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From Sneering Passer by to Initiated Disciple

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. The book he held out caught my attention, and something made me stop for a brief 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 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 as a fool on the street. A small part of me, however, was also intrigued. Some months ago, having visited 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 made me want to chant some mantras I’d been taught during my childhood. When I reached the inner sanctum of the temple, I’d become very emotional. Of course, I was hastily pushed out of the temple by the attendants and the crowds, and I dismissed the feeling as just some kind of fatigue and sentimental emotion. 

I looked at the monk, threw my head back proudly and asked “How much?”
“Someone has donated, you can take”, the monk humbly answered.
“Really? Free?” I asked, puzzled by the fact that he wasn’t out to make any 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 the book 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 the faults, and show any shaven-headed fellows next time I met them, that they are just wasting their time with all this religious mumbo jumbo. That if they really want to succeed in life, I could show them how. 

For several days I barely even touched the book. I’d 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 on 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 fault-finding endeavor, I resigned myself to reading the lengthy purports. I thought I had found a fault, but with no shaven-headed monks to argue against, 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 3-4 faults, some minor spelling errors, maybe some grammar, but nothing like I’d hoped, nothing by which I could turn the entire philosophy on its head and beat another one of those monks heads down in an argument. Disappointed, I quit. 

Many months later, I thought I should read that book again, as it wasn’t so bad. In fact even though I wasn’t admitting it, I felt some kind of attraction to the book. Then I read it a third time, fourth time, 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 had read. I continued my job, stuck with my friends and my materialistic life, switching jobs, changing cities, hopping 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! 

A few years later, when I visited my close penpal of six years in Durban, South Africa, thinking that perhaps I wanted to marry her, visiting her parents to seek their permission and so on, one of the first places she took me to was the Durban ISKCON temple on Bhaktivedanta Swami Circle. As we entered the temple, some strange emotion came over me once more, some kind of very comfortable feeling, as if I’d stepped home, and wasn’t sure if it was due to the place I was visiting or who I was visiting with. But the intense emotions of meeting the girl I was to marry soon overshadowed all that, and later I spoke to her very passionately about the downfalls of organized religions. 

Some years later, as we continued our life journey together, we happened to land in 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 Ratha yatra 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 another plate of that tasty 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 began 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, Bhakti Marga Swami began to call upon me to act in his plays, and I did 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 speaker, a visitor who spoke about chanting, and said he had an Internet e-course and that anyone could ask questions and he’d answer personally. As a software entrepreneur, I was in front of a computer almost all day. I began by reading, and asking questions. Some questions were quite offensive actually, 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 it was too hard and I thought I couldn’t do it properly anyway. He said to chant on beads, and I happened to have some sandalwood beads, 108 in number on a string. So I began on those, one round, weekdays only, taking break on the weekends. 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. 

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, sometimes I’d not, sometimes because I was addicted, sometimes to keep up with social norms, sometimes because I was too timid to tell people my preferences, and at other times to keep up with 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 we couldn’t afford to do everything that we did before. Through all of this, the words in the Bhagavad-gita seemed to take on new and urgent meaning, our chanting progressively increased, and the devotees at the temple treated us with ever-increasing 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, Sankarshan Das Adhikari, got more and more personal, and one day I asked a particularly offensive question to which he replied very tersely that I could choose to be a discredit, or be a credit, now the choice was mine. Then I realized I had a choice, to truly accept what was in the Bhagavad-gita, or 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 those 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 that the brahmachari on the street in Mumbai was doing, over 12 years ago. While on the street, I still sometimes give away books for little or no money, recalling the great favor the brahmachari had done to me. I began taking a more active role in temple services, joined a kirtana band as a musician, participated in festivals, learned to wear a dhoti, 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, Sri man Sankarsana Dasa Adhikari, And in May 2011, about 12-13 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 love 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 that he was the wealthy person on the street, and I was the beggar. That boy had chosen the right way, and I had fallen into material life, and every young man should emulate that great and humble devotee, not me. If I see him ever again, I don’t know how I would express my gratitude. I would 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 inundate this planet with Krishna’ s message in every way imaginable. From sneering passerby to initiated disciple, what a long journey, and how wonderful has it been! 

Originally published in the Back To Godhead Magazine, currently archived at http://www.backtogodhead.in/from-sneering-passer-by-to-initiated-disciple-by-mahabhagavata-dasa/