Swamiji’s disciples in New York were surprised to find that they could still carry on in his absence. At first, rising early, going to the storefront, and holding the morning kīrtana and class had been difficult. Without Swamiji everything had seemed empty. But he had taught them what to do, and gradually they realized that they should simply follow what he had shown them, or even imitate, as a child imitates his parents.
And it worked. At first they had been too shy to speak or lead the kīrtana, so they had played tapes of Swamiji’s kīrtanas and classes. But when the evenings came and guests attended the temple, the devotees felt compelled to give “live” classes. Rāya Rāma, Brahmānanda, Satsvarūpa, and Rūpānuga took turns giving brief talks and even answering challenging questions from the same Lower East Side audiences that Śrīla Prabhupāda had lion-tamed for six months. Things were shaky and lacking without him, and yet in a sense he was still present. And the devotees found that everything-the chanting, the cooking, the taking of prasādam, the preaching-could still go on.
On January 19, just three days after his arrival in San Francisco, Prabhupāda had written back to his New York disciples. They were his spiritual children and were very dear to him. Although far from his homeland, India, he hadn’t thought first of writing to anyone there. Since he was a sannyāsī, he had no interest in writing to any family members or relatives. And as for writing to his Godbrothers, there was not much importance in that, since they had repeatedly shown their reluctance to help. But being in a new city among new faces and having met with an initial fanfare of success, Prabhupāda had wanted to share the news with those most eager to hear from him. He had also wanted to reassure his disciples whom, after only a few months of training, he was expecting to conduct the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement in New York.
My dear Brahmananda
Please accept my greetings and blessings of Guru Gouranga Giridhari Gandharvika. You have already got the news of our safe arrival and good reception by the devotees here. Mr. Allen Ginsberg and about fifty or sixty others received us on the airport and when I arrived in my apartment there were some press reporters also who took note of my mission. Two three papers like the Examiner and the Chronicles etc have already published the report. One of the reports is sent herewith please find. I wish that 1,000 copies of this report may be offset printed at once and 100 copies of the same may be sent here as soon as possible.
I understand that you are feeling my absence. Krishna will give you strength. Physical presence is immaterial; presence of the transcendental sound received from the spiritual master should be the guidance of life. That will make our spiritual life successful. If you feel very strongly about my absence you may place my pictures on my sitting places and this will be source of inspiration for you.
I am very much anxious to hear about the final decision of the house. I wish to open the house by the 1st of March 1967 and arrangement may be done dexterously in this connection. I have not as yet received the tapes for Dictaphone and I have sent you tapes yesterday. Please offer my blessings to Śrīmān Neal.
Śrīmān Rayarama is cooking well and distributing Prasadam to the devotees numbering sometimes seventy. It is very encouraging. I think this center will be very nice branch without delay. Everything is prospective. Hope you are well and awaiting your early reply.
The letter had helped-especially the second paragraph. Brahmānanda had posted it in the storefront. Now Swamiji had clearly enunciated that they were still with him and he was still in New York with them. It was something special-service to the spiritual master in separation-and even the devotees in San Francisco, who were with Swamiji every day, could not yet know its special taste. While the devotees in New York performed their daily duties, they often quoted from the letter and thought about it: “Krishna will give you strength. Physical presence is immaterial; presence of the transcendental sound received from the spiritual master should be the guidance of life. That will make our spiritual life successful.”
Although Prabhupāda had written that they could place his photograph on his seat, no one had a photograph. They had to ask the devotees in San Francisco for one. A boy took some poor color snapshots and sent them to New York, and the devotees placed one at Prabhupāda’s sitting place in his apartment. It helped.
For Prabhupāda also, the letter to his disciples in New York marked a milestone. This was the basis on which he hoped to conduct a world movement. He could travel from place to place and yet be simultaneously present in many places by his instructions.
Brahmānanda, as president of the New York temple, frequently phoned San Francisco. “The chanting is the focal point,” he told Hayagrīva. “We can always sit and chant. We’re beginning to understand what Swamiji meant when he said that worship in separation is more relishable.”
And Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote to his New York disciples regularly, at least once a week. Brahmānanda got most of the business instructions: arrange to purchase a new building in New York, see Mr. Kallman and get copies of the kīrtana record, get a copy of the movie a filmmaker had made of the devotees, investigate the possibility of publishing Bhagavad-gītā. “If I am assisted by one expert type-writer…,” Prabhupāda wrote Brahmānanda, “we can publish every three months a book. And the more we have books the more we become respectable.”
Satsvarūpa got a letter from Prabhupāda asking him to type the dictated tapes of the new book, Teachings of Lord Caitanya. Although Prabhupāda’s typist, Neal, had gone to San Francisco, after a day he had disappeared.
“I think you have five tapes with you because I have got only three with me,” Prabhupāda wrote. “See that the tapes do not miss.” Satsvarūpa had written inquiring how he would be able to understand transcendental knowledge. “You are a sincere devotee of the Lord,” Prabhupāda replied, “and certainly He will bless you with auspicious advancement in the matter of spiritual understanding.”
Rāya Rāma got a letter encouraging him to continue publishing the magazine. “Back to Godhead will always remain the backbone of the society… your ambition should always be how to improve the quality…”
Acyutānanda, one of the youngest devotees (only eighteen), was now working alone in the kitchen. In a letter Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote to five devotees, signing his name five times, he told Acyutānanda, “Since Kirtanananda is absent certainly you are feeling some strain. But the more you serve Krishna the more you become stronger. I hope you are being properly assisted by your other Godbrothers.”
Prabhupāda advised Gargamuni, also eighteen, to cooperate with his older Godbrothers. Asking whether Gargamuni had gone to see his mother, Prabhupāda said he hoped she was all right. Since Gargamuni was the temple treasurer, Śrīla Prabhupāda advised him, “Checks should be drawn with full deliberation.”
Prabhupāda wrote Jadurāṇī, “I always remember you as the nicest girl because you are so devoutly engaged in the service of Krishna.” She had informed him that she had been cheated by a boyfriend, and Śrīla Prabhupāda replied, “Better you accept Krishna as your Husband, and He will never be unfaithful… Devote yourself therefore 24 hours in the service of Krishna and see how you feel happy in all respects.”
Rūpānuga had written Prabhupāda that the temperature in New York had dropped below zero and that there had been a two-day blizzard. Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote,
Certainly this situation would have been a little troublesome for me because I am an old man. I think Krishna wanted to protect me by shifting me here at San Francisco. Here the climate is certainly like India and I am feeling comfortable but uncomfortable also because at New York I felt at Home on account of so many beloved students like you. As you are feeling my absence so I am feeling for you. But we are all happy on account of Krishna Consciousness either here or there. May Krishna join us always in His transcendental service.
The neophyte disciples in New York felt assurance from their spiritual master’s words and by their own experience. Service in separation was a transcendental fact. They were improving in chanting on their beads, and the New York center was going on. “So long our kīrtana is all right,” Prabhupāda wrote, “there is no difficulty at all.”
But there was one difficulty. Attempts to purchase a new building, which had gone on smoothly while Prabhupāda had been present, had become a great problem as soon as he had left. Shortly after Śrīla Prabhupāda’s departure for San Francisco, Brahmānanda had given Mr. Price a thousand dollars, and Mr. Price had promised to help the devotees get their building. When Prabhupāda heard this, he became perturbed.
In the opinion of the devotees and the trustees here, $1000.00 has been risked without any understanding. I know that you are doing your best but still there has been an error of judgment. I am not at all displeased with you but they say that Mr. Price will never be able to secure financial help from any other source. He is simply taking time under different pretext, changing constantly. Therefore you should not pay even a farthing more than what you have paid. If he wants any more money you should flatly refuse.
Śrīla Prabhupāda remembered Mr. Price and their first meeting, at which the blond-haired, elegantly dressed businessman, his face tanned even in winter, had addressed him as “Your Excellency.” That address alone had made Prabhupāda distrust him. There was a Bengali saying, Too much devotion denotes a thief. Prabhupāda knew that businessmen were prone to cheat and that an American businessman would be particularly difficult to deal with. Prabhupāda’s American disciples were innocent children in worldly affairs. He was ready to instruct them step by step, but now, without consulting him, they had become involved in an unbusinesslike transaction, risking a thousand dollars of the Society’s money without any written agreement.
Śrīla Prabhupāda had visited the building on Stuyvesant Street, and he wanted it. It was a historical, well-kept, aristocratic building, suitable for his New York headquarters. It was worth the $100,000 price-if they could afford it. But it was difficult for Prabhupāda to know from San Francisco what was going on between Brahmānanda and the businessmen.
And the difficulty increased as letters and phone calls from Brahmānanda introduced other persons involved. Aside from Mr. Price there was Mr. Tyler, the owner, and Mr. Tyler’s lawyer, who seemed independent of Mr. Tyler, and finally there was ISKCON’s lawyer, who also had a mind of his own.
Although Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciples usually surrendered to his direction, they seemed bent on listening to the businessmen’s promises, even though their spiritual master had cautioned them not to. Prabhupāda became disturbed. His preaching in San Francisco was being threatened by fears that the businessmen would cheat his Society of what he had begun in New York.
With no responsible advisors to turn to, Śrīla Prabhupāda sometimes discussed the problem with Mukunda and other devotees in his room. They all agreed that the transaction seemed highly irregular; Brahmānanda was probably being led on by false promises.
Brahmānanda, however, saw Mr. Price as a rare person-a successful man who wanted to help the devotees. Although no other respectable businessman had ever shown interest, Mr. Price listened and sympathized. And he would greet the devotees with “Hare Kṛṣṇa!” Brahmānanda was well aware of the humble economic and social position of the devotees. They were almost all ex-hippies, and they were poor. But here was Mr. Price, a wealthy man with diamond cuff links who was always glad to see him, shake his hand, pat his back, and speak appreciatively of the religion of India and the moral behavior of the small band of devotees.
Mr. Price had received a group of devotees as guests in his apartment and said nice things about each one of them. He had said that Hayagrīva was an excellent writer, and that Back to Godhead was the best magazine on the market, and that its mimeographed appearance made it look even better than the slicks. He said he would give the devotees a movie projector. And he came close to saying that if he could liquidate some of his money he would give them the building.
Brahmānanda, who saw Mr. Price a few times a week, would come away intoxicated with high hopes. The Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement could rise to success through this wealthy man’s patronage. After leaving Mr. Price’s office, Brahmānanda would rejoin the devotees in the evening and tell them all that had happened. On nights when there were no public kīrtanas, the devotees would hold meetings-Swamiji had named them iṣṭa-goṣṭhīs-to discuss the instructions of the spiritual master. And the iṣṭa-goṣṭhīs became dominated by talks of Mr. Price and the building.
One night Brahmānanda explained why he had given Mr. Price a thousand dollars: Mr. Price had asked for “something to work with.” It was like earnest money, and it was also for a trip Mr. Price had to take to Pittsburgh to see whether he could release some of his wealth to use in Kṛṣṇa’s service.
One of the boys asked whether there would be any receipt or written agreement. Swamiji had taught them to use receipts, at least amongst themselves. Gargamuni and Satsvarūpa, as treasurer and secretary, signed each voucher, and Gargamuni kept the vouchers on file. These included requests for items like “fifty cents for a hat” and “three dollars for sneakers.” Brahmānanda said he had mentioned a written statement to Mr. Price but hadn’t pressed the matter. Anyway, it wasn’t necessary, or even desirable, since they were not simply conducting business with Mr. Price but cultivating a relationship. Mr. Price was a well-wisher, a friend, who was helping them as charity. He was going to do big things and use his influence to get the building. This one thousand dollars was just a gesture to show their interest and to show Mr. Price’s friends the devotees weren’t joking; they had some money.
In fact, the devotees had ten thousand dollars-five thousand in small donations and a five-thousand-dollar donation from a wealthy hippie. In addition to donations, the temple had a regular monthly income of eight hundred dollars-Brahmānanda’s four-hundred-dollar paycheck from his job as a substitute teacher for the New York City public school system and the four-hundred-dollar paycheck Satsvarūpa earned as a caseworker for the welfare department.
But the devotees were in no position to buy any building, and they knew it-all the more reason, Brahmānanda explained at iṣṭa goṣṭhī, why they had to depend on Mr. Price. After all, he reasoned, Swamiji himself had inspired them to look for a $100,000 building. Swamiji knew they couldn’t pay for such a building, except in some extraordinary way. And Mr. Price, Brahmānanda figured, must be the way. Swamiji wanted the building. No sooner had he reached San Francisco than he had written back, “I am very anxious to hear about the final decision of the house. I wish to open the house by the 1st of March 1967 and arrangement may be done dexterously in this connection.”
The assembled devotees listened to Brahmānanda’s explanations, sympathized, and added their own understanding of how Kṛṣṇa and Swamiji were working. There were a few contrary remarks and opinions, but basically everyone agreed: Brahmānanda’s dealings with Mr. Price were all right.
When Kīrtanānanda and Rāya Rāma returned to New York from San Francisco, they consulted with Brahmānanda. Then Brahmānanda went to Mr. Price, who promised that if somehow they couldn’t get the building he would return at least $750. (The balance of the money represented travel in the devotees’ interest.) But they would get the building, Mr. Price assured him.
Then Mr. Price told Brahmānanda the latest: he had found a wealthy financier, Mr. Hall, who had almost agreed to pay the full $100,000 for the building. Mr. Price was working on Mr. Hall, who happened to be his close friend. Prospects seemed good. But the devotees would also have to do their part, Mr. Price explained, by putting up five thousand dollars. Mr. Price would then arrange everything else.
Mr. Price set up a meeting with an architect on Park Aveṇue, and soon Brahmānanda and Satsvarūpa were sitting with Mr. Price and his architect friend, reviewing sketches. To give the building that authentic Indian-temple look, the architect proposed a facade with arches and, if they liked, domes. It was wonderful! Of course, they didn’t dare ask him how much it would cost. But Mr. Price even hinted that the work might be done free. After Mr. Price served himself and his architect friend some liquor and offered some to the boys (although he knew they wouldn’t accept it), the two men held up tinkling glasses, smiled, and politely toasted themselves and the boys, saying, “Hare Kṛṣṇa.”
While going down on the elevator, Mr. Price spoke eloquently of the devotees’ faith in God. He said that others might argue about the existence of God but the most convincing thing was the devotees’ personal experience. “Your personal testimony,” Mr. Price assured them, “is the best argument. It is a very powerful thing.”
The boys nodded. Later among themselves they laughed about the liquor, but still they figured these men wanted to help.
When Śrīla Prabhupāda heard about the latest developments, he did not share his disciples’ optimism. On February 3 he wrote Gargamuni:
I had a talk with your brother Brahmananda yesterday on the dial. I am glad that Mr. Price has promised to return the amount of $750.00 in case no sale contract is made. But in any case, you should not pay any farthing more than what you have already paid, either to the Lawyer or to Mr. Price, unless there is actual sale contract made. It appears to me very gloomy about the transaction because there was no basic understanding before the payment of $1000.00 either to the Lawyer or to the Real estate. This is not businesslike. Unless there is a basic understanding where is the way of transaction? If there was no basic understanding, why so much waste of time and energy? I cannot understand. And if there was basic understanding, why is it changed so quickly? I am therefore perturbed in the mind. When there was no basic understanding, what was the need for appointing Lawyer? Anyway, it is my advice that you should consult me before issuing any further money. But I hope you will make the transaction successful without further delay.
Śrīla Prabhupāda had also instructed Gargamuni to protect the ten thousand dollars in the bank and never withdraw any sum that would leave a balance of less than six thousand. Prabhupāda had left one account for which the devotees were the signers, but he also had an account for which he controlled the funds. He now asked the devotees to put six thousand dollars from their account into his. He wrote Brahmānanda, “This $6000.00 will be transferred forthwith by me as soon as there is a Sale contract for purchase of the house.”
On February 10 Prabhupāda wrote to Kīrtanānanda,
Regarding the house, I was correct in my remarks that there was no definite understanding… In such negotiations, everything is done in black and white. Nothing is being done in black and white but everything is being done with faith on Mr. Price.
Let this understanding be completed within the 1st of March 1967 and close the chapter. I think this is my last word in this connection. You are all grown up boys and you use your discretion and you can now complete the transaction without prolonging it indefinitely. If, however, we are not able to purchase a house it does not mean closing our activity at 26 Second avenue. So there is no question of packing up and coming to S.F.
Then on February 15 Prabhupāda wrote Satsvarūpa,
So far I can see from the correspondence of Brahmananda it is not possible for us to get the house for so many reasons. The main reason is that we have no money to pay cash and nobody is going to invest cash in that house because it is neither complete nor has any income. It is simply utopian to think of possessing the house and Mr. Price is simply giving us false hope.
You are all innocent boys without any experience of the world. The cunning world can befool you at any time. So please be careful of the world in Krishna consciousness. When Krishna will desire, the house will come to us automatically.
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s doubts were confirmed when Mr. Price wrote to him asking for money. If Mr. Price had so much money, Prabhupāda reasoned, why was Mr. Price asking him for money?
On February 17 Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote to Mr. Price to impress upon him that there would have to be a sale contract before ISKCON could actually purchase the building.
If there is sale contract, my students here and in New York will be able to raise the fund very seriously. In the absence of any sale contract everything appears to be in the air and Mr. Tyler or his lawyer can change his word as he has already done.
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s message was clear. Brahmānanda, however, complained of poor communications. Things were always changing, and Brahmānanda wasn’t always able to get Swamiji’s confirmation on the latest changes. Swamiji would write his instructions in a letter, and although the devotees had to obey whatever he said, the circumstances would often have changed by the time they received the letter. Swamiji would also sometimes change his opinion when he heard new information. Sometimes Brahmānanda would call San Francisco and Swamiji wouldn’t be available. Brahmānanda didn’t feel right about sending messages through the devotees in San Francisco, because he knew that the devotees there were skeptical about the whole transaction. If New York got the building, San Francisco would have to donate a thousand dollars. And the devotees in San Francisco, of course, had their own plans for how to spend money for Kṛṣṇa.
Mr. Price suggested to the devotees in New York that maybe the Swami didn’t understand American business dealings. With all respect, His Excellency couldn’t be expected to know all the intricacies of finance in a foreign country. And His Excellency’s request for a purchase contract was, as Mr. Price put it, “something that went out with hoop skirts.” Brahmānanda and Satsvarūpa didn’t know how to reply; the remarks seemed like blasphemy. But Brahmānanda and Satsvarūpa were already entangled in the promises Mr. Price had given and went on meeting with him. They would meet with Mr. Price and then ride back to Second Avenue on the subway, chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa.
Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote almost daily to various devotees in New York. On February 18, he wrote a letter to Brahmānanda with the word CONFIDENTIAL typed at the top of the page.
Now if you think he is able to secure money for us, if you think that there is something hopeful by this time then you can continue the negotiation as he is doing. But do not for Krishna’s sake advance a farthing more on any plea by him. He may be trying his best, but he is not capable to do this. That is my honest opinion.
While trying to avoid further losses in New York, Prabhupāda continued his active preaching in San Francisco. Mukunda and the others were lining up lots of engagements, and the reception was often enthusiastic. In the same confidential letter to Brahmānanda in which Prabhupāda put forward his strategies for negotiating with Mr. Price and company, he also wrote glowingly of “grand successful” meetings at various Bay Area colleges. The meetings were similar, he said, to the wonderful kīrtanas in Tompkins Square Park. This was the way to spread Kṛṣṇa consciousness, not by becoming entangled with treacherous real estate agents.
I am enclosing herewith a copy of the letter received from Himalayan Academy. See how they are appreciating our method of peace movement. So in this way we have to forward our cause. No businessman will come forward to help us on utopian schemes as contemplated by Mr. Price. We have to try for ourselves. So the summary is to obtain a hire purchase sale contract from Mr. Tyler and popularize our movement by outdoor engagements as many as possible.
Śrīla Prabhupāda had done what he could. The boys were foolish, even to the point of not listening to him. But they had raised the money themselves. If despite his instructions they lost it, what further help could he give? So he simply went on with his San Francisco preaching and advised the boys in New York also to become convinced of achieving success through kīrtana.
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