Gurupuja was about to begin and I had positioned myself half way between the singer and Srila Prabhupada. Prabhupada’s vyasasana was to my left and the microphone was twenty feet in front of Srila Prabhupada’s direct sight. I won’t say the name of the devotee, who was leading the kirtan for posterity sake, but they had a reputation for having a kind of orchestrated kirtan approach and they were proud of their kirtan. The singer, who did have a good voice and was a good performer from that perspective, stepped up to the microphone as Srila Prabhupada sat on the vyasasana in a very meditative mood. The devotee began to sing very melodically, “Sri guru carana padma.” (sings melodically) He was totally into it and all the kartal players and mridanga players were also totally into it. Srila Prabhupada was sitting there and his eyes opened up and he said, “Stop the kirtan.” Everybody froze. The kartal players froze. The singer froze. Literally his mouth was open. I was at such a great vantage point as I was not far from him and not far from Prabhupada. It was just like, “Stop the film right there on that frame”. Just for a moment it seemed like an eternity and I’m sure that was the case in the mind of the singer. Prabhupada then said to Nitai Chand Goswami who was standing right in front of me, “Nitai Chand, you lead kirtan.” Nitai Chand said, “Okay, Srila Prabhupada”. Someone handed him the mridanga and he started to lead the kirtan. What I took away from that experience, as that visual is permanently in my heart, because I like to lead kirtan, was that Srila Prabhupada first of all was very particular about our mood in leading kirtan. It is a ‘yajna sankirtan prayer’. It is our sacrifice to please the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Prabhupada was particular about the mood in which we were approaching glorification of guru, glorification of the Holy Name. What I do now to this day is to pray to Lord Nrsimhadev before I lead a kirtan. I formed a little prayer, “My dear Lord Nrsimhadev, on the altar of Your lap may I place my Hiranyakashipu like pride and may You tear it apart with Your transcendental nails.” Because I could see that Prabhupada did not like any trace of pride or any kind of orchestration or seeing it as a musical performance. He wanted it as an act of devotion.
In Vrindavan Prabhupada was to lecture in Hindi as he had some Indian dignitaries coming. Not a lot of devotees attended because Prabhupada’s entire lecture was going to be in Hindi, but they wanted a kirtan to be sung when Prabhupada entered. I got to lead the kirtan, and again, kirtan is not something that you get mental about. Kirtan comes from the heart. There is an old Sufi saying, “That which comes from the lips does not go past the ears. That which comes from the heart goes to the heart.” So kirtan was not to be mental but I was mental. I was also very tired, and as I was trying to get used to Vrindavan, I was not really focused. I was chanting Hare Krishna and I was thinking to myself, “Am I chanting good, am I not chanting good and what’s going on?” I was getting really mental. Then Prabhupada walked in, looked right at me and gestured with his arms like an orchestra leader meaning, “Put some gusto into it”. When I saw Prabhupada with those hand motions I immediately got off the mental platform and just went into a rip-roaring kirtan with renewed energy, renewed strength and there was no mental interference.
The Radha-Damodar brahmacharis met with Srila Prabhupada in Atlanta. Tamal Krishna Maharaj wanted all the brahmacharis on the Radha-Damodar party to have darshan with Srila Prabhupada so we went up to his room. We were all excited. All the brahmacharis and a few sannyasis were there as well. Prabhupada was very happy to see us as you can imagine. It was sixty-five bright-faced brahmacharis, most of them dedicating their lives to book distribution. Most of them I feel at that particular point in time did not think of anything other than being a brahmachari book distributor, especially as Prabhupada was glorifying brahmachari life. He said, “So this brahmachari life, this is ideal for spiritual advancement. It is a simple life. You have your cloth. You have your chaddar. When you want to sleep you wrap your chaddar around you. When you want your pillow you put your arm out and you sleep with your chaddar and pillow. He was going on and on about the simplicity of brahmachari life and how conducive it was to spiritual life. Then Prabhupada stopped right in the middle of that and he got this look of compassion on his face, and he said, “But you must be honest brahmachari.” He said, “If you are not honest brahmachari then you must become honest grihastha.” That rang a bell in my head so loud because he wasn’t really concerned, ‘kibe vipra kibe nyassi’. He didn’t really care whether we were brahmacharis or sannyasis or grihasthas. He wanted us to be honest in our ashram and honest in the practice of our devotional service. That instruction still reverberates in my head. Whatever I do in whatever ashram or whatever station of life, I must do it honestly.
In Atlanta I was there with Srila Prabhupada but I didn’t get to go on any morning walks. The walks were restricted to only a handful of devotees. What I thought I could do, however, was to position myself to at least see Srila Prabhupada prior to his going on the morning walk or maybe say something to him. I would pace back and forth in front of the Atlanta temple chanting my japa and keeping a lookout for Srila Prabhupada. The car finally came up so I knew that this was not a bad position to be in. When Prabhupada came out walking like the wind, I found myself on the back leg of my pacing and missed him as he went right into the car. I thought, “Oh, my God, I missed my opportunity.” I paid my obeisances because at least I had a glimmer of Srila Prabhupada for even that fleeting moment. The windows were up in the car and I really couldn’t see Prabhupada but I paid my obeisances. Then Prabhupada rolled down his window, leaned out and waved to me. Then he pulled back into the car and rolled up the window. I thought, “He didn’t have to do that. Who was I but a new brahmachari?” I could understand that Prabhupada was so personal that even if he saw one of his disciples, he took the time to roll down the window and wave to me. As insignificant as it seems, it really struck a chord in my heart.
Being a part of the Radha-Damodar traveling sankirtan party we often got to meet Srila Prabhupada. This time Tamal Krishna Maharaj wanted to give him a donation from the party of $100,000 in cash. He had a stack of $1,000 bills, which I don’t think they make anymore, and there were supposedly 100 of them. Tamal said, “Srila Prabhupada, your disciples on Radha-Damodar traveling sankirtan party would like to give you this donation of $100,000.” Srila Prabhupada said, “Oh?” Then Tamal Krishna Maharaj gave Srila Prabhupada the stack of bills. Srila Prabhupada took the stack of bills and like a card dealer put them close to his ear and he fanned them. It made a “frrrrr” sound. Prabhupada looked up at Tamal and said, “100,000?” Tamal got this look of panic on his face because before meeting with Srila Prabhupada he realized he had only $99,000. So he had a devotee run to the bank and change another thousand dollars into a $1,000 bill but he forgot to put it into the stack. After Srila Prabhupada did that little “frrrrr” sound of fanning the stack of bills, Tamal remembered the last minute bank transaction and pulled out the other $1,000 bill from his pocket and gave it to Srila Prabhupada.
One time I was fortunate enough to go on a morning walk with Srila Prabhupada in Central Park in New York City. We were walking down a path and every once in a while Prabhupada would stop and he would say something. At one point he stopped by a branch that had fallen off the tree and with his cane he hit the branch and said, “Asara”. I didn’t exactly know what “asara” meant but it means useless. Prabhupada said, “This branch looks like it’s part of the tree. It looks like it is alive. The leaves are still on there but because it is disconnected from the tree it is now going to whither and die. So these sampradayas that deviate from Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s instructions, they become useless. Because they have disconnected themselves from the tree of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, eventually they will whither up and die.”
Another time we were walking in Central Park with Srila Prabhupada and we came up to an art museum where there was an abstract sculpture. The devotees liked to engage Prabhupada in conversation so one of the devotees said to Srila Prabhupada, “See Srila Prabhupada, abstract art. This is their attempt at formlessness.” Prabhupada said, “But they are using form to get formlessness. Just see how foolish.” They were using steel girders that they twisted up to make something undecipherable in the name of art. Prabhupada made that astute observation; “They want formlessness, they want abstract, but they are using form to make formlessness. Just see how foolish.”
I arrived in India maybe three weeks before Prabhupada left the planet. I had the opportunity to meet with Srila Prabhupada on several occasions by the mercy of the Vaishnavas there who were taking care of Srila Prabhupada. Bhavananda Prabhu was taking care of Srila Prabhupada particularly late at night and he asked me, “Would you like to chant for Srila Prabhupada?” I said, “Yes, I would love to chant for Srila Prabhupada. Anytime, you let me know.” He said, “Okay, you come at midnight and chant until three in the morning.” That whole day I was so elated. That night I was sitting in the corner, Srila Prabhupada was lying on his bed and Bhavananda was doing various things. Since it was midnight it was very, very quiet. There was hardly any light at all and I could barely see Srila Prabhupada because I was in the back doorway. Bhavananda gave me small kartals and he said, “Play very, very softly because Prabhupada should get his rest.” I thought that Srila Prabhupada was asleep because he was lying very still and Bhavananda was tiptoeing around. I figured, “Okay, let me chant something very simple.” So I started chanting the standard melody “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.” (sings softly) I was chanting that for a while and I don’t know what possessed me to change that tune but at this particular time someone had introduced “Brahma bole chaturmukhe, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare.” As soon as I got through the first line “Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare”, Prabhupada’s hand went up like a traffic cop. I thought Prabhupada was asleep. But his hand just came from the side of the bed and went up and literally it sucked the air out of the room. I knew I had done something wrong. I knew that I was going into this mantra and Prabhupada really just wanted to meditate on the Holy Name. Bhavananda was there and he was waving his hand at me to stop. But he didn’t have to do that because the air was already sucked out of the room by Prabhupada’s hand motion. I immediately went right back to the standard melody, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna”, and I never changed the melody. What I learned from that experience was to meditate on the Holy Name. We don’t need so many different mantras and melodies. Prabhupada encouraged us to chant the Panchatattva mantra and of course obeisances to guru, and to chant Hare Krishna in a simple, meditative way just like he did. He didn’t use very many melodies and every time you listen to Prabhupada chant, it was a total meditation. That’s what he wanted to hear and that’s what I got from that experience; just keep it simple.
In the final days before Srila Prabhupada’s departure, my then GBC of New York, Adi-Keshava, wanted me to have some darshan with Srila Prabhupada. I had been moved from the New York temple and taken over the Puerto Rico temple as the new president. Adi-Keshava arranged a darshan for me and Prabhupada was very frail and very weak at that time but extremely lucid. They rolled Srila Prabhupada on the side of the bed and I sat on the side of the bed. Prabhupada asked, “So, what is your name?” I said, “Prabhupada, I am Laksmi Nrsimhadev das. I am the temple president of your temple in Puerto Rico.” He said, “Oh, Puerto Rico?” I said, “Yes, Srila Prabhupada. It’s a beautiful island in the Caribbean”, like Prabhupada didn’t know, but I went on the explain Puerto Rico. I heard that Srila Prabhupada really liked Hawaii because of the climate and fruits. I said, “Srila Prabhupada, it’s very much like Hawaii but it is on the east coast.” I told him that the weather is always beautiful with tropical breezes and wonderful fruits and flowers. I said, “I think it would be a very good place for you to come to recuperate.” I said, “It’s very quiet and the devotees will take very nice care of you.” Prabhupada said, “Oh, that sounds very nice.” He said, “I will come to your east coast Hawaii.” (chuckles) I was literally thrilled. I didn’t stay right till the end of Prabhupada’s departure, however, because Puerto Rico was a new temple and I was in a bit of anxiety. I thought that Prabhupada might want me to be doing my service rather than hanging around. I think that was the biggest mistake of my life. I should have stayed. But I went back and when I got back to Puerto Rico after being with Srila Prabhupada, the devotees were doing lots of kirtan and praying for Srila Prabhupada’s recovery. During that time and before Prabhupada left the planet on November 14th, 1977, I received a phone call from a devotee who was living on the west coast. He came in contact with another senior disciple of Srila Prabhupada in the San Francisco Bay area who had a murti of Srila Prabhupada. Apparently Prabhupada gave this devotee permission while he was still present on the planet, because he was having so much difficulty, to have a murti carved of Prabhupada and he told him to “Keep this murti with you.” The white marble murti was maybe eight to ten inches high. So I got a call from this other devotee who said he had been to that devotee’s house and he wasn’t worshipping that murti at all. Worse than that he was using the murti as an incense holder. It was very painful for him to see and for me to hear. Because he knew me from New York he said, “If I get that murti somehow or other, will you take it to Puerto Rico?” I said, “Absolutely”. But I said, “Is he going to give it to you?” He said, “If I have to steal it, I’ll steal it.” In January of 1978 I got a call from a major airlines that said, “There is a crate here for ISKCON of Puerto Rico”. I went and picked up the crate, put it in the middle of the temple room, opened the crate and removed all the stuffing. That whole phone conversation about the Prabhupada murti had slipped my mind but there was this beautiful murti of Srila Prabhupada. At that time I remembered the words of Srila Prabhupada, “I will come to your east coast Hawaii.” I realized that Prabhupada through his manifestation of his murti form had kept his promise and there he was. And to this day that beautiful murti of Srila Prabhupada is still being worshipped in Puerto Rico.