The Story of the First Krishna Deity in ISKCON Two of Srila Prabhupada’s early disciples discover Krishna while shopping for bells in New York City.
When Srila Prabhupada arrived in New York City in September 1965, he felt deep separation from Vrindavan and the major deities there “My Lords, Govindaji, Gopinath, and Radha Damodar,” as he noted in his diary. After seven months of mixed results, he opened his first temple on the Lower East Side. Centers soon opened in San Francisco, Montreal, Los Angeles, and London as his movement took root. In all these temples, deities of Krishna would grace the altars, relieving the feelings of separation Prabhupada had endured upon leaving Vrindavan.
Those familiar with ISKCON history know well the first instances of deity worship in the movement. These heart-warming events occurred soon after Srila Prabhupada founded his institution in 1966. One could cite, for example, the story of his early disciple Malati Devi Dasi, who in the spring of 1967 happened into a shop in San Francisco and found a wooden deity of Lord Jagannatha, the form of Krishna worshiped in Puri, Orissa. Without any idea who the divine icon was, she brought Him before Srila Prabhupada.
Upon seeing the Lord’s resplendent form, Prabhupada made His identity clear: “You have brought Jagannatha, the ‘Lord of the Universe.’ He is Krishna Himself. Thank you very much.”
Other early stories involve more conventional Radha-Krishna deities, such as the small metal ones now found in New York. They were Srila Prabhupada’s personal deities from early on, and installed in April 1968. These divine forms now accompany Sri Sri Radha-Govinda in Brooklyn. One might also mention Sri Sri Radha–Londonisvara (London, 1969) and Sri Sri Rukmini- Dvarakadhisa (Los Angeles, 1971). Unforgettable, too, are Sri Sri Radha- Damodara (1971), who toured America by bus and now reside at Gita-nagari farm in Pennsylvania.
But a little known story and the first of all such stories introduces us to the beautiful deities currently worshiped at the ISKCON center in Potomac, Maryland, near Washington, D. C.: Sri Sri Radha–Madana-Mohana.
The Bells of Sarna
Our tale goes back to one of the first Indian benefactors of the Hare Krishna movement in America, Sajjan Singh Sarna (1897–1978), who is more or less unknown to most devotees. He ran a major Indian handicraft/importing business called “Bells of Sarna.” Its first warehouse was founded in New York, just as a fledgling ISKCON was gaining steam.
Sarna, originally from Rawalpindi, a city in the Pothohar region of Pakistan, was a Sikh from the Punjab who had come to America in 1920. He was eager to learn about Western culture and was surprised by the country’s fascination with India and her spiritual riches. Western interest in the holy land, in fact, had increased with the first major wave of immigrants from India in the first decade of the twentieth century.
In the ten years or so before Sarna’s arrival, India had worked its way into America’s popular imagination. This became especially apparent when Sarna’s newfound American friends offered to buy handicrafts his family had sent to remind him of home. As a result, his life’s direction became clear, and a business plan all but called out to him. Establishing himself in New York in the late 1930s as a wholesaler, he specialized in bringing Indian articles to America, mostly textiles, incense, and brass items. These were in particularly high demand, and Sarna’s business thrived.
After having a dream about a magical ringing cowbell, he bought a vast variety of bells, and this eventually gave birth to Bells of Sarna. The peculiar trademark of his company: He gave each bell a name and attached a story tag elaborating its purpose and history in India.
In the 1960s the hippies emerged and with them an even greater interest in the East. Young people regularly bought incense, incense holders, statues of Indian divinities, posters, and other paraphernalia to assist in both their meditations and their psychedelic experiences. Sarna eventually started to wholesale to department stores, head shops, and gift stores, and as a consequence, his business grew and grew, with S. S. Sarna, Inc. becoming a major industry.
This is where Brahmananda Dasa and Gargamuni Dasa come in. The two American brothers had joined Prabhupada’s mission soon after its inception in 1966. Brahmananda was the first temple president, and Gargamuni, or “Garga-money” as Prabhupada affectionately called him, was the treasurer. The two brothers began visiting Sarna’s establishment on Lexington Avenue to buy paraphernalia for the temple gift shop of 26 Second Avenue, the first ISKCON temple in the West.
At the Second Avenue gift shop one could find Srila Prabhupada’s early Indian editions of the Srimad- Bhagavatam and his smaller Easy Journey to Other Planets, along with Back to Godhead and his Introduction to Geetopanishad; his first booklets, i.e., Who Is Crazy? and Krishna, the Reservoir of Pleasure; special maha-mantra day-glo posters with a distinctive oriental-style font; and posters from India, too, mainly of Krishna in various poses and the Universal Form. Srila Prabhupada selected the posters ordered from S.S. Brijbasi & Sons’ Delhi catalogue, thus ensuring that the elements in each picture were philosophically accurate and appropriately depicted. Also available in the gift shop were things like incense, Prabhupada’s “Happening” record album, finger-cymbals from a local music store, and wooden beads in a cellophane bag, along with string and instructions for stringing.
Sarna supplied varieties of brass incense burners, strings of small bells, and cowbells, used in the kirtanas. He also supplied cotton bedspreads with Indian designs that were sold as wall hangings. Says Brahmananda:
We used to go to his midtown showroom. In a small backroom cluttered with bells, brass stools, tables, and all sorts of knickknacks was a black marble Krishna statue standing on the floor. There were no appended dress, crown, or jewelry these were carved and painted on the form itself. A simple metal rod was used as a flute. I always noticed this dust covered statue on our visits, but we never spoke to Mr. Sarna about it. We would only glance at it with curiosity.
What we knew about deity worship was from Srila Prabhupada’s First Canto of the Bhagavatam, which he had brought from India, and from his lectures. Our experience was only theoretical, with no hands-on deity worship in the movement yet. To ask Mr. Sarna for the statue would have been audacious, and there was no question of purchasing it; funds were low. Yet it was difficult to see Krishna neglected in that way, even though we had no idea what a deity was.
Our relationship with Sarna was largely businesslike. He was clean-shaven and with no turban, but he was a Sikh. We rarely discussed spiritual matters, nor did he ever visit the center. But we did have one thing in common: He liked selling his handicrafts because he was proud of Indian culture, and he made this clear to us. In a similar way, we were also sharing with the West something that originated in India. So there was overlap here. And he loved explaining the use of cowbells, elephant bells, and temple bells in India. This was clearly his field. His lifelong dream was to establish a museum of Indian culture in New York, so he was importing all kinds of arts and crafts and storing them.
One afternoon in the winter of 1967, just after Srila Prabhupada had left for San Francisco to nurture his fledgling center there, Mr. Sarna phoned the devotees. He told them he had something for them and they should come to his apartment as soon as possible. When Brahmananda and Gargamuni arrived (along with newcomer Rupanuga Dasa), Sarna told them they could take the Krishna murti with them for their temple. He never said why, nor did they ask, fearing he would change his mind. Brahmananda assumed that perhaps it was a hard item to sell and was just sitting there collecting dust. But more likely is that Sarna, in his piety, wanted to assist Prabhupada’s mission. As his youngest daughter, Shivan, says:
My dad was a Sikh but was really a yogi in that he loved God in all forms, including nature, people, and so on. . . . While he loved Krishna, he also loved Buddha, Mahavira, Christ, and all the Dear Ones. He was committed to bringing the East to the West and did so through all sorts of wonderful handicrafts made in his homeland of India. He was an entrepreneur and, yes, a spiritual man, too. He had a warehouse in New York that was his hub for his wholesale business, which spanned the nation, and through this business he wanted to share the wealth of India. He was famous for his gift giving. It is no surprise that he gave them the deity of Krishna. I am sure he was as thrilled to give it as they were to receive it.
Receiving Sarna’s okay to take the deity, Brahmananda embraced it in his arms as he, his brother, and Rupanuga made their way back to 26 Second Avenue. They had come by subway, but they intuitively felt that Krishna should not have to endure a dirty public-transit ride. So they piled into a taxi with their new Friend.
When they returned to 26 Second Avenue, a special place was made for the deity an altar, of sorts and the Lord became a presence in the storefront. At first there was nothing even remotely resembling proper worship, but gradually the devotees started offering incense and ringing the bell no doubt purchased from Sarna’s enterprise. Thus, the first Krishna deity in ISKCON was born.
The Deity Gets His Name
Srila Prabhupada named the deity Madana-Mohana. The significance of this name is that Madana-Mohana was the first deity in Vrindavan worshiped by the followers of Caitanya Mahaprabhu in the sixteenth century. Inspired by this Madana-Mohana, a brahmana had given the deity to Sanatana Goswami. Since Sri Sanatana was old and poor, he could not worship the deity with the standard required items, but he did worship Him with pure devotion. According to tradition going back to pioneers of Lord Caitanya’s Krishna consciousness movement, devotees seek the blessings of Sri Sanatana’s Madana-Mohana deity in Vrindavan before beginning something, as Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami did before writing the Caitanya-caritamrta. It is significant that Prabhupada, now initiating ISKCON, a new institution, chose to name its first deity Madana-Mohana.
Additionally, Madana-Mohana is the primary deity for fledgling devotees. As Prabhupada writes in his commentary to the Caitanya-caritamrta (adi 1.19): “In the beginning of our spiritual life we must therefore worship Madana-Mohana so that He may attract us and nullify our attachment for material sense gratification. This relationship with Madana-Mohana is necessary for neophyte devotees.” Madana-Mohana is thus a fitting name for the first of ISKCON’s deities in the Western world.
Interestingly, when Brahmananda and Gargamuni would come before Prabhupada together, he would sometimes joke with them, saying, “Rupa and Sanatana have arrived.”
Brahmananda was the elder of the brothers, and therefore comparable to Sanatana, who was Rupa’s elder brother. It might also be noted that when Srila Prabhupada was a little boy he used to visit Tollygunge, Kolkata, where his maternal uncles lived, and with them he would visit a Madana-Mohana temple across the street from their house. This would have been one of the first Krishna deities he had seen in this life. Perhaps it was this that influenced him when naming the new Krishna deity for his American disciples.
Damodara Dasa, an early Prabhupada disciple from the Washington, D.C., area, remembers some history of ISKCON’s Madana-Mohana deity, starting in New York. His words are recounted in a 1978 letter to Amara Dasa:
Srila Prabhupada looked at the deity that was in the room with him, a beautiful black marble Krishna . . . Madana-Mohana. . . . I can remember vividly dancing in front of Him and having all kinds of “realizations.” First He was just standing on the altar, on the lower tier, as I recall. Then when Lord Jagannath was installed, this deity was given a place of honor way up there on top in His own little house, sometimes peeking discreetly from behind a curtain of white gauze. When we moved to 61 Second Avenue , He came to be known as Govinda, and He moved into a glass display case on the left wall of the temple room. Certain amenities, if not pujas, were observed at least I remember that He was given a spray-bottle shower every day. Or was it every other day? At any rate, His position grew in importance with the move to Brooklyn , where He took up residence in Srila Prabhupada’s quarters, and for the first time wore some clothes other than the marble ones He brought with Him.
Madana-Mohana Goes to Washington
In the early 1970s, Srila Prabhupada wanted Madana-Mohana to go to Washington, D.C., to preside over the devotees there. The story, which involves a complex series of events, is retold in Vaiyasaki Dasa’s Radha-Damodara Vilasa (pp. 522–24). But for the purposes of our version, it need merely be noted that at this time Prabhupada said, “Now you have to find Him a mate.” He suggested that Yamuna Devi Dasi, an early female disciple who happened to be living in Vrindavan at the time, arrange for a deity of Radharani to be sent to the West, specifically for Madana-Mohana. And she did. When the Radharani deity arrived, Damodara Dasa drove to Kennedy airport with his family to get Her, and he brought Her to D.C., where he was temple president.
It was the summer of 1973, and by the fall, the deities were properly installed and being worshiped by loving devotees. For six years, Madana-Mohana had been gracing ISKCON with His presence, but only now would He receive standard worship. Other deities were already accepting worship and inspiring devotees worldwide. But Madana-Mohana was ISKCON’s first deity, even if He had to wait until the early 70s to receive appropriate veneration.
The installation ceremony was a transcendent affair, covered by The Washington Post. The article was entitled, “Lord Krishna Lives on Q Street After Installation Ceremony” and was written by staff writer Marjorie Hyer, who captured both the spirituality and the beauty of the event. Some highlights of that article:
Lord Krishna has come to live on Q Street. He dines six times a day, wears red, blue and green spangled white brocade robes and stands about two feet tall. . . . To the uninitiated, He may look like just another Hindu statue. But after a four-hour ceremony and virtually nonstop chanting, dancing, sacrificing, and rites that included yogurt baths and being pelted with flowers, the adherents of the Washington Temple of Krishna Consciousness at 2015 Q Street, NW, proclaimed the statue to be Krishna, their God.
Seated on the floor on a pallet made from an India print, the Swami [Rupanuga Goswami] began the rites that would hook up the two statues before him to the main post office.
First, he bade the devotees they pronounce it De-Votees to recite quietly their mantras or prayers as they sat on the floor of the chairless room. He designated two others to read aloud simultaneously from their sacred scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita.
Then, reading softly from a mimeographed sheet he held in his left hand, he dipped yogurt from a big aluminum dishpan before him and ladled it tenderly over the head of the female deity figure.
As he continued the process, the white yogurt dripped down over the figure’s gauzy orange sari and the garland of orange and yellow flowers draped around the figure’s shoulders. When the yogurt pan was empty, he removed the soggy substance from the figure, rinsed it with water, and with the help of Damodar [temple president], carried it behind the orange and silver curtains at the end of the room.
Deliberately and reverentially, he repeated the same process for the male figure. The devotees, most of whom appeared to be under 30, continued with their chanting. Some rocked back and forth, some sat with bowed heads, others with faces upturned.
When the second deity, appropriately anointed and bathed, disappeared behind the curtain, a tall blonde youth hoisted the strap of an Indian style drum around his neck and began to play.
Devotees scrambled to their feet and burst into song. Gradually the drummer and the cymbalists increased the tempo until first one, then another, then the entire group was leaping and gyrating, arms raised, faces contorted in a frenzy of religious ecstasy.
After an hour, the intensity of the singing and dancing increased. Every eye was on the orange and silver curtains. Then the drummer stopped and the curtains parted. There was a gasp from the throng as they glimpsed the brilliantly dressed deities on the altar.
Kim and Chris Murray, a married couple who were both dedicated artists, started frequenting the temple just prior to the installation. Damodara Dasa quickly commissioned them to paint the deities.
“I assisted Kim,” says Chris. “She did most of the work. The altar was already there, and we worked behind the curtain, in this little chamber. I remember Kim painting the lotus eyes, the palms, the soles of the feet. We used Prabhupada’s books as our guides, and also Damodara and Mrganetri [Damodara’s wife] helped, too.”
Mamata Devi Dasi was Madana-Mohana’s first pujari (priest), and she feelingly recalls the installation ceremony, along with her very special time there:
What I remember most vividly from the installation ceremony was Damodara Prabhu’s kirtana. During the time when Rupanuga [Goswami] was performing the installation ceremony, we were all sitting and watching, and Damodara, with closed eyes, led a slow, melodious kirtana, with deep voice and deep meditation, for a very long time. That kirtana had a profound effect on me. It felt as though we were all getting some realization of Krishna being present in His name, and He was now also appearing in His beautiful deity form, Sri Sri Radha–Madana-Mohana, out of the causeless mercy of our guru, Srila Prabhupada.
I don’t remember dressing the deities after the ceremony, but I do remember putting Them to rest that night and how serenely happy I felt, alone with Their Lordships behind the curtain, offering some small service, and how I was completely captivated by Their enchanting beauty. This is the mercy of the arca-vigraha form of the Lord. I feel so fortunate to have been given that opportunity.
At Home in Potomac
From that point until 1976 the devotees happily served their Lordships Sri Sri Radha–Madana- Mohana at the popular townhouse temple on Q Street, near Dupont Circle. That year, they moved to the current address in Potomac, Maryland. It was during 1976, too, that Prabhupada visited the new temple, inspiring the devotees to even greater heights in their service.
Today, ISKCON of D.C. rests on twelve acres of beautiful forested land, a woodland environment that serves to recreate a Vrindavan mood ideal for meditation on the beautiful forms of Radha and Madana-Mohana. In February 1974, Gaura-Nitai deities were installed, followed by Sita-Rama, Laksmana, and Hanuman in October 1981. Besides the temple building, the complex includes a cultural hall and residential and guest accommodations.
A creek rambles through the property, where the devotees grow flowers and vegetables for the deities and lovingly provide for their cows, so dear to Lord Krishna. Some of the cows wear bells around their necks, a special touch that would definitely make Mr. Sarna smile.
Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written more than thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.