"I had always been uneasy living in the material world.
Finally, here was a source of knowledge that told me how to get out."
It was the mid 70s. At twenty-six, I was a product of the consciousness revolution in America. During my last year in high school the dress codes were abandoned, and later the science building at my college was burned down as a protest against the administration. After bouncing through three schools I finally graduated, but then I went sailing off on an old Nova Scotia schooner instead of joining the ranks of ordinary workers. In my own idealistic way I had decided never to work on projects I thought would harm society. With this ideal in mind I worked at a series of occupations doing research for the Environmental Protection Agency, serving in the Peace Corps, and captaining a boat for tourists in the Virgin Islands.
Later I became happily married and, giving up my earlier ideals with hardly a second thought, landed a career position with a big company in the Caribbean that tested weapons and guidance systems on Navy ships. Then came a Peugeot and a comfortable house several hundred feet from the white sandy beaches and clear warm waters of St. Croix. Flushed with success, I had but one nagging thought: How long can this happiness last?
During rare moments of introspection I could see that the thrill I had felt during the many different experiences in my life had soured, but that somehow or other I had gone on to a new situation before complete dejection set in. Naturally, it was unpalatable to think about hitting another dead end, so I didn't allow these fearful thoughts to occupy me for very long. As it is said, "Ignorance is bliss," and my consciousness-raising sessions soon ended.
It had been a hectic but exciting week in Puerto Rico. The systems tests had gone well, and I had been offered a new position with much greater responsibility and, of course, a hefty pay hike. As I stood at the airline ticket counter buying my ticket for St. Croix, I looked forward to spending a few well-earned days off on the beach with my wife. But then into my mind came my old, nagging friend: "Can all this really last?"
With my new responsibilities there would be less time at home; I'd have to give more time and attention to "playing the game." I was entering the big leagues of the business world. Someone had fallen from his position with a crash, and I had taken it over and now I was already beginning to worry about my future. "Is it all worth it?" I thought.
Suddenly my reverie was broken by a pretty girl wearing an exotic Indian dress and carrying a handful of flowers and a shoulder bag full of books. She pinned a flower on my lapel and asked, "Have you ever read the Bhagavad-gita? This book will answer all your questions about life." She handed me the book and asked for a donation, which I willingly gave. Intrigued by the whole event, I started reading the substantial volume on the plane ride home.
The following week was a turning point in my life. As I read through the pages of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, something began to stir in my heart. I recalled reading in some mystical book that when you are ready, your guru will come to you. I reflected on how I had become so hard-hearted and engrossed in material concerns since the days of my innocent youth. I felt guilty about abandoning my idealism.
Reading page after page of Srila Prabhupada's book, I felt my anxieties slowly being stripped away. With clear logic Srila Prabhupada explained that we are all spirit souls, that the soul is different from the body, and that all suffering comes when we falsely identify with the body. By reading about the science of spiritual life as presented in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, I could see how empty my company's promises of wealth and power really were. It was obvious that I could find happiness only by serving God. As Krsna says, sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja:"Give up all varieties of activity and simply surrender unto Me," and Srila Prabhupada left no doubt that this was the right thing to do. I had always been uneasy living in the material world. Finally, here was a source of knowledge that told me how to live in it without anxiety and how to get out of it.
Being a practical man, I thought, "Well, let's see if these people actually practice what they preach." My wife and I planned to surprise the devotees. We would search them out at the airport in Puerto Rico where I had bought the Bhagavad-gita and ask if we could spend a weekend with them. If nothing else, I thought, living with the Hare Krsnas would certainly be a new sensation.
We flew from St. Croix to San Juan. Sure enough, the devotees were out in force at the airport, distributing books to the crowds of tourists, businessmen, and other travelers during the Friday evening rush. We asked one of the devotees if there was a place for us to stay at the temple, and he happily answered yes.
Around six o'clock my wife and I piled into a rusty old van with the devotees, who were all exuberantly recounting stories about the day's book distribution. Then, as we drove through San Juan, some of the devotees began chanting the Hare Krsna mantra on their beads, while others told us excitedly about Krsna and the glories of devotional life.
Eventually we arrived at an unassuming house on the beach. A boy named Haridasa greeted my wife and me at the front door and welcomed us in with a bright smile and a friendly "Hare Krsna." This place was different; we were immediately captivated by the sounds, smells, and sights of that little temple. Somewhere within the temple compound; bells tinkled as the devotees sang their evening prayers; exotic odors from the kitchen merged with incense to create an aromatic bouquet; and everywhere there were beautiful pictures of Krsna.
It was a hustle-bustle evening as the devotees all hurried to finish their duties before going to sleep. My wife went into the sewing room with some of the women, and only Haridasa was free to stay with me and answer questions. I wanted to know everything all at once: "How do you live? What do you do? Who were you before you joined?" Haridasa patiently answered my every query. Both my wife and I had trouble falling asleep; this was an amazing adventure, and we were very attracted by these wonderful people.
At what seemed like the middle of the night, I was shaken from my slumber by loud chanting and music coming from the temple room. When the floor stopped moving I dozed again, but was awakened at six and asked to join the devotees for the rest of the morning program. They had already been up for hours, and when I first saw them they were enthusiastically chanting the Hare Krsna mantra on their beads. I wondered where they got all that energy.
At the sound of some lightly tinkling bells, the devotees lined up in great anticipation before a satin curtain at one end of the temple room. The lights dimmed, the curtains were quickly drawn, and there amid billowing clouds of incense and pots of bright flowers on the altar stood the brilliantly polished brass Deity forms of Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda. The devotees cheered in greeting and then respectfully bowed to the floor.
I stood still for a long, breathless moment, gazing at the Deities. It seemed as if my heart had stopped. I was overwhelmed with emotions I had never felt before. Here in this small temple room I was experiencing the tangible presence of God. I was simultaneously fearful and attracted, but also surprised: "What is this?" I thought. At breakfast I recounted my experience to the devotees, and they carefully explained that since God, Krsna, is supremely powerful, He can appear in any form and at any time He wants. He especially likes to reveal Himself to those who are devoted to Him, because they have no other desire but to serve Him. The devotees were sensitive and knowledgeable about spiritual life, way beyond my highest expectations. I was taken by their simple life and strong faith in God. They seemed to have captured the essence.
Afterward the devotees gave my wife and me strings of japa beads, and we went to chant on the beach. Away from the temple, we were quickly reminded of our recent past. Young couples frolicked on the sand while radios poured out advertisements tempting us with various enjoyments. Memories came flooding in, and a spiritual crisis arose. We had been drawn away from our "normal," comfortable, materialistic life and introduced to life in a vital spiritual community, but now our past was trying to pull us back.
I had to smoke a cigarette. My wife and I talked. What about love? Could we really give up illicit sex? How much security is there in a life like this? Are the devotees really free? Where would the conviction and resolve come from to give up material life? Could we become servants of Krsna like the devotees back at that little house? Should we just keep walking and try to forget the whole thing regress to "the good old days"? If we did, could we ever forget that real spiritual life actually exists in the world? The advantages of spiritual life over ours seemed clear enough, but the prospect of following spiritual discipline seemed frightening.
Perplexed and shaken, we continued to walk on the beach and chant. Then I remembered a passage I had read in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is: "In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear." It was as if Krsna had personally descended to speak this verse to me again, and as I explained its meaning to my wife, following Srila Prabhupada's purport, our tears were vanquished. Srila Prabhupada had written,
Activity in Krsna consciousness is the highest transcendental quality of work. Even a small beginning of such activity finds no impediment, nor can that small beginning be lost at any stage. Any work begun on the material plane has to be completed; otherwise the whole attempt becomes a failure. But any work begun in Krsna consciousness has a permanent effect, even though not finished. The performer of such work is therefore not at a loss even if his work in Krsna consciousness is incomplete.
Having passed our first crisis of faith, my wife and I turned back toward the temple with renewed enthusiasm. The sun had risen high above the ocean: it was a new day, a new life.
That afternoon the devotees all returned to the temple early to prepare for the weekly Saturday night sankirtana party, in which everyone goes out in the streets and chants Hare Krsna together. In great jubilation they gathered up their instruments drums, cymbals, gongs, and bells and prepared for the chanting party. Meanwhile, my wife and I helped fill bags of popcorn, which would be distributed as prasadam ("mercy") to the crowds once the popcorn had been offered to Krsna. I knew this would be an unforgettable Saturday night.
The response of the people in San Juan was overwhelming. Brown bodies poured out of tenements for blocks around. At every balcony for ten stories up, whole families pressed against the rails, leaning down, smiling. Children stopped their bicycles to watch, and groups of Spanish youths smoking cigarettes and wearing T-shirts with rolled-up sleeves drew in from both ends of the street. As the devotees' enthusiasm grew, the crowd closed in and began pulsing with Latin rhythms of Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Some started clapping, some chanted, some even danced in discotheque style. But no one could match the acrobatics of Viprahita dasa, who lept and twisted high in the air, to the amazement of everyone. I was also drawn into the dancing. Embarrassed at first, I found it difficult to come out in public as a Hare Krsna. But all fears soon melted away in the bliss produced by this public profession of commitment.
The next morning it didn't seem so difficult to rise, and my wife and I got up to attend the early-morning ceremony, which started at 4:15. It was Sunday, and soon after breakfast everyone began busily preparing for the public feast and festival to be held that evening. The temple was cleaned from top to bottom. In the kitchen devotees cut vegetables and fruits, scrubbed pots, stirred various preparations over the stove, and rolled exotic pastries. They were all joyful, singing and chanting wherever they went, and I wondered how the devotees could sustain this spiritual happiness at such a practical level.
I approached Laksmi-Nrsimhadeva dasa, the temple president, who was at the stove toasting farina in butter. He was making halava (my favorite), a sweetened grain-and-fruit dessert. As he stirred the farina he explained how every activity can be a meditation on God when it's done as a personal service for Him. "For example," he said, "now I'm in the kitchen carefully preparing this halava, which will later be offered directly to Krsna for His satisfaction. When devotees dedicate their activities to Krsna and at the same time meditate upon Him, they become happy simply because He's satisfied." Laksmi-Nrsimha was pure and kind the embodiment of what I'd hoped to find by coming to the Hare Krsna temple for the weekend. Here was living proof that the devotees were strictly following their spiritual master and practicing what they preached.
We could not stay for the feast because I had to return for work the next day. All the devotees gathered to wish us well and say good-bye. I gave another donation, and they gave me an armful of books. I knew I was holding the answers to all my questions. We were sad to leave our new friends, and I knew they were sad to see us go back to our island. However beautiful, it would now be an island of struggle, a place where there were no devotees, no temple, and no spiritual community. I knew it would be hard to protect our tender, new spiritual life without their support and association.
* * *
We never returned to see our friends in Puerto Rico, and becoming a servant of God turned out to be a difficult test of intelligence, faith, and determination. I decided I could no longer take part in the business world; there was just too much cheating and inhumanity. Ultimately, I quit my job.
My "friends" from work came over in shocked disbelief. "How could you abandon your career?" they asked. The boss came to "talk sense": "Don't you know you will be black-balled from the defense industry? You won't be able to get another job." And then the supervisor came with the final warning: "You have a high security clearance. If you say anything about the work you were doing, you'll be prosecuted. You'll never get another clearance. You'll be ruined!" Bewildered, he then asked, "How can you give all of this up to follow the Hare Krsnas?"
That was just the beginning. Selling the house and the car barely paid off the debts accrued from years of high living. Chanting took on new meaning as my wife and I sincerely gave up our bad habits one by one. We cleared the remnants of poor beasts from our freezer. Unbelieving associates gladly carried away all our intoxicants. One of the hardest things was giving up the craving for tobacco, but we did it by using our tongues instead to chant Hare Krsna and take krsna-prasadam (food offered to Krsna).
Leaving "paradise," we went to visit our parents in New Jersey. Our enthusiasm was stronger than our understanding of the philosophy of Krsna consciousness, but we managed to get our families and old associates to grudgingly acknowledge the benefits of our new-found life style. But it took us several months of struggling without the association of devotees before we were finally free to move near a Hare Krsna temple.
Traveling from the east coast of America to the west, to join a temple close to where we had once lived in Berkeley, was like crossing a desert. Finally we rolled up to the Hare Krsna temple to surrender to Lord Jagannatha, the presiding Deity. We seemed to be entering the spiritual world itself. Out back the devotees were lined up to take prasadam, which was being served by a short, jolly devotee named Visvareta dasa. He gave us whopping plates of prasadam and then persuaded us to take more and more. I went to the temple room and asked smiling Lord Jagannatha to please accept me as His servant.
Then, thinking that I had to shave my head before I could join the devotees, I walked to a local barber shop. After waiting my turn, I settled into the chair, but when the barber understood what I wanted, he acted as though I had asked him to commit a crime. Brandishing his straight razor, he growled about calling the police. I ran outside, completely dejected. I had never thought spiritual life would be like this. The whole material world seemed to be overwhelming me. It was another crisis. But having weathered other storms by recalling the words of the Bhagavad-gita, I tried that method again and was soon on my way to another barber shop. The barber there was more helpful. "Sure, I'll take the job. I've never done one of these before." He carefully shaved my head, leaving a tuft at the back.
Later I felt relieved, even lighthearted, as I sat on a sofa in the lobby of the temple. Visvareta came by with another plate of prasadam. "Welcome home," he said.