Brahmatirtha dasa at Sridhama Mayapur, ISKCON’s flourishing spiritual project in West Bengal. Here, more than fourteen years ago, he received valuable instructions about spiritual life from His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
One hot smoggy day in the summer of 1968, 1 went for a walk in New York’s Greenwich Village, browsing through the occult bookstores. As I stood inside one store, reading a small pocket copy of Bhagavad-gita, I saw an incredible sight: a group of young men and women in robes and saris, dancing double-file down the sidewalk. The men had shaved heads, and they were playing clay drums and cymbals. They were singing a song that they repeated to a simple melody, and it seemed to me I had heard this song before. I was very attracted.
All the way home, I tried to remember where I’d heard that song before. I went through all my record albums, and then finally it came to me-the Hair soundtrack. I played it time and time again: “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna. Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare.”
My parents had already planned a future for me: a good education and a good job. It wasn’t that I consciously rebelled against them, but some unknown force seemed to be leading me in another direction–India. The dream of visiting India had grown with me since childhood. I’d seen pictures in National Geographic of lush tropical forests and jungles, magnificent temples, and fabulous festivals. By the time I finished a college course on Eastern philosophy, I was convinced I had to go. There were questions that I just had to find the answers to, and I sensed that the answers were hidden somewhere in that ancient tradition.
I couldn’t just tell my parents that I was going to India for a spiritual search. So I decided to join the Peace Corps as a teacher and work in India. On the application form were three blank spaces for desired assignments, and I wrote India in all three spaces. Six months later I was on a plane bound for Delhi.
One day on a crowded Calcutta train, I saw a poster advertising a Hare Krsna festival at Deshapriya Park. I was elated; weren’t these the people I had seen singing on the streets in New York? I turned to a Sikh gentleman in a large turban and asked, “Deshapriya Park-where?” Silently he pointed back in the direction we had just come. I struggled to get off the overcrowded train. Hurrying through the streets, I began asking everyone – sweepers, stall owners, police-where I could find the park. But by evening I still had not located it.
Finally I began to look for a taxi, abandoning the search for the day. It was now evening rush hour. I ran up to a taxi that had stopped at a traffic light, although it was too dark to see if there were passengers inside or not.
“Take me to Free School Street,” I said, jumping in. I glanced over to my side, and there in the corner, amid piles of books and magazines, was a shaven-headed devotee in orange robes.
“Hare Krsna!” I shouted excitedly.
“Hare Krsna,” he replied, somewhat surprised.
“I’ve been looking for you people all day,” I said. “I saw a poster advertising a festival in Deshapriya Park, but I can’t find the place.”
“It’s just nearby,” he said. “You came within two minutes of it. I’m going there now. ” Within two minutes we pulled up in front of what looked like a large park. The entire park was covered with a huge circus tent, and under its canopy crowded almost fifteen thousand people. At the far end of the pavilion was a big stage, and at its center was a simple raised dais. There sat the founder and spiritual master of the Hare Krsna movement, His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada, regally wearing scores of flower garlands offered by his disciples. He sat silently as one of his disciples introduced him to the crowd. When the disciple explained that Srila Prabhupada had traveled alone at the age of seventy to boldly preach Krsna consciousness in America, the audience responded with a standing ovation. The devotees jumped to their feet to lead them in the chanting of Hare Krsna.
When the program was over and Srila Prabhupada was being driven away in his car, I ran up to the devotee who had spoken. “Can I come?” I begged. “I’d like to meet the guru.” “Sure, jump in,” he replied, smiling.
We sped off, arriving fifteen minutes later at a huge old Victorian mansion, a remnant of the British raj. The interior had been converted into a temple. As we entered the temple, the devotees invited me to meet Srila Prabhupada and to ask him any questions I might have.
Srila Prabhupada was sitting on a cushion behind a low desk. Six or seven Indian gentlemen surrounded him. I had always thought that if I ever met a guru I would ask him all the many questions that had haunted me over the years. But as I entered Srila Prabhupada’s room, I couldn’t remember a single question. I folded my palms and sat down nervously before him. Srila Prabhupada looked at me and smiled warmly.
“You have some questions?” he asked in a deep but gentle voice.
I couldn’t remember any of my questions. Suddenly, something inside inspired me to challenge him. Considering myself somewhat knowledgeable in Buddhism, I thought to ask him about another, equally valid spiritual path.