A Winding Path to Straight-Edge Life
Posted March 31, 2008
About 12 years ago my friend Brian and I were staying up late, smoking pot and flipping though channels. As we scrolled though various channels we caught sight of what looked to be a punk-rock concert. Kids were stage diving, and a bald-headed singer on stage was singing. We thought we had stumbled across something pretty awesome, and the scene quickly changed. Now we were watching George Harrison sing a song we had never heard before. Still accepting this as "cool" for a show on public access in the middle of the night, the channel stayed on.
Shortly after Mr. Harrison's feature was over, we were bombarded with a bunch of shaved heads, kartals and people in orange outfits. They were the Hare Krishnas. We were watching Pandava-vijaya prabhu's "Dangerous TV". Laughter rang out in the living room as we watched with a "what the heck is this" attitude. Devotees were on and off the screen, and we stayed fixed to the TV so we could further investigate what exactly was going on. We could not make much sense of the show.
The one similarity among all the featured people on the show were "these bags" around their neck. In our mentally altered state we decided to play a game: "What's in the bag?" After many attempts of trying to figure out just what those Hare Krishnas had in the bags around their neck we decided: "Dude, that's where they keep their bubbles."
About a year later, I gave up smoking pot. I had been a vegetarian since about the age of 14 and was now considering myself "straight edge" — a movement of people that choose to be drug-, alcohol- and tobacco-free; some also refrain from meat. I was listening to a new kind of music, and gaining a new set of friends. In Houston there was an all-day straight-edge festival with 20-some bands. I was ready, so I got to the venue and walked around ready to hear some loud music.
As I made my way into the courtyard I saw two men with shaven heads and orange robes; they were the "bubble people." I was strangely attracted to them, and I headed over wondering what they could be doing there. The conversation was warm, and I got my my first taste of prasadam. Later in the day, I found myself back at the table asking if I could have more of their food. Then again, I came back to the table and asked if I could have more of that food. The third time around, the conversation lasted a little bit longer. They gave me a card, and said: "If you like this food you should come to our temple; we have a free feast, all vegetarian".
One week later, driving to a side of town that I did not even knew existed, I made a left turn down the road where the temple was. It was early in the day, around 5 p.m.; not many people were on the temple grounds. I walked around like a deer in headlights, even contemplating getting back in the car and heading home. Then, coming from around the corner I saw this man that reminded me of "the Fonz" from Happy Days, the television show. He came up to me with a big smile and introduced himself: "Hello, I'm Pandava." What a cool name, I thought.
I told him how I had met these two guys last week, and was there for the free food. He explained what time the food service was, and if I wouldn't mind staying around and listening to a lecture first. I sat though the lecture trying to hang on to as much information as possible; then Pandava led me to the place to get the food. I tasted a whole new array of flavors, but I loved it.
Pandava excused himself; when he returned he came back with an orange bag, the one that holds the "bubbles," a set of beads wrapped around his forearm, and a smaller set of beads for counting. He explained the importance of the beads and requested that I give chanting a try. He gave me a card with the Maha-mantra on it, and again encouraged me to give it a try. We parted ways that evening, and strange as it all was, I knew I'd be back.
That week I pulled my beads out of the bag, put the card in front of me and tried to recite what was on the card. It was a poor effort but an effort nonetheless. Next week, I went back to the temple and found Pandava, who introduced me to several other devotees on the temple grounds. One of them was Krisha Kripa das. Pandava said that he was someone who might be able to answer some of my questions. Krishna Kripa had a radiant personality, yet still maintained a saintly presence. That day I must have thrown 100 or so questions at Krishna Kripa, and he had answers for all of the ignorance that was spewing from my mouth.
This particular Sunday, Krishna Kripa was giving the talk in the temple. Again, I stayed around and listened, and made my way to the place to get the food with both Krishna Kripa and Pandava. After we were done eating we talked about my attempts to chant. They both encouraged me to keep trying, and God would assist me. "If you take one step toward God, he will talk three steps towards you." When it was time to say goodbye, Krishna Kripa gave me a really cool "flower necklace" that he had worn while giving the lecture earlier that evening.
For about a year or so I was pals with Pandava and Krishna Kripa prabhus, learning more and more about the philosophy and getting my chanting down. One temple visit, still being a "newbie," I met another devotee. He was young, and I told him how I was still trying to get my chanting down. He wrote down, "Jaya Sri Krishna Chaitanya . . ." and said to make sure I said these words before every round.
After associating with the devotees for about a year and a half, I got a big break in the music industry. I hung my bead bag on a wall with a thumbtack and gave up my drug-free lifestyle. I remained a vegetarian, but I smoked and consumed everything I could get my hands on for about six years while living the rock-and-roll lifestyle.
In the midst of it all I knew I needed to give it up. In those years of being on stage, heavily drugged and diving deeper and deeper into the material world, I felt a huge emptiness in my life, so I announced my retirement. I played my last show, and that was that. I knew what I needed to do.
I got on the phone, and found the number for the local Hare Krishna temple. I asked if I could get in contact with Pandava. The person on the other end of the phone said Pandava now lived in Dallas. I asked for the phone number of Krishna Kripa. I mustered up some confidence, swallowed my pride and called Krishna Kripa Das: "Hi, I'm sure you don't remember me. . . ." I told him the long story of what had happened. He seemed to remember me, and welcomed me back to the temple. Before going back, I went to my mom's house where I had lived when I first visited the temple. I was looking for my bead bag. My mom said, "I knew it was important, so I never moved it." My bead bag hung on the same thumbtack in the closet, exactly where I had left it. I put it around my neck and headed to temple. When I made that left turn to the temple grounds parking lot I felt like I was returning home, and in many ways I was. That was four years ago.
Since my return I have taken to the scriptures, chant my 16 rounds, mostly starting at 4 a.m., and have been lucky enough to find a spiritual master, His Grace Sankarshan prabhu in Austin, Texas. The story of finding my guru is a long, yet beautiful story, but I can save that for another time. I have regular service at the temple, and worked towards getting cleared by our temple president for initiation.
On Sunday, March 9, 2008, the temple room was filled with my friends, a whole slew of devotees, and well over 100 people. On that day, my spiritual master chanted on a new set of beads, and initiated me into the sampradaya, giving me the name Sukhada das.
I still have the first bead bag that Pandava purchased for me when I first visited the temple; I keep it safe in a drawer. The only reason I do not continue to use it is because I was lucky enough to receive my spiritual master's bead bag.
The beads I used until my initiation were the beads that Pandava had purchased for me when I first visited the temple. I have had to retire the beads, but they hang in my office as a constant reminder of Pandava's gentle mercy. I still, however, use the counter Pandava purchased for me 12 years ago. I also keep in my bead bag the sheet of paper that I later found was written by Indranuja das with the "Jaya Sri Krishna Chaitanya . . ." mantra on it, as well as the first letter I received from my spiritual master.
Now I hope and pray that I can live up to the standards shown to me
by all these devotees, my spiritual master and Srila Prabhupada.