From Bombay airport I take a taxi, and in ten minutes
arrive at the Hare Krishna Temple. I book a room at the
super de luxe hotel attached to the Temple. The service here is a model of perfection;
I soon meet the project manager who is Swiss and a disciple of Srila Prabhupad.
He is busy, much in demand, but is keen to know about the Interviews I have
already taken and agrees to ask the President of the Temple if he will give
one. The President, who is an American, is also busy but can fit in half an
hour at 8 this evening.
Meanwhile, my new Swiss friend is telling me about
his own life, and I stop him and ask: Look, why don’t you also give an
No, no! I am not important…
But he is because he is full of humility and not at
all like a businessman even though I can see he is very much at home behind
an executive desk in a sparkling well-equipped office.
I tell him I haven’t met anyone from his country
in India except my friend Swami
Jnanananda who left Switzerland nearly thirty years ago and lives near me in
the foothills of the Himalayas.
He then agrees, not because of this, but because he
feels it important to represent all walks of life, all backgrounds, all callings.
I was born and raised in Switzerland in a small village.
My father is an executive of a mill. Later on I went to college, studied the
arts, but before I decided on which profession to take up, I shifted to another
school — the Arts School of Zurich — and took photography and film-making
for three years. After I graduated there, the school itself employed me, so
I was able to work in the Art Museum of Zurich which was attached to the school.
After one year I started travelling, and it was about nine or ten years ago
I first came to India — I was 21 then. I was looking for some ideals in
life. Even in my Zurich days I had come into contact with Eastern philosophy,
mostly Taoism, and I read several books on it. I had even taken some yoga lessons and I had more or less given
up meat-eating. When I arrived in Delhi I decided to go from village to village
on a tour, and for that purpose I purchased a bicycle.
That’s a very original
way to see the country. How far did you get?
I wanted to see the villages on my way to Bombay — that’s about
1,000 miles away — but I never made it. It took me almost a day just to
get out of Old Delhi… there were no road signs. After ten days of cycling
with stops in between I felt this wasn’t the best way to travel. I looked
at my map for the next town — it was Mathura — and went there to
sell the cycle. There was only one hotel — very small, very nice, on the
banks of the Jamuna. I stayed there, but became attracted by the river and the
sitting by it and the atmosphere — it was all overwhelming. I remember
taking a bath in the river and just sitting there, and I had an immense experience
of satisfaction just by sitting in that peace. My ideal had been the Chinese
way of Buddhism so I couldn’t understand
why the river affected me so much. I tried to analyze where this happiness was
coming from: it wasn’t from the company of beautiful girls, I hadn’t
smoked any marijuana, and I didn’t have a good meal behind me —
there were none of the usual sense-gratifications.
My conclusion was that it was the river itself that
was the cause of the incredible happiness, and it must be very special. I wrote
a poem on the beauty of this river which was giving me so much peace and sweetness.
Then as I walked through the streets some sadhus
approached me and said: You know this is the birthplace of Lord Krishna? I asked: Who is Lord Krishna? — I really didn’t
know. They took me to see Krishna’s birthplace and told me
to go to Vrindavan as that was also associated with him. I went by bus; I still
couldn’t figure out who was this Krishna everyone was talking about. As
soon as I got out of the bus I had fifty beggars on me. Still I was able to
see some of the temples — of course they don’t let Westerners inside.
I was fascinated but I didn’t relish all the beggars.
You didn’t stay
No, I went south as I planned, but I was always remembering Mathura and the
river, I was telling everyone if they go north, go see Mathura. Then I arranged
on my way back to be in Mathura for the festival of Holi which is very famous
there. There was this huge procession through the bazaar, with bullock carts
and white bulls covered in purple, green and red powder, and people throwing
colour everywhere — it was out of another world. I was pulled onto one
of the carts where they were singing bhajans and playing instruments, and
I was given some cymbals which I had to also play with them. Afterwards when
I got down from the cart I had to dance with the people. Then I got pulled onto
another cart which had two big barrels of coloured liquid and two boys were
dressed up as Radha and Krishna in fantastic costumes, and they
had two pumps [for squirting coloured water] which I had to keep filled from
the barrels. As we rode through the streets, the crowds got splashed with this
colour. There were elephants in the procession ridden by sadhus.
At one point one of these sadhus
passed me and gave me such a long look that I nearly took off — I was
so excited, so out of this world.
Were any other Westerners
there at the time?
No, not one — I was the only one in the town and the people appreciated
that. You probably know that during this festival everyone embraces each other
and puts colour on you; well, I had about one inch of colour on me by the time
it was all over. My clothes were completely finished. I went to the bazaar to
get new things. Here I met a small old man with glasses and a stick —
it is still a mystery to me who he was. He tapped me on the shoulder —
and this in itself was like an electric shock. Later I understood he must have
been a vaishnavasannyasi.
He spoke to me in perfect English and started preaching to me — he said:
You have been drawn to the place of Lord Krishna; you should always pray to the
Lord and you will reach perfection. He went on like this for five minutes and
told me I should chant the holy names of God and that I could come to see him
at his Ashram. I very much liked him but he turned around and walked away; I
could see all the people paying obeisance to him. For two or three days I tried
to find out who he was but I never did and eventually I left Mathura with this
You stayed on in India
No, I went back to Europe, and as soon as I got there I wanted to travel again.
Instead of buying a ticket for the East I landed up in Canada thinking, as I
have seen the East I should now see the West. I thought maybe I would work there,
but although I got an immigration standard visa I didn’t like it, and
moved on to the United States which was a tremendous cultural shock, especially
California; the society was so animalistic. I met all these characters, they
were so burned out. I became depressed and decided I would never come back to
this place. After only ten days I went back to Canada, to Vancouver Island,
where I got a job in a studio and wanted to save money so that I could come
back to India; I was so home-sick. A little later I met some Hare Krishna devotees in Winnipeg; they had
just started a Centre there. They gave me a Back to Godhead magazine, and as
I felt homesick for India I went with them to their temple. I had read some
books of Srila Prabhupada but no one had preached to me. In the temple I was
told I should chant sixteen rounds of Hare Krishnamahamantra, and they explained the principles.
From that moment on I followed their program and attended all the pujas.
I felt at peace and relieved, and after only three months I received my first
In those days GuruMaharaj was still alive. Can you say
how you were given initiation and what it signifies?
The temple president felt I was qualified for initiation, so after consulting
with the zonal secretary they sent a letter explaining everything to Srila Prabhupada
who accepted me. He gave me my new name; a fire ceremony was performed and a
japa mala which Srila Prabhupada had
sent specially for me was presented. It is usually not given until after six
months but in my case it was given in less than three. I still had a great desire
to come back to India, so every day I would pray in the temple: Dear GuruMaharaj, please arrange that I can serve
you in India. Ten days later at 6 in the morning a phone call came from the
zonal secretary saying he had just received a letter from Srila Prabhupada asking
that two boys should be sent immediately to India. I was selected. At 11 the
same day I was on the plane to Toronto, then two days later I was on my way.
How old were you then?
Was GuruMaharaj actually in India?
I was 23 — oh yes, he was here in Bombay. I was so happy as it was my
first meeting with him.
Can you describe what
he was like and how he taught?
He was very grave — yes — that is the right word, but in his activities
he was unmatchable. For example, at 6 sharp every morning we would walk with
him on the beach, and even for us young boys it was hard to keep pace with him
— he was so fresh and walked so fast. He was already over 80. The walks
were wonderful because he taught us at every step; he was very frank and yet
How many of you would
go with him?
Here is a picture on my desk of us altogether from those days — only five
or six. He would preach all the time; wherever he looked he would see Krishna, and take everything he saw in
front of his eyes as a spring-board to teach. Whatever he was doing during the
day would be turned into a lesson. I remember once we passed a tree by the road
and at one placed under a branch was an accumulation of bird-droppings. He stopped
and said: Just see, even birds are attached to their home — they will
only sit on a particular branch — so not only are humans attached to family
and home, but birds also. And he used it to preach about the strong pull of
attachment to this physical world. Whatever he saw he would put in relation
to the human plight and would preach. After the walk we would go to the temple
and the darshan of the deities. Then he would
go to his quarters where we would serve him breakfast before he started work
on his correspondence — his instructions are there in thousands of letters.
He had over a hundred centers all over the world,
so you can imagine how many letters are brought in. At noon he took prashadam
followed by a rest, for about one hour. After that he gave darshan for visitors till about 7 when
he went to the temple to deliver the lecture. In the evening he would speak
to his disciples until about 10.30 when we would go to rest, but that was the
time he stayed up to translate his books. At the most he took one or two hours
of rest during the night — so except for the other hour of rest during
the day he was either preaching or translating
During that period he was working on his seventeen-volume
translation of the life and teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. So many different
persons came to see him, yet each one felt Srila Prabhupada relating to him;
he was so encouraging, so personal. It was all so rare and wonderful.
Were you able to take
any further initiations?
After a few months he personally gave me the second initiation. This is given
when a certain amount of preaching has been done by the aspirant. At the second
initiation the Brahmin thread is given to him, which
signifies that he is now a preacher, and from that time onwards he is allowed
to do puja
in the temple. It is usually given about one year after the first initiation
— it may take longer, it depends how one makes progress. Then a silent
mantra is spoken into the right ear of
the disciple and the guru puts the tread on the disciple’s
body. From then on I was engaged in preaching in Bombay.
Did you accompany GuruMaharaj on any of his travels?
No, I stayed back in India.
Now can you tell me how
this great temple was built?
We were facing difficulty obtaining permission, but it came in 1975 and the
temple was built and finished within two and a half years. Our GuruMaharaj was eager to complete it quickly,
so work went on day and night. Three or four hundred people were chipping marble
the whole time until it was finished, and even today I can hardly believe it
was done so quickly.
You have the title of
Project Manager. What does that mean?
After all the building stopped, the question came up as to who would manage
the administration. Some of us had to sacrifice part of our preaching and I
was asked to do the administration for the guest house. By Krishna’s grace, it has become
very successful and we receive guests from every part of the world. Our fifty
rooms are nearly always booked all year round by people like you who come here
already interested in spiritual life. That is our aim - to provide facilities
for serious persons who wish to have the right atmosphere, but of a high standard.
The dining room has also become popular with the people of Bombay and many take
the chance of eating Krishna prasadam.
We are also setting up a model Krishna consciousness community, a whole
village, because we are always preaching about the ideal way of life so we want
to practice it and demonstrate that it can be done. I spend three days a week
outside Bombay on this project. The village will be self-sufficient. There is
so much we have to do as hardly anyone anywhere is giving spiritual education,
so we are spreading Krishna-conscious culture — the
need is great and our work small, although we get up before 4 each morning and
keep going till 9 or 10 at night.
You would never change your life now or go back
to Switzerland? After all, it’s the cleanest, best-organized country in
the world. If I ever think about it, just to put my feet
outside India, I get cold shivers down my back. Once one has tasted a little
Krishna consciousness or any other spiritual
consciousness, there is just so much more space in India, and the environment
is more conductive to living a real life. In the West it is more difficult for
an individual to pursue any of his ideals. That was the main reason I joined
this movement: I was an idealistic person but I always found myself in the position
of a hypocrite because I couldn’t live up to the standard of my philosophy.
So when I met that first Hare Krishna devotee I sensed: This person
is not a hypocrite, he is living up to his teachings. When I joined I had a
feeling of great release.
After living here for eight years I have become so
used to the culture, the environment and the people. Sometimes I have to go
to the airport to meet someone and am shocked by the Westerners — they
are so gross, I cannot relate to them. You have met my wife — she is an
Indian devotee and we have a boy of one year old now. I would never even like
him to see the Western countries as they are now. For that reason I have actually
applied for Indian nationality.
Chitrakara Das now divides his time between living
in Bangalore manufacturing Ayurvedic products which he imports to Switzerland
and where he also lives. He gives lectures on Ayurveda and Krishna Consciousness.