Gold, Guns and God: Vol. 8—The City of God
I WAS NOT ONE OF A. C. BHAKTIVEDANTA SWAMI PRABHUPADA’S first followers, although I lived about twenty-five miles east of his 26 Second Avenue “Matchless Gifts” temple. I grew up on Long Island, and in the late 1960s, during some of my boyhood trips into New York City, I sometimes saw devotees in saffron-colored dhotis spreading their faith by chanting, dancing, and selling Back to Godhead magazines on street corners. I also recall a presentation by three dhoti-clad devotees to a full assembly of seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade students at Southside Junior High in Rockville Centre, Nassau County. Of course, this is something that would not likely happen today, but in the early 1970s, some sort of cross-cultural awareness was tolerated, at least in my hometown. This was the same junior high auditorium that had hosted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before he was killed. I lived in a fairly liberal community.
Of all of us in school at the time, there were about three of us who took something more than a casual interest in the Hare Krishnas. The Long Island Rail Road to the subway in the City got me to the temple at 439 Henry Street in Brooklyn. My father, seeing my growing interest, and not wishing for me to become one of those devotees panhandling BTG magazines on the street, conspired with my uncle to ship me off to Marietta, Ohio, his hometown, and where my uncle and his family still live. There, in the Ohio River Valley, I exchanged essentially a form of Hindu fundamentalism for one of a Christian variety. This too, ran its course, and after getting married, having a flirtation with Mormonism, my wife and I found ourselves living in New York City.
Once, for old times’ sake, I decided to look up the Hare Krishnas. We found the former Henry Street temple building gutted, but did find their new place in a twelve-story building at 340-348 West 55th Street in Manhattan. We ate at the restaurant a few times, attended some kirtans, purchased items in the gift shop, including Brijabasi Spirit newsletters from an ISKCON farm community in West Virginia called New Vrindaban. I spent a couple of nights there at New York ISKCON whilst my wife visited her parents in South Carolina. On an upper floor, a balcony looked south over Manhattan, with the Empire State Building fairly close, and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in the distance.
Despite this level of interest in the Krishnas, we found after some little while that the “ISKCON Skyscraper” on West 55th Street, too had been sold, with yet another resurrection some time later in Brooklyn on Schermerhorn Street in what was once a Jewish synagogue, where they remain to this day. We visited Brooklyn ISKCON a few times during the latter part of the nine years when we lived in New York City. I did some Krsna-seva: I set up a mailing list database, and even coined the name “Dial a Guru” for their computer BBS—a Bulletin Board System—a way of connecting computers using dial-up modems before the Internet became available to the general public. I later helped one of the devotees in New Vrindaban set up a BBS.
Beginning in April 1978, my wife and I rented an apartment in Astoria, in northwest Queens. But after nearly a decade, we no longer felt it was a safe place to live. The crack cocaine drug crisis had encroached near to our neighborhood in the City. I’d been working the night shift, with my wife on the day shift. Conditions in New York City at the time were rather bleak. It was time for a change. In September 1987, we left New York City for Ithaca, New York. It’s a college town on the southern shore of Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. It’s the home of Cornell University and noted as one of the most culturally liberal of small cities in America. The astronomer and author Carl Sagan lived here. Ithaca is upstate, a change from my downstate growing up and life in New York City.
Not long after we’d gotten settled in Ithaca, I had a blackout. The first incident happened when I was sitting at a computer terminal; I became unconscious and unresponsive. Later, I had what looked like full seizure episodes. I was in my early thirties when the episodes started. I went to the doctor and they did a CAT scan, then an MRI of my brain. Finally they threw in a couple of EEGs for good measure. And the diagnosis? Nothing. They couldn’t find anything wrong with me. But nevertheless the doctors put me on an anti-seizure medication and I’ve been fine ever since. However, at the time, with the uncertainty of not knowing what was going on with my brain, and wondering at the larger question of “How much time do I have left?” we decided that a vacation was a good idea.
Our thoughts turned to New Vrindaban, motivated by a need for vacation as well as a genuine spiritual searching, given that we really hadn’t established ourselves in any Ithaca faith community by that time. So, not knowing what we’d find, we took the leap in 1989. As prearranged, Balarama Swami met us at Pittsburgh International Airport and drove us to the community. He was just as curious about us as we were of him. We noticed his attire was more like the robes of a Franciscan monk, rather than the traditional Indian-Bengali-style dress of ISKCON devotees. This made us all the more curious.
We arrived at New Vrindaban in time for the noon service and I’m not ashamed to say both my wife and I were moved to tears when the congregation started singing All Creatures of Our God and King, with the words adapted to the perspective of the Supreme Personality of Godhead Krishna as the Emmanuel. Bhaktipada’s genius of using both Christianity and Krishna consciousness to each inform the other was made manifest at that moment. If “music soothes the savage beast,” it was the music that spoke volumes to us. Having the familiarity with the Western music made the Eastern tenets of bhakti—Krishna consciousness—accessible to us. Using the traditional instruments and lyrics from India may indeed work well in India and to the expat diaspora; but for those of us raised in the Western religious tradition, Bhaktipada’s “fusion” was akin to the splitting of the Jerusalem Temple curtain with the death of Christ, the barrier to the “Holy of Holies” removed. Bhaktipada’s idea allowed us to see God in new form. Being infinite, he can expand into many forms. The message is the same, no matter the form really: reinstate the dharma or religious path, for people who will all too easily and quickly wander off.
My wife, Josette, was so touched by Bhaktipada’s vision for the City of God that she accepted diksa initiation from him in late August of 1990. Bhaktipada awarded her the name “Joyous.” She especially loved the Western music, the pipe organ and the harps. We thought the three liturgical services were indeed joyous.
In some ways, Bhaktipada was ahead of his time. Turn back the pages of history, and you will see that thousands upon thousands have been murdered, year after year, for no other reason than they call God by a different name than I do. Not only is this killing between different religions, but sometimes between groups who claim to be a part of the same religious tradition. Sunni and Shi’a within Islam, Protestant and Catholic in Christianity. Bhaktipada dared to ask the question made famous by Rodney King after the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles, “Can’t we all just get along?” And in so doing, he played host to fellow spiritual travelers of other traditions at the New Vrindaban community. My wife and I attended several interfaith gatherings where people dialogued, and instead of the “I have the only truth” confrontational attitude, we heard more of, “What can your tradition tell me of God that I don’t know, and what can mine teach you?”
Just as the devotees of New Vrindaban had taught themselves and constructed the Palace of Gold, initially as a place for Srila Prabhupada to reside, Bhaktipada had other construction ideas in mind. First was the Cathedral of Understanding, essentially to be an interfaith place of worship for various spiritual traditions. This was later expanded due to the fact that there is an element in the American political psyche that thinks that America as an entity is a wild, bacchanalian party that’s gone on way too long and it will all fall apart in a total collapse of society. Just as the fall of Rome ushered in the Dark Ages for Europe, leaving the monasteries as bastions of the preservation of knowledge; Bhaktipada extended the idea to contemporary time in wanting to make the Cathedral of Understanding the center of a City of God, where religion and knowledge would be preserved against the chaos of the outside. First one, then a constellation of networked cities, designed to preserve the past for the memory of the future.
On paper and in vision it sounded possible. Given enough resources, it could become even probable. And while the concept was as enthralling as the Emerald City of Oz, with Bhaktipada as “Oz the Great and Powerful,” the truth was that he was more like the man behind the curtain: just as human and just as imperfect as any of us.
One man’s visionary is another man’s heretic, and you get branded the latter if you can’t convince the rest of the organization, in this case the Governing Body Commission (GBC) of ISKCON to go along with you. This bit I did, to the tune of “Charlie Brown,” by The Coasters summarizes the situation:
He walks in the temple room, cool and slow.
Who called Srila Prabhupada, “Daddy-O?”
Thinks he’s Almighty God, that Bhaktipada,
He’s gonna get caught, just you wait and see.
(Why is the GBC always picking on me?)
Bhaktipada may well have felt like Jesus, who is cited in Luke 4:24 saying, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” But Bhaktipada kept on with his ideas and visions, until he couldn’t. If there was one flaw in the overall mindset that I observed, it was a Machiavellian “the ends justifies the means” mentality. As long as anything could be justified to be used in the service of God, how you got that item to be used in said service was of little consequence. Once, some New Vrindaban devotees came to our home with flowers to be used in a worship service. That they had stolen the flowers from a mall display—and we could be charged for receiving stolen property—never entered their thoughts, as the floral display was to be used in the worship of God, giving the flowers their best intended use. Take this to the next logical level, raising seventeen million dollars using unlicensed copyrighted items in fundraising, and you can see how the walls of civil regulation fell in on the whole New Vrindaban enterprise under Bhaktipada, making this period of interfaith experimentation end with the Shakespearean finality as noted in The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Modern multiverse theory posits the existence of parallel universes. Perhaps elsewhere Bhaktipada’s vision is the reality there, and his Cities of God are indeed the vehicles for the preservation of knowledge for an unimaginable to us future timeline. Who knows? Shakespeare also tells us in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
And perhaps someday, when mankind is ready to move past childhood, we will embrace each other with greater understanding, more confident in what we can share, rather than being on a mission to convert the rest of the world to a single religious idea. However flawed it may have been, Bhaktipada’s vision was, in many ways, a vision of a better, more inclusive way of being. Certainly it is an interesting and fondly remembered chapter in the story of our lives. This book you hold in your hands, Gold, Guns and God, Vol. 8, expounds with far greater detail about this time from people who lived it full time, as opposed to my wife and I who remained primarily on the outside, yet still had a deep and enduring connection.
When Bhaktipada was sent to prison, we took his cat, brought her to our home, and named her “Bhaktipaws.” Her remains are buried in our backyard. She, and the other four cats buried with her, each has a solar-powered torchlight that lights up each evening, reminding us of these souls in furry bodies who were part of our lives, if for far too short a time. Bhaktipada himself, during a visit to Ithaca, called our home here, “My home away from home.” He visited us a number of times, even before we bought our house, when we lived in an apartment on South Hill.
Once, we got a howl of laughter out of Bhaktipada. When Bhaktipada visited, we hosted preaching programs at our house with kirtan, Bhaktipada lecturing, and prasadam, and guests often gave donations. One time we placed the donations in an empty honey jar, passed it to Bhaktipada, and exclaimed, “It’s true, Bhaktipada! The money is the honey!” We also visited New Vrindaban on numerous occasions between 1989 and through the mid-1990s. After Bhaktipada was expelled from New Vrindaban in 1994, we no longer visited the community, but we did see Bhaktipada a few times at Silent Mountain, and later, after he was released from prison, at the 25 First Avenue Interfaith Sanctuary in New York City.
Bhaktipada was an enigmatic individual, but our lives are richer for having walked with him on the Path. Like unfavored politicians in the former Soviet Union, Bhaktipada has been largely “airbrushed” out of the history on the official New Vrindaban website and ISKCON publications. Yet, there are those of us still alive who remember otherwise. We would also be greatly remiss were we not to extend a personal thanks to the author, Henry Doktorski, as he was the one tasked with the actual fusion process of marrying the Western music to the Eastern religious beliefs. Without his melodic and harmonic contributions, the vision would not have been anywhere near what it was. And without Henry’s admirable determination to produce this Gold, Guns and God decalogy, Bhaktipada’s vision for the Cities of God, and other details of New Vrindaban history might likely be lost and forgotten in the future with the passing of eternal time, destroyer of worlds.
So, as we all move into the future in this timeline, I’ll end with a Harry Chapin quote that sums up the legacy that we have now, a few decades out. This from his song “Sequel”:
I guess it’s a sequel to our story
From the journey ’tween Heaven and Hell
With half the time thinking of what might have been
And half thinkin’ just as well
I guess only time will tell.
October 1, 2022
Ithaca, New York
|Back to: Gold, Guns and God, Vol. 8|