VOLUME ONE: SAN FRANCISCO/LONDON
Blood flew from its four-inch fangs as the feeding jaguar roared, just feet from my startled face. I wheeled and ran with my Venezuelan guide crashing through thick jungle certain the enraged 300-pound beast would be on us in a moment. “Krishna! Krishna! Krishna!” I yelled from fear-filled lungs, not stopping till we’d scrambled to the highest point in a tree-tangled windfall. We threw off our packs and back-to- sweat-soaked- back we sat on a single green log, trembling with effort and dread while hours passed and the big cat shrieked and coughed, broke branches, and circled unseen around us, furious that we’d interrupted its fresh kill. Downwind, we could smell its rancid breath and gore-soaked coat. Low skies opened and rain poured on our huddled forms.I whipped my battered shot-gun back and forth at the slightest sound, down to my last 000-buckshot shell. The Indian had three cane arrows. He dipped their tips into the small clay pot of poison tied at his waist, nocked his long bow, and laid two arrows beside us on the log. As night fell, we awaited our uncertain fate…
Then Mike Grant, at twenty-four, not much expression on his face, says he has a spiritual master. “Yeah, I got initiated by the Swami, big ceremony with like a campfire in the middle of the room– and he gave me a new name.”Mike seemed so different. But what was it? I handed him a joint, showing off (see, even out there in the wilderness …), and he said no thanks, appreciating the offer, but “We took a vow to the Swami. No more intoxicants.”InTOXicants? A little grass?Mike Grant, my Reed College hero: in his black beret and shades, tickling the ivories at 2 a.m. in that dark coffeehouse on Stark Street in Portland, who turned this innocent farm boy from Salem on to Lenny Bruce and John Coltrane – my hero, with a new name like Moo-koonda? – telling me, “Yeah, you got to meet this guy, the Swami.”
Motioning me to scoot over and sit beside him behind the low table – his grace, his fragrance, which I later learn is sandalwood – he slips his glasses from a little case, takes his pen from another case and – brushing my arm with his shoulder, the soft rustle of cotton, and jolts of electricity shoot through my neck and I am overwhelmed with well-being.“Now, in keeping books there are always two sides, income and debit” (debt? dabit? What did he say?), and he slashes a bold line down the middle of the page and writes INCOME above one column and EXPENSES above the other. Under “Income” he jots down Sales, Donations, and Fees – fees? – and under “Expenses” he writes Rent, Food, and Flowers. His script is flowery and bold. Minutes (feels like hours) pass as I reel with comfort, his voice a gentle murmur in my ear.Then: “So, what is your understanding of the purpose of life?” What! Did he just say ...? “Well, er, to become one with God?” “Yessss. God is one, yes, but you are also one. So there are two. You and God. What is that relationship, you have to understand. Gradually you will come to understand. Now, this is the important thing: bookkeeping. So you come every morning and sit down here and I will show you ..."
Whenever you came to the Swami’s door, your heart was in your throat. (This feeling never left me, even after a thousand trips to that door.) There was a heightened sense that something marvelous was about to occur, a tingling in the blood. You never knew what to expect, just that it would be a wonderful surprise, whatever happened. He’d be sitting behind his little table or in his rocker clicking his beads, dressed in saffron, maybe with a white sweater, sunlight through the south-facing window shining on his freshly-oiled head and his face a radiant gold, emerging from some deep bliss – and he would welcome you no matter what hour of day or night. Dropping the doll in his outstretched hand I said, “Swamiji, we found this in a shop. It’s from India. Can you tell us what it is?” This startled look comes over the Swami’s face. He leaps from his rocker and places the doll on his metal trunk and falls down on the floor before it, beckoning “Down, down!” to Mukunda and me, who are trying to make sense of this. We bow down beside him. And then he starts praying in Sanskrit, saying, jagannatha swami nayana patha game bhave tu me over and over. Flushed and beaming, the Swami rises and asks me, “From where you have got this doll?” “Malati found it.” “Then tell her to come here, immediately.”
Finally, one by one, Paul, John, and Ringo each stick their head out of one of the doors and then bolt for the exit, not pausing to speak to anyone. A few minutes later, George pokes his head out too, and those famous, intense, dark eyes scan the room and alight on me. Before anyone can react, George shoots out the door, crosses the room, and comes straight at me, grinning. “Hare Krishna! Where have you been? I've been waiting to meet you!” I love his accent. George is dressed in a loose, flowered shirt with ruffled neckline, and I’m in my dark-blue Nehru jacket, too tight at the collar, with drops of indigo dye running in the sweat down my back. George sits down and we start yakking a mile a minute, as if we’re old friends meeting after a long time. Most people in the room are stunned, and some come over to gawk silently while we shoot the breeze. Others continue to mill around, drinks in hand, trying to look cool. Rather than nervous, I feel marvelously fluent, chosen, and wonderfully happy.
The timing is perfect. The Swami’s movement has a strong foothold in Britain; Krishna’s name is being heard daily – over the radio, on the telly, in newspapers, and in periodicals – by millions of people throughout the land. Swamiji landed in the UK to greet his old disciples and meet his many new ones, and to deliver his most powerful interview yet to the world press – then be whisked off in a Rolls-Royce with a liveried driver to one of the poshest mansions in England, the guest of one of the most famous people in the world. Prabhupad’s five-story temple in the heart of London is under lavish construction, and money is flowing in. We’ve never seen the Swami looking so good. His beauty dazzles our eyes. And we’re struck by how gracefully he has settled into these radical new surroundings, as if only moments had passed since we’d last met. We are overwhelmed with relief and the sense that we’ve done the right thing, a job well done, and a conviction that Krishna is real and actively helping us, that right now we are the most special people in creation and that right here is better than heaven – waves of pleasure flow through our bodies. How glorious is our spiritual master.
George is such an amazing guy. His intelligence and sensitivity hit you immediately. He’s always right there. He sizes you up in a second, so keen are his perceptions, and his response to you will be immediate but simple, unsophisticated. I don’t know if being the receiver of millions of peoples’ adoration has anything to do with it, but George exudes a special magnetism and confidence. He’s as much at home with the Queen as he is chatting with Devadatta about hibiscus. When he hears something true, that’s it, he accepts it and fits it into the jigsaw-puzzle cosmology he has constructed, bit by bit, to understand how the universe works. Imagine what it must be like to have been separated in adolescence from a middle-class life, then isolated in a bubble and shot to the very peak of fame, wealth, power, and beauty for the rest of your days. He’s on the most powerful magical mystery tour that anyone could imagine. George has deeply examined, “Why me, Lord?” He understands the concepts of karma, rebirth, and using this lifespan to understand what it’s all about – and the importance of spreading such knowledge to others – because he has realized what he has understood.
From the tower I watched late-spring cumulus make shadow plays across the rolling, checkerboard Chiltern Hills and dreamed of another rhino chase with Prabhupad, over the far horizon. What was I doing? Why was I at Friar Park? Why wasn’t I out with the other devotees spreading Krishna consciousness like I should be? I reasoned that I was there to be the part-time spiritual companion to one of the world’s great rock stars, working in the man’s garden. But was that important? One morning at about 6 a.m., I’m eating some porridge and a Mercedes sedan roars up and parks outside the kitchen door. George, Billy Preston, and Klaus Voorman clump in, boisterous and full of energy from an all-night recording session for All Things Must Pass. Billy immediately sits down at the organ in the kitchen and thumps out this wild gospel melody. George and Klaus grab guitars and plug them into the little amps. They sing, “My Sweet Lord, oooh My Lord, Halle-lu-ya, Halle-lu-ya.” George breaks in with,“Ha-re Krish-na, Ha-re Krish-na!” Pretty soon we’re all dancing around and singing at the top of our lungs, the rising sun bathing us in rosy golden light. “This one’s gonna be on the new album,” George says. I realize yes, it’s important to stay here at Friar Park.
“We’re elated, and start making preparations, like getting visas and shots. Gurudas buys a slide projector. We’re allowed one suitcase each, so we pack a few clothes (no pants—dhotis only), kartals, a toothbrush, a couple of books. Malati insists we bring her giant “Prabhupada’s World Sankirtan London” banner, so we roll that up and stuff it into a suitcase. On the way to Brussels it finally sinks in: We’re on our way to India! To meet Prabhupada!”