Everyone was having kirtan when Prabhupada’s limousine arrived at the temple. I’d been chanting sixteen rounds for about a week, didn’t know what to expect, and had a reaction that I’d never had before. When Prabhupada got out of the car it appeared that he was being projected from some other world. When something is projected on the screen in a movie theater, you know the motion you see is coming from somewhere else. Similarly, Prabhupada’s presence was unearthly and in my heart I immediately understood that this was an absolutely pure person, the person I’d been looking for, my spiritual master. I fell on the ground to offer obeisances, although I’d never offered obeisances to anyone before. When he came into the temple he paid his obeisances to the Deities and then walked to the vyasasana at the far end, smiling and glancing lovingly at everyone. As everyone says, when Prabhupada looked at you, you felt that he understood everything about you and you felt completely exposed and foolish. Almost universally devotees say that in front of Prabhupada they had no secrets, that Prabhupada could understand everything essential about them.
Prabhupada came to Dallas three or four times and he used to take walks on White Rock Lake, the richer section, where a famous oil tycoon, H. L. Hunt, had a home. The devotees told Prabhupada, “We tried to see H. L. Hunt but he wouldn’t see us.” Prabhupada said, “Oh? He would not see you? But when death comes, will he also say, ‘I cannot see you’? Anyway, he may say, but death will come and do his business.” Then Prabhupada said, “What would you have said if you were able to see him?” Somebody said, “We would show him your books.” Prabhupada said, “No.” “We’d tell him about the school.” Prabhupada said, “No.” He didn’t like those answers. Finally Prabhupada said, “You should tell him he has become a wealthy man by stealing from the earth and at death he will be severely punished for this crime.” A devotee said, “Prabhupada, if we speak to him like this, he’ll become angry.” Prabhupada said, “Angry? If I shake my stick at a dog, he will also become angry. You have to learn how to talk to this class of men.”
On another morning walk at White Rock Lake, Prabhupada observed different things. Somebody pointed out a horse running in a field on an estate, and Prabhupada said, “A horse is the most beautiful of animals.” Satsvarupa Maharaj, playing a straight man, said, “Prabhupada, I thought a cow was the most beautiful.” Prabhupada thought that was funny. He said, “A cow? A cow is not beautiful.” Then Prabhupada said that amongst women, Jewish women are the most beautiful, which amazed everybody. Satsvarupa said, “But Prabhupada, the black people say that they’re the most beautiful,” and Prabhupada said, “Everyone will say like that.” Sometimes devotees think that all of Prabhupada’s statements should be taken as absolute pronouncements; but often he was joking with us and offering opinions which were not meant to be taken as philosophical truths.
To help us organize the gurukula, Prabhupada met with all the teachers and at that time he discussed other things as well. Once he said the big mayavadis, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, also study Vedanta, “But,” he said, “They could not understand.” He asked us, “Why they cannot understand?” He liked to put us on the spot to see what we could come up with. One of the devotees cited a verse, naham prakasah sarvasya yoga-maya-samavrtah, that because of yoga-maya, the illusory potency, they’re bewildered. But Prabhupada wasn’t satisfied with that answer or other answers that were offered. Finally Dayananda sat bolt upright and said, “Because they haven’t got Bhaktivedanta!” Prabhupada said, “Here is the answer!” The rest of us felt transcendentally envious that Dayananda had given the brilliant answer that pleased Prabhupada.
We had a guest who had been visiting the temple regularly and had won a Teacher of the Year award and I wanted him to meet Srila Prabhupada. But when he came, that man was in distress from a great misfortune. On Valentine’s Day he had been driving a school bus and when the children got off at a certain stop, one of them crawled under the bus to get a card that had blown there. This man didn’t see the child and had run over and killed him. The man was thinking, “How can I meet Prabhupada in this state?” I said, “Just tell Prabhupada what happened.” I wasn’t sure that was the right thing to do but when we got into the room I told Prabhupada about the situation. I was amazed by Prabhupada’s compassion. Prabhupada questioned the man at length to get the whole story, “Did you look both ways?” and so on. Prabhupada got a sense of exactly what had happened, how the parents reacted, and how the school staff reacted. Then Prabhupada said, “It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong and you will not be blamed for this.” This man was completely pacified, and he began to ask Prabhupada different questions. In his answers, Prabhupada brought up a rocket scientist, Werner Von Braun, who, at a large scientific conference, had declared that the real purpose of science was to establish the existence of God. This caused consternation for some people, but when Prabhupada read about it he deputed some of his disciples to speak to Von Braun and give him his books. I got excited and said, “Prabhupada, this is wonderful. He’s a famous person. If he becomes interested in Krishna consciousness, it will be a great boon for the movement.” Prabhupada said, “I am not interested in speaking to him because he’s a famous man. I am interested in speaking to him because he has come to the right point.” Throughout Prabhupada’s preaching, whether people were low or high, little or big, he would spend sometimes hours with them answering their questions and being merciful to them because of their sincere interest, not because of name, fame or wealth.
Srila Prabhupada visited us one very hot summer. There was no garden or a nice spot for him to sit outside so Prabhupada, wearing his dhoti and his sannyas top, sat in a chair on the lawn next to Graham Street, which is a busy road. We sat around him while cars zipped by and someone fanned him with a peacock fan. Then a man walking on the sidewalk did a double take—it was more than he could handle. In a demanding voice he said to Prabhupada, “Why is that man fanning you?” Prabhupada, relaxing in the chair said, “It is hot.” This man didn’t know what to say. He turned on his heels and walked off. Prabhupada demolished his whole irritation with three words, “It is hot.” That was humor and his skill. By answering the literal question, he defused the man’s envy.
In 1976, when we only had four or five kids in the Vrindavan gurukula, Harikesh—Prabhupada’s secretary—pulled me to the side and said, “You’re not running this gurukula properly. You should be like a guru figure to these children. You should not have such friendly, familiar relations with them.” I have never been submissive so I said, “Maybe that’s your opinion but Prabhupada never instructed us that way.” I went to my room and a few minutes later somebody came knocking at the door, “Prabhupada wants to see you right away!” I had never been summoned before, so I was shocked. I checked to make sure I had tilak on, then went into Prabhupada’s rooms and offered my dandavats. Prabhupada was sitting behind his desk looking grave. He said, “So? You think you are guru?” I said, “What?” He said, “You think you are guru?” I said, “Prabhupada, I never said that!” I was looking around the room desperately, saw Harikesh, and said, “He said that!” Prabhupada said, “What is this?” Harikesh attempted to explain to Prabhupada his idea but after a couple of sentences, Prabhupada waved him off, looked at me again and said, “You are not guru. I am guru.” I said, “I know!” He indicated that I should be quiet and said, “You are the experienced disciple, you are teaching the inexperienced, but you are not guru! Is it clear?” I said, “Yes, Prabhupada!” “All right,” he said, and then he dismissed me. I walked out of the room completely crushed and thinking, “What have I done? I never thought I was a guru, and now I’m being chastised for it.” Years later, after Prabhupada left and when some unqualified people thought that they were gurus, I realized that I never had any illusions about my situation and that my freedom from illusion was Prabhupada’s mercy. If I had any seeds of desire to be a guru, they were crushed from that experience—it made quite an impression on me.
Venkata Bhatta Prabhu told me that at the Kumbha-mela a devotee asked Prabhupada about bathing at auspicious moments. The devotee said, “Is this something we Vaishnavas should do?” Prabhupada said, “Vaishnava? You are trying to become Vaishnava. Vaishnava is not an ordinary thing.” In other words, we are at the stage of Vaishnava praya, which means almost a Vaishnava. We’re thinking we’re Vaishnavas but we are only approaching the precincts of becoming a Vaishnava. Prabhupada indicated, “You’re thinking this is not for you, but you need all the help you can get, so go ahead and bathe at auspicious moments.”
Sometimes Prabhupada sat under the tamal tree in the courtyard of the Krishna Balaram temple, and we would be honored to have kirtan or bhajan for Prabhupada’s pleasure. One flamboyant devotee—he wore his silk dhoti in an elaborate style, his tilak was perfect, and he considered himself to be an expert kirtaniya—began to chant in a showy way. Prabhupada listened for a few seconds, then waved him off and pointed to one of the gurukula boys. This particular boy could not sing. He had a voice like a strangling frog, and he didn’t know how to play the mridanga either. He began whaling away and his face went bright red. He was trying sincerely, but the sound was atrocious. Prabhupada sat there smiling and nodding his head and tapping his finger, obviously enjoying it, but the flamboyant devotee was so upset that he left the temple. Prabhupada appreciated heartfelt chanting. He didn’t appreciate a showbottle.
Prabhupada came into the room to show us how to teach but there was nothing for him to sit on. He stood there while somebody ran to the temple, got a large seat and put it down behind a desk. Prabhupada sat down and said, “What are your questions?” Devotees began to ask questions but some of them were sitting almost behind Prabhupada. Prabhupada said, “You come to the front, then ask.” So they moved in front of him. Later on I read in the Manu Samhita that the etiquette before the spiritual master is never to sit to the side of or behind him but always to sit in front of him and to put questions humbly. At one point Prabhupada held up two sticks and said, “This stick is for the students if they misbehave,” and he tapped his own hand with the stick. Then he said, “The other stick is for the teachers if they misbehave.” Unfortunately, that instruction wasn’t well understood.
Prabhupada’s friend, Bhagaji, was helping with the management of the ISKCON temple in Vrindavan and he was also the patron of the gurukula. Prabhupada and Bhagaji had a friendly relationship and he used to see Prabhupada regularly. One day when Bhagaji was going into Prabhupada’s room I thought, “I am running this fledgling gurukula so maybe I could go in too,” and I said, “Can I come with you?” Generally, we were afraid to try to see Prabhupada because there was an intimidating wall of sannyasis and older devotees around him. Bhagaji said, “Yes, come, come.” Prabhupada was with a couple of Indian guests in the garden with the lotus fountain. Bhagaji and Prabhupada greeted each other and then Prabhupada glanced at me and said, “Go and get some asanas.” I thought, “Oh, my gosh.” I ran out, found Hari Sauri and said, “Prabhupada wants some asanas.” Hari Sauri said, “I don’t think we have any.” He rummaged around in a closet and found a rumpled, terrible-looking asana. He said, “This is all I’ve got,” and gave it to me. I was in a sweat. I went back with my asana and as soon as I walked into the garden, Prabhupada said, “Get them some prasadam,” because the guests were leaving. “Yes Prabhupada.” I ran to Hari Sauri, “Prabhupada wants prasadam for the guests.” He said, “It’s on the table.” I gave it to the guests. “Whew, I did something right.” I went back to the garden and stood in the back with my one crumpled asana. Prabhupada said, “So? I asked you to get some asanas. What is the difficulty?” I said, “Prabhupada, we only have this one asana.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes. I seemed to be destined to make an idiot of myself. I said, “Prabhupada, what should I do with this asana?” He said, “Take your one asana and sit down!” And he and Bhagaji laughed uproariously. Prabhupada said, “These Westerners, what can you do?” I was the object of the laughter, but somehow I started laughing uproariously too. I had gone in there with aspirations to be recognized as one of the big devotees and Prabhupada crushed me completely. He made me realize that I’m an insignificant servant and I can hardly do anything right. He immediately reduced my false ego to its proper perspective. It was an instructive experience. Another time, Prabhupada was circumambulating the temple with a group of us. At one point he came to the corner of the building and stopped so suddenly that devotees almost ran into him. He turned around and said in a grave voice, “You are blind, but I can see.” We didn’t know what to say. Nobody said anything. We went around again. When we got back to the same spot and without saying anything Prabhupada pointed to a light that was on. The sun had already come up and the light was on. In Vrindavan, Prabhupada’s mood was that not a paisa should be wasted. Whenever water was dripping, whenever there was any neglect, whenever a merchant was trying to get the better of us in a business deal, he was on top of it. And that was his comment, “You are blind, but I can see.” It worked on every level. It was true in terms of the management of that temple and it was true in terms of our spiritual condition. It was a statement in truth, and it had a practical application.
After a lecture, Jnanagamya, a friend of mine, stood up and asked Prabhupada, “Prabhupada, how can we ever repay our debt to you?” Prabhupada said, “You can never repay your debt. Remain always indebted.” Another time, after a Bhagavad-gita lecture, an Indian man in the back of the temple said, “Why was Krishna trying to tempt Arjuna to fight, to become violent? This seems to go against the principles of humility and peacefulness.” Prabhupada looked irritated and got fiery. He motioned for this person to come forward and said, “Come up here!” the way a grandfather would speak to a grandson who was out of line. When the man sat in front of Prabhupada like a student, Prabhupada said, “Now repeat your question.” By this time the man’s challenging attitude had diminished but he stammered his question out again. Prabhupada began to roar at him saying, “Do you think that Krishna, the Supreme Being, Who is all-compassionate, would try to get Arjuna to do something that was against religious principles? Krishna is the origin of all religious principles, dharmam tu saksad bhagavat. Would He advise Arjuna to do something against his own self-interest?” Prabhupada hammered at this person and when he was through, waved him away. The man almost crawled back to his original seat. That’s what Prabhupada thought that person needed at that instant.
After one lecture someone asked, “What is it like to be always in touch with God, to be situated in God consciousness?” Prabhupada pondered the question for a few seconds and then said, “Without fear,” and he smiled one of those gargantuan smiles. When I heard this, I started grinning like an idiot. I felt emotional and ecstatic and the hairs on my arms were standing on end. I thought, “Boy, I don’t want to make an idiot of myself.” But I looked around the room and everybody else was in the same state—a wave of ecstatic feeling passed through the room. For that moment, nobody had any fear and everybody had symptoms of ecstasy. Later I read in Caitanya Siksamrta that by associating with someone on the uttama-adhikari platform, you can briefly, by their grace, experience symptoms of bhava.
The gurukula building in Vrindavan was under construction and Prabhupada liked to go there every couple of days to see the progress. Once, Prabhupada went in the early morning with a contingent of sannyasis and senior devotees and from the back windows of the building they looked at the workers. Some of the workers were bathing with water that gushed out of a pipe. Some of them were making chapatis over fires and some of them were brushing their teeth with neem twigs. A lot of these workers were Brijbasis and were chanting songs about Krishna. Prabhupada watched this whole scene, turned around and said, “Just see. They will rise early in the morning. They will work all day long in the hot sun and for what?” Somebody said, “Three rupees.” “For a few rupees,” Prabhupada said, “they will take bath, they will chant some mantra, and they will live in this simple way.” He appreciated the simplicity of their life and how sincere and innocent they were. Hansadutta Maharaj said, “Prabhupada, we should learn to live like this.” Prabhupada laughed and said, “You will never learn. You will never learn.”
Another time Srila Prabhupada was circumambulating the temple when he came to a strange-looking pattern of stone in the path. Originally the parikram path around the Krishna-Balaram Mandir was made from red stone that was laid out in a particular pattern. But this area, where there was a curve, was different. Prabhupada pointed to it with his cane and said, “What is this? This is not a proper pattern. They have cheated you. They have given you the rejected stone and have charged you the rate for the good stone.” Harikesh would regularly either try to correct or to argue with Prabhupada, and this time he began to argue, “No, Prabhupada, actually it is a pattern,” and he explained why. Prabhupada said, “It’s obviously not a pattern,” and they went back and forth. Finally Prabhupada yelled at him, “Yes! It is a pattern! It is a clown’s pattern, and you are the fool!” Harikesh began to laugh hysterically and everybody was in awe that he had the nerve to argue with Prabhupada about this, but that was the nature of his relationship.
Prabhupada was in his room in Vrindavan discussing various preaching plans with Akshayananda Maharaj when Prabhupada said, “So, what should we do?” Akshayananda Maharaj replied, “Prabhupada, we’ll just have to become Krishna conscious.” Prabhupada said, “Another impractical suggestion.” That was one of the most hilarious exchanges I heard. Another story is when a devotee said, “I’m the most fallen, Prabhupada,” and Prabhupada said, “You’re not the most anything.” This devotee was trying to show how humble he was. He wanted credit for being the most something, and Prabhupada said, “You’re not the most anything.” Prabhupada was so quick and so funny, so sharp and so sarcastic, but you never felt offended by him. Even if the joke was at your expense, you had to admit it was really funny, and it always had an instructive edge to it. And it was merciful because he was trying to help you. The false ego is such an obstacle, and Prabhupada was cutting through that to put us more in touch with reality.
During Prabhupada’s last days, 24-hour kirtan was going on in his room and devotees would chant for him in shifts. I went with a group of gurukula students. Prabhupada couldn’t take too much sound so we used tiny kartals and made as little noise as possible. Tamal Krishna Maharaj asked me to lead the chanting and I thought, “I’d really like to please Prabhupada with this chanting.” I tried to remember every tune that Prabhupada had chanted the Hare Krishna mantra to and I chanted those. I really concentrated, then our shift ended and we left. The next day when we went to chant, Tamal Krishna Maharaj grabbed me by the arm and said, “You have to chant for Prabhupada.” I said, “Sure, but why?” He said, “The other day after you left Prabhupada called me over and said, ‘Who was that chanting?’” Tamal, always the guardian, said, “Was there anything wrong, Prabhupada?” Prabhupada said, “No. It was very nice.” Another time, Ayodhyapati, who is now B.B. Govinda Maharaj, and I were in Prabhupada’s room and we were asked to help massage Prabhupada. Devotees were massaging his head, arms and legs, and Ayodhyapati and I each massaged one of his feet. I felt, “I’ve always wanted to get the dust from Prabhupada’s feet but I never had the opportunity,” and I turned to Ayodhyapati and said, “This is Vaikuntha.” It was. We felt like we were in the spiritual world with Prabhupada, serving him by massaging his feet. During the last couple of months it seemed inevitable that Srila Prabhupada would be leaving us and we couldn’t stand that thought. We felt helpless and desperate. Then when we were chanting for him on the last day, at first there was a lead singer and a response as there usually is, and in the final moments everybody began chanting together. It felt like there were many more people in that room than were actually there. It felt like there was a heavenly chorus with many personalities from other places present, and there was tremendous feeling as this glorious chanting was going on. It was a spectacular ending. With his last breath Prabhupada uttered the syllables “Hare Krishna,” and we could almost sense, “He’s ascending now, he’s with Krishna.” Some devotees were completely stricken and cried hysterically—one threw himself on the floor weeping. Others were stoic—there were so many different kinds of reactions. It was intense but there was nothing inauspicious about it, it was completely auspicious. Sometimes the scriptures describe the sentiments of the gopis as being simultaneous nectar and poison, and Prabhupada’s leaving was like that. It was ecstatic because Prabhupada had perfectly executed the mission of human life and gone back to Godhead, but it was an irretrievable and irreplaceable loss for us.