"Bodily Decrepitude Is Wisdom": The rueful line of the aging Yeats flashes into my mind as I look over the fifty or so college students sitting in rows before me. They glow with health and vigor; their faces are fresh and unlined; and they are, at this time, a quarter of a century or more my junior. For two decades now I have regularly been speaking about Krsna consciousness in colleges. When was it that the physical graces of youth became so striking to my eye? Now the mere sight of students has ruthlessly summoned my sense of bodily decrepitude, no less dismaying for appearing artfully draped in Yeats's line.
To be sure, this school—the University of Pennsylvania—is the right one for this sort of thing: she is alma mater herself. I myself was just such a student here twenty-five years ago. And so, for that matter, was my wife, Saudamani Dasi. We met as sophomores and were married—quaintly, for the 60's—between our junior and senior years. And now she sits a few feet away in an elegant sari, looking very well turned out, but showing, like me, some wear and tear about the edges, a bit nicked and scraped by the careless handling of time.
This course is called "The Cult Controversy," and I have an hour and a half to give these students some understanding of the Hare Krsna movement. Steve Dunning, the professor, also wishes to build bridges: he introduces my wife and me as alumna and -nus. The students regard us with a sharper interest: old grads in sari and dhoti. Then Steve mentions that our oldest son is currently a sophomore at the same school. Professor Dunning has sufficiently startled his students, and from my angle named what must be the sharpest spur for my pangs of age and loss: the fact that my wife and I are old enough to be parents of such Penn undergraduates is driven home by the even starker fact that we are.
I apply myself to the task at hand: to make Krsna consciousness intelligible to these students. How do I construct a bridge between two such different worlds? On one side: this pleasant Ivy League school, founded by Benjamin Franklin, where the Philadelphia aristocracy traditionally sent its offspring for a final buffing; where these days talented youth culled from around the nation learn the skills to operate successfully in the upper levels of various branches of the American establishment; a school whose most famous recent grad is, embarrassingly, the egregious Donald Trump, symbol of 80's excess.
And on the other side ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness: like Penn, a teaching institution and, like Penn, part of an "establishment," but in this case the institution continues a tradition of sacred knowledge handed down from the beginning of creation, a tradition that once schooled the world's greatest spiritual and political leaders, a tradition that in these reduced times has spread from India across the globe in a final attempt to reestablish the normative, prescribed human culture, and, as a result of that, a tradition whose representatives find themselves in classroom and courtroom and broadcast studio to answer the name-calling that damns it as that most pernicious and pathological of misbegotten social entities: a "cult."
I tell the students that people often latch onto half-baked notions of "brainwashing" and "mind control" simply because they cannot understand why someone would choose to join ISKCON. That choice becomes intelligible, however, if one firmly grasps that a person who joins ISKCON has decided to dedicate his or her life to self-realization and hence to reject the pursuit of sense gratification. ISKCON is actually a cultural movement in that it trains one to organize and conduct all the normal activities of life to serve the one central goal of self-realization; as a result, the ideals, values, and attitudes of ISKCON members will be quite inscrutable to those acquainted only with the culture of sense gratification.
As I explain these matters I notice that the students are attending with a sympathetic interest I haven't encountered for a long time; it piques my curiosity. Neither the cultural nor the generational differences between us seem to present barriers.
It is no wonder, I go on to say, that Srila Prabhupada drew his first committed followers from the 60's counterculture. I summarize the familiar history: how through a series of seeming mischances Prabhupada ended up in 1965 on the Lower East Side, then just starting to fill with the newly hatched "hippies," "freaks," and "heads," many of whom found his storefront temple a congenial place of shelter; how Prabhupada introduced Krsna consciousness to the West Coast scene by chanting at a "Mantra Rock Dance" with the Grateful Dead at the Avalon Ball-room; how at his Haight-Ashbury temple the pre-dawn kirtanas were packed with kids coming down from a night of tripping on LSD; how every day his prasadam filled the bellies of hundreds of runaways from all over the country; how two couples he dispatched to preach in London connected quickly with the Beatles; and how the Hare Krsna mantra, arranged by George Harrison and released on Apple, became the number-one song in England.
But, I point out to the students, it is ironic that although ISKCON burgeoned within the hothouse of the counterculture, those who became committed members had to utterly forsake their milieu's ethos of drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll. They had dropped out from straight society into the counterculture and from the counterculture into ISKCON—this double dropping out giving a message of the cultural distance they had to travel to arrive at last at Krsna consciousness.
What was the attraction? I speak from my own experience: Srila Prabhupada made self-realization clearly understandable and convinced us that it was practically possible. None of us was interested in "converting" to "a religion" or "becoming a Hindu." Rather, we became confident that self-realization is the intrinsic purpose of human life, and consequently we resolved to reject whatever baffled that purpose and to accept whatever furthered it.
What is self-realization? Something like "self-realization" is needed only if we do not, in fact, know ourselves, if we are mistaken about our identity. In my academic studies I had already encountered the first proposition of self-realization, aham brahmasmi, "I am Brahman, or spirit." But no professor ever noted what Srila Prabhupada pointed out: The corollary is "I am not this body."
Srila Prabhupada explained that we have taken up erroneous identities; nature has assembled for us a false self, the material body-mind complex, and we have identified ourselves with this alien entity, we have submerged our being into it. As a result, we lose the ability to experience ourselves as the spiritual entities we are—eternal, full of consciousness and bliss. Instead, we experience ourselves as material products, thrall to birth, old age, disease, and death.
As I speak, my sense of the class's receptive attention grows even stronger. During my recap of the history of the 60's, I could see that these events held some special significance for the students, though they were then yet to be born. It takes me a minute to understand: I had been talking about their own parents' youth. The students are children of "the children of the 60's," and these deeds are already part of the epic or legendary past. That may explain, in part, their sympathy.
There was a time when a large number of American youth saw no future for themselves in their society, and they dropped out of it. Out of that number, some, a few, saw no future for themselves in the temporary material world and became devotees of Krsna. In time, the counterculture vanished, merging back into mainstream America. ISKCON continued on, an alternative culture, growing, spreading, adapting. And all during that period, mainstream Western culture became gradually more and more open to the convictions, values, and practices of ISKCON: vegetarianism is more and more widely accepted, for example, as are ecology and the sanctity of nature, and the rights of animals. Words like guru, karma, avatara, ashram, mantra are all English. Look them up in the dictionary. The times, as Bob Dylan promised, have changed; and with that a new generation comes of age.
No one should become a teacher or a parent, Srimad-Bhagavatam says, who does not know how to save his charges from death. Human life is designed to solve the death problem, the disease problem, the old-age problem. But no one has told them, warned them. For now, enchanted by the spell of their own vitality, they are not overly troubled. Yet they too will soon come to wage in dead earnest their fatal and futile war on time. And the years will roar by like a great sucking wind, drawing the grace and vigor from their limbs. And finally there will be a tattered army of scarecrows, flapping in the wind, until they topple with a clatter into the dust.
In a memorable passage, Srila Prabhupada refers to modern universities as "slaughterhouses of the young." Their "education" is fatal because it aims only at the satisfaction of the material mind and senses. And the result is death, for death is an illusion we impose upon ourselves by our desires to enjoy in this world.
The pleasures produced by the conjunction of the senses with their objects, Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita, are in fact the source of all suffering. The reason for this is that enjoying the senses compels us to fall under the illusion that we are our bodies. Sense gratification drugs us, as it were, into a state of false consciousness. As a result, whatever befalls this body we now accept as happening to ourselves. Yet we are eternally safe and well, beyond all harm. We are like a dreamer who, although secure in his own bed, accepts a dream body as himself and, shrieking and struggling, undergoes the terrors of a nightmare. Human beings are meant to wake up and end this repeated traumatic nightmare of temporary existence.
I explain to the class how Srila Prabhupada made that possibility vividly real, how he guided us with care into the systematic practices of devotional service, and how as a result we experienced our consciousness change. We could monitor the steps of spiritual advancement, measure the decrease of lust and greed and anger as a physician measures the decreasing heat and pus and pain of an abating infection.
Prabhupada's transcendental knowledge is not only theoretical but also practical. It distinguishes the soul from mind and body not for the recreation of armchair speculators but for the formation of character and the transformation of consciousness. It does not merely teach us to accept in principle that we are eternal beings; it shows us the way to experience ourselves as eternal beings.
I describe some of our practices to the students and then lead them through the responsive chanting of Hare Krsna. I call for questions; dozens of hands shoot up. Breaking the trend of the last decade, the questions focus on the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. After half an hour of discussion the period ends, but a group stays on, munching prasadam cookies, questioning and questioning. When we break up we plan to continue the discussion in a few days, when they come to the temple for the Sunday feast.
After two hours of standing and talking my feet hurt, my back aches, and my neck is stiff—earnest of a headache to come. My body feels its age, but I feel refreshed, rejuvenated, at ease. As we make our way through the halls, afternoon light slants through sheets of smoky glass upon the crowded congregations of the young. I do not envy them. I realize I am at ease now with growing old; I feel grateful for the wisdom of bodily decrepitude. We can hold on to nothing in this world, and the pain comes from thinking we can, from grasping.
So much has vanished: As we cut through the courtyard bounded by the faceted towers of the classroom buildings, the image comes to mind of that other classroom building that stood on this same site twenty-five years ago, with its long dusky halls, tall ceiling, and high narrow windows set deep in fortress-grade stone block. Something Hall—I've forgotten its name. In it flowed and ebbed the cohorts of the young, and now it is itself demolished and replaced; so generations and worlds go by. In a vanished room in that vanished building, amid the hissing and thumping of ancient radiators, I first read the poetry of Yeats. He sang what he had heard about the soul from Plato and Plotinus:
sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is…
I sat up, nerves tingling. I had heard the truth. And so a drop of the ancient wisdom of the human race had seeped down to me, conveyed by a poet who in the end didn't know what to do with it. Twenty-five years later I return, and everything is utterly transformed: but now, by the grace of Srila Prabhupada, I know what to do. And I teach them what Srila Prabhupada taught me, and those who hear will teach others, and in this way the unperishing transmission of timeless knowledge shall redeem all dying generations, while world after world wears by.
Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, ISKCON's Governing Body Commissioner for the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, lives at the Philadelphia temple, where he joined ISKCON in 1971. He holds a Ph.D. in religion from Temple University.