from the book The Hare Krsna Explosion,
a reminiscence of the early days of the Hare Krsna Movement.
On September 8, 1966, we celebrated Lord Krsna's birthday (Janmastami) on New York's Lower East Side by fasting all day and chanting until midnight. About twelve of us bought beads for chanting, a hundred and eight red, round beads the size of marbles. Srila Prabhupada told us that they represented the hundred and eight gopis (cowherd girls) who sported with Lord Krsna. I distinctly remember on a beautifully clear September day standing in the patio behind the 26 Second Avenue storefront temple stringing beads and chanting. "Wait till you string them," my old friend Walley had told me. Then he added: "You'll get high." And I did. I tied one end of the string to the windowbars and slid each shining bead up the string and then knotted it. Everyone was talking then about initiation.
"Exactly what is it?" I asked Walley, who seemed to know more about what was going on than I did.
"It's just a formality," he said matter-of-factly. "You accept Svamiji as your spiritual master." (His Divine Grace, Srila Prabhupada, was then only known to us as "the Svami" or "Svamiji.")
"What does that entail?" I asked.
"Nobody's very sure," he said. "But everybody's taking it. In India it's standard practice. Don't you think you want to take him as a spiritual master?"
I stopped stringing my beads and wondered. We had only been attending Srila Prabhupada's lectures on Gita for a little more than a month, and although I was still too immersed in the hip New York zeitgeist to know why, just on the basis of hearing Srila Prabhupada's lectures and chanting Hare Krsna, I felt that I wanted Krsna or Krsna consciousness. The all-inclusive, unifying philosophy of the Gita attracted me, and certainly Krsna was a very seductive personality who brought out the gopi in everybody. I wanted to participate in the bliss that Srila Prabhupada emanated every moment that I saw him, but I was confused by the idea of an "initiation."
"I don't know," I said at length. "He would seem to be a good spiritual master whatever that is. I mean I like him and his teachings a lot, so I guess in a way he's already my spiritual master. I just don't understand how it would change the situation."
"Neither do I," Walley said. " I guess it doesn't. It's just a formality."
Thus, completely unaware of the significance of the ceremony, we made preparations to take the vows that would, as time passed, come to mean so much to us and which indeed were to become the most important single factor in our lives. We bought long cotton cloth which we dyed saffron for robes. A couple of people shaved their heads, but most of us didn't, as it wasn't required. We felt that that was really going overboard.
That Janmastami night, Srila Prabhupada told us stories about Lord Krsna's advent and then spoke of the necessity of purification for spiritual advancement.
"It is not enough merely to chant holy words," he said. "One must be pure inside and out. Chanting in purity brings spiritual advancement. Man becomes impure because he wants to enjoy material pleasure, but the impure can become pure by following Krsna, for all works are transcendental when they are done for Krsna. Beginners in Krsna consciousness have a tendency to relax their efforts in a short time, but to advance spiritually we must resist this temptation and continually increase our efforts and devotion. We should continue to purify ourselves both in action and thought. For this reason it is beneficial to associate with others who are also working in Krsna consciousness. And therefore we are forming this Society. It is difficult for a beginner to keep his mind on Krsna if he associates with skeptics. To improve spiritually you must rise above even the mode of goodness. Pure goodness is not possible in this material world, but one who lives in the world of Krsna consciousness is not affected by any material contamination."
Considering our associates at the time, "skeptics" was a very bland euphemism. Srila Prabhupada could have more precisely used the word "demons," but he was far too kind to offend us. He then informed us that there were certain rules and conditions to be followed in the chanting of the mantras and that in the discipline there were four basic restrictions: no meat-eating, intoxication, illicit sex and gambling. Gambling and meat-eating seemed simple enough to shuck, but I feared that the other two would require some work. I finally resolved not to worry about it, concluding that chanting and hearing Srila Prabhupada talk about Bhagavad-gitawere most important. If I kept chanting, I thought, my sins would decay in time.
Your karma, sinful activities, are like a revolving fan," Srila Prabhupada explained. "By chanting Hare Krsna you pull out the plug. The fan may still revolve for a while after the plug is pulled, but since it is getting no more juice, it will soon stop." hope after all. Then Srila Prabhupada dropped a bomb no one was expecting. At the morning lecture, someone asked him about the significance of initiation, and he answered, "Initiation means you accept a spiritual master and agree to worship him as God."
There was a stunned, thoughtful silence. Srila Prabhupada sat very still, his head high in the air, awaiting further questions. When there were none, he got up and walked out. After he was gone, I turned to Walley. Everyone suddenly started talking at once. Walley shook his head.
"My mind's just been blown," he said.
"Everybody's mind," I said. For over six weeks we had been listening to Srila Prabhupada stress that whenever anyone claimed to be God he was to be considered to be "dog." After much confused debate, Walley and I went upstairs to Srila Prabhupada's apartment and asked what he meant.
"Does that mean you're supposed to recognize the spiritual master as God?" I asked.
"That means he is due all the respect of God, being God's representative," he said calmly and simply.
"Then he's not God."
"No," he said. "God is God. The spiritual master is His representative. As such, he is as good as God because he can deliver God to the sincere disciple. Is that clear?"
It was clear, and we hurriedly went to tell the others. Thus from the beginning Srila Prabhupada made a special point to distinguish himself from the mayavadis, or impersonalists, who identify themselves with God by merging and denying personality. For Srila Prabhupada, individuality was eternal; God, the spiritual master and the disciple were all individual persons, and this individuality was retained even after the highest liberation. "Otherwise," Srila Prabhupada smiled, "there is no question of relationship, of reciprocation in love."
None of us had ever before chanted as many rounds of Hare Krsna as we did on Krsna's birthday, nor had any of us fasted so long (a whole day!). Understandably we all felt like the sages of Naimisaranya. Just a few minutes before midnight, Charles and Stanley, who had been helping Srila Prabhupada in the kitchen, brought down the prasadam (food offered to Krsna), and we all ate heartily. No one worried about not understanding the philosophy or committing countless offenses. All we knew was that when we went to see Srila Prabhupada we had fun. He was a sage, grandfather, spiritual master and favorite uncle all rolled into one, and although by solar calculations he was over seventy, he was younger than any of us. As he sat and ate with us, chatted and laughed, we little knew how much we or thousands of others would come to love him as the only truly loveable person in our lives, as our only link to Krsna in a dark and guideless universe.
The next afternoon, following Srila Prabhupada's directions, we prepared for our initiation by getting soil, sticks, flowers, clarified butter, sesame seeds and barley, varied dyes and bananas all, we were told, for the ceremony. There were, auspiciously enough, twelve of us to receive initiation as Srila Prabhupada's first disciples in the West.
Some of us wore robes that night for the first time. Srila Prabhupada showed us how to wrap them around and tie them. My material was unusually long, and I had some difficulty keeping the dhoti from falling down. Srila Prabhupada pulled the knot incredibly tight, and I sucked in air. He was like the captain of a ship making sure all lifelines were secure, determined not to lose a man in the ocean of maya. He expressed approval of the saffron turtleneck sweatshirts we bought on Orchard Street to match the robes, and after we were all dressed he led us into his altar room and showed us how to put on tilaka. We took great care in trying to mix the fuller's earth in our palm with water, just as he showed us, and then putting it on our foreheads with a little mirror. It was difficult to make the perfect V as Srila Prabhupada did, and we wound up with smeared variations. Seeing my difficulty, Srila Prabhupada swiftly ran his finger down my forehead. I looked in the mirror and saw a perfectly formed tilaka. "My Guru Maharaja would never use a mirror," Srila Prabhupada said. "And his tilaka was always perfect. He would never see a disciple unless the disciple was wearing tilaka." We looked at one another and nodded reverently. It all seemed mysterious to us and incredibly involved, but somehow Srila Prabhupada made it seem perfectly natural and proper.
No one knew anything about the ritual except that there was to be a fire sacrifice. An ancient Vedic fire sacrifice on Second Avenue! This in itself was enough to captivate us. A small mound of earth was arranged in the center of the room and beside it were placed sticks for the fire, bananas, ghee, sesame seeds, barley grain and colored dyes. Srila Prabhupada sat on the floor in front of the mound and indicated that we should sit on the other side. His apartment was small only two rooms and the twelve of us filled all the space, sitting crosslegged, knee to knee, on the floor. Some guests, whom we had asked, were in the other room looking curiously through the opened door and partition. We chanted Hare Krsna softly so as not to disturb the neighbors it was around eight in the evening and then Srila Prabhupada lit incense and began to recite the Sanskrit mantras prescribed for the initiation ceremony. He then indicated that we were all to chant japa, Hare Krsna mantra, on our beads, and we began at once, making the small room buzz like a beehive while Srila Prabhupada took a spoon in his left hand and put water thrice in his right hand from a silver goblet. He then sipped the water, placed one more spoonful in his right hand and flicked it on the floor and then passed the goblet and spoon around for us to follow suit. We tried to follow carefully, but some of us placed the water in the wrong hand or sipped it at the wrong time, and he patiently corrected us. After we got the knack of it, he began chanting: om apavitrah pavitro va sarvavastham gato 'pi va/ yah smaret pundarikaksam savahyabhyantarah sucih/sri visnu sri visnu sri visnu. We tried our best to pronounce the words after him, not knowing what they meant. Later we learned the translation: "Unpurified or purified, or even having passed through all situations, one who remembers the lotus-eyed Supreme Personality of Godhead is cleansed without and within." After the Sanskrit was repeated thrice, Srila Prabhupada raised his hand to indicate silence. Then he began to speak, telling us that we should never worry amidst adversities, for we should always be mindful of the fact that Lord Krsna is always driving our chariot.
Krsna and Ariuna sat in the same chariot," he said. "But Arjuna knew that Krsna was the Supreme. We are also in the same chariot with Krsna, and we too should know that He is the Supreme. Even in the midst of the material world Krsna is not attached. He does not act out of need because He has no desires. He is the Paramatma, the Supersoul, and we are jivatma,the individual fragmental souls. In the Upanisads these are compared to two birds sitting in the same tree, which is the tree of the body. One bird, jivatma, is enjoying the fruits of the tree while the other bird, Paramatma, just sits and watches. These two birds have a transcendental loving relationship which is eternal, but the one bird has become so absorbed in enjoying the fruits of this tree that he has forgotten this relationship. Thus we should give up all material desires and return to Krsna, and we should also be mindful that whatever we do, we do with His permission. If we want to turn away from Him, He allows us; and if we want to suffer, He lets us. Now we must realize that we are suffering, and we must ask why. When we begin to question our suffering, then it is time to approach a spiritual master who is conversant with the transcendental nature and is fully engaged in spiritual matters twenty-four hours a day. This spiritual master will teach you that you are actually qualitatively one with Krsna. When jivatmaknows that he is not this body, he becomes like Paramatma. Jivatma is wonderful, but not quite equal to God. The quality is the same, but the quantity is different. As the body is maintained by the individual soul, the entire universe is maintained by God or the Supersoul. I am not the Supreme; I merely illumine this body. But the Supreme illumines the entire universe."
His talk continued for about thirty minutes. Our legs ached, and we soon found ourselves trying to modify our cross-legged positions, but at no time could we take our eyes off him. We tried to catch every word, as though they were jewels coming from his lotus lips. Finally he emphasized the importance of our following the four regulative principles: refraining from illicit sex, meat-eating, intoxication and gambling, the four trademarks of this age of Kali, an age of quarrel and ignorance. Then, one by one, we handed him our beads, and he began to count on them. Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The drone of the twelve voices, led by the spiritual master, filled the tiny room. There were twelve sets of beads, and the chanting alone lasted over an hour. I forget who was the first to receive his beads after they had been chanted on by Srila Prabhupada. I remember that Walley went before me. Srila Prabhupada told him that his name was to be Umapati. He returned to his seat, looked at me and smiled broadly. "It was wonderful," Umapati told me afterwards. "Receiving the beads was so wonderful." Then Srila Prabhupada gestured to me, and I went forward and handed him the large red beads. While he was chanting on them, someone tied two strands of small wooden kunti beads around my neck. These were considered "dog collars," indicating us to be Krsna's property. After chanting the hundred and eight Hare Krsna mantras, Srila Prabhupada again motioned me to come forward. He then extended the beautiful red beads toward me. "You start here," he said, "and around like this to here. Don't cross over. Then back around like this, sixteen times daily, and your name is Hayagriva." I took the beads, held them to my heart and bowed to the floor before him. "Nama om visnu-padaya krsna-presthaya bhutale srimate bhaktivedanta-svamin iti namine," I recited. "I offer my obeisances unto His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, who is very dear to Lord Krsna, having taken shelter at His lotus feet." While I was bowed, it seemed as though everything was getting lighter and brighter. Years later I learned that the guru, the spiritual master, takes on the karma or sinful reactions of his disciples with the initiation. In actuality I was much lighter; my soul was lifted of its heavy burden of lifetimes of abominable activity. "The word guru means heavy," Srila Prabhupada once told me, giving no further explanation, leaving it to me to understand why. And of course everything seemed to go white; our universe was brightened by the torchlight of knowledge which opened our eyes which had for so long been blinded by the darkness of ignorance. As the prisoners emerged from Socrates' allegorical cave, they were temporarily blinded by the brightness of the real world, which they had never seen or imagined. We too were cave-dwellers in the earth's darkness, and Srila Prabhupada came down and led us out.
After all twelve sets of beads were chanted, Srila Prabhupada began sprinkling the different colored dyes up and down and sideways on the mound of earth before him, and we all strained to watch every mysterious move he made. He picked up the twigs and wood splinters, dipped them in clarified butter, then lit them with a candle, and so proceeded to build a small fire on the mound. The sesame seeds, barley and clarified butter were then mixed in a bowl, and the bowl was passed around for the new disciples to take handfuls. Srila Prabhupada then began to recite Sanskrit prayers, and we tried to repeat the words after him. "Vande 'ham sri-guroh sri-yuta-pada-kamalam sri-gurun vaisnavams ca." "I offer my obeisances unto the lotus feet of my spiritual master and unto the feet of all Vaisnavas." The prayers continued as the major teachers in the disciplic line were named. Each prayer was ended by three svaha's, and as we chanted svaha, we threw the sesame seeds and barley onto the fire. Srila Prabhupada kept pouring butter, sesame seed and barley on the fire and piling up wood until the mound was blazing. It seemed the prayers would never end. As the fire got larger, the room got hotter. Finally the prayers stopped. Bananas were distributed amongst us, and Srila Prabhupada indicated that we were to place these on the fire. We did this, and the bananas began to smoulder, and the smoke thickened. Some of us ran coughing into the other room. The guests were retreating to the hallway. Srila Prabhupada simply poured the remaining butter and seeds onto the fire. I began to worry that someone in the apartment building would call the fire engines or the police, and I imagined the police and firemen walking in and seeing us in strange robes with tilaka and beads and smiling Srila Prabhupada, unaffected amidst all the smoke, sitting beside the fire, beaming with pleasure at his new devotees. "This kind of smoke does not disturb," Srila Prabhupada said as Janaki and Mukunda started opening windows. "Other smoke disturbs, but this kind of smoke does not." That was understandable; he was burning up all our sins.
Srila Prabhupada smiled broadly and stood up. He began clapping his hands and chanting Hare Krsna loudly. Then he placed one foot before the other and began to dance beside the fire. We also danced and chanted, and the smoke abated. Srila Prabhupada finally stopped chanting, mixed some ashes with the remnants of butter and placed a little on our foreheads. I asked him the meaning of the spiritual names.
"'Hayagriva' is an incarnation of Krsna who comes in the Satya-yuga, the Golden Age," he said. "Haya means horse, and griva means head. In this incarnation Krsna has the head of a horse and the body like a bird with wings." It seemed that Hayagriva, like the Greek Pegasus, was the incarnation of poetic inspiration; later I learned that when He breathed, the Vedic hymns issued from His nostrils. "Not that you are Hayagriva," Srila Prabhupada quickly warned. "But Hayagriva dasa. Dasa means servant, servant of Hayagriva. We are all servants of God. And brahmacari means student living in celibacy." In this way Srila Prabhupada explained all the names Stradisa, Rayarama, Ravindrasvarupa, Satyavrata, Mukunda, Janaki, Umapati, Acyutananda and a couple of others lost to my memory.
In retrospect, recalling that evening of only six Septembers ago, I can picture few details as clearly as taking my beads and bowing down before Srila Prabhupada. All but that one act seems cloudy. According to Srimad-Bhagavatam, in Kali-yuga men have short memories. But even the shortest memory could never forget experiencing such contact with one on this earth so beloved of Krsna. As I now consider that evening, I am left with the indelible impression of a vastly superior being presiding over a kind of kindergarten. Like a sly old master, he had, in a sense, tricked us into the classroom by convincing us that we naturally wanted to love Krsna and that only he could show us how. That evening he was truly a master, the greatest of spiritual masters, opening hitherto hidden and sealed doors and ushering us into realms filled with light.