After a year long struggle, Srila Prabhupada's mission of transplanting Krsna consciousness from India to America won its first dedicated supporters.
In Keith Prabhupada had a serious follower. Within a week of their meeting Keith had moved out of the Mott Street apartment and was living with Prabhupada. He still dressed ill his ragged denim shorts and T-shirt, but he began to do all the Swami's shopping and cooking. While in India, Keith had learned some of etiquette of reverence toward a holy man and the principles of discipleship. His friends watched him curiously as he dedicated himself to the Swami.
Keith: I saw that he was cooking, so I asked if I could help. And he was very happy at the suggestion. He showed me how to make capatis without a rolling pin by pressing out the dough with your fingers. Every day we would make capatis,rice, dal, and curries.
So Keith became the dependable cook and housekeeper in Prabhupada's apartment. Meanwhile, at the Mott Street apartment, the boys' favorite topic for discussion was their relationship with the Swami. Everyone thought it was a serious relationship. They knew Swamiji was guru. And when they heard that he would he giving daily classes at 6 a.m. up in his apartment, they were eager to attend.
Keith: I used to walk along the Bowery and look for flowers for him. When there were no flowers, I would take a straw or some grass. I loved going over there in the morning.
Chuck: I brought a few grapes and came to the Swami's door. This was all new. Previously I would always walk toward McDougall Street, toward Bohemia, aesthetic New York and now I walked to the Lower East Side toward the business district, where there were no artists or musicians, but simply straight buildings. And somehow, outside the carnival atmosphere, there was the richest attraction for the senses and the heart.
Howard: I would walk very briskly over to Swamiji's, chanting Hare Krsna, feeling better than ever before. Miraculously, the Lower East Side no longer looked drab. The sidewalks and buildings seemed to sparkle, and in the early morning before the smog set in, the sky was red and golden.
Chuck: I came into the hall of his building, and there were many, many names printed on plaques over the mail-boxes. I immediately found the name. "A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami," handwritten on a slip of torn paper, slipped into one of the slots. I rang the buzzer and waited. After a few moments, the door buzzed loudly, and I entered through the security lock. I walked through the small garden into the rear building and upstairs.
Prabhupada held his classes for almost two months in the privacy of his room, the same room where he typed and talked to guests. To Keith it was not simply a class in philosophy but a mystical experience of sweetness.
Keith: The sound of his voice, the sun coming up . . . we'd chant for a few minutes, softly clapping hands, and Swamiji would speak. The thing that got me most was simply the sound of his voice, especially while he was chanting Sanskrit. It was like music.
So as not to disturb the neighbors, Prabhupada would say, "Chant softly," and he asked the boys to clap softly, so softly that their hands barely touched. Then he would chant the prayers to the spiritual master: samsara-davanala-lidha-loka. "The spiritual master is receiving benediction from the ocean of mercy. Just as a cloud pours water on a forest fire to extinguish it, so the spiritual master extinguishes the blazing fire of material existence." With his eyes closed, he sat singing softly in the dim morning light. The few who attended Keith, Howard, Chuck, Steve, Wally sat entranced. Never before had the Swami been so appreciated.
Chuck: The Swami was sitting there, and in the mornings he would look not shiny and brilliant, but very withdrawn. He looked as if he could sit like a stone maybe forever. His eyes were only two tiny slits of glistening light. He took out his cymbals and played lightly on the edge one, two, three and he began to sing in a deep voice that was almost atonal in its intervals. It was a melody-monotone that did not express happiness or sadness. We chanted along with him as best we could, but several times Swamiji stopped and said, "Softly." After about thirty minutes of chanting, we stopped. Then he opened his eyes wider and said, "We must chant softly, because sometimes the neighbors are complaining."
After singing, the Swami would give one of the boys a copy of Dr. Radhakrishnan's edition of Bhagavad-gita to read aloud from. He would correct their mispronunciations and then explain each verse. Because only a few people were present, there was always ample time for everyone to discuss the philosophy.
Steve: Swamiji mentioned that mangoes were the king of all fruits, and he even mentioned that they were not easily available in this country. It occurred to me that I could bring him mangoes. There was a store on First Avenue that always kept a stock of fresh mangoes in the cooler. I began a regular habit. Every day after getting off work, I would purchase one nice mango and bring it to Swamiji.
Wally: Some of the boys would say, "I'm doing this for the Swami. "So I went to him and said, "Is there something I can do for you?" So he told me I could take notes in his class.
The boys were sure that their service to Swamiji was spiritual, devotional service. By serving the spiritual master, who was a representative of Krsna, you were serving Krsna directly.
One morning Prabhupada told Howard that he needed help in spreading the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. Howard wanted to help, so he offered to type the Swami's manuscripts of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Howard: The first words of the first verse read, "O the King." And naturally I wondered whether "O" was the king's name and "the king" stood in apposition. After some time I figured out that "O king" was intended instead. I didn't make the correction without his permission. "Yes, " he said, "change it then." I began to point out a few changes and inform him that if he wanted I could make corrections, that I had a master's in English and taught last year at Ohio State. "Oh, yes," Swamiji said. "Do it. Put it nicely. "
He was giving them the idea of devotional service. "A devotee may not be perfect at first," he said. "but if he is engaged in service, once that service has begun he can be purified. Service is always there, in the material world or the spiritual." But service in the material world could not bring satisfaction to the self only bhakti, purified service, service rendered to Krsna, could do that. And the best way to serve Krsna was to serve the representative of Krsna.
They picked it up quickly. It was something you could do easily: it was not difficult like meditation it was activity. You did something, but you did it for Krsna. They had seen Swamiji respond to the Bowery bum who had come with a gift of toilet paper. "Just see." Swamiji had said, "he is not in order, but he thought, 'Let me give some service.' " But service had to be done voluntarily, out of love, not by force.
Wally: Swamiji once asked me. "Do you think you could wear the Vaisnava tilaka when you are on the streets?" I said.
"Well. I would feel funny doing it, but if you want me to I will" And Swamiji said. "No. I don't ask you to do anything you don't want to do."
Steve: One day when I brought my daily mango to him he was in his room surrounded by devotees. I gave him my mango and sat down, and he said. "Very good boy. " The way he said it, as if I were just a tiny little boy, made everyone in the room laugh, and I felt foolish. Swamiji, however, then changed their mood by saying, "No. This is actually love. This is Krsna consciousness." And then they didn't laugh.
When Howard first volunteered to do editing, he spent the whole morning working in Swamiji's room. "If there is any more typing:" Howard said, "let me know. I could take it back to Mott Street and type there."
"More? There's lots more." Swamiji said. He opened the closet and pulled out two large bundles of manuscripts tied in saffron cloth. There were thousands of pages, single-spaced manuscripts of Prabhupada's translations of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Howard stood before them, astonished. "It's a lifetime of typing," he said. And Prabhupada smiled and said. "Oh, yes, many lifetimes."
Because of Prabhupada's presence and the words that he spoke there and the kirtanas, everyone was already referring to the storefront as "the temple." But still it was just a bare, squalid storefront. The inspiration to decorate the place came from the Mott Street boys.
Howard, Keith, and Wally devised a scheme to surprise the Swami when he came to the evening kirtana. Wally removed the curtains from their apartment, took them to the laundromat (where they turned the water dark brown from filth), and then dyed them purple. The Mott Street apartment was decorated with posters, paintings, and large decorative silk hangings that Howard and Keith had brought back from India. The boys gathered up all their pictures, tapestries, incense burners, and other paraphernalia and took them, along with the purple curtains, to the storefront, where they began their day of decorating.
At the storefront the boys constructed a wooden platform for Prabhupada to sit on and covered it with old velvet cloth. Behind the platform, on the rear wall between the two windows to the courtyard, they hung the purple curtains, flanked by a pair of orange ones. Against the orange panel, just above Swamiji's sitting place, they hung a large original painting of Radha and Krsna on a circular canvas that James Greene had done. Prabhupada had commissioned James, giving him the dust jacket from hisSrimad-Bhagavatam, with its crude Indian drawing, as a model. The figures were somewhat abstract, but the Lower East Side critics who frequented the storefront hailed the work as a wonderful achievement.
Keith and Howard were less confident that Prabhupada would approve of their paintings and prints from India, so they hung them near the street side of the temple, away from Swamiji's seat. One of these prints, well known in India, was of Hanuman carrying a mountain through the sky to Lord Ramacandra. The boys had no idea what kind of being Hanuman was. They thought perhaps he was a cat, because of the shape of his upper lip. Then there was the picture of a male person with six arms two arms, painted greenish, held a bow and arrow; another pair, bluish, held a flute; and the third pair, golden, held a stick and bowl.
By late afternoon they had covered the sitting platform, hung the curtains, tacked up the decorative silks and prints and hung the paintings, and were decorating the dais with flowers and candlesticks. Someone brought a pillow for Swamiji to sit on and a faded cushion from an overstuffed chair for a backrest.
In addition to the Mott Street cache, Robert Nelson took one of his grandfather's Belgian-style Oriental rugs from his garage in the suburbs and brought it by subway to the storefront. Even Raphael and Don took part in the decorating.
The secret was well kept, and the boys waited to see Swamiji's response. That night, when he walked in to begin the kirtana, he looked at the newly decorated temple (there was even incense burning), and he raised his eyebrows in satisfaction. "You are advancing," he said as he looked around the room, smiling broadly. "Yes." he added, "this is Krsna consciousness." His sudden, happy mood seemed almost like their reward for their earnest labors. He then stepped up onto the platform while the boys held their breaths, hoping it would be sturdy and he sat, looking out appreciatively at the devotees and the decorations.
They had pleased him. But he now assumed a feature of extreme gravity, and though they knew he was certainly the same Swamiji, their titterings stuck in their throats, and their happy glances to each other suddenly abated in uncertainty and nervousness. As they regarded Swamiji's gravity, their joy of a few moments before seemed suddenly childish. As a cloud quickly covers the sun like a dark shade, Prabhupada changed his mood from jolly to grave and they spontaneously resolved to become equally grave and sober. He picked up the karatalas and again smiled a ray of appreciation, and their hearts beamed back.
The temple was still a tiny storefront, with many hidden and unhidden cockroaches, a tilted floor, and poor lighting. But because many of the decorations were from India, it had an authentic atmosphere, especially with Swamiji present on the dais. Now guests who entered were suddenly in a little Indian temple.
Mike Grant: I came one evening, and all of a sudden there were carpets on the floor, pictures on the wall, and paintings. Just all of a sudden it had blossomed and was full of people. I was amazed how in just a matter of days people had brought so many wonderful things. When I came that evening and saw how it had been decorated, then I wasn't so much worried that he was going to make it. I thought it was really beginning to take hold now.
Prabhupada looked at his group of followers. He was moved by their offering him a seat of honor and their attempts at decorating Krsna's storefront. To see a devotee make an offering to Krsna was not new for him. But this was new. In New York, "this horrible place," the seed of bhakti was growing, and naturally, as the gardener of that tender sprout, he was touched by Krsna's mercy. Glancing at the pictures on the wall he said, "Tomorrow I will come look at the pictures and tell you which are good."
The next day, Prabhupada came down to appraise the new artwork on display. One framed watercolor painting was of a man playing a drum while a girl danced. "This one is all right," he said. But another painting of a woman was more mundane, and he said, "No, this painting is not so good." He walked to the back of the temple, followed anxiously by Howard, Keith, and Wally. When he came upon the painting of the six-armed person, he said, "Oh, this is very nice."
"Who is it?" Wally asked.
"This is Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu," Srila Prabhupada replied.
"Why does He have six arms?"
"Because He showed Himself to be both Rama and Krsna. These are the arms of Rama, and these are the arms of Krsna." "What are the other two arms?" Keith asked.
"Those are the arms of a sannyasi."
He went to the next picture, "This is also very nice."
"Who is it?" Howard asked.
"This is Hanuman."
"Is he a cat?"
"No:" Prabhupada replied. "He is a monkey."
Hanuman is glorified in the scripture Ramayana as the valiant, faithful servant of Lord Ramacandra. Millions of Indians worship the incarnation of Lord Rama and His servitor Hanuman, whose exploits are perennially exhibited in theater, cinema, art, and temple worship. In not knowing who Hanuman was, the Mott Street boys were no less ignorant than the old ladies uptown who, when Prabhupada had asked whether any of them had seen a picture of Krsna, had all stared blankly. The Lower East Side mystics didn't know Hanuman from a cat, and they had brought back from their hashish version of India a picture of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu without even knowing who He was. Yet there was an important difference between these boys and the ladies uptown: the boys were serving Swamiji and chanting Hare Krsna. They were through with material life and the middle-class work-reward syndrome. Their hearts had awakened to Swamiji's promise of expanded Krsna consciousness, and they sensed in his personal company something exalted. Like the Bowery bum who had donated toilet paper during Prabhupada's lecture, the Lower East Side boys did not have their minds quite in order, and yet, as Prabhupada saw it, Krsna was guiding them from within their hearts. Prabhupada knew they would change for the better by chanting and hearing about Krsna.
The summer of 1966 moved into August, and Prabhupada kept good health. For him these were happy days. New Yorkers complained of the summer heat waves, but this caused no inconvenience to one accustomed to the 100-degree-plus temperatures of Vrndavana's blazing summers. "It is like India," he said, as he went without a shirt, seeming relaxed and at home. He had thought that in America he would have to subsist on boiled potatoes (otherwise there would be nothing but meat), but here he was happily eating the same rice, dal, and capatis, and cooking on the same three-stacked cooker as in India. Work on the Srimad-Bhagavatam had also gone on regularly since he had moved into the Second Avenue apartment. And now Krsna was bringing these sincere young men who were cooking, typing, hearing him regularly, chanting Hare Krsna, and asking for more.
Prabhupada was still a solitary preacher, free to stay or go, writing his books in his own intimate relationship with Krsna quite independent of the boys in the storefront. But now he had taken the International Society for Krishna Consciousness as his spiritual child. The inquiring young men, some of whom had already been chanting steadily for over a month, were like stumbling spiritual infants, and he felt responsible for guiding them. They were beginning to consider him their spiritual master, trusting him to lead them into spiritual life. Although they were unable to immediately follow the multifarious rules that brahmanas and Vaisnavas in India followed, he was hopeful. According to Rupa Gosvami the most important principle was that one should "somehow or other" become Krsna conscious. People should chant Hare Krsna and render devotional service. They should engage whatever they had in the service of Krsna. And Prabhupada was exercising this basic principle of Krsna consciousness to the furthest limit the history of Vaisnavism had ever seen.
Although he was engaging the boys in cooking and typing, Prabhupada was not doing any less himself. Rather, for every sincere soul who came forward to serve, a hundred came who wanted not to serve but to challenge. Speaking to them, sometimes shouting and pounding his fists, Prabhupada defended Krsna against the Mayavada philosophy. This was also his service to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. He had not come to America to retire. So with each new day came yet another confirmation that his work and his followers and his challengers would only increase.
How much he could do was up to Krsna. "I am an old man," he said. "I may go away at any moment." But if he were to "go away" now, certainly Krsna consciousness would also go away, because the Krsna consciousness society was nothing but him: his figure leading the chanting while his head moved back and forth in small motions of ecstasy, his figure walking in and out of the temple through the courtyard or into the apartment, his person sitting down smilingly to discuss philosophy by the hour he was the sole maintainer of the small, fragile, controlled atmosphere of Krsna consciousness on New York's Lower East Side.