VOLUME TWO: INDIA/AROUND THE WORLD
On the afternoon of October 2, not many noticed the tiny, two-propeller DC-3 with BASCO markings slowly steer its way through barricades and wreckage on the runway at Cairo International, dwarfed by giant jets from almost every nation, to park in front of the multitiered transit terminal. Few remarked the small gaggle of Hare Krishna devotees that stumbled from the fuselage to emerge in unfamiliar heat, escorted by khaki-clad men armed with Kalashnikovs to a shaded compound in front of the terminal. When these strange people began clanging cymbals, clapping hands, and singing and dancing around, their guards began to pay attention. What in Allah’s name was going on? Within minutes, dozens of soldiers and policemen surrounded the robed dervishes, and hundreds of stranded passengers ran to the airport’s balconies to witness the first wave of the World Sankirtan Party – eleven souls oblivious to war and politics on a journey to the East to meet their spiritual master.
Prabhupada. Always keeping things in perspective and enabling us to see the world through his eyes of rare wisdom, spoiling forever our impulse to gratify the body’s senses. Next he tells us that in earlier times, the maharajas would keep elephants as a symbol of their great wealth. “And above all precious elephants, the white elephant was supreme. When a maharaja happened to find an English wife, they used to say he was keeping a ‘white elephant.’ Now you American boys and girls, you are my white elephants. Everyone is seeing my dancing white elephants.” We roar with laughter – but the name sticks: Prabhupada’s dancing white elephants.
We were mesmerized as Prabhupada spoke on those golden mornings over the raucous cawing of crows outside, coo-cooing of pigeons in the courtyard. Changing expressions moved across his golden face, like the play of cumulus and sunlight over a varied landscape. One moment he was from our world and the next from a world we couldn’t penetrate, the self-contained knower of everything. Then suddenly he’s tossing a ball to you in a friendly game of verbal catch – maybe a fastball to see if you can catch it. He might break from describing Krishna’s vast cosmic design to real concern for your upset stomach: “Just try little bicarbonate soda, one spoonful in water.” None of us had ever seen such depth of personality.
As we near the river, yogis appear, lining the path and doing tricks. “What! Malati, d’you see that?” There’s a boy-man lying on a wooden plank with a dozen foot-long spikes penetrating his torso, his eyes focused on eternity. The wounds are long-healed – must be something he’s done most of his life. There’re more of them – it’s a gathering of men on spikes. Their handlers stare at us and we stare back at them, trying to unravel in our minds this testament to sacrifice and the power that’s supposed to come from it. Is it worth it? Do these guys get anything more than a meager living for the incredible pain they’ve undergone? This yogi stuff is no longer a fairytale, son…We see other yogis buried in the sand with only an arm showing, their fingernails a foot long and curling around their wrists. There are levitators, a row of cross-legged men seated above the ground. One guy’s almost two feet up! Wait a minute. We glance at Prabhupada. He marches past, looking the other way, like, “Come on, lads, let’s go to the beach.”
We began to see Prabhupada as a great saint here in his homeland, relaxed, the true spiritual father of India, taking his place on the balcony to address flushed and excited devotee crowds like the Pope at St. Peter’s, his forehead plastered with sandalwood paste, the rooms and halls behind him suffused with the aroma of gardenias and tuberoses. Prabhupada was loving it – and we were loving him more each second. To see our father, our best friend, our master, so well treated, so revered by a whole city – it made us dizzy with new realizations. Prabhupada was a saint! The word for saint in Sanskrit comes from the root sat, “one who knows and abides by the truth.” Prabhupada was being venerated for his virtue and knowledge, as a living example of the truth. And seeing these angelic citizens of Surat, we realized, too, what the world might be like if everyone became a devotee of Krishna.
I could see he was a little skeptical, but he encouraged me, told me to “chase the rhinoceros,” and I was more determined than ever. I could sense that some devotees considered my big plans just another of “Shyamasundar’s wild schemes.” I also sensed that most of the devotees just wanted to stay in Prabhupada’s company and travel with him around India. I did too, of course – personal association with our spiritual master was blissful – but I had experienced an even higher bliss when Prabhupada looked into my eyes after I’d done some big service – once I’d captured a rhino – and said, “You have done very well.” There was no bliss higher than this. Prabhupada himself had set that example; just see all the impossible rhinos he had bagged for his own spiritual master! From my experiences in San Francisco and London – the Mantra Rock Dance concert, the Ratha-yatra festivals, Bury Place, the Beatles (“My Sweet Lord” right now the #1 song in the world) – I knew that the sky was the limit and anything could be done. I had already realized the super-most bliss of seeing Krishna’s hand removing obstacles to service so “impossible” that He must personally interfere. I wanted to show Prabhupada off to a bigger audience, the movers and shakers of India, and these people lived and worked in Bombay.
In June 1971 the world was divided into two opposing ideologies, capitalism and communism. The Western bloc of capitalist nations was separated from the Eastern bloc of communists by a geographic line drawn north-south through Europe called the Iron Curtain. It was a Cold War. Both sides were hesitant to risk all-out nuclear holocaust, so they fought instead small hot wars in places like Korea and Vietnam, where the two blocs, led by the United States and Russia, struggled by proxy for world domination. The entire planet lived in fear that some incident would break the stalemate and unleash nuclear winter across our globe…Through this perfect historical window stepped His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, determined to spread his ancient message of peace to both camps. Prabhupada arrived in Russia on June 20, 1971, and the short time he spent there could rightly be called five days that changed the world.
George Harrison said, “Shyamsundar! Hare Krishna! Hey, what a great surprise. It’s really good to see you.” “Well, Prabhupada just happened to be passing through New York. He’s over at the Brooklyn temple, and I –” Chris O’Dell waves from across the room. “Hare Krishna, Chris! How’re ya doin’! Anyway, George, I heard you were in town. What’s this all about?” “We’re puttin’ on a charity concert. It was Ravi’s idea. For the Bangladesh refugees. You know, they’ve been hit by cyclones, war. They’re in real bad shape over there. We’ve got Madison Square Garden booked for August 1. Two shows. Will you be around?” “Yeah, we’re heading over to London on the second.” “Great, I’ll get you a seat.”… Madison Square Garden, August 1, 1971, Concert for Bangla Desh, 2 p.m. matinee show: George walked onstage, and after twenty thousand fans gave him a five-minute standing ovation, he looked down at Bhavananda and me in our front-row-center seats, grinned, and greeted us with a soft “Hare Krishna.” What followed was one of the great rock music spectacles of our time.
And that was the joy and the lightness: the laughter in all of this. Prabhupada just tickled my funny bone with so many things he said and did. I found myself cracking up in his conversations with others, and even in his lectures. Sometimes, together, we acted almost like the American TV duo, Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon — Ed laughed at nearly everything Johnny said. Srila Prabhupada often gave me that sideways glance, raising his eyebrows, indicating, “You like the show, eh? Am I doing all right?” I was like Prabhupada’s audience meter; when I’d send him a laugh, he’d up the energy and lay you out in the aisles. And then he’d come in with the kicker: “So long I am here, let us try something tangible, not simply fairytale proposals.” I ask, “Srila Prabhupada, what is laughter?” He says, “It is the difference between what you expect and what really happens.” “Well, then, Prabhupada, why do you always make me laugh?” “Perhaps you expect too much from me.”
George was still in America putting together the film of the Bangla Desh Concert. He had asked me to check on Eric Clapton as soon as I got back to England, to “give him a little Krishna love,” deeply worried about Eric’s addiction to hard drugs. So on August 10 I asked Prabhupada for an afternoon off and took the bus out to Eric’s estate, Hurtwood Edge, in Surrey, about forty miles southwest of London…when suddenly, through the front door clattered Ginger Baker and two of Eric’s other musician friends. Eric came downstairs — not really glad to see me — but he greeted me with a soft “Hare Krishna.” Before long they’d set up instruments and amps and were jamming. They played one song that moved me very much, and from the words Eric sang it might have been called “Sunshine of Your Love.” “Wow, Eric,” I said, “that’s a beautiful song!” “What? You’ve never heard it before?!” They laughed and joked that they were meeting the only person on the planet who’d never heard their song.
But as we jaywalked across Ngong Forest Road and threaded our way through the Kibera slum toward Kamukunji Park to conduct the first public sankirtan in Africa, even stalwart Brahmananda looked scared. Me — I was shaking like a leaf! Just yesterday I had seen a guy in a breechcloth walking down the street with a zebra hide over his shoulder, fresh blood running down his back. This was a savage country, only recently seized back from the British by the murderous Mau Mau. In the 1960s, Jomo Kenyatta had launched his successful campaign to oust the Brits from this same Kamukunji Park, and here we were, heading for the very Freedom Tree under which he had rallied his people to revolt. Would this work?...There were seven of us: Brahmananda, Bhavananda, Naranarayan, Jagannivas, Chayavana, Aravinda, and me — seven white men acting out under the very symbol of the black man’s freedom from white rule. Oh boy.
All over Calcutta, radical Bengalis were trying to instigate the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It was the perfect time and place to discuss Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Tse-tung. Shyamasundar: “So Karl Marx made a manifesto called the Communist Manifesto, which lists ten points for social reform. The first one is the abolition of private property — all property becomes public.” Prabhupada: “The whole tendency of the individual spirit soul is that I want profit from my activity. He may propose all these nice things according to his philosophy, but he cannot change the mind of the people. Therefore all such proposals will be futile. Simply waste of time, that’s all.”
The largest and perhaps most entangled government bureaucracy in the world is ruled from New Delhi, with more than six hundred million lives in these officials’ hands. Early on the morning of November 10, 1971, we flew Indian Airlines from Calcutta to Delhi, arriving at Palam Airport at 8:30 a.m. to a VIP reception on the tarmac beside the parked plane. Sri Hans Raj Gupta, mayor of New Delhi, along with a dozen government bigwigs, met Prabhupada as he stepped off the gangway…Bhaktivedanta Swami had lived off and on in Delhi for almost ten years during the late ’50s and early ’60s. It was here that he had struggled alone to print and distribute his Back To Godhead magazine and three-volume Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto One. In those days he often walked across Delhi because he didn’t have the half-rupee for bus fare. Now, six years later, he was returning in triumph as India’s spiritual ambassador to the world.
In Vrindaban, Srila Prabhupada is more relaxed and intimate than I have ever seen him: greeting and preaching (maybe bragging a bit) to old friends in his quarters or on the street, during meals and massages — yak, yak, yak in the pleasant winter sun. He is so elegant, graceful, friendly, carefree, wise, practical, and self-confident during this exhibition to his extended family in Vrindaban. What a contrast to Delhi, where he was the politician-king. Here, he is the old friend, the favorite uncle, the patriarch, the worshipable village elder. We have never seen this side of him, but we quickly understand it: Vrindaban dwellers are grounded in magic, they are accustomed to the miraculous, and they see Prabhupada and his disciples as the recurrence of an ancient sacred pastime…We chant and dance down Vrindaban’s ancient streets, barely wide enough for a bicycle rickshaw — ching ching! — as we step aside to avoid open sewers. Krishna’s name is echoed by the time-darkened walls. Haribol! shout the shopkeepers and pilgrims we meet. We see majestic temples packed between brick-and-stucco homes, walled compounds, arcades and verandas, pavilions and alcoves. Iron bars or carved stone screens protect windows from marauding, pink-faced macaque monkeys. A maze of plumbing runs down the sides of buildings and tangles of wire top every utility pole, where electricity pirates grab their volts. (One power company worker tells us that only about 60 percent of electricity in Vrindaban is actually paid for.) Everything seems run-down, deteriorated. Parts of town look almost abandoned. But from this day forward, Srila Prabhupada and his pack of angels begin to breathe new life into the holy precincts of Vrindaban.
About an hour after the Madras Mail chugged out of Bombay’s Victoria Station — and after fifteen or twenty devotees cleared Prabhupada’s first-class AC sleeper cabin to find their own seats in second-class coach — the conductor appeared and punched our tickets. The door’s slammed and latched against the noisy corridor, and I’m suddenly a little shy and awkward to be alone with Prabhupada for this long journey in such cramped quarters…A far-off moan from the locomotive breaks my slumber. The light is out and I scoot over to peer over the edge of my bed, down to Prabhupada’s bunk, expecting to see him sleeping. I’ve never seen him actually asleep — this may be a first. He’s on his side in the starlight, legs drawn up, and just then his right eye opens and stares into mine above, with no expression on his face, as if to say, “Thought you’d catch me sleeping, huh?”
We had experienced so many exciting adventures with Prabhupada, dashing from place to place in such rapid order — now it feels like a holiday, a vacation from crowded cities, reclined at Prabhupada’s feet while he sprawls in his easy chair on the front porch [in Vishakhapatnam] and laughs and kids with his buddies, watching hummingbirds and seagulls play, noon sun shimmering on a chartreuse sea… Each morning, Prabhupada leads his throng of merry pranksters along the beach while we pick up shells and skip flat rocks. He tells us of Lord Chaitanya, how much He loved this coast, how the Lord and His devotees would swim and play in this sea in great jubilation. Nanda Kumar asks Prabhupada, “Isn’t this really just sense gratification, this playing around in the ocean?” Prabhupada replies, “The sun is there — Krishna is the light of the sun. Ocean is there — Krishna is the taste of water. You are surrounded by Krishna. How can you forget Krishna? He is all around you.”
While workmen are busy finishing the pandal, Prabhupada leads the Mayapur organizers out into the field behind the pandal. He paces off the four corners of a huge, four-story residence-guesthouse, the first building he wants to erect here. He instructs devotees to pile clods of dirt to mark each corner. Then Prabhupada shows them where to dig a pit, about fifteen feet deep and five feet square just outside the pandal entrance. This is where he will lay the cornerstone…Each morning, Prabhupada walks around the property, pointing to adjacent fields and saying stuff like, “The temple should go here — bigger than Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s in London,” or “Apartments for five hundred men should go over there,” or “Here you should dig a big lake.” He’s expanding on his dream for Mayapur…[Mayapur didn’t look like much then, but from these humble beginnings a mighty temple grew. Now, forty-six years later, I have lived to see a million pilgrims a year flock to ISKCON’s Mayapur complex, spread out over seven hundred acres, and as we speak, the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium rises 370 feet over all — and, yes, it’s higher than St. Paul’s.]
Just ten days earlier, Prabhupada had conducted the first movement of his India Temple Symphony — the Mayapur Sonata — in allegro, to a full house in the middle of a rice paddy in rural Bengal. Now he would dig deeper into his theme and calmly conduct the second movement in a slower tempo, in adagio, on an empty plain on the outskirts of Vrindaban…[In Vrindaban] there were three major tasks to accomplish: (1) to sign the deed for the Raman Reti property; (2) to sign documents granting Prabhupada his rooms at the Radha-Damodar temple in perpetuity; and (3) to organize a cornerstone-laying ceremony for a new temple on the Raman Reti land. Prabhupada was scarcely settled in his room when the various characters in the sitcom began to arrive, one by one, from central casting. Quiet on the set! Action! SCENE ONE Interior. Room Three.
I think about everything that’s been happening. In less than one month Srila Prabhupada has done the impossible: he’s laid the cornerstones for his main three temples in India, despite all odds: Naxalite bandits, floods, cold, heat, lack of money, envious opponents, unsupportive godbrothers, caste goswamis, a communist-leaning central government under martial law with strict rationing of construction materials, our shaky legal standing, and a handful of young but worn-out devotees. The lands we have acquired are so old, with so many contending proprietors, and so large and in such vital locations — to even think of owning these properties is almost surreal. We are recent arrivals on Indian soil, with very little organization or social standing. And yet despite these obstacles, Prabhupada’s unrelenting desire to please Krishna has somehow prevailed. He did it! Seeing all this from the inside — typing his letters, making phone calls, huddled with him in late-night strategy sessions — I am in awe. This is Superman beyond anything yet, and he is just getting started.
Prabhupada just wouldn’t stop talking. Since we had left the Bombay airport on Friday evening, March 31, 1972, more than twenty-four hours earlier, he hadn’t slowed down a bit. Now he’s sitting late at night in an upstairs room in a borrowed white terrace house at 26 Renny Street in the Paddington district of Sydney, Australia, talking with Pradyumna, Nanda Kumar, and me, and with his ISKCON Australia leaders Upendra and Mohanananda, about every subject under the crescent moon, including the flowers in a vase on his desk… It’s getting so late, after midnight now, officially April 2, and Prabhupada hasn’t rested in about two days. His elbows are propped on a low table-desk, head in his hands in a sort of reverie. Prabhupada appears to tower over us, his stature magnified by the greatness of his words, his control over every situation, his fearless intensity, and his gigantic spirit. Our point of view begins at his feet, looking up as if he’s way over our heads. His movements are so graceful, light, and expressive, yet heavy with meaning. He is guru, heavy. He seems so dominant, so huge in our eyes, yet I just saw the details in his passport as we passed through Australian customs: Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami, whose father is listed as “Late Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Goswami Maharaj Prabhupada” and whose visible distinguishing mark is “Vishnu tilaka on forehead.” He is just 1 m 60 cm (5 feet 3 inches) tall and maybe soaking wet he weighs 120 pounds. He’s in that special zone now, wired but tired yet kind of drifting. “Where was I? Oh, yes.” He’s in bliss and wants to keep talking. Now he gets a snack attack.
The [Cistercian] monks eat it up, seeing that our faith and practices are so similar to theirs, even down to the shaved heads and exotic robes. There is a feeling of instant brotherhood, cross-institutional familiarity. Prabhupada is the dynamic authority, delivering the gospel in a way they understand…We follow with kirtan, which quickly moves from the sublime to the boisterous as the monks push their chairs away and clap and dance with us, some laughing with glee despite themselves, their innocent faces glistening with holy rapture. Ba-boom- BOOM! Kirtan ends, the monks bow down while Prabhupada recites Sanskrit prayers, then rise as one, somewhat stunned. (I’m thinking, “See, it’s the same thing, but we have more fun!”)
China! To be with my Indian swami in China was like the realization of a childhood fantasy. Of course, in April 1972 no one could really go to China; Mainland China was a closed Communist country. The British colony of Hong Kong was as close as you could get, but it was still China, the mysterious dragon lair of Fu Manchu…As we walk along, many thoughts pass through my head, like “Are his feet cold in those open-toed slippers?” and “His toenails, they look like pearls.” Sandalwood fragrance wafts in his wake, and Prabhupada looks purposeful, chin high, as he chants quietly, his tongue playing with a loose lower front tooth. He looks spiffy this morning, and pumped to be in Hong Kong.
On May 4, we returned to the Dai Nippon offices [in Tokyo], where Prabhupada finalized arrangements for the printing of the Indian BTG and some books in Hindi. After his meeting, Prabhupada sat patiently for an hour while a young Dai Nippon dentist fitted him with a pair of solid gold teeth, cleverly bridged to the remaining front teeth in his lower jaw. Prabhupada looked in the mirror and said, “Oh, this looks very nice,” then reached out and pulled the anxious dentist to his chest, hugged him, and messed up his hair. Emerging from the dentist’s office, Srila Prabhupada flashed his glamorous new grin, ready for his trip to celebrity-conscious America.
On May 6 we took an early flight from Tokyo to Honolulu. Srila Prabhupada was in high spirits after his recent victories: three huge temples underway in India, two in Australia, New Zealand, now a strong foothold in Japan…He said, “On this Hawaii island how many beautiful things, flowers, trees, and fruits — it is like a heavenly planet. The climate is milder and there is much fresh air from the ocean and sunshine, and the scenery position is also very beautiful. There is also strong inclination for spiritual birth, and many yogis take their birth in Hawaii”… There was a gorgeous flowering frangipani tree (plumeria) in the yard, and after his morning class Prabhupada would doff his clothes and relax on a mat spread on the lawn beneath this fragrant tree, wrapped in a simple loincloth for his daily massage…O Prabhupada, how beautiful you are: the golden-limbed young man sporting in flowered gardens, joking, declaiming on every subject from butterflies to Brahmaloka, your eyes half-closed in rest and inner satisfaction. Never have I seen you so beautiful. This is what it must be like in the spiritual sky in Krishna’s place called Goloka Vrindavan — sheer heaven…Or sitting in his rocking chair, chanting japa for hours — each word snaps so clear and distinct — while a gentle breeze plays with his kurta, his senses alert to frangipani perfume and a few soft raindrops, seeing Krishna in every movement of bamboo rustling at the fence, in the play of wind across the emerald carpet of grass at his feet, in the sibilate susurrus of the insistent Pacific rolling back and forth on white coral sands.
Being with Prabhupada was like being in an endless movie. One moment you were part of an epic adventure-thriller like Ben- Hur or Where Eagles Dare, and the next moment you were in a newsreel, a documentary, or an evocative travelogue. You went from sidesplitting comedy to deep tragedy in a few frames of time. The contents of letters written to Prabhupada ranged from juicy high drama to dry field reports; from soap-operatic Dear Abbeys to heavenly expressions of love. Prabhupada was the producer-director for an ever-changing kaleidoscope of actors and scripts, and Los Angeles was his home base of choice. The weather was perfect here year round, and what is done in L.A. today, the whole world does tomorrow. From the Culver City temple it was just a few short blocks to the main gates of MGM Studios, where The Wizard of Oz was filmed and where “Gunsmoke” and “Jeopardy!” beamed out each week to millions of homes…Over the following days, Prabhupada delivers a consistent series of lectures, a powerful exposition of this most essential of all Vedic knowledge, ready-made for TV. With all the flowers, devotee glee, and children coming forward for sweets from Prabhupada’s hand, it is a remarkable piece of transcendental show business.
From mid-1966 to mid-1970, in just four years’ time, Bhaktivedanta Swami built his International Society for Krishna Consciousness into a major spiritual force in North America and Europe. On August 2, 1970, Srila Prabhupada flew from Los Angeles to Tokyo to commence his first round-the-world preaching tour, returning to L.A. in late June 1971, having planted the seeds for ISKCON in Japan, India, Russia, Malaysia, and Australia. For his second round-the-world tour, Prabhupada left Los Angeles on July 16, 1971, and now, in late May of 1972, after his heroic success in London, Nairobi, India, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Japan, Srila Prabhupada is back in L.A., revving up for his third round-the-world adventure…Armed with fresh cassette tapes, I jump in the front seat of Prabhupada’s car as we race to LAX for our flight to Mexico City—chasing another rhino with the Swami.
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!”