My first contact with Prabhupada was through the Bhagavad-gita. I had been praying, “If God exists, He has to manifest Himself to me because I am fed up with life and I can’t go on like this.” I didn’t want to die or anything like that, but I was sure there was something else. I really prayed to whatever was there at the time. [laughs] I was practicing astanga-yoga, so I knew about Brahman and I had some realization of Brahman, but I found it really not interesting because it’s very impersonal. I kind of merged into the light and it was dull. [laughs] I actually prayed, “If there is something else to the Absolute Truth, then show it to me.” And the next day some devotees knocked on my door. [laughs] It was Visvambhara and he left me a Bhagavad-gita. My wife and I read through the Gita introduction that very same night, and it was clear to me that all the answers I was looking for were there. We decided to go to the temple, and as soon as we got there, which was an old bowling alley on the third floor of a building, we saw the picture of Prabhupada holding his cane next to Himavati. I immediately recognized him as my spiritual master. It was like we had met before and here we were again. Because of the music, the colors, the incense and the flowers, I just felt at home.
The first personal encounter I had with Prabhupada was in Paris in 1973. Just before the installation of Radha-Parisisvara, we acquired the temple, so there was a lot to prepare for Prabhupada’s arrival. Prabhupada finally arrived, and after the installation, Prabhupada told me, “Radharani’s dress is too straight. You should put some stick under her skirt to make it wider.” I took note of that, and then he turned to me and said, “It is not right that Balaram is so close to Radharani.” The Deities were very close to one another on the altar, so he said, “There should be some kind of separation. By tomorrow you should make the arrangement to fix this.” I was not even initiated at that time. I got initiated a few days later, [laughs] but I was charged to find some way to separate Balaram and Radharani. I went to buy some trellises, wooden latticework with carvings in them, and everything else to suspend from the ceiling. I painted the trellises gold and put them between the two altars. That was the very first personal encounter I had with Prabhupada.
When I got my first initiation, Prabhupada asked me to state the four regulative principles. I think it was Pradyumna who had the list of the names for the new devotees, and he gave some name for me to Prabhupada. Prabhupada looked at me and he said, “No.” I thought, “Oh, no. He doesn’t want to initiate me!” [laughs] I froze there for some time, which for me was like an eternity. Prabhupada then looked at me right in the eyes and said, “Vishnurata das.” Everybody went, “Haribol!” Prabhupada said, “Vishnurata, one who is always protected by Vishnu.” I later learned that it was a name of Pariksit Maharaj. That was a memorable experience.
I was somewhat shy about asking questions during the morning walks. I have pictures of Prabhupada looking at me and talking to me during the morning walks, but I don’t remember what he said. [laughs] But in Vrindavan I was with him for several days, and we had many morning walks on which Prabhupada would discuss the plants we would pass by. He would say things like, “This plant can cure this and that plant can cure that.” He also talked about the properties that were not used properly by some of his god-brothers. He would also discuss some business that was going on in Vrindavan, so sometimes it was not all Krishna katha. Regarding Prabhupada knowing many cures, at one point my son had to undergo an operation in Montreal. A couple of weeks after the operation, my wife and I flew to France where we went to a clinic to have his stitches removed. The physician somehow or other left some pieces of thread under the skin, and the scar gradually got infected to the point that my son Caitanya had to be hospitalized. However, even after removing the remaining bits of thread, the doctors could not get the now open scar to heal properly. After three months of trying various treatments, our son was getting weaker and weaker, and we were afraid of losing him. As a last resort we asked Srila Prabhupada’s advice. He was in London at the time, and he told us to simply cook some lentils and to feed Caitanya the strained juice, adding that he would be fine in a matter of days. And he was! The infection receded, the scar started healing nicely, and Caitanya got stronger and stronger.
I was about to translate the Isopanisad in French, and prior to starting that project, I had meetings with Bhagavan, Yogesvara, Visvambhara and Janardradhi. We found that there were some discrepancies in the English because it was not flowing. The sentences were not always linked properly. Since translation work always involves some kind of rewriting in some way or another, Bhagavan decided to ask Prabhupada if we could edit the contents of the Isopanisad to make it more to the point. The content of that book was very rich, and we wanted to give Prabhupada’s writing the credit it was due. Prabhupada said, “Yes, you have my blessing. You just edit it the way you think is best in French. You have my approval.” And that is what we did. We first edited the English, and then I translated from the edited version, which had been discussed among all the senior devotees. Then the French version was also reviewed and satisfied by all the senior devotees before we published the book. A similar thing happened with the First Canto of the Bhagavatam. When we translated, we tried to go to as many sources as possible. I noticed that in Prabhupada’s Indian edition of the Bhagavatam, there were many discrepancies with the printed English edition from Los Angeles. I noticed that some sentences were missing, some paragraphs were missing, and some things were said differently. We prepared a whole dossier of these changes we wanted to make. We couldn’t present it to Prabhupada at that time, so he said to just go to Ramesvara and explain to him what the situation was. I went to Los Angeles with Avyaya prabhu at that time, and Ramesvara said, “We can’t do anything about that now. We have to leave the English as it is. But you do what you have to do in French.” Because of that decision, some people have noticed over the years that the French sometimes does not reflect the English version. But that is because the French translation was done by taking into account the Indian edition, which was the original Bhagavatam written by Prabhupada himself. During an evening darshan, Dhananjaya introduced me to Prabhupada as one of the French translators. Prabhupada said, “Oh!” opening his eyes very wide as he sometimes did. After looking at me deeply for a prolonged moment, he said most humbly, kindly and sincerely, bowing towards me with folded hands, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” I thought I would melt on the spot. Another time some of Srila Prabhupada’s god-brothers came to visit. Prabhupada joked with them and then spoke about books and preaching. He pointed at all the books on his shelf. He showed them the French Bhagavad-gita and said, “The spine—this is gold, you know.” He then gestured toward me and said, “This boy, my disciple, he translates all my books in French.” I can’t describe how proud and responsible I felt. Prabhupada had actually publicly recognized and endorsed my service. By that time I had only worked on the translation of Sri Isopanisad and Bhagavad-gita, but Prabhupada was clearly indicating that he wanted me to work on the translation of all his books.
When Prabhupada arrived at the farm in New Mayapur, France, I was held up in Italy finalizing the French editions of The Nectar of Instruction and the first volume of the Krishna Book with Bruno, our printer. As soon as we were done, Bruno and I drove all the way to France to spend some time with Prabhupada. As we arrived, Prabhupada was coming out of the castle for an afternoon stroll around the property. We joined the group that was following Prabhupada when a guest wanted to discuss Islam. Without paying much attention to Prabhupada’s words, the guest kept on insisting that Islam was the same as the Vedic culture. Prabhupada finally said, “Very well. If it is the same, then why don’t you become a Muslim?” Srila Prabhupada later met with Bruno in his room and told him he was doing a very big service. Prabhupada was very satisfied with the Dutch abridged Gita Bruno had brought to Prabhupada, and he added that Bruno should print all of our books in the European languages. Bruno was meeting Prabhupada for the first time, and though rather fiery and boisterous by nature, Bruno was very shy and nervous in front of Prabhupada, very much like a little child. Bruno sometimes spoke in broken English, sometimes in French, and sometimes in Italian, so Yogesvara or I frequently had to translate for him. During this meeting Bruno asked Prabhupada an elaborate philosophical question in French, and Prabhupada amazingly answered directly without waiting for the translation! Who knew that Srila Prabhupada knew French?
Dhananjaya and Brahmananda came to me and said, “Srutakirti has to leave, so can you become Prabhupada’s secretary?” I said, “Whoa! I have a wife and two kids in New Mayapur and I am in charge of the French translation. We should ask Prabhupada.” We asked Prabhupada, and Prabhupada said, “I don’t need any servant. Your service is a thousand times more important than anyone serving me personally. You go back to France and you translate. You keep translating my books and then when you’re finished translating my books, you write your own books about Krishna consciousness.” That was it. [laughs] I would have loved to have been Prabhupada’s secretary, but at the same time I felt so unqualified to be with Prabhupada all the time. Prabhupada gave the answer and that was it. And I was happy with it. [laughs]
One thing that always struck me was that Prabhupada took in everyone regardless of a person’s background—hippies, doctors, professors, priests, or whomever. We have all kinds of devotees in ISKCON coming from all walks of life. Everybody was taken in by Prabhupada. He could mesmerise anyone, not because he was a magician, but because nobody could resist his spiritual energy. It was not simply charisma. It was the fact that he could pierce through your soul. He could get right to you and show you who you were. He could show you what you can do and how you could do it. It’s like he knew everything. [laughs] That was extremely impressive. It was also very impressive to see how he could interact with any big personality or lesser personalities by knowing exactly what to tell them according to time and circumstance. Devotees never knew what he was going to say or how he was going to react to any situation. I have often thought, “How would I have responded?” Prabhupada just hit the nail on the head every time, every single time. Everyone wanted to be close to him. When Prabhupada left from an airport to his next preaching engagement, it was like Krishna leaving Vrindavan. Nobody wanted to be separated from Prabhupada. That was the kind of personality he was. He was coming from the spiritual sky. Some say he was a saktyavesa-avatar. It was obvious that no other personality I’ve ever met or heard of, or seen on film or interviews, had that kind of potency. It was unique and at the same time not everyone could recognize it. Some people were still reluctant to accept his teachings. I’m thinking of Cardinal Danielou in Paris, who had the belief that meat eating was necessary for human beings. Prabhupada would try to explain in so many philosophical ways the argument against meat, but it was not enough to convince this so-called spiritual leader. But Prabhupada definitely shook his beliefs.