to Conflicting Interests
I became a regular at Srila Prabhupada’s
evening classes. The other devotees were becoming my friends,
and Prabhupada’s words became my intoxicant. I was not
a misfit after all! I was just like all the other countless
souls, suffering and alone due to my ignorance of God—or
as Prabhupada said, the Supreme Lord Krsna. It wasn’t
that I needed to make adjustments in the world to be comfortable;
the world was actually designed to be a miserable place, much
like a prison.
In his lecture the next Monday, Prabhupada spoke from the Bhagavad-gita.
I was already aware of the Gita, that it was an ancient book
of wisdom written 5,000 years ago, and that many spiritualists
referred to it for self-awareness. I had read a version over
the past summer which had confirmed my belief that everyone
is God; but Prabhupada’s translation and explanations
were very different.
In his lecture Prabhupada responded to the question I had when
I'd first walked into the temple—about interpersonal conflict.
He revealed that in this world our interests always clash, and
this is due to illusion. He expertly linked illusion with ignorance
and sin, explaining how ignorance of what is right and wrong
is not only no excuse for committing sin, but it is the actual
cause. “Our sinful nature is due to ignorance,”
he said. “Just like a person who does not know the laws
of the state, and so commits a crime unknowingly. He is captured;
he is arrested under the law.”
To prove his point, Prabhupada described that due to ignorance
a child may touch fire and get burnt: “The laws of fire
will act, even on the child. The child is innocent or ignorant.
Innocence is also sometimes ignorance…So this ignorance,
or innocence, they are not very good qualities.
He explained that only one who does not sin can become free
from duality. “That means one who becomes Krishna conscious
has no distinction between one person and another. ‘This
person is Indian, this one American, Chinese or Russian.’
He transcends this. By Krsna consciousness, we can transcend
this material consciousness of different interests. We have
no other interest except realization of our self.”
Point by point, Prabhupada clarified my own perceptions and
understandings. “Due to ignorance we forget the miseries
of death, the miseries of old age. We think, ‘Now I am
a young man, young woman. We don’t care for what is old
age or what is death. Let us enjoy.’ We forget. But a
man who is not in ignorance, he has always in his view that
this material life is full of miseries, because there is birth,
there is death, there is old age and there is disease.”
He concluded this lecture by saying that the only cure for these
four miseries of life was to remove our ignorance, the source
of both sin and suffering. No material measure would help.
* * * *
On my lunch break from school, I visited the temple for the
first time at midday. Kirtanananda, the head cook, served the
lunch, first laying out long straw mats over the Indian rugs
along the length of the storefront. Inviting me to join them,
Kirtanananda and the temple members sat on either side of the
mats. He introduced me to the other devotees: Hayagriva, Gargamuni,
Acyutananda, Rayarama, Rancora, Ravindra-svarupa, Satsvarupa
and Stryadhisa. A few of them wearing yellow robes, and the
rest in normal dress, all smiled and nodded. I had already met
some of them, but it was hard to remember all their names.
Kirtanananda passed around soup and plates filled with vegetables,
capatis, rice and delicious homemade brown molasses bread. “The
Swami said that devotees only eat prasadam, food prepared for
and offered to Krsna with devotion”. Rayarama told me
during the meal, “This improves our consciousness. Devotees
never eat in restaurants”.
I felt guilty for having eaten in the Paradox Restaurant on
the previous night.
“What does ‘devotee’ actually mean?”
“Oh,” Rayarama said stroking his short reddish beard,
“They dedicate their lives to Krsna. They wear tilaka
and chant japa of Hare Krsna on beads, follow four regulative
principles of no illicit sex, no intoxicants, no meat or eggs
and no gambling. They come to the temple, sing at the kirtanas—like
“What’s tilaka?” I asked.
Rayarama pointed to the white vertical lines he had painted
on his forehead and on the bridge of his nose. “It’s
this. It’s a sacred marking, anointing the body as a temple
“Oh,” I said, unsure if I qualified as a devotee.
I bit into a piece of rich molasses bread, and asked, “And
what’s a Kirtana?”
Rayarama gathered some of his vegetables and rice by using his
rolled-up capati as a spoon. “Well, that’s when
we all sing together to glorify Krsna,” he said, smiling.
I certainly liked participating in the singing we did congregationally.
So maybe I was a devotee after all? I looked around the room
as I ate, listening to the fragments of conversations on either
side of me. Then my eye caught the oval painting behind Prabhupada’s
dais. I knew the blue boy was Krsna , but I had often wondered
who the golden-colored girl beside Him was, so I asked Rancora.
“That’s Radhrani,” he said. “Krsna’s
supreme spiritual energy. The Hare Krsna movement was named
after Them both. When we say ‘Hare’ we mean Radharani.
Swamiji says Her shadow is this illusory energy, maya”
“Maya means literally ‘not that’,” he
continued. “Maya; we take a thing to be true, or we take
a thing to be the source of happiness, and it turns out to be
Half listening, I swallowed a mouthful of soup and bit into
a red, Indian chili, which I’d thought to be a piece of
vegetable. It felt as if steam was gushing from my ears and
my eyes began tearing. Unable to speak, I grabbed my throat.
Kirtanananda understood. Smiling, he pointed to a sink behind
the curtain, and I ran to get a drink. Rayarama grinned and
said, “That’s dahl bean soup. It’s so high
in protein that we don’t have to eat meat.”
I became a regular and accomplished prasadam eater from that
day, rarely eating anything but Krsna prasadam.
* * * *
Prabhupada’s morning programs had now become part of my
routine schedule. Every morning he led kirtana and then, after
offering obeisances, he took his chanting beads out of their
bag, held the strand of 108 beads across the top of the lectern,
and fingered them with his right hand. “Chant one round,”
he would say, and the devotees all chanted on their beads with
him: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama,
Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Although I had no beads myself,
I said the mantra along with everyone else.
After ten minutes of chanting a round of japa, Prabhupada would
recite a Sanskrit verse and begin class.
After a few days of attending the morning program, I ventured
to stay for breakfast—sweet oatmeal with milk, nuts, sugar,
dates and raisins. Each plate also had a spongy round cake called
gulabjamon, delicately flavored with rosewater, rich with ghee
and soaked in a honey-like juice. After experiencing a few breakfasts
I began to stay longer, speaking with the devotees, listening
to their conversations with other guests, or just chanting japa
or kirtana with them. Otherwise I read Prabhupada’s small
booklets: Who is Crazy, Easy Journey to Other Planets, Message
of Good Will and Back to Godhead magazine.
I was told that these were not the first literatures Prabhupada
had written. He had first began Back to Godhead in 1944, following
the orders of his own Guru Maharaja, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati
Thakura Prabhupada. In India, during the 1940s and 1950s he
published it bi-monthly, and it established him as one of India’s
leading spiritual personalities.
Now, under his direction, his young two American editors, Hayagriva
and Rayarama, were re-launching this magazine in New York. They
had mimeographed as many copies as the stencils could make—about
one hundred. I was reading that first issue, a challenge to
all atheists, which had written just above its masthead: “Godhead
is light. Nescience is darkness. Where there is Godhead there
is no nescience.” Along with some articles and poems by
disciples, it contained a transcription of a lecture Prabhupada
given just before I first visited the temple. The more I read,
the less attracted I became to returning to school. As the days
passed, I began missing classes.
One day, Kirtanananda
agreed to let me share the devotees’ daily services of
cleaning, watering the plants and helping to collate the second
issue of their new magazine.