The Reckoning

Thirty-six days later, after traveling 12,000 miles, the Jaladuta arrived in Boston harbor. The Coast Guard saluted the crew as they disembarked. Sailors unloaded cargo, and the following day the ship departed for New York. At noon on Sunday, September 19, 1965, Swamiji stared out at skyscrapers lining the New York horizon like giant concrete teeth. He took out his pen and composed a poem in his native Bengali. "My dear Lord Krishna," he wrote, "I guess you have some business here, otherwise why would you bring me to this terrible place? Now it is up to you to make me a success or failure, as you like. I am just like a puppet in your hands. So if you have brought me here to dance, then make me dance -- make me dance, O Lord. Make me dance as you like."

AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Krishna's messenger arrives in New York, 1965

From his bag he chose a dhoti -- a three-yard length of cotton cloth dyed saffron, the color of a Vaishnava monk -- and put on white rubber shoes and dressed with care. He said goodbye to the captain and crew and thanked them for their hospitality. Then he arranged for the two hundred sets of his books to be stored in the Scindia warehouse. If somehow he were able to sell a few copies, he would use the money to cover expenses for however long he stayed in America. Then, with nothing but his tiny suitcase, bag of cereal and an umbrella tucked under his arm, and holding the railing as firmly as his recovering muscles would allow, he stepped off the Jaladuta and into the future.

THE AGARWALS HAD ARRANGED for a representative from Traveler's Aid to meet the Swami on his arrival, and together with the agent he set out together for Port Authority Bus Terminal. The Swami had sold a set of his books for twenty dollars to the Jaladuta's captain, enough to purchase a ticket for Butler, Pennsylvania, where the Agarwals lived with their infant son. Along with a letter of sponsorship, the Agarwals had extended an invitation to stay for a few weeks in their Pennsylvania home as a way of adjusting to life in America. On the bus, the Swami watched an endless stream of cars fill the highways exiting New York City. He traveled past skyscrapers and slums, past billboards and blackened industrial zones and miles of factories that lay between New York and Pennsylvania.

America's four-hundred-year history revealed itself to him with every passing mile. Pioneers had made their way across the Atlantic seeking religious freedom in a land of their own. They crafted homes of wood cut and carved with their own hands, plowed the earth, offered prayers of thanks and built a nation like none other in human history. Generations came and went, and their descendents swapped their ancestors' noble purpose for the chance to bore through mountains and urbanize vast tracts of land. They spent fabulous sums constructing coast-to-coast highways, soaring skyscrapers and dense cities that concentrated millions of people into vertical mazes of concrete and glass. Inspired by advances in technology, they evolved a new ethos. Americans were no longer caretakers of the earth but its masters, competing with one another for profits and goods. They turned their backs on covenants with the natural world, gouged the ground for oil, pillaged forests, built slaughterhouses, churned out weapons, conquered foreign lands and made of the world one huge market. Money was their God -- the same one India now worshiped.

The Swami looked at the vista of this strange land whizzing past his window and knew there would be a reckoning. Once the Americans exhausted their fantasies about finding contentment in material things, they would emerge from their offices, clubs, shopping malls and restaurants and wonder what went wrong. When the veil of illusion fell away, when the reality of old age and disease and the sad brevity of a lifetime at last penetrated, the meagerness of their lives would become clear -- and that would be the moment for Krishna consciousness, the lifeline that could save them from drowning in an ocean of repeated births and deaths. He had come for this purpose, to make the message available. Wake up, the Vedas declared. Don't remain in darkness.

Come up to the light!1

 

1"Do not stay in illusion; go to the eternal reality. Do not stay in darkness; go to the light. Do not keep taking material bodies; become immortal!" BAU, 1.3.28.