PART II: THE JOURNEY
ONLY LAST NIGHT I had been led across a Delhi rooftop to a small candlelit room filled with ancient books and burnished yantras. There Panditji, the astrologer and seer, had by his occult art pierced the veil of the future and seen a wonder arise, a marvel born from of all things (I feel compelled to add) the 1990 meeting of the Governing Body Commission of ISKCON. Toward that very meeting I was now making my way, an embarkation commemorated by the blaze and bake of noon, the shrieking and shaking of jet-tortured air, the reek of kerosene.
At that meeting-to-come, Panditji had prophesied, ISKCON's governors would unite in a newfound harmony of purpose. Out of that spirit would be assembled something Panditji had called "the dharma-cakra of ISKCON"; thenceforward, through the operation of this "wheel of dharma," the Hare Krsna movement would manifest world-transforming power. Panditji went so far as to specify an exact date, March 7, for the completion of the dharma-cakra. A marvel, a world-historical marvel, would be born.
It had been a memorable night, but already it seemed far remote, already swallowed up in the dark backward and abysm of time. As I worked my way through the gritty marble halls of the New Delhi airport, the very drag of my baggage, heavy with GBC paperwork, exorcized all prophecy and visions and marvels. That morning in sullen resignation I had reviewed my files: pounds of proposals, reports, complaints, projects in progress pounds of paper that now condemned me to the overweight luggage line. There I had leisure to ponder this fact: I had enlisted in the Hare Krsna movement to become a mystic, a visionary, a saint; now, two decades later, I found myself a religious functionary, an ecclesiastical bureaucrat engaged chiefly in what Max Weber, the renowned German sociologist of religion, had called "the routinization of charisma."
Are wonders born of committees? I thought not.
Waiting in line, I realized that my discontent sprang from a refusal of duty. Although last night's prophecy had cast the coming assembly in a dramatic and glamorous light endowing it with legendary or mythic proportions I knew from experience that the reality would be different. An annual GBC meeting was an unrelieved three-week ordeal that could leave one mentally, emotionally, even spiritually exhausted, and I shrank from it.
But now, I told myself, it was time to surrender. The meeting taking shape in the womb of the future, the present stalled queue I was stranded in, the great glacial shifts of civilizations carrying us insensibly along all of it played in concert, being orchestrated and conducted by Krsna to His end.
Let me just be His willing instrument. I needed to seize, without shirking, the myriad nettlesome details forever springing up, attend steadily to the mundane, unglamorous tasks and worries of a worldwide institution. That was my job. So I became wary of dwelling on Panditji's prophecy; it presented a temptation to escape into romanticism or historical melodrama. The nuts and bolts of the daily grind required my dedicated attention, and it was wrong for me to devalue them. In divine service, even parliamentary procedure becomes sanctified.
In the departure lounge other members of the GBC were waiting, all converging toward our gathering place on the Ganges. As we began to talk easily of topics to come up, the lounge slowly filled, our departure time came and went. We talked and waited, and time passed.
Finally, as the sky outside turned smoky with evening, we heard angry yelling erupt in the lounge. A group of gesticulating, screaming businessmen had closed in around a frightened-looking man with shoulder boards on his white shirt, a walkie-talkie clenched in his fist. As the protestors pressed forward, the man kept falling back, so that the maelstrom of agitation slowly traversed the width of the lounge, reached the far wall, and drifted back again, gaining in size and volume all the time. Then the man in the center somehow managed to disappear, and his tormentors dispersed, muttering angrily. I asked several who passed nearby what was going on, but they ignored me. Then the man in shoulder boards was back, and a larger, more voluble and violent mob collected around him. As their fury reached a new high, the berators switched to English to better convey their contempt and outrage: colonialism's legacy kept English the preferred language of abuse. Again the mob drifted through the lounge, someone yelling over and over, "You are treating us just like urchins! You are treating us just like urchins!"
In time a plane was produced. In the U.S. I had become used to ancient DC-9's, but here we boarded a dazzling, brand-new, state-of-the-art Airbus 320 a plane that just then happened to be much in the news. Three days before, one of them had plowed into the ground in Bangalore, killing 89. Indeed, after belting in, I opened the International Herald Tribune just to encounter an account of this event; it held me fascinated as I waited helplessly for takeoff. I read that a controversy raged over Indian Airlines' decision to acquire a fleet of the high-tech aircraft. Experts thought the plane far too complex to be properly maintained in India; its electronics had already proven vulnerable to the heat, the dust, the monsoon rains. Its pilots had threatened not to fly it; its engineers had gone on strike for more training. I was not reassured, therefore, to discover, as we taxied toward the flight line, that the signs and lights on the right side of the cabin were dead and the P.A. system stuttered unintelligibly while a succession of baffled flight attendants took turns punching futilely at a control panel all aglitter with little green and red lights.
This went on through the whole flight. Watching the staff in their frustration and bewilderment, I became preternaturally aware of the humming and ticking of all the ingenious complications of electronics and machinery around me and of all the human machinery of neurons and muscle the network of millions of tiny happenings that had to go on just so at every moment to keep our aircraft poised over thirty thousand feet of emptiness. It had to be a miracle. In the same way, the sustained order of the world, the ever-working intricacies of interlocking cosmic machinery, of which this flying plane was one tiny, fragile subsystem, required a constant supervisory sustaining force, required a vast and continuous intelligent intervention a constant miracle, in fact to keep going, to keep from crashing instantly into chaos. That vast active living intelligence bore us up at every moment. It sustained the flying aircraft, the orbiting earth, the floating universes. That same intelligence, for all its immensity, could speak to us intimately from within our hearts: friendly, trustworthy, and directly approachable. When you knew that, saw that, then there was no fear. I watched an ignorant flight attendant pound on the beautiful control panel with the heel of her hand; and still the plane flew.
After touching down in Calcutta, the plane taxied far too long in the darkness, with no sight of terminal lights swinging into view through the windows. We stopped in pitch blackness. An announcement: while aloft our flight had received a bomb threat and had parked far from the terminal as a precaution. We were to remain calm, gather our belongings, stand in the aisles and, when the stairs were brought up, exit in a swift but orderly manner. The passengers stood for twenty minutes, joking nervously, before the doors cracked open and the humid night air of Bengal swept in.
The ordeal was not over. Buses took us on a long ride to the terminal, but our baggage didn't follow. After two hours of hearing porters and guards respond to all interrogations with "just now coming," a group of passengers in a very ugly mood began storming airport offices, looking for someone in charge. There was no one to be found. Things were getting tense. Guards nervously shifted their rifles. But finally we were put back aboard the buses and driven to where our Airbus stood like a monument, glowing brilliantly within a circle of floodlights. Groping in the pitch dark outside, I was at last able to retrieve my overweight luggage.
In the morning I set out by car on the last leg of my journey. This was a final three-hour obstacle course running north into the remote hinterlands over a narrow asphalt road, squeezed hard on both sides by a dusty, noisy clutter of shops and workplaces set among plant life spectacularly erupting in fountains, sprays, and cascades. The great rulers of this little roadway were the lorries that crowded both lanes. Adroitly darting and dodging in and out among them, my driver pounded the horn in strict obedience to the injunction posted in fancy script across each lorry tailgate: "HORN PLEASE!"
The lorries themselves were often works of art, sanctifed with images of Krsna, Siva, Durga, or Kali, decorated with baroque floral designs of lotus and tulasi, protected with painted eyes and swastikas. But they were just as often dangerously overloaded, sagging and listing on their flattened springs, with the huge tarp-covered cargo ballooning far up and out beyond the sides, like monstrous mobile bread loafs.
Frequently we passed the scorched and mangled remains of horrendous accidents, so plentiful in some stretches as to make it seem as if the spearhead of a blitzkrieg had just battled its way up the road. We ourselves pressed forward in an unrelieved succession of what seemed to me near misses and hair-breadth escapes; I soon got used to it, and the little jots of adrenalin knocking my body tapered off and stopped.
In truth, I liked this ride. Everything heralded arrival. When finally the country began to open itself into wide eye-soothing panoramas of green, I recognized in myself the growing impatience of homecoming. Travel means travail, but arrival makes it worthwhile if you are coming home.
And why should I be thinking of Mayapur as home? I had never lived there. Wondering about that, I kept scanning the road and fields for landmarks.
Mayapur was the center, the hub of the sankirtana movement, and I realized that wherever in the world I dwelt or traveled, an invisible line, a mystic cord of memory, stretched back from me to Mayapur.
In some interior spiritual geography of mine, Mayapur was fixed at the center of the world, even though it was apparently so remote, so isolated from the world's traffic, so lost among the endless fields of green. Yet from this place five centuries ago Lord Caitanya had sent out His sankirtana party, His preachers and chanters, with a prophecy: "One day My name will be chanted in every town and village of the world." And so in 1969, in Philadelphia a good stretch in space and time I had encountered Krsna's new American devotees chanting on a windy sidewalk.
I thought about that encounter: A single sight of devotees their robes and tilaka and shaven heads and drums and cymbals and dancing and chanting and I was struck by an intellectual lightning bolt, seized by the sudden and certain knowledge almost a revelation that the world would never again be the same, that everything was utterly changed. Disguised to myself at that time as a graduate student in religious studies, I had become a researcher into the terminal spiritual agony of Western civilization. Now I had been shown a critical clue: Missionaries from India, offering a radically different culture, were able to find a niche in the West's spiritual ecology. Only a vast cultural shift could have made that possible, a shift on the scale of the Renaissance or Industrial Revolution. It had begun, and it would transform everything.
In a flash, I had seen the future, but details had escaped me: I hardly foresaw that two years later I would be robed and shaven and chanting in the streets myself. A radial line had gone out from Mayapur to Philadelphia; it had touched me, connected me, and in time it led me back to the hub.
That first journey was remarkable. Having acquired land at Mayapur and started construction on a large building the first in what would be a spiritual city Prabhupada ordered in 1974 the first of the worldwide annual pilgrimages to Mayapur at Gaura Purnima, the day of Lord Caitanya's appearance. Every year from then on, Prabhupada said, devotees from all over the world would gather for a festival, and at the same time the Governing Body Commission would hold its single annual meeting to plan the course of the movement for the following year. The influence of the holy place and time, Prabhupada said, would purify the deliberations and decisions of the GBC and keep it on track.
I remembered that first pilgrimage how we camped among cement bags and stacks of lumber, grew weak and thin from diarrhea. But tired and sick we found strength to go every day on parikrama, chanting and dancing, to the holy sites. It was a landmark occasion. In the last century, Bhaktivinoda Thakura had revived Lord Caitanya's movement, infusing it with preaching power, and had predicted that the day would come when devotees from all countries would coverge in Mayapur and chant "Jaya Sacinandana! Jaya Sacinandana!" And so we did.
On one bright day, a flotilla of wooden boats, wallowing heavily, gunwales dipping in the water, their decks packed with standing devotees, brought us to the far bank of the Jalangi, where the house and samadhi tomb of Bhaktivinoda Thakura stood. For some time we sat on the outdoor cement platform before the samadhi, gazing at his statue while a devotee sang Bhaktivinoda Thakura's sweet Bengali songs. I was surprised then by bliss, being filled, for no reason, by a feeling of peace and security beyond measure. It was as if a cool breeze were blowing from Vaikuntha, the spiritual world, banishing the anxiety of material existence.
This sensation grew more powerful. I became aware then of the presence of some vast paternal spirit: peaceful, powerful, and infinitely caring. He gathered us under the embrace of his arm. I was so happy the hair on the back of my neck was standing up. I looked at the samadhi and recognized the presence I felt so powerfully. In fulfillment of the prophecy of Bhaktivinoda Thakura we had traveled to this place, and he had come out to greet us. We were all in his personal presence. I looked at the devotee next to me. He was radiant. "Isn't this amazing?" I said. "Yes," he answered happily.
Remembering this, I eagerly watched familiar places going by, and finally I saw the huge white dome of Srila Prabhupada's samadhi rise above the tree line to command the horizon. I had arrived at the center, come back home.
Panditji's prophecy came into my mind. Although I had tried to put it aside, it seemed to have loitered in the wings, casting its peculiar spell. I realized I had been instinctively scrutinizing the scenes and incidents of my journey for some omens, some signs, some hidden indications. The clear indication was everywhere Krsna: now hidden, now manifest, always present, always working.
Now, against all odds, Krsna had brought me to Mayapur, and Mayapur was on record as a place where prophecies were fulfilled and miracles took place. Srila Prabhupada wanted us to meet here for very good reason. Who could tell what would happen?
(concluded in the next issue)
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.