Srila Prabhupada and devotees, 1975 airport trip
In 1971 when I was studying at SUNY Buffalo (and playing on the college tennis team), many of the now famous shaved-up orange-robed ISKCON devotees were a regular part of the landscape on campus. At that time, I had little contact but would stand around to stare at their alien appearance and briefly listen to their message. In those years, I hadn’t found my passion and was passing time in college as one of many of America’s “disillusioned” youth.
Fast forward a few years and I was accepted for a tennis teaching job in Canada as Peter Burwash was just starting his tennis management company, Peter Burwash International. I was already leaning towards a vegetarian diet and Peter’s 24/7 no smoking, no drinking, no drug policy sounded like a healthy option. While he didn’t force vegetarianism upon anyone, his “inner circle” was all vegetarian at that time, and he encouraged it strongly.
At Peter’s 2-week training center in Canada, I quickly transformed from a passive and relatively unmotivated 21-year-old into a driven and passionate part of Peter’s company. He quickly became my inspiring and encouraging mentor and more. Peter was smart, intuitive, and very charismatic. But there was much more, as I would soon realize.
After 2 weeks, I was selected to head up the first tennis teaching program in Hawaii out of the 120 coaches who attended that Canadian Tennis College in 1975. Within a few days, I was on a plane with Peter from Toronto to Honolulu.
Picture an overly excited 21-year-old arriving in Hawaii with a guide like Peter Burwash. Since I was to house-sit Peter’s Waikiki apartment, Peter sat me down within minutes and said, “I have something to tell you.”
Peter then told me the story from a few months earlier in 1974 when he was playing frisbee on Hawaii’s famous Waikiki Beach and how a wayward wind blew his frisbee throw off course hitting a Hare Krishna devotee in the head. The way Peter told the story, it was fate. He explained how he got a book on spiritual life with an invitation to a Sunday Feast and that the “Krishnas” were now his friends. He needed me to know that I might get a phone call in his apartment from someone saying, Hare Krishna. Fortuitously for me, Srila Prabhupada had been in Hawaii for a month and was flying out the very next day. Peter asked if I wanted to drive to the airport with him to see Srila Prabhupada and his departing entourage. Immediately, I felt the wheels of fate were guiding me in this new episode of my life, and I was just a fumbling actor in an exciting life drama that was playing out very spontaneously.
Literally hours later I was in the middle of a large wave of Hare Krishna devotees in the Honolulu Airport who were chanting and dancing in the terminal building, surrounding His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada. The waves of the kirtan were vibrant and exciting. The atmosphere was surcharged with youthful energy and an other-worldly enthusiasm that I had never before experienced. A few days later, Peter flew back to Canada, and I went to my first Sunday feast at the Honolulu ISKCON temple to be again met with chanting and dancing, and the addition of a wonderful vegetarian feast. I fell in love.
Later that summer, I found out that Peter had engaged Satyadeva dasa, an extraordinary ISKCON member and cook from Hawaii to head up vegetarian meal preparation at the main Canadian summer tennis facility of his blossoming new company.
This demonstrated Peter’s commitment to both vegetarianism and supporting ISKCON as much as possible. I worked with Peter from 1975 through 1984 as his Vice President of Marketing, and our core group would regularly attend local temple programs in different parts of the world. At Peter’s annual company meetings, staff flew in from many countries and Peter offered “morning spiritual classes” based on Srila Prabhupada’s teachings, always making sure they were digestible for anyone who would attend. He was highly driven but not fanatical by ISKCON standards. His was one of the first “progressive” off-shoots of the more fanatical ISKCON of that time. From the core members of Peter’s group, a handful of us received formal initiation into Prabhupada’s family.
Peter’s contributions were many. For 18 years straight, he brought his daughters to Vrindavan for 2 weeks, assisting in the ISKCON Vrindavan Food For Life program. Additionally, Peter spoke at many ISKCON conferences and temples, sharing and teaching through an extremely positive attitude, very much including suggestions on how temples could be more sensitive and relatable to their guests.
Additionally, in hundreds of presentations and workshops to a wide audience around the world, Peter consistently taught many of the principles upon which Srila Prabhupada based ISKCON, including the benefits of rising early and a plant-based diet, the art of being a servant-leader with true humility, the essential meaning of yoga and meditation, what it means to teach by example (acharya), and much more.
Until his final breath in the chapter of his eternal existence, Peter Burwash was a Prabhupada loyalist through and through. He will be missed.
Yudhisthira dasa (TKG), the author of this article standing at the edge of the Yamuna River on his first trip to Vrindavan in 1979. Yudhisthira dasa was later initiated by H.H. Tamal Krishna Goswami and eventually served in Dallas as the temple president for 10 years and Goswami Maharaja referred to him as his “permanent secretary” for 17 years.) Photos by Yudhisthira dasa
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