An early yearning to change the world leads to a year-long international journey with unexpected results.
From Back to Godhead
I was born in 1970 in upstate New York and had more or less a typical American childhood – that is, until age fifteen, when I began to perceive the shallowness of it. At that time, I started to read books on philosophy and psychology and to listen more carefully to the weekly sermons at our local Baptist church. I had a lot of questions – about God, about life – but no one seemed to have the answers.
I was dissatisfied with the state of the world and felt impelled to change it. I opted for an alternative education at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, where I studied Human Ecology. I experimented with alternative lifestyles and environmental and political activism, but was not satisfied with any of my attempts to change either the world or my own life.
I entered into the field of global climate change, which in 1991 was still cutting-edge research. After an internship at New Alchemy Institute, another at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and a third at Harvard University Department of Biological Sciences, I was offered a full scholarship to pursue a PhD at Harvard.
Though honored by the offer, I needed to see the world first. I had to get outside of America and experience other ways of living, other ways of thinking. I applied for and won a fellowship to travel abroad and undertake a research project of my own design. I bought a round-the-world plane ticket and set as many countries as I could on my itinerary.
During this year-long journey, I encountered people from a diverse range of cultures and religions. Studying each in some depth, I was able to appreciate the common ground in all faiths. I was impressed to see how spirituality, for some of them, was not just a tiny fragment of their week, but pervaded everything they did.
During this time, someone dropped a startling piece of information on me: that the combined nuclear weapons of all the countries of the world were enough to burn the entire planet earth to ashes fourteen times over.
Having grown up during the arms race between the USA and Russia, having studied the effects of nuclear fallout in school, and knowing what rash stupidity our governments were capable of, I decided to reset my priorities. After all, what use was a career in global climate change research if the globe was not going to exist? What difference would a slight increase in temperature or carbon dioxide make on a region’s ecology if an H-bomb reduced the ecosystem to a lifeless pile of radioactive dust? Even if I became a world-renowned scientist, even if I won the Nobel Prize, what difference would it make?
An Encounter in Malaysia
I realized that whatever I did in the material sphere would be temporary. If I’m going to use my life’s energy to make a positive change in the world, I thought, let me do something that will have an eternal benefit. I realized that the only way to do this would be to act on the spiritual platform. But I didn’t know how to do it. I prayed to God for direction.
At a cultural festival in Penang, Malaysia, I met a man from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and bought the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, along with two other books. That evening, I read Coming Back, from cover to cover. Then I started on the Bhagavad-gita and read for as long as my eyes would allow me. After a few days, I set out to find the address the man had given me where the devotees have weekly meetings.
I arrived late, and Bhagavad-gita class was going on, followed by kirtana. There was the smell of incense, then amazing food unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. The program was a multi-sensory experience I’ll never forget. It had a very big impact on me. Although I didn’t know anyone there, the devotees were very kind and friendly. I felt that they didn’t want anything from me – they only wanted to give.
One young lady, Kalavati, was particularly friendly, being very happy to meet a fellow American so far from home. She was living in London and traveling with her husband. They were only in Penang for a few days, but she gave me her address and said that if I ever came to London I must look her up. I promised her I would, though I had no plans to go to London.
I continued attending the weekly programs and each time enjoyed them more. The devotees gave me japa beads and showed me how to use them to chant the Hare Krishna mantra. When I packed my bag to leave Malaysia, however, I left all the books behind. In anticipation of what awaited me at my next destination, my experience in Malaysia quickly faded into a memory.
A High-Altitude Adventure Ends in a Lofty Decision
From Malaysia I flew to Kathmandu, where I spent weeks trekking in the Himalayas alone with a Sherpa guide. The Himalayas were otherworldly. Their towering peaks and majestic views made me feel insignificant. The crisp mountain air and the intense physical exercise seemed to invigorate body and soul. I spent most of my days in silent prayer, walking across God’s canvas, asking Him to bring me closer to Him.
Although I’d left my Bhagavad-gita behind, some of its ideas had sunk in. One of those was the concept of devotional service. This concept had seemed to call out to me from every page. Now in the mystical Himalayas it all gelled in my mind. I made a decision: I would devote my life to serving God. But which path would I choose? The Bhagavad-gita had helped me so much, but at the same time it was so Eastern, so foreign to me.
I decided to stick to what I was familiar with. I had been brought up a Christian and had attended church every Sunday and Christian summer camp every year. I even sang in the Christmas choir. When I was a teenager, some missionaries had visited our church and given a slide show about the pioneering work they were doing, spreading the gospel in some obscure country. It had looked exotic, adventurous, risky. That seemed to be the perfect example of devotional service. That was it. I would be a Christian missionary. I would finish my travels and enroll in Bible college, get a solid basis in Christian theology, and follow God’s will from there.
A Change of Plans
From Kathmandu my itinerary was to go to Frankfurt then transfer to Tel Aviv, but somehow all the flights to Europe were fully booked. The only seat available was to London. I took it.
It was early morning when I arrived at Gatwick Airport. In every other place I-d visited I had made contacts in advance, but London was not planned. Then I remembered the American girl I had met over a month before in Malaysia. I took out my address book, and there it was: Kalavati, 10 Soho Street, London. I bought a map and made my way there, expecting to arrive at their apartment. But it was not an apartment. It was the Radha-Krishna temple.
A large Belgian woman sat at the reception desk.
“Hello,” I said, “I’m looking for a friend of mine, Kalavati. Is she here?”
“Oh, yes, she works in the restaurant. She’ll be coming in later. Would you like to wait? I can show you around the temple.”
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks.”
I didn’t have anything else to do, and I had never been to a Hare Krishna temple.
“My name’s Purnamasi,” she said as she led me up the stairs.
She rang a small bell, and we entered the temple room. It was bright and sparkling clean. She bowed down. I stared at what I thought was A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. I recognized him from the picture on the back of my Bhagavad-gita.
“I know him,” I whispered. “I bought some of his books.”
“That’s a statue,” she chuckled. “Come, let’s see the deities.”
We walked to the front of the temple room, and she introduced me to three intriguing, jolly-looking wooden forms.
“These are Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra.”
They looked so benevolent. Then she gestured to her right.
“And these are Radha and Krishna. Here we call them Radha-London-ishvara – the controllers of London.”
They were so beautiful, adorably dressed and decorated. It was all so new to me. I didn’t know what to say or do.
“It’s twelve o’clock,” Purnamasi announced, “time for harinama. Would you like to go?”
“It’s when a group of devotees go out with musical instruments and sing in the street. It’s fun. You’ll like it.”
The devotees assembled on the street outside the front door and started singing. I already knew the Hare Krishna mantra from Malaysia, so I was feeling more confident. Someone handed me a pair of small brass cymbals on strings, and the group started walking. It was incredibly enjoyable. Somehow it felt really good to be there.
When we got back to the temple, it was time for the lunchtime program. There was a short class, and then we all sat in rows on the floor. A young lady, Anne Marie, started serving lunch. I had been in Asia for long enough to be used to rice, dal, and vegetables, but for the past month in Nepal, I had been eating in the homes of simple mountain people, and the dal was little more than green water with salt and garlic. So when I tasted the thick, creamy, exotically spiced dal, my undernourished body brimmed with gratitude. I remember the feeling of complete satisfaction. Surprisingly, Ann Marie seemed to be even happier serving me than I was eating.
When I finished, she told me that the temple president, Keshava Bharati Dasa Goswami, was holding a questions-and-answers session upstairs in the library. So far, everything at the temple had been so amazing. I decided to stick around.
As I entered the library full of people and sat down on a cushioned bench, I was greeted with an exuberant, “Hare Krishna!”
I turned to the radiant saffron-clad monk seated at the front of the room.
”Is this your first time here?” he asked with a welcoming smile.
”Yes,” I said.
He asked me where I was from, what brought me to London, and what my plans were.
”I’ve decided to dedicate my life to serving God,” I said confidently.
He smiled in surprise.
”Oh, well, you’ve come to the right place.”
”And how exactly are you planning to serve God?”
”I’m going to be a Christian missionary,” I told him and explained my reasoning.
”Well, do you know much about Indian religions?”
”I’ve read some of the Bhagavad-gita, but I’ve never been to India.”
”If you go as a missionary to India, it would be helpful for you to understand their philosophy and religion so you can better relate to the people and more intelligently respond to their arguments. You would make a deeper impact on them. Don’t you think?”
”Yes, you’re probably right.”
”So, we have all these books here,” he said, indicating the shelf full of colorful volumes. “Why don’t you stay with us for two weeks, study our philosophy, and then you can go on to Bible College with a broader background in world religions? We have a dormitory for ladies upstairs. Anne Marie can show you around. How does that sound?”
””Um, yeah, why not?” I said.
And that was it. I moved into the Hare Krishna temple.
An Extended Stay
My invitation had been for two weeks, but the more I read the books, the more I became fascinated by the philosophy. The practices the devotees followed, such as chanting the Hare Krishna mantra and worshiping the deity, were not just something made up but were rooted in the teachings of the ancient Vedas. This immense wealth of knowledge existed before the creation and describes in detail the cyclical events of the creation and destruction of the material universes, giving precise time scales for such events. I realized that no matter how many nuclear weapons humans have, the planet cannot be destroyed without God’s sanction. It was comforting to know that there is a supreme controller who is all-good.
Many of the cultural elements were new to me, and I made a point to understand the significance of everything before deciding to follow it. I was impressed by the degree of philosophical understanding possessed by even the newest devotee. Every activity had deep spiritual significance, and everyone was aware of it. There was no question of blind faith.
In addition to reading on my own, I also attended classes on the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam and continued going on daily harinama. The more I understood what the harinama was all about, the more ecstatic the experience became.
The happiest people in the temple, I soon discovered, were the ones who went out all day to distribute books. When they returned in the evening, they would look so blissful. Their faces were glowing, like angels, and they were full of exciting stories about the places they had gone and the people they had met.
I decided to join them. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I had expected people to be as interested in spiritual knowledge as I was, but sadly, most of them couldn’t be bothered. It was a humbling experience, but I stuck with it.
Eventually, I accepted initiation from a bona fide spiritual master and received the spiritual name Prabhupada-priya Devi Dasi. The guidance of my spiritual master helped me immensely to overcome various obstacles, especially in the beginning of my spiritual life. In time, I married a wonderful devotee from Brazil who gives continual support and encouragement daily. Now, twenty years later, we live with our two daughters in Mayapur, India, in a dynamic, rapidly growing community of ISKCON devotees.
No longer am I the confused person spinning in an endless stream of unanswered questions, disgusted with materialistic culture, disappointed by superficial relationships, and lost in a seemingly pointless existence. Now I have found the answers to my questions. I have discovered a worldwide community based on spiritual culture. I have lasting relationships with amazing people. I have realized the purpose of life and the process to fulfill it, a process that has worked for me and can work for anyone, a process that can change our hearts and change our world – the process of bhakti, or devotional service.
This article appears as an appendix to the author’s book Rising Above It All: Higher Consciousness, Happier Life, by Wendy DaSilveira, available as an ebook from Amazon.com.