20 Dec 2011

Jadhavacarya Das: interview with an African-American bhakti yogi

 
 
In a previous post, Hinduism: Unity in Diversity, I promised a series of articles on Hindus from a variety of non-Indian backgrounds. The first was about a woman of Native American descent and her Shaivite Hindu family in Kentucky, and now I’m pleased to share another story of a man who came to Hinduism through a very different set of experiences, embracing the Vaishnava path. These are the first of what I hope will be several similar articles, hoping to shed light on the diversity of belief, experience and background within the Hindu fold worldwide. 

 

  Jadhavacarya Das was born Mark Romero Bradley in 1948 in Girard, a small town north of Youngstown, Ohio, USA. He remembers his late mother as an exceptionally loving woman who, in addition to Jadhavacarya, had three other sons and one daughter – with dad, that made seven. The seven Bradleys were part of a larger extended family of over 200 living in the Youngstown area. Jadhavacarya has fond memories of his childhood and says it was a wonderful experience to grow up in such a large, loving family.

On his mother’s side, Jadhavacarya’s family are Americans of African, Irish and Cherokee descent. His father’s side of the family were also of African and Cherokee descent. His was a traditional nuclear family; a black family living in “middle class America, in a mostly average income Italian and W.A.S.P. atmosphere,” at a time in America when racial tensions were high.

“During the time I was growing up, there was a lot of racial segregation and tension,” he says. “Particularly as I grew into my teens. By that time it was late into the 50s and early 60s.” As far as religion, Jadhavacarya and his siblings were “raised up as Baptist, even though my mother didn’t make us go to church often. It wasn’t something that was predominant in our family directly. Religion was always a very important part [of growing up], just not primary.” In addition to Baptist Christianity, his extended family’s religious milieu included Pentecostalism, Catholicism and Islam, from the tradition of The Moorish Science Temple of America.

“For some reason or another, as I was growing up, I always felt there was something I didn’t know. Some knowledge, some information. I remember very clearly, when I was nine or ten years old, I was walking down an alleyway and I looked up in the sky. I thought to myself, God, somebody must know you. They must, somewhere. And that is what I always aspired to. My greatest goal, when I was growing up, if I could have been anywhere in space or time or place, I would have been in the presence of lord Jesus. Technically, that [loving God as lord Jesus] was all I knew.”

When he was 13, Jadhavacarya – who had long been a “very spiritually inclined” child of intense curiosity about life and death – was taken to a Pentecostal church by an aunt, where he was ‘saved by Jesus’. “I didn’t understand the whole purpose, or what I had done that I needed to be saved from. I didn’t understand anything, but I did it because that’s what we were supposed to do. But when I was 17, I decided I had some serious questions.” Jadhavacarya began to seek answers outside the Pentecostal faith and began to attend a Catholic church with a boyhood friend. He eventually became a Catholic and had, for a period of time, aspired to become a priest. But he decided that there were many things he still wanted to experience in life: “and I didn’t see myself sitting in a monastery.”

So in 1966, when he turned 18, he joined the US Air Force.

“I served my country faithfully... in Haight-Ashbury,” he says, leaning back in his chair, with a wry smile.

“That’s right, they stationed me – a naive 18 year old from the square, naive Girard, Ohio world – and they put me right in the middle of Haight-Ashbury,” during the era called the Summer of Love, one of the defining moments of the hippie countercultural movement. “And believe me, you had to have been there to appreciate what it was. As much as history depicts it, unless you were actually there, you cannot appreciate what it was like to be in the middle of Haight-Ashbury in 1966 and ‘67.

“So, to say the least, my military career was short lived. But it was eventful.”

After leaving the air force, Jadhavacarya began a two-year long quest to understand certain things about life. “The secrets of the universe, literally,” he says. “I knew they had to have existed somewhere. I just didn’t know where. I also knew that all of the experiences I had with LSD, marijuana and smoking all the other stuff – it was exhilarating and fun for a while, but it didn’t actually bring knowledge. And I wanted knowledge.”

 

After a while, Jadhavacarya came across the devotees of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly known as the ‘Hare Krishna Movement’. His mission was to spread throughout the world Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a form of Hinduism that focuses on devotional worship (bhakti). Prabhupada’s ISKCON was founded in New York in 1966 and followers became known for their energetic and active preaching, dancing and singing. Members aimed to spread Krishna consciousness and were best known through the media for singing the Hare Krishna mantra in public spaces. ISKCON devotees are Vaishnavs, who worship Krishna as the highest form of God, svayam bhagavan, and often refer to Him as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

“I looked at them, and I thought to myself, These people are crazy,” Jadhavacarya  says.

“Either they are crazy or they know something very special, because nobody should just be on the streets chanting and dancing. And that is true. If that was simply all that we did, and we had no knowledge and had no philosophy, then we would be no different than someone who was completely and totally fanatical. Activity without philosophy is fanaticism. So, yes, they had something special.”

Jadhavacarya’s first encounter with an ISKCON devotee was in Boston in 1968. “I remember a girl came up and tried to offer me some incense, and that was pretty much about it. Then I would see them from time to time in different locations. And finally, after a certain point in time, I remember I was in Detroit. By that time I was about 21 years old, and I had been questioning a lot of things, and I had some basics, but I really didn’t understand anything. I also knew I was in a very awkward position, because I was seeing things around me. I had been reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It described examples of what happens when you’re dead and you’re in this first level of ‘bardo’, which explains that things around you seem to have a certain appearance and beings around you have a certain types of characteristics. And I was starting to see that. So, in reality, I didn’t know whether I was alive or dead. Because what I was seeing, what I was hearing, what I was learning... it was a little too mixed, too jumbled, there was not a clear designation....

“So, finally, I saw the devotees. I realised that I needed to try to understand this Krishna Consciousness. I knew that there was something special, so I literally ran to the temple, and I stayed there.

“I didn’t know in the beginning how fortunate I was. Because all I know is that I’d asked the Lord, Please give me knowledge. I didn’t care who or where or how. I wasn’t trying to reinvent something. I wasn’t trying to just take bits and pieces. I wanted to know in full. And the experience was that, as I later became aware and began to read my Bhagavad Gita. It says that when one is actually serious, when he is anxious to end this process of repeated birth and death, then the Lord, from within the heart, will eventually assume or send a spiritual master on the outside, depending upon one’s desire. So He sent me Prabhupada.”

Jadhavacarya joined ISKCON in 1970 in Detroit, Michigan, but it was in St Louis, Missouri that he received his first initiation, the harinamadiksa (bestowing of the holy name of Krishna), which functions as initial entrance into the movement. He served as a brahmacari for two years. Living at the temple, his duties “included daily sankirtan, lecturing, and temple commander responsibilities.”

It was about this time that his brother Robert also joined the movement: “His name is Rasaparayana. He joined the movement after a couple of run-ins with the law. I don’t know what he thought he was doing. The boy was raised up, as we used to say then, ‘as a good middle class Negro', and he wound up going to Detroit, trying to sell some marijuana. And he got busted. So it was a question of him getting busted or becoming a devotee. He was lucky that, at that time, the judge was favourable. He came to live with us in the temple and, eventually, he shaped up. And now he is also a devotee. Actually, I think I may have influenced my brother, because he saw that there was something happening. He just didn't dismiss it like other people. You have to have a certain reason to want to become a devotee. You have to be a little crazy, from a material point of view. You have to want to get out of the material world. People who don't want to get out don't become devotees. We're not looking to try to make everyone a devotee. Srila Prabhupada said, everyone won't be a devotee, but at least they should have the opportunity.

"By the way, my mother took all these pictures. She was very pleased that we had become Krishna conscious. My father wasn't quite as excited. But Dad wasn't necessarily that much of a transcendentalist either. It was Mom who was always positive and encouraging us to stay and be Krishna conscious, because she could see the goodness in what we had found.”

Outside the love and support of his family, Jadhavacarya faced the judgment of the broader American community, who were only just coming to an understanding of this new religious movement in their midst. It was a heady period in American history, one rife with social, sexual and racial revolutions. The population was given a lot of new things to process – a ‘black Hare Krishna’ being only one.

One of the hardest parts about being a black devotee at that time, as Jadhavacarya relates, was dealing with the expectations and perceptions of the African-American community in the wake of the struggles of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

 

 "Black consciousness was on the rise and people just couldn't get a grip on the fact that somebody who was black would actually be following something that appeared to them as all white, or rather initiated by white people. In reality, it wasn't. I guess it was very rare, because we didn't have a lot of black devotees all throughout ISKCON. There are a number of them that came and a number of them that left, but that was because of the fact that there was little understanding that surrender – meaning giving up the person, sacrifice, and being willing to surrender to someone or something – was foreign to this new black consciousness.

“Shaving your head and walking around in robes with a bunch of white people chanting Hare Krishna – that just didn't fit. However the understanding that I had is that that there was a whole lot more to being black than just simply the colour of your skin."

Jadhavacarya remembers, in particular, coming across young men from the Nation of Islam.

"Of course they all thought that me being out there doing what I was doing was completely insane. That I was following white people," which would have been seen as ‘siding with the enemy’ at worst and, at best, as a betrayal of the Afro-centric philosophy that taught that blacks around the world could only rise out of the mire of post-colonial, post-slavery-era oppression by relying solely on themselves, their own communities, and their own endeavour. Jadhavacarya would show them pictures of his guru, who is Indian, to show them that the Hare Krishna movement was not something dreamt up by a mischievous white oppressor aiming to further ensnare blacks, who were just beginning this new phase of political consciousness.

"Well, he certainly is not white, but they couldn't understand that. They were completely immersed in their mind-set."

Jadhavacarya understood the stakes involved in the Civil Rights era and the resultant movements for enfranchisement and greater equality going on in America. He was part of it. But he also saw that there was a path to liberation that was more substantial and lasting for him than only the political one. As far as Jadhavacarya was concerned, he had “come into the association of a pure devotee,” his guru.

“In America, there was no such thing. There were many good people, don't get me wrong. It's one thing to be good, but another thing to be on a transcendental plane. I had never seen anyone like Srila Prabhupada. I had never heard anyone like Srila Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada never made anything up. He simply repeated what he heard from his spiritual master. So my aspiration is that one day, I can simply repeat what Srila Prabhupada has said, and not just simply act like him but try to follow his instructions. For if one simply acts like he's a guru, and he's really not qualified, then he will fall down. You've seen this many times... there are many examples. Many [spiritual leaders from various religions] put themselves in the position that they become enamoured of the accumulation of wealth and followers, and they fall down. But Srila Prabhupada was not like that, because he knew that the only purpose, everything that we need to know and do, was centred around surrendering to Krishna, surrendering to God."

By 1972, Jadhavacarya had left for India. He served his guru and his movement in Bombay and Calcutta by helping to initiate the first Rathayatra festival. Then it was on to Vrindaban, where he served as treasurer and construction manager for the the Krsna Balarama Mandir. In 1973 he returned to America, to Miami, Florida, where he was married for the first time to a devotee and had a daughter. By the 1980s, he had moved to California and became more settled and fully involved in householder life. He eventually married again, to a woman of Christian faith, Patricia Bradley, a former educator who is now Senior Consultant at Bradley Consulting, Ohio.

Jadhavacarya has five children, who are all devotees: daughters Meghakanya and Cintamani (pictured below) and sons Kesava, Markandeya and Narayana (pictured). He has eight grandchildren.

 

So, all of our children are grown,” Jadhavacarya says, and out in the world thriving on their own. Cintamani, for instance, is a mother and a nurse, Markandeya a pre-med student and lab technician, and Kesava a father and PhD candidate. Jadhavacarya can now comfortably say that he has acquitted well his duties as a father and provider for his family. 

Having consulted with Patricia, Jadhavacarya  believes it will soon be time for him to return to India to take up the life of a sannyasin.

Sannyasa is the classical ‘retirement’ stage of a Hindu’s life – signally a retirement from worldly and family affairs. It is taken by some Hindu men and women at or beyond the age of fifty years old, who wish to renounce materialistic aims and dedicate the remainder of their lives to spiritual pursuits.

One of those pursuits will be to continue to narrate and record all of the lectures of his guru and to make videos for internet release, so that the teachings can be shared widely and via an accessible medium.

One of the skills Jadhavacarya has always been told he is blessed with is a good speaking voice – the voice of a lecturer or broadcaster. He hopes that he is putting these skills to work, to utilise his voice to be able to describe what he has heard and learned about Krishna.

 

I would like to find some temple to visit and stay for some time

to preach and perform sankirtan.”




12 comments:

  1. Such a beautiful story...and a wonderful family!

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  2. Thank you, Mahalaya. Yes, they are indeed a wonderful family, and I'm so pleased to have been able to help share their story.

    I do apologise to you and anyone else who got multiple notices of this posting. There were a few technical difficulties that I had to iron out. But all seems to be working well now, links fixed, datelines corrected, photos resized, text realigned, etc. I thank you for your patience (and for reading it through!) while all that was being corrected.

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  3. As I have said before I've returned ;) Great article. Again. By the way, I have a blog www.jivanti.blogspot.com You could take a read. Nothing great or worthy like yours but you could read the mind of a 27 year old for a change.

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  4. Jivanti, thanks for reading and for such great comments. You're very encouraging to my project here, and I'm grateful.

    And I love your blog!-the photography as well as your reflections on everything from spirituality to the environment to local politics... I'm reading your post about the civil servant pay rise now :)

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  5. A wonderful article. I find it interesting that the black community saw ISKCON as a white organisation. Many Indian Hindus think the same thing! Many ISKCON groups (especially in the UK regions)do have a white majority but have members from many races. The first black Hindu I saw in person was an ISKON member.

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  6. Very interesting details. Story that will inspires many more people. Thanks T.A.H.

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  7. Thank you for reading and commenting, Jeet & Tandava. Much appreciated.

    Tandava, I'm no expert on ISKCON by far, having learned so much just from doing this article. But from growing up the USA in the 70s and 80s (the latter part of my teen years around the corner from the Freeport House of Krishna Consciousness, which I think is now called the Long Island Temple), what I remember is many people in the African-American community critiquing the movement more as something that was not specifically of African or African-diaspora origins, more so than critiquing it specifically for having more white people than black or brown.

    As for me, the first black Hindu I ever met worked at my university and was in a meditation group with me. She was Vaishnava, though not ISKCON, as I recall.

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  8. I am the sister of Mark Bradley AKA Jadhavacarya Das and it has been more of a detailed journey than this periodical has revieled. I am so proud of my brother as I know and have experienced so many trying times and experiences with him that he should in fact write a book. I do remember when he took me to the temple in Culver City and Srila Prabhupada was there in the garden talking to the devotes. Mark said that I would always be blessed because I actually came in contact with him and laid eyes on him... It was absolutlety ominous, and so excelerating to actually see Srila Prabhupada. I would always enjoy going to the temple with my brother and chanting Hare Krishna and getting so lost in the enjoymnet and happiness of the Devotee's plus the food was so good...I stand behind my brother 100% in his belief, because no matter what or who you believe is you God... you must know and believe that there is an omony presence in this world that created You and Me...

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  9. Yours is a lovely tribute to your brother, Ka. And if Jadhavacarya does write a book of his life and his journey, I will certainly be first in line to buy it! His is, as you say, a truly intriguing story. And I realise that the short piece here could only touch on a small bit of it.... Thanks so much for reading and commeting. Happy new year...

    Namaste

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  10. This post gives me an incredibly "kindred heart" kind of feeling. I can relate to so much of what Jadhavacarya experienced with the community of Americans with African ancestry. As isolating as it can feel to be "the only", I also remember that this path is not easily taken up. Thank you for posting this. Please keep up the great work. Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.

    Namaste!

    Syd

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