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A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

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based drinks had been turned down by the city health department and they had had to fall back on bottled water as a substitute. And this would be the first Chicago celebration of Rathayatra, a great annual feast in India.

The temple floors were decorated in spotless white-and-blue linoleum blocks, and the ground-level rooms of the building led to a balcony overlooking a large, two-story worship room that looked like it might have been a basketball court during some previous incarnation. In the room, Krishna devotees chanted and made their music and held their hands briefly over bowls of fire before pressing them to their foreheads, a reminder of divine warmth. Incense filled the building.

Swami Prabhupada was in special quarters prepared for his visit: There was an enormous divan throne, decorated in bright colors and Eastern fabrics and surrounded by vases of flowers and a dozen devotees. But he sat instead on a pillow on the floor at the side of the throne, a small old man who will be 79 in September and who was charged 40 years ago by his spiritual master to spread knowledge and preach Krishna Consciousness in English. He first came to America in 1965, and now has around 6,000 disciples in this country. The most visible of them occupy street corners and airports, chanting, "Hare Krishna," and trying to make converts.

The master gestured for me to come forward, and I did, sitting at his feet. "Master," I asked him, "what would your advice be to those readers of the newspaper who have not accepted Krishna Consciousness?"

"The sun is exposed to everyone," he explained. "But if one keeps in a dark room, what is the sun to do? There is a class of men who keep themselves in the dark room; it is not possible to convert everyone. But if some living people accept Krishna Consciousness, others will follow naturally."

"Why did you come to America to preach your doctrine?"

"I thought, everyone is following the Americans, is building the American skyscrapers . . . if Americans will follow, then others will follow. In India, they reject Krishna Consciousness. They reject, Americans accept. India is too much leaderless; now they are encouraging skyscrapers, drinking wine . . . but in the Western countries, people like the hippies have become dissatisfied with the materialistic life. They give up their possessions. In the Western countries, we are selling our books very nicely."

The swami was charged to teach to the English-speaking world in 1934, but came to America 31 years later. Why did he wait so long?

"I was thinking I was not yet fit. Also, I was a family man at that time. In 1959, 1 renounced family life."


"To relieve all anxieties." Laughter, the master joining in.

"The eldest son takes care of the mother," he explained. "When a woman is a child, she is taken care of by her father. When young, by her husband. When old, by her children. She is never allowed independence. When a woman goes to work, that is an insult to the husband, the father and the son. In a degraded society these distinctions are broken down and no one knows how to serve God properly."

"But you spoke, a moment ago, about all of your devotees being equal. . . ."

"They are. Spiritually equal. They have the same duties as the men: to chant, to dance, to take prasadam, which is food. But their bodies are different. It is for the men to tend the fields, and the women to tend the house."

From the back of the room, a Krishna devotee cleared his throat and said, "Master, I would like to introduce you to my fatherinlaw, Mr. Manischewitz; of New Jersey. He is the president and chief executive officer of the largest kosherfoods manufacturing concern in the world."

"You must be proud," said the master, "of such a fine son-in-law."

"Thank you," said Mr. Manischewitz, who was dressed in sport clothes and looked as if he did not make it a practice to wear a lei around his neck, although he wore one now.

There was a short silence. "Do you or your followers ever become discouraged," I asked, "by the small response to your efforts?"

"Wherever we chant, there the name of God is heard," the swami said. "Even in the interior of Africa, where they wore spears and earrings, they were also pleased. Even if they don't follow, to hear the name of God will benefit them. The advertisement will have some effect, even if not everyone will buy the advertised thing . . ."

I thanked Swami Prabhupada for speaking with me, and got up to leave. The swami offered me an orange section from a large silver tray. "No, thanks," I said. "Oh, please take one," a devotee said. I did.

The next afternoon in the Civic Center Plaza, I joined a crowd of maybe 2,000 who stood around the 40foothigh float bearing Swami Prabhupada. He spoke into a microphone, but it was hard to hear him. Occasionally he led his devotees in chants, and they were easy to hear: Good advertisements, he would have said. Their heads shaved, dressed in their flowing robes, the devotees of Krishna Consciousness heaved big five gallon bottles of mineral water on top of half a dozen coolers, and shoppers in the Loop stopped to have a drink from a paper cup and wonder what the little old man was saying.


Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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