Deconstructing the Lilamrta, Part 38

BY: ROCANA DASA - 20.6 2022

A critical analysis of the Srila Prabhupada-Lilamrta by Satsvarupa das Goswami.

Today we begin Chapter 6 of Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta entitled "On the Bowery". As the title indicates, this is the period where Srila Prabhupada moved out of the small room he had in the building housing Dr. Mishra's yoga studio in. By Krsna's arrangement he was given access to a loft in the Bowery by one of his students, Harvey Cohen, who was moving to California. Harvey was impressed with Srila Prabhupada, as was anyone who attended his meetings, and he therefore arranged to have Srila Prabhupada stay in the loft he was vacating.

Personally, I find this whole section, which Satsvarupa characterizes as the "long history" of the Bowery, to be unnecessary filler. It doesn't add much to the story other than to paint a picture of a very dismal part of town which was, according to Satsvarupa, full of decadence, homelessness, drug dealing, and so on.

Once Satsvarupa gets over describing the external circumstances, he reveals that it's really a huge step forward for Srila Prabhupada because it gives him a lot more facility to preach. Lilamrta would have done well to omit all the "awful New York" narrative and simply focus on Srila Prabhupada's preaching. The next facility was a much bigger place, and therefore accommodated many more people attending his lectures, which he ran three days a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This was a two-hour program consisting of kirtan, class, and ending with another kirtan. Up to 100 people would come to this loft setting and many kept returning.

Of course, Satsvarupa's focus is on the idea that Srila Prabhupada's material circumstances gave the external impression that he was very impoverished. This is Satsvarupa's constant theme throughout the book, whether it was back in India or now. There's no mention of the fact that all of Srila Prabhupada's lifetime experiences living in India were far more materially austere. There's far more homelessness in India than there was in New York, even in the Bowery. So for Srila Prabhupada, this wasn't a big problem. He had a place to preach, and even though he had to share the loft with another person, that individual was very respectful, although he didn't turn out to be a disciple.

The reader is given two distinct impressions by Satsvarupa. First, that Srila Prabhupada was living in abject poverty but at the same time that he was transcendental, always engaged in preaching. In fact, he even quotes Srila Prabhupada saying "Everywhere is my home." There's no philosophical explanation by Satsvarupa of how it is that a pure devotee is transcendental under all circumstances, or that this situation was arranged by Krsna, the Source of all opulence, for a purpose.

Srila Prabhupada's circumstances demonstrated what preachers can expect to encounter in this material world. In fact, his situation in the Bowery was very much reminiscent of many new ISKCON temples that were started in the early days. I can recall joining the movement in Vancouver, a few years after the 'Bowery era'. The Vancouver temple I joined in was in a very bad part of town - East Vancouver, close to the granaries. Prior to our use, the temple had been a porno movie theater sitting on top of a warehouse, where people had to walk up through a dismal staircase for 3 floors. We lived in even worse conditions than are described in this chapter of Lilamrta, but everyone was happy. We went out preaching every day, despite all the austerities, and we were able to transcend it. So if we could transcend our external surroundings, just image how totally aloof Srila Prabhupada was to such material circumstances. He was inspirational!

Of course, none of this was explained in the Lilamrta, which we have to remind ourselves was written 13 or 14 years after this part of Srila Prabhupada's pastimes had gone by. This just goes to remind us that Lilamrta is, in large part, Satsvarupa's own personal realizations of who Srila Prabhupada is, amplified by the fact that he had a tremendous amount of content to surround his realizations with. Just the manner by which he lays out this particular period in the Bowery says a lot to me about Satsvarupa's lack of realization of who Srila Prabhupada is. He chose to interview a lot of other unrealized persons and inserted their commentaries, regardless of the fact that they never did surrender to Srila Prabhupada. At the time they were interviewed for the book, there was an obvious tendency for them to say what they thought the interviewers wanted to hear, and what made them look good in the story. Srila Prabhupada's lectures were taped but rather than include complete transcripts, Satsvarupa chooses to chop up the lectures and just insert segments as a means to embellish his own realizations and speculations on what was taking place.

According to the person interviewed, Srila Prabhupada was very patient and expert in engaging everyone. Because a lot of visitors were musicians, he would talk about the sound vibration of the Holy Name. As a perfect preacher, he would know how to preach in such a way that everyone received the message and felt he was speaking directly to them.

After inserting all sorts of commentary by those who didn't surrender, Satsvarupa focused on Michael Grant. We know him as Mukunda Swami, although the readers aren't made aware of this fact, at least not at this point in the chapter. It's obvious that Mukunda was a friend of Satsvarupa's, and he was depicted in a very favourable light compared to those who didn't surrender and didn't happen to be friends of the author. I found it interesting that Mukunda also decided to depict in his remembrances that Srila Prabhupada's circumstances were very poverty stricken. Again, this is only his impression. Interestingly, Mukunda was also living in a similar type of circumstance - in an artist's loft nearby.

Srila Prabhupada's daily program never really changed much throughout his whole ISKCON lila period in the sense that he wrote, he preached, he was very regulated his entire day, and he always appeared to be totally transcendental. His classes were all similar. He never compromised the siddhanta in order to accommodate the audience, beyond talking about what they wanted to talk about. For example, in the case of the war in Vietnam, which was the pressing issue at the time, Srila Prabhupada didn't concede to giving it the same kind of importance the attendees did. Of course, the Bhagavad-gita is based on the concept of Arjuna fighting, which didn't lend itself to the current philosophy amongst the peaceniks. Still, Srila Prabhupada did a very expert job in explaining the difference between the Vietnam War and the battle at Kurukshetra.

Satsvarupa spends all his time speculating on what people were thinking, or what Srila Prabhupada was thinking, but he never addresses the philosophical issues himself, nor does he adequately compliment Srila Prabhupada on his amazing ability to preach under those conditions, and manage to keep people coming back. All this, without compromising his program or the philosophy. These are the pastimes of His Divine Grace that are fit to be included in his Lilamrta biography.