I was from the first generation of immigrant survivors of World War II who escaped to America. My father was a religious leader who had to flee his war-torn homeland. After the war, relatives would visit us with numbers tattooed on their forearms from the concentration camps in Eastern Europe. They would describe how they survived the horrors of the war and arrived in America. This all made a deep impression upon me in my childhood, and at age five I decided to enter Hebrew School and complete a religious education up to age fifteen. My goal was to study the Torah in Hebrew to understand God’s teachings.
At an early age I realized that the sweetest and most beautiful moments in my life were when we children gathered together at the school and sang ancient songs in loving praise of God in the Hebrew language. I felt no joy greater than this, so it propelled me on in my studies and my hopes to understand the scriptures one day.
That hope was somewhat frustrated as graduation, or confirmation, drew near. I had hardly learned any Hebrew, and we rarely had classes on the holy books. I asked my most respected teacher when we would learn these things, and he soberly replied that I would have to go on to Hebrew College for those studies.
Though disappointed at the time of graduation, I still gratefully received a gift of an English translation of the Torah and began to read it carefully. It was full of ethical and moral codes for humanity, and I was inspired to incorporate them into my teenage life. This alienated me a bit from my friends and classmates, who had little interest in morality or religion. By following the rules of cleanliness and diet, I gradually felt a change in my life. I became steadfast and determined to maintain these rules even if people around me didn’t follow them. Following the rules seemed worthwhile because I felt peaceful and safe, as if I were protected by God when I followed His instructions. It also helped me develop an inner personal closeness to God.
College or a Monasteryn
By age sixteen it was time to choose where to go to college. I decided to seek the most ancient scriptures known to mankind and study those books in their original language. It seemed that Oriental culture was more ancient than Judaism, so I looked for the best Oriental philosophy colleges in America. I also considered monastic life, so I wrote to some professors for advice on whether to enter a monastery or a college. One professor from Japan sent a hand-written reply saying I should complete college before entering a monastery. On this advice, I chose what seemed the finest university for Oriental studies, the University of Chicago, and was accepted as a student there.
I arrived at the university a week before classes started. I decided to look for an interesting book in their massive bookstore and use that week to read it. After hours of searching I found a most amazing book called Bhagavad-gita. It intrigued me. The translation of its title proclaimed it to be the very “Song of God.” I read it and reread it, and realized that this was the knowledge I had been seeking. It had the answers to my questions about life, plus answers to questions I never knew to ask. It taught me how to see God everywhere, and in everything. I was delighted. I realized I had found what I was looking for at the university. I had found Bhagavad-gita, God’s original instructions to mankind. Rather than waste another four years of my life on academics, I decided to find people living the principles of Bhagavad-gita and learn more from them.
It was the 60s, and there was a lot of searching going on in America. The epicenter of the counter culture was in California, or at least I believed so. I lived in Pennsylvania and didn’t see much happening in that part of the country. So I decided to go to California, hoping to find people practicing Bhagavad-gita. Krishna guided me, and there on the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets, devotees were chanting Hare Krishna. When I saw them I was struck with wonder.
“These people must know something I don’t know,” I thought, “because they’re doing something I would love to do.”
I was spellbound by their singing and dancing, but when they came around with a conch shell for collecting donations, I didn’t have a single penny to give them, so they passed me by. I was too shy to speak with the young men in robes, and there weren’t any young women with them. I returned to my home in Pennsylvania with my Bhagavad-gita.
Sweet Sound in the Street
By this time I was carefully following the instructions on yoga as described in Bhagavad-gita, and living a simple, pure way of life. One beautiful day, while sitting in meditation at Ritten house Square in Philadelphia, I heard the sweet sound of singing and hand cymbals. I followed the sound and saw the devotees again. One of them handed me a card imprinted with the maha-mantra, and I stayed to watch them dancing on the street corner. That evening I visited the temple for their Bhagavad-gita class. I attended their next Sunday feast and moved into the temple two days later.
There were only three devotees living in the temple, and they needed a lot of help. In those days we had to learn everything quickly and then become teachers ourselves. We were all just fledgling devotees from diverse backgrounds, but somehow Krishna had brought us together in His service. Prabhupada, our eternal spiritual master and guide, presented the teachings of Bhagavad-gita so perfectly that anyone from any background can become Krishna’s devotee.
Thus my quest beginning from age five to understand God’s teachings was ultimately successful. I found the most ancient scriptures, and I study them now in the original language, Sanskrit. My deepest joy still remains in sankirtana, the congregational chanting of God’s holy names and glories. I also now understand from practical experience how Krishna leads us to Him through the variegated religions of the world. By sincerely abiding by the Supreme Lord’s instructions, anyone can attain the perfection of life love of God.