Benny J Tillman, who prefers to be addressed as Balabhadra Bhattacharya Dasa, is a practising sanatani. He is the current president of Vedic Friends Association (VFA) and also the first African American President of VFA. He is a direct disciple of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (Founder, ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). He lives in Atlanta, USA.
In the first of a two part interview series, Shri Balabhadra Dasa talks about his growing up years in Atlanta in the 1959s and 1960s, his long career as a Rock n Roll musician and a yearning for spiritual quest that began when he was just 12 years old. He also talks about his immersion in the Hippie culture, his introduction to Transcendental Meditation, his meeting with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his introduction to the Bhagavad that describes the personality of Godhead. “That is where I found myself. I rested on that and said, “This is it! And that’s been 48 years ago!” recalls Shri Balabhadra Dasa, warm, elegantly reflective and fluent in his recitation of slokas from the Bhagavad Gita.
Q.) Please tell us about your formative years growing up as an African American in the 1950s and 1960s in the US.
I grew up in Atlanta, in the southern part of of the US during the 1950s and 60s. Those were troublesome times for the African American community. We were identified as an ethnic minority; it was very difficult to understand what our place in the world was. Honestly, there was an element of shame associated with belonging to an ethnic minority.
During the 1950s when I was growing up and 1960s when I was a teenager, the African American community was a very self-supporting community. They were smaller versions of the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District, which was one of the prosperous African-American communities in the US. We had businesses, hospitals, doctors, funeral homes, night clubs—everything was there. We didn’t feel so much of the racial stress because our community was self-contained.
To be honest with you, most African American families were self-contained. I knew my neighbour; my neighbour knew me; everyone in the community knew each other. For example, if my mother needed flowers, I’d go next door and ask, “My mother needs flowers!” and it was done! And if your family needed credit in the grocery store, it was easy to get it!
There was not a lot of money in the community; but there was a lot of love; a lot of support. We didn’t have a standard which said that another person is poorer than me! We didn’t view poverty like that! While we didn’t have a lot of money in the community; there certainly was a lot of loving support.
So, it was very simple growing up! I tell people all the time when they talk about all the violence in the African American community, in all my growing up years, that was 20 years, I never heard a gunshot! Nobody was every shot; nobody was ever killed. It was an extremely supportive community. We felt the impact of racism only when we were outside the community. However, the Urban Renewal Project in the 1950s and 1960s to ostensibly improve the lives of African Americans was a disaster. It involved tearing down our social structures and a top down approach of the government telling us how to live! It completely negated the community wisdom and strengths.
Q.) Can you tell us about your spiritual seeking that began rather early in your life?
As I grew up, at the age of about 12 years, I started thinking about life; about my Christian background. At 12, I had questions about God. My main question was, “Where did God come from?” And I couldn’t get convincing answers. According to the Bible, God created heaven and earth. As a 12-year-old Black kid, I wondered where he came from. While I today know that nobody can answer that question, at that time I was admonished and told to “Shut up! You don’t need to know that!” To which I shot back, “Of course! I do need to know that!”
My search began from that time and soon it became ongoing—Where did God come from? Who is God?
Q.) Can you tell us about your deep engagement as a Rock n Roll musician?
Of course. As a teenager, I also got involved in the music culture and I played the drums in an all-White (Four White guys and me!) Rock n Roll band—The Black Dog—in the 1960s and I travelled all over the South of the US. It was an interesting experience as we wanted to touch people’s hearts and highlight the need for communal harmony—Just forget about the racial things! When I graduated from high school, I involved myself completely with the Rock n Roll band. We set up base in Florida and that was me for a while—a Rock n Roll musician! During the late 1960s I also became involved in the “Hippy culture” which exposed me to the concept of “universal love.”
In 1971 my father passed on. My mother had died a year earlier. It was a complete shock. So, in 1971, I had to come back to Atlanta for his funeral. I never went back to the band. I then started singing with a local African American vocal group in Atlanta. We became pretty famous in this area. I was a performing artiste in Atlanta and the surrounding areas and heavily involved with the Night Club culture of “sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll.”
Q.) How did Maharishi Mahesh Yogi come into your life?
Despite my success as a Rock n Roll musician, my search was still on going. It was bothering me. That was when I came into contact with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I was not familiar with this Vedic concept of universal love, which is foundational to the true Hindu/Vedic culture. My first exposure to this culture was in 1971, through my introduction to Transcendental Meditation introduced by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I began my Vedic studies with an elderly African American woman in Atlanta and I was absorbed and felt I had finally found ‘It’!
Q.) What made you feel that you had found ‘It’?
This was such a refreshing contrast between the eco system of Christianity and the church. It was not just the newness; it also explained more about creation, life and other allied aspects. But what it didn’t do was to focus on Sri Krishna, as a personal God. Although at that time I had no idea of even who Sri Krishna was! Maharishi Mahesh Yogi never talked about Krishna as a personal Godhead. Although he had translated six chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, he never got into the personality of Sri Krishna. That would happen in the next phase of my life.
Q.) What was the impact of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on your life?
I personally met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when he addressed a group of people in a high school in Atlanta. That was a turning point because until that time I had only heard of him from my teacher/Guru. This is what I gathered from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s system of philosophy—that by learning the technique of Transcendental Meditation you learnt to look deeper within yourself and all the Unbounded Energy, the Unbounded Intelligence would surface. That was what I was really interested in!
However, when Maharishi spoke, his English dialect was very thick and it was difficult for a 20-year-old African American like me to comprehend what he spoke. Yet to hear an Indian sadhu speak, was a brand new experience for me! But the way he spoke and what he spoke still did not satisfy my heart. My heart was still hankering at that point. I didn’t know then that I was looking for a higher Truth. Perhaps the paramatma (supreme atma) was saying, “This is not for you!” Gradually I came into contact with the Vedic philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita that describes the personality of Godhead. That is where I found myself. I rested on that and said, “This is it!” And that’s been 48 years ago!
Q.) What were some of the challenges you faced in transitioning from your Christian faith?
The main challenge was unfamiliarity with the culture of Hindu Dharma. When I started reading the Bhagavad Gita, I was still influenced by my strong Christian background and the Christian injunctions against ‘idol worship’ and other non-Christian rituals such as archana. I was a little concerned and wondered if I was doing something “wrong.”
So, I called up a Catholic priest in Atlanta as my point of reference. I told him that I was Christian by background and that I was reading this wonderful book Bhagavad Gita. I will never forget what he told me. He said to me, “You are very fortunate. That is a great book of spiritual knowledge.” That was such wonderful confirmation!
I have no idea of who the priest was or even his name. I believe that Sri Krishna sent him! God does indeed come in many forms; in every continent; in every species of life. He comes when dharma is being corrupted—yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata/abhyutthanam adharmasya tadatmanam srijamyaham. But He comes when He wants to; through me; through you; through anyone.
The Catholic priest’s response was absolutely validating for a 20-year-old. People of different faiths need to validate each other. This means that irrespective of whether I am a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu, I should be so secure in my own faith that I can say to you, “I appreciate your faith.” And that will increase my faith. But the more I try to condemn or put down your faith; it blocks further engagement with each other. There is only One Supreme Source of everything and therefore we need to bless each other in the spirit of universality.
That’s why Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (2.13), dehino ‘smin yatha dehe kaumaram yauvanam jara/tatha dehantara-praptir dhiras tatra na muhyati—You are moving through this body. This is not your permanent home.
All of us are moving through these bodies. But we start identifying with these bodies and that’s where the problem lies. That is the great perspective the Gita offered me. The ability to see beyond barriers and boundaries—my Black body, an English body etc. That was so liberating!
(To be continued…)
Did you find this article useful? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.