Not even one of us was looking back to consider that the old place would someday be celebrated as the ISKCON world landmark.. Not only had the old temple at 26 2nd Ave. been the first center of worship for the Hare Krishna Movement but, as history would unfold, it was in fact the first Hindu temple in the Western hemisphere. In our excitement, all that we could consider was that our new place on the other side of the street was perfect for expanding the glorification of hari nama. We were still on the Lower East Side, but at last Their Lordships Shri Shri Radha-Krishna and Jagannath, Subhadra and Balarama had a wonderful new place for Their worship. And ISKCON NY was now one full block farther away from the Bowery slums!
Devotees had been hard at work day and night preparing for Krishna’s “swan messenger”. Shrila Prabhupada would be arriving in just a few days after a victorious world tour. His Divine Grace was returning to the city and neighborhood of his first public American sankirtan to check up on the New York disciples, whom he loved dearly and who loved him. We had been waiting a long time for his darshan, and soon there would be feasts, celebrations and fire yagnas to initiate the new batch of newcomers coming down from Buffalo and Montreal. When I had asked Brahmananda Prabhu if he would recommend me for second initiation, the big “B” had thought it over for a moment, and then responded, “OK you can handle it.” So my big moment was at hand, too.
Back in LA the year before, Shrila Prabhupada had ordered me to learn bookbinding, so I had hit the road and thumbed the 3000 miles, arriving on a snowy December day at 26 2nd Ave. For the pleasure of my spiritual master I had been learning everything about creating a bindery at the proposed ISKCON Press we would soon set up in Boston. Weekdays would find me working in midtown factories around Hell’s Kitchen or over at the Henry Street Bindery in Brooklyn hand binding medical journals for Jewish doctors. There I was learning the craft from an ascetic-looking rabbi who looked and acted more like an austere Himalayan sage than anyone I had ever seen.
Evenings found me dancing in front of the sankirtan party to the beat of mridanga and caratals as we wended our way uptown through Times Square. On Sundays I would take it a bit easy and hang around the new ashram so that I could preach the message of sanatan dharma to our guests. It was understood by any regular visitor that he could expect a full dose of parampara logic along with his lavish meal of all-you-can-eat Krishna prasadam. Each guest to the Hare Krishna Temple knew that he was expected to listen politely to the ageless wisdom of the newly-released Bhagavad Gita As It Is as sort of a payment for his free meal of mercy. So for a preacher like me, Love Feasts were like open season on anyone chewing on a raisin simply wonderful or slurping down spiced tomato chutney.
But today was neither a day at the job nor was it a day of receiving our Lower East Side regulars with appetites for transcendental philosophy and spiritual remnants. It was a Saturday; my day to take out my huge conch shell and a shoulder bag filled with Prabhupada’s “Who Is Crazy?” pamphlets. It was me-the-preacher against the world of Maya; I had come uptown to Central Park to preach to anyone who’d listen to whatever little I had learned of Krishna consciousness. I was a good collector, too, by the standards of the day. Usually I’d return to the temple with about $35 in quarters, or “Garudas” as we called them, named for the eagle on the back of the coin.
So this sunny Saturday found me on the green rolling lawn by the lake in earshot of a band of Jamaican drummers who were filling the sky with a hypnotic tribal rhythm. I remember that it was just about then that a wild-eyed and bearded beatnik marched over to me as deliberately as a soldier on a mission and tossed a Garuda in my conch. “I just want the truth,” he demanded. “Give it to me.” I reflected that maybe the wild look in his eyes was due to some psychedelic like mescaline or LSD he had ingested the night before, but whatever it was, it was plain that this hipster knew that it had left him more confused and disoriented than before taking it. The drugs hadn’t given him the truth he wanted, so for just this moment, he was looking to Krishna.
The unlimited philosophy of Krishna consciousness is like a great and bottomless ocean that submerges a devotee ever deeper into eternity, knowledge and bliss. Krishna Himself personifies the Supreme Absolute Truth and as such He the only Source of liberation and the Fountainhead of freedom. The oft-quoted Biblical proverb “the truth shall set you free” actually applies to Shri Krishna the Supreme Personality of Godhead and none other. And that freedom born of truth is described in the Gita by Krishna to Arjuna with the words: “Just become My devotee.” Mad mana bhava mad-bhakto.
So how was I to summarize something so profound, deep and vast as “the truth” to this desperate fellow in one short chance meeting? In a way, I was no different from him. We probably would have shared the same concerns about where the world was heading, the war in Viet Nam, the rampant materialism taught like gospel in our schools, the arrogance of the politicians, the fragility of an oil-based society. But by now I had been through all those social and political issues and had found the solution to those problems and more. I had graduated into Krishna consciousness and no longer cared for stop-gap theoretical fixes because Shrila Prabhupada had assured us that Krishna consciousness is the answer to every dilemma. I had come to Central Park to preach what I had learned from the eternal spiritual master, an understanding far above well-intended but temporary solutions.
This wild-eyed New York hipster had put a Garuda into my conch, and was challenging me to give him his money’s worth. He wanted the “truth”, and a thousand starting points circled my head as I considered where to begin. Though I was finished with hip-sounding social compromises, I didn’t want to sound like a fanatic, either. The answer depended upon finding the delicate balance between loyalty to the order of the spiritual master and an explanation that would not turn the desperate hipster off. What would Prabhupada say? Truth alone remains after the destruction of the world, but this was the here and now. I could tell him…
—The truth, my friend, is that the world desperately needs this Krishna consciousness or there will no future at all for mankind. Without the mahamantra and sankirtan yagna as introduced by Shrila Prabhupada, the world is doomed to become a horrible place from which all pious persons must escape by taking shelter of remote mountain caves.
—The truth is that the four sharp and sinful teeth of Kali Yuga—meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication and gambling—are ripping asunder practically every man, woman and child of every country of the world and devouring them in the yuga’s horrible belly of immorality. As man turns against Nature, so Nature will turn on him, and mankind will always be the loser as the grip of war, famine, poverty and disaster caused by collective impiety tightens.
—The bitter truth is that everyone we have ever known—our family elders, teachers and religious guides—have all misguided or downright lied to us because that is what happened to each of them in a never-ending chain of misconceptions and falsehood. As devotees, our job is to break that downward spiral and take these lost, misguided souls back to home, back to Godhead. We have been sent out with hari nama in dhotis, tilaka and shikhas to ring the alarm bell for a world “that’s sleeping on the lap of the witch Maya” yet does not know how to wake up.
—The truth is that everyone now living on the planet will be dead and gone in a few short years, and hardly one in a million of them has even considered where he is going to wind up next in the terrible whirligig of samsara.. To a man and to a woman each one is wasting God’s greatest gift, the human form of life. Due to the animalistic pull of sense indulgence each and every person we’ve ever seen is likely to return to some horrible sub-human species from which extrication will be impossible for millions of years. And only Krishna consciousness can save them here and now.
—The truth is that across America practically every other yogi and swami claiming to teach the eternal message of India to the people of the West is simply making a business-for-profit out of innocent hopes for liberation. The uptown yogis are playing a losing gambling match with the souls of those whom they pretend to teach.
—The plain and simple truth is that our governments are all demonic. World-wide the politicians are in the same bed as Earth-exploiting big businesses like the meat, oil, liquor, weapons and chemical industries. In order to woo the votes of a public that they purposely keep in ignorance, politicians lie habitually to the voters while seeing that the pockets of their wealthy donors are lined with your tax dollars. But the Bhagavad Gita As It Is has a recipe for fixing government, too.
—The truth is that today religion has been molded into little more than a family custom or social tradition. No rabbi, priest or Bible-thumping wrangler can be unearthed who knows the absolute truth, and neither are they interested in finding it. Whatever message of Godliness that was originally explained in any of their holy scriptures has long since been watered down and washed away due to the absence of any disciplic succession.. Yet, the essence of all religious truth is compressed into the mahamantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare—The truth is that the scientists claiming they have discovered the mysteries of the universe through the lens of a telescope are bald-faced liars. No astronaut will ever get to the Moon because the Moon is farther away than the Sun. You can forget all about the propaganda of colonizing other planets because the Supreme Creator in His wisdom made the bodies of the denizens of this Earth suitable for living only on Earth. But, if we were to somehow travel to the other planets, then we would only take our problems there. Why not take to Krishna consciousness and solve the real problem of life culminating in birth and death here and now?
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.
—The truth is that here on Earth, the scientists’ plans for population control through horrible means like poisonous pills and abortion will never be successful. The destructive and murderous methods to manage mankind recommended by fiendish scientists have enmeshed the entire world in bad karma. Doctors who practice abortion are destined to themselves return as aborted fetuses, and their huge salaries will not save them when their future mothers pay to dispose of them.
—The truth is that the underground, radical or revolutionary movements—whether dubbed “hip” or “beat” by the press—are doomed to failure because they embrace the same body conscious values of base sense gratification that characterize the society they claim to be rejecting. Only when a human being rises above the four-fold animalistic propensities of mindlessly mating, eating, sleeping and defending is he eligible to consider the truth.
—The truth is that the outspoken voices of the counterculture—whether the free speech poets, singer-songwriters or minstrel prophets—are not leaders, but misleaders. The only folk song that will open your eyes to the truth is the Hare Krishna mantra.
—The truth is that there is hardly a shred of truth to be found in all the colleges and universities of the world. The education they offer only creates degree-decorated karma-bound slaves who toil mindlessly till the last breath for nothing of permanent value. If truth can set you free, then how is it the universities produce slaves chained up like dogs? The lessons offered by the Bhagavad Gita As It Is are more valuable than a post-graduate degree from every university in the world because the Song of God will situate you in the truth above all illusions.
—The truth is you really are not your body. As Krishna tells Arjuna, reincarnation is a fact, and all living entities are eternal pure spirit souls, parts and parcels of the Supreme Absolute Truth. Our job is simple: to go back to home, back to Godhead to Lord Shri Krishna the One seed-giving Father of each individual soul.
—The truth is that Darwin’s theory of mankind’s evolutionary origins from matter is a concoction fabricated by a sick mind enmeshed in ignorance. By teaching Darwin’s wild speculations as scientific fact, the institutions of learning are sending mankind to hell through keeping the world on the level of grossly ignorant bodily consciousness. Educated graduates are usually little more than polished dogs, while simple devotees who know the Bhagavad Gita As It Is have opened the doorway to eternity, knowledge and bliss.
—And on that Saturday in 1969, the unfortunate truth was that the wild-eyed beatnik who had thrown a Garuda into my conch was not prepared to listen to the truth. I would have to look for some other soul who was ready for the truth. Like pouring milk upon sand, preaching to those who are not prepared to hear is futile and offers no practical relief. So I told him: “You want the truth, man? Well, it’s all there in our spiritual master’s Bhagavad Gita As It Is. You can pick up your copy at the temple on the Lower East Side, and our Guru Maharaja will be there in a few days, too. So why not come to our Love Feast tomorrow?”
P.S. That was then, this is now: Those were the days before big book distribution, days of Who Is Crazy? pamphlets and silver Garudas. Every street-preaching sankirtan devotee felt empowered with Prabhupada’s hammer to go out and smash illusion in whomever they found it. And they were learning how and when to use that hammer effectively. There was neither debate about our duty to Shri Guru, nor about Shrila Prabhupada’s divine origin as a shaktyavesh avatara who had arrived to save the world with the Supreme Absolute Truth, one soul at a time. We had been authorized to preach.
In 1969, the first abridged version of Bhagavad Gita As It Is sans the Sanskrit was hot off the press, and it had not as yet found its way into the devotee’s book bags. I would not distribute my first big volumes until Spring of ’71— from a folding table in NY’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, after ISKCON Press Boston would shut its doors and printing was shifted to Dai Nippon in Japan. Today, even as I am reminiscing from a California motel, the cleaning lady is delivering a copy of Bhagavad Gita As It Is to my room. Nowadays forty years after the wild-eyed beatnik gave Krishna a quarter and went on his way—through the remarkable efforts of Prabhus like Vaisheshika and Akruranath, and tens of thousands of enlightened devotee distributor— even maids have been recruited into the service of distributing Shrila Prabhupada’s books!
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