Traveling to Vrindavan or Mayapur from most places in America takes around thirty hours in cars, planes, and waiting areas. Devotees who make the trip tend to arrive exhausted.
Imagine Srila Prabhupada’s journey to America in 1965. It wasn’t thirty hours, but thirty-five days – onboard a small, aging cargo ship. The Jaladuta was no luxury ocean-liner. Smelling of rust and grease and exhaust, it rocked and listed for hours on end, offering no escape for relief.
After docking for a few hours in Boston, the Jaladuta went on to New York City. But Prabhupada’s journey wasn’t over. He traveled by bus to Pittsburgh, another nine hours or so, and ended his odyssey with a one-hour car ride to Butler. He arrived at four in the morning.
Prabhupada spent only a month in Butler. He lived at the YMCA and gave some Bhagavad-gita talks at the home of his sponsors. But he had set his sights on New York City.
In celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of ISKCON, we naturally think of Prabhupada’s early days in New York, leading up to the incorporation of his Society. The only contact Prabhupada had in New York was Dr. Ramamurti Mishra, who lived on upscale Riverside Drive and ran a fifth-floor yoga studio on 72nd Street, about seven blocks away. The studio had an office with an attached windowless room, and that’s where Prabhupada lived from November 1965 till early February 1966. Because the studio had a bathroom but no kitchen, Prabhupada had to walk to Dr. Mishra’s home every day to cook during those frigid winter months. (Though Dr. Mishra had given Prabhupada a coat, we know he wore pointed rubber shoes around that time, and I’ve often wondered if he’d gotten winter footwear.) Prabhupada wanted a place of his own where he could teach Bhagavad-gita regularly, so in February he moved to the third floor of the same building, into an empty office with no facility to cook or bathe. He slept on the floor and sat behind his metal trunk to type letters, translate, and teach.
Prabhupada had brought a typewriter from India, and a student of Dr. Mishra’s had given him a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Then someone broke into his room and stole them both.
In April Prabhupada moved to the Bowery, the worst part of the city. Derelicts sheltered in the entrance to his apartment building, where he shared a large open room with a young man who seemed a promising student at first. But one day, in an LSD-induced rage, he threatened Prabhupada, who had to escape to the street. Prabhupada found temporary lodging in the apartment of an acquaintance, much to the displeasure of the young man’s live-in girlfriend. Finally, Michael Grant (now Mukunda Goswami) and others rented the storefront and apartment at 26 Second Avenue that became the first temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, incorporated that July.
This history contains many spiritual lessons, and can evoke various emotions and questions. We might wonder how Prabhupada felt as he faced one hardship after another. In the Chaitanya-bhagavata (Madhya 9.240), Vrindavana Dasa Thakura gives a clue: “Know for certain that whatever worldly distress is seen in a Vaishnava is actually spiritual happiness.”
We can view Prabhupada’s story on different levels. When we consider his sacrifices in spreading Krishna consciousness, we can feel deep gratitude. When we consider his ecstasy in the constant company of his guru and Krishna while making those sacrifices, we can gain inspiration for our own service to the Lord.
– Nagaraja Dasa