New York City, January- February 1966
Srila Prabhupada pursued his desire to purchase the two-storied structure at 143 West Seventy-second Street. The realtors had shown him the building, and he had already mentally arranged the interior for Deity worship and distribution of prasada [food offered to Lord Krsna].
On January 14 he wrote a letter to the building's owner, Mr. A. M. Hartman, explaining his problem in getting the government of India to sanction the release of money from the country. He requested Mr. Hartman to donate the building for the time being for use as a Krsna temple.
Srila Prabhupada related that he had expected to get personal sanction from the prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was due to visit America. "But now the prime minister is suddenly dead," wrote Srila Prabhupada, "and I'm greatly perplexed." (Prime Minister Shastri died of a heart attack on January 11, 1966, while visiting Russia.) So Srila Prabhupada suggested that if Mr. Hartman were to donate the building, at least he would not have to pay taxes. He also requested that Mr. Hartman become one of the directors of the proposed institution.
Mr. Hartman was not agreeable. But in January a reply to one of the letters to India gave Srila Prabhupada considerable hope. It came from Sri Padmapat Singhania, the director of a very large business in India known as the J. K. Organization. Srila Prabhupada had written him an appeal to help, since the members of his family were traditionally devotees of Lord Krsna.
On January 14, 1966, Mr. Singhania replied as follows:
"My dear Svamiji,
I have gone through your letter. I am very glad to know your idea of erecting a Sri Radha-Krsna temple in New York. I think the proposal is a good one, but the following are the difficulties. We have got to send foreign exchange for building the temple for which the government sanction is required. Without the government sanction no money can be sent abroad. If the government of India agrees, then one can think of erecting a temple in New York. I doubt whether with this small amount of rupees, seven lakhs [$147,000], a temple can be built in New York. I mean to carry out a nice construction with Indian type of architecture. To get the temple completed in Indian type of architecture we have to send a man from India.
These are the main difficulties. Otherwise the idea is very good.
Sri Padmapat Singhania"
Srila Prabhupada and Mr. Singhania disagreed as to what kind of building should become the first Krsna temple in New York. To construct a magnificent Indian temple in New York would cost many millions of dollars, Srila Prabhupada had mentioned that they might not be able to buy suitable vacant land in Manhattan, and in that case they might even have to purchase a building, dismantle it, and then construct a temple. He knew that if Padmapat Singhania truly desired, he was rich enough to spend millions of dollars. But then again there was the critical situation regarding exchange. How would they be able to get such a huge amount of money out of India? Srila Prabhupada therefore again suggested his plan that they spend only seven lakhs. "After purchasing the house," he wrote, "we can build another story upon it with a temple dome, cakra [the disc of Lord Visnu], etc."
The members of Mr. Singhania's family were traditionally devotees of Lord Krsna in His opulent form known as Lord Dvaraka-natha. According to Srimad-Bhagavatam, when Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, made His appearance in the material world, He first appeared in the rural setting of Vrndavana, where in His childhood He sported with the cows and cowherd boys and girls. When He was sixteen years old He moved to Dvaraka, where He became a young prince and lived in fabulous opulence.
"Lord Dvarakadhisa," wrote Srila Prabhupada, "exhibited His opulence at Dvaraka with sixteen thousand queens, and it is understood that He built a palace for each and every queen, and the palaces were made with jewels and stones so that there was no necessity for artificial light in the palaces. So your conception of building a temple of Lord Krsna is in opulence. But we are residents of Vrndavana, and Vrndavana has no palaces like your Dvaraka. Vrndavana is full of forests and cows on the bank of the Yamuna, and Lord Krsna in His childhood played the part of a cowherd boy without any real opulence [like that of which] you people, the inhabitants of Dvaraka, think. So when the Dvaraka-valas meet the Vrndavana-valas there may be a via media [that is, a compromise]." With Mr. Singhania's Dvaraka-like wealth and Srila Prabhupada's Vrndavana-like devotion, Lord Krsna the Lord of both Vrndavana and Dvaraka could be properly worshiped.
With one apparently hot iron in the fire, Srila Prabhupada proceeded to add others. He wrote to another Godbrother, Bon Maharaja, the rector of the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, in Vrndavana, saying that he had found a place for a temple in New York City and that he wanted to install Deities of Radha and Krsna. Bon Maharaja wrote back on January 14 with price estimates for fourteen-inch brass Deities of Radha-Krsna, but he warned Srila Prabhupada that to start the Deity worship would be a heavy responsibility for the future.
Srila Prabhupada requested Bon Maharaja's assistance in getting the government to sanction the release of the money he felt Padmapat Singhania would donate. Srila Prabhupada mentioned that he had carried on an extensive personal correspondence with the vice-president of India, Dr. Radha-krishnan, who was also known to Bon Maharaja. "Tell him," Srila Prabhupada wrote Bon Maharaja, "that it is not an ordinary temple of worship but an international institution for God consciousness based on theSrimad-Bhagavatam." In reply to Bon Maharaja's question as to whether Srila Prabhupada could single-handedly manage a temple in New York, Srila Prabhupada replied, "I think that after the temple has started, some men, even from America, may be available, as I see they have in the Ramakrishna Mission as well as in so many yoga societies. So I am trying to open a temple here because Srila Prabhupada [meaning his own spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura] wanted it."
On Saturday, January 22, while Srila Prabhupada prayed to receive Radha-Krsna in New York, a snow storm hit the city. That morning, Srila Prabhupada, who had never before seen snow, woke up and thought that someone had whitewashed the whole side of the adjoining building. When he went outside, he saw that everything was covered with snow. Now he had to walk through heavy snow with only a thin dhoti beneath his overcoat and his head covered with his "svami hat." The temperature was down to ten degrees.
While the city went into a state of emergency, Srila Prabhupada continued his daily walks. The main roads were cleared, but many sidewalks were covered with snow. Along the strip of park dividing Broadway, the gusting winds piled snowbanks up to shoulder height and totally buried the benches. The Broadway kiosks, plastered with layer upon layer of posters and notices, were now plastered with additional layers of snow and ice. But despite the snow, people were still walking their dogs, although the dogs now wore raincoats and mackinaws. (The pampering behavior of the American dog owners always left Prabhupada with a feeling of surprised amusement.) As he approached West End Avenue, he found the doormen blowing whistles as usual to signal the taxis, and scattering salt to create safe walkways in front of the buildings. In Riverside Park the benches, paths, and trees were glazed with ice and gave off a shimmering reflection from the sky.
In the newspapers that week, Selective Service officials announced that for the first time since the Korean War, substantial numbers of young people would be drafted. In Vietnam a month-long peace ended, and the U.S. Air Force raided North Vietnam. The transit strike ended after three weeks, and subsequently the transit labor leader, who had been arrested, died of a heart attack.
On January 30 the whole East Coast was hit by severe blizzards, and seven inches of snow fell on the city, with winds up to fifty miles an hour. The City of New York offered free warm rooms and board for people living in tenements without heat. J.F.K. Airport was temporarily closed, as were train lines and roadways into the city. For the second time within eight days, a state of emergency was called on account of snow.
Srila Prabhupada was struggling, but he remained convinced that the world's suffering could be solved only by Krsna consciousness. As a lone individual , he could not do anything about the snow emergency or the international warfare, which he saw as mere symptoms of the age of Kali. There would always be misery in the material world, but if he could bring Radha and Krsna to a building in New York, it would be possible for the Supreme Lord to do anything. Even in the midst of Kali-yuga, a golden age could appear, and people could get relief from all the anomalies of the present age. If Americans could take to Krsna consciousness, its potency for peace and prosperity based on genuine God consciousness could spread all over the world. Seeing through the eyes of the scriptures, Srila Prabhupada pushed himself through the city blizzard and pursued the thin trail for support of his project.
On February 4, Srila Prabhupada wrote a letter in answer to his Godbrother Tirtha Maharaja. His Godbrother had said that he would try for the government sanction only after he had gotten a letter from a responsible donor who promised to purchase a temple for Srila Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada informed him that the donor would be Sri Padmapat Singhania of the J. K. Organization, and he enclosed Mr. Singhania's letter of the fourteenth expressing a favorable attitude toward building a Krsna temple in New York. Srila Prabhupada reminded his Godbrother, "Srila Prabhupada Bhaktisiddhanta wanted such temples in foreign countries such as New York, London, Tokyo, etc., and I had personal talks with him when I first met him at Ulta Danga in 1922. Now here is a chance for me to carry out his personal order…. I am just seeking your favor and mercy in making this attempt successful."
Srila Prabhupada's attempt to nourish all these plans around the promise of support by Padmapat Singhania met discouragement when the Dvaraka-vala wrote a letter (dated Janaury 27) expressing his disinterest in the Seventy-second Street building.
"I am afraid that I cannot agree with your suggestion that you should buy a small house and erect something on top of it," said Mr. Singhania. "Unfortunately, such a kind of proposal will not suit me. The temple must be a small one, but it must be constructed properly. I quite agree that you cannot spend a lot of money at present, but within the amount the government may sanction, you should build something according to the architecture of Indian temples. Then only will we be able to create some impression on the American people. This is all that I can write to you in this connection. I am very grateful for your taking the trouble of writing me."
Somehow Srila Prabhupada did not take this letter as final; he still maintained hopes that Sri Padmapat Singhania would give money for the temple, if only the transfer of money could be arranged from India. He continued writing his Godbrothers and other devotees, asking them to approach the government to arrange sanction for release of money. He continued desiring the building, even though his one likely donor had gone sour on the idea of a cakra and dome placed atop a converted two-story structure.
In the beginning of February, 1966, Srila Prabhupada changed his room from 501 to 307 in the same building on Seventy-second Street. In one of his letters to a Godbrother in India, he wrote, "I have changed my room to Room 307 in the same building as above mentioned, for better air and light, and on the roadside junction of two roads, the Columbus Avenue and Seventy-second Street." According to Dr. Misra, Srila Prabhupada moved in order to have his own place, independent of the Misra Yoga Society.
Room 307 was a very small office space with a toilet and sink but no facilities for bathing or cooking. It clearly was not intended for use as a residence, asrama, or lecture hall. The door to 307 had a glass transom above it, and it held a large pane of frosted white glass, the kind common in old office doors. Usually, the name of the firm renting the office would have been printed on the lower left-hand corner of the pane. The room was very narrow. It had no furniture and no phone.
Srila Prabhupada set out his blankets on the floor, next to a makeshift desk he had arranged for his typewriter and books. Although in that room he was now independent to preach as he liked, his material standards had been reduced. Whoever found him there saw that he was very poor. He could not even eat or bathe at home. He simply worked at his writing there and slept on the floor. He still had to walk to Seventy-fifth Street to cook at Dr. Misra's residence.
While Srila Prabhupada had stayed at Dr. Misra's yoga asrama, Dr. Misra had personally financed his needs, but now that Dr. Misra was leaving for Europe, Srila Prabhupada was financially on his own. Whatever money he could raise by sales of his books he had to use for the monthly rent of seventy-two dollars. He was also spending a few dollars a day for maintenance. He noted that for a little chili powder the West End Superette charged twenty-five cents, many times what he would have paid for the same thing in India. Although he had no income, his expenses had increased. But at least this was his own place, and he began his own preaching to the few guests who began to attend his talks.
Srila Prabhupada pursued his plans to purchase the building, and he also continued his writing and his local speaking and book selling. But in February he suffered reverses in most of these projects.
On February 16 he wrote to the proprietors of the Universal Book House of Bombay, giving some hints for selling his Srimad-Bhagavatam in the Bombay area. Srila Prabhupada informed them that he was trying to establish a Radha-Krsna temple and that "a big industrialist of India has promised to pay for the cost." Since it seemed he might stay in the United States "for many more days," Srila Prabhupada wanted the Book House to take increased charge of selling his books throughout India. The Book House was the agent for selling his books in the province of Maharastra, but now Srila Prabhupada recommended that they take the responsibility for selling his three volumes of Srimad-Bhagavatam in all the other provinces and introducing them in colleges and universities throughout the country. He also requested that they credit his bank account there for the books sold so far.
Within ten days a letter from the Universal Book House arrived at Room 307. "I cannot give you very happy news on the progress of the sale of Srimad-Bhagavatam," wrote Mr. A. P. Dharwadkar, "because the subject is religious and (only) a small sect of the society may be personally interested in the books." The book agent explained that their line of business rarely brought them in contact with colleges and universities. The few booksellers who had taken the books had returned them after some time, for want of response. "As such," the agent wrote, "we are not only unenthusiastic to greet your proposal to take up sales for all India, but we were just thinking to ask you to nominate some other people to represent your sales program in Maharastra." So far, they had sold only six sets of his books, for which they were about to transfer 172 rupees to his account. This was hardly encouraging to the author. Again, India was not interested. Even in "the land of religion," religious subjects were only for "a small sect. "
Another reverse came directly from the head of the Indian government. On February 8 Srila Prabhupada had addressed a letter to the new prime minister, Indira Gandhi, requesting her to give him permission to release money from India to invest in the Krsna temple in New York. His reply came from the prime minister's official secretary, Mr. L K. Gha. It was dated February 25 from New Delhi.
The Prime Minister has seen your letter of February 8, 1966. She appreciates the spirit which has prompted you to carry the message of the Srimad Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam to other countries. Owing to the critical foreign exchange situation which the country is facing, it is greatly regretted that it will not be possible to assist you from here in your plan to set up a Radha-Krsna temple."
Once again the message was a clear no, but Srila Prabhupada wouldn't take no for an answer, at least not until he had pursued the matter to its furthest limit. Even after receiving this letter, he continued trying to get governmental sanction for the release of money.
Srila Prabhupada's visa, which he had extended several times, was to run out again by March 1966. To get an extension, he would have to apply a few weeks beforehand. He wrote to his Godbrothers that he needed definite encouragement from them to continue in America, because it was so expensive. He informed them that he was spending the equivalent of a thousand rupees a month. "And as such, I am counting every day to receive your favorable replies."
In a letter dated February 16, he again requested Tirtha Maharaja to approach Dr. Radhakrishnan on his behalf, to try to persuade the government to release funds, but this time the Godbrothers let his letter go unanswered. Apparently they felt little obligation toward preaching in America; they didn't even bother to write him regular replies.
On March 18 Srila Prabhupada wrote another letter to Sri Padmapat Singhania, requesting a man from India to work on the temple in New York, as Mr. Singhania had previously suggested. Srila Prabhupada again wrote to Sumati Morarjee, requesting her to please send him a mrdanga, a drum to accompany his chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra. And he requested that in the future, when he would send many men from India, she oblige by giving them free passage on Scindia Steamship Lines. There is no record of any reply to these inquiries. As his financial situation became more urgent and his hopes more strained, his support from India withdrew in silence. His unanswered correspondence was itself a kind a message, loud and clear: "We cannot help you."
Although no one encouraged him, Srila Prabhupada trusted in the order of his spiritual master and the will of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna. He extended his visa to stay on in New York. Although the word from the prime minister was a definite no, Srila Prabhupada still hoped that Padmapat Singhania was influential enough to send him money if he wanted to. Mr. Singhania had already written that he was not interested in Prabhupada's building, but Srila Prabhupada had written him further, suggesting different ways the money could be released from India and a temple built according to Mr. Singhania's satisfaction.
The one light in all these maneuvers was the slight hope that Mr. Singhania would still make a big donation. But this hope was thoroughly discouraged by a letter of March 28 from the J. K. Organization. This time Mr. Singhania did not write personally. The reply came from his secretary, Mr. Easwara Iyer.
"I regret to write that Sri Padmapatji is not interested in the scheme of building a Radha-Krsna temple in New York at present. In regard to the inquiry contained in the last paragraph of your letter, Sri Padmapatji duly received your books of Srimad-Bhagavatam from your Delhi offices. Yours sincerely."
Had Srila Prabhupada given up, as would most persons his age, there would be nothing further to tell about the Hare Krsna movement. But he persisted, and there is more to our story of one pure devotee's singlehanded effort to introduce Krsna consciousness in the West.
Seeing him from a long distance, a tiny figure walking Manhattan's streets and avenues among many other tiny figures; hearing of his daily survival, an Indian immigrant, old and poor, whose visa had almost run out in this way we come upon only the external appearance of Srila Prabhupada. He would always acknowledge that those days were real enough and very difficult, but the other level, his transcendental consciousness, was always there and predominant. Formerly, when he had suffered his heart attacks aboard the Jaladuta, his reading of Caitanya-caritamrta had supplied him the nectar of life. And now he was not really living in Manhattan consciousness, but was absorbed in dependence upon Krsna, and thus he was situated in the soul's original, constitutional nature in relation to God.
Certainly Srila Prabhupada wanted very much to open Lord Krsna's temple in New York. But whether or not the world would recognize him and provide him with a building, he had already succeeded, because he was remembering Krsna, even in New York City in the winter of 1965-66. Not a day went by when he did not work on Krsna's book, Srimad-Bhagavatam, which fully declares the glories of Krsna. And not a day went by when he did not offer prasada to Krsna and speak on Krsna's philosophy, of Bhagavad-gita.
Lord Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita, "For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost to him, and he is never lost to Me." Krsna makes this promise to His devotee and assures him that there need be no doubt. "My devotee will never be vanquished." There was never any doubt about this for Srila Prabhupada. The only question was whether Americans would succeed in taking notice of the pure devotee in their midst. At this point it certainly didn't seem that anyone was going to take him seriously.
Years later, Srila Prabhupada would describe his change of fortune in New York as no less than a miracle performed by Krsna. "When I was alone in New York," he would say, "I was thinking, 'Who will listen to me in this horrible, sinful place? All right, I shall stay a little longer. At least I can distribute a few of my books. That is something.' Now I can see that it is a miracle. Otherwise, your city, New York, one single old man, with only a few books to sell for barely getting eatables how can he survive, what to speak of introducing a God conscious movement for saving humankind? That is Krsna's miracle."