The highest study in the land of higher studies (Reflections on my US trip 2015) – Part 3
Shelter amidst trouble
In the last leg of my trip, I was supposed to be in New York for 2-3 days and in Detroit for 2-3 days before returning, but somehow the New York stay didn’t work out and I also got too many other invitations. So during the last 5 days, I ended up visiting 6 cities in 6 different states. My last stop was at Detroit, where my brother Harshal has settled along with his wife Priyanka and where my father and my brother’s parents-in-law had come. During our subsequent family re-union, my brother’s father-in-law, who runs a travel agency among several other businesses and who along with his wife flew back to India with me, helped me navigate the many legal intricacies associated with international travel. My maternal uncle who has settled in Detroit, America, shared many photos of my infancy and childhood – even his and my mother’s childhood – thus taking us all down nostalgia lane. Seeing that world of loving relationships reminded me that I needed to recommit myself to my monkhood. After all, I had hurt so many of my relatives by my decision to become a monk, and the least I could do to mitigate that hurt was to become a committed devotee, thereby sharing with them whatever spiritual credits I might accrue by Krishna’s grace.
My father playfully reminded me that some ten years ago, I had said, “America was a terrible country filled with materialism and I would never go there.” And yet here I was in America. I acknowledged this change as another example of time tempering the judgmentality of a new convert. Harshal pointed out that during the last twenty days I had traveled through 12 American states: Florida (Alachua, Orlando, Jacksonville), Colorado (Denver), Arizona (Phoenix), California (Los Angeles, San Jose), Oregon (Portland, Corvallis), Washington (Seattle), New York (New York City), New Jersey (Plainfield), Ohio (Columbus), Massachusetts (Boston), Michigan (Detroit) and Illinois (Chicago).
Actually, I had had no intention of traveling so much during my US trip, but I don’t know how it happened – my dumb social reflexes coupled with my difficulty in saying no, I guess. Predictably, my body couldn’t maintain the pace and during the last 5 days, I had acute cough and cold during the day. Thankfully though, it would subside enough in the mornings and evenings for me to be able to speak as expected. Still, I have learnt my lesson and won’t be traveling at such a pace again.
In comparison, my US tour started sedately, with I being in Alachua for the first ten days, including two weekends. My trip had been arranged by Hari Parayana Prabhu who is conducting a vibrant Gita study program for University of Florida students. I stayed at his place and he and his family made me feel at home by their informal hospitality. And Hari Parayana Prabhu and I had many stimulating discussions interspersed with bantering repartees. I also had many enlivening discussions with several senior devotees there including Shesha Prabhu, the Director of the ISKCON Board of Education and the current chairman of the GBC-EC (Governing Body Commission – Executive Committee). He lavishly appreciated my classes and later wrote to me saying that he was hearing my “Value Education and Spirituality” lectures on Youtube and encouraged me to transform that content into a book.
Sri Govinda Datta Prabhu, an IIT post-graduate and an Intel software engineer, coordinated my trip from Alachua onwards. He has resourcefully carved a niche for himself from which he is doing important innovative outreach. He drove me to many of my programs in San Jose, Los Angeles and Seattle – and got me to programs in time even when the GPS predicted that we would be late. When he got me in time from Portland to Seattle for the evening program, I told the devotees there, “Today, I have realized a modified version of a traditional saying: Where there is Sri Govinda Datta Prabhu, there is a way.” Laughing, we agreed that during our future travels we had better find a better way.
Because of my negligence in looking closely at my schedule, I ended up having to travel to three cities on Ekadashi on Oct 8. I have been fasting on water on Ekadashi for over a decade now, so fasting itself was not a problem. But never before had I traveled so much while fasting. I had a morning Bhagavatam class in Corvallis, which was some two hours away from Portland, where I had stayed on after an evening program the previous day. At noon, I had a university program in the nearby Oregon University, after which I had to travel for nearly 5 hrs by car to reach Seattle for an evening program. On Ekadashis, I tend to drink a lot of water and that meant stopping frequently to visit restrooms. When we couldn’t find a rest area along the way, we had to look for a restroom in some store and found a Macdonald’s. I couldn’t but smile at the irony that the only time in my life I entered a Macdonald’s was to use their restroom. Anyway, exasperated by the repeated breaks and the attendant delays, I decided to stop drinking water for the rest of the journey. As my throat and stomach started getting parched, I started reciting verses from the Bhagavad-gita. Soon I found myself transported to a higher level of consciousness, far beyond the irritation of thirst and the congestion of the traffic. And I was peaceful, even blissful, by the time we reached Seattle for the evening program. I usually don’t prepare the content of my classes, but I do prepare my consciousness by prayerfully reciting verses. That’s what I had circumstantially done more intensely than usual that evening. And during my subsequent class I found myself more absorbed in Krishna than during any other class in the whole US tour. The lesson that evening reinforced for me is life’s highest teaching, one I hope to cherish throughout my life: “Remembrance of Krishna is my ultimate shelter amidst problems, be they self-created such as careless planning or world-created such as traffic jams.”
Choosing fiddles while Rome burnt?
A spiritual highlight of my travels in the East Coast was my visit to the Tompkins Square Park and the Matchless Gift storefront center. My visit to Tompkins Square Park was the only time I went outside of the ISKCON world into America proper. Though I had traveled through one-fifth of America’s fifty states, most of the time I was in temples, devotees’ homes or cars, or in flights. In the Park, near the very tree under which Prabhupada had done public kirtan for the first time some five decades ago, now a free concert was going on and people were relaxing all around. The music was there, but the mantra was missing.
Visiting the inconspicuous Matchless Gift storefront that at first glance had nothing spiritual to recommend itself drove home like never before Srila Prabhupada’s pragmatism. As I contemplated how the surroundings had been squalid and sordid during the days of the counterculture, it struck me how revolutionary Prabhupada had been. Starting amidst the most impure of circumstances, he had by the potency of bhakti not only purified many people here, but had also made this place the starting point for a global movement that had purified millions all over the world.
We need to share bhakti where we are amidst whatever cultural setting we find ourselves in; we can’t wait for the utopia of a more conducive setting. Just as a surgeon can’t demand ideal hygienic conditions while treating people on a battlefield, we can’t demand ideal cultural conditions while sharing bhakti with the world. Commitment means doing what we can with what we have – now.
Contemplating how Srila Prabhupada started with what was available and pressed on by doing what was doable – and achieved something so massive and magnificent – drove home the reality of Krishna’s mystical potency. Prabhupada came to America not merely to conform to some ritualistic formula; he came to transform people, providing them spiritual solace, doing whatever it took. Many of the controversies that had recently consumed my mental energy were akin to Nero worrying about which fiddle to play while Rome was burning. The legend is that the Roman emperor Nero was playing a fiddle while half of Rome burned down. Adapting the legend, I felt like Nero being conflicted about which fiddle to play. That is, I risked the danger of becoming so consumed by conflicts over relatively minor issues as to neglect the all-important work of dousing the fire of material existence by sharing the shower of Krishna’s merciful message. No doubt, being faithful to the tradition is important, but equally, if not more, important is being faithful to the purpose of the tradition: making its message of spiritual love accessible to everyone.
Expanded conceptions of bhakti
The biggest difference between Indian ISKCON temples and American ISKCON temples that struck me was that almost all American temples were run by householder devotees. The time when Srila Prabhupada had preached in America was the period of the counterculture, when multitudes of young Americans were exploring alternative ways of living, including Eastern spirituality. But the counterculture phased ended over four decades ago and correspondingly the number of Americans coming to our movement decreased drastically. At the same time, many Indians found ISKCON to be a cultural home in America. Among various Indian organizations there, ISKCON has retained the most cultural elements from India: Deities, kirtan, dhoti-kurta / saree and prasad. Most of these Indians had come to America for pursuing their careers and they naturally choose to become grihasthas.
As I had lived mostly in temples with strong brahmachari ashrams, I was intrigued to see temples run largely, if not entirely, by householders. Obviously, I had known that even in India some ISKCON temples were run by congregation devotees. But seeing first-hand many temples, at various stages of development, being run by congregation devotees drove home the extraordinary dedication of these devotees. It sank into me that the grihastha-brahmachari debate, that sometimes paralyzes young devotees, is so parochial and is ultimately inconsequential. Bhakti is too universal to be restricted to any ashrama, and the need for sharing bhakti is too urgent to wait for any particular ashram to solidify itself. Christianity is spreading rapidly in India, primarily due to the evangelical efforts of missionaries, most of whom are married couples. Self-evidently, the majority of our movement is going to be grihasthas. To the extent the anti-grihastha polemic that unfortunately goes in some parts of our movement is stopped and the contributions of grihasthas are acknowledged, appreciated and channelized, to that extent the bhakti legacy can be spread rapidly.
Most American temples don’t have any brahmachari ashrams at all. Temples that have both ashrams have a blessing that needs to be cherished. By avoiding an adversarial relationship, the two ashramas can synergistically make Krishna’s message of spiritual love widely available.
During my meetings with many devotee couples, I was struck by the gravity of the responsibility of parenting – and the dedication with which many parents were embracing it. I came to know several parents who were home-schooling their children or had come together to open devotional schools, as in Alachua and Seattle, or had moved halfway across the country to have their children study in a devotee-run school. Indeed, for many parents, the desire to pass their culture to their children made them more committed to their own bhakti practices. I tried to serve all such parents by speaking at Jacksonville on “Parenting Principles from Bhagavad-gita.”
Another thing that struck me was the opposite effect of the same culture on Indians and Americans: those very cultural elements of ISKCON that attract Indians often cause reservations among Americans who fear that they are joining a Hindu religious group. So though many Americans are interested in yoga and even bhakti-yoga, especially kirtan, they frequently pursue these interests through forums other than ISKCON. Given the aversion of post-modern people to institutionalized religion in general and the specific reservation of many Americans to ISKCON because of it appearing like a Hindu sect, devotees have had to come up with various strategies for outreach. Primary among them are separating the outreach initiatives for Indians and Americans, with some places having different programs or even different centers for each group; doing yoga, sacred sound and vegetarian cooking programs where the ethnic aspects are downplayed or selectively portrayed; and having American devotees do outreach to Americans.
The US trip expanded my conceptions forcefully by reminding me to not judge others based on externals. I found that a scholarly devotee I had known through email interactions delighted in putting on an unkempt appearance and then flummoxing others with his deep insights. I also met a senior Prabhupada disciple who had a pet dog and was wearing shorts, but when he started talking, his heart’s devotion became evident. When he described how he had cried for days at the sudden demise of Tamal Krishna Maharaj and almost broke down while speaking about it, I remembered the Chaitanya Charitamrita’s narration of Gadadhara Pandita’s misjudging Pundarika Vidyanidhi based on externals. No doubt, the externals do help in fostering the internals. But the externals don’t guarantee the internals and the internals don’t need the externals.
Rudyard Kipling had said a hundred years ago:
“East is East, and West is West,
And never the twain shall meet …
But there is neither East nor West,
Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
Though they come from the ends of the earth!”
My US trip confirmed for me that the East and the West have many important, even irreducible, differences. And neither is likely to trump the other in the near future. Just as many in India are increasingly standing up to Western cultural imperialism, so too many in the West are likely to object to some aspects of the bhakti culture, seeing them as fronts for Indian cultural imperialism. But underlying such surface differences is the reality that we are all human beings and that our human heart longs for the love of the divine heart. By the grace of the sublimely strong acaryas, many people are becoming strong enough to rise beyond preconceptions and attain the shelter of Krishna, who forever plays his flute to invite everyone, both in the East and the West.