This article, "Chain-Gang Hero of Hare Krishna" was published in Pensacola News Journal, December 11, 1976, in Pensacola, Florida.
By GEORGE W. CORNELL
AP Religion Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - He sat cross-legged on a throne of pillows, an aging swami, clad in saffron dhoti and tunic, a garland of flowers and tulsi beads about his neck, his brown brow daubed with gold-colored sandalwood pulp. Devotees, on entering, knelt and bowed to the floor before him.
To his Hare Krishna followers, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada represents and speaks for God.
"Generally people are working on the bodily concept of life," he said in one of his rare interviews. "We are working on the spiritual platform ... those working on the bodily platform are working on the dead platform ... We are working on the platform of life."
This disjunction of spirit-life from matter, a dualism characteristic of eastern religions which see the physical world as a binding prison from which the soul seeks escape, ran through the circuitous discourse of two hours, laden with earthy analogies.
He described the material existence of most people as like being in jail, hammering bricks, while he and his followers are trying to teach the others that "jail life is no good," that to live in the jail is not desirable.
"We are trying to educate the prisoners," he said. "They are such fools and rascals that they cannot understand that without jail one can live."
They are "working hard ... hammering bricks," he added, and are envious because his disciples are not also "hammering bricks" and participating in "jail life," but his disciples know it is not "good business" - that it is "punishment. This is real knowledge."
Asked if that wasn't a negative view of earthly existence, he said it "is a fact ... a positive understanding."
Told that traditional western religions, Judaism and Christianity, cherish the physical world itself as good, he said, "That is ignorance."
In connection with questions about whether the Hare Krishna view didn't tend to cut followers off from concerns in this world, he was asked what he thought of Jimmy Carter.
"I do not know of him, nor do I care," he said. Told who Carter is, "What improvements have been made by having this president and that president? The world has had so many hundreds and thousands of presidents. What is the improvement in spiritual knowledge? ... We are more for the spirit-soul than the body."
When he said he personally never voted in elections, he was asked if his disciples followed his example. "I do not know," he said, adding that voting for this man or that man offered no "spiritual benefit," which "is our concern."
His movement is called the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, which he founded here in 1966.
It has about 10,000 fulltime communal members in about 100 temples across the country, and claims 50,000 to 100,000 part-time supporters.
General secretary Bali Mardan, 28, said it took in more than $2 million last year in sales of its magazine, "Back to Godhead" and 55 books of Vedic scripture which Swami Prabhupada translated from Sanskrit into English.
The swami, who turned 80 this fall, was asked about criticism from parents and ex-members who say the group uses "brainwashing" in its heavy indoctrination of hours of daily chanting of 1,728 Hare Krishna rounds.
"It is due to misunderstanding," he said. "They do not understand what kind of education we are giving. We are giving education on how to become free of the hammering in the jail ... They do not understand that we are talking on the spiritual platform and they are on the material bodily platform."
He explained, in the typically oriental religious view, that the objective is for the spirit to get free of the body - the jail. "That is the ideal life," he said. "That is the goal. When the soul lives without this material body, then it is liberated."
However, he said, most people "cannot understand that life can be lived without hammering bricks."
This reporter, taking his leave after the long session, himself seated on the floor, barefoot as was required, said, "Well, I have to go hack and hammer a few bricks."
Photo: To his Hare Krishna followers, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Pradhupada represents and speaks for God. Founder and leader of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, he says, "Generally people are working on the bodily concept of life. We are working on the spiritual platform."