It was a home for Srila Prabhupada, Founder of ISKCON, from July 1966 to that difficult New York winter of 1967. It’s the first Krishna temple in the west, the birthplace of ISKCON, and the site where nineteen fresh-faced Americans received the Sanskrit names they’d use for the rest of their lives.
It’s 26 2nd Avenue.
These days, it’s a buzzword, a seemingly random collection of numbers that will jolt any Hare Krishna into recognition. But in 1968, soon after Prabhupada had left to bring his message to the rest of America and the world, his young disciples followed without a second thought, the little storefront forgotten.
It wasn’t until devotees mourned Prabhupada’s passing in 1977 that they saw how special 26 2nd Ave. was – the perfect place to remember their spiritual teacher. By the time ISKCON reached its 20th anniversary in 1986, the storefront, now an antique store, was surrounded by devotees peering in, getting guided tours, and even prostrating themselves on the sidewalk. This didn’t seem to phase the jaded New Yorkers, who had either seen far weirder sights in their time, or were locals already familiar with this Hare Krishna Mecca.
By 1992, devotees had re-leased the storefront, renovated it and used old photos to repaint the famous sign, “Matchless Gifts,” that they had always thought so appropriate. 26 2nd Ave. was finally ISKCON’s again. “It was Srila Prabhupada’s beginning, and now we feel like it’s ours, too,” says current manager Yajna Purusa. “We’re making a comeback in Manhattan.”
If local reactions are anything to go by, he’s right. In September 2007, when the Arts Festival “Howl,” named after Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem, was celebrated on the Lower East Side, organizers requested devotees to participate, citing them as “an authentic part of the time,” and “very much part of New York’s cultural heritage.”
The public reception is warm, too. During the summer, lively devotional songs in New York’s subways attract attention from commuters, who often stand and watch for 10 – 20 minutes as they wait for their trains. “It’s a great hit,” Yajna Purusa says.
The biggest fans soon turn up for more at 26 2nd Ave., which draws a mixed crowd to its Tuesday and Friday evening programs, often packing the small storefront with 35 - 55 students and young professionals. Serious seekers are encouraged to make the next step and check out Rasanath Dasa’s Bhagavad-Gita discussion group on Saturdays, which started in November 2007 and now has twenty regulars and counting.
Students from NYU and the nearby Cooper Union architecture and design college also attend the storefront’s dinner programs four afternoons a week to get freshly cooked vegetarian all-you-can-eat meals. At $3 per engorged belly, it’s a popular hang-out spot and a way for students to connect with the community.
“Statistically, young urban professionals are the most unlikely people to attend a religious service,” Yajna says. “But despite having the world at their fingertips in New York, they still often feel alone, a deep hole that Krishna consciousness fills. They keep coming, because we make programs that they can relate to and that address their needs.”
But there could be something else that draws people to 26 2nd Ave.; something more subtle that wafts into the subconscious. “Students are attracted by the holiness of the place, whether they realize it or not,” Yajna tells me.
For the 14 devotees who live at the nearby Bhaktivedanta ashrama and serve at 26 2nd Ave., it’s easier to pinpoint. As they cook the feast, carry it to the storefront, serve it to the congregation, and clean the pots afterwards, they experience the poignant meditation that forty years ago, their spiritual grandfather was doing the same, alone but determined in his devotion.
Prabhupada’s presence is felt everywhere at 26 2nd Ave. “Every time I walk across the floor in the backyard, or the hallway in the back that leads to the apartment, I remember that he walked on those very stones,” Yajna says.
A visit to 26 2nd Ave. might make you feel as if you’ve just stepped right into the pages of the Prabhupada-Lilamrita and emerged, Narnia-style, into the sixties. It’s one of the few places on the planet where you can still meet locals who say, “I met your Swami.” Some of these are celebrities in the eyes of Hare Krishnas, people who interacted with the beloved spiritual teacher they never did. For instance, the current landlord of the apartment block behind 26 2nd Ave. where Prabhupada used to live is the son of Mr. Chutey, Prabhupada’s landlord. And the man who replaced Prabhupada as a tenant when he left back in ’68 still lives there today. A retired news reporter now in his late seventies, he recalls visiting the storefront and interviewing “our Swami.”
With Tompkins Square Park, where Prabhupada sang and spoke, only a few blocks away, and a regular flow of guest speakers from the “early days” stopping by, you’d think the picture would be complete. But the devotees at 26 2nd Ave. are taking it even further.
“We plan to turn the storefront into an exact replica of what it was like when Prabhupada was here,” Yajna Purusa says. He tells me that it will take a year for their research team to get a clear consensus on the atmosphere they aim to create, using the Prabhupada-Lilamrita and personal testimonies. No detail will be spared. “Brahmananda Dasa, an early disciple, told us that there used to be a sink which stuck out into the storefront from a small bathroom to the left of Prabhupada’s lecture seat. Sometimes he’d eat an apple as he spoke, and would spit the pits into the sink all the way from his seat.” Yajna chuckles. “That sink is definitely going to be in our plan.”
He hopes that an exciting community will grow around the project, and that eventually, to facilitate people and gain a bigger presence in Manhattan, they will purchase a larger temple affiliated with 26 2nd Ave.
But a dark cloud hangs over this dream. Right now ISKCON only has a short lease on 26 2nd Ave., something they can’t even claim for Prabhupada’s old apartment block, which they’d also like to own. Price tag for both buildings? $20 million, at least. But if ISKCON doesn’t buy soon, the landlord might be tempted to sell to a real estate developer – and then the 100-year-old buildings would go the same way that so many others on 2nd Ave. have; they’d be torn down and replaced with brand new luxury condominiums.
Then 26 2nd Ave. would be gone, lost forever, and so too would be its healthy, vibrant Krishna conscious community. But Yajna Purusa remains positive, perhaps feeling that if everyone finds this little center as inspiring as he does, the money problem will take care of itself. “People come here, get attached to Vaishnava association, and grow spiritually together. That really is a Matchless Gift, to me as well as to them.”
But it’s Yajna’s simple last words that really instill how special 26 2nd Ave. is.
“Once the programs are over, people often don’t want to leave,” he says. “It becomes like home for them.”