Some of the larger temples sent traveling parties to college campuses, state fairs, and cities that had no ISKCON temple. Once there, the devotees distributed books, collected Lakshmi, and sometimes tried to recruit new members. The parties traveled in everything from panel vans to full-sized intercity busses. The latter were converted into traveling temples by removing most of the seats and installing a small set of Deities at the rear. For years, an advertisement on the back cover of the BTG referred to these traveling sankirtan parties with a headline that read something like, "Experience Life as a Bhakti Yogi for a Week or a Month!"
In March 1975, Hasyapriya arranged for me to join an LA-based traveling party that was then in Chicago. He told the party leader that I was doing 100 magazines a day. In truth, it was more like fifty to 100 a day. I guess Hasyapriya was reluctant to give up any of his better distributors. In any case, mine was not to reason why, and I caught a midnight flight to Chicago.
At the temple in Evanston, Illinois, which is just outside of the city, I joined the LA party. It consisted of Kavichandra (also known as Kavi), the leader, and another devotee named Locasaranga (also known as Loca), who was an expert distributer.
The temple building had formerly been a YMCA, complete with an empty swimming pool that was used to store blankets and winter clothes. As usual, my mission was to distribute as many BTG's as possible. I found a picture of devotees feeding poor people in India in a recent issue of the magazine, and taped it onto my plastic collection can.
At the morning program, the Chicago temple president read aloud, for the pleasure of the Deities, a list of the top sankirtan devotees and how much Lakshmi they had collected the previous day. After breakfast prasadam, Kavi, Loca, and I drove into the city of Chicago. Kavi abruptly pulled the van to the curb, turned to me, and ordered, "Get out." I grabbed my can and book bag loaded with magazines, jumped out of the van, and faced one of the busiest and noisiest intersections I had ever worked. There were wide medians to stand on and the traffic was backing up as much as 100 yards in every direction. In short, this was a great stoplight for sankirtan.
I took my position on the median strip. The best strategy was to jump into the intersection when the light turned red and immediately start collecting. If I hesitated or thought too much about what I was doing, then I would have trouble getting started. To create an air of urgency and excitement, I ran from car to car. I was enthusiastic and "hot" that day. The karmis were highly sensitive to any doubts or hesitations a devotee might have.
A dozen cars stopped at the light in the lane closest to the strip. I tried to entice the first driver to give a dollar. Meanwhile, I noticed that several drivers behind him were staring curiously at me. I knew that if the first driver gave Lakshmi, then the others would be more likely to give as well. Some devotees even faked the first donation. They turned their backs to the other drivers, whipped out a planted dollar bill, and triumphantly flashed it for all to see.
If a driver's window were closed, I would sometimes motion to him to roll it down. To my astonishment, he usually did. When an eighteen-wheeler stopped at the light, I sometimes climbed the metal ladder on the side of the cab. Several drivers, apparently impressed by my persistence, or dumbstruck by my audacity, rolled down their windows and gave a donation. Perhaps they believed that there was no other way to get rid of me. It did not matter why they gave, so long as they gave.
Stoplights were even more dangerous than parking lots. Several times, I needed to sidestep moving cars as I tried to obtain one more donation or finish a transaction after the light had changed. With practice, I was able to anticipate the changing of the light. When it was green, I took refuge on the median. To drown out the din of the traffic and to prepare myself for the next red light, I often chanted at full voice.
After about an hour Kavi returned in the van. I jumped in. He demanded to see my collection can, which was quickly filling with bills and becoming heavy with change. As we drove to the next site, he grumbled something about how I was "loafing" out there. I knew, however, that Kavi had not meant what he said, and was secretly pleased with my performance thus far that day.
After a few days in Chicago, we hit the road and headed south. While riding in the van, we regulated our time by dividing each hour into fifteen-minute intervals of chanting on beads, kirtan, reading aloud from a book, and listening to a taped lecture. We took turns reading and leading the singing. Short breaks for lunch and an evening snack were the only interruptions to our routine of chanting and hearing Prabhupada's words.
The first night we stayed at the temple in St. Louis. The next day we drove to Oklahoma City, where I was "hot" again at the stoplights. There I found a cute picture of devotee children in a BTG and taped it onto my collection can. This helped me to solicit donations.
One evening Kavi and I parked the van in a parking lot as we waited for Loca to return. Ever the hard-core book distributor, Kavi spotted a young karmi in a parked pickup truck a short distance away. Kavi said to me, "Go sell that guy a Gita." I picked up a book, got out, walked over to him, tried and failed to sell the book, and returned to the van. Selling a magazine for a dollar was relatively easy, but selling a hardcover book for ten dollars was more of a challenge.
A few days later, we stopped at the center in Dallas, Texas, partly because Kavi's wife and child lived there. The spiritual master had located the boarding school for children, known as the gurukula, at the Dallas temple. Meanwhile, Kavi traveled and preached Krishna consciousness for much of the year, giving up his attachments to spouse, children, and home.
Discipline at the gurukula was strict. The boys wore dhotis and shaved their heads; the girls wore saris and pulled back their long hair. They learned that the spiritual master was their father and the cow was their mother. Prabhupada had authorized the use of corporal punishment when dealing with children. Some devotees maintained that he had once said that all children were demons.
Children left their parents and entered the gurukula by the age of six years by Movement calculation or five by Western calculation. (The spiritual master taught that a baby was one year old at birth.) I heard that all parents had signed powers of attorney giving the sect legal guardianship of their children. This was to protect the Krishna consciousness of the child in case one or both parents blooped. Furthermore, parents visited their children no more than once or twice a year. This was especially hard for the mothers, who were more prone to struggle with what we called the "bodily conception of life" than were their more spiritually advanced husbands.
The karmi authorities in Texas had recently tried to close the gurukula. Their pretexts were our alleged failures to meet minimum karmi health and educational standards. Did the so-called authorities not know that learning Krishna consciousness was infinitely more important than learning the usual mundane curriculum? Did they not know that our philosophy of simple living and high thinking was far superior to their habits of killing cows and eating their meat? Despite our strong objections to living under karmi rules, the gurukula had compromised with the authorities and begun to teach traditional subjects such as English and arithmetic.
Several months after our visit, the authorities in Dallas did succeed in closing the gurukula. At first, Prabhupada scattered the children among various centers in the US. He later sent them to India, which had lower health and educational standards.
After a couple of days in Dallas, we departed for Los Angeles, stopping in motels along the way. While driving, we saw a sign that read, "Ramada Inn." Noticing the auspicious word Rama in the name, we thought about the many karmis who must have unwittingly contacted the Absolute Truth in a small but significant way simply by seeing this sign. An unknowing and as-yet ungrateful world was inexorably becoming Krishna conscious.
On one occasion, Loca cooked too much prasadam and Kavi ordered him take all the leftovers. This was standard punishment for wasting Krishna's resources. Occasionally, a cook accidentally substituted salt for sugar in a preparation such as sweet bread. In such cases, the devotees often took the bread anyway. The reasoning was that it was transcendental and absolute, because the devotees had offered it with love to Krishna. Prasadam nourished the soul regardless of its material ingredients. Being spiritual, prasadam was incapable of causing a material reaction like distress or illness. It was an offense to think of prasadam as nothing more than matter.
Back in Los Angeles, Loca and I worked the popular karmi movie The Exorcist. The line in Westwood stretched around a city block. Working a stationary crowd required nerves of steel, but Loca sold many books that afternoon.
In the late spring, I traveled with a different sankirtan party to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The first day there, the leader told me, "Do 100 books or don't come back." He dropped me off in a parking lot at ten or eleven in the morning. I was wearing my karmi clothes and a button with my name and the words "ISKCON World Relief Organization." I approached one karmi after another, trying to let Krishna move my arms and legs and give me the intelligence to distribute successfully. By the time the others arrived at sundown, I had sold 120 magazines. I was physically tired but emotionally high.
A few days later, I approached a man in a business suit after he stopped his car at a red light. With calculated breathlessness, I recited one of my lines about our charities. He handed me a five-dollar bill. My biggest donation ever as a sankirtan devotee.
We wanted to do the New Mexico state fair, but we knew the authorities did not ordinarily permit fairgoers to carry large, heavy boxes into the grounds. The leader drove the van to a service entrance, lied about who we were, and smuggled our books into the fairgrounds.
One afternoon the following week, we arrived at a college dorm to pick up one of our distributors. The leader looked at the frustration and guilt on the devotee's face and said, to no one in particular, "He didn't distribute today." The struggling devotee had indeed been in Maya all day.
After a couple of weeks in Albuquerque, I started to do poorly again. Feeling fatigued and frustrated, I often fell into Maya and sat down on the curb or sidewalk. Meanwhile, most of the others were meeting or exceeding their quotas. I had become a burden for the party. After one especially unproductive day, the leader said, "What are we going to do with you, send you back to LA?" This was a threat for a brahmachari like me, because the LA temple had earned a reputation for having more householders and babies — in short, more Maya — than any other temple in the Movement. Space cases like me often ended up cutting vegetables or sweeping the floor in warm-weather or rural temples.
Seeing how poorly I was doing, the leader put me on a bus to Los Angeles. Twenty-four hours later, I checked in with Tulsi-dasa, the temple president. He said, "Get cleaned up for the evening program. You smell like a bus."
After about eighteen months of distributing books and collecting Lakshmi on the front lines of the war against Maya, I was burned out. Noticing my low scores and morose attitude, Hasyapriya asked me, "What do you want to do for Krishna?" I told him I wanted to cook.
For the next several weeks, I spent the mornings helping the cooks to prepare the noon meal and the afternoons downtown or at UCLA with the sankirtan chanting party. On campus, we distributed magazines, put up posters, and invited students to the Sunday feast.
In my prayers, I asked Krishna to engage me fully in His service and to fill my mind with blissful thoughts of Him. Excess in the pursuit of Krishna consciousness was no vice, it seemed. Indeed, the spiritual master expected the devotees to be "mad after Krishna."
As I became more involved in temple-based activities, my feelings of burnout subsided and the bliss of Krishna consciousness returned. One morning, as I rinsed a knife in a large, stainless-steel kitchen sink, my hands seemed to glow with transcendental opaqueness and translucence. The doctrine asserted that everything, including one's body, became spiritualized when engaged in devotional service. I thanked Krishna for the realization and for the opportunity to see the truth of His doctrine.
It seemed that many of the devotees around me, especially the younger ones, were in a perpetual state of heightened enthusiasm about Krishna consciousness. This made me wonder why I was so often in Maya. Someone once asked an especially enthusiastic devotee, "How do you stay so enlivened all the time?" He replied, "I don't — I just fake it."
Perfection consisted of chanting and performing one's service, even when one was not in the mood for it. A devotee never tried to directly achieve knowledge or enlightenment, as these gifts came only to those who had surrendered themselves fully to the service of the guru.
During a particularly intense kirtan, I thought of how ecstatic it was to dance for the pleasure of the Deities and not for my own pleasure. At such times, it seemed as if I had found everything I had ever searched for, and more. When I was feeling morose, I forced myself to dance and think of Krishna. Often, by the end of the kirtan, I had forgotten whatever it was that had been on my mind. Conversely, if I refused to serve, or to dance and chant with conviction, I could make myself even more miserable. In such situations, I felt far removed from most of the other devotees and from God.
A quarter of an inch of water often stood on the kitchen floor near the sinks where the devotees washed the vegetables and cleaned the pots. Though the rules generally proscribed shoes within the temple, the leaders made an exception and allowed us to wear plastic sandals in the kitchen. Nevertheless, many devotees contracted colds in the winter. About once a year or so, I became ill with a cold or the flu and needed to go to the sick quarters.
I also suffered from persistent infections on my knuckles and the backs of my hands. We rarely saw a doctor when we were sick; rather, our medicine was chanting, reading, and fasting. Illness separated a devotee from the mainstream of temple life, though sometimes a healthy devotee would come by and read to the sick devotees. We all knew that any devotee who became separated for an extended period from the other devotees and from devotional activities, would almost certainly fall into Maya.
On one occasion, Gopa became ill. When his condition failed to improve after a few days, the leaders sent him home to his parents. They in turn sent him to a doctor. A couple of weeks later, he returned, well again, to the temple.
Several other devotees and I took second initiation, also known as Brahminical initiation, in a ceremony at the temple. The spiritual master offered this only to those who had followed the rules and regulations for at least one year following first initiation, and who had progressed in their Krishna consciousness. Second initiates were no longer simply students of bhakti yoga. Rather, they were expected to preach the principles of devotion and to perform pujari and cooking duties. Other devotees could cut vegetables or sew garments for the Deities, but only a Brahmin could bathe and dress Them or cook a devotional offering over a flame.
After the ceremony, Jayatirtha gave us a mantra known as gayatri, which we chanted silently every morning, noon, and evening. This was the first and, to my knowledge, only secret or silent mantra a devotee chanted. We received a white string, known as the Brahminical thread, to wear always around our necks and torsos.
I cried as the enthusiastic new devotees took first initiation in the same ceremony. After eons of forgetfulness of Krishna and separation from Him in this material world, they were finally going back to Godhead. Bhakta Joe, with whom I had often distributed books, received the eternal name Jayo.
In July, Hasyapriya sent me to Berkeley to help with the cooking for the yearly Ratha-Yatra festival. The temple compound was on Stuart Street, just off Telegraph Avenue on the south side of the city, less than a mile from the University of California campus. A few days later, I was chanting in the temple room when A karmi worker hired by the devotees to do some repair work trudged across the floor in his heavy work boots. One could expect this from a person who was fully controlled by the material nature and who was always chasing a happiness he could never find. In contrast, the barefoot devotees moved with grace and a lightness in their steps, because they knew it was Krishna who directed and guided their movements.
Like its counterpart in Los Angeles, the Berkeley temple took book distribution seriously. One afternoon, a leader asked me to walk to the bank with the temple treasurer. He carried a heavy knapsack filled with coins and bills the devotees had collected on sankirtan. On another occasion, we went to the San Francisco airport to pick up the sankirtan team. An able-bodied bookseller had been selling from a wheelchair that day. I heard that a devotee using a chair could double his usual score.
After returning to Los Angeles, another devotee and I drove to the airport to drop off books for the sankirtan team. About a dozen nuns in full habit were singing in a corridor as another passed out literature. I wondered, "Where did this idea come from?"
Sometimes a sankirtan devotee from a northern state or Canadian province would flee the frigid winter weather and end up in a temple in Hawaii, Florida, Southern California, or even Mexico. Some devotees argued that the warmer locations, with their large numbers of winter-season tourists, were big for collecting Lakshmi. Most of the leaders frowned on those who moved without authorization from temple to temple. The leaders in the temperate climates, however, held their tongues, as they stood to gain devotees and Lakshmi. Many sankirtan leaders preferred to solicit in tourist destinations, as they had money and were unlikely to remain in the area long enough to testify against the Movement in court.
One morning, Hasyapriya asked me to appear in traffic court in place of a devotee named Pundarika, who was out of town. I pled guilty, because no one had instructed me which way to plead. I also believed that a guilty plea would mean less hassle for me. The judge fined me twenty dollars, which I did not have. They put me in a holding tank with a dozen or so dirty, fallen souls. After a while, a jailer brought us each a ham sandwich and an orange. I refused the sandwich, but offered the orange to Prabhupada and distributed its sections as prasadam to the karmis. Some accepted the mercy and others did not.
By Krishna's mercy, Bhubanesvara arrived at the courthouse the same afternoon to take care of some unrelated business. Devotees spent much time in court because of the harassment we received. He somehow discovered that the authorities were detaining me. He paid my fine and they freed me. That was the first, but not the last, time I saw the inside of a jail cell as a devotee.
Urjasvat had become a minor celebrity at the temple because of his ability to collect hundreds of dollars in a day. Some devotees criticized him for his habit of taking two or three-hour naps in the car each morning. With his numbers, however, the leaders never complained.
Urjasvat had left behind a family when he joined the sect. A devotee should give his women and property to the Movement, according to the doctrine. Urjasvat's karmi wife, however, refused to join. The best solution in such a situation was to abandon one's family, join the Movement, and hope that one day they would also join. A devotee's family, friends, and teachers must all be devotees of Krishna.
One afternoon that summer, a large group of devotees and I chanted, swam, and played water sports at nearby Venice Beach. We understood that winning a water competition was proof of a team's superior Krishna consciousness. This was the only time I went to the beach in the years I lived in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the karmis around us tried to beautify their bodies by jogging, roller skating, lifting weights, playing volleyball, or sunning themselves. Our doctrine stated that Krishna gave each human a fixed number of heartbeats for his entire life span. Therefore, elevating one's heart rate shortened one's life. In addition, Prabhupada considered most games a frivolous waste of time. Although swimming, which was a Vaishnava sport, was an exception, most centers had no pool. For these reasons, devotees rarely exercised or engaged in sports.
The BTG continued to carry articles attacking materialism, atheism, and science. Other articles talked about the worldwide expansion of the Movement and its many humanitarian projects. Another regular feature was entitled "How I Joined Krishna Consciousness." It described how the spiritual master's mercy had saved another fallen soul who had been floundering in the material world. I tried to read the magazines and paperback books we distributed, but I often lacked the time to do so.
On one occasion, my mother, sister, and nephew came to visit me in Los Angeles. We said little to each other. They failed to understand my Krishna consciousness, and their karmi ways interested me little. After an hour or two, they left.
A few weeks later, my father, who had recently divorced my mother, and his second wife visited me. I had not received the message he left at the temple pay phone. (It was the only phone available to most devotees.)
Devotees are unsentimental about calls from outsiders. After my father arrived, the devotee who took the call warned me, "Watch out, they'll stuff you in the back seat of his car and have you deprogrammed." Thinking that my family would never do anything like that, I ignored him. They arrived just before the evening program, and I suggested that we attend it together. When the arotik began, I danced as usual at the front of the temple room, as they stood in the back. When the class began, another devotee brought them chairs to sit on.
After the class, I took them outside again. They invited me to come to dinner with them. I refused, as a devotee cannot eat food prepared in a karmi restaurant. Instead, we sat on the steps of the temple and talked for a few minutes. Whenever I said something about Krishna consciousness, they responded with something like, "But how can you say that?" I was making little progress in winning my father over to our way of thinking. Prabhupada taught that this was a result of my father's absorption in profit, self-adoration, and sex life.
A devotee named Jayadvaita, an editor at the BTG, approached us and introduced himself to my father and his wife. He began to talk to them about Krishna consciousness in a smooth and polished way, as I could not. Soon, however, I became anxious, because my 9:30 bedtime was approaching. When Jayadvaita left, I excused myself, and my father and his wife said good-bye.
Ramesvara asked me to accompany a householder devotee named Baninatha on a weeklong incense run to central California. Traveling by car, we sold incense to college bookstores and record stores in black neighborhoods. We slept in cheap motels.
In the late summer, Hasyapriya gave me thirty dollars and instructed me to take the next bus to Yellowstone National Park, where I was to join a traveling party. A couple of days later, I arrived in West Yellowstone, Montana. Having no Lakshmi for the shuttle bus into the park itself, I hitchhiked the last few miles to our cabin, which was near the main visitors' center.
The devotees were collecting Lakshmi at the tourist attractions, including the famous "Old Faithful" geyser. Every morning at 4 o'clock we went to the public showers, which of course were empty. A hot shower was priced at a quarter, but a cold shower, which was all a devotee needed, was free. For the first day or two, the party leader ordered us to take only bran cereal and milk at all meals. This made my job as cook easy, but the diet quickly became monotonous. We complained to Hasyapriya in Los Angeles, who ordered the leader to change the menu back to regular prasadam.
After ten days in Yellowstone, our next stop was Salt Lake City, where we joined another traveling party at a house the LA temple had rented. I shared the kitchen duties with a brahmachari named Pavamana. Two years my senior in the Movement, he had formerly been the head mechanic for the fleet of sankirtan cars in car-crazy city of Los Angeles.
Every evening the sankirtan devotees counted the Lakshmi they had collected that day. They rolled their coins and placed their one-dollar bills into neat stacks of fifty each, top side up, all facing the same way. On one occasion, another devotee and I were talking to a guest in the front room while the devotees counted Lakshmi in a back room. The other devotee whispered to me, "Never let a karmi see the money."
I was having trouble controlling my eating. Trying to hide my bloated belly, I often wore my kurtah untucked at the waist. As I was taking out the trash one afternoon, Urjasvat yelled from fifty paces away, "Hey, Pu', you're gettin' fat!" This amused the devotees who remembered how thin I had been when I joined the Movement.
One way to burn off extra calories was to dance like a madman during kirtan. When it became intense, however, the floor shook and the Deities rocked back and forth. This delighted the dancers — all devotees lived for the day when they could dance with Krishna in the spiritual sky — but it horrified the pujaris, as it was their duty to protect and care for the Deities. I feared that continued frenetic dancing on our flimsy wooden floor might one day cause Them to fall.
A devotee on the party had donated a new Winnebago recreational vehicle when he joined the Movement. It was equipped with a shower, a kitchen with microwave oven, and a tiny temple room and altar in the rear. One Sunday we rode in the RV to a nearby lake where we swam and took prasadam.
A few weeks later, we left for Berkeley in the RV. Agnideva (also known as Agni) arrived from Los Angeles to lead the traveling party. Blessed with a sweet and sincere tenor voice, he was one of the better singers and kirtan leaders on the West Coast. He had joined the Movement a couple of years before in New York City, after migrating with his family from the Caribbean.
Agni was separated from his wife, as often happened when one's duty to the spiritual master took precedence over a marriage. He was now wearing the saffron-dyed robes of a brahmachari.
Agni assigned Pavamana and me to the Deity worship duties on the bus. Using the tiny on-board kitchen, we cooked two and a half meals a day for Them and the devotees. We also divided the responsibilities for the six daily offerings and arotiks, which stretched from 4:15 a.m. to 9:15 p.m., seven days a week.
One evening, we parked near the University of California campus at Davis and spent the night in the RV. The next morning we rose at 4 o'clock, as usual, and marched into a dormitory to use the showers. On our way, we passed some students who were sitting in the lounge and having what looked like an all-night metaphysical bull session. Remembering my own college days, I glanced at them nostalgically. Neither group, however, acknowledged the other. After celebrating the morning program of worship in the RV, we were ready to hit the road again.
We dropped off the RV in Berkeley and flew from there to Los Angeles, where for the next few weeks I served again in the kitchen. One morning in October, Hasyapriya instructed five or six brahmacharis including me to pack our belongings and prepare for a trip to Las Vegas. We went upstairs, emptied our lockers into cardboard boxes, gathered our sleeping bags, and loaded them into a van.
After lunch prasadam, we left the temple. By sundown, we had arrived at the two-bedroom, one-bathroom ranch house that Tulsi-dasa had rented for us.
Pundarika, the sankirtan captain, took one bedroom; the rest of us took the other. He had joined the Movement a couple of years before, after dropping out of a large midwestern university.
As the others distributed books during the day, I cooked, cleaned, and did the grocery shopping. For the first few days, an experienced cook named Hari Nama taught me how to prepare the meals. A ten-year member and one of the first devotees in the Movement, he had served as the pioneering president of both the Boston and the Denver temples. It was said that Prabhupada had offered him the exalted title of sannyasi, but because of his unusual humility, he had refused, preferring the low-profile life of a brahmachari.
By the mid-1970s, however, Hari Nama was spacing out. His superiors sent him to the New Vrindavan farm, where spiritually drained devotees often went to recharge their batteries. He failed, however, to make much progress while there. Kirtanananda Swami, the local leader, sent Hari Nama to his mother's home in Florida. She in turn sent him to a mental hospital.
After leaving the hospital, he eventually ended up in Los Angeles. He served there as head cook for several months before being demoted to line cook. On our downtown chanting parties, he often chanted quietly on his japa-mala while sitting in a phone booth, as the rest of us chanted and danced on the sidewalk.
Hari Nama taught me how to shop for food at the supermarket. There we spent the quota of one dollar and seventy cents per devotee per day that Tulsi-dasa had allotted us for groceries.
The market in Las Vegas was designed so that an exiting customer was forced to walk a gauntlet of shining, silvery slot machines. What a perfect metaphor for the temptations of Maya and the material world, I thought. Most karmis were unable to resist the lure of instant sense gratification, even though in the end it always failed to satisfy their needs. Similarly, the material world promised happiness but in the end provided nothing but misery.
Most importantly, Hari Nama taught me how to prepare the main meal of the day: chapatis, yogurt, dahl, and a vegetable preparation such as potatoes with eggplant, cauliflower, or broccoli. To make chapatis, we prepared whole wheat dough, rolled it flat to a diameter of five or six inches, fried it in a dry pan, and allowed it to puff up like a balloon over the open gas flame.
I also learned to make dahl with mung beans, vegetables, and spices. To make yogurt, we cooled boiled milk until it was just above body temperature, mixed in the culture, covered the closed pot with a towel, and let the pot sit overnight above the pilot light in a cool oven. Each morning, we offered Their Lordships Gaur-Nitai a pot of fresh, thick yogurt.
After Hari Nama left, I ran the kitchen, which I kept clean, orderly, and up to the highest Brahminical standards. Unlike the larger temples, no one in the Las Vegas center was likely to enter the kitchen unannounced and disrupt my service. The focus in Las Vegas was on book distribution, the service that most pleased the spiritual master.
Besides learning how to cook the meals, Pundarika gave me other duties to perform. I arranged to have a phone installed at the temple by dressing in karmi clothes, driving to the downtown office of the telephone company, and untruthfully telling a representative that I was employed in a karmi job.
On one occasion, a devotee who had once been a sankirtan leader made a suggestion concerning a decision involving the group. He used the words, "In my experience...," which prompted Pundarika to say, "I don't care what your experience was." One never offered advice to Krishna's bona fide representative.
Like most other busy airports, the Las Vegas airport was a lucrative place to collect Lakshmi. Hrdayananda Swami, who was known for his humorous asides, once called Las Vegas a "place of pilgrimage for demons" because of its legal gambling, booze, and sex shows.
A devotee selling hardcover books could collect at least $100 a day, even on a slow weekday. Some returned with nearly as many silver dollars as paper dollars. It seemed that some gamblers liked to give silver dollars in charity for good luck. Some customers threw our books into the trash soon after buying them. The janitors would pick them out of the trash and sell them back to us. After a long day at the airport or the Strip, the devotees swam in our backyard pool.
On one occasion, Tulsi-dasa visited. On hearing the sound of the devotees counting the day's Lakshmi, he exclaimed, "That's music to my ears!" Every week I deposited at the bank the cash that the devotees had collected on sankirtan the previous week. Sometimes, the satchel that held the Lakshmi was so heavy I could barely carry it. Only Tulsi-dasa and the other officers in Los Angeles could withdraw money from the account.
For the first time since joining the sect, I was spending several hours a day alone. In a way, I welcomed the relative freedom. Before Las Vegas, I had often felt frustrated when there was no leader around to tell me what to do. For company, I played tapes of Prabhupada's lectures and kirtans.
It was, however, hard to remain Krishna conscious for long periods without the association of devotees. I often loudly chanted or even screamed scriptural verses at the top of my lungs when thoughts of eating, sex life, or any other kind of enjoyment came into my mind. I hoped the neighbors could not hear me, but wondered what they would think if they had. I remembered that, in any case, the ignorant were incapable of understanding us and unjustified in judging us. When the devotees returned at the end of the day, I pretended that everything was okay. Just before we took rest at night, Pundarika played tapes of Prabhupada's lectures so that we could hear the blissful philosophy of Krishna consciousness as we slept.
On Sundays, while the book distributors were at the airport, I sometimes cooked a miniature feast consisting of a vegetable preparation, halavah, lassi, and poppers. Lassi, also known as "nectar," was a drink made from fruit juice, sugar, ice, and yogurt or buttermilk. Poppers were like big, ultra-thin deep-fried crackers. No karmi guests attended our Sunday feasts, as recruiting was not a part of our mission.
One evening, some neighborhood boys broke one of our windows. We ran after them in our bare feet, but they managed to escape. They probably thought that we were some bizarre cult. In the degenerate karmi culture, devil worshipers earned more respect than God worshipers.
On one occasion, as we were chanting downtown in our temple garb, the police arrested us, handcuffed us together in a human chain, and marched us to the jailhouse. The charge was disturbing the peace. Before we entered the lockup, two sick officers of the law ordered us to strip and made lewd comments about our naked bodies.
We spent the night in jail with some drunks and gamblers who had failed to meet their financial obligations. Perfect examples of men in this age of ignorance and quarrel, Chitraka observed. The next morning our lawyers in Los Angeles arranged to have the charges dropped, and we went free. A few weeks later, we returned to Los Angeles, allowing the women's sankirtan team to use the house.
Over the next several months, I returned to Las Vegas several times, each time with a different party and leader. On one such occasion, we had an eleven-year-old boy with us, at Tulsi-dasa's request. A well-behaved and personable young man, he lived with us for about a month. I heard that his parents were involved in a custody dispute.
A stalwart sankirtan devotee named Bopadeva served with us for several weeks. Much to his consternation, he sometimes inadvertently chanted, "Hi, here take one of these!" on his beads during morning japa class, instead of the usual "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna."
Kripanidi, whom I had known in Vancouver, also served with us in Las Vegas. He had spiritual problems. Formerly a fierce and dedicated sankirtan devotee, his numbers had recently dropped. He had always been a special friend to younger devotees like me, but now he rarely spoke to anyone. Rather, he preferred to sit alone in the back of the temple room, or even in the car, and read his favorite book, the Nectar of Devotion, a book of Vaishnava philosophy. At first, I thought that he had decided not to talk to me because I had committed some kind of offense, but I later heard whispers that he had gone crazy. We all prayed for him.
In the late fall the presidents of the southwestern temples arrived in Las Vegas for a week-long meeting with Jayatirtha, the GBC member for the region. During japa class, he would sometimes spray a dozing miscreant president with a water bottle he kept at the ready. In a way, it was satisfying to see that our leaders had the same faults that we lesser devotees had, and that, at least occasionally, they, too, needed to live by the same rules we did.
I disliked having guests, because their presence added extra work and upset my daily routine. Most of the presidents were experienced cooks, however, and, seeing my distress, they volunteered to help in the kitchen. On the last day of their stay, they held a kirtan at the airport, where Jayatirtha displayed the wild and ecstatic dancing style for which he had become well known.
On one occasion, I took the car and bought a tape recorder with the quarterly distribution check from my trust fund. I gave the rest of the Lakshmi to the Movement. This was the only occasion on which I did not donate the entire check to the Movement. Alone during the day, I played kirtans and lectures on the tape player. I even left the player behind for the next group, because, in theory, at least, a brahmachari kept no material possessions.
A traveling party visited us in their refurbished Greyhound bus. They put the Lakshmi they had collected onto our altar for offering to the Deities. The sankirtan onboard the traveling temples was intense, but they also had a reputation for offering more freedom and fewer rules than the stationary temples. I heard that on one occasion, after a store security guard had caused trouble for the devotees on the bus, a husky devotee had put him upside-down into a trash can.
My mother telephoned from the East Coast. Feeling that her call was a distraction from my duties, I told her not to call me again. She agreed to write letters instead. Around that time, I heard that we were to write home once a month, saying that everything was okay and speaking highly of the Movement. For the next few months, I wrote regularly, sometimes signing my letters with both my sect name and my karmi name.
My mother was a "favorable" parent. She did not seem to object to my membership in the sect. Rather, she thought that as an adult, I should make my own decisions. I sent her a subscription to the BTG. A year later, she renewed her subscription. I concluded that I must have been getting through to her. She visited me briefly in Las Vegas and brought me a sweater I had asked for.
Every spring several hundred devotees from around the world made a pilgrimage to Mayapur, the birthplace five centuries earlier of Lord Chaitanya, and Vrindavan, the birthplace of Lord Krishna. Many devotees told me how inspiring and enlivening it was to go to India and see a whole society in something like Krishna consciousness. I heard that fifteen percent of the Lakshmi collected in North America and Europe went to India, where the sect was buying land and building temples. The recently completed ISKCON temple in Vrindavan was the most opulent building in town, and the proposed temple in Mayapur would be the most lavish building in all of India, Prabhupada said.
In February 1976, my mother sent me $1,500 to pay for my round-trip plane ticket to India. I thought of how easily I had put one over on my materialistic mother and how her money belonged to Krishna, anyway.
I obtained a passport and received my shots. The leaders warned us that not all Hindus accepted Krishna as God. This turned out to be true, strangely enough, even in the sites that are holiest to Krishna's followers. To some Indians, He was one of many gods; to others, He was little more than a mythological figure who was famous — or infamous — for his ability to keep 16,000 wives. In addition, many Indians were desperately poor. Ninety percent of the Indian population was rural, whereas only about ten percent of the US population was rural, the leaders told us.
In early March, I and about two dozen other India-bound devotees rode a chartered bus from the LA temple to the airport and boarded a flight to New York. There we and about 100 other devotees from across the United States and Canada boarded a wide-body airplane to India, with short stopovers in London and Kuwait.
Leaders, sannyasis, and top-scoring sankirtan devotees from all over the Movement made the pilgrimage each year. The sankirtan devotees had bought their tickets with Lakshmi they collected above their regular quotas. The leaders, of course, had access to Movement Lakshmi. We devotees were in the majority on the plane, a heady feeling. On the last leg of the trip, a brahmachari named Ushika told me, "Drink the milk they're serving on the plane — it's the last cow's milk you'll see for five weeks."
We arrived in Calcutta (now called Kolkata). It's on the Bay of Bengal in the delta of the sacred Ganges River. There we boarded busses for the eighty-mile ride to Mayapur. To us it was a spiritual center of the Universe.
Having slept little in the preceding two days, I was exhausted, but many of the others were in a state of bliss. Ushika shouted "Haribol!" at every farmer and pedestrian we passed along the way. When we arrived, some of the devotees rolled on the sacred ground until the dirt covered them from head to foot. Others collected clay in little plastic film canisters, which they took back to the States to use as tilak. We understood that the dirt of the holy cities was sacred dust from the Lord's Lotus Feet.
While some roads were macadam, most were dirt. All modes of transportation were found on the same narrow thoroughfares: trucks, cars, taxis, bicycles, carts, pedestrians, and farm animals, beasts of burden. A melange unseen on US highways since perhaps the 1930s. India was fifty years behind the West and navigating its primitive transportation system was a challenge.
We arrived at the ISKCON temple compound in Mayapur, where we set up camp under a canopy on the roof of a partially completed dormitory building. The leaders collected our passports for safekeeping and warned us against taking unauthorized, freelance sightseeing trips, which were Maya. I heard that over the years, many devotees who had taken side trips in India had blooped.
The next day, the news of the drowning of a much loved and respected devotee swept through the camp. Vishnujana Swami, a former lead singer in a San Francisco rock group, was a popular and charismatic leader in several West Coast temples. His feats were legendary. In the late 1960s, he had led all-day chanting parties in downtown Los Angeles, where his intense pounding on the mridanga had often left his hands bloody. When visiting the LA temple, he often played rock star to his hyperventilating female devotee fans.
The details of Vishnujana's suicide were sketchy. According to the rumors, Prabhupada had severely chastised him for having sex with a woman. Invoking the scriptural requirement that a sannyasi must always remain celibate, Prabhupada advised him to jump into the nearest river. Vishnujana had apparently done just that. Most of the devotees I talked to felt that he had done the right thing by adhering strictly to scripture.
Across a barren field from the dorm was the temple building, also under construction, where we celebrated morning and evening arotiks with loud and long kirtans. The sanitary conditions, however, were poor. Some wells provided potable water; others did not. We learned to tolerate the flies that swarmed everywhere, because a person who killed a fly would become one in his next life.
Local men cooked and cleaned for the largely North American and European group of devotees. They also offered rice and vegetables to the beggars who gathered every afternoon outside our front gate.
Indians were in the habit of making pilgrimages, usually traveling on foot or by ox cart, sometimes from great distances and at great personal sacrifice. They paid their respects at the ancient temples, as had tens of generations of ancestors, leaving behind whatever Lakshmi they could afford — usually a few worthless coins.
We, too, were eager to see the temples, especially those at which the people chanted Hare Krishna. At one Bengali temple, a group of elderly women chanted every day from morning until night. A devotee remarked, "They're here for the duration."
Many Indians wanted to touch our feet, apparently because we were dressed like traditional Hindu holy men. The leaders, however, instructed us never to allow a common person touch us. We feared that doing so would cause us to take on their karma and become one of them in our next lives. Our leaders warned us that strict local customs prohibited such activities as eating or sleeping in public.
The leaders gave us each a token amount of Lakshmi to spend on rickshaw rides and souvenirs. (This was the only time in the Movement I legally had discretionary money in my pocket.) We often argued with the rickshaw and taxi drivers who charged us the rate for Americans, which was several times the rate for Indians. We thought we deserved the lower rate, because we had taken a vow of poverty and had limited Lakshmi. They thought that all Americans were rich and that we were being untruthful about how poor we were. In America we brahmacharis felt as if we were at the bottom of the economic scale — if not entirely off it. In rural India, however, a few US dollars in one's pockets made a person feel reasonably well off.
The street barbers in Mayapur were unable to offer much more than a rusty blade, a brass pot filled with water, and a curb for the customer to sit on. To my knowledge, no Western devotee ever bought a shave from such a barber.
It seemed that wherever we went, small groups of local men followed us. It was necessary, therefore, to take care never to walk alone. Some of them wanted to buy our watches. The more gadgets a watch had, the higher its price. A few enterprising householder devotees had brought American and Japanese digital watches with them to sell on the Indian black market. They used the proceeds to buy fine clothes and musical instruments for resale, at a substantial markup, to other devotees back home in the West.
Even in March, it was hot in tropical Mayapur. In the late afternoons we cooled off in a muddy river that flowed nearby. Prabhupada wrote that the waters from the Ganges and its tributaries, where pilgrims had bathed for centuries, were pure and purifying.
According to Scripture, the Ganges originated at the feet of Lord Krishna and flowed throughout all the planets of the universe. Prabhupada wrote that certain yogis were able to travel throughout the universe by entering into the Ganges on this planet and emerging from it on other planets. We neither boiled nor treated the water before drinking it. It tasted sweet to me. Some devotees even filled their canteens with river water for transportation back to the States.
As we were enjoying the transcendental atmosphere in Mayapur and seeing the local sights, the GBC was holding its annual meeting at the temple compound. For several weeks, rumors had flown about the activities of some of the leaders of the Movement.
For example, Jayatirtha had recently left his GBC post in Southern California, a highly lucrative and rapidly growing region, for the GBC post in Britain, a less lucrative region. I heard that Prabhupada had ordered the change after becoming concerned about the negative publicity surrounding the investment of sect Lakshmi in illegal businesses. Ramesvara complained that US customs had recently searched him as he was returning from overseas. The karmi authorities had apparently become suspicious of anyone wearing a Hare Krishna robe.
Ramesvara, who had recently taken sannyasa and become the new GBC member for the Southern California region, never missed an opportunity to lobby his peers on behalf of his latest transcendental business projects. A fast-talking New Yorker in his late twenties, he wore out most other devotees with his relentless energy. Referring to one of his rivals, a devotee quipped, "I don't see how Tamal [Krishna Swami] can beat him." One could sometimes see Ramesvara and other top devotees walking to or from the river, obviously making a deal. Jayatirtha, who was as laid back as Ramesvara was intense, once quipped after the latter had outmaneuvered him on a deal, "Et tu, Ramesvara?"
After a fortnight in Mayapur, we flew to New Delhi, the Indian capital. There where we boarded chartered busses for the one-hundred-mile-long trip to Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh state. This was the village on the Yamuna River where Lord Krishna was born 5,000 years ago.
The construction work on the spacious new ISKCON temple and adjoining guest hotel had been completed the previous year. Its exterior was of white marble, and its internal courtyard was graced with a banyan tree, an auspicious species. The Deity worship, with its beautiful costumes and exotic flowers, lived up to its reputation as the most opulent in the Movement.
The hotel portion of the compound even had electricity and running water, which were rare outside the major cities. Only Prabhupada, other top ISKCON leaders, and some rich Indian guests stayed there. The rest of us stayed about a mile down the road at the Fogel Ashram. It was better known to the devotees as "Frugal Ashram," because of its bare, concrete floors and single-story, open-air design.
The biggest attraction that year for the devotees in Vrindavan was Prabhupada himself. Every day hundreds attended his lectures in the new temple, many of them recording his words on tape cassettes. In one lecture, Prabhupada declared that he was more successful as a guru than his compatriot, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Transcendental Meditation.
Like Prabhupada, the Maharishi had attracted an extensive following in the West, and had built a lavish, multi-million-dollar center in India. Prabhupada said that the Maharishi once admitted paying a salary to his worker-disciples. Prabhupada bragged that his disciples worked twenty-four hours a day for him and then paid him for the privilege.
I found it odd that, although the theology of Krishna consciousness emphasized cow protection, it was hard to find cow's milk in India. We took buffalo milk at the ashrams. Many devotees, especially the older ones who had been in India before, bought fresh fruit at the local outdoor markets. The bananas, oranges, and other fruits seemed about half the size of their American counterparts.
We visited the Vrindavan temple of the late Bhaktisiddhanta, but only for a short kirtan. The leaders warned us not to associate with the devotees — Prabhupada's god-brothers — in the temple, because they were in Maya.
On any given day in Mayapur and Vrindavan, a half-dozen devotees were sick with dysentery. Their digestive tracts unable to handle ordinary prasadam, they needed to take a special breakfast consisting only of plain boiled white rice. Some also suffered from hepatitis. By Krishna's mercy, I stayed healthy for the rest of my stay in India.