Around 200 ISKCON devotees from all over the United States’ East Coast celebrated the 50th anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s arrival in Butler, Pennsylvania on October 24th, along with yoga practioners and locals who had spotted news of the event in the paper.
Participants included “The Walking Monk” Bhaktimarga Swami, who had just finished retracing Srila Prabhupada’s journey from Boston’s Commonwealth Pier – where the ISKCON founder arrived from India in 1965 – to Butler, on foot. Next, Bhaktimarga will walk from Butler to New York City, where Prabhupada registered ISKCON in 1966, completing a foot trek of 907 miles.
Also participating were devotees from Srila Prabhupada’s first farm community, New Vrindaban in West Virginia, which sponsored the entire event.
Gopal and Sally Agarwal, who sponsored Prabhupada’s visit to the United States, had been scheduled to attend but unfortunately were unable to, due to health problems and their advanced age – Gopal is now 89, and Sally 85.
“Sally Agarwal did call me the day before the event, however, to tell me how much she had been looking forward to coming, and to send her heartfelt greetings to all the devotees,” says organizer Vrindavan Das. “She thanked the devotees for their kindness and warmth, and for their acknowledgement of ‘the little service’ she had Gopal had done for Srila Prabhupada. She said this made her feel part of the movement. She also recalled how she had relished every moment with ‘Swamiji,’ who called her ‘my dear daughter,’ and was a father figure to her.”
Bhaktimarga Swami leads kirtan for Srila Prabhupada
The event began at1:30pm with a lunch catered by New Vrindaban at the Grand Ballroom in downtown Butler, the town’s premier venue.
Devotees then visited Cubs Hall, formerly the YMCA where Srila Prabhupada stayed for about a month while in Butler. It was there that he worked on his Srimad-Bhagavatam, walking to the Agarwals’ for his meals.
The club’s president, Eric, spoke about the building’s history and about how as a child, he would see his father – then president of the YMCA – walking and talking with “Swami.”
He then gave the devotees a forty-minute tour of the floor where Srila Prabhupada stayed, showing them the very same simple metal table that Prabhupada used and wrote his Bhagavatam on; the shared bathroom he used; and the bed frame he was thought to have used.
During the tour, devotees chanted and Nityodita Das, a Prabhupada disciple from New Vrindaban, read a letter Srila Prabhupada had written to Narayan Maharaja on October 4th, 1965, during his stay at the Butler YMCA.
The beautiful conference hall at the Grand Ballroom
In the letter Prabhupada wrote about how his English was difficult for the locals to understand, but he was still lecturing daily either at a church, school, college, club, or society. He mentioned that the Butler Eagle Newspaper had printed an article about him, saying, “The learned teacher has translated Biblical literature such as Srimad-Bhagavatam into English from ancient Sanskrit,” and that “He is now fulfilling a mission given to him by his spiritual master to enlighten English speaking people about their relationship with God.”
In the letter Prabhupada also made many observations about America, saying it was “a very, very expensive country,” that “every civilized person has one car,” and “at night in the city the shops are lit up and it appears like daytime.”
After the tour, the Cubs Hall president gifted Srila Prabhupada’s metal table to the New Vrindaban devotees.
The devotees then took a group photo outside the building, before making their way with Harinama Sankirtan to number 111 Sterling Apartments, where Srila Prabhupada stayed with Gopal and Sally Agarwal. There they viewed the apartment from outside, as the Agarwals no longer live there.
“Although it was raining, we were all so fired up that we had an ecstatic kirtan out in the parking lot,” says Vrindavana. “Then Bhaktimarga Swami spoke about Srila Prabhupada’s time there, recalling the pastime where he would wash his clothes and put them to dry outside on the grass Indian-style.”
The view from Prabhupada’s window in Butler
The devotees also showed their appreciation of Gopal and especially Sally Agarwal, mentioning that although Gopal Agarwal was commonly cited as having sponsored Srila Prabhupada, it was in fact Sally who had done so.
Next, Bhaktimarga Swami, Nityodita Das, and Sikhi Mahiti Das from Philadelphia all led an ecstatic Harinama through the streets of downtown Butler with over 120 devotees dancing in two synchronized lines.
“The locals really liked it,” says Vrindavana. “One of the store owners said, ‘Hey are you guys back in town again? It’s been a long time!’”
An afternoon program at the Grand Ballroom, which was elegantly decorated with Srila Prabhupada’s murti from New Vrindaban on stage, began at 4:00pm.
In his introduction, Vrindavana Das spoke about the signifance of the festival, and why it was important to come to Butler on this occasion. “This is where Srila Prabhupada planted the seed of ISKCON, and where he publicly spoke about Krishna in the West for the first time – at the Butler Public Library. So Butler is a place of pilgrimage for ISKCON devotees.”
Prabhupada disciples Bhaktimarga Swami, Nityodiata Das, Jayasri Dasi, Krishnanandini Dasi, and Subhavilasa Das and his wife Archalata Dasi then spoke.
Jayasri Dasi speaks
Bhaktimarga Swami talked about his walk from Boston to Butler, connected it to Srila Prabhupada’s journey, and also how Prabhupada used to walk every day.
Jayasri Dasi, who joined ISKCON in 1969 and has served at New Vrindaban for over 30 years, spoke from her heart about the sacrifice Prabhupada had made in coming to America at his advanced age, for the welfare of everyone. She also noted that later on, although his movement was growing to such a large scale, Srila Prabhupada remained humble, always giving credit to his followers who were assisting him.
Nityodita Das teared up as he remembered Srila Prabhupada’s struggles, as described in his letter to Narayan Maharaja. “I knew that if I had had to face a storm like that again, I would die,” he wrote about his time on the cargo ship Jaladuta. “I crossed these oceans and seas and became so sick. Due to my request, they served me vegetarian meals on the ship, yet I could not take them. I fasted continuously for eight to ten days. The pitta (fire) increased so much in my body thus I suffered terribly from colic pain.”
Srila Prabhupada added, “I could have died on the way, but instead Krsna mercifully brought me here. Why Krsna has brought me here, only He knows.”
After the speeches, Bhaktimarga Swami led an electrifying kirtan. “Everyone stood up and danced as if it was the last chance of their lives to participate in kirtan,” recalls Vrindavana.
The event ended with a mouth-watering feast prepared and served by New Vrindaban devotee Radha Dasi and her sisters Purnamasi, Vidya, and Bhaktin Lisa.
“Devotees were so happy with the festival,” says Vrindavana. “Many said we should make it an annual event. Some said they had always wanted to come to Butler, and this festival had given them the opportunity. And they were all delighted to have gotten the chance to tour Srila Prabhupada’s rooms at the old YMCA.”
“As Sikhi Mahiti said, Butler is a small town – most people have not heard of it. But everyone in ISKCON has heard of Butler.”
“This,” Vrindavana concludes, “Is where it all started for us.”
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