Prabhupada, Swamiji at the time, didn’t tell us about the vyasasana. He didn’t make us cut our hair. He didn’t say anything about bowing down. He just accepted things as they were. He accepted us. Krishna had sent us, enthusiastic, young and believing we could do anything. We were adventurous and not too staid in any lifestyle. We were able to go along with and do anything, and that’s what happened. A New York contingent slowly came to San Francisco. Among them there was an artist, Haridas, Harvey Cohen, who came in an old Cadillac. We called it the “Krishnalac.” For some reason Haridas put a totem pole with noses, rings, masks, and moons right by the temple altar in Frederick Street. Prabhupada just accepted it, along with eclectic pictures, pictures of Lord Jesus, and so on. Prabhupada didn’t tell us to do too much, but he did teach Yamuna, Harsharani, and Govinda dasi how to cook. Once, when Prabhupada was sick, the doctors told Govinda dasi to give Prabhupada a special diet. Prabhupada called them the “starvation committee.” He wanted his standard diet instead.
Haridas decided to paint the Panchatattva Deities, but he thought They were women and he painted Them with breasts. When the new painting was unveiled over the new altar, Prabhupada said, “Ahhhh,” and told Haridas, “Those are men, not women. Please change it.” Haridas changed it. It’s amazing how Prabhupada was so patient. He introduced things very slowly.
I would take lots of photographs, and sometimes Prabhupada would tease me, saying, “Why you are photographing me so much? Photograph something important like people chanting.” Once in San Francisco when I was photographing he said, “There is a superstition in India that if someone is photographed, it will shorten his life. What do you think?” I stopped. I said, “I think how long one lives depends on how one lives.” He said, “Yes. That other idea is just a superstition.”
Yamuna and I knew a number of people who could have married us, but we said, “We would really like the Swami to do it.” So we asked him, “Would you marry us?” He said, “First you must become initiated.” I said, “When do you want us to become initiated?” He said, “Tomorrow.” Tomorrow came, and I was still with my old jazz friends, uncertain whether to go ahead with it or not. My friends said, “Don’t get initiated. Stay with us.” Some Christian said, “This Krishna consciousness is paganism.” I was swayed, and right up to the last minute I was calling the temple saying, “I am coming,” and then hanging up the phone and saying, “I don’t want to do it.” No one, including me, was sure if I was going to show or not, but finally I did. Four of us got initiated that day. I was afraid. I knew that it meant that I would have to surrender even though there was no great Movement at the time, just twelve, fourteen, sixteen people around who ate and chanted. There was no bowing down or shaven heads. It was just a lot of fun. Prabhupada was like our father sitting in our midst. In the early morning kirtan, people were still coming off all-night LSD trips. It was part of the whole scene. They would come to the temple to chant and have breakfast. At my initiation there were all sorts of freaks. The temple was smoking like anything because Janaki brought compressed wood instead of real wood. We also used margarine instead of butter, so the flame sputtered and smoked. Prabhupada said to me, “You will be Gurudas das,” but I was so frightened at the time that I didn’t hear my name. Afterwards I said to Prabhupada, “When would you like to marry us?” He said, “Tomorrow.” He didn’t want to give me too much time to think.
Rabindra Svarup was a sensitive, thoughtful, poetic, and ascetic- looking person who obviously loved Prabhupada. He didn’t speak too much, but sometimes said things honestly and abruptly. He said what he thought. Prabhupada loved him very much. In the middle of a kirtan, Rabindra Svarup said, “I’ve got to reach God directly. I cannot do it through anybody else” and he started to cry. This was his conflict. He didn’t want to do it with any priest, or intermediary. He loved Prabhupada, but he said, “I’ve got to do it on my own.” Prabhupada said, “Come here, my boy.” Rabindra Svarup came right up on the vyasasana and put his head on Prabhupada’s lap. Prabhupada said, “Dear boy, I just want you to be happy. I just want you to be happy.” Rabindra Svarup looked into Prabhupada’s face and cried. Prabhupada looked at him very compassionately. Then Rabindra Svarup bolted up off the vyasasana and out the front door. He didn’t sneak out in the middle of the night. We were all there. We saw him run out, and we were all shak- en by it because we were a family. His girlfriend Haladapi was there and she didn’t know whether she would ever see him again. He just left, slamming the door behind him. Prabhupada said, “Now let us chant,” and he led with sizzling kartals. Prabhupada didn’t say anything about the incident. We all chanted and cried.
Prabhupada liked how Saraswati, Malati and Shyamasundar’s four- year-old daughter, helped encourage everyone to chant during kirtan. Later on he gave her a small Deity of Krishna. Saraswati became quite attached to her Deity, and one day Prabhupada hid her Deity behind his back. Saraswati was looking, “Where is Krishna?” Prabhupada also encouraged her, “Where is Krishna?” Saraswati became anxious, “Where is Krishna? Where is He?” When Prabhupada returned the Deity to her he pointed out how separation from Krishna can increase our awareness of Him and love for Him.
Prabhupada had a fast wit. People would say, “Swamiji, you look so nice today.” He would say, “Just today?” When he was trying to get permission to immigrate, Nandarani and Dayananda were thinking of sponsoring him. He said, “You can adopt me, but they will say, ‘What will you do with such an old child?’” Also for immigration purposes, Allen Ginsberg offered a woman for him to marry. He said, “No, no. I cannot do that.” (In the early times there was more than one woman that asked him to marry her not for immigration purposes. One person followed him to Montreal.)
Prabhupada was on a live call-in talk show hosted by a man who had a reputation for being unkind to guests. Jayananda, Mukunda, maybe Hayagriva, and I went along. Gargamuni stayed back to call in some questions. The host began, “Welcome to the United States, Swamiji,” and one of us gave a brief introduction about the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. Then Gargamuni called and asked, “What is the meaning of life, Swamiji?” Prabhupada explained, “The meaning of life is to be a servant of God,” for about twenty minutes. The next question was “Why are we on the earth planet?” Again Prabhupada gave a long answer. The host said, “We want questions from peo- ple outside of your group.” The third question was tremendous, “Why are we here? What is our purpose for being here?” Again Prabhupada took fifteen, twenty minutes to answer. The host was anxious to get another point of view. Finally a woman with a midwest twang asked, “Swamiji, why is your temple in the Haight-Ashbury?” Prabhupada said, “The rents are inexpensive.” She said, “Why are you teaching hippies?” Prabhupada said, “They are not hippies. They are happies.” She said, “How did you get here from India?” He said, “I received free passage from my friend, Sumati Morarji, on the Scindia Steamship line.” She said, “Who paid for it?” He said, “Free passage means there is no paying.” She was getting frustrated. She said, “Are you a freeloader?” Prabhupada had never heard the word before, but he said, “Yes.” We could hear her practically fall down on the kitchen floor. It sounded like she fainted. The host said, “I don’t like her questions. I am going to punch her out.” Then he started asking questions like, “What’s that mark on your forehead?”, and the program ended.
When Achyutananda was speaking with Prabhupada in Vrindavan he said, “Gurudas is stationed in Vrindavan, but it would be good if he could come preaching around India.” I said to Prabhupada, “I am happy in Vrindavan but I would like to preach too. What should I do?” He said, “Preach to the devotees. They need preaching.” And it’s true. I saw that after somebody joined, the courtship was over, and we grew complacent, forgetting that they were unique. So I took his instruction to heart and started preaching more. It was great. Everybody appreciated it. In London when the devotees came back from sankirtan, Yamuna would serve them milk, and I would tell them stories or read Krishna Book. The devotees said it was like I was their father and Yamuna was their mother. Prabhupada encouraged us by saying, “Men and women are in this Bury Place temple. There is just one floor difference, but there is no illicit mixing. That is because this is a family. You are like the father, and Yamuna is like the mother. It is not artificial.” It was a family type of thing. When I was to take sannyas, I pointed out that my preaching to the devotees would diminish because people treat sannyasis differently and because married couples would stop coming for counseling. Prabhupada said, “Yes, that is so. But as a sannyasi you can preach more widely to the world.”
Prabhupada and I were walking together. I had begun to go to the India Office Library and the British Museum in London. The British Museum library had some old Gaudiya Math books, and the India Office Library had everything, including Bhaktisiddhanta’s works and the poem that Prabhupada wrote to Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati in 1935, “Adore, adore ye all the happy day.” I had found that in his handwriting and sent it to him, and he was happy to receive it. In the library I had begun to read Bhaktivinode Thakur’s writing about Puri, and I liked his poetry, imagery and compassion. In my heart I liked Bhaktivinode Thakur’s writings the best. I liked Prabhupada the best, but Prabhupada had a formal side, a public persona. When he lectured he was sometimes stern. His writing is very nice, but sometimes I found it repetitious. I am just being honest, not blasphemous. I liked Bhaktivinode Thakur’s writings the most, but on the walk I lied. I said, “I like Bhaktivinode Thakur as my second favorite author.” Prabhupada looked at me and said, “Second?” Again he read my mind. I said, “Actually, he is my favorite.” He said, “Yes. If I were one-tenth of Bhaktivinode Thakur, I would be a great devotee.”
Street sankirtan started in New York, but for us it began on Lord Chaitanya’s Appearance Day. We were told to go to the temple and alternate between kirtan, japa, and reading the scriptures. After about three or four hours, Jayananda, Jivananda, Uddhava, and I thought, “Let’s take this outside.” Chanting, we went around the corner to Willard Street where Prabhupada was staying. Prabhupada came to the window and motioned to us. We thought, “Oh, no. He is telling us to go away,” and we started back to the temple. Upendra, Prabhupada’s servant came storming out and said, “No, no. That’s the Indian way of saying ‘Come here. Come here.’” We went upstairs, and Prabhupada said, “Krishna has given you the intelligence to chant in the street. Now I want you to do this every day.” Street sankirtan, harinam, started for us as of that day.
Srila Prabhupada had all the qualities of a great devotee. Just by seeing him, one would think of Krishna. But the quality that I remember most was his compassion. Prabhupada, although non-compromising and strict at times, was also open-minded. He did what the situation called for, whether tying up a microphone with a brahman’s thread or understanding our complaints. With a compassionate look he once said to me, “If I don’t forgive you, then Krishna will forgive you. And if Krishna does not, Radharani will.”