Śrīla Prabhupāda was scheduled to arrive in New Vṛndāvana on the morning of August 31st and Narasiṅgha Mahārāja didn’t want to miss the opportunity. His saṅkīrtana party had been tirelessly travelling and distributing books for months and he felt they all needed a spiritual break – what could be better than spending a week with Śrīla Prabhupāda? Prabhupāda would be present for Śrī Kṛṣṇa Janmāṣṭamī as well as his Vyāsa-pūjā celebrations and had also decided that he would be giving a special series of classes – the Bhagavat-dharma Discourses.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: New Vṛndāvana was pretty rustic. There were hundreds of people attending the festival – devotees, non-devotees and half-devotees. The hippies mostly camped out in their own tents or vans, and the devotees slept in their saṅkīrtana vehicles. There was a place they called ‘The ghāṭa’ which sounds really exotic. because when you hear about bathing ghāṭas in India, you always think of stone steps with small sandstone pavilions on the side of a river. Well, ‘the ghāta’ in New Vṛndāvana was a piece of wood hanging over a really small pond, and the water was brown like chocolate! It was right next to the cow shed, so all the cow-dung and sludge just ended up in the water. That’s where we all took bath every morning. Luckily there was a well on the property where we got drinking water. Nobody cared about how austere it was because Prabhupāda was coming and we would get to see him and hear from him for a whole week.
On the morning of August 31st, as Prabhupāda’s black Lincoln Continental weaved down the narrow country road towards the New Vṛndāvana farm, hundreds of devotees from various temples were there to greet him with a tumultuous kīrtana. When Prabhupāda stepped out of his car, over five hundred devotees immediately offered their obeisances. He was then led across the lawn to a decorated red-velvet vyāsāsana under a tree where he spoke to all the devotees and thanked them for organising the festival. Then he explained something about the Bhagavat-dharma Discourses:
…this bhāgavata-dharma was spoken by Bhagavān Himself. Bhagavān, Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa, Bhaga-vān. It is a Sanskrit word. Bhaga means fortunes, and vān means one who possesses. These two words combined together makes the word Bhagavān, or the supreme fortunate. We calculate our fortune if somebody is very rich, if somebody is very strong, if somebody is very beautiful, if somebody is very wise, if somebody is in renounced order of life. In this way, there are six opulences, and these opulences, when one possesses in fullness, without any rivalry, he is called Bhagavān. The richest of all, the wisest of all, the most beautiful, the most famous, the most renounced – in this way, Bhagavān. And the bhāgavata also comes from the word bhaga. From bhaga, when it is used a participle objective, it becomes bhaga. So bhāgavata. The same thing, vān, this word is comes from the word vat, vat-śabda. Bhāgavata. In Sanskrit, every word is grammatically very systematically bound up. Every word. Therefore, it is called Sanskrit language. Sanskrit means reformed. We cannot manufacture by whims; it must be strictly according to the grammatical rules and regulations. So the bhāgavata-dharma means the relationship between the devotees and the Lord. The Lord is Bhagavān and the devotee is bhāgavata, or in relationship with Bhagavān.
All these boys and girls who have come to me in different parts of the world, simply by hearing… I have not bribed them, I have no money. So they are sacrificing their everything for me. Why? Simply by hearing me. That’s all. So the hearing is so strong. And they are educated boys, they’re university graduates. I’m not befooling them. But as they’re hearing, they’re understanding the gravity of the movement and gradually they’re becoming convinced and firmly situated in the post. So this is called bhāgavata-dharma.
Prabhupāda was staying in an old renovated farmhouse, and that afternoon, he met with some of the GBCs and temple presidents there to discuss various managerial issues. They thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to bring up the ‘problem’ of Mahārāja and his marauding saṅkīrtana party. Prabhupāda sat and patiently listened as the GBCs and temple presidents voiced their complaints about the Denver party – their irregular schedule, the constant trespassing in ‘their’ zones etc. After hearing all their protests, Prabhupāda finally told them, “These brahmacārīs, they are sincere. Do not disturb them. Let them distribute my books without any hinderance.”
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: That one sentence of Śrīla Prabhupāda – “Do not disturb them” – really took the wind out of their sails. It was clear that Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted his books to go out everywhere and as long as the devotees were chanting their rounds and following nicely, everything else was sort of secondary at that point in time. In other words, the management, the GBCs and temple presidents, were meant to facilitate the book distribution, not obstruct it. The zonal mentality was already creeping in at that time and the managers were trying to control devotees or swapping them like baseball cards. Of course, management is necessary in a big society, but it shouldn’t stifle inspiration.
The next day was Janmāṣṭamī and at 7:00am, Śrīla Prabhupāda, accompanied by hundreds of devotees performing a loud kīrtana, walked up the dirt path leading to the highest hill on the property which the local devotees referred to as ‘Govardhana.’ On top of the hill was a huge pāṇḍāl (an open air pavilion) constructed by the New Vṛndāvana devotees using logs, tin sheeting and cloth. At one end of the pāṇḍāl was a large stage with the Deities of Rādhā-Dāmodara from Viṣṇujana Swami’s saṅkīrtana party in the centre, Jagannātha, Baladeva and Subhadrā on the right, and Śrīla Prabhupāda’s vyāsāsana on the left. Outside, just adjacent to the pāṇḍāl, was a makeshift kitchen. Knowing that so many people would be attending the festival, all the temples from around the United States brought huge amounts of vegetables, fruits, grains, sugar, as well as pots and pans to New Vṛndāvana. Temporary stoves were made out of old oil drums, fuelled by wood which lay in abundance in the surrounding area.
(Prabhupāda in the pāṇḍāl with Rādhā-dāmodara and Jagannātha)
After offering obeisances to the Deities, Prabhupāda began his Bhāgavata-dharma discourses, speaking on the first verse of Śrīmad Bhāgavtam, First Canto, Chapter Two entitled ‘Divinity and Divine Service.’
iti sampraśna-saṁhṛṣṭo viprāṇāṁ raumaharṣaṇiḥ
pratipūjya vacas teṣāṁ pravaktum upacakrame
“Ugraśravā (Sūta Gosvāmī), the son of Romaharṣaṇa, being fully satisfied by the perfect questions of the brāhmaṇas, thanked them and thus attempted to reply.”
Prabhupāda began by explaining that although one may not understand Sanskrit, the sound vibration would purify them. He then went on to say that sound is the basis of creation and that the human form of life is our opportunity to revive our relationship with Kṛṣṇa. After the class was over, Prabhupāda inaugurated the new temple for the Deities of New Vṛndāvana, Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Vṛndāvanacandra, and gave initiations there.
(Prabhupāda giving initations at the new temple in New Vṛṇdāvana)
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: In the evening, Prabhupāda went to the new temple room at Bahulavana with all the sannyāsīs and senior devotees and had all them read Kṛṣṇa Book. I was watching through the window for a while. I couldn’t get in the temple room – it was such a small space so there wasn’t enough room for everyone to fit in there. I got so tired standing up after fasting all day that by midnight I went and fell asleep in a pickup truck with Buddhimanta and Keśava. The reading went way past midnight – I think the reading basically went on till maṅgala-ārati – until Prabhupāda saw everyone zoning out and nodding off, and he finally told everyone to take prasādam. I was sleeping in the front of the truck with my long legs hanging out of the window – the next thing I know, someone was blowing the conch for maṅgala-ārati.
The next day was Śrīla Prabhupāda’s appearance day, or Vyāsa-pūjā. In the morning, a reporter from the New York Times arrived to interview Prabhupāda and write an article about the event which was scheduled to begin at noon. Once again, the program was held in the pāṇḍāl on the hill. As Prabhupāda entered the pavilion, he was met by a kīrtana and hundreds of devotees showering flower petals on him. After sitting on his vyāsāsana, he delivered a lecture explaining the meaning of Vyāsa-pūjā. Bearing in mind that there was a newspaper reporter and many guests in the crowd, Prabhupāda explained why the spiritual master is worshiped on the day of his appearance.
Of course, those who are my students, they know what is this ceremony. Those who are visitors, for their information, I may inform you something about this ceremony. Otherwise, it may not be misunderstood. An outsider may see it that “Why a person is being worshiped like God?” There may be some doubt. So this is the etiquette. This ceremony is called Vyāsa-pūjā. Vyāsa. Vyāsa means the original author of Vedic literature. He is incarnation of Nārāyaṇa. He gave us all Vedic knowledge. He received the knowledge from Nārada. Nārada received the knowledge from Brahma. Brahmā received the knowledge from Kṛṣṇa. So in this way, by disciplic succession, we get transcendental knowledge…
So this Vyāsa-pūjā means one day in a year, on the birthday of the spiritual master, because he is representative of Vyāsa, he is delivering the same knowledge which has come down by disciplic succession without any change, he is offered the respect. This is called Vyāsa-pūjā. And the spiritual master receives all honour, all contribution, on behalf of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, not for his person. Just like in our country when there was British rule, there was a viceroy, a king’s representative. So naturally, when viceroy used to go to some meeting, many people used to present valuable jewels, valuable, because just to honour him. But the law was that not a single of the jewels or contribution the viceroy could touch. It was going to the royal treasury. The viceroy could accept on behalf of the king all contribution, but it goes to the king. Similarly, this day, Vyāsa-pūjā day, whatever honor, contribution and feelings is being offered to the spiritual master, it is… Again, as we have received the knowledge from upwards, similarly, this respect also goes from downward to the upward. This is the process. So as the spiritual master is teacher of the student, he has to teach the disciple how to send back his respect and contribution to God. This is called Vyāsa-pūjā.
After Prabhupāda had finished his lecture, devotees read out their offerings to him as he sat with his eyes closed, listening carefully to them all. Finally, at the conclusion of the program, devotees offered puṣpañjali to Prabhupāda as Bharadvāja Dāsa led them in singing the Gurvāṣṭakam prayers, then Viṣṇujana Swami took over and led a wonderful kīrtana. As Viṣṇujana’s kīrtana was reaching a frenzied crescendo, Śrīla Prabhupāda, who had been rocking back and forth with his eyes closed, playing the karatālas, suddenly took over the chanting which catapulted the devotees into ecstasy. There was a spontaneous surge towards the stage and a transcendental mood swept over everyone. The devotees chanted as loud as they could, some crying out of sheer happiness, some jumping high into the air – everyone was suddenly surcharged. When Prabhupāda finished singing and chanted the jaya-dhvani prayers, a group of brahmacārīs carried an enormous cake onto the stage and placed it in front of Prabhupāda.
(Prabhupāda’s Vyāsa-pūjā 1972 and the New York Times article)
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: There were so many devotees in the pāṇḍāl and everyone wanted to be in front of Śrīla Prabhupāda. I was behind the curtain directly behind Prabhupāda – it was the only place left to stand. That’s why you can’t see me in any of the photos on that day.
After the kīrtana, the devotees offered Prabhupāda this huge birthday cake. Prabhupāda asked, “What is this?” The devotees replied, “It’s a birthday cake, Śrīla Prabhupāda.” Prabhupāda said, “Cake? We do not eat cake!” Everyone’s faces just fell when he said that. Then Prabhupāda smiled, took a little piece and that was it! The devotees basically demolished it and it was gone in seconds. Henceforward there was cake in the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement!
That evening, there were bhajanas and dramas performed by devotees from various temples. Viṣṇujana Swami and his group had been rehearsing what he called the ‘First Transcendental Rock Opera’ and they played some selections from it in the pāṇḍāl. His plan was to take it all around the United States with the hope that it would become as famous as contemporary rock operas like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ‘Hair’ and ‘Godspell.’ However, Viṣṇujana’s controversial plan was met with mixed feelings amongst the devotees. Some thought it was complete māyā, others were just confused and didn’t know what to think (“rock music and spirituality??”) Thus, when Viṣṇujana and his party performed at the pāṇḍāḷ, it was met with a lukewarm reception by most of the devotees. Sensing the mood, he picked up a mṛdāṅga and led a kīrtana instead which immediately made the cold response thaw out.
Śrīla Prabhupāda continued giving his Bhagavata-dharma Discourses over the next week and Mahārāja and all the devotees would hike up and down the hill every morning to the pāṇḍāl to attend the classes. To save Śrīla Prabhupāda from having to walk up and down the hill every day, devotees would carry him up on a palanquin.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: I think it was a few days after Vyāsa-pūjā – we were all up on the hill in the pāṇḍāl waiting for Śrīla Prabhupāda one morning when it suddenly started raining heavily. It was so heavy that the water just poured inside the pāṇḍāḷ so everyone bailed and headed down to their vans and cars. All the tents got totally soaked. Devotees were slipping and sliding all over the place. Viṣṇujana and his men ran and took all the Deities and put them in his bus. The town where New Vṛndāvana is situated was called Moundsville, but after that, I remember that the devotees started calling it ‘Mudsville.’
Finally, on September 8th, the festival ended and the next morning, Śrīla Prabhupāda left for Pittsburgh.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: Prabhupāda was in Hayagrīva’s Volkswagen going back down the hill. Everyone was doing kīrtana to see him off, and I looked and saw that the main gate at the bottom of the hill was shut. I figured that they would have to stop the car, get out, open the gate, get back in, drive past the gate, get out again, close it and then drive off. So I just went bounding down the hill through the cow pastures like a gazelle, barefooted, with my dhotī flying all over the place. I got there just ahead of the car, opened the gate and folded my hands as Prabhupāda drove by. He looked up, smiled at me and said, “Jaya!”
(Prabhupāda leaving New Vṛṇdāvana)
Mahārāja and his saṅkīrtana party felt fully recharged after being with Śrīla Prabhupāda and the devotees for a week and were enthusiastic to continue their service of book distribution. Tulasī Dāsa, the saṅkīrtana leader of the Denver temple, had not been able to come for the festival and Mahārāja had not called him in over three weeks. Mahārāja decided he had better call and ask him where they should travel to next. However, when he got Tulasī Dāsa on the phone, Mahārāja was immediately told to hand over the keys of the van to one of the other Denver devotees because he was no longer in charge of the saṅkīrtana party. Tulasī Dāsa was furious that Mahārāja had gone to New Vṛndāvana for a week without his permission. As far as he was concerned, Mahārāja could go wherever he wanted.
This new turn of events didn’t faze Mahārāja however. He knew exactly where he wanted to go…