At the end of 1969, devotees arrived in France for the first time, and we met them one week later. I say “we” because Mandakini, Ilavati, and I were three French school friends who joined together. At that time in France the devotees had no temple. They preached at the American Center, and one day they told us, “Our spiritual master is in London. Would you like to go see him?” We were planning to go to Tibet to become monks. We thought, “Why not? That’s a good idea. We’ll see a guru. We’re going to have a Buddhist guru in Tibet, so why not try to see what a guru is?” We went to London to check out this Indian guru, and we received a very great reception because we were the first French devotees. The devotees in England were waiting for us. Everybody told Prabhupada, “The first three French devotees are arriving.” We arrived on the day the London Deities were installed, and the next day we met Srila Prabhupada. I always had the Buddhist idea that when you look at the spiritual master some spiritual fluid goes from him to you and you become spiritually enlightened. That’s what I expected, but when I saw Prabhupada it didn’t happen. Prabhupada told the three of us, “I’m very happy to see you. It is nice that you have come. Here in London you have good examples with Yamuna, Janaki, and Malati.” He talked to us in this simple way, which was not at all what we expected. The transcendental fluid that I hoped for came from Prabhupada to me in the temple room. In his classes, Prabhupada explained the personal philosophy, but I was thinking, “I don’t accept that.” In my mind I philosophically argued with him. What astonished me was that each day in class he would defeat all the arguments that I had in mind the day before. This went on for many days. Towards the end, I started to feel convinced that personalism is a higher philosophy than impersonalism. Although not through direct question and answers, Prabhupada convinced me of personalism over impersonalism in those first days. The other thing that convinced me was the Hare Krishna kirtans. Each time I was in the temple room with Prabhupada and with kirtan, I thought, “I’ll stay here; I don’t want to go to a Tibetan monastery.” But when I left I’d again think, “What am I talking about? I’m not staying here. I’m going to be a Buddhist monk.” At the end of the week I was convinced. I became a devotee.
After we’d been in London for only five days, Prabhupada told Tamal Krishna that we should be initiated. Tamal Krishna said, “Prabhupada, they’ve been here only five days.” So, because Tamal Krishna didn’t feel we were ready then, we were initiated one month later. But Prabhupada saw how interested we were and how enthusiastically we chanted, danced, and participated. Maybe Prabhupada read our minds, and that’s why he said that we should be initiated so quickly.
If Prabhupada was not personally present, he initiated devotees by letter. First, the devotees who wanted to be initiated would send him a letter with their japa beads and dakshin and request initiation. Prabhupada would chant on the beads and send them back with a letter explaining that he had accepted those devotees as his disciples, and in the letter he would also give some instructions. At that time the dakshin was not money, as it is now. We were hippies with no money, so dakshin was simple things we made or found. I liked to paint, so I painted a little picture of Krishna for Prabhupada, and that was my initiation offering. Yogeshvara’s dakshin was a pair of socks. Prabhupada was so kind that he hung my little picture in his room.
Yamuna knew that I liked to paint since I had done that little painting for Prabhupada’s guru dakshin, so she asked me to do some paintings to decorate the temple. I did one big one and one small one. It happened that the small one, of the Pancha-tattva, hung over the staircase. Once, when Prabhupada was going down the staircase, he saw that painting. He stopped and asked, “Who has done this?” I was right behind him, and I said, “Prabhupada, I did that painting.” He said, “You are a scholar, and the painting is artwork for my books.” I had a capacity to paint, but later Prabhupada told me that there was other important service that he wanted me to do. Prabhupada was so concerned with his books that the first time we saw him in London in 1969, he asked us, “Do you know how to type?” For me this was a strange question. Instead of the spiritual master giving a high, old understanding and fluids, he asked, “Do you know how to type?” Later I realized that Prabhupada wanted me to publish his books in French. As soon as he saw French devotees, he immediately thought of translation work. Soon after, he instructed me to translate Back to Godhead magazine and then his books.
The first time that I translated Prabhupada’s words was when he lectured at the School of Architecture in Paris. Many young people attended. Prabhupada saw that I was not yet a very expert translator, so he spoke in short sentences. It was very nice of him. Over the years I was able to translate better, and he would make his sentences much longer. Astonishingly, once when I forgot to translate part of what Prabhupada had said he noticed it. I don’t know how he noticed it, because I don’t think Prabhupada knew French, but he noticed I missed a part. He repeated the part I missed so that I would translate it. And I did.
Some other devotees and I arranged for many important French people to meet Srila Prabhupada. One of them was a deputy in the government, and another was a big professor of Indian philosophy, and so forth. When these people came to see Prabhupada, I would introduce them to Prabhupada and explain who they were. Then they would discuss together while Yogeshvara, Pritaputra, or I translated. Prabhupada wanted all the devotees to come and listen to these conversations, and I was very glad that he wanted that. Later on, it was impossible to approach Prabhupada. Guards would always keep his door closed. But Prabhupada wanted devotees to be with him and to learn how to preach by hearing from him. Since so many different kinds of people were coming to see Prabhupada, devotees could hear how Prabhupada preached to different types of people. Prabhupada adapted to different personalities. Sometimes the discussions would be friendly and at other times heavy. For example, I brought a professor who was the head of the Indian Studies department at the university in France. He actually believed in the philosophy and was following the Ramanuja sampradaya. Prabhupada had a wonderful, friendly talk with him. “Where have you been in India? Do you know this, do you know that?” Sometimes they talked in Sanskrit together. This person was not just someone who talked philosophy because that was his job, but he was a sincere believer. He believed everything he taught, and that made it a very nice discussion.
When he talked to Christians we expected him to discuss comparative philosophy. But very often he strongly brought up the points of not eating meat and of animals having a soul. At first I wondered, “Why is he doing that?” Then I realized that in fact, these two religions, Vaishnavism and Christianity are very close because they are both personal. Prabhupada didn’t want to discuss the similarities. He wanted to expose that killing animals and eating meat is the big flaw in Christianity. Very often Prabhupada met Christian religious people and philosophically proved that animals have a soul. He used the argument that when a child becomes an adult, he or she looks very different but is still the same person, the same soul. The soul is going from one body to the other even in our lifetime. Similarly, an animal also transmigrates from body to body and is also a soul. Prabhupada was looking at the flaw, at what was missing in Christian philosophy. Most Western countries are Christian, and most Westerners eat meat. Where is this from? It’s from the religion. If Christianity forbade meat-eating most Western people would be vegetarians, so it’s a very important point.
Prabhupada had a very good discussion with a deputy. At that time also Prabhupada brought up the point of animal killing. Of course the deputy would not accept vegetarianism. The deputy couldn’t see how people could survive if they didn’t eat meat. Prabhupada astonished me by saying, “If people want to eat meat, then let them eat the cows when they have died a natural death.” Prabhupada was humorous and was always amazingly quick to answer. Another person we brought was a religious psychiatrist who was well known in France. He took care of his patients through spiritual life and showed them how spiritual life would help them. I went to his city to bring him to meet Prabhupada. When this man was downstairs, he wouldn’t come into Prabhupada’s presence. I told Prabhupada “I invited him to come in to see you, but he said, ‘Where is the patient?’ He had misunderstood. He thought that we had asked him to come and treat some sadhu. He didn’t understand that he’d been invited to have a philosophical discussion with you. When he realized that there was no patient, he left.” Prabhupada laughed and laughed. He said, “He didn’t realize he was the patient.” Prabhupada was so funny.
I organized big publicity throughout Paris. Everywhere we put big posters of Prabhupada on the walls and smaller posters on store doors. All the streets of Paris were covered, and the posters stayed there for many months. When we drove through Paris or went anywhere we always saw Prabhupada. He was all over Paris. I was anxious for the big hall to be filled with people, and when I arrived I saw that it was filled. Out of two thousand seats, one thousand eight hundred were taken. It was a big success. Prabhupada sat on a nice vyasasana on a large stage, and the devotees sat around him. I translated for Prabhupada. He started his lecture by having a devotee read in the Bible from the Gospel of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.” Prabhupada then spoke on the power of the holy name as transcendental sound. In those days young people were into politics, and many of them in the hall that night were Communists. At one point, Prabhupada made an analogy that might be dangerous for those who are politically oriented. Prabhupada compared the conditioned soul’s existence in the material world to a citizen’s punishment for breaking the laws of the state. As soon as Prabhupada said that disobedient citizens would be punished, the radicals in the back of the hall began to boo and yell. I was anxious, “What’s going to happen?” Fortunately, the devotees were able to calm down the people, and Prabhupada continued. At the end of his lecture, several of these people angrily came forward. In a harsh, bad way one of them said, “Why are you sitting on this throne?” When I translated what the man said, I softened it, but Prabhupada sensed everything. Prabhupada said to me, “Exactly what did he say?” and I had to say exactly what that person had said. Prabhupada was always good at giving answers. He said to that man, “You can also sit on this seat if you can talk on spiritual philosophy.” The man had nothing left to say. After we left, Prabhupada said, “From now on, when I’m in France you should just give me a regular seat, no vyasasana.” In Prabhupada’s preaching mission he didn’t care for the externals, vyasasana or no vyasasana. If it’s good to have one, we have one; if it’s not good, we don’t have one. He was not attached to the ritualistic aspect of Krishna consciousness. Very often people are attached to the externals and are not ready to adapt according to the situation of the country. Prabhupada himself gave the example of how one must adapt according to the circumstance. The important thing is to preach, and what’s not important is whether or not there’s a vyasasana.
In London, the three of us new people were going on morning walks with Prabhupada. It was December and very cold. At one point Prabhupada turned around to my school friend, Mandakini, and asked her, “Are you cold?” I found that far out. Who were we? New, young girls, but Prabhupada, a great spiritual master, was concerned that my friend was cold. I thought, “Wow, Prabhupada is such a nice and kind person.”
There was only one time that I asked Srila Prabhupada to solve a particular problem. This was the time in ISKCON when women could not give classes. I had been giving classes, Sunday feast talks, and also lecturing outside in schools, universities, and other places for years and years. It was in my mentality to do this preaching. But in America the idea began that women could not give classes, and it spread to Europe. In France, the men didn’t dare tell me not to give classes, but they were lobbying against women doing that service. Before this, the devotees, both men and women, used to happily attend my classes and were satisfied. After my classes there would always be questions. But gradually the men didn’t want to attend class when I gave it. The attitude of the men devotees towards the women devotees was becoming completely negative. The men’s mentality especially changed towards me because I was the mother of the temple. I was taking care of everybody. I was getting more and more worried. Although nobody dared to tell me directly, “You are not allowed to give classes anymore,” as they had done in America, indirectly they were trying to stop me. I went with Yogeshvara to ask Prabhupada about women giving class. I gave Jadurani as an example. “Jadurani has always been giving classes, so is it possible for women to give classes? Is it all right that I give classes?” Prabhupada said, “Yes, Jadurani can give class and you can give class.” He said that since my husband was a brahman, I was also a brahman, and I could give classes. It reassured me, and I went on giving classes but later the pressure against women doing this became more and more heavy, especially since I was the only woman doing it. So I wrote to Prabhupada again on the same subject. At that time Prabhupada was not directly answering letters, but he would tell his secretary, Brahmananda, the answer, and Brahmananda would write that and send it. The letters were not Prabhupada’s own writing anymore, as they had been before. Bhagavan was the GBC in France, and at the same time that I wrote to Prabhupada, he also wrote to Prabhupada about something else. When Brahmananda sent us the answer, he sent it in the same letter. The first part was the answer to Bhagavan, and then there was a little part at the end that was Prabhupada’s answer to me. But Bhagavan never showed me the letter. He read it and threw it in the garbage. Somehow or other, perhaps it was Krishna in the heart, I had to go in Bhagavan’s office for some reason, and I happened to look in the garbage and saw the letter. I opened it and found the answer that Prabhupada had given me. Again the answer was, “As far as Jyotirmayi’s question, you can tell her that ‘yes, she can give classes.’” But Bhagavan didn’t want me to know the answer. Even though I was not officially stopped from lecturing, the pressure was so heavy, and I was so disgusted and discouraged that I stopped on my own.
A devotee name Pritaputra was the director of a chain of vegetarian stores that were in the main cities of France. At that time vegetarianism was very rare, so in a sense he was an extraordinary personality, because he was the only one in all of France who had vegetarian stores. This director gladly came to see Prabhupada and they discussed pure life and pure eating. The director explained his idea of a healthful vegetarian diet and how organic food is pure. But he agreed that it’s very difficult to have absolutely pure food, because even though one may grow food organically, there is still acid rain and other toxic things that come on the field. Honeybees may take pollen from some flowers that have pesticides, and even paper plates have some animal fat in them. Prabhupada said, “Because it’s impossible to have food that’s completely pure, we chant Hare Krishna. The chanting makes the food completely pure.” After you have tried everything else, the holy name of the Lord is the only thing that will make food completely pure. This discussion was another learning experience on how to talk to people.
Yogeshvara had his idea, and I had my idea about the best way to do our service, and often we would quarrel. Prabhupada told us, “Don’t quarrel so much.” We wondered how he knew that we were quarreling. Prabhupada also said that quarreling between devotees is not like ordinary quarreling, because devotees quarrel about the best way to serve Krishna.
I discussed the school curriculum with Srila Prabhupada, and he gave me very good ideas. I asked him if we should teach the children history. Prabhupada said, “Yes. First, they should learn what everyone knows,” which means that we didn’t need to go into all of the details, but they should not be ignorant. They should know the basics as well as what educated people know about history. Prabhupada gave another instruction on geography. He said, “They should learn geography, the hills and mountains, the rivers, all these things.” On history he said that they should be told the facts, not the interpretations. The subject I’d been confused about was biology. I asked Prabhupada about teaching the children about the birds, the trees, different kind of flowers, and so forth. Prabhupada was not interested. He said, “What you should teach them is from Whom all this is coming.” Prabhupada wanted the philosophical aspect be presented to the children more than the biological aspect.
I made some changes that, from my practical experience, I felt were appropriate. For example, at that time the children would attend the Srimad- Bhagavatam class every day. We teachers would constantly try to stop them from being a disturbance, but the children’s last interest was hearing the class. After a few months I realized that this system was not good. So the next time I did a Gurukula, I made a special Srimad-Bhagavatam class for the children, and it was much better. I didn’t get a chance to ask Prabhupada, “What do you think about that, would it be a good idea?” I made the change because when Prabhupada saw what happened in the Gurukula in Dallas, he said, “Those teachers should be hung.” They had done outrageous things. Prabhupada also said, “Use your common sense.” Because Prabhupada said that, I acted according to common sense, and it was a successful Gurukula. In other Gurukulas the teachers didn’t adapt according to the needs of the children, but I didn’t have the problems with the children that the other Gurukulas had. However, I was criticized for making changes.
Before I joined, I was a university student at the Sorbonne, a very well-known university, studying Ethnology, which is the science that compares the cultures and religions of different societies. After I had been a devotee for two years I thought, “Perhaps I should go on with my studies. If I got my degree I could teach Vaishnavism to college students.” I discussed this idea with Yogeshvara, and Yogeshvara asked Prabhupada, “Should Jyotirmayi go back to the university, finish her studies, and then teach Krishna consciousness?” Prabhupada said, “Yes, she can do it, she is a very intelligent girl.” For the rest of my years in Krishna consciousness, such direct exchanges like these were comforting to me because the things that women were accused of, like being less intelligent and being unable to be good devotees, have come from misunderstanding Srila Prabhupada. Prabhupada himself, in different instances, said I was a very intelligent girl and a good devotee. In later years, when the men devotees started getting strange ideas about women, I would think, “They may be saying all these things, but I know what Prabhupada has told me,” and this gave me the courage to go on, even though there were many problems regarding women.
At that time the international BBT was in New York, and all the translators, including me, were working together there. I was disturbed and confused because I was losing my French, since I never spoke it. No one was translating with me. I couldn’t see how, under these circumstances, the French translation work and Prabhupada’s French BBT would develop. I very much wanted to go back to France and establish the French BBT there. But the leaders in New York didn’t want Yogeshvara and me to leave because we were doing many temple services. I was in great anxiety. One day I was praying and praying and praying in front of Prabhupada’s picture, asking him what I should do. At about the same time, I had written a letter to Prabhupada on a specific translation question, which was how to translate the words “Supreme Personality of Godhead.” This is very difficult to translate in French. I gave Prabhupada three proposals, which I translated back in English so that he would understand. He chose the one that we have been using ever since, and in the same letter he wrote, “I am sending Bhagavan das to be the GBC in France and I think that you and your husband should go back to France, since your work is there.” This was mystical. Without my writing about my concern, Srila Prabhupada answered me. Once Satsvarupa Maharaj asked Prabhupada, “How much does a spiritual master know a devotee’s heart?” Prabhupada said, “As much as the devotee thinks of the spiritual master, the spiritual master thinks of the devotee.” When you intensely and sincerely pray to Prabhupada, Prabhupada hears you. You may be thousands of kilometers away from him, but in one way or another he will answer you. But sometimes our prayer is not so intense and we don’t get the answer because our message did not go through. That’s how I explain it, although others might explain it in some other way.
He gave me an instruction which I’ve always had difficulty following. Prabhupada said, “Don’t do everything yourself. Get other people to help. Delegate the work so that more and more gets done. Otherwise, if you’re doing all of the details yourself, you can never do enough. If you can get others to help, then a lot more gets done.” For me, this was an interesting and valuable instruction.
When Prabhupada came to New Mayapur, I was the Gurukula headmistress. Prabhupada wanted to meet all the Gurukula children and teachers, so we went to his room and he gave a very nice talk. Then Prabhupada wanted the children to chant japa. Previously devotees had given the children long japa beads like the ones adults use, had them chant in the temple with everybody else, and punished them heavily if they didn’t. When I saw that I thought, “This is bad. I don’t want to do it that way.” Instead, we started having the children chanting rhythmically. The children loved to chant in this way, and I had them use smaller beads with only a half of a round. So when they chanted, they felt like they were chanting many rounds and were very excited. It was working well, but some of the devotees were disturbed because we were chanting in this funny way. They said, “Why do you make them chant like that? This is not authentic. This is not bona fide.” I was criticized but I kept on anyway because the children were chanting happily. So, when I brought all the children to Prabhupada, Prabhupada asked them to chant japa, and with great enthusiasm they started to chant in a rhythmic way as they were used to. Prabhupada loved it. He loved it so much he had them go on chanting like that. Then they stood up and danced while chanting japa in that way. Prabhupada appreciated innovations that did not contradict the scriptures and were successful. I had received criticism but Prabhupada completely accepted the way I did it, and I was very glad.
What struck me most about Prabhupada was his intelligence. He was able to be completely transcendental and at the same time completely down to earth. Sometimes devotees are so transcendental that they are out of touch with reality and do some nonsense that hurts the movement. But Prabhupada was able to be in Krishna loka, having a relationship with Krishna, and at the same time be practical. He was concerned with all the specific details of daily life. And he trained his first devotees in that way. For me, this is the highest intelligence of Prabhupada. I think that one cannot understand Krishna consciousness only from reading Srila Prabhupada’s books. One must also understand his personal life, his personal example, how he lived the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. If you do that, if you have both together, then you can really understand how to practice Krishna consciousness. Very often the problems we have are that people try to live Krishna consciousness only according to Prabhupada’s books but not according to his personal example. Now, through books and memories of Prabhupada by different devotees, we can have a clear idea of his personal dealings. Many of the things that I have done in Krishna consciousness were based on some instruction he gave while talking with devotees in a casual way. I am struck by his completely spiritual intelligence. For me Prabhupada is the greatest intellectual on the planet and I’m very attracted to that.