Lord in the Ocean
I arrived at the temple earlier than usual on Monday morning, at 6:45 a.m., and joined the few other devotees already upstairs in Prabhupada’s quarters. The altar room’s hardwood floor was so clean it practically shone. The room’s only furniture, a solitary oblong table against the wall between the two windows, also looked bright and clean, slightly reflecting the small Indian prints standing upon it. Myrrh and frankincense burning on the charcoal incense burner imbued the room with a sweet exotic fragrance, making me feel I was sitting back in ancient times.
Prabhupada came into the room and sat on a mat before the altar, facing the pictures of Krsna and Lord Caitanya. Surrounded by the vases of tall pink and orange gladioli, he looked beautiful. He picked up a small mirror and held it between the thumb and middle finger of his left hand, looking in it as he applied yellow-white tilaka. He applied the sacred marking to his forehead with the ring finger of his right hand, softly uttering, “Om kesavaya namah.” Then he deftly marked it on his abdomen as he uttered, “Om narayanaya namah.” I watched as he repeated this process on his chest and in the hollow of his neck, chanting respectively, “Om madhavaya namah,” and “Om govindaya namah.”
Then, as he put the tilaka on eight other parts of his golden-brown body, he indicated that we should all put tilaka on our foreheads. Although I wore tilaka every day and knew it was important for purifying the body and reminding others of Krsna, I had never before seen anyone else apply it. And this morning, although I had the opportunity, I was too nervous to watch carefully how anyone else was doing it. When the devotees passed me the ball of clay and cup of water, I mixed a little of the clay with the water to form a slightly moist paste in my left hand. But not knowing how to keep the tilaka wet enough to put on my forehead, I did the only thing I could think of, I licked my right finger.
Prabhupada looked at me out of the corner of his eye for a brief moment, his eyebrows furrowed, and I immediately understood that he was disgusted with my action. Although he had said nothing, his one stern look spoke volumes.
After everyone put on tilaka, we all watched Prabhupada perform the ceremony we called ‘bells’. Offering Krsna a piece of thick dupe incense fragrantly burning in a brass cup, he rang two melodious tinkling bells. He held the handle of one bell between the second and third fingers of his left hand, the other between his third and fourth fingers. The handles crisscrossed like sparkling chopsticks.
I was mesmerized by the sound of his resonant and slow voice singing:
caksur unmilitam yena
tasmai sri-gurave namah
Again that feeling of antiquity enveloped me.
When Prabhupada finished his prayers and offered his obeisances, we all accompanied him to the temple room for the morning program. As I followed behind him down the stairs, his long, flowing shawl reminded me of the picture of Lord Caitanya and His dancing party.
“What did that prayer that Swamiji was saying mean?” I asked one of the devotees on the way downstairs.
“Something about being born blind and in ignorance,” Ranacora said. “The spiritual master gives us eyes, and so we bow down to him.”
“We’re born in the darkness of ignorance and he opens our eyes with the torchlight of knowledge,” Rayarama corrected. “Or, he puts an ointment of Krsna consciousness in our eyes, so we can see Krsna.”
Prabhupada entered the temple through the side door and took his seat on the dais, looking now very scholarly in his black framed glasses. Kirtanananda, Acyutananda and Hayagriva sat in the front by the dais, frankincense from the incense holder curling around them up to the ceiling in softly bellowing clouds. I found it intriguing that although Prabhupada’s shawl, an Indian chada, was draped rather asymmetrically around his shoulders, he looked more aesthetically perfect than the perfectly folded robes in a DeVinci painting.
Prabhupada picked up his karatalas and, as if on cue, Acyutananda began to play a drone on the harmonium, his curly hair undulating slightly as he moved his arms. Kirtanananda began to play the tamboura and Prabhupada called him to sit closer. The rhythm of these instruments was hypnotic.
Rayarama, in his plaid flannel shirt and dhoti, and with his Christ-like beard and hairstyle, was the first to dance. Hayagriva followed him, and Stryadhisa, very tall, lanky and staring into space, danced behind Hayagriva. I also got up to dance, and felt myself flowing into the music. I swayed from side to side, and as I danced my large hoop earrings jangled.
Prabhupada had given me a maroon silk sari just the day before, and I was wearing it now for the first time. As I danced, although the hem was supposed to be down at my ankles, it rode up to the middle of my calves, and the upper part of it was so slippery that it kept sliding off my shoulder. As I danced I decided that until I could learn how to put a sari on properly, it was a highly impractical thing to wear.
About ten minutes into the kirtana, a crazy-looking man entered our circle. He wore a fringed cowboy vest, a headband of gray bird feathers, and several strands of multi-colored beads. The wild movements of his dancing appeared to be some sort of American Indian rain dance.
Managing somehow to move through the devotees, the man ended up dancing right behind me. I felt very uncomfortable, but I was not sure what I should do. I looked toward Prabhupada for guidance. Apparently he had already been watching the scene, and he now indicated with his eyes that I should sit down. That was simple.
After the class, Prabhupada asked me to see him as soon as I finished my breakfast. I thought he might say something about the morning kirtana. Instead, when I arrived in his room he took me over to the wall by the courtyard windows and showed me one of Hayagriva and Kirtanananda’s acquisitions from their trip to India the previous winter.
It was an Indian print that had one central tiny picture of Lord Visnu, which was surrounded by ten other tiny pictures of figures I could not identify. The artist’s rendering of Lord Visnu was very soft and gentle, as though done with an airbrush. Lord Visnu’s hair was a curly bluish-black, His skin was the color of a light blue cloud, and He wore a beautiful helmet and other golden ornaments decorated with jewels and pearls.
His eyes were shaped just like lotus flower petals, and His graceful black eyebrows curved like the two parts of an arched bow.
Prabhupada explained that Lord Visnu was standing in what was called the Causal Ocean, the ocean in which innumerable universes are manifested and developed. The other ten figures surrounding the Lord were the ten lilaavataras, or pastime incarnations of Krsna.
Prabhupada described some of them to me in brief, and then handed me the print, asking me to copy only the middle portion — Lord Visnu in the Ocean.
I read Prabhupada's Bhagavatam before going to the art store: “Visnu is the expansion of Krsna. Krsna expands as Karanodakasayi Visnu who creates the aggregate material ingredients in the maha-tattva through His breathing. Then He expands as Garbhodakasayi Visnu who enters into each and every universe. He is also creator and maintainer of Brahma and Siva. Brahma became the engineer of the universe, and the Lord Himself took charge of the maintenance of the universe as Ksirodakasayi Visnu.
Visnu became the Lord of the mode of goodness. Being transcendental to all the modes, He is always aloof from materialistic affection, and is the paramatma of every material object organic or inorganic. Brahma, Ksirodakasayi Visnu and Siva are incarnations of Garbhodakasayi Visnu. Garbhodaksayi Visnu is the Lord of the universe, and although He appears to be lying within the universe, He is always transcendental. The Visnu who is the plenary portion of the Garbhodaksayi Visnu is the supersoul of the universal life, and He is known as the maintainer of the universe, or Ksirodakasayi Visnu.
“Visnu is not different from Krsna. Krsna in His form of Supersoul is situated in everyone’s heart.”
When I returned from purchasing the art materials, I secured the 24”x32” preprimed canvas around the wooden frame with thumb tacks. I then spent the rest of the day applying two more layers of gesso on the canvas. I sandpapered between each layer, so that the canvas texture would be smooth and the paint surface would not show the fabric texture. Because I still had not finished preparing the canvas when the time to go home to the Bronx arrived at night, I left all the materials in the altar room for the next day. Then, after breakfast on Tuesday morning, I once again went to work. When I offered my obeisances to him, Prabhupada said in a soft voice, “Please be careful with your thumb tacks.”
I could feel my heart sinking as I imagined what was coming next.
He then calmly and humbly said, “I stepped on one.”
I gasped. I apologized as best I could, and went into the altar room to clean the floor. But even as I painted my hands trembled as I was unable to forget Prabhupada’s words.
* * * *
Brahmananda, who usually spent some time in the afternoon speaking with Prabhupada, came by a few times to see how the painting was progressing. One time he told me that Lord Visnu’s hands looked like rubber gloves. In my previous paintings the figures were relatively small, but now with Lord Visnu’s form filling almost the entire canvas, my lack of expertise became more obvious. After Brahmananda’s comment I had another look at the hands, decided that he was right, and tried to refine them.
On another visit he pointed out that the Lord’s eyes were not level, on another that the Lord’s nose was too straight, and on yet another, that the waves in Lord Visnu’s ocean looked like light green wavy lines on a flat, turquoise background. I agreed with each of his comments and tried to correct the faults.
I didn’t mind his suggestions at all, because we both had the same interest — to please Prabhupada and Krsna.
Prabhupada came by and said, “You can paint the palms of the Lord’s hands pink.” He told me that in the spiritual world everyone’s hands are that way. I was so happy to learn the bona fide details.
On the original print there was an aum sign superimposed over Lord Visnu’s navel. Prabhupada told me that aum by itself, without being accompanied by a name, is impersonal. So he wrote the name of this particular incarnation, “Sri Madhava”, in both Sanskrit devanagari and transliterated Roman letters, on a small piece of paper. “You can copy the name in Sanskrit and English under the aum sign,” he said.
When he later saw that I had misspelled Madhava as “Madaava”.
He explained that he had written Madhava—with an ‘h’ after the ‘d’.
I couldn’t accept my mistake. I argued, “No, you wrote an ‘a’.”
He replied, “H!”
“A!” I argued back.
Eventually it struck me: I was arguing with my spiritual master. Two months earlier I had never even heard of the word Sanskrit, and he had spent his entire life immersed in it. I finally relented. “You’re right.”
“Yes,” he said.
A few days later I presented the finished painting to Prabhupada. Several devotees were in his room, and they all awaited his verdict. Although technically speaking the painting was crude, Prabhupada was encouraging. He said, smiling, “Now who can look at that and say it is not God?”
All the devotees cheered.
I looked again. “It is beautiful,” I thought intoxicated by the encouragement of Prabhupada and his disciples. I now wondered whether I could ever do another painting that well again, and I was determined to try.
An hour later Prabhupada asked me to come into his greeting room, where he handed me a handwritten list of the twenty-four main Visnu incarnations. Alongside each name he’d listed the positions in which They hold Their hand symbols:
Name, Lower Right, Upper Right, Upper Left, Lower Left
Kesava: lotus, conch, disc, mace
Narayana: conch, lotus, mace, disc
Sri Madhava: mace, disc, conch, lotus
Sri Govinda: disc, mace, lotus, conch.
He then asked me to make twenty-four paintings — one of each of these Visnu manifestations, and said that each Visnu form should be standing in the Causal Ocean.
He wanted me to send the first one to San Francisco. His married disciples Mukunda and Janaki had been in the New York temple before I had begun coming, and they had also left before I began coming, to open the second of Prabhupada's temples there. The painting would be used in their new San Francisco temple for worship, meditation and prayer. I didn’t think to ask him where the other paintings would go, but I had faith that he had a plan.
By Jadurani/Syamarani dasi.