Chapter-29: Holy Tirtha on the Lower East Side

March 22 – 29 , 2001

By Indradyumna Swami

On March 27, Sri Prahlada, Rukmini Priya, Dauji Krsna dasi (my sixteen-year-old disciple from Vrndavana, who has now joined us), and I arrived in New York after a six-hour flight from Phoenix, Arizona. It was cold and raining, and the bleak New York skyline offered a sharp contrast to the beauty and simplicity of the Arizona desert. Bhakta Pankaj, an Indian devotee who lives with the brahmacaris running the original ISKCON storefront, “Matchless Gifts,” at 26 Second Avenue, picked us up at the airport.

As we drove into the city we got stuck in traffic and had time to study   the thousands of pedestrians on the busy streets, the towering skyscrapers, and the other sights and sounds that make New York the unique place that  it is. Dwarfed as we were by so many massive buildings, my impression was that the city had developed sporadically into a congested concrete jungle. Milan Kundaera wrote, “The beauty of New York is unintentional; it arose independent of human design, like a stalagmite cavern.”

Despite its overbearing appearance, New York effectively serves as the great capital of business, entertainment, and fashion for America. It is also the port of entry for most immigrants, beckoned by the Statue of Liberty (representing liberty as a woman with a torch upraised in one hand and a book in the other arm) who stands on Liberty Island in New York Harbor. The inscription on the statue reads:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus

One person who took advantage of her invitation was His Divine Grace, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. However, he didn’t come to America in 1965 a tired and homeless beggar, seeking shelter in the “land of the free.” Rather, he came to give the people of America the benediction of achieving the ultimate goal of life. In a newspaper interview in the 1970s, a reporter asked Srila Prabhupada why he came to the United States. Srila Prabhupada replied boldly, “To remind you of what you have forgotten: God.”

Despite being the materialistic place that it is, New York holds a special charm for ISKCON devotees around the world because it is the place where Srila Prabhupada began his Western world preaching. Srila Prabhupada himself had affection for New York. In a letter to a disciple written in 1970 he stated, “New York is very much attractive for me because New York is the starting place of my activities in your country.”

The devotees know of many holy pilgrimage places in New York: “Matchless Gifts,” where ISKCON started in 1966, Tompkins Square Park, where Srila Prabhupada introduced the public chanting of the holy name, Washington Square Park, where he sat on the grass to preach, and the Bowery loft where he once lived.

Arriving at the devotees’ apartment a few blocks from Second Avenue, we settled in and met our hosts. Yajïa Purusa dasa, a disciple of Niraïjana Swami, has a crew of four brahmacaris who do regular harinama on the Lower East Side, hold home programs, and give classes at “Matchless Gifts.” Hearing of their preaching from that historic base made me eager to join in. Just as the places of Krsna’s pastimes are considered sacred, so the places where pure devotees like Srila Prabhupada preach also become sanctified:

bhavad-vidha bhagavatas tirtha-bhütah svayaà vibho tirthi-kurvanti tirthani svantah-sthena gadabhrta

 My lord, devotees like your good self are verily holy places personified. Because you carry the Personality of Godhead within your heart, you turn all places into places of pilgrimage.

—Bhag. 1.13.10

On Friday afternoon we assembled in front of “Matchless Gifts” for a harinama. As we chanted through the Lower East Side, I could see that not much had changed since the time Srila Prabhupada lived there in the mid-60s. The district is still a haven for young people living alternative lifestyles. Most were dressed in unusual clothes, many of the girls had dyed their hair bright colors, many of the boys wore oversized jeans and rings in their ears, and people congregated everywhere, talking or drinking coffee and tea in small cafes. There was a relaxed mood on the street, and I could smell marijuana in the air as we passed underground bookstores and music shops.

But by far, the most “far out” people with the “coolest” music were the devotees as we chanted and danced in ecstasy through the colorful, upbeat neighborhood. Everyone enjoyed the kirtana, and on several occasions young people followed us, chanting with us as we wove in and out of the crowds. Others waved or gave thumbs-up signs as we passed. The more “enlightened” people called out, “Hare Krsna!” We chanted for several hours, and knowing that all of New York was as congested as this one area, I quickly concluded that the city was undoubtedly the harinama capital of the world. In my mind  I tried to figure out how to organize my yearly schedule to include a month- long harinama program on the Lower East Side with devotees from around the world. I told Yajïa Purusa, “If we could have a large, well-organized, colorful, blissful harinama here on a regular basis, we’d take over the city. At least we’d touch the hearts of millions of New Yorkers!” Of course, I knew it was unlikely that I could arrange such a thing given my present responsibilities, but I plan to keep it as an alternative should things ever drastically change for me in Eastern Europe and Russia. Who knows what the future holds?

On Saturday we drove to New Jersey and held an evening program at my Godbrother, Samika Rsi’s house. More than three hundred devotees from the Indian community participated, and the atmosphere was electric. I wanted to reciprocate with the devotees’ enthusiasm, so I led a big kirtana and gave a long class full of transcendental stories. Afterwards, Dauji Krsna performed a beautiful Oriyan dance for the devotees and guests. She touched their hearts by introducing the dance in fluent Hindi. When she danced, everyone was amazed at the professionalism of her performance. Sri Prahlada concluded the evening with a rousing kirtana for arati, which left everyone exhausted on the floor.

This was a normal program for Sri Prahlada and me, but it seemed out of the ordinary for the New Jersey congregation. Afterwards, a devotee thanked me for “the most ecstatic program of my life.” He said he had heard so much about me and had been praying to Krsna to have the opportunity to meet me one day. As he spoke, I experienced a moment of pride. Quickly coming to my senses

I realized that his words, although spoken with good intention, had become like poison in my heart. Embarrassed that I had momentarily taken credit for something that was only my spiritual master’s causeless mercy, I softly recited Srila Raghunatha dasa Goswami’s prayer to purify my mind:

pratisthaSa dhrsta Svapaca ramani me hrdi na tet kathaà sadhu prema sprSati sucir etan nanu manah sada tvaà sevasva prabhu dayita samantam atulaà yatha taà niskasya tvaritam iha taà vesayati sah

 As long as the impudent untouchable woman of the desire for fame dances in my heart, why should pure love for Radha-Krsna touch me? O mind, continuously serve my spiritual master, the leader of those who are dear to the Lord. Then my master will quickly kick out that harridan and allow that pure love to enter.

—Manah Siksa, Verse 7

Srila Prabhupada, please never allow me to take credit for what is yours. May I always remember that whatever success I have in devotional service is simply your mercy somehow coming through such a fallen soul as myself.

The next day I had a few hours free, so I asked Bhakta Pankaj to take me into town to purchase a few things I needed. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to do the shopping myself, but I wanted to see the city and meet the people. As we walked around, I was struck by the relative tranquility of the city streets. Generally big cities mean big crime, and the air of fear is easily sensed in places like Moscow, Warsaw, and Johannesburg. However, Bhakta Pankaj told me that the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, has worked hard to curb the city’s criminal elements. The police are famous (or infamous) for their efforts in this regard. Although it was a mundane observation, it is a Vedic principle that governments rule in such a way that the citizens do not have to fear criminals. Srila Prabhupada touched on this in a lecture he gave in 1976: “A ksatriya’s duty is to give protection from injury to the citizens. The citizens should feel so safe, that they think: ‘We have such a nice king that we have no danger at all. Not being injured, nor our property being stolen nor any injustice given.’ That is the real government—when the citizens feel completely safe.”

Because ISKCON began here, and because devotees have been active on  the streets with harinama, prasadam, and book distribution for years, our movement has been accepted by the people as part of the New York scene. Srila Prabhupada once said that you can judge a pot of rice by testing one grain. In the same way, the effect of Krsna consciousness on New York throughout the years became apparent as we encountered the people. As we walked, some people greeted us with a “Hare Krsna!” An older man approached me and said, “Do you have any of those sweet balls you used to give out in the 1970s. I loved those things!”

Passing by a marketplace an Afro-American man selling fruit called me over.

He said, “You tell me what Krsna means, OK?”

Thinking him to be simple, I replied, “Krsna is a name for the Supreme Lord.”

Not satisfied he said, “No, sir! Krsna is a Sanskrit word! What is the actual meaning?”

Taken aback I replied, “Krsna means that God is all-attractive.”

“You’re close! Actually, the literal meaning of Krsna is ‘black.’ And black is beautiful. Therefore, Krsna is beautiful!”

A few minutes later we took a taxi to a destination in the heart of the city. A short way into the ride, the driver looked back and said, “Is the Ratha-yatra parade coming soon?”

Bhakta Pankaj said, “It will take place sometime in late June.” “I want to know the exact date,” he retorted.

Bhakta Pankaj said, “Well, I’m not sure of the exact date. Are you going to come and watch and take some of the food we distribute?”

The driver replied, “No. I just come for the music. Only the music. I love the music at that parade, and how those boys and girls dance so nicely for hours down Fifth Avenue. Here’s my card. Contact me when you know the date. I want to hear that music again!”

On Tuesday evening I felt honored to sit and give a lecture next to the dais from which Srila Prabhupada had spoken in the 1960s. The storefront is not large, but somehow more than one hundred devotees and guests managed to squeeze in. Upon arriving I had not yet decided exactly what I would say, but when I sat down in that holy tirtha it became clear to me that I should speak of my association with Srila Prabhupada. It wasn’t the first time I had recounted my memories of Srila Prabhupada, but because the atmosphere was surcharged with his presence, I was particularly inspired to do so. At times I struggled with the emotions that surfaced when I remembered Srila Prabhupada’s mercy on me. In fact, after describing the most significant and memorable moment in my entire existence in the material world, I concluded my talk. It is a memory I treasure daily and which gives me strength and inspiration, even in the midst of great difficulties. Here it is:

In 1971, I flew with Srila Prabhupada and several Godbrothers from New York to London. As our plane descended into Heathrow Airport, I was looking forward to seeing the ISKCON temple at 7 Bury Place and participating in the devotees’ reception for Srila Prabhupada. However, when we arrived at the airport, one of Srila Prabhupada’s suitcases was missing. It was the suitcase that contained his books of commentaries by the previous acaryas, and he used those books in his translation work. I was devastated when Syamasundara Prabhu asked me to remain behind to wait for the suitcase and bring it to the temple. As the reception party escorted Srila Prabhupada to his car, I sat dejected on a bench, waiting for the suitcase to show up.

Two hours later it was located and I caught a taxi into London. It was raining as we drove into the city, and by the time we reached the temple it was evening and dark outside. Dragging the heavy suitcase into the temple, I found a number of devotees sitting on the floor finishing the feast. When I asked for prasadam, they sheepishly replied that there was nothing left. When I asked for help to take Srila Prabhupada’s suitcase up to his room, they declined, saying that they were too full from the feast. Tired and hungry, I made an effort to pull the suitcase up the stairs to Srila Prabhupada’s room. Dazed from the exertion, I didn’t think to knock on Prabhupada’s door but simply opened it and proceeded to pull the suitcase into the room backwards.

Suddenly, Srila Prabhupada’s secretary, Nanda Kumara Prabhu, called out, “Watch out, you’re about to bump into Srila Prabhupada!”

Whirling around, I found myself face to face with His Divine Grace. I fell at his lotus feet and offered my obeisances. While reciting my prayers, I suddenly felt a strong slap on my back and heard Srila Prabhupada say a few words. After a few moments, Srila Prabhupada walked away to his bathroom and I cautiously got up. I found Nanda Kumara looking at me, his mouth open.

“Boy, did you get some mercy. Srila Prabhupada slapped you on the back. I never saw him do that before.”

I was amazed—and blissful. “What did he say?”

“He told you, ‘So much endeavor in this material world, but when I take you home, back to Godhead, everything will be easy and sublime.’ ”

Those words remain forever within my heart, and each time I recount the story I appreciate them more. They took on a special meaning that evening  at “Matchless Gifts.” Speaking of Srila Prabhupada in that sacred place of ISKCON’s beginning, I didn’t feel I was in New York but in the spiritual sky. This is His Divine Grace’s mercy—that wherever we go in his service we may remain in Krsna consciousness, untouched by the modes of nature. No doubt New York remains one of the concrete bastions of Kali-yuga, fraught with quarrel and hypocrisy like any other place in the world, but those devotees who serve Srila Prabhupada here live not in New York but in the spiritual sky. Srila Prabhupada explained this when answering a disciple’s question during  a lecture in 1968:

Jaya Gopala : I heard it said that you are in this world without being a part of it, like the lotus flower which floats on the water.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, that is the understanding. I am in America [but] I am not adopting the way of life as Americans do. So I am not in America. Not only myself, but all my disciples who are following me, they are also not Americans. They’re different. I am in Vrndavana because wherever I go, in my apartment or in my temple, I live with Krsna, in Krsna consciousness. And I teach my disciples to do that also.