AFFLUENCE AT A PRICE
M a r c h 1 4 – 2 1 , 2 0 0 1
ALTHOUGH I HAVE PASSED THROUGH AMERICA briefly on two or three occasions, for all practical purposes I haven’t been here for thirty years—more than a quarter of a century. As a result I feel almost like an immigrant entering a foreign country. Upon arriving in San Francisco I even behaved like one! After passing through customs and immigration I went to make a phone a call but discovered I had no change. Looking closely at the telephone, I saw to my surprise that one could make calls using a credit card. I pulled out the one my son had sent me to use “in case of emergency,” and put it into the appropriate slot in the telephone. But as it started going in, I quickly pulled it out, afraid that it might disappear. I did this several times, unaware that the card was meant to stop three-quarters of the way in. The man standing behind me, waiting to use the phone, looked on in disbelief. He finally spoke up.
“What on earth are you doing?”
Looking at him sheepishly I replied, “I’m afraid the phone will eat my credit card.”
Dumbfounded, he said, “Where in heck are you from?”
Trying to avoid the embarrassing situation, I replied with a slightly French accent, “I’m from Paris, France.”
Taking pity on me, he reached over and pushed my credit card firmly into the slot (it didn’t disappear) and said, “Just dial the number you want. Your card will be OK.”
We were picked up at the airport by Kåñëa Karuëa däsa, a disciple of Rädhänätha Mahäräja, who drove us south to San Jose where we were to observe Gaura-Pürëimä the next day. I was stupefied as we drove through the cities of Palo Alto and San Mateo. This is the famous Silicon Valley of California, which produces much of the world’s computer software. Everything was so opulent— the highways, the cars, the buildings, the shopping centers. Compared with my bases in Eastern Europe and Russia, where I’ve served for the past sixteen years, everything seemed so clean, well organized, and efficient.
Çréla Prabhupäda writes in his books that while traveling in this world, one can see both heaven and hell. No doubt! Recent travels have taken me through the most hellish conditions in Russia and Africa, and now I was seeing “heaven on earth” in America. On the flight from London, I read a report that America has generated more wealth during the past ten years than has been available to the human race in the entire history of known civilization. America is presently producing thirty-three percent of the world’s wealth, and as I would soon experience in walking through many American towns, you can get whatever you want whenever you want it, anywhere.
But the opulence seemed strangely out of balance. As I looked out the window of the car, every second building seemed to be a fast food restaurant— a MacDonald’s, a Denny’s, a Wendy’s, or a Presto Pasta. Fancy. There were also expensive restaurants here and there. From that I could conclude that although Americans are enjoying the greatest opulence of all time, they are paying a heavy price for it. “There is no gathering the rose without being pricked by the thorn.” (Fables of Bidpai)
They work so hard that they have little if any time to cook their own meals. The limitless fast food chains and restaurants in most towns indicate they prefer to grab a bite at Wendy’s or MacDonald’s. (The truth of this became apparent to me a few weeks later on a flight from Arizona to New York. A smiling airline stewardess handed me a polystyrene box that read, “Real Fast Food—a tasty little snack served at jet speed.”)
Whatever fascination America held for this self-styled immigrant quickly faded as I realized the heaven of California was simply the other side of the counterfeit coin of material existence. Being fixed in Kåñëa consciousness and having experienced the higher taste of devotional service to the Lord, a devotee is not attracted to living in heaven, nor is he repulsed by having to go to hell to serve his spiritual master.
na kutaçcana bibhyati
Devotees solely engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Näräyaëa, never fear any condition of life. For them the heavenly planets, liberation and the hellish planets are all the same, for such devotees are interested only in the service of the Lord.
Gaura-Pürëimä in San Jose was simple but sweet. About forty devotees attended the festivities, including my wonderful Godbrother, Vaiçeñika Prabhu. I had heard of Vaiçeñika as early as 1974. A tall, handsome devotee with a friendly smile, he was famous as a steady and determined book distributor. He was also well known as an avid reader and scholar of Çréla Prabhupäda’s books. I have never had the opportunity to sit down and get to know him (mainly because I have been based in Europe and he was in America), but I have sometimes used him in my classes as an example of an ideal sädhaka. He has always succeeded in distributing Çréla Prabhupäda’s books because he knew their content. Having heard nothing of him for a number of years, I assumed that like many devotees with various responsibilities, he had given up saìkértana and taken a regular job. I was therefore stunned to discover that Vaiçeñika has continued to distribute books almost every day. Although he does work to maintain himself and his good wife, Niräkula devé däsé, he can still be seen, standing tall with his broad smile, every morning at the San Francisco airport, with his “Excuse me sir, have you seen these books?” as people deplane. I offer my obeisances to such a sincere Godbrother and pray that I may imbibe his dedication in serving our spiritual master.
… [Mahäräja Prahläda ] was completely cultured as a qualified brähmaëa, having very good character and being determined to understand the Absolute Truth. He had full control of his senses and mind. . . . and he considered his teachers, spiritual masters and older Godbrothers to be as good as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
If someone asked me what was the greatest benefit in being a traveling preacher, I would reply that it is the opportunity to meet sincere devotees throughout the world. Çréla Prabhupäda once said that Lord Caitanya has placed His devotees in different parts of the world for the purpose of spreading His saìkértana mission.
After Gaura-Pürëimä we traveled to Southern California, where I was fortunate to get the brief association of another Godbrother, Svaväsa Prabhu. He is another devotee who has earned my constant admiration for his dedication to Çréla Prabhupäda. He has served as temple president of the Los Angeles temple for many years. Although I have heard that some temples in America are struggling, under Svaväsa’s guidance the Los Angeles temple has continued to grow steadily. Book distribution has never stopped, devotees continue to join, and the temple is maintained in part by a thriving gift shop situated within the temple complex. Devotees told me that numerous Hollywood movie stars shop there.
I noticed that Indian culture and philosophy seem popular in America. Yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism are practiced widely, and stores are full of books with spiritual messages. As a result, Kåñëa consciousness no longer carries a cult image in much of America. Times have changed. I even saw several billboards containing spiritual messages. Alluding to the temporary nature of life, one billboard in Northern California read, “He who dies with the most toys is still dead.” Another in Southern California said, “Life is a game that can only be played—but never won.”
It seems America is ripe for what our movement has to offer. When I first became a devotee, parts of the American public were skeptical about Kåñëa consciousness. One older lady, the mother of a devotee, recently told me that she once asked Çréla Prabhupäda why he didn’t come to America earlier than 1965. He smiled and replied, “Because you weren’t ready.”
Now America seems more ready than ever. Unfortunately, it appears that our movement has not developed enough through the years to meet that need. I suppose there are a number of reasons for this, but it seems other spiritual movements have taken advantage of ISKCON’s pioneer work in introducing Vedic culture in America and are thriving. Buddhism is especially popular, although Buddhism is nothing more than covered atheism.
We spent several days at the Laguna Beach temple. The temple president, Tukaräma Prabhu, has been instrumental in organizing my American tour. Knowing the potential for preaching in America and wanting to help the temples here, Tukaram has been inviting sannyäsés like myself to come to America for years. In Laguna Beach I also had the opportunity to associate with a dear Godbrother, Adya Prabhu. Enlivened by reports of the success of our festival program in Poland, he gave generously to help support it.
The prasädam in Laguna Beach was especially wonderful, but after I left I decided I had better follow the Bengali proverb and maintain my health: “A young man cannot eat too much nor an old man too little.”
Inviting a devotee to take prasädam in one’s house and accepting such invitations are two of the six exchanges of love described in Upadeçämåta. A traveling preacher must be careful, however. He often does three preaching programs a day. That means he will be offered three big meals a day. I have recently been employing Queen Elizabeth II’s reported technique, which is to eat a full meal at the beginning of the day, before the programs, then simply take a few bites at any engagements during the day.
Our trip through California was hectic, and by the time we reached our next destination, Arizona, I was exhausted. When I asked Çré Prahläda why he thought I was so tired, he looked at me incredulously and replied, “Because you’ve been on the road for thirty-one years!”
The morning after our arrival in Phoenix I was unable to get up for maìgala-ärati. In fact, I lay in bed until well after 7 A.M. Finally I pulled myself out of my sleeping bag, reflecting on Çréla Prabhupäda’s statement to Giriräja Mahäräja, “If the Supreme Lord Näräyaëa got up late and didn’t wash his mouth in the morning, even Lakñmé would leave him!”
Arizona showed me another interesting face of America. A desert region, it is the fourth most popular state for tourism. Phoenix is the second fastest-growing city in the country. I found this surprising; I couldn’t imagine what in the world would attract someone to move to a desert. I was about to find out!
My Godbrother Daçarathaa Prabhu and his good wife Sandamaëi däsé have built impressive temples in Phoenix and Tucson. In Phoenix they purchased a large building that is now home to beautiful Rädhä-Kåñëa Deities named Rädhä-Mädhava Hari. The mainly Indian congregation numbers in the thousands, and the devotees are well known throughout the city.
In Tucson, 160km south, they have a world-class Govinda’s vegetarian restaurant on the temple property. The restaurant serves more than thirty thousand people a year. In its October 30, 1998, edition, the prominent national and globally read newspaper, USA Today, reviewed Govinda’s in their entertainment section. Appearing as one of six restaurants described as top picks of the country, Govinda’s was chosen as “the most unique eatery in Tucson.” Complete with a large, beautiful outdoor patio that seats many guests, the feature of the restaurant is its excellent food and exotic ambiance.
Seeing that I was completely exhausted that morning, Daçarathaa suggested taking me into the desert to “refresh my soul.” At first I hesitated, wondering what business a sannyäsé had taking time off for a jaunt into the desert. But at dawn, while chanting my rounds outside, I had noticed the unique beauty of the desert. Coincidentally, that morning I had been reading the First Canto of Çrémad-Bhägavatam where Närada Muni describes how he became free from the fatigue of traveling by taking shelter of nature’s beauty:
I took this as the special mercy of the Lord, who always desires benediction for His devotees, and so thinking, I started for the north. After my departure, I passed through many flourishing metropolises, towns, villages, animal farms, mines, agricultural lands, valleys, flower gardens, nursery gardens and natural forests. I passed through hills and mountains full of reservoirs of various minerals like gold, silver and copper, and through tracts of land with reservoirs of water filled with beautiful lotus flowers, fit for the denizens of heaven, decorated with bewildered bees and singing birds. Thus traveling, I felt tired, both bodily and mentally, and I was both thirsty and hungry. So I took a bath in a river lake and also drank water. By contacting water, I got relief from my exhaustion.
Although I couldn’t imagine a “river lake” in the desert to relieve my fatigue, the natural beauty and absolute quiet seemed to beckon me for a brief respite. I agreed to go. Çré Prahläda and Rukmiëé Priya accompanied us.
On the way to a nearby canyon we passed a large Navajo Indian reservation. Daçaratha explained that the Native Americans keep mostly to themselves on the reservation, watching television and drinking liquor. Recently, by building large casinos on their reservations, they have attracted tourists and made a lot of money. I asked if any Navajo Indians had ever become devotees, and he replied that to his knowledge only one Native American had ever joined ISKCON. A young lady with a bad drinking habit, she had had a hard time refraining from liquor. The devotees tried to supplement her habit with large quantities of gulabjamun juice, but eventually she gave in to her old ways and returned to the reservation.
We drove several kilometers into the desert and eventually came to the entrance of a deep canyon. As we drove into the canyon, it was as if we were entering another world. A small river cascaded down unusual rock formations that appeared similar to a scene from the moon. Huge cacti grew everywhere, some of them 10m high. Daçaratha said that this particular species grows only in this region of the world. The big ones can weigh as much as seven tons and live as long as 150 years. Dry and barren except for the cacti, the area seemed uninhabitable, but Daçaratha explained that there was indeed much wildlife in the canyon, including mountain lions, black bear, and big-horn sheep. Animals like coyotes, tortoises, and snakes come out only at night. I noticed beautiful desert flowers blooming in isolated patches. The entire atmosphere was tranquil. In fact, there was a stillness in that canyon that I had never experienced anywhere else. It was almost mystical and surprisingly therapeutic. As we proceeded further, I chanted softly on my beads. Time went by, and chanting in such an environment gave me a sense of peace I hadn’t felt in a long time. As we were leaving, I felt drawn back to the quiet of the desert and resolved that I would come again. My brief encounter with the solitude and calmness of this part of Kåñëa’s creation had an amazing effect on me.
At the same time I knew that because of my many services and responsibilities I probably wouldn’t be back. Deep inside, I know that I will enjoy real peace and full satisfaction only when my service to Çréla Prabhupäda’s mission has been perfected. That is my duty as his disciple. “The only peace, the only security, is in fulfillment.” (Henry Miller)
And it’s true: I find the greatest peace and happiness while pursuing the greater challenges in service to my spiritual master. A well-known writer once observed that peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of God, no matter what the conflict. I feel closest to Kåñëa while preaching especially during the Polish festival tour. I can honestly say that my greatest satisfaction in life comes when after days of advertising and setting up our program in a town, thousands of people stream through the festival gates. Although I may be exhausted, I often stand on the main stage and watch the people, eager to experience the wonderful world of Hare Kåñëa, pour in. I think of Çréla Prabhupäda and how happy he must be, looking down benevolently from his transcendental position in the spiritual sky. Those are the moments I feel closest to him, and those are those moments I feel the greatest peace and joy within my heart. Coming out of the mystical desert canyon, I feel refreshed and ready to travel on. How happy I am to be like this—always preaching and moving on!
Dearest Srila Prabhupada,
This year, in the wake of a disaster that claimed a friend
And brought the walls crumbling down,
I took up my staff and looked to the road,
Hoping to find you again.
To gain your favor I gave up all that I owned
And tried to renounce my pride,
And ever more cautious of women and fame,
I traveled far and wide.
Moving once in the north and twice in the south
And east and west in turn,
I learned firsthand of God’s creation
And your kind mercy as well.
Soon austerity came, claiming all of my wealth,
But remained a welcome friend,
And strength I gained, and detachment too,
While traveling through foreign lands.
With no place to live, or a home of my own,
I learned to take shelter in you,
And the constant vision of birth and death
Kept me learned and true to my vows.
In forests and cities, villages and towns,
Repeating your words I roamed,
Witnessing your mercy, as kind as you are,
In delivering the fallen and poor.
Disease came in summer and near death in the fall,
In a jungle far to the south.
But your saving grace and Narasimha’s mace
Kept me safe and protected through all.
Oh, how happy I am to serve you like this,
Always preaching and traveling on!
As a flowing river remains always clean,
I pray to remain always pure.
In happiness and distress, in heat and cold
I want to keep fighting on,
Delivering your message, as you asked me to,
While I’m enthusiastic, youthful, and strong.
But Prabhupada, the road is long,
And there are many dangers in between
Where I pause now . . .
And you rest safely on the other shore.
So on this day, so full of grace,
Please hear my fervent prayer:
Within my heart, beyond what’s dark
There’s a shining love for you.
So guide me right, keep me in the fight,
And away from maya’s glare,
And when all is done, and the battle’s won,
Take me home to be with you again!
Your eternal servant,
[Vyäsa-püjä offering to Çréla Prabhupäda, 1988]