Growing Up With Krishna
From age five to twenty-three a young man’s tale of spiritual development.
I became a devotee of Krishna when I was only five years old.
It was 1968. My mother and I were shopping in downtown San Francisco when we saw the devotees of Krishna for the first time. They were chanting and dancing in front of a big store, and one of them approached my mother and gave her a card inviting us to attend the “Sunday Love Feast” at the temple on Frederick Street.
When we visited the next Sunday, we saw many shoes piled beside the front door. Although I didn’t know it then, removing one’s shoes before entering a temple is a common Eastern practice. I didn’t want to take off my cowboy boots, but my mother told me that unless I did I couldn’t come into the temple. I complied, but I kept looking to see if my boots were still there.
In the main room I saw many people dancing and chanting, just like the devotees we had seen downtown. There were long-haired hippies playing drums, cymbals, tambourines, guitars, and horns. One instrument in particular caught my interest: a barrellike double-headed drum. I wanted to learn to play it.
After the chanting, while a devotee was lecturing about the purpose of the Krishna consciousness movement, I sat looking at the beautiful pictures on the walls. After the lecture we all enjoyed a delicious feast of vegetarian food that had been offered to Krishna. My mother and I were already vegetarians, and we appreciated the exotic variety of dishes. My favorite was called gulabjamun spongy balls saturated with sweetened rosewater. When I put one in my mouth, it was like a balloon filled with saffron-flavored nectar exploding at the slightest pressure from my tongue against my palate. The delicious taste of those gulabjamuns is a pleasure I’ve never forgotten.
My mother soon became a full-time devotee of Krishna, and we moved to Los Angeles so that I would have the opportunity to grow up with other devotee children. The Hare Krishna center in Los Angeles was at that time the headquarters of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the movement’s founder and spiritual master.
One day the devotees in Los Angeles received news of Srila Prabhupada’s imminent arrival. Eagerly they began cleaning the temple and decorating it with flowers, Srila Prabhupada was their chief inspiration, their living example of a perfect, saintly person. The devotees’ enthusiasm as they anticipated Srila Prabhupada’s arrival was tremendous. I couldn’t wait to see the revered saint I had heard so much about.
Members of the Hare Krishna movement receive spiritual names at the time of initiation. Each name, although personalized and unique, indicates that the initiate is eternally the servant of Krishna, or God. When I learned that everyone I lived with had a spiritual name, I also wanted one. I kept asking my mother, “When will I get a spiritual name?” She told me to be patient.
At last Srila Prabhupada arrived, and all the devotees became jubilant. Srila Prabhupada said the Los Angeles temple should be known as New Dvaraka, after Lord Krishna’s capital city of Dvaraka, on the eastern coast of India. The presiding Deities of New Dvaraka he named Dvarakadhisa (the ruler of Dvaraka) and Rukmini (Krishna’s eternal consort in Dvaraka). When someone asked Srila Prabhupada what to name me, Srila Prabhupada paused for a moment and replied, “We shall name him Dvarakadhisa dasa.” I felt very happy with my new name, which meant “the servant of Dvarakadhisa, Krishna.” I felt I had now become part of this wonderful spiritual family.
A year later, in the summer of 1969, my mother and I moved to West Virginia, where ISKCON had recently acquired a large farm. Srila Prabhupada wanted his disciples to establish a primary school in this rural setting, and I was among the first ten children to attend. To be able to attend such an unusual school was exciting. I was anxious to learn. I compiled a booklet of verses from the First Chapter of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is and a booklet of excerpts from his Teachings of Lord Caitanya and sent them both to Srila Prabhupada, to show that I was learning. He wrote back:
I have read your version of the Bhagavad-gita, first chapter, and it is very interesting to read how the armies were present on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra and how
Lord Krishna became the charioteer of His friend and devotee Arjuna. Also I have read your excerpt from the Teachings of Lord Caitanya, and it was very
relishable to read. So take instruction from Bhagavad-gita in this way. Your handwriting is so nice. So by printing such booklets and learning Bhagavad-gita you can then instruct others and Krishna will bless you.
Reading this personal letter from Srila Prabhupada made me feel extremely happy.
I was attracted to the temple worship of the Deities of Krishna. Of course, I was too young to tend the Deities as a priest in the temple, so I had my own, smaller Deities of Radha and Krishna. Every day I would bathe, dress, and decorate Them with jewelry and flowers. One day I even built a small temple for Them on the front lawn. I piled up red bricks on three sides to make the walls and left the front open. For a roof I used cloth. The structure was about two feet square and two feet tall. At night I went to sleep leaving my Deities in the new temple. The next morning at the break of dawn I eagerly went to see Them, but to my dismay I saw that the temple had been dismantled. Seeing a pile of horse dung, I concluded the horse must have knocked it over. I approached with apprehension, and to my relief I saw that the Deities were unharmed. At that time Srila Prabhupada was staying in New Vrindaban, so I asked him if he could purify my Deities because the horse dung had contaminated the area. Srila Prabhupada told me that my Deities weren’t contaminated, that Krishna purifies everything He contacts.
In 1972 I left this rural setting and moved to Dallas. I was excited to be going to a new place and to be flying in a jet plane for the first time, but I was also a little scared to be by myself. I sat between two elderly ladies, who curiously eyed my chanting beads, saffron robes, and shaved head. When dinner was being served the ladies tried to induce me to eat steak, but I refused. I told them that I was a vegetarian and that, besides, I offered my food to God before eating. “You have to eat meat to be healthy,” they told me. “Not at all,” I replied. “I feel very healthy as a vegetarian, and I know many other people who are vegetarians and feel the same way! Besides, meat-eating causes all kinds of diseases later in life.” I don’t know if they were satisfied, insulted, or convinced, but they both fell silent.
At the Dallas school my classes increased. Sanskrit was added. When I heard that Srila Prabhupada would soon be visiting to oversee the newly opened school, my happiness knew no bounds. He came, and again I saw and felt the profound spiritual effect of his presence. One day he personally taught a Sanskrit class. The whole school of one hundred students and fifteen teachers was present. Srila Prabhupada sat cross-legged behind a desk in the rear of the classroom. He called for a volunteer. Everyone froze. I was sitting to the left of Srila Prabhupada in a row with other students my age. Seeing no one taking the initiative, I stood up, walked over, and sat to the right of Srila Prabhupada’s desk. Placing a pen in my hand, Srila Prabhupada guided my hand to form the first few letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. He said, “The teacher should have the students write one page of each Sanskrit letter. They should complete ten pages a day. In this way the students will memorize the alphabet in a week.” I sat back down, and Srila Prabhupada finished the lesson.
My classmates and I sometimes played “Mr. Scientist.” In a lecture in the temple we had heard the example of the scientist busy in the laboratory mixing various chemicals, trying to produce life. I used to take an empty gallon bottle and dump into it every possible substance I could find from wax stripper to milk of magnesia to come up with a powerful potion. One time the potion started bubbling over from the neck of the bottle! A scientist may make something wonderful, but is he the ultimate controller? I learned I certainly wasn’t.
Over the weekend the older children would go to the local shopping center to perform sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the holy names of the Lord. Some of us would be embarrassed to go out in public because we looked so different, dressed in the traditional Indian saffron robes and with our heads shaven except for the traditional sikha in the back. After we started chanting, however, we soon forgot our self-consciousness and instead felt eager to let people hear God’s name.
I attended the Dallas school for three years, and then I was sent to India. In the town of Vrindavan, where Lord Krishna displayed His childhood pastimes five thousand years ago, Srila Prabhupada had established an international gurukula (school of the spiritual master). Srila Prabhupada wanted youngsters worldwide to be educated in the pure spiritual environment of sacred Vrindavan.
I had heard a lot of interesting things about India, and I could hardly wait to board the plane. When I arrived in Calcutta, it was very hot, over 110 degrees. I journeyed by bus from Calcutta eighty miles north to the holy city of Mayapur, on the banks of the Ganges, to attend the annual festival held in celebration of the birth of Lord Caitanya. * [*Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is Krishna Himself in the role of His own devotee. He appeared five hundred years ago in India to teach love of God through the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra.] Devotees from all over the world attended this festival. Once the festival was over, I went by train to Vrindavan (ninety miles south of New Delhi) to attend the Bhaktivedanta Swami Gurukula.
I was among the first ten students in Vrindavan. Our program was simple: rise at 3:30 in the morning, wash our faces, dress in traditional dhoti and kurta, and attend the day’s first arati (worship) ceremony at 4:30 a.m. Then we would go to the Yamuna River for an early morning swim.
Swimming and playing in the Yamuna was our favorite activity. If a boy misbehaved, he would have to sit on the bank and watch the others having fun in the water. After an hour we returned home in procession, chanting the Hare Krishna mantra.
Sometimes we would have as many as four mrdanga drums and eight pairs of karatalas (hand cymbals) playing simultaneously. Indian people would look in astonishment to see these young Western Vaisnavas taking up their own spiritual culture. In the West the traditional Vaisnava dress is regarded curiously, but in India it is respected.
Prior to coming to Vrindavan, I had not grasped the full Krishna consciousness philosophy. Reading philosophy had not yet appealed to me. But around age fourteen I changed. Every day after breakfast the older boys had a philosophy class. There would be a lecture followed by discussion and, often, an informal debate. Our teacher would put forward some argument and we would try to counter it. Learning philosophy in this way was stimulating and fun, and after gaining a little experience I even began giving public lectures in the temple.
During summer vacations, some students would go home to visit their parents, and others would travel to different parts of India. I particularly remember a trip to Bangalore, in southern India. Because of its elevation and climate, Bangalore is known as the air-conditioned city. During the mid-morning, we would go out in the streets to sing the holy name. It was a lot of fun, and everyone appreciated our obvious innocence and devotion. People would crowd around and eagerly buy our Back to Godheadmagazines, written in the local language, Kannada.
Local gentlemen would invite us to their homes for programs in which we would sing spiritual songs and speak about Krishna. Our hosts would always welcome us very respectfully, and at the conclusion of the evening they would feed us sumptuously withprasadam. Two months passed very quickly, and it was time for us to go back to school.
After attending the Bhaktivedanta Swami Gurukula for six years, I received my Bhakti Sastri diploma, which is awarded to the intermediate student of Vedic literatures. I felt ready to become a missionary of Krishna consciousness.
A child receives the best education in the gurukula, because he learns how to live a godly life. The gurukula teacher is interested not only in the child’s academic education, but also in his character. To have proper character one must have God in the center; otherwise, one will have no impetus to check his actions. God has all the wonderful qualities, such as kindness, knowledge, peacefulness, and forgiveness, and a godly person can also develop these qualities.
For an adult to take to Krishna consciousness is often difficult you have to give up old habits. In Krishna consciousness everyone observes four rules: no meat-eating, no gambling, no intoxication, and no illicit sex. By abstaining from these vices one can advance in spiritual life. These four activities destroy the four pillars of pious activities. Meat-eating destroys mercy, gambling destroys truthfulness, intoxication destroys austerity, and illicit sex destroys cleanliness. One advantage of my education is that I never imbibed those sinful habits.
Now I am a young man, and I feel happy that I’ve been brought up as a devotee. I feel indebted to my mother, who brought me to this movement at such an early age, and to my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, who initiated me into the life of Krishna consciousness. I’ve found genuine happiness in Krishna consciousness, and I feel it my duty to help others experience this wonderful state of mind beyond the pains and anxieties of material existence. Preaching Krishna consciousness gives me something to look forward to every day of my life.