After we had purchased the temple on Watseka, I was transferred from Laguna to Los Angeles. My first service was with Bhavananda, painting, hammering, and sanding to prepare Srila Prabhupada’s quarters. When Prabhupada moved into his apartment the work crew was there to greet him. He sat behind his desk, pulled out a bag of cookies, and handed one to each of us. We ate the cookies, and he said, “Now wash your hands and feet. You must always do this after eating.” Shortly after that, there was an incident that I remember fondly. The Sunday feast was still at La Cienega Boulevard temple, but after the feast I went back to Watseka to paint the ceiling of the temple room. I was on a scaffold singing the Hare Krishna mantra quite loudly. I thought I was the only one in the temple and wasn’t paying much attention to anything else, just chanting and painting. I glanced down, and Srila Prabhupada was standing on the floor along with the temple president, Gargamuni, Karandhar, and perhaps Brahmananda. I was stunned. I scampered down the scaffold and offered my obeisances to Srila Prabhupada. Then I knelt on the floor in front of him with my hands folded. He looked at me, folded his hands and said, “Thank you very much.” Afterwards the devotees told me that when they drove up they could hear me singing. Srila Prabhupada asked them to be quiet, and they listened to my chanting as they walked into the temple. Srila Prabhupada appreciated the loud chanting.
In those days he would lecture on Monday evenings at the La Cienega temple. All the devotees would line the sidewalks waiting for him to arrive. When he drove up we all bowed down, and Srila Prabhupada walked down the line of devotees, sometimes patting a devotee on the head. We were always trying to understand whether or not he was accepting our service. If he patted you, you felt that, “I’m not worthy. He’s just giving me some encouragement.” And if he didn’t, you felt the same thing. After we’d moved into the new temple on Watseka Avenue, Srila Prabhupada gave Sri Isopanisad classes every day. One day after class he asked, “Is everyone chanting sixteen rounds?” I raised my hand and said, “Srila Prabhupada, I’m not chanting sixteen rounds.” Srila Prabhupada said, “Why aren’t you chanting sixteen rounds?” I said, “Srila Prabhupada, I am working twenty hours a day. The temple president doesn’t give me sufficient time to chant.” He said, “Then sleep two hours. Chant sixteen rounds.” In other words, Srila Prabhupada strongly told me, “Don’t diminish your work for the chanting. Diminish your sleep.” I took it seriously and would spend late nights standing in the hot water closet trying to finish my rounds. Later I found out that hardly anyone chanted sixteen rounds, because the leaders thought that work was more important than chanting.
I distinctly remember my initiation, because it was something you dream of and pray for and wait for innumerable lifetimes. But in particular, I remember when Prabhupada said, “Bill Prabhu come forward. Your name is Bhaktadas,” He handed me my beads and said, “This name means that you are the servant of the devotees. The more you think of yourself as a servant, the more you will advance in spiritual life. The more you think you’re becoming a master, the faster you will go to hell.” In that one sentence he summarized the essence of the Krishna consciousness philosophy. Over the years I meditate on those words over and over and over again. I’ve attempted to serve the devotees in whatever way I can, and I’ve found that it is, without any doubt, the mercy of the devotees that helps one to advance in spiritual life. Our philosophy is that by the mercy of Krishna one gets a bona fide guru. And by the mercy of the devotees, one gets Krishna. In the neophyte stage, the kanistha level, we worship the Deity and neglect the devotees. Or we give the respect to the “big” devotees, swamis, and gurus, but we neglect the ordinary devotees. I know I’m guilty of every variety of offense, but I keep hearing Srila Prabhupada’s words again and again echoing in my mind, “Become the servant of the devotees.” I finally concluded that the highest service is to serve the newest devotee, the youngest devotee, because he’s taking the bold step to try to leave the material world. If you help him, then you’re really helping the Krishna consciousness movement. The people who are already mature in devotional service don’t need so much help.
When I became temple president in San Diego, I started writing to Srila Prabhupada once a month to give him a report on the temple activities. My first letter was in January of 1971. I was so nervous I agonized over every word, every comma, wanting to try and make it perfect. It probably took me weeks to write that letter. Srila Prabhupada wrote back, “It appears Krishna has blessed you. Now make sure all of our principles are followed, and then there will never be any scarcity.” I found that to be an invaluable instruction, and I still try to live by that. We should have faith that Krishna will maintain and protect us if we are obedient to our spiritual master.
I was determined to remain a brahmachari. I felt that Krishna had protected me because I never had a girlfriend before I joined the movement, and I thought I could continue. But some of our senior men in Los Angeles told me that I should marry, and this destroyed my mental equilibrium. I started thinking about marriage, and I asked Prabhupada, “Should I get married?” He said, “It is better if you can remain a brahmachari.” But he didn’t say “no” or “yes.” It wasn’t specific. After this visit to San Diego in 1972, there was some talk that I should take sannyas. I searched my heart and concluded that every time a pretty girl walked in the temple my mind would be attracted to her. I said, “I don’t want to take sannyas now. When I take sannyas, I want to be free of this.” So I got married instead. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the mercy of the grihastha ashram. Krishna’s so kind to allow us that. Think of the poor Mayavadis who must take sannyas even though their hearts are full of desires.
In the middle of 1972 there was no plainclothes sankirtan. Everything was straight saris, dhotis, tilak, and “Here, we’re from Hare Krishna, please read a book about Krishna.” Around that time Srila Prabhupada wrote me a letter saying, “Make sure that you sell books by preaching, not by cheating.” I was taken aback by this. I said, “What does he mean? He’s written ‘cheating.’ What are we doing?” I wrote and asked, “Srila Prabhupada you mentioned, ‘Sell books by preaching, not by cheating.’ What do you mean?” He replied that if you act with the consciousness that Krishna is the Supreme Proprietor, the only Enjoyer, and the dear most Friend of all living beings, then you are not cheating. But if you act in any other consciousness, you are cheating. He didn’t specifically say that we were lying on sankirtan to collect money and distribute books. But my understanding was that as Supersoul, Krishna is within us and within all others, and when we’re on sankirtan we should be trying to please Him.
Once I had the idea to try and sell the books through bookstores. I invested some laksmi in radio advertising, produced a radio ad for the Krishna Book, and placed Krishna Books in all the bookstores in San Diego County. I wrote to Srila Prabhupada about that and he wrote back, “This is very nice. Please let me know if it is successful. If it is, we’re prepared to spend millions and millions of dollars to advertise our books.” Of course, I didn’t have enough finances to do it the way it should have been done. But it was effective inasmuch as the books were displayed in all the stores. Some of them sold, but not enough to justify the amount that we’d spent. But I think Srila Prabhupada liked the attempt to do something boldly. When Srila Prabhupada was asked, “What is humility?” he said, “Humility is to act boldly for Krishna.” We may think that humility is to be meek, quiet, or submissive. But no, Prabhupada said, “Be bold for Krishna.”
Once Srila Prabhupada lectured in a lecture hall at a Catholic school at the University of San Diego. Most of the persons who attended were priests, nuns, bishops, perhaps a cardinal, and Catholic lay preachers of Southern California. There was a big crowd, and my father also came. We put Srila Prabhupada’s vyasasana on top of a desk, and he climbed up a chair, onto the desk and onto his vyasasana. He began his lecture by quoting a Sanskrit sloka that I have never been able to find. Then he said, “This means you are what you eat. In this age, most people are eating hogs.” I will never forget that. I was sitting on the floor at his feet, and my jaw dropped. I thought, “Prabhupada how can you say this?” I couldn’t believe he would speak like this to this particular audience. I could understand if he was calling the hippies, the drug addicts, hogs, but here he was saying the same thing to this highly, so-called cultured, religious, scholarly audience. I was dumbfounded. I looked at the faces of the other devotees, and they were dumbfounded too. If I had been speaking to this audience, it was the last thing I would have said. But Srila Prabhupada, having no false ego, could say anything and get away with it. If I had said that same thing they probably would have stoned me. I don’t remember the rest of the lecture, and I’ve looked for it over and over again and never been able to find it. On another occasion during the same visit, Srila Prabhupada went to the home of Dr. Duvari, an Indian gentleman. We ate there (I don’t know if it was prasadam), and then Srila Prabhupada and Dr. Duvari had a philosophical discussion. Dr. Duvari presented every variety of Western atheistic philosophy, and Srila Prabhupada countered him. The conversation began at 7:30 or 8:00 in the evening, and it went on and on and on. At about 11:30 it was still going on. Three or four of us were sitting there silently watching Srila Prabhupada and listening. Srila Prabhupada became exasperated with this man and said, “You’re a fool. I have never met such a complete fool such as you before.” Finally Dr. Duvari put his head on Srila Prabhupada’s feet and submitted. Since then his entire family have become Vaishnavas, and they’re still the biggest supporters of the San Diego temple.
During the preparations for the Berkeley Ratha-yatra in 1970, devotees were cutting fruit for a huge fruit salad. We didn’t get much sleep, maybe an hour or an hour and a half. We had a small morning program, and, one morning when we were sitting in the temple room reciting the Guruvastaka prayers in English, Srila Prabhupada suddenly came in. We had no idea that he was coming. It was spontaneous. He sat down on his vyasasana and said, “Continue doing what you’re doing.” We continued, “The spiritual master is very satisfied when he sees the devotees eating bhagavat prasada.” Srila Prabhupada said, “Yes! This is the best part!” (Laughs) We responded, “Jaya, Prabhupada!”
In 1972 there was a devotee named Devarishi in San Francisco who had become famous as an expert Back to Godhead magazine distributor. But he had had a fall down of some sort, and the temple president in San Francisco had kicked him out. This temple president called me and said, “Don’t let Devarishi in, he had a fall down.” Then Devarishi showed up at the San Diego temple. I had a hard time keeping anyone out. Srila Prabhupada was there, and Devarishi was sitting on the front lawn wanting to come in. I said, “Why don’t you come in and see Srila Prabhupada?” He came in and explained to Srila Prabhupada what had happened and how he wasn’t welcome in the temples anymore. Prabhupada said, “You come and travel with me.” This is an example of Prabhupada’s compassion. Nobody wanted Devarishi, but Prabhupada said, “Come and travel with me. I want you.” Prabhupada didn’t reject anyone.
On July 1, 1970, we had organized a festival in the Starlight Opera Theater at Balboa Park. We tried to advertise and promote it, and although we had a reasonable crowd, not a lot of people came. Sitting on the stage on his vyasasana, Srila Prabhupada had begun lecturing about Lord Chaitanya, when some drunk hippie in the audience started screaming, “We want sex! We love sex! Sex, sex, we want sex!” Srila Prabhupada leaned over and asked, “What is he saying?” I said, “Srila Prabhupada, he says he wants sex.” Srila Prabhupada stopped his lecture and spoke about the real purpose of sex. That was quite amazing. That lecture is in the archives and you can read it.
Mr. Joshi was a retired Punjabi magistrate who lived in the Berkeley area across the San Francisco Bay. Every time Srila Prabhupada came to San Francisco he would go to Mr. Joshi’s for lunch. Mr. Joshi would greet him with a garland of one-dollar bills. We’d all criticize Mr. Joshi, “Why aren’t you giving one hundred-dollar bills?” (Laughs) Mr. Joshi would wash Prabhupada’s feet, he would wash all the devotee’s feet, and he’d have us sit down. On this particular occasion, I was wiped out because I had been working hard for Ratha-yatra for a number of weeks. I was sitting down for prasadam feeling horrible, but I hadn’t said anything to anyone. I was determined to grit it out. Srila Prabhupada looked at me and said, “Bhaktadas, you’re not feeling well?” I said, “Srila Prabhupada, I’m a little sick.” He said, “Go and take rest. You have worked hard, now take rest.” I said, “Yes, Srila Prabhupada,” paid my obeisances, walked into a back bedroom, laid down and passed out. After some time, I heard some noise and looked up to see Srila Prabhupada coming in. I jumped out of the bed and fell down at his feet in dandavats. I started to walk out of the room, when Prabhupada said to me, “Take rest! You’ve worked hard, take rest!” I said, “Yes, Srila Prabhupada,” and got back into bed. There were two twin beds right next to each other. I was in the one on the right, and Mr. Joshi came and pulled back the covers of the other one. Srila Prabhupada crawled in, and Mr. Joshi tucked him in as if he were a child. It was very sweet. The two beds were only a foot and a half apart. Prabhupada’s head and my head were quite close while we napped. Of course, for me it wasn’t an ordinary nap. It was a Goloka nap, a yoga nidra nap. It was very extraordinary. It showed how Srila Prabhupada was compassionate, sensitive and caring. He didn’t have an air that, “Hey, I’m the guru and you’re a nobody and you get out, I’m taking the bed.” He was equal to everyone. Of course, he was as good as God to me. But his kindness was overwhelming. Every time Srila Prabhupada saw me, the first thing he would say was, “Bhaktadas, are you happy?” He was always concerned. I was always happy when I was with Srila Prabhupada. Sometimes, before I went to see him I was angry, but when I saw him, everything disappeared. All problems evaporated. There weren’t any problems in his presence.
Most of the devotees in San Francisco had never seen Srila Prabhupada and wanted to have his darshan. They had worked hard, so I gathered most of them and brought them to Srila Prabhupada’s room. I wanted to bring Jayananda, but Jayananda kept saying, “I’m too busy, I don’t have time. I have to work.” I grabbed him: “You’re coming. You’re going to go see your spiritual master.” Prabhupada was staying in Keshava Bharati’s apartment. We went in and paid our obeisances. Jayananda sat down against the far back wall and instantly fell asleep. He didn’t say a word to Srila Prabhupada, and Prabhupada didn’t say a word to him. We had darshan for thirty or forty minutes, and when it was time to go I said, “Jayananda, it’s time to go.” He said, “Okay,” paid his obeisances, and walked out. It was obvious that the relationship between Srila Prabhupada and Jayananda extended far beyond the range of the voice or body. It wasn’t at all dependent upon bodily conditions.
At the end of a Christmas Marathon in 1973 or ’74, Rameshvara sent Prabhupada enormous book distribution scores. Srila Prabhupada wrote back, “Congratulations on selling so many books. This is very nice, and I’m very pleased.” But in the final sentence, he wrote, “The highest realization is to save your self.” That sentence was like a sledgehammer in my heart, because most of us were thinking, “We’re saved, and we’re saving others.” But here he was telling us that the highest thing is to save ourselves. I felt that we had become like Christians, thinking “I’m saved by the blood of Jesus, and these people are all heathens. We’re going to save them.” I felt that we’d become puffed up and intoxicated by ourselves. The words in that letter always stayed with me.