Leading To The First Meeting

It was a Friday, the last day of the work-week in early September, 1966. My lunch break was nearing its end as I hurried past New York’s grand library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Working a summer job as a secretary-clerk at a downtown New York office to help pay my college expenses this next semester, I was now part of the large crowd swarming across the metropolis. Young secretaries in high heels walked together, laughing, and somber businessmen in pinstripes strode purposefully, their leather briefcases swinging by their sides. A young couple argued with each other as they passed. Groups of teenagers darted artfully across the busy intersection around speeding cars and trucks. No one looked twice at the woman mumbling loudly to herself. It was life in the big city, but I could not resign myself to it.

Over the past few days, vague reflections and questions had been whispering through my mind. I had been trying to ignore them, but on that Friday they shouted, “Where are we all really going? Where are we really coming from? What does it all mean? What is the point of it all?” I had no answer.

A few days later I was sitting at my parents’ home in the Bronx, leafing through the pages of Life magazine. For some reason I found the photos annoying, as if they were triggering something disturbing within me. They seemed no longer of living people, but clones or robots. Struggling with a sense of futility and unrealness, I turned to my mother and asked, “Do I have to become like these adults? Like do I have to dress up and wear lipstick, just go to work and then die, and that’s it? I don’t see any point.”

“Of course not, dear,” my mother calmly answered without even looking up from the TV program.

I felt like a misfit. The next day even more questions surfaced in my consciousness: Was I alive before I was in my mother’s womb? Am I just bound to a form now, because I took birth, or did I have an identity before? Questions like these plagued me all day, and they only increased when I got home from work and tried to relax in front of the TV. Watching a panel discussion between a group of psychologists, anthropologists, clergymen and philosophy professors on the subject of death, I was dismayed when all these scholars admitted, directly or indirectly, that they had no clear idea what happens to a person after death.

Later that evening I asked my mother, “Mom, if I wasn’t born from you, would I still exist?”

She was surprised. “Well . . . uh, I don’t know,” she stuttered. “I guess so.”

* * * *

By mid-September my summer job was over, and I returned to school. Nineteen years old, I was just beginning my sophomore year at City College of New York where I planned to major in art and history. Like many of my fellow students and friends, I was politically minded; I wanted to change the world and redefine the political and social realities of the day. My dream was of a world where all would be free from oppression. I joined a left-wing political group and picketed the Vietnam War.

Though I was part of the sixties’ youth culture, I also felt estranged from it. It sometimes seemed as if I was watching a TV show in which I played a fictitious part. I struggled to find authenticity for my life, believing that I would—if only I could reach the higher reality beyond my limited senses. The popular belief at the time was that all people were caught on one side of a dual reality. So, through the use of mind-expanding drugs such as LSD and marijuana, my friends and I strove to reach a kind of separate, utopian reality which we felt was within our grasp. By using LSD, I strove to achieve a sense of oneness with the universe. Even though each LSD trip ended in depression, I always experienced a few beautiful moments when the world became amazingly colorful and ever changing. I came to believe that my ever-new and animated, albeit imaginary, perceptions of the world, were an ultimate reality in themselves—and that I was the orchestrator of that reality. This led me to believe that I was not my body, but the all-pervading God, the supreme creator and controller.

I had a few different outfits in my closet which I thought helped me to look more God-like, and which I would wear them on alternate days. One was a 1920’s style long, beige dress and black cape, and the other was a pair of wellworn jeans with either an olive green or maroon turtleneck—colors and style that were considered by our counterculture to be high and transcendental.

My life continued as usual until one Friday afternoon in mid-October when I intending to buy a huge quantity of LSD. I withdrew from the bank the few hundred dollars I had saved from my summer job. Although I would be selling most of it, I would also save some for my own use. The previous time I’d done this, although I had thought I was buying wholesale lysergic acid, I ended up with plain sugar cubes. To recoup my loss, I had to pass the deception on to my clients.

Not wanting this to happen again, I took great care to ensure that this new dealer was honest. I had met him at a party, and feeling that he was trustworthy, I agreed to meet him outside an apartment on the Lower East Side. When I got there he said he did not want to attract attention, so he asked me to give him the money and wait outside while he went upstairs to get the drugs. I waited for what felt like hours, but the man did not return. Finally, someone in a neighboring flat told me that he had seen him going out the back fire escape.

I was devastated. My whole summer paycheck was gone, and there was nothing I could do; I certainly couldn’t go to the police. “Isn’t there anyone who can help me?” I whispered into the ether. The plea seemed to trigger a more urgent realization that my life wasn’t developing into the utopia I had envisioned. If I was God, I was doing a rather pathetic job it.

I went out and bought a new pair of knee-high, black leather boots to cheer myself up, but it didn’t help. Then I decided to see my boyfriend who lived in
the East Village. Maybe that would help. Heading into Manhattan on the IRT train, I asked myself, “If I’m all-knowing, why am I so gullible?” I had no answer. Tossed back and forth on the subway seat, I stared at my own reflection on the grimy window, trying to see my soul in the glass. But all I saw was blackness as the train shot along the darkened tracks. I silently called out, “Who am I really? If I’m the cause of everything, why can’t I control anything? Why can’t I transfer myself out of this subway right now?” Again, no answer.

I walked down to 9th street, heading towards Tompkins Square Park—the famous playground and personal backyard of the hippies and counterculture intellectuals who went there to smoke marijuana, talk about left-wing politics like Socialism and Communism, play music, and hang out—where I had also spent many evenings and weekends looking for happiness.

This Sunday, though, my depression weighed so heavily on me that I simply hurried through it, anxious to reach Mike’s house. Guitars twanged, bongo drums beat African rhythms, and transistor radios blasted across the park. I was used to hearing this euphony, and it usually made me feel like dancing, but that day I dragged along—wanting peace.

All of a sudden a very different sound attracted my attention. It was soft and hypnotic, exotic, yet hauntingly familiar. Something buried inside me responded to it. “That old sound is coming again,” I thought, although I had no idea what I meant.

It was not difficult to find the source of the music. Half-way through the park a large crowd had gathered. Elderly European men dressed in old-fashioned suits, elderly European women in kerchiefs and heavy sweaters, American and Puerto Rican children, and even stray dogs were in the gathering to listen. I walked in the direction of the crowd, not realizing that the next moment would change my life.

* * *

I gently pushed through crowd for a better view—and then saw him. He was dressed in pale, peach-colored robes and was playing a bongo drum. He was sitting peacefully, with closed eyes and crossed legs on an oriental rug undera huge oak tree. He seemed completely absorbed in what he was singing, as if he were experiencing a different reality. Independent from his surroundings, he looked ageless. A stark contrast to the people gathered around him, he was a golden jewel set in a dull background. I instinctively felt that finally there was someone who knew the answers to my deepest questions.

Although four to five rows of singing and dancing hippies and European refugees encircled him, there was also an inner group of about fifteen young American men, obviously his own followers. One of them wearing exotic Indian robes like his teacher and the others in normal street clothes, they all danced bare-footed in a small circle on the rug where he sat. A few played finger cymbals, and others played bells or tambourines. Together with the drone of a tamboura and hand-pumped organ, they all made a rhythmic, hypnotic beat, and I was mesmerized.

Their saint-like leader looked so mystical that I could only compare him to what I knew of India—a genie on a flying carpet. I thought, perhaps, that he was from another planet, and I listened intently as their mysterious chant filled the air: “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna, Krsna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” It was as if a voice were calling me from both a primeval time and also from the future. I could not move.

When the chanting finished, that holy person stood up, and I was surprised to see that he was only about five feet tall. I had thought him to be much taller, as he exuded an impressive authority-radiating energy. On the other hand, he was completely unassuming as he stood humbly before the crowd, his hands folded like a student at his desk. He thanked us for participating. He explained that because the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra was coming from the depths of the soul, there was no need to understand its language, and that all nationalities could benefit equally.

I didn’t know where the soul’s depths could be, but his voice was so sonorous that it sounded as if it had surely came from there.

“There is no cost,” he continued. “No one will tax you for it or check you from it. There is no loss, and the gain is terrific.” He then concluded by saying that chanting would make us all happy.

One of his followers distributed flyers to the crowd. It read:

No More Coming Down

Practice Krsna Consciousness
Expand your consciousness by practicing the

Tune In to the chanting of Hare Krsna;
Turn On to a blissful spiritual consciousness;
and Drop Out of the illusory material world.

I recognized that this was a take-off on Timothy Leary’s decree to drop out of mainstream society via psychedelic drugs. Yet, this flyer was promising something deeper.

A few minutes later the chanters packed up their drums and cymbals, rolled up their rug and started to walk out of the park. I wanted to follow them, but because the crowds blocked my view I could not see which exit they took. So I gazed at the tree where they had just been, feeling quite stranded as another onlooker tapped me on the shoulder. He said, “Hi. Would you like to visit the
temple to meet Swamiji?”

This tap seemed to be an arrangement of that same force that drew me to the chanters. Therefore, totally forgetting about my boyfriend, I left the park with this stranger. The man led me down Avenue A toward Houston Street, speaking little. We walked through the internationally variegated Lower East Side, an area widely considered to be the right place to meet the right people, and I felt that I was heading to one such momentous meeting. We finally stopped at a small storefront at 26 Second Avenue, where I noted a handpainted sign above the front window—”Matchless Gifts.” It looked suitably psychedelic, and my guide announced that this was the temple.

Through the window I saw four young men in the center of the narrow temple room, dancing and singing that same mantra I had heard in the park. Their hands were raised in the air as they danced, their faces gazing upward.

The storefront had been transformed into what looked like an Indian temple, with just a few simple pieces of furniture. A wooden platform at the back of the room was covered with a dark velvet cloth, the lectern in front of the platform flanked by flower vases and ornate plaster candlesticks. A large metal gong hung from the side of the platform and dark purple and burnt sienna curtains covered the wall and windows behind it. Oriental rugs lined the long narrow floor, decorative Indian silk cloths hung on the walls, and glass-framed pictures, some Indian and some American, hung on the cloths. One of the pictures was of Jesus, one of Buddha, and the others of other Indian figures.

I stared at a large circular painting just above the sitting place—a beautiful blue boy and a golden girl, and then another picture caught my eye. This one depicted a six -armed person; two of His arms green and holding a bow and arrow, two bluish and holding a flute, and the last two golden and holding a staff and bowl. The pictures were amazing, more so than anything I’d ever concocted on LSD. What artist had dreamed of them?

I was so interested in the room—the dancers, the pictures, the music—that I did not notice when my walking partner had left. I decided that my “Inner Self” was now somehow mystically guiding me to the “All-knowing It.” I determined to be a passive witness and let whatever was destined to happen, occur, without interfering.

The two young men standing near me began speaking to each other. Their voices were friendly, and so I listened. One told the other, “Swamiji just said that when Godbrothers quarrel, it should be taken as clouds passing by—not very significant.” “What did that mean?” I wondered in disbelief. “There is so much fighting in the world—between countries, races, and even within my own family. Is it not inescapable? Is it actually possible?”

Another young man came in from the side door and invited me to come upstairs to meet the ‘Swami.’ I followed him though the courtyard to the next building, climbing a dim fluorescent-lit stairway to the second floor, and entering the right hand side apartment. A sweet incense fragrance permeated the air, and several men and women sat on the floor, chanting with strings of beads in their hands. Although the words they were saying were indistinct, the mystical drone once again evoked remembrance of some primeval place. The Swami, that same glowing personality I’d seen in the park, sat in their midst, looking simultaneously ascetic and aristocratic. He bowed his head to the ground, which to my mind confirmed my belief that everything, including
the floor, was God.

As the chanting continued around him, he stood up, and followed by a few others walked into another room in the back of the apartment—the 'greeting room.' His name, I was told, was Swamiji. He was Om Visnupada Sri Srimad Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaja. He was my Srila Prabhupada. I watched as he interacted with each of the guests. If someone folded their palms in respect, he returned the same gesture; if someone offered to shake his hand, he extended his hand to them; if someone waved good-bye, he waved good-bye in return. When he finally turned his attention to me, it was electric. His soft eyes pierced through me, cutting through my imaginings. I felt he could see my very soul, that he already knew me thoroughly, and yet I fought this instinct and looked away. I told myself, “You’re making all this up. This person is your own creation.”

Prabhupada looked squarely into my eyes and spoke calmly, “This is not a concocted process, or something that you, or we, have made up. This process is very old, simple, and sublime.”

Then, as if nothing unusual had just transpired, he sat comfortably back, slowly looked around the room and continued, “We are eternal, and everything around us is temporary.” Though he spoke softly, his words carried so much power, and I waited for his next words. Rather than give more philosophical truisms, however, he politely asked, “Do you live near here?” I was nervous, not knowing how to reply in a way that would demonstrate just how enlightened I was. So I deliberately drew out my words. Implying that ultimately I liv e everywhere, I answered, “Yeeeeess . . . , I live veeeery near.”

He smiled. “Good,” he said, “then you will be able to attend the morning program at 7:00 a.m.”

I immediately realized my blunder: I lived in the uptown Bronx—an hour and a half subway ride away! The idea of waking up at 5:30 in the morning and having to take the train was untenable, especially considering how late I usually went to bed. And besides that, it would be scary. At the same time, the conviction in his voice made me want to try.

I asked him a totally unrelated question, “Do I have to come down from LSD?”

He looked at me quizzically.

Remembering the trance-like state of the dancers in the park and in the temple, I said, “Is there a way I can stay high on it forever?”

He answered, “No. It is material, and therefore temporary. Only Krishna consciousness can give lasting pleasure; it is spiritual and therefore eternal.” Somehow I believed him, and I knew that my LSD days were over.

It was getting late, so I said goodnight, went downstairs and looked for my new boots. They were nowhere to be seen, and after a quick look around the storefront, I accepted that someone had stolen them. Perhaps someone was trying to tell me something. I left barefoot, believing that I had been relieved of more than just my boots.

* * * *

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