Nara Narayan: Some friends of mine had a place at 518 Frederick Street in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco that they were about to give me for a sculpting studio. Before I could move in, Prabhupada somehow moved into my studio. I was rather shocked and upset. My studio! I thought, “What’s going on here? I had this great studio, and now it’s gone.” But then my heart softened, and I thought, “Well, he is a yogi and he is doing good, so I guess it’s okay.” I forgave fate, little realizing what an amazing turnaround was going to take place.
On Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park, 1966 or ’67, Prabhupada led a kirtan while Hayagriva played the trumpet, others played drums, gongs, and cymbals, and incense burned. One of the things I used to do for pleasure was to look at people when they weren’t looking at me and make them turn around. I thought I would try that on Swamiji. I stared and stared and stared, and nothing happened. Then I looked at a bunch of other people that were standing around in the crowd, and they turned around very fast just as if a little bee had landed on their neck. But when I stared at Prabhupada nothing happened. I was alarmed and became very determined “I am not going to leave this place until the Swami turns around.” It was a control issue. I went on and on staring. I was sweating and still nothing happened. Swamiji was simply chanting, looking ethereal, totally unaffected. Finally, I began to plead and actually beg. The minute I sincerely begged, his eyes floated around to the side and he looked at me. I froze. That moment seemed like an eternity. He neither beckoned nor rejected, just observed. My whole system collapsed from the inside out. I said, “Oh my God.” All sorts of confusing emotions ran through me. I thought, “I must straighten myself out and think things through. I am not ready to become his disciple yet.” My first impulse was to become his disciple.
In the early days we were used to Prabhupada’s personal association, and his association was galvanizing. He was like a magnet, and everything else was like iron filings. All things fell into place. It was simple to be a devotee, to be spiritual. If Prabhupada said, “This is how to cook dahl,” suddenly you became empowered to cook dahl. If he said, “This is how you chant,” suddenly you became empowered to chant. If he said, “Get this building,” suddenly you got that building. All you had to do was to suspend disbelief long enough to do it. By Prabhupada’s direct, kinetic, personal presence, it happened.
If Prabhupada told people to work together on something, never mind they were enemies ten minutes before, they could work together perfectly just as the lion got along with the deer when Lord Chaitanya went through the Jarikhanda Forest. Prabhupada took away the ego barriers that made it impossible to see the higher self and to see one another’s relationship with Krishna. Since Prabhupada was continuously channeling the Supersoul, he was channeling the source of everyone’s well being. He had all the information. When Prabhupada went to another temple, everyone tried and tried to maintain the standard, but being what we were, it would gradually sink down. When Prabhupada came back, all of a sudden there was excitement and everything worked again. In those days we imagined that Prabhupada would always go from temple to temple to temple keeping us revived.
I joined a few weeks before Srila Prabhupada arrived. I had been fixing up the temple, fixing up sankirtan vans, and doing all sorts of other work. When Srila Prabhupada was due to arrive, the devotees rented an apartment for him on Ashbury Street, and they told me, “Quick Nathan, you have to build an altar for Srila Prabhupada.” So I made a simple wooden altar for Srila Prabhupada and decorated it. When Srila Prabhupada came, he asked, “Who has made this altar?” They said, “Nathan.” He said, “Bring him here.” So I came, and he approved. Before that I had written a letter to Srila Prabhupada saying that I wanted to serve Krishna in every way possible. He wrote back and said, “My dear Nathan, this is a very rare manifestation. I think you were a devotee in your previous life. To begin your service, wanting to serve Krishna in every way possible means you have done devotional service before.” He said, “Please continue. Chant your rounds. Engage in devotional service. Carve Deities.” He gave me his blessings through that first letter, which in and of itself was enough to keep me going for a lifetime.
The first experience I had alone with Srila Prabhupada was in Seattle. We had rented a gorgeous place for Prabhupada, a garden apartment overlooking beautiful lawns with flowers. Prabhupada loved it. Harsharani and Govinda dasi were his servants. I came over, and Srila Prabhupada spoke to me about going to New Vrindavan to build dioramas. He wanted to start a F.A.T.E.- museum-type-thing in New Vrindavan. At some point Prabhupada and I were alone in the room. Srila Prabhupada was sitting on a cushion on the floor behind his low desk showing me how he would save paper by writing the first draft of a letter on the back of a used envelope, which he opened up with a letter opener. When he had it down the way he wanted it, he would draft it out again onto a letterhead.
Somehow, he had asked me to do something, and in the end I was behind his desk and he was on the other side. I was on my toes and alarmed by the experience of being alone with Prabhupada. “Oh my God, what do I do now? I have no instruction. I don’t even know what to say.” I was just initiated and was still psychadelicizing a little, having recently been part of the Haight-Ashbury scene. I was mortified, wringing my hands, squirming my toes, not wanting to leave, but not knowing what to do if I stayed.
Srila Prabhupada said, “We should always be considering, ‘What is my duty?’” I thought, “Duty. Okay.” I was hearing impaired since I was young, and between Prabhupada’s accent, my inability to hear, and the psychedelics residually floating in my brain cells, I was having a hard time understanding. Prabhupada pointed to his coffee table and said, “Do you see this ant?” I looked carefully. I knew that Srila Prabhupada was the external representative of the Supersoul, and if he said that there was an ant, then there was an ant. But there was no ant.
I didn’t want to say “No” and appear stupid to not see the spiritual or whatever ant that was there, and I didn’t want to say “Yes” and be proven a liar because I couldn’t see the ant. Srila Prabhupada looked at me intensely, as though the ant issue was now solved. He wanted to get on to real business. He said, “My job is to understand, ‘What is my duty to this ant?’” Not only was there an ant that I couldn’t see, but now I had a duty to it. Prabhupada looked at me almost beseechingly, “Somehow I have to help this ant. Maybe I can chant Hare Krishna to it or feed it a little prasadam. If we can help one ant become Krishna conscious, then our whole movement is a glorious success.”
I realized that it was a pure metaphor. I had a duty to feed and chant to this invisible ant, and if I did so, and if we all did our respective Krishna conscious duties, our whole movement would be successful.
Prabhupada and Allen Ginsberg had a joint program at a university in Columbus, Ohio. Prabhupada led an incredible kirtan. Everyone was ecstatic and wanted to dance, but it was an auditorium and there was no place to dance, so they danced on the armrests of the theater seats. Not only devotees danced, but everybody, thousands of students. Ginsberg was excited about Krishna consciousness. Although he never became a devotee, he was enthusiastic about chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. He used to hold kirtan all over the place on his own.
There was supposed to be a wire to hold the microphone around the speaker’s neck, but it was missing. Allen Ginsberg offered Srila Prabhupada his shoelace as a substitute, but Prabhupada did not want to take Allen Ginsberg’s shoelace to hold a microphone. He said to me, “Nara Narayan, give me your sacred thread.” He had told me never to take the sacred thread off, but now he gave me a direct instruction to take it off. I felt exalted. I said, “Sure,” took it off and handed it to Srila Prabhupada. He said, “Thank you,” and put the sacred thread on the microphone. The whole program went fabulously. Allen Ginsberg chanted, Prabhupada chanted, and it was very exciting. It gave a great boost to the beginning of the Columbus temple.
I was designated to wash Allen Ginsberg’s clothes in the laundromat. He and Prabhupada were carrying on great dialogues in the small temple room. All the devotees couldn’t fit into the room, so we drilled a hole through the wall of the closet in the next room, and a dozen of us, trying not to cough or sneeze, peered through that closet wall at what was going on in the temple room. During one of those sessions Srila Prabhupada talked to Allen Ginsberg about the nature of Kali-yuga.
Prabhupada described how bad Kali-yuga was going to get, how there would cease to be any foliage, how all the animals would be carnivorous, how people would be cannibals, and how fruits will be big seeds surrounded by skin. There would be nothing to eat, and what few devotees there were would live in caves. He described the Krishna conscious version of the end. Allen Ginsberg said, “And your disciples? They will be in the caves?” Srila Prabhupada said, “My disciples will have gone back to Godhead by then.” Ginsberg was very impressed. He said, “Oh, really?” Prabhupada said, “Yes. They are very advanced. They are going to go back very shortly. They are chanting. They are taking part in this process. They are becoming pure devotees in this lifetime.” Ginsberg said, “Yes. And what will happen to the rest of us?” Prabhupada leaned over to Ginsberg, and Ginsberg leaned over to Prabhupada. Prabhupada said, “Allen, at the end of Kali-yuga, I will eat you and you will eat me. To avoid this you must go back to Godhead.”
In 1969 I was casting the Kartamasha murtis and Govinda dasi was painting Them. I made eighteen of Them because that’s how many temples we had at the time. I said, “My task is over, Srila Prabhupada. I’ve made as many Deities as there are temples.” Srila Prabhupada said, “No. You must continue.” I couldn’t continue, because the mold wore out, and I couldn’t make another casting. I said, “Really? Who will we sell Them to? If we sell Them to karmis, they might put Them out on their lawns as some sort of lawn ornament like flamingos.” Srila Prabhupada said, “If one karmi buys one murti and puts it on his lawn, our whole movement will be a glorious success.” I thought, “Wow! That’s different from the general gist of what we had been pursuing.” His idea was that any contact with Krishna is a good contact with Krishna.
From that point on he encouraged cottage industries. He said that cottage industry keeps the family together in the house. He was against family members traveling long distances to work, and he mentioned how commuter trains “go fast in one direction simply so that later they can go fast in the other direction,” and how the commuters must see less of their family. People are meant to live and work in the same house together, with their family. He said, “The grandmother, the son, the child, the husband and the wife work. Together they make some product like the paintings of Puri or Rajastan. It’s a group effort done by people who know how to do one part expertly. They sell their product and stay together as a family and practice God consciousness.”
In London in 1970, when I was a householder living like a brahmachari, I began to wonder, “How am I going to get anywhere?” Certainly, Prabhupada is proof positive that Krishna consciousness is not a fantasy but a practical, normal condition of existence. Normal people are devotees who are happy, real people that are perfectly fixed in the atmarama state of pure, unalloyed love of God. “But what about me? Will I ever get there?” I was chanting japa in the small Bury Place temple in London. I had just finished redecorating the whole place, and I was pacing in front of Srila Prabhupada’s room when I became overwhelmed by the urge to knock on the door and ask Prabhupada “Am I going to make some progress?”
I knocked on Prabhupada’s door and regretted it immediately afterwards. Srila Prabhupada said, “Yes? Come in.” I opened the door. I was twice as scared as the first time I described. I crept into his room, and there he was pacing up and down, his japa bag in his hand, in the wonderful atmosphere that he had created for himself. Hare Krishna Hare Krishna. . . . I came in saying, “Oh no. I am here. I have to ask a question.” I shut the door behind me and crouched in a corner like a mouse. Prabhupada looked at me and said, “Yes?” I said, “Srila Prabhupada, I am chanting. I am following the program. I keep wondering, is it possible that I could ever become a pure devotee? I see that you are a pure devotee, but can I ever become a pure devotee?”
Srila Prabhupada looked at me appraisingly and marched back and forth a few times, all the while muttering, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna” to himself. I got more and more nervous because I was wondering about the answer. He looked at me and said, “Why not? You are in the process.” I was so happy I was melting into a puddle of ghee. He chanted a few more times, came around the room, looked at me with a glimmer in his eye and said, “But it may take some time.”
Prabhupada’s level of compassion was amazing. While we were beginning to think that only “important” service was important, that only “big” devotees were big, that monkeys were good for building roads to Lanka but spiders weren’t, Prabhupada was taking a totally different approach. That approach was based on true compassion. He had natural concern for people.
Just after Shyama dasi married Hayagriva in 1968, she got an infection in one of her fingers. Prabhupada wrote five letters in which he expressed concern about Shyama dasi’s finger. In those days we thought, “Oh, it’s just your body. It’s just made of stool, worms, blood, puss, and all those nice things. Who cares about your body? Chop off the finger and continue to serve Krishna.” But Prabhupada didn’t think like that.
In those days we would copy Prabhupada’s letters and distribute them to all the temples. Every temple had a book of Prabhupada letters, probably a hundred or two hundred of them. When new devotees came we would say, “Do you want to hear what a letter from Prabhupada is like?” “A letter from Prabhupada” was like a buzz-word. It must be like what ants feel like when they get their grain of sugar. Once I was in the Detroit temple going through the letters from Prabhupada and noticing how much compassion he was directing towards one and all.
Once, in the La Cienega temple, on the occasion of his spiritual master’s appearance day, Srila Prabhupada cooked a pot of kitri. He said that kitri was his spiritual master’s favorite dish. Prabhupada cooked it using polished urad dahl, and it had a creamy consistency. There were thirty of us at that celebration, and there were many other dishes besides kitri. Since it was a holiday, everyone was in a jolly mood, talking and chatting, and we all got a dab of Prabhupada’s kitri on our plates. By this time the kitri was cold, and Prabhupada had already gone to his quarters. We popped the kitri into our mouths, and all of sudden the conversation died out everywhere. As soon as that prasadam touched our tongues we fell silent. We sat there in dead silence tasting grain after grain of it until it was all gone. Then we searched for stray grains on our plates. Then everybody began crawling towards the pot in the middle of the room where there was still a little bit left. We were taking little pieces out of the pot. No one spoke a word until there was nothing left. Then we all went back and sat down in silence. Something about that prasadam was charged with what must have been gopi bhava. There was ecstasy involved in that prasadam. We were struck by it. Every exquisite feeling that Prabhupada had for his spiritual master was present, and we had a chance to experience that; we realized that Prabhupada had given us an extra special benediction—he had allowed us to open the door a little and peek into what his world was like.
There was a family named Acharya on our property in Juhu, and Srila Prabhupada was going to stay in their house. When Prabhupada was on a morning walk or traveling, he always had a flying wedge of disciples behind him. He’d be leading, and we would be swept along in his wake. So we came to the Acharya’s small house, and the whole family was standing at the top of the stairs beaming and smiling, welcoming Prabhupada. Although we knew it was a small house, we were planning to crowd inside and sit down with Prabhupada because he always said some wonderful things when he came to someone’s home. We all wanted to witness those wonderful things. So Prabhupada went up the stairs with his cane, turned in front of the Acharya family, looked grandly over his disciples and said, “Ah, now I am finally taking shelter of the Acharyas.”
In Boston, Prabhupada said, “A devotee may come and may go away again tomorrow.” We looked at Srila Prabhupada in disbelief and said, “Go away? But why would any devotee want to go away? This is it. This is the perfection. This is where you go to after you’ve done everything else. Why would anyone ever want to leave?” But Prabhupada said, “Nonetheless, some devotees will go away. Things will happen. Things will change. The words will be altered.” “But we all listen to you, Srila Prabhupada. How would anything ever get altered? We will always just repeat what you say, and therefore it can’t possibly get altered.” Little did we know, but Prabhupada, having knowledge of past, present, and future, was planning for ten thousand years. Not simply planning for this week or this month or this year.
We were having a wonderful time bringing new people to the movement, Back to Godhead magazine was beginning to expand, and devotees were distributing more books. Then, years later, book distribution took off, and it became self-evident as to why and how so many books could be distributed. Prabhupada acknowledged that the people getting his books might misuse them and that we might have to absorb a karmic reaction from giving someone a book—maybe forcing it on them—that they later threw in the trash. Prabhupada said, “We have to accept that that might happen, and this is the risk that we were taking.”
I joined the Krishna consciousness movement in San Francisco, just after Ratha-yatra in 1968. Shortly after that, Srila Prabhupada came to San Francisco. I was immediately transferred to Seattle to build an altar and vyasasana for Prabhupada’s visit and in the fall or winter of 1968, Srila Prabhupada came to Seattle. The temple was a little house, which was full of devotees from the Los Angeles sankirtan party. When Srila Prabhupada came, we wanted to have guests come, but few came. However, once we were delighted when around twenty students came from the University of Washington. Prabhupada gave a lecture, and in the middle of the lecture he said, “Please do not misunderstand. Misunderstanding is already there.” We were thunderstruck.
Also in Seattle, during the disappearance day celebration for Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, Prabhupada described how his spiritual master told him to spread Krishna consciousness in the Western world. He had only been given a few words of instruction: “You should go and spread Krishna consciousness in the English language.” Many years passed, and at some point, Prabhupada said, he began to see his spiritual master in dreams, and his spiritual master said to him, “It is time to go.” Prabhupada said, “I was thinking, how I can leave my four children and do this?” It seemed as though tears shot from his eyes as he said this. He looked around at us, his eyes shining, and he said, “But now, I have so many children.” From the way he spoke, it almost gave the impression that the whole world had gathered inside that tiny room in Seattle. We could envision that somehow there would be a huge world movement. Yet at that time there were less than seventy devotees.
When Srila Prabhupada came to New Vrindavan, he came into a midst of a bunch of people who were essentially squabbling. Every time they squabbled, they’d run upstairs and make their case in front of Srila Prabhupada as though he were King Solomon. They kept running up and saying “He said that – He did that,” and Prabhupada would patiently try to put out the fire. Prabhupada was pretty disgusted with all of that. However, I had a good relationship with Bhagavan at the time and once we were hugging out of friendship when Prabhupada came down the stairs and he saw us. He said, “Yes, you should be in embracing mood, not fighting mood.” From that I understood that whatever we’re fighting about is very minor compared to this common work we have together. Prabhupada made it so clear to us that perfect, or imperfect we need to work together and spread Krishna consciousness. He was very pleased to see us embracing and I was very glad to please him in that way as was Bhagavan.
In 1969 the first Gita came out which was edited by Rayarama and there were some questions about it. Prabhupada had been in correspondence with Hayagriva who was living in New Vrindavan and Hayagriva had mentioned something about thinking he might want to get married. Prabhupada told him, “Well you’re twenty-seven, better to get married before thirty if you’re going to get married because after thirty marriage is not so pleasurable.” That was pretty much the end of it and then he called Hayagriva to come from New Vrindavan to talk about the Gita and various other subjects. We were all upstairs in Prabhupada’s apartment on Hayworth Street at that time. Shama dasi, who transcribed the Nectar of Devotion and also cooked for Srila Prabhupada, was also there. During one meal Prabhupada was relishing her very nice subjis and Prabhupada turned to Hayagriva and said, “Well, do you like the prasadam?” Hayagriva who was a very tense and quiet guy said, “Yeah, it’s good, yes.” Prabhupada looked at him and smiled urbanely and said, “Being able to cook nicely is the first qualification of a wife.” Hayagriva nearly started choking on his food, staring at Shama dasi. Shama dasi’s hands were trembling and she nearly dropped the pot of prasadam. I was sitting there with my mouth open, as was everybody else. Everyone was staring at Srila Prabhupada and all of a sudden it dawned on us that he just dropped a bombshell. Hayagriva gradually recovered his composure. Shama dasi was blushing through her gopi make up and everybody was totally astonished. But Prabhupada had said the first qualification of a wife is that she can cook nicely. From that point onward I began to realize that the home art of cooking is the key to Krishna consciousness family life. A woman who is a devotee and pulls out frozen dinners made by Stouffers is not quite spreading the movement in a way that will be remembered by her grandchildren.
Prabhupada was lecturing at the Brahma Samaj in Nairobi and crushed demigod worship. He said, “Durga is riding on a tiger and she has got eight arms. In each of these arms there is a weapon. One of these weapons is a trident. The trident has got three prongs and what are these three prongs? It is the threefold miseries; adidaivik, adibotik, adiatmik.” Staring at the audience he said, “And what is she doing with that trident?” He said, “She is stabbing demons” and as he said that Prabhupada made a stabbing motion with his arms. “And who are those demons?” he cried out. He looked around the group of fifteen hundred or so people and said, “We are those demons.” He said, “Whoever is suffering from the threefold miseries, adidaivik, adibotik, adiatmik is being stabbed by the trident of Durga.” He looked at the audience with a curled lip of utter disdain and as he waved his hand across and pointing to the crowd he said, “And they are worshiping.” So that is how he crushed Durga worship in Africa and also created a big base for real Vaishnav preaching without compromise. Prabhupada saved everyone even though the people in the room were absolutely stricken because of Prabhupada’s intense words. But like the doctor may sometimes, even without an anesthetic with the person screaming, cut away something in the body that is terribly injurious for the health of the patient, so Prabhupada was strong to cut out the desire to worship demigods. From Prabhupada’s example I learned not to mince words even if there was some risk of antagonizing someone.
In the early days of the movement I heard Srila Prabhupada say to us that Lord Chaitanya has created this movement. It is Lord Chaitanya’s movement. “You may think you are conducting this movement, and though what you are doing is important for conducting it”, he said, “but actually even if you did nothing and do not choose to take part in this movement, this movement will go on, because this movement is being conducted by Lord Chaitanya.” He said with a smile, “But, if you take part in it, then you can take the credit.” Thinking along those lines, I’d been listening to Prabhupada in Bombay in 1972 when coming back from a walk on Juhu beach, Prabhupada had been talking about how ten percent of the population would become Krishna conscious in the age of Kali. I asked, “Well Srila Prabhupada, you’ve just said that ten percent of the population will take part in this Krishna consciousness movement. It will make it probably the greatest religion this world has ever seen since Vedic times. Certainly, in Kali Yuga, billions of people.” I said, “Since you are saying that, why are we preaching if ten percent are going to become Krishna conscious anyhow?” All of a sudden, he whirled towards me and he pointed his finger at me, and he cried out, “Automatically ten percent will become Krishna conscious.” Then he looked more intensely and said, “But if you preach, why not one hundred percent?” That’s when I began to understand the difference between manifest destiny and free will. By manifest destiny, meaning Krishna’s will, ten percent will automatically become Krishna conscious. But if we choose as Vasudeva says, “I will not go back to Godhead until every being has gone back to Godhead”, then why not one hundred percent? I understood that was actually the mood of Thakur Bhaktivinode. Prabhupada at one time said, “He could have made everyone Krishna conscious, but He wanted us to have something to do.” In the Kalyana Kalpataru poem He says, “I’ve ripped up this tree and I brought it from Krsnaloka and I planted it, but by My rough embrace, by rough handling it is now doing poorly because I jammed it in the ground.” He said, “So I want everyone to come and water this tree and it will come back to it’s former glory even though I haven’t handled it so nicely myself.” In other words, if three people come and water the tree that’s nice, but if everyone comes, why not? Why not everyone? Why not one hundred percent?