Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Janmastami on Second Avenue

Sounds like the title of a hit song from the 40's (although i wasn't around back then so i'm just guessing). Actually it was a huge hit in the 60's. It was where Srila Prabhupada performed one of the greatest miracles in religious history. Tonite i decided to go on pilgrammage to 26 Second Avenue, Prabhupada's "Matchless Gifts," the western world's first Radha Krishna temple.

I took the "C" train to West 4th St. and the "F" train to Second Avenue. The Subway in NYC is much cleaner and cooler (air conditioned cars) than back in the 60's when Prabhupada took it. It isn't a model subway, but it felt a lot safer than i recall from almost 40 years ago. When i got down on Second Avenue and Houston Street (where Prabhupada first met Hayagriva on the street in 1966), i turned and walked two short blocks up Second Avenue. There on the corner is a large Exxon petrol station and next to it sits the tiny temple, a storefront attached to a nondescript apartment building.

I crossed the street and noticed bars across the front window. The temple was locked and it was 6:45 pm, just 15 minutes before their bi-weekly program was supposed to start (Tuesday and Friday evenings, 7-9 pm). There was a sign in the window that said: Janmastami will be held at the Brooklyn Temple. Take the A train to Jay St. and another train to the next stop. I wasn't really disappointed. I thought for a minute of going to the Brooklyn temple where the devotees would be and also nice deities of Radha Govinda, but decided against it. I was inspired to visit 26 Second Avenue because of Prabhupada and what he did there, but i wasn't inspired to visit Iskcon in Brooklyn.

I stood there in front of the storefront for several minutes, trying to imagine what it was like in 1966. It's a very small space, around 8 meters wide by about 30 meters long. The devotees renovated the storefront, and it looks gentrified, much newer than it must have looked 41 years ago. It would have been nice if they had replicated it. But that requires a little imagination.

Now it looks like a comfortable yoga studio, with a shiny wooden floor, and a small altar with a black and white photo of Srila Prabhupada sitting with his three original Bhagavatams. In the storefront window, 4 books were displayed. Only one of them was Prabhupada's book, Bhagavad-gita as it is. The others were a cookbook, a compilation (Coming Back), and a book about India.

I was sympathetic to the devotee who decided to close the temple on Janmastami and go to Brooklyn where he could socialize with other devotees and participate in the abhisek, bhajans, etc. But i also thought this is typical of a movement where preaching is no longer the essence. Preaching or expanding the circle of Krishna's mercy has taken a back seat to corporate religiosity and institutional indulgence.

While i was standing in front of the storefront, two young Indian women approached, also unaware that the storefront would be closed tonite. They knew it was Janmastami. I don't know if they decided to take the train to Brooklyn for darshan. I was actually satisfied to have darshan of the storefront and the image in my mind of Prabhupada having been there. I didn't mind missing the devotees, because i expected they would have a mindset that is far from mine. And for the deities, i have a very nice photo of Radha London Isvara with me, so i can have Their darshan.

I decided to walk up Second Avenue to Iskcon's 2nd Radha Krishna Temple, which was at 61 Second Avenue. Prabhupada gave many classes and kirtans there from 1967 thru 1969. It's just 2 or 3 short blocks up from the storefront. I noticed a number of evangelical churches on the Avenue mixed in with old apartment buildings and many newer bars. In fact, 61 Second Avenue has become "Dempsey's," a fairly upscale bar. The sign outside says: Happy Hour 4-8 pm. I guess it was also Happy Hour when Prabhupada used to lead kirtans and arotiks there.

I looked in. It's much larger than the storefront. It was strange to see the bar with its customers on bar stools where the devotees used to gather for kirtan. It shows how this material nature is so transformative, constantly shifting from goodness to passion to ignorance. It never stops changing. Nothing is static.

I turned left on East 4th St. to walk towards the West Village. After some time i walked by New York University, then Washington Square Park and finally MacDougal Street, where Bob Dylan got his start as a folksinger. New York University was also where i met my friend, Marz (Atreya Rishi) at a night class. He lived in Greenwich Village and we became friends then, both of us searching for a guru. Little did we know how close we were to an uttama guru. It was only by the mercy of Krishna that after a short search, we found him.

No comments: