A London social worker undergoes a treacherous
journey in his search for God's will.
In 1969 I saw the devotees of Krsna on the television program Top of the Pops. Disgusted by the shaved heads of the men, I turned to my mother, while indicating my own long hair, and exclaimed, "That's one thing you don't have to worry about! You'll never catch me joining that bunch."
While I was visiting Edinburgh at the time of the Arts Festival in 1970, a friend remarked to me, "There are some unusual people living just a few streets away. They shave their heads and wear robes, and they're very poor. They're some kind of monks. And whatever food they have they share with anyone who goes to their place." I was both awed and attracted just by hearing about these people, and I thought of my own miserly, anxious existence. Inside I wished that I was like them. It was not until later that I realized these were the same people who had disgusted me on TV.
A year later, in London, once more I felt attracted to the renunciation of the Hare Krsna devotees. I was working with the Simon Community, a Catholic welfare society. Founded by a Bow Street probation officer, Anton Willich-Clifford, the Simon Community is named after Simon the Cyrenean, who helped Jesus carry the cross. Anton founded the community as an alternative to inadequate governmental programs for the down-and-out. He lived with them in the squalor of their "squats" and "derries" (derelict houses) and tried to share the love of Lord Jesus with them by giving practical assistance.
I was living in a Simon night-shelter in north London when one night what appeared to be five shining beings from another world approached. Here, in this dirty, pitted urban wasteland, I was struck with wonder by their calm, bright faces, their beautifully clean robes, and their sweet words. They asked for a place to sleep that night with such natural dignity and detachment that I felt honored to host them. I quickly arranged for a room, and they simply lay on the floor and wrapped their wool shawls around themselves, refusing my offers of mattresses and blankets.
I entreated the night watchman to wake me very early, at 5:30 a.m. so that I could speak with these unearthly people whose ways I was becoming attracted to. But at 5:30 the next morning I was told that they had risen at 3:30 and disappeared back down the street into the night. "Who are these people, and how can I meet them again?" I wondered as I went on my rounds at 8:00 am, waking all the inmates by placing a lighted Players No. 6 cigarette between their lips.
I was beginning to sense that my work with the Simon Community was of little significance. One night a man I was trying to help died, and I realized, as I gazed at his stiff body, that everything I'd tried to do for him was wasted. What was the point of so much effort? Simply to enable someone to die in the temporary comfort of a bed instead of on the street? And even if one were able to prolong someone's life for a few more years, what would be the use? What would be the value of a few extra years of fleeting pleasure mixed with suffering? Just suppose I did help a man back, but failed to change his mentality, and then he went out and killed someone. Or, for instance, even if someone did stop a drinking habit, then what? Would he be happy by integrating himself back into a society that had caused his problem in the first place? What was the positive alternative? I had largely the same bad habits as the destitute people I was supposedly helping. And people outwardly normal sometimes turned out to be more unfortunate than those on skid row. How many middle-class people take drugs, get divorced, kill their unborn babies, or commit suicide?
If within the body there was some subtle element or soul that survived death, then what practical help were we offering for this? What exactly were we, and everyone else, trying to achieve? Was there a common goal for everyone? Stricken by doubt and confused by so many anomalies, I looked to Anton for a solution. He was a kindly, compassionate man, but he could not offer me clear personal guidance or an alternative way to live.
I had joined Anton shortly after my desire for Christ and spiritual peace had nearly suffered a death blow at school. I had always liked divinity lessons, but then one day I had asked the school chaplain, "What exactly is the soul, and what happens to the soul at death?" His reply had startled me. "That is a mystery. To find out you have to wait till you die." "But if we are eternal, why can't I know for sure now?" I thought. And when I thought of the plausible explanations of life given in the biology classes, I became really despondent. Evolution and natural selection were obvious facts why believe in God? He must be just some man-made myth. "Better to be a straightforward atheist," I thought.
But a few years later, as I studied, discussed, and thought, I began realizing that so-called scientific arguments were weak, that life was more than just the molecular activities of the body. And instinctively I began searching for a teacher, a perfect Christian. Apart from Jesus, I had no faith in any "holy man." Jesus was my model, my hero. I ruminated in my little London bedsit, "I wish I felt so strongly convinced about something that I'd be prepared to die for it, like Jesus." In Anton I had found some hope. Some people referred to him as a saint, but sometimes I saw him depressed and affected by circumstances. Although he was a great person compared to other modern leaders, still I felt hesitant to dedicate my whole life in his service.
So I used to visit St. Paul's cathedral and stand for long periods in front of a painting of Lord Jesus that hung above one of the side aisles. I felt the Lord's presence here more than anywhere else. "I am the light of the world, standing at the door of your heart. If you hear my call and answer me, allowing me in, we can exchange love with each another." This kindness of Jesus touched my heart, and I felt I must follow him. At the same time I knew how unqualified I was. I was living a materialistic life, selfishly chasing the whims of the senses by smoking, drinking, eating junk foods, searching for sex, experimenting with drugs, going to the cinema, and listening to music that had no real purpose except to agitate the mind. Lord Jesus had kindly given me a glimpse of his glory, but now I knew I needed training, practice in being a proper Christian. Yet who would teach me? I prayed, "My dear Lord Jesus, please guide me to someone who perfectly practices your teachings."
One day a friend mentioned to me that at Belsize Hall, near Hampstead, a holy leader from India was giving a lecture, followed by a vegetarian feast. Since I was open at that point to various spiritual and religious experiences and had recently become a vegetarian, I decided to go over on my day off from the Simon Community. Accompanied by one of my social worker friends, I sat near the back of the large hall, straining my ears to understand what A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was saying.
Suddenly my friend Steve leaned forward in his seat and lit up a cigarette. Almost as soon as he struck the match, Srila Prabhupada strongly admonished him, "Don't smoke in here!" It was uncanny the speed with which Srila Prabhupada perceived this misdemeanor of one sitting at the back of a large audience, and the speed with which he dealt with Steve, who immediately extinguished his cigarette.
Soon Steve began to fidget, and he whispered, "Let's go. There's nothing for us here."
"No," I quickly replied. "I'm staying."
So Steve left and I stayed, amazed that what Prabhupada was saying made so much sense. He explained that there is a distinct difference between matter and spirit; that the soul within remains constant throughout the many changes of the body and therefore is unaffected by death; that there is a common spiritual goal for all humanity, the absence of which renders human life ultimately meaningless; and that when there are no higher principles for people to strive toward, the entire society eventually becomes pandemonium. As he expounded further, he cleared all my doubts in such a simple and pure way that I began to realize, "Here is the person who is going to train me in spiritual life. Here is that perfect Christian I've been looking for."
I began visiting the temple on my day off, but I could not seriously entertain the idea of joining the society as a full-time monk. The devotees seemed a little too otherworldly. They were so austere, devotional, and spiritual that I couldn't relate to them. I was doing so much apparently practical welfare work, such as housing, clothing, and feeding the poor, helping persons with drug and alcohol problems and marital difficulties, and making referrals to many other organizations and charities for further help.
Gradually, however, as I participated in the chanting of Hare Krsna, associated with the devotees, and tasted their wonderful spiritual food, I realized that the soul within the body is the actual person. Unless one can reach and help the soul, then what is the use of all this supposed welfare work? The soul suffers because of being disconnected from the Supreme Soul, and here was a pure society of dedicated persons who had the solution. This Krsna conscious way of life was the positive alternative for which I had been hankering. Moreover, everything the devotees did and said rested on a philosophy that, upon close inspection, proved flawless.
But still I persisted, attached to my old ways and my proud independence, and attached to the false pleasure I obtained from being a social worker who could help people, who was needed. I began to realize, "What a rascal I am. I want to serve God, but on my terms. I should be asking, 'What does God want me to do?' not 'What do I want to do for God?'" Immediately I thought of Srila Prabhupada, his disciples, and his mission. "Yes, he is my teacher. I've already accepted him in my heart. Why don't I surrender and become a devotee?"
But it was a hard decision. What about my work, my career, for there was already the possibility of becoming a probation officer like Anton. But then what about Lord Krsna? Was He not my Lord? What did He want? Yes, I knew He wanted me and was calling me, but my independence, long hair, and romances held me in their grip. I was bursting with indecision.
To put the entire situation in perspective, I decided to walk across the Pyrenean Mountains, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. I would study the Bhagavad-gita, pray to Lord Krsna hy chanting His holy names, and think of what to do with my life. My journey would also provide an opportunity for me to work at becoming free from a few remaining meaningless habits, such as eating eggs, drinking coffee, and smoking.
The mountains were much bigger than I had anticipated or prepared for, and I felt humbled by their grandeur. Still, I wanted to conquer them, and my mind was disturbed by pride. After six weeks of steady hiking, I lost my way and became anxious. I was tired, lonely, and thirsty. This inhospitable land of rock did not offer so much as a drink of water. As I struggled along the scree of one mountainous ridge eight thousand feet up, I began to lose my nerve. To make up for this, I told myself, "I'm not afraid!" No sooner had these words left my mouth than I stepped on a large piece of rock that immediately broke loose. The rock and I plummeted down. My fall was broken only fifteen feet below, by a small table-sized ledge. With my head hanging over the edge, I watched as a minor landslide flowed speedily to the valley, thousands of feet below.
My thoughts rushed back to England, my home, my family and friends. But the awesome realization struck me neither they nor anyone else could help me. "I'm all alone. Who can help me? . . . Krsna! My dear Lord! How could I have forgotten You? You're accompanying me in my heart yes, and I am Your servant." I checked my limbs, and to my surprise there were no broken bones. Thirst caused great pain, but nothing could be done.
Now where to go? I couldn't go back, because of the small, newly created chasm. Both upward and downward were too steep, so I realized I had to go on. I continued walking on the loose rocks, and as I chanted Hare Krsna, I felt relieved of much pride. After some time the scree turned into smooth rock, at about a forty-five-degree angle. I couldn't go on. Downward was much too treacherous, so I had to go up.
I started climbing, and as the grade became steeper and steeper, my thirty-pound pack became an encumbrance. I thought of abandoning it, but I knew I needed it to survive, for the nights were extremely cold. The rock face became almost vertical, and my strength was waning. Then a new danger beset me. The chunks of rock to which I clung were loose; they began to wobble in my clutching fingers. I was terrified.
At that moment, as if called for. Lord Krsna appeared in my mind in the form of a verse from the Bhagavad-gita: Do thou fight for the sake of fighting, without considering loss or gain, happiness or distress, victory or defeat."
"Yes, I'll climb for Krsna! If He wants me to live, I will, and if He wants me to die now, then what can I do?" So I climbed for Krsna, without considering loss or gain, and I was immediately freed of all fear. Thereafter, whenever I forgot Krsna, I felt myself beginning to fall, and as soon as I remembered Him, I climbed fearlessly. Was Lord Krsna creating this situation to force me to surrender to Him? In my heart I knew it must be so. I felt ashamed that the Lord had done this just for me, and ashamed that I was only climbing for Him to save my neck. I climbed higher and higher, with renewed energy now, until finally I arrived at the summit of that crumbling old pile of rocks called Mount Sarraera, 8,600 feet up.
Sitting down on the small six-foot-square summit, I looked off into the distance at the stark mountain ranges receding in the evening light. I felt tiny and afraid. Aimlessly, I reached into my pack, pulled out my only book, Bhagavad-gita, and read a few lines. Then I knew what to do "I climbed up for Krsna by His mercy, so I'll climb down for Him and stay in His service forever."
Surprisingly carefree, I started back, and sliding down the snow-covered northern slope, I finally came to rest on some flattish grassland. There, a small stream trickled down from the snow and rock, and suddenly I realized I was parched. I filled up the water bottle and was just about to drink when another verse from the Gita flashed into my mind: "If someone offers Me with love and devotion a flower, a leaf, a fruit, or some water. I will accept it."
I'd been offering my food to Krsna, but it seemed silly to offer water. This time, however, I immediately placed the untouched bottle on the ground, bowed down, and prayed, "My dear Lord, please accept this humble offering." Then I chanted the Hare Krsna mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama. Hare Hare. Now I lifted the bottle and drank deeply. The water flowed into me like a river of nectar soothing, healing, quenching all my burning thirst for material life. I felt embraced by the infinite kindness and mercy of God.
The following day, hardly able to move a muscle, I had to lie in my sleeping bag. As I peered up at the magnificent peak that I'd just encountered, I thought, "I'm completely dependent on Krsna alone for my maintenance, safety, and protection, as He has so vividly demonstrated to me. So now I must go and surrender myself into the hands of His pure representative, Srila Prabhupada, so that I can be trained in His service." My mind was now clear and positive, my determination steady and firm. I realized the inherent freedom of the soul and felt thrilled by the joyous surge of spiritual energy spreading through me. There was now a straight path ahead to serve the perfect social worker, Srila Prabhupada, who was able to deliver the conditioned souls from the sufferings of repeated birth and death. I was confident I had found the way to render the best benefit both to myself and to the entire human society.
Since then, Lord Krsna has given me many practical opportunities to realize the great efficacy of Krsna consciousness in solving the personal and social maladies that afflict almost everyone in this age. Over the past decade, after being trained as abrahmana, or spiritual counsellor, I have been working directly with thousands of people from all kinds of backgrounds, their common problems being confusion and emptiness. All were caught up in various brands of materialism, mistaking the body to be the self. Repeatedly I have seen how such people have discovered a real friend in Krsna, the kind master to whom they could direct their energy and love; and this has strengthened my conviction about the value of Krsna consciousness in our modern society.
To see people break free of doubt and delusion, to see them illuminated with spiritual knowledge, and to see them free their character of weakness and bad habits are the ultimate reward for a social worker. We must judge something by its result. A London welfare worker told me recently that, in all honesty, he doesn't think he has really changed one person over his last eight years of running his project. And this is no surprise to me. After all, he doesn't have knowledge of who those people actually are, of what will give them happiness, of how to engage their energy in the best way, of the purpose of human life. Anyone who is serious about helping others should carefully study Krsna consciousness and come to the realization that on our own we cannot help anyone or be anyone's friend. Lord Krsna alone is in a position to help others and be their friend. We can be but instruments of His divine will.
So if we cherish any genuine desire to serve the interests of others, we must become purified of all selfishness and humbly work under the direction of one who is already fully surrendered to the Lord. We must place ourselves in Krsna's hands and allow Him to use us in whatever way He sees fit.