Gold, Guns and God: Vol. 2—A Pioneer Community
KIRTANANANDA SWAMI WAS ONE OF A KIND, and it goes without saying that even among the devotees—who are generally social outcastes—he was unique. I first met him in 1969 soon after he acquired the New Vrindaban property. From the first time I saw him I could see that he carried himself like some mystical swami, a transcendentalist who knew all the answers and could summarize them into just a few words. Even the way he moved, whether slowly and deliberately or in haste, his movements just seemed to belong to a spiritually-aware person, a natural yogi. He had an aura—which to be sure many skeptics felt was a creation of his own fantasy—that announced him as the favorite son of the sampradaya (the discipular succession of spiritual masters originating in the distant past from Lord Sri Krishna).
For many it was a foregone conclusion that Kirtanananda Swami would someday be the Chosen One to carry on the tradition. And when it came to competition for the post, as the ranks of ISKCON swamis swelled over the years in the great stampede towards (usually temporary) swamihood, he made his disgust clear that no one else was really as qualified as he was. He was different from them, but he was also, at least from my humble perspective, a nice person, while a good number of the other ISKCON swamis behaved as though a tridanda (the staff of a sannyasi) was a license to act like a Marines staff sergeant on PMS. Kirtanananda could reach right out and touch your heart of hearts. Because of that quality I always sought his association whenever he came around.
When Kirtanananda Swami acquired New Vrindaban, I went down to see Srila Prabhupada on the Paramahansa’s first visit there. That was the spring of 1969. I was working in the factories of Hell’s Kitchen and Brooklyn to learn book binding so that we could set up the ISKCON Press in Boston, which of course, we eventually did. With the help of my boss at the bindery, I had bound a set of His Divine Grace’s original Bhagavatams, the Delhi editions. My boss, bless his heart, delighted in the project and kept singing “Oh, Swami, how I love ya,” as he helped me apply the secrets of the trade to Prabhupada’s masterpieces. At New Vrindaban, a few fellow ISKCON press workers and I met Srila Prabhupada upstairs in his room at the old Vrindaban farmhouse. The presentation went well and Srila Prabhupada was very pleased with the volumes. I told him, “When I met you, Srila Prabhupada, I was crazy.” He replied lovingly, “No, you are not crazy. Madhu-Mangal, he is crazy.”
Madhu-Mangal was my twin brother who I had brought to the movement and who had been initiated a month earlier in April of 1969. He had stayed a while at the New York City temple at 63 Second Avenue, but he was considered too far out to function rationally in such a high-powered and tightly-knit city ashram. Our temple president, Brahmananda, had a motto: “Shave ’em up and ship ’em out.” That often meant sending misfit devotees to what he called the “Funny Farm.” And Kirtanananda took in all sorts of devotees at the Funny Farm of New Vrindaban. And as long as Madhu-Mangal was there, Kirtanananda Swami was always very kind and compassionate towards him. That is something for which I will always be grateful to him. Kirtanananda had a very compassionate side that made you just sort of love him.
These three holy books I had hand bound and gold leafed for our spiritual master are considered God himself in literary form, so I had respectfully covered them with a cloth. “Yes, scripture should be covered,” Srila Prabhupada mused as he lovingly examined the work. Then he suddenly exclaimed, “You American boys and girls are very nice.” His Divine Grace continued, “Many suggested that I go to London, but Krishna directed me to come to you to New York.”
Then he pointed right at me and locked his eyes with mine. “And you are qualified. All glories to Patit-Uddharan.” As he said that he threw his head back and glowed a bright white light that made his physical form disappear for a moment in the blinding luster. I felt that my eternal life had been settled simply by binding those three treasured volumes. And Kirtanananda had to be someone special to bring the World Acharya to a farm way out in the middle of nowhere. The pleasant mood of Srila Guru Maharaja at New Vrindaban, as austere as the place was, hinted at what a tight bond there was between the Paramahansa and his first sannyasa disciple.
Kirtanananda visited New York from time to time, and we brahmacharis would always gather round to hear what he had to say. He could quote the Bible in a very Krishna conscious way. I remember how he once said that the devil also quotes scripture, and that the devil and the devotee reside in the same body. That was quite profound stuff for me. It was delightful to hear his conviction as he spoke even simple things like “This world is nothing but garbage,” or “There is no other way but Krishna consciousness.” He appeared like renunciation personified to us neophytes. He was convinced and we also wanted to be convinced.
When ISKCON Press went into operation in Boston, Kirtanananda came up to see Srila Prabhupada who was there to inspect our work in the winter of 1970. I worked long, hard hours in the ghostly basement of the one-time mortuary and was usually alone. Once I hand-cut a run of 80,000 Back to Godheads, a number which is three or four times what the entire movement distributes in America in a year nowadays! One evening, I was flat on my back lying on the floor totally exhausted, and Kirtanananda came in and just lay down next to me. He spoke into my ear as if speaking something very confidential, like some rare diksa mantra, and said, “Everybody appreciates your service.”
None of the leaders ever encouraged us rank-and-file members. Training was pretty much based on the principle of tough love, especially if you were one of Brahmananda’s boys, because he was an ex-wrestler and that was his way. But Kirtanananda’s word went straight to the heart and today over four decades later, they are still there.
Fast forward to 1971 and we got the word that the bindery would close. Book distribution was taking off and ISKCON contracted to produce large quantities of books with Dai Nippon in Japan. So one day, without any fanfare, Satsvarupa just drove me to the highway and left me off in the snow to hitchhike back to New York, penniless. My time and karma had run dry in Boston. By now the New York City center had moved across the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn and was under the flamboyant Bhavananda.
One day I was at that temple over on Henry Street up in the brahmachari ashram on the third floor and Kirtanananda was there too, charming everyone with his wit and stories. He called me over and said that he had some service for me. He handed me a blank envelope and asked me to address it in my best handwriting. When I did he smiled and said that it was just what he wanted. He knew how to encourage devotees in the smallest ways. He could make the smallest thing into the biggest. He was special.
In those days in Brooklyn, I was one of the early big book distributors. I would carry a box of large volumes to Grand Central Station, set up a table and just sell to any curious person who stopped by to talk. But one day, Jananivas dasa from Columbus came to Henry Street and talked me into coming to Columbus, Ohio, with promises I could preach at the University. I went, but soon found out that Jananivas was not much of a manager. There was no program at the University. He had been driving a car with no brakes. One devotee/guest advised him to get the brakes fixed—or else!—and Jananivas replied, “Don’t worry, Krishna will protect us.” The devotee, Bhakta Rino, fearful for his life, would not ride with Jananivas after that.
One day, en route to a preaching program early in the morning—and by now in a new Ford van—the driver Bhakta Dennis started screaming “I’m falling asleep.” Jananivas, Bhakta Will and I were sleeping in the back. The van had a big engine housing in the front center and I was stuffed behind the engine. Jananivas told Bhakta Dennis, “Get off at the next exit.” Those were his last words. I awoke lying paralyzed on my back on the side of the road to the tune of sirens and the beat of blinking red lights. I tried to move but couldn’t. When I looked up I saw that the van towering above me was crushed like a soda can. On the side were the crumpled words in yellow paint, “Chant Hare Krishna and Be Happy.” I had talked Bhakta Dennis into painting those words just days earlier. I just stared at them and wondered how this could have happened.
When the paramedics came to scrape me up, I motioned that they should first take Bhakta Will, a young black mridanga expert, lying a short distance away. They gazed back grimly and shook their heads. Jananivas was practically decapitated. The Prabhus who had been sleeping on the left and right of me were now dead, and I had been saved by being behind the engine. I don’t know how long I was in the hospital; I had two compression fractures in the back and movement was gradually returning. And it was Kirtanananda Swami who came to get me out of that damned hospital like a guardian angel taking a tormented soul the hell out of the material world in a divine airship. He came in a New Vrindaban van to transport me back to Columbus. No one had the forethought to consider that a man with a broken back should have some mattress instead of just a simple blanket between him and the cold steel floor during a four hour drive. But I didn’t really mind. Kirtanananda Swami had come to take me home.
A few weeks later, he drove out from New Vrindaban to Columbus to check up on us and to also appear on a local television show. He took me along to the show since I had been given the important post of president of ISKCON Columbus—a temple with only one or two devotees. I had lost my shoes in the wreck, so I just went on the TV show shoeless and acted like, “Yeah, that’s a normal thing to do.” Those were the days.
I did not see Kirtanananda much after that, but he remained in my heart and in my mind as one of my very dearest godbrothers. I heard so many terrible things about him and, when I did, I always recalled what he had said, “The devil and the devotee reside in the same body.” I suppose he got caught up in the rapid expansion of the movement and was overwhelmed by the mantle he wanted so much to wear as successor to the sampradaya. I took no delight in his difficulties because he had always been kind to me and to my brother. It seems that with love comes forgiveness, especially if you aren’t the one who needs to forgive.
Some thirty years later, around 2005, I went to New York City for a friend’s wedding. Out of curiosity, I walked down to the Lower East Side to reminisce about the days at 26 Second Avenue. By the grace of Lord Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, that Holy Tirtha which Bhumi (the Earth Goddess) sanctified (as it is by the lotus feet of Krishna’s pure devotee) is still an ISKCON preaching center. Waves of memories flooded my soul of days when, as a wandering Dharma Bum moving back and forth between the two coasts, I had stumbled in and had immediately tasted the Vaikuntha atmosphere that Srila Prabhupada had instilled into the place.
Though the Matchless Gifts ISKCON was locked up tight, by the Lord’s grace there was a fellow standing nearby who informed me that there were some devotees living in a pad around the corner at 25 First Avenue. Following him there, I went upstairs, and lo and behold, there was Kirtanananda Swami sitting on a foam mattress on the floor. He was now a little old man, beaten down but not out. I naturally offered obeisances, and he folded his hands to return the exchange of respect between godbrothers. When I looked up, he smiled with his glistening blue eyes and that loving, knowing look for which he was famous. He said, almost astonished, “So you have kept the faith.”
For that moment, all that had transpired in thirty years—not only his own saga but my own convoluted path as well—became insignificant. What was important was not the water under the bridge, but that we both had battled the waves of Maya (illusion), and had somehow won just by keeping the faith in Srila Prabhupada and Krishna. For, as disciples of the genuine parampara, how could it be otherwise when our spiritual master was His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada? And that was the last time I saw Kirtanananda.
But to this day when I think of Kirtanananda, I always reflect on his words, “The devil and the devotee reside in the same body.” Those words are just as true of me as they are of him, or any other pilgrim on the path back to Godhead. So I just choose to remember the devotee part because that is the side he always showed me.
Those who had to see and experience the other side have a right to tell their story too, because history is just that—the indelible past. That which has transpired cannot be changed, though understanding Krishna consciousness means always looking to a bright future, if only we can keep the faith for the moment we are in. The future is bright if the present is used to serve the Lord with every thought, word and deed. And in the final analysis, it is Krishna’s promise that whatever we do in a spirit of devotion—and Kirtanananda performed plenty—will be noted by the Lord. For his devotee is never forgotten.
Patita-Pavana dasa, ACBSP (Miles Davis) AKA Patita-Uddharana dasa Blagoevgrad, Bularia Gaura-Purnima (March 27, 2013)
|Back to: Gold, Guns and God, Vol. 2|