My Heartfelt Effusion Chapter Ten
Thank You For Listening!
Hare Krishna ! From another Great Devotee of Krishna !
Before I take rest I wish to mention and glorify a Great Devotee of my Lord Sri Krishna! This Devotee permanently changed my life! All Glories To Balabhadra Bhattacharya Dasa! The only reason for my repeated emails is to Glorify all the Devotees that took time to save a fallen soul like me.
Benny J Tillman, who prefers to be addressed as Balabhadra Bhattacharya Dasa, is a practising sanatani. He is the current president of Vedic Friends Association (VFA) and also the first African American President of VFA. He is a direct disciple of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (Founder, ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). He lives in Atlanta, USA.
In the first of a two part interview series, Shri Balabhadra Dasa talks about his growing up years in Atlanta in the 1959s and 1960s, his long career as a Rock n Roll musician and a yearning for spiritual quest that began when he was just 12 years old. He also talks about his immersion in the Hippie culture, his introduction to Transcendental Meditation, his meeting with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his introduction to the Bhagavad that describes the personality of Godhead. “That is where I found myself. I rested on that and said, “This is it! And that’s been 48 years ago!” recalls Shri Balabhadra Dasa, warm, elegantly reflective and fluent in his recitation of slokas from the Bhagavad Gita.
Q.) Please tell us about your formative years growing up as an African American in the 1950s and 1960s in the US.
I grew up in Atlanta, in the southern part of of the US during the 1950s and 60s. Those were troublesome times for the African American community. We were identified as an ethnic minority; it was very difficult to understand what our place in the world was. Honestly, there was an element of shame associated with belonging to an ethnic minority.
During the 1950s when I was growing up and 1960s when I was a teenager, the African American community was a very self-supporting community. They were smaller versions of the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District, which was one of the prosperous African-American communities in the US. We had businesses, hospitals, doctors, funeral homes, night clubs—everything was there. We didn’t feel so much of the racial stress because our community was self-contained.
To be honest with you, most African American families were self-contained. I knew my neighbour; my neighbour knew me; everyone in the community knew each other. For example, if my mother needed flowers, I’d go next door and ask, “My mother needs flowers!” and it was done! And if your family needed credit in the grocery store, it was easy to get it!
There was not a lot of money in the community; but there was a lot of love; a lot of support. We didn’t have a standard which said that another person is poorer than me! We didn’t view poverty like that! While we didn’t have a lot of money in the community; there certainly was a lot of loving support.
So, it was very simple growing up! I tell people all the time when they talk about all the violence in the African American community, in all my growing up years, that was 20 years, I never heard a gunshot! Nobody was every shot; nobody was ever killed. It was an extremely supportive community. We felt the impact of racism only when we were outside the community. However, the Urban Renewal Project in the 1950s and 1960s to ostensibly improve the lives of African Americans was a disaster. It involved tearing down our social structures and a top down approach of the government telling us how to live! It completely negated the community wisdom and strengths.
Q.) Can you tell us about your spiritual seeking that began rather early in your life?
As I grew up, at the age of about 12 years, I started thinking about life; about my Christian background. At 12, I had questions about God. My main question was, “Where did God come from?” And I couldn’t get convincing answers. According to the Bible, God created heaven and earth. As a 12-year-old Black kid, I wondered where he came from. While I today know that nobody can answer that question, at that time I was admonished and told to “Shut up! You don’t need to know that!” To which I shot back, “Of course! I do need to know that!”
My search began from that time and soon it became ongoing—Where did God come from? Who is God?
Q.) Can you tell us about your deep engagement as a Rock n Roll musician?
Of course. As a teenager, I also got involved in the music culture and I played the drums in an all-White (Four White guys and me!) Rock n Roll band—The Black Dog—in the 1960s and I travelled all over the South of the US. It was an interesting experience as we wanted to touch people’s hearts and highlight the need for communal harmony—Just forget about the racial things! When I graduated from high school, I involved myself completely with the Rock n Roll band. We set up base in Florida and that was me for a while—a Rock n Roll musician! During the late 1960s I also became involved in the “Hippy culture” which exposed me to the concept of “universal love.”
In 1971 my father passed on. My mother had died a year earlier. It was a complete shock. So, in 1971, I had to come back to Atlanta for his funeral. I never went back to the band. I then started singing with a local African American vocal group in Atlanta. We became pretty famous in this area. I was a performing artiste in Atlanta and the surrounding areas and heavily involved with the Night Club culture of “sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll.”
Q.) How did Maharishi Mahesh Yogi come into your life?
Despite my success as a Rock n Roll musician, my search was still on going. It was bothering me. That was when I came into contact with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I was not familiar with this Vedic concept of universal love, which is foundational to the true Hindu/Vedic culture. My first exposure to this culture was in 1971, through my introduction to Transcendental Meditation introduced by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I began my Vedic studies with an elderly African American woman in Atlanta and I was absorbed and felt I had finally found ‘It’!
Q.) What made you feel that you had found ‘It’?
This was such a refreshing contrast between the eco system of Christianity and the church. It was not just the newness; it also explained more about creation, life and other allied aspects. But what it didn’t do was to focus on Sri Krishna, as a personal God. Although at that time I had no idea of even who Sri Krishna was! Maharishi Mahesh Yogi never talked about Krishna as a personal Godhead. Although he had translated six chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, he never got into the personality of Sri Krishna. That would happen in the next phase of my life.
Q.) What was the impact of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on your life?
I personally met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when he addressed a group of people in a high school in Atlanta. That was a turning point because until that time I had only heard of him from my teacher/Guru. This is what I gathered from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s system of philosophy—that by learning the technique of Transcendental Meditation you learnt to look deeper within yourself and all the Unbounded Energy, the Unbounded Intelligence would surface. That was what I was really interested in!
However, when Maharishi spoke, his English dialect was very thick and it was difficult for a 20-year-old African American like me to comprehend what he spoke. Yet to hear an Indian sadhu speak, was a brand new experience for me! But the way he spoke and what he spoke still did not satisfy my heart. My heart was still hankering at that point. I didn’t know then that I was looking for a higher Truth. Perhaps the paramatma (supreme atma) was saying, “This is not for you!” Gradually I came into contact with the Vedic philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita that describes the personality of Godhead. That is where I found myself. I rested on that and said, “This is it!” And that’s been 48 years ago!
Q.) What were some of the challenges you faced in transitioning from your Christian faith?
The main challenge was unfamiliarity with the culture of Hindu Dharma. When I started reading the Bhagavad Gita, I was still influenced by my strong Christian background and the Christian injunctions against ‘idol worship’ and other non-Christian rituals such as archana. I was a little concerned and wondered if I was doing something “wrong.”
So, I called up a Catholic priest in Atlanta as my point of reference. I told him that I was Christian by background and that I was reading this wonderful book Bhagavad Gita. I will never forget what he told me. He said to me, “You are very fortunate. That is a great book of spiritual knowledge.” That was such wonderful confirmation!
I have no idea of who the priest was or even his name. I believe that Sri Krishna sent him! God does indeed come in many forms; in every continent; in every species of life. He comes when dharma is being corrupted—yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata/abhyutthanam adharmasya tadatmanam srijamyaham. But He comes when He wants to; through me; through you; through anyone.
The Catholic priest’s response was absolutely validating for a 20-year-old. People of different faiths need to validate each other. This means that irrespective of whether I am a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu, I should be so secure in my own faith that I can say to you, “I appreciate your faith.” And that will increase my faith. But the more I try to condemn or put down your faith; it blocks further engagement with each other. There is only One Supreme Source of everything and therefore we need to bless each other in the spirit of universality.
That’s why Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (2.13), dehino ‘smin yatha dehe kaumaram yauvanam jara/tatha dehantara-praptir dhiras tatra na muhyati—You are moving through this body. This is not your permanent home.
All of us are moving through these bodies. But we start identifying with these bodies and that’s where the problem lies. That is the great perspective the Gita offered me. The ability to see beyond barriers and boundaries—my Black body, an English body etc. That was so liberating!
Benny J Tillman, who prefers to be addressed as Balabhadra Bhattacharya Dasa, is a practising sanatani. He is the current president of Vedic Friends Association (VFA) and also the first African American President of VFA. He is a direct disciple of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder, ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). He lives in Atlanta, USA.
In the second part of the interview series (first part), he traces his journey as a Sri Krishna devotee, what Krishna Consciousness means to him and the various initiatives of the VFA.
Q.) How did your association with ISKCON begin?
It was so weird! In 1971, I was working at mid-town Atlanta and my place of work was at 14th and Peachtree Street, Atlanta. Although I didn’t know at that time, the ISKCON office was located on the 13th street! One day in the breakroom, I found the Hare Krishna magazine, Back to Godhead, published by ISKCON. I was downtown waiting for a bus to go home. A Hare Krishna devotee walked up to me and introduced me to a book, Transcendental Teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. I found the book unbelievable; it answered so many of my haunting questions.
After reading the book, I became so intensely interested in the activities of ISKCON that I decided to contact them at the address mentioned in the magazine. It took me almost five days to get the nerve to go and knock at the temple door! I found it so strange—the sounds, the smell of incense… nothing I was used to! But my desire for a book Easy Journey to other planes by Swami Prabhupada motivated the search. The title caught my attention because I was into extra-terrestrials and all that stuff! I wanted that book so badly that I decided to do whatever it takes, even if it meant knocking at a temple door!
The door opened…I met the devotees … and that was the beginning of an abiding involvement with ISKCON that deepened over the years. After this initial contact, the Hare Krishna devotees at the Atlanta temple began to train me, and introduce me to more aspects of Vedic philosophy and culture. Since then, the Hare Krishna devotees have been training me and introducing me to Vedic philosophy and culture.
Eventually around 1972, I came in contact with the Bhagavad Gita, translated by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder Acharya of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The ISKCON devotees also introduced me to the Bhagavad Gita, which is the most well-known of all Vedic texts. This holy book is very dear and sacred to all Hindus and Westerners who have adopted these teachings and practices. I became an initiated disciple of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in July 1974 during his visit to Chicago for a major Hindu/Vedic festival, the Ratha Yatra.
Interestingly, around 1974, I was fortunate to meet one of Swami Prabhupada’s very first disciples, Rupanuga Dasa, a White American, who is very elderly right now. He encouraged me to join the local Atlanta Hare Krishna Temple. He said to me “Bhakta Ben ( Ben is short for Benny as I was then known), if you join the Hare Krishna movement, we will train you as a leader. Then you should go back and save the Black community!”
I was shocked. What was I hearing? But it stayed in mind for several years. Later I started programmes working among the Black community, with young kids.
At ISKCON,I learnt the process of Krishna Consciousness, or more specifically, Bhakti Yoga. Rupanuga Dasa wanted me to share this with the Black community. It was similar to what Srila Prabhupada’s guru asked him when he met him the first time in 1922 —”You are a young intelligent Indian boy. Take this knowledge of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to the Western countries.” He came to the US in 1965 with that in mind—bringing the message of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, kirtana and Bhakti Yoga to Western society where Shri Chaitanya was then unknown.
So, I had that experience of being given the instruction to learn the process of Bhakti Yoga and share that with people who needed it. This instruction has constantly inspired me to expose this great Hindu/Vedic culture and philosophy to the urban communities.
Q.) You were very apprehensive when you knocked at the ISKON office? What were those apprehensions?
It was the strangeness of the sounds of the chants, of musical instruments, of a language I didn’t understand, the smell of incense and just the preconceived idea of Bharat! Most people have very little understanding of Bharatiya culture. The only thing I knew about Bharat then was the [so-called] caste system! And at that time, there were hardly any African Americans in the ISKCON temple in Atlanta, maybe just two! As there was nothing I could identify with and hence it was a little tough. But the devotees were very kind, helpful and humble, which is again a part of the ISKCON culture. However, my fears were allayed within a day!
Q.) Can you describe the process of how you learnt Bhakti Yoga? How did it impact you?
The training imparted was in the ancient gurukula tradition where the Guru imparts learning to the sishya or disciple. Even Sri Krishna himself studied under Guru Sandipani. Swami Prabhupada couldn’t be physically present in every ISKCON temple because by the time I joined there were around 100 ISKCON temples. So, there was training every morning—this morning I gave a Zoom class in Philadelphia on Srimad Bhagavatam, and in the evening on Bhagavad Gita. The training also included sadhana or spiritual practices such as chanting 16 rounds of Hare Krishna on the japa beads. I had received the second initiation from my Guru, so I recited the Gayatri mantra three times a day. So, all those practices is the training that I received. So, that training gradually purifies the Path.
In our tradition, cleansing the mirror of the mind and the heart is of paramount importance because the jivatma-paramatma resides in the heart and so does the Mind Intelligence. Strange concept – how do you purify the muscle of the heart? The purification is of the consciousness. So, when we start the chanting, that cleansing process happens. My consciousness started transforming from that of Benny Tillman, the musician, the sense enjoyer, the guy who was working and had a family, to something different—to losing affection and attraction for material things. Most of our lives are spent in pursuit of material things—that’s why we get a job; that’s why we do what we do! I started losing all that! Not that I became lazy; I didn’t have the same motivation to enjoy material life. I was beginning to appreciate subtle things like reading the Gita, and chanting—these became great source of pleasure. And of course, prasadam! All these transformed my life.
Now, at that time I was well known in Atlanta. When I went down the street chanting Hare Krishna, people who knew me from the night club scene would come up and ask me, “Man! What happened?” [Laughs]. However, they were very supportive of my journey because I had built those relationships deeper than just drugs and sex! So, the relationships transcended my commitment to Krishna Consciousness and their commitment to material life.
Even today, I still have friends from my old background. We mutually respect each other. There was a powerful transformation within me; for me to be sitting here now, 48 years later. Although I just live 30 minutes from my old community and place of work, I have no interest to go back to my old life other than do what my Guru told me—to work amidst the African American community.
I’ve done programmes that you would not believe! For instance, a Gita Jayanti, where we recited the entire Bhagavad Gita, in my old elementary school in my hometown. Nobody knew Sanskrit but they were so trusting of me and they listened for two to three hours to the Gita!
Q.) Have you studied Sanskrit?
I know how to read the transliteration. We have many Sanskrit scholars in ISKCON, like Hridayananda Dasa Goswami (Howard Resnik), who is a PhD in Sanskrit from Harvard and is fluent in seven languages! But that’s not me!
I have an interesting incident here to share about how I try to make the Bhagavad Gita accessible to people. My youngest granddaughter, 11, was having disciplinary problems. I made a deal with her, “If you learn the Gita verses with my help, I will give you $10 for every verse you learn!” So, I am working with her! She is willing to learn the Gita as a motivation to her $ 10. Sri Krishna says that four kinds of people come to Him. And one of them seek wealth. Krishna Consciousness is so powerful that it can transform you from the initial material motivation to spiritual motivation.
Q.) How does your family view your transformation?
Very supportive! My oldest living sister is a very dedicated member of the Jehovah’s Witness. But she and I have wonderful conversations. Although her faith is very different, she is very supportive; just as I am supportive of hers. Both of us know where we came from and we see each other making spiritual progress. My other siblings are also extremely supportive because of my commitment to my Path.
My son and his family follow modified Christianity! [Laughs]. They are not into any particular fold of Christianity. My grandkids, if they know you are from Bharat, will greet you with a “Namaste.” I’ve taught them the form and meaning of the term—“The spirit in you respects the spirit in the other person.” My son, who was two years old (I was married then) when I joined the Hare Krishna Movement, has a deeper appreciation of Krishna Consciousness and has several Hare Krishna friends.
Q.) What were some of the other interesting milestones in your ISKCON journey which profoundly shifted you?
The most important milestone was meeting His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada, the Founder of ISKCON. I received initiation from him in Chicago in 1974, when he was there for the Ratha Yatra. That’s when I received the name Balabhadra Bhattacharya Dasa, directly from him and also the japa beads.
Second, was when he came to our [ISKCON] temple in Atlanta in 1975 and I was able to serve him to some degree. And then when I met him again in Mayapur and New Delhi, Bharat in 1976, it was wonderful. In New Delhi, he was speaking at the Ram Lila Maidan. He was on stage and I had the rare opportunity of garlanding him and be seated at his feet during the entire lecture. Serving him directly was very special. I saw him successively for several days from Delhi to Modinagar, Aligarh and finally, Vrindavan. It was most impactful to hear directly from him about Krishna Consciousness.
Q.) What does Krishna Consciousness mean to you?
Being consciously aware of Krishna or God! What it means to me is that I have a complete conviction about the existence of God in that concept as a person. Not as some energy or as a part of some hierarchy of deities but as a person who is with me 24/7, in my heart; in your heart; in every atom. My perception of Krishna Consciousness which is due to the study of the Gita is like Samadhi. Samadhi doesn’t mean you go to the Himalayas and go away from everything. Samadhi means you consciously meditate upon a Higher Principle. So, being aware of Krishna through Krishna Consciousness activities gives me that sense of satisfaction and balance.
Q.) What is the work you do with the African American community?
Some time back I co-founded a group East Washington (the area I grew up in) Association of Positive Males. We identified seven young men who were involved in gangs. We then taught them principles of the Bhagavad Gita, modified for their understanding. They were receptive and later became a benefit to the community. It really helped to transform those men who in turn, influenced their community positively.
Q.) Please tell us about the work of the Vedic Friends Association (VFA), the non profit that you currently head.
Vedic Friends Association was formed in 2002 by David Frawley, Stephen Knapp, Jeffrey Armstrong, and Vijai Ganapa, an author and lifelong advocate of Vedic Dharma, to share Vedic Hindu Yoga Dharma. Our vision is that humanity should live in peace and harmony (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). It accords centrality to dharmic principles and the spirit of service (seva).
We are currently working on a leadership development programme based on the Gita and Yoga for young people in urban communities, through VFA, for non-Hindu practitioners in this culture. Currently, this is an online programme. David Frawley and Stephen Knapp are some of the Indic Studies scholars and practitioners who guide the programme through their insights and perspectives. We are targeting several layers of the community. My job as the President of VFA, is to collate all the resources offered by Frawley, Knapp and Jeffrey Armstrong and make it acceptable and accessible for the diverse communities.
Central to the Hindu/Vedic philosophy is the concept that we are not these material bodies but that we are eternal spiritual beings, temporarily inhabiting these material bodies. So, whether we identify as an African American, Hindu American, Asian American, White American, or an American of colour, we are all spiritual beings equal in the eyes of the Supreme Lord. At VFA, we try to filter the essence of Vedic philosophy into practical applications in a contemporary context.
During the present time of racial tensions in America, I, along with other Hindu/Vedic leaders are considering what we can do to impact and help change this painful and distressful situation.
Swami Prabhupada said, “I didn’t come to the US asking for anything! I came to give something, which is the Vedic culture!” We, at VFA, wish to share this culture widely because this culture has been minimised. Scholars such as Frawley, Knapp, Armstrong and others are trying to reclaim the rightful space that Vedic culture needs to be accorded in the contemporary context.
So, In conclusion,
Thank You For Listening.
Sri Krishna Govinda Hare Murare
Hey Natha Narayana Vasudeva
Govinda Damodara Madhaveti
He Krishna, he Yadava, He Sakheti
Govinda Damodara Madhaveti