This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of a Peace Corps worker’s life-changing meeting with Srila Prabhupada.

By Brahma Tirtha Dasa

A reminiscence on the fiftieth anniversary of a Peace Corps worker’s life-changing meeting with Srila Prabhupada.

Fifty years ago, I embarked on an incredible adventure beyond my wildest imagination. I was a twenty-two-year-old Peace Corps volunteer and found myself on the bank of the Ganges River in a straw hut. I had the great fortune of hearing from the foremost and most respected preceptor of the Bhagavad-gita, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Our conversations took place daily over several days, and as a result of these conversations, a book was published, entitled Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers. The book is now available in fifty-eight languages, with millions of copies in print. I am often asked how the conversation came to pass and how I prepared myself for it.

When I was a pre-teenager, I used to study the globe. I’m not sure why I decided I must visit India. I had no idea where that impulse came from, yet it was pressing. In 1968 I visited Greenwich Village in New York City and saw a street group chanting Hare Krishna in exotic dress. In those days in Greenwich Village the extraordinary was ordinary, yet these Hare Krishna devotees stood out either as exhibitionists beyond what I was used to or as somehow above it all. They seemed so happy in their sandals and bedsheets, as their Indian clothing appeared to me, and they were not at all disturbed by the stares. Could these odd folks be transcendental to it all? Or were they like the many show-offs who hung around the Village? One of them gave me a mantra card, which I quickly lost and lamented losing. Yet the mantra stuck with me, and I wanted to know the precise words. Around this time the Broadway musical Hair was popular, and I learned the mantra from the play’s album by listening repeatedly to the song featuring the Hare Krishna chant.

On my next trip to the Village, I came across a copy of the Bhagavad-gita by Franklin Edgerton. I read it with keen interest and decided I needed to know more about this mystical philosophical text. I was also curious about the connection between the Gita and the Hare Krishna mantra.

I grew up with a visual disability such that I was without depth perception. I couldn’t socialize on the ballfield like most suburban children. I therefore spent many of my youthful hours in the forest contemplating (nowadays we would call that meditating) and trying to understand the concept of death. I instinctively knew that we did not actually die, yet I was observing older neighbors dying, and then my beloved grandmother passed. I was tormented to know the answer to the question “Can we ultimately die?”

The Gita opened the door to a deeper understanding. Yet I was confused about how to grasp the Gita. In the late 60s many gurus began to arrive in New York, and I wondered how to discern who really represented the tradition and who came to exploit my gullible generation. I then recalled my childhood fascination with India and determined that I must go there. I needed to know if the Hare Krishna mantra really was chanted for enlightenment and, if so, who were the legitimate representatives of the tradition of its chanters.

In college I was a science major yet favored the humanities, especially philosophy, and most notably, oriental philosophy. I studied the Bhagavad-gita under Professor John Koller, who encouraged me to explore it more deeply. One incident with Professor Koller is important for me to share. As you will see later, this was a mystical event.

While I was studying the Gita, only one verse (9.30) really troubled me: “Even if one commits the most abominable action, if he is engaged in devotional service he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated in his determination.” As a black-and-white thinker like many of us in the 60s, I could not see how one could be simultaneously both a saint and a sinner. Curiously this was the only verse in the Gita I knew in English. I also knew no Sanskrit, a point that becomes significant for the mystical moment which follows.

Joining the Peace Corps

On campus, the 60s were quite tumultuous, and I realized I needed to follow my dream of going to India by applying to the American Peace Corps program. Though admittance to the Peace Corps was difficult, I later learned that India was one of the most austere assignments and not at the top of the list of most applicants. I was accepted to the Peace Corps and assigned to become a science teacher in the state of Bihar.

Shortly after graduation from college, I was off to India, in June 1971. My adventure began. My Peace Corps training in Hindi and my assignment preparation occurred in New Delhi. After several weeks I was sent off to navigate on my own, visit a school, and practice my Hindi. I disembarked my bus in Thaneswar, not realizing I had arrived on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where the Gita was spoken. (To those who have read Radhanath Swami’s Journey Home, this was the same month he visited Kurukshetra, also in search of the truth.) Next to the bus stop was a temple in the shape of a chariot, since the Gita was spoken on a chariot. I felt optimistic that I could finally discern who were the legitimate seers of the Gita and whether the Hare Krishna movement was part of that tradition. By this time I had been, on my own, chanting Hare Krishna for three years.

I dashed to the student union at the University of Kurukshetra, seeking my answers. There I was surrounded by students, as it was a rare sight for a young Western non-hippie to visit Kurukshetra. I asked the students if they chanted Hare Krishna. They had no interest in answering such an inquiry. Their interest was only in the mundane politics between India and Pakistan, since the countries were on the verge of another war. Alas, no answers. The next several months in India brought me the same frustration – no answers. I visited temples, mosques, and churches to inquire, and always received the same mundane response: “We are here to get blessings and benefits from God, Jesus, Krishna, Mohammed, and even the Buddha.” Yet I did not receive answers to my philosophical questions regarding what happens at death, why we suffer, and the purpose of life.

Meeting Devotees and Prabhupada

I was sent to my assignment in Bihar and would often visit Kolkata for adventure. One day on a crowded Kolkata trolley, I saw a poster advertising a Hare Krsna festival at Deshapriya Park. I was elated! Weren’t these the people I had seen singing on the streets in New York? I turned to a Sikh gentleman in a large turban and asked, “Deshapriya Park – where?” Silently he pointed back in the direction we had just come from. I struggled to get off the overcrowded trolley. Hurrying through the streets, I began asking everyone – sweepers, stall owners, police – for directions and found the park.

Deshapriya Park was in an upscale section of Kolkata, and I was surprised to see an audience dressed in Western dress while Americans in traditional Indian garb were speaking onstage. It was a most curious sight. As I walked closer to the stage, I saw Giriraja Brahmachari (now Swami) speaking. After months in India, I finally heard someone making philosophical sense. His talk was brilliant as he explained the deeper insights of the Gita. He challenged the audience not to seek what he had given up in America – the materialistic life – and not to give up what he was seeking, the wisdom of the Gita. I was mesmerized with his discourse, and my thirsty ears could not get enough.

I began visiting the ISKCON center in Kolkata on my regular sojourns in the big city. The temple was an old Victorian mansion, a remnant of the British raj. During one of my visits in November 1971, Srila Prabhupada was present, and I was invited to meet him and ask any questions I might have.

Srila Prabhupada was sitting on a cushion behind a low desk. Six or seven Indian gentlemen surrounded him. I had always thought that if I ever met a guru, I would ask him all the many questions that had haunted me over the years. As I entered Srila Prabhupada’s room, I folded my palms and sat down nervously before him. He looked at me and smiled warmly.

“You have some questions?” he asked in a deep yet gentle voice.

I couldn’t remember any of my questions. Suddenly, something inside inspired me to challenge him. Considering myself somewhat knowledgeable in Buddhism, I thought to ask him about another, equally valid spiritual path.

“Why not Buddhism?” I questioned.

 “What does the Buddha say?” he replied, totally undisturbed by my approach.

I began to rattle off something I had read in a book about the eightfold mystic path. Soon I exhausted my knowledge of the matter and felt totally deflated, unable to remember most of what I had read.

If I did not know what the Buddha said, he asked, why I was inquiring about an “ism”? He wanted to talk philosophy not “ism.”

I was impressed and embarrassed, yet Srila Prabhupada made me feel at ease. Intrigued, I sat quietly and simply listened as he continued conversing with his visitors.

On to Mayapur

After this encounter, I would visit the Hare Krishna temple whenever I traveled to Kolkata, an overnight train ride for me. In February 1972, during one of my visits to Kolkata (I must confess that one of my purposes of visiting was to buy a milkshake, which helped ease my homesickness), the devotees of ISKCON invited me to join a food-relief operation in Mayapur. The India-Pakistan war had concluded two months prior, and there were thousands of hungry refugees from the war along the border with Bangladesh, and Mayapur is very near the border. I had never heard of Mayapur, yet I was always up for a good adventure. My school was on break, so off I went to Mayapur via train, and then a boat across the branch of the Ganges River which flows close to the ISKCON Mayapur property.

As I exited the boat (more like a canoe, barely above the water line), a devotee greeted me. He was quite surprised to see a Westerner in street clothes. Tejiyas Dasa was a former Peace Corp volunteer who had been stationed in South India. We immediately bonded, and he asked me if I would like to see Srila Prabhupada. I was most interested to meet him again and had no idea he would even be there. At that time, I was unaware that this was the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and that ISKCON had just purchased land very near the actual birth site. The Mayapur project was then a large rice paddy with a straw hut for Prabhupada and several large canvas tents – including one each for men and women – along with a colorful pandal tent for programs. Mayapur is now a thriving community, yet in 1972 there were no merchants, shops, or buildings on the ISKCON property. I estimated that fifty to sixty Western followers were present, and only one English-speaking guest – me.

After securing my backpack in the men’s tent, Tejiyas escorted me into Srila Prabhupada’s hut. Our first conversation was not recorded, so I’ll recollect as best I can. Srila Prabhupada asked where I was from, what I was doing in India, and what subject I was teaching. I mentioned that we had met briefly in Kolkata several months prior and that I had now come to Mayapur to help with food relief. He then asked if I had any questions.

I clearly recall my thought process. Prabhupada and his followers appeared to me to be legitimate followers of the bhakti path of the Bhagavad-gita. They were highly respected in India, as opposed to some gurus who had come to the West in search of fame and money. I had come across followers of several famous gurus in India, and none of them gave me the impression that they had transcended mundane life. I thought, “Let me see if Prabhupada can answer the gnawing questions I’ve been contemplating for well over a decade.” I also decided I would just listen to Prabhupada and not challenge him, since I could process the answers later at my leisure.

Amazingly and unknowingly, I had stumbled upon the formula recommended in the Gita in verse 4.34: “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master, inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.” Srila Prabhupada appreciated my approach and called for me to come to his hut multiple times a day during my stay in Mayapur.

Shyamasundara Dasa was Srila Prabhupada’s secretary, and though he was short of blank cassette tapes, he found the conversation so interesting that after our first meeting, he started recording the subsequent dialogue, which became the book.

Upon the conclusion of our conversations, Shyamasundara said to Prabhupada, “These discussions were perfect.”

Prabhupada replied, “Yes. We shall print one book, Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers.”

The Mystical Moment

I previously mentioned that verse 9.30 had mystified me when studying the Gita in college under Professor Koller. Now for the mystical moment: The very first (and last) verse Srila Prabhupada quoted to me was this very verse. When he quoted it in Sanskrit (it was clear to him that I knew no Sanskrit), he asked me if I was familiar with it. Indeed, I was familiar, since that was the only verse in the Gita which I knew in English.

Srila Prabhupada: Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita, api cet suduracaro bhajate mam ananya-bhak. Have you read it?

Bob: Yes. The Sanskrit I don’t know, but the English I do.

Srila Prabhupada: Hmm.

Bob: “Even if the most evil man prays to Me . . .”

Srila Prabhupada: Yes.

Bob: ”. . . he will be elevated.”

Prepared by Yamuna Devi

There is one more incident I must share to round out the story of how the book came into being. After many hours of questions and answers, the evening came, and it was the festival of Gaura Purnima, which occurs on a full-moon night. The sky was dark, with the only light coming from the vivid moon. One of the earliest members of Srila Prabhupada’s entourage was Yamuna Devi. She was already famous for recording with George Harrison, singing the Govindam prayers, played daily at every ISKCON temple during the deity-greeting ceremony. Her other accomplishments are too numerous to name here. For me, Yamuna signified the deep love found in bhakti-yoga. She came up to me that full-moon night with tears in her eyes glistening in the moonlight. She told me how fortunate I was that Srila Prabhupada was giving me hours of his time each day. My conversations with Srila Prabhupada had brought her to tears.

These words affected me deeply, and I understood that indeed I was fortunate in ways I could not fully comprehend. I was also frightened. I had attachments, such as my fiancée back home (Bhakti and I have now been married for forty-nine years), my education, my family – and the list goes on. I feared that becoming a devotee of Krishna would take all this a way. Yamuna prepared me for the more personal conversation which was about to begin.

The next day when Srila Prabhupada called me to continue our conversation, I started to tell him that I had to return to my teaching assignment. My fear induced me to make this excuse, even though no one from the Peace Corps knew what I was doing or where I was.

Srila Prabhupada saw right through my story and said, spelling out the words, “Don’t talk l-e-a-v-e. But talk l-i-v-e.”

I replied that if he wanted me to stay, I would.

He then said these special words: “You are a good boy,” just as a man might say to a pet dog.

Now I knew I was his boy, and our conversation shifted from theory to practice. Surprisingly, I felt a sense of inner peace.

The Consummate Personalist

As I was the only English-speaking guest at the Mayapur festival, many of Prabhupada’s young followers were eager to share their understanding of the practice of Krishna consciousness, and in doing so, gave me conflicting advice on how I should behave, how I should dress, how I should do so many things. I couldn’t sort it all out. Fortunately, a few weeks later I was back in Kolkata, and Srila Prabhupada was at the temple. I had the opportunity to ask a few more questions. My key question: How could I – engaged to be married (my fiancée knew nothing about the Gita) and accepted into graduate school in the USA, yet anxious to know the deeper truths – keep what he had given me and learn more.

Prabhupada gave me the simple key: keep good company. He explained that if my company were thieves, eventually I would become a thief, and if my company were those who aspire to higher consciousness, then I would achieve that state. So simple, yet so very profound. He also told me to read his books daily as much as possible. These two instructions have been my life blood for the past half century.

I am often asked what it was like to sit with a great Acharya. It was quite comfortable. I never felt judged even when I had to discuss embarrassing issues. He was grave, yet he replied with humor, giving philosophical yet understandable elucidations. And he was always practical. Prabhupada was the consummate personalist, treating each of us as individuals with our own desires and needs and capturing any hint of sincerity for higher consciousness. He addressed my concerns and made Krishna consciousness relevant to my life. He treated me with dignity and compassion. Since our meeting fifty years ago, I have strived to emulate Prabhupada’s personalism in my interactions with everyone I encounter. This is my way of trying to repay Srila Prabhupada for his priceless kindness.

Through Prabhupada and the Bhagavad-gita the very questions about death and the purposes of life were resolved with cogent, rational, wonderful answers. My conversation was not the end of the journey, but rather the beginning of a greater adventure which still continues.

In a conversation in New York after India, Srila Prabhupada summarized death in a way that finally made sense to me, and the mystery began to untangle. We do not actually die.

Bhakti (my wife): So, do we know what type of body we will get?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, provided you are qualified. Otherwise nature will arrange for it. Those who know – they know what is there. But for those who do not know, nature will arrange things. If you do not know, this means you have not prepared your life, so accidentally, at the time of death, your mentality will create another body, and nature will supply it.

Over the years, I have received many letters from readers describing how Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers favorably influenced their lives. My hopes and prayers are that many generations from now, sincere seekers will continue to experience the affection and wisdom of Srila Prabhupada through the pages of Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers. As Socrates stated: An unexamined life is not worth living.