Chapter-32: Motor City A place of Pilgrimage

April 7 – 11 , 2001

By Indradyumna Swami

On April 7 our traveling party arrived in Detroit,  Michigan.

Several weeks ago while visiting San Francisco where I was raised, I experienced a few moments of nostalgia,  seeing the places where I had grown up. I controlled myself by reflecting that since being in the material world, I have called so many places home and adored millions of parents. However, this current life is certainly the most important for me, because it was in this life that I met my spiritual master, my eternal father, who is directing me back to the spiritual world. In a lecture in Tehran in 1976, Srila Prabhupada said:

janame janame saba pita-mata paya,

krsna guru nahe mile bhaja hari ei

 Birth after birth one receives a mother and father, but if one gets the benediction of guru and Krsna, he conquers the material energy and returns back to Godhead by worship of the Lord.

As we entered Detroit I was overcome by another wave of nostalgia, this time because it was in the original Detroit temple that I had met Srila Prabhupada. Driving past that old building at 8311 East Jefferson Street brought forth emotions I didn’t restrain. For me, the temple was a place of pilgrimage, having been blessed by the lotus feet of a pure devotee. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura writes in his Saranagati:

 gaura amara,     ye saba sthane, karala bhramana range

se-saba sthana,     heriba ami, pranayi-bhakata-sange

 May I visit all the holy places associated with the lilas of Lord Caitanya and His devotees.

Srila Prabhupada comments, “A devotee should make a point of visiting all the places where Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu performed His pastimes. Indeed, pure devotees of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu even want to see the places He simply visited for only hours or minutes.” (Cc. Antya 4.211, purport)

After getting settled at a devotee’s home, we visited the present Detroit temple. The historic mansion was constructed in 1928 by Lawrence P. Fisher, the then general manager of Cadillac Motors. It cost more than two million dollars to build. In 1976, on Srila Prabhupada’s request, two of his disciples, AmbariSa dasa and LekhaSravanti dasi, purchased the dilapidated estate for

$300,000. Srila Prabhupada asked them to restore it to its original splendor, open it to the public for tours, and develop it into a Vedic cultural center. At first the devotees were apprehensive. Although the building had originally been located in a wealthy and prestigious area of Detroit, the neighborhood had since become a crime-ridden slum. Srila Prabhupada told the devotees not to worry. In the future, he said, the area would again become prestigious, because the Supreme Lord in His temple would now be present.

As we drove up to the temple, I saw that Srila Prabhupada’s perfect vision had indeed come true. Through the years, the area has been cleaned up and a number of housing projects and condominiums are under construction only 100m from the temple.

True to its fame, the ornate building is spacious by any standard, but like many temples in the U.S., it is populated by only a few sincere devotees. I have often reflected in my travels in America that our movement needs to rethink its preaching strategy and to find novel ways of preaching without compromising our tradition. Otherwise, we don’t seem to be effective in spreading the Vedic teachings. Many temples, it seems, exist in a 1970s time warp.

Our basic formula will always be the same—chanting the holy name, distributing books and prasadam, and opening temples and farms where people can appreciate the ancient Vedic culture—but there must surely be novel ways of marketing these things that are in tune with modern society.

Srila Prabhupada himself was novel in his presentation of Krsna consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, and he hinted to us that we should do the same when he said, “Tax your brains how to spread this movement.” The art of preaching is to present “old wine in new bottles” without watering down the tradition.

Devotee: There was a poster on the wall saying they are opening a big exhibition of Russian books in Punjab.

Srila Prabhupada: So why don’t you exhibit our books too? Let them come to a competition.

Devotee: They say that this philosophy is very old.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. We are giving old wine in new bottle. It is old [but] the Western boys are taking.

—Morning walk conversation, 1975

While in Detroit we held a big harinama at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The students were holding a rally to protest laws forbidding the use of marijuana. When we arrived, several thousand students were demonstrating on the campus’ main plaza, many of them holding placards, shouting slogans, or taunting the police who had come to keep the peace. The air was tense, but the police were restrained. They occasionally arrested students who got out of hand.

We set up our instruments not far from the large stage where the main speakers were addressing the crowd. As soon as we began to chant, the atmosphere changed. The kirtana created a festive mood, and a number of students wandered over to chant with us. After a while, we began to lead our kirtana around the plaza, weaving in and out of the crowd. People began to relax. I was amazed at the potency of the holy name. The tension cleared almost immediately. In Kali-yuga the atmosphere is surcharged with quarrel and hypocrisy. One time Srila Prabhupada went to a Calcutta court to sign   a document. While in the courtroom he turned to one of his disciples and, pointing upwards, said that the ether in that place was contaminated by the lies of so many lawyers. He asked the devotees to chant Hare Krsna, and after a short time said, “All right, everything has become purified.”

On Sunday afternoon a most wonderful thing happened. I had just finished giving a Sunday Feast lecture to three hundred guests in the temple room and we had all moved outside to the lawn to respect prasadam. A few devotees stayed in the temple room to finish their rounds, when suddenly a middle- aged man wandered in and approached Srila Prabhupada’s vyasasana. He stood respectfully before the mürti for several minutes, speaking softly to him. After a while, he realized he was standing before a diorama and began to cry. A devotee approached him and asked if anything were the matter.

“He’s not here, is he?”

“You mean Srila Prabhupada?” “Yes, the Swami.”

“No. He passed away in 1977.”

More tears welled up in the man’s eyes as he said, “He showed me real love.”

Feeling compassion for the man, the devotee asked him to come outside and meet me. I was sitting on the front lawn with a few guests when the two of them sat down in front of me. I could see the man had been crying. The devotee told me how the man had attempted to speak to Srila Prabhupada in the temple. I asked, “Did you know Srila Prabhupada?”

“Yes,” he said. “I met him when I was fifteen years old. One day I was walking through the Lower East Side of New York City when I saw him sitting and singing with some of his followers in Tompkins Square Park. I walked over and the Swami invited me to sit down next to him. I sat there for a long time. There was something special about the way he sang. Although his voice was soft, you could hear him from quite a distance. He was singing for God. At one point he asked me my name, and judging from my intoxicated appearance, he said I was on the wrong path in life. He asked me to visit his center.”

“Did you go?”

“Yes, I went a number of times. It was a storefront called ‘Matchless Gifts.’ It was easy to find, because you could smell the incense a block away. Swami gave class there every evening. Many people often attended, but even if there were only two people, he still spoke. I remember one time no one came. There were a number of drunks loitering in front of the storefront, so Swami told  his followers to go out on the street and bring them in for the lecture. A boy named Keith told the Swami that the drunks wouldn’t be able to understand anything, but the Swami said that the soul would hear. His boys went outside and brought in six or seven of these men. A couple of them were so intoxicated that as soon as they sat down in the center they fell unconscious. The Swami’s followers assembled and the Swami gave a lecture. Afterwards, the boys took the drunks outside. They hardly knew what had happened, but we all knew they had been blessed.

“Sometimes the Swami personally cooked and served the food. There was something special about his cooking. When he cooked many people would come. He was popular in that neighborhood. There were a number of so-called gurus from India in New York, but everyone on the Lower East Side knew that the Swami was genuine because he wasn’t into money or fame. Everyone knew that God took care of him because he had so little money. Sometimes Allen Ginsburg would drop by the storefront and give him a big donation.

“I had a number of exchanges with the Swami. Once I was helping in the kitchen and he showed me how to make the flat bread they make in India. Another time he showed me how to play the hand cymbals. Sometimes I would ask questions after his classes, and one day he asked to meet my mother. But she wouldn’t come to the Lower East Side.

“I was there when Keith shaved his head, and afterwards I watched the Swami put clay markings on his body, explaining how the body was a temple of God. The thing about the Swami was that you could always approach him. His door was always open. Because I was new, I was a little nervous to go upstairs to his apartment. But I liked to sit in the little courtyard below his room and listen to his typing. Can you believe that? I loved to hear him type. There was something mystical about his typing. My mother was a secretary and would often bring her typing home. It used to drive me crazy. But when the Swami typed I was captivated. I think it’s because he was typing for God.

“He did everything for God. In fact, as long as he lived at ‘Matchless Gifts’ the whole Lower East Side was talking about God. But when he left the atmosphere changed and people reverted to their old ways.

“But I didn’t forget. Although I was young and naive, he cared for me. He showed me real love. In fact, I’ve been searching for that love my whole life. I haven’t been able to find it anywhere, in my family, my relatives, my friends. Recently I lost my wife, then my job and home, everything. So I’ve been praying to God to lead me back to the Swami. It’s quite amazing. I knew him for only a short time, but as I look back I can see he was the most important person in my life.

“This morning, I went into a used bookstore. I had fifty cents in my pocket. I asked the man behind the counter if he had any books for that amount and he pointed to a shelf. I picked one book out called Only He Could Lead Them. I walked outside to read it on the curb. Boy, was I surprised when I saw that it was about the Swami! I felt that God had answered my prayers.

“I found the address of your temple on a card in the book. It took me all day to get here. When I walked in the door I asked after the Swami. They said he had just finished giving a lecture in the temple room. So I ran inside and there he was, sitting on that big seat. I was so happy! I went up and thanked him for everything he’d done for me, but when I asked him if he remembered me, he didn’t reply. When I looked closer I saw there was only a statue there. Then your friend said that the Swami had passed away. I don’t know what to do now.”

I was speechless. After a few moments I said that he could find that love he was searching for by associating with Srila Prabhupada’s followers.

“Yes, I’m sure that’s true,” he said. Then his eyes filled with tears again and he said, “but how to live without him?” He then got up and walked slowly toward the front gate. Turning back, he looked at us a last time and then  was gone.

tulayama lavenapi

na svargam napunar-bhavam

bhagavat-sangi-sangasya

martyanam kim utaSisah

 The value of a moment’s association with the devotee of the Lord cannot even be compared to the attainment of heavenly planets or liberation from matter, and what to speak of worldly benedictions in the form of material prosperity, which are for those who are meant for death.

—Bhag. 1.18.13