“One day while walking home from my welfare office job on Fifth Street in Manhattan I passed Second Avenue on the way to my apartment on Suffolk Street, just south of Houston Street. At the corner of Second Avenue and First Street my eye caught the window of the storefront. The signboard said Matchless Gifts, and I had passed it many times. It was a curiosity shop and featured the sale of little matchboxes which had pictures on them from Hollywood movies. But now the window display was empty and the storefront vacant; they had gone out of business. There was a small piece of paper taped to the window with the following words: “Classes in Bhagavad-gita / Monday, Wednesday and Friday 7 p.m. / Transcendental Sound Vibration.”
I had read the Bhagavad-gita in the Mentor paperback edition, translated by Swami Nikhilananda and Christopher Isherwood, and I was interested in the transcendental philosophy of the “atma,” although I really couldn’t understand it clearly. I decided to attend the class. That night, wearing black chino pants, dirty white sneakers and a drab shirt, I entered the door of the storefront about five minutes to seven. There were about five men in their twenties milling around or sitting on straw Chinese mats. A man with a ruddy colored beard and curly hair approached me with a smile and greeted me. He introduced himself as Ray, and I told him I was Steve and we shook hands. He asked me if this was the first time I had attended the class, and I said yes. I asked what to expect. He said the Swami would come out at any minute, and he would explain everything. He would lead us in chanting and then he would give a lecture. Within a couple of minutes the Swami entered through the side door. He was a short, golden-hued monk from India. He slipped out of his pointy rubber shoes and walked over to a straw mat and sat facing the front door. The boys formed an audience facing him. He greeted a few of the boys who he already knew and then handed out a few pairs of hand cymbals. The cymbals were strung together with cloth. He struck up a 1—2—3 beat and indicated that others should follow. At first they couldn’t catch the beat, but he stopped and deliberately began again, saying, “One two three / one two three” until everyone was playing in unison, slowly.
The Swami was wearing a saffron skirt-like robe around his waist and a piece of saffron cloth draped over his bare chest and shoulders. His face was old, and his full mouth was turned down at the corners. His eyes were a deep mystifying brown. His long earlobes reminded me of pictures of Lord Buddha. He was an extraordinary presence for the Lower East Side. He began singing prayers in Sanskrit. After a few minutes he changed to the chant Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. He indicated that we should follow his lead in chorus. Some of the boys had been there before, and I gropingly caught on to it and began chanting in chorus Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. The Swami kept leading the chanting for a full half hour. After a while I got bored, but I kept going and eventually entered into a trancelike stage. It was far out. I went past boredom and became absorbed in the sound vibration. He sped up the tempo near the end and then stopped. He had a reel-to-reel tape recorder on his right, and he set it up for recording. Then he read a verse from the Bhagavad-gita and began lecturing on the topic. I found it difficult to follow his heavy Bengali accent and his insertion of Sanskrit verses. But I was fascinated with what I could pick up. He was speaking of Krishna as the Supreme Truth and the need to become Krishna conscious. We, who are living in the material world, are all suffering from birth, death, disease and old age. The great necessity for humankind was to take up “bhakti, devotional service, and go back to home, back to Godhead.” Chanting the Hare Krishna mantra was the essential practice for approaching Krishna in this age.
After lecturing half an hour he asked for questions and spent fifteen minutes answering them. Then he started up the chanting again and went for another half hour. I had the mantra almost memorized, and I was mesmerized. By the time it was over I felt that I was high. I left the storefront and walked home chanting in my mind and feeling certain that I would continue to attend the meetings. I felt I wanted to change my life and become pure. “
”The Story of my life”, vol.1