By Mahabhagavata Dasa
A successful young man gradually discovers what’s truly valuable.
One afternoon, as I walked out of a bustling Mumbai train station, I saw a shaven-headed monk standing close to a big pile of books. I approached him with a sneer on my face, fully intending not to engage with him. But the book he held out caught my attention, and something made me stop for a moment. It was the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. I briefly gazed upon Krishna holding the reins of the chariot and Arjuna getting ready to shoot an arrow.
When I first saw the monk from a distance, all sorts of thoughts raced through my mind. “What a loser,” I thought, and wondered if he’d flunked out of school, or if he’d graduated from a university but had such low marks that he couldn’t get a job. I thought of myself as the epitome of what every young man should be, or if they were not, then at least they should aspire to be. I was very proud of my excellent marks in school and my prestigious job, for which I had beaten thousands of other qualified engineers. I was proud of the money I had in my pocket and my stylish briefcase, and felt deep loathing and pity for the person I considered a fool on the street.
A small part of me, however, was also intrigued. Some months earlier, on a visit to Tirupati with some friends, unexpected emotions had confused me. It was meant to be a vacation, to see some sights, including this temple, but the hours and hours of waiting in line had made me want to chant some mantras I was taught during my childhood. When I reached the inner sanctum of the temple, I’d become very emotional. After the standard brief viewing of the deity, Sri Balaji, I’d been pushed out of the temple by attendants and the crowds, and I’d dismissed the feeling as just some kind of fatigue and sentimental emotion.
I now looked at the monk with the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, threw my head back proudly, and asked “How much?”
“Someone has already donated for them; you can take one,” the monk humbly answered.
“Really? Free?” I asked, puzzled by the fact that he wasn’t out to make money.
“Yes,” he answered, looking me up and down. “For you, free.”
I felt insulted that he didn’t want my money. I grabbed the book from his hand, threw it in my briefcase, and walked away quickly, without even so much as a look to say thank you. I’ll read that book, I thought, to find all its faults and show any shaven-headed fellows next time I meet them that they are just wasting their time with all this religious mumbo jumbo. I’ll tell them that if they really want to succeed in life, I can show them how.
For several days I barely even touched the book. I leafed through the pages a bit, but was disappointed that I didn’t immediately find any flaws. Many weeks later, I started off, but couldn’t keep pace with the barrage of names, thoughts, ideas, and concepts that emerged from the pages. I decided to read only the translations first, then the Sanskrit word-by-word, hoping that surely I’d find faults in the translation, being proud of the little Sanskrit I had studied. Frustrated in my faultfinding endeavor, I resigned myself to reading the lengthy “Purports.” I thought I had found a fault, but with no shaven-headed monks to argue with, I lost track of the “fault” and kept reading, thinking I should simply read the entire book and reserve judgment until the author had a proper chance to say what he wanted to say. All in all, I thought I had found three or four faults, some minor spelling errors, maybe some grammar problems, but nothing like I’d hoped, nothing by which I could turn the entire philosophy on its head and beat down one of those monks in an argument. Disappointed, I quit reading.
Many months later I thought I should read the book again, as it wasn’t so bad. In fact, even though I wasn’t admitting it, I felt some attraction to the book. So I read it a second time. Then I read it a third time, a fourth time, a fifth time, went on reading it over and over again, and my fascination continued to grow. But I didn’t do anything much to act on what I read. I continued my job, stuck with my friends and my materialistic life, switched jobs, changed cities, hopped continents, but almost everywhere I went, my Bhagavad-gita came along. Little did I know that I had been tricked by the most masterful trickster imaginable: Krishna.
Marriage and a Temple Visit
A few years later I visited my close pen pal of six years in Durban, South Africa. I wanted to marry her, and I visited her parents to seek their permission. One of the first places she took me to was the Durban ISKCON temple on Bhaktivedanta Swami Circle. As we entered the temple, a strange emotion came over me once more, a very comfortable feeling, as if I’d stepped into my home. I wasn’t sure if this was because of the place I was visiting or the person I was visiting it with. But the intense emotions of meeting the girl I was soon to marry overshadowed all that, and later I spoke to her passionately about the downfalls of organized religions.
Some years later, as we continued our life journey together, we moved to Toronto, Canada, and the apartment we rented was walking distance from the Hare Krishna temple. We went a few times on Sundays, standing awkwardly at the back of the temple as the regulars mingled, sang, danced. One afternoon, as we were walking down Yonge Street, we saw some strange red shapes down the street with crowds of people. I don’t know why we were so excited, but we recognized the chariots as Rathayatra carts and hurried to catch up with the procession. I recalled that one is supposed to pull on the ropes, so we both pulled for quite a distance. Then we learned that the procession was on its way to Center Island, a park setting. We hadn’t been there before, so it was a pleasure to go to the island, see the colorful tents, get a delicious lunch, witness the cultural shows, take in the atmosphere, and get in line for a plate of delicious food. Over time, I began to make the connection between what I’d read in the book over the years and what these people were doing.
“Yes,” I thought, “these people are really honest followers of Krishna.”
As the regulars started to see me more and more at the temple, some of them began to insist that I start chanting Hare Krishna, but I didn’t listen to them. Around that time, Bhaktimarga Swami, the leader of ISKCON Toronto, began to call upon me to act in plays he directed. I performed many odd roles: a servant, a rishi, one of Ravana’s ten heads, a demon in Ravana’s army, a tree, a river, a horse, and so on. Also around that time, at a Sunday feast I met the guest speaker, who spoke about chanting and who said he had an Internet e-course where anyone could ask questions and he’d answer.
As a software entrepreneur, I was in front of a computer almost all day, so I began by reading and asking questions online. Some questions were quite offensive, but the kind teacher didn’t seem to take offense and had great patience with me.
He said that to realize the knowledge myself I’d have to chant Hare Krishna. But that was too hard, and I thought I couldn’t do it properly anyway. He recommended chanting on beads, and I happened to have some sandalwood beads, 108 on a string. So I began on those, one round a day, weekdays only. In time, I thought I was missing out on the weekends, so I chanted then too. After some time I switched to Tulasi beads. Slowly, I began to dislike eating out, and wanted to offer all food to Krishna before eating, and the food tasted better for it.
A Rough Transition
There was a long period of great turmoil when our lifestyle went against what the Bhagavad-gita said, what my Internet guru said, what the speakers at the Sunday feasts said. Sometimes I’d follow their instructions, sometimes not. When I didn’t follow, it was because I was addicted to bad habits, or because I wanted to keep up with social norms, or because I was too timid to tell people my preferences, or because I wanted to keep up my “image.”
Then, without warning, hard times hit, and all of a sudden there wasn’t enough money. Business partners fled, colleagues began to disrespect me, and my wife and I couldn’t afford to do everything we did before. Through all of this, the words of the Bhagavad-gita seemed to take on new and urgent meaning, our chanting progressively increased, and the devotees at the temple treated us with more and more kindness and compassion. It felt like the only thing we could afford to do was go to the temple, so we did. Once again Krishna was drawing us closer.
My questions to my Internet guru, Sankarshana Dasa Adhikari, got more and more personal, and one day I asked a particularly offensive question to which he replied tersely that I could choose to be a discredit or a credit; now the choice was mine. Then I realized I had a choice—to truly accept what was in the Bhagavad-gita, or to follow my old materialistic ways.
As we got firmer in Krishna consciousness, amazing things started to happen, and it stopped mattering that we didn’t have so much money. Even when the money started to flow back in, we weren’t attracted to all our old ways of spending it. In fact, in following my guru’s instructions I was beginning to develop a keen interest in distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books, the very same activity the brahmachari on the street in Mumbai was doing twelve years earlier. (Nowadays, I sometimes give away books for little or no money, recalling the great favor the brahmachari did for me.) I began taking a more active role in temple services, learned to wear a dhoti, joined a kirtana band as a musician, took part in local festivals, and attended many more festivals all over the world. Our lives became full of activities we wouldn’t have dreamed of just five years earlier.
Then, after deep reflection, I sought spiritual initiation from my Internet guru, Sriman Sankarshana Dasa Adhikari. And in May 2011, twelve or thirteen years after that fateful encounter with the kind brahmachari on the streets of Mumbai, I received initiation from my spiritual master in Austin, Texas.
I often look back upon that kind soul, unknown to me, my great benefactor, to whom I owe such an immense debt of gratitude, for having the compassion to distribute a Bhagavad-gita to me, even though I was so offensive toward him. I now know he was the wealthy person on the street and I was the beggar. That young man had chosen the right way, and I had fallen into material life, and every young man should emulate that great and humble devotee. If I see him ever again, I don’t know how I will express my gratitude. At least I will fall flat on the ground, grab his feet, and beg for forgiveness for my arrogant, offensive thoughts and words. But I realize that the humble soul will never let me do something like that. Instead, I think I can please him by passing on what he gave me, and help to inundate this planet with Krishna’s message in every way imaginable. From sneering passerby to initiated disciple, what a long and wonderful journey it has been!