for the second term of my second year, but flunked as a no-show on four courses. Then within a few days, everyone deserted for the three month summer break, and campus became bleak and empty. I had no place to go, no one to go with, nothing to do, and I could not produce any plans for even my nearest future. My parents’ home held nothing for me, as I was horribly estranged from both of them. The only real friend I had was Loren. I called him from a payphone because he never told anyone where in Buffalo he lived with his parents. However, he had just gone somewhere for several weeks, and that was that. Marc Lane, my college roommate and close friend from high school, had exclusive family plans for the summer. There I was alone. I spent a few weeks alternating between some younger friends from high school in Rochester and an apartment in Buffalo on Niagara Falls Blvd where our crowd had always been welcome. I was floating around without any purpose or design. Only by choosing certain books to read did I maintain any hope of reaching whatever it was that I was sorely missing.
I had finished reading Siddhartha and I was attracted to the principles of renunciation and self realization. But it was Autobiography of a Yogi that gave me the inspiration to go into seclusion for soul searching, purification, transcendence, and meditation. The Himalaya Mountains seemed an impossibility, but someone suggested an alternative-the Rocky Mountains were within reach of my Renault. I had spent a few days in Boulder, Colorado in 1967 and was impressed by the hippie community there, so I thought I would go there. I would camp with a tent and reflect, sort out my life and future. Loren had always emphasized how I should be reading the Gita, but I never had, and I somehow passed through the Gita course without going past its blue cover. Now I wanted to get away from everything and everyone- withdraw for a good while, and seriously begin my study of the Gita. Loren convinced me that “all truth is in the Gita”, and I had faith that whatever I needed would be found there. Nothing else seemed better to do, and the time had come to do it. By the combined influence of Loren and Rupanuga’s explanations of the Bhagavad Gita philosophy, I was prepared to begin the practice of mantra chanting. Fate had removed all distractions. Or was it Krishna?
I had gotten a set of chanting beads at the temple, and Loren showed me how to chant, although as yet I had hardly done but a couple of rounds. He was chanting six, then ten rounds a day and was very much appreciating the results, as he happily shared with me his progress in the practice of bhaktiyoga principles. He had embraced vegetarianism, as I had also since a year earlier. Thus the overall situation that I had come to be in- alone, pained, summer break, no available friends or activities, my increasing interest and attraction to yoga and meditation, and the appeal of mysticism practiced in the mountains, led me to plan my expedition to the Rockies. Over the last eighteen months, my overall situation had gradually evolved to being favorable for starting a spiritual life. I was ready and willing, but I would do it on my own, not at the temple, not in college, not with Sandy, but by myself somewhere in the forests of far-away high mountains.
One day I went to the temple looking for Rupanuga, but found Jagadish instead. I sought a consultation, thinking that the devotees would have a solution to my problems of heartbreak and loss, such as how to rebuild my broken relationship. Jagadish listened, then gave his advice with a wry smile, to “become detached” and “surrender to Krishna.” Frustrated with this plain, short answer, I went to Kanupriya in the kitchen and explained my plight again. He was more understanding and when I shared my plans to camp in the mountains to study Gita and chant Hare Krishna, he was fully supportive. He insisted that in addition I should formally offer whatever I ate to Krishna, as this would be critical in raising my consciousness to perceive the esoteric truths of the Gita and the Maha Mantra. He gave me three prayers to offer my food, which were to Prabhupada, Lord Chaitanya, and Lord Govinda. The next morning I came early and he showed me how to make hot oat or cornmeal cereal, because as I was not much of a cook, I might go quite hungry alone in the forest.
My younger brother Michael decided to come with me, as well as another girl, coincidentally named Sandy. I accepted her company to avoid my own loneliness, although her intentions were not spiritual. We drove across the country to Denver, and were directed to Boulder, Colorado which had a large university. We were told by some people on the street that there was a gathering of “hippies and searchers” near Nederland, a junction only 30 miles away. Zigzagging for an hour up into the mountains which rose abruptly behind Boulder, we then left the highway onto a forest track and soon found an impromptu settlement with Volkswagon buses, station wagons, old school buses, box vans, tarps, tents, and even a few banged-up Winnebagos. We were greeted casually, and we pushed further in, well past the last campers. Here it was more open, a slope with fewer trees, and a dramatic view into the distant east where we pitched our little tents. Our daily sustenance was my specialty of hot cornmeal covered with ample brown sugar sprinklings, twice or thrice a day as it was all I knew to cook. Every four or five days a trip to a nearby store down the highway replenished our stocks. We tried to make an earthen bread oven which produced only a few edible loaves. A tiny nearby stream supplied drinking water and a place for a cup bath.
Michael and Sandy slept late every morning, but I rose before daybreak and climbed the hill in the dim dawn light, up to a rock ledge that served as a yoga platform. There, I finally, after having putting it off for so long, began to privately practice the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. It took a determined effort to even start, as though something was holding me back. Shaky at first, but gradually I began to gain strength, and in my own rhythm the meditation began to feel cleansing and positively energizing. After a few days I was chanting fluidly but slowly, eight rounds of beads, then twelve, then sixteen. The small blue Bhagavad Gita from Rupanuga’s course had come with me, and after chanting a few hours, I began to study the Gita, stopping to ponder each sentence by gazing towards the Sun rising over the majestic Rocky Mountain ranges that stretched before me. It was just like the passages about yoga practiced in the Himalayas that had inspired me from Autobiography of a Yogi… I was going to be a yogi after all! Camping and chanting in the Rockies was exciting and peaceful.
The more than three weeks in that remote encampment was a major turning point in the direction of my broken life. July 1969, age 20, Colorado, planet Earth, and my major Ketu period had started a year ago (Ketu’s influence lent to the pursuit of renunciation, celibacy, and spiritual life). I had now returned to the practice of bhaktiyoga, the topmost yoga, from some time point in a previous life. I could feel my heart healing, my consciousness clearing, my hope of finding life’s purpose strengthening. I took the Gita and Hare Krishna mantra as my solace and refuge, and the connection of my soul with the Supreme Soul became my inner aspiration.
Every new day began with four hours alone on that ledge, chanting on beads the sacred mantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
I made notes from my very slow reading of the Gita. and had a growing list of questions. I did not think about for whom the questions were. The concepts of the Gita seemed so simple, yet were profound and I struggled intellectually to grasp bits of it. Who was the Supersoul? What is liberation? What is devotional service? If I were not the material body, what was I? Where were my spiritual senses and body? Slowly, page after page went by, and when the Gita was finished, I wondered, what now? I had become intrigued and fascinated by a tasting of the Gita’s transcendental knowledge, but it was not like any other book I had read before. I knew I had just skimmed the surface- I would need someone more advanced in Gita knowledge to answer my pages of questions written down in my spiral notebook.
I had a Back to Godhead #23 magazine in the Renault – it listed the few Hare Krishna temples of the day, including one at 411-B West Water Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico- which was closest to us in Colorado. The other Sandy, being neglected by me, had already returned to Buffalo. Resolving to go to Santa Fe immediately, Michael and I packed up and drove south, across the desert through Denver, Colorado Springs, Trinidad, and to Santa Fe. Anxiously and shyly, I approached a deserted looking small, dilapidated house by a sprawling railroad yard, and on the front door was taped a handwritten note: “Closed- we have gone to see the Swami in Los Angeles- Be back in 2 weeks.”
Los Angeles? That was almost a thousand miles away, and my wallet was thin- I worried about going so far away from my base in Buffalo and maybe getting stranded, without money. Besides, it was a very big city, and probably there were too many devotees there for me to deal with… Of course, looking back, I should have gone to Los Angeles “to see the Swami” also, but unfortunately I forsook this opportunity to associate with Srila Prabhupada, being still too undeveloped in spiritual consciousness. I had insufficient appreciation of the value of Prabhupada’s association. Instead, although disappointed we had found no devotees in Santa Fe, we charted out a plan to travel and camp in the mountains along less travelled roads, to search for natural beauty and… well, I had some vague romanticized mental picture of finding an idyllic, heavenly place where I would become fully absorbed in yoga, and leave behind the ever-lingering pain of being rejected by Sandy, of the constant nagging of that aching loneliness within, and of all the other troubles of the mundane world. Also I planned to study the Gita a second time- it was that kind of book. Not just one reading could get one entry into the mystical realm of cosmic Truth.
We were directed to Taos, where there were “enlightened” people, but we could not find any of them. We wound through many mountain river valleys on dusty gravel roads, bathing in streams, camping in forest meadows or just sleeping in the car. Passing through Steamboat Springs, we followed the Snake River into Utah. I had the urge to climb, to conquer the slopes, to reach the top, as this was an inspiration from reading about the Himalayas. Once, I was clambering up a steep incline overlooking the Snake River, strewn with thousands of boulders of all sizes, like gigantic rubble. Midway, on a small level spot, I paused, out of breath, and noticed a strange rattling or rustling sound nearby. After a minute of searching, my eyes focused on the source- a large camouflaged and coiled rattlesnake six feet in front of me! Realizing the danger, I intuitively froze motionless, lest the creature lunge at me with his fangs of death and poison. As slowly as possible, I backed away inch by inch, then scurryed back downhill to the Renault. It was narrow miss with an early demise, far away from any rescue or anti-venom…
We almost ran out of gas in somewhere in the Utah desert. Another two weeks passed, and the Shangri-La I was looking for failed to appear. I climbed a smooth rock dome next to the highway, maybe a hundred feet high, as did other motorists who had stopped there as well. However, I had very bad time with coming down again and narrowly avoided sliding off to certain great injury. I resolved to check my foolish and whimsical nature, remembering my fall off a roof two years earlier that had been close to breaking my back. I must become serious about my pursuit of a higher purpose.
Back in Denver, I went to bookstores looking for explanations on the Gita, but found nothing helpful. By this point I had no further plan, and I could no longer postpone my desire to find devotees with whom to discuss my Bhagavad Gita questions. We drove non-stop fifteen hundred miles to Buffalo in 24 hours, sleeping in an Indiana field for a few hours. Although intent on meeting with the devotees and Loren, I had to bypass Buffalo and go on to Rochester to accommodate my brother who wanted to be dropped home. There I checked in with Steve Kerxhalli and other friends that had been in the same high school fraternity.
Our adopted credo of “dropping out” of mainstream society led to the proposal of going to the west coast in search of hippies and finding new friends and adventures. Rochester had no hippie gathering place and only one headshop, now closed as the owners had been arrested. Steve was restless and with his ’68 bright yellow Camaro, was proposing to take us on a quick trip to California. So off we went, and with myself as navigator equipped with roadmaps, we first stopped in Boulder on my advice. We met someone who put us up for a few days as we commiserated about the evolution of the youth revolution. In Denver we met a frighteningly thin boy who befriended us and we stayed one night at his home with his parents. He had been a meth addict almost fatally, and still raved about his previous week-long binges. Onward, driving long stretches through Wyoming, we would swim in huge reservoirs. We came to the Colorado River at the Arizona-California border, and bathed in its muddy waters, diving under the shade of a bridge. Suddenly I noticed that Sandy’s skull-n-crossbones necklace was missing- it had dropped into the depths. I could not retrieve it, and Steve suggested it was fate’s intent for me to relinquish my attachment to Sandy. The incident’s message was clear- become cleansed of material attachment and take to the path of transcendence.
As we toured around California we saw the huge HOLLYWOOD letters on a hill in Los Angeles. We spent a couple days at Huntington Beach while the others tried to pick up some local girls while playing Beach Boys songs about surfing and fast cars on the Camaro’s 8 track player. We looked for hip people in the Big Sur area. We passed many nights sleeping in the car, including just outside Vandenberg Air Force Base. We arrived in San Francisco, and loitered in Golden Gate Park, then walked up and down Haight Street. Headshops were plentiful and we attended a rock concert at the Fillmore West with Carlos Santana and other groups. We went over the famous San Francisco Bay Bridge and underneath the far side, we threw stones into the cold Pacific waters.
With my short list of Hare Krishna temples in hand, I learned that the San Francisco Hare Krishna temple was being moved, and I was advised to visit the new temple across the Bay in Berkeley. Convincing my companions to take me there briefly, we crossed the bridge to Oakland and pulled up to a storefront somewhere on a large street. Nervously I called in the open doorway. A lady devotee appeared and advised that I return in the evening as everyone was out at that time. Disappointed, I got back in the car. The others had no interest in waiting around so many hours on my behalf. Steve’s intent on establishing west coast ties with new friends and contacts did not transpire and we were soon back in Rochester at Steve’s house.
Immediately upon our return, before I could organize my departure for Buffalo, we informed that a major-scale rock music festival was occurring in two days, downstate in the countryside near Woodstock, NY. All the major bands would be performing for free, and it would be an unprecedented major hippie gathering. We had come back from California empty-handed, and the others convinced me that this event was not something to be missed for any reason. Thus five of us set off in Steve’s Camaro again. The incoming traffic was backed up for 20 miles, and after many hours we pulled off the road a mile from the field where a gigantic stage which had been set up on the host’s 600 acre farm.
Soon I lost track of my friends. Shivering in the drizzling rain, I slept under the car because gasoline had been spilt inside the trunk, and inside the car the fumes were overwhelming. I was in the middle of a half million youths who were all largely intoxicated and half-oblivious. Somehow I missed all of the musical performances, although many of the biggest groups of the day were there, including Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar. I was depressed, had a bad headache, and remembered my Gita questions, an unfulfilled objective weighing ever more heavily on my mind. What would I do here, miserable with no food, nowhere to sleep or bathe, no shelter. The portable toilets were so fouled they were unapproachable. Anyone who had food to sell was asking enormous prices. Suddenly I saw a tall devotee above the crowd in the distance, handing out oranges and selling single incense sticks. I rushed up to him, and said “I have some questions about the Gita…?” He apologized that he had no time to talk, that he had to sell incense, and he disappeared into the crowd. I ate the two oranges he left with me, felt a little better, and then spent the next two days vainly searching for him. Later on I met him in Boston- he was Vaikunthanath.
By the time we returned to Rochester, I was firmly set on heading for Buffalo without any further diversions. But when I came to the temple no one had the time to sit with me and discuss my questions, and Kanupriya, the devotee I had most connected with, was gone to California. I felt awkward in imposing on any devotee as they appeared uninterested in me and were busy all the time. Where was Loren? I had been out of touch for months now, and I called his parents house to find that he was out of town for another week, a week wherein the waiting seemed like forever. Loren had wanted me to chant and read the Gita, and I felt there was no one else with whom I could discuss my Gita questions.
Finally one day Loren returned, and he was jovial as always, and still absorbed in debating which yoga group he should join. Seth, one of our common friends, had joined a nearby Buddhist monastery, and this spurred us to decide on our own spiritual path as well, whatever it was going to be. We both knew we needed to make choices, but the correct choices. Loren helped me understand many of the points from Gita that had perplexed me, clearing up many questions from my notebook. I saw that my intelligence and focus was improving as I continued to read daily the Gita in brief interludes of fifteen minutes. I was not able to concentrate my mind much longer than this at one time.
Financially, I was a poor student, and very frugal out of necessity as well as my Dutch background. In high school I had done a newspaper delivery route for several years. I worked in a pharmacy as a stock clerk and collected glass soda bottles for the two cent deposits. My mother had secretly co-signed on a college loan of $500, and I saved scrupiously. Somehow I was able to make it through several years subsisting on a few thousand dollars, always careful not to spend unnecessarily.
Loren wanted to attend the proximate public convention at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram Camp, one hour north of Montreal, as six of their swamis from around the globe would be in attendance. Again the Renault went on another expedition- this time to Canada. We could also go to meet the devotees at the Hare Krishna temple in Montreal, Loren explained, because we found the Buffalo devotees to be not very inspiring (they were on a different wave-length it seemed). In transit we stopped for a night at an Adirondacks vacation house and Loren visited with a lady acquaintance.
Reaching the Sivananda Ashram, I was quickly unimpressed, as everyone simply moved about with an air of pseudo-tranquillity and pretense, as it seemed obvious to me. One of the swamis who had taken a vow of silence for 16 years was frenetically scratching out communications on a portable chalk board. I thought, “Why doesn’t he just talk?” The grounds and buildings were impressive, but I found no substance or anything understandable in any of the seminars, gatherings, or individuals. Their teaching, philosophy, and practices wers all vague and undefined. I nagged Loren about heading to the Montreal temple. When Loren had gotten enough first-hand experience of the total shallowness of the ashram, he crossed them off his list of possibilities and we were at the Hare Krishna temple on Park Avenue in Montreal the next day.
Regretfully we had missed Janmastami, Lord Krishna’s appearance day celebrations, and an extensive feast the day before, but it was Srila Prabhupada’s appearance day. The temple was in a second floor bowling alley, and the devotees that I remember were Sripati (always wearing a saffron turban), Jayapataka, Gopal Krishna (who came in after his daytime job at Coca Cola Company), and Baradraj. Loren accepted the service of beating the temple rugs on a rope in the alleyway. I refused to help him, arguing that this menial chore had nothing to do with yoga or transcendence. However, he devoted himself to it enthusiastically. The delicious evening feast was greatly appreciated by my always hungry self. Our hour long meeting with Baradraj at the small temple gift shop was most memorable, as he was the second devotee, after Kanupriya, who struck me as being in a state of mystical bliss. His charisma and gentleness was enchanting. Loren and I both were looking towards devotees who were experiencing ecstasy and realizations of the Absolute Truth for encouragement in making our decision to join the Hare Krishnas. Baradraj inspired both of us to become devotees of Krishna and disciples of Srila Prabhupada, as he told many fascinating and confidential stories of Prabhupada and temple life which were attractive to hear. We purchased some posters of Krishna, and we rolled them up carefully for the trip back to Buffalo, positioning them by the rear window of the Renault along with paper plates of feast leftovers.
We both began going to the temple for the late morning and early evening programs, at 7 am and 7 pm. Loren was still staying with his parents, and I found an apartment to rent. Steve and his friends from Rochester moved in, paying most of the rent, and started taking heroin daily. This was something I could never do as I abhorred needles and the thought of veins gave me the shivers. I put up my Krishna posters in my room and offered cornmeal cereal with brown sugar topping whenever I was hungry. After two weeks, I started staying overnight at the temple, and coming to the apartment less and less. The morning Bhagwatam class was a highlight of my day, and I would sit cross-legged every morning chanting my rounds, swaying with eyes closed for over an hour. One day I was examining a painting of Govinda and Radha kneeling and offering flowers. I asked a devotee how can God have a body if He is truly a spiritual being? The answer was shocking to me- that He had a spiritual body as represented by the painting made of material elements. My turn away from impersonalism began at this point, as the many books I had read (other than Prabhupada’s Gita) had steeped me in the conception of the blissful great white light. “Devotional service”- this was the mystery terminology with which I struggled.
I had not decided to become a devotee as yet- I was only halfway there, floating in and out of the temple every so many hours. Rupanuga was kind and tolerant, allowing me the space and time I needed to digest the enormous changes that were evolving in my life under Krishna’s direction. Somehow the Buffalo temple accepted me in that uncommitted position. Actually I did not see myself joining the temple, and I had enrolled for a third year in college.
When I was waiting in a registration line on campus, Sandy suddenly appeared behind me in the same line, and I became nervous and flustered. She was now with Mark Schwartz, and I had seen them once from a bus window, laughing together. She ridiculed me about my staying at the temple, declaring that it was just an escape from reality. She challenged my involvement with the Hare Krishnas- I could not even look at her, being tongue-tied with pain and embarrassment. After some excruciating minutes I just walked off, abandoning whatever I was in line for- and also abandoning any further thoughts about college education. It had proven a waste of time, an anxiety to choose a profession that would lead nowhere, and since I could not decide on a career, it made no sense to continue as a puppet student, pulled by the strings of mundane requirements, exams, and future job interviews. I instead freely absorbed myself in the transcendental rewards of temple activities, my chanting, and camaraderie with Loren. Further, I did not want to run into Sandy at school again.
A new devotee had joined at the temple, initiated by Prabhupada as Dharmaraj, with whom I became friends. However, he was soon sent to Toronto temple when his being drafted into the US military and the Vietnam War was imminent. My own status of student exemption was now in jeopardy as I had not paid tuition and had essentially dropped out of college. I would also defect to Canada if necessary; I was still a Canadian citizen, after all. The insanity of being sent to a war in the jungles of tropical Asia loomed as a constant threat, and I had no appreciation of the government’s much propagandized theme of fighting the dangers of spreading communism or of defending democracy. The military government in Vietnam appeared no different than the ones in Moscow or Cuba, and rather than adopting political agendas, I was instead committed to my own spiritual awakening as top priority.
We had been evaluating the prospects of joining the Buffalo temple and making a solid commitment, but we were finding petty faults with our local temple. Certain devotees we found a little irritating or uncool, and we gauged that the temple environment, with its policies and residents, was not suited to us, which we saw as less than ideal for an embassy of the spiritual world. Rupanuga had a job as a social worker, had an outside apartment, and was not at the temple very much. We found difficulty in deriving inspiration from the new and relatively inexperienced Buffalo devotees. There were not many devotees in the temple, maybe eight, and it was quite sedate, as many who had joined in the last year had been sent to start or assist other temples.
Loren surprised me with a shocking proposal that came unexpected. He had been telling me for weeks about news from Detroit, where Jagadish and Bhagavan, along with their wives Laxmimoni and Krishnabhamini, had recently opened a new and successful Hare Krishna temple. Loren was attracted to the Detroit crew, as they were fellow students and former classmates from our college! Loren had developed strong relationships with all four of them. He posited that we take the Renault and go to Detroit, where he was confident he could finally surrender to Krishna’s devotional service in the temple, and maybe even shave off his long wavy locks of reddish brown hair. Shaving up was by this time really the largest issue in contemplating our final surrender. We had hair well past our shoulders, parted in the middle similar to common portrayals of Jesus. Our hair was our most obvious remaining material attachment. Loren would joke, “Yeah, but we are not this hair,” a twist on the common devotee refrain of “we are not this body.”
Loren insisted we leave without notice, and go secretly. I was reluctant and wanted to be open about our departure, but Loren prevailed, and joked about our “blooping” to Detroit. Supposedly Prabhupada had said that “bloop” was the sound the jiva soul makes when it falls down into the material ocean of nescience. We arrived mid-day on October 17 and were welcomed by our former college acquaintances. Bhagavan and Jagadish were co-presidents, and Bhagawan had adopted the role of a responsible and serious leader. Many were joining and the temple included perhaps twenty young devotees, all in their late teens or early twenties.
The temple chanting party went out daily, to the downtown district or area colleges, and sometimes to nearby Ann Arbor’s huge University of Michigan. I enjoyed the evening college programs, especially at Wayne State University. We would mesmerize and bewilder the students with our kirtans, although when we stopped, they would ask various challenging questions, sometimes trying to force us to take a political position, such as on the Vietnam War. Often a student or two would come back with us by invitation to the temple for the night, attending the morning program and enjoying a hearty breakfast of hot cereal, bananas and oranges, soaked chick peas, and steamy, sweet banana milk. I much preferred interacting with college students than those stiff office workers in suits downtown. Actually downtown was getting windier and colder every day, and we might sell only 10 magazines on the street in several hours of kirtan chanting.
Sometimes I would take long walks in the afternoon or evenings around residential Detroit. This freedom meant much to me. Once I stopped at a large church where the doors were open, and I entered, asking for the priest or pastor. He came and I began to ask him questions as though I were a Christian seeking entry into their fold. What was the purpose of life? How could we learn to actually love God? Who was God? Where was He? What kind of relationship do we have with God? At first the answers came smoothly, but they lacked substance. If God is pure spirit, and we are embodied souls lost in this material world, how could we best connect with Him? What did he think about meditation and reincarnation? The pastor was now unprepared to answer and was visibly stumped, finally deferring with an invitation to their services on Sunday. The hour long episode had served to confirm the vast superiority of the Gita teachings to those of Jesus Christ, which I had grown up with and through which I was still viewing my world. As I left, I felt more confident in becoming Krishna’s devotee. Yes, Christianity was not for me.
One day Loren, who tended towards impulsiveness, decided to shave his head and have his sikha or Hare Krishna ponytail “revealed.” I ran and hid somewhere, fearing for my own fate. I was not ready for this. An hour later Loren, suddenly looking quite diminutive without his trademark lions-mane and with his barren white scalp and broad grin, found me to show off his new sikha. He was proud of it and he suggested I now “get my sikha too.” Pressured by Bhagawan, to whom one could not say no, I acquiesced with great reluctance. Distressed, there was nowhere to run to. This was it!
I was shocked when I gazed into a mirror- who was this? Where was the hippie, the rebel, that long-locked aspiring yogi? My body consciousness was deeply wounded by this drastic cutting of the hair covering, and the new experience was deeply humbling. My hair had been an obstacle, an attachment that had to be given up in order to make further advancement. Shaving up was a point of no return, of surrendering to Krishna after so much procrastination. Henceforward, my attachment for long hair was downsized to the maintenance of a proper long and prominent sikha as a status symbol amongst the devotees. Everyone could see that I used to have very long hair because my sikha was the evidence. Long sikhas were a veteran’s badge of battles with maya as a hippie. Subtly, the attachment was partly given up, and partly retained, but now in relationship to Krishna, therefore being purifying.
Loren began training in the temple kitchen and soon was promoted to head cook, enthused by and absorbed in his responsibilities, and quickly established himself as a first class chef, learning the exotic arts of spicing, flavoring, frying, and baking that was in the service of the deities and the devotees. I assisted with practical errands and organizing for sankirtan engagements. My primary anxieties were (1) obtaining more prasadam, particularly sweets, and (2) getting enough sleep. The six hours that was allotted proved to be insufficient and I either had to hit the sleeping bag early or sneak an hour nap somewhere in the daytime.
The temple was bustling and growing quickly; it was very exciting with strong classes and lively kirtans, and constant preaching expeditions. One night we were invited to the campus in Ann Arbor to chant on stage with Allen Ginsburg, and we all felt proud that Krishna consciousness had such an ally that was highly respected by the youth of the time. Although Ginsburg openly promoted abominable practices, we basked before a huge crowd of students. It was a rare occasion when we were accepted rather than seen as crazy, deluded cultists. We were after all, not of this world, and we might as well have just landed from another galaxy, so strange and alien we appeared even to the freaked-out youth of the psychedelicized hippie movement.
In the car one day, Jagadish found a stray cucumber under the seat, he washed it with a bit of water, and offered it, “Sri Vishnu! Sri Vishnu! Sri Vishnu!” I queried if that was the proper method for offering food, and I declined any share. Two boys had been coming to the temple, and I spent a lot of time talking with them, polishing my skills by using Prabhupada’s analogies and examples heard in classes. Now that I had made my commitment by shaving up as a full-time temple devotee, I gained strength by encouraging them to join also. One day they arrived together, and surprised me by actually wanting to surrender to Krishna’s temple and shave up right then and there. Krishna consciousness was mystical as amazing things were happening even though we were not at all spiritually advanced. There was some higher spiritual force moving events forward in spite of our neophyte participation, as though we were going along on a trip arranged and conducted by unseen and highly powerful sponsors. I ran for the hair clippers, careful to leave nice sikhas in the right place and of respectable dimensions. They later became Lakshmi Narayan and Sri Govinda, the temple presidents in Houston and Chicago respectively.
From a couple’s apartment I picked up their belongings and furniture when they decided to move into the temple, and they later were initiated as Mahananda and Ahladini Shakti dasi. She was very serious, an instant devotee, and I would often get encouragement from her in little ways. She seemed to have been a devotee for a long time and always offered simple wisdom in a mood of quiet surrender to Krishna. All of us were a big family and I cannot remember much friction or quarrels in the temple.
One day while running an errand around the city, the Renault began emitting a heavy knocking sound from the engine. I pulled off the freeway and right into a car garage. There was no oil in the motor. I never once checked or changed the oil in the year since I had the car. I hobbled back to the temple and retired the Renault in a lot across the street, not having the money to overhaul the engine. Now I had no car, which was a definite decrease in my sense of freedom, and then I donated my last twenty dollars. I was penniless. There were no more plans other than to be a Krishna devotee. I vaguely had the idea that after a few years of temple life, I would retire to the Himalayas and by then be trained sufficiently to experience divine ecstasy in private meditation. But Krishna and Prabhupada had other plans for me.
            On Memorial Day, November 11, 1969, a huge anti-war demonstration was organized in Washington, DC. All the east coast devotees would converge at the Washington temple and take advantage of the war protest and the hundreds of thousands of youths to distribute the message of Lord Krishna. We arrived at midnight, and after banging on the door quite awhile, a huge Brahmananda appeared and embraced each one of us as we entered. It was like a secret brotherhood and the whispered passwords were Hare Krishna and Jaya Prabhupada. We squeezed in somewhere and tried to sleep a few hours. There were about a hundred devotees, from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, New Vrindaban, Toronto, Buffalo, and Detroit.
It was awkward to meet Rupanuga again, as I was embarrassed about having abandoned him when he had been so instrumental in the beginning of my spiritual development. But he was glad to see me and encouraging, almost proud that his cultivation was bearing fruit. The temple was total pandemonium, especially the toilet scene (!!) from 2 am until 8 am. Only one bathroom for the men- I have no idea about the arrangement for the women. In those days, devotees were “transcendental” and used the toilet in front of everyone and no serious care was made to avoid nakedness before others. False ego was discarded. It was impossible to get any sleep or more than minimal prasadam, and I walked miles to use a toilet at a gas station.
            Winter had set in, and although there was not much snow, temperatures were below freezing. We sold purple Reservoir of Pleasure booklets, incense sticks, and Back to Godhead magazines. Quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies accumulated in the bottom of our book bags as we fanned out in the crowds to distribute a “Hare Krishna!” and a piece of transcendental literature to all those absorbed in the mundane political struggles of the Vietnam War. A barefoot and constantly twirling Bhavananda came by, wearing only a dhoti and top, chanting loudly, “Haribol!” I was bundled in scarf, winter coat with hood, gloves, and boots, and was very cold. People were running down the streets, as the police were using tear gas closer to the center of the massive demonstration. Fortunately most devotees had chosen to stay on the periphery of the crowd and thus avoided the chaos and tears inflicted that day.
            That evening at the temple, Rupanuga asked me to return to Buffalo with him the next day, since I was a Buffalo devotee and he needed help there. I was very upset and expressed my strong reluctance, not wanting to leave my friend Loren and the blissful Detroit family I had just joined a few weeks ago. Rupanuga told me that Bhagavan had already agreed and this was the final decision by “my authorities.” I should be prepared to serve Prabhupada where I was needed and where the temple authorities sent me, he said. I felt betrayed and like I had been sold. It was no use resisting.
I spoke with Loren one last time, and bid him farewell. While I cried on the inside, he was always blissful and quoting Prabhupada and philosophical one-liners. “Be detached and just depend on Krishna,” was his last advice. I would miss him greatly, and I did not see him again for sixteen years, and by then, everything was so different, I hardly knew him anymore. Our college friendship had evolved and transcended into separate paths of service to the same guru, Srila Prabhupada. The next morning I left with the Buffalo devotees, forsaking my last remaining personal possessions back in Detroit, including my sleeping bag, tent, cornmeal pot, compass, and maps.
Thereafter I came under the care of Rupanuga, who was like an aloof but kind uncle. Although many Buffalo devotees had been sent out to open or expand temples (such as Detroit, Toronto, Atlanta, Hong Kong, London,), I alone was being called back for further training before I would be ready to do the same. Piece by piece, Krishna had cut away my material attachments and entanglements- Sandy had rejected me and college had led to a dead end. My old hometown friends were doing heroin and my Renault was kaput. My straight auburn hair, my last few possessions, and finally my Loren too, everything was now gone. None were really mine after all, and I would carry on without any of them. It is said that God takes away everything material before granting the most valuable thing of all- Himself.
Rupanuga had received a letter from Prabhupada about the college Gita course that I had taken, which I only came to know of many decades later.
“This accredited course which you have attained at the University of Buffalo is a very nice breakthrough for Lord Caitanya’s movement in the West. Please do this very carefully and seriously and I am sure that Lord Caitanya will give you the intelligence from within to successfully execute this new, important project. I think that under your expert guidance many of the students in your class will eventually understand something of the great importance of what you are teaching. By Krishna’s Grace perhaps the more intelligent will also decide to join you and help you… So if we can teach to the college students in this way surely it will be a great boon to our society. You have laid ground work for this project and for this I give to you my hearty thanks. Your ever well-wisher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami”
How did I join the Hare Krishnas? It became possible and was actually accomplished only by Srila Prabhupada’s spiritual benediction, as he wanted at least some of Rupanuga’s students to understand the great importance of his mission and teachings. I would be a fool to ever think that I extricated myself from the illusory world, say by progressive steps on my own strength. It was done by Prabhupada’s mercy, nothing else; of this I am sure. Prabhupada wanted some of the students join the Hare Krishna movement, and this desire by the pure devotee of the Supreme Lord is referred to as HIS DIVINE GRACE.

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