Coming to Krsna by Prabhupada's mercy
Posted November 12, 2003
Since the recent Vyasapuja celebration, I have been meditating on how His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has, even in his physical absence, transformed my life inconceivably. In Back to Godhead, one regular feature I found inspiring was the series of occasional "Coming to Krsna" articles. Some time ago, in my community, we held a gathering on this theme. It was deeply moving to hear of each individual's struggles and search for spiritual life -- how, through the mercy of Srila Prabhupada's books, the holy name and his followers, each began to take up devotional service.
Hearing the stories helped me appreciate the mercy of Lord Caitanya's sankirtan movement and of Prabhupada's austerities to share his love for the Lord with us. Most devotees today had no opportunity for Prabhupada's association, yet, through exercises like this, we can appreciate him through his books, by following his instructions and in his merciful outreach programs -- the distribution of his books, the holy name and the Lord's prasada.
Narrating our sagas was often humbling and emotional -- an opportunity to see how, in every situation, Krsna was helping us (as He continues lovingly -- sometimes painfully -- to prod us) to surrender with body, words and mind. It helped me develop a desire to share this wonderful knowledge with others. For every soul who has taken up this process, there are countless others still struggling with unanswered questions and searching for meaning.
My family and I lived in a country town a few hours out of Sydney, Australia. Once or twice a year we'd make the journey to the big city; on one such visit we crossed paths with a sankirtan party. I was like one of those little kids we sometimes see on Harinama -- staring, mouth agape, bewildered yet fascinated! The flowing robes of the devotees, the mystical chime of the karatals and the chanting intrigued me. My parents rushed me away rather quickly, but I never forgot this first contact -- one that would ultimately change my life.
Every Sunday, my sister and I attended religious classes where we would learn stories and songs about the Lord and Jesus Christ. I began to perceive as narrow-minded the church's dogmatic stance on other spiritual paths; I could not accept the claim that Jesus was the only way. "But what about all the pious Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews?" I would wonder. "Are they all destined for hell, simply because they did not worship the same way we did?" My questions went unanswered; finally, in complete disillusionment, I refused to attend anymore. I continued to pray and read on my own, and was moved by the example of surrender shown by Jesus Christ.
I was quiet and shy; having over-protective parents, I was a loner, with few friends. Other children would torment me, and my confidence diminished. They teased me about my violin classes, calling them "Granny's guitar lessons." I grew to dread those daily lessons. I was becoming depressed, although I told no one. I spent my free time with my music, art and writing -- contemplating the meaning of life. Through my unhappiness, loneliness and disillusionment I was forced to look more within myself -- something I might never have done otherwise. I told nobody of my conflict, fearing that they would think me strange for wondering about such things. "Why can't I be like everyone else?" I would lament. "Why can't I be happy and have fun -- not think about all these things?"
One day as a teenager shopping with my mother, we met a devotee distributing books. The title Chant and be happy attracted me. My mother told me not to take it, but I did anyway, and hid it in my room where she wouldn't find it. I can't recall reading it; it would be a few more years before I applied its teachings in my own life. Around this time, there was a segment on the television show Sixty Minutes about children who had attended the gurukula at New Govardhana. Although the devotees presented the lifestyle from a very idealistic (and perhaps not so realistic) perspective, I was enchanted; I wished I too could live in such a way.
Growing older, I faced the questions of whether to study, find a job, stay at home or go elsewhere. There was nobody I particularly desired to emulate. The goals that people set themselves (nice partner, job, home, etc.) seemed shallow, and without permanent meaning. Though my parents were pious, they seemed as caught up with materialistic life as everyone else, and could not help me in my search. Although my grades were good and I could have entered any university in Australia, I didn't want to face four years at university, when I myself was so mixed up.
Then I received a book which started me on my quest in earnest -- Tracks, the story of Robyn Davidson, a young woman who had crossed the vast Australian desert alone, with four camels and a dog. In the magnitude and breathtaking beauty of the Red Centre, as we call it, she claimed to have found herself, who she was and where she was going in her life. This book captured my imagination. I decided this was just what I needed: a quest, a challenge.
The environmental movement was becoming effective in protecting pristine wilderness areas against greedy developers. My passion for environmentalism might give my life the meaning I so desperately sought. I invested in a backpack, good hiking boots and a tent, and flew to Tasmania, then the centre of a heated struggle between ardent environmentalists and the Tasmanian state government, which was planning a hydroelectric dam in the heart of the wilderness.
My parents were mortified. This was not what they had in mind for me, but I felt my environment too cloistered for spiritual growth. My odyssey, though offering physical freedom I had not experienced previously, did not present answers to existential questions, nor the belonging I desired so much. Many environmentalists were not the dedicated idealists I had envisioned, but were as shallow and materially motivated as everyone else. I definitely didn't want to model my life on them.
I backpacked alone -- as many young school-leavers did -- to meet people and experience different lifestyles. I visited places of incredible natural beauty, yet was no closer to finding out what I really wanted to do with my life. In the rugged wilderness of southern Australia, alone amongst breathtaking beauty, I felt a sense of peace and happiness I could never experience elsewhere.
Yet I could not remain there forever, and what happiness I felt was accompanied by a deep sense of emptiness. There was always an intuitive feeling that somewhere there was so much more. As Lord Krsna explains in the Bhagavad-gita (10.41), "Know that all opulent, beautiful and glorious creations spring from but a spark of my splendour."
I became a vegetarian and read spiritual books, learnt yoga and practiced meditation. I learnt about simple living, organic farming and permaculture. In the hostels where I would often stay, there was always a bookshelf with all kinds of literature, and invariably there would be several of Srila Prabhupada's books. I browsed through them and was touched by the philosophical depth and the exquisite illustrations. But the books, though obviously profound, were so far beyond my neophyte speculations that I read only superficially.
The first temple I visited was in Cairns, a city in the far north of Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef. Every Sunday the devotees held a feast, attended by local residents and tourists alike. This feast was so popular that there wasn't enough room for everyone. When it was time for serving prasada, the queue would stretch out down the steps, out the front door and along the street. I remember joining one of those queues and thinking, "How embarrassing! I hope nobody I know sees me here!"
Upon entering the temple, meeting the devotees and honouring the delicious prasada, my feelings changed. These people were so nice! I appreciated the purity of the lifestyle and the dedication of devotees to share their beliefs with others, despite the rudeness and apathy they sometimes encountered. One girl gave me the book Higher Taste. After prasada, the devotees began kirtan and encouraged the guests also to dance. I joined in, self-consciously at first and, gradually, more enthusiastically.
That afternoon I went home feeling a happiness I had never felt before. I was following the regulative principles and had been meditating, but was reticent about getting involved in any particular institution or religion. I had heard that to take up spiritual life seriously meant to give up material desires, yet I still had so many youthful plans. I would think, "I may not be so happy now, but one day I'll become really successful! Then I'll get the admiration I really deserve! " Out of wariness, I listened carefully to classes but hoped the devotees wouldn't give me too much attention.
Shortly after this, I returned to Sydney to be closer to my family. I continued to visit the local temple but was careful to keep some distance. Regardless of what I did, I wanted to be true to myself -- not simply spend my life in a dead-end job working with people I didn't like or respect, as so many people seemed to settle for. To do so seemed soul-destroying and a betrayal to myself. Travelling now seemed superficial; I couldn't backpack around Australia forever. My parents definitely weren't going to pay for me to do it for much longer! I knew I had to stop, settle down and commit to some particular path, as everyone else seemed to do.
One night, in turmoil, I poured out my heart to the Lord. "Please, Lord, there must be more than this! Please help and guide me!" After all this time I still did not feel I was any closer to solving the questions I had always been speculating on -- who was I? What was the goal of life, of my life? What was the most worthwhile, meaningful way to spend whatever time I had in this world? Why was I suffering and how might I stop the pain?
The next morning I packed my backpack and tent, put on my hiking boots and caught the train out of Sydney. There was one last place I wanted to visit before leaving the city, supposedly renouncing the world. I had a great interest in organic farming methods and knew that the devotees had an organic farm in the mountains behind Sydney -- Bhaktivedanta ashram. I'd been meaning to go there, and now seemed like a good opportunity.
That visit changed my life. I believe that it was a direct answer to the prayer I had offered the previous night. To actually spend time in a devotee community was a real eye-opener -- to see the philosophy put into application in the lives of the devotees. To participate in the temple program and chant with devotees was wonderful. The first time I heard the Govindam prayers played in the temple was so moving that I practically burst into tears; I felt as though I had finally come home.
Once I began chanting regularly, Prabhupada's books became easier to understand, and slowly I learnt answers to many of the questions I had been grappling with for so long. By attempting to hear and chant attentively, and by engaging in practical service, I felt a sense of happiness I had never experienced before -- which is our true spiritual nature.
By the mercy of Krsna and His dear devotee, Srila Prabhupada, this sad, lost soul has had the opportunity to associate with devotees, to chant the mahamantra and to begin practicing devotional service.
It is now many years since that day I arrived at Bhaktivedanta Ashram and my life changed so dramatically. I now live outside, practicing devotional service with my family in my home. My journey to Krsna continues, as I attempt to chant the holy name attentively and to put into practice the instructions in Prabhupada's books.
The Lord reciprocates with our endeavours. Slowly and steadily, by applying the process of Bhakti Yoga in our own lives, we come closer to His lotus feet. Through the books that Srila Prabhupada tirelessly translated, we learn about our real identity as spirit soul, Lord Krsna's eternal servant, and we discover the ultimate meaning of our life -- to serve the Lord with love and devotion.
Coming to Krsna, the continuation of our journey, also means to mature, both spiritually and materially, to look within our hearts, to examine ourselves, to see our lack of faith and, in all humility, to call out for His help and guidance. It means to cultivate a healthy sense of responsibility and to utilize discrimination in our lives, even in the society of devotees -- what is helpful in our attempts to become a devotee (and how can we accept this) and what is not so conducive and needs to be given up?
It means regularly to re-evaluate our lives and motives. Are we running to Krsna or simply hiding from the world? How can we live responsibly, yet remain unaffected by the negativity that abounds, both within ourselves and outside? Are we transcending our material desires, or simply repressing and denying them? How can we develop deep and implicit faith -- essential if we are genuinely to make spiritual advancement? Are we developing real humility, submissiveness and surrender, or are we simply confusing it with becoming complacent with our low self-esteem?
Writing this article made me reflect on how suffering, while not something to seek out deliberately, can often be a benediction in spiritual life. Were it not for the isolation I experienced, I would never have attempted to search beyond the monotony of suburban Australian life. I definitely would never have felt the need to look at my life more deeply, and would never have had the opportunity to take up devotional service. Rather than denying the pain of this world, we need to reframe it with gratitude and to appreciate the Lord's arrangement to assist us in our journey to His lotus feet. Lord Krsna is the best friend of every living entity, and He has always been helping and guiding us in many ways -- not just in this life but in many others.
At every stage, Lord Krsna has always been present, helping and guiding
me. Writing this article has helped me appreciate the compassion of His
confidential servant, Srila Prabhupada, who underwent many difficulties to
bring knowledge of his beloved Lord to so many. I hope that it has been of
interest to the readers of Chakra and has helped them to increase their
appreciation to the Lord and His pure devotee. I also pray that the readers
may shower their mercy upon me, that my journey may continue unhindered, and
eventually reach its ultimate destination -- the lotus feet of Lord Sri