In September 1976, Ramesvara sent me and several other devotees to Laguna Beach, a resort town about forty miles south of Los Angeles. The outside world knew Laguna Beach for its sunshine, magnificent beaches, and high rents. The devotees knew it as the place that Prabhupada once said would be the first Krishna-conscious community in the US. Nevertheless, many stalwart devotees in Laguna Beach had succumbed to Maya in the form of beautiful women, plentiful drugs, and a laid-back, hedonistic lifestyle.
The sect was trying to clean up its image there after a scandal involving the temple leadership. For several months the local newspapers had carried sensational stories linking devotees with drug dealing and other crimes. One story alleged that they had hired Mafia members to torture a rival drug dealer. A headline in an Orange County newspaper had read something like "Krishna Murder." The devotees complained that when a Christian committed murder, the headlines did not read, "Episcopalian Murder."
I heard a rumor that the Laguna Beach devotees, including Rshabhadeva, the temple president, and other officers, had cultivated marijuana plants in the sunroom of the temple. They allegedly sold drugs out of a nearby restaurant run by devotees, sometimes using its microwave oven to soften bricks of hashish.
Ramesvara decided that the Laguna Beach temple had become a public relations liability. Agni, Pavamana, two or three book distributors, and I formed the core of the new Laguna Beach temple. All of us were former LA devotees who had had served together the previous fall on the RV in Salt Lake City. Agni became temple president, and Sarva, the former temple commander in Los Angeles, became vice president.
The day we moved into the temple, the former Laguna Beach devotees moved out and joined the contingent of fringies in town. Most held outside jobs, practiced Krishna consciousness to some degree at home, and came to the temple once a week for the Sunday feast.
The temple building was a two-story house on the eastern side of the South Coast Highway, just a block from the beach. Due to limited space, the temple room, formerly a spacious upstairs living room, doubled as the brahmachari ashram at night. The temple president's room was a small bedroom with a sleeping loft; the men's locker room was an adjoining dressing room; and the Tulsi-devi room and brahmacharini ashram (sleeping quarters for female devotees) were located in the downstairs sunroom, which overlooked the ocean.
A few days after we arrived, Ramesvara stressed at a press conference that Prabhupada had replaced the old leadership with new leadership. This was first and last time I ever saw potted plants, tables, chairs, or hors d'oeuvres in a temple.
As we had done on the RV, Pavamana and I shared the duties involving the Deity offerings and arotiks. We also collaborated on the large offerings of foodstuffs at breakfast and noon. Krishna had mercifully provided us with a restaurant-sized gas stove and oven, a pair of deep stainless steel sinks, and much counter and refrigerator space. Nevertheless, cockroaches crawled across the counters and behind the pictures on the wall. Most of the produce we used was fresh, including tropical fruits like mangoes, papayas, figs, and avocados. Sarva was also able to obtain free cases of overripe fruit from wholesalers or aging lettuce from the dumpster at the local supermarket.
I had little difficulty preparing the prasadam I needed, because I was already spending most of my days in the kitchen. I took whatever the devotees were taking, but without the butterfat.
To keep my materially contaminated mind from wandering while serving in the kitchen, I often repeated in Sanskrit and English the two dozen or so Bhagavad Gita verses I had memorized. This was, however, nothing special: I knew some devotees who had memorized entire chapters, and a few great souls had even memorized all 700 verses of the Gita. In a more pious age, a devotee would fully understand the shastras on first hearing them.
Every morning a pujari, usually Pavamana or I, woke the nine-inch-tall brass Gaur-Nitai Deities by ringing a bell, turning on the lights, and touching Their lotus feet. Later in the morning, Agni bathed Them, put scented oils and tilak on Their bodies, dressed Them, and put flower garlands around Their necks. At night, he dressed Them in pajamas and put Them to bed. In winter, he covered Them with a cotton sheet and blanket; in summer, a sheet sufficed.
One morning, Agni ordered me to bathe and dress the Deities. I tried but failed to have Them dressed by the deadline. This inconvenienced the pujaris who were ready to offer the 7 o'clock arotik. Agni never again asked me to dress Them.
A Movement-wide rule stated that a man and a woman should never be alone together in the same room. Anyone in such a situation was likely to fall into abominable sex life. If a man were alone in a room and a woman wanted to enter, then she would need to bring another devotee with her, and vice versa. Agni solved this problem in Laguna Beach by banning women altogether from the kitchen and the altar.
Agni asked me to read aloud each morning from the Krishna Book as the devotees took prasadam. I tried to project my voice across the temple room with as much zeal as possible. Over the next several months, I read the entire trilogy about one and a half times. Every time Krishna killed a demon, which was often, the devotees cheered loudly. When Krishna killed a person, He was saving him. I liked to read aloud because it helped me to learn the stories, and reading silently often put me to sleep.
At the feast, the large crowd of dancing devotees and guests sometimes shook the wood-frame building. Therefore, on Sundays Agni put the Deities' clothes on even more securely than usual. Occasionally, during the height of the dancing and chanting, a Deity dropped a garland that had hung around His neck.
The primary mission of the Laguna Beach temple was sankirtan, and the youngest and least experienced sankirtan devotees were among the most enthusiastic about their Krishna consciousness. Those of us who were more experienced knew the prayers and the rules better, but few of us older folks could match the younger devotees for raw energy.
The Laguna Beach devotees were using a new sankirtan technique called "blitzing." This meant going out with two or three devotees in a car and hitting up various locations for an hour or two at a time. The older method was to remain all or most of the day at a single location. For example, in one evening the devotees might blitz a bar, a restaurant, a bowling alley, and a ball game or concert.
In this way, we were able to talk to the karmis in surroundings that were comfortable to them, and where they might be receptive to a pitch for charity. The advantage of blitzing was that if a store or parking lot became slow, or if the police kicked us out, then we could move to a better location without wasting much time. We could, therefore, take more chances. We were also able to stay in better touch with each other. All of this led to higher scores.
The Laguna Beach devotees, most of whom were in their twenties, solicited donations in the retirement communities by greeting to the women with, "Hi, girls," and telling them how good-looking they were. Some devotees even bragged about going into churches on Sunday morning and taking up their own collections.
The sankirtan devotees usually took a morning walk together on the beach. Early morning was the only time of the day a devotee was permitted to take a walk. Sometimes we saw the surfers in wet suits preparing to ride the waves. On one occasion, the devotees spotted a seagull with a broken wing. Another devotee named Drumila wanted to help the bird, but the others objected, saying that the best way to help it was to chant Hare Krishna and leave it to die. Doctrine asserted that if a lower species heard the Holy Names, then it would take a human body in its next life. With a human birth came the chance to go back to Godhead.
Ramesvara continued to encourage the various temples to compete for top book distribution honors. Every month a new issue of the Sankirtan Newsletter arrived from the BBT headquarters in Los Angeles. Posted in many temples, it featured short items about how many books the devotees were selling at various locations. It listed the top ten zones, the top ten temples, and the top ten devotees of the month, along with their scores in Lakshmi points (one Lakshmi point was equal to one dollar). The combined worldwide figures for gross sankirtan income reached into the millions of Lakshmi points per month.
When Ramesvara was visiting us in Laguna Beach, he often fired up the troops by telling stories of heroism on sankirtan. In one lecture, he talked about an Australian devotee who had pneumonia and whose doctor ordered him to stay in bed. This devotee, however, insisted on going out on sankirtan and collected $400 a day, Ramesvara said. He also praised a South American devotee who often posted big numbers. He ran out on sankirtan after the morning schedule without even taking prasadam or chanting all his rounds. When the distributing became slow, he finished his chanting, according to Ramesvara.
At breakfast, I sometimes read aloud the most recent issue of the Sankirtan Newsletter. Sometimes I would choke up while reading of the dedication, selflessness, and fearlessness of the devotees who were spreading the message of Krishna consciousness in a suspicious and even hostile world.
Ramesvara sent some devotees on a mission to smuggle our books into the Soviet Union. The authorities there quickly and unceremoniously expelled them. Other devotees, however, had preached successfully in the communist block nations of Yugoslavia and Rumania, which were somewhat more Westernized and less restrictive than the USSR.
Meanwhile, Prabhupada had given his disciples permission to run for political office, so long as they accepted the principles of Krishna consciousness and rejected the materialistic notion of nonviolence. In the fall election season, ISKCON candidates ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, and for the US Congress from Southern California.
We heard that in West Virginia the sect was on the verge of obtaining enough land to incorporate and hire its own sheriff and magistrate. The Movement aimed to gain political, economic, cultural, and religious control of the world, and even the universe. To this end, Krishna-conscious police and courts would soon enforce the four regulative principles. All the present politicians and jurists in the world were atheists and criminals, but if a devotee entered politics, then it would become clean and pure. When the world became Krishna conscious, even the judges of the Supreme Court would wear tilak, according to Prabhupada.
When the Movement succeeded, it would rule the world under God's Law for 10,000 years. If we devotees were sincere enough and faithful enough, the Movement could take over the world within eighteen days. In another sense, however, the Movement had already taken over the world. A devotee's duty was to help carry the Mission toward its inevitable successful conclusion, when he would receive his eternal reward.
Several new devotees joined the Laguna Beach temple, and the rules stated that each recruit must immediately surrender his possessions. This meant that the temple usually received a car and a home stereo system whenever someone joined. Sarva installed a large donated stereo in the temple room, and sold the others at the local flea markets. Pavamana repaired the donated cars and Sarva sold them through the newspaper want ads. The latter once complained that he was running a used car lot in the alley behind the temple.
On a couple of occasions, I saw a handgun in an open locker in the ashram. Sarva often bought or sold guns at swap meets, and regularly took target practice at a nearby pistol range.
On one occasion, I was in the ashram when a fringie said something complimentary about Maya. She is to a devotee what the Devil is to a literal reader of the Bible. A regular devotee told the fringie to watch his tongue or leave the premises.
Agni asked us each to sign a power of attorney. It was intended to allow the courts to return us to the sect should our parents kidnap or deprogram us. I signed the papers without reading them. I heard that lawyers working for the sect had drawn up papers making it possible for the sect to cremate a devotee's body in a special ceremony. Agni bought us Mother's Day cards and postage stamps, and later that year, nonreligious Christmas cards to send to our material families.
The popular Lou Grant TV show taped part of an episode at the LA temple. It was about a young devotee whose parents had tried to have him deprogrammed. Overall, the show was favorable to the Movement. Before the taping, a senior devotee shaved the head of the young karmi actor who played the lead part. The evening the show aired, Agni rented a motel room so that the devotees could watch it. I was unable to attend the viewing. This was the only time I ever heard the authorities grant permission to view a TV show.
A fringie who had volunteered to cook the Sunday feast told me that a former peanut farmer from Georgia named Jimmy Carter had been elected President. It seemed that after he took office, some devotees had given him a copy of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. The Movement received some free publicity when Carter said on TV that he liked the part that said that the soul was eternal. Several months before, I had heard in a similar manner of the Watergate scandal, President Nixon's resignation, and his replacement by Gerald Ford.
A fringie showed me his new digital quartz watch as we were talking in the ashram. I was amazed to learn that it was accurate to within a few seconds per day, which was far more accurate than any wristwatch I had seen before.
On one occasion, my mother visited me in Laguna Beach. After a quick tour of the temple, we took a walk on the beach, despite the prohibition against being alone with a woman. I wanted to convince her that Krishna consciousness was correct, but in truth, I had recently been having an increasingly difficult time convincing myself. She said, "It isn't good to quit searching." I also wanted to persuade her that I was happy in the Movement, but I was feeling burned out. Referring to the sect, she said, "It doesn't look so wonderful to me."
Later we talked in her rented car. With sorrow and near-resignation in her voice, she asked me to come with her to my sister's house in Northern California. I refused. Her tear-filled eyes stared ahead. Going anywhere without the permission of the sect was out of the question.
My father also visited me in Laguna Beach. As we walked on the beach, I tried unsuccessfully to convince him that astronauts had never landed on the moon and that the so-called moon shots were filmed in the Arizona desert. If a devotee's parents were not Krishna conscious, then Prabhupada expected him to become the spiritual master of his parents. A devotee was responsible for his family ten generations backward and forward. If he gained the mercy of the spiritual master, then Krishna would save his entire family.
On one occasion, Bhavananda Swami, the GBC member for India, visited us at Laguna Beach. In a stirring lecture, he said that the Movement would soon take over Bengal, where it had recently completed the construction of a new temple. Then we would take over all of India, spiritually the most important nation in the world. Once India became Krishna conscious, the whole world would soon follow suit.
ISKCON was influential in India. A devotee could walk into any government minister's office, even without an appointment, according to the swami. Nevertheless, some people remained unreceptive to Krishna consciousness, even in India. One must sometimes force them to accept it in much the same way a parent forces a child to take medicine, he said. The rumor was that some devotees who were dealing in the Indian underground currency market had bought off some government officials. The swami explained the graft by saying, "It's a way of life over there." He added that hepatitis was as common among devotee children in India as colds were among the children in North America.
On another occasion, Brahmananda Swami, the GBC member for Africa, visited Laguna Beach. He told the story of a blooped devotee who had admitted taking intoxication while living outside the temple. The swami, who was cooking at the time, splashed hot ghee on the former devotee. When he protested, the swami said, "That's just a token of what you will experience in your next life if you keep taking intoxication."
We often chanted in downtown Laguna Beach or at the beach. We sometimes carried the Deities with us, until one day some young men dropped their pants in front of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Some of the younger devotees vowed to beat up anyone who tried something like that again.
Although it was never cold in Laguna Beach, it was sometimes cool and damp in the winter. Our building, a large beach house, had no central heating. According to the rules, the pujari for the mangala arotik — usually me — had to go onto the altar without a shirt. I could wear a cotton shawl over my bare shoulders, but the others were able to keep warm by wearing sweatshirts or by dancing and moving about as much as they liked. Later in the morning, our only electric heater warmed the Deities as Agni dressed Them. I was sick much of the time with a cold or the flu.
In early 1977, Prabhupada again visited Berkeley. Many of us from Southern California went there to see him. After a few days, his servants dropped him off at the airport for an evening flight to Los Angeles. A leader then asked another devotee and me to drive Prabhupada's Mercedes-Benz to Los Angeles. We needed to have it there for his walk the following morning. Taking turns with the driving, we arrived at about 3 a.m. After turning in the car keys, we showered and went straight to the morning program.
At 7:00, Prabhupada and several hundred of his disciples noisily greeted the Deities. As he stood before Them in prayer, his lips moved. He was conversing with Krishna in His form as the Deity. Then he sat on a raised platform at the left of the altar and delivered his lecture. The GBC members, sannyasis, and temple presidents sat directly in front of his throne-like seat. Behind them sat the other male devotees. The women and children gathered at the rear of the auditorium and in the balcony.
I heard that the previous night a large group of cheering and swooning devotees had greeted Prabhupada at the airport. Ramesvara informed us that Prabhupada was upset that the devotees had treated him more like a rock star than a holy man.
When in Los Angeles, Prabhupada lived in a private suite that contained the only non-bunk bed and private bathroom I had seen in any temple. His personal servant took rest in the other bedroom of the suite. When Prabhupada was out of town, the quarters always remained unoccupied. When he was in town, the devotees cleaned his suite every morning while he took his walk.
One morning, I had the privilege of helping. We had about an hour to complete the service. While sweeping the floor, I needed to move his danda out of the way. A brahmacharini who was serving there said to me, "You shouldn't touch his stick! Oh, well, it's not so bad that you touched it — you're a man. If I had touched it, it would have been really bad." Women were contaminated.
After a fortnight in Los Angeles, Prabhupada departed for India. About forty of us went to the airport to see him off. He sat quietly in the passenger lounge with his top servants as the rest of us gathered around him in a semicircle. Playing his karatals softly, he led us in a restrained kirtan. Again, the deep spirituality and perfection of his music astonished me. For a long moment, he looked directly at me with a benign and loving, yet inquisitive, expression on his face and in his eyes. I thought of how fortunate I was that he had singled me out from many millions of souls. That was the last time I ever saw him.
After Prabhupada's departure, I rejoined the Laguna Beach sankirtan team in an attempt to revive my flagging Krishna consciousness. Pavamana graciously agreed to perform my kitchen duties on the days I was out on sankirtan.
Most days we went "store to store." This meant that a pair of devotees would hit up everyone in a supermarket, for example, and then leave to go to the next store. During a blitz, everything happened quickly. The karmis — and the managers — often did not know what hit them. Sometimes, we went into the market and took a new paper bag — preferably one with the store's logo — from a checkout counter. We put our magazines and candy into the bag and went back to the parking lot to distribute. We tried to look as normal as we could.
Our team sometimes passed out lollipops in exchange for donations. Unfortunately, Drumila, who was otherwise an expert sankirtan devotee, had a habit of giving into temptation on such occasions and eating as much as a whole bag of pops. This always made him sick to his stomach, of course. His tendency to fall into Maya in this way continued for months, even though Agni chastised him after each such incident.
Drumila and I were collecting Lakshmi one evening in an amusement park called Knott's Berry Farm when we noticed that some security guards were following us. We rushed to our car to make a quick escape, but their car pulled up in front of us, blocking our exit. Drumila started our car and put it in gear. I feared that he was preparing to try to ram the security car. He finally took the car out of gear and waited for the officers to approach us. They warned us never to come back again. We left quietly and without further incident.
Despite my efforts, my scores were usually poor, mainly because of my lack of energy and enthusiasm. On one occasion, Badahari, the sankirtan leader, approached me and asked, "Why are you so morose?" A devotee's thoughts and state of mind were everyone's concern. Agni pulled me off the sankirtan team and put me back in the kitchen.
On one occasion, a devotee named Mukunda Mala had an epileptic seizure in the temple. The rescue team entered the temple wearing heavy boots. I considered and rejected the idea of asking them to leave their shoes outside the temple. The seizure had frightened Agni. At his insistence, Mukunda Mala continued to take the medication he had stopped taking when he joined the sect.
Demons from around the world were becoming increasingly violent toward the devotees. We heard that, during an attack on one of our temples in Africa, some demons had stabbed a former LA devotee named Mahavirya several times. He had been trying to prevent them from smashing the Deities. I remembered him as a good-natured and magnanimous devotee with whom I had often distributed magazines in downtown LA. The good news was that by Krishna's mercy he had survived, though barely, and was recovering in a hospital.
In July 1977, some demons attacked the temple in West Bengal. I wanted to fly there immediately and fight them. After an unrelated incident, also in India later that year, Bopadeva's older brother, who was also a devotee, found himself facing legal charges in the murder of a nondevotee.
These kinds of physical and legal attacks on devotees did not surprise us. Rather, we expected them to increase in number and intensity as the Movement became increasingly successful.
In August, the sect sponsored a festival at an LA city park. In the weeks preceding the festival, we sankirtan devotees handed out flyers advertising appearances by Alice Coltrane and other well-known artists. The flyers mentioned neither ISKCON nor the Hare Krishna Movement.
In the early fall, we learned that Prabhupada's health was worsening. Again, it is hard to overstate his importance to the Movement. He had founded ISKCON, and he alone interpreted its doctrine. As its top administrator, he was responsible for day-to-day operations as well as long-range planning.
In recent years, however, he had delegated some administrative responsibilities to the eleven GBC members scattered throughout the world. Nevertheless, he once complained that the tendency of the GBC to bring him all manner of concerns both large and small made him feel like "Problem-pada."
Because of his failing health, Prabhupada was unable to fulfill his desire to make one last tour of Europe and the Americas. A swami even offered to exchange his young, healthy body for Prabhupada's old, sick body. Prabhupada declined the offer.
Prabhupada was sick because we devotees had failed to serve him well and because Krishna was calling him back to the spiritual world. We believed that to disobey the spiritual master was to kill him, literally and figuratively. It was an offense against the Scriptures to think that he was sick because he was old or because the material nature had allotted him only a finite amount of time on earth. On the contrary, the spiritual master was eternal; he could never die in the mundane sense of the word. He simply transformed himself and continued to serve in another sphere.
Despite the prohibition against mental speculation, many devotees pondered the question of who would lead the Movement after Prabhupada's death. Most devotees with whom I spoke believed that he would select one of his disciples to lead the entire Movement. The sect heavily emphasized precedent, and Prabhupada had written in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is that a single authorized spiritual master had followed each previous master in the chain of disciplic succession from Krishna to himself.
Many devotees, especially those in West Virginia, expected that Kirtanananda Swami would be the new spiritual master. A fiery and passionate speaker, he was the first disciple to shave his head and become a brahmachari, and the first to take sannyasa. Many believed him to be among the handful of fully Krishna-conscious devotees in the Movement.
I heard that out of his mercy Kirtanananda had allowed a nine-year-old devotee, whom he named Bhaktipada-dasa, to become his personal servant and to live with him in his private quarters. Some other devotees wanted to see their own local leader elevated to the position of spiritual master.
As Prabhupada's health deteriorated further, devotees in Los Angeles and other temples performed kirtan for him twenty-four hours a day. Devotees signed up for as many two-hour shifts as they could. Beyond this, we all prayed fervently to Krishna for Prabhupada's health.
Meanwhile, many big devotees including Ramesvara flew to India to be at Prabhupada's bedside. In November, 1977 we received the news of his passage to the spiritual sky. Soon thereafter, we learned that, before his death, he had elevated to the position of guru in his respective region each of the eleven GBC members, including Ramesvara, Jayatirtha, Tamal Krishna, Bhavananda, Kirtanananda, Hrdayananda, and Satsvarupa. In a move that would later prove controversial, Prabhupada allowed them to initiate new members and take them on as disciples.
Our spiritual master in the Southern California region was now Ramesvara Swami. When he visited Laguna Beach, the devotees chanted "Jaya Ramesvara, Jaya Ramesvara," as we once chanted "Jaya Prabhupada." We offered him the same ceremonies we had offered Prabhupada. On one occasion, it was my duty to pour lukewarm water from a pitcher over his feet. A basin caught the bath water, which the devotees then sprinkled over their heads.
Continuing Prabhupada's tradition, Ramesvara passed out cookies to the children. This was a great benediction for them. On one occasion, the cookies arrived late. He quipped with accent and syntax similar to those of the late spiritual master, "You have given so much money to the BBT, there is no money for cookies?" Most of the Lakshmi we collected on sankirtan in Laguna Beach went to headquarters in Los Angeles.
Ramesvara often lectured about the progress the Movement was making in gaining acceptance in karmi circles. He once announced that the sect had hired an advertising agency and a public relations firm. He mentioned visiting Governor Jerry Brown in his office. He also declared that he was cultivating the friendship of several movie stars.
Like Prabhupada before him, Ramesvara considered weekend breaks and other non-working trips to other temples to be evidence of Maya. Nevertheless, various then-middle-echelon editors at the BBT in Los Angeles, such as Jayadvaita and Devamrita, seeking a change of scenery and an opportunity to escape the smog, spent their weekends with us at the quiet, seaside Laguna Beach temple.
The price for room and board, I guess, was that you had to share your wisdom and learning with us. On one occasion, Jayadvaita was delivering the morning lecture when he fell asleep and started to list precariously to one side. We silently looked at each other and at our watches, which indicated that the class would be over in about five minutes. This placed us in quite a dilemma. Should we wake him and save him from Maya or simply let him doze until the class was over? After a minute or two, he awoke spontaneously and continued his lecture as if nothing had happened. We often said that a real devotee could sleep anywhere, anytime, and Jayadvaita did nothing that day to disprove the observation.
A devotee who served as a proofreader and occasional writer for the BTG went every weekend to a nearby convenience store to read the "Milestones" section of Time magazine. This section reported important events in the material world such as births, marriages, and deaths. Reading karmi magazines and newspapers was against the rules for all devotees except those who wrote for the BTG or lectured to outside groups. These devotees needed to be able to quote figures about the divorce rate or the other ills of American society, so that they could write or speak about the decline of material civilization.
Because the Laguna Beach temple was small, Agni permitted all second initiates to lecture from time to time. While I was familiar with most of the main points in the doctrine and had even memorized a few key verses, I had spent little time over the years studying the books. My first few lectures went well, though my delivery style was somewhat tentative.
On one occasion, however, I made a serious error while trying to quote from memory from the books. Agni interrupted the class and made the correction. I became flustered and ended the class as quickly as I could. That was the last time Agni asked me to lecture.
Even after working shoulder-to-shoulder with other devotees for months or even years, I knew little or nothing of their lives before the sect. They in turn knew little of mine. The past did not matter, because we were all devotees of the Lord now. We talked about Krishna, devotional service, and little else. Talking about what one did before the sect was at best a waste of precious time and at worst a cause for a fall from Krishna consciousness.
Pavamana and I continued to spend our days on the altar and in the kitchen. We frequently prepared a few extra servings for the occasional fringie guest who might drop by. They knew us for Pavamana's fresh-squeezed carrot juice and my oversized baked potatoes with butter glaze. These preparations were not a part of standard Krishna-conscious cooking, but they became popular nevertheless among both devotees and guests.
We had so many duties to perform in the kitchen and on the altar that we sometimes flouted the rules and went for months at a time without going to class. To compensate for this, we usually opened the door between the kitchen and temple room so we could hear the classes as we worked. When class was not in session, we played again and again the same tapes of lectures by Prabhupada or Ramesvara.
In the months following Prabhupada's death, my eating troubles continued. After taking too much prasadam, I sometimes purged my body with a quart of prune juice bought at the local supermarket with whatever change I could scrape together. Otherwise, I rarely left the temple grounds.
Occasionally, we put the Deities in the van and drove to Los Angeles to join the devotees there at their Sunday feast. On one such visit, I noticed that Ramesvara was auctioning to the householders various items including used Deity clothing and special Deity prasadam. He was always looking for creative ways to extract more Lakshmi from them. The householders seemed happy with their transcendental souvenirs and goodies, and Ramesvara was pleased to return their Lakshmi to Krishna.
I was surprised to hear that the Vancouver temple now had a new president. It seemed that Bahudaka had blooped several months before, but was now back in the Movement as a part-time public-relations specialist. How could the devotee I had once admired the most, who had been the definition of Krishna consciousness to me, and who sang so beautifully and with so much heart, throw it all away and return to the hated and feared material world?
On one occasion, a brahmacharini "lost control of her senses," that is, had an emotional breakdown. Formerly a stalwart devotee, she had recently become useless to the sect because of her alternating spells of agitation and listlessness. I even heard a rumor that she was "ghostly haunted." To us, a ghost was a disembodied demon, most often a suicide victim in desperate search of a body to inhabit.
Ghosts sometimes haunted the temple to harass the faithful and to take control of a living body. Agni ordered her to attend as many kirtans as possible, because ghosts, like other demons, fled at the sound of the Holy Names. I heard later that she had left the Movement. The leaders instructed us never to mention her name again.
She was not the only one who was having problems. I often dreamed that an evil force was trying to take possession of my mind and body. I chanted Hare Krishna at the top of my lungs in a vain attempt to drive away the demons and to wake myself from this persistent, repetitive nightmare.
One solution to the problem of demonic nightmares was a long, loud blast from the conch, whose spiritual vibrations drove away demonic spirits. The fog-horn-like blast of a conch sometimes woke us in the middle of the night.
Our neighbors may or may not have heard the late-night blasts from the conch, but they did complain often to us and to the police about our kirtans. As a result, Sarva kept the windows of the temple room shut during most kirtans.
One evening, however, the police arrived. We kept chanting; devotees are well trained to always keep chanting, no matter what. At the conclusion of the kirtan, they tried to arrest Agni as he stood before the Deities. Angered, I nearly took a swing at one of the cops. I cared little that he was carrying a nightstick and a gun. I was expecting Gaur-Nitai to give the demonic cop a heart attack on the spot, and was surprised and disappointed when They did not.
After Sarva and his wife had their first baby, she took it into the temple room to allow it and the Deities to see each other. A few months later, I closed the door on Sarva's wife and the baby as they tried to enter the kitchen. All babies and children were contaminated. As a second initiate with responsibility for Krishna's kitchen, I was determined never to compromise its cleanliness, even if it meant an inconvenience for the householder women.
Although many of us had been peace-loving flower children before joining the Movement, we understood as devotees that violence in Krishna's service was pure and purifying. For example, a scruffy, crazy karmi had a habit of sneaking around in the alley behind the temple. Fearing that he might steal something, I begged Agni to let me pound the karmi out, but Agni repeatedly refused my requests. On one occasion, this particular crazy even came into the temple room. Sarva asked him to leave, but if he had not been there, I would have pounded the karmi.
On another occasion, he appeared at the kitchen window and jokingly asked, "Have I been here before?" Enraged by his flippant attitude, which I took for contempt for the Deities, I grabbed a walking stick we kept near the door, rushed outside, threw down the stick, wrestled the crazy to the ground, and tried to get my hands around his neck. I warned him that if he did not stop harassing us, I would rearrange the features on his face. He walked away in a daze, muttering to himself.
A few days later, I looked out the window as I was chanting in the temple room and saw that the same crazy had engaged Agni in a shoving match in the garden below. I ran outside, knocked him to the ground, grabbed his long hair, and bashed his head several times against the flagstones. Later, some god-brothers tied him up and put him in the laundry room.
On another occasion, we were chanting downtown with Ramesvara when some local teenagers started to heckle us. Annoyed, I pushed one of them off the boardwalk. The drop to the sandy beach below was only about three or four feet, but my actions nearly started a rumble. Ramesvara ordered a quick retreat to the temple.
In his lecture that evening, he emphasized that for now words were the preferred method of persuasion. He added, "Ultimately, they may have to appreciate us as good fighters."
I had been involved in enough fights and near-fights to earn a minor reputation in the temple as a devotee who took little backtalk from karmis. On one occasion, I was late for the evening program because I had to go to the city hall to pay a parking ticket. After hearing that I had been delayed downtown, Mukunda Mala asked me, "What happened, did you beat someone up again?"
I cared little about what happened to me in this miserable life. In a real way, I had already received my reward, because in this life, I was a devotee of the Lord, and in my next life, I would go back to Godhead.
Working in the kitchen isolated me from most of the other devotees and led to ideological problems. I simply had too much time to think. In a purport in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Prabhupada wrote that a devotee should not doubt. Nevertheless, I had a recurring doubt concerning the question of freedom.
I had learned before joining the Movement that one should aspire to be free, but surrendering one's freedom was the essence of being a devotee. I also doubted the assertion that one should shun the "mode of goodness" (behaviors such as good works that are benign and blameless, but which still fall short of full Krishna consciousness). Viewed in this way, goodness was no better than the other material modes, passion and ignorance. Blame it again on my karmi upbringing, but I had trouble finding much wrong with goodness. I also wondered about Prabhupada's assertion that he knew the location of a mountain of gold in the Himalayas. Why, then, did we need to beg on the streets for paper bills or coins of copper and nickel?
Seeing in me the symptoms of burnout at the ripe old age of thirty, Agni assigned me to simple, repetitive duties. At times, I thought I was losing my mind. Much to my own shock and amazement, I sometimes even stole small change from the other devotees' lockers. I was tired of having to go to the temple treasurer for thirty-five cents every time I needed to do a load of laundry. After all, for several years I had worked twelve hours a day for the Movement. I knew that stealing was against the rules, but I also knew that none of my god-brothers would dare complain, because no brahmachari was permitted to have his own Lakshmi.
During this spaced-out period, it seemed that I was spending most of my time in the laundry room, rather than performing my other assigned duties. Violating a fundamental rule of Krishna consciousness, I once ate an unoffered apple. This meant that I was in a very real way no longer a devotee. Being in Maya for so much of the time brought me much anguish and shame. No matter how hard I tried, it seemed that I always failed in my attempts to get back on the track and to serve the spiritual master in a regulated, focused, and blissful way.
Agni may have given up on me, but he had yet to give up on the younger recruits. After a recruit failed on one occasion to follow all of his instructions, Agni yelled, "Who are you going to listen to — me, or your nonsense mind?"
In the midst of my doubts and pain, I developed a special relationship with Lord Nityananda, the Nitai of the Gaur-Nitai Deities. He gave me the strength to persist. No matter where I was in the temple room, it seemed that He was always looking or smiling at me in the most sympathetic way. For many months, He was my only friend.
Agni spent his afternoons sitting around and talking with his devotee friends from Los Angeles — or even with the women. Seeing this saddened me, because the spiritual master had forbidden us to speak idly among ourselves or with members of the opposite sex. In addition, he wanted devotees at all levels to always engage in activities that furthered their Krishna consciousness. At the same time, no devotee could criticize a superior, because he was Krishna's representative. It was clear privilege came along with rank in the Hare Krishna Movement.
Prabhupada had taught that being conscious of Krishna at the time of death was more important than living in a healthy material body. Knowing this, I quit struggling to recover my elusive bodily health, and became comfortable with the idea of dying in the temple. The spiritual master expected an ill devotee not go to a hospital; rather, he should die in the temple, under the protection of the Deities.
In November 1978, while we were chanting in downtown Laguna Beach, I glanced at a newspaper vending machine. The headline said something about "cult suicides" in Guyana. At first I tried to block this demonic propaganda from of my mind. Later I become furious with the materialist press for slandering us by calling every religious group, whether authorized or not, a "cult." A few weeks later, the sect published a booklet entitled, Don't Lump Us In. The gist was that ISKCON was not a cult like the Peoples Temple.
It soon became clear that the newly appointed spiritual masters were in competition with each other for new members and for financial control of the Movement. For example, I heard that on one occasion two spiritual masters had visited the same temple at the same time. The disciples of one spiritual master presented him with a garland of ten-dollar bills. Not to be outdone, the disciples of the other spiritual master gave him a garland of twenty-dollar bills.
In December, the Laguna Beach temple traveled to Los Angeles to participate in the yearly sankirtan marathon. Ramesvara exhorted and rallied the devotees to collect Lakshmi for fifteen hours a day at the local shopping centers and malls. In the fortnight before Christmas, most devotees stayed out until midnight every night. I spent most of my days reading, cooking, driving the devotees to and from their locations, or sleeping.