Chapter-14: GhostBusting in New York

May 4, 2002

By Indradyumna Swami

The day before flying from New York to London, I went to Manhattan with Bhakta Pankaj to purchase some sound equipment for the Polish tour. It was a cold, drizzly spring day, and people were moving somberly through the streets, making little or no eye contact with one another. Striding through the concrete canyons, engulfed by the enormous buildings towering over us, I felt almost claustrophobic, cut off from the world of nature.

As we walked down Broadway and rounded the corner onto Fulton, we suddenly found ourselves standing adjacent to the former World Trade Center site. The place was eerily silent. It still looked like a scene of destruction. Almost three thousand lives were lost when the towers collapsed. The people watching the cleanup crew now eight months later, were obviously on their way to work, school, or to do their errands; it is impossible to pass by the scene without contemplating the sheer force of the disaster—two jet planes crashing into the tallest buildings in the U.S. Many of today’s watchers were crying.

The entire area was surrounded by a long fence, which extended for several city blocks. The fence has been covered in offerings and prayers for those who had perished in the disaster. Messages read, “Grace and peace to you—Church of the Advent, Spartanburg, South Carolina”, “Our hearts go out to you—Greens High School, Georgia”, “We grieve for you—Kelly’s football team, Nebraska,” etc. There are even offerings from foreign countries: “In Chile we care too.” Old teddy bears, Tshirts, flowers, and even money has been fixed to the fence. No one has stolen any of it.

For a moment I found myself also swept up with emotion, but then I controlled my mind, remembering the Bhagavad-gita’s wisdom:

dehi nityam avadhyo ’yaµ,

dehe sarvasya bharata

tasmat sarvani bhütani,

na tvam Socitum arhasi

“O descendent of Bharata, he who dwells in the body can never be slain. Therefore you need not grieve for any living being.” (Bg. 2.30)

This verse does not mean that the Lord’s devotee is hardhearted or callous toward others’ suffering. Rather, a devotee feels genuine compassion for the misfortunes of others and tries to solace them by helping them understand the eternality of the soul. At the same time, a devotee has no illusions about the temporality of this world. Neither does he or she expect to find happiness here. Thus when the material nature shows her ugly side, a devotee remains equipoised, even in the midst of great danger: yasmin sthito na du˙khena, gurunapi vicalyate. This means that when one is situated in such knowledge, “even in the midst of greatest difficulty, he is never shaken.” (Bg. 6.23)

After purchasing the sound equipment, we headed back to the temple, but the few minutes we had spent witnessing the sorrow wrought by terrorism made our day even more somber. As the skies darkened and it started to rain, people quickened their steps through the streets. Everything merged into grays—the clouds, people, and buildings all became part of the same landscape. Suddenly, I heard someone call to us, “Hey, I want to speak to you.”

We looked around and saw a man standing on the curb, two wooden sandwich boards hanging over his body. They advertised a local coffee shop.

Pankaj said, “Don’t bother. He looks crazy.”

New York City is full of displaced, homeless, sometimes crazy men, who often accept humiliating jobs in order to survive, but I felt there was something in this man’s voice; it made me feel he was sane.

“Hey, you guys,” he called again. “Come on over. I have something to ask you.”

Pankaj pulled my arm. “Let’s go, Maharaja. We can’t waste time.” The man called out again, pleading.

I turned around and pulled Pankaj with me toward the man. Dark skinned and in his midforties, he looked weathered by the street life. His hair was disheveled and his skin was windburned. His clothes had also seen better days. As we approached I could see his face more clearly, I could see that his nose had been broken a number of times.

“Thanks, guys,” he said. “I saw your robes and knew you could help me. I have a real problem.”

Pankaj was impatient, probably thinking the man would ramble on and we’d be stuck listening for some time, but there was something about him I trusted.

“My sister just came back from Jamaica, and I think someone put a spell on her. She’s haunted by a ghost! I’ve tried everything to cure her, but nothing works. Can you help me?”

“Sure, we can help you.”

Pankaj looked at me incredulously. I continued, “You can get rid of the ghost simply by chanting God’s name to her. God is all powerful and is present in the sound of His name. Nothing inauspicious or evil can remain where God’s name is chanted.”

Taking my hand he said, “I believe you, sir. Do you have time to teach me that chant, so I can give it to my sister?”

“Yes, of course.” I smiled, remembering Amy at the Jacksonville Airport. “I’ll write it down, so you won’t forget it.”

Taking out a pen and paper, I carefully wrote out the Hare Krishna mantra, then turned to show it to the man. Pointing to the words, I said, “Repeat after me.”

Moving closer and squinting at the paper, he repeated: “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krishna Krsna, . . .”

“Hey, I know that song!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been standing on this corner for five years, and a group of people often come by singing that song. Is that you guys?”

“It must be,” Pankaj was now all smiles.

The man continued, “You know, whenever I hear that song the whole world lights up. Whenever you people come by I do a little dance right here on the corner. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. This is the song that will cure my sister. I believe in this song!” He added with sincerity, “You know, whenever I remember that song I just want to shout out, ‘Hey, everybody, here’s a song that will change your heart, a song that will change the whole world!’”

Pankaj and I were dumbfounded. What was going on here? We had tried to help this man, and it turned out he had helped us. If only I could have just one drop of his faith in the holy name.”

“Thank you very much,” he said, vigorously shaking my hand. “I think God sent you here today. I’m sorry that I’m a poor man and can’t give you anything in return.”

I paused for a moment, and then as we turned to go I said, “Don’t worry, you’ve given us more than you can imagine.”

amhah samharad akhilam sakrd

udayad eva sakala lokasya
taranir iva timira jaladhim
jayati jagan mangalam harer nama

“As the rising sun immediately dissipates all the world’s darkness, which is deep like an ocean, so the holy name of the Lord, if chanted once without offenses, dissipates all the reactions of a living being’s sinful life. All glories to that holy name of the Lord, which is auspicious for the entire world.” (Padyavali, Srila Rüpa Gosvami, quoting Sri Lakshmidhara)