The Life of Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasiṅgha Mahārāja
Chapter 1 – Early Years
Jagat Guru Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasiṅgha Mahārāja appeared in this world at 9:20am on August 23rd 1946, corresponding to Annadā Ekādaśī, during the kṛṣṇa-pakṣa (dark lunar period) in the Vedic month of Bhadra, ruled over by Lord Hṛṣīkeśa, under the nakṣatra (constellation) of Punarvasu (Gemini). This was the same nakṣatra that Lord Śrī Rāmacandra appeared under, representing renewal or restoration.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja was born at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, USA, the son of Jack Bennett Hebner who was a Master Chief Petty Officer in the US Navy, and Audrey Laverne Hebner. Genealogically, his father’s descendants hailed from Prussia and came to America in 1847. His mother’s family, the Klines, were of Dutch descent whose relatives were related to Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington, the first president of the United States.
Jack Bennett Hebner was a World War II veteran and participated in the famous Berlin Airlift. After the Korean War, he was connected to the USS Saratoga which was mainly based at the Mayport Naval Station near Jacksonville Beach where he worked on new fighter jets. John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, was a close friend of the family. Narasiṅgha Mahārāja also had an uncle who was an F.B.I agent. When the famous physicist Albert Einstein died, his uncle was deputed to go to his house to confiscate all of his research papers. He had given Mahārāja’s father a photograph of Einstein’s desk taken the day after his death, replete with piles of books and papers. Einstein’s desk was extremely cluttered, but even as a child, Mahārāja noted one particular publication – a book on Indian philosophy.
When Narasiṅgha Mahārāja was about 9 months old, the family travelled across the country by train and flew to Hawaii. Mahārāja had his earliest recollections here of playing on a beach when he was 2 years old. Due to his father’s profession, the family moved from naval base to naval base every two or three years and in 1949, the Hebners returned to their old family house at Flintstone, Maryland for a year. Mahārāja remembers the mayhem he caused one day when he fell asleep in the tool shed and his mother couldn’t find him. For 3 hours the whole town of Flintstone along with the fire department went in search of him. They scoured the forest and looked along the riverbank till finally he woke up and walked out of the shed, wondering what the ruckus was all about.
In 1953, Narasiṅgha Mahārāja went to kindergarten in Lexington, Maryland. It was around this time that he began to have a recurring dream – a dream he would continue to have for five years.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: I was always on a battlefield, running from right to left with a rifle and bayonet, getting shot and falling down in the dirt to die. As I would lay there, I would think to myself, “I’m dying!” And then a voice would tell me, “You can’t die because you never die!” Then I would get up off the ground and at that moment I would wake up. I had that dream I don’t know how many times, but I could remember it clearly.
Mahārāja’s boyhood was mostly spent on navy bases in Connecticut, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Corpus Christi and Jacksonville as well as at his maternal grandmother’s house in Cumberland, Maryland, and his paternal grandmother’s house in Flintstone.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: Flintstone was a hick town with mountains all around. Critters in the mountains and critters in the town. They were all mountain hicks in that part of America. Not like the ones you have down in Louisiana – all perverted, close marriage and all that, but still, real hick. Hunting and fishing…every season you gotta be out there, killing whatever was in season.
It was while he was spending the summer at his grandmother’s, that he and his friends saw a UFO:
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: I went there every summer for as long as I can remember. We would camp out in our granny’s backyard and then sneak out, go raid the bakery, eat hot bread, go to the dairies and steal chocolate milk. We would hang out in an apple orchard, which was on top of a hill, and watch the shooting stars. And then came the night of the light…I was 11 or 12 at the time. The light was not as big as the moon…it was about a quarter or a fifth of it’s size – much brighter than a planet or a star. It went from being almost nothing, growing to that size and moving all around in the sky for about 5 minutes. Then for a second it would get even bigger as if it was coming towards us…but it was way way brighter. If it was a physical object it was at least 2 or 3 kilometres up in the sky. And if it was something beyond that, then it must have been huge! . You couldn’t say it was an explosion because then it wouldn’t have gone left, right, and stopped. It was nothing that we could recognise as kids.
Due to the family constantly relocating, in 4 years Narasiṅgha Mahārāja attended 3 different schools – Flour Bluff in Texas, Allegany High in Cumberland and the Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville.
As far as education was concerned however, Mahārāja had very little interest in the mundane subjects that were on offer. History was the exception – a topic that he always found to be interesting and thought-provoking. However, his general lack of enthusiasm for other subjects was obvious to his parents whenever he came home with his report card, and poor marks were inevitably met with a sound beating from his father. Later, Mahārāja countered this by forging his report cards to escape punishment.
Despite his general disinterest in school, Narasiṅgha Mahārāja excelled in games such as baseball, football, basketball, track and field and swimming. He also won many trophies for bowling, and when he was a freshman in High School, he decided to try for the tennis team, although he had never played tennis in his life. The trial was an all-day affair, beginning with warm-ups and an explanation of the rules of the game. When the actual game began, Mahārāja beat every contender – both new contestants and current players on the school team. Finally, the captain of the tennis team was brought out, but Mahārāja defeated him too. Eventually however, Mahārāja’s father convinced him not to join the tennis team.
Such physical exercise stood him in good stead. When he was 14, Narasiṅgha Mahārāja saved a young boy from drowning at Virginia Beach. The boy, who had been standing on the edge of a tidal pool, fell in. Mahārāja heard the screams of the boy just before he began to sink and immediately jumped in. The result was that the boy was saved and Mahārāja received a permanent scar as well as an ice cream from the boy’s relieved mother.
This was only one of the many adventures that Narasiṅgha Mahārāja experienced as a young boy. In fact, if one looks at his childhood it resembles something from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Mahārāja broke his collarbone at age 3 by falling off a couch, accidentally burned down a footbridge when he was 6, broke his elbow falling off the roof of a car when he was 7, blew up the family kitchen at age 8, almost drowned with a bunch of boy-scouts in an ice-flow on the Potomac River when he was 13, broke his wrist falling down an embankment at 15, saved his sister from a charging bull when he was 16, and had a minor crash on his Honda 305cc when he was 17. Suffice to say that even in his boyhood, there was never a dull moment. Mahārāja remembers:
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: My first break was when I slid off the couch and broke my left collarbone. Then I broke my left elbow when I was 6. I had an ice cream cone in my hand and I wanted another one. I was sitting up on the hood of a car. So I went to get another ice cream and just slid off the front as a kid would. My feet hit the bumper, and I jumped off onto the curb. My pants got hooked on the license plate and it just threw me forward, then I went down with this ice cream cone, whacked the pavement and broke my left elbow. That was the second break.
The third was when I broke my left wrist falling down an embankment, running from the cops. In the same year, 1952, I burned down a footbridge. It crossed a ditch which was 5 feet deep and ran about 15 feet wide. It was during autumn, so leaves and sticks were still on the ground. We made a fort under the bridge with the leaves and sticks, and we made a little entrance to get inside. Then one day it was really cold, so somebody had the bright idea to light a fire inside. We got some matches and were burning leaves, and then, ‘FOOM!’ Our fort caught on fire and we all scrambled out of there. We looked back when we were at a distance, and heard, ‘Ding, ding, ding!” The fire department came but the bridge was totally burned down. It was the footbridge to this whole trailer park, and now everyone at the park had to go all the way around the park to go to the stores in town, when previously they used to be able to just walk 50 metres – so I imagine people were pretty upset. I remember my mom sensed that it was me and my friend who were responsible, but she didn’t want to cough up the money for it, and she knew that if my dad found out, I’d be dead. There were many times when dear old mom saved me from death.
When I blew up the kitchen we were at Ocean Beach, Virginia. I stayed back from school because I had the flu and I’d already been in bed for 3 days. I’d missed school for two days, and by the third day, which was a Saturday, I was already recovering. My dad was away from home, and my mom was out somewhere. I got up out of bed in the morning and it was cold in the kitchen. I’d seen my mom light the gas oven to heat up the kitchen, but the pilot light didn’t work properly. She would light it with these long kitchen matches, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I turned the oven on and just as I was about to strike the match, my friend came hollering at the back door. So I stood at the back door and yapped with him for about ten minutes. Meanwhile, the gas was just pouring out of the oven, but I had the flu, so I couldn’t smell anything. Finally, I went back inside, lit the match and BOOM! The whole oven went up in the air, and all the tops on everything in the kitchen just flew out and hit me in the head and I went flying backwards. The fire took off my eyebrows and burned up the curtains and rugs. Luckily, I didn’t catch the building on fire but I did break some old family heirloom made of crystal that my mother received at her wedding.
As for the charging bull…me and my sister ended up in a cow pasture, and all of a sudden a bull came charging across the field. I saw it, grabbed my sister and pushed her up and over a rail fence. Then I went up and over it myself, just as the bull made a lunge at the fence.
Mahārāja’s family was not religiously inclined, but they would go to church now and then, dressed in their finest – the ladies in their best hats and dresses, the men in their jackets, ties and starched collars (something that Mahārāja loathed). However, Mahārāja recollected one Sunday incident that made an impression on him:
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: One time I was dropped off to go to Sunday school but it had already started and I didn’t want to walk in late, so I slipped into church with the adults instead. When the service was over and everybody had left, I stepped forward. I had three dimes. Even the kids had to give something after the service and I couldn’t understand why everybody wasn’t going this way? I went up , reached into my pocket, took my 3 dimes and put them on the pulpit. For a moment, standing there, I had this lump in my throat. I felt very emotional. I think everybody who has a spiritual life, at some point looks back and sees certain things in their life that were leading up to something more. But without Prabhupāda coming along, we were just bouncing around all over the place.
The most religious member of the Hebner family was Narasiṅgha Mahārāja’s great-grandmother who was a devout Pentecostal Christian. Pentecostals are popularly known as the ‘Holy Rollers’ due to their habit of rolling on the floor in an uncontrolled manner when the Holy Spirit ‘enters’ them (something like a western version of the sahajiyās of Bengal). When Mahārāja’s great-grandmother was an invalid in her late 80’s and practically bed-ridden, the members of the local church would come to see her and they would pray together. Sometimes, after playing basketball with his friends, Mahārāja would come home and curiously peep into his great-grandmothers room, listening to the pastor ‘talking in tongues’ and the members loudly praying together. Eventually, Mahārāja’s grandmother would shoo him away from the door.
But what really held Narasiṅgha Mahārāja in awe wasn’t the bizarre antics of the local Pentecostals, but his great-grandmother’s family Bible – a huge, leather-bound book with gold leaf decorations and brass clasps on the front. In his own house, there were hardly any books, and he himself only ever read two books as a child – Thor Heyerdahl’s ‘Kon-Tiki’, and Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’ Other than that, he only read Mad Magazine and the Sunday comic strips.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: I never saw a book in my father’s hand, unless it was a manual on jet engines. He used to study these big manuals when I was little. He was an aviation mechanic and those guys are highly trained. He worked on fighter jets. Then one time I saw a big book on his desk and his name was inscribed on the front. I was really surprised – ‘Dad wrote a book?’ The title of the book was, ‘All I Have Learned About Women’. When I opened the book, every page was blank…
After World War Two, the United States became one of the dominant world superpowers and was experiencing an economic boom. Americans wanted to celebrate their new-found affluence and live the new ‘American dream.’ Thus, the average American had no interest in philosophy and higher thought, and the Hebners were no exception. Narasiṅgha Mahārāja said that only once did he ever ask his father a philosophical question:
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: One time I asked my father, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ He turned to me and said, “I don’t know, but I’d like to think that there is one.”
Unbeknown to Jack Bennett Hebner however, his son was about to discover it.