My first meeting with Shrila Prabhupada
In the summer of 1976 I was in India, on the Himalayas. I was seriously interested in the philosophy of the sage Patanjali (rajayogasutras) and I was living in an ashram in a very austere way, where I studied attentively from dawn to sunset. There nobody knew who I was; I was 31, unmarried and in excellent health. In Europe I was living a period of great material success. In Italy I had founded six companies and I was considered one of the most famous furniture designers in the world. Plenty of money, fame, and a social life studded with VIPs no longer satisfied me, rather the feeling of solitude even among my crowd of anonymous "friends" saddened me. I felt I was wasting my best years in vain and that I was moving in a direction that was completely the opposite of my aspirations.
So in 1974, to everyone's great surprise, I gave a turning point to my life: with great caution I selected my friends, eliminated many worldly commitments and directed my interests more and more towards introspection. I found worldly literature nauseating, even if it was written by the most famous authors. Though I had taken part in the student movement in 1968, I had by now lost interest in their requests, which had been betrayed and politicized. Verbal and political violence, sex and drugs, had destroyed the movement's ideals of freedom and fairness, causing it to degenerate in an unacceptable and definitive way. With this state of mind, I was losing interest in the hedonistic, materialistic western culture and, thanks to some material I had read, was starting to look towards the Orient. Likewise, the course of my travels also changed and instead of going to Paris or New York, I began visiting China and India until I finally defined the focal point of my research: my interest was concentrated more and more on the spiritual. I found Vedic literature very interesting, and among this, Patanjali's "Yoga Sutras" was my favorite book. In 1976 I went to India for the third time, resolved to find a satisfying answer to my existential questions. During this, as well as my previous sojourns, I had visited many ashrams and met many yogis and gurus but none of them inspired me deeply, nor did they convince me as much as I had expected. I began to think that I was not yet ready or did not have the "correct vision" and that I would have to purify myself through study and an ascetic life. I was convinced that by doing so God would reveal to me with clarity the path to follow. In this mood, I went to an anonymous ashram to "prepare" myself for spiritual research. This same year, at the end of August in the ashram I have just mentioned, I made friends with a brahmachari of my age, who looked intelligent and ascetic. We both attended the classes on Vedanta-sutras, studying together and talking about our aspirations. Early one day, he told me gravely: " If you want to be happy you have to devote your life to Krishna and in order to do so you must meet Srila Prabhupada personally, since he can introduce you to Krishna. Leave this place, go to Vrindavana and speak with Prabhupada". I had never heard anything about this Swami and the figure of Krishna, as it was presented in the Bhagavad-gita that I had read, did not impress me much. Struck by my friend's attitude, I asked him for more explanations and he replied that he was a Vaishnava and that he was there to preach. We started to talk about Krishna and Prabhupada and one of the first things he told me, was that the Bhagavad- gita I had read was not authentic and that Krishna can be revealed only by one of His pure devotees which was why I should have immediately gone to meet Prabhupada in Vrindavana. We stopped attending the classes on Vedanta and we regularly met on the banks of the river Gange. We would chant the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra and I would listen to him recount Krishna's and Prabhupada's pastimes. On August 27th we affectionately parted ways and I left for Vrindavana in search of Prabhupada. I did not know exactly where Vrindavana was, nor how far it was from where I was at the present. I knew only that I had to meet Prabhupada, who would introduce me to Krishna.
In this manner, thinking intensively of Prabhupada, my trip began. I left that ashram and travelled up to Haridwara, from there I took a train to Delhi, then another to Mathura, from there I took a tanga (a cart drawn by a horse) to Vrindavana. I got to Vrindavan in the early afternoon and under an implacable sun I immediately began to look for Srila Prabhupada. I only knew that he was in a Krishna temple in Vrindavana, so I asked the driver candidly to take me to the temple of Krishna. He took me to innumerable Krishna temples, where I entered and asked about Prabhupada, but even from my first impressions, I knew I was not yet in the right place. After hours spent going in and out of many temples, the tanga driver lost his temper, afraid that I was making fun of him and would never pay him, after a series of threats, he threw my baggage in the middle of the street. I was in Vrindavana, now I knew there were thousands of Krishna temples and more then one person who was claiming to be Prabhupada, but I did not know in which temple my Prabhupada was. I was alone, tired, hungry, sitting on my luggage in the middle of a dusty street and the persons passing by watched me curiously. My poor knowledge of English was not of much help. Since I was standing near a fence, after a while I decided to knock on it's large iron gate, which opened at once. A bright, clean devotee appeared and I asked him the same information I had already implored so many times that afternoon: "I am looking for Srila Prabhupada...", from the open gate I could see a coloured temple and a beautiful garden and even before the devotee answered, I felt I was in the right place. The devotee, who was Italian, invited me to come in and seeing my condition, he prepared me a room where I could rest and wash, then he told me that after taking prasada, I could meet Srila Prabhupada. I was extremely happy: I felt safe and my faith in the protection of Prabhupada and Krishna was increasing. Once I had recovered from my tiredness, the devotees informed me that Prabhupada had left for Delhi the day before, therefore the following day I also left for Delhi. Before leaving, I asked the temple president to write me a letter of introduction. When I arrived in Delhi, it was very late at night: I was to meet Prabhupada the next morning.
It was ten o'clock a.m. and an italian-australian devotee (Sajanashraya dasa), eager for an opportunity to be in Prabhupada's company, agreed to act as translator and accompanied me to Srila Prabhupada's room. The room was bright with sunshine and Srila Prabhupada was sitting between two windows on a big cushion, surrounded by some of his disciples (one of them was Gopal Krishna dasa, at that time a grihastha). The floor was covered with a white sheet. I came close to Prabhupada's desk and bowed down in front of him. I had seen this gesture of respect performed many times before in the ashrams I had visited, but personally had not yet performed it. This time, to bow in respect felt very spontaneous. Prabhupada looked grave and luminous, and we looked each other straight in the eyes for a while. Then he smiled and asked me: "Have we already met?".
I answered: "No, never, but during these days I have intensely and repeatedly thought of you."
Prabhupada: " Do you believe in God?", I answered: "Yes, I do". I thought that this was the first time that I actually meant it. Then he became grave again and told me:" Well, unfortunately modern society is not on God's side, for this reason it can't win, it's already defeated! The false progress that characterizes our society, renders it disgusting: it is a society of ignorant people, with artificial needs. Mankind's greatest victory is to realize that we are not this body, we are spirit souls, part and parcel of Krishna, His eternal servants. Therefore, without God consciousness there can be neither progress nor happiness. To have a material body means to suffer, but people are so ignorant they think that the miseries of life are natural and even enjoyable. To attain the human form is very rare. We are very fortunate to have this body, because the human form is unique among the innumerable other forms of life, in that it can allow us to re-establish our eternal relationship with God. We can attain knowledge of Krishna by leading a simple life based on cultivating the land and protecting, not abusing, cows. Krishna consciousness actually means simple living and high thinking, in harmony with nature. Many people believe themselves independent from nature, they try to take advantage of her as if she were their slave, but inevitably, they are defeated by her laws. The tendency to dominate nature and other living beings can only create a cats and dogs society."
Shrila Prabhupada asked me what I thought about this and I agreed with him. As he spoke to me I realized that meeting him was the opportunity of a lifetime and if I did not take advantage of this experience, it would be useless to continue circling the world looking for God. I felt sure that Prabhupada was totally reliable and for the first time in my life I felt I could abandon myself. All the problems that had previously disturbed me were swept away by his words.
Smiling he asked me: "So, what is the problem?"
I answered: "If I could live here with you and the devotees, dressed like this, there would be no problem. I'm worried about going back home, where I have many responsibilities. I am engaged and will soon be married, I manage various companies and collaborate with many partners. How can I conduct a spiritual life with all of these social responsibilities.
Prabhupada said to me: "Don't worry, just become a devotee, chant Hare Krishna, read the Bhagavad-gita and Krishna will reveal Himself to you. In the Gita you can find the solution to any material problem. In order to put an end once and for all to samsara, the transmigration of the soul from body to body, species to species; animal, plant, human, we have to know Krishna. Don't waste time. You are a gifted man. Do you know where talent comes from? What is it's source, to whom it belongs? It is the property of God, just like everything else that exists, including the fruits of your labor. Therefore you have only one responsibility: put all of your talent to the service of Krishna because the goal of life is to know Krishna and He can be attained only if we serve Him with love and devotion. Go home, chant Hare Krishna, talk about Krishna to the people you meet, Krishna will take care of you, don't worry. Hare Krishna!
A few hours after my encounter with Prabhupada, I left New Delhi to return to Italy. I was determined to follow Prabhupada's instructions, and I planned, after some time, to go back to India to inform him how things were going in my life. During the return trip I was worried about the impact I would have on my surroundings, on my family. How would my girlfriend, friends, parents and partners react to my conversion? But Prabhupada's words rang in my ears, giving me hope: "Don't worry. Simply study the Bhagavad-gita, chant Hare Krishna, and Krishna will take care of you". In this state of mind, on the return trip, I started reading "The Bhagavad-gita As It Is", printed by the Macmillan Company, the first edition of the B.G. printed by Prabhupada in America. Something extraordinary happened. Even though my knowledge of written english was very insufficient and I had no presumption of understanding the profundity of a philosophic discourse, I had, instead, the clear sensation of understanding it's significance!
After landing in Rome I took a train to Livorno where my family was waiting to pick me up. On the train I began to think about planning a concise and delicate explanation for my family about how I was going to organize my life, but Krishna and Prabhupada had another plan! The ticket controller, curious about the strange Indian clothes that I was still wearing, started to ask me questions and I spoke to him about Krishna, Prabhupada and existential topics for the whole trip. I was so happy to have glorified the Supreme Lord and His pure devotee, that I realized I was in Livorno only as the train pulled into the station. I hadn't got even a moment to think of what I would say to my family and friends!
At the station, my father and my girlfriend, Marisa were waiting for me. My father drove us back to our home in Perignano di Lari, province of Pisa. My father was driving, I was by Marisa in the back seat. Right away, I started talking to her about Krishna consciousness, about my encounter with Prabhupada and my intention to accept him as my spiritual guide. After listening to me attentively, Marisa told me that everything that I had just explained to her were the values that she had always admired most in life and that she was determined to follow me on the path of Krishna consciousness. My father listened to my whole story without saying one word. In the meantime, we arrived home, where my mother had prepared a sumptuous meal in honor of my return. Unfortunately, as is common in most of Italy, the table was laid with foods not acceptable to a spiritual life. I spoke to my mother alone and explained to her that it was my firm conviction to change my lifestyle and become a devotee of the Lord, Shri Krishna. She had always been profoundly religious and to hear the message of Krishna was like rediscovering something which for some reason had been forgotten. Almost desperate, with her hands in her hair she cried:"What have we been doing all these years? We've wasted time, we've wasted our lives. We have to put ourselves back on the right path and serve the Lord with love and devotion, like Prabhupada says."
My father did not accept all this right away. He was a person with a strong character, solid and concrete and he could not consider changing his life so abruptly. After some days of observation, reflection and exchanges of points of view between us on various practical and philosophical aspects, more precisely after a few weeks, he started on the path indicated by Srila Prabhupada, gradually becoming an excellent devotee, generous, loyal and dynamic. From then on, for the rest of his life, he was dedicated to Prabhupada's mission. Among his various services, the last was the realization of the marvelous polychrome marble temple for the worship of Shri Sri Radha Vrajasundara at Villa Vrindavana near Florence, Italy.
Srila Prabhupada proved to be prophetic once again. By his causeless mercy my family was now a family of devotees, and my home was a temple. In the spring of '77 Marisa and I were accepted as disciples of Prabhupada, married and initiated, with the spiritual names of Manupatni devi dasi and Matsyavatara dasa. The following summer I returned to Vrindavana to thank His Divine Grace for the priceless gift he gave to me and to my family.
Srila Prabhupada Ki-jaya!