Beginning 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 choose from.

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 me.”

“But can you paint?” Ranacora asked.

“Well,” 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’ in the
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 quarters, he
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 the process.”

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.

(Copyright 2001-2002 Jadurani / Syamarani dasi. All Rights Reserved.)