Lord in the Ocean
I arrived at the temple earlier than usual on
Monday morning, at 6:45 a.m., and joined the few other devotees
already upstairs in Prabhupada’s quarters. The altar room’s
hardwood floor was so clean it practically shone. The room’s
only furniture, a solitary oblong table against the wall between
the two windows, also looked bright and clean, slightly reflecting
the small Indian prints standing upon it. Myrrh and frankincense
burning on the charcoal incense burner imbued the room with
a sweet exotic fragrance, making me feel I was sitting back
in ancient times.
Prabhupada came into the room and sat on a mat before the altar,
facing the pictures of Krsna and Lord Caitanya. Surrounded by
the vases of tall pink and orange gladioli, he looked beautiful.
He picked up a small mirror and held it between the thumb and
middle finger of his left hand, looking in it as he applied
yellow-white tilaka. He applied the sacred marking to his forehead
with the ring finger of his right hand, softly uttering, “Om
kesavaya namah.” Then he deftly marked it on his abdomen
as he uttered, “Om narayanaya namah.” I watched
as he repeated this process on his chest and in the hollow of
his neck, chanting respectively, “Om madhavaya namah,”
and “Om govindaya namah.”
Then, as he put the tilaka on
eight other parts of his golden-brown body, he indicated that
we should all put tilaka on our foreheads. Although I wore tilaka
every day and knew it was important for purifying the body and
reminding others of Krsna, I had never before seen anyone else
apply it. And this morning, although I had the opportunity,
I was too nervous to watch carefully how anyone else was doing
it. When the devotees passed me the ball of clay and cup of
water, I mixed a little of the clay with the water to form a
slightly moist paste in my left hand. But not knowing how to
keep the tilaka wet enough to put on my forehead, I did the
only thing I could think of, I licked my right finger.
Prabhupada looked at me out of the corner of his eye for a brief
moment, his eyebrows furrowed, and I immediately understood
that he was disgusted with my action. Although he had said nothing,
his one stern look spoke volumes.
After everyone put on tilaka, we all watched Prabhupada perform
the ceremony we called ‘bells’. Offering Krsna a
piece of thick dupe incense fragrantly burning in a brass cup,
he rang two melodious tinkling bells. He held the handle of
one bell between the second and third fingers of his left hand,
the other between his third and fourth fingers. The handles
crisscrossed like sparkling chopsticks.
I was mesmerized by the sound of his resonant and slow voice
caksur unmilitam yena
tasmai sri-gurave namah
Again that feeling of antiquity enveloped me.
When Prabhupada finished his prayers and offered his obeisances,
we all accompanied him to the temple room for the morning program.
As I followed behind him down the stairs, his long, flowing
shawl reminded me of the picture of Lord Caitanya and His dancing
“What did that prayer that Swamiji was saying mean?”
I asked one of the devotees on the way downstairs.
“Something about being born blind and in ignorance,”
Ranacora said. “The spiritual master gives us eyes, and
so we bow down to him.”
“We’re born in the darkness of ignorance and he
opens our eyes with the torchlight of knowledge,” Rayarama
corrected. “Or, he puts an ointment of Krsna consciousness
in our eyes, so we can see Krsna.”
Prabhupada entered the temple through the side door and took
his seat on the dais, looking now very scholarly in his black
framed glasses. Kirtanananda, Acyutananda and Hayagriva sat
in the front by the dais, frankincense from the incense holder
curling around them up to the ceiling in softly bellowing clouds.
I found it intriguing that although Prabhupada’s shawl,
an Indian chada, was draped rather asymmetrically around his
shoulders, he looked more aesthetically perfect than the perfectly
folded robes in a DeVinci painting.
Prabhupada picked up his karatalas and, as if on cue, Acyutananda
began to play a drone on the harmonium, his curly hair undulating
slightly as he moved his arms. Kirtanananda began to play the
tamboura and Prabhupada called him to sit closer. The rhythm
of these instruments was hypnotic.
Rayarama, in his plaid flannel shirt and dhoti, and with his
Christ-like beard and hairstyle, was the first to dance. Hayagriva
followed him, and Stryadhisa, very tall, lanky and staring into
space, danced behind Hayagriva. I also got up to dance, and
felt myself flowing into the music. I swayed from side to side,
and as I danced my large hoop earrings jangled. Prabhupada had
given me a maroon silk sari just the day before, and I was wearing
it now for the first time. As I danced, although the hem was
supposed to be down at my ankles, it rode up to the middle of
my calves, and the upper part of it was so slippery that it
kept sliding off my shoulder. As I danced I decided that until
I could learn how to put a sari on properly, it was a highly
impractical thing to wear.
About ten minutes into the kirtana, a crazy-looking man entered
our circle. He wore a fringed cowboy vest, a headband of gray
bird feathers, and several strands of multi-colored beads. The
wild movements of his dancing appeared to be some sort of American
Indian rain dance.
Managing somehow to move through
the devotees, the man ended up dancing right behind me. I felt
very uncomfortable, but I was not sure what I should do. I looked
toward Prabhupada for guidance. Apparently he had already been
watching the scene, and he now indicated with his eyes that
I should sit down. That was simple.
After the class, Prabhupada
asked me to see him as soon as I finished my breakfast. I thought
he might say something about the morning kirtana. Instead, when
I arrived in his room he took me over to the wall by the courtyard
windows and showed me one of Hayagriva and Kirtanananda’s
acquisitions from their trip to India the previous winter. It
was an Indian print that had one central tiny picture of Lord
Visnu, which was surrounded by ten other tiny pictures of figures
I could not identify. The artist’s rendering of Lord Visnu
was very soft and gentle, as though done with an airbrush. Lord
Visnu’s hair was a curly bluish-black, His skin was the
color of a light blue cloud, and He wore a beautiful helmet
and other golden ornaments decorated with jewels and pearls.
I had heard Prabhupada talk about the “lotus-eyed Lord”,
and now I could understand why: His eyes were shaped just like
lotus flower petals, and His graceful black eyebrows curved
like the two parts of an arched bow.
Prabhupada explained that Lord Visnu was standing in what was
called the Causal Ocean, the ocean in which innumerable universes
are manifested and developed. The other ten figures surrounding
the Lord were the ten lilaavataras, or pastime incarnations
of Krsna. Prabhupada described some of them to me in brief,
and then handed me the print, asking me to copy only the
middle portion—Lord Visnu in the Ocean.
I read Prabhupada's Bhagavatam before going to the art store:
“Visnu is the expansion of Krsna. Krsna expands as Karanodakasayi
Visnu who creates the aggregate material ingredients in the
maha-tattva through His breathing. Then He expands as Garbhodakasayi
Visnu who enters into each and every universe. He is also creator
and maintainer of Brahma and Siva. Brahma became the engineer
of the universe, and the Lord Himself took charge of the maintenance
of the universe as Ksirodakasayi Visnu.
Visnu became the Lord of the
mode of goodness. Being transcendental to all the modes, He
is always aloof from materialistic affection, and is the paramatma
of every material object organic or inorganic. Brahma, Ksirodakasayi
Visnu and Siva are
incarnations of Garbhodakasayi Visnu. Garbhodaksayi Visnu is
the Lord of the universe, and although He appears to be lying
within the universe, He is always transcendental. The Visnu
who is the plenary portion of the Garbhodaksayi Visnu is the
supersoul of the universal life, and He is known as the maintainer
of the universe, or Ksirodakasayi Visnu.
“Visnu is not different from Krsna. Krsna in His form
of Supersoul is situated in everyone’s heart.”
When I returned from purchasing the art materials, I secured
the 24”x32” preprimed canvas around the wooden frame
with thumb tacks. I then spent the rest of the day applying
two more layers of gesso on the canvas. I sandpapered between
each layer, so that the canvas texture would be smooth and the
paint surface would not show the fabric texture. Because I still
had not finished preparing the canvas when the time to go home
to the Bronx arrived at night, I left all the materials in the
altar room for the next day. Then, after breakfast on Tuesday
morning, I once again went to work. When I offered my obeisances
to him, Prabhupada said in a soft voice, “Please be careful
with your thumb tacks.”
I could feel my heart sinking as I imagined what was coming
He then calmly and humbly said, “I stepped on one.”
I gasped. I apologized as best I could, and went into the altar
room to clean the floor. But even as I painted my hands trembled
as I was unable to forget Prabhupada’s words.
* * * *
Brahmananda, who usually spent some time in the afternoon speaking
with Prabhupada, came by a few times to see how the painting
was progressing. One time he told me that Lord Visnu’s
hands looked like rubber gloves. In my previous paintings the
figures were relatively small, but now with Lord Visnu’s
form filling almost the entire canvas, my lack of expertise
obvious. After Brahmananda’s comment I had another look
at the hands, decided that he was right, and tried to refine
them. On another visit he pointed out that the Lord’s
eyes were not level, on another that the Lord’s nose was
too straight, and on yet another, that the waves in Lord Visnu’s
ocean looked like light green wavy lines on a flat, turquoise
background. I agreed with each of his comments and tried to
correct the faults. I didn’t mind his suggestions at all,
because we both had the same interest—to please Prabhupada
Prabhupada came by and said, “You can paint the palms
of the Lord’s hands pink.” He told me that in the
spiritual world everyone’s hands are that way. I was so
happy to learn the bona fide details.
On the original print there was an aum sign superimposed over
Lord Visnu’s navel. Prabhupada told me that aum by itself,
without being accompanied by a name, is impersonal. So he wrote
the name of this particular incarnation, “Sri Madhava”,
in both Sanskrit devanagari and transliterated Roman letters,
on a small piece of paper. “You can copy the name in Sanskrit
and English under the aum sign,” he said.
When he later saw that I had misspelled Madhava as “Madaava”.
He explained that he had written Madhava—with an ‘h’
after the ‘d’.
I couldn’t accept my mistake. I argued, “No, you
wrote an ‘a’.”
He replied, “H!”
“A!” I argued back.
Eventually it struck me: I was arguing with my spiritual master.
Two months earlier I had never even heard of the word Sanskrit,
and he had spent his entire life immersed in it. I finally relented.
“Yes,” he said.
A few days later I presented
the finished painting to Prabhupada. Several devotees were in
his room, and they all awaited his verdict. Although technically
speaking the painting was crude, Prabhupada was encouraging.
He said, smiling, “Now who can look at that and say it
is not God?”
All the devotees cheered.
I looked again. “It is beautiful,” I thought intoxicated
by the encouragement of Prabhupada and his disciples. I now
wondered whether I could ever do another painting that well
again, and I was determined to try.
An hour later Prabhupada asked me to come into his greeting
room, where he handed me a handwritten list of the twenty-four
main Visnu incarnations. Alongside each name he’d listed
the positions in which They hold Their hand symbols:
Name, Lower Right, Upper Right, Upper Left, Lower Left
Kesava: lotus, conch, disc, mace
Narayana: conch, lotus, mace, disc
Sri Madhava: mace, disc, conch, lotus
Sri Govinda: disc, mace, lotus, conch.
He then asked me to make twenty-four paintings—one of
each of these Visnu manifestations, and said that each Visnu
form should be standing in the Causal Ocean. He wanted me to
send the first one to San Francisco. His married disciples Mukunda
and Janaki had been in the New York temple before I had begun
coming, and they had also left before I began coming, to open
the second of Prabhupada's temples there. The painting would
be used in their new San Francisco temple for worship, meditation
and prayer. I didn’t think to ask him where the other
paintings would go, but I had faith that he had a plan.