Ācārya Siṁha

The Life of Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasiṅgha Mahārāja

Chapter 8 – Śrīla Prabhupāda and the San Francisco Ratha-Yātrā
(June 1971)

The famous American author Mark Twain once remarked, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” June 20th 1971 was no exception. When Narasiṅgha Mahārāja and the Tucson devotees arrived at the temple in Valencia Street a week before Ratha-Yātrā, it was a cold and damp afternoon. Jayānanda Prabhu was in charge of the festival and was so busy that he hardly even noticed the different devotees who were arriving from various temples. However, Mahārāja caught Jayānanda’s eye and, remembering him from the Gaura Pūrṇimā festival in Berkley, Jayānanda immediately asked if he would help him construct the ratha-carts. Naturally, Mahārāja was happy to be of service and followed Jayānanda to the ratha site.

The three rathas were standing in a vacant lot on Stanyan Street, where Jayānanda and his crew were working frantically to have everything ready in time for the festival. The year before, as the Ratha-yātrā began at Golden Gate Park, the wheel of Baladeva’s chariot suddenly broke. This accident had made Jayānanda extra cautious and he insisted on overseeing every single aspect of the program. He would not only engage all the devotees, but would also engage non-devotees. People would be walking past the lot minding their own business when Jayānanda would call over to them, “Hey! Come over here! We need your help!” and miraculously, they would suddenly find themselves standing in front of the ratha with a paintbrush, a hammer, or a piece of sandpaper in their hands. Jayānanda’s service-mentality was infectious.

Devotees building the Ratha Carts In San Francisco 1971

Hundreds of devotees from every temple in North America and Canada had arrived – not only to participate in the Ratha-Yātrā, but also to see Śrīla Prabhupāda who would be arriving in San Francisco in the morning. Prabhupāda had been away from the United States for almost a year during which time he had been preaching in India, Malaysia, Australia, Russia and France. Now His Divine Grace was returning to the country where he started the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement and in his absence, many new temples had opened, and many new devotees had joined Kṛṣṇa consciousness – including Mahārāja.

Since San Francisco was a dangerous city, Jayānanda requested devotees to join him at night protecting the rathas from local low-lifes.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: Jayānanda had to get guards to stay up all night at the site where the carts were being built. He was sleeping under the wheels on the asphalt. His technique was “Unlimited amounts of hot halava will be available for whoever comes.” At first I hesitated, but when I heard that there was going to be unlimited hot halava, I went for it. That was the main thing in my mind – to take that halava. He got five or six of us and put us in there with a big bucket of hot halava as he promised and bedded us down to guard the Ratha-Yātrā carts.

In the evening of June 26th, over two-hundred devotees stormed San Francisco International Airport to greet Śrīla Prabhupāda. The devotees made quite a scene. As they saw Prabhupāda come through the arrival gate, a tumultuous kīrtana began and devotees began leaping in the air, throwing flower petals, blowing conch-shells, jumping over seats and jostling frightened passengers and onlookers. Mahārāja was not at the airport as he stayed back to help Jayānanda at the ratha site with last minute preparations.

During the Ratha-Yātrā, Mahārāja’s service was to distribute books to the public. When he arrived at Golden Gate Park, it was already teeming with thousands of onlookers from every walk of life – devotees, hippies, bohemians, young, old. Every year the Ratha-Yātrā in San Francisco became bigger and bigger and with it, the crowds that attended.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: Early that morning, we took the chariots to the entrance of Golden Gate Park and they were decorated. Myself and another devotee had made some book-carts – they were just simple trollies, but books were displayed on both sides and we could follow the rathas with these. The festival was scheduled for noon and the procession began at the park and ended at Lindley Meadows. We were near the main road with our book-carts when, I saw the Deities of Jagannātha, Baladeva and Subhadrā arrive. Then suddenly another car slowly glided past us, and when I turned and looked inside I saw Karandhara’s brother Keśava in the front, and sitting in the backseat was Śrīla Prabhupāda. That was the first time I actually saw him.

Mahāraja watched as devotees surrounded the car on all sides. As Viṣṇujana Swami led a loud and enthusiastic kīrtana everyone chanted, danced, jumped for joy, laughed or cried. The Deities were placed on the chariots and eventually Prabhupāda’s car came to a halt in front on them, then Śrīla Prabhupāda stepped out with a radiant smile. Hundreds of devotees immediately threw themselves on the ground, offering obesiances to their guru. Seeing this scene, Mahārāja was stunned and then also offered his obesiances to Śrīla Prabhupāda.

Śrīla Prabhupāda climbing on to Subhadrā’s chariot (left) and Viṣṇujana Swami leading kirtana during the San Francisco Ratha-yatra 1971 (right)

As was his practice, Prabhupāda sat on Subhadrā Devī’s chariot and before the procession began, he spoke to the crowd, welcoming them to the festival and explained the significance of Ratha-Yātrā. Narasiṅgha Mahārāja clearly remembered that during his talk, Śrīla Prabhupāda also mentioned his books, in particular, The Teachings of Lord Caitanya.

Śrīla Prabhupāda: So this Ratha-Yātrā ceremony is performed in commemoration of Kṛṣṇa’s visiting Kurukṣetra with His brother and sister. So Lord Jagannātha, Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu, He was in ecstasy. He was in the mood of loving spirit like Rādhārāṇī, so He was thinking, “Kṛṣṇa, please come back again to Vṛndāvana.” So He was dancing before the Ratha-Yātrā, and you will understand, if you read some of the books published by you…, published by our society. One of the book is known as Teachings of Lord Caitanya. It is very important book. If you want to learn this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement, we have got enough books. You can scientifically and philosophically study. But if you have no inclination to study, if you simply take to this chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa, gradually everything will be revealed unto you, and you will understand your relationship with Kṛṣṇa. I thank you very much for participating in this ceremony. Now let us chant Hare Kṛṣṇa and proceed with Jagannātha Swami. Hare Kṛṣṇa!

The procession began with non-stop kīrtana and hundreds of people grabbed the ropes and began pulling the chariots. After some hours, the procession finally arrived at the festival grounds at Lindley Meadows. By this time, Mahārāja had already distributed a large quantity of books and Back To Godhead magazines. The notorious San Francisco summer of Mark Twain disappeared and the sun shone down on ten-thousand people as they sat on the grass taking prasādam and chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa.

San Francisco Ratha-yatra 1971

The program finally ended in the evening and the devotees returned to the temple where Śrīla Prabhupāda was meeting with all the temple presidents of North America. Meanwhile, Jayānanda was busy rallying devotees to help clean up the kitchen after the festival.

Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: Jayānanda was organising the kitchen clean-up in the temple. He got me into it when he mentioned that there would be prasādam for the clean-up crew. One by one, everyone in the kitchen disappeared as they finished. I was working on a big stove and was the last one to go. When I left the kitchen, it was past midnight and there was nobody around, so I thought, “Oh, there’s no prasādam.” I started down the hallway, and as I passed by a window I heard voices. That window went straight out onto the roof. I looked out the window, and there was Jayānanda with buckets of hot halava and there were about six devotees taking prasādam with him – Yogeśa-candra, Buddhimanta and others. Some of them were already lying on their backs. Immediately, I climbed out the window to get my promised prasādam.

Śrīla Prabhupāda remained in San Francisco for one more day before leaving to Los Angeles. Naturally, all the devotees also left San Francisco en masse and travelled to Los Angeles to be with him.

Sukadeva Dāsa, Mahārāja’s temple president, was corralling all the Tucson devotees into the saṅkīrtana vehicle for the drive to Los Angeles. As Mahārāja was about to step into the minibus, Śukadeva pulled him aside to give him some news. He explained that since Śrīla Prabhupāda had been away from the United States for almost a year, there were many devotees waiting for initiation. Prabhupāda had decided therefore, that there would be an initiation ceremony on July 3rd in Los Angeles.

Śukadeva was recommending Mahārāja for hari-nāma initiation.

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s lecture at the 1971 San Francisco Ratha-yatra