Bhutatma das Remembers Srila Prabhupada

Prabhupada Memories

Interview 01

Bhutatma: Prabhupada wanted everyone—his disciples as well as people in general—to become happy. That was clear to me when I received my first letter from Prabhupada. I had written to him expressing my commitment to Krishna consciousness, how I was becoming happy following this process, and requesting initiation from him. In Prabhupada’s reply he wrote that he’d accept me as a disciple and he wrote, “I’m so glad that you’re becoming happy.” From his enlightened perspective, Prabhupada saw that the only way to become happy was by realizing our constitutional position, and as we started to experience that even in a limited way, he encouraged us. The first time he communicated with me Prabhupada made that point.

I grew up near the beach and like a lot of other people, I always enjoyed the pleasing sound of the waves as they break and then ebb. Once we were walking on the beach when Prabhupada stopped to listen to those sounds for a minute. Then he said, “This sound of the waves retreating is the sound of the gopis sighing for Krishna.” I thought, “No wonder it’s so pleasing.” Ever since then when I hear those mournful and bittersweet sounds, I think of Prabhupada’s words.

About six of us were walking in Cheviot Hills around the time that Bali Mardan was involved with a Japanese woman who we thought was the heir to the Toyota fortune. Toward the end of the walk, Karandhar, Bali Mardan and I lagged behind because I was asking Bali Mardan if he could loan money to the San Francisco temple to buy property where householders could live. While we were having this private discussion, Prabhupada was walking ahead, and the three of us were still talking when Prabhupada and the other devotees were almost to the car. Then Prabhupada stopped, turned around and looked at us with a displeased expression. Prabhupada’s expressions could be very complex, but I felt that he was saying, “There you are playing with broken glass. You think that you’re making some plan to expand the movement, and here is Krishna’s pure devotee and you’ve separated yourself and are in a mental state.” When it turned out that there wasn’t any money, it exacerbated the foolishness of our conversation. I clearly remember Prabhupada’s look and how I thought, “Jiminy Christmas, what am I thinking? We could talk about this any time. I’m back here, missing precious moments with Prabhupada because I’m letting my little sense of self-importance run away from me.”

Sometimes Prabhupada would speak on the way people are in the world and the way the world works from a Krishna conscious perspective. Once when he was doing that I was somehow giving good responses to his comments. He would say something, I would make an observation that he apparently liked, and he would smile. For example, he had little tissues to clean his eyeglasses. He pulled one out and said, “These cost almost nothing to manufacture yet they sell for three rupees.” I said, “Yes, Prabhupada, that’s the profit motive of the karmis.” Prabhupada said, “Yes.” It went on a few times like that and inside me my ego was swelling up. I was right there with Prabhupada having these exchanges. Then I asked Prabhupada something about Iran, because there was some question about Atreya Rishi going there. Prabhupada looked at me and then he looked away as if he’d had enough. To this day, I don’t know what he was thinking, but to me it felt like he was saying, “Okay, we’re going to squeeze you down to size.” In Mayapur everything is amplified. Even on into the night I felt bad about how my ego inflated. I thought, “I’m so conditioned I got full of myself.” Then, as he did every morning, the next morning Prabhupada circumambulated the temple room, stopping at certain spots to ring the bell in time with the kirtan. When he rang that bell, the devotees chanting all around him became ecstatic. When Prabhupada made the first stop I was chanting blissfully, but my heart was still pinched by my being such a klutz. Just as I was thinking that and feeling the dichotomy between the bliss of the kirtan and that little pebble in my heart, Prabhupada turned and looked at me for a long time as he rang the bell. He was smiling and radiating bliss. It washed over me as if he was saying, “Don’t take it too seriously, I was just cuffing you a little bit.”

I was in Prabhupada’s room with another brahmachari when Krishna das, who had been in Sweden trying to open a temple, came in with his wife and small son and began making excuses to Prabhupada about why he hadn’t been able to stay in Sweden. The other brahmachari and I looked at each other because his wife wasn’t wearing a sari or even dressed modestly. It seemed inappropriate. Prabhupada listened to Krishna das and I didn’t know how he would respond. When Krishna das was done Prabhupada looked at him thoughtfully and said, “You are not Krishna das, you are Maya das!” It was heavy, but it fit. Prabhupada said, “When I came to your country, there was no question of a peaceful retreat. It was victory or death!” Krishna das was getting smaller. “Honey I’ve shrunk the kids.” Then Prabhupada lightened up and at the end Krishna das said, “Can my son touch your feet?” Prabhupada said, “Yes,” so the boy did that and the three of them left the room. It was a lesson for us that Prabhupada was not pleased when we rationalized things. It would have been better to say honestly, “I really couldn’t cut it.”

Once, when we had just started selling big books, Buddhimanta, Yogeschandra, Keshava and I were on a traveling sankirtan party, and we were getting criticized because we weren’t at the temple eating temple prasadam and so forth. We were on the front lines, and we would offer and eat sour cream and dates, that kind of food. So we went to Prabhupada in his room in L.A. and said, “We think we’re doing the right thing but some people say no, we need to be eating temple prasadam, otherwise it’s not good for our spiritual life.” Prabhupada looked at us, leaned forward and forcefully said, “Just go out and sell my books! You can eat anything!” We were totally vindicated, “We do understand what he wants. He wants us out there

I had made friends with a noted religious scholar, Mark Juergensmeyer, one of the professors in the Religious Studies Department at Berkeley University. I asked him, “What do you think about having a program with Srila Prabhupada and some of the faculty?” Juergensmeyer was enthusiastic and one of the people he invited was Dr. Staal, who had already had scholarly exchanges with Prabhupada about chanting the mahamantra. That exchange was printed as a brochure that we distributed to validate the scholarly nature of our movement. Dr. Staal was already well known to devotees. Twenty or twenty-five faculty members plus their wives attended, quite a big turnout for that kind of group. They were interested to meet Prabhupada because of the history behind our movement. We set up a room and put a vyasasana on top of a table, which I think seemed a little pretentious to them—a colorful, big chair with peacocks on it so high up that the base of it was head height for them. Some of them seemed to question the appropriateness of this arrangement. When Prabhupada arrived, I accompanied him to the building saying, “Prabhupada, it’s an old building, but . . .” He said, “We don’t care, old or new, the building doesn’t matter.” The entrance to the room was from the back—the people were facing the other way. I held the door and Prabhupada walked in, and as everyone turned around I saw their expression. The moment they saw him, such a transcendent figure dressed in saffron that the little subtle edge melted away. Their sense of someone pretentious or pompous was eliminated, and they sensed, “Here is a real saint.” Prabhupada was pleased by the turnout and he smiled and got on the vyasasana very naturally—“Yes, I do belong here, I’m representing Vyasa.” He spoke not about Radha Krishna but about Vedic and brahminical culture. Pradyumna, Svarupa Damodar and I sat on the side. After the talk one of the professors asked, “You are interested in making people brahmans and bringing the brahminical culture to the West. What about your followers here, are they brahmans?” I wondered what Prabhupada would say because we were not really brahmans. But Prabhupada handled it adeptly. He said, “They are trying to become brahmans,” with a tone that said we weren’t struggling vainly but we were going to be successful, we were on the path. It disarmed the challenge and gave us the appropriate status that we were sincere and we were following the correct process, even though we may still be conditioned by the modes of passion and ignorance. Prabhupada also had a little exchange with Dr. Staal. He said, “I see the illustrious Dr. Staal is here.” Of course that flattery made Dr. Staal happy. Every time I saw Prabhupada interact with anyone, the common theme was that Prabhupada was completely in command, not by dint of assertiveness, but because on some level everyone knew he was a bona fide representative of God. Prabhupada never had a trace of lack of confidence. Neither did he have any hubris or pride. He had that overwhelming sense of self-confidence that comes when one’s self-realized. Everyone at this scholarly gathering sensed that. After we left the meeting Prabhupada said to me, “This was an important meeting,” because he had met scholars and had established the credibility of our movement. And later one of the scholars told me, “I was a little skeptical in the beginning. I thought, ‘Maybe this will be some kind of elderly Bengali brahman who is caste conscious,’ but after I heard him speak I understood that this person was someone very special.” That comment confirmed what I had perceived that evening.

To view the entire unedited video go to Memories 36 - Bhutatma, Tosan Krsna, Kuladri, Chitralekha dd, Rangavati dd, Atma Tava

The full Prabhupada Memories Series can be viewed here and also at