Srila Prabhupada’s Transcendental “Otherness”

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How a local newspaper helped ignite the explosive growth of the worldwide Hare Krishna movement.

I recently spoke to Peter Leggieri. The name might not mean much to most readers of Back to Godhead, but, in fact, Peter was engaged by Krishna to help establish the Krishna consciousness movement in the West.

When Srila Prabhupada first came to America in 1965, he was, from all appearances, an unknown monk, accepting the graciousness of his sponsors in Butler, Pennsylvania, and then of hippie followers on the Lower East Side of New York. Of course, all those who helped him were actually helped by him: through his association, they came closer and closer to Krishna, and by serving his purposes, their spiritual lives began to blossom.

Almost from the beginning, Prabhupada received significant coverage in the news. Even while in Butler, shortly after he arrived from India, The Butler Eagle told of his journey and mission (September 22, 1965). Then, after a brief period in New York, The Village Voice ran an article on him, too (June 1966). A New York Post article followed toward summer’s end (September 1), along with The New York Times (October 10), in the fall. And The East Village Other (October 15–November 1) followed soon thereafter.

This article is about how Prabhupada’s story ended up in The Other.

Peter Leggieri was one of the newspaper’s founding editors, and he maintained that position until 1969 (the paper folded in 1972). Years later he operated a sculptor’s supply shop on East 12th Street, which lasted until 2006. His wife, Melissa (Missy), who was his girlfriend back in the 60s, also worked at The Other. Neither of them knew what was in store when they received the assignment: go and interview the Swami on the Lower East Side.

According to Krishna’s design, The Other began in 1965, just as Prabhupada arrived in the States. It catered to the younger generation. With its day-glo psychedelic design and trippy layout, it included essays by everyone from Buckminster Fuller to Timothy Leary, from Robert Crumb to Allen Ginsberg, with stories covering the big names in the news: Lenny Bruce, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Baba Ram Das, Jerry Rubin, and others. It was considered the hip paper by the counterculture of New York, and among the City’s youth, its popularity rivaled The Times.

One day in the fall of 1966, Walter Bowart, the founder of The Other, happened into Tompkins Square Park. He was high on LSD at the time, but his visionary experience that afternoon was not chemically induced: he saw a real live Swami chanting by a tree, with a large crowd around him, following along in ecstasy. As Leggieri tells it: "[It was] the Hare Krishna leader Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, dressed in golden robes and sitting in a lotus position under the giant tree that now bears his name. Bowart hurried back to the office in a 'STOP THE PRESSES' fit, and began insisting that we immediately do a story about the 'holy man he had seen."

Somehow, Bowart knew that the few editors, artists, and writers working in his offices were not up to the task. After all, they were basically hippies, with a good working knowledge of contemporary America and the issues that were of interest to their peers, but they knew little of India and Eastern spirituality. But there was a new guy who was a little different, someone who had just bought shares of the paper and was now part owner, part editor: Peter Leggieri.

He seemed the right guy for the job. For one thing, he had theological training. He had just completed four years at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, where he learned the fundamentals of religious philosophy from Franciscan monks, and he was now in law school. Also, he was the only employee without a penchant for getting high. It just wasn’t his nature. In other words, he was an educated, sober person who might really understand what the Swami had to say. Besides, everyone else was otherwise engaged at the time. Says Leggieri:

When Katzman [poet and publisher of The Other] pointed out that everyone was already working on an assignment, John Wilcock [editor and columnist] interjected, “Peter, you’re the only one with any theology. You do it.” I refused by pointing out that I was extremely busy and knew nothing about swamis. [They] ganged up on me and, very reluctantly, I went off to meet the holy man. I did not like what I wrote and pleaded for time to do a rewrite. The three editors turned me down and the story went to press.

Despite his reservations, Leggieri’s piece had substance, unlike The New York Times article that had come out a week earlier. Although it was written in the jargon of the day, one could detect that the author understood something of Prabhupada’s teaching. Perhaps it was because of his theological training at the Catholic seminary. Or maybe it was because he met Prabhupada and spoke with him for over two hours. He and Missy went down to meet Prabhupada several days after Bowart, Katzman, and Wilcock had requested him to do so.

I interviewed Peter and Missy last year, asking them about their meeting with Srila Prabhupada:

Satyaraja: It was difficult to find you, since the article byline is “Irving Shushnick.”

Peter: Yes, many of us wrote under that nom de plume, for various reasons. I wasn’t allowed to work and go to school at the same time. Some legality. So I opted for our in-house pen name.

Satyaraja: Tell me, you actually met Prabhupada? He gave you the basic information that enabled you to write that article?

Peter: That’s right. Missy and I went down to the storefront at 26 Second Avenue. This would be early October, 1966. We attended the services, which were quite enjoyable. And then the Swami invited us up to his apartment in the back. It was just him and a few of his close followers, and me and Missy. She came along as my stenographer. I was talking with him and she was taking extensive notes. We also ate. He made sure that we all had that delicious Indian food.

Satyaraja: Prasadam, yes. Did you like it?

Peter: I remember it was something special. Remember, this is 1966. There were no Indian restaurants in New York, and very few Indians, period. So this was a new experience. But we enjoyed the food and our time with the Swami.

Satyaraja: What were your initial impressions of him?

Peter: I was immediately impressed by his learning and his humility. And, you know what? I was amazed by his vitality and youthfulness, too. I was a young man at the time, and he was 71. That’s what he told me. But I found it hard to believe. He was so alert and alive and enthusiastic. I am 71 now, and I don’t have a fraction of the liveliness he embodied. It was really something to see.

And I was struck by his sincerity and strength of purpose. But I remember, as he spoke, thinking that he had a huge mountain to climb. He was speaking about such an alien culture, something so high, and something that would be so difficult to give others, especially because people in America don’t have the background, the training.

But then it hit me, and it gave me chills: Here he was in the East Village. By divine providence, he was brought to this area where he would actually have a chance. Nowhere else, and in no other time, really, could this work. But, now, in the East Village, there was a possibility. And I immediately envisioned him as a surfer – he got on the wave and he rode it. The wave was hippiedom, and Eastern thought and mysticism were part of it: we were all interested in it. So, he was brought here, where people would be anxious to hear what he had to say.

What serendipity, I thought. Stoned-out Bowart stumbled into the park and saw him. And because it was the East Village, and it was the 60s, it was perfect. And Bowart knew that this was major, and that it had to be covered. Meanwhile, there I was, having just studied religious philosophy. So it all just worked; it fell into place. Amazing.

Melissa: That hit me, too. But what hit me more was that he was up to the task, without doubt. He was a really nice person, and that spoke loudest to me. I mean, in addition to all his other qualities, that Peter just mentioned, he was really accommodating, soft-spoken, and pleasant. You know, he embodied his teaching. That’s rare. He spoke the talk but also walked the walk. You could see it in his person. Here was someone with so many good qualities that you had to wonder about the path he was on. It made you naturally curious – whatever made him this way is something that is desirable. It made you want to embrace his teaching, his lifestyle. It was very sweet breaking bread with him and just talking, in a simple way. I have a great memory of that day.

Satyaraja: Peter? How would you sum up?

Peter: It wasn’t until some thirty-five years later that I learned [that my] article is magnificently reproduced in the Hare Krishna’s main temple in India.* The cover story was transformed into a life-size diorama that includes Walter Bredel’s photos. Apparently, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada always credited EVO for the great success of his ministry in this world. To the best of my knowledge, The East Village Other is the only newspaper in the history of newspapers to be enshrined in a religious temple.

Satyaraja: And in fact the article had a big effect. I know of at least two important instances of people who saw that article. One is a prominent scholar, Thomas J. Hopkins, who went down to meet Prabhupada as a result of reading your piece. Also, Allan Kallman, who produced Prabhupada’s Happening album – that too came about through your article.

Peter: I am just happy that I could play a small role in the way that I did.

* The enlarged cover of that issue of EVO is on display in the Prabhupada museum across from Prabhupada's Samadhi at the Krishna-Balarama Temple in Vrindavan. The scene depicted on the cover is reproduced as a diorama in Prabhupada's Samadhi in Mayapur.

This article combines the author's interview with Peter Leggieri and Melissa along with some excerpts from Peter’s online article about The East Village Other (http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com/2012/03/03/peter-leggieri’s-east-village-other/)

About the Author: 

Satyaraja Dasa

Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine.