How I Met A.C. Swami Bhaktivedanta
One evening in the summer of 1966 a friend and I were waiting for a downtown bus on Second Avenue between First and Second Streets. We were going to a Fulton Street loft to rehearse music for a mixed-media show. My friend had gone into a luncheonette for a moment when I noticed, through the window of a storefront across the avenue, an orange-robed Indian man with a shaved head lecturing to a small group of young people. I remembered reading a short article in the Village Voice a few weeks before about Swami Bhaktivedanta, who had come to the United States to spread the devotional practice of chanting mantras of God’s Name. So I guessed this must be the same Swami. When I saw him, I imagined myself walking across the street, going into the storefront, sitting down, chanting, and renouncing all worldly connections. But it was only my imagination, I told myself after all, I was married, I was in the process of going to a rehearsal, and I didn’t know anything about the Swami anyway. So my friend and I got on a bus. “Imagine!” I said to him. “A holy man in a Second Avenue storefront!”
It was a very intriguing situation for me. I had been involved in various impersonal philosophies, and especially Buddhism, for a few years. And by this time a little psychedelic seasoning had been added. My interest had always been with the traditional forms, and not “new” organizations. So I knew how important it was to have a good guru, and how important it was to obey him strictly. Of course, I considered myself an impersonalist, and the Swami taught that God’s highest aspect is as a person. So I lost interest.
Krishna has a big bag of tricks, though, and by His grace I began to tire of chemical wonderlands, rigid discriminatory eliminations and material analyses. For such a long time I had been saying, “Not this, not that,” just as Lord Buddha had suggested, and had arrived at a potpourri system of my own speculations gleaned from various books I had read, all culminating in Nothing, that big impersonalist Void, the source of many a searcher’s “wipe-out.” God, I thought, was on the third or fourth level down (depending on what day it was). Now, how is anybody to get out of such a jailhouse of intellectualization?
As for myself, I started to think that, psychologically speaking, I needed a devotional tonic. This was an ignorant way of putting it. Simply, impersonalism didn’t satisfy my desire to know the Absolute. But for myself at that time, I felt that all that eliminating was getting stale, and what I needed was some group chanting.
So on a mid-October Sunday afternoon my wife and I went over to Tompkins Park to find out what this Krishna Consciousness was all about. By this time I had read an article in the East Village Other about Swami and his followers, and knew they would be chanting in the park. I expected to hear “Hare Krishna” droned out in a low, single-toned way, like most Buddhist chants. But then I heard the cymbals: one-two-three, one-two-three: a kind of intoxicating flamboyance, considering what I was used to, and very magnetic. I walked a little faster, and saw heads bobbing up and down, arms waving. What was this? No black-robed Zens here! Then I heard it. A song! A beautiful, endless song! Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! I had to get closer to it, so I pushed through the onlookers. And there he was, Swami, the center of all this whirling-dervish ecstasy, surrounded by every kind of outlandish hippie and frustrated office worker imaginable, scrutinized by solid neighborhood Ukranians and ragged Puerto Rican kids; Swami, banging on a drum, seventy-odd years old, in complete control of this transcendental songfest. How could I keep from chanting at once? It was impossible. And even though I’m pretty shy, I even found myself dancing a little. Hare Krishna!
From that point on the fire of devotional service began to melt my icy Buddhist intellect. I found it hard to accept most of the philosophy at first, but the plain fact of the matter was that Swami gave better answers and better explanations than anyone else. After a while two or three months there was only one possibility: he was right!
So it took me a long time to “meet” Swami. I guess the first time I really met him was one morning the next April just after he had returned from opening the San Francisco temple. He had been away from New York for some time, and I had been very anxious to ask him to initiate me. And that morning I finally asked him. And just when I asked him, I realised that Swami Bhaktivedanta was my Spiritual Master.