: I first met Srila Prabhupada in Atlanta, Georgia, in February, 1975, during the time the temple was celebrating Bhaktisiddhanta’s Appearance Day. I first saw Srila Prabhupada at the large gathering of devotees in the temple room that evening. I was astounded by Prabhupada’s smaller size because in the pictures he appeared as someone with a large stature. When I heard a recording of him, he had a strong, baritone voice. I had this image of a very big man, but when I saw him, he was a small person with a big message. [laughs] That evening was unique because Prabhupada taught us the bhajan by Locana das Thakura—parama karuna. It’s a beautiful song, highlighting the two Lords, Caitanya and Nityananda, and the reason for their appearance. Srila Prabhupada also played the mridanga for us, which was very rare in those days. He gave a lot of mercy that day. During his visit in Atlanta, Srila Prabhupada watched a drama by our devotees. The play was about Lord Caitanya meeting the Muslim leader, Chand Kazi. I couldn’t keep from looking back at Prabhupada, who was also a spectator. I saw that he enjoyed it very much. He really enjoyed the fact that our Krishna consciousness could be presented through entertainment. That was significant for me. There was also a kirtan that was held and I recall many devotees were chanting near the Deities. Prabhupada sat on his vyasasan in the temple room, and there was one fellow who was a little bit frivolous. He was playing the mridanga in an odd manner by projecting it forward and then letting it come back and bounce off his belly. In this way, he was going back and forth. He was rather close to Prabhupada, and Prabhupada looked at him with a sour facial expression as if to say, “What are you doing?”
I had the pleasure of going on a morning walk with Srila Prabhupada in Atlanta. It was quite a frigid day even for me, being a Nordic person from Canada. Prabhupada was very resilient and, of course, he was very well dressed. Anyway, as he moved along, the group of Vaishnavas that were with him were really attentive, and I was one of those persons trying to also be very attentive. I kept my ear in the direction to where his voice was coming from, but I couldn’t decipher very well what Prabhupada was saying. I was so fixated on trying to hear every word that I wasn’t watching where I was going, so I hit a lamppost. It made an incredibly loud twang noise. My companion, who was my sankirtan leader, Giri-yadhava prabhu, heard the sound. He looked back at me and said, “Shhhh!” I thought, “Well, what about me? [laughs] What about me?” A bump showed up on my forehead, but the lesson I learned was that everyone was so attentive to Prabhupada that nothing else really mattered. [laughs]
I was on another morning walk with Prabhupada in a park along Lake Michigan. There were quite of few other devotees, including a group of sannyasis with their dandas who had just received their initiation. I was straggling along a little behind the main group when a cyclist came along and he stopped right in front of me. He said, “Excuse me.” It wasn’t directed to me but rather to the devotees who were huddled around Prabhupada. He asked, “Why is it that some of you are carrying sticks and others are not?” That was the simple question. The devotees went silent for a moment or two waiting for Prabhupada to give a reply. Prabhupada didn’t really hear the question so he turned his head toward Brahmananda and said, “What did he say?” Brahmananda’s interpretation of that question was, “He wants to know why we carry the sticks, Prabhupada.” Prabhupada thought about it for a second and said, “Tell him they are there to shoo away the dogs.” [laughs] Prabhupada had a dry wit.
I was on a morning walk once again with Srila Prabhupada in Chicago on a beautiful sunny day by Lake Michigan. We walked along a trail and then came to the end of the park. It was decided that Visakha, the photographer, would take a picture, and this would be an iconic beautifully framed photo of His Divine Grace. Because of the potential significance of the photo, Brahmananda came and adjusted Prabhupada’s chaddar. Then a second devotee came along and suggested that Prabhupada should move a little bit to get the right angle. Visakha also offered some suggestions since she was the photographer. Then person number two came back and created more of a muss and fuss. Prabhupada was getting a little annoyed with the situation that was developing and said, “I am just going to stay here like this now.” He said with a big smile, “You cannot satisfy all of the people all of the time.” It was one of those classic phrases, and my understanding was that everyone had their own individual take on things, so the photo would never be perfect to everyone’s liking. Prabhupada in his photos sometimes may have projected an image of being very stern. But in my experience with Prabhupada, he was quite approachable, and he loved to tell a little joke or slip out a witty remark that inevitably would lighten the atmosphere. I thought that was very significant. Just because one has a spiritual master doesn’t mean that there has to be rigidity in the relationship. It is a little bit more about being human, carrying on in life in a way that makes it not so cumbersome or burdensome. I think that is really important, and Prabhupada was able to provide that with his remark about trying to satisfy all the people all the time.
I had the pleasure to attend a Sunday program with Prabhupada in Detroit, Michigan, on Jefferson Avenue. I was just a few feet away from Prabhupada’s vyasasan and I was able to capture a real nice profile of him. I worked hard as a brahmacari, and I was really physically exhausted. I have to say I was nodding out. I remember waking up at certain points and thinking, “How can I doze off in front of such a luminary? What a sinful, inattentive wretch you are, Bhaktimarga das.” [laughs] Prabhupada was coming to the tail end of his lecture, and the only thing I can remember that he said was, “Do not be proud.” It was like a half-hour discourse and that’s all I needed to hear. [laughs]
It was Prabhupada’s second visit to Toronto at the time we had just acquired a large limestone building for our new temple. He was thrilled with the purchase of the former church on a major thoroughfare coming into the city of Toronto. The temple had all the features that you could ever ask for in a nice neighborhood. It was a milestone for the movement in North America in particular. Prior to Prabhupada’s arrival, it came to the point when we were trying to figure out how to make Prabhupada’s quarters perfect for him. It was previously the rectory, and now Prabhupada would be occupying this space that had a bedroom, bathroom, a meeting room in between and a room for his servants. Everyone was thinking, “Prabhupada is from India and accustomed to the Vedic culture, and in India the toilets don’t have seats like in the West.” We thought in order to make him feel right at home we should take off the toilet seat. Upon his arrival Prabhupada took a tour of the entire temple, and when he got to the bathroom in his quarters, he saw that the toilet seat was missing. He turned to the temple president by his side and asked, “How can I go?” [laughs] We had a lot to learn from our misconceptions.
Srila Prabhupada was giving morning classes in Toronto and there was quite a surge of devotees coming from different parts of North America. At one point during a class, one of our brahmacaris was doing some twisting or yogic stretching exercises during the course of Prabhupada’s talk. Everyone else was sitting still and this person was standing out like a sore thumb. Prabhupada picked up on it right away and made a remark right in the middle of the class, “Don’t do this!” What I gleaned from that incident was that Prabhupada wanted attention from all of us so nothing would slip by in hearing Prabhupada’s lecture. I talked to the “guilty party” after the class, who said he didn’t feel very good for being chastised by the spiritual master, but at the same time appreciated the mercy of being noticed by Prabhupada.
In the new Toronto temple, Srila Prabhupada was meeting in the sitting room area of his quarters with some university professors. Dr. Shivaraman from McMaster University and Professor Joseph T. O’Connell, who had been a great supporter of ISKCON during our troubling times of the anti-cult days, were there. Professor O’Connell asked the question to Srila Prabhupada, “Are there any female gurus in your tradition?” Srila Prabhupada’s answer was very simply, “Yes, there are some, but few.” Then Prabhupada cited the example of Nityananda’s wife, Jahnavi-devi. The fact that Prabhupada accepted that this was a reality in our tradition, then perhaps this is something we should take up seriously in the Krishna consciousness movement, even though it is a controversial topic.
What impressed me was that Prabhupada was a scholar. He was able to deliver so much wisdom and quote slokas from so many different sources, but at the same time, he was still very human. I think that is really important because we sometimes get so preoccupied with rules and regulations that everything becomes rather bland and cold. That warm side of Prabhupada that we read about from some of the biographers sheds new light for us. From what I could see, here was a person who was above us all in many aspects, but also very much with his feet on the ground. I think that is important for devotees to understand. The lesson from Prabhupada in this regard is that we can’t have our heads in the clouds too much. Prabhupada was very real with people and very caring. He would relate in simple terms with people he met by asking them, “How are you doing, how is your family and how is your health?” For me Prabhupada’s quality of personalism stands out front and center.