Part I: The Prophecy
DASHING ALONG in a lurching little car, we were on our way to see Panditji when Delhi suddenly went dark. Our headlight beams, slewing and bouncing, threw up rapid-fire scenes of blacked-out apartment blocks, empty eroded lots, and here and there clusters of human faces, radiant in the darkness like petals on damp soil.
"This will make us late," remarked Maharaja unnecessarily.
"Panditji should know that," I said. Panditji was reputed not only to be a brilliant astrologer but a seer as well. Local devotees had begun to consult him regularly.
"Well, he has just got a new mantra, and his accuracy has much improved," said our native guide and driver, peering intently into the blackness into which we were hurtling. "At first when I was going, you could be completely confident on Fridays only. But slowly, slowly, he has gotten better."
"With each new mantra," Maharaja said.
"It is quite astonishing, really. Now in March Panditji will be receiving his final mantra. Then he will be completely accurate."
Tacking smartly over the gullied and potholed paving, our guide wound us deeper and deeper into a vast maze of apartment blocks.
"It would be nice if Panditji were right about ISKCON," I said. The report was that Panditji was predicting that ISKCON would save the whole world.
"Oh, yes. He's so positive about ISKCON," said our guide. "And now he is becoming a devotee himself."
"Because of what he foresees," said Maharaja.
"That and good association. He was a pure sakta Laksmi and Durga only were there but now you will see Krsna on his walls."
"From sakta to bhakta," said Maharaja.
The car swerved and slammed to a stop. The road ahead was packed solid with people. Somewhere within the throng wailed raucous band music, all trombones and clarinets.
"A wedding," said our guide. "But from here we can go by foot."
Leaving the car, we squeezed into the milling, roaring crowd. Hissing kerosene lamps of terrific incandescence swayed here and there above the crush, borne on the heads of boys in red livery. From the lamps, long sharp shards of garish light drove deep into the tumult of moving shadows and boiling dust. Through that we pushed and groped our way.
Suddenly the music engulfed us, and we were forced to dodge marching rows of energetically blowing bandsmen. Lines of red, wet faces bobbled by, veins bulging, cheeks ballooning, eyes popping. The musicians were encased in extraordinary, comic-opera uniforms: no two alike, all weighed down with rococo exuberance of silver and gold, and all of them unspeakably soiled and spotted picked up, it seemed, at some rummage sale of uniforms of deposed tropical dictators.
No less zany were the instruments. Mutant trombones sported valves of trumpets, or two slides, or slides that took off at various angles. Trumpets and baritones blossomed with multiple bells. Woodwinds coiled, curled, bulged, and bent in ways I'd never seen before. My ears and mind boggled at the deafening music an uncanny, impossible blend of Indian ragas and Dixieland jazz.
We rounded a street corner and were released at last into the silence and the space of a broad and barren square, walled in by high apartment blocks. We made our way past a jostling queue of women and children eager to thrust plastic buckets under a gushing standpipe. And then for a long time we were ascending narrow outdoor steps, switching back repeatedly, our shoulders brushing the high cement wall that enclosed us, until we stood upon a rooftop under the Delhi night sky, where the last russet of twilight was sliding under the western horizon. Here a woman with a flashlight led us to a small, windowless, bunkerlike structure. She said we were to wait inside for Panditji. We filed in through a low door.
Just inside, at the door's left, a magnificent brass image of Laksmi Devi glowed softly in the light of ghee lamps tiered below her polished teak throne. The flames flickered in the wake of our passage. Flanking the altar, covering a low table and the floor before it, were a vast number of identical brass pots, each anointed on the belly with scarlet swastikas, crowned with an array of mango leaves around a cloth-bound coconut, and hung with garlands of marigolds, now dried up.
We sat at the other end of the room, on cushions before Panditji's low wooden desk. Thick books stuffed a case against the wall to our right, and the overflow, in precarious piles, took the floor on both sides of the desk. On the wall facing us geometricalyantras of Laksmi and Durga, etched on sheets of burnished copper, burned within the shadows; color prints of Laksmi, Durga, and Kali further displayed Panditji's devotion to the goddess. But, reassuringly, Krsna's picture commanded pride of place above Laksmi's altar, and Surya-Narayana flamed among the yantras.
"Interesting vibes," Maharaja was just noting softly, when Panditji entered. He was younger than I had imagined, and startlingly nondescript in appearance. You thought of a clerk or bank teller.
After introductions, Maharaja handed Panditji his chart, a computer printout. Working methodically, Panditji positioned on his desk a tall candle with trapezoidal sides that yielded a long and bright flame; then he carefully copied Maharaja's chart onto a page of a large ledger book and returned the printout. Silently, without expression, holding very still, he considered the chart for some time. Then he thumped the page hard with his pencil point, and looking up at Maharaja, said with great animation: "This is your last birth."
Talking rapidly and gesturing broadly with his arms, Panditji expounded upon the chart. Occasionally he would snatch off his gray wool cap, palpitate it vigorously with his fingers, and then suddenly slam it back onto his head. He would fling both arms out completely to emphasize a point.
As Panditji spoke, the candle on the desk cast his shadow, greatly enlarged, upon the walls and ceiling, so that his sweeping gestures danced all around us, embracing us, enclosing us in around the candlelight, the book, and the seer.
Maharaja entered into a long technical discussion with Panditji I could not follow. Toward the end, Panditji qualified his initial statement somewhat: An upcoming period presented a slight danger that Maharaja could end up in the heavenly planets, but if all went well, he would be liberated. In any case, he was not returning to this planet. Panditji wound up with some sound practical advice.
Changing the subject, Maharaja mentioned to Panditji that I was leaving for Calcutta tomorrow to attend ISKCON's annual Governing Body Commission meetings, soon to begin in Mayapur. Panditji began to extol ISKCON.
"It will not be possible to overestimate the importance of your movement for the world."
"How will this year's meeting go?" I asked, pulling back from the grandiose.
"Oh, very well, very, very well," Panditji said, his face bright and eyes shining. "Nineteen-ninety will be a very important year for the world, and most especially for ISKCON." Speaking swiftly and surely, he entered into an intricate numerological analysis of "1990."
Falling under the spell of Panditji's prophetic utterances, I became conscious of the cosmic spaces hanging above us, of the turning of the starry wheel of time. Through the door open to the night I could hear the music of the wedding band raga in ragtime getting steadily louder now: a procession was headed our way. I watched the seer's shadow dance across the ceiling and walls, and thought, "This is too much." I picture the words in red ink on a manuscript margin. I would have cut it. The blackout, the crazy band, the theatrical shadows. The effects were heavy-handed and derivative as well: The band was straight out of Fellini, and the shadows, of course, from Disney's "Sorcerer's Apprentice." However, I was aware that I wasn't writing this script, and I wondered whether I was in a position to criticize whoever was.
Panditji continued, speaking with great assurance: "And this meeting now at the start of 1990 it will be the turning point of ISKCON. The meeting will be very cordial." He paused, almost visibly gathering power. "In fact, at this meeting the dharma-cakra of ISKCON will be assembled and put into motion."
"Dharma-cakra?" I asked. The wheel of truth or righteousness, the dharma-cakra was generally known as the Buddhist symbol for the all-pervading power of true religion. How was Panditji using it?
He explained: Cakra means wheel, and a wheel rotates smoothly and can travel everywhere when all its spokes are strong and properly aligned. Until now, Panditji said comparing the individual GBC members to the spokes of the ISKCON dharma-cakra the members of the GBC have not been properly aligned. Individual members have put their own zones or concerns or conceptions before the interest of the whole. Therefore there has not been proper cooperation and harmony. The spokes have been misaligned. But at this meeting, he said, it will be properly assembled.
"The meeting will be cordial, and differences will be overcome," he said. "And then after that, ISKCON will become very, very powerful." He paused a beat and added: "And I think the day it will be accomplished is March 7."
"On that exact day?" I said.
"Yes. That day…it will be accomplished."
"But I think the meetings are over with on the third or fourth," I said.
"Perhaps it doesn't have to happen at the meetings," Maharaja suggested.
"Or sometimes the meetings run extra days," I said.
"In any case," Panditji said, "I think that is the day."
I was puzzled. Panditji had described a process, the assembling of the dharma-cakra, and at the same time given a single date for its "accomplishment." What was meant by "accomplishment"?
I turned this over in my mind while Maharaja and our guide pursued prophecy with Panditji. They discussed some prognostications of great wars, apparently from Nostradamus. Panditji said that no great cities would be destroyed by war, but that some huge geological cataclysm, substantially altering the earth's geography, was in the offing. The conversation turned again to Maharaja's chart and wound down to astrological technicalities.
Panditji led us down the narrow steps by flashlight. The city was still in blackout, but now it was calm and silent. The street of the wedding party was deserted, and a huge, bunting-hung pavilion on one side stood empty and abandoned, all revelers having retired to rest.
Later, back in our room, Maharaja looked up March 7 on his Vaisnava calendar.
"Well, that's one thing," he said. "It's Ekadasi."
Next issue Part II: The Prophecy Fulfilled
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.