By mid 1969, Narasiṅgha Mahārāja had served one year in prison, with another four remaining. Then one morning he was unexpectedly summoned to the courthouse opposite the prison. He had no idea what was happening, but there was a lot of hushed talk between the judge and his lawyer. After a few minutes, the judge wrote something down, looked at the guard, motioned towards the door, and Mahārāja was again taken back to his cell.
Twenty minutes later, a guard came carrying a yellow slip of paper calling out his name. A yellow slip meant that you are leaving the building. Mahārāja came out of his cell and the guard told him, “Roll up! You’re leaving!” He said his goodbyes to his yoga-friend, rolled up all his bedding and left it in the wash area. He knew that vacating his cell could only mean one of two things – and since there was no reason for him to be moved to another cell block, it could only mean that he was being transferred to a city prison to continue the remainder of his sentence. The guard handed him the yellow slip and escorted him down four flights of stairs to a guard in a caged room with hundreds of baskets containing every prisoner’s personal effects. Mahārāja handed him the slip, the guard hit a button and a door at the left automatically swung open. He walked inside and found himself in a cold cement room. A moment later the guard came in with a basket containing Mahārāja’s personal belongings, then handing him a clipboard he said, “Sign here!” Mahārāja signed.
“Change! Put your uniform in the basket!” He then changed from his grey prison attire into the t-shirt, jeans and sneakers that he had entered the prison in. The guard then hit a button and a large iron door at the end of the room slowly opened up.
“Go in there and sit down!”
He entered yet another room – a small chamber about a metre wide with a long bench that could sit about ten people. At the end of the room was another iron door. Mahārāja just sat there bewildered for a couple of minutes, wondering what was happening. In his mind’s eye, he expected the door would open revealing a paddy wagon. He would then be handcuffed and driven to his next place of incarceration. Suddenly the guard reappeared, hit another button on the wall and the thick iron door rattled into motion, slowly opening in increments.
Mahārāja stared – there was no paddy wagon, no handcuffs, no guards waiting to take him to another prison. There was just the street with people walking back and forth.
Behind him he heard the guard shouting through a PA system, “Get the hell outta here!” Mahārāja couldn’t believe it. He just sat on the bench gawking at the street, trying to comprehend what was happening. He heard the screech of the PA system again, “So? What are you waiting for, kid? Are you going or what?”
He slowly walked out with some suspicion towards the bright sunlight outside. Was it just a cruel joke? Were there guards outside waiting for him, who would then grab him and take him to another prison?
There was just the street, shops, cars, pedestrians, and a group of his friends who happened to be standing outside the courthouse. They were just as shocked as he was.
“What are you doing here?” they exclaimed.
“I don’t know!!!” he replied, and he ran from downtown San Diego all the way to Mission Beach (about 6 miles) as fast as he could. He thought it must have been a mistake – the judge clearly said that he had been sentenced for five years. How was it that he was now out? He kept running and running through back alleys, convinced that the authorities would suddenly realise their blunder and chase after him. After a few minutes he stopped and listened. There were no sirens behind him and the only sound of running feet belonged, not to a cadre of angry prison guards, but to his friends who finally caught up with him.
Years later, Mahārāja deduced that there may have been some bureaucratic oversight with his papers, and whoever was responsible covered their tracks by disposing of his record. Alternatively, the authorities may have eventually concluded that Mahārāja could not be charged with draft evasion for the simple reason that due to his constant relocating, he never actually received his induction papers! Regardless of the reason, from a higher perspective, Mahārāja was not simply meant to languish in prison for five years. A higher power was propelling him in a particular direction.
After Mahārāja’s release he travelled to Eureka, California to begin a new life and took a part-time job doing construction for a professor who was refurbishing his basement. The job paid cash. Mahārāja now had money in his pocket and time for himself and his yoga practice.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: At that time, something was pulling at my inner self. Who was I? Was I a surfer, a yogī, or what? One thing was missing for sure – the company of like-minded friends.
The youth of his era had initially championed peace, love and equality with a desire to change the world, but for the most part they were now totally lost and consumed by it. Their utopian ideals had been replaced by base desires for sex and drugs, which often devolved into violence. Mahārāja had become disillusioned with that movement as well as its so-called leaders.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: It was dispiriting to see. Many of the icons of that time like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix became dependent on drugs, only to die from their abuses a few years later. Others like Bob Dylan sold out and sang for money rather than for the ideals of freedom, justice and equality that launched their popularity in the first place. The youth in general became degraded and lost their vision of a beautiful future. Others just blended back into the fabric of American society, abandoning their dreams and became average middle-class citizens or just another Joe-Six Pack in the crowd. The whole thing ended up going to hell in a hand-basket! Though some of us may have miraculously walked away with something worthwhile, overall the counterculture movement was a failure. More than anything, I think it lacked enlightened leadership and self-determination.
Then one day Mahārāja decided to join the Kṛṣṇa temple he had once visited in San Francisco. His limited experience with the Hare Kṛṣṇas in The Haight had been positive and it lingered in his mind for a long time. He thought that the devotees might be able to offer what he now yearned for the most – enlightenment. It seemed to him to be a calling, and joining the Hare Kṛṣṇas might be a step in the right direction.
Arriving by bus in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, Mahārāja made his way over to the temple on Fredrick Street, but it was closed. So he went to Golden Gate Park, crept under a bush and went to sleep, just as he had done the first time he came to The Haight years before. He had old friends in The Haight that he could have stayed with, but preferred to avoid that scene completely – after all, the last time he stayed with ‘friends’ there, he was almost convicted for crimes that he didn’t commit.
Early on Christmas morning, Mahārāja again went to the temple and arrived during a lecture which was given by Gaurahari Dāsa, the devotee in charge. Although Mahārāja couldn’t follow everything that was said, there was one section in the purport that stuck with him:
If a person, out of sentiment or for some other reason, takes to the shelter of the lotus feet of the Lord and in due course of time does not succeed in coming to the ultimate goal of life or falls down due to lack of experience, there is no loss. But for a person who does not take to devotional service yet executes his material duties very nicely, there is no gain. (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 4.22.37 purport)
The class was followed by a breakfast of spiritual food, which was referred to by the devotees as ‘prasādam.’ This prasādam was different to the ‘simply-wonderfuls’ that he had first taken on Hippy Hill.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: It was just some oat-meal ‘something or other.’ They asked me to sit down with everyone else, then prasādam was served out – they gave one scoop on a piece of wax paper. It was December – it was cold outside and I had slept under a bush in the park all night, so I was really hungry. But when they came by with the second scoop, out of politeness I said, “No thank you.” Then they just packed up the pots and it was gone! I should have said ‘yes.’
After breakfast, as Mahārāja sat near a window trying to warm himself in the sunlight, a young saffron-clad brahmacārī wandered over to him and sighed.
“Man! I’m still hungry!” he said gloomily.
Mahārāja shrugged, “Yeah, I was kind of a little disappointed myself. I’m a little bit hungry too.” Then he suddenly remembered something and reached into his side-bag, “Hey, I got some bread-sticks. I can share some with you, brother!
The brahmacārī’s face lit up. “Awesome!
Mahāraja always travelled with home-made bread-sticks. He pulled out four deep-fried wholewheat bread-sticks from his bag and handed two to the devotee who gobbled them down voraciously. Much later when he looked back at this incident, Mahārāja figured that this boy was probably not such a fixed-up devotee…
As the devotee wiped his hands on his dhoti and walked away with a smile, the temple president, Gaurahari came over. During the course of their conversation, Mahārāja explained to him that he wanted to join the temple. Gaurahari immediately became elated until Mahārāja gave the stipulation, “…only if there is a place for me to practice haṭha-yoga for an hour a day.”
Gaurahari replied, “We don’t do that kind of yoga here.”
So it was back to the bus station and back to Eureka to work for another couple of weeks. From there, Mahārāja decided to join his friends at the Banana Patch in Maui, Hawaii.