New Vrindaban Days – Chapter 2

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

By Advaitacharya Das


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

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

It is sometime in the last quarter of 1972, I’m nineteen years old, and the Hare Krishna’s are the spookiest group of people I have ever seen. They have shaved heads, wear bed sheets, and have chalky lines drawn on their foreheads, reminiscent of the X’s the followers of Charles Manson have carved into their heads. I am completely adverse to the idea of ever being in their direct company. Unfortunately, for me I have started chanting Hare Krishna and have even searched out Bhagavad Gita As It Is, in a local bookstore.

Cover of the Back To Godhead Magazine 1972.

Cover of the Back To Godhead Magazine 1972.

Slowly, and against any remnant of sanity I think I may have, I open the BTG magazine that first piqued my interest and look up the address of the temple which is located on Henry Street in Brooklyn. Seeing the phone number, I call and get directions.

“Are you crazy?” my mind screams.

“I’ll just go and look at the building from across the street. I won’t actually go in.” I bark back internally.  Somehow it seems logical and my mind is appeased.

NYC Subway circa 1970s.

I take a 45 minute bus ride and then transfer to the GG line of the New York City transit system. The entire trip takes almost two hours. The whole time I am fighting the fear of directly running into any of the devotees. As the train pulls into the station I begin walking down toward the end of the platform where the exit is located.

GG Brooklyn Queens Subway Sign.

“Sure,” I tell myself, reviewing the plan in my mind. “This will be easy. I will walk by a couple of times. Look at the building. All the creepy people will be inside praying. I won’t see any of them. And, then I will get my butt out of there free and clear. A fool proof plan – simple enough.”

Street Sankirtan in Times Square - 1970s.

Street Sankirtan in Times Square – 1970s.

The train pulls out, clearing my visual pathway and I nearly choke on my next breath. My eyes have crossed to the other side of the tracks where I see what seem to be at least fifty devotees waiting to take the GG in the opposite direction. I practically die. There is nowhere to run or hide. They are all over the place. I’m panicked. I avoid looking and speed up toward the exit. I now consider turning around to head back home.

As I exit the turnstile, and climb the stairs to the street above, I realize that if I turn around I will be trapped on the same platform as them. It then dawns on me that the fact that they are out of the building en masse means the coast will be clear for my inspection of the exterior of the temple. Success!

Henry Street, Brooklyn.

I walk what seems to be at least ten blocks to the temple to find a three story brownstone on a very nice block. The temple is near the corner with a vacant lot along the side. I am immediately struck by the unusual curtains hanging in the side windows which appear to be no more than 6 inch X 30 inch pieces of saffron colored cloth hanging in tandem (which I later discover to be the brahmacari’s brahman underwear).

Henry Street, Brooklyn.

The front of the building is very nice with a ten foot high staircase going up to the double wide front doors. In accordance with my plan, I make multiple trips past the building on the opposite side of the street. Soon I even make a pass on the same side of the street. Since there are no devotees to be seen I quickly skip up the stairs and peek through the front doors to see if I can get a view of anything inside. I peer through the glass but I find that there is another set of doors just inside and I cannot see anything. I get brave and try the door. It is open. I step inside the small hallway and put my face up against the glass to have another look. Suddenly the door is yanked open from the other side.

Henry Street, Brooklyn

“Hare Krishna, can I help you?”

I am stunned. Standing before me is an attractive looking young woman seeming much like a hippie only dressed in a colorful Indian sari.

“Um. No. No, thank you. I just wanted to look in.” I say.

Motioning to a doorway just off to the left she asks, “Would you like to take off your shoes and take a quick look into the temple room? It’s right here.”

Of course I don’t want to take off my shoes and actually step inside this place to look into the temple room. But, I can see that there are no other devotees around. This is safe. This is my chance. I remove my shoes and step in, crossing the few steps to the left I look into the temple room. Glancing to my left I am surprised to see what appears to be a throne with a picture of a man on it. I am reading the BTG and the Bhagavad Gita so I recognize the person in the picture to be the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, who the devotees refer to as Srila Prabhupada.

By nature I am a skeptic. For years I have seen posters plastering the subways of New York featuring the names and pictures of various gurus: chubby teen aged boys, women, and older men with greying beards – all kinds of gurus. I have never taken any seriously. Mentally, I even mock them. Maybe it is because I have started by reading his literature I am not feeling anything negative in regard to Prabhupada. Sure, I think all of his disciples are likely crazy and certainly weird but as for him I have no such feelings. To the contrary, I believe that he is someone that is extremely knowledgeable and even more compassionate. I have no problem with him being represented on a throne.

Sri Sri Radha Govinda on Their altar @ the Henry Street Temple.

Turning my head to the right I look down the length of the fifty foot long room and see the altar on which stand Sri Sri Radha Govinda. I am stunned. Other than the garish colors of the room I find the place to be quite attractive. But, hey I have certainly overstepped my own boundaries and should probably get out the door as fast as I can. I step out of the temple and I am met again by the girl.

“We have a very nice art gallery upstairs. Would you like to go up and see the paintings?”

“No, I don’t think so. Maybe next time.”

“There are no devotees here right now but there is another hippie boy upstairs who could show you the gallery if you like.”

Hmmm, another hippie boy and no devotees. She points up a long flight of stairs where she tells me I will find the art gallery on the second floor. My curiosity gets the best of me and I accept her offer.

Vishnu Garuda Devotee Ocean

Lord Vishnu plucks a devotee out of the ocean of material existence.

The gallery is bedecked with beautiful paintings which the hippie boy does indeed explain to me. I especially like the one of Vishnu riding on the back of Garuda plucking a devotee out of a churning ocean.

“This painting represents how Krishna pulls his devotee out of the ocean of material suffering. That’s why the devotees wear the ponytail, which is called a sikha. So, Krishna can pull them out by the sikha.”

Within a few minutes I am shocked when two male devotees enter the room identifying themselves as Visnugada Das and Apurva Das. Internally I am panicking but I try not to show it.

Front cover of Bhagavad Gita As It Is.

“Would you guys like a short Bhagavad Gita class?” they ask.

My vocal chords are paralyzed and the hippie boy responds. “Sure.”

I feel trapped and take a seat on the floor alongside the hippie as the two devotees proceed to give us a class. By the time it ends I am not even sure how long I have been down the rabbit hole and my only thought is to get out. The hippie and I thank the two and I proceed out of the gallery into the hallway and make my way down the long staircase headed for the door at the bottom of the steps. As I reach the bottom my greatest fears are realized as the door flies open and the devotees I had previously seen on the subway platform return from wherever they had been chanting in the streets.

My heart is pounding as I try to push my way past the devotees who are chanting wildly and jumping up and down. I reach the first door hopeful that I will soon escape when one of the devotees grabs me firmly by my shirt.

Hare Krishna Street Chanting in NYC 1970s

A blissed out devotee chants Hare Krishna and carries a sign.

“Hare Krishna,” he blurts directly into my face.

He has a crazed look, is uncomfortably close, and has his eyes opened unusually wide. “Where are you going? Why don’t you join us for bla bla bla?” He asks?

I have no idea what bla bla bla is but I am sure that I don’t want any. “I can’t,” I plead. “I have an appointment.”

“You can’t leave without taking bla bla bla,” he returns while dragging me toward the back of the hallway.

“Really, I can’t.” I say, feeling on the verge of tears.

“You must,” He says. “If you don’t take bla bla bla you will be committing a great offense.”

My mind is reeling. I came here to try to feel closer to God and now I am on the verge of committing a “great offense.” I try a last resort. “I can’t take anything,” I say, “I don’t have any money.”

“That’s okay,” he says. “Bla bla bla is free.”

I have lost the battle and he leads me feebly down a flight of stairs into the basement.

The large room in the basement is a bright yellow and the floor is painted red. He sits me down against the wall and steps away to a nearby room. He returns in a minute with what appears to be the most disgusting bowl of food I have ever laid my eyes on. I now realize the word he has been saying which sounds like no more than “bla bla bla” to me is actually “prasadam” and it refers somehow to food.

I am appalled. My diet to this point has consisted primarily of hamburgers, pizza, frozen and canned foods. What he holds in his hand is a steel bowl filled with some kind of yellow creamy substance that has chopped green peppers floating in it with oily looking spice trails tracking behind the chunks of peppers. I have entered the building.  I have visited the art gallery. I have sat and listened to a Bhagavad Gita class. I will not, and do not “take” the “Bla Bla Bla.”

Dahl, Sabji & Chapatis

Delicious Dahl, Sabji & Chapatis Prasadam (misheard as “blah, blah, blah”)

Sitting on the floor with the wide eyed devotee preaching to me, my mind is screaming.

“What did you do? Why did you come in here? Why are you having anything to do with these people? Are there any para-military groups nearby that can rescue me?”

Finally, I am out in the street and making my way back to the subway. I am sure of only two things. I WILL NEVER COME BACK HERE AGAIN and I WILL NEVER HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THESE CRAZIES EVER AGAIN!!!

Crowded front steps of 439 Henry Street.

Over the next few months I continue chanting and reading and finding myself crossing the two lines in the sand mentioned above. Not only am I visiting the temple regularly and bringing lots of friends I have expanded my horizons when it comes to my culinary choices and I am now regularly filling my face with “bla bla bla.”

Prabhupada said this. Prabhupada said that. Prabhupada did this. Prabhupada did that. Prabhupada wants this. Prabhupada wants that. For every one thing you learn about Krishna you hear something about Srila Prabhupada. It is clear that he is not only the heart of the movement but the heart of all of the devotees.

Prabhupada Radha Govinda Henry Street 1973

Srila Prabhupada greets Sri Sri Radha Govinda.

It is now nearing April, 1973 and the temple is abuzz with the fact that Srila Prabhupada will be spending some time at the New York Temple. I make sure that I am there to see him. The energy level soars as the place is full not only with the devotees that live on Henry Street but also with devotees visiting from all over. I see Prabhupada sitting in a rocking chair spending personal time with the devotees. I see him watch the play, The Kidnapping of Rukmini by the devotee theater troupe the Vaikuntha Players.  I see him standing before Sri Sri Radha Govinda in the temple room. I watch as even my brother Billy and some of my Brooklyn friends that I have brought to the temple bow down on the temple room floor offering him obeisances as he walks through the room.

Prabhupada at Henry Street Temple 1972

Srila Prabhupada leads the chanting at the Henry Street Temple.

On the last morning of His visit I attend the early morning Srimad Bhagavatam class that he will be giving. The temple room is packed with devotees squeezing in like sardines. The class begins with Him chanting. I have not heard the prayer he sings before this day. It starts off slowly but hypnotically, “Jaya Radha Madhava, Kunja-bihari,” The whole prayer consists of no more than four short lines repeated over and over again. “Gopi-jana-ballava, Giri-vara-dhari,”  I do not know what I am listening to. “Yasoda-nandana, Braja-jana-ranjana,” I do know that as I am listening the entire room slowly seems to become transformed. “Yamuna-tira, Vana-chari.” Over the next minutes His chanting reaches a feverish pitch. The devotees are transfixed. I don’t know what I’m witnessing – whether it is real or just in my head. I have not taken any drugs but all colors seem enhanced 10 times. Intellectually I have come to understand that I exist within the energy of God. While this chanting goes on everything around me seems to become surcharged with that energy. Solid seems on the verge of becoming liquid. Walls seem to shimmer and vibrate. Maybe this is one of the acid flash backs I have heard so much about.

The chanting ends and when things settle down the class begins. After the class the devotees stream out of the temple room and into the hallway. I am a new guy and do not really know any of the many devotees standing around. All of them are frenetic and commenting about what they had experienced during the chanting. It will not be until a couple of years later when I am standing with two older devotees who were also in the room at the time. They are reflecting on being at Sri Sri Radha Govinda’s temple in NYC on the morning I have described. They talk about it being the first time that they ever experienced Srila Prabhupada chanting the “Jaya Radha Madhava” prayer before giving the Srimad Bhagavatam class. They talk about how the energy of the room was surcharged and transformed. I am not only grateful for the fact that I was there but that I now was hearing directly from two people who had experienced the same thing that I had.

Prabhupada obeisances Radha Govinda Henry Street

Srila Prabhupada offers obeisances to Sri Sri Radha Govinda.

After taking breakfast prasadam that morning, I am approached by a devotee in the same exit doorway I had tried to flee out of the year before.

“Bhakta Emil, Srila Prabhupada asked about you. Why don’t you come up stairs to meet him?”

I begin considering it when out of the blue the devotee proverbially hits me over the head by saying, “You can surrender to Srila Prabhupada right here and now and move into the temple today.”

As inviting as going upstairs to meet Srila Prabhupada sounds, surrendering and moving in is much more than I am ready for on this particular morning.

NYC Subway Token early 1970s

NYC Subway Token.

I walk back to the subway. This time I am not asking myself why I came, or telling myself that I will never come back again. This time I ask myself, “Why am I leaving?” And, “Why wasn’t I ready to surrender to Srila Prabhupada and become a devotee?” And, most importantly, “Would I ever be?”


Did you miss Chapter 1: Every Journey Begins With a Single Step? Click here to read it.

Want to read Chapter 3: Captured by the Beauty of Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra? Click here!

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