For seven days in 1975, devotees in Caracas basked in the presence of the ambassador of the spiritual world.
In the '70s, Srila Prabhupada and his disciples traveled all over the globe spreading the Krsna consciousness movement. But even in places where neither Prabhupada nor his disciples had yet visited, Krsna consciousness took root simply by the strength of his books. One such country was Venezuela, South America.
Ilan Chester was a young Venezuelan musician looking for answers to the purpose of life. While visiting Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1972, he met Krsna devotees for the first time. He carried books on Krsna consciousness back to Venezuela and distributed them among his friends. Soon there was a small group of people chanting Hare Krsna and regularly reading Srila Prabhupada's books. Ilan wrote a letter to the Mexico City temple requesting help to open a center in Caracas. Around that time a group of devotees headed by Hanuman Goswami were touring Latin America and the Caribbean. By the end of 1972 they arrived in Caracas from Trinidad. Along with the small group of local devotees, they opened the first ISKCON center in South America.
Citsukhananda Dasa, who had opened the first temple in Mexico and served as temple president there for some time, also wanted to join the Venezuelan devotees and help establish the movement there. He wrote to Srila Prabhupada asking for his permission and blessings. Prabhupada replied on December 11, 1972:
So I think because Hanuman is always sending me successful reports of preaching meetings, so many newspaper articles and photos, that this Krsna consciousness movement will be very famous there and you will find many interested persons to become devotees, just like at Mexico. . . . If there is good possibility to arrange nice programs, and if you have got a very nice place by then, why shall I not stop there in Caracas while returning to your country sometime next year?
At the beginning of 1973 Citsukhananda became the first temple president in Caracas. In December 1973, one year after the Caracas temple was established, the first Venezuelan devotees traveled with Citsukhananda to Los Angeles to receive initiation from Srila Prabhupada. Among them was Ilan, who received the name Havi Dasa. The other devotees to take initiation were Viraha Dasa, Virabahu Dasa, Tamoha Dasa, Pramana Dasa, Karta Dasi, and Vara Dasi. During a morning walk in Cheviot Hills Park, Prabhupada promised the Venezuelan devotees he would visit their country in the near future.
The devotees in Venezuela were inspired by Prabhupada's appeal to broadcast Krsna consciousness for the benefit of all living entities. The movement expanded quickly in Venezuela, and many people were becoming attracted to Krsna consciousness, as predicted by Srila Prabhupada in his letter to Citsukhananda. But the devotees were not without opposition.
Once, at the beginning of 1973, Hanuman was speaking to a group of students at the Central University of Venezuela. They were communists and became disturbed at Hanuman's criticism of atheism. A heated exchanged ensued, and by the end the enraged students chased Hanuman, shouting, "Catch him! Hang him!" Somehow they thought Hanuman belonged to the CIA and wanted to lynch him. A lawyer named Bolivar was passing by in his car. Seeing Hanuman being chased, he stopped and motioned for him to jump in, thus saving his life.
Around that time there were many new religious groups in Venezuela. Some of them were dubious and attracted complaints from the public. So the government decided to investigate all the new religious groups in the country. Without notice, the police would arrive at each center and search the premises. Their discoveries were then broadcast in the newspapers the next day.
One day the police arrived at the Caracas temple and barged in with their shoes and guns. The devotees were helpless. The police failed to find anything abnormal but still decided to take all the devotees present to jail. Viraha, the temple president, asked if they could give the devotees some time to finish the morning program. They agreed to wait for half an hour only. Viraha asked one devotee to read something. Virabahu Dasa randomly opened the book Krsna and started to read. Aptly, the chapter was entitled "Kamsa Begins His Persecutions."
At noon some other devotees came to the jail with prasadam. They were allowed to distribute the food to the jailed devotees and even gave some to the policemen. The police were apologetic, saying they were sorry because they felt the devotees were good people but they had to obey their authorities. The devotees were released from jail the same day without charges, but the next day the incident was reported in the newspapers in a sensational way. A lawyer who read the article and felt that an injustice had been done to the devotees came to the temple and offered his services for free. He was Bolivar, the same lawyer who had saved Hanuman at the university a year before. Bolivar became the temple legal advisor, and his service was of a great help at that difficult time.
Despite these obstacles, Krsna consciousness continued to expand successfully in Venezuela. Every Sunday the temple was full of happy guests who enjoyed the transcendental festive atmosphere created by the devotees' enthusiasm and sincerity. The devotees were distributing thousands of books and magazines all over Venezuela. The good news soon reached Srila Prabhupada, who was very pleased. In October 1974, Prabhupada sent a letter to Hridayananda Dasa Goswami, who had recently become ISKCON's governing body commissioner for Venezuela:
Actually these books are the foundation stone of our movement. Whatever we are is resting on these books, so far reading them and distributing them. This should be our only motto. Your invitation to visit Mexico and Caracas sounds very nice, and I shall be very pleased to come there. I shall be going to Hawaii sometime in December, and then I can come wherever you like.
But Prabhupada was unable to visit Venezuela until February 18, 1975. A month before his visit, with his approval the Caracas devotees held an installation ceremony for Gaura-Nitai deities. By now Krsna consciousness had spread to several other countries in Latin America, and Prabhupada's visit to Venezuela became a focal point for devotees all over the region. Devotees from Brazil, Argentina, Trinidad, Santo Domingo, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and even from as far as Canada and the U.S. flocked to Caracas for Prabhupada's visit.
On the evening of Prabhupada's arrival, the devotees performed kirtana at the temple with great vigor and enthusiasm. When Prabhupada arrived and got out of the car, we all immediately offered respectful obeisances. For most of us it was the first time we were seeing our spiritual master. There was excitement and happiness on everyone's face, and due to the transcendental atmosphere created by Prabhupada's presence it seemed like the temple was floating in the air. The kirtana went on unabated. Suddenly Prabhupada looked at me. I had never seen anybody with such a transparent and pure look. It seemed like the spiritual world was manifesting itself before us. An ambassador from Krsna's land, Vrndavana, was among us, and with a merciful glance he was approving our humble effort to welcome him.
After the welcoming ceremony, Prabhupada looked at the deities and said, "It is very nice that these two Prabhus [Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai] are here with us tonight. They came here from their home in Navadvipa, which is very far away from this land . . . There is a beautiful song. Can you follow me?"
While feelingly staring at the beautiful golden deities, Prabhupada started to sing Parama Karuna. Just by uttering the first two words of the song, Prabhupada's voice choked up and tears of love came out of his closed eyes.
Having been so fortunate to witness Prabhupada's genuine spiritual emotion, and noting my own material conditioning, I felt humbled. As a result, this verse from Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.14.23) has come to mean very much to me: "If one's hairs do not stand on end, how can the heart melt? And if the heart does not melt, how can tears of love flow from the eyes? If one does not cry in spiritual happiness, how can one render loving service to the Lord? And without such service, how can the consciousness be purified?"
After a few minutes Prabhupada came back to external consciousness, eyes shining with spiritual emotions. He said, "Parama karuna. . . Lord Caitanya is so merciful. If He had come to kill the demons like Krsna did, then practically speaking almost nobody would be left in Kali-yuga. In this age the divine and the demoniac spirit are in the same body, and Lord Caitanya came to kill the demoniac spirit with the chanting of the holy name of Krsna. You are very fortunate because you received Lord Caitanya's mercy. Now, you have to make others fortunate too."
Since that day our deities came to be known as Parama Karuna Gaura-Nitai.
Srila Prabhupada stayed for seven days in Caracas, and during his visit he had interviews with professors, psychiatrists, the Metaphysics Society, and a yoga group. Every day he would go to a park for his morning walk. Bolivar the lawyer accompanied Prabhupada every morning and asked questions, which Prabhupada enjoyed answering.
Ancient Vedic Culture in South America?
One morning at the park Srila Prabhupada told the devotees that Lord Ramacandra was once taken through a tunnel from Sri Lanka to Brazil, where Ravana's brother Mahiravana had his headquarters. When the demons told the Lord to bow down in front of goddess Kali to sacrifice Him before her, Lord Ramacandra asked them to show Him how to do it. When they bowed down, the Lord took a sword and chopped off their heads. Interestingly, near the ISKCON farm in the Amazon in Brazil is an ancient town called Hanuman. Also in the Amazon in Venezuela is a mountain called Meru.
On one morning walk, Prabhupada stopped to watch some alligators swimming in a lake. One of them stopped to look and opened his mouth to show his big teeth.
Prabhupada jokingly told him, "You have good arguments to catch, but no opportunity to catch."
The alligator closed his mouth and opened it back again.
Prabhupada smiled and said, "No food. He is inviting us!"
On February 22, 1975, there was an initiation ceremony, and many devotees from Venezuela and other countries in Latin America were initiated by Srila Prabhupada.
When I was called to receive initiation, Prabhupada told me: "Your name is Jagat Caksur Dasa. Jagat Caksur means 'the eye of the world.' In whatever situation or place we may be, we should always feel God's sight on us. He is the witness of everything that we do. We should always remember that."
Prabhupada pointed his finger at me and said, "You cannot hide from the eyes of God!"
I felt that Prabhupada was reading my mind, because sometimes I used to go to the kitchen, steal a sweet, and hide somewhere to eat it, thinking nobody was watching me. Now I felt that Prabhupada had caught me in front of everyone.
This incident made me more Krsna conscious, and I appreciated Prabhupada's words very much. In Prabhupada's company everything was surcharged with Krsna consciousness, and I felt secure and protected from the illusion of maya. Prabhupada spoke from the transcendental platform, and his nectarean words penetrated the dense darkness of my heart, enlightening my being with the clear understanding that I am the eternal servant of Krsna.
Continue the Enthusiasm
Inevitably the morning of Srila Prabhupada's departure arrived. In front of the deities, Prabhupada said that he felt happy in the Caracas temple and petitioned everyone to faithfully continue performing devotional service so that in this same lifetime they would be able to see Krsna face to face.
Quoting Srila Rupa Gosvamis Nectar of Instruction, Prabhupada said: "Utsahat. The first thing is enthusiasm that 'I must see Krsna.' You are seeing Krsna. The deity of Krsna and Krsna are not different. But even personally we can see. Simply we have to continue the enthusiasm. Enthusiasm means to take things very seriously utsahat. Dhairyat and patiently. Although we are determined to go back to home, back to Godhead, we should patiently follow the rules and regulations."
At the airport Hridayananda Goswami presented Srila Prabhupada the First Canto of the Spanish Srimad-Bhagavatam, which had just arrived at the airport from Los Angeles. Prabhupada left Venezuela with the book in his hand.
Prabhupada's visit created a very spiritual, harmonious atmosphere in the temple. The devotees felt that his visit had passed too quickly, and keenly felt separation from him, not knowing when they would again have a chance to see him. But by Krsna's mercy more than thirty devotees from the Caracas temple were able to see Prabhupada again at the first New York Rathayatra, in July 1976.
In a letter, Prabhupada wrote, "I am always thinking of the Caracas temple. Although I went there once, it has given me some impression."
Although Prabhupada has disappeared from our mundane vision, he stays forever in the heart of all his sincere followers, guiding them through their sojourn in this material world, and always calling them back home, back to Godhead.
Jagat Caksur Dasa, born in Syria, emigrated at an early age to Venezuela, where he was later initiated by Srila Prabhupada. He has served in Central and Latin America as well as Spain and Portugal. This article was excerpted from a Spanish book he wrote entitled Srila Prabhupada en Venezuela. He translated the excerpt into English, and it was then edited by Karuna Dharini Devi Dasi and Ananda Tirtha Dasa.