I joined ISKCON in January 1970 and was initiated in March at the temple on La Cienega. Prabhupada initiated a number of devotees at that time. On my right, the devotee who was initiated as Paramatma used to smoke cigarettes, and on my left, the devotee who was initiated as Babhrubahan used to take LSD. After Paramatma recited the four regulative principles, Prabhupada said, “What about smoking?” Paramatma said, “Oh, no, Prabhupada.” Then I recited the regulative principles. Prabhupada gave me my name and said, “Mahatma is one who is always chanting the glories of the Lord.” He didn’t say anything else. Then Babhrubahan recited the four regulative principles and Prabhupada said, “What about LSD?” Of course Babhrubahan said, “Oh, no, Prabhupada.” I don’t know if the temple presidents told Prabhupada that those devotees had those habits or if Prabhupada knew. Generally, we assumed that he knew. I thought it was amazing that Prabhupada made those remarks. And when he said them he was laughing and smiling and pretending that he was smoking.
In the early days, temple presidents were supposed to write Prabhupada a letter every month to tell him what was going on in their center. I took advantage of these opportunities to ask Prabhupada questions. Once I was enjoying preaching on traveling sankirtan, and when I came back to the temple I experienced anxiety. I didn’t like to manage, and I began thinking, “On the road I can remember Krishna, but when I’m at the temple, I forget Him because I have so many things to do.” So when I gave my monthly report to Srila Prabhupada, I explained how it was much easier for me to think of Krishna when I traveled and how I thought of so many things other than Krishna in the temple. I asked Prabhupada if it was better to do less service and think of Krishna more or do more service and think of Krishna less. Although that’s not the philosophy, those were my two options. In the first sentence of his reply, Prabhupada wrote, “The whole point of everything is to become absorbed in thoughts of Krishna.” When I read that I felt guilty and embarrassed. I felt it was impossible to become absorbed in thoughts of Krishna, because I never thought of Krishna. I was at a loss. Prabhupada continued, “The way you do this is that you think that you’ve no qualification for your service. You should think that ‘I have no qualification to be the temple president,’ and you should pray to Krishna to give you the qualification. You should pray, ‘Krishna, please give me the qualification, because if you don’t, then all the devotees in the temple will leave.’ In that way, always remain dependent on Krishna, and you’ll always be able to think of Krishna.” Prabhupada didn’t say, ‘do less service and think of Krishna more.’ That was never Prabhupada’s mood. His mood was that you should be dependent, and by being dependent, you’ll think of Krishna. I thought that was very instructive.
We were young, enthusiastic devotees traveling to towns between Vancouver and Edmonton. We were on TV and radio shows, distributing Krishna books, and organizing feasts in the homes of Hindus where fifty to sixty people would come. We had an amazing response because no one knew about the Hare Krishna Movement. Devotees joined. It was phenomenal. I wrote a letter to my wife describing all these events, and she sent that letter to Prabhupada. Since I was thirteen, I had a wart on my foot that was cut or burned out many times but continually grew back. I forgot about it. But when my wife sent my letter to Prabhupada, she also asked him if he had a cure for warts. At that time devotees were dependent on Srila Prabhupada even for small things. Srila Prabhupada had been in the pharmaceutical business, and a lot of times he would give us cures, and we would also ask him for cures. When I came back from that ecstatic sankirtan trip, the wart had gone and I thought, “Oh, somehow or other it’s gone.” Later my wife told me, “When I sent your letter to Prabhupada, I also asked him for a cure for warts.” After eight years that wart disappeared, and I took it that somehow Prabhupada had done that. It never came back.
In the summer of 1971, all the devotees from Vancouver went to the Ratha-yatra in San Francisco. When we arrived I heard that in the evening there was a temple president’s meeting with Srila Prabhupada. Up to this point, I had only seen Prabhupada giving class. I had never been with Prabhupada in an intimate setting or on a morning walk, so the whole day of Ratha-yatra I was thinking, “What is this temple president’s meeting? Is it some type of corporate managerial meeting where there’s going to be policies and strategies set?” That was the impression I had of a managerial meeting. I thought Prabhupada would set some policies and standards, show us how to take care of our books, how to organize, and so forth. As we came in to Prabhupada’s room one by one, Prabhupada gave us some dry fruit and nut prasadam from his plate, and then he sat us down. The whole time, he preached to us about preaching and opening more centers. Even more than book distribution, the focus in those days was to open centers. Prabhupada wanted 108 centers. Prabhupada enthused us to preach, and the devotees told Prabhupada about their preaching. Prabhupada didn’t talk about details. The temple president’s meeting was, “Open up more centers, preach, spread Krishna consciousness.” I thought that was amazing. I was always interested in seeing how Prabhupada managed, because there are different management styles. I wondered how Prabhupada managed the movement, because generally managers of an international society have many secretaries, telephones, desks, offices, and so on. But every time I was with Srila Prabhupada, no management went on. He preached. There was never a time I was with him that he was rushing as we do with this emergency, that emergency. He had a totally different way of dealing with things. He didn’t use the phone, but he wrote letters. Every time I was with Prabhupada, he was either hearing about Krishna or preaching to devotees. When I sat with him I thought, “How is Prabhupada managing this international society? Every time I’m with him, he’s always preaching. He’s not talking about any of the problems, and he’s not talking about management.” I was awestruck by Prabhupada’s potency.
When I was temple president in Vancouver, I thought that we should form a rock band so that we could influence young people. I imagined us converting people to Krishna consciousness, distributing books, and making money at concerts. I wrote Prabhupada a letter saying, “Rock stars influence young people. They can change what people think. What if we start a rock band, try to become famous, and then preach?” Prabhupada wrote back “This trying to become famous is all phantasmagoria. You’ll never become famous. This is totally impractical. Why have you been trying for it? We don’t want to become famous ourselves. We want to make Krishna famous. If you want to do music, then use your musical abilities to lead ecstatic kirtans in the Vancouver temple. But don’t try to become famous yourself.” When I wrote to Prabhupada, I wasn’t thinking of becoming famous. I was thinking that if we became famous we could use that for preaching. But before I was a devotee I had a strong desire to become a famous musician. It was very clear that Prabhupada saw that. If that wasn’t one of my motives when I wrote to him, it certainly would have become my motive or I would have been aversely influenced by fame. Prabhupada knew exactly where I was at. After that, I totally forgot my formerly strong desire to become famous.
There’s a morning walk picture with Hridayananda Maharaj, Trivikram Swami, Tamal Krishna Maharaj, Danavir prabhu, and many other senior devotees. Prabhupada is in the center of the picture, I’m standing behind him, and everybody is bursting out laughing. At this time we were walking north of the Santa Monica pier, when Ramesvara was describing book distribution in South America and how people who lived in places where there were no temples were writing letters of appreciation for Prabhupada’s books. Ramesvara was glorifying Hridayananda Maharaj, saying, “Just see Hridayananda Maharaj’s potency. He is enthusing book distribution. He’s so wonderful.” This was in 1976 during the height of the fierce book distribution competition between the Radha- Damodar Party and the temples. Prabhupada knew that Tamal Krishna Maharaj, the head of the Radha-Damodar Party, wanted to be number one. As Ramesvara glorified Hridayananda Maharaj again and again, Prabhupada stopped and said, “Don’t speak so loudly. Tamal will have a heart attack.” Everyone cracked up, and that’s the picture. Prabhupada himself is laughing.
On a morning walk on Venice Beach, near the area where we have Ratha-yatra, Bahulasva was presenting Christian arguments to Srila Prabhupada. Bahulasva said, “Srila Prabhupada, one of the arguments is that no one has seen God.” Prabhupada stopped and said, “No fool has seen God. I am not a fool like you. I have seen God.”
At an evening darshan in San Francisco in 1972, Prabhupada met a scientist, and during class the next morning, Prabhupada joked about that darshan. He said, “Last night I met an atheistic scientist” and laughed. Prabhupada said, “I called him a rascal, and he admitted it.” Then Prabhupada said, “I can do this, but you cannot.”
I observed many things about Prabhupada that showed his transcendental ability to manage. In Los Angeles in 1970 and ’71, Prabhupada began chanting “Jaya Radha Madhava” before the Srimad-Bhagavatam class. The program was that Prabhupada would chant “Jaya Radha Madhava,” and all the devotees would dance and jump in the air in ecstasy. It was very ecstatic. Then Prabhupada would chant the Bhagavatam verse. Prabhupada wanted us to learn the verses and how to pronounce Sanskrit. He would teach the devotees how to pronounce the words, and he would correct them. A lot of the devotees would chant the verse, and then Prabhupada gave class. And without fail, Prabhupada would have kirtan after every class. Prabhupada was there every day. He never missed. It was never “Today we’re not having the kirtan because Prabhupada has an appointment.” It was never “Prabhupada has to do something, he has to go to the doctor; so you continue the kirtan, and Prabhupada is going to skip out.” It was never “Prabhupada wanted to take a longer morning walk so class will start later.” Often on the morning walks devotees would say “We should turn back now,” and Prabhupada would say, “No, in a little while.” He knew. He had perfect timing. They would go a little longer, and then he would turn, and his car would arrive at the temple at just the right time. He was very aware of the time, and he was always there. We have the tendency to skip out on many devotional programs, but we never saw Prabhupada do that. Prabhupada never said, “All right; today you chant “Jaya Radha Madhava,” and I’ll come in later to give the class, and you do the kirtan. I have to go.” It was never like that. Prabhupada set a perfect example. Prabhupada knew that we have that tendency because we aren’t attracted. We already skip out, so if Prabhupada also did it, our bad habit would be even worse. Prabhupada was vigilant. He was on time every day, day after day after day, and that made an impression upon me. Whenever I leave the kirtan early I always feel guilty thinking, “I shouldn’t do this. Prabhupada never did it. He always stayed.”
In 1972 the devotees on book distribution started wearing karmi clothes, mainly because they were getting kicked out of malls. They thought that if they wore Western dress they won’t be noticed, and then they found that they did better wearing Western dress. A controversy arose about whether or not we should do this. A lot of devotees, like me, who had been doing straight preaching, resented wearing karmi clothes, although we did it. During the 1973 marathon, a group of us in San Diego decided we would go out in dhotis and kurtas, and the women would go in saris. We felt that if we had faith and purity, we would be successful, and we started getting very good results. We were ecstatic, and we thought, “Just see, you don’t need to wear Western dress. That’s a compromise. It’s watered down preaching for weaker devotees who don’t have faith.” We felt proud and self-righteous to be the pure ones, and we were very excited to write a letter to Prabhupada telling him of our success. We thought Prabhupada would appreciate it and tell all the other devotees not to wear Western dress. But Prabhupada, knowing everything, being expert, replied, “Yes, if you do not feel comfortable in Western dress, then you can wear a dhoti.” He shattered our false pride. You would think it would be the other way, that “If you don’t feel comfortable in a dhoti, you can wear Western dress,” but Prabhupada said, “If you don’t feel comfortable in Western dress, I’ve no objection; you can wear a dhoti.” We were flattened. Our egos were popped. Prabhupada knew the mentality of the devotees. He was so expert that he would say just the right thing to the right person.
In 1972 Prabhupada began introducing the idea of scientists being rascals for propagating Darwin’s evolutionary theory. This was new to us. We had never heard Prabhupada speaking that way. We didn’t know what was going on, why all of a sudden Prabhupada was smashing them. Of course, that was because Svarup Damodar Maharaj was on the morning walks. Karandhar, who was the GBC, held an istagosthi to enlighten us according to his realization as to why Prabhupada was doing this. Karandhar said, “Prabhupada can see that we have faith in the scientists and he can see that their theory is detrimental for us and for human civilization. Prabhupada has to be very strong. Otherwise, because of our sentiment, we’d be attached to the ideas we’ve grown up with.” We were new devotees, and it was a shock to hear how Prabhupada heavily smashed scientists on every morning walk. Prabhupada wanted to build our faith in his teachings. He would say, “What are your choices? Believe the scientists or believe the Vedas. You have to decide what is your authority. That’s the only difference.” Prabhupada was blatant and bold. “They’re rascals; they’re cheaters,” he’d say.
Prabhupada was giving a lecture, and the verse was about how brahmans, women, children, and elderly people are never offenders, that they should always be protected and forgiven. During the class, children started crying right after Prabhupada was making the point that children are never offenders, brahmans are never offenders, saintly persons are never offenders, and women are never offenders. As soon as Prabhupada paused, Bahulasva, one of the leaders in the Berkeley temple, made an announcement. Bahulasva was sometimes heavy and assertive, and he strongly said, “All the children should be taken out of class immediately. They’re disturbing.” It was as if he said, “Get out of here. You’re disturbing Prabhupada.” Immediately Prabhupada stopped him. Prabhupada said, “Here in this assembly we have only women, children, saintly persons, and brahmans, so there is no offense. No one here can make any offense.” Prabhupada mellowed the atmosphere. Bahulasva had told the mothers to take out their crying children, but Prabhupada said, “No, there’s no offense. Only women, children, sadhus, brahmans are present here, so there’s no offense.”
Around 1972, there was sannyas fever. A lot of devotees wanted to take sannyas. In those days sannyas meant traveling and preaching, no management. Sannyasis were given a servant, a place to stay in every temple and all the maha plates. That’s why so many devotees asked Prabhupada to take sannyas. This form of renunciation was not really renunciation. Prabhupada got letters left and right from frustrated householders who had to work and maintain their families. These householders saw that the sannyasis had their own servant, got the maha, traveled, and had prestige. They thought, “This is better than being married.” Being frustrated in household life I also sent a sannyas letter to Prabhupada. Prabhupada’s secretary would read the mail to Prabhupada, and he would say, “Oh Prabhupada, another sannyas letter.” Prabhupada would say, “Who?” The secretary said the name and then Prabhupada would say, “Yes” or “No” and dictate the reply to his secretary. When my letter came, Prabhupada replied, “Tell him he is a nonsense.” Not “yes,” not “no,” but “he is a nonsense.” In his reply to me Prabhupada wrote, “The first thing is that you have to become a responsible householder. You can preach in any situation. You don’t need a danda to preach. I don’t want to give sannyas to anyone who’s not proven himself responsible in their ashram.” Prabhupada didn’t want to create an institution of irresponsible people, which was basically my mood. I can attest to that. I wanted the great life of traveling and preaching. Prabhupada said, “First, you become a responsible grihastha, and when you have executed your responsibilities in the grihastha ashram we can consider sannyas.” Prabhupada gave down to earth, practical advice to his young boys and girls. Most of us who joined in those days were hippies. We were out in the clouds. The GBC wrote us letters telling us, “We’re not spaced-out hippies anymore. We have to come down to earth.” We didn’t know how to manage. We were totally irresponsible. Prabhupada had to ground us, and it was difficult for him to ground many of us. So that was an example of Prabhupada trying to ground me, but two years later I wrote another letter and asked again. He said, “All right, you can take vanaprastha.” At that time I had a child, so I thought, “I’ll be a vanaprastha and travel.” My wife flipped, and Prabhupada wrote her saying, “No, I didn’t mean that he leaves and travels.” Prabhupada was trying to encourage me. Vanaprastha means that you won’t have any more children. My wife didn’t want any more anyway, but I took vanaprastha as “All right, here are my walking papers.” That was another immature act on my part.
In 1976, I traveled with a devotee who had just left his position as Prabhupada’s secretary, and he told me what it was like to be with Prabhupada. Those of us like myself who didn’t have a lot of personal association with Prabhupada, envied people who were always with him. Prabhupada would come into the temple with his entourage, he would go out with his entourage, he would have darshan with his entourage, and you were just an ordinary devotee. You never got to do that. Occasionally, you would get to go on a morning walk. So a lot of us would envy that closeness. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to take sannyas, to have free access to Prabhupada. This former secretary made an interesting point. He said that after being with Prabhupada so intimately, it became difficult to see him as sakshaddharitvena, as someone to be honored as much as Krishna. It became difficult to have that awe, veneration, and respect, because Prabhupada was intimate with him. When the secretary was up late at night typing letters for Prabhupada, Prabhupada would come in and start talking about Gaudiya Math, about his past family life, and so on. Once Prabhupada saw that the secretary was awake late at night, and he said, “Oh, you’ve the same disease I have, you can’t sleep— insomnia.” The devotee said, “No Prabhupada, you can’t sleep because you’re Krishna conscious.” Then Prabhupada told him, “Yes, this is very nice. I can’t sleep, I can hardly eat, and there is no question of mating, no question of defending. I guess I’m liberated. I always wanted to give up eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. Finally, Krishna has allowed me to.” The former secretary told me, “It was also becoming harder and harder for me to see Prabhupada reverentially, because I’d often have to be like a mother to him. When guests were in Prabhupada’s room I’d say, ‘Prabhupada, you’re tired. It’s time to take rest.’” Because of that intimacy this devotee had a difficult time after he left Prabhupada’s service. He wasn’t offensive to Prabhupada, but he found it difficult to maintain awe and veneration. After I heard that I began to appreciate my position. Prabhupada said, “It’s better to see the Deity and the spiritual master from a distance, because that way there’s less chance of making offenses.” Those who want intimate association with their spiritual master have to be very careful. There may be a price to pay. My position was safer. I didn’t have intimate association, but I had safe association. Many devotees, who have distributed books or have served Prabhupada in difficult situations, felt closeness with Prabhupada through these situations. That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re struggling. There’s no other reason. We wouldn’t have done it for ourselves. This secretary was very competent as a secretary, and Prabhupada was attached to him, but he became so familiar and overworked that he didn’t chant his rounds. He told Prabhupada, “I don’t feel like I’m making spiritual advancement. I can’t chant nicely; I don’t always finish my rounds.” Prabhupada said, “Better you stay with me.” The next morning during Prabhupada’s lecture, Prabhupada looked right at him and said, “Don’t try to make spiritual advancement. Just try to serve your spiritual master.” This devotee was doing wonderful service for Prabhupada. Prabhupada wanted that service, and the devotee didn’t have to try to make spiritual advancement. Prabhupada was saying, “You can’t maintain yourself, but I’ll maintain you.” Yet still the devotee found it difficult. Since he really wanted to leave, finally Prabhupada blessed him, “You can leave.” Prabhupada gave him a GBC zone, and three weeks later he left. Even though he wasn’t chanting his rounds in Prabhupada’s association, Prabhupada was maintaining him. He fell down not when he was with Prabhupada but after he left Prabhupada. That’s a very significant point. Don’t try to make spiritual advancement, but just try to serve your spiritual master, and your spiritual master will maintain you. It’s not that we don’t follow or chant, but we can understand this principle.