Part III (Conclusion): The Prophecy Fulfilled
ON THE NIGHT of February 15, 1990, during a power failure, I was led across a rooftop high over New Delhi; the city had disappeared in darkness below, while overhead the firmament spilled open with a bright brocade of stars. On that rooftop stood a one-room concrete hut: it was the study of an astrologer and seer known to me simply as "Panditji." Sitting within that narrow, candlelit space, my companions and I heard the Pandit deliver an amazing prophecy.
It all began with Panditji's enthusiastic assertion at some point in our conversation that the International Society for Krishna Consciousness would one day transform the world. Wondering whether his vision owed more to pious hope than actual fore-knowledge, I inquired about something more specific and nearer at hand: the annual meeting of the Governing Body Commission of ISKCON, which was to begin in three days in Mayapura. I was flying out the next afternoon for that meeting. What would it be like?
Panditji then prophesied a wonder: In that meeting of the GBC a supernatural entity, something he called the "dharma-cakra of ISKCON," would be formed and set into motion. Thereafter ISKCON would extend its spiritual power all over the world and transform it. This dharma-cakra, or "wheel of religion," would get assembled, Panditji explained, because the members of the GBC would overcome personal interest and motivation and center themselves harmoniously on Krsna like spokes properly aligned on the hub of a well-made wheel.
Then Panditji announced a date for the accomplishment of this act: March 7, 1990. We objected: How could it happen on one particular day? And anyway the GBC meetings were to end two days before! But Panditji stuck to his date: "March 7 will be a turning-point for ISKCON," he said with unruffled assurance. "The dharma-cakra will be formed and moving. Before, there were problems in your GBC but after that date everything will be corrected."
Yet three days later in Mayapur, as I packed my briefcase for the opening session of the meetings, I harbored no expectation that Panditji's prophecy would be fulfilled. A harrowing trip from Delhi to Mayapur and an equally harrowing assault, upon arrival, of bureaucratic minutiae ("the death of a thousand nicks") had made the evening with Panditji seem distant and dreamlike, like a legend from a remote time.
At the same time I found myself unable simply to forget the matter altogether and be rid of it. It persisted stubbornly on the borders of consciousness, apparently gathering power, and very soon made itself known.
This happened, in fact, during my first trip to the GBC meeting place from my room on the third floor (second by Indian counting) of the "Lotus building." My door opened onto the wide marble-floored verandah, enclosed by fluted arches, that belted each story of the building. Down this verandah I set forth, file-laden. After descending the central flight of stairs, I turned right and followed the second floor verandah around the building. Clambering up a wooden staircase shoved against a low wall, I stepped onto the roof of the abutting building. Before me lay a vast, sun-battered expanse of concrete, gradually rising in stepped tiers like a terraced field. I started across it. Unseen beneath my feet passed the polished marble floors, the pendulous chandeliers, the echoing cavernous spaces of the temple. Midway across the roof, a tall parabolic dome, called a sikhara, rose above me on my left. Proclaiming the Lord's presence to the surroundings, this dome surmounted the altar room of Lord Nrsimhadeva, the half-lion, half-human incarnation of Krsna before whom we pray daily for the protection of the Krsna consciousness movement. That morning a gang of workers was beginning to lash thick bamboo rods to the dome. On my right, in the temple courtyard below, other workers were noisily laying flagstone.
From out of the open temple doors spilled the well-amplified hymning of a bhajana band, and here is where I felt something odd, a kind of emotional bump, followed at once by an unsolicited mental remark: "Ah ha! Rooftops. Bands." But I was preoccupied, and I brushed it aside. Reaching the roof's end, I rounded the base of the huge dome that rose over the main altar; Sri Sri Radha-Madhava stood directly below. Workmen were also cladding this dome in bamboo scaffolding. Mayapur was a perpetual construction site.
Going up a short flight of steps in the shadow of Radha-Madhava's dome set me onto the third floor verandah of the Conch building, which ran parallel to the Lotus building across the courtyard. I followed the verandah to the end of the structure the southwestern tip of the U formed by the three buildings and there, climbing and switching back interminably, made the roof.
This point of vantage revealed a great sun-saturated vista. I could look down upon the roofs of the Lotus building and the temple; on the courtyard where streams of visitors flowed in and out of the temple; on the flower beds, lawns, and fountains of the formal gardens before the temple. Everywhere the sun was forcing colors open, exposing their secret intensities, and slicing them brutally with shadows of jet, edged like razors.
Beyond the formal gardens rose the massive Florentine dome of Srila Prabhupada's samadhi (memorial), its marble cladding now in place, throwing back sunlight like a terrestrial moon. And beyond that the molten Ganges spread to the horizon. From her near bank, fields of vibrating green multiplied endlessly to fill the northern quadrant, punctuated by the distant spire of the temple marking Lord Caitanya's birthsite. Off the other side of the roof, past the fields to the south, you could see the dense tree line that marked the far bank of the Jalangi River, sunken from view. In that tree line rose a tangled hump of banyan that showed the spot, directly opposite us, where the house and samadhi of Bhaktivinoda Thakura stood.
It was when I turned from the view to face the GBC meeting room across the roof that I felt another, heavier, emotional bump. The meeting room was a penthouse perched on the east end of the Conch building roof. Only the tapering dome of Radha-Madhava, rising just alongside the meeting room and closing to a peak several meters above it, was higher.
This second emotional bump got my attention, and as I entered the GBC room I was fully conscious of a certain pattern of symmetries and contrasts: of two high rooftops, both reached by arduous assent of stairs, of two penthouses waiting on those roofs. Thus the beginning and the end were nicely parallel, I thought, but in the beginning there was night and starlight, and below the music of a wedding band. While in the end there is daylight and sunshine and the music of a bhajana band. That rooftop room was cramped, narrow, and windowless. This one was wide and open, lined on three sides with French doors giving out upon a balcony. Light was pouring in, and a breeze flowed evenly through the room. All around us, open to the gaze, lay Mayapur: beautiful, green, pure.
The narrative structure, I thought, was neat; the parallels with contrasts nicely done. However, this was "real life," not some well-wrought play by Shakespeare. Why then was it presenting itself to my consciousness with the signs of a work of literary art? I remembered noticing this effect already in Panditji's room, and the effect was persisting. It was as if I had been dropped through some trapdoor into another level or dimension of reality, where existence operated by symbolic structures. And I wasn't out of it yet.
At the same time, I also knew how thoroughly our own mind and senses process the world before it even presents itself to our consciousness. So I still maintained a critical distance from this apparent "dimension"; that seemed the sane thing to do. I was not yet a believer, but I was interested for sure.
And so I sat down in the rooftop room for the GBC meeting, taking a seat within the square of overstuffed sofas cased in white cotton. Our business began, and I became wholly absorbed in it, meeting every day for the scheduled six hours and racking up additional time in subcommittees and working groups. My life was completely contained within that complex of buildings; I had neither the need nor the time to leave it. My main movement was the commute back and forth between my room and the meeting room, traversing an architectural geography that now resonated uncannily with prophecy.
Panditji had said that this meeting would usher in a new spirit of harmony and cooperation, and I watched out for it. And, wouldn't you know, it was there. Nothing dramatic no tongues of flame descended upon our heads. Indeed, we disagreed, we debated, we argued that was usual, and to be expected, even desired. We made better decisions when all sides of an issue were vigorously represented. But there were no personal animosities, and clashes of will during the meeting would not continue afterwards.
In 1987 the GBC had undergone a crisis; some of its most prominent leaders had fallen, and the movement it led had suffered a crisis of confidence. As a result, the GBC had to undertake a difficult self-examination, issuing in a reconstitution, a reformation. That process had left wounds, but I saw that they were now at last healing, and a sense of trust and general good will suffused our deliberations.
Mayapur itself became a focus of our discussions. The din of construction on the dome scaffolding just outside had forced us to shut the doors and raise our voices. Now we made arrangements for thirty more years of it. Here at Mayapur Srila Prabhupada had laid the cornerstone for a monumental temple, the center of a spiritual city-to-be, but the planning for the temple and city had long been stalled. Now it came to life again. Conferring with an architect and city planner, we agreed on design specifications for the temple and on a Vedic layout for the city, the padmaka mandala. In the architect's drawing the city spanned the delta formed by the confluence of the Jalangi and the Ganges, its streets arrayed in a symmetrical pattern of radial and concentric lines that converged upon the huge temple in the center; I was reminded of a perfect spider's web strung in the fork of two branches.
Seeing this plan selected by the GBC, I thought of Panditji's dharma-cakra. For the city was a cakra: the temple forming the have and the roads spokes and rings. And the cakra-like city would itself be the center of a larger, world-spanning, ISKCONdharma-cakra I liked the symmetry, the nesting of wheel within wheel, the macrocosmic-microcosmic mirroring. I felt sure all this had something to do with Panditji's vision, but it could not be the whole of it. For there remained the puzzle of March 7.
And then that was solved midway through the course of our meetings. One morning in the temple after Srimad-Bhagavatam class I was handed the just-published schedule for the festival that would start after the meetings. Curious, I opened the booklet to March 7. "Ekadasi," stated the calendar, and it went on to list two events for that morning: A report to Radha-Madhava by the GBC, to be followed by the installation of Sudarsana-cakra over Radha-Madhava's temple. Reading this produced more than a little emotional bump. A crash of feelings accelerated my heartbeat and set my nerves tingling. I rushed out into the temple courtyard and backed away until I could see the dome over Radha-Madhava. Sure enough: where the dome closed to a peak over the GBC meeting room there were just a couple of rusty iron rods sticking out. There was no golden, shinning cakra. I had never even noted the absence of what ought to have been there at the apex of the sikhara: the three stacked metal balls called a kalasa,and at the peak the Sudarsana-cakra. One of the four symbols of Visnu, the Sudarsana-cakra is famous as a razor-sharp discus wielded by the Lord to destroy the demonic. But more than that, the cakra is the energy by which the Lord creates and sustains the cosmos. As the symbol of the all-pervading power of Visnu, the cakra is found mounted at the top of all Vaisnava temples in India.
I went back into the temple and found Jayapataka Swami. He was on the committee that had planned the festival. I held out the open booklet.
"What's all this happening on the seventh?" I asked. " 'GBC report to the Deity.' We've never done that before."
"Well, we thought it would be nice for the GBC to report every year to Radha-Madhava. You know, give the state of the movement and what was accomplished during the meeting and what we hope to accomplish next year like that. It's like Radha-Madhava are the main Deities of ISKCON. They preside at our world headquarters, so every year we should report to Them about the whole movement."
"The annual state of the union. Yeah, I think it's a great idea."
"See, its Ekadasi." He jabbed the schedule with his finger. "There's no prasadam in the morning, so we thought we would do this at that time. Make the report a ceremony every year during the Mayapur festival, on the first Ekadasi after the GBC meeting."
"And what about this? 'Installation of Sudarsana-cakra.' "
"Oh, that'll be really auspicious! It's a whole big ceremony. There's actually two cakras, one for Lord Nrsimhadeva and one for Radha-Madhava. They're installed the same as Deities, with a fire sacrifice and bathing. The cakras are actually deities. When you see the cakra on top of the sikhara, that's the same as having darsana of Radha-Madhava. So they'll be brought in here for an installation and then taken out with a big procession. Each cakra will be carried by someone on his head" he swept both hands up above his head "to the top of the sikhara. The kalasa will be there already, and the cakra is put on. Then it's bathed with pots and pots of water, and arati's offered."
"That's what all that scaffolding is for."
"Yeah, you have to get all the way up to the top."
"How come we've taken so long to install the cakras?"
He shook his head sadly.
"Well, this is a good time," I said. "Who's carrying the cakras in the procession?"
He shrugged. "Anyone…"
"You think I could carry Radha-Madhava's cakra? Would that be OK?"
"Yeah, fine, no problem, " he answered, looking a bit puzzled.
Then I let the cat out of the bag: "You see Radha-Madhava's cakra is the dharma-cakra of ISKCON. Let me tell you an interesting story." And then I related the whole account of Panditji's prophecy. I explained how Panditji must have not only foreseen the installation on March 7, but he had also seen it's symbolic meaning, how it embodied the dharma-cakra of ISKCON. Radha-Madhava's sikhara was right next to the room in which the GBC, uniting in harmony and cooperation, would form thedharma-cakra of ISKCON. Yet that would actually be accomplished on March 7, when, as it turns out, the GBC reports to Radha-Madhava and the Sudarsana-cakra is installed. All this showed how Krsna was the doer: His grace formed the harmonious order within the GBC aligned the members around Krsna like spokes on a wheel and, as that was done, He made His missing cakra manifest over Radha-Madhava. That's why Radha-Madhava's cakra was the dharma-cakra of ISKCON.
When I finished my account Jayapataka Swami was grinning from ear to ear. Yelling, "Jaya! Jaya!" he seized my hand in a crushing grip and shook it vigorously while pounding me hard on the back.
As I told the story to Jayapataka Swami, I began to reflect that reality did indeed seem to be composed like a work of art. Were I to write a novel, say, about the GBC, and wanted something to symbolize its coming together in harmonious order, I could have hit upon nothing better than the installation of the Sudarsana-cakra. It was perfect. Yet we were not dealing with art but life: the cakra was a natural symbol. Reality itself possessed a natural symbolic structure, one that in this case linked the ordering of the GBC and the Sudarsana-cakra installation ceremony; through that structure Panditji had somehow been able to see the future.
Now there was nothing but to wait for it to come.
On the morning of March 7, the temple was profusely decorated and densely crowded. Whole banana trees were braced against the pillars and long ropey garlands of marigolds were looped and draped everywhere, their tang filling the air. Devotees coming from all around the world packed the temple wall-to-wall. Cord wood rose in a high pyramid at the center of the stage before Radha-Madhava's altar: the place of the fire sacrifice. From the left and right saffron-robed gurukula boys filed on stage led by teachers wearing elaborate, beautifully wrought headdresses. Each side taking alternate verses, the boys began chanting the purusa-sukta prayers from the Rg Veda. The room fell silent, and the ancient mantras, passing back and forth antiphonally across the stage, seemed to call forth from the crowd a calm and exalted consciousness.
And then the reports to Radha-Madhava: Bhakti Caru Swami, last year's GBC chairman, related the accomplishments and problems of the previous year to Them, and then the new chairman, Sivarama Swami, gave an account of the meeting just completed. Other devotees reported on noteworthy projects. Awards for special achievement were given. Then all devotees gathered there rose and silently and simultaneously delivered their personal reports to Radha-Madhava.
I had feared finding this ceremony tedious, but I was startled by the strong feelings it evoked in me. The reports were heartfelt, and the ritual made a powerful impression. I thought that we would see an extraordinary development of such performances as Mayapur city assumed its form and function.
Then the cakras, swaddled in silk imprinted with Krsna's names, were borne onto the stage and laid on the altar. Priests chanted mantras and anointed the cakras. I was called up and, touching Radha-Madhava's cakra, chanted and meditated as directed. Then the flames leapt upon the pyre, the boys began their mantras again, and the priests fed ghee to the fire with their long carved wooden ladles.
And then it was time to take up the cakras. Someone laid a folded cloth, block printed with the Hare Krsna mantra, on the top of my head. I took the cakra with both hands and lifted it to my head. Cast in bell-metal, it was no more than a foot in diameter. I carefully set its threaded base on the crown of my head and felt the weight in my neck and shoulders.
"It's heavier than it looks," I said to the devotee next to me as the procession was forming up on stage.
"Twelve kilos," he said. With a great shout, the procession set off, Sivarama Swami going before me with Nrsimhadeva's cakra on his head. First we circumambulated Radha-Madhava three times, the mob of roaring devotees crushing into the tunnel-like passageway around the altar room, where the chanting of various mantras, the throaty bellow of the conchs, the shrill ululations of the women, the thrumming of innumerable drums, the clashing of gongs and karatalas were endlessly reduplicated. Then our procession uncoiled itself and headed for the back of the temple. The rear section of the temple extended completely across the bottom floor of the Lotus building, and so we came out into bright daylight at the base of the wide staircase that took us up to the second floor of the Lotus building. When we turned left onto the verandah, I realized we would now follow the exact track I had worn back and forth during the meetings.
It was well the way was so familiar, for I could not look down to place my feet on steps or uneven ground. My head had become more or less locked in place by the cakra resting on it; the slightest vertical motion made the cakra slip, and any lateral movement released discouraging bolts of neck pain.
When our party arrived at the middle of the temple roof, we halted and turned to face Nrsimhadeva's dome. Sivarama Maharaja went forward and, with what I thought was tremendous athleticism, scampered up the dome's scaffolding, the cakra palmed in one hand. At that distance, the bathing of the cakra from the platform at the dome's peak took place above my range of vision. But lower down I could watch a bucket brigade passing overflowing brass and clay pots up the dome and see cascades of water gushing down the dome's sides.
This continued for what seemed a long time. The morning was getting on, and the sun was turning hard and brutal. Immobilized, I baked. Perspiration flowed down my face, stinging my eyes, blurring my vision. I couldn't wipe it away. The small, hard base of the cakra seemed to be boring into the crown of my head, the weight of it slowly crushing my cervical vertebrae. Pain flowed like water down my neck and into my shoulders; cramps seized my arms.
For some reason, my most joyful moments in Krsna consciousness, my peak experiences, have almost always been accompanied by physical distress of one sort or another. This was no different. The bath water was cascading beautifully down thesikhara, the kirtana was mounting from height to height, and I was entirely happy. The weight of the cakra filled me with joy. I felt complete.
I saw Sivarama Swami drop to the temple roof, and our procession upwards resumed: to the Conch building verandah, to the stairs, to the rooftop. There I could see the completed handiwork of the noisy laborers: a bamboo platform enclosed a new shining kalasa at the summit of Radha-Madhava's dome. How was I to carry the cakra out to that platform? By a narrow bamboo bridge or gangplank that arched across the emptiness to rest on the roof of the GBC meeting room.
That higher roof was accessed by a black iron spiral staircase, both steep and tight, and this is where I ran into trouble. I could use neither my hands nor my eyes to climb these stairs. The steps were metal triangles, slick against my bare feet. I began to grope upward, feeling I was about to topple over backwards, probing with my toes, I had to lift my foot high to find each step, and suddenly I came down upon cloth: my dhoti. The bottom of the front pleats lay under my toes, and I had no hands to lift them out of the way. I tried to say something, but my voice was lost in the kirtana. Somehow I made the next step without falling, but the cloth had pulled out more, and it was tangling horribly in my feet. Eager devotees were jostling me from behind. I was desperate. At last, someone noticed my problem, and hands began to steady me and steer me. Someone stuffed my dhoti in around my waist. I made the roof, my heart pounding, eyes stinging, arms aching.
And then the bridge: I saw that it didn't rest on the roof top but rather on the lip of the roof's guard wall. I walked up a steep ramp to the top of the wall, and found myself teetering over vast empty spaces. The workers had thoughtfully provided a railing for their gangplank, but I couldn't use it. Far, far below, the Ganges spread sparkling and glowing, the fields of Mayapur shouted "green!" to the heavens as far as the eye could see. I looked down upon the backs of flying crows. With my toes I could feel the bamboo slats that made the narrow bridge, but I could not see it. It was like stepping off into empty space. Would it be possible to fall through all that distance with the cakra? What would that mean? I centered my gaze on the top of the kalasa and went, the bridge bouncing beneath my feet.
Bhakti-vidya-purna Swami was already out on the tiny shaky platform, dancing. Backlit by the sun, long arms and legs flying about, suspended over the emptiness, he was an extraordinary sight. "Haribol!" he said. "You made it." I pressed myself against the kalasa, lifted the cakra high over my head, and screwed it down into its fitting. The Maharaja passed me a fat-bellied pot filled with yogurt, and I emptied it out over the cakra. More pots followed, washing down the cakra, the kalasa, the sikhara. I was soaked. A wind had come up, spraying out the bathing liquids. The platform grew slippery. I stepped back, and other devotees began trotting across the bouncing bridge, to spill pot after pot over the cakra.
The kirtana still climbed. Now I could see the huge numbers of devotees lining the roofs and verandahs below, chanting as they gazed up. Then I offered arati to Sudarsana-cakra, the fire of the burning camphor lamp boiling up in the wind. Arati is a ceremony of reception. We were all receiving into the world the dharma-cakra of ISKCON, praying for His purposes to be fulfilled. I became so distracted by this that I kept fanning much too long with the yak-tail whisk, and Maharaja had to prompt me to stop.
Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, ISKCON's Governing Body Commissioner for the U.S. mid-Atlantic region, lives at the Philadelphia temple, where he joined ISKCON in 1971. He holds a Ph.D. in religion from Temple University.