The Agni And the Ecstasy
“I considered myself a sort of Renaissance man in my own right. But through reading Srila Prabhupada’s profound works, I came to understand what I really wanted to pursue.”
July 10, 1975. It was a beautiful summer day. Although I was an exuberant twenty-year-old. I had no qualms about staying indoors on this occasion. I was being initiated into the ancient tradition of Krishna consciousness by my spiritual master. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. the founder-acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
I had been working toward this for some time. When I joined the movement in 1973, my intention was to make a short experiment. I had just read Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography. Experiments With Truth, and I romanticized how I would experiment in a similar way.
Also, just before joining the movement, I had read Irving Stone’s Agony and the Ecstasy, a fictionalized account of Michelangelo’s life. I was fascinated by the great Renaissance man’s resolve to paint the Sistine Chapel upon the request of Pope Sixtus IV. Michelangelo’s work as a painter for the Pope necessitated a mood of surrender, for he considered himself primarily a sculptor.
I had fancied myself something other than a devotee of God. I was a musician, an artist, and somewhat of a scholar. So I considered myself a sort of Renaissance man in my own right. But through reading Srila Prabhupada’s profound works translations of and commentaries on the ancient Vedic literature I came to understand what I really wanted to pursue: God’s mission in this world.
Before coming to Krishna consciousness. I had read that religion originated in the East Yoga groups and meditation centers back in America, while popular, did not satisfy my urge for a way of life that was completely spiritual. I took a short trip to India but returned dissatisfied. Traditional Hinduism seemed too dogmatic, with its many gods and family-based caste distinctions. Nonetheless, I knew that Hinduism had its roots in the Vedic literature. and I became interested in this source of spiritual truth.
Knowing that the Vedas were written in Sanskrit I decided to enroll in a Sanskrit course at Queens College in New York. If I could learn the language, I reasoned, then I could interpret the texts for myself, and I wouldn’t have to rely on the commentaries of popular yogis and swamis.
My professor was using Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. I had read many editions of the Gita, but only after reading Srila Prabhupada’s version was I aware that Krishna is God Himself and that the plurality of gods for which Hinduism is so infamous is a fairly recent innovation. For me, this was an important revelation: the religion upon which Hinduism rests is strongly monotheistic!
I was also surprised to learn that caste distinction as interpreted by the British and most modern Hindus has little to do with what is actually taught in Vedic texts. While the popular misconception holds that one fits into a specific caste according to birthright, the Vedas and especiallyBhagavad-gita teach that one’s quality and work determine one’s social position. A person is considered a brahmana, for instance, by virtue of his being an intellectual, not because he is born to a brahmana father. This is clear from the Sanskrit texts themselves. So my Sanskrit course helped me see the logic of the Vedic literature and the accuracy of Prabhupada’s translation and commentary.
More important for me, however, was the realization that Prabhupada was not only delivering Bhagavad-gita “as it is,” but was indeed espousing original Vedic culture as it is. I knew this was what I had been looking for.
As I became more familiar with the Sanskrit language and the ancient Vedic tradition to which it belongs, I became convinced of Srila Prabhupada’s authenticity. I felt compelled to visit his Hare Krishna center in New York City, which was listed in the back of my Bhagavad-gita.
Luckily, on a rainy spring day in 1973, Srila Prabhupada was lecturing at the Henry Street temple in Brooklyn. It was my first visit to the temple, and although Srila Prabhupada was always traveling, he was there on that day. I understand now that this arrangement was Krishna’s mercy on me, because, being quite a skeptic, no one short of Srila Prabhupada himself could have convinced me of the validity of Krishna consciousness.
Although I came with a battery of questions regarding metaphysical reality and ontological truth, I didn’t walk away disappointed. I was astounded by Srila Prabhupada’s lecture. Without my asking. he had answered all my questions and then some!
Still, I maintained a healthy skepticism. The scriptures advise that one apply logic and reason in the pursuit of truth. So for a full year I studied Srila Prabhupada’s books closely, visited the temple, and asked questions. I adopted the basic practices of Krishna consciousness: I started chanting the Hare Krishna mantra on beads every day, and I avoided meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling.
Seeking happiness, I had formerly indulged in all of these activities. But somehow, I knew, true happiness was eluding me, no matter how successful I was in enjoying my senses. In retrospect, I think that my prior indulgence served to reinforce my resolve, for despite my sensual gratification. I was becoming less and less happy. Although I was engaging in sinful life to numb the pain of material existence, it just wasn’t working. Rather, I was becoming more and more entangled. The very activities I thought were bringing me pleasure and freedom were actually the source of my misery and bondage. I was embracing as the cure that which causes the disease.
In the beginning I faltered quite a bit. But as I became more steady in following the basic rules, I could feel my consciousness becoming purified. It gradually became easier to lead a purer life. Nonetheless. although things were becoming “easier,” they were still a challenge, and I didn’t know if I had what it takes to make a lifetime commitment Despite this period of uncertainty, however, my experiments became more and more serious.
In 1974, I saw Srila Prabhupada lecture at the Ratha-yatra (Festival of the Chariots) in San Francisco. After the lecture, Srila Prabhupada sang and danced with the devotees in glorification of God. He was happy, and everyone who watched him knew it Here, I thought is someone who practices what he preaches. This event solidified my faith in the process of Krishna consciousness. I knew then and there that Srila Prabhupada was my spiritual guide and that I would one day be initiated by him. Whatever my reservations, I knew I had to make a commitment If I didn’t I would be selling myself short.
As I became a more dedicated follower, I went out and distributed Srila Prabhupada’s books on a daily basis. I wanted to share this treasure that had somehow been bestowed upon me. To this end, I joined the Sri Sri Radha Damodara Sankirtana Party, a team of devotees who were absorbed in distributing his literature and message to the world.
* * *
February 28, 1975, was a cold day in Atlanta, Georgia. We had traveled there to meet with Srila Prabhupada, who was arriving from a successful lecture tour of Caracas and Miami. I was one of some three hundred enthusiastic devotees both old and new who were there to greet Prabhupada. Although many of us were uninitiated, we had made a serious commitment and there was talk that initiations would be forthcoming, perhaps six months away.
For the next four days, we heard Srila Prabhupada lecture every morning, expounding the basic philosophy of Krishna consciousness with unexcelled clarity and precision. Prabhupada knew that his explanations of the fundamentals would help his young novices preach to those whom they would meet on book distribution. By hearing Prabhupada explain the fundamentals in such a masterful way, I developed confidence in my own ability to convey the same truths to others.
During those early-morning winter lectures in Atlanta, an interesting phenomenon would occur on a daily basis: As I wanted to develop a more intimate relationship with Srila Prabhupada, I would plan out several deep philosophical questions before his lecture. I had hoped that after his talks I would have the opportunity to ask these questions and revel in the spiritual exchange. Without my asking, however, he would invariably answer my questions during his lecture. Sometimes I would even purposely think of questions that had no relation to the daily topic. But the questions were always answered.
By the fourth day, I was certain that this was more than mere coincidence. I was confident that, as my spiritual master, he knew my mind even better than I. As if in confirmation of this, after his lecture, he turned to me (I was sitting only a few feet away!) and said, “Are all questions answered?”
In response, I sat there with my mouth hanging open. Of course, it was not uncommon for him to say this at the end of his lectures, but in this instance he looked right into my eyes. It was fully appropriate, and for me it had very special meaning.
Before Srila Prabhupada was to leave Atlanta and we were to continue our travels throughout the country distributing his books, Tamal Krishna Goswami, the leader of our party, asked Srila Prabhupada if he would like to meet each of us. Wanting to give us special encouragement, Srila Prabhupada agreed.
Though I had seen Prabhupada on several occasions, regularly listened to his tapes, and carefully studied his books, this would be the first time I would actually meet him. I was nervous and excited. While this meeting would be important and certainly pleasurable in many ways. I knew that it would deepen my commitment to the spiritual path. That prompted a sense of fear. Was I ready? The “agony and the ecstasy” motif entered my mind. Michelangelo wanted to sculpt, but in surrendering to the will of the Pope, he had sculpted a new life for himself as a painter.
My eternal spiritual father, whom I had acknowledged as such for a mere two years, was now going to enter my life in a more intimate and personal way. As our Radha Damodara Party danced through the door to his room singing the names of Krishna, I felt our relationship deepen all of us as Godbrothers under our spiritual father, Srila Prabhupada.
One after another we were introduced to Prabhupada. We each offered him a fragrant flower, which he graciously accepted, and then we offered our prostrated obeisances. Prabhupada smiled with great delight as Tamal Krishna Goswami explained to him our respective services.
“This is Tom,” Tamal Krishna Goswami said. “He fixes the buses in which the devotees travel.” Prabhupada nodded approvingly. “This is Danny. He does the cleaning. Mike assists with the cooking. Bob distributes your books …”
“Oh?” Prabhupada interrupted. “This is very nice!” It was clear that Prabhupada had a preference for seeing his books distributed. All other services were valuable in that they assisted this one service of transmitting transcendental knowledge and love of God.
I was up next. Also a book distributor, I felt somewhat confident that Prabhupada would be pleased with my service. “This is Steve.” said Tamal Krishna Goswami, “and he distributes your books as well.” No reaction. As I went to offer him the flower, I realized that the same phenomenon had occurred again. Since he had just expressed his delight with the previous book distributor, there was no need to say anything new to me. It was just like his answering my questions before I asked them.
Still, after a few, moments. Prabhupada looked up at me with folded hands and said, “Thank you very much.” I immediately felt a spiritual reciprocation I had never felt before. He appreciated my service. And I appreciated his encouragement. In that moment I realized that I was in the presence of my spiritual father.
* * *
Four months passed. We were traveling throughout the U. S. delivering the message of Krishna consciousness. It was early July, and we were told that Prabhupada would meet us in Chicago to formally initiate those of us who were true to our vows. Seventy-five young devotees would now strengthen their link with the Vedic tradition through the holy rite of initiation, and then we would all attend the 1975 Festival of the Chariots in Chicago.
Again we spent many mornings listening to Prabhupada lecture fromSrimad-Bhagavatam. This time several hundred devotees gathered in the huge hall of the Evanston temple. Prabhupada took this opportunity to expound on the life of Ajamila, a sinful person who at the time of death had saved himself by calling out the name of God: “Narayana! Narayana!”
Prabhupada enjoyed telling this story, for here the power of the holy name is evident Ajamila had named his son Narayana, a name for God, and at the time of death Ajamila called out for the boy with full sincerity. Because he called the name of Narayana. he was saved from death and was given the chance to attain spiritual perfection. “Just see,” said Srila Prabhupada. This is the potency of the holy name. Even if chanted inadvertently, it has tremendous effect”
On the fourth day of Prabhupada’s Chicago lectures, another miracle occurred. After repeating Narayana’s name many times in telling the story of Ajamila, Srila Prabhupada fell into trance. This was something he rarely did in public. An intense silence engulfed the room. We all felt blessed to witness this transcendental phenomenon. Through purely calling out Narayana’s name. Prabhupada was seeing Narayana face to face. His trancelike state and his inability to speak lasted two minutes. Although I had read about the ecstatic symptoms of a pure devotee. I was amazed to see them. Those of us who were in the room will never forget his spiritually uplifting expression.
After two seemingly eternal minutes, Srila Prabhupada said, “All right Thank you very much.” He then gestured that kirtana should begin, and one of the most intense chanting sessions I had ever experienced permeated the large hall.
Then came the initiation. Anticipation filled my heart. My imagination went wild. I pictured sages in ancient times taking part in similar ceremonies on the banks of India’s holy rivers. Now I would have the good fortune to follow in their footsteps. I looked forward to the exotic and colorful initiation ceremony, which includes a purificatory fire sacrifice. I had imagined this in my mind’s eye for many months. The room would be filled with smoke from the flames of the ancient Vaisnava ceremony. I was familiar with the initiation procedure, for I had several months earlier been to the initiation of my senior Godbrothers. Each initiate would come before Srila Prabhupada, who would give him or her a set of chanting beads and a spiritual name. This name is usually one of the names of Krishna (or of one of His eternal associates) followed by the word dasa (for men) or devi-dasi (for women), both of which mean “servant” The name reminds the disciple that he or she is a servant of God.
Now my own initiation was about to take place. Srila Prabhupada started calling devotees one by one. There were seventy-five of us, so my fear was alleviated by the fact that I was not alone. Still, the agony-and-the-ecstasy concept ran through my mind as I thought of the sacrificial fire soon to be ignited. My entire life up to the point of initiation ran before my eyes. Knowing that in Sanskrit the fire is called the agni-hotra, I started to play mental word games: “The agni and the ecstasy.” I thought This was not a time to play games, however, and I made an internal promise to be more serious.
The fire at such sacrifices is always a marvelous thing to behold. In this particular situation, however. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand. I could hardly wait for Srila Prabhupada to call my name, so we could get on with the beautiful fire sacrifice. On the other hand, I was nervous as hell! The commitment of life-long dedication is frightening. But I knew that one can get out of Krishna consciousness only what one is ready to put into it I had made up my mind.
To ease my tension. I had enjoyed watching several of Prabhupada’s senior disciples spread colored dyes over the dirt mound in decorative crisscrosses just prior to the sacrifice. “What is actually being sacrificed?” I began to ask myself. Surely it was mainly my false ego, my false sense of proprietorship. I was now acknowledging that I am not God but, rather. His blissful servant
“Ah, to be a servant of God,” I thought, ” this is no ordinary thing.”
No sooner was I thinking in this way than I heard someone call out my name. It was Tamal Krishna Goswami. He was calling me forward to be initiated by Srila Prabhupada. I took a deep breath and approached Prabhupada’s seat. As he handed me the beads, he said, “Do you know the four rules?”
“Yes,” I answered. “No intoxication, no illicit sex, no meat-eating, and no gambling.” I had been practicing what to say so I wouldn’t muff it.
“Correct” Prabhupada said. “Follow these four principles and chant a minimum of sixteen rounds on your beads every day. Hare Krishna.” Then the moment I had been waiting for: “Your name is Satyaraja.”
I immediately looked over at one of my traveling mates who knew Sanskrit better than I. “It means ‘king of truth.’ ” he said. I looked back at Prabhupada with a sense of pride. Yes, this is me I am the king of truth!
Prabhupada looked me squarely in the eyes and revealed the handy little affix: “Dasa!”
I felt two inches tall. Here I was trying to remember that the real sacrifice was the sacrifice of my false ego, and Prabhupada had shown me. by pausing before saying “dasa.” that I was still anxious to think of myself as something special. In short, I was inadvertently trying to be an imitation God. Prabhupada had lectured many times explaining that this in fact is the very reason for our material existence: the endeavor to replace the Lord and be the central enjoyer of all we survey. Prabhupada taught me a valuable lesson at the initiation by reminding me that I was merely a humble servant of “the king of truth.”
As I walked away from his seat with my beads and new name Satyaraja dasa I also walked away from the agony-and-the-ecstasy concept The agony. I realized, was merely a product of my rebellion against God. Now, through Prabhupada’s grace. I realized that I am constitutionally a servant of God. So the agony was gone. As I watched the sacrificial fire burn away. I knew all that was left was ecstasy.