By: Nityananda das, New Jayapur, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands,
In the basement I found some devotees talking and Krishnakirtan das strumming a folk guitar. A discussion was ongoing about whether it was “bona fide” to write and compose English songs and music about Krishna. Those against the notion soon departed, and I listened to Krishnakirtan das as he justified “singing for Krishna.” After all, George Harrison had done it and had succeeded in making a huge impact on millions of youth worldwide. But as I watched him, it seemed that he was more attached to becoming a musical star than actually benefitting others in the ways that Srila Prabhupada was always stressing, namely Hare Krishna sankirtan. How curious that Prabhupada had given him that name out of all others !
By the last day of Srila Prabhupada’s stay in Detroit, all the visiting temple presidents had already gone to the house in the suburbs to receive personal darshans of His Divine Grace. I had been told early in the week by Aravinda, Srila Prabhupada’s personal servant that I should be sure to come also to obtain some encouragement from Srila Prabhupada directly. But somehow each day when another group went, I wasn’t included and was left out, either because I had shied away out of timidity and reclusiveness, or I was elsewhere at the wrong time. On the final day, Aravinda saw me in the hallway and practically insisted that I go that afternoon, committing me to be ready at 2 pm at the front door. I was already prepared with a few gifts I had brought from New Orleans, but went shopping downtown for more gifts.
I was brought with some others far into the Detroit residential suburbs to a “thirties” bungalow on a quiet tree-lined lane. After a short while, I was ushered into an inner room as Aravinda introduced me, “This is Nityananda das.” With gifts under my arm, I offered my obeisances before Srila Prabhupada who sat on a low stool in the center of the room. The golden light of the afternoon sun shone in through a large bay and multi-paned window to the left of Srila Prabhupada. His body was vibrant with a deep golden-tan color. He wore only a thin gumsha towel and was apparently ready for his afternoon massage. The scene of warm suffuse afternoon beams of light highlighting Srila Prabhupada while sitting just above a thick carpet is etched in my memory like a priceless antique sepia photograph.
While I still had my head down on the carpet offering obeisances, Srila Prabhupada, somehow knowing of myself, said, “Oh, you are from Dallas?” Rising, and, sitting on my knees, I was amazingly able to reply without choking, stuttering, or stammering, and said: “No, from New Orleans, Srila Prabhupada.”
Srila Prabhupada explained, “I have received your news cuttings in the mail.” I then recalled that over the last half year since first opening the center in New Orleans, I had sent Srila Prabhupada every month our temple report and guru “maintenance fee” of $15. Often I included all the collected newspaper clippings of sankirtan and preaching activities. These positive articles had photos of our few devotees distributing Back to Godhead magazines and chanting on Canal Street or at the university campuses. At that time, the Hare Krishna movement was novel and interesting to the public, and there was no cult stigma attached to our movement as would come in later years.
Srila Prabhupada asked, “So, the people there are receiving Krishna consciousness nicely?” My answer: “Yes, Srila Prabhupada, the people in New Orleans are very receptive.” I felt somewhat strange representing the entire city of New Orleans, and no other reply came to mind. I did not offer any more details – I had not anticipated that Srila Prabhupada would ask me questions and that I should be prepared for some conversation or delivering a progress report. No one had prepared me for this!
Srila Prabhupada continued, hoping I would be more forthcoming: “They are liking the sankirtan?” “Yes, Srila Prabhupada, they like the Sankirtan.” I could think of nothing more to say. Now that I had an extremely rare audience with the Acharya of the Hare Krishna Movement, the beloved assistant of the Supreme Lord of all creation, I was speechless and had nothing to report. All I could manage in reply was a few short sentences. I had no questions, no new news, nothing.
Srila Prabhupada tried once more: “So you are going out for Sankirtan each day?” My answer was just a little longer, but still only one sentence: “Yes, Srila Prabhupada, we go to chant and distribute Back to Godheads every day downtown on Canal Street.”
Then there was silence, as Srila Prabhupada gave up trying to engage me in conversation and saw that I had no further report to disclose. I was so befuddled, it was only much later that I was able to understand what had happened, and that I had failed in basic social skills when I should have performed at my best potential. A faint inkling that I was not conversing properly caused my 22 year old head to cloud up further, and embarrassment of being a dummy at this most opportune, critical moment left me bewildered and in deep shock. I had somehow been blessed with a private and personal audience with Prabhupada, and I had completely flubbed the opportunity of lifetimes.
Srila Prabhupada looked up at Aravinda as a signal, who spoke up, “You have brought some gifts for Srila Prabhupada?” I had forgotten the gifts under my arm which filled a large shopping bag. Cued, I nervously began to present them to Srila Prabhupada. There was a heavy saffron knitted sweater, which Srila Prabhupada accepted by his own hands, nodding, and passed it to Aravinda. Then came the knitted orange scarf, the saffron socks, and a bead bag meticulously sewed by Kanya Kumari. I thought I could see some appreciation for the bead bag in Srila Prabhupada’s face.
Finally came the two smallest gifts which I saved for last. One was a light blue square of chamois cloth for which I explained, “This for cleaning your eyeglasses.” Prabhupada took it, but without acknowledgement. Then I pulled out my special gift, a brainstorm item I had obtained at a camera store which was used by professional photographers to expertly polish clean the glass lenses of cameras, without causing scratches and easily removing smudges. It was a small booklet of special detachable, cloth-like, paper sheets, called “LENS CLEANING PAPER.” Srila Prabhupada held it, looked at it, and asked dryly: “What is this?”
“That’s also for cleaning your eyeglasses…” Srila Prabhupada’s slightly frowned expression clearly conveyed to me the uselessness, the utter irrelevant folly of my brilliant idea for a practical gift, and I felt as useless as the special lens cleaning papers. Now I had really made a fool of myself. And Prabhupada had to entertain a tongue-tied eccentric like myself!
More awkward silence, and for help Prabhupada looked up to Aravinda das, who had stood by watching. On cue, Aravinda chimed in, “OK, we can go now.” Crestfallen, I placed my head on the carpet once more, mumbling my obeisance mantras, very disappointed that the meeting was over. I had expected that it to last longer. Backing out the door, I glimpsed Srila Prabhupada for one last second. I must have delayed his massage for five minutes – a very valuable time wasted in granting an audience to such a dull wit as myself. But I have ever since treasured this stilted private meeting with my spiritual master, an ambassador from the spiritual world.
Rather than see Srila Prabhupada off at the airport the next day, I decided to leave that afternoon. My youthful impatience and restlessness to re-engage in our programs in Louisiana won over my desire to see Srila Prabhupada once more. I had not yet understood that on the transcendental platform, meeting and separating are of the same ecstatic quality. I think I feared the emotions that would come with Prabhupada’s departure as he walked out of sight into a waiting airplane.
Late that night, on the way back to New Orleans, Michael was driving the Beetle in the rain on the Interstate Highway when we saw flashing lights approaching us from behind. Pulling over, we quickly jumped seats since Michael had no driver’s license. But we were still arrested by the Lewisburg, Tennessee sheriff for driving a car with no front bumper, one headlight, and one windshield wiper. Bhakta Michael and I spent the night behind bars in a musty jail. Somehow Kanya Kumari slept in the front lobby. She was finally able by mid-day to reach her parents, who sent by Western Union the $235 fine. From ecstatic association with the pure devotee the day before, we were now back in the material world.
Now, late in life, I sometimes visit my collection of Prabhupada tadiya or memorabilia, where I keep a duplicate pack of Lens Cleaning Paper next to Srila Prabhupada’s thick, black eyeglasses. Maybe he used them after all.