Srila Prabhupada Preaching in the So-Called Meditation Club in 1967.
This is an early memory by a disciple from a book "Miracle on 2nd Avenue". Please keep in mind that many early devotees did not have a full understanding of Srila Prabhupada's transcendental nature, thus their descriptions of Srila Prabhupada must be taken with a pinch of salt. We can still imagine how glorious Srila Prabhupada was in his bold preaching to the lowest of the society.
It was a warm cloudless evening in late March when six of us set out to the Psychedelic Shop with the Swami. The smell of marijuana and incense wafted through the warm air. On weekend evenings Haight Street had acquired a perpetual background soundtrack of guitars, bells, bongos, recorders, flutes, seaweed horns and rock music that pounded from storefronts and handheld blasters. Many were smoking pot and hashish or were drinking Olympia beer out of brown stubbies, sharing Gallo wine or swigging Johnny Walker out of big bottles in brown paper sacks. Others with packs and sleeping bags on their backs strummed on guitars, singing as they walked. Dozens of boys and girls and same-sex couples walked past holding hands or arm in arm. Some embraced and kissed, leaning against storefront windows. Cross-dressers lounged in doorways. People wearing flowers and feathers in their hair set up stalls against the building walls and decorated the sidewalk with multi-colored chalk drawings while they sat waiting for customers. It was like a hippy flea-market, a bizarre open-air psychedelic mall.
I walked in silence next to the Swami, while Shyamasundar trailed behind with four of the new San Francisco devotees: Chidananda, Sankarshana, Lilavati and Gaurasundara. It was seven o'clock. I thought the whole scene before us must appear very decadent to the Swami, and I didn't know what to say about it to him.
Finally, I said, "It's a beautiful night."
The Swami scrutinized the street sellers, looked at passing smokers and bongo players, people with painted faces and wild, brightly colored costumes. He appeared to smell the air, taking in the burning odor of marijuana and the sharp putrid stench of alcohol, which was tempered by the fragrance of roses and carnations. He turned, smiling, and said, "Everything is beautiful."
I was surprised because I thought the Swami would perceive this streetscape as being debauched and disgusting. But as we walked in companionable silence, I realized that the Swami actually liked to be surrounded by people; after all, he had grown up in India, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. More than this, though, I thought that the Swami perceived Krishna in this place. Many of these people were genuine seekers, eager for knowledge, ripe and ready for Krishna consciousness. I remembered the Swami saying earlier in his San Francisco visit that hippies embraced detachment, and that that was their qualification. There was no good or bad from the pure angle of vision–everything and everyone in every part of creation was Krishna's energy, and because the Swami was in touch with that energy, he saw this beauty. The people were beautiful because they were all potential devotees. Everything was beautiful because everything was connected to Krishna.
His remark was more an instruction than a casual comment. I realized the vast difference between him and the young Bauls we had met the previous week. The Bengalis were really a group of performers who were playing the Eastern spirituality card as a way of coming to America and becoming famous. To the American public they were as unusual as our swami was, but I didn't think they were driven by a desire to present genuine Vaishnava philosophy. I suddenly realized how America's current interest in spirituality left people wide open to be exploited by those offering some flavor of Eastern culture with a personal motive attached–be that fame, power or wealth. I knew from my own observation of our swami that he was not after any of these things; he was driven by a desire to fulfill the wishes of his spiritual master, and I felt immensely grateful to have found him in the great mystical melting pot that was America's alternative culture.
The Swami was still smiling as we reached the Psychedelic Shop. Ron and Jay greeted our little group with folded palms at the front door.
"Hey, man!" Ron said to me.
"How ya doin', Ron?" I said. "Well, we finally made it."
"Yeah," Jay said. "Swami Bhaktivedanta! We thought you were never going to come." He held out his hand and the Swami shook it. "We got the meditation room ready. There's people waiting for you."
"Oh. You are having meditation?" the Swami asked.
"Every day," Jay said. "Every night. Saturday night especially. Full of people. They're waiting for you–really! It's great you came."
"What time does the program start?" I asked.
"It started already," Ron said. "But this is the real beginning, now that the Swami's here."
"Come on in," Jay said. "We'll show you into the meditation room."
The small store was crowded with people. There were a few couples smooching in the corner and a group of young teenage boys watching the smooching couples while pretending to check out the boxes of roach clips, pipes and Riz-la papers that were spread out on the counter. Beside the counter sat a table filled with sculptures and trinkets–candle holders, beaded lamps and crystal balls filled with raindrop-shaped granules and white snowflakes.
"The meditation room is at the back," Jay said, ushering us through the crowd. The Swami and I filed past a gaunt woman with knee-length hair who blew a perfect ring of marijuana smoke as she stared at us.
The meditation room was constructed of four India-patterned bedspreads hung at right angles to form four walls at the back of the store. Ron pulled back one of the walls. Through the thick smoke I could see five people sitting erect in lotus posture with their eyes closed, two young women who were lying on their backs passed out cold, and two huge black men lying on their sides puffing on large pipes of hash. The two men were both bearded and had scars on their faces, arms and hands.
"Just go in and start," Jay said. "They've been waiting for you." I thought this was something of a misnomer. The people in this quasi-opium den didn't look like they were waiting for anyone. But we went in and sat cross-legged on the stain-pocked carpet, the Swami in the middle and the rest of us on either side of him. Those who were conscious looked at us hazily through half-closed eyes. The smoke was overwhelmingly strong, but the unmistakable stench of unwashed bodies remained like the active ingredient of some kind of obscene perfume. The meditators' clothes all looked unwashed, their hands and feet grimy, their hair greasy. I looked upward, trying to avoid eye contact, and saw the shop's black ceiling above us.
The Swami took out his hand cymbals and began to chant. "Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare." He chanted for half an hour and everyone who was awake in the meditation room responded. The sound of the chanting drew more people into the meditation room, and soon the small space was packed. At the end of the chant the devotees bowed down on the floor while the Swami said prayers in Sanskrit. No one else bowed down. I noticed cigarette burns in the carpet as I sat up.
"This movement is very important for all classes of men to follow," the Swami began saying. "If you see another human being as American, Indian, black, white, male or female, this is skin disease. There are eight million four hundred thousand forms of life. In this human form, we have great responsibility. We have to inform others that there is no permanent situation here. We must experience old age and disease. No one can say, ‘I'm young man; I'll not become old man.' No. It is impossible to say.
"Just like I am conscious throughout my body. If you pinch any part of my body, then I feel. That is my consciousness. So consciousness is spread, all over my body."
Ron came in and sat down, smiling at the Swami.
"This is explained in Bhagavad-gita. That consciousness which is spread all over this body, that is eternal. But this body is perishable, but that consciousness is imperishable, eternal. And that consciousness, or the soul, is transmigrating from one body to another. Just like we are changing dress. I may have this dress. You may have another dress. I may exchange your dress with me. So this changing of dress is going on every moment.
"Medical science also says that every second we are changing blood corpuscles, and therefore change in the body is going on. So you say or I say that ‘body is growing,' but in the Vedic language it is said that ‘body is changing.' Just like a child is born so small from the mother's womb, and it changes body every second. Then he becomes a young child or a boy, then young man, then old man like me, and so on. In this way, this changing, body changing, is going on. And the final change is called death. Death means ... Just like the too much old garments cannot be used; similarly, this body is the garment of the soul. When it can no longer be used, we have to accept another body. This is called transmigration of the soul."
I couldn't believe the Swami was continuing to speak in this setting. Around us, most of the people had either passed out or were sleeping. Only a few–those who had been awake to begin with–remained sitting erect. One of the black guys also listened from his reclining position.
"Human life is not in large quantity. Out of that there are very few Aryan families. The Aryan family–the Indo-European family, they are also Aryan–they are very few."
Hearing the word "Aryan," I immediately was on alert. Being Jewish, I'd grown up around those who had either been affected or were from families affected by Hitler's desire to establish a "pure" superior race. I knew that "Aryan" was a widely used Sanskrit word, but I'd never heard the Swami use it before in a public lecture. I quickly looked at the black guys; one of them looked suddenly more attentive.
"The Europeans, they belong to the Indo-European group. The Americans, they also come from Europe. So this group of human society is very few. The Vedanta says, ‘now you have got developed human form of life, civilized life, you have got nice arrangement for your comfortable life.' Especially in America, you have got all material comforts. You have got cars; you have got good road, nice food, nice building, nice dress, nice feature of your body. Everything God has given you very nice. The Vedanta advises, ‘Now you talk about the inquiry of the Supreme.'"
The black man stared at the Swami motionless. I couldn't really tell if he was processing what the Swami was saying. Perhaps they were too high to grasp his points, or maybe they accepted that identification of the body was a false identification from the spiritual perspective, or maybe they understood that Hitler had misapplied the Vedic terminology. What I did know for certain was that San Francisco was full of black supremacists and that many of them took Hitler's Aryan philosophy personally; and why wouldn't they when he supposedly considered everyone who was not blond and blue-eyed to be inferior?
The Swami concluded his talk and the audience applauded. We stood up to leave.
"So, you want to come again next Saturday?" Ron asked.
"Well, we'll be here on Tuesday to give you some more posters for the store, so I'll let you know then," I said. I didn't think this was really the kind of place we would want to visit regularly.
"OK," Ron said. "Thanks for coming, Swami. You were great!" The Swami nodded and I shook hands with Ron. As we started to walk back to the temple, I looked over my shoulder to make sure
the scarred men weren't following us. They looked like Dickensian convicts to me, and I was anxious that they might try to pick a fight once we were out of the laid-back atmosphere of the store.
"I was worried they were going to start a riot in there," I said to the Swami. I glanced over my shoulder again. No one was following us.
"What is ‘riot'?" he asked.
"It's like mass violence. Like the Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta," I said.
"Oh, yes," he said. "I am knowing this word. Why you think this?"
"Lots of people get upset about the word ‘Aryan.' Especially black people and Jewish people."
"Oh? And why is that?" he asked.
"Well, because of Hitler," I said. "Adolf Hitler believed that the German people were a superior race and he called them Aryans. He killed Jews and Gypsies–anyone who wasn't pure German–because they were different."
"Oh," he said, looking straight ahead. "I am knowing about this. But not about word ‘Aryan.' Hitler used this word?"
We walked a couple more blocks in silence, observing the swarms of people enjoying the warm evening on Haight Street.
Then, as we neared the temple, he looked at me out of the corner of his eye and smiled.