Srila Prabhupada trains one of his first disciples in painting the spiritual world.
WHEN SRILA PRABHUPADA ASKED devotee named Ranacora in 1966 what he thought my natural skill was, Ranacora said I was an artist. But I was no artist. I had just dropped studying fine art during my sophomore year at City College in Harlem. My last term at college had culminated with an art show where all the students were able to display their best works of art. I went to see the show with a friend. When he asked me which painting was mine, I pretended to be humble.
"Just look for the worst painting in the show," I told him. He picked my painting.
But somehow Srila Prabhupada was able to engage me in painting the spiritual world. Many times my pictures were crude and even disproportionately painted, but Prabhupada accepted them. "These pictures," he would say, "are windows to the spiritual sky."
I commuted every morning from the Bronx to Prabhupada's 26 Second Avenue temple to paint, take prasadam, and hear Srila Prabhupada's class with the other devotees. I would sit on the floor of the temple room and paint, surrounded by the canvas, the photo I was working from, newspapers on the floor, and my paints, palette, brushes, and turpentine.
Srila Prabhupada had given me a print of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His dancing party in Navadvipa, India. So I started a painting, copying from the print.
When I was halfway through this painting, Prabhupada asked me if I'd like to move my paraphernalia into a room in his quarters, in the building behind the storefront temple. I asked Srila Prabhupada if the paint and turpentine fumes would annoy him, but he assured me I would be welcome. So I moved all my things up into his quarters, where I was given my own space in his altar room.
The painting of Lord Caitanya's dancing party was developing nicely, I thought. Prabhupada asked me to paint the Hare Krsna maha-mantra at the bottom of the canvas, at the feet of the dancing party. I continued to work and in a few days was ready to paint the mantra under the Lord's dancing feet. Prabhupada watched me through the glassless window from inside his own room, where he saw guests and devotees, translated his books, and rested.
He then asked me not to paint the mantra under Lord Caitanya's feet. When I asked him why he'd changed his mind, he said, "Lord Caitanya's feet should not be above the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, even though Lord Caitanya is Krsna Himself. Because Caitanya Mahaprabhu was playing the part of a devotee, it's not proper etiquette to have the holy name of Krsna under the feet of Lord Caitanya."
Although I felt that the painting was now nearly perfect, the hands and feet were grossly out of proportion. But Prabhupada accepted the painting. He had a spiritual vision beyond my comprehension. He looked at the painting and said to all the devotees present, "Krsna has sent," meaning that Krsna Himself had arranged for me to come to the temple to paint for him.
After I finished the painting, Prabhupada gave me a print of the Panca-tattva, also brought from India. In this print, Lord Caitanya's principal associates (Sri Nityananda, Sri Advaita, Sri Gadadhara, and Sri Srivasa) stood in two descending columns below the Lord, who took the top center position. Behind them was a green background, and above Lord Caitanya's head were Radha and Krsna standing in an om sign.
I was painting all the figures, and I thought they looked pretty good. The only problem was Lord Caitanya's hair. The hair style shown on the second print differed from the hair style shown on the print of the dancing party I had just completed.
In this new picture Lord Caitanya's hair was pulled back into a topknot, with loose hair descending to His shoulders in the back. The other painting showed His hair parted in the middle and cascading to His shoulders. I asked Prabhupada which style I should use. He said to use the style with the topknot.
The painting was almost done; there were only a few details to be added. Prabhupada then told me that under each of the five persons of the Panca-tattva I should paint that person's name. Prabhupada wanted to give as much information to the viewer as possible.
Prabhupada also told me to paint an armlet around Lord Caitanya's right forearm. He said that Lord Caitanya had received this armlet from His mother on His birthday to ward off all ill luck.
Being previously practiced in New York hippiedom, I was using the dungarees I wore as a paint rag. I also smudged the frame and the glass covering the print with my paint-splattered fingers. Prabhupada saw the smudge marks and fingerprints on the frame and asked me to clean them off. The picture was nondifferent from Lord Caitanya and His associates themselves, so I should keep it as clean as possible.
When the painting was done, I went to the hardware store across the street on Second Avenue, bought some one-inch plywood boards, nailed together a frame, and painted it. Gargamuni put the framed picture on the side altar in the temple, which was previously a junked table the devotees had found on the street. One of the devotees had put a cloth over the table and started using it as the side altar.
When Prabhupada saw the large painting on the altar instead of hung on the wall, he asked that it be properly hung. He strongly repeated this request for three days, and then finally Gargamuni hung the painting nicely.
That evening, Prabhupada saw the painting on the wall and commented on it during his lecture. "Now Lord Caitanya is here. Now there should be no more nonsense in the temple. God is here, His expansion, His incarnation, His spiritual energy, and His marginal energy. Everything is here except His material energy. There is nothing material about this painting. And even if you think that it is only color, color is another of God's energies, and therefore it is also spiritual. If anyone chants Hare Krsna and dances in front of this painting, he can become fully Krsna conscious."