After a fortnight in Vrindavan, we boarded busses for New Delhi. From there, we flew to New York by way of Bombay (now Mumbai), Kuwait, and London. At Kennedy International, the karmis' faces were gnarled and mean. I was surprised to see that their teeth were not pointed, and that they had neither claws nor horns.
On the flight to Los Angeles, the final leg of the trip, I felt weak and queasy. On arrival at the temple on a Sunday evening, I immediately took rest, thinking I was suffering from a bad case of intercontinental jet lag. The next day, however, I was too weak to rise for the morning program. I spent most of the day in my sleeping bag. One minute sweat soaked my bag; the next I shivered from the cold. Having no appetite, I took no prasadam. I only rose from the floor when I needed to go to the stool room. To keep my balance as I walked down the hallway, I needed to hold onto the walls.
At first, the other devotees paid little attention to me; they had their duties to perform. A devotee who had spent some time in India told me I probably had malaria. I remember thinking, "This is it — I'm going to expire right here." At the same time, I knew that whatever my illness, Krishna was giving me only a fraction of the suffering I deserved. An illness was Krishna's blessing, because it showed you the misery and temporality of this body. I thought that if I could barely move, then He must like me a great deal.
The next day, Tuesday, the leaders became concerned that I was living in the ashram without attending the daily programs. Sarvadarshana (also known as Sarva), the temple commander, drove me to the nearby UCLA Medical Center. He parked near the emergency entrance and fetched a wheelchair. I climbed into the chair and he pushed me to the emergency entrance. He gave me a quarter and a dime so I could call the temple after they released me, and then left.
Like most other devotees, I had no medical insurance, but the hospital workers gave me emergency state medical coverage on the spot. In the examination room, I described my symptoms to the doctor and told him I had recently returned from India. I weighed in at 108 pounds, about twenty-five pounds under my usual weight and not much for a person who is five feet, eleven inches tall. Noticing my robe and shaved head, a nurse offered, "Oh, you are in the Hare Krishnas. You aren't getting enough vitamin B-12." I thought, what does this karmi know about spiritual life? Concerned that I might have a dangerous, communicable disease, the doctor placed me in isolation.
Lying in bed, I remembered that some devotees had warned me to expect culture shock on our return from ancient rural India to the high-speed chaos of modern Los Angeles. Looking around my room, I saw an intercom, a TV with remote control, a radio, and electrical controls for the bed. My hospital room contained more gadgets and machines than I had seen in a month in India.
They gave me intravenous fluids for the first few days. I must have been dehydrated. The arrangement was awkward because I needed to take the bottle, tube, and apparatus with me whenever I went to the bathroom, which was often, because of the extra fluids. Every day or two, an older doctor leading a group of younger doctors came into my room to examine me and ask me a few questions. The only other people I saw were an occasional nurse or doctor and the orderlies who brought my meals. No one stayed long. Not that I blamed them. Anyone who wants peace and solitude should arrange to be admitted into hospital isolation, I concluded. Meanwhile, the doctors ran what seemed like every test known to medical science.
I was unable to eat most of the hospital food, because of our strict dietary rules. I was dying for some temple food, but no one at the temple accepted my collect calls. On Sunday, my last full day at the hospital, some devotees brought prasadam from the feast, which made me feel better. Before I left the next day, a doctor promised me that if I called him back in two weeks, he would have the test results. I never called back.
After a couple of weeks of light duties at the LA temple, the leaders again sent me to Las Vegas, where I resumed cooking and caring for the devotees and the Deities. One morning, a man from the local department of public health came to the door and asked for me by my karmi name. I told him that he did not live here. The man said that I had tested positively for amoebic dysentery. He added that the disease was contagious and might pose a threat to others in the household. I thanked him, went back to the kitchen, and continued to prepare the next offering of foodstuffs. The knowledge that prasadam could never become contaminated comforted me.
About a week later, I felt weak again. One afternoon, I simply lay down on my sleeping bag, despite intense feelings of guilty about my inability to perform my duties. The leader sent me back to Los Angeles, where I heard that in my absence the Department of Public Health had taken stool samples from all the devotees who had traveled to India that year. A total of about a dozen of us had tested positively for dysentery.
A few days later, my stool turned whitish, my urine brownish, and the whites of my eyes a sickly yellow. I understood that these symptoms were compatible with hepatitis. I had heard that hepatitis and dysentery were among the most common maladies suffered by devotees who had drunk bad water while in India.
Ramesvara ordered me and two other devotees with hepatitis to move into an unused bedroom in the back of his private apartment, which was located in an ISKCON-owned building across Watseka Avenue from the temple building. To avoid infecting the healthy devotees, the three of us sick devotees used the same stool room, because that was where hepatitis was often transmitted. Ramesvara himself had recently recovered from hepatitis and was in no immediate danger of recontracting the disease. His apartment doubled as the administrative headquarters of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT), of which he was the equivalent of general manager and chief executive. Owned by ISKCON, the BBT published Prabhupada's books and the BTG, which was written by devotees. Ramesvara had recently transferred the editorial and production offices of the BBT to Los Angeles from its longtime home in New York.
Hence the presence in Los Angeles of Radhaballavha, one of my fellow hepatitis-stricken roommates. He was Ramesvara's print production manager and right-hand man at the BBT. The third patient was a top sankirtan devotee who had come to Los Angeles with his wife as the result of a swap of devotees with the Denver temple. Such swaps, which resembled player trades in professional sports, happened frequently. This devotee often leaned out of our second-story window so he could talk to his wife in the parking lot below. Ramesvara Swami allowed no women in his apartment.
I lay flat on my back for most of my first week in the apartment. Every day, Bhubhrita, Ramesvara's servant, brought us boiled white rice and mung broth, both prepared without salt. This was the standard diet for devotees with hepatitis. After a few days, he added an occasional fresh papaya to our meager menu. The second week I was able to rise and walk around the apartment. A devotee brought us fifty pounds of rock candy, which cured hepatitis, according to Prabhupada. In the beginning, it tasted terrible, as he said it would, but later it tasted sweet, signaling our recovery.
Living in Ramesvara's apartment gave me a glimpse of the life of a top leader. He was known throughout the Movement for his fierce and unrelenting advocacy of book production and sales as the most effective way to spread Krishna consciousness worldwide. He seemed to see himself as a high-powered transcendental entrepreneur and manager. He was in charge of the temples in Southern California, the worldwide publishing businesses, and a significant portion of the book and magazine distribution in the US. This made him one of the top two or three financial and administrative officers in the Movement. At any given time, one could see many devotees waiting to see him in the reception area of his apartment.
Ramesvara hated to waste Lakshmi. On one occasion, after he and Radhaballavha had talked to a paper salesman in Ramesvara's office, Radhaballavha left the room thinking that Ramesvara had already closed the deal. Several minutes later, Radhaballavha stuck his head into the sick room and said, "I can't believe it! Ramesvara's still trying to squeeze him for a couple of bucks!"
Ramesvara hired expensive lawyers to attend to Movement business such as the frequent lawsuits filed against us over alleged charity fraud. He once complained sarcastically about how much Lakshmi it cost every time a lawyer who charged by the hour removed a staple from a piece of paper.
Ramesvara was then involved in a struggle for control of the Movement. One of his rivals was Tamal Krishna Swami, the GBC member for the midwestern United States. He was known for his traveling sankirtan party of barnstorming young brahmacharis.
The balding, fortyish Tamal was an effective leader, but his personality was somewhat bland, prompting Ramesvara to refer dismissively to Tamal's region as "middle America." Ramesvara loved above all to beat Tamal — to recruit more devotees than Tamal, to have more traveling sankirtan parties than Tamal, and to collect more Lakshmi for the spiritual master than Tamal. It seemed that Ramesvara was winning the transcendental competition, much to the delight of the LA devotees.
There was, however, another side to Tamal's usually taciturn personality. I heard that he once broke his danda over the head of an envious Indian man who had failed to fully appreciate the uniqueness of Prabhupada's position as master of the universe. Made of bamboo, the danda is a kind of walking stick about six feet long, three or four inches in diameter at the base, narrower at the top, and tightly wrapped in strips of saffron-dyed cloth. It symbolizes the position of a sannyasi or maharaja.
At one meeting in Ramesvara's apartment, a sankirtan leader named Jiva spoke at length about the considerable financial successes he had achieved with his traveling party of women devotees. Ramesvara commented approvingly that Jiva's ultra-strict disciplinary methods resembled those of the Marine Corps more than those of most ISKCON temples.
Ramesvara stayed in close touch with the other top leaders in the Movement. In the middle of the night, one could sometimes hear him shouting on the phone to someone in India. He kept the other leaders around the world informed of current happenings in the Movement. For example, he once dictated a letter warning that a certain swami had left the Movement to pursue sense gratification in Hawaii.
Living in Ramesvara's apartment, I was able to see the fallen as well as the transcendental aspects of his personality. He usually showed stoic restraint when it came to the morning and early afternoon prasadam placed before him by his servants. At night, however, he often took too much mahaprasadam, foodstuffs taken directly from the Diety plates. Such prasadam, which was usually prepared and taken in small quantities, was of the highest quality available and was highly coveted by the devotees.
The morning after such overindulgences, he often complained that it was nearly impossible to rise. During a phone call to his parents in New York, he confessed to an incipient spare tire around the waist. Meanwhile, he and the other leaders refused to allow ordinary devotees to call their material families.
Although Radhaballavha admired Ramesvara and served with him loyally for many years, Radhaballavha once confessed that Ramesvara sometimes acted like "a little kid." Radhaballavha was the only devotee I knew who could get away with talking back to Ramesvara.
In preparing Prabhupada's books for publication, Ramesvara picked several stories or scenes in it for his artist devotees to illustrate. He assigned each scene to one or another of the three or four full-time artists in the Movement. Knowing from experience how long on average it took each artist to paint a picture, he assigned a fixed number of days to complete the work. All artists performed other duties as well, including book distribution.
An artist named Pariksit painted a picture of Krishna tearing open a demon, with bloody internal organs fully exposed. The original hung in the temple room, and a full-color reproduction appeared in one of the books. Although the picture may have appeared violent to karmis, the devotees found it spiritually enlivening and deeply satisfying. Prabhupada wrote in a purport in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, "Violence has its utility and how to apply it rests in the hands of the enlightened." We took this to mean that under certain circumstances, devotees should use violence to further the ends of the Mission.
While I was ill, Prabhupada visited Los Angeles. Every year from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, he toured most of the major European and North American centers. As his health declined in the mid-1970s, however, he traveled less, preferring instead to rest and write books in the warmth of the Hawaiian Islands or his native India. We devotees had caused his illness by failing to always faithfully follow the rules and regulations and by failing thus far to make the whole world Krishna conscious. Nevertheless, we understood that Prabhupada's mind was always in ecstasy, even as his body suffered. In the meantime, he instructed the GBC to run the day-to-day affairs of the Movement.
Whenever Prabhupada was in residence, the women cooked him his favorite preparations, including milk sweets and huge, eight-inch-diameter chapatis. They offered him fresh tropical fruits, including pineapple, banana, papaya, and his favorite, mango. We understood that whatever the spiritual master liked, Krishna liked, and vice versa. Often, Prabhupada's servants offered the remnants from his plate to the other devotees. As a matter of honor, a devotee accepted at least a taste of the spiritual master's prasadam. Some of the women spent weeks making shawls or other garments for their beloved master. If he wore their garments, they were thrilled.
I heard that when a reporter asked Prabhupada when he had achieved perfection, he replied, "By about three or four years of age." Nevertheless, senior devotees assured us that Prabhupada had always been perfect. He had no need to achieve anything or prove anything. Simply put, he was not one of us. Another reporter asked him about his Rolls-Royce. He replied that a "tin car" such as a Rolls was not good enough for God's representative. According to the Scriptures, God rides in a gold car.
On another occasion, Prabhupada called a press conference, but no one from the press attended. Nevertheless, Prabhupada declared a victory, saying that all the important demigods, including Lord Brahma, the Creator of the Universe, had been present. Demigods were powerful inhabitants of higher planets who had a keen interest in and affection for the earthly Krishna Consciousness Movement. Prabhupada maintained that they attended our arotiks as well. A pure devotee, he could see them, but, because of our material covering, we could not.
The pujaris decorated the altar with many flowers, especially when Prabhupada was in town. In the city temples, devotees bought most of their flowers from florists. I heard, however, that some LA devotees had cut and removed rare lotus flowers from a city park, and that the police had arrested some San Diego devotees for removing flowers from a public park.
The devotees vied for the opportunity to accompany Prabhupada on his morning walk, which consisted of a drive in his car followed by a stroll in a park or on a beach. Ramesvara, who was in charge of making the arrangements, gave preference to those who were involved in book production and distribution. If it rained, Prabhupada would take his "walk" in the Rolls-Royce with fifteen or twenty male devotees piled in the back seat, their dandas sticking out of the windows like oars from a boat.
One morning, a BBT devotee who had many important duties to perform that day was debating whether to accompany Prabhupada on his morning walk. Ramesvara asked him, "What would you do if you were a Christian and Jesus came to town?" The devotee went on the walk.
Devotees believed that the spiritual master as pure and perfect in every way. For example, his stool smelled like roses. I heard that sometimes devotees on a walk with Prabhupada dove after his spit, scooped it up, and ate it.
Those who wanted to approach God needed first to approach His most confidential servant, the spiritual master. He was the only person on the planet who was in personal touch with Him or who could put others in touch with Him. The doctrine stated that although God was situated within everyone's heart, they were unable to hear Him from within because of their impurities and sinfulness. Therefore, we all needed to listen to God's external manifestation, the spiritual master, who was "the sum total of the 33 million demigods." He had the power to create, maintain, and destroy the worlds. We believed that he could annihilate a person with his glance.
According to Ramesvara, Prabhupada believed he was the greatest author in history, except for Vyasadeva, the incarnation of Krishna who dictated the shastras (scriptures) about 5,000 years ago. It was Krishna who pushed the point of Prabhupada's pen back and forth across the page as he wrote. Perhaps sensing that his earthly days were numbered, he devoted most of his energies to the completion of his writings.
Every year, the top leaders from around the world offered one or two-page tributes to Prabhupada. Imitating his style, they praised him for making the world Krishna conscious, and expressed their gratitude to him for accepting fallen Americans such as themselves as his disciples. The leaders read these tributes aloud to him at a celebration held on his "appearance day" (birthday). Later, the devotees chanted and feasted, and the BBT editors compiled these appreciations into a paperbound volume for distribution within the Movement.
Prabhupada feared assassination. Bodyguards stood at his sides every morning as he lectured in the temple room. After one morning lecture, I saw one of them take a handgun from under his robes as he undressed in Ramesvara's apartment. I heard that Prabhupada had canceled plans for a worldwide tour because of his fears, even though his bodyguards and his personal secretary assured him that he would be well protected.
Devotees loved to tell stories about Prabhupada. One of his servants told of an incident that occurred after Prabhupada returned to India from the States. As he walked to the shower after disrobing, $10,000 in cash fell from his underwear. The servant picked the Lakshmi up off the floor and placed it in a safe.
In mid-June, 1976, a piece of excavation equipment accidentally ruptured a gas line beneath Venice Boulevard, causing a massive explosion with flames leaping scores of feet into the air. I heard later that the operator had instantly been killed. The heat was so intense that the devotees feared for the temple building, which was less than a block away. I watched in horror from the front steps of our apartment building as devotees carried the Deities' fancy clothes and jewelry, and, finally, the marble Deities Themselves onto the sidewalk in front of the Watseka Avenue entrance to the temple.
Security forces patrolled the block with long guns, presumably to protect against looters. After a few tense minutes, the authorities succeeded in turning off the gas. By Krishna's mercy, the fire did no damage to the temple, although it did damage and temporarily close a Laundromat on Venice Boulevard. The incident reminded me that the spiritual master expected us to give our lives, if necessary, to protect the Deities.
After two or three weeks in Ramesvara's apartment, we were well enough to leave, though we had all lost weight. Radhaballavha, who was normally of medium build, complained that sitting on the front stairs was like "sitting on two sticks."
Trying to get some sun and relaxation, I sometimes climbed to the roof of the temple building after lunch. On one occasion, a devotee named Bahulashva, who was also a leader, was there giving Tulsi-dasa a back rub. This was a violation of the rule against service to one's body. I was in no position to complain, but it seemed that the leaders, who always talked about constant engagement in Krishna's service, did not always practice what they preached.
After a couple of weeks, I returned to my morning duties in the kitchen and rejoined the afternoon chanting party. Since my bout with hepatitis, however, I had trouble digesting regular temple prasadam, especially if it were cold or made with butter or ghee. This meant that someone needed to cook special prasadam for me, or I had to subsist on fruits and salad. Luckily, I knew most of the cooks and was able to arrange for butter-less chapatis, vegetables, and rice. Every month or so, curious about whether my digestion was improving, I tried to take ordinary temple prasadam or even the extra-rich Sunday feast. Each time, however, I suffered painful indigestion and vowed again never again to deviate from my restricted diet.
The wealthy LA temple was opulent in comparison with most of the other centers in the US, but it was especially so when compared with the temples in India. For example, the devotees in Los Angeles bought ghee in five-gallon tins at restaurant supply stores, where it was called "popcorn butter oil." They even used it to grease the woks after cleaning them. This amused those who had spent time in India, where ghee was a delicacy and a luxury.
While recuperating, I learned that in the spring of 1976 some devotees had gone out on sankirtan in clown costumes and make-up. Besides the usual books and magazines, they sold smiley-faced "Have A Nice Day" buttons. During the summer of the bicentennial year, some devotees dressed in Paul Revere costumes, pinned small American flags on the karmis' lapels, and collected donations for various patriotic causes.
I volunteered to take part in a scientific experiment. I drove with two other devotees to the laboratory of a local psychologist who was favorable to us. We each in turn entered a small, soundproofed room where we chanted on beads as the researchers observed and videotaped us. When it was my turn, I fell asleep in mid-round, which amused, but did not totally surprise, the other devotees. A couple of months later, the BTG carried an article on the beneficial effects of chanting. It quoted the writings of the researcher we had visited.
On another occasion, a devotee named Jadurani gave the morning lecture in the temple. This was one of only three occasions I heard a woman give a lecture. To be considered qualified to lecture, a woman needed to know the books better than the men. Indeed, Jadurani knew the books as well as anyone in the Movement. She was among the first devotees to join the Movement in New York, and she was the first brahmacharini. A legend on sankirtan, she sometimes collected as much as $2,000 a day at the airport.
A well-respected, longtime devotee named Jayananda became ill with cancer. Known far beyond his home base of Berkeley for his eighteen-hour days, his genuine humility, and his relentless cheerfulness, Jayananda put the rest of us to shame when it came to service, dedication, and faith. Though he was not much of a scholar or public speaker, all the devotees wanted to hear him talk about devotional service. Prabhupada himself praised Jayananda's service, adding, "Krishna is being kind to you by discontinuing your body."
Jayananda's parents had sent him some Lakshmi for his medical treatment. Tiring of Western medicine, however, he walked out of the hospital one day in his gown and took a cab straight to the temple. Several weeks later, he left his body as the devotees played his favorite kirtan tapes. Soon thereafter, the BTG published a letter from Prabhupada stating that Jayananda had achieved purity and now lived in the spiritual world. Meanwhile, the temple authorities put his big, worn-out work shoes on the altar, as devotees considered the feet of a great soul to be sacred. Ever the transcendental businessman, Ramesvara auctioned Jayananda's other personal effects to rich householders.
Tulsi-dasa called me into his office and informed me that I was to marry one of the brahmacharinis. It was his and the spiritual master's prerogative to arrange marriages. Torn between obedience to authority and attachment to my uncomplicated life as a brahmachari, I asked him whom he had in mind. The woman in question was a loyal devotee, but was overweight. I thought that her size would be an advantage in marriage, in that I would not be tempted to have sex with her. Not knowing what to do, I reluctantly agreed to the marriage and left the office.
Nevertheless, I resisted the idea of marriage, even the highly controlled Krishna-conscious version. I took seriously the idea of celibacy for higher spiritual purposes. I scrupulously avoided women. In the temple room, I sometimes found it necessary to close one eye in order not to see the women on the other side of the room. The thought of sex life sometimes revolted me, as doctrine said it should.
Prabhupada advised most brahmacharis to avoid marriage. He once compared marrying to falling into a "blind well full of snakes." He compared a man who had sex life to an insect that dies after sex. He likened becoming involved with a woman to putting your head in the lap of a witch, who then cut it off. If a person had too much sex in this life, then he might become a woman in his next life. If he were promiscuous, then he might become a pigeon, a dog, or some other animal that had frequent sex. Prabhupada wrote that, as punishment for illicit sex, Krishna forced a person to embrace the molten form of a woman.
I had seen many brahmacharis marry and move out of the temple. It was well known in the group that those who complained the loudest about what Prabhupada called "abominable sex life" were the most likely to marry. If possible, I wanted to avoid the association of women and the bondage of material existence.
Doing something that was highly unusual for me, I went back to Tulsi-dasa the next day and asked him to reconsider his request. I emphasized how easy it was for a married devotee to fall down from Krishna consciousness. Understanding the seriousness of my concerns, he relented and said he would find the woman another husband. At the time, I felt guilty about contradicting a direct instruction, but I was relieved never to hear about marriage again.
In traditional Hinduism, a woman could become Krishna-conscious and go back to Godhead only by devoting herself to the service of her devotee-husband, whom she accepted as her spiritual master. Soon after founding ISKCON, however, Prabhupada began initiating female disciples.
I heard that in traditional Hindu society, a girl's family arranged for her marriage by her sixteenth birthday. Women lacked the intelligence to understand the philosophy of Krishna Consciousness, because their brains weighed only thirty-six ounces as compared with sixty-four ounces for a man's brain, according to Prabhupada. One could not trust a woman, because she had the discretion of a twelve-year-old boy. In addition, women were nine times lustier than men, because of their sinful activities in the past. They enjoyed rape, notwithstanding their outward protests.
No woman devotee, no matter how experienced, ever gave instructions to a man, no matter how inexperienced. The leaders occasionally placed a woman in charge of other women, but more often, they placed a householder man in charge of women.
Prabhupada expected a woman devotee to wear the traditional sari, five yards of un-hemmed cotton cloth that covered her body, including head and hair. Unlike the dresses that women wear in the West, the sari tended to conceal, rather than reveal, her figure. Krishna-conscious women wore their hair long and straight, parted in the middle, and pulled and tied neatly in the back. In public, a woman exposed only her face, hands, and feet. If she exposed other parts of her body, including her hair, then she was regarded as a prostitute. To us, all karmi women were hookers.
Some of our satellite temples, such as Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, were single-sex. In the medium-sized temples, like Seattle, Portland, and Laguna Beach, brahmacharis and brahmacharinis lived in separate ashrams in the same building. In the larger temples, like Los Angeles and Berkeley, men and women lived in separate buildings. Prabhupada forbade householder couples to live together in the temple. Men addressed women of any age or marital status as "Mother." For example, if a woman's name were Yamuna, then men would address her as "Mother Yamuna."
Krishna-conscious marriages existed as a regulated outlet for those who were unable to remain celibate. A family gave fifty percent of its income to the Movement. Marriage, however, was no guarantee that a couple could live together. The spiritual master or his representatives often separated couples for duties in different centers or even in different countries. He said that one should avoid spending time with one's family, which he called "service to one's body." Instead, he asked his disciples to serve Krishna. Divorce and remarriage did not officially exist in the Movement, though Prabhupada and his representatives sometimes made exceptions.
Householder women sometimes wore nose piercing jewelry, long before it became a popular fashion among karmis in the West. Some devotees also wore a red dot, or bindi, in the center of their foreheads. It was an auspicious sign for her marriage and family. She vowed to serve her husband, whom she addressed as "Master." He vowed to act as her protector and teacher. The most important qualities for a married woman were her faithfulness to her husband and her expertise at cooking, according to Prabhupada.
Sex with Krishna in the spiritual world was the highest and purest form of spiritual enjoyment. All devotees were "female in relation to Krishna," meaning that they were always subservient and submissive to Him. A devotee was to be enjoyed by Krishna; never did he himself ever become the "enjoyer." On the other hand, the sex act in this material world was abominable and disgusting. Householder couples could walk, talk, and take lunch together, but the spiritual master prohibited touching or sex for the first six months after marriage. If he gave permission to conceive a child, then they could have sex once a month until conception. Otherwise, they remained celibate.
The sect published a booklet called the Householders' Manual, which detailed the issues of Krishna-conscious sex, pregnancy, and infant care. We brahmacharis were prohibited from reading or discussing this booklet. Nevertheless, I gathered that Krishna-conscious couples used a kind of reverse rhythm method intended to minimize sexual contact while maximizing the possibility of conception.
Unlike their pleasure-seeking counterparts in the outside world, devotee couples had intercourse only on the one day in the woman's menstrual cycle that Hindu scriptural science said was the most opportune for conception. Prabhupada banned artificial contraception of any kind, as well as sex between conception and the sixth month following birth. He prohibited touching between spouses except during the one hour a month set aside for sex. Before intercourse, the couple purified themselves by each chanting fifty rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra. This takes about five hours. Prabhupada discouraged kissing because the mouth was the filthiest part of the body — filthier even than the anus. Thus, the ideal Krishna-conscious couple had sex only once for each child conceived.
According to the shastras, if at the time of conception the mother were sexually stronger than the father, then the child would be a girl; otherwise, it would be a boy. In either case, the child's soul originated in the man's body; the woman simply provided a place for its body to grow. Furthermore, the baby would grow up to become a devotee only if its parents had been in a Krishna-conscious frame of mind at the time of conception, and if they had followed all the rules and regulations. The spiritual master often said that the children born to devotees were demigods who had fallen temporarily into earthly existence before completing their trip back to Godhead. They were the future leaders of the Krishna Consciousness Movement and of the rest of the world. If, however, their parents were merely trying to enjoy themselves sexually, then the child would be a demon.
A fetus stayed in the womb for ten months — not nine, as is taught in the West. Meanwhile, worms ate the fetus and the spicy foods in the mother's diet burned it. The child's spiritual education began in the seventh month of pregnancy, when it was first able to hear the lectures on Krishna consciousness that its mother attended. Its first three words were Hare, Krishna, and Rama.
A child belonged to the guru and God, not to its biological parents. It was to be seen and not heard. Discipline, therefore, was strict. Devotees charged with child-rearing duties often used sticks to punish an uncooperative or complaining child. I even heard that Prabhupada had once said that children were no better than urine.
For years, householders from all over the country had flocked to the LA temple, where they had built successful Krishna-conscious businesses, such as the Spiritual Sky Incense Company and the BBT.
Householder culture and brahmachari culture often clashed. The brahmacharis considered the householders' daily business activities to be laudable but less demanding than the grind of book distribution. Brahmacharis saw some householders as weak, unregulated, sexually obsessed, and materially attached quasi-devotees who failed to rise regularly for mangala arotik, or who went back to bed afterwards if they did.
A stretch of sidewalk across Watseka Avenue from the temple had become a kind of outdoor transcendental singles bar. Every morning after the program, some of the householder men and "fringies" (part-time devotees who sometimes embarrassed the Movement with their unauthorized behavior) chatted with the women devotees as they walked by, despite Prabhupada's prohibition of such activities. The lecturers, most of whom were brahmacharis or sannyasis, often aimed their preaching at the householders.
The householders countered that they followed the rules and regulations as faithfully as anyone else. They worked hard every day to support both the Movement and their own expanding families as they and their wives raised the next generation of devotees. They resented insults about slacking off from what they considered freeloading brahmacharis.
No one could lead a spiritual life outside the Movement, as the material world was not a person's real home. On the contrary, his real home was in the next world with Krishna. He should not, therefore, aspire to have a home, a family, or a nation of his own, nor should he aspire to be materially free, healthy, prosperous, or happy while here. Only in the spiritual sky could he be satisfied. A person could prepare for entry into the spiritual world only by becoming the humble servant of the spiritual master and by preaching Krishna consciousness.
In the end, a devotee did not choose to join the Movement. Rather, it was Krishna who chose the devotee, as a reward for his pious or saintly activities in a previous life, or simply out of His causeless mercy. In these fallen times, the Age of Kali-yuga, the latter was likelier, as few people were pious. Either way, a devotee who gained the mercy of the spiritual master was getting in on the ground floor of a movement that would soon take over the world.
Although the doctrine asserted that everyone was spiritual in essence and a potential devotee, we most often recruited the young and able. The world was to end soon and it was impossible to save everyone. Prabhupada offered the analogy of a battlefield physician who wastes no time with the mortally wounded. Rather, he attends to those who have the best chance of surviving and returning to battle.
The devotees often tried to recruit the wealthy and powerful, or their sons and daughters, because of the good that their Lakshmi or influence could do for the Movement. For example, in the early 1970s devotees recruited a member of the Ford family of Ford Motor Company. (He is no relation to the author.) I heard that devotees were in touch with Bob Dylan, who was then involved in a highly publicized search for religion and spirituality.
Recruiters befriended potential devotees, pointed out problematic areas of their present lives, and attracted them to one aspect or another of our philosophy. Recruiters told prospective devotees that they would find in the Movement whatever they were looking for. Prabhupada compared ISKCON to a "desire tree," a kind of wishing well that always granted one's desire. In short, the Movement was all things to all people. Whatever a recruit had done before the Movement was a waste of time. Only when he engaged himself in chanting Hare Krishna and serving the spiritual master did his life have meaning.
The cooks prepared special sweetmeats just for the guests. (For obvious reasons, the sweetmeats needed to be kept under lock and key.) Devotees often said, "If you feed them enough sweet balls, eventually they'll join."
Not all of those who came to Krishna consciousness were sincere about spiritual life. Bahudaka classified those who joined as devotees, rebels, and "crazies." The devotees were sincere, submissive, and hardworking. The air of extreme nonconformity that surrounded the Movement attracted numerous rebels, however. The crazies were attracted to the mystical or mythological aspects of the doctrine or the promise of a natural high. Most thrill-seekers and drug burnouts had trouble with the strict discipline of Krishna consciousness. Not surprisingly, the temple presidents only wanted the devotees.
Another recruiting tool was the doll exhibition on the ground floor of the temple complex. Artisan devotees, whom Ramesvara had brought from New York along with the BBT workers, designed and built a series of multimedia dioramas depicting the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. One scene showed the transmigration of the soul through the bodies of an infant, a boy, a young man, a middle-aged man, and an old man. The exhibition was open to outside guests during business hours. There were special viewings of the doll studio for friends of the Movement and local celebrities such as George Harrison and the guitar virtuoso John Fahey.
The Sunday feast was another effective recruiting and public relations tool. Devotees offered opulent feasts every Sunday at all the larger temples and even some of the smaller ones. Though the philosophy stated that foods were for the sensual enjoyment of Krishna, not the devotees, the feast was one of the few hours of sensuous enjoyment a devotee was permitted all week. On Monday mornings, however, many a novice devotee discovered how devastating the rich and heavy feast prasadam could be.
A typical feast program began at 4 p.m. with a lecture on Krishna consciousness. The lecturer usually stressed the problems in the world, such as the high divorce rate, abortion rate, or the threat of nuclear war. Then he stated that Krishna consciousness could solve these problems, and besides, it was enjoyable. A young devotee named Bhaktin Francine, who sang beautifully, sometimes led the kirtan. A male devotee who had formerly been an aspiring guitarist and folk singer sometimes performed original songs about Krishna consciousness for the guests. Ordinarily, women did not lead the chanting in the temple; nor did the leaders ordinarily allow non-Indian instruments.
Following the kirtan, the devotees served a feast typically consisting of batter-fried vegetables, halavah, poppers, and sweet rice. The last was a thick, creamy confection made with whole milk, rice, and sugar. A devotee sat with each guest or group of guests and talked to them about Krishna consciousness as they took prasadam. While the guests and devotees took prasadam, the top sankirtan devotees collected donations from the guests in return for magazines and paperback books. In addition, every Sunday one could see Tripurari in the book room engaging in his favorite activity — selling hardcover books to karmis.
After the feast, the devotees distributed the leftover prasadam in the downtown skid row. The city authorities became concerned after an incident in which the devotees served spoiled food to the bums. They also objected to our dumping of leftover prasadam into the ocean. What we saw as giving prasadam a proper burial at sea, the karmis saw as polluting the waters.
When I joined the Movement, its recruitment and training processes were somewhat haphazard. Most new members entered the mainstream of temple life and sank or swam, with many sinking. In the mid-1970s, however, an LA devotee named Danavir organized a program for bhaktas that upgraded and formalized the recruitment and training processes. A former volleyball star at UCLA, Danavir acted as a combination drill sergeant and den mother to his recruits. The bhaktas, who usually numbered between a half-dozen and a dozen, took rest on bunk beds in their own ashram on the first floor of the temple building. They sat together in their own section of the prasadam room, where Danavir kept a sharp eye on their transcendental etiquette. Prabhupada's devotees compared neophytes to babies.
Danavir classified those who came to Krishna consciousness as hippies, students, and Christians, each group requiring a different approach. He knew when to offer encouragement and forgiveness and when to criticize and correct. He and others who preached frequently had learned which Gita verse, which Prabhupada or Krishna story, to recite in any given situation.
To help in this effort, Danavir wrote the Bhakta Manual, a booklet that detailed the processes involved in the training of initiates. For example, what clothes and food to provide, which books to present, and how to handle visits and phone calls from family and friends. He anticipated and addressed every pitfall and problem. A section explained how to collect a recruit's belongings from his former home. This could be tricky, given that former friends were often leery of a recruit's decision to join the Hare Krishna Movement. Danavir's solution was to read loudly to whoever was present a certain passage from the Nectar of Devotion. This passage explained that everything belonged to Krishna and private property was theft from God.
During the training program, Danavir identified certain recruits as potential leaders. Leadership material or not, the bhaktas tended to form strong relationships with each other. After they completed the program and took initiation, however, the top leaders often separated them. Any attachment, even to a god-brother, was Maya.
Before Danavir, the bhakta was simply thrown into the mainstream of temple life. He would sink or swim in what could at first seem like an intimidating or alien environment. This was especially so at the larger and more impersonal temples like Los Angeles. Jadurani led a parallel but separate program for brahmacharinis at the LA temple, and centers throughout the Movement soon adopted Danavir's program.
Although most brahmacharis at the LA temple were in their late teens to early thirties, several were over the age of forty. Ushika was a member of the temple police force. I heard that he had once been involved in the occult. Some even said that he had been a warlock. Vamana was a gentle soul who had been an alcoholic and a bum in downtown Los Angeles before renouncing intoxication and surrendering to the spiritual master. Another whose name I forget was a hardworking devotee who had lost his wife and children in a car accident just weeks before joining the Movement.
Another brahmachari who was over forty had taught yoga for many years in New York City before joining the Movement. Soon after his recruitment, the leaders sent him to Los Angeles, presumably to put some distance between him and his former friends and associates, and to give him a fresh start in his new group. For the first few weeks, he engaged in the required devotional activities, but he also did an hour or two of yoga by himself on the roof. The leaders gave him an increasing number of duties and repeatedly advised him that his yoga exercises were nothing more than Maya. After about a month in Los Angeles, he stopped doing his yoga exercises.
In addition, one brahmacharini was in her forties and another was perhaps sixty. The former was a professional accountant who kept Ramesvara's books, and the latter was a dignified woman who sat on a chair in the temple room rather than on the floor with the younger devotees.
Much to the consternation of both the leaders and the god-brothers, devotees of all ages and at all levels of responsibility left the Movement with surprising frequency. Prabhupada compared returning to the misery of the material world to eating one's own vomit. Nevertheless, even some of his closest personal servants blooped. The explanation was that the closer a devotee became to God, the trickier Maya became in her efforts to keep him away. Likewise, the more successful the Movement became, the harder Maya tried to thwart the devotees' collective efforts.
Such a fallen or blooped devotee was even more depraved than one who had never been a devotee. One could not trust a devotee who had spent even one or two days away from the Movement. He had surely broken his vows, and was likely to bloop again when spiritual life again became hard. Only the spiritual master himself could fully reinstate him. In most cases, a blooped devotee returned to the Movement with great humility. He knew that the devotees could see the anxiety and lack of effulgence on his face. The leaders usually assigned him duties of lesser responsibility.
I heard that a leader in another city had once tackled a devotee as he tried to leave the temple. The reasoning was that the devotee's body belonged not to himself but to Krishna, and that by leaving he was in effect stealing from Krishna.
I sometimes wondered where blooped devotees went and what they did. I knew that many burned-out, blooped, or fringe devotees from all over the country ended up in or near the seaside temples in California and Hawaii. We used to joke that there were more fringies in Laguna Beach than there were karmis.
Generally, we felt safe in our suburban, middle-class surroundings in Culver City. On one occasion, however, a karmi neighbor fired a shotgun round over the heads of some devotees who were picking flowers in his front yard. He apparently did not know that offering a flower to Krishna liberated its soul, which then went back to Godhead. We were to expect attacks against devotees to become increasingly frequent as the world became increasingly demonic and atheistic.
To protect Krishna's devotees against the ever-increasing number of threats by demons, the sect had trained several devotees in the martial arts and the use of firearms. This security squad was headquartered in a second-story apartment overlooking the temple grounds and several other sect-owned buildings on Watseka Avenue. Under ordinary circumstances, the night watchmen carried nothing more dangerous than a heavy metal flashlight. Several times a year, however, rumors circulated that the security team had scared away or beaten demonic intruders.
Another reason for the security team was the increasing number of attempted deprogrammings. Trouble sometimes occurred when irate karmi parents arrived at the temple and tried to take away a teenager who had become a devotee. One LA devotee even maintained that deprogrammers had kidnapped him not once but twice and that he had escaped both times. I heard that the sect and the deprogrammers were waging war on each other in the press. The BTG carried a picture of two devotees who had been deprogrammed but who had married after returning to the sect. In the early days, many devotees who were married in the Movement neglected to obtain karmi marriage certificates. The situation changed, however, after it became evident that if the devotees were legally married, the Movement could more easily thwart any attempted deprogramming.
I heard that the leaders sent devotees who had survived an attempted deprogramming on traveling sankirtan or even overseas, where they would be hard to find. At the other extreme, some parents disowned their devotee offspring and wrote them out of the family will. We all knew that few parents bragged at their country clubs that a son or daughter had just joined the Hare Krishna Movement.
Prabhupada acknowledged in a lecture that some in the press had accused him of brainwashing his devotees. He said, "Yes, it is true, we are washing their brains." By this, he meant that Krishna consciousness was purifying our materially contaminated minds. The ludicrousness of the accusation of brainwashing made us laugh. We knew that it was found in karmi life in general and most especially in deprogramming.
Despite the problems posed by demons and atheists, our philosophy stated that a life of eternal bliss and knowledge awaited those who chanted, danced, and took prasadam. Nevertheless, the last nearly caused the temporary fall of many a devotee. Many of us coveted fancy prasadam, such as fruits and sweetmeats, which we sometimes kept illegally in our lockers.
I was battling a tendency to take too much prasadam, even though before joining the Movement I had rarely overeaten. Trying hard to regulate my eating habits, I forced myself to be tough and take exactly the same portions every day. This strategy usually worked for a couple of weeks. Then one day — usually a feast day — I would deviate from my routine and lose control of my eating. Some days I took three or four times my usual amount of prasadam. I once took lunch prasadam continuously for an hour. At such times, no amount of foodstuffs could satisfy me.
After overeating, I could think of little other than food for the next few days. This was disastrous for a devotee who was trying to think only of Krishna. Although I could not rest soundly at night because of a bloated feeling, I often fell asleep during the day. Trying to break the habit of overeating, I tried skipping meals. After a couple of miserable weeks of such bingeing and fasting, I often came down with a heavy cold, which would force me to subsist for several days mainly on spice tea.
Any devotee can tell tales of gross overeating, especially at the feasts and festivals. Being in good company was, however, of little consolation. We sometimes speculated that part of the reason for our overeating was that the rules prohibited most other forms of sense gratification, including TV, movies, sports, and sex, and even idle conversation. In addition, it was a matter of honor for a devotee to take prasadam heartily and enthusiastically, especially on feast days. We often forgot that taking in moderation was the key to successful devotional service, and that taking more than one needed was Maya. Another reason for our overeating may have been that the spiritual master expected a devotee to honor prasadam offered by other devotees, especially his superiors. Some of us forgot that accepting as little as a single morsel was spiritually sufficient in such a situation, and that the real enjoyment in life — the real "nectar" — was service to Krishna.
I dragged myself from one activity to another, and laboriously shuffled my feet back and forth during most kirtans. Sometimes, I was barely able to dance at all. It seemed that most of the others were dancing much more enthusiastically and ecstatically than I was. By the fall of 1976, I was burned out.
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Wherever the spiritual master of the universe went and whatever he did, he was making history. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the devotees audiotaped all Prabhupada's lectures, interviews, and morning walk conversations, to preserve his wisdom for all time. About once a week in his absence, the leaders in Los Angeles played one of his tapes in place of the usual live lecture by a senior devotee.
In his books and on his tapes, Prabhupada articulated the scriptural truths concerning history, science, and the fate of the world. For example, karmi textbooks inaccurately recorded the events of World War II. The truth was that in 1941 the British, disguised as the Japanese, had bombed Pearl Harbor in a successful attempt to lure the United States into the war against Germany. Furthermore, although Adolf Hitler had developed the atomic bomb, he refused to use it. Therefore, he was "humane." The US, however, stole the secrets of the bomb from Germany and dropped it on Japan. After the war, British propaganda experts invented the Holocaust in an attempt to demonize Hitler.
Prabhupada called the devotees "Aryans," a word that appeared in the Bhagavad Gita itself, I heard. Hrdayananda Swami, the GBC member in charge of the South American region, told us that Prabhupada had instructed him that North American devotees should be in charge of South Americans. The former were more intelligent, though the latter could become good followers and ultimate good devotees. Notwithstanding Prabhupada's acceptance of black disciples and even a black sannyasi, he said that long ago Krishna sent all the thieves in the world to Africa. We took this to mean that, except for black devotees, all blacks were thieves. On another tape, Prabhupada asserted flatly, "The democratic process does not work."
The world was rapidly degenerating, Prabhupada said. The laws of God and Nature dictated that all material things must decay, and materialistic civilization, with its many brothels, liquor stores, and restaurants that served meat, was no exception.
A few months after Prabhupada's departure, some tapes of his recent lectures in India arrived by mail. On one occasion, Tulsi-dasa ran into the sankirtan room and announced, "We just got a hot tape in!" On it, Prabhupada announced that in 1980 a Third World War would break out after the Soviet Union and the US became involved in a regional war between India and Pakistan. An immutable law of nature held that any weapon built would one day be used. In particular, all the nuclear bombs in the world would be used.
We devotees could, however, avert a catastrophe by performing well on sankirtan and by making the world Krishna conscious. If we failed, however, then it would be our duty to carry out Krishna's plan for the post-apocalyptic world. This involved forcibly recruiting all those who had not yet voluntarily joined the Movement. As conditions deteriorated further, only meat and liquor would be available to eat and drink, and atheists and demons would attack the devotees.
Prabhupada emphasized that over the short term a devotee had no need to worry, because some of us had trained in the use of weapons. In the glorious future, God-conscious authorities would dictate all aspects of life, just as in the days of the great God-conscious leaders and philosopher-kings of ancient India. They would kill those who failed to follow the four regulative principles — or perhaps Krishna Himself would return to annihilate the unbelievers. Furthermore, these events were not in the future at all. They had already occurred. Krishna was simply waiting to see who joined His Movement and who did not. Time was running out for the materialistic world as we knew it, and Prabhupada's revelations added special urgency to our preaching and money-collecting efforts.
Although everyone outside Krishna consciousness was in Maya, special enemies included most scientists and all other gurus and leaders of "new religions." Prabhupada insisted that a person did not become perfect simply by announcing himself as such. For example, He disliked the Guru Maharaji of the Divine Light Mission, who maintained that he was God. Prabhupada declared, "Anyone who claims to be God should be put to death."
The willingness to die for Krishna was the essence of Krishna consciousness. At the end of a taped lecture, Prabhupada declared, "And even if we die, still it shall be glorious." In unison, the devotees cried, "Jaya!"
Prabhupada's books heavily influenced our thinking about the world. In his recently completed Srimad-Bhagavatam series, he had described the Hindu science of cosmology. The material universe was the mental creation of Lord Brahma. The earth was flat. The moon was farther away from the earth than the sun. During a solar eclipse, it was a planet named Kahoutek, not the moon, that blocked our terrestrial view of the sun. The sun was the only source of light in the visible universe. The stars were planets. Entire civilizations consisting of living beings, rivers, and cities existed on all celestial bodies, including the sun and stars. The inhabitants of the sun planet, for example, had bodies of fire in the same way that the inhabitants of earth had bodies consisting of the earthly elements. The inhabitants of one planet could indeed travel to other planets, but only by first changing their material bodies through the processes of birth, death, and reincarnation. Travel among celestial bodies by way of material spacecraft was, therefore, impossible.