Chapter 3: City of the Gods

March 2-15, 2006

By Indradyumna Swami

George Harrison once entitled a song All Things Must Pass. It’s an old saying. Everybody has heard it. Even Lord Krsna speaks of the temporary nature of this world in  Bhagavad-gita:

mam upetya punar janma

duhkhalayam asasvatam

napnuvanti mahatmanah

samsiddhim paramam gatah

“After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.”

[Bhagavad-gita 8.15]

One may read Bhagavad-gita many times, but the philosophy can take years, or even lifetimes, to assimilate, and even a devotee may lament when he loses something or someone dear to him    in this world. The day before I left India for America, I received an email from my dearest and most beloved friend, Sri Prahlada das:

Dear Srila Gurudeva,

Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.

You know that I have been suffering with back pain for the past several years. Last summer things became worse and I could hardly walk for three days. Since the summer tour the pain has continued. Recently, even carrying a light shoulder bag puts heavy strain on my neck and back and causes excruciating pain.

Last week I finally found time to visit a physiotherapist. The xrays he took show a condition worse than I ever expected. The space between several disks in my vertebrae has greatly diminished and there is abnormal bone growth in several places.

The doctor said the causes are overexertion, lifting heavy weights, and constant traveling in cars, trains, and planes. He said there is no quick solution to the problems. He strongly recommends I immediately change my lifestyle, or suffer serious consequences.

Please instruct me.

Your servant, Sri Prahlada.

Suddenly I had an empty feeling in my stomach. Sri Prahlada would have to stop traveling, and our long association of preaching together was coming to an end. For a few moments my mind raced, trying to find alternatives, but I knew the doctors were right.

I thought of the many adventures we had shared spreading the sankirtan movement of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, most notably our festival program in Poland. The program had made Hare Krsna a household word throughout the country and defeated the efforts of the anti-cult movements to defame and demolish our movement. Preaching naturally attracts opposition, and Poland was only one of the many challenges we had faced together as we forged a strong friendship.

I sat thinking about our 16 years of service together. I could still see the Muslim soldiers in Sarajevo attacking our sankirtan party, beating us mercilessly as we tried to fight back. Sri Prahlada had stood firm, like a courageous lion, calling out the names of Lord Nrsimha. When I yelled that he should step back from the brawl, he did so, but only at my  request.

My mind flooded with many sweet experiences as well, in particular Sri Prahlada’s melodious kirtans, which charmed the hearts of everyone who heard him. I would miss our intimate talks together, sharing our realizations, hopes, and despairs – things we could tell only each other. Who would I engage in such loving exchanges with now?

The reality of the situation sunk in, and the emptiness in my stomach deepened. I hesitated to reply, but I had to. I picked up the phone and called him in Mayapura. In a serious tone, like a father, I said it was best he stay in Mayapura, in the apartment we had bought for him and his wife, and work on the correspondence courses he had recently started with a university in New Zealand.

We both struggled to find things to say. Finally we said goodbye. When I hung up, I closed the door to my room, lay down on my bed, and cried myself to sleep.

When I awoke the next morning, I thought I had dreamt the whole thing, but I soon realized it wasn’t so. I began thinking of my coming tour of the American temples and how difficult it would be because so many places would remind me of Sri Prahlada and our previous visits there. I decided to first visit another country and immerse myself in  preaching.

I recalled that several months earlier the president of the Mexico City temple, Darshan das, had invited me there. I quickly sent an email asking if he was still interested. His immediate reply confirmed he was, and three days later I found myself on a flight to Mexico City.

As the flight circled the airport waiting for permission to land, I thought about my two previous visits to Mexico, one as a teenager in 1966 and the other as a devotee in  1981.

Growing up in California, I had studied much about Mexico, and like many young American boys, I had been especially intrigued by the Aztec Indians.

Some scholars say the Aztecs were a nomadic North American tribe who came to Mexico during the 13th century. There they established one of the most advanced civilizations in the Americas, including cities with pyramids and temples. Some of their cities were as large as any in Europe.

The Aztecs honored a number of gods. They constructed towering temples and huge sculptures and held ceremonies that included human sacrifice. The Aztec empire was conquered and destroyed by the Spanish in 1521.

My  mother became concerned when she saw my interest in   a civilization that worshiped numerous gods and held human sacrifices. While I certainly didn’t believe in the sacrifices, I was intrigued by the idea that the universe could be controlled by conscious beings.

“It doesn’t seem impossible,” I told my mother. “Why couldn’t God put others in charge of running the universe?”

“That’s neither religious nor scientific,” she answered.

It remained a contentious point between us for years. In the summer of 1966, I decided to go to Mexico to see the remains of the Aztec civilization and discover more about the mysteries of the universe. But I didn’t dare tell my parents where I was headed. I told them I was going surfing in Southern California. As surfing was one of my passions, they didn’t object.

It was my first time out of the United States, and I was nervous crossing the border at Tijuana. The Mexican immigration officer asked me why I was coming. “To see the Aztecs!” I blurted out.

He laughed. “Well, you’re a few hundred years too late,” he said, “but we’ll let you in anyway.”

I was heading just north of Mexico City, to the ancient capital of the Aztecs, Teotihuacan, the ‘City of the Gods’. The Aztecs built it on the ruins of a settlement established before the birth of Jesus Christ. I was most interested in the two pyramids – one dedicated to the sun and the other to the moon. “Surely,” I thought, “they must hold clues to the mystery of the universe and of God Himself.”

But the same youthful nature  that  pushed  me  to  explore the world also pushed me to enjoy it, so when I met a group of American surfers on their way to Mazatlan, a surfer’s paradise on the south coast, I joined them. I spend the next month blissfully surfing the waves there, putting the higher purposes of life aside for the time being.

My quest for deeper knowledge was eventually satisfied when I joined the Hare Krsna movement. By reading the Vedic literature, I learned that the Lord does indeed delegate the administration of the universe to pious souls called demigods, such as Indra, Candra, Surya and Vayu. Empowered by the Supreme Lord, they manage the heat, light, rain, wind, and all the other functions of material nature.

When I visited our Mexico City temple as a devotee in 1981, I was still curious about Teotihuacan, but I was too busy  with preaching programs throughout the city, and I didn’t manage to go there.

Now I was starting my third visit to Mexico. As our flight landed, I realized I still wanted to see the pyramids of the sun and moon at Teotihuacan. I laughed to myself. “Well,” I thought, “I certainly won’t let anyone know.”

I was greeted by several devotees and taken to the temple, near the center of the city. A blissful reception awaited me, and I gave a lecture to a packed temple room. Afterwards a devotee approached me with an old cassette tape. He put it into an equally old cassette player and turned it  on.

“It’s a kirtan you led when you were here in 1981,” he said. “I listen to it every day.”

“Every day?” I said. I could not help wondering whether I was blushing.

“Yes,” he replied. “Not many senior devotees visit us here in Mexico.”

I spent several days leading kirtans and giving classes in the temple. One morning Darshan dasa announced that we would be going to Cuernavaca, a city three hours from Mexico City, for an evening Harinama.

“Cuernavaca means the City of Eternal Spring,” he told me. “It sounds like a special place,” I said.

“It certainly is,” said another devotee excitedly. “The reason is that – ”

Another devotee interrupted him, asking  for  directions  to the town. After that someone else came forward with yet another question. Soon we were on our way, and I hadn’t found out why Cuernavaca was so special.

In Cuernavaca, we walked to the central plaza, where 50 devotees were waiting for us. As dusk settled in, I saw people strolling in the warm spring air. Children played together, chasing their dogs or throwing Frisbees. Young couples stood around joking and laughing, and older couples sat on benches chatting. A nearby band played traditional Mexican  music.

It was a typically rural Mexican scene, and I wondered how we would be received. But I had been in this kind of situation hundreds of times, and I sensed that the holy names would quickly become the main attraction of the evening. I picked up a mrdanga, started chanting, and closed my eyes. A minute later I opened them again and saw several hundred people crowded around us. After 10 minutes, I stopped the kirtan and began to lecture.

“We never do this,” I heard a devotee say nervously behind me.

But I was used to it. On our Harinamas in Poland, I lecture every half hour to the crowd. It’s one of my favorite activities.

I felt especially enlivened in this new setting with pious Mexican people listening attentively. I spoke for 30 minutes, and no one moved an inch. When I finished, a woman ran forward and quickly put her arms around me. Before I could do anything, she kissed me squarely on the lips. The crowd roared with approval.

I struggled to regain my composure. After a minute, I laughed to myself. “What don’t I go through to spread the chanting of the holy names!” I thought.

I led kirtan again and then gave another lecture. Again the crowd stood listening. When I finished, I turned to a devotee. “It’s true,” I said. “This is a special place.”

“Very special,” the devotee said with a smile. “Very special?” I asked.

“Yes,”  he  said  with  a  broad  smile.  “Srila  Prabhupada  came here in 1972 and gave a lecture right on the very spot where you are standing.”

“What?” I said. “Srila Prabhupada stood right here?” I stepped back a few feet.

“That’s right,” he said. “In June 1972, Citsukhananda dasa brought Srila Prabhupada here. After a kirtan Srila Prabhupada lectured to a crowd of several hundred people. As he was lecturing, Haihaya das arrived with 50 copies of Krsna Consciousness, the Topmost Yoga System, in Spanish.”

“The books had just arrived from the printer that day,” the devotee continued. “Srila Prabhupada stopped his lecture. ‘Now you can all take one of these books and read them,’ he said to the crowd. People came forward and Srila Prabhupada quickly sold all 50 copies. The people asked him to autograph the books and he signed every one of them.”

I stood there dumbfounded. “My spiritual master came out here to this remote plaza and chanted, lectured, and distributed books,” I thought.

I grabbed a book from a nearby devotee.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” I called out, as my translator scrambled to come forward. “My spiritual master translated these ancient books from India, printed them, and then 34 years ago  came here to your beautiful city to distribute them. To mark that historic occasion we are offering you the same amazing books. Please come forward and receive his mercy.”

Only a few people came forward, but I was happy to be following in the footsteps of my spiritual master.

“Maybe four or five bought books from you,” said a devotee.

I smiled. “That’s the difference between the master and the disciple,” I said.

That night we stayed at the house of Hari Katha das, in nearby Tepoztlan. The next morning, while I was brushing my teeth, I moved in close over the sink to look in the mirror. Then I stepped back, and just at that moment, the heavy porcelain sink came crashing to the ground with a loud noise. It nicked one of my toes, drawing blood.

I stood there stunned. Had I stayed close to the mirror, the sink would surely have broken both my legs. I remembered Srila Prabhupada’s statement that when a devotee experiences a minor injury, he thinks it only a small token of what he should have received. Not only does Krsna protect His devotee but He also reminds him of the dangerous nature of the material  world.

That day we traveled four hours back through Mexico City, north to the town of Tulancingo. I had fallen asleep in the heavy traffic and awoke an hour later as we drove through the countryside outside the city. The dry terrain was not very interesting, and I was about to open a book when suddenly I saw two huge structures rising from the plains in the distance.

“My gosh!” I shouted. “It’s Teotihuacan! Those are the Aztec pyramids to the sun and the moon!”

The devotees in the car looked at me. “You want to visit them, Maharaja?” said the driver.

I tried to cover my enthusiasm. “Uh, no,” I said, feigning calmness. “I just woke up and was surprised to see pyramids in the middle of nowhere.”

“You knew their names,” a devotee said.

“Why don’t we visit Teotihuacan on the way back to Mexico City this afternoon?” said the driver. “I heard the Indian Ambassador is there on a special visit.”

That was my cue. “Well in that case,” I said, “I suppose we should go.”

It wasn’t the most valid of reasoning, but I was finally going to Teotihuacan, after 40 years.

We did a house program when we arrived in Tulancingo. During the bhajan, I noticed a girl of about eight with a large parrot on her shoulder. I was so surprised that I temporarily lost the beat on my mrdanga.

I closed my eyes, picked up the beat again, and started chanting Hare Krsna with fixed attention. It was a sweet kirtan, and  the guests responded enthusiastically. With my eyes still closed,  I started chanting louder and louder. Suddenly I heard a loud squawk, and felt sharp claws digging into my scalp.

I opened my eyes and saw a shocked audience staring at the parrot on my head. The girl looked embarrassed as she ran forward and retrieved him. I wiped a few drops of blood from the top of my head with a tissue and continued the   kirtan.

Afterwards the girl came up and apologized.

“Why in the world did he fly onto my head?” I asked her.

She smiled. “His name is Krsna,” she said, “and you were singing his name with so much love that he couldn’t resist you!”

Soon we were on our way back to Mexico City…and Teotihuacan.

“Do you know anything about Teotihuacan?” asked our driver.

“Well,” I replied with a touch of confidence, “actually I do. As a boy I read a lot about Aztec civilization, and even tried to visit here. I was interested in the Aztec worship of the deities that control the material world. That curiosity waned when I came in contact with Krsna consciousness and found a detailed description of how the demigods manage the universe under the direction of the Lord.

“But my interest was again aroused when I read about how Vedic culture once flourished all over the world. I remember attending a lecture by Srila Prabhupada in New York  on July  25, 1971. ‘Bharatavarsa is not only the name for India,’ Srila Prabhupada said, ‘but it is the name for this planet. Formerly, 5000 years ago, the whole planet was known as Bharatavarsa. The Vedic culture was all over the world, even in America, [with] different types of worship or concepts of God.’”

“You see,” I continued, “Like the Vedic culture, the Aztec culture had a pantheon of gods, although, they didn’t believe in a Supreme Deity. The main Aztec gods were very similar in character to the Vedic demigods, though depicted   differently.

“Studies have showed similarities in Aztec and Vedic culture in architecture, customs, art motifs, time measurement, calendars, and knowledge of astronomy. The Aztecs placed importance on the east-west path of the sun in the same way most Vedic temples are built to face the rising sun in the east.

“One major difference between the Aztec and Vedic worship is that there was no Vedic custom of human sacrifice. The Aztecs had fallen away from the true Vedic lifestyle.”

I  smiled.  “I’m  coming  here  to  marvel  at  the  evidence  that Vedic culture once existed all over the world and had surely influenced the Aztecs.”

An hour later we drove into Teotihuacan. I was awed by the massive pyramids to the sun and moon. The sun pyramid is the third largest pyramid in the world. As we walked down the Avenue of the Dead, a broad road that links the two structures, I was stunned that even though the city today was nothing compared with its original glory, it still impressed me as a testament to the grandeur of Aztec civilization.

We had wandered through the ruins for about an hour when a devotee broke my mood of awe. “You know,” he said to me, “they sacrificed 20,000 to 50,000 of their own people each year.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s go. This visit has finally laid to rest a childhood curiosity. We’re fortunate to be following the original Vedic culture.”

Back at the temple, I gave the Sunday feast lecture and stressed with renewed enthusiasm that when Srila Prabhupada preached Vedic culture all over the world, he was not introducing it but reviving it.

“Remnants of Vedic culture can be found all over the world,” I concluded. “But they can’t compare with the culture in its entirety. Let us all work under Srila Prabhupada to help people realize the one original spiritual culture of the planet, Vedic culture, or Krsna consciousness.”

“From early histories it appears that the entire earth was under one culture, Vedic culture, but gradually, due to religious and cultural divisions, the rule fragmented into many subdivisions. Now the earth is divided into many countries, religions and political parties. Despite these political and religious divisions, we advocate that everyone should unite again under one culture – Krsna consciousness. People should accept one God, Krsna; one scripture, Bhagavad-gita; and one activity, devotional service to the Lord. Thus people may live happily upon this earth.”

[Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 25.193 purport]