of The Art Service
To become a trustee of the temple was not difficult—one
had simply to donate $20. So now I was a trustee, and was invited
to my first trustee meeting with Srila Prabhupada. For some
months he had been talking about the need to move to a bigger
temple where the devotees could expand their worship, preaching
and living facilities; and they now had a few places which to
Prabhupada sat on the floor in his greeting room with Satyavrata,
Brahmananda, Kirtanananda, Ravindra Svarupa, Rayarama, Ayutananda
and myself. As I listened to the devotees make various suggestions,
I began to think that there was no point in my staying; I had
been to one of properties with Prabhupada and a few others,
but I had no opinion one way or the other. Without saying anything
to anyone, I offered my obeisances and left. As soon as I reached
the temple room, I lamented that I had acted immaturely—I
should have stayed. I had the premonition that I would not be
invited to another meeting.
The next day Prabhupada
called me into
his room and handed me an Indian print.
“This is Lord Caitanya,” he said. “Krsna
Himself playing the role of a devotee.”
At the meeting the devotees decided to purchase a three-story
brownstone building on 10th Street, near St. Mark’s Place,
a popular and well-respected downtown location. Brahmananda
would asking the guests to help raise the funds. He knew I was
an art student, so he asked me to make a poster for the appeal.
He gave me a paper with the text I was to include on the poster,
and left the design up to me. Putting in all my creative endeavor,
with colored pencils I drew bright, multicolored kaleidoscopic
psychedelic squiggles all over the poster. Brahmananda thanked
me politely, but he did not display the poster in the temple.
Two days later, a god-brother named Ranacora approached me,
“The Swami wants to know what your talents are. He said
to ask you.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve liked art ever
since I was young, and I always wanted to become an artist.
But I haven’t had any training. My parents think I could
become an artist, and they’ve always encouraged and supported
“But can you paint?” Ranacora asked.
I rambled on, “I went to Music and Art High School. And
for a while, I did portraits and landscapes. My family loved
them. When I got into LSD I painted men and women with dresser
drawers superimposed over their abdomens, you know, with the
‘void’ depicted in the opened drawers.” I
laughed. “But these, my family couldn’t appreciate.
I’d take LSD and sometimes spend all night painting a
bridge or a still life. I’d think it was the best painting
I’d ever seen. But when I came down from ‘tripping’
morning, the painting would be just a horrible bunch of muddy-looking
blobs and squiggles on a canvas.”
“So do you have any talent?” he asked again, tapping
his foot on the floor.
“Well,” I laughed, “I did take a couple of
art courses. Last term my school held a show for students to
display their work. A friend asked me which painting was mine.
I pretended to be humble and said, ‘Just look for the
worst painting in the show.’ I never thought he'd pick
mine, but he did.” Though embarrassed, I laughed again.
Ranacora folded his arms across his chest, and said, “I’ll
tell the Swami.”
The next day Prabhupada called me into his room and handed me
an Indian print. “This is Lord Caitanya,” he said.
“Krsna Himself playing the role of a devotee.”
In the print, Lord Caitanya was dancing with several other personalities.
“This is Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana party,”
Prabhupada said. He gracefully pointed to the figures dancing
in the foreground. “This is Lord Nityananda, this is Advaita
Acarya, this is Gadadhara Pandita and that is Srivasa Thakura.”
Then he pointed to the people depicted in the background. “And
these are His other associates and pure devotees like Mukunda
dasa and his sons. And here at the end of the row is Haridasa
Thakura. They are all dancing and singing about love of God.”
I nodded in appreciation of being given this personal lesson.
Then Prabhupada smiled slightly. “You can paint one copy.
Gargamuni will give you whatever you may need to purchase materials.”
It took several minutes for the gravity of this exchange to
sink in: Prabhupada was actually asking me to paint God, that
same God who I had always previously conceived of as amorphous
and unlimited, the source of all forms but who was Himself formless.
I recalled a Bhagavad-gita class in which Prabhupada had gestured
to a print on the wall, and said, “It should not be taken
that He’s not God, that He is only a picture.” He
had explained that the picture of God is also God; that the
sound of the name Krsna is also Krsna; but that He is appearing
as a picture or as sound just to give us facility to understand
Him. He had warned his audience not to think that the picture
of Krsna was painted by some artist’s imagination, but
because the description had come from scripture, and because
Krsna is absolute, His picture and sound representation are
also reality. Now I was thrilled to think I was becoming a conduit
for God’s form to be manifest through a painting.
“There is one statement in Srimad-Bhagavatam,” Prabhupada
now told me. “In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, in
the age of Kali, those fortunate people who are endowed with
sufficient brain substance, they will worship the Lord in His
golden feature as Lord Caitanya who is always chanting Hare
Krsna and dancing in ecstasy, and accompanied by His associates.”
I felt so invigorated by this assignment that, as I was purchasing
my materials in an 8th street art store, I considered quitting
college. Although I reasoned that then I could be free to serve
Prabhupada all day, every day, I wasn’t one hundred per
cent certain. Although I considered myself a radical, dropping
out of school might be going too far. After all, if I gave up
the opportunity of a college education, what would that mean
in the future? Would I end up with no financial security? It
was fine to be living on the fringes of society, in the future
would I be considered less respectable without a degree? The
decision seemed to be a monumental one.
After breakfast the next morning I lined a corner of the temple-room
floor with newspaper. Other devotees were also working there
throughout the day: collating the Back to Godhead magazine,
greeting guests and discussing Krsna consciousness with them,
chanting japa, chanting devotional songs together, and taking
prasadam. Sometimes Gargamuni did the temple accounts there,
or sold Prabhupada’s booklets and Srimad Bhagavatams at
his table by the front door, and sometimes he printed Back to
Godhead on the small, barrelbellied, primit ive mimeograph printing
press by his book table. I now joined them all there, and, surrounded
by my paints, palette, brushes and a bottle of turpentine, I
began a routine of painting several hours a day.
The quandary of whether to continue with college or not still
plagued me, and I brought the subject up to my mother. Because
she didn’t even want me to visit the temple, what to speak
of quit City College, she insisted that I continue at school.
This did not solve my problem, however, as the option to paint
for Prabhupada full time became more and more attractive as
the days passed. I thought perhaps that if my mother would meet
Prabhupada personally, she would be convinced; and it would
also convince me. So I brought her to meet him.
Sitting on a chair in the greeting room, my mother asked, “Why
does my daughter have to join your organization? She can come
to visit, but she doesn’t have to join.”
Prabhupada nodded. “Yes, yes, that’s fine.”
“Then she doesn’t have to become a devotee? She
can stay as she is?”
“Yes,” Prabhupada said, shaking his head.
“And she doesn’t have to give up school? She can
study at school and also come here?”
“Oh, yes, That’s fine, fine,” Prabhupada agreed.
At first I was disappointed: Prabhupada was supposed to be convincing
my mother. Instead, he was supporting her. I finally realized
that he was not going to make this decision for me; he was making
me get inspiration from within my own heart to make my own decision.
After my mother left I prayed and tried to listen to Krsna within
my heart. As I did, several things became apparent to me. I
considered how going to college would give me so much homework
that I would not have any time to paint for Prabhupada at all.
As for my future financial security—well, was Krsna not
managing to feed even the big elephants in the jungles? If I
just served Him and His pure devotee now, then surely I too
would be taken care of. I would
rather be seen as respectable within a society of devotees than
within the materialistic society. I made my decision and chose
Prabhupada over college. I told him later that day, and he smiled
as if he knew all along what I would decide.
* * * *
A few days later, Kirtanananda and Hayagriva, both dressed in
saffron dhotis, came over to look at my painting— and
I also stood up from my seat of newspapers to look at it with
them. I appreciated how in both the small print and the painting,
Lord Caitanya’s eyes slightly rolled back in His head.
Now, wanting to impress these two brahmacaris, I used the hippy
expression that meant 'intoxicated'. I said, “They look
stoned.” Kirtanananda and Hayagriva,
however, looked at each other and then back at me. “They
are in transcendental ecstasy,” Kirtanananda said dryly.
“Oh, right,” I answered, embarrassed.
Now that I was looking at the painting from a distance, seeing
it from a different perspective, I noticed that the dancers’
hands and feet were out of proportion—some were gigantic
in comparison to the rest of their bodies. Indeed, the entire
painting was nowhere near a perfect copy of the original print.
Just then Prabhupada entered the temple room from the side door.
He stood regally in the center of the Indian rug and examined
my work, and I held my breath as I watched him study it. Turning
to the six or seven devotees gathered around, Prabhupada smiled
and said, “Krsna has sent.”
I was elated. Krsna had personally sent me to Prabhupada! My
idea to give up college was the right one!
“Perhaps you could move your painting equipment upstairs
to the altar room in my apartment?” Prabhupada said.
Concerned about his health, as much as I wanted to be nearer
to him, I hesitated, “The turpentine fumes are toxic.
I think it will bother you.” But he smiled again, lifted
his hand into the air and assured me that he would not be disturbed.
That afternoon I moved my equipment into a corner of the altar
room in his apartment, by one of the two windows leading out
to the courtyard. The atmosphere there was different from that
of temple room. It was casual, but at the same time very respectful,
quiet and serene. Some of the brahmacaris who lived in the temple
room and stored their sleeping bags behind Prabhupada’s
dais would shower in his quarters, so they would come and go
during the day. Gargamuni sometimes did his accounting work
there, and Hayagriva typed there regularly.
Kirtanananda often played the role of a doorman. When someone
knocked on the door he would either inquire what business they
had, or just tell them whether Prabhupada was free to see visitors
or not. If one of us already inside the apartment wanted to
speak with Prabhupada, we would ask either Kirtanananda or Brahmananda
because they knew what he was doing; and sometimes we would
just judge for ourselves whether it was an appropriate time
or not. Fortunately for me there was a window in the wall between
the altar room where I worked and Prabhupada’s greeting
room. So sometimes I judged for myself whether to enter his
room or not by simply looking through the window.
A few evenings after I began painting in Prabhupada’s
encouraged me by indirectly speaking about my painting service
during his Bhagavad-gita class. “There are eight kinds
of images recommended in the sastra, in the Vedic literatures,”
he explained, “like earth, wood, stone and metal.”
The word ‘images’ struck a raw note with me. After
all, I’d been brought up to believe that only unsophisticated
people worshipped idols or images. Through meeting Prabhupada
I was coming to accept that God has a personal form and a personal
relationship with each of us. But the concept of idolic images
was a little difficult to take in.
“So any kind of images can be worshipped,” Prabhupada
continued, “because God is everywhere. Now, you can say
that why God should be worshipped in images, not in His original,
spiritual form? Yes, that may be a question.
“But I cannot see spiritual form,” he said further.
“That is my difficulty. My senses are so imperfect that
I cannot see God immediately in His spiritual form. We cannot
see just now with our material eyes anything except stone, earth,
wood, paint—something tangible. These forms are called
arcavatara, incarnation of arca, conveniently presented by the
Supreme Lord so that we can actually see. But it requires my
qualification to see Him. Premanjanacchurita- bhakti-vilocanena.
If I have developed such consciousness, such love, transcendental
love for God, then I can see Him everywhere and anywhere, any
place—from picture, from statue, within picture, within
myself, in air, in water—everywhere I can see. That is
Appreciating that a canvas painting was also arcavatara, Krsna’s
incarnation, I was determined to accept this process and also
to facilitate others to see God through my paintings.
* * * *
The next morning after breakfast Prabhupada came to look at
my painting. He requested me to paint the Hare Krsna maha-mantra
near the bottom of the painting, just under the feet of Lord
Caitanya and His sankirtana party.
I smiled in reciprocation of his attention. “Sure. There’s
lots of room to put it here.” I said, pointing to the
tiled floor below the dancers.
Two days later, when the painting was almost completed and I
was just about to paint the mantra, Prabhupada called to me
through our shared window, “Jadurani.”
I turned toward the window expectantly. “Don’t put
the mantra sign at the bottom.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Before you asked me to
put it in.”
“I changed my mind. Lord Caitanya’s feet should
not be above the Hare Krsna mantra.”
“Why not? Wasn’t He an incarnation of Krsna?”
Lord Caitanya is Krsna,” Prabhupada answered in a kind
voice. “He is not incarnation. He is essence of all incarnations,
Krsna Himself, in the role of devotee, to teach us by His own
example how to become devotee. But because He is playing that
role, so it is not proper etiquette to have Krsna’s holy
name under His feet.”
I was happy. Somehow I felt that perhaps Prabhupada had never
really intended for me to paint Krsna’s names there. After
all, he was well-versed in the Vedic etiquette. By this episode
he was teaching me something important about the Krsna consciousness
philosophy: although God, Krsna is one, He should be worshipped
variously as He desires, according to how He manifests Himself.
Then He will be pleased, and the worshipper makes advancement.
* * * *
After a few more touch-ups, the painting
was complete. Prabhupada had it hung in the temple room, just
to the right of his dais.
That evening, his lecture once again spoke intimately
to me. There were about fifty devotees and guests in the room,
and I was aware that at least some of them must have been thinking
like me, that Prabhupada was speaking intimately to them as
well. But that did not make the experience any less intense.
“Nature is so made by the superior brain of the Lord,”
Prabhupada explained. “That it is going on automatically.
Don’t you see a flower, how it is beautifully decorated
like a painting? A leaf, just symmetrical. You do not find any
change. So this is going on automatically. This is God’s
power. If you have got to paint one picture, one flower, oh,
you have to take so much attention. And still it may not be
symmetrical; there may be some mistake.”
I sensed here that Prabhupada was understanding my difficulty
in painting; he was showing me that Krsna is the greatest artist,
and at the same time he was offering me life’s highest
reality. I remembered the months before meeting Prabhupada when
I had been searching for knowledge of reality and nonreality,
reading books such as Be Here Now and Siddhartha, authors such
as Huxley, Blake, Emerson and Thoreau. I had regularly listened
to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Jefferson Airplane,
trying to find answers, trying to find the deepest truths of
life, in the lyrics of their songs. I had even read a translation
of Bhagavad-gita in which each individual soul was described
as God, the all-pervading non-person. I had taken all this as
light; but now that I had met Prabhupada, I could see that it
was only a shadow in the darkness at best.