Chapter 11: The Debate

The Debate

Volume 6, Chapter 11

|  J U N E  2 – 4 ,  2 0 0 5  |

Throughout my Russian preaching tour, I had been corre- sponding by email with Sri Prahlada das about managing my time better. My schedule has been so intense the last six months that I have found little time to study, an essential practice for one who lectures two or three times a day. As I grow older, I also find myself hankering to spend more time chanting japa as well as worshiping my beloved Deities each morning.

I was falling behind in my email correspondence as well. There are often hundreds of emails waiting to be answered. Many of them are letters from disciples who need urgent attention.

One of my last destinations on the tour was Rostov, in south- western Russia, and soon after arriving there, I went online and dis- cussed the issue again with Sri Prahlada. We came to the conclusion that I would have to sacrifice something in my busy schedule. Be- cause a devotee’s spiritual practices are his first priority, he may need to realign that commitment from time to time, as he accepts other responsibilities. In order to perform my diverse duties I would have to be fixed in the most essential one, my sadhana.

When a person is steady in the duties for which he is qualified, he easily becomes qualified for the next level of duties.

[Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, Jaiva Dharma]

I wrote to Sri Prahlad that I certainly couldn’t compromise on my preaching, which was my first and foremost duty to my spiritual master. Neither could I further reduce basic activities like sleeping, which I had long ago minimized because of the very nature of my preaching, namely late programs and festivals.

I suggested to Sri Prahlada that I cut back on my writing, be- ginning with my diary. Each chapter takes an average of 8 to 10 hours to write, over several days, and often, the only time I have for writing is after midnight. In place of the diary I proposed writing a summary of my activities to my disciples twice a year.

Sri Prahlada’s reply came immediately. “Srila Gurudeva,” he wrote, “you can’t do that. Many people, both devotees and non- devotees, read your diary.”

“Something has to go,” I replied.

Sri Prahlada’s last message of the day came. “Think it over a hundred times before you decide to stop,” he wrote.

As I drifted off to sleep that night the question ran through my mind again and again. “I won’t think about it anymore tonight,” I said to myself. “I’ll think about it tomorrow, but it seems the only answer.”

The next day, after the morning program, Uttama-sloka das came to my room.

“A local TV station has just called the temple,” he said. “They want to know if you would like to be a special guest on a talk show tonight. The host is a famous TV personality.”

“Is it an important show?” I asked.

Uttama-sloka smiled. “It’s very popular,” he said. “Four million people watch it twice a week.”

“Okay,” I said. “We can go.”

That afternoon, as I was getting ready to go to the program, a woman devotee came up to me. “Maharaja,” she said, “did they tell you that the host of that talk show often challenges his guests, mak- ing them feel awkward with difficult questions?”

“Really?” I said. “No one mentioned it to me. I’m sure if Ut- tama-sloka had known, he would have said something.”

“That’s one reason the show is so popular,” she said. “He’s very good at it.

He’s quick and sharp. Famous people often turn down his invi- tations to the show.”

I started feeling a little nervous. “Uh…Is that so?” I said.

I thought for a moment. “I’m not an expert debater like Jayad- vaita Maharaja or Umapati Swami,” I said, trying to smile. “But I can hold my own.”

“Be careful, Maharaja,” she said. “He’s made fun of a lot of guests.” On the way to the television studio I quietly chanted japa and thought of Krsna’s pastimes in order to make my mind peaceful. Going into a confrontation in a relaxed mode is a technique I learned from my mother when I was young. I was athletic, and before swim- ming meets, when most of my teammates were busy with last-min- ute warm-up exercises, I was off to the side, relaxing and reading a book to take my mind off the competition.

At the last moment I’d step up to the starting block and fix my mind on the contest. If I worried too much about whether I’d win or lose, I’d expend too much energy. It may have been an uncon- ventional approach, but it worked and I won most of my swimming races in high school. As a result, I was captain of the swim team for four years in a row.

As we drove into the parking lot of the television station, I put my japa beads aside and pulled out my copy of Prema Bhakti Candrika, by Srila Narottam das Thakur. I turned to the follow- ing verse:

By the indication of the sakhis, I will offer camara and betelnuts in the lotus mouths of Radha and Krishna. The sakhis, with Radha and Krishna in their midst, are totally aware of the dif- ferent services to be rendered at appropriate times.”

[Prema Bhakti Candrika, Text 54]

“That’s a beautiful prayer,” I thought, looking out the window. “That is Narottam das Thakur’s eternal seva in the spiritual world. As Manjulali Manjari he prepares betelnuts to offer to Radha and Krsna, and sometimes he fans Them too.”

“Srila Gurudeva! Srila Gurudeva!” said Uttama-sloka. “What are you doing? We have to go now! We’re late!”

I awoke from my daydream and jumped out of the car. We walked quickly to the building and up four flights of stairs. When we entered the studio, the television crew quickly whisked me to the set and turned on bright lights.

Uttama-sloka sat near me as my translator. I hardly had time to study the scene around me. I did notice with curiosity, however, that several meters away from me were some musical instruments including a guitar, a set of drums, and a harmonium. I was going to ask if the harmonium was ours, when the program’s host suddenly walked onto the set.

Either he was too busy or he was ignoring me, but he didn’t acknowledge my presence until several minutes later, when his sec- retary came forward to introduce us. As I stood there, I had a strange feeling that we were like two boxers coming out from our corners of the ring to shake hands before a fight. Our brief exchange was cut short by a technician calling for a sound check, and I had no time to study my host.

I sat down again. My heart started pounding in anticipation, so I pulled out my book and started to read:

I will constantly desire to serve the lotus feet of Radha and Krishna with loving attachment. Whatever I contemplate dur- ing the practice of devotional service, will certainly be achieved upon perfection in a spiritual body.

This is the method on the path of attachment. [Prema Bhakti Candrika, Text 55]

“Gurudeva!” Uttamasloka called out. “The show starts in 30 seconds!”

I put my book away and focused my attention on the host. “Look ‘em in the eye,” my father used to say, “and most of those

schoolyard bullies will back down.”

I looked my host in the eye, but he stared right back. I couldn’t remember what my father had said to do next, so I just smiled.

The television crew manager said something in Russian. I thought it must have been, “Lights! Camera! Action!”

I took a deep breath and prayed to Srila Narottam das Thakur: “You were a rasika bhakta but a fearless preacher as well. I’m too young a devotee to understand the deeper mellows of bhakti, but I want to be fearless like you.

Please bless me.”

“Good evening,” our host said confidently as he looked straight into the camera and his unseen audience of millions. “Tonight we have with us a leader in the Hare Krsna Movement: Indradyumna Swami, from America.”

I had forgotten my hearing aids, and I struggled to hear Ut- tamasloka’s translation of the host’s words into English.

The host turned to me and smiled. “Welcome Swami,” he said.

Generally I can understand people by their facial expressions and body language. It’s a sense one develops after years of preaching, but with the bright lights, I could barely make out the host’s smile. “Was it a warm smile?” I thought. “Truly welcoming me to the show? Or was it a sly smile, like the one a hunter makes just before he kills his prey?” I strained to see him clearly, but the lights were too bright.

“Thank you so much,” I said. “I’m honored to be on your show.” As Uttama-sloka translated my words, I suddenly realized that

I had a slight edge over my host because of the translation. Each question or challenge and each reply would have to be translated, so I would have a moment to reflect on each exchange.

“I’ll use that to my advantage,” I thought, and I started to de- velop a battle plan.

“I won’t acknowledge the word ‘sect’ if he uses it to defame me or Krsna consciousness,” I thought. “I’ll always reply, ‘This religion is this or that.’”

It was only a 20-minute show, so I braced myself for an early attack.

The host turned to me. “Swami,” he said, “can you tell us why you joined a spiritual movement from the East?”

“And here we go,” I thought. “He’s setting me up. He’s getting ready to denounce Krsna consciousness because it’s not Christian.”

“Religion is neither Eastern nor Western,” I replied. “It’s tran- scendental.

It comes from God, from the spiritual world. At different peri- ods in the history of man, God has sent His representatives to teach human society as much spiritual knowledge as the people of the time could understand.

Therefore, although there may be some superficial differences, the essence of all religions is the same: to love God.”

“A very articulate answer, Swami,” the host said.

“He’s not fooling me,” I thought. “He’s flattering me to get my guard down, but it won’t work.”

I breathed slowly, focusing my mind ever more carefully for the battle ahead.

“I see from your resume that you were you were a teenager in the 1960s in America. Were you ever a hippie?”

“So that’s it,” I thought. “He’ll try to link Krsna consciousness with the hippie movement. Well go right ahead, buddy. I’ve heard it all before.”

I decided to deflect the challenge with a smile. “I was what you might call a weekend hippie,” I said. “I engaged in some vices, but I came from a good family and I respected my parents. With their encouragement, I was serious about school.”

He paused for a moment.

“Yeah,” I thought, “I got him on that one. Come on, smart guy.

Let’s see your stuff. I’m not scared.”

I looked at the clock on the wall. “There’s still 14 minutes left,” I thought. “He’s gonna go for the jugular vein, and pretty quick too.”

He laughed. “Okay,” he said, “a weekend hippie. But why do you think so many hippies joined the Hare Krishna movement?”

“Because they were frustrated with material life,” I said keeping my cool.

“For all their decadence, my spiritual master said the hippies had one good

quality: they had a spirit of renunciation. Some of them even- tually saw the futility of material life and realized that Krsna con- sciousness was a positive alternative.”

“Can you explain to us exactly what you mean by positive al- ternative?” he said.

“What kind of question is that?” I thought. “It’s not a trick question, and neither is it a challenge. So what’s he up to?”

I momentarily lamented that I hadn’t had the time to watch any of the host’s previous shows to see how and when he attacked his guests.

“He’s trying to soften me up by more flattery,” I thought. “Any- way, for now, let me take advantage of this and preach to the four million people watching the show.”

“There is no such thing as perfect happiness in this world,” I said, “neither for the hippie nor for the gentleman. Everyone is sub- jected to the four miseries of material existence: birth, disease, old age, and death.”

I looked straight into the camera and paused for a moment. “Just preach,” I thought. “Certainly there must be sincere souls out there hankering for this knowledge.”

“Maybe one cannot find water in the desert,” I said, “But that doesn’t mean there are not oceans of water somewhere else. Simi- larly, the fact that we can’t find happiness in this world doesn’t mean there is not a world where unlimited happiness really exists. This Hare Krsna movement teaches us the process of returning to that spiritual world. Therefore, it is the positive alternative.”

I began speaking more forcefully. “It’s the only alternative,” I said.

“Science and technology can make life a little more comfort- able, but they can’t stop birth, disease, old age, and death. That only happens when we return to the spiritual world.”

“Okay,” I thought, “you got away with saying a lot that time. But don’t push your luck. Let’s wait for his next question…or first challenge.”

“Well said, Swami,” he said.

“Thank you” I said. I wondered whether my voice did not have a tinge of suspicion in it.

“And just exactly what is the process for returning to the spiri- tual world?” he said.

“What’s going on here?” I thought. “How long is he going to play cat and mouse with me?”

“Chanting the names of God,” I replied. “In India people call God Krsna.”

I looked at the clock on the wall. Three minutes left.

“Is he going to throw the bomb at the end?” I thought. “Is that his technique? Why didn’t the devotees prime me?”

“Well then,” he said, “can you sing Hare Krsna for us?” I’m sure the audience must have seen my surprised look.

“If you were a weekend hippie,” he said, “you must have learned to play the guitar, right?”

“It won’t work, Mister,” I thought. “If this is how you think you’re going to embarrass me, you’ve got another think coming.”

I reached over and picked up the 12-string acoustic guitar. I quickly tuned it and started strumming chords and singing along. The guitar had a beautiful sound, like the one I had owned as boy. I closed my eyes and chanted Hare Krsna, every once in a while doing a little riff of notes on the strings.

“Excellent Swami,” came the voice of my host behind the bright lights. “Now could you sing on the little Indian organ, just over there?”

“Am I dreaming or what?” I thought, trying not to show my confusion on camera. “What’s gotten into him?”

I picked up the harmonium, placed in on the small table in front of me, and began singing Hare Krsna again. I’m not sure how long I went on, but when I finally opened my eyes and looked at the clock, I saw the show had gone overtime.

“One more quick question, before we finish” said my invisible host.

“Something I’ve always wondered about. Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Just stay cool,” I thought. “Don’t try to figure out what’s hap- pening. Just speak. Remember, four million people are listening.”

I sat up a little straighter and leaned towards the camera for emphasis. “To understand the answer to that question,” I said, “you have to learn about karma and reincarnation. Karma is a subtle law of nature that dictates that we are responsible for our actions. Put simply, if you do good, then good will come back to you. If you do bad, then bad will come back to you.”

“Just like a boomerang,” I continued. “The aborigine throws it with great force, and it comes back to him. Similarly, if one per- forms impious or sinful deeds in this life, then he will be obliged to suffer the reaction later, possibly in his next life.”

I looked at the clock. Thirty-five minutes had passed. I wasn’t going to ask what was happening. I had to bring my explanation to a conclusion.

“Death means the demise of the body,” I continued.

Now Uttama-sloka’s translation seemed to be working against me. The whole process was taking so long.

“We are not the bodies,” I said. “We are the soul within the body. Until the soul becomes self-realized, a lover of God, he has to continue taking birth in this material world. And because our past lives are generally a mixture of good and bad deeds, we sometimes see a good person receiving the results of his bad deeds, from a for- mer life.”

The host turned toward me. “Swami,” he said, “we have to thank you for taking your valuable time to be with us this evening, as well as for your enlightening words and your beautiful singing as well.”

He turned towards the camera. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “from me to you, that’s all for tonight. Thank you.”

I just sat there dumbfounded.

As the lights dimmed and the host sat for a few moments talk- ing with the television crew, I saw him clearly for the first time. He was handsome and well dressed, and he had an air of confidence. When the crew left, he stood up and walked toward me with a smile on his face.

Several devotees, who had accompanied me, ran up just as he reached me, and a woman devotee began speaking to him. “Thank you very much for being so respectful to my spiritual master,” she said. “I’ve seen what happens on most of your shows.”

The host turned towards me and extended his hand. “I have to be respectful,” he said. “You see, I read his diary on the Internet.”

I was speechless. I just stood shaking his hand firmly, acknowl- edging his graciousness. After a few moments, the television crew called him over. He bowed his head respectfully to me, then turned and left.

With that we departed. The whole way back to the apartment I didn’t say a word. I was spellbound from the whole experience.

That night I tried to write to Sri Prahlada on email and explain what had happened. After several tries, I gave up. I was too tired. I simply sent the following message:

“I’ve decided to continue writing my diary on a regular basis. I’ll tell you more when we meet again. For now I can only say the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Then I went to bed.

Realization means you should write, every one of you, what is your realization. What for this Back to Godhead is? You write your realization, what you have realized about Krsna. That is required. It is not passive.

Always you should be active. Whenever you find time, you write. Never mind, two lines, four lines, but you write your realization. Sravanam, Kirtanam, writing or offering prayers, glories. This is one of the functions of the Vaisnava. You are hearing, but you have to write also.

[Srila Prabhupada, Brahma Samhita lecture, Los Angeles, August 14, 1972]