Wrestling for Krishna: A Meditation Teacher's Journey

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How inspiration to become a devotee of Krishna came from two unlikely sources: an interest in wrestling, and words from the founder of Transcendental Meditation.

As a student, I competed in the sport of wrestling for eight years, from 1963 to 1971, but happiness eluded me. In high school, even when I won the California Interscholastic Federation championship at 123 pounds, I felt strangely empty inside. At the University of California at Berkeley, wrestling was a diversion, but I couldn't forget the Vietnam War and the countless problems that hung over my generation.

Seeking inner peace and satisfaction, I learned meditation while in college. After graduation I trained to be a teacher of Transcendental Meditation (TM) and taught it for a few years. One day at a meditation retreat in Murren, Switzerland, five thousand feet high in the Alps, I saw a two-volume, cloth-bound translation of the Srimad-Bhagavatam published by the Gita Press, Gorakhpur, India. Curious, I opened one of the books somewhere in the middle and read. A wrestler named Canura was addressing Krishna and Balarama.

O son of Nanda, O Rama, You two are well respected by courageous men and are both skillful at wrestling. Having heard of Your prowess, the King [Kamsa] has called You here, wanting to see for himself. . . . It is well known that cowherd boys are always joyful as they tend their calves, and that the boys playfully wrestle with each other while grazing their animals in the various forests.
Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.43.32, 34 (BBT translation)

Since I identified myself as a wrestler, chancing upon this particular passage about Lord Krishna's affection for wrestling—my first experience of the Bhagavatam—was a real coincidence. Previously God had seemed distant or unreachable, but now at the retreat visions of wrestling with Krishna sometimes appeared in my meditations. Imaginary or real, these encounters were ecstatic, altogether different from grappling with ordinary human beings.

At the retreat's conclusion I passed through the Swiss resort town of Interlaken, where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, TM's founder, was giving a lecture.

When I entered the hall, the bearded Indian teacher declared, “The Bhagavata Purana [Srimad-Bhagavatam] is the topmost Vedic literature.”

I left Switzerland and moved into a meditation center in Marin County, northern California, but my enthusiasm to teach meditation was waning.

Then I thought, Why not read the book Maharishi had praised?

It was late summer, and I camped out on a friend's wooded land in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. After about a month, when I completed the Bhagavatam I began to understand that real perfection lies in devotional service to Lord Krishna, not siddhis (mystic powers), fame, materialistic religiosity, sense enjoyment, or even liberation.


Connecting with Krishna in L.A.

A dental problem sent me to Los Angeles to earn money to fix my teeth. Jack Fernandez, my high school wrestling coach and an important mentor in my life, gifted me a copy of Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is, which he had bought from a devotee at the L.A. airport. At the same airport, I saw devotees selling Bhagavatam volumes published by Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Attracted by the spiritual artwork, I bought several books, and a devotee invited me to the temple. When the TM movement started a TV station not far from the Hare Krishna temple on Watseka Avenue, I served as a cameraman and delivery driver. Whenever an errand took me near the temple, I would try to see the beautiful deities, Sri Sri Rukmini-Dvarakadhisha, and often received maha-prasada sweets.

One day, shortly after the dentist treating me had given me a temporary filling, I got a severe toothache. I tried to meditate, but the pain was too intense. I was miserable. I decided to go to the temple. When I arrived, a devotee was singing Krishna-kirtana. Somehow, in the middle of the chanting, the pain in my jaw faded. I experienced both relief and bliss. Whatever the truth might be, at that moment it seemed that Krishna was giving me a sign that He would protect me if I surrendered to Him. Later I read in the Bhagavatam (2.1.5): “O descendant of King Bharata, one who desires to be free from all miseries must hear about, glorify. and also remember the Personality of Godhead, who is the Supersoul, the controller and the savior from all miseries.” But, ironically, this positive experience made me fearful of visiting the temple again. If I didn't stop visiting the temple and repeatedly experiencing the ever-increasing charm of Krishna consciousness, I feared I would surely become a devotee. I didn't feel ready for that.

In retrospect, I see that I was in the throes of the ultimate wrestling match, the one at the threshold of devotional life. Pitted against the invincible reality of Krishna's all-attractive personality was my false ego's illusory notion of autonomy. Inwardly, I wrestled. Outwardly, I fled.

Then the TM movement announced a special World Peace Project from October to December 1978. Meditation teams would be sent free-of-charge to international hot spots undergoing civil wars or unrest, such as Lebanon, Iran, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), El Salvador, and Nicaragua. We were to check into a hotel and do long meditation sessions to try to reduce the tension and violence in the atmosphere. Wanting to get out of Los Angeles (to avoid the devotees and the temple), I immediately volunteered, surprising my friends at the station.

My volunteer group, consisting of fifty male meditation teachers, assembled in Miami to board a flight for El Salvador. At the airport a young woman was distributing Srila Prabhupada's books. Unable to resist, I bought a small book, while several of the TM teachers, dressed smartly in shirts and ties, looked on disapprovingly. At that moment I suspected I might have more in common with that humble devotee than with the fifty men, but I pushed the thought away.

In San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, we were advised to stay inside our hotel rooms because it wasn't safe outside. After two months, however, just before we were to leave the country, I heard a distant “ching-ching-ching.” Following the faint sound to a park, I saw hundreds of people standing transfixed as a small group of Hare Krishna devotees chanted with fearless devotion. Here I was, trying to avoid Krishna, but His devotees seemed to be everywhere.

Kunti's Prayer

When I returned to America in December, in the middle of winter, I helped out at a TM printing press in upstate New York. I had read a noble prayer by Queen Kunti: “Let there be calamities, O Lord, because they force me to seek your shelter.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.25, paraphrased) Unlike Kunti, I didn't have the courage to welcome trouble, but for some reason I memorized the Sanskrit prayer. One day, singing the prayer while carrying photographic materials over some ice, I fell hard and developed internal bleeding.

The press director said, “You have to leave; we can't provide medical care for you here.”

Soon I was soaring above the clouds on a plane bound for Los Angeles, wondering if Lord Krishna had allowed this “calamity” to somehow bring me closer to Him. I visited the L.A. temple, but had a difference of opinion and had to leave. I was discouraged, but by Krishna's grace the devotee I'd met in Miami began to mail me a new issue of Back to Godhead magazine each month. It was a wonderful connection to Krishna. Knowing that I was into meditation, one month, along with the magazine, she included an audiotape from the Dallas tape ministry of a senior devotee, Tamala Krishna Goswami. He was speaking to two TM teachers in Texas. (She didn't know I was into TM specifically, so her sending me this tape was another “coincidence.”)

I was attracted to Krishna consciousness but continued to serve in the TM movement. When I taught meditation, a student would sometimes ask about God. We were instructed to say, “TM is not a religion; it's just a mental technique,” but my own lack of realization of God made me uncomfortable. I heard that when Maharishi first came to America, he spoke about God, but he was advised that more people would accept meditation if it was not presented in religious terms. By the time I got involved in TM, he spoke mainly in secular, scientific language, often referring to physics and quantum mechanics, and his Gita translation was limited to just one third of the book—six chapters of Vyasa's work, not all eighteen. It ended with verse 6.47, where Lord Krishna states that the highest yogi “renders transcendental loving service to Me.” Although Maharishi praised the Srimad-Bhagavatam, I never heard him discuss it in detail. His mission seemed to be mainly a secular one.

When I read Srila Prabhupada's translation of the First Canto of the Bhagavatam, I was amazed to find that Vyasadeva, the illustrious compiler of the Vedas, the Mahabharata, and the Vedanta-sutra, told the sage Narada, “I am feeling incomplete, though I myself am fully equipped with everything required by the Vedas. This may be because I did not specifically point out the devotional service of the Lord, which is dear both to perfect beings and to the infallible Lord.” (1.4.30–31) I was also feeling incomplete.

At a gathering of thousands of TM teachers at Amherst, Massachusetts in 1979, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, speaking on an amplified telephone call from Switzerland, requested that as many volunteers as possible to go to Fairfield, Iowa, to help establish a meditation-based university.

“After this," he added, "you can go back to college or do whatever you want.”

Maybe I misconstrued his meaning, but as I headed for Iowa, I decided that after helping in Fairfield I would study Krishna consciousness at the Dallas Hare Krishna temple.

My service in Iowa was to help build a large meditation dome before the frigid Iowa winter hit. One day I had to go high up on a scaffold. Heights scare me, and looking down I realized that a fall could be fatal. Meditation was said to reduce accidents, but the incredible news came that someone working on a similar but smaller meditation dome near Dallas had fallen to his death. That intensified my desire; I prayed to Krishna that I would live long enough to serve Him directly in this lifetime.

From Fairfield I wrote a letter to Maharishi in Switzerland: When the dome was finished, I wrote, I wanted to study Krishna consciousness, unless he objected. Maharishi did not reply, but soon he made a surprise visit to Iowa. When he drove up to the dome construction site where we were working, he beamed a broad smile. During his visit, I sent a note through his personal attendant restating my plan to perform devotional service and thanking him for his inspiration in my spiritual life. Although Maharishi did not bless my plan officially, he did not object.

Perhaps one reason he let me go was that although I taught TM to several hundred people and meditated for twelve years, it was a big movement and I was not a very important person in it. However, there may have been another factor: Maharishi's guru was in the line of Sankaracharya, and he must have been aware that although externally Sankara was an impersonalist, or a Mayavadi, the great teacher also composed Bhaja Govindam, with its famous opening refrain: “You intellectual fools! Just worship Govinda [Lord Krishna], just worship Govinda, just worship Govinda. All your grammatical knowledge and word jugglery will not save you at the time of death.”

Years later I found something interesting in a book of conversations with Srila Prabhupada. Here's an excerpt (March 2, 1975, Atlanta):

Satsvarupa Goswami: This boy is Bhakta Doug, and he was a personal secretary of Maharishi for two years. One day Maharishi said, "If you really want to know the highest truth, it's Krishna consciousness."
Prabhupada: Maharishi said like that?
Doug: We'd ask him, "Who is Krishna?" and "What about this Krishna conscious movement?" . . . He'd kind of evade our questions. . . . He was doing some transcriptions on the Brahma-sutras, and he came out, and he was in a very solemn mood, . . . and he said, "Krishna consciousness is the highest state of consciousness."

A Chance to Wrestle

I joined the Hare Krishna temple in Dallas in 1980. Later I served at the Houston temple, and just before Sri Krishna Janmashtami, Lord Krishna's divine appearance day, the temple president, Pandava Vijaya Dasa, asked if I would act in a drama. I'd never acted in my life, but agreed. But what would be my role? He said I would play one of King Kamsa's wrestlers who challenged Krishna. Another coincidence! It was a minor role, but I got to act for Krishna's pleasure, and it was fun.

A little after that, a fellow named Tony, formerly a U.S. Marine, started visiting the Houston temple and asked if he could move in to experience the life of Krishna consciousness. Pandava Vijaya agreed, but on the condition that Tony commit to stay at least one month and follow the rules and regulations. He concurred, but after about a week he got restless and started to pack his bags. Although Pandava Vijaya reminded Tony about his promise, he was intent on leaving.

Tony was muscular and proud of his military service, and Pandava got an idea.

“Tony, do you see that devotee over there? How about this: If you beat him in wrestling, you can leave now. But if he beats you, you have to stay for at least three more weeks, as you promised. What do you say?”

Unaware of my wrestling background, Tony agreed. With devotees looking on, we wrestled on the grass beside the temple. Fortunately, Tony didn't know wrestling, and I was able to prevail. It was wonderful to use wrestling, normally a mundane activity, for the pleasure of Lord Krishna and the devotees.

Although Krishna consciousness is not always easy and there are many internal and external challenges, I feel blessed to have gotten the chance to attempt to render devotional service. Since becoming a devotee, I've distributed Srila Prabhupada's books, written on Krishna conscious topics, and helped arrange booths at outdoor festivals where the devotees distribute krishna-prasada and do harinama sankirtana. I believe my experiences with meditation helped me come closer to Krishna consciousness, but the Vedic scriptures state that silent meditation was easier to practice in earlier ages. For our current age, Shukadeva Goswami recommended to Maharaja Parikshit: “My dear King, although Kali-yuga is an ocean of faults, there is still one good quality about this age: Simply by chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, one can become free from material bondage and be promoted to the transcendental kingdom.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 12.3.51)

George Harrison of the Beatles, whose song “My Sweet Lord” came out in 1970 and included the maha-mantra, was a great inspiration to me, because he also began with meditation, then met Srila Prabhupada and became a devotee of Krishna. George donated Bhaktivedanta Manor in England to ISKCON, and when he was dying he arranged for Hare Krishna devotees—his dear friends over many years—to chant near him so he could remember Krishna at the time of death.

A few years ago I had hip-replacement surgery and don't wrestle anymore. But my competition is not over: I have to wrestle with my materialistic mind all the time. Even though I don't deserve it, I hope against hope and pray that one day I may be blessed to wrestle with Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.