Shyamasundar das Remembers Srila Prabhupada

Prabhupada Memories

Interview 01

Shyamasundar: Mukunda met Prabhupada first in the Lower East Side of New York. One of the very first disciples was Mukunda. He came out west to meet me and, at that time, my girlfriend, Melanie, who later became Malati. He convinced us by his example that Srila Prabhupada, who was just called Swami then, was his spiritual master. And knowing Mukunda and Yamuna so well and seeing them so convinced by one man was impressive, but I didn’t accept immediately. I spent about three months skeptically watching them. They had given up meat eating, drugs, intoxication, gambling, and sex. They had given up everything. And I was still doing all of that stuff. I was just waiting for their armor to crack so that I could say, “Ah, you see; he wasn’t the right guy after all.” But after three months of that, I just had to throw in the towel and say, “Hey, if this guy is happy all the time doing what he’s doing and I’m always unhappy, why not give it a try?” So, I accepted Prabhupada through my friend. But the moment I saw Prabhupada I knew that I made the right choice. My first personal interaction with Prabhupada was the day after that dance at the Avalon ballroom. He was living in an apartment above the temple on Frederick Street. Prabhupada had asked Mukunda, I think, “Who has put on this dance? Who was responsible for this dance?” And he said, “Sam.” “Oh, bring him here,” Prabhupada said. So he introduced me at that time. And Prabhupada said, “You have made this money? How much money did you make last night?” I told him I thought it was about $2,000. I wasn’t sure. That was really Melanie’s department. She collected the money at the gate. And he said, “Oh!” In those days that was a lot of money, especially for the Hare Krishnas. And he said, “Well, then, those who make the money should know how to spend it. Do you know bookkeeping?” I said, “The rudiments, not much.” Prabhupada said, “Then I will teach you. Every day you come here.” First he had me come over and sit beside him on his vyasasana, and he had Mukunda bring some paper, and he began to show me double entry bookkeeping—expenses and costs. And meticulously he would have me bring the books up every day. And if they missed by a few pennies, he would be on my case. [Laughs.] He could see my heart wasn’t really into bookkeeping or being a treasurer at all. I’m a spendthrift when it comes to money. But that was his practical aspect. He always associated with us or brought us into his charm, charmed us in a practical way, employed us in Krishna’s service however he could. And sometimes he tricked us, just to get us to do some service. By sitting next to him on that first morning, then I knew beyond any doubt. I had been reading Autobiography of a Yogi and Tibetan Book of the Dead and all those kinds of books that were prevalent in those days about yoga and mysticism. So, I had a little idea of what to expect in a spiritual master. Prabhupada didn’t levitate or he didn’t flash my eyes or make anything crazy to convince me. He just talked me into it. I just never felt so peaceful and at home. But that was my constant desire to be with him all the time, as much as possible. That was the best feeling I had ever had. And I had tried every kind of intoxicant there was, every kind of sensual thrill that was available in those days. And nothing matched that peace, that tranquility and exhilaration, of being with Prabhupada. That’s what I liked, the exhilaration and the excitement. He was almost like a pirate. We were all members of his crew. We were fearless too. When we were just starting out, he’d say, “You stay high when you chant. You get high when you chant. You get high when you chant. There is nothing to fear when you chant. There is nothing to fear when you chant.” Those were his main ways of selling us on this idea. And it worked. I mean, everybody experienced a high. Prabhupada would come every morning at seven to the temple room, and every evening at seven, and personally lead kirtan for an hour. We would have these hour-long kirtans every morning and every night, just the same, old standard melody, none of this fancy stuff. No “namo om vishnu padaya’s,” nothing about Gaura-Nitai or anything else, just straight “Hare Krishna.” The hippies off the streets that were there and the early fledgling devotees, we would just get loaded out of our minds. When Prabhupada would stop the kirtan, everybody would just go like this, you know: “Wow, I feel great.” And that’s what hooked us. He got us on that. And then he would lecture, but not long ones, fifteen minutes, simple. And then he would go upstairs. But every day he did this, for week after week. We lived a few blocks from the temple, and one time there was no money for rent. I was working as a carpenter and not making very much, and supporting a family. And a few of the other devotees, like Jayananda, who was a taxi driver, gave all their money. A few of the other devotees had jobs, but less than ten percent. Everyone else was a hippie. So there was never enough money, because we were feeding everybody on the streets every day, and there was rent to pay and gas to put in our cars to go out and do programs and so on. So we were really in a bind. There was no money for rent. We were behind about two months, and we were in very great danger of being evicted. The landlord had severely gotten down on us. Malati and I walked out on Ashbury Street one morning early to walk to the temple for kirtan. And there were all these hundred dollar bills blowing down the sidewalk, one after another. We were just running down the street picking up these hundred dollar bills. There wasn’t a person on the street. No one ever figured out where they came from. But these kinds of things we began to expect of Krishna. Another thing Prabhupada inculcated in us from the early days was if you take a risk for Krishna, stick your neck out to spread Krishna consciousness, Krishna must help you personally. And those who see Krishna closest take the biggest risks for him. And we tested that to the max. And it worked. We got to see Krishna. We got to see hundred dollar bills rolling down the street! This spirit has died down. We are too comfortable. One time, I remember, when he had taken a stroll down Haight Street where thousands of hippies gathered in the street on a daily basis, and somebody asked him, “Swamiji, what do you make of all this?” And he looked at that person like, “No big deal. I’m a Calcutta boy; this is nothing.” [Laughs.] At the time, Malati, my wife, and all of us of course at the Haight-Ashbury, were very much attracted to Indian things. And there was a new shop in town in San Francisco down at Fisherman’s Wharf named Cost Plus. And they always had a lot of Indian stuff in there, and we, and especially Malati, used to shop there a lot. She was a bit of a kleptomaniac too. We didn’t have much money. So this was from the old hippie days, you know, going out with the bags of groceries and stuff. Anyway, I don’t know if I should say this, Malati, but please forgive me. [Laughs.] So she found this little doll. There were three bins full of three distinctly different dolls. And something attracted her, and she copped Jagannath. Lord Jagannath, Krishna, the one with the big eyes and black face. I wasn’t in the room when she showed it to Prabhupada, but apparently she just, as a matter of interest, asked him one day what it was, “What is this?” And it just blew Prabhupada’s mind. He fell down on the floor and started bowing to it. This is what she told me. And he saw it as a great sign that Lord Jagannath wanted to come and live in San Francisco. So he asked her if she knew anyone who was a carpenter. At the time, I was the treasurer of the temple. And she said, “Oh, yeah, Shyamasundar; he likes to carve wood.” So Prabhupada called me up. And he had the little figurine, and he sketched it a little bit different for me. I had a drawing of some kind. And I went down to South San Francisco where there was a barge-dismantling yard. And they always had big timbers of wood. In fact, all the Jagannaths I made from there on out, the wood came from barge dismantlers. Anyway, I got the wood and started carving it on the roof of our house on Haight Street. Prabhupada was very curious all the time about how it was coming. Sometimes he’d telephone. “Bhaktivedanta Swami here,” he’d say. [Laughs.] “Ah, Swamiji, how are you?” [Laughs.] Some devotees, when they first met him, wanted to shake his hand. We didn’t know yet how to deal with all this. Prabhupada was letting us in very easily. And, of course, you look at Jagannath. My God, how could anything be so outlandish? It could only have happened in 1967, in the Haight-Ashbury at San Francisco, California. For the last 10,000 years, it could only have happened there at that time. That people would automatically, without batting an eye, accept this as God. [Laughs.] And go with the program. “Oh, that’s God? OK. Cool.” [Laughs.] “At least we know what He looks like, now.” [Laughs.] One day Prabhupada paid a surprise visit to my apartment. I was carving out on the roof. There was a window that connected the roof with the apartment. I looked up and saw him at the door. So I went in and brought him in. I showed him Jagannath and how I had to fill in some of the spaces. I asked him if it was all right to use plastic wood and so on to fill some of the rotted parts of the wood. He said, “Yes, no problem.” Prabhupada was very practical in that sense. But at the time, Prabhupada hadn’t even told us really to stop smoking or anything yet. And we used to, forgive us, run out of his early lectures out on the street out in front of Frederick Street and light up. [Laughs.] Anyway, I had a pack of cigarettes sitting on the floor there. And Prabhupada just walked by them, and with his cane he went “thwack” and knocked them across the room. And he just kind of looked at me and said, “You shall not smoke cigarettes anymore.” And we had a dog, too, in the apartment. He didn’t say anything about the dog. He kind of liked the dog. The dog went everywhere with us. He went on morning walks. He went to the airport to meet Prabhupada, to see him off. He rode in the car with us, wherever we went. It was some kind of miniature collie. He wasn’t a bad dog. Anyway, he told Malati, somewhere separately later, that we should get rid of the dog. He knew that I would maybe not like that very much, so he did it through my wife. [Laughs.] Oh, Prabhupada! He was so expert in trapping us into the most outrageous movement. You have to realize the context. There was nothing like this from the ’50s. Through the age of small appliances and Ozzie and Harriet, there was this slight clattering from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation somewhere in the background. But this was a revolutionary time, when thousands and tens of thousands of people were opening the doors of perception and leading a radical, new lifestyle that never had been done before. And Prabhupada was right at home in the middle of it. But from that one Jagannath, he wanted Them installed in other temples, too. And the other temples would request Them. So I made a set for New York and Los Angeles after that. And I think maybe San Jose or someplace else. Prabhupada was so compassionate with those around him as well. His devotees and every living entity that came into his purview were treated in a very compassionate way. I remember in the early days something he said to me that was very compassionate. I had done something, prior to meeting Prabhupada, where the law had finally caught up with me, and I had to go to jail. I didn’t think it was going to be for a long period of time, but I knew it was going to be a month or two. And Prabhupada was in San Francisco at the time. So I went up to say good-bye to him. I said, “Prabhupada, I have to go away for a while.” And he said, “Oh? Where are you going?” And I said, “Well, I have to go to jail for something I did in the past.” And he said, “Never mind. Krishna was born in jail.” [Laughs.] “Nothing can harm you in jail. You just chant Hare Krishna. Everything will be fine.” And at some later point in the conversation, he asked me, “Well, what was your offense? Why are they sending you to jail?” I told him it had to do with drugs. And he said, “I too was a drug dealer.” [Laughs.] I guess he was dealing chemicals and medicines in Allahabad and other places. And he said once some unscrupulous men approached him to use his opium-buying license to illegally buy some opium, and he refused to do it.” [Laughs.] Early on, in 1967 and 1968, I had proposed to Prabhupada that I would go to London and meet the Beatles. This was what I wanted to do. I didn’t realize that I had thought about it at all early on. I thought it was an idea that we all came up with later. But apparently that idea grew in Prabhupada’s mind, because then he sent a letter to Mukunda later in the spring of 1968 saying, “What do you think of Shyamasundar’s idea to go to London and meet with the Beatles?” It was never to start a temple but to meet the Beatles. But somehow or other the idea grew. And after the jail episode, the government actually sent me a check in the mail for a couple thousand dollars that was evidence being returned from that trial, which I had in my pocket at the time of the arrest. Suddenly I had all of this money. I then got together with Mukunda, Giriraj, Yamuna, and the others, and we made kind of a plan and proposition to Prabhupada that we all go to London. So he had given his sanction that we could go. But Malati was pregnant, so we had to wait until she gave birth to Saraswati and then a few months later until she could travel. So it was pretty well set for August of 1968 that we would go. And meanwhile, Prabhupada was in Montreal, Canada. He went for some visa problems. So we were on our way to London. We said good-bye to everyone in San Francisco, packed up, and we were on our way to London, via Montreal. Malati brought Saraswati in to meet Prabhupada. Previously I had called Prabhupada on the phone to tell him that she had been born and what was her name to be? And he said, “Saraswati” over the phone. So when he met her he just lit up. She was really the first child born in the Krishna Movement. He just lit up like a light bulb, grinning ear to ear, you know, and beckoned them. And Malati brought her over to him. And he just held her in his arms. Then he made the motion that somebody should take the child. He said, “Otherwise, people will say, “What kind of sannyasi is he?” [Laughs.] But, thereon after, she grew, and Prabhupada developed a very special rapport with her. And it was almost expected that every morning, if we happened to be living in the same house with Prabhupada somewhere, that she would get up and go in his room, usually before anybody else. And we’d all come in, and she’d be sitting there having a long talk with Prabhupada, even though she couldn’t talk yet. Prabhupada just loved her. He loved to goad her and make her cry. There were all kinds of things he would do to make her cry. One time when I was destined to go somewhere, he’d say, “You know your father is going far away. He may never come back.” She would start to cry. But he said, “Do you want to go with him?” She said, “Yes, Prabhupada,” in a little, high voice. Prabhupada said, “Alright. Then we can put you in one of his suitcases and pack you up tight and you may have to travel for several days like that inside a box.” And she started crying. Prabhupada just burst into laughter. He loved to show her off in India. When we first came to India she was about three or so, and she was able to dance and chant on the stage. And he’d request her to come up and dance every night in those pandal programs, because it just captured India to see this. Prabhupada also performed a wedding on stage. He married a couple of Western devotees. He had all of these white elephants dancing up there. He really put on a show at Cross Maidan that basically put us on the map there. He always made you feel like you were his friend. He listened to what you had to say and took your puniest achievements. First of all he overlooked all your glaring outrages and took your puniest achievements and made them very big. I’ll never forget this. I had worked hard on this Bury Place temple for several months, doing all the building and carpentry. In those days there were only three or four of us and a couple of new English boys. So it was pretty much a one-man job. I was going to stick to the standard I set out when I designed it, even though Prabhupada was in England pushing me day and night to finish this thing so that he could get on with things. But he respected the fact that I wanted it done just right because we were going to be a central showplace in which what was then the most happening city in the world, and right on the main street. And the people who saw it should see something perfect. I was determined to make it that way. Prabhupada went along with that for months, despite his discomfort. One day after it was finished and the Deities had been inaugurated, we took a walk in the park one morning. We were walking back, and Prabhupada looked at the front of the temple. He looked it up and down, and he motioned to either Gurudas or Mukunda and said, “You shall put a plaque on the front of this door (he showed with his cane beside the door where he wanted the plaque), a brass plaque, and you will put on that plaque, ‘This temple has been built by the hard labor of Shyamasundar das Adhikary.’” [Breaks up crying.] We took this idea of just doing anything we wanted for Krishna, no matter how outrageous it might appear to anyone else. It was very common for us to think that there was no such thing as an impossible situation, and we just did everything. And that is a good case in point, because without any building permits we gutted this whole building in downtown London, took out the firstfloor story, and made it two stories high. That is, until the building inspectors arrived, Mr. Savage and Mr. Black, typical English bureaucrats. They had seen that we had already done it, so they were quite willing to go that extra mile to help us out a little. But we had to comply with certain regulations. And these steel beams were going to be very expensive. They had to be fifty or sixty feet long, in one single throw. I-beams of very heavy steel. And somehow we had to get them into the ceiling. And we had no money. So I went to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and asked him, and he said, “Oh, yes, just have my secretary give you the check.” So he bought them. [Laughs.] Those days we rubbed elbows with those characters, you know. After we lived in John Lennon’s house, we still maintained contact with all the Beatles. We interacted with them whenever we needed something, or when they needed. One day John Lennon called up and asked if I could come and carve a piano for him. Yoko wanted Krishna carved in the music stand in the front of her white piano. The piano was on the ground floor of Apple Studios on Salvo Row, next to the recording studio. It took about a month, and I carved a very nice Krishna in that piano. And during that time Brian Jones had died of the Rolling Stones, and they were breaking in a new guitar player named Mick Taylor. So they had borrowed Apple Studios to bring Mick Taylor up to date on all their songs. So I had live Rolling Stones for a month while I worked. “Hey, you, get off my cloud” over and over. [Laughs.] And we thought nothing of it. This was just an ordinary thing. And Prabhupada made us feel that. He always appreciated going for the top, going for the highest people in realms and spheres of influence to accomplish spreading Krishna consciousness, to accomplish the desire of his spiritual master. I had met George Harrison and became his friend, and then subsequently the other devotees—there were only six of us—went over to his home and had kirtan one Sunday. And he got into it. It was such an incredible, ecstatic kirtan. It went on for hours. There used to be a recording of that. I suppose it is long lost now. George and everybody took turns playing all the instruments. George had a white harmonium that had foot pedals. That was just after his Maharishi days, and he was all dressed in his Indian clothes. So, anyway, we had this long kirtan. At the end of it, George says, “You know, we ought to make a record.” Okay. So we got together one night soon thereafter and just cut a track, and it became a very big smash. Prabhupada used to love to get our record sales reports, and he’d call up or telegram congratulations. He would always, even from far away—this was all done by his management skill—keep us going over there. He would inculcate a kind of transcendental competition among the devotees. “So-and-so is doing this; what are you doing?” [Laughs.] You know, it was never bitter or anything like that. So we always tried to strive to please Prabhupada the most by outdoing our God-brothers and God-sisters. So the record was cut, and this was kind of the way it worked out. Prabhupada really wanted to come to London so badly after that. The record was out, and we were becoming number one all over Europe. But we kept saying, “You can’t come yet, Prabhupada. There’s no place to stay.” But finally he just announced, “I am coming!” [Laughs.] So we raced around, and I asked John Lennon if he could stay out there. And he said, “Sure, why not?” He said, “You can all stay out there and help me work on my house.” Prabhupada treated George like an old, old friend. [Tears up.] I spent some time with George this summer. I’m talking 1999, now. And George has reached a very high level of spiritual development, I am happy to say. He chants Hare Krishna every day. And he is totally serene, as he has accepted life as it is. He has actually achieved a much higher level of self-realization than I can ever hope to achieve. He is peaceful and serene to a degree that is rare in a person, and at such a young age—same age as I am. Prabhupada benefited him so much. Prabhupada knew the buttons to push and not to push because of their natural hesitancy to have anything public to do with Prabhupada, because they would see us then as just going after their money or their fame and not giving them the real thing. So I tried, and Prabhupada, by his example, showed me the way to treat them is like this: “Always just keep giving them stuff. Never ask them for anything.” Although one time, Prabhupada did call me into his room and said, “You know we only have one book. We have Bhagavad-gita, that’s it.” And maybe there was Nectar of Devotion. He said, “Krishna book has been finished for some time, and I got news today that it is ready for publication. How can we publish? We need this book.” He said, “I want you to go and ask George for the money for this book.” So, then I said, “Aww, no, Prabhupada. You know the reason that we are this far with George, and he has helped us so much to date, is that I’ve never asked him for anything. I always wait until he offers.” And Prabhupada said, “Yes, but we really need this.” And I asked, “Well, how much is it?” He said, “$19,000.” In those days that was like saying $100,000. Whew. So I said, “I don’t really think it is a good idea, Prabhupada.” And he said, “Yes, yes it is. You’ll see. Krishna will help you. Watch this.” So the next day we had made arrangements to go look at marble. George had said that he would donate a new slab of marble for the altar. To help us select this marble, he had called on his friend, David Wynn, who is the sculptor laureate of England, a very famous sculptor who had designed the coinage and who had done the famous busts of Queen Elizabeth and the Beatles too. And so we went with David Wynn to the marble yards, and afterwards we went to David Wynn’s house for dinner. And all this time I was trying to screw up my courage. Because I had one mission that day, “How am I going to ask George for this money? Here he has given us this three- or four-thousand-pound slab of marble. How can I ask him for something more on top of that today?” So, we had dinner, and we were all finished eating, and it was getting late at night. It was dark. And it was a long ways from where I had to go in London. And George had to go all the way out someplace in the suburbs. So, finally I just did it. I said, “George, . . . Srila Prabhupada asked me to ask you if you would donate money to print the Krishna book.” And I explained what the Krishna book was. And his face just got increasingly grimmer and grimmer. And I could see this whole thing passing through his face thinking, “Oh, man, they are just another one of these groups. Here it comes.” Then the room went quiet for a moment while he thought about it and fixed me with this really belligerent stare. And suddenly all the lights in the house went out! And BWAM! This bolt of lighting hit the house. True story. The whole house shook. The sound and the light were simultaneous. [Laughs.] And we sat in silence for some minutes after that, stunned. The lights came back on, and I looked over at George, and he had this huge grin on his face and he said, “Well, how much is it then?” [Laughs.] And I told him, and he said, “Well, what can I do after that?” [Laughs.] And he came the next day and talked to Prabhupada about it. Prabhupada came to Portland, Oregon. My parents lived near Salem, Oregon, south of Portland. And he came to Portland, Oregon once to the temple there. And Danavir, who was the temple president, had arranged a radio program in Salem, Oregon, with KLSF. So, we drove down there and had my parents come over to meet him in the studio. They sat in the studio and listened to the whole of Prabhupada’s talk. And actually my mother came down to my wedding in Haight- Ashbury. Can you imagine this? The first wedding was Malati and me in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, in a storefront near Haight Street. And it was a full-on fire yajna. We weren’t sure how to do it or anything, but we had wood burning there. And the smoke was filling the room. [Laughs.] And ghee and rice were flying everywhere. And my mother, who was the squarest lady in the world, comes down from Salem, Oregon, finds her way to this place, and sits down with all these hundreds of outlandish hippies and all this chanting and kirtan. Actually it changed her life very significantly. At first she was very critical of it, but gradually she began to accept it. In her final years she was very spiritually oriented. Prabhupada was very friendly to my parents. I remember he said to my father, “Oh, you have produced such a nice devotee. This will have very great benefit for you also.” He said, “You will now be able to escape the pangs of death, old age, and disease, because your son will take you there.” [Laughs.] “To your credit,” he said. And I remember he also said, “You realize, don’t you, that your son is a very intelligent and educated boy who has chosen this philosophy for a reason?” He was implying that Krishna consciousness could attract the intelligence of anyone. And it is on a very high level. My parents appreciated the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. I always was known to do crazy things, so the fact that I’ve stuck with it meant a lot to them. And then, of course, when my father got to come over and meet George and stay at his house, that put the icing on the cake. [Laughs.] My whole aspiration in life was to grab as much of Prabhupada’s attention as I could. I wanted to be with him personally as much as possible because I experienced my greatest pleasure of my whole life in those moments. So I caught on early that what Prabhupada really liked was to talk to important or famous people. Right at the beginning, whenever he would come to London, we had all these people scheduled for him to meet and talk with. We could keep him there month after month by saying, “Prabhupada, we’ve got three months’ worth of famous speakers coming here. You have to stay. He couldn’t refuse. [Laughs.] Nobody else caught on to that. But sometimes I would play devil’s advocate and other devotees as well. Svarup Damodar would be the scientist. Hayagriva would be the philosopher. Many devotees he would play that with. But he knew that I had studied philosophy at college. He was also a philosophy major at Scottish Churches College. One time Prabhupada met with Arnold Toynbee, who is a famous English historian, well known for his studies of Greece. He was the Greek scholar of all time. And we met with him face to face. Part of this is not on the tape that was recorded, but I remember it. I had brought up the fact that the young people of today were revitalizing society by taking to Eastern religions, and a kind of a mystique of Eastern religions was growing, just how it did in early times in Greece. And I said, “How do you feel about the West and how this fits in with Greek history?” And he said, “Well, in the old times, there was Athens and there was Sparta. Athens was the culture of grace and art. They perfected the plastic art, the art of statuary and form. Sparta was the kingdom of war, the militant. And now you have America and Russia.” This was back in the ’70s. He said, “America has perfected the art of audio, the ear, sound vibration. That is the art of this American age.” And he said, “Sparta?”—meaning Russia—“There may be a few columns left someday.” Just like you go to Sparta now, it is just a few columns. Athens is a thriving metropolitan city. And Prabhupada cut in and talked about how Lord Chaitanya predicted that there would be a Golden Age in the midst of the Age of Kali, where Krishna consciousness would be widespread. And Toynbee agreed that this was a very good possibility, that the blending of the Hare Krishna movement as a parallel with the Greek mysteries that went along with the growth of the Athenian Empire were very similar. And that we would all experience. Toynbee was convinced that the Golden Age of America had just begun, despite what all the doomsayers are saying now. And it is coming true. Look at it. And inside that Golden Age of America, Krishna consciousness can flourish as one of its great mysteries. And if the devotees take that opportunity and use it, there is no end to Prabhupada’s movement. In the early days when the girls—Janaki, Yamuna, and Malati—were taking turns cooking for Prabhupada, they always tried to introduce typical American favorites and turn Prabhupada on to these so-called delicacies. And invariably Prabhupada would be gracious about it and say, “Oh, thank you; I’ll try this” but always leave most of it. Janaki once made artichokes, a full artichoke with a dip, and showed him how to do it. And he ate about two and he said, “Why all this trouble, this botheration?” [Laughs.] He stuck to his dahl, rice, and subjis and in turn taught them how to cook. He didn’t like all the American gadgets, the American tastes. I asked him once, “Have you seen Krishna?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “What does Krishna look like?” And he said, “You have seen this acetylene torch, you cannot look with your eye?” Then on to Moscow. This, you have to remember and realize, was the height of the cold-war period, and there were threats going back and forth between America and Russia to drop hydrogen bombs at any moment. Leonid Brezhnev was in charge in Russia in those times, and it was a very paranoid and extremely repressive regime. No one was allowed in. But Prabhupada kept saying, “I want to go to Russia. I want to get behind this iron curtain and see what is going on. Those people, they would probably like to hear about Krishna.” At that time no one was able to get Prabhupada a visa. And then, by some fluke, Prabhupada asked me if I could get him one in Bombay, and that very day I secured us visas and tickets to Moscow. A couple of days later, we were on our way. Those days are hard to imagine now. I mean, even in India, there was very little available in the way of consumer goods or freedom, and things like that were very scarce. And I remember thinking, “Hmm, I better have a camera of some kind to take some pictures of Prabhupada in Russia. This is an historic occasion.” And I scoured the streets of Bombay, and I was able to find, finally, a small Brownie box camera with just a hole in one end for a few rupees. And that was it. And one roll of black-and-white film that had twelve shots on it. That was it. And those have subsequently become historic photos. They all came out perfectly by Krishna’s arrangement, because I had no idea how to photograph anything. But anyway, there we were in Russia. And Prabhupada was just like a commander-in-chief behind the lines. We knew we were being stalked by the KGB. All kinds of things were happening. But in five short days he was able to plant the seed of Krishna consciousness resulting in tens of thousands of devotees growing. That was his potency. There is a little known story of the time that Prabhupada met me and flew in, I believe from Bombay or America, and met me in Zurich, and we speculated on the gold market together. [Laughs.] We opened an account, a gold bullion account in a Swiss Credit Bank, plunked down about $25–$30,000 dollars, because I had a hot tip. And I can just see Srila Prabhupada sitting there in this lobby on Hostrasse in the elegant Swiss Credit Bank, all day long sitting in a chair with his cane, watching the ticker tape go by. And then occasionally the gold price would go by, and his eyes would follow it, and he would lean over to me, and he would say, “Should we sell, or should we hold on our position?” [Laughs.] Finally, we sold after a few days. The price had plateaued out, and it was getting boring sitting there, basically. It continued afterwards to go up substantially more, but Prabhupada had enough. And he said, “Shyamasundar, I think we should sell.” We doubled our money. [Laughs.] Once we were in Mayapur. We had an old—I think it was a 1948 Hudson or some old, big car. And I was driving. We had left the main road. If you have been on the main road you know how bad it is. You can imagine how bad this secondary road was like. We were going to visit Lalit Prasad, who was Bhaktisiddhanta’s living brother, who was a very old man then. We didn’t know the road, and we didn’t know the way very well. We knew that it was up that road somewhere. And we drove half-way up or so, and we came to a place where there was a cement bridge over a big gully. But the monsoon run-off had washed the bank away on both sides of three or four feet, as I recall. This may be an exaggeration, but it was some distance, maybe three feet. And we could see up and down this canal that there was no other way for the automobile to cross, and we still had five or six kilometers to go. So Prabhupada studied the situation. He didn’t even get out of the car. He just studied the situation a little bit. Brahmananda and some of the other big guys sat in the back. He said, “You boys get out. Shyamasundar, you back up, and get going very fast, and we will make it.” [Laughs.] I got back about fifty feet or so and just gunned that old tank. And off we went. Waaaow! We flew over that first gap, screaming across this cement bridge. Waaaow! It looked like a Steve McQueen great-escape movie. And the boys walked down around and got back in and off we went. [Laughs.] He was expert at everything. He also used to know everything about engineering. He used to make drawings. In fact, this may not be well known how early the Mayapur project was actually started. Right after Tamal or somebody got that first little, tiny parcel of land in Mayapur, Prabhupada planned the whole thing out one day in London at Bury Place. He sketched it all out, the temples and the buildings. And he called and asked me if there were any English devotees that were architects or knew anything. There was one, Ranchor, and Nara-Narayan was there, the builder. So he had them come up, and he submitted this idea. He said, “We have only a few days until I must leave. I want you to work on a plan for a huge complex for Mayapur.” And that’s all he thought about for days. This must have been 1971 or ’72. And we would walk in the park in Russell Square every morning then, and he would point to different buildings, and he would ask Ranchor and Nara-Narayan questions. You knew he knew the answers already, but he was testing their ability. Expert at everything. That was Prabhupada. Yet, for all of this vitality and excitement and adventurism and dynamic vibration around Prabhupada, there was an ineffable air or shell of softness. You felt it, when you got within a foot or two of Prabhupada’s actual physical body, that it was cooler and softer. And there was some kind of a soft cushion there. I know that probably others who have massaged him and served him have felt that also. It was like entering an air-conditioned room. It was totally calm around his body, like a halo. One of the other qualifications of a saint is silence. Sometimes Prabhupada would, I swear, talk to me and not open his mouth. [Laughs.] I’d look up and he’d just be looking at me, and I would have heard a full conversation in my head. Sometimes when I was writing letters this would happen. I always had the feeling that something else was guiding my hand when I was typing these letters for Prabhupada. I could hear his words ringing in my ears. I could type with my eyes closed and everything would be all right. They came out just perfectly. Someone would ask a strange question or an esoteric question from some scripture that I had no clue about. I just let my mind go, and Prabhupada would throw the answer in there. I would always check it with him and run it through for him, and he’d sign it. [Laughs.] Prabhupada was so expert that he expanded himself. In fact, the greatest area of his expertise was his ability to manage. It has to be seen in context what Prabhupada did. From a single individual with absolutely no resources, and just his words, he was able to build a worldwide society of people, a global society, long before what we are calling the Age of Globalization, which is right now. I mean, we couldn’t find videotapes or cassette tapes or even the old cassette cartridges anywhere else in the world besides America. We used to wait at the post office in Bombay to make a long distance call, if we were lucky. Forget about communication, forget about any of this, and Prabhupada had a worldwide organization built up in three or four years. How he managed this should be studied. But I was fortunate to be there at the most exciting time, when all of this really kind of hit the fan, and Prabhupada came up with this idea. He called me, and he was becoming overburdened with his management. He was complaining about not having time to translate, because we had no books during these early days. We finally got Bhagavad-gita years after we met Prabhupada. We had nothing to distribute. So Prabhupada had a two-fold task. He had to keep us all organized somehow, plus he had to provide us with the books. Imagine! So in order to provide himself with the time to translate he came up with this idea of a GBC—Governing Body Commission. He called me in early one morning. And this idea came as if he had been thinking about it for a long time. I never saw him sleep, so I’m sure that he was working on his managerial problems during that time. And he said, “Shyamasundar, take dictation. Henceforth, I want to govern the Society in this way. And you write it down, and you send copies of this out to the various leaders whom I shall appoint.” His idea was, at that time and forevermore, to divide the world into twelve zones and be managed by a householder or someone with business experience. Tamal Krishna Goswami was the one exception at the time, because he had just taken sannyas very recently, and Prabhupada allowed him to be GBC for India because he was the only qualified man at the time. There were no Indian devotees who had yet come up. So he wanted householders, managers, and businessmen to run his Society and manage all the business affairs. And sannyasis should be free and should roam from zone to zone, wherever their feet would take them, and preach—period. Now I think those two functions have gotten intermixed and diluted. I know Prabhupada’s original intent, and it was not to change. That was it. And he even sent a letter to the twelve GBC men. He said, “But this shall be a democracy. And if there are matters that affect the whole society, then you shall all vote. And because we are a democracy, the unanimous vote will hold. And if there’s a deadlock, I will throw the remaining vote, but only if there’s a grievous error.” Somebody must have a copy of that. The original letter must be in the Veda-Base. He’d call me in some mornings and say, “Oh, we have four invitations here: from Los Angeles, from Tokyo, this place, that place, all very ordinary big cities, and this one from Brahmananda in Africa. What do you think we should do?” I would say, “Prabhupada, Africa! We have never been to Africa.” He replied, “Yes! Let us go to Africa. Make arrangements!” [Laughs.] He got bored sitting around the established temples. He loved it, of course. I guess he knew while he had the energy, and that period of time was ripe for spreading Krishna consciousness by throwing the seeds out there as fast as he could. Africa! God! That was an eye-opener. Black Africa. Whooah. Brahmananda had been, and a couple of other boys, but they had more or less gotten allied with the Indian community in Nairobi and had not made very many inroads into the African community. So shortly after we arrived, Prabhupada was talking to Brahmananda and asked him if he had been having kirtans in public yet. And Brahmananda said, “No, Prabhupada.” You know Brahmananda, a huge guy, fearless it seemed, was intimidated by the whole idea. And Prabhupada said, “Okay. Now there are four of you. You will go for kirtan in Nairobi. So Brahmananda, the other boy who was there, myself, and Aravinda, who was Prabhupada’s other servant, went out one afternoon, just scared to death. [Laughs.] I mean, on the way there we saw this guy walking down the street with a bloody zebra skin over his shoulder. So, we very hesitantly started up our little kirtan in the middle of this city park under a tree. And within no time, hundreds of Africans gathered around. And this was, I think, a rather low-class section of town that didn’t have much money. But they just loved it. We began to see that these people loved it, as they were chanting back to us once they knew the words. We were holding up the words, and they were chanting them back. And they got into it, and they were dancing. Kirtan went on great. It was just fascinating to see it. And afterwards, I think Brahmananda gave a little talk. And the one question they had was if we had a book. And we said, “Yep. We got the book. We got the book right here.” And from that day on, Krishna consciousness was rooted in Africa. And devotees started coming; Black African devotees. So Prabhupada was always out there on the cutting edge and on the wilds. The first quality of a pure devotee is described as being merciful. Just being with us was Prabhupada’s mercy enough. Every aspect of his behavior was very merciful. That he even deigned to be with us was his greatest act of mercy, I believe. As an example, I remember once, as his secretary, I was in charge of all his travel arrangements, and at this period of time, he was traveling very fast all over the world. I had to go and buy the plane tickets and make the arrangements on both sides. We had been in Africa, and from there he was to go to Bombay, India. So they had made some huge pandal program for him in Bombay on his arrival, and thousands of people were to greet him at the airport. So I went down to the East African Airlines ticket counter in Nairobi and bought the tickets. We got on the plane, and we flew to India. We got off the plane in Bombay, and the first person we met was the health officer, and he said, “Can I see your yellowfever inoculation cards, please?” I looked at Prabhupada, and I said, “I don’t have one. We don’t have one.” I told the man, “We don’t have one.” And the guy said, “Oh, then you will have to go into quarantine.” So it felt like the whole bottom had dropped out of my life. It seemed as though my whole world had come to an end, because I had caused this problem, this major problem, by an oversight. Because Prabhupada was so meticulous in all of his arrangements, and he tried to inculcate that into me, and I really tried hard to make sure everything went well all the time. Well, I really blew this. Here we were. We could either get back on a plane and go back to Nairobi, or we could go out to a prison-type place with screened windows and be in quarantine for two weeks. And no matter how I ranted and raved, they wouldn’t back down. They said even if Indira Gandhi didn’t have her yellow-fever shot from Africa she couldn’t get in. I didn’t want to look at Prabhupada during all of this. I just knew he’d just be smoldering with anger at me. Finally, I looked over at him, and I said, “Prabhupada, we have to go to this quarantine.” He looked at me with this big grin on his face and said, “That’s alright. We need the rest anyway.” [Laughs.] After about ten days there, no one was allowed to come in, and we couldn’t go out. Prabhupada was getting a very good rest and completing a lot of translating. We were getting caught up on all the correspondence. Finally, after about I think the tenth or eleventh day of this, Prabhupada called me in and said, “You know, I have a yellow-fever certificate.” He said, “You call Jayapataka in Calcutta and tell him that it is in the right-hand drawer of my desk. Ask him to fly it here.” The next day Jayapataka flew there with his yellow-fever certificate, and Prabhupada got to leave there a day earlier than we did. [Laughs.] Now, you can look at that in different ways. But in my way of looking at it, being there at the time, Prabhupada knew that he had this certificate, but he wanted the rest. Nobody disturbed him for about ten days. This was during a very active globetrotting period. He got caught up on everything, and then when he was done, he got out. [Laughs.] He was faultless. You could say, “Oh, he forgot.” Or, “He made a mistake.” No way. Prabhupada never did. Anytime you could say, “Oh, well, Prabhupada just made a mistake.” If you really looked at it, it wasn’t really a mistake. It was all just part of his lila, his playtime with us. Another thing about Prabhupada was his unpredictability. I don’t think ever, in all the years and encounters with Prabhupada, that I ever felt anything when I was outside his door waiting to go in but a surge of excitement that I am about to enter the unknown— even after being with him every day for year after year. Every time I opened that door to his room, I had this utter reaction that I am about to enter in a world of some kind of surprise. Because you could never tell what Prabhupada was going to say or do. Never. You could never predict it. As soon as you thought he was going to react to something in one way, he’d do just the opposite. [Laughs.] I remember another time in Mexico. Mexico was a pretty wild and woolly place back in the early ’70s, too. Chitsukhananda had arranged a meeting for him up in Cuernavaca, a kind of an outpost, a small town up in the mountains above Mexico City. Prabhupada was to speak in the bull ring in the center of town. There wasn’t much attendance. There were some people. But Prabhupada always carried on as if the whole hall were packed and gave it his all no matter what, even if there were one person in the audience. Anyway, afterwards it was beginning to get dark, as I recall, or getting late in the afternoon. We walked out of there. The car was a couple of blocks away. And we were walking toward the car. Chitsukhananda, myself, and I think Brahmananda might have been there, or at least one of the bigger devotees. Suddenly, before anybody could do anything about it, this drunk, who was reeling drunk, staggering across the street, came right through all of us, and was just about to run into Prabhupada. Prabhupada stopped, lifted his cane in the air, and went “whack” right on the guy’s head and laid him out cold. And the expression on Prabhupada’s face was like nothing had happened. [Laughs.] He was always cool. Prabhupada always exhibited these qualities that you associate with the great saints. They are listed, of course. In this case, he was always cool-headed or sober. He told me once that one of his friends, back when he was young, had given him some, and he had tasted a drink of beer. He said he immediately spit it out, and he said, “It tasted like horse urine. And I never tried it again.” So he was always sober—coolheaded. I remember once we were in Moscow. We only had a few things with us, and one of the things that Prabhupada had was his lota that he took into the bathroom. These were the Brezhnev times, when foodstuffs were very scarce. One day I was able to buy some rice. I believe a kilo or two. It was a very bad quality of rice, but at least it was some rice. So Prabhupada said, “Oh, cook it all up.” And I had also found a good supply of milk at a dairy. So we had milk, and we had rice. And Prabhupada said, “Cook it all up. We will make sweet rice.” And Aravinda said, “But, Prabhupada, we don’t have enough containers to put all this sweet rice in.” He had filled the few pots that we had with rice, and there was still a bunch left in the hotel’s pot. And we didn’t know what to do with it. Throw it away? Keep it? Prabhupada said, “Go in the bathroom and get my lota.” And Aravinda said, “Oh, but Prabhupada, that is dirty. You use that in the bathroom.” And Prabhupada said, “Never mind. We will save this sweet rice for our sustenance.” So he brought it from the bathroom and filled that lota with sweet rice. I remember one time in Mexico somebody had given Prabhupada a room. A nice, simple, but very clean room in a Mexican home, and he had gone in for a nap after lunch. And about an hour or so later, he rang his little bell, and I came. He was sitting on the end of his bed staring at this crucifix on the wall with this tortured picture of Christ, and there were a couple of tears coming out of Prabhupada’s eyes. And he said, “Shyamasundar, would you please remove this? They have killed their spiritual master so that they can sin.” [Tears up.] Prabhupada was a poet of great renown, in my estimation. I read a lot. I always have. I even majored in literature in college, and I have always been very critical of writers and speakers. With Prabhupada there was never a time that he gave a lecture or had a conversation or wrote something that didn’t just astound me afterwards. Each time I would hear one of his lectures, I realized how he was weaving it like a tapestry, like a fully professional poet would weave a lecture. I’ve always appreciated that. He was the wordsmith beyond compare. We can’t even begin to emulate that. Once, when I took the position of Charles Darwin and debated Prabhupada, he said, “Your ancestors might have been cavemen, but mine were poets.” [Laughs.] I think one of the other qualifications of a pure devotee that Prabhupada always exhibited was his freedom from desire for material possessions. Basically, Prabhupada was totally renounced. I remember one incident where in Hyderabad I had met some jewelers who were former jewelers to the Nizam. So they had a collection of fabulous gems. And they wanted me to help sell them in the West. They gave me on consignment a big necklace of giant rubies and a similar necklace of emeralds that size. I mean, these were worth a fortune. Prabhupada was in his room, so I showed them to him. And I put them around his neck. I said, “Prabhupada, I’d really like to see you in these jewels.” He put out his neck, and I put them on him. He leaned back, and he had this kind of pleased expression on his face. And I said, “Prabhupada, these jewels belong on you.” And he said, “Yes, you may leave them here for some time.” And then I left. The next morning they were on his desk. He said, “Now you take these out of here.” [Laughs.] Anytime anyone gave him anything of value (there wasn’t much in the way of anything you could give Prabhupada, except for a few small things that he would wear occasionally)—a watch, a ring, a set of buttons for his shirts, he would wear them for a few days and then give them to some devotee. Or if somebody gave him something, he would exchange his watch or his ring, and sometimes they were very valuable. I remember I was in Switzerland once. I saw the very first limited edition of the quartz digital watches. This was about 1972 or ’73. This is when they first came out. This guy made the first 1,000 limited edition. So I bought one. I didn’t really have the money, but I spent everything I had and bought him one of these watches. They looked so cool with those red letters on there. Nobody had ever seen these quartz digital numbers. All it did was give the time when you pressed the button. It didn’t do anything else. It was a big, gold watch. And I gave it to Prabhupada, and he just loved that watch. He’d sit there and play with it and show it to everybody. “Look. Want to know what time it is?” Click. You know it has hundredths of seconds going on; click, click, click. A few days later, he wasn’t even wearing it. Somebody else had it. [Laughs.] Prabhupada never accumulated anything. He always had everything in full. Krishna provided for him in full. In the books, Prabhupada taught us, and in his lectures, that Krishna is the Supreme Proprietor of all energies. We are not the proprietor of our energy. The energy is transcendental. He not only taught us in his books to understand that intellectually, but he exhibited that himself many times. There were times when I just thought that Prabhupada would be ready to die from fatigue. We would go from morning ’til night all over the world. He would run from one lecture to another at somebody’s house. And he would be looking exhausted. And I’d say, “Okay, we’re going to bed now, Prabhupada.” And I’d just get him in his room, and some people would show up there, and I’d say, “You can’t see him just now.” And Prabhupada would hear them out there and say, “Let them come in.” And he’d talk into the night with these people about their families and their problems. And he just kept going, and I’d crash and I’d go to sleep finally. His light would still be on, and I’d wake up at some point, usually with his bell ringing (I always slept in my clothes), and his light would still be on. I never saw him sleep. I can’t remember. Even in those train compartments when we’d ride together through India in two-bed compartments, I don’t remember looking at him with his eyes closed, sleeping. I would see him sometimes lying there with his eyes closed, but he always knew what was going on around him. Sure enough, as soon as I looked at him, one eye would open. He was just so aware. So I learned early on that this little body is not the source of our energies. Once, Prabhupada was in London when I was sleeping outside of his room in Bury Place. I heard in my dreams very faintly, “Shyamasundar.” I awoke and hit my head on the bunk above me and staggered out. And the door was just opening when I got out, and Prabhupada was standing there, reeling, and then he just collapsed in my arms. My God! I was stunned. I didn’t know what in the world to do. I picked him up, and it was like he didn’t weigh anything. There was no weight. He felt like a little pillow or something, absolutely no weight whatsoever. And his eyes were closed and gray faced. I went over to his bed and laid him down. He was shivering, so I began to heap blankets over him. And then he opened his eyes and said, “I’m cold.” So I went over and turned the heat up as far as it would go and got some more blankets and covered him up. I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether to call a hospital or get an ambulance. And then he said, “Bring me some black-pepper paste.” He told me how to make it. So I ran down to the kitchen and brought it up and put it on his forehead. He said, “Now you just lay down there and sleep. No hospital.” So I ran around to the pujaris and woke them up and said, “Look, at mangal arati, which is in about an hour, no bells, just quiet, no singing loud. Prabhupada needs to rest.” He slept probably five hours or so. He got up, and I slept right on the floor beside him. I didn’t really sleep, I don’t believe. I think I stayed awake most of the night just watching. His breathing was deep and normal. But even then he wasn’t sleeping. Every time I would get really, really worried and look up at him, his eyes would open. Like, “Okay, okay.” And in the morning he got up and said, “It is time for a morning walk” and carried on as if nothing happened. Now you tell me where that energy comes from. Is that possible? And I saw it so many times. A friend to everyone is one of the prominent attractive qualities of Prabhupada. [Breaks down crying.] Prabhupada has said that relationships that we use to anchor ourselves within the material nature, like husband, wife, sister, brother, friend, are just dim reflections of the transcendental world. [Continues crying.] You grieve when you can’t be with your friend, eh? Why tears? It is not lamentation. It is just wishing so hard that he could be here. It’s pretty selfish. Prabhupada always said that it is the desire of every living entity to have peace and be satisfied. That’s what we want. That’s our nature. Whenever Prabhupada was in my presence, I always felt that to the ultimate. He wasn’t just a friend to me. He was a friend to everyone. And everyone who met him had a relationship with him, in some way or other. And I’m hoping and praying that we have an eternal relationship and we are together again. It is my only reason for existence. [Cries.] Also, Prabhupada said that friendship is two-sided, that the friend reciprocates. We were talking once about Queen Elizabeth, that David Wynn had recently done her bust, and he had given her a copy of Prabhupada’s Bhagavadgita. I asked him, while she’s sitting there for hours, while he’s designing her bust, to slide her this copy of Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita and let her thumb through it. And he did one day, while she was sitting there; for hours she looked at Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita. David Wynn relates that she at one point looked with a bemused look on her face, a faraway look, and said, “Krishna is a friend of everyone, and Krishna is responsible for everything and everyone.” Something like that and she said, “Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” And Prabhupada, when he heard this story said, “Yes. Krishna is the friend of everyone, but there must be reciprocation. That is what she is missing.” You can’t just become Krishna’s friend. I mean, you’re his friend, but you can’t become his friend without reciprocation. So Prabhupada was friends with everyone, even those who didn’t reciprocate. Just because they existed, they were his friend. But with certain people who served Krishna, he was especially friends. And there’s another one—faultless. Prabhupada had no errors in any of his behaviors—his actions, his words, anything. There was never any mistake. Even in so-called superficial mistakes, like, “Oh, I left my glasses behind,” there would always be a very good reason why that was done. And I saw a lot of years of that. [Chuckles.] In every movement that Prabhupada made, I could never find any mistake. So when you find such a person, how can you let them go? Especially when Prabhupada says that “you can become like me too.” He always held that out for us. If you do this, this, and this, you can become a self-realized soul, a pure devotee of Krishna. Otherwise, what hope is there, what hope have we got? If we are just idolizing a person who has reached that, without any hope of attaining it ourselves, then what’s the point? Prabhupada always encouraged us to come up the trail, little by little. And he always made us feel better, whenever we fell down, that whatever you have done up to date will be counted on your credit side of your ledger. It’s going to be a long time yet, boy, for me. Who knows how it happened or how many lifetimes or what he went through to achieve the birth he did in a devotee family, where he never had any sinful activity, although he does say that he had many temptations. He was from an aristocratic family and had access to all the newer things that were coming out, like movies and electricity and all the gadgetry and the intoxication that was going on. But there was something that prevented him from doing any of that. So he never had a thought that wasn’t Krishna conscious, hardly from his birth. So, how are we to wipe away so much trash that we have accumulated? Only by his mercy.

To view the entire unedited video go to Memories 27 - Shyamasundar

The full Prabhupada Memories Series can be viewed here and also at

Following Srila Prabhupada

Interview DVD 01

Shyamasundar: Prabhupada arrived at the airport a day or two before the Mantra Rock Concert. No one knew what to expect. Mukunda and Jamuna had met Prabhupada, but none of us had met Prabhupada yet. There’s my dog walking up in front of Prabhupada, and Allen Ginsberg. We were, of course, delighted and could immediately see that we had made the right choice once we saw Prabhupada. He seemed to light up the whole room. We couldn’t take our eyes off of him. And obviously if he attracted our gurus like Allen Ginsberg… Allen Ginsberg had a great influence on most of us. He was one of the leading members of what was called the Beat Generation. He and Jack Kerouac practically single-handedly changed the consciousness of millions of young Americans with their ideas that life should be lived in a very open manner with freedoms and pursuing higher things and throw off the old shackles. If Prabhupada had the stamp of approval of the Beat Generation, he was for us.

This is actually the second Rathayatra Festival in San Francisco. The first one held in 1967 was just on the back of a rented truck, a Hertz truck. This is the first actual Rathayatra in the Western world done with a cart, which Jayananda and myself built along with a couple of other devotees. We’re bending redwood struts for the canopy. The entire cart was made out of redwood that we got very cheaply from a wrecking company which was demolishing old homes in San Francisco, and we sanded every board so that it looked like new wood. You can’t find wood like this anymore. And we formed it over many weeks of effort in the parking lot next to the temple on Frederick Street. We built it purposely low to fit below the wires, and in those days they had electric trolleys still on the streets in San Francisco. In those days, the carts were one of a kind. When the parade was finished, they were dismantled in place and the wood was hauled off and disposed of. Malati and the other girls sewed the cloth covering.

Prabhupada waited for months. He pushed me so hard to finish this temple. I mean this temple was a work of art that we put our hearts into. Because we were located in the center of downtown London, we wanted a very very nice place where people could come— cosmopolitan people could come, Londoners could walk in and feel at home—not a run down storefront but a proper temple. There were only two or three of us doing the work. We spent months building this temple room out of redwood that I brought from California and wood that we bought in England. It was a massive renovation.We tore out one floor above and made it a two story high room. And we had to soundproof the entire premises because we were right in the middle of a residential district. So everything was double walled. Prabhupada was very patient. But finally after sitting in John Lennon’s place and in various apartments for month after month— he arrived I think in September— finally he gave us a deadline that we had to have the temple opening by December. We were so busy. There were so few of us and we had so many activities to perform that we didn’t plan ahead very well. We didn’t even know where we were going to get Deities but we knew Krishna would take care of it somehow. This was the kind of spirit that prevailed in those days; just work as hard as you can to spread Krishna consciousness and things will happen, the magic will happen.

The Deities appeared, just as if by magic, only days before the installation was to take place. After so much preparation, months of building this temple and no Deities. We didn’t give a thought, where are these going to come from? So Krishna had to appear. He had to. He promises. But anyway, there They are and They are still the most beautiful Deities. They’re in the Soho temple now, in downtown. The Soho temple in London still maintains the spirit of Bury Place. It’s right in the heart, just off of Oxford Street. Still attracts the same kind of young people, curious young people along with men in suits and women in nice clothes. It’s not just a hippy center. That was the purpose of being in the center of London with a nice place; it attracted a higher class of people. But Prabhupada was very anxious to get moved in. When we left John Lennon’s place, the temple quarters were still not finished, so we took a temporary apartment on Baker Street for Srila Prabhupada, just near Regents Park. That’s where he saw the so-called moon landing on television. We worked day and night at Bury Place to finish by Prabhupada’s deadline. When Prabhupada set a deadline, that was it. There was no budging. He was very lenient up until deadline time and then it had to be finished. We worked up until the last moment to build the altar. In fact the altar was not very well made because it was so hurried. Much more time was spent on the vyasasan and other features of the temple. George Harrison donated the marble for the altar so we had a very nice slab of marble that was selected by David Wynne, who was the sculptor laureate of England. No canopy was made so we had to very quickly construct a canopy. And you probably have read the story how that collapsed during the installation ceremony. Prabhupada became like Nrsimhadev, he was so angry. He held the canopy up from collapsing on the Deities. I’d gone upstairs; I’d collapsed myself— so exhausted from the work. Afterwards I found out about it, I felt very bad. I came into Prabhupada’s room to apologize for such a sloppy construction job; tears in my eyes. Prabhupada laughed and he said “Never mind, They did not want a canopy over Their heads.” He was so merciful, Prabhupada.

Interview DVD 02

Shyamasundar: These are the devotees arriving from a concert tour in Germany. A group of devotees headed by Mukunda and Tamal went over there, and it looks like they’re coming back to London for the Rathayatra. After our Hare Krishna Mantra record was released in Europe, it became very popular to the point where we had an agent who was booking us concert tours all over Europe, especially England but in other countries too. We became so famous that we would put on these concerts with thousands of people in the audience who would pay to come and chant Hare Krishna and see this famous group called Radha Krishna Temple, and they would line up for autographs after the concerts. We used to go out to George’s house in Esher, just the six of us, for kirtan with George and his wife, and sometimes his friends would come over. On one occasion, George says, “You know, we ought to make a record.” One thing led to the other, and very quickly George called us into the studio and we did his Hare Krishna Mantra record. I should also mention that Mukunda and Gurudas and I always knew that we would be doing this. So from the time we got to London, we began acquiring instruments and practicing. We were a pretty practiced group so that by the time George discovered us, we already knew how to do this stuff pretty well. Jamuna with her voice and Mukunda, he was the lead musician, he had everything orchestrated. He played the harmonium, the drums, whatever was required. I acquired an esraj, which is an Indian instrument, a bowed instrument that sits in the lap, and you get that eerie violin-type sound. So we were already a group before we met George. We knew that when he met George that we must have some kind of a musical relationship. So we were already pretty well polished. So when we went into the recording studio to do this record, we did it in about an hour. The record was in the can in an hour. Paul McCartney was there, and he did a lot of the mixing in the control booth. This was an exceptionally ecstatic Rathayatra. This is the first real formal Rathayatra we had in London. We had one in 1969 where I built a cart. There were only the six original devotees plus a few English devotees. The cart collapsed a hundred feet after it got started at Marble Arch, caused one of the largest traffic jams in London history, and there was no one around to record that. This is really the first major Rathayatra in England, 1970, and there were so many devotees there. From all over Europe they came and from America even. One of the most ecstatic Rathayatras in London ever.

Shyamasundara das: I remember he sent us several letters guiding us on Rathayatra, saying things like “I wish that I was there.” We knew we couldn’t expect him to be there, but he was with us. Don’t forget, this was the height of Krishna awareness in London. Everyone knew us. We were famous. The flashing billboards in the center of London, Leicester Square, everyone knew about the temple. We were part of the broad band culture of London at that time, 1970. George Harrison was our friend. John Lennon was our friend. All the famous people of England were aware of us. We were appearing in concerts. We were on the street every day, Oxford Street, and you can see by this time many people were curious to see, “What is this Hare Krishna phenomenon?” And more and more Indian people had joined us. At first they were very leery of what we were doing and they stayed away, they shied away. We had several core Indian families who were very, very helpful and very solid. Gradually the majority of Indian people in London began to understand that this was the real thing, that this was Vaisnavism. Nicely dressed gentleman. Prabhupada always used to say that only two places in the world a gentleman can live – India and England. He liked the higher level of culture in England. The bobbies everywhere. They were helping. They were helping move the deities. Afterwards they all said, the bobbies all said that was one of the most delightful public displays they’ve ever seen. Everyone was perfectly mannered. They got a little taste of the ecstasy themselves. All of the devotees were so enlivened in England in those days. It was such an ecstatic experience all the time. Things were humming. They had a play, “Civil Disobedience.” Not a great theme. We were children. We didn’t know much about tact and diplomacy, politics. We did this for Prabhupada because we knew he would be happy.

The next day all the newspapers in London, all the front pages were filled with descriptions of the 1970 Rathayatra. They had never seen anything like this in London before. Normally when this many people would gather in public for a parade, it would be some protest march. This was a celebration. We sent clippings from the newspapers that covered this Rathayatra to Prabhupada, and he showed them to everyone. He said, “You see, my devotees have conquered London.”

This was the first international GBC meeting where all the devotees Prabhupada had chosen to the Governing Body Commission met together for the first time to begin sharing some of the load of management that Prabhupada had carried alone through the entire movement up to that time. There was some controversy going on in ISKCON at that time. He was testing our abilities to manage the movement.

One time they were having a yogi sangha or samelans where many yogis come from all over India to speak, a venue on Chowpatty Beach in Bombay. Many different swamis and yogis were sitting up on this stage and each day several of them or one of them would speak, and they invited Prabhupada and us to come down there. At first they didn’t like the idea that Prabhupada would have us up there on the stage with him. But he told them that “These Western Vaisnavas are every bit as spiritually advanced as the other yogis and swamis here, I want them up with me,” and they agreed. Prabhupada was introducing us to India as the real authentic thing, that we were swamis and yogis in our own right. He was very proud of us. At the same time he was showing us his country, he was also showing his countrymen what he had done in the West. Huge crowds came down and all very intelligent high-class families came down to hear the yogis speak, and here was Prabhupada stealing the show. No one could put on a show like we could. Nobody even came near.

The biggest splash we made, of course, was the Cross Maidan festival in March of ’71. We brought Western-style advertising techniques to India for the first time and made huge advertising efforts with balloons, and I remember we had one skyscraper seven-story building with Hare Krishna written down the side in giant letters. We selected the grounds right in the center of Bombay called Cross Maidan where daily tens of thousands of people walked, and the whole idea was to introduce Hare Krishna Movement to India. Daily fifty to a hundred thousand people would attend morning and evening lectures, but all day long the pandal was kept open for people to walk around and ask devotees questions. There was a question and answer booth, the different displays of Krishna consciousness around the world. People began to get the idea that this was a global movement started by one of their own.


Interview DVD 03

Shyamasundar: Prabhupada took us to Vrindavan, and this was the ultimate experience for us – Prabhupada coming back to his spiritual home with so many sons and daughters. This was the high point of our India experience with Srila Prabhupada, entering the magic spiritual realm of Krishna itself. Everything he had been teaching us for years came into focus. We could see now, “Oh, this is Vrindavan.” Such intimate sweet exchanges we had.

Look, he’s so healthy and exuberant. He’s back home. This is where he hatched out the whole Hare Krishna Movement. This is where Krishna empowered him to come West. And little Saraswati, she was one of his favorites. She followed him wherever he went. Sometimes he would grab her hand and walk with her. If Saraswati didn’t come to his room every morning around eight o’clock, he would sometimes ask, “And where is Saraswati?” He expected to see her every morning. And quite often he would play some trick on her when she came, either to make her laugh or cry. But he would always make up and give her some nice sweet. Here he is showing us the sights, showing us around the samadhis of great Vaisnavas behind Radha-Damodara temple, explaining a little bit about who is buried where. In those days, it was all run down and practically abandoned. Well, most of Vrindavan was practically run down and abandoned. We used to think that Raman Reti was far out of town. Prabhupada revived the whole spiritual life of India starting with Vrindavan, a now flourishing spiritualized city because of Prabhupada. Of course, Rupa Goswami’s samadhi there, Prabhupada’s favorite place. He used to say that Rupa Goswami inspired him to go to the West and spread Krishna consciousness because he would sit in his room and gaze out on his samadhi year after year and chant and read, translate.

He’s sitting there watching us take bath, and pretty soon he wants to go in with us. “What can I do? My devotees want me.” “Come on, Prabhupada, come on in!” Here we are saying our Gayatris on sacred threads standing in the Jamuna River. There he comes. Ah, Prabhupada.

He was constantly concerned with everyone’s health and well-being, and everyone had a task. Prabhupada would assign the different duties and jobs and tasks for each of us, and we would all report to him every day what we had accomplished. He would give us guidance for the next day’s tasks. We had to become Vaisnavas finally in manner and in dress. So Prabhupada taught us all the ropes, all the different ways a Vaisnava should act in India, by example. We got to follow him around and watch him every moment, and we just began to emulate what Prabhupada did.

This was one of the most intimate and relaxing highlights, Prabhupada’s stay in Jaipur in the palace grounds as a guest of the queen, Gayatri-devi. But she was so thankful to have Prabhupada there. The devotees coming in and out of the Govindaji’s temple would parade by Prabhupada’s bungalow throughout the day, and there were so many wonderful devotees in Jaipur. Every one of Prabhupada’s lectures, morning and night, were packed with thousands of people, devotees of the Govindaji temple there. He was appreciated in Jaipur in a way that he had not been appreciated in other cities in India. Almost every citizen came to these speaking engagements. They were already full-fledged Vaisnava devotees. He was very happy in Jaipur.

One of Srila Prabhupada’s most enduring projects was the Juhu land and Juhu development in what was then a remote suburb of Bombay. It was open marshland and swamps and coconut groves, very few people there in those days. So it was difficult for some of the devotees to understand why Prabhupada wanted this land so much. Most devotees are familiar with all of the squabbles that went on for this land over such a long period, many years, and the fights, litigation that was waged over this land. But Prabhupada was so insistent that we acquire this land, and he was ultimately triumphant.

Before even having the title to the land, he had a cornerstone-laying ceremony. Prabhupada was the expert in everything, he was the supreme strategist, and he said that “If we install Deities on the property, no one will take Them down. This is not done in India,” that this would give us further right to the land. So he conducted this cornerstone ceremony. Later when the police did try to close down the Deities, there was a public outcry which forced the situation towards Prabhupada’s favor. But it was another year-and-a-half from this cornerstone-laying ceremony before Prabhupada actually acquired the deed to the land. But this was another maneuver Srila Prabhupada thought was important – to establish our right to the land by installing Deities and having a very elaborate cornerstone-laying ceremony. Prabhupada was teaching us all the time how to do business, how to manage our affairs. We were so innocent, we had no knowledge or experience in these kind of affairs – buying land, getting titles, and what to speak of in India where things are 10 times more difficult than the West.

Due to Chitsukananda’s fervent devotion, he was able to get this beautiful temple in Mexico City across from Chapultepec Park and fill it with wonderful, angelic Mexican devotees. Prabhupada was very inspired and impressed by the Mexico City yatra. When he was there in Mexico, he talked a lot about the relationship between Catholicism and Krishna consciousness, that at heart there is no difference. He was struck, though, how the agony of Christ went against the grain of Vaisnavism. I remember one time in Mexico there Prabhupada was resting in a room at a life member’s home or something and on the wall was a crucifix, Jesus in agony on the cross. I had closed the door so Prabhupada could rest, and about a half an hour later I heard his bell ring and I opened the door. He was sitting on the end of his bed looking at this crucifix on the wall, and there were tears streaming down his eyes and he said, “Just see, they have killed their spiritual master so that they can continue sinning. Please remove this from the room.” And he had me take it out of the room.

We needed space to expand and, of course, asking George Harrison to give us a place was the logical course. But we had a policy never to ask George for anything. So during the spring and summer of 1970, I was living at George’s new 38-acre estate in Oxfordshire, Friar Park, and I would often mention how crowded we were at Bury Place. And he would say, “Well, maybe I can do something about that.” But it was only when Srila Prabhupada himself came out to Friar Park one day and we were walking around these huge grounds and George said to Srila Prabhupada that he thought that a place like this, and he waved his arms around, was needed for us.

Just to note the triumphal look on Prabhupada’s face and his whole manner, look at that regal bearing. He’s been to his Rathayatra in London, he’s the king. We did everything in our power to make the situation around him that he would appear as a king.

We’re seeing the public faces of Prabhupada in these videos, but the private moments with Prabhupada in his rooms were, of course, the most attractive to the devotees. Those were not captured in film so much. But the end of the day or early in the morning sitting in Prabhupada’s room while he discussed the daily activities or giving our reports at the end of the day of what we had accomplished during the day, these were the most delightful moments with Prabhupada, the most intimate and surprising moments. Prabhupada never for a moment was predictable in any way. Everything he did and said was a complete surprise. In all the years that I used to open the door to his room and go in, I never ever lost that feeling of slight anxiety when I opened the door that I couldn’t predict what was going to happen. I knew it would be wonderful and it would be a total surprise, but you could never tell what the spiritual master was going to do or say. Goodbye, Prabhupada.


Interview DVD 04

Shyamasundar: I picked Prabhupada up at Heathrow Airport in a helicopter and flew him in to the front lawn. He landed in a helicopter. The entire trip from the airport it was storming, and this little helicopter—I think it was two passengers, just Prabhupada and I—it was moving really abruptly. I was getting sick. It was like being in the inside of a basketball or something, rotating. I looked over at Prabhupada thinking, “Oh, my God, he must be getting ill,” and he was just as calm as could be, just enjoying the ride. We were just skimming over the treetops at a very high speed, and we landed there on the lawn. Prabhupada used to say to people, “I have arrived in a helicopter.”

So when he arrived, we were very worried that he wasn’t feeling well. Here we are pulling up to the beginning of the parade. I’m driving the car and Prabhupada is getting out. I continued in this car through the whole parade following the cart in case Prabhupada needed to be taken to rest somewhere. Here he is arrived from Calcutta overnight on the plane, he hasn’t rested at all. So we figured either he can sit on the cart for a while and then get off and we’ll put him in the car and take him somewhere to rest, but he surprised us all and never even got up on the cart to sit. He danced and walked the entire distance for hours on a hot July day in London, muggy day. Then at the end he sat up on the lions at Trafalgar Square and talked and preached strongly. What an effort. Our efforts pale by comparison.

There he is in Trafalgar Square, the center of the British Empire, thousands and thousands of people. This was Prabhupada’s triumphant moment, looking out at thousands of people chanting Hare Krishna in Trafalgar Square.