He Was A Great Saintly Person
February 8, 2014
In December of 1970, Srila Prabhupada spent fourteen days in Surat, India, with twenty-five of his Western disciples. Five years earlier, he had traveled to the west on the order of his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, to spread Krsna Consciousness. ISCKON was still a fledgling movement when he returned to India, but he had a strong desire to preach there.
The India of the 1970s was a place in which spiritual culture was in rapid decline. At the behest of its political leaders, it was following the path of capitalism forged by Western powers. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, once said: “We have achieved political freedom but our revolution is not yet complete and is still in progress, for political freedom without the assurance of the right to live and to pursue happiness, which economic progress alone can bring, can never satisfy a people.”
Srila Prabhupada wanted to remind the people of India that the country’s real glory was in it’s spiritual culture; this alone could give the lasting satisfaction and happiness we all desire. The Srimad Bhagavatam is clear on this fact:
sa vai pumsam paro dharmo
yato bhaktir adhoksaje
“The supreme occupation for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.”
Srila Prabhupada’s approach to resolving India’s spiritual dilemma was very interesting: he returned with his Western disciples to show his countrymen how Vedic culture was capturing the imagination of the entire world. He proudly called his Western disciples, “dancing white elephants.” A white elephant is revered in India and is seen as a sign of royalty.
Nothing could have prepared Srila Prabhupada and his disciples for the reception the people of Surat gave them. The people of Gujarat are famous for being Krsna’s devotees, but their enthusiasm in welcoming Prabhupada was unprecedented: the whole city closed down, throngs of people headed by the mayor greeted the party at the railway station, thousands attended the lectures and kirtans that Srila Prabhupada gave during his visit, and hundreds of people followed the devotees’ daily harinams. During those famous kirtans, shop owners would offer devotees various goods and wares, and people would garland them, anoint them with sandalwood paste and shower them with flower petals.
For eight of their days in Surat, Srila Prabhupada and his disciples stayed at the home of Mr. Bhagubhai Jariwala, a wealthy and pious businessman. Each morning Srila Prabhupada would take a morning walk through the neighborhood, and would then give a lecture on the first floor of Mr. Jariwala’s house. Neighbors would often attend.
Forty-four years after Srila Prabhupada’s visit, I found myself in Surat with forty devotees while on a seven-week festival tour of the main cities in Gujarat. I asked the local devotees about Srila Prabhupada pastimes there and they surprised me by saying that our first program would be in a hall that Srila Prabhupada had himself held a program. That night thousands of people came to our four-hour show which included classical Indian dance, theater, martial arts, puppet shows and a big kirtan. I gave my lecture on Bhagavad Gita that night from the very spot in which Srila Prabhupada had spoken. I distinctly felt his presence and empowerment.
The next day the local devotees offered to take our group to Mr. Jariwala’s house. It turned out the house was a small four-story apartment building; the windows and doors were all heavily bolted with locks and chains. Standing in front of the building, I noticed many people coming out of their homes, curious to see so many foreigners in their neighborhood.
I tried to envision Srila Prabhupada at this heavily barricaded place.
“Do you think they would let us go inside?” I asked the devotee who had brought us.
“Not very likely,” he said. “Mr. Jariwala passed away years ago. His grandson sold the building to a man that the locals say is a drug dealer; they say he stores all his contraband in the house. You can see he has made it into a small fortress.”
“We should still try,” I said.
One of the neighbors came forward. “The problem is that no one has ever seen the new owner. Apparently he lives a few streets away, but no one will dare go to see him personally.”
“I’ll go,” said a tall, stout teenager. “I don’t believe the rumors anyway.”
“We’d appreciate that,” I said. “It would mean a lot to our devotees to have the chance to see where our spiritual master stayed while he was here.”
More and more neighbors gathered, and more people started speaking up.
“I saw your spiritual master,” said one man. “I was seven years old when he came and stayed in our neighborhood. I used to see him going for a walk in the morning with his disciples. All of the local children would follow him; he was always talking about Lord Krsna. He made such an impression on us. We would watch him as he paced back and forth on the balcony up there. He would often wave to us, and we felt privileged because we understood he was a great saintly person.”
“When he came back to the house he would lecture from the Srimad Bhagavatam,” said another man. “I remember how he used to effortlessly quote so many verses from the scriptures. I too was just a boy at the time, but I didn’t miss a single class.”
“Then every day after the class, he would send his disciples to sing harinam around the neighborhood for one hour,” said an older man. “Everyone loved it, and huge crowds would join them. I was twenty years old at the time. Once I approached him and asked how he knew so much about Krsna. He smiled and gave me a copy of Bhagavad-Gita. In fact, he even signed it. I still have it and I read it ever day.”
“I remember my parents preparing fruit and sweets for him and his disciples,” a woman said. “They would take everything on silver plates to Swamiji and his disciples in the evenings. I remember my mother polishing the silver plates every afternoon. She told me: ‘Everything has to be perfect for the guru.’”
“Nobody knew of the Hare Krsna Movement before he came,” another woman said. “We were mesmerized when he suddenly arrived with his white-skinned disciples. His disciples were very serious about their devotional activities. Some of us became more serious about our own devotion to Lord Krsna as a result of seeing their sincerity. In fact, after all these years people in this neighborhood still talk about his visit.”
“My parents used to talk about his visit, but I never met him,” another man said. “Are you his disciple?”
“Well, yes I am,” I said.
The people looked impressed.
“You are very fortunate,” one of them said.
“Yes, I am,” I replied, trying to contain a wave of emotion that overcame me.
“Are you going to sing like your friends did when they were here all those years ago?” asked one of the children. “That would be wonderful!”
“Yes, we are going to sing,” I replied. “But I was hoping to be able to get inside the building to ..”
I didn’t complete my sentence because I saw the people become suddenly anxious. The crowd parted and a large man, obviously the owner of the house, walked towards me. He was dressed like a perfect gentleman; he didn’t look like a drug dealer to me, but from the corner of my eye I saw some of the children run into their homes and close the doors.
“I understand you want to go inside my house,” the man said in a deep voice. I couldn’t tell whether what he said was a challenge or a simple inquiry.
“Sir, my spiritual master, Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, stayed in your home with his disciples when he visited Surat forty-four years ago. We would be most honored if we could see the rooms he stayed in.”
He broke into a big smile. All my apprehensions melted away.
“You are most welcome to visit my house,” he said. “I would be honored. I have heard of your spiritual teacher. He was a great saintly person. Great sinners need the mercy of saints.” He winked at the crowd, obviously aware of the rumors circulating about him.
“Follow me,” he said, as he led us across the street. He unlocked several padlocks and beckoned us. “I will show you where he gave his classes.”
We passed row after row of large open burlap sacks full of various textiles. On the first floor, he led us into an airy and empty room.
“This is where the classes happened,” he said. “He would sit there against that wall on a cushion and his students and people from the neighborhood would sit around the room.”
He led us into another room. “And this was his bedroom,” he said. He pointed to a corner of the room. “His bed was just over there.”
“You seem to know a lot about his visit, sir,” I said.
“He is well known in this neighborhood,” he said.
“Can we have kirtan in memory of our teacher?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “Sing as long as you want.”
Closing my eyes I began chanting Srila Prabhupada’s pranam mantra. When I opened my eyes I saw deep loving emotion on the devotees’ faces as they responded. I started chanting Hare Krsna and the devotees raised their arms and swayed back and forth. The owner the house also raised his arms and began chanting and dancing along with us. The local people broke out in big smiles seeing him.
“That looks like the end of the rumors,” I thought, laughing to myself. I concluded the kirtan with the premadvani prayers, and the locals and the owner of the house joined the devotees as they bowed their heads to the ground.
“We were all perfect strangers one hour ago,” I thought to myself. “Srila Prabhupada, your potency continues to purify the world.” Aloud I said, “Now we must follow in our master’s footsteps and take the chanting to the streets.”
We thanked the owner of the house, and as he put the big locks back on the door he smiled at us. “You are welcome back anytime,” he said.
“We will return,” I said. “Your home is a holy place.”
As we gathered our instruments for harinam, one of the local men who had been in the kirtan came up to me.
“I want to caution you that a lot of Muslim families now live in this area,” he said. “In fact, most of the vendors in the market across the street are Muslims. Gujarat has a history of Muslim-Hindu tension.”
I decided to assess the situation before beginning the harinam. I walked thirty meters to the corner and surveyed the large open-air market; there were hundreds of people shopping at stalls selling a seemingly endless variety of goods: fruits, vegetables, textiles, furniture. One tall bearded Muslim man in the midst of the throng made eye contact with me, and held my gaze. He was surrounded by ten or fifteen other similarly looking men.
“Wait here,” I said to the devotees. Taking a couple of male devotees with me, I crossed the street and walked toward the Muslim men.
“Salaam-alaikum,” I said extending my hand to the man.
“Wa alaykumu s-salam,” he replied. He took my hand and broke into a big smile.
“We are devotees of Lord Krsna from Western countries,” I said. “We are here to honor our spiritual teacher who stayed in a building across the street many years ago.”
“It is the duty of the spiritual practitioner to honor he who shows the path to Allah,” said the man. “As you honor your teacher, we honor Mohamed. Praise be upon him.”
He was so friendly and open that I decided to take another step. “We would like to celebrate the glory of God by singing His names throughout the market place.
We would like to know if you or anyone else would object to us doing this.”
Some unfavorable looks crossed the faces of some of the men. A few of them began whispering to each other. But the tall man, who obviously was prominent among them, shook his head.
“Nobody will object. Allahu Akbar – God is great. You may sing His names in this market.” Some of the men looked surprised, but he continued. “We have no differences here in our neighborhood between Muslim and Hindus. But just case, I will send my two brothers to accompany you. Should any trouble arise from any Muslim in the market they will take care of it.”
He gestured for two men to step forward. “This is Abdul Qawi and Ahmed. Ahmed is the karate champion of Gujarat.”
I shook both of their hands. “Gentleman,” I said, “let’s proceed.”
As the devotees chanted and danced in ecstasy through the market, I thought of how Srila Prabhupada had sent his disciples out to chant on the very same street so many years ago. A number of fruit vendors offered us bananas, apples and grapes. People smiled and waved at us as we passed, and when we stopped people rushed forward to dance with us. But I also noticed Abdul Qawi and Ahmed exchanging strong words with a group of young Muslim men. When Ahmed saw me watching he smiled and waved as if to say, “We have it under control.” A huge crowd gathered, and I saw Hindus, Muslims and Farsis all with big smiles on their faces.
We chanted and danced for several hours and then got back in our vans to return to the temple.
“Can’t we chant longer?” one of the devotees asked me.
“No we can’t,” I replied. “Abdul Qawi and Ahmed have to go to work.”
The devotee looked back at me with a blank face. “Who?”
“I’ll explain later,” I said with a smile. “Besides, all of you have to rest up for the festival tonight.”
“Victory! Victory! Victory! I behold something wonderful! All the inauspiciousness of the living entities is destroyed. No one is going to hell.
Yamaraja has no more work to do and the effects of Kali-yuga have ceased to exist. This is because all over the world an increasing number of Lord Visnu’s devotees are singing His names while dancing and playing musical instruments.”
[Divya-prabandha, Tiruvaymoli 5.2.1 by Nammalvar, one of the twelve great Vaisnava saints from South India. He appeared in 3102 BC.]