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, ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). He lives in Atlanta, USA.
In the second part of the interview series (first part), he traces his journey as a Sri Krishna devotee, what Krishna Consciousness means to him and the various initiatives of the VFA.
Q.) How did your association with ISKCON begin?
It was so weird! In 1971, I was working at mid-town Atlanta and my place of work was at 14th and Peachtree Street, Atlanta. Although I didn’t know at that time, the ISKCON office was located on the 13th street! One day in the breakroom, I found the Hare Krishna magazine, Back to Godhead, published by ISKCON. I was downtown waiting for a bus to go home. A Hare Krishna devotee walked up to me and introduced me to a book, Transcendental Teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. I found the book unbelievable; it answered so many of my haunting questions.
After reading the book, I became so intensely interested in the activities of ISKCON that I decided to contact them at the address mentioned in the magazine. It took me almost five days to get the nerve to go and knock at the temple door! I found it so strange—the sounds, the smell of incense… nothing I was used to! But my desire for a book Easy Journey to other planes by Swami Prabhupada motivated the search. The title caught my attention because I was into extra-terrestrials and all that stuff! I wanted that book so badly that I decided to do whatever it takes, even if it meant knocking at a temple door!
The door opened…I met the devotees … and that was the beginning of an abiding involvement with ISKCON that deepened over the years. After this initial contact, the Hare Krishna devotees at the Atlanta temple began to train me, and introduce me to more aspects of Vedic philosophy and culture. Since then, the Hare Krishna devotees have been training me and introducing me to Vedic philosophy and culture.
Eventually around 1972, I came in contact with the Bhagavad Gita, translated by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder Acharya of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The ISKCON devotees also introduced me to the Bhagavad Gita, which is the most well-known of all Vedic texts. This holy book is very dear and sacred to all Hindus and Westerners who have adopted these teachings and practices. I became an initiated disciple of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in July 1974 during his visit to Chicago for a major Hindu/Vedic festival, the Ratha Yatra.
Interestingly, around 1974, I was fortunate to meet one of Swami Prabhupada’s very first disciples, Rupanuga Dasa, a White American, who is very elderly right now. He encouraged me to join the local Atlanta Hare Krishna Temple. He said to me “Bhakta Ben ( Ben is short for Benny as I was then known), if you join the Hare Krishna movement, we will train you as a leader. Then you should go back and save the Black community!”
I was shocked. What was I hearing? But it stayed in mind for several years. Later I started programmes working among the Black community, with young kids.
At ISKCON,I learnt the process of Krishna Consciousness, or more specifically, Bhakti Yoga. Rupanuga Dasa wanted me to share this with the Black community. It was similar to what Srila Prabhupada’s guru asked him when he met him the first time in 1922 —”You are a young intelligent Indian boy. Take this knowledge of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to the Western countries.” He came to the US in 1965 with that in mind—bringing the message of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, kirtana and Bhakti Yoga to Western society where Shri Chaitanya was then unknown.
So, I had that experience of being given the instruction to learn the process of Bhakti Yoga and share that with people who needed it. This instruction has constantly inspired me to expose this great Hindu/Vedic culture and philosophy to the urban communities.
Q.) You were very apprehensive when you knocked at the ISKON office? What were those apprehensions?
It was the strangeness of the sounds of the chants, of musical instruments, of a language I didn’t understand, the smell of incense and just the preconceived idea of Bharat! Most people have very little understanding of Bharatiya culture. The only thing I knew about Bharat then was the [so-called] caste system! And at that time, there were hardly any African Americans in the ISKCON temple in Atlanta, maybe just two! As there was nothing I could identify with and hence it was a little tough. But the devotees were very kind, helpful and humble, which is again a part of the ISKCON culture. However, my fears were allayed within a day!
Q.) Can you describe the process of how you learnt Bhakti Yoga? How did it impact you?
The training imparted was in the ancient gurukula tradition where the Guru imparts learning to the sishya or disciple. Even Sri Krishna himself studied under Guru Sandipani. Swami Prabhupada couldn’t be physically present in every ISKCON temple because by the time I joined there were around 100 ISKCON temples. So, there was training every morning—this morning I gave a Zoom class in Philadelphia on Srimad Bhagavatam, and in the evening on Bhagavad Gita. The training also included sadhana or spiritual practices such as chanting 16 rounds of Hare Krishna on the japa beads. I had received the second initiation from my Guru, so I recited the Gayatri mantra three times a day. So, all those practices is the training that I received. So, that training gradually purifies the Path.
In our tradition, cleansing the mirror of the mind and the heart is of paramount importance because the jivatma-paramatma resides in the heart and so does the Mind Intelligence. Strange concept – how do you purify the muscle of the heart? The purification is of the consciousness. So, when we start the chanting, that cleansing process happens. My consciousness started transforming from that of Benny Tillman, the musician, the sense enjoyer, the guy who was working and had a family, to something different—to losing affection and attraction for material things. Most of our lives are spent in pursuit of material things—that’s why we get a job; that’s why we do what we do! I started losing all that! Not that I became lazy; I didn’t have the same motivation to enjoy material life. I was beginning to appreciate subtle things like reading the Gita, and chanting—these became great source of pleasure. And of course, prasadam! All these transformed my life.
Now, at that time I was well known in Atlanta. When I went down the street chanting Hare Krishna, people who knew me from the night club scene would come up and ask me, “Man! What happened?” [Laughs]. However, they were very supportive of my journey because I had built those relationships deeper than just drugs and sex! So, the relationships transcended my commitment to Krishna Consciousness and their commitment to material life.
Even today, I still have friends from my old background. We mutually respect each other. There was a powerful transformation within me; for me to be sitting here now, 48 years later. Although I just live 30 minutes from my old community and place of work, I have no interest to go back to my old life other than do what my Guru told me—to work amidst the African American community.
I’ve done programmes that you would not believe! For instance, a Gita Jayanti, where we recited the entire Bhagavad Gita, in my old elementary school in my hometown. Nobody knew Sanskrit but they were so trusting of me and they listened for two to three hours to the Gita!
Q.) Have you studied Sanskrit?
I know how to read the transliteration. We have many Sanskrit scholars in ISKCON, like Hridayananda Dasa Goswami (Howard Resnik), who is a PhD in Sanskrit from Harvard and is fluent in seven languages! But that’s not me!
I have an interesting incident here to share about how I try to make the Bhagavad Gita accessible to people. My youngest granddaughter, 11, was having disciplinary problems. I made a deal with her, “If you learn the Gita verses with my help, I will give you $10 for every verse you learn!” So, I am working with her! She is willing to learn the Gita as a motivation to her $ 10. Sri Krishna says that four kinds of people come to Him. And one of them seek wealth. Krishna Consciousness is so powerful that it can transform you from the initial material motivation to spiritual motivation.
Q.) How does your family view your transformation?
Very supportive! My oldest living sister is a very dedicated member of the Jehovah’s Witness. But she and I have wonderful conversations. Although her faith is very different, she is very supportive; just as I am supportive of hers. Both of us know where we came from and we see each other making spiritual progress. My other siblings are also extremely supportive because of my commitment to my Path.
My son and his family follow modified Christianity! [Laughs]. They are not into any particular fold of Christianity. My grandkids, if they know you are from Bharat, will greet you with a “Namaste.” I’ve taught them the form and meaning of the term—“The spirit in you respects the spirit in the other person.” My son, who was two years old (I was married then) when I joined the Hare Krishna Movement, has a deeper appreciation of Krishna Consciousness and has several Hare Krishna friends.
Q.) What were some of the other interesting milestones in your ISKCON journey which profoundly shifted you?
The most important milestone was meeting His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada, the Founder of ISKCON. I received initiation from him in Chicago in 1974, when he was there for the Ratha Yatra. That’s when I received the name Balabhadra Bhattacharya Dasa, directly from him and also the japa beads.
Second, was when he came to our [ISKCON] temple in Atlanta in 1975 and I was able to serve him to some degree. And then when I met him again in Mayapur and New Delhi, Bharat in 1976, it was wonderful. In New Delhi, he was speaking at the Ram Lila Maidan. He was on stage and I had the rare opportunity of garlanding him and be seated at his feet during the entire lecture. Serving him directly was very special. I saw him successively for several days from Delhi to Modinagar, Aligarh and finally, Vrindavan. It was most impactful to hear directly from him about Krishna Consciousness.
Q.) What does Krishna Consciousness mean to you?
Being consciously aware of Krishna or God! What it means to me is that I have a complete conviction about the existence of God in that concept as a person. Not as some energy or as a part of some hierarchy of deities but as a person who is with me 24/7, in my heart; in your heart; in every atom. My perception of Krishna Consciousness which is due to the study of the Gita is like Samadhi. Samadhi doesn’t mean you go to the Himalayas and go away from everything. Samadhi means you consciously meditate upon a Higher Principle. So, being aware of Krishna through Krishna Consciousness activities gives me that sense of satisfaction and balance.
Q.) What is the work you do with the African American community?
Some time back I co-founded a group East Washington (the area I grew up in) Association of Positive Males. We identified seven young men who were involved in gangs. We then taught them principles of the Bhagavad Gita, modified for their understanding. They were receptive and later became a benefit to the community. It really helped to transform those men who in turn, influenced their community positively.
Q.) Please tell us about the work of the Vedic Friends Association (VFA), the non profit that you currently head.
Vedic Friends Association was formed in 2002 by David Frawley, Stephen Knapp, Jeffrey Armstrong, and Vijai Ganapa, an author and lifelong advocate of Vedic Dharma, to share Vedic Hindu Yoga Dharma. Our vision is that humanity should live in peace and harmony (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). It accords centrality to dharmic principles and the spirit of service (seva).
We are currently working on a leadership development programme based on the Gita and Yoga for young people in urban communities, through VFA, for non-Hindu practitioners in this culture. Currently, this is an online programme. David Frawley and Stephen Knapp are some of the Indic Studies scholars and practitioners who guide the programme through their insights and perspectives. We are targeting several layers of the community. My job as the President of VFA, is to collate all the resources offered by Frawley, Knapp and Jeffrey Armstrong and make it acceptable and accessible for the diverse communities.
Central to the Hindu/Vedic philosophy is the concept that we are not these material bodies but that we are eternal spiritual beings, temporarily inhabiting these material bodies. So, whether we identify as an African American, Hindu American, Asian American, White American, or an American of colour, we are all spiritual beings equal in the eyes of the Supreme Lord. At VFA, we try to filter the essence of Vedic philosophy into practical applications in a contemporary context.
During the present time of racial tensions in America, I, along with other Hindu/Vedic leaders are considering what we can do to impact and help change this painful and distressful situation.
Swami Prabhupada said, “I didn’t come to the US asking for anything! I came to give something, which is the Vedic culture!” We, at VFA, wish to share this culture widely because this culture has been minimised. Scholars such as Frawley, Knapp, Armstrong and others are trying to reclaim the rightful space that Vedic culture needs to be accorded in the contemporary context.
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