Hidden History of Kusakratha Part - II
Posted October 31, 2005
During the time leading up to and after the week long initiation of July 21st at the Brooklyn Temple, Bhakta Peter along with almost everyone else would go out on Harinam Sankirtan during the day. It was a decidedly colorful group and a big group it was -seventy to eighty plus brahmacaris and increasing daily!! Once, a congregational member named Zubin, who was in in the tie-dye business had donated a bunch of tie-dye kurtas. Who could forget brahmacaris adorned in tie-dye kurtas? Almost everyone had tired of the novelty, but it seemed that Kusa had worn his longer than most of us. This combined with his unique and haphazard dhoti style along with two different socks was an unforgettable sight. Of course, if you weren't careful to lift your dhoti while ascending or descending the filthy subway steps you were to sure to pick up an ever-widening decorative grayish-black border.
Before the big initiation Kusa was thinking that the four regulative principles should be embraced by the devotees more enthusiastically. Just after Srila Prabhupada gave Kusakratha his name, Prabhupada asked him to state the regulative principles which he did. Then immediately he asked him which one he like the best and Kusakratha kind of lost it -half gasping -laughing he replied, "Srila Prabhupada, you are reading my mind." Srila Prabhupada was also laughing, and this pastime was caught in a classic photo appearing in an early Vyasa Puja book.(1972?)
I was told that when Kusakratha first saw Srila Prabhupada in Buffalo, he was rolling on the ground back and forth in front of him. Although it appeared very weird to the devotees at the time, in retrospect this is actually a natural way to approach a pure devotee. Balavanta related that when they began the Atlanta temple, Kusakratha was one of the original founders and although very eccentric performed nice service.
Giriraja Swami remembers when there were hardly any devotees in Boston, Bhakta Peter used to sit in the hallway at the entrance to the building with his back to the wall and legs outstretched, absorbed in reading Prabhupada's books. When sleep overcame him he would simply lie down in the same spot and take rest. The first thing a guest would see was Peter, slouched in the hallway reading or sleeping. Satsarupa Maharaja wrote to Prabhupada asking what to do. Prabhupada wrote back, "What's the matter? Can't you tolerate?" Twenty years later when Giriraja visited New Dwarka and saw Peter he asked curiously, "Who's that?" A devotee told him, "Oh, that's Kusakratha." Kusa was now famous for translating so many scriptures. Although Maharaj saw so little potential, Prabhupada saw much more.
At the Brooklyn temple I would sometimes plead with Kusa to sketch or do something in art. He would just say that he had no inclination, although because of my persistence he did show me a sketch he had drawn that seemed to me half-heartedly done. It seemed to be his way of discouraging me from bugging him anymore.
Kusa never liked cold weather so he left Brooklyn for warmer climates. I saw him briefly in the famous 1972 festival in New Vrindavan, and he told me again how he couldn't tolerate cold weather. I don't remember seeing him again until 1975 when I returned from India and he was residing in San Diego. Jayatirtha was GBC in those days and he became a great admirer of Kusa for his expertise in sastra. J.T. organized several retreats with Kusa and the zonal leaders to enthuse others to scrutinize Srila Prabhupada's books. After that J.T. wanted Kusa to give special evening seminars to all the devotees in New Dwarka. On the first night the temple was filled with expectant devotees. Several boards exhibited Kusa's summary descriptions of Bhagavad Gita chapters. Devotees perused these summaries awaiting Kusa's appearance. I began to sense that something could be going wrong, so I ran outside to find Kusa. There he was, near the alley, in the rain. I said, "Everyone is waiting for you." He just blurted out, "Tell them to move." Then I saw some women congregating at the entrance so I asked them to move. Kusa didn't appreciate microphones or any loud noises so he spoke without any amplification. He gave some homework tests for everyone to bring the next evening. The next evening Jadurani handed me all the ladies' papers. I said, "Here are the women's papers." He said, "I don't want them," so I returned the papers to Jadurani. Rameswara was denouncing the classes as overemphasizing jnana-knowledge, but it had the good effect of encouraging people to put their heads to the books.
The time of the 1976 Gaura Purnima festival was drawing near, and J.T. decided to sponsor Kusa's plane ticket. I asked Kusa later if he had ever bathed in the Ganga and he said that he had put his toe in. In those days he used to wear several hooded sweatshirts even on the hottest day in Mayapur.
Sometime after the 1976 festival I was in front of the L.A. temple and I saw Kusa walking toward me from Venice Boulevard. First thing he said was that he was worried that he may have been banned from the L.A . temple, and in fact- all of the temples. He recounted that while in India TKG had asked him to visit the Radha Damodar buses upon his return to the U.S. just to enthuse the brahmacaris in studying. He seemed to be doing okay until he was pressured on one bus to clean and perform other chores while the men were out distributing. One over-zealous swami decided to kick him off the bus and made sure he was unwelcome at the local Chicago temple as well. Kusa had hitchhiked from there back to L.A. and here he was. I assured him that there was no chance of anyone heeding that swamis orders here in New Dwarka. Allaying his anxieties, I took his arm and proceeded across the street to the BBT Sanskrit department, and left him there with Gopipranadhana and others. Day by day, he advanced his grasp of Sanskrit and was soon translating simple texts. He was so enthusiastic in the beginning that he would come up to my studio and attempted to teach me Sanskrit grammar while I was painting. He was incredulous that I was unable to develop the same taste for Sanskrit that he now had. I did learn a bit, but in the end I remained a sudra, simply memorizing a few verses.
While in Europe in "78 I started to see some of his manuscripts, but it wasn't until 1984 that I had any real association again with him. At that time there were a few small books that he began to publish, but he had big plans. I was surprised that he had recently purchased a ticket to India at an exorbitant rate in order to procure as many original Sanskrit and Bengali works as possible for translation. He was now translating at a feverish pace and had run out of books. Myself and a couple of others strongly insisted that he return his ticket and get one that was reasonably priced, but he refused again and again-not wanting to deal with the situation. After some days, in touch with Dasaratha-suta he was able to borrow quite a few books to continue with his translation work, so he now decided not to go to India. I accompanied him to the travel office, a few blocks away, to get a refund for the ticket. When we walked in the door he blurted out immediately, "I want my money back!" When they asked him why, he wouldn't speak to them so I explained that he would be going later in the year with me. Although he lost seventy or eighty dollars the ticket was refunded. Some days later I noticed that Kusa wasn't at mangla arati. He used to stand at the far right side his ears plugged with toilet paper that would stream down the side of his face. Later that day I saw him and asked suspiciously, "Where were you today?" Sure enough, he had flown all the way to San Francisco on a separate ticket to get his visa which he was unable to get. I reminded him that there was no need for a visa since he wasn't going to India. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Oh yeah, that's right. I forgot."
When Kusa translated he would try to work under as strong a light as possible-practically always natural light. Often he would go to the roof of the temple and sit in the strong sunlight.
Although his father was a simple upholsterer he had received an investment tip and made some money. He had left Kusa a certain amount. I recall he was supposed to receive $20,000 at intervals. When he received the first twenty thousand he was able to launch his Krishna Institute publications and also pay his rent for some time. After his father's demise his family members had somehow arranged to prevent him from getting the rest, so he was totally dependent on the sales of his books which he printed in lots of one hundred, increasing the cost considerably. Whenever I saw him he would give me the latest books and sometimes send them to me. He said that I should have an archive. I used to stay with him at his place when I was in L.A. for Rathayatra, etc. although it was famously funky. The windows were tightly shut and although kirtan from across the street was barely audible, he claimed it was "deafening" and whenever I tried to open a window he admonished me saying he couldn't handle the "Arctic breezes". In 1985 I had done a painting of Lord Chaitanya instructing Rupa Goswami which I gave him to hang on his wall. He told me that for the next fifteen years or so he took inspiration from that painting. I picked it up when he left for India. It was quite dusty.
Kusa was really bummed out when some traveling salesmen began to pirate his work. It was difficult for him to maintain his service and simple lifestyle. For a few years I had helped arrange a regular stipend from an ex-member of the Sanskrit department who had become quite wealthy and was happy to see the new books being produced. Kusa was pretty stubborn as far as discounts go. Once for more than an hour in his room Mahamantra brahmacari was begging for a discount on buying a bunch of books, but Kusa was humorously unmovable.
At various times Kusa taught gurukula students in L.A. and later in Vrindaban, sometimes making funny cartoons on the chalkboard as part of his lesson. Sometimes he wrote spoofs of the perceived foibles of the devotees. He particularly poked fun at T.V. watching, sporting events such as ping-pong, and social events. He used to laugh heartily at these things. He invented original funny expressions spontaneously such as "dizzydasis". He found it amusing that people were attending college to learn Sanskrit and in the end were translating Mahabharata, when there were so much Goswami literatures that needed translating.
I saw Kusa in 2000 in Vrindavan when he told me that still, after several years, he continued to translate Jiva Goswami's monumental Gopal Champu which he said was the most difficult task he had ever undertaken. At the same time he was composing his own poems in Sanskrit and English. These works are as yet unpublished. He was handwriting everything over the last few years as his computer had failed and he was unable to get it going again. I saw him in April and he was serenely detached coming out to chant for a while every day, take darshan, and get prasadam.
I'm hoping that other friends of Kusa will share some other memories as
Visoka has so nicely done.