Manhattan swarms with inhabitants from every culture and region. Growing up in this collage of humanity, I admired the Indian women above all, flowing down Fifth Avenue in their saris. By age four, I had traveled extensively, especially to Israel where my oldest sister lived. There I was enchanted by the simple life of my brother-in-law’s family. From Yemen, these religious people had an extended family that lived by planting crops and milking goats.
With a wide range of exposure to ideas and ways of living, I started a search for truth before kindergarten. I wanted to find a truth whose reality had a base other than family and tradition. I said so, much to my mother’s surprise.
Textbooks do a poor job of describing reincarnation to an inquisitive student–my elementary school geography book mentioned the idea when ridiculing the “primitive” culture of India. But the mention was enough. I accepted reincarnation as the most sensible and logical answer to many of life’s riddles and wrote as much in a paper for my Hebrew School teacher. I was then eight. He was not very impressed.
My second oldest sister lived on New York’s lower east side during the 60’s when the area emerged as a Mecca for hippies. They had moved there not to become hippies, but so she could attend Cooper Union Art School. The prevailing philosophy of peace and love through simplicity, cooperation, nature (and drugs and free sex) saturated the neighborhood. A young movement, the counterculture had not yet produced the confused and bedraggled results of its good intentions. My sister and her husband were very interested.
My brother-in-law worked with the “East Village Other,” an underground newspaper, and knew all the local celebrities. I remember him taking me backstage at the Filmore East to meet Jerry Garcia of the “Grateful Dead.” He also went to see Srila Prabhupada in his small temple at 26 Second Avenue, a few blocks from their home. Eventually this led him to his own spiritual search, but this is my story.
I lacked the good fortune to wander into the first Hare Krishna temple, a few yards away from the psychedelic shops full of blacklight posters, used clothing, and exotic incense. These promised a world of higher, spiritual awareness. Sandwiched between such shops, down a flight of stairs, I noticed a new store, “The Krishna Shop.” This store was managed by Mr. Coleman who had met Prabhupada and recorded his chanting on the “Happening” Album. The sound of Prabhupada chanting drifted up the dingy cement stairs and mixed with the rock and roll from the hippie stores. Curious, I went in.
From then on I regularly visited the shop, staying sometimes for an hour or more. The store was very small, maybe ten by fifteen feet. The colorful Indian clothes decorated with mirrors deserved some passing interest. But the posters! I leafed through beautiful posters of Krishna and His pastimes. I didn’t ask their meaning. Nor did I ask the meaning of the record that played unceasingly. Once, I asked Mr. Coleman, “Why do you play the same song over and over?”
“Do you want to hear the other side?” he said with a smile. He reached behind a curtain and turned over the record. Now, instead of Hare Krishna, we heard the prayers to the spiritual master.
I listened for a few minutes. “Yes,” I said, “the first side is much better.” Mr. Coleman turned the record over again. I was then about twelve years old.
The Jewish Theological Seminary, uptown near Columbia University, offered afternoon and week-end classes in Hebrew and Bible. I studied there when I was fourteen. The Bible is full of references to a personal God, which both attracted and confused me. I thought that God is an impersonal force, and that it is wrong to talk of form or name in reference to Him.
However, I read “Moses spoke with God face to face, as a friend speaks with another friend.” I wondered if that meant that, even in this body and on this earth, an exalted person could actually see God. And was that a finger the Lord used to write on the tablets of stone? What most intrigued me was the account of the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. Moses becomes angered at the materialism and idolatry of his people, and smashes the stone tablets. God then tells Moses that those people will be killed; the nation will start over with him. Moses pleads for mercy and reminds the Lord of the promise to Abraham of a mighty nation from his descendants. God relents and allows the fallen Israelites to live. This exchange between the Lord and His devotee was incomprehensible to me, because I accepted the basic premise of the Lord as impersonal. Yet I wanted understanding.
I visited my sister often during these years, and always went to “The Krishna Shop.” Usually I stayed in the East Village, investigating the stores or walking through Thompkin Square Park. One day, however, when I was fourteen, my girlfriend Randy and I decided to go to Washington Square Park in adjoining Greenwich Village. There we saw Bill, who we recognized as a student in our high school. I took them both to my favorite store.
Unbeknown to me, Bill then started visiting the New York temple, first in Manhattan and then in Brooklyn. He chanted the Hare Krishna mantra on beads, offered his food to Krishna, and lived by the principles of spiritual life. Meanwhile, Randy and I continued more or less as typical American teen-agers. “The Krishna Shop” closed and my visits to the East Village were less frequent.
Playing the radio was part of my early morning ritual, along with breakfast with my father and exercises. But one morning there was quite a different song. It was heaven; no it was Indian; no again, it was indescribable. Although I now hear this song daily, it is not difficult to bring back that first impression. The music swelled with known and unknown instruments in the background of a women’s rich voice singing another language. Soon she was joined by other voices which gradually melded together. I stopped brushing my hair, almost stopped breathing. What was this song?
I had a dream that I owned every album except this one. I looked for it frantically, but awoke dissatisfied. I only heard “Govinda” once more on the radio and finally purchased it at the largest record store in Manhattan. Inside the album were two pictures which joined the hippie posters on my wall.
Soon after buying the album, which was produced by George Harrison and a hit in Europe, I noticed a boy in the school library reading a book with an identical cover to one of the pictures I had put on my wall. This Krishna Book was filled with gorgeous pictures. I eagerly turned the pages, absorbing as much as possible before my next class. Upon returning it, I noticed that its owner was Bill. “This book is beautiful!” I said, “and I have the cover picture on my wall. It was inside a record I bought.”
“Really?” He looked up. “Would you like to come to the temple with me on Sunday?”
“Temple?” I had not yet made any connection between the shop, the book and the record. I certainly had no idea that there was a linking organization. The Hare Krishna movement was still virtually unknown.
“I go to Brooklyn every Sunday. Would you like to come?” he repeated.
It took a few minutes before I grasped the possibilities. I went that Sunday.
The temple was to the eyes, nose, ears, and mind what the record had suggested. I could not relate it to any other experience, but it seemed very comfortable and familiar. Had I seen the devotees in Thompkin Square and remembered them? Or did they suggest to me the essence of my attraction for the culture and philosophy of India, the simplicity I found in Israel, and my inner longings? I don’t know. But I wanted to stay.
That Sunday the small deities of Radha and Krishna were swung by all the guests. We danced around the Tulasi tree, sacred to Lord Krishna, and tasted plates of food which were simultaneously completely different and as known as the bedroom of one’s childhood home. I stayed and discussed philosophy with Jadurani prabhu. At the subway station I turned to Bill, “I agree with what she said,” I told him, “but I can’t explain it.”
The next week we went again. I asked one of the women, “What must I do to live here?”
She looked at Bill and me. Maybe she thought we were married. Actually we were fifteen, high school students, and superficial acquaintances. But she said, “There’s no room. You’ll have to get an apartment.”
This misunderstanding kept me from the Brooklyn temple until I returned there to live with my family years later. I thought, “Why go back? This philosophy is wonderful but it’s not practical for me. How can I live it?” But from then on, I identified myself as a “Hare Krishna.” More pictures of Krishna went on my wall.
While starting my spiritual awakening I traveled a road of material disillusionment. I read many books of impersonal philosophy, and tried to live naturally according to the ideas of the day. Although looking for spirit, I became ensnared by matter. Life was empty and pointless. I did have the goal of merging with God to become “one” where I hoped to lose my identity. Then, during a self-styled meditation I became scared. I didn’t really want to become a non-person!
This understanding had an immediate and dramatic effect on my life. Previously, I had the inner goal of perfection through merging. Knowing that I no longer truly desired this, I fully turned my attention to material goals.
Simultaneously with my rejection of impersonal philosophy, which I thought to be the only spiritual truth, I rejected mundane logic. This started at the beginning of high school when I joined the debating club. In the next two years I collected many trophies for public speaking, including the state and district championship. One year I made it to the quarter finals of the national competition.
In debate, one quickly learns that there are no absolutes. Every argument has a counter argument, every solution a problem. Winning is simply being more clever than the next person in thinking on your feet and quoting authorities. This I learned to do very well. But the more I became expert, the more I became disgusted with material reasoning and solutions. My debating friends prepared for law school; I wanted a way out.
I compressed four years of education into three, hoping to find some relief in college. But, rejecting both spiritual and material hope for answers and happiness, I lived like one in a dream, without direction. Finally I prayed, “Dear Lord, please help me!”
A few weeks later I was walking on campus with my girlfriend, Sandy. We were talking to her boyfriend’s roommate, Steve. On the floor I noticed “Bhagavad-gita As It Is.” “That’s the Hare Krishna’s book, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “One of them sold it to me in New York. Nice pictures. Never read it. Want to borrow it?” He picked it up and brushed it off. I grabbed it eagerly.
Now, I suppose someone might call me a readoholic. I read a lot, sometimes without discrimination, at least at that time. It was common for me to read more than one book a day. “Gone With the Wind” was devoured in a week. So it wasn’t unusual for me to sit with the “Gita” and try to finish in a night. However, this reading was different. Many books are eye-opening or refreshing. Some authors have sharp insights about human nature. This book was an intimate dialogue. Someone had read my heart and inner mind, knew all my doubts and questions, and had perfect answers. The book said that this mystical someone, Krishna, was God. I believed it. What mortal could speak such words?
I read that Arjuna asked Krishna what compels a man to act sinfully, even against his will. I gasped. Yes, this was me! How I hated my life of purposeless talk and empty pleasures full of anxiety! But Krishna’s answer was a disappointing allegation–it was due to my own lust. Well then, let us conquer nasty lust!
Struggling without the association of devotees of Krishna, I tried to control my lust, greed and anger artificially. After finishing the “Gita” I read the Gospels of the New Testament for the first time. It was clear to me, at least, that Jesus was teaching basically the same message. Getting as much understanding as I could on my own, I tried to control my actions and language without having conquered the desires within. Although only moderately successful, I deceived myself into thinking that I was situated in goodness, well on the path of spiritual life. This finely contrived image, like a portrait that shows us better than in our best light, was soon to be compared to the real person. I wouldn’t like it.
My college had a work term where students practically apply their studies. I got a job as a tour guide at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where I had a friend at Northwest University. As soon as I arrived, I tried to find the Hare Krishna temple, to discuss my new excitement. My old record album listed a temple in Chicago, but the phone operators couldn’t locate it–only an Indian man named Radhakrishnan. I declined his invitation.
The museum job had many hours of boring guard duty when I would softly chant the mantras from the album. Gradually I started seeing people in a new light. The chanting was cleaning my heart, slowly doing the real work that I sought to do externally.
Everyone in the museum had come to enjoy. This is a “pushbutton” place rather than a gallery. Children would play with the escalator railing but their parents would pull them to an exhibit for proper education. Foreigners gazed at displays of American industry, thinking of how to imitate it or conquer it. And most significant, for me at least, were the groups of teen-agers. Seventeen in the early seventies, I dressed, looked, and acted just like these museum visitors. Seeing them through the glasses of my chanting, they looked foolish and insecure. Their mature and sophisticated veneer, which appeared to them like polished mahogany, seemed to me a plastic imitation. The result of this perception was not a criticism of them, but an introspection of myself. I wasn’t spiritually advanced–I was a fool. My pretenses crumbled and I became morose.
For three days I continued to feel depressed and hopeless. I had thought I was becoming spiritually enlightened with my concocted meditation times, my attempts to love my enemy, and my discussions of deep philosophy. Nevertheless, I remained a material fool, fooling no one but myself.
In the depth of despair, I met a devotee on the way to work. I must not have appeared very interested in Krishna to this brahmacari, Yasomatinandana prabhu. I wore a used fur coat I had bought in the East Village. My fringed leather boots laced up to my knees. My hair was scattered in a natural style. “Hare Krishna!” I said as loudly as one possibly can on an elevated train without causing a sensation.
“Hare Krishna,” he said stoically, looking away. “Do you want to buy a magazine?”
“I only have money for a phone call. I don’t carry money.”
He looked at me, disinterested and incredulous. “Yeah, sure.”
“No, really! Is there a temple here? I want to visit. I went twice in New York.”
He gave me a card. The temple had moved to a suburb and was only two blocks from my friend’s dorm room at Northwest. It was so close! How had I missed it? “Come to the Sunday feast,” he said expressionless.
“I work on Sunday.”
He paused and glanced at me again. “Yeah, sure.”
I went a few days later and bought some incense. Another brahmacari, Candrashekhara, talked to me at the door (so I wouldn’t have to unlace my boots) for about two hours. He wanted to know, “Why wouldn’t I move in?”
The question came down to surrender to authority. I said I was making fine progress on my own (which I knew to be a lie) and that I didn’t need a spiritual master or a spiritual movement. We went back and forth for some time. Then he got to the heart of the issue. “Don’t you now accept so many authorities? Why not accept the real one?”
I hung my head. It was my great shame in an era of “be your own guide” and “follow your own heart” to have realized long ago that all knowledge comes from outside, although confirmed within. “Yes,” I said softly, “that’s true.” Two days later I asked to stay in the temple.
The temple president, Sri Govinda prabhu, looked at me the way Yasomatinandana prabhu had done on the El. “We rise early in the morning,” he said.
“I’ve done that my whole life. Well, not quite so early. But it won’t be hard.”
“We have four rules–no illicit sex, no intoxication, no gambling, and no eating meat, fish or eggs. Can you do this?”
“Oh, I want to very much.”
I then went to the women’s quarters and was dressed in a sari. My childhood interest in India had led to an insistence that I own a sari. So, at about ten years of age, my mother’s friend had “made” me one from saffron-colored cloth. But that had been a sewn imitation. Now the real thing, unsewn cloth, was draped around me. It wasn’t totally authentic, as very few devotees had been to India. It was thick cloth, of one saffron color and much too big and heavy. I remember that it kept coming off while I danced in the temple room, forming a heap on the floor but still remaining on me. Tamohara’s four year old daughter stared at me in amazement.
My visit was an experiment, but one in which the results were decided quickly. Whatever satisfaction, amazement, and excitement I had found in the Brooklyn Sunday feasts were intensified hundreds of times in the pre-dawn program.
The philosophy was more exciting to me than the chanting and worship. The devotees explained that God does indeed have a spiritual form. Although I couldn’t fully grasp the concept at that time, I began to feel that my long-asked questions were resolved. Yes, Krishna has a spiritual finger with which He can write on stone or lift Goverdhan Hill. In His loving dealings with His devotees, He exhibits the transcendental emotions and exchanges which are merely pervertedly reflected in this world.
Understanding karma and reincarnation more fully, as I had not done previously, reconciled our daily suffering with a God who is both unlimitedly good and unlimitedly just. I made a determination–after this year of college I would come back to stay.
I hadn’t realized that such determination must be tested. Returning to Vermont away from devotees, it was not so easy to maintain my discipline. I bought some cloth for saris and wore a sari and tilok to all my classes. I kept those high fringed boots and so looked somewhat ridiculous, coupled with the fact that the sari material I purchased was two thick, too short, and too narrow. Yet somehow or other this feeble attempt reminded me of Krishna.
My fellow students knew me as a “Hare Krishna.” A group of devotees, including Candrashekhara, arrived on campus to sell literature and discuss philosophy. Everyone sent them to my room! We sat on the lawn and read from Srila Prabhupada’s books. I felt this as great encouragement from Krishna–if I couldn’t go to His devotees, He would send them to me.
I did make one attempt that semester to visit a temple–Boston, more than a four hour drive. I took two curious friends to the Sunday feast. We were delayed by rain so intense that sometimes we could see nothing beyond our headlights. The prasadam, spiritual food, that I brought back to school inspired me. Why not distribute prasadam myself?
Vegetarianism was easy. There was even a vegetarian line in the college cafeteria. But I had not yet cooked and formally offered my food to Krishna. I decided to make a feast for my whole dorm Sunday night, when the cafeteria was closed and students often had potluck suppers.
Ghee was simple to make, but the cleaning lady threw out my first batch not knowing what it was! I wanted to make sweets with chickpea or graham flour, but there were no Indian or Oriental stores locally. The health food store advertised, “We grind anything.” So I had them grind chickpeas! My “feast” ended up more like the sweet counter of a candy store or bakery. We had lugoos, ladus, sweet rice, gulubjamons (which didn’t turn out right but were still good) and a cucumber/yogurt salad. The sweetest taste was the happiness of sharing Krishna consciousness.
Of course, the decision to dedicate my life to Krishna became the topic of discussion at home during vacations. My mother cried and cried. She couldn’t see how naturally the path of my life led to this spiritual doorway. It would be many years before we became good friends and accepted each other’s differences. This impasse was not merely the result of her close-mindedness, as I liked to think at the time. Over the years I came to understand that the fanaticism that affects many who first turn to a religious life made it difficult for me to approach her on some common ground.
My father carefully examined my books and heard my story. He looked at me with the deep love of a relationship that is built on many frequent exchanges of shared conversation and adventures. “I’m so glad you are looking for God,” he would say over and over during these months, “I just wish you could feel satisfied with our own faith. You know,” he smiled, “I wanted to find spiritual truth when I was eighteen, but got distracted by marriage and business. I’m glad you are seeking a religious life.”
I went home at the end of the term to gather my things and return to Chicago. Somehow it was more difficult to proclaim my Krishna consciousness in my home town than it had been in college. I put my jeans back on and became bewildered by my friends’ plans for travel and adventure.
After three days at home and on a dangerous spiritual cliff, I received an invitation at noon on Saturday, June 16th, 1973. Large marble deities of Radha and Krishna were being installed in the Chicago temple in the afternoon of June 17th. Krishna was calling me–and I boarded a plane for the spiritual world.