New Vrindaban Days – Chapter 1


New Vrindaban 50th Anniversary

New Vrindaban Days

As New Vrindaban enters its 50th anniversary (1968 to 2018), I wrote this series of articles for the Brijabasi Spirit in an attempt to give the reader not only an “understanding,” but more importantly a “taste,” of what life in early New Vrindaban was like – through the stories of one devotee’s personal journey.

The title of the series, “New Vrindaban Days,” is a tribute to the wonderful book “Vrindaban Days: Memories of an Indian Holy Town” written by Howard Wheeler, aka Hayagriva Das, one of Srila Prabhupada’s earliest disciples, a co-founder of New Vrindaban, and, a great writer. As with Hayagriva’s book, this series focuses on a period in the 1970’s.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank Chaitanya Mangala Das, for spending untold hours assisting me in refining my writing for your reading pleasure.

I will attempt to tell these stories in some semblance of a chronological order, beginning with my first meeting devotees in 1968, leading to my arrival in New Vrindaban in late 1973 and carrying through to the official opening of Srila Prabhupada’s Palace in 1979.

In this article there may be some topics describing my life before joining up with the devotees. They are only meant to give the reader insight into the background and mindset of the author.

Advaitacharya Das

Chapter 1: Every Journey Begins With a Single Step

Emil Sofsky (aka Advaitacarya) in New York - circa 1968.

Emil Sofsky (pre Advaitacarya Das) in New York – circa 1968.

It’s 1968 and I’m fifteen years old. The cover of one of the national magazines has done a feature article on the hippies. Hoping to fit in and perhaps experience the “free love” culture, my young friends and I tear holes in our jeans and work shirts and board the subway from Queens, NYC to Manhattan’s Lower West Side. We make the rounds through the streets of Greenwich Village trying to look as hippie as possible and eventually wind up in Washington Square Park. There are hippies everywhere and our curiosity is peaked when someone gives us a flyer blaring “Have a Marijuana.” Well it wasn’t “free love” but the idea of having marijuana amongst the hippies that day did have a certain appeal.

A group of young people singing and making music in Washington Square Park – circa 1968.

The person that handed us the flyer pointed to the other side of the park where we could hear rock music blaring. When we arrived there we found the rock band, “David Peel and the Lower East Side,” promoting their new album “Have a Marijuana.”

David Peel "Have A Marijuana" Album Cover - 1968.

David Peel “Have A Marijuana” Album Cover – 1968.

David Peel, ranting, raving and howling about running away from home, living on the East Side, and smoking marijuana was about as much hippie as these fifteen year olds had ever seen. Our minds were blown. Surely, this is as hippie as it could get. Or so we thought.

David Peel Performing in Washington Square Park 1960s

David Peel Performing in Washington Square Park 1960s,

We wander across the park until we hear clanging and singing coming from somewhere out in front of us. As we draw closer we come upon something that goes way beyond anything we expect from hippie-dom. These people are not hippies. They might not even be from the planet Earth. They walk round and round in a tight circle banging tambourines and singing what seems to be a foreign nursery rhyme over and over.

Their heads are shaved bald except for long ponytails. They all seem pale, underweight, and are covered in bed sheets. The only thing I can imagine is that they have all escaped from Creedmoor, the cities’ famous mental institution, and have wound up on the Lower West Side. Besides clanging on tambourines intermittently one of them blows into a large conch shell making me think they may be some strange sect of Vikings.

Devotees Chanting in NYC. 1969

Devotees Chanting in NYC, late 1960s.

Another corners a person near me and tells him if he just sings this song he can, “Stay high forever.” One more approaches us with an invite to visit their center on Second Avenue. Coaxing us by saying, “We’ll be serving refreshments.” Refreshments?  I think. Is he kidding?  There might be traces of whatever these guys are tripping on in the ”refreshments” and though we are interested in getting high – being completely out of our minds is not something we are anxious to try.

Stay High Forever Pamphlet.

Stay High Forever Pamphlet.

It is almost two years later and I have been living primarily on the streets of Brooklyn. On this ice cold New Year’s Eve night I am stumbling around Times Square with three of my buddies waiting for the “magical ball” to drop. We are all severely intoxicated and have been in multiple fights and were chased by police on our way to Manhattan.

We are stumbling up 42nd Street when dead ahead of us I spot what I remember to be one of the bed sheet weirdos from Washington Square Park those years before. He is wearing a winter coat and a strange hat that has flaps that come down the sides of his head.  Orange cloth covers his legs and what appears like a large cloth purse drapes his shoulder. Because I am vaguely familiar with these guys – and none of my friends are – I take the opportunity to show off in front of my pals.

“Hey fellas, check out Gunga Din.”

I head straight for the devotee with my three buds close behind. We surround him like a hot dog in a bun with me, their leader, getting right up in his face. I glare directly into his eyes as my friends shuffle intimidatingly around him and I break the silence.

“You’re bald aren’t you?” I demand.

He has no reaction and just stares back into my eyes.

“You’re bald, right?” I press.

His head is covered and I know my friends have never seen a guy wearing bed sheets having a bald head with a ponytail. I see it as a great opportunity for a laugh.

“I’ll tell you what. Take off your hat and if you’re bald I’ll give you a dollar.” He stands firm. Now, although I know this poor fool must be wondering whether or not we will become violent, that is not my intention at all. In my mind I’m just playing with him. I’m thinking I am completely serious and if this guy takes off his hat I will definitely give him a dollar. He doesn’t. I press on.

“I’ll tell you what. You take off your hat, and if you’re bald, I’ll make every one of these guys give you a dollar.”

I’ve made up my mind. I am completely serious. If he removes his hat I will be sure to make all of these thugs give him a dollar. The devotee stands firm without a visible response. I press my face even closer glaring directly into his eyes. He doesn’t flinch but instead stares right back into my eyes. I turn to my friends and begin laughing with all of them chiming in.

I turn back to the devotee, “Okay, boss. You’re cool,” I say and we proceed on our way.

Hare Krishna Devotees Chanting at St Marks & 2nd Ave in NYC 1960s

Devotees Chanting at St Marks & 2nd Ave in NYC 1960s.

You may be wondering why I would tell this story. It doesn’t reflect very well on my character or the condition of life I was in. I share it to illustrate how a journey begins with a single step. As we walked blindly into the night, trying to grab life by the throat in the cold and the near midnight New Years Eve crowds of Times Square, I could not know that my entire life’s direction had just been altered. Srila Prabhupada said if you take one step toward Krishna He will take ten steps toward you.

So, how was my intimidation of one of Krishna’s Sankirtan devotees taking a step toward Krishna? In the teachings of His Divine Grace we find stories of people offering service to Krishna even in their mind and Krishna accepting that service. I have always believed the moment on 42nd Street was my first step in this lifetime toward Krishna. In my mind I had decided that I would give a dollar to Krishna. I also decided that I would engage my friends in giving something to Krishna. Even though I was acting foolishly and without any understanding I had, in my mind, in essence offered something to Krishna. And, every journey begins with a single step.

Emil Sofsky (aka Advaitacarya) in New York - circa 1972.

Emil Sofsky (pre Advaitacarya Das) in New York – circa 1972.

It is now 1972 and a lot has gone on in my life. I have been on a month long journey hitch hiking back and forth from Colorado, in and out of three different High Schools, in and out of the United States Navy, and have moved back into my parent’s house. My brother Billy and I have a room on the third floor where our friends often stop by for “leisure” activities. On one evening one friend stops by on his way home from work carrying a magazine.

“Damn, I was walking to the subway on Main Street, Flushing and I ran into a whole caravan of those Hare Krishnas. I tried avoiding them by crossing the street but they had “scouts” out walking around and one of them grabbed me. I gave her a quarter just to get rid of her and she gave me this magazine.”

Devotees Chanting at St Marks & 2nd Ave in NYC 1960s

Cover of the Back To Godhead Magazine 1972.

The magazine, “Back to Godhead,” was left in my room and used for the next year as an agricultural device to separate seeds from leaves and most of my time was spent following the Grateful Dead fueled by various substances. Miraculously, in the middle of one of my rock and roll meditations in front of the stage I experienced an epiphany. In the middle of a song, hearing the words, “Remember the peace that you had on the mountain, and come back to the love that you had here with me,” I came to understand at the core of my being that I was somehow living in the presence of an all knowing God who was not only aware of me but also loved me immeasurably.

I did ponder in the middle of this, what I believed to be a Divine encounter, that I was not receiving a message from the Divine but, was instead simply hearing a lyric being sung by a rock and roll band. And, that the source of my Divine encounter was likely being caused by the little orange pill I had taken on my way into the show. While considering in this way my long forgotten catechism lessons immediately kicked in. “Well, is this a rock band I am watching and listening to, or as I had been taught as a child, was I watching and experiencing the energy of God?” Catechism 101 – Who is God? Answer – God is everything! So if there was a Supreme Being who was to be found in everything was I experiencing a rock and roll band and a little orange pill or was I actually interacting indirectly with God?

Euphoric waves of loving energy wash over me whenever my internal journey dares take me nearer to my initial conclusion. There is a God that is aware of and loves me. I am hooked. I believe. When I return home after each concert I sit alone in the kitchen pouring over the Bible. My girlfriend thinks I’m going crazy. Everything I see begins having this God in the center. I hear a love song. I think of it in relation to God. I see the love of my family and friends. Same thing. The Bible? I accept it. Who begat who and Jesus is the son of God – I’m with it. But, what I really want to know is who is this Being calling out to me in the music?

And, then it happens. By chance I pick up the magazine lying in my room for a year and I look at the cover. “Back to Godhead: Godhead is light, nescience is darkness. Where there is Godhead there is no nescience.” I open it struggling to see past the pictures of the bed sheet weirdos and read only the words.

Devotees on Harinam Sankirtan.

In the reading of one magazine all the ideas that I ever had about God and the meaning of life come together as clear as day. All my questions answered. The conclusions of my heart confirmed. I lie alone in my bed that night and, having never even been preached to directly by a devotee, I begin to chant, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”

Stay tuned for Chapter 2: Srila Prabhupada – Jaya Radha Madhava.

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