Before I joined Prabhupada’s movement, I had flown to Bombay on a cheap flight to do my architectural research. With a Super 8mm film camera and an audio recorder in hand, I started walking around Bombay studying the various buildings, including temples. However, I could not find any Krishna temple. I saw Deities: Vishnu Deities, Shiva Deities, Durga Deities and a lot of Ganesha. I could not find Krishna, but I was not just looking for Krishna. I wanted a temple where Radha was also involved. I wanted to see a Radha and Krishna temple because that was the name of Prabhupada’s band, Radha-Krishna Temple that had been made popular by George Harrison and the devotees. After about a week and staying in cheap hotels, I went to Nariman Point. It’s the rich area of Bombay and there were even fewer temples there. The temples got smaller and some of them were in trees. And then somebody said, “Oh, there is a Krishna temple.” I asked, “It’s a Radha-Krishna temple?” He said, “Yeah, Radha-Krishna temple, Radha-Krishna temple.” He pointed out where it was and it turned out to be a skyscraper. I took the elevator and I found the Radha-Krishna temple. But it was the Hare Krishna temple that I had seen before in the Netherlands. Malati was there and she asked me to sit down, thanked me for coming, and gave me a glass of water. She said, “You know, please feel free to see the Deities. You have to see how beautiful They are.” Then she said, “The devotees will come soon.” She probably thought I was looking for a particular devotee. After a couple of hours, the devotees finally came in. Nara-Narayana opened the door, “Haribol! Haribol!” Then I met Shyamasundar and they wanted me to come with them to Juhu. He said, “Our Guru Maharaj is there and he’s going to speak at a pandal.” I didn’t know what a pandal was, but I knew the guru was a very powerful person because he promoted Krishna consciousness so quickly and changed the idea about India by just having the Hare Krishna mantra become popular even on the pop charts. I was amazed that I was going to see Srila Prabhupada, who at that time was known as Swamiji. We took taxis to Juhu where the pandal was already set up. Shyamasundar asked me to record the lecture because he had forgotten his tape recorder. Shyamasundar said, “Just sit down next to Prabhupada.” I still had long hair, so when Prabhupada looked over to the left, I was sure he was wondering, “Who is that there?” It was a little difficult to understand the lecture due to my inability to understand his accent, but over the next few days, he did speak to me personally when he said, “We are getting up early in the morning, but you don’t have to.” I said, “Okay,” but Brahmananda had a different idea for me. He saw I was a guest, but he said, “Okay, but you can go to mangala-arati anyway.” [chuckles] After mangala-arati Brahmananda came back to me and said, “Seven o’clock this barber opens up here, and you can shave your head and leave a sikha there. And here’s a rupee.” I sarcastically replied, “Oh, yeah, thank you.” [laughs] After I shaved up, Brahmananda was waiting for me. He said, “Okay, now go with Shyamasundar because Prabhupada wants to see you.” I was getting nervous. In no time Shyamasundar put me in the room with Prabhupada who was either recording or writing something. He looked up and seeing me with a shaved head said, “Oh, now you are very beautiful.” He said, “Sit down, please.” Then he smiled and he just looked at me. I was very humble, so I simply looked down. I was afraid to look at him and then he spoke. He said, “What is the purpose of decorating dead bodies?” I looked up at his eyes and said, “No purpose.” He said, “Exactly.” He said, “Krishna has sent you here to design this temple.” I took it as an instruction that I could handle. I could deal with that because I was a designer. Then Prabhupada said, “Tomorrow we have a very important day. It is the day when we are going to lay the foundation stone for the temple. And you will get initiated.” I said, “Thank you very much.” “And Shyamasundar, he is going to give you some papers, some pens and some pictures, and you can start right now.” Prabhupada engaged me immediately in Krishna’s service according to my desire and ability. Everything made sense, as it was the practical application of Prabhupada’s philosophy. He had planned my engagement. There was paper ready for me. There were photos that he had collected for me to look at to study how he wanted the temple to be. He gave me full direction, full support, and I had to sit outside his room on the veranda next to the secretary. And regularly he would come out and see my work. He would look over my shoulder and I could see he was nodding his head in approval. At the initiation I was nervous like anything. I was totally unaware of what was going on. Because I was quiet, nobody noticed, but I was lost. I was getting first initiation along with Banu, a Japanese devotee who received Brahman initiation. After the fire sacrifice, Prabhupada chanted on my beads, handed them to me, and then gave me my name. He said, “Your name is Zorro, Zorro.” The accent was very strong and I tried to relate to it because I thought that it would be a Krishna type name. Everybody wanted a name that had substance to it or a ring to it so everyone would like you. [laughs] But for me, I was to be Zorro. I didn’t have the courage to ask him again what he was saying. I assumed it was Zorro just like I saw on the television show of the same name, with that sword on the opening title sequence making a Z for Zorro. Afterwards devotees would come up to me and ask, “What’s your name. What’s your name?” I said, “Zorro.” “Zorro?” I said, “Yeah, he said Zorro.” They said, “It cannot be Zorro. No way.” Then Shyamasundar came over and said, “What’s the problem?” I said, “Prabhupada gave me the name Zorro.” He said, “That cannot be. Just wait and I’ll ask Prabhupada.” Later on, he went to Prabhupada, and then he came back and said, “He wrote it down and he said your name is ‘Saurabh.’ I said, “What does it mean?” “I don’t know.” It was over half a year and I still had no idea what it meant. I asked people, “What does ‘Saurabh’ mean?” Nobody could tell me. Apparently later on there were two or three explanations I got. One was it’s a Bengali word for nice fragrance. I was thinking, “I’m not a flower.” [laughs] Another interpretation was that it was a great poet. He was a very important sadhu in those days, but he was not in the Vaishnava line but more towards the Persian, Middle Eastern style of thinking. I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” I just accepted that and thought, “Well, I definitely have a different name.” I could see that Prabhupada could be in a little bit of a new realm with me, as he could see that I was not too religious in nature and that name wasn’t very spiritual in its meaning. But I lived with it and actually it sounded quite okay. So, I was Saurabh. Later when Prabhupada was already very ill, I received the sannyasa order. And then my name totally changed to Surabhirabhipalayantam das Swami. It was a long name, and it was a good name for me because it was so different from Saurabh, and I felt like I was part of this spiritual movement since I had a more spiritual sounding name.
I got a message from a devotee that Prabhupada wanted me to go immediately to Hyderabad. Land had been donated and he wanted me to go there to design the temple. I took the train to Hyderabad and there was a big pandal program. Prabhupada was sitting there with all these very rich, well-to-do, high-class Indian people. Prabhupada called me over and he introduced me to everyone. He said, “This is our architect.” Everybody offered pranams. “He is going to design the temple here.” In this way Srila Prabhupada described his educated disciples to the Indian community so they would respect the movement as well as the individual disciple. He would often explain how we were coming to India to help propagate their culture that they had forgotten. We were learning how to respect the Indian culture and they learned how to respect the West. He would explain to the Indian community in this way: “This boy’s father is a very famous lawyer in New York and his son has studied at the University. He has all the degrees and now he has become my disciple. He is very intelligent. And all these persons are very intelligent people. They are looking for Krishna. And they have come to India to learn about Krishna.”
When Prabhupada came to Vrindavan on one of his trips, I came to his room to report what was going on. Prabhupada was concerned about the lack of progress on the temple construction and asked, “Why is it so slow? I thought that we were building. There’s money. Why is it not built? We had money before?” “Yes, Prabhupada, we bought the steel, we ordered the cement, and we have the sand. We got truckloads of sand. But we don’t have enough money to buy the bricks.” He said, “You buy this, you buy this and buy this, but you don’t buy bricks?” I said, “Well, it’s because we have to buy the minimum. We have to buy so much steel, and if we only buy one truck, then we will run out very soon, so we have to order three or four trucks together. But then there is no more money to buy the bricks.” He said, “Then do hundi.” “Hundi?” “Yes, hundi. It’s a very old system here in India. You can do hundi.” I said, “How do I do that Srila Prabhupada?” He said, “Well, you go to the supplier and you say ‘Please can you give me hundi,’ and then you tell him what you want.” “Oh, so I say hundi and then I tell him what I want and then I get it?” I added, “But they may not believe me. They may think I am going to steal from them.” He said, “No, you say, ‘Swamiji said give hundi.’” “Just like that Srila Prabhupada?” “Yes.” We went to Ganga Prasad and we just followed Prabhupada’s instruction. I said, “Gangaji, we would like to have hundi from you.” He said, “Hundi?” I said, “Yes.” “You’re sure hundi?” I said, “Yes.” [laughs] I said, “Swamiji said.” “Ah, Swamiji said hundi?” He smiled and said, “Okay, okay what do you need?” “Four trucks please. [laughs] Best quality please and best price.” He said, “I’ll give you best quality. I’ll give you the quantity you want, but the best price you have to leave up to me. I will deal with Swamiji about that.” I said, “Okay.” The next day we had four trucks of bricks and the work started. Then when the money came in, we of course paid off the brick debts that we were paying with hundi. [laughs]
I realized that there was a competition going on between Vrindavan and Mayapur regarding which temple was going to get money in order to build their temple faster. Gargamuni took a train from Mayapur and I took a train from Vrindavan to where Prabhupada was in Bombay so we could make our financial pitches to obtain a loan. During my trip I made a detailed list of the reasons why I needed the money and how it would be used. Once Gargamuni and I arrived in Bombay, Prabhupada had us wait in the lobby. After about ten or fifteen minutes, I was the first to be called in to see Prabhupada. As I got up, Gargamuni asked me, “How much? How much? How much are you asking for?” I said, “I’m not going to tell you.” I went in the room and I sat down in front of Prabhupada’s desk. He asked, “So you need money?” I said, “Yes, Srila Prabhupada.” “Again, you need money? It is not enough?” “Almost, Srila Prabhupada, but it is not yet enough.” “But is it nice?” “I think it is becoming very nice, Srila Prabhupada.” “So, what do you need the money for?” I pulled out my list and said, “Well, this and this and this and this and this and this.” “So how much is the total?” I said, “Well, it’s close to two lakh, Srila Prabhupada.” “Two lakh?” “Yes, two lakh.” He said, “Okay.” I was out in five minutes. I came out of the room and I said, “I got it!” Gargamuni asked, “How much? How much?” I said, “I’m not going to tell you.” [laughs] And then Gargamuni went in, but he wasn’t prepared. He hadn’t itemized his costs, so he got nothing or he got something but very little. I remember that competition going on. A draft was prepared for the money to be sent to the Punjabi bank in Vrindavan. When Prabhupada handed me the draft to take to the bank, I grabbed it from Prabhupada’s hand, and as I was pulling on it, he didn’t let go. It was really strange, so I thought, “Maybe it’s stuck on his fingers.” So, I pulled a little more. He kept it in his hand, so I took my hand back. I thought, “Oh, my God, he’s probably going to change his mind. [laughs] Maybe I was too proud to Gargamuni and Krishna is going to punish me, [laughs] and Prabhupada found out I made fun of him.” Then he said to Gunarnava, who was sitting next to me, “How much does it cost if you go from Raman Reti on the rickshaw to the Punjabi bank and back?” Gunarnava said, “About five rupees, Srila Prabhupada.” Prabhupada said, “Five rupees. Okay, I’m going to mail it because that only costs three rupees.” So, he mailed the draft to the Punjabi bank to save two rupees. [laughs] That was Prabhupada. He gives you two hundred thousand, but because it costs two rupees more to carry it, he mailed it.
In India if you buy something and you pay too much, the rumors go out that you got cheated. Once you are a victim of being cheated, then everybody will come to you to take further advantage. So Prabhupada would get these stories coming in that, “Srila Prabhupada, I think Surabhi got cheated again.” This was my fear. All the time I had to hear that. Some devotees were saying, “I think Saurabh is getting cheated. He spent too much for this. He’s paying too much for that.” Prabhupada got these reports and that was not only in Vrindavan but also in Bombay. Prabhupada, however, never ever asked me any question about whether I was involved in anything. Sometimes I would get the criticism, “You don’t come to mangala-arati and this and that.” Prabhupada would reply to them, “Are you going to build the temple? Let him do. Let him do. Let him do.” He would also say, “Well, it is very difficult to do what he is doing. You have to sacrifice somewhere.” I wanted to chant japa perfectly. I wanted do my sixteen rounds, but maybe my mind was not all the time on my chanting. And that was for sure. Sometimes I would say, “Hare Krzzna Hare Krzzna Krzzzna Hra hre....” [laughs] And then I would work at nights. We had twenty-four-hour shifts, so I had to be out there working until three o’clock in the morning. And then how could I go to mangala-arati? So that’s when I went to bed and then I woke up at nine o’clock. I was in deep maya. But that was accepted. I didn’t want to be like that. But I got protection there because Prabhupada wanted everything to go as quickly as possible. Prabhupada would compensate for my spiritual shortcomings and take that on himself. He protected me. That speaks to his compassion and potency.
In the five-and-a-half years that I had association with Srila Prabhupada, I learned how Krishna consciousness was always practical. I had a very short period to learn Krishna consciousness and I also had to design and make temples. Because I was not religious by nature, Prabhupada made things very simple for me to understand. It was just common sense that you keep doing what you like to do, but do it for Krishna. What intrigued me was that Prabhupada was able, in a very short period of time, to see me and to know how to utilize me. I felt that by him being there I could feel Krishna. I would never even attempt to think that I possessed any quality that could get the mercy of Krishna. I would always go back to my guru, that is, Prabhupada. I wouldn’t allow myself to think any further than that. I would think, “This is a job and it’s got to be done. I’m going to sit here and work with the contractors. I’m going to count bricks. I’ve got to make sure that the money will not be misspent. I have to be careful not to get cheated.” This common-sense approach to everything kept me going during those entire five-and-a-half years. There was one time when I asked Prabhupada a question about architecture. I can’t remember what it was, but he said, “Why you ask me? You’re the architect.” He said, “Use your common sense. You will know. You will find out.” That was giving me the freedom I needed so that even at the point when I thought I needed direction, Prabhupada would still allow me to do it myself.