"I remember the Gita's instruction that one cannot find real happiness in the material world. Although I had suspected that the statement was true, I felt that I was an exception."
I first heard about Hare Krishna devotees in 1969, while I was attending Wayne State University in Detroit. An acquaintance of mine, who was very impressed with the devotees, was telling me about them. I was skeptical.
"Their religion may be just what is needed for a poverty-stricken and undeveloped country like India," I argued, "but we're blessed to live in abundance in America nice homes, our own cars, good medical care, and long life-expectancy. We don't need an ancient philosophy."
"What good is all our material wealth," she countered, "if people here still get sick, grow old, and die? Even if most Americans live a few years longer and in more material luxury than residents of undeveloped countries, what is the big difference?"
"Wow!" I thought. "What is the big difference?" Raised in an American jingoistic environment, I'd never heard anyone espouse such an idea certainly not my professors at WSU.
In 1974 I was in California, seeking fame and fortune as a photographer. While driving through Los Angeles, I remembered my acquaintance telling me that the Hare Krishna devotees had a temple there. My mentality then was that anything in Los Angeles was worshipable, so I considered finding the temple and visiting. I still had never been to a temple. But I couldn't summon the initiative to go. Besides, I felt that my success as a photographer was just around the corner, and that was my real mission in life.
Back in Detroit in 1976, still chasing materialistic goals in photography, I heard that the Hare Krishna devotees had purchased the Fisher Mansion on Lenox Avenue. A friend and I drove by and were invited to the Sunday feast. We kept late hours then, and we arrived the next Sunday very late, 9:00 or 10:00 P.M. We were told that the feast was over. Though we were invited to come back the following week, it took me six years to return.
At eight o'clock one morning in 1982, I was awakened by persistent pounding on my bedroom window. A friend had just driven forty-five miles on his motorcycle to tell me about his recent discovery.
"This is the greatest book I've ever read," he exclaimed, thrusting a paper-back Gita by Srila Prabhupada at me. "You've got to read it."
I showed him my identical copy of the book (I couldn't even remember how I'd come by it) and said that somehow its cover illustration of warriors in a chariot on a battlefield didn't much attract me. I told him I wasn't interested in war.
His interest in the Bhagavad-gita made an impression on me, however, and when he became involved with the devotees, I began occasionally accompanying him to the temple. I thought the food there was fantastic, but I was always reluctant to eat as much as I wanted. I thought the devotees would consider me rude for eating what was theirs.
Later that year he and I drove to New Vrindavan. We arrived in the late afternoon and were cordially offered plates of sumptuous prasadam. We had tremendous conversations with a couple of devotees, and we decided to spend the night at the guest lodge. We were invited to attend mangala-arati the next morning.
"What time should we get up?" I asked.
"Three-thirty," came the reply. "The ceremony begins at 4:15."
I was stunned. My sleep time was often from 3:00 A.M. till noon. But I said, "Sure. Let's attend. We're here on a spiritual adventure."
Though I had no idea what the mangala-arati ceremony was all about and felt rather self-conscious, I was impressed by the devotees, who graciously acknowledged our presence and indicated what we were to do at various points. When we left, I carried with me a most enlivening spiritual presence.
Although I continued attending the Sunday Feast in Detroit, I didn't go regularly, just whenever the thought occurred. Yet I always went home with positive impressions of the devotees I talked with.
An experience with my neighbors in the fall of 1986 helped nudge me along on the spiritual path. I tried to convince my nieghbours that burning leaves, though a biannual ritual for them, was not a wise thing to do. The enormous amount of smoke the leaf-burning generated in the neighborhood caused choking, irritated the eyes, and, according to an article in the local newspaper, contained numerous carcinogens.
When I approached my nieghbours to try to convince them that they should mulch the leaves for use as fertilizer, I tried to be calm and reasonable. I was stunned by their reactions.
"Mah advahce to you," one said, "is that if you don't lahk it, you can stay insahd."
"Don't try to impose your values on us," another said.
One neighbor told me he would be glad to mulch his leaves, and the next day he burned an even bigger pile than usual.
Not all the responses were negative, but I mostly remembered the rejection. The episode led to some soul-searching, and I remembered the Bhagavad-gita's instruction that one cannot find real happiness in the material world.
Although I had suspected that the statement was true, I had felt that I was an exception. My parents and teachers had always told me how intelligent I was. I remember my sixth-grade teacher telling my parents, "For Robert anything is possible if he puts his mind to it." I had always thought I could use my intelligence to ensure my own happiness.
With my failure to convince my nieghbours of the folly of burning leaves, I began to realize, reluctantly, that true happiness would elude me just as it does everyone else. I could attempt to maintain my health by diet, exercise, and proper attitude, but not everyone would agree to keep the environment clean, despite my logic. I remembered that the Bhagavad-gita states that in this world there are always disturbances stemming from one's own mind and body, from other living entities, and from natural forces. My careful and troublesome arrangements were doomed to frustration. I began to see how the philosophy of Krishna consciousness was not armchair speculation, but real wisdom for my own life.
I decided that I should spend more time with the devotees. By doing so, not only would I naturally associate less with my neighbours, with whom I was angry, but I could also raise myself to a spiritual platform, from which it would be easier to convince people to do the right thing.
I began attending the Sunday Feast every week, and on Tuesday evenings I went to the meetings of the Friends of Lord Krishna (FOLK). Although I had been invited to the FOLK meetings before, I had always been "too busy." But now I was ready.
By going to the temple regularly, I found satisfaction in the philosophy, friends, and food, and my anger towards the leaf-burners faded. "Thanks for rejecting me," I could tell them. "You gave me the impetus I needed to search out and find a higher taste."
After several weeks of visiting the temple every Sunday and Tuesday, I began to feel discouraged. I wanted to make spiritual advancement, but I doubted my ability to conform to the same regulations the full-time devotees were following: no meat-eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication, no gambling, and chanting the Hare Krishna mantra almost two thousand times a day on their beads. There were many other rules as well, and it seemed that so much of a life in Krishna consciousness was antithetical to all I had live by for a major chunk of my life. It seemed that everything I did was offensive to Krishna or His devotees. "Maybe I just won't fit in here. It's too strict. I'd better stop coming and look for something else."
That I had an auspicious dream. I saw Srila Prabhupada beaming at me with a most radiant smile. He seemed pleased. I heard no words, but somehow he communicated to me "It's all right. You're doing fine. Just keep coming regularly to the temple."
That was the encouragement I needed. I resolved to not only continue going to the temple regularly, but to do my best to apply the teachings of Krishna consciousness in my life so that I could progress steadily toward the perfection of spiritual advancement – pure love for Krishna.