I’d been reading Buddhist books that said, “You cannot say it is, you cannot say it is not, you cannot say it both is and is not, you cannot say it neither is nor is not.” So, when Srila Prabhupada said, “The Supreme Absolute Truth is a person,” I thought that was the most intelligent thing I’d heard in my whole life. It made so much sense that I knew that I had found the person I was looking for. But before I joined I still had a doubt. I thought, “I can see the Swami is honest, he’s not looking for money, but how do I know he has real knowledge? He could be misled.” I didn’t say anything to Prabhupada, but in his next lecture he said, “I teach only what is in scripture.” Then I thought, “If he teaches only what is in scripture, there’s no danger,” and I started going regularly to the temple.
Prabhupada talked so much about impersonalists and Buddhists that Hayagriva and I began to think, “The Swami is not liberal enough,” and for a short time we stopped attending his lectures. We were sitting around Mott Street talking about this when Kirtanananda came in and said, “I’ve decided to leave the Swami. I don’t like what’s going on.” I said, “We’ve been talking about that too.” Kirtanananda said, “You fools! Do you think I could leave the Swami?” He had tricked us and he insisted that we talk with Prabhupada. When we saw him, Prabhupada said, “If you have some doubts we can discuss them.” I said, “We don’t like what you’re saying about the Buddhists and Sri Ramakrishna.” Prabhupada said, “Okay, I will explain. I have never criticized Lord Buddha. In fact, I have always called him ‘Lord Buddha’. But his followers eat meat, they don’t believe in God and they don’t believe in the soul. They are atheists. The Buddhist scriptures do not talk about God or the soul. As for Ramakrishna, I have always said and I will always say that he was nothing but a crazy priest. Ramakrishna said that you could worship Kali or worship Krishna and it’s the same, but Krishna says, ‘If you worship the demigods you go to the demigods, and if you worship Me you come to Me.’ Ramakrishna has contradicted Krishna. It’s as if he’s saying that by buying a plane ticket to Chicago you will get to Los Angeles.” I said, “What about all the wonderful things in his books?” Prabhupada said, “His disciples took them from the Vedas, put them in his books and said that he said them. Besides that, Ramakrishna’s followers eat meat. They go to the doctor and get a letter saying they’ll die if they don’t eat meat. All the sadhus in India know this.” Prabhupada told me about a gathering of holy people in India where some sadhus saw a dead fish floating on the water. They laughed and said, ‘Quick, call the Ramakrishna Mission!’” Prabhupada also said that when Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s principal disciple, met Ramakrishna, Ramakrishna touched him on the forehead and Vivekananda felt electric shocks. Prabhupada laughed and said, “You have read about the Universal Form, where does it say anything about electric shocks?” After that Vivekananda fainted and when he woke up, Ramakrishna was crying. Vivekananda said, “Why are you crying?” Ramakrishna said, “I have given you all my power, I have none left.” Prabhupada said, “Is spiritual knowledge like money, that if I give it to you I have none left?” That was the clincher.
One night a guest asked Prabhupada, “What about LSD? It gives you spiritual visions.” That guest was trying to trap Prabhupada because if Prabhupada said, “I never took it,” the guest could say, “How do you know then?” And if Prabhupada said, “I tried it and it doesn’t work,” he could say, “You say no intoxication but you took an intoxicant.” How would Srila Prabhupada answer? Prabhupada said, “I have never taken these things, but all my disciples have given them up.” That took care of that.
Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is hadn’t been published yet, so Prabhupada read from the Bhagavad-gita by Dr. Radha-Krishnan, who was the former president of India. Prabhupada said that Dr. Radha-Krishnan was an impersonalist but we didn’t know what that meant until one morning when Prabhupada said, “Today I will show you that Dr. Radha-Krishnan is an impersonalist,” and he had Roy read Chapter Nine, Verse 34, “Always think of Me, become My devotee.” Prabhupada said, “Now read the commentary.” Roy read, “When Krishna says ‘unto Me,’ it is not Krishna to whom we should surrender but to the unborn eternal within Krishna.” Prabhupada said, “You see, that proves that he’s an impersonalist.” Nobody understood. What Dr. Radha-Krishnan had written sounded okay to everybody except Srila Prabhupada. Kirtanananda said, “Dr. Radha-Krishnan is right,” and gave a long speech about the unborn eternal within Krishna. Prabhupada started to turn red while Kirtanananda talked. I thought, “For the first time I understand what it means to say somebody ‘turned red.’” I had never seen anybody turn so red. As Kirtanananda spoke, Prabhupada got redder and redder. When Kirtanananda stopped, Prabhupada said, “Are you finished?” Kirtanananda said, “No,” and continued speaking. When he finally stopped again, Prabhupada said, “Are you finished?” He said, “Yes.” Prabhupada stood up, slammed his hand down and said, “It’s Krishna! It’s Krishna! There is no difference between Krishna’s mind and Krishna. Krishna is not an ordinary human being. He is Absolute Truth. His body, His mind and He Himself are one and absolute. There is no difference between Krishna Himself and His body.” I had never seen anything so magnificent. Prabhupada was like a roaring lion. I could almost feel the room shake. Then we understood impersonalism. Srila Prabhupada saved us on that day.
Some of the guys were already bowing down to Srila Prabhupada but I wasn’t. Hayagriva said to me, “I don’t like this bowing.” I said, “Me neither.” It was too foreign. There was also some talk about an initiation and Roy came up to me and said, “Wally, do you want to get initiated?” I said, “I don’t know if I’m ready.” He said, “None of us are, but we’re going to do it anyway.” I said, “Okay, me too.” Roy put my name down on the list and we asked Prabhupada, “What is initiation?” Prabhupada said, “I’ll tell you later.” After the morning class the day before the initiation, Prabhupada said, “Now I will tell you what initiation means. Initiation means that the spiritual master accepts the disciple and agrees to take charge of his welfare, and the disciple accepts the spiritual master and agrees to worship him as God,” and he got up and walked out of the room. We sat there looking at each other. I thought, “We wouldn’t be this stunned if a hydrogen bomb had gone off in this room.” To worship Prabhupada as God was inconceivable, especially after what Prabhupada had said about people who want to be God. Prabhupada had Janaki, Mukunda’s wife, string the beads because, as Prabhupada said, “Women have the patience to do this kind of work and they are good at it.” After we all had our japa beads then we had our neck beads tied on. I said, “How do you get these off?” And somebody said, “You don’t.” Prabhupada picked up our japa beads one by one and asked, “Whose are these?” When he picked up my beads, I said, “Those are mine.” Prabhupada motioned for me to come to him and bow down. I couldn’t avoid it anymore so I bowed down. Then I repeated what Prabhupada said, he gave me my beads and he said my name was Umapati. I thought Umapati was a name for Vishnu meaning the husband of the Goddess of Fortune, but that’s not what Prabhupada said. Umapati is actually a name for Lord Shiva. I returned to my seat and I told Hayagriva, who was sitting next to me, “Getting your beads is great,” because he hadn’t gotten his yet. Prabhupada had all of us touch our beads to the feet of Lord Chaitanya on the Panca Tattva picture, and then he started the sacrificial fire. As he poured ghee on the fire the room filled with smoke, and smoke began to pour out the windows. I thought that any second the Fire Department would come and the firemen wouldn’t believe what was going on there. Later, I found out that everybody else in the room had the same thoughts. Finally we all went home and left Prabhupada to clean up. Nobody thought about cleaning up after the ceremony.
One morning Prabhupada said, “All of you should chant 64 rounds a day.” We said, “What! Sixty-four rounds a day! No, we can’t!” Prabhupada said, “All right, 32 rounds.” We said, “Thirty-two rounds, no!” Prabhupada said, “All right, 16 rounds, no less.” That’s how we started chanting 16 rounds a day. Another time Prabhupada smashed me. Sometimes I typed for Prabhupada and if there were some English mistakes I would correct them. I was typing a letter to someone in India that said, “Sri Sri Radha-Krishna.” I’d heard of “Sri,” but I’d never heard of “Sri Sri.” Not only that, but one “Sri” was at the end of a line and the next “Sri” was at the beginning of the next line, which is a common typing mistake. I went into Prabhupada’s room and I said, “Sri Sri?” and Prabhupada said, “Yes.” I said, “I thought it was a mistake.” Prabhupada said, “When I type in your language, you can correct me. But when I type in my language, you cannot correct me.” Then somebody walked in and Prabhupada said, “I told him that when I type in his language he can correct me, but now he wants to correct me when I type in my language.”
Prabhupada had a Roberts tape recorder, which at that time was the best amateur tape recorder. I wasn’t so familiar with the Roberts but because I had a background in professional music recording, I had experience fixing multi-thousand dollar professional recorders. And I was a little proud because I knew some big recording stars. When Prabhupada said, “My tape recorder is broken.” I said, “Maybe I can fix it.” I looked at it and said, “What does this button do?” Prabhupada said, “You cannot fix it. If you have to ask me what that button does, how can you fix it?” Somebody walked in the room and Prabhupada said, “He wants to fix my tape recorder, but he has to ask me what a button does. He cannot fix it.” I was burning with humiliation.
After I was initiated I blooped. I was the second bloop in the movement. My distinction is that I was one of the first people to cause Prabhupada great pain and suffering. But the devotees would have to get me because Prabhupada’s electronic equipment was always breaking down, and I was the only one who knew how to fix it. Once when they had come for me, Kirtanananda and I were talking when Prabhupada came into the room, walked up to me and said, “Even if you don’t want to be one of us, you must associate with us. You cannot get away from us.” Prabhupada was always very concerned. There was a seemingly ordinary boy, David Allen, from the Lower East Side who started coming. I didn’t know him but Prabhupada and some of the boys who had been with Prabhupada longer knew him. Once I heard Prabhupada eagerly talking to someone about that boy, saying, “He’s making advancement, don’t you think?” Later, I learned that this boy was formerly Prabhupada’s roommate—the person who had gone crazy on drugs and forced Prabhupada onto the street. But Prabhupada’s only thought was, “Don’t you think he’s making advancement?” That’s all Prabhupada cared about.
At that time Timothy Leary, the big LSD king, was popular among the hippies. One day a few of us were sitting around the prasadam room talking when a young man came in and gave us all the latest hippie gossip. He said, “They had the wildest party in Leary’s place in Millbrook, New York.” Immediately I wanted to hear about this wild party. Just then Prabhupada looked through the window and said, “Umapati, you are not sitting properly,” because I had my back to the altar. I had to turn around and face the altar, and I couldn’t hear anything this fellow said. The whole thing was blocked.
Hayagriva and I were looking at the dust cover of the Srimad-Bhagavatam that Prabhupada had brought from India. It’s a painting of the material and spiritual world with a big lotus and many bubbles. There was one bubble we both liked. We said, “This is nice!” “Wow! Far out!” “That’s where I want to go.” “That really looks great.” Hayagriva was on his way to the temple and I had something else to do so I said, “Ask the Swami what that bubble is.” That afternoon I said, “Did you ask the Swami what that bubble is?” Hayagriva said, “Yeah, he said it’s the material world.”
One gray, cloudy day I was in Prabhupada’s room typing and Prabhupada was busy doing something when suddenly the sun came out and filled the room with light. Prabhupada said, “When the spiritual sun comes out, it is like that.”
When Prabhupada yelled at you, your life air would practically leave your body. In Vrindavan in the winter of 1976, I dressed the small Radha-Krishna Deities in the morning and then prepared Srila Prabhupada’s vyasasana for gurupuja. Although so many devotees were there, nobody told me that I shouldn’t be bare-chested. I thought that was how you were supposed to dress. One day, I was about to do the arati when Prabhupada said to me, “You should have something around your shoulders.” Somebody gave me a chadar to wear and I thought, “I’m supposed to wear something because I’m doing the arati.” The next day I wasn’t going to do the arati, so I didn’t bother putting anything on. When Prabhupada came in he said, “I told you to always have a wrapper! You should listen and learn!” When Prabhupada said something like that, your life air would almost leave your body. It took me days to get my composure back. But still I see this as his being mild and compassionate.
Today, in the entranceway to Prabhupada’s quarters in Vrindavan, there’s a store but that used to be a vestibule where Prabhupada’s secretary, Harikesh Maharaj, would sit and type. Once I was talking to him there when Palika came. Harikesh told her, “Palika, tell me everything that’s going on in Vrindavan.” She told him everything that shouldn’t be going on and left. Then Harikesh peeked through the door to Prabhupada’s quarters and saw Prabhupada walking away. He said, “Oh, no, Prabhupada heard everything.” The next day in his class Prabhupada said, “If you have illicit sex in Vrindavan, you will take birth as a Vrindavan monkey. That is Krishna’s mercy because you have taken shelter of Vrindavan. But stop this monkey business.”
In Vrindavan Prabhupada complained, “You are offering the Deities rotten flowers.” The flowers looked okay to us, but Prabhupada said, “If you offer the Deities rotten flowers, They will not say anything but your life will be spoiled.” He talked about this many times. And once, a devotee tried to give Prabhupada a garland that was bigger than Krishna’s garland and Prabhupada made him exchange it. He said, “You cannot give me a garland that is bigger than the garland on Krishna.”
I fixed Prabhupada’s equipment and afterwards somebody played a Ravi Shankar record. When the music came on Prabhupada smiled. Somebody said, “Do you like this music, Swamiji?” He said, “This music is sense gratification.” Hayagriva said, “That’s a raga! They play it in temples!” Prabhupada said, “This music is sense gratification.” Hayagriva said, “But it’s Ravi Shankar! It’s a raga! They play it in temples!” Prabhupada said, “No, it is sense gratification.” Hayagriva kept insisting, “No, it’s a raga.” Then Prabhupada said, “Ravi Shankar is a businessman.” Then somebody said, “What if he wants to be a devotee?” Prabhupada said, “Fine, let him come.” Somebody else said, “But Swamiji, you were once a businessman.” Prabhupada said, “Because I went naked then, I should go naked now?” Meanwhile, Hayagriva was fuming, “But it’s a raga!” Prabhupada and I laughed at him.
When I went with my then wife to see Prabhupada in Los Angeles, at one point my wife said, “Prabhupada, I really like to read your books.” Prabhupada said, “You have a very nice wife. You should take care of her.”
Before I left with Hanuman, a Canadian devotee, to open a temple in Paris, we went on a morning walk where Prabhupada explained that love requires free will. Prabhupada said, “If you want somebody to love you, they must do it by their free will. You cannot force somebody to love you.” Then he grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me and said, “You cannot say, ‘You must love me! You must love me! You must love me!’” Prabhupada was very powerful.
Once I was talking with the devotees when I was blooped and somebody mentioned India. I said, “I would like to go to India.” Prabhupada said, “For what, sight seeing?” I couldn’t answer.
When I was living away from the temple as a householder in San Francisco, I learned how to program computers. Later Dayananda told me that the devotees working at Spiritual Sky, the old L.A. incense factory, wanted to know if they should buy a computer and Prabhupada said, “Yes, get a computer and Umapati can run it.” I had not told Prabhupada what I was doing but when I came to Los Angeles and got back into devotional service again, I started programming the computer. One day on the morning walk on the beach Prabhupada said to me, “Can your computer tell how many grains of sand are on the beach?” I said, “No, Prabhupada, you would have to tell the computer.” Swarupa Damodara said, “Does that mean there is a brain superior to the computer?” I said, “The computer is not a brain, it’s just a stupid machine.” Prabhupada seemed satisfied with that answer. He didn’t say anything more.
I saw the sun when I got to England and I saw the sun when I left a week later and in between it never stopped drizzling. When I hung my clothes up to dry they got wetter. Prabhupada said, “It says in the Vedas that a place where the sun does not shine is a condemned place.”
Srila Prabhupada would often cry when he talked about his spiritual master. Once, on Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur’s Appearance Day, I watched Prabhupada perform arati and I could feel that he was really offering each item to his spiritual master. There was something about the way he stood or the way he moved his arms that showed me he meant it as an offering to his spiritual master.
I typed a list of the devotees’ legal and spiritual names and since Prabhupada told me to refer to the devotees as ‘prabhu,’ I typed that also. Prabhupada said, “Leave some space at the bottom of the page.” When I came to the end I said to Prabhupada, “I’m finished.” He said, “Did you leave some space at the bottom of the page?” I said, “Yes.” Prabhupada said, “Now type this,” and he dictated “nama om visnu-padaya krsna-presthaya bhu-tale srimate bhaktivedanta-svamin iti namine,” and the translation, “I offer my respectful obeisances unto Bhaktivedanta Swami, who is very dear to Krishna on this earth, having taken shelter at His lotus feet.” I had never heard this before, and I was amazed that he could dictate obeisances to himself without being embarrassed or proud. It was as if he was saying, “Get a pound of carrots and two pounds of rice.”