With his new book “Chasing Rhinos with the Swami” now on pre-order and expected to be shipping by March 2016, legendary ISKCON pioneer Shyamasundara Das stopped by to talk to ISKCON News.
At 73, he still has his thick shock of wild hair, and the wide grin, easy sense of humor and friendly nature that ingratiated him to major figures like the Beatles all those years ago, as he carried out Srila Prabhupada’s instructions to spread Krishna consciousness.
“I always planned to write this book, but with work projects, family and everything else, I just kept postponing it – knowing that when the time was right it would happen,” he says, explaining why he’s only putting his story to paper now.
“At first I thought I could write the book in a few weeks,” he continues. “But when I sat down, it took almost two full years of writing and research to complete. And I was working on it almost every day, from two to sometimes twelve hours a day.”
The intensive experience sent him right back to those early days of ISKCON. “Srila Prabhupada came into my life again, called me to his room, made me laugh, began those fun intense conversations – and soon he accompanied my every waking moment,” Shyamasundara recalls.
“Chasing Rhinos with the Swami” will come in a two-volume edition. Volume 1: San Francisco and London, 1966 – 1970 follows Shyamasundara’s experiences as he assisted Prabhupada in establishing Krishna consciousness in San Francisco at the peak of the Hippie Revolution, the narrow yet perfect historical window from which ISKCON was launched throughout the world.
It also talks about how Srila Prabhupada sent Shyamasundara as his pioneer to England, along with his friends from college Mukunda (later Goswami), Malati, and Yamuna, as well as Janaki and Gurudas.
It gives an inside look at how they met the Beatles, how Prabhupada became their friend and guru, how devotees made it onto the Top of the Pops and put out a hit record, and more.
Meanwhile in Volume 2: India, Russia, and Around the World: 1970 – 1974, Shyamasundara goes with Prabhupada back to an India where the ancient science and culture of Krishna was almost extinct, and assists him in reviving it along with his other Western disciples.
The volume also includes Shyamasundara’s firsthand view of Prabhupada’s planting Krishna consciousness in Brezhnev’s USSR, and opening centers in Europe, Mexico, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong, and Africa.
“Chasing Rhinos” is unique because it gives a personal, insider’s account of major events in ISKCON’s history.
“I was with Prabhupada so much,” says Shyamasundara. “I was at his side for eight years, and his personal secretary for two of those, with him day and night. We had a relationship that was very close.”
Shyamasundara was also the first-hand recipient of the effect Prabhupada had on people that made them believe they could do the impossible… and do it!
“We should always be enthusiastic to try for capturing the rhinoceros,” Srila Prabhupada wrote in a 1971 letter that gives the book its title. “That way, if we fail, everyone will say, ‘Never mind, nobody can catch a rhinoceros anyway,’ and if we succeed, then everyone will say, ‘Just see, what a wonderful thing they have done!’”
“He was the personal example of that,” Shyamasundara explains. “He always thought bigger than everyone. From the very beginning, he wanted to go for the moon, and he just took us along with him. He was our guide on that wild, exciting adventure.”
The devotees, Shyamasundara recalls, did amazing things back then because all they wanted was to please Srila Prabhupada.
“We wanted to see that big smile,” he says. “And the only way to really do that was to dare, to take risks. He loved that. He loved the devotees most who would dare the most. And there was a transcendental competition going on in those days, with his young disciples. We all wanted to do bigger things than the next guy, so Prabhupada would pay more attention to us.”
One of the biggest of these amazing achievements, of course, was developing a relationship with the Beatles. “We got there at the end of August 1968, and before Christmas we were having dinners and kirtans with them – with the most famous people in the world!” Shyamasundara remembers. “In three months! That’s about as magic as you can get. And Prabhupada inspired that.”
“Chasing Rhinos” is packed with impossible stories. There’s dancing and chanting at the Avalon Ballroom concert in San Francisco with a host of celebrities. There’s Prabhupada going behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain with Shyamasundara as his sole companion, at a time when no one from the West could get visas. And there’s Shyamasundara’s inside look – “writing letters, making phone calls, late-night strategy sessions” – at how Prabhupada surmounted a barrage of obstacles to get his three main temples in India built.
Shyamasundara says he’s spent a lot of time editing each paragraph down to its essence so that the book moves along at a zippy pace, even though the two volumes span nearly 1,000 pages. Written in a novel-like style with lots of dialogue, it’s full of excitement as well as Shyamasundara’s – and of course Srila Prabhupada’s – trademark sense of humor.
It also has plenty of deep philosophy, including an original account of the conversations Shyamasundara had with Srila Prabhupada about various classic philosophers that was later published as “Dialectic Spiritualism.”
What’s more, the book is carefully researched – Shyamasundara spent time at the Bhaktivedanta Archives in North Carolina, interviewed his old college friend and Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully, and explored the Hippies Collection at the San Francisco Public Library, which documents the city’s counterculture movement of the mid-1960s.
“I found a lot of incredible documents and photos there,” he says. “I also found photos in newspaper archives, and got some from other devotees, and from my own collection, so that there will be some really cool never-before-seen photos in the book.”
Shyamasundara is self-publishing “Chasing Rhinos with the Swami,” which is now available fore pre-order at http://chasingrhinos.com and should be shipped in March.
He hopes it will inspire some of that early pioneer spirit in devotees to achieve something “impossible” for Srila Prabhupada. After all, now, at the cusp of ISKCON’s 50th anniversary, is an ideal time.
“And ultimately, I hope that readers will get that personal sense of Prabhupada’s presence,” he says. “The full feeling of what he was really like, and of his deep affection for all humanity, and especially for the devotees.”