A Glimpse into Devotional Life at 340 West 55th Street,
BY: JAGANNATHA DASA (SDG)
Sri Govinda, 1977
Mar 24, 2016 NEW YORK (SUN)
THE BHAKTA PROGRAM AND ASHRAMA LIFE
I was in the sankirtana devotee quarters one morning when a prabhu returned from book distribution barely one hour after he left. He had picked a thousand dollars from one person almost as soon as he arrived at Grand Central Station. He was almost floating on air and his face was effulgent as he revealed to the few devotees present how he collected such a large sum in such a short time.
He explained that he was preaching to a person foreign to the United States and unfamiliar with the value of U.S. currency and convinced him to take one of Srila Prabhupada's books and give a donation. Once the person took out his wallet and the amount of money it contained was revealed, the prabhu engaged in what was known in those days as the "change-up".
The "change-up" was one example of the "by hook or by crook" philosophy prevalent to some degree among the devotees at the time. The justification used by some was that it was okay to cheat an unwitting "karmi" because it wasn't really "stealing". The money belonged to Krsna. All wealth belongs to Him. It is one of His six opulences – all beauty, strength, wealth, knowledge, fame and renunciation belong to Krsna and Krsna alone. The sankirtana devotees were just returning the money to its rightful owner. They would use it in Krsna's service and therefore the "karmi" and the devotee would both ultimately gain eternal spiritual benefit.
No thought or very little thought was given to the negative feelings of the "karmis" when they realized that they had been bamboozled, or the possible damage to the reputation of ISKCON as a genuine spiritual movement and to Srila Prabhupada as the Founder-Acarya if his followers gained a reputation as thieves and con-artists. What to speak of what the person thought of Srila Prabhupada's book after apparently being swindled.
The "change-up" was used to confuse and confound and get away quickly before the victim realizes what has happened. Whether it was a Krsna conscious style of preaching or not I will leave to the advanced devotees to consider. Karma, the infallible justice, has the final say.
As for myself, I was a terrible preacher and book distributor, and I never approached the expertise necessary, nor did I have the desire to attain such "expertise", and therefore was incapable of pulling off the "change-up". I learned about it from the sankirtana devotees who were expert at it.
After a few weeks in the Bhakta Program I was sent out to learn how to do the "pick" with two other devotees in a shopping mall parking lot. Nama Sankirtana dasa prabhu, Bhakta Steve prabhu and I traveled in a temple car to a lot in one of the outer boroughs. Nama Sankirtana was in charge and he explained to me how to approach people and extract laxmi from them. I was not given any books or BRGs to distribute. I was supplied with a small pack of incense sticks and tasked with distributing them one by one and collecting laxmi for them. I was told to approach anyone and everyone without discrimination and to remember to meditate on Guru and Gauranga and always chant the Holy Names – HARE KRSNA HARE KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA HARE HARE / HARE RAMA HARE RAMA RAMA RAMA HARE HARE – while engaged in approaching the "karmis".
I did as I was told and approached everyone I saw, but I was not successful in collecting laxmi. I was an almost total failure. Towards the end of the evening, as the sun was setting and it was getting dark, I approached a lady as she was walking towards her car. I held up a stick of incense and was about ten feet away from her and said hello. Before I could utter another sound she started screaming at me to get away from her. Apparently she either mistook the stick of incense for a weapon or the ugliness of my material body approaching her in the dark scared her and she was afraid I was going to mug her, or worse. I stepped back and apologized and left the area.
That pretty much summed up the overall reception I received all that day. My clumsiness with social interactions, my introverted personality and my inexperience in collecting in combination with my mean ugly face and tall gawky body and my lack of desire to fulfill the order of Guru and Krsna all added up to a miserable day and night. I collected almost nothing and to top it off, now I was frightening people and causing them to scream for help.
At the end of the evening we returned to our vehicle to add up the results of the day. I sat in the back seat and Nama Sankirtana and Bhakta Steve sat in front. They both collected a substantial amount of laxmi and distributed their fair share of transcendental literatures and incense. When I was asked to reveal my total I was embarrassed to announce my pitiful collection of less than five dollars.
Immediately Bhakta Steve started laughing out loud at me and my poor results. I was already feeling down in the dumps, but his raucous outburst of unrestrained merriment at my miniscule amount of laxmi collected made me feel so low that I would have had to stand on my tip toes on top of a ladder and reach up and stretch my body as far as possible in order to almost touch bottom. I was already depressed. Now I was shocked at such a callous reaction, but I took it as Krsna's mercy on me. I did not say a word.
I didn't have to. After about two or three loud guffaws at my expense Nama Sankirtana prabhu injected some much needed Krsna consciousness into the situation. Nama was the leader of our little sankirtana party and assuredly the most experienced and mature devotee among us. He preached to us about detachment from the results of our activities and the necessity of proper Vaisnava behavior to make advancement in Krsna consciousness. Bhakta Steve apologized and we returned back to home, back to 340 West 55th Street.
Bhakta Steve became quite infamous a few weeks later. At that time there was a popular social commentary comic strip, "Verbatim", which appeared regularly in one of the local periodicals in New York City. The strip featured word for word dialogue and corresponding illustrations of actual real-life incidents, witnessed by the artist/author, which were claimed to be "verbatim" or portrayed exactly as they transpired.
Bhakta Steve was distributing books in the Port Authority building one day when his preaching activities were supposedly witnessed by that artist/author and became the subject of one of the "Verbatim" strips.
In a nutshell – The prabhu was dressed in suit and tie and wig as were all the male devotees that performed sankirtana in the airports and the bus and train terminals. He was preaching to someone when he literally flipped his wig. First he was extolling the spiritual benefits of accepting a book and giving a donation. But then it all went haywire. He lost control of his tongue and then lost control of his mind and finally he pulled off his wig and started yelling in the midst of the crowds of passersby –
"The Hare Krishnas are going to take over the world!"
Generally speaking that was how he was unflatteringly portrayed in print for all of New York to read. Remember there was no internet way back then in the previous century. Print was a major source of information. That particular strip was tacked on the bulletin board outside of the temple president's office for all of the devotees to see. Needless to say, Bhakta Steve got the "sauce" from the local GBC and the TP. Eventually he received harinama initiation from SDG and was given the name Sanatana Goswami dasa.
I loved to read the Sankirtana Newsletter. I would be amazed and personally enlivened by the exploits of a singular book distributor. He led in almost every category – big books, medium books, small books, and Back to Godhead magazines distributed and total amount of laxmi collected. What was so personally inspiring was the fact that the devotee leading almost everyone in the world in almost every category was an uninitiated devotee named Bhakta Monty.
He was like me – just an uninitiated bhakta, and I identified with that.
But he was so unlike me. He had the courage and the fortitude and the determination to undergo the severe austerity of traveling weeks and months on end in a small van with a group of devotees, to the shopping mall parking lots of the tri-state area, distributing Srila Prabhupada's books and having wonderful success. Whenever the latest Sankirtana Newsletter came out I would look for Bhakta Monty's name and wouldn't have to look far. It was always at or near the top of every category every time.
I imagined him to be this gigantic Herculean figure of a devotee – defeating with sastric evidence any and all arguments against accepting a Bhagavad-gita As It Is or a Srimad Bhagavatam, and then collecting every dollar and cent available from the fortunate soul that received one of Srila Prabhupada's books. I couldn't wait to meet this great soul when the traveling sankirtana parties returned to Radha Govinda Mandira.
When I saw Bhakta Monty for the first time I was impressed. He wasn't ten feet tall and packed with muscles as I had imagined. No. He was slight of build, quiet, and humble. You might even say he was shy. He did not act like some of the other full-time sankirtana devotees who were somewhat spoiled and pampered by authorities. He did not act like he deserved to be treated differently than the "temple" devotees – you know, the devotees who have the humble yet essential services of cooking, serving, cleaning, washing, sweeping, mopping, repairing and maintaining the ashrama, those selfless sadhakas who were at times looked down upon because of their humble position within the temple hierarchy. He really was just a humble guy trying his best to serve Srila Prabhupada and Sri Sri Radha Govinda. He was eventually given harinama initiation by SDG and given the name Mahaprabhu dasa.
(To be continued… Next installment… More Sankirtana…)