In the early summer of 1971, Srila Prabhupada initiated me at the temple on Henry Street in Brooklyn. Many people were initiated at that time. Prabhupada told me, “Your name is Pushkar. Pushkar is a sacred lake in India. Anyone who swims in that lake will become a devotee. You should bring people to that lake.” At the time I was thinking, “What does it mean?” Later, in 1974 when I got to India, I went to Pushkar Lake. It’s a small lake, and it was hard to bring people to it. In fact, the one person I spoke to didn’t want to go in it, because he was an atheist. He didn’t believe in the potency of the lake. But his mother was very pious. She was swimming in it. Anyway, I think Prabhupada’s instruction was meant in the broader sense of bringing people to Krishna consciousness.
I did a painting of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s profile. In it he looks grave, and he has his sikha in a loop. I painted Radha and Krishna and gopis behind him in somber colors. We hung it in Prabhupada’s quarters, and Jadurani told me that Prabhupada said, “Who has done that painting?” Jadurani said, “A new boy named Matthew.” When I was painting, I had a little trouble with the nose and Baradraj helped me for maybe five minutes. When Jadurani said, “Matthew did it,” Prabhupada said, “Yes, Baradraj has done.” Jadurani said, “No, no, Matthew has done it.” He said, “Baradraj has done.” That was Prabhupada.
I was sitting next to Srila Prabhupada when we first got the hardback Srimad-Bhagavatams from Dai Nippon Company. Prabhupada opened the book, looked through it, looked at the pictures, and said, “I think the painters are the best book distributors.” The next year, we got the Macmillan Company Gita, which was not bound or printed as well as the Bhagavatams, and Srila Prabhupada noticed it right away. Jayadvaita tried to explain why Macmillan’s quality wasn’t so good. Prabhupada said, “Macmillan gives you so many excuses, just like the man who was dancing and falling. He could not dance but he’s saying, ‘There’s a hill here.’ There was no hill, but he’s saying there’s a hill. Macmillan is simply after money.”
When I finally went to Mayapur, Prabhupada wanted us to decorate the walls and doors. I did a mural of Panchatattva next to the old temple room. Once Prabhupada walked by when I was painting a door on the second floor with the scene of Krishna and Balaram jumping off the big mountain. He was chanting japa and circumambulating, but when he came to me he stopped and said, “How long has this taken you?” I felt ridiculous because I thought I should have done it in one-tenth of the time. I said, “Prabhupada, it’s taken a week. I’m very slow.” He said, “Slowly but surely,” and kept on walking, very cool and relaxed. Another time, I did a big picture of Prabhupada that is still there in Mayapur. Prabhupada liked it. He said, “You are expert. You should simply paint the disciplic succession and you will go back to Godhead.” Another time, in 1975, I had done a picture of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati sitting in a carved, wooden chair. It’s also still there. Prabhupada liked that painting. It was very crowded in Prabhupada’s room because all of the sannyasis had gone to see him, so I didn’t bother to try to go in. But later, after they dispersed, they told me, “Prabhupada really liked your painting and wants to see you.” I thought, “Well I can’t just walk in.” So I didn’t think about it. Then a day or two later someone said, “Prabhupada wants to see you and Baradraj.” The two of us went in. Unfortunately it wasn’t taped, but we talked about art for forty or forty-five minutes. Prabhupada mentioned the painting in New Dwaraka that’s right above the Deities. He wasn’t so pleased with it. Baradraj and Prabhupada discussed whether or not Western artists could do wall work or if Indians should go to America to do it. Prabhupada said, “You have spent so much money to bring that man to do that painting above the Deities. But we are not interested in so much minuteness.” That’s the way he described that painting. Then he said, “If a child paints Krishna, no one criticizes, because there’s bhava [feeling].” He said, “Just like Jadurani. In the beginning she was not very expert.” He put his finger up and said, “And still, always painting big, big hairs.” Because there were a few paintings she did with long hair that he didn’t like. He said, “Women, they like this big, big hair and beard.” He wasn’t so much into that. When he was talking about our men doing work, he said, “Our men cannot do work in India.” Because there was one devotee, Anakadundubhi, who would get up very early and would nod off sometimes while he was painting. Prabhupada imitated him and said, “Three hours for one line.” Then finally at the end, he asked me, “So you have done this painting of my Guru Maharaj?” Prabhupada had a way of making you feel like you couldn’t take credit for anything. You could immediately understand that you’re an instrument. If Prabhupada said, “So you have done?” You think, “Gee, did I do that?” You’d actually have to ask yourself. I shrugged my shoulders, and I said, “Yes.” Prabhupada looked at Baradraj and said, “Baradraj, I think he is even more expert painter than you.” That was his way of encouraging me and joking. It was very nice.
There was a time in Calcutta when it wasn’t easy to see Srila Prabhupada. There were some heavy sannyasis that used to guard him. More or less, you were just a prop or an extra in a movie and they were the stars. But one time, in September of 1974, all the powers that be were not in the Calcutta temple. I was sitting, minding my own business, on the veranda of the Calcutta temple, outside Prabhupada’s room. There was no door on his room, only a curtain. Suddenly, Srutakirti appeared on our side of the curtain and said, “Hey, Prabhupada’s sitting there if anybody wants to come in.” First I thought, “Whoa. I can’t go in alone.” But then I realized that Achyutananda was there, so we went in together. Around that time Hamsadutta was collecting money by selling Achyutananda’s record and keeping the money. Gargamuni and Achyutananda had been complaining about this to Prabhupada. Practically they were badgering Prabhupada, but he was tolerant. He didn’t say anything. So as soon as Achyutananda and I came into his room, the first thing Achyutananda said was, “Prabhupada, the Japanese and Germans lost World War II, but now it seems like they’re taking over ISKCON.” I was thinking, “Why is he talking to Prabhupada about this?” Prabhupada looked quizzical, as if to say, “What are you talking about?” Achyutananda said, “Well, Hamsadutta, he’s a German, Bali Mardan’s wife is Japanese, and they’re destroying the Movement.” Prabhupada said, “Why are you so concerned with what this man does, that man does? Your relation is with the guru. It doesn’t matter what this man does or that man does. If you have faith in the guru, then everything will be revealed to you: Faith in me, the Vedas, and the sadhus.” That was very instructive, and it’s something I can’t forget. We hear so many excuses, how “This man did this to me and that man did that.” But Prabhupada wouldn’t take that. It didn’t stand up. Prabhupada wouldn’t acknowledge that. There is friction, it’s true, you can’t ignore it, but ultimately it’s up to us, and our relation is with the guru. There may be so many failures, even caused by Godbrothers. But these are temporary setbacks that really don’t have anything to do with our Krishna consciousness.
Once in Mayapur there was a play performed by men only. At the end of the play, Prabhupada said, “Yes, this is how a play should be; only men, no women.” Then he told a story. He said that once, when Lord Chaitanya heard a Devi singing about Krishna, he started running toward her. He didn’t know that the person who was singing was a woman, because he was just thinking of Krishna. Govinda caught Him and told Him that it was a woman’s voice. Lord Chaitanya said, “Yes, if I had touched a woman, I would have died. Govinda, you have saved me.” So, Prabhupada said that only men should perform plays, yet the day before there had been a play with women and Prabhupada seemed to appreciate it. So he related another instructive lila. One time Gargamuni arranged for the well-known Manipur dancers, the Javari sisters, to perform in Mayapur in front of Radha Madhava. Prabhupada sat and watched their performance along with Pancha Dravida and Vishnujana Swamis. The Swamis didn’t know whether to look at the women or not. Sannyasis are not supposed to see women dancing, and they felt embarrassed. They looked at Prabhupada and saw that Prabhupada was looking at the Deities. During the intermission, Prabhupada got up and left, and the sannyasis were relieved to leave with him.
Years ago in Mayapur, when there was only one building, I was on an historic walk with Srila Prabhupada when he announced, “So there should be a wall here with rooms in it and there should be a lake here. (That’s the lake that we have now). And over here there should be a large prasadam pavilion.” I was bewildered. I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. One of the things I used to enjoy about Mayapur was the feeling that it could have been Lord Chaitanya’s time. There were no modern buildings but only Gaudiya Math temples. By Prabhupada’s potency, within two or three months, the lake, wall, and buildings were constructed. The workers were on twenty-four-hour shifts. Prabhupada said that Bengalis from the villages could live in the rooms on the wall. Previously, I used to complain to Bhavananda and Jayapataka about outsiders and dogs walking on our property. But Bhavananda didn’t like my complaining. He had the attitude that Mayapur was the spiritual world, so we should let everybody walk on it. On the walk that morning the first thing Prabhupada said was, “Why are these dogs and outsiders walking on our property? Our men have spent so much money to build. Why any outsiders should walk on this property? There should be walls around.” I didn’t expect such a dramatic turn of events. Bhavananda looked at me with like a slight smile and then started talking about building the wall.
I decided to go on the balcony of the guesthouse in Vrindavan and paint trees and landscapes. I wasn’t specifically thinking of Krishna. After I painted the trees, I decided, “Krishna has to be here.” I painted Him and some cowherd boys in as an afterthought. I thought the painting was okay, and when I finally got an appointment with Prabhupada, I showed him the painting. He looked at it for so long that I started to get nervous. Finally he said, “What is the idea? What verse does it illustrate?” I felt dumb. I was speechless. I had memorized hundreds of verses, yet I couldn’t say anything. I said, “Well, Prabhupada, Krishna’s playing His flute on the banks of the Yamuna and there are some boys . . .” Again he said to me, “What’s the idea?” I said, “Krishna’s pastimes are unlimited.” He said, “Yes, Krishna’s pastimes are unlimited, but you are limited. Stick to the book.” Somehow or other he didn’t like that painting. I knew I’d been sentenced but I didn’t know for how long so I said, “Can this picture ever be used in the books?” He didn’t say it couldn’t, but he didn’t commit to anything either.
Once, just past dusk, I was going up the steps of the Lotus Building in Mayapur when I noticed there was a flurry of activity on the floor where Prabhupada stayed. I started walking towards Prabhupada’s room, when I saw Prabhupada leaning on the railing at the very end of the veranda. I offered my obeisances, and someone told me, “Prabhupada saw a snake.” It was kind of scary. There were poisonous snakes like cobras in Mayapur. The devotees had flashlights and were running around, looking here and there. I was close to Prabhupada, as I wasn’t looking for anything. Prabhupada exhibited an amazing detachment. After a couple minutes he said, “So many men for one snake.” The devotees all stopped in their tracks, feeling embarrassed that they were overly concerned. Pradyumna was particularly disturbed because he lived on the same floor. He said, “Where am I going to sleep? The snake could come and get us at night. Maybe I’m going to sleep upstairs or on a shelf.” The next morning I went to Prabhupada’s room when he was leaving for his walk. His door opened, and Prabhupada was standing there with the sun glinting off his eyes. I had forgotten all about the snake but the first thing Prabhupada said was, “Anyone was bit by the snake?” He had a slight wry smile on his face. Then he walked to the steps, stopped, and said, “Pradyumna has fled?” To me it was funny because I had a vision of Pradyumna running down the dirt road toward the front of the property with a huge trunk of books because he took a trunk of books wherever he went. Later, in Bhagavatam class, Prabhupada said, “We’re feeling very safe in our fourstory marble building. But the snake is there, and what is the snake? The snake is death.” That’s an example of Prabhupada utilizing a practical example to make a philosophical point.
On another walk, Jayapataka informed Prabhupada that Gaura Govinda Swami was teaching Bengali to devotees. Prabhupada said, “Why Bengali?” Jayapataka was shocked and said, “Well, we’re in Bengal, Prabhupada. Why can’t we learn Bengali?” Prabhupada said, “They should learn Hindi. It’s better. We do not care for Bengal. In India everyone speaks Hindi.” He was pushing for Hindi. Prabhupada really wanted us to learn the local languages so that we could preach more effectively.
I was on a morning walk in L.A. in 1976, around the time the “gopibhava club” appeared. Prabhupada quoted one verse again and again which basically meant that samsara, the repetition of birth and death, is finished for one who doesn’t remember the body. Prabhupada was saying that, “How can anyone think they are absorbed in gopi-bhava if they are still aware of their body? If they are actually absorbed in gopi-bhava then they will forget their material body.”
Prabhupada met Mr. Sethi just after Mr. Sethi had had a car accident. He was wearing a big brace on his neck, and the doctor had told him that he had to wear it for six months. Prabhupada said, “Why do you have this on your neck?” Mr. Sethi said, “The doctor said I need it for six months.” Prabhupada said, “Take it off; you don’t need it.” Mr. Sethi thought, “What is this? Prabhupada tells me to take it off, but the doctor tells me to wear it for six months?” He took the brace off and didn’t need it. He was perfectly all right. He also told me that once his father was sick in Chandigram. Mr. Sethi was in Bombay when he got a telegram, “You must come immediately. It is very serious.” Mr. Sethi told Prabhupada, “Prabhupada, I’m going to Chandigram. My father is very sick. It’s serious.” Prabhupada said, “He’s not serious.” Mr. Sethi said, “I just got a telegram.” Prabhupada said, “Your father will meet you at the bus station.” Mr. Sethi took a train and then a bus to Chandigram, and when he got to the bus station, his father was there, perfectly all right. Another time Mrs. Nair, the wife of the infamous rascal who tried to cheat Prabhupada, came with an attorney to Mr. Sethi’s house. Prabhupada asked her, “Why is your husband so greedy? He only has a few days to live.” Three days later Mr. Nair was dead. You don’t want to offend Prabhupada.
The artists asked Prabhupada if Lord Chaitanya had a sikha. He said, “No, He didn’t have one, but we should paint Him with a sikha.” We asked Prabhupada if we should paint the sikha with a braid, and he said, “Braid is for a woman.” Lord Chaitanya also didn’t wear a brahman thread, but Prabhupada told us to paint Him wearing the brahman thread. We asked Prabhupada how long we should work on a painting, and he told us a story about a young woman who was dressing for a ball but who missed the ball because she took so long to dress. Prabhupada didn’t want us to work too long on a painting.
We were walking towards the gate in Mayapur when a cow started coming toward us. I glanced at it in my usual stupor, but Prabhupada lifted his cane and pointed it straight toward the cow. He quoted a Chanakya sloka saying that one should be wary of animals that have horns and claws. (The cow had horns.) At that time we didn’t know that a cow had gored Prabhupada. On another walk, Jayapataka told him that a Bengali Vaishnava had a daughter that a Bengali devotee wanted to marry, but he had no money for a dowry. Prabhupada said, “Yes, we can provide five hundred rupees for a dowry.” Even five-hundred rupees is very little for a dowry. Prabhupada said, “She may marry within ISKCON or out, I do not mind.” The main idea was that she should be married.
In Mayapur in 1977 there were some complaints about the way Ramesvara was directing BTG. When Ramesvara came to the festival, he asked me, “So, there’s some complaint?” I said, “Yeah, they say they’re going to kick you off BTG.” He was indignant. The next thing I knew, I was with Ramesvara in Prabhupada’s room while Hari Sauri was massaging Prabhupada. Prabhupada was holding an issue of BTG and saying, “Why there is no Krishna painting?” He was complaining that there weren’t enough Krishna paintings. Ramesvara had been pleased with that particular issue, but he said to Prabhupada, “I didn’t know anything about this, Prabhupada. I wasn’t there when they did this.” Prabhupada wasn’t looking up at him; he had his head down for the massage. Prabhupada said, “I am sending Satsvarupa. He will bring back the old-fashioned Krishna consciousness.” Ramesvara was upset. He said, “Prabhupada, but . . .” Without looking at him, Prabhupada said, “You speak to the GBC.” And that was that.
Once I was in Prabhupada’s quarters when he was very weak. A card arrived from Allen Ginsberg, who was in Bali, and Tamal Krishna read it to Prabhupada. Allen Ginsberg wrote, “I am in Bali practicing non-theistic Buddhism. (Buddhism is pretty non-theistic anyway.) I heard that you are not so well, and I am very concerned.” In a faint voice Prabhupada said, “Write to him, and tell him to pray to his non-theistic Deity for my improved health.” As far as Prabhupada was concerned, whatever you’re doing you always have to have a Deity, something you can relate to. Impersonalism was out of the question.