Ācārya Siṁha

The Life of Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasiṅgha Mahārāja

Chapter 14 – Bamboozled Again! (or How Mahārāja Ended Up in Africa)
(New York 1973)

Viṣṇujana Swami was not happy.

The New York temple president, Bali-mardana had taken Viṣṇujana’s men from the Rādhā-Dāmodara Party as well as one of his saṅkīrtana vehicles – and from Viṣṇujana’s point of view, it was all Narasiṅgha Mahārāja’s fault. As they stood at the door of the Baltimore temple, Mahārāja and the devotees offered their obeisances to him, but as they got up, Mahārāja could see from Viṣṇujana’s expression that he was about to give him a dressing-down. Before Viṣṇujana could utter a word, Mahārāja said, “I guess we need to talk.”

It wasn’t long before they were both sitting in the temple office with Viṣṇujana reprimanding Mahārāja for not contacting him to explain what had taken place in New York six months before. Mahārāja agreed that it was a failure on his part, and also explained his side of the story – how Bali-mardana had shown him Prabhupāda’s letter, told him that the Rādhā-Dāmodara Party was over, and forced him to hand everything over. Viṣṇujana sat quietly and listened. Slowly his anger subsided, Afterall, Mahārāja was only a simple brahmacārī – he was not a sannyāsī, a temple president, or a GBC. A brahmacārī was supposed to be submissive and follow the instructions of his seniors, and Bali-mardana was his senior.

“And just so you know,” said Mahārāja, “My plan was to ditch Bali-mardana and open a preaching centre in Daytona Beach!”

Hearing this, Viṣṇujana burst out laughing, “Hey prabhu! Don’t forget that you still owe me a saṅkīrtana party and a vehicle!”

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: So what did I do? I gave up my idea of opening a centre in Daytona Beach and I ended up re-joining Viṣṇujana Swami. I told Viṣṇujana that I still wanted to go to New York and see Śrīla Prabhupāda. Since I had already been hoodwinked by Bali-mardana once before, he probably knew that it was a risk for me to go back there, but by then he probably knew how stubborn I was…

Viṣṇujana had only arrived in Baltimore the night before and had been in New York since Śrīla Prabhupāda had come from India. He told Mahārāja that he planned to return to New York that day and suggested that both their vehicles leave together after breakfast.

When they arrived at the New York temple, Mahārāja immediately went to Bali-mardana’s office to give him the keys for the saṅkīrtana vehicle. He explained that he had been happy serving Rādhā-Govinda, but it had only happened because he had been misled into believing that the Rādhā-Dāmodara Party was going to be disbanded – therefore he was going to re-join Viṣṇujana Swami’s party and would be leaving with him on the 13th April when Śrīla Prabhupāda flew to Los Angeles. Bali-mardana remained impassive and after some small talk, nothing more was said between them. Leaving the office, Mahārāja was surprised at Bali-mardana’s mood of detachment. The conversation could have been volcanic, but instead Bali-mardana seemed oddly calm and resigned to Mahārāja’s departure from the New York saṅkīrtana party.

Śrīla Prabhupāda in New York, 1973

(Śrīla Prabhupāda in New York, 1973)

For the next few days, Narasiṅgha Mahārāja basked in the association of Śrīla Prabhupāda who gave daily classes from Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, First Canto, 8th Chapter, as well as from the Second Chapter of Bhagavad-gītā. In the mornings, because the temple was full of visiting devotees from different temples, Mahārāja would sometimes go for a japa-walk before class.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: One day, I was out on a walk a few blocks away from the temple, dressed in my saffron dhotī – it was early in the morning so there were not many people around. Suddenly I looked up and saw Śrīla Prabhupāda and about thirty devotees on the other side of the road. They had also gone on a japa-walk and had all stopped at a light and were waiting to cross. I fell flat on the sidewalk to offer obeisances to Prabhupāda, the whole thing – “namaḥ oṁ viṣṇupādāya…”right in the middle of New York City! Prabhupāda must have got a kick out of it and he smiled at me as they all walked past. I think even at that young age, with my spirit and youthful fanaticism, if there had there been a lot of people out on the street at that time, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I would have had enough sense to think that it was kind of over the top. But I was anxious to offer obeisances, so I took a quick survey to see if anyone was on the street, and I did it.

After the morning class, Mahārāja would go out on saṅkīrtana with Viṣṇujana Swami and his party to Manhattan, distributing books and chanting for hours on end. Mahārāja was happy to be back in the association of Viṣṇujana and was looking forward to travelling with him again after Śrīla Prabhupāda left for the West Coast.

During the Sunday feast, Mahārāja heard his name being called on the temple intercom system requesting him to come to Bali-mardana’s office. When he entered the office, he saw Bali-mardana sitting behind his desk and near to him, leaning on a radiator, putting on tilaka, was a tall, corpulent sannyāsī whom Mahārāja immediately recognised as Brahmānanda Swami, one of the first disciples of Śrīla Prabhupāda. Mahārāja offered his obeisances to them and waited to hear why he had been summoned.

(Brahmānanda Swami and Bali-mardana Dāsa)

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: I was just standing there in front of his desk, in my dhoti, a t-shirt and a red windbreaker. Bali-mardana was pointing out to Brahmānanda some of my features – tall, thin, good book distributor – I sort of felt like one of those slaves on sale in Ancient Rome. Brahmānanda didn’t even look at me – he was busy putting on tilaka. I was looking at him from the side…I’d never seen such a big person in my life! I was just watching him put on tilaka, thinking, “My God! He uses so much tilaka!”
Finally, Brahmānanda finished, looked at me and said, “Prabhupāda wants you!”
I was shocked. “Prabhupāda wants me personally?”
Bali-mardana smiled and said, “Yeah, that’s right!”
“What does he want me to do?”
Then Bali-mardana said, “Prabhupāda wants you to go to Africa with Brahmānanda Swami!”
I stood there stunned. Then Bali-mardana said, “So are you going to follow your whim and go with Viṣṇujana or please Prabhupāda and go with Brahmānanda?”

He did it again to me! I was so naïve – I should have gone and spoken to Viṣṇujana then and there and tried to figure out what was going on. But no, not me! Like a dummy, I swallowed it hook, line and sinker and I agreed! The managers were all expert at this stuff! Of course, the whole thing was a lie, but I wasn’t really clued in to all the politics that was going on behind the scenes. Looking back now, I can understand why Bali-mardana was so laid back when I told him I was going back on saṅkīrtana with Viṣṇujana. Prabhupāda had told him to find two men to send to Africa with Brahmānanda he realised that he was losing me anyway, so he wanted to take a jab at Viṣṇujana and he also bamboozled me again by saying that Prabhupāda personally wanted me to go with Brahmānanda to Kenya. Prabhupāda did not specifically ask for me to go to Africa. So Bali-mardana and Brahmānanda lied, but ultimately it was a lie that I’m glad they told.

Mahārāja now had to break the news to Viṣṇujana Swami. The Sunday feast had just ended and Viṣṇujana was sitting in the temple room surrounded by his party. Seeing Mahārāja, Viṣṇujana smiled, “Hey, we’re were just figuring out our plans for saṅkīrtana when Prabhupāda leaves for L.A.”
“Well, actually,” Mahārāja said, “I’m not going. Prabhupāda has personally asked me to go to Africa with Brahmānanda Swami.”
Viṣṇujana was visibly annoyed. He shrugged, turned his head, and carried on talking to the rest of the Rādhā-Dāmodara Party. Viṣṇujana was well aware of all the managerial politics in Iskcon and was too busy organising his men. He had no desire to run after one lone brahmacārī who was already in the crosshairs of Bali-mardana and Brahmānanda.

Before leaving for L.A., Brahmānanda Swami made it very clear to Mahārāja that he had to pay for his own airfare, so for the whole summer, Mahārāja was on the street collecting in Jamaica, Queens.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: Queens was a black neighbourhood. I’d go out early in the morning and sell carnations. There were a lot of black maids going to work and they used to buy a lot of the carnations for 10 Cents apiece – they loved the red ones especially. The problem with carnations is that, although they are pretty, they have no smell. Once, I think we sprayed them with some cheap scent, but figured it was probably carcinogenic and would give nasal cancer or something, so we stopped.

We also sold incense on the street and I created this briefcase which had straps on, so you could put it around your neck and be mobile – it was like the boxes the guys use to sell popcorn and peanuts at a football game.

We were competing with these black Muslims who had permits and would set up these big tables on all four corners of the street. We would be working in between them. But they would sell the worst type of incense imaginable – not that ours was any better at the time!
One day I approached a group of elderly black ladies and tried to sell them some incense. One of them shook her head, “Hell, no! We can get incense over there from one of the brothers and it’s mo’cheap!”
I told her, “Ma’am, for the safety of your children and family, you do NOT wanna burn that stuff at home. They’ve been making that stuff out of horse crap! They use horse dung! But our incense is only made from pure materials.”

“Is that right? Okay!”
So they bought a stack of incense from us, and for the next few days, we would tell people that the incense the black Muslims were selling was dangerous and made from horse dung. Then one day, these two big black guys wearing long white gowns and skullcaps walked up to me, and from the way they were dressed and how they were scowling at me, I knew they were from the tables.
“Hey dude, you been tellin’ these folks we be makin’ our incense outta horse shit?”
I just shrugged my shoulders, “Nope, that must have been some other guy…wasn’t me!”

Before winter, Mahārāja had collected enough money for his ticket. Because Prabhupāda had told Bali-mardana to give two men to Brahmānanda, another brahmacārī named Daśarha Dāsa was also duped into going with Mahārāja to Kenya (“Prabhupāda personally wants you also!”). Meanwhile, before returning to Africa, Brahmānanda had gone to L.A. and shanghaied another devotee whom everyone referred to as ‘Dr. Rasānanda Dāsa’ (who was not actually a doctor, but a former medical student).

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: In those days, to go to Africa you needed to have a certificate showing that you’d been vaccinated against cholera. Well, Prabhupāda had told us that cholera shots were actually monkey pus and we should avoid those vaccinations, but without a certificate, you wouldn’t be let through immigration. So, devotees would get a vaccination card and take it to this doctor in Chinatown. It was five dollars for a cholera shot. You would sit there in a chair, pay him the five dollars and he would give you a bottle with the vaccine along with a syringe. Then you would suck up the liquid in the bottle with the syringe, squirt it into the garbage can and he would sign your card. And that’s how we got our vaccination certificates…

The cheapest flights to Kenya were from England, so the trio flew from New York to London where they stayed at the Rādhā-Londonīśvara Temple at Bury Place for a few days while their visas were being processed. After two days, their visas arrived and, dressed in safari suits, Mahārāja, Daśarha and Dr. Rasānanda left from Heathrow Airport on a plane bound for Kenya.

(Prabhupāda at the Brooklyn temple in New York, 1973)