By the grace of Lord Krishna, the Americans are prosperous in every respect. They are not poverty stricken like the Indians. The people in general are satisfied so far as their material needs are concerned, and they are spiritually inclined. When I was in Butler, Pennsylvania, about five hundred miles from New York City, I saw there many churches, and they were attending regularly. This shows that they are spiritually inclined. I was also invited by some churches and church governed schools and colleges, and I spoke there, and they appreciated it and presented me some token rewards. When I was speaking to the students, they were very eager to hear about the principles of Śrīmad Bhagwatam. But the clergymen were cautious about allowing students to hear me so patiently. They feared that the students might be converted to Hindu ideas-as is quite natural for any religious sect. But they do not know that devotional service of the Lord Sri Krishna is the common religion for everyone, including even the aborigines and cannibals in the jungle.
-from a letter to Sumati Morarji
The bus came swinging out of the terminal into the daylight of mid-town Manhattan, riding along in the shadows of skyscrapers, through asphalt streets crowded with people, trucks, and automobiles and into the heavy traffic bound toward the Lincoln Tunnel. The bus entered the tunnel and emerged on the Jersey side of the Hudson River, continuing down the New Jersey Turnpike past fields of huge oil tanks and sprawling refineries. The Manhattan skyline was on the left, while three lanes of traffic sped sixty miles an hour in each direction. Newark Airport came up close by on the right, with jets visible on the ground. Electric power lines, spanning aloft between steel towers, stretched into the horizon.
Śrīla Prabhupāda had never before witnessed anything of such magnitude. He was now seeing for himself that American culture was based on passion for more and more sense gratification-and it was a scene of madness. For what important business were people rushing to and fro at breakneck speed? He could see their goals advertised on the billboards.
Of course, he had many times traveled the road from Delhi to Vṛndāvana, but it did not have many advertisements. A traveler would see mostly the land, roadside streams, temples, homes, farmers in their fields. Most people went on foot or traveled by oxcart or bicycle. And in Vṛndāvana even the ordinary passersby greeted each other by calling the names of God: “Jaya Rādhe!” “Hare Kṛṣṇa!” Now there were factories outside Delhi, but nothing like this. The cumulative effect did not pack nearly the materialistic punch of these fields of oil tanks, mammoth factories, and billboards alongside the crowded superhighway. Meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling-the very sins Śrīla Prabhupāda had come to preach against-were proudly glamorized on mile after mile of billboards. The signs promoted liquor and cigarettes, roadside restaurants offered slaughtered cows in the form of steaks and hamburgers, and no matter what the product, it was usually advertised by a lusty-looking woman. But Prabhupāda had come to teach the opposite: that happiness is not found in the passion for sense gratification, and that only when one becomes detached from the mode of passion, which leads to sinful acts, can one become eligible for the eternal happiness of Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
Prabhupāda felt compassion. The compassion of a Kṛṣṇa conscious saint had been explained in an age long ago by Prahlāda Mahārāja: “I see that there are many saintly persons indeed, but they are interested only in their own deliverance. Not caring for the big cities and towns, they go to the Himalayas or the forests to meditate with vows of silence. They are not interested in delivering others. As for me, however, I do not wish to be liberated alone, leaving aside all these poor fools and rascals. I know that without Kṛṣṇa consciousness, without taking shelter of Your lotus feet, one cannot be happy. Therefore I wish to bring them back to shelter at Your lotus feet.”
The scenery gradually changed to the Pennsylvania countryside, and the bus sped through long tunnels in the mountains. Night came. And it was late-after eleven-when the bus entered the heavily industrialized Pittsburgh area on the shore of the Allegheny River. Śrīla Prabhupāda couldn’t see the steel mills clearly, but he could see their lights and their industrial fires and smoking stacks. Millions of lights shone throughout the city’s prevailing dinginess.
When the bus finally pulled into the terminal, it was past midnight. Gopal Agarwal was waiting with the family Volkswagen bus to drive Prabhupāda to Butler, about one hour north. He greeted Prabhupāda with folded palms and “Welcome, Swamiji,” bowing from the waist several times.
This was not any of Gopal’s doing. His father, a Mathurā businessman with a fondness for sādhus and religious causes, had requested him to host the Swamiji. This wasn’t the first time his father had arranged for a sādhu acquaintance to come to America. Several times he had sent sponsorship papers for Gopal to sign, and Gopal had obediently done so-but nothing had ever come of them. So when the sponsorship letter for A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami had come, Gopal had promptly signed and returned it, thinking that this would be the last they would hear of it. But then just a week ago a letter had come. Sally Agarwal had opened it and then, in alarm, called to her husband: “Honey, sit down. Listen to this: the Swami is coming.” Śrīla Prabhupāda had enclosed his picture so that they would not mistake him. The Agarwals had looked curiously at the photograph. “There’ll be no mistake there,” Gopal had said.
The unsuspecting Agarwals were “simple American people,” according to Sally Agarwal, who had met her Indian husband while he was working as an engineer in Pennsylvania. What would they do with an Indian swami in their house? Prabhupāda was a shock for them. But there was no question of not accepting him; they were bound by the request of Gopal’s father. Dutifully, Gopal had purchased Śrīla Prabhupāda’s ticket from New York to Pittsburgh and had arranged for the agent from Traveler’s Aid to meet him. And dutifully he had driven tonight to meet him. So it was with a mixture of embarrassment, disbelief, and wonder that Gopal Agarwal helped his guest into the VW and drove back home to Butler.
* * *
“BUTLER, PENNSYLVANIA, HOME OF THE JEEP” read a granite plaque in the city park. Butler, famous as the town where the U.S. Army jeep was invented in 1940, was an industrial city of twenty thousand settled amid the hills of an area rich in oil, coal, gas, and limestone. Its industry consisted mainly of factories for plate glass, railroad cars, refrigerators, oil equipment, and rubber goods. Ninety percent of the local laborers were native Americans. The nominal religion had always been Christian, mostly Protestant with some Catholic, and in later years a few synagogues had appeared. But there was no Hindu community at that time; Gopal Agarwal was the first Indian to move to Butler.
As the VW bus pulled into town, the predawn air was warm and humid. The morning edition of the Butler Eagle would soon be going to the newsstands-“Red Chinese Fire on India”; “Prime Minister Shastri Declares Chinese Communists Out to Dominate World”; “United Nations Council Demands Pakistan and India Cease-fire in 48 hours.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda arrived at the Agarwals’ home-Sterling Apartments-at 4:00 A.M., and Gopal invited him to sleep on the couch. Their place, a townhouse apartment, consisted of a small living room, a dining room, a kitchenette, two upstairs bedrooms, and a bath. Here they lived with their two young children. The Agarwals had lived in Butler for a few years now and felt themselves established in a good social circle. Since their apartment had so little space, they decided that it would be better if the Swami took a room at the YMCA and came to visit them during the day. Of course, living space wasn’t the real difficulty-it was him. How would he fit into the Butler atmosphere? He was their guest, so they would have to explain him to their friends and neighbors.
Śrīla Prabhupāda was immediately a curiosity for whoever saw him. In anxiety, Mrs. Agarwal decided that instead of having people speculate about the strange man in orange robes living at her house, it would be better to let them know about him from the newspapers. She explained her plan to Prabhupāda, who laughed, understanding that he didn’t fit in.
Sally hurried off to a Pittsburgh newspaper office, but the interviewer wasn’t able to comprehend why this person should make an interesting story. Sally then took him to the local Butler Eagle, where his presence was accepted as indeed newsworthy.
A feature article appeared in the Butler Eagle: “In fluent English, Devotee of Hindu Cult Explains Commission to Visit the West.” A photographer had come to the Agarwals’ apartment and had taken a picture of Śrīla Prabhupāda standing in the living room holding an open volume of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. The caption read, “Ambassador of Bhakti-yoga.”
The article began:
A slight brown man in faded orange drapes and wearing white bathing shoes stepped out of a compact car yesterday and into the Butler YMCA to attend a meeting. He is A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swamiji, a messenger from India to the peoples of the West.
The article referred to Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam as “Biblical literature” and to Śrīla Prabhupāda as “the learned teacher.” It continued:
“My mission is to revive a people’s God consciousness,” says the Swamiji. “God is the Father of all living beings, in thousands of different forms,” he explains. “Human life is a stage of perfection in evolution; if we miss the message, back we go through the process again,” he believes… Bhakti vedanta lives as a monk, and permits no woman to touch his food. On a six-week ocean voyage and at the Agarwal apartment in Butler he prepares his meals in a brass pan with separate levels for steaming rice, vegetables, and making “bread” at the same time. He is a strict vegetarian, and is permitted to drink only milk, “the miracle food for babies and old men,” he noted… If Americans would give more attention to their spiritual life, they would be much happier, he says.
The Agarwals had their own opinion as to why Prabhupāda had come to America: “to finance his books,” and nothing more. They were sure that he was hoping only to meet someone who could help him with the publication of his Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, and that he did not want any followers. At least they hoped he wouldn’t do anything to attract attention; and they felt that this was his mentality also. “He didn’t create waves,” Sally Agarwal says. “He didn’t want any crowd. He didn’t want anything. He only wanted to finance his books.” Perhaps Prabhupāda, seeing their nervousness, agreed to keep a low profile, out of consideration for his hosts.
At Prabhupāda’s request, however, Mr. Agarwal held a kind of open house in his apartment every night from six to nine.
Sally: It was quite an intellectual group that we were in, and they were fascinated by him. They hardly knew what to ask him. They didn’t know enough. This was just like a dream out of a book. Who would expect to meet a swami in someone’s living room in Butler, Pennsylvania? It was just really tremendous. In the middle of middle-class America. My parents came from quite a distance to see him. We knew a lot of people in Pittsburgh, and they came up. This was a very unusual thing, having him here. But the real interest shown in him was only as a curiosity.
He had a typewriter, which was one of his few possessions, and an umbrella. That was one of the things that caused a sensation, that he always carried an umbrella. And it was a little chilly and he was balding, so he always wore this hat that someone had made for him, like a swimming cap. It was a kind of sensation. And he was so brilliant that when he saw someone twice, he knew who they were-he remembered. He was a brilliant man. Or if he met them in our apartment and saw them in a car, he would remember their name, and he would wave and say their name. He was a brilliant man. All the people liked him. They were amazed at how intelligent he was. The thing that got them was the way he remembered their name. And his humorous way. He looked so serious all the time, but he was a very humorous person. He was forbidding in his looks, but he was very charming.
He was the easiest guest I have had in my life, because when I couldn’t spend time with him he chanted, and I knew he was perfectly happy. When I couldn’t talk to him, he chanted. He was so easy, though, because I knew he was never bored. I never felt any pressure or tension about having him. He was so easy that when I had to take care of the children he would just chant. It was so great. When I had to do things, he would just be happy chanting. He was a very good guest. When the people would come, they were always smoking cigarettes, but he would say, “Pay no attention. Think nothing of it.” That’s what he said. “Think nothing of it.” Because he knew we were different. I didn’t smoke in front of him. I knew I wasn’t supposed to smoke in front of Gopal’s father, so I sort of considered him the same. He didn’t make any problems for anybody.
One evening a guest asked Prabhupāda, “What do you think of Jesus Christ?” And Prabhupāda replied, “He is the Son of God.” Then he added that he-the guest-was also a son of God. Everyone was interested to hear that the Swami accepted Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
Gopal: His intent was not to have you change your way of life. He wasn’t telling anybody they should be vegetarian or anything. All he wanted you to do was to follow what you are, but be better. He didn’t stress that we should give up many things.
Śrīla Prabhupāda followed a regulated daily schedule. Every morning he would walk the six or seven blocks from the YMCA to Sterling Apartments, arriving there about seven. When he had first landed in New York, he had in his luggage a large bundle of dried cereal, similar to rolled oats. This supply was enough for several weeks, and every morning at breakfast he would take some with milk. At seven forty-five Gopal would leave for work, and around nine-thirty Prabhupāda would start preparing his lunch in the kitchen. He made his capātīs by hand, without even a rolling pin. He worked alone for two hours, while Mrs. Agarwal did housework and took care of her children. At eleven-thirty he took prasādam.
Sally: When he cooked he used only one burner. The bottom-level pot created the steam. He had the dāl on the bottom, and it created the steam to cook many other vegetables. So for about a week he was cooking this great big lunch, which was ready about eleven-thirty, and Gopal always came home for lunch about twelve. I used to serve Gopal a sandwich, and then he would go back to work. But it didn’t take me long to realize that the food the Swami was cooking we’d enjoy too, so he started cooking that noon meal for all of us. Oh, and we enjoyed it so much.
Our fun was to show him what we knew of America. And he had never seen such things. It was such fun to take him to the supermarket. He loved opening the package of okra or frozen beans, and he didn’t have to clean them and cut them and do all those things. He opened the freezer every day and just chose his items. It was fun to watch him. He sat on the couch while I swept with the vacuum cleaner, and he was so interested in that, and we talked for a long time about that. He was so interesting.
So every day he’d have this big feast, and everything was great fun. We really enjoyed it. I would help him cut the things. He would spice it, and we would laugh. He was the most enjoyable man, most enjoyable man. I really felt like a sort of daughter to him, even in such a short time. Like he was my father-in-law. He was friend of my father-in-law, but I really felt very close to him. He enjoyed everything. I liked him. I thought he was tremendous.
After lunch, Prabhupāda would leave, about 1:00 P.M., and walk to the YMCA, where the Agarwals figured he must have worked at his writing until five. He would come back to their apartment about six in the evening, after they had taken their meal. They ate meat, so Mrs. Agarwal was careful to have it cleared away before he came. When one night he came early, she said, “Oh, Swamiji, we have just cooked meat, and the smell will be very disagreeable to you.” But he said, “Oh, think nothing of it. Think nothing of it.”
In the evening he would speak with guests. The guests would usually take coffee and other refreshments, but he would request a glass of warm milk at nine o”clock. He would stay, speaking until nine-thirty or ten, and then Mr. Agarwal would drive him back to the YMCA.
Prabhupāda would also do his own laundry every day. He washed his clothes in the Agarwals’ bathroom and hung them to dry outside. He sometimes accompanied the Agarwals to the laundromat and was interested to see how Americans washed and dried their clothes. To Sally he seemed “very interested in the American ways and people.”
Sally: Our boy Brij was six or seven months old when the Swami came-and the Indians love boys. The Swami liked Brij. He was there when Brij first stood. The first time Brij made the attempt and actually succeeded, the Swami stood up and clapped. It was a celebration. Another time, our baby teethed on the Swami’s shoes. I thought, “Oh, those shoes. They’ve been all over India, and my kid is chewing on them.” You know how a mother would feel.
Almost every night he used to sit in the next-door neighbor’s backyard. We sat out there sometimes with him, or we stayed in the living room. One time something happened with our little girl, Pamela, who was only three years old. I used to take her to Sunday school, and she learned about Jesus in Sunday school. Then when she would see Swamiji with his robes on and everything, she called him Swami Jesus. And this one time when it first dawned on us what she was saying, she called him Swami Jesus, and Swami smiled and said, “And a little child shall lead them.” It was so funny.
Prabhupāda spoke to various groups in the community. He spoke at the Lions Club in early October and received a formal document:
Be it known that A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami was a guest at the Lions Club of Butler, Pa., and as an expression of appreciation for services rendered, the Club tenders this acknowledgment.
He also gave a talk at the Y and at St. Fidelis Seminary College in Herman, Pennsylvania, and he spoke regularly to guests at the Agarwal home.
* * *
When Professor Larsen, the chairman of the philosophy department at Slippery Rock State College, read in the Butler Eagle of a visiting Indian swami and Vedic scholar, he phoned the Agarwals’ home to invite Prabhupāda to lecture on campus.
Allen Larsen: I called the number given in the newspaper article, but it turned out that the Swamiji was actually staying in a room at the YMCA. When I arrived, he was waiting on the street corner, and I picked him up. He seemed very much alone. When we were driving to Slippery Rock, I asked him to pronounce his name for me so I would have it right when I introduced him to my class. He said, “Swamiji Bhaktivedanta,” and then he proceeded to tell me what that meant. Since I was not used to Indian names, he had to repeat it several times before I got it right. He showed no impatience with my slowness. Even at this early junction of our association, I was convinced that this man had an inner stability and strength that would be very difficult to shake, and this initial impression was further reinforced throughout the rather busy day.
A hundred students from several classes had gathered to hear the lecture, as Prabhupāda, in his natural, unrehearsed manner, walked down the aisle, up the three wooden steps, and onto the plain wooden stage. He sat down, erect and cross-legged, and began softly singing Hare Kṛṣṇa, his eyes closed. Then he stood and spoke (without a lectern or microphone) and answered questions from the audience. The program lasted only fifty minutes and ended abruptly with a bell signaling the next class.
Allen Larsen: After the first class, I had a short conversation with the Swamiji while sitting outside on a bench on the campus lawn. Most of the time when he was not directly engaged in conversation he would repeat a short prayer while moving prayer beads through his fingers. He was sitting up cross-legged, and we were speaking back and forth. He said that the trees around us were beautiful, and he asked, “What kind of trees are these?” I replied, “They’re shade trees.” Then he said that it was too bad they weren’t fruit or nut trees to provide food and benefit people.
At one o’clock Prabhupāda lectured again. Afterward, he accompanied Dr. Mohan Sharma, a member of the faculty who had attended the lecture, and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Mini, to Dr. Sharma’s campus residence. Prabhupāda accepted warm milk and dried fruit, and at Dr. Sharma’s request, blessed his home and touched the forehead of his daughter in a gesture of benediction. Around three o’clock, Professor Larsen drove him back to Butler.
Allen Larsen: The Swamiji seemed to present himself as an Indian scholar who had come for a short time to do translation work. I never thought of him as a missionary. But during the course of the day there grew in me a warm affection for this man, because he was unmistakably a good man who had found his way to a stability and peace that is very rare.
The lectures in Pennsylvania gave Prabhupāda his first readings of how his message would be received in America. At Commonwealth Pier in Boston he had stated in his poem: “I am sure that when this transcendental message penetrates their hearts, they will certainly feel gladdened and thus become liberated from all unhappy conditions of life.” Now this principle was actually being tested in the field. Would they be able to understand? Were they interested? Would they surrender?
* * *
Śrīla Prabhupāda received a letter from Sumati Morarji in Bombay:
I am in due receipt of your letter dated the 24th ultimo, and glad to know that you have safely reached the U.S.A. after suffering from seasickness. I thank you for your greetings and blessings. I know by now you must have recovered fully from the sickness and must be keeping good health. I was delighted to read that you have started your activities in the States and have already delivered some lectures. I pray to Lord Bala Krishna to give you enough strength to enable you to carry the message of Sri Bhagwatam. I feel that you should stay there until you fully recover from your illness and return only after you have completed your mission.
Here everything is normal. With respects,
Prabhupāda regarded the last line of this letter as especially significant: his well-wisher was urging him to stay in America until he had completed his mission. He had told the immigration officials in New York that he would be staying in America for two months. “I have one month’s sponsorship in Butler,” he thought, “and then I have no support. So perhaps I can stay another month.” So he had said two months. Sumati Morarji, however, was urging him to stay on. He saw that the prospects for preaching to the Americans were good, but he felt he would need support from India.
At any rate, he had spent long enough in Butler, and he now had one month left in America. So he decided to go to New York City and try to preach there, before his time was up. But first he wanted to visit Philadelphia, where he had arranged a meeting with a Sanskrit professor, Dr. Norman Brown, at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mrs. Agarwal was sorry to see him go.
Sally: After a month I really loved the Swami. I felt protective in a way, and he wanted to go to Philadelphia. But I couldn’t imagine-I told him-I could not imagine him going to Philadelphia for two days. He was going to speak there, and then to New York. But he knew no one in New York. If the thing didn’t pan out in Philadelphia, he was just going to New York, and then there was no one. I just couldn’t imagine. It made me sick.
I remember the night he was leaving, about two in the morning. I remember sitting there as long as he could wait before Gopal took him to Pittsburgh to get on that bus. Gopal got a handful of change, and I remember telling him how to put the money in the slot so that he could take a bath at the bus station-because he was supposed to take a bath a few times a day. And Gopal told him how to do that, and told him about the automats in New York. He told him what he could eat and what he couldn’t eat, and he gave him these coins in a sock, and that’s all he left us with.
As a sannyāsī, Śrīla Prabhupāda was used to picking up and leaving one place for another. As a mendicant preacher, he had no remorse about leaving behind the quiet life of the Butler YMCA. And he had no attachment for the domestic habitat where he would cook and talk with Sally Agarwal about vacuum cleaners, frozen foods, and American ways.
But why had he gone to Butler? And why was he going to New York? He saw it as Kṛṣṇa’s grace. As a pure devotee of Kṛṣṇa, he wanted to be an instrument for distributing Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
His stay in Butler had been helpful. He had gotten first-hand experience of American life, and he gained confidence that his health was strong and his message communicable. He was glad to see that America had the necessary ingredients for his Indian vegetarian diet, and that the people could understand his English. He had learned that casual onetime lectures here and there were of limited value, and that although there would be opposition from the established religions, people individually were very much interested in what he had to say.
On October 18, he left Butler, via Philadelphia, for New York City.
This post has already been read 49 times