It began with an answered phone in my office on an otherwise ordinary day in 1973. A woman addressed me in the distinctive vowels and consonants that revealed her to be a native of Philadelphia—or “Fluffya,” as it’s called in the local dialect. She asked if I were the head person of the Hare Krishna temple. She pronounced “Hare” as “hair.”
“Ha-ray Krishna temple,” I responded. “Yes, I am.” “Are you,” she continued, “a priest, minister, or rabbi of your religion?” She had a raspy smoker’s voice. “A priest,” I affirmed.
“OK, then. I’m calling you from the Philadelphia City Council, office of Councilman Kelly.” She paused while a phlegmy cough made its way up her bronchial tubes. “The council,” she resumed, “meets every week in its chambers on Thursdays, at ten a.m. The meeting always opens with an invocation by a member of the clergy, and the council members are responsible for inviting a clergyman on a rotating basis. In two weeks it will be Councilman Kelly’s turn. He is offering to you the honor of giving the invocation. Will you accept?” “Yes, I’ll be happy to,” I answered right away. But I was mind-blown, flabbergasted, gob smacked.
I was acutely aware of how small our group of Krishna devotees was and how alien we seemed to most people. In those days we were generally regarded as the weirdest and most spiritual subset of the counterculture, utterly strange yet benign.
I had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school that for over two centuries had reliably churned out fresh members of the Philadelphia establishment. Automatically, I had taken a certain social status for granted. I did not at all anticipate the total and complete devaluation I underwent the day I shaved my head and put on a dhoti. Shopkeepers no longer met my eye, secretaries stopped being polite. All it took was a little outward alteration, a mere half-hour’s work, to transform me into a non-person, an outcast. What a valuable lesson I received about human society—and about my own attachments as well.
It was therefore startling to be invited to open the session of city council, and by no less a personage than John B. Kelly,Jr. , a celebrity among his colleagues: famous as a scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family, famous as an former Olympic athlete, and famous especially as the younger brother of Grace Kelly, a Hollywood golden goddess of the 1950s who by 1973 reigned as Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco.
Jack Kelly had a reputation as a bit of a maverick, too, and for that reason I could entertain the notion that he had, somehow, become attracted to Krishna consciousness.
The secretary on the phone then gave me specific instruction. A driver in a city limousine would pick me up at the temple and drive me to City Hall. I would be escorted to Councilman Kelly’s office, were I would relax until the appointed time. Then I would be led to the Council Chambers. On a cue from my escort, I would walk out to the podium before assembled council members, where I would deliver my invocation. Directly behind me, a few steps up, would be the president of the city council. I would face the chamber and deliver my address.
“Keep it short,” the secretary said. “Just a few words to point the councilmen in the right direction, to enlighten their hearts. Not too long.” “OK,” I said. “And,” she said “No bells!” My heart sunk as I agreed, “All right.” “When you finish,” she went on, “you turn around, walk up a few steps to the podium of the council president, where you will shake hands with the president. Then you exit the chamber the same way you came in. Is that clear?” “Yes,” I answered, and I repeated the part involving the President. “That’s right,” she said. “You will also be returned home in a city limousine,” she added, “and you’ll get a check by mail, fifty dollars. We give an honorarium.” She paused, waiting. “Thank you,” I obliged. “OK,” she continued. “And just remember, OK: Don’t make it too long, and don’t ring any bells!”
Upon receiving the invitation, the image that had immediately sprung to mind was of my standing before the city council, kartals in hand, and chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. But the secretary had put the kibosh on that notion. Yet I could not forgo the desire for the city council to hear the maha-mantra at least once. From what I had heard, that body badly needed some purification. I decided that I would start my invocation by reciting the entire mantra—spoken, not sung. (No bells.) And the rest of the invocation would be about the meaning of the mantra. I would conclude by coming around to the mantra again.
I would make it clear that the meaning of the mantra concerned not this or that faith but rather the universal principles of religion as such. I would try to make this relevant by stressing the necessity of those principles for any civil society, and of the obligation of government to support them.
I worked a long time to make the invocation short. When it was finished, I typed it all out on my Smith-Carona portable—all capitals, double-spaced, on a single sheet of paper. I had my script. I was prepared.
On the day before the engagement, Subala Swami showed up unexpectedly at the temple. He had been the president of the Philadelphia center when I first began associating with the devotees. He had taken sannyasa, resigned from management, and had been staying in India. I showed him my invocation, and he liked it. He was happy to come with me to City Hall.
The limousine arrived Thursday morning at the appointed time, and we were led through the corridors of the imposing City Hall to the office of Councilman Kelly. I eagerly looked forward to talking with him, and I had brought him prasadam and some books. As we waited, I saw him twice go quickly in and out of the office, but I couldn’t get his attention. I figured he was busy, and I would get my chance to talk to him later.
Subala and I were soon led to a pair of velvet-covered chairs placed in the wing of the Council Chamber, a large room seriously ornate in the 19th century fashion, abounding in mosaic tiles, intricately carved wood, and glittering wrought metalwork. When I walked to the podium, I was startled to see the huge number of people in the chamber, filling the space behind the councilmen’s desks and packing the upper galleries. The members of the press and media packed the rear of the room, beneath a dense bank of TV cameras and flood lights. I reached the podium, and turned to face the chamber.
A gavel banged behind me. All rose together to their feet, and below me, I saw the councilmen bow down their heads. It seemed as if they were listening in submission as I began slowly to say: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare . . . .” Before the first “Hare Krishna” had left my mouth, a dazzling radiance burst forth from the back of the room. I had to suppress a start of surprise. Along with the light came a whirr of TV-camera motors and the staccato popping of flash bulbs. The sound was so loud I automatically raised my voice.
I realized, as I neared the completion of my exhortation, that the audience would be expecting an “Amen” to know when to raise their heads and sit back down, so I tacked a “Thank you” onto the end of my invocation. The glare blinked off. I turned away and, with the rustle and scrape of the seating crowd behind me, walked up to George X. Schwartz, city council president. As we shook hands, I looked into a pair of eyes that seemed cold and dead. There was an aura of menace about his countenance. “Congratulations,” said the president, unsmiling. With that, I headed to the wing, where Subala awaited me. “Wow,” he said, looking over my shoulder at the council president, “what a demon that guy is.” I heard my very own thought coming out of Subala’s mouth.
As I waited back in the office, Councilman Kelly rushed in, and then, as he was rushing back out he stopped, shook my hand and said, “Congratulations. Glad you could make it.” Clearly uncomfortable, he dashed back out before I could say much of anything. Subala and I cooled our heels for nearly an hour before our driver finally showed up.
On the ride back, I began to put together what had actually happened. Councilman Kelly did not want to be seen with us. He was embarrassed. Snatches of conversation I had overheard in the hallway and office began to coalesce into a coherent picture: Councilman Kelly had been in hot water because he had been frequently delinquent when it was his turn to provide a clergyman to open the council meeting. Apparently, he had been served some sort of ultimatum, and he resented that. And so, he hit upon a way that would fulfill his duty to the letter of the law, and at the same time, stick it to those who were getting on his case.
He invited me.
Well, this was a humbling realization.
Still, the Lord uses those who would use him. The invocation to open the city council meeting was carried in the local evening news on all three TV channels. And the Daily News and the Evening Bulletin each displayed on their front page a picture of me delivering the invocation.
The photograph below is from the Philadelphia Daily News. You can see how ornate the council chamber is. And you can see behind me the figure of the then council president, George X. Schwartz, whom Subala Swami and I both perceived as—how to put this—particularly ungodly.
Events bore us out. A few years after my encounter with the council president, he had an encounter with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was running a sting operation called ABSCAM. Schwartz was nabbed, along with many other corrupt state and federal legislators, for accepting a bribe. He was convicted and went to jail. Mike Mallowe, in his Bulletin article titled “Looking Back in Anger,” recalls “the dark days of George X. Schwartz’s haughty and hypocritical rule in city government.” He goes on to note how Schwartz, during his reign as council president, “would ultimately lead the way to federal prison for a whole generation of the politicians he had selected, mentored, invested with power and introduced to bribery.”
I hope that the maha-mantra has bestowed its mercy on Councilman Schwartz, on Councilman Kelly, on the council itself, and on our City of Brotherly Love. I can only think that it was the Holy Name himself who brought me before the city council in 1973, making use of Jack Kelly’s prank to fulfill his own transcendent purposes.