New to New York, Bhaktivedanta Swami, Srila Prabhupada, had undoubtedly taken up the greatest austerity on the order of his Guru Maharaja. In the short space of three months he had traveled from his beloved village of Vrndavana, crossing the ocean in a small freighter on which he had suffered two heart attacks, to the freezing, inhospitable, dangerous streets of New York City.
Possessing only a short letter of introduction, he was offered a small room in the back of an apartment occupied by Dr. Mishra, a well-meaning Mayavadi "uptown Swami."
Even with weather, health, and living conditions at their worst, Srila Prabhupada enthusiastically began spreading the message.
As his biography tells us, "The weather grew cold…. On Columbus Avenue shops were selling Christmas trees, and the continental restaurants were bright with holiday lighting. On Seventy-second the Retailers' Association erected tall red poles topped with green tinsel Christmas trees. The tops of the trees on both sides of the street sprouted tinsel garlands that spanned the street and joined in red tinsel stars surrounded by colored lights."
Srila Prabhupada wore a coat Dr. Mishra had given him, but he never gave up wearing his dhoti, despite the cold, windy walks.
"Although Prabhupada did no Christmas shopping, he visited many bookstores Orientalia, Sam Weiser's, Doubleday, the Paragon, and others trying to sell his Srimad-Bhagavatams. Mrs. Ferber, the wife of the Paragon Book Gallery proprietor, considered Prabhupada 'a pleasant and extremely polite small gentleman.' The first time he called she wasn't interested in his books, but he tried again, and she took several volumes. Prabhupada used to stop by about once a week, and since his books were selling regularly, he would collect. Sometimes when he needed copies to sell personally, he would come by and pick them up from Mrs. Ferber, and sometimes he would phone to ask her how his books were selling."
"I Have Come to Give Something"
All during that winter Prabhupada would try to preach to whomever he could get to listen. He also continued to translate Srimad-Bhagavatam, alone in his fifth-floor room.
"The weather went below freezing, colder than he had ever experienced in India. Daily he had to walk toward the Hudson against a west wind that even on an ordinary winter's day would take your breath away and make your eyes water and your face grow numb….
"His advisors had cautioned him not to remain an alien but to get into the spirit of American life, even if it meant breaking vows he had held in India…. But Prabhupada's idea was different, and he could not be budged. The others may have had to compromise, he thought, but they had come to beg technological knowledge from the West. 'I have not come to beg something,' he said, 'but to give something.'"
Swamiji had reinvented Christmas. And his followers for decades to come would try to assist him in his transcendental giving. Especially at Christmas.
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