By Shyamasundar Das
“I didn’t have a clue whether George would print this book or not. I just liked to please the Swami, tell him big things that might or might not come true, almost daring myself – and Krishna – to do the impossible and make them happy.”
During the spring of 1969, we kind of knew that Swamiji was writing a book called Krishna because he’d mentioned it in a letter to Gurudas, but we didn’t know much about it. Nor, I must admit, did we much care. It was the job of other godbrothers – devotees like Satsvarupa, Brahmananda, Rayarama, Adwaita – to print books. Our job was overwhelmingly clear: build a world-class center for the Swami in London.
But on July 15, 1969, Prabhupada had sent me a letter: “I have prepared a nice book, Krishna, and I want to print it in a deluxe edition. If some of your friends finance this publication, it will be a unique presentation to the world. This will contain Krishna’s life from the beginning of His Appearance to His Disappearance from this mortal world. It will contain all of His activities throughout. It is full of philosophy, instructions, transcendental pastimes and artistic pictures.” OK, sounds great – and I promptly forgot about it. Preparing for Ratha-yatra and building Bury Place consumed every waking moment.
As for Prabhupada’s reference to my “friends” financing his new book, I had made a strict policy never to ask George for anything. One of the main reasons we were accepted by George and the Beatles was that we never asked them for anything, separating us from the thousands of outstretched hands around them.
I wrote back to Prabhupada that George had recently offered to put up $3,000 to buy marble for the new altar at Bury Place. But I must have also written that I thought George would probably print this Krishna Book (he seemed to be in the mood these days), because in his next letter to me, dated July 31, Prabhupada wrote: “I am very pleased to note that you have made such a nice recording of Hare Krishna, which may be released by the Beatle’s Company. Also, it is very encouraging to learn that you think Mr. George Harrison will be happy to print our Krishna Book. This will be a very great service to the mankind at large, if he can be of assistance in this connection. We are giving a unique contribution with this book; a book which tells of the activities of God. There is no other book that has been authoritatively presented to the Western World up till this time which has given so high a contribution.” [emphasis mine]
Wow, a pretty heavy statement. Knowing my penchant for flowery propaganda, Prabhupada often sold his ideas to me by using a kind of show-biz language. But I was always doing stuff like this, sticking my foot in my mouth. I didn’t have a clue whether George would print this book or not. I just liked to please the Swami, tell him big things that might or might not come true, almost daring myself – and Krishna – to do the impossible and make them happen.
August 1969 was an intense month of work at Bury Place. Prabhupada even sent detailed plans for the throne, down to the color of the marble, months before the throne would actually be built. So the whole subject of the Krishna Book appeared to have died down – but not for the Swami. Again, on August 31, he wrote: “In your last letter you informed me that George Harrison may be interested to publish my book, Krishna, so I am carrying with me the manuscript. I want to print this book with many pictures, and the pictures are also ready in Los Angeles and Boston. So if possible, you can talk further with him about this publication, and if he does so, it will be very nice for him as well as for us.”
This one flew completely over my head. I didn’t even consider asking George to print this book. Jeez, the record just came out, he’s just done an all-day press conference with us to create major publicity, and he’s promised the marble for Bury Place – how can I even think of asking him for something more?
Two and a half months go by. Srila Prabhupada has since come to the UK and is now living at Farley Court. He comes to Bury Place every day to work in his room above the construction site, despite muffled, sporadic hammering and Skil saws buzzing beneath his feet.
One day, Prabhupada sends down word that he wants to see me upstairs. I lay down my tools and run up to see him, arriving out of breath. “Are we making too much noise, Srila Prabhupada?”
“No, no, noise means there is progress.” I start to relax.
“Achaa, one thing. You will be seeing George Harrison today, regarding marble?”
“Yes, I’m meeting George and his friend David Wynne at the place where they sell the marble. Mr. Wynne is what they call the Sculptor Laureate of England. He’s designing the new British coins, and right now he’s carving a bust of Prince Charles.”
“Oh, so he is very expert. When you will be back?”
“So he will help us pick out the best marble, and they will give a good price to him. You said in your letter, white or golden, right? After we select the marble, we’re going over to David Wynne’s house in Wimbledon for dinner – that’s pretty far from here, so I don’t know. It may be very late.”
Prabhupada has this big pile of pages, prints of full-color paintings, on his desk, and he starts rustling through them. He holds up a page – the picture of Vasudeva carrying newborn Krishna across the river while lightning bolts streak in the sky. (OK, I remember hearing the story.) Then he holds up others, one by one, telling me briefly the story behind each painting. (My mind’s still on the work downstairs, the deadline – and the paintings are nice, brightly colored, but seem rather amateurish to me.) “And this is the Kaliya demon,” he says. “This demon lived in Yamuna River and has threatened Krishna, and He has defeated, just see, dancing on the heads.” (I’m thinking back to Bible-school summers in Salem, Oregon, and the pictures of Jesus making one loaf into many, Moses parting the Red Sea. This is fairytale stuff. I don’t get it.) “And this one,” he says. (Ahh, there’s Krishna and Balarama jumping off a mountain. I kinda dig that one, like, we have nothing to fear in Krishna’s hands.)
Prabhupada goes on and on, showing me the illustrations, explaining what’s happening in each. I’m thinking: Prabhupada is so into this. He’s blissed out looking at Krishna’s childhood adventures. Adventures, yes, that’s what these paintings are about – we hadn’t heard much of this stuff before. I’m starting to get it. Look at him – he looks like a child reading Alice in Wonderland. He’s smiling, laughing, sometimes in awe as his eyebrows lift: “Just see!” he says, and he holds up the picture of a fight scene where Krishna is slaying some demon – the guy’s head is flying off! – and I’m starting to think this is pretty cool stuff.
“So long it is sitting there and we cannot publish,” Prabhupada says.
By now I kind of expect what he will say next: “We have got quote from Dai Nippon, $19,000. I want you to ask George to print this Krishna Book for me.”
I’m quiet. He can read the perplexed look on my face, the hesitancy.
“But Prabhupada, up to now we have good relations with George because we never ask him for anything. Hundreds of people are after him every day, saying, ‘Give me this, give me that.’ Because we never ask him, he is always willing to give us something. How can I do this? It may spoil everything – that is my worry.”
Prabhupada chuckles. “You do not worry. You just ask. That will be a favor for me. I shall take the – how you say? – blame. You tell him like this: ‘My spiritual master has requested you,’ like that. Krishna will help you, you will see.” He hands me a sheaf of paintings, “Just show these to Mr. Harrison.”
I bow and head back downstairs, my head spinning – and lose myself in work until the hour approaches and I must head out to meet George. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive out to Gerald Culliford Ltd., Britain’s prestigious purveyor of fine marble, in Kingston-Upon-Thames in Surrey, where I’m meeting George and David at three o’clock. The whole way I’m trying to block out what Prabhupada has asked me to do. Surely Krishna will take control – there’s really nothing to worry about – but my stomach is in butterflies and I’m worried almost sick.
George is in London a lot these days, helping Ringo with his new album, so he’s not under a lot of pressure. In fact, today George seems to be in very fine spirits. We don’t get to do stuff together often, just the two of us, George free of the restraints of being a Beatle and me out of my work clothes and in devotee mode, feeling lighter in a dhoti and flip-flops. David Wynne impresses me as a groovy guy, very aristocratic (hey, he patters with the Prince while he sits for him hours at a time). David has that quick, subtle English wit, and he and George are throwing one-liners back and forth that have me in stitches. David says he is the man who introduced George to the Maharishi a couple of years back. He strikes me as a very spiritual person, and I take to him immediately and we start having fun.
I hand him a little sketch I’ve made, the general temple layout, with altar design and dimensions, and I describe the temple room: mostly reddish-brown wood with probably a blue or purple carpet. “The Deities will be dressed in intricate, bright colors, so the marble shouldn’t be too busy – our eyes should focus on the deities’ faces. And the Swami wants the altar dimensions to be something like 40″ by 50″, and the color of the marble should be white or golden.” George is running around the place like a little boy.
George could buy this whole place with a snap of his fingers, so his cautious bargaining with the salesman impresses me. We all kind of agree on gold as the main color, so when we see the travertine marble from Siena, Italy, we know. These are such expensive slabs – and this marble so rare – that we have to modify my sketches to fit what is available. Finally, we choose two pieces of three-inch-thick Siena. We are knocked out by the Norwegian blue marble too – actually a kind of feldspathic granite called labradorite – blackish-blue with fluorescent blue flashes as the light moves over it, sort of like opal. So we choose this material for the stairs leading up to the altar. The pieces are bigger than what Prabhupada had suggested, but we have been struck by the incredible beauty of these stones.
Wow. Dark blue and gold, a perfect combo. Culliford’s tells us they will cut and edge the pieces, polish them, and deliver them to 7 Bury Place in a few days. As we’re leaving, George sees a big one-and-a-half-ton block of white South African marble and buys it for David as a gift. Wynne will later carve it into a sculpture called Gaia, which now sits in Abbey Gardens in the Isles of Scilly.
As we cross the parking lot to our cars, the skies begin to darken, heavy clouds roll in, and the wind blows dust in our eyes. We are ecstatic.
David lived at “Rushmere,” a converted farmhouse on Wimbledon Common in South London. He had a warm and welcoming home, and his wife, Gillian, and two young sons, Ed and Roly, were super people. The lightness of the occasion, and the delicious aromas of a fine vegetarian dinner, took my mind completely away from the task before me: asking George to fund Krishna Book. After several courses, we were still yakking away while a storm blustered outside. Heavy rain was sluicing past dark dining room windows, and thunder rumbled in the distance. A Brandenburg Concerto played softly on a phonograph somewhere. Then dessert and coffee came and I knew it was about time.
As Gillian started clearing the dishes – it’s now or never, the party’s over, it’s a long drive back through the night – I looked across the table to George, and said, “George, Prabhupada wanted me to ask you something.” I hand the pictures to him across the table. “He’s been working for a year or so on this big book called Krishna – you’ve seen all those nice paintings by devotees in his other books? Well, this book has dozens of paintings like these, and it’s all about Krishna, His birth, His childhood, all the demons He kills, all that. Anyway, he wanted me to ask you if you’d print it for him.”
There, it’s out. As I’m explaining all this, I see his face start to change from happy-go-lucky dinnertime friends and patter about football, to serious, then to angry, and I think, “Oh, I’ve screwed this thing up forever now.”
A brilliant white-blue flash comes through the windows – KABBOOOOOOOOOOMMM!!!
The huge house shudders – and the lights go out.
A lightning bolt hit the house!
Total dark and silence for maybe ten seconds. I can hear everyone breathing.
Suddenly, the lights come back on. Bach starts up again in the living room. Everyone’s oohing and ahhing. I look at George, expecting the worst – but a husky laugh and he’s got this huge grin on his face. “Well, uh, how much is it, then?”
I am swept by waves of relief – we’re all laughing and buzzing: we’ve seen Krishna’s magic together.
“Well, about $19,000.”
George says he has to be in London tomorrow – at Abbey Road studios, working with Ringo – so he’ll stop by Bury Place and talk it over with Prabhupada.
I drive my rented car back to London through the late-night storm – driving anywhere in London at night is a venture into the unknown – but tonight wheels find the path without effort. I’m on top of the world. I’ve just pleased my spiritual master in a very big way. Another rhinoceros. It doesn’t get any better than this. But will George really do it? Shortly after midnight I pull in front of Bury Place and see that the light’s still on behind the blue curtains in Prabhupada’s room upstairs. He’s still here; he hasn’t gone back to Farley Court. I park, unlock the door, quietly go up the stairs, and timidly knock on Prabhupada’s door.
“Yes, come in,” he says.
“So, what is the news?” I bow, and before I can even sit up I’m blurting out, “He says he’ll print Krishna Book!” As I give my excited report about both marble and book, I’m beaming all over, but Prabhupada is just smiling and calm, even after I tell him about the lightning hitting the house. Still, there’s that special gleam in his eye I’m beginning to recognize: he’s especially happy. “And George says he’ll be in London tomorrow, and he’ll stop by to see you about it.”
As I head out the door, Prabhupada says to my back, “You see, I told you Krishna would help you.”
Shyamasundar das, one of Srila Prabhupada’s earliest disciples, helped open ISKCON’s second temple, in San Francisco (1967), and the London temple (1968). In 1971 he served as Prabhupada’s secretary, staying by his side day and night.
[Excerpted from Chasing Rhinos with the Swami, Volume 1. Copyright 2017 Shyamasundar das (Sam Speerstra). Available from the Krishna.com Store and the author’s website: www.chasingrhinos.com.]