At the end of August, I left my guitar on the island with Marguerite and moved into a rented room in a house near the temple. Every day for the next few months, I attended morning and evening services at the temple. It seemed at first that I would never be able to memorize all the words to the common prayers, as most were in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu scriptures. After a few weeks, however, I had managed to memorize them all.
A devotee always lived with other devotees and always followed a strict code of personal conduct known as the "four regulative principles" — no illicit sex (sex outside of marriage), no intoxication (including cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, or tea), no meat eating (including fish and eggs), and no gambling or "mental speculation." The days of handing out free LSD in the parks of San Francisco were over. Prabhupada had never approved the practice, the devotees maintained. Prabhupada prohibited radios, televisions, and newspapers, as well as all magazines and books not published by the Movement itself. I began to follow the "four regs" in September.
Some devotees rose as early as 2:30 a.m.; all were up by 4:00. Despite the hours, they possessed a surprising amount of energy, I thought. They seemed to run, not walk, from one activity to the next. Some even said they had pleasant dreams about Krishna at night. The lack of "rest" (sleep), however, made life challenging for a novice like me.
To encourage us, the leaders told us that we were lucky to be able to "take" even six hours of rest a night, because, as a "pure devotee" of the Lord, Prabhupada himself took just two to four hours each night. (A pure devotee is one who had achieved perfection.)
The spiritual master expected each disciple to chant Hare Krishna twenty-four hours a day. This was hard to accomplish, as we all needed to sleep, eat, and otherwise care for our material bodies. We were "materially covered," which meant that we were engaged in sinful, worldly activities. For a devotee, a free minute was not free in the usual sense of the word. Rather, his time, like everything else, belonged to God, or Krishna.
Devotees greeted each other with "Haribol," which meant, "chant the Holy Names of the Lord," or "Jaya" ("Hail" or "Victory"). I never heard, "Good morning" or "Hello." A devotee might say, "See you in the spiritual sky [roughly, heaven]," but never "Good-bye."
One evening, as we gathered in the foyer, a senior devotee chastised a junior devotee for talking with a woman. The spiritual master prohibited all contact between males and females, except in marriage. For a man seeking a spiritual life, woman was Maya, the Lord's illusory energy and the force that binds the soul to the material existence.
Many stalwart devotees served at the Vancouver temple. For example, the hardworking woman in charge of the cooking and sewing for the Deities would probably be serving Krishna for millions of years to come, according to Bahudaka. I heard, however, that the men and women who went out on sankirtan book distribution were the dearest of all to Prabhupada. He emphasized the importance spreading of Krishna consciousness through the worldwide sale of his books.
In late September, a new brahmachari (single celibate student) named Patraka arrived in Vancouver from the Portland temple. He chanted in a soulful bass voice and, like Bahudaka, played the harmonium. While not chanting, he was always serving Krishna or reading Prabhupada's books. He was "fixed up" (advanced in the practice of Krishna consciousness). A fugitive from the law at a time when many young American men were fleeing the draft, he stayed with us for the next several months.
Patraka told us the story of how he joined the Movement: "I was at a low point in my life. My choice was to jump off a bridge or join the Hare Krishna Movement. I decided to go to the temple. There I saw Lord Jagganath and surrendered right on the spot. I have been blissful in Krishna consciousness ever since." Such stories were common. I learned that Bhaktin Joanie, as she was known in the group, had also fallen under the spell of the merciful Lord Jagganath. On her first visit to the Vancouver temple, He had smiled at her with his large features, she said.
In early October, several brahmacharis prepared to drive to Seattle for a one-day Hare Krishna festival. Patraka asked to borrow my driver's license for use at the international border, as I had chosen not to accompany them that day. To further the Movement, the devotees sometimes needed to bend the law a little here or there.
On one occasion, I was talking with a couple of devotees in the second-floor brahmachari ashram (sleeping quarters for single male devotees), when Bahudaka entered. After glancing at us with an annoyed look on his face, he asked, "Is this where all the miscreants hang out?" Engaging in idle conversation was Maya (a state of forgetfulness of Krishna). For the evening ceremonies, the devotees lent me a dhoti (an unstitched cotton robe covering from the waist to the ankles), which they taught me to tie with pleats in the front. They also lent me a kurtah (a lightweight, long-sleeved cotton shirt). Prabhupada had ordered the devotees always to wear clean robes while worshiping in the temple room and while preparing the Lord's foodstuffs in His kitchen. Single devotees like me wore saffron-colored (yellowish orange) robes; householders wore white.
I sometimes accompanied the devotees when they drove to the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia. Dressed in our temple garb, we performed sankirtan there by chanting, selling our magazines and books, and trying to recruit the students.
Nevertheless, male devotees usually wore conventional shirts and pants, and women wore conservative blouses and skirts when they went out into public places to collect money for the Movement. The men hid their shaved heads beneath wigs, and the women exposed their heads. Prabhupada had approved the changes in the dress code after learning how much more money they were collecting while wearing street clothes.
One morning after the ceremonies, Bahudaka told me that the temple had bought a shotgun for self-defense. It seemed that some gun-wielding "demons," as he called them, had attacked the devotees on the farm in West Virginia. Prabhupada ordered all centers to prepare to defend themselves. Bahudaka explained that "demonic" supporters of the materialistic status quo will often go to any length to frustrate the efforts of the God-conscious devotees. I also learned that some of the male devotees in Vancouver had signed up for martial arts classes.
Bahudaka had instructed all the devotees to memorize one verse from the Bhagavad Gita each day, or else take no prasadam at the noon meal that day. Some were able to repeat the verse correctly just minutes before mealtime. I managed to squeak by only because I had more time to study than most devotees.
In October, Bahudaka instructed me to accompany a junior devotee named Bhakta Gary as he went about his duties, which included maintaining the temple building and buying food and supplies. He and I once painted the bedrooms in the new temple, a larger house in the same neighborhood. I opined that there were many different paths to spiritual enlightenment. He responded that the spiritual master's teachings were the Absolute Truth. While staring blearily for a moment at the freshly painted white walls, I pondered the idea of a single Truth crowding out all other truths. Was my dizziness the result of the ponderous metaphysical discussion or simply the paint fumes and artificial, incandescent light?
While shopping one afternoon, Bhakta Gary and I spotted two young men who were passing out leaflets for a competing yoga center. Bhakta Gary asked them, "What time do you guys get up in the morning?" They said proudly, "Six o'clock!" We turned to each other and chuckled. To us, that was sloth.
After I had worked with Bhakta Gary for a few weeks, Bahudaka decided to assign me some duties of my own. For example, I ferried the sankirtan devotees to and from their book distribution locations downtown or at the shopping malls.
I was in the "stool room" (bathroom) one morning when a senior devotee asked me to shave his head. I agreed, and as I worked, he said he was concerned that I had failed to attend the program the previous evening. He added, "You do get some spiritual benefit from occasionally chanting and attending temple functions, but if you live outside the temple, you cannot receive the same benefits as those who live in the temple." Then, seeing how slowly and cautiously I was working, he protested, "Don't be sentimental!" By this he meant that a devotee should not concern himself too much with temporary, earthly concerns like hair.
In late October, the weather turned rainy and cool, as is usual in Vancouver. Frankly, I did not mind too much because going outside into the cool air tended to wake me up. The devotees stressed that it was only by Krishna's "mercy" (blessing) that we were not serving in frigid Edmonton or Winnipeg.
Tape-recorded kirtans played in nearly every room of the temple building and in the van as the devotees drove to and from their sankirtan destinations. In addition, whenever a devotee needed to place a telephone caller on hold, he made sure that the caller heard a kirtan while waiting.
I never missed a meal at the temple, partly because I had little money, and partly because of the delicious Krishna prasadam. I enjoyed the curried vegetable dishes, the chapatis (flat, unleavened wheat bread), dahl (mung bean soup), and above all, the sweetmeats. Normally a moderate eater, I was now eating embarrassingly large amounts of prasadam. Delighted, the devotees encouraged me and the other guests to take as much as we wanted. Bahudaka declared, "Only a devotee relishes prasadam." Anyone who took prasadam advanced in his Krishna consciousness, but a "nondevotee" who partook voraciously was likely to become a devotee, according to the spiritual master. Preparing foodstuffs for offering to Krishna and taking their "remnants" as prasadam were acts of love and devotion. In addition, devotees regularly offered water and clothing to the Deities, and accepted the remnants of their offerings as the Lord's mercy.
By November, I had been visiting the temple daily for about two months — a long time to be a prospective devotee. Chanting Hare Krishna, taking prasadam, and associating with devotees were pleasant activities, but I was still unsure about becoming a full-time devotee. I feared the nonstop schedule that began well before dawn and continued after nightfall.
The others took a dim view of my doubts. Most of them had surrendered to Krishna within weeks if not days of their first contact with the devotees. In their eyes, I was being selfish for refusing to surrender. After all, I had heard the truths of Krishna consciousness, unlike most nondevotees, or karmis. (The term derives from the word karma, the results in this life of one's sinful activities in previous lives.)
In their view, I now needed to act on those beliefs. Bahudaka challenged me, "Who are you that you don't have to surrender to Krishna?" On the other hand, I felt much warmth and acceptance at the temple. The devotees were the nicest, most sincere, and most dedicated people I had met. Clearly, they wanted me to join for my benefit, not for theirs.
In late November, I moved out of my rented room and into the temple. My reasoning was that doing so would force me to lead a spiritual life, even if I still had some doubts. I believed that, in His house, God would provide for my body and protect my soul. Furthermore, I would have the constant association of others who were serious about making spiritual life a reality.
I again left behind some favorite possessions: a handmade pair of suede boots, a floppy leather hat, and a pair of blue jeans. I brought my beads, Krishna magazines and books, provincial driver's license, US passport, a sleeping bag, a pair of baggy canvas pants I had bought in Mexico, and a shirt Heather had made for me. The clothes went into a communal barrel in the ashram, and other devotees sometimes wore them. I soon lost track of most of my non-Krishna friends.
My beard and mustache gone, it was now time to shave my head. Bahudaka diplomatically selected my comrade Bhakta Gary to perform the honors. After he finished, I noticed in the mirror that my head was not perfectly round. Rather, close inspection revealed several previously hidden bumps. In the temple room that evening, the women tittered at the sight of this former ragamuffin now beaming in his clean, well-pressed saffron-dyed robe, the bright lights reflecting off his shiny head.
The bottoms of my feet were blackened from many months of going barefoot on the island. I was convinced that they would never again become clean. In contrast, the devotees, who always wore sandals or shoes outside the temple building, and who bathed daily, had spotlessly clean feet. After about a month of daily scrubbing with pumice (volcanic glass), a staple in stool rooms around the Movement, my feet turned pink and clean again. The devotees wore clean clothes every day. This represented a real change for me, because on the island I had often worn my jeans day and night without washing for months at a time.
There was much speculation about when Prabhupada might return to North America from overseas. Wherever he went, he stayed at the local ISKCON temple, because he considered hotels to be brothels and because he preferred the company of devotees. Ironically, only one week after I shaved up, we received word that he would soon arrive in Los Angeles. Bahudaka ordered all the devotees to prepare immediately for a trip to California. Devotees who had seen Prabhupada in person before made remarks like, "Wait 'til you see him — he's so pure!" or "He's so transcendental!"
It is hard to overstate the importance of the spiritual master in the lives of the devotees. They often said, "The guru knows the heartbeat of his disciples." He knew everything we did, said, or even thought. Furthermore, everything we knew about spirit and other matters, we learned from him. Meanwhile, because of their inability or refusal to listen to him, the karmis knew nothing.
Just as the devotees offered foodstuffs to the spiritual master's picture before offering them to the Deity of Krishna, they first prayed to the spiritual master before praying to Krishna. Before receiving Krishna's blessings, devotees needed to receive the spiritual master's blessings.
Krishna Himself demanded spiritual perfection of a devotee, but if the spiritual master chose, he could bless a person whom God was unlikely to forgive. In this sense, the spiritual master was more merciful than God. It followed that disobedience to him was worse than disobedience to God. A disciple should prefer death to the disfavor of the guru. The saying was that a disciple should commit suicide rather than disobey the spiritual master's orders.
The next morning, we brahmacharis boarded the van and departed for Los Angeles. Patraka was the leader. A caravan of women, children, and householder men followed the next day. A karmi guest who was riding with us pulled out of his knapsack a version of the Bhagavad Gita other than the one the Krishna sect had published.
For a devotee, the only authorized version of this most sacred of Hindu scriptures was Prabhupada's translation and commentary, the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Patraka accused the young man of being "in Maya." He ordered the young man to put his "unauthorized" book away and chant Hare Krishna for the rest of the trip, which he grudgingly did.
We spent the first night of our trip in a motel room — a luxury, I later discovered. Supper consisted of peanuts and raisins that Patraka had mixed in a paper bag and offered in prayer to a picture of Prabhupada, as is the protocol when one is away from the temple.
The next morning, we again hit the road, after a makeshift program consisting of a subdued kirtan and a shortened class. After a few hours of driving, we pulled into the parking lot outside a shopping center. Patraka ordered a devotee named Mahesh to go out and collect some Lakshmi (money). An experienced sankirtan devotee, Mahesh was familiar with parking lots. A woman who was walking to her car stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him running toward her, his arms flailing. He asked her for money, and she gave him five dollars, as we watched from inside the van. At a roadside stand a few miles down the road, we bought a case of apples with the Lakshmi. Patraka offered the apples to Prabhupada and we took the remnants as prasadam.
We spent the night at the San Francisco temple, and drove the next day to the temple compound at 3764 Watseka Avenue in Culver City, Los Angeles. The rest of the world may have known Culver City for its motion picture studios, but we devotees knew it as the home of the largest urban temple in the Movement. Devotees called it the "Crossroads of the Movement," because of its strategic location with the Hawaiian, Japanese, and Indian temples to the west, the fast-growing Latin American temples to the south, and the other North American temples to the north and east.
Devotees knew the LA temple for its many householders and for its large contingent of devotees who had been in the Movement for five years or longer. In addition, the brahmachari ashram was one of the largest in the Movement. Looking for ways to raise Lakshmi in a Krishna-conscious manner, some LA householders started the Spiritual Sky Incense Company. Using devotees as workers, the company manufactured and distributed incense in many flavors, with the profits going to the sect.
At the LA temple, we joined scores of others who had arrived in busses and vans from all over the western United States. In addition, many Movement leaders from all over the world were present. We went to the ashram, where we "took rest."
We attended the morning program the next day. After entering the temple room, I offered my obeisances and looked up to catch my first glimpse of Prabhupada. A smallish, dignified, elderly Indian man, he sat alone on a raised platform, wearing a simple saffron-colored robe and a printed shawl over his narrow shoulders. His complexion was yellowish-brown, almost golden. The sacred tilak marked his forehead.
As he sang, his eyes closed and his body shook. All the devotees knew that his chanting was especially blissful. I had to agree that he had the most spiritual singing voice I had ever heard, even though he sang in a foreign language.
When the kirtan was over, several hundred young devotees also wearing robes and tilak sat on the floor in front of him and turned their fresh, angelic faces up toward him. When he spoke, the veins on his neck and forehead stood out.
His stare was intense and his language was uncompromising. In a thick accent, he hammered home a few simple themes: Krishna is God; Krishna consciousness is the original, natural condition of the living entity; we devotees were to always chant His Holy Names: Hare, Krishna, and Rama. He emphasized that his English translations of, and commentaries on, the Hindu classics such as the Bhagavad Gita would cause a worldwide spiritual revolution.
We were the foot soldiers in this revolution. He ended his speech with: "You American boys and girls are so good looking and intelligent, now you must perfect your lives by becoming Krishna conscious." He always called us "boys." If he liked someone, he said, "He's a nice boy."
A devotee served God by serving the spiritual master. We were honored to present Prabhupada the most opulent gifts money could buy, including silverware, expensive watches, and a rented Rolls-Royce.
I understood that Prabhupada spent most of his time translating the Hindu scriptures and attending to Movement business. His personal servants offered him tropical fruits and other foodstuffs on ornate, well-polished silver plates about eighteen inches in diameter. I heard that the devotees at other temples had bought him gold plates, and that the cooks sometimes wrapped his favorite milk sweets in gold foil.
The devotees believed that it was highly auspicious to take even one morsel of prasadam from the spiritual master's plate. His servants were, therefore, awarded the first opportunity to take the remnants of his prasadam. Personal service to the spiritual master was a special honor that rotated among a select group of top disciples. Bahudaka confided in me, however, that transcendental jealousy and intrigue was commonplace among Prabhupada's servants, causing a high turnover rate.
Posted in the foyer outside the temple room was a letter Prabhupada had written a few months before. In it, he gave the devotees his permission to use "white lies" when selling his books to the public.
I learned that, like their counterparts in Vancouver, most devotees in Los Angeles had been in the Movement for five years or less and had been between eighteen and twenty-five years of age when they joined. Nearly all had a high school education and many had attended college. In addition, many had dabbled in altruism, art, communal living, music, psychedelic drugs, yoga, or other eastern religions.
I heard that Prabhupada was preparing to initiate those new devotees who had lived in the temple and followed the rules and regulations for at least six months. Bahudaka's decision to include me among the initiates came as a mild surprise. I had been a shaved-up devotee for only a week or two. He asked me if I had followed the rules for the past six months. I said yes, except for the no-illicit-sex rule, which I had been following for only three months. He said, "That's good enough." The spiritual master said that, more than any other activity, sex life bound human beings to the worldly existence. Humans, unique among the life forms, were free to choose celibacy, the chanting of Hare Krishna, and the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. In contrast, Maya forced the animal species to have frequent and indiscriminate sex life.
I understood the gravity of a vow of lifelong obedience, poverty, and chastity. An initiate did whatever the spiritual master told him to do, chanted Hare Krishna at least 1,728 times a day, and followed the four regulative principles: no illicit sex, no intoxication, no meat eating, and no gambling or mental speculation. He took only the prasadam the spiritual master provided, and, unlike our guests, only in moderation.
On the subject of obedience, a swami once explained, "If you are in a boat and the spiritual master says, 'Turn right,' you turn right. If he later says, 'Turn left,' you must not say, 'But you said, "Turn right."'" The spiritual master alone had the right to change his mind, because only he was in touch with God and His desires.
In return for the disciple's faithful obedience, the spiritual master took him "back Home, back to Godhead." For the sinful, "fallen" disciple, the spiritual master was the "only hope" for escaping the miseries of the material world. One who surrendered to him was finally safe in a relentlessly dangerous world.
The philosophy held that the soul migrated from one species to another, passing through all the fish, plant, reptile, and mammalian bodies, until the material nature ultimately awarded it the highest form of life, the human body.
A soul that failed to achieve Krishna consciousness in his human lifetime again became a lower species in his next life. Thus began another slow ascent through the species by the process of birth and death. This transmigration of the soul from lower to higher species repeated itself as long as he failed to become Krishna conscious while a human being.
If, however, he succeeded in becoming Krishna conscious as a human, he left behind his material body and returned to the spiritual world. There he took an eternal spiritual body and lived in bliss and full knowledge with Krishna.
In early December, several dozen devotees from various centers took initition into the sect.
The ceremony began as the pujaris (senior devotees who were trained in the performance of devotional rituals) threw sesame seeds and ghee (clarified butter) into a small fire in the center of the temple room. We initiates sat in rows on either side of the fire. A pujari wrapped a string of tiny hand-carved wooden beads around the neck of each new initiate. All initiated devotees wore these beads day and night. Informally, we called them our "dog collars," because we were now the guru's faithful and obedient dogs.
The men rose one by one and stood before Prabhupada. He asked us if we knew the rules and regulations. We answered, "Yes." He asked us how many rounds of Hare Krishna we would chant daily. We replied, "Sixteen." Then Prabhupada gave us each a japa-mala on which he had chanted before the ceremony. Finally, he told us our sect names.
After the men, he initiated the women. When it was Bhaktin Joanie's turn, she stood before him looking dazed and awed as she answered his questions and accepted the beads. A brahmacharini (single celibate female student) vowed to accept Prabhupada as her spiritual father and Krishna as her husband.
Exhausted from the early hours and the grueling schedule, I drifted off to sleep several times during the ceremony. My sleepiness embarrassed me, because a devotee was expected to think of initiation as the most auspicious moment of his life.
Bhakta Gary became Pundarikasam and Bhaktin Joanie became Jayabhadra. I quickly forgot my new name, but later read on a bulletin board that it was Pujana. All the names meant servant of Krishna or one of His devotees. Mine meant "servant of the process of temple worship of Krishna."
Along with chanting His Names and hearing about Him, temple worship of Krishna was one of eight forms of devotional service, according to the literature. Most devotees recognized my name from Prabhupada's books. This proved something of an advantage in my career as a devotee. The correct pronunciations were pu-JOHN-uh or pu-JOHN. (A final "a" in Sanskrit is sometimes silent.) Nevertheless, most devotees Anglicized the accentuation and said PU-john-uh.
Despite my difficulties surrendering to authority and staying awake during the morning program, I still felt that I was growing daily in my devotion to, and love of, God. For example, after a "fired-up" japa class or a blissful kirtan, I was usually "receptive," as we said, to the lecture. At such times, the philosophy of surrender and obedience to God's representative made perfect sense. "Just chant Hare Krishna and you will become perfect," seemed an obvious formula for spiritual success.
A Sixteenth-Century devotee provided us with an example of the bliss that resulted from devotion to the Lord. According to Prabhupada's books, this devotee's atheistic persecutors had whipped him in twenty-two marketplaces, and tossed him into a river, leaving him for dead. Nevertheless, he survived the ordeal. After emerging from the river, he danced in ecstasy, intoxicated with the chanting of the Holy Names. Prabhupada emphasized that dancing in the performance of kirtan was a spiritual exercise, while the dancing of the material world was no more than "dog dancing."
The Radha-Krishna Deities in Los Angeles had been five-foot-high statues of polished white marble before the spiritual master installed Them several years before. We understood that so long as we devotees served Them with love and devotion, They were Krishna, or God, never mere statues. One morning during kirtan, I positioned myself where I could see Their eyes as I danced enthusiastically for Their pleasure.
I concentrated hard on hearing the Hare Krishna mantra as we chanted it. As the kirtan reached its crescendo, Radha (Krishna's eternal consort in the spiritual world) and Krishna came alive, looked back at me, and, for a brief but memorable moment, danced with me. Perhaps unseen by the others, They moved their arms and bodies with the music and with my own body. They seemed to be in control my movements.
After a few weeks, Prabhupada left Los Angeles, and the visiting devotees, including the group from Vancouver, prepared to return to their home temples. I had grown to like Southern California because of the warmer weather and because the cold morning shower felt lukewarm by Canadian standards. I knew that, wherever I was, my superiors would ask me to sell books and collect Lakshmi for the sect. Los Angeles, however, had a much bigger and more sophisticated sankirtan program than did Vancouver. I told Bahudaka of my desire to remain in Los Angeles and become "trained up" in sankirtan book distribution. He disliked my request because it meant that he was losing a devotee. He did grudgingly give his permission, however, and I stayed in Los Angeles.
A few weeks later, I received a letter from Bhakta Gary, under his new name, Pundarikasam. On behalf of Bahudaka, he invited me to return to Vancouver. I did not answer his letter, nor did I return to Canada. Thereafter, I rarely saw my Vancouver god-brothers, except when they came to Los Angeles for a visit.
The brahmachari ashram in Los Angeles was a large room on the second, and top, floor. Each devotee was assigned a metal gymnasium-style locker in which to keep his possessions. Unlike their counterparts in the smaller centers, such as Vancouver and Portland, the LA devotees had a reputation for stealing almost anything that was not locked up.
Shoes, which we left just outside the entrances to the building, were especially vulnerable to theft. Someone once stole the temple president's shoes, even though the scriptures said that a person who stole from a Brahmin (member of the priestly class) would become a lizard in his next life. The only possession a devotee could be sure never to lose was his japa-mala, which was considered sacred.
The ashram was off-limits to women and children. Similarly, the brahmacharini ashram, which was located in another building, was off-limits to us.
Although I enjoyed the group activities such as chanting and taking prasadam, much of the philosophy seemed dense and obtuse, perhaps because of the many Sanskrit terms. In my first few months as a full-time devotee, I needed to learn a new way of living, speaking, and thinking. The leaders assigned me to kitchen duties, such as cutting vegetables and washing pots. Every morning we helped the cooks to prepare the main meal of the day by cutting up cases of vegetables such as cauliflower, squash, tomato, and green pepper.
Cleaning a large pot was sometimes a chore, especially when one's arms barely reached the bottom. On one occasion, as I struggled with a burned pot, a devotee explained, "If you leave a spot, it means you have a spot on your heart."
On another occasion, a devotee accidentally cut himself. A supervisor told him, "Be grateful that your cut was a small one, because if you weren't a devotee, you would have lost your whole finger." Krishna was always kind toward, and protective of, His devotees. The supervisor ordered the devotee to leave the kitchen and not return for the rest of the day. Although the soul was pure, the body and all of its byproducts were contaminated.
Other jobs for new devotees included cleaning the temple room, the ashram, or the stool room. A devotee who was able to make the metal fixtures shine earned a reputation among his god-brothers as a mahatma (great soul).
The spiritual master taught that as a devotee became serious about his Krishna consciousness, qualities such as regulation and service to the spiritual master would become more important than eating and sleeping. Nevertheless, as in Vancouver, many devotees in Los Angeles, including me, sometimes disobeyed the spiritual master's wishes and took more prasadam than necessary.
Many of us had been vegetarians before joining the Movement, but some of the more athletic types who were accustomed to eating steaks had a hard time adjusting to the meatless diet. In any case, devotees often gossiped about which temples served the best or the most prasadam. I even heard rumors on more than one occasion that the temples in Hawaii and Santa Cruz, California, served three meals a day, instead of the usual two. Aware of this situation, Prabhupada once declared that ISKCON was in danger of becoming the "International Society for Eating Consciousness."
Guests and friends of Krishna Consciousness from around the city and beyond often attended our services and took prasadam with us. Some of them, however, were more interested in the free meal than the Krishna consciousness. Impatient with the freeloaders, Jayatirtha, the temple president, declared that henceforward no one should receive a meal unless he had worked a full day for the Movement that day. Furthermore, he ordered the karmi guests to sleep outside in the sankirtan vans, rather than in the ashram.
The Sunday afternoon feasts attracted the largest crowds. On one occasion, as I served the yogurt punch, known in the group as lassi, a guest who had concerns about eating sugar — as I once had — asked me about the ingredients in the punch. Another devotee suggested that I tell the guest that it contained honey, though I suspected that it contained sugar.
Before I arrived in Los Angeles, a devotee named Karandhar had risen through the ranks to become the Governing Body Commission (GBC) member for the Southern California region and a top aide to Prabhupada. The GBC was the equivalent of a board of directors. Its members administered the various geographical regions around the world and reported directly to Prabhupada.
I heard that before joining the Movement, Karandhar had been in a motorcycle gang. Although he had recently "blooped" (quit the Movement), devotees still spoke of him in reverential terms. I heard that as a devotee he had exemplified "gravity," a quality that devotees valued highly. When someone asked him why he was always so grave, he replied, "Because I see death all around me." A devotee knows that all living beings suffer repeated births and deaths. That is, until they meet the spiritual master, who takes them back to Godhead.
Karandhar did, however, occasionally visit the temple. Trudging across Watseka Avenue in his heavy work boots and overalls, and wearing a full head of hair, he looked clumsy, earthbound, and materially contaminated. In contrast, the devotees, with their sandals, robes, and clean-shaven heads, seemed light-footed, graceful, and spiritual. Prabhupada insisted on more than one occasion that Karandhar would return, though to my knowledge he never did. I later heard that he had become a Buddhist.
Most, but not all, of our guests were curious and respectful. On one occasion, a karmi tried to moon the Deities during a Bhagavad Gita class. Before most of us realized what had happened, some devotees had quickly hustled him out the side door and into the alley behind the temple. I was afraid of what they might have done to him.
Krishna Kanti, a devotee who had once worked as a sound technician for a major TV network, wired most of the rooms in the temple with loudspeakers. During the morning and evening programs, one could hear throughout the temple complex the live chanting and lectures originating in the temple room. Devotional recordings played at other times.
In my conversations with other devotees, I learned some of the history of the Movement. Prabhupada once followed the Indian leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, but left his movement due to a disagreement over Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence. Prabhupada considered nonviolence to be materialistic and, ultimately, anti-spiritual. Never referring to Gandhi by his usual title, "Mahatma," which means, "great soul," Prabhupada asserted that one cannot be "rubber stamped" as a great soul. Rather, one must earn this title by serving Krishna.
Many years later Prabhupada left his family to spread the Krishna consciousness in the West. In 1965, he secured the sponsorship of a wealthy Indian patron and traveled alone by boat to Boston. In 1966, he started the first Hare Krishna temple in the West in a seedy storefront on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The same year, he and his young disciples held their first public kirtan in Washington Square Park, the same place I first saw the devotees about three years later.
He initiated his disciples into Krishna consciousness and gave them Sanskrit names. Soon thereafter, he legally incorporated ISKCON, which grew rapidly over the next few years, spreading first to San Francisco and Montreal, and then to other cities in North America and Europe.
In the late 1960s, Prabhupada instructed Kirtanananda Swami and Hayagriva, two of his first disciples, to found a rural commune where devotees could practice the Hindu ideals of cow protection and what Prabhupada called "simple living and high thinking."
A small but hardy group of devotees, most of whom were city dwellers who knew little or nothing about agriculture, moved onto some acreage near the town of Moundsville in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Prabhupada named the commune "New Vrindavan," after Krishna's birthplace. The devotees endured a tough first winter with little food or firewood. Working with determination and without pay, they were able after the spring thaw to grow many of their own vegetables and flowers. In later years, they even obtained some cows and produced surpluses of some crops.
Prabhupada permitted his young disciples to marry, because many were unable or unwilling to maintain a vow of celibacy. At first, none of the couples bore children, because of Prabhupada's insistence that spreading the Movement should take precedence over personal and familial concerns.
Later, however, Prabhupada changed his mind and ordered them to reproduce, which they did. At his insistence, the devotees raised the children, who also took Sanskrit names, by the same strict rules all devotees followed.
Meanwhile, Prabhupada established an administrative hierarchy consisting of, in decreasing order of power, himself, the dozen or so members of the GBC, the temple presidents, vice presidents, treasurers, and temple commanders. (The commanders assigned daily duties to the rank-and-file devotees.) A parallel and overlapping ecclesiastical hierarchy, again in decreasing order, consisted of Prabhupada again, the other sannyasis, the Brahmins (second initiates), the first initiates, and the bhaktas (uninitiated devotees).
Like the military, the sect was pyramidal in structure. Novices like me always took instructions from everyone, it seemed. Prabhupada emphasized that an instruction from any superior was as good as an instruction from Krishna. A devotee learned to be happy with whatever Krishna gave him, and never to ask for more. The sect taught that a person is sinful and undeserving, and that austerity and obedience to the spiritual master were his ticket to the next world. Devotees had an expression for this: "Work now, samadhi [heaven] later."
By the end of the decade, Prabhupada had dispatched North American devotees to Africa, South America, and Australia, where they started temples and brought the message of Krishna consciousness to the fallen souls.
In merry England, some devotees had become friendly with George Harrison. He chanted Hare Krishna, wrote and recorded several songs with themes taken from the Hare Krishna philosophy, and produced an album of devotional songs sung by the London temple devotees. I had once heard this record, which the devotees knew as the London Temple album, in a Vancouver restaurant. Wealthy after his success as a Beatle, Harrison donated a mansion near London, which the devotees renamed "Bhaktivedanta Manor." I also heard that they tried but failed to recruit Ringo Starr, another Beatle.
When I joined the sect, it claimed more than 100 urban centers and about a half-dozen farms worldwide, with a total membership of about 10,000. Prabhupada said that the Movement would soon have 100,000 members, and then one million. Soon everyone in the world would be chanting Hare Krishna.