Deconstructing the Lilamrta, Part 40

BY: ROCANA DASA - 22.6 2022

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

Today we begin Chapter 7 of Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, "Breaking Ground". Satsvarupa opens the chapter with an Allen Ginsburg quote from the Macmillan Bhagavad-gita As It Is. He goes on in his usual style, for pages upon pages, describing what the neighborhood was like around the 26 Second Avenue Matchless Gifts storefront. In fact, he gives us an elaborate description of the whole history of the Lower East Side of New York, going back 300 years, describing what it was like for all the groups of immigrants who occupied the place, one after another.

He then gives an in-depth personal appraisal of what was going on at that time in society with the hippie movement, which he calls "the avant-garde of a nationwide youth movement". Of course, that included him. In this particular section he's quite eloquent in describing the area and the movement, and his writing benefits from the fact that here he's relating his own personal experience. At the same time, it is just his own experience - it's not some great sociological explanation, nor is it a spiritual explanation of what was happening in the West. In fact, it's devoid of any real Krsna conscious explanation or understanding, which one would expect from a person who, at the time of writing, was presenting themselves as a great Zonal Acarya and advanced sannyasi/guru.

This is actually a common theme throughout Lilamrta in the sense that the author rarely does any actual preaching. The informed reader can only wonder why he uses common terms rather than the spiritual terminology Srila Prabhupada trained him up to use. In a sense, he hides his own devotee identify, referring to himself at one point with his karmi name.

In this section of the book we find statements typical of the Lilamrta, such as Srila Prabhupada, since his arrival, was "moved by force of circumstance, or, as he understood it, "by Krsna's will'". To me, this sounds quite strange coming from someone who's a disciple of Srila Prabhupada. As devotees, we're all supposed to have embraced this philosophical concept, that everything happens by Krsna's arrangement. So it doesn't make any difference whatsoever where Srila Prabhupada was, in America or India - he was always striving to achieve his mission. Unfortunately, there is a common misconception amongst those who joined Srila Prabhupada early in his mission, which is that his mission didn't really start until they arrived on the scene to assist -- not that his whole life he's been striving to fulfill his mission. This misconception is evident in a slogan made famous by the 26 Second Avenue temple, and featured on T-shirts they sell to visitors. On the front is a beautiful picture of Srila Prabhupada standing in the garden behind Matchless Gifts. On the back, the message: "26 Second Avenue - The Place Where It All Began". I've amended the T-shirt to reflect my personal sentiment on the matter:



Satsvarupa makes various other nonsensical statements in this section, such as stating that "Srila Prabhupada was trying to transplant Vedic culture into a more alien ground than had any previous spiritual master." This, however, is philosophically inaccurate.

The first part of this chapter covers the first month or two that Srila Prabhupada occupied the Second Avenue temple. I find it strange that Satsvarupa continually tries to make out that Srila Prabhupada's quarters and the temple itself were so shabby and derelict, a theme he emphasizes. In previous chapters, when referring to Srila Prabhupada's circumstances in India, we see that by comparison he was clearly in a more comfortable and opulent environment. Besides, for someone like Srila Prabhupada, shabby buildings and lots of noise in the street would not have phased him in the least. Not only had he lived a lifetime in Indian cities, he was, and is transcendental to such external circumstances.

Next the author introduces Hayagriva as 'Howard Wheeler', though he never makes mention of the fact that later on, Howard became a disciple - in fact, one of the most important disciples of that era in the sense that he edited Srila Prabhupada's original books. Hayagriva did a great editing job at Srila Prabhupada's request. As a university English instructor, he was obviously qualified, and this is evident in the transcriptions of his interviews from those early days, which are far better than Satsvarupa's writing. In fact, it was quite enjoyable to read what Hayagriva had to say and the way he said it. He was one of the first persons to really connect with Srila Prabhupada. At the time, he was living with Kirtanananda, known as 'Keith Hamm', and their friend 'Wally', who is now Umapati Swami. The three lived together, and as time revealed, at least two of them, Kirtanananda and Hayagriva, were homosexual partners. They had both gone to India and just returned not long before this point in time, so they had a basic idea of who Srila Prabhupada was in terms of being a sannyasi and a spiritual person. That put them heads and shoulders above anyone else who attended the early classes at 26 Second Avenue, including Satsvarupa.

There's a lot of description wherein Satsvarupa is speculating as to how these three personalities interrelated with Srila Prabhupada, and what their backgrounds were. Interestingly, there are no direct quotes from either Umapati or Kirtanananda, who was a Zonal Acarya at the time, only from Hayagriva. He mentions himself as Stephen Guarino, and briefly mentions that he worked in the Welfare Department for New York City.

Beyond this point, there are several breaks in the chapter, as new subjects are introduced. The author becomes very descriptive in telling us what it was like in the early classes that Srila Prabhupada gave. He describes exactly what Srila Prabhupada looked like and how the audience related to him, and particularly those who became disciples like himself, Hayagriva and Kirtanananda. As is commonly known, Srila Prabhupada started his classes with chanting and the maha-mantra, which everyone thought was just so groovy.

How much real spiritual benefit one can get from reading this section of Lilamrta, I have my doubts. It's enthralling and entertaining at times, but in terms of really helping the reader to understand Srila Prabhupada or how Krsna works through his pure devotee, there's not much provided by the author until we come to the section where a complete transcript of one of Srila Prabhupada's first lectures is provided. It's interesting to note that Srila Prabhupada made sure this lecture was taped.

Of course, Satsvarupa interjects comments throughout the lecture about some of the disturbing elements that came and went, such as the drunk with the toilet paper, and the visitor who insisted on talking gibberish. He describes how Srila Prabhupada so expertly and perfectly handled both those situations, without any disturbance whatsoever in his own demeanor. He thanked the bum, and handled the disturber very deftly.

What I found most interesting in the lecture itself is that Srila Prabhupada stated over and over that he wanted them to become spiritual masters. He wanted them to preach Krsna consciousness, and he used the word "spiritual master" over and over again, describing how this was Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu's instruction. Even while Satsvarupa was writing all this, he was simultaneously representing the post-samadhi regime wherein their entire policy was to restrict people from becoming spiritual masters. That said it was only them, the eleven, who had such permission, but of course, they didn't have any permission or direct instruction at all. So here it is, one of the very first lectures Srila Prabhupada gave, and he's saying they all should become gurus. He's talking here to people who had absolutely no Krsna consciousness and no training. In fact, one of the instructions given in this very lecture is being debated even today, right here on the Sampradaya Sun, where Srila Prabhupada says: "So if we take up this missionary work to preach Bhagavad-gita as it is, without interpretation and without any material motives behind it - as it is - then Krsna says it shall be done."

Beyond this, we have more of the usual statements made by Satsvarupa that grate on my consciousness, such as this quote: "His voice now seems tired and resigned. Let us have kirtana." If one could cut away all the unnecessary nonsense talk by Satsvarupa, then there's a lot of nectar to be gained in Lilamrta. But one has to be able to recognize Satsvarupa's speculation, overuse of literary license, and outright contamination and enviousness in order to safely pick their way through this book. Unfortunately the neophyte reader is not so well equipped.

During the time he spent at 26 Second Avenue, Srila Prabhupada set down a great example of his formula, and this became the impetus for enthusing all the new devotees who followed for at least the next 7 or 8 years. They followed Srila Prabhupada in acquiring storefronts or houses and advertising classes, using the same program of chanting, lecture, kirtan and prasadam.

Satsvarupa writes that during the rest of the time when Srila Prabhupada wasn't lecturing, which he did three times a week, he would absorb himself in translating and writing his Bhaktivedanta Purports for the Srimad Bhagavatam. I found this description very inadequate and even demeaning. Like he does throughout the Lilamrta, Satsvarupa always reiterates the fact that Srila Prabhupada is simply following the orders of the Spiritual Master, that his purports were really taken from the previous great Acaryas, and that he would just add his knowledge. He even says he was "laboriously weaving it all together". He does not explain to the reader that Srila Prabhupada is on the same level as these great previous acaryas, that his purports are as important as theirs, and that it is now Srila Prabhupada's purports that people will consult, first and foremost, for a very long time into the future. Satsvarupa does not explain that Srila Prabhupada is the most recent manifestation of the unalloyed Sampradaya and as a result, his comments merely serve to minimize the pure devotee.

Satsvarupa goes on to describe another individual, Lon Solomon, who found his way to Srila Prabhupada at 26 Second Avenue. I'm not sure if he became a disciple or not, but it was interesting to read his remembrances. One aspect that truly sent a message to me is his description of how, during that period in time, he had free access to Srila Prabhupada, and he could come in and talk to him almost any time. One time, however, he came with a girl and Srila Prabhupada immediately picked-up that he simply brought the girl to impress her. That was the only time Srila Prabhupada refused to see him.

So Srila Prabhupada obviously had this kind of perception. You would assume, therefore, that he would have had a very clear perception of who his senior disciples were at the time he was leaving his body. I believe that he knew his disciples were intending, in an almost unstoppable way, to do just what they were doing, which was to set up their exclusive Zonal Acarya system amongst themselves, excluding everyone else. They were full of false prestige, full of themselves, when in fact they were just neophytes. This Lilamrta is a perfect testimonial to just how neophyte they were.

The difference between a neophyte and someone who is actually making some spiritual progress is that they understand who their Spiritual Master is. In the case of many of Srila Prabhupada's early disciples, they did not know that he was not simply a run of the mill spiritual master, but was actually a maha-Acarya - a Sampradaya Acarya - a topmost member of the guru-parampara, one of 32 going back to Lord Brahma.