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A Perfectly Presumptuous Title?

Thirty-three years have passed since I sat near the Ganges River having the conversation described in this book. Since it was first published in 1976, I’ve shared many copies. Often it has been difficult to explain away a title that talks about my “perfect questions,” for in 1972 I was twenty-two years old and quite far from perfection! Yet my partner in conversation, Śrīla Prabhupāda, suggested the title “Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers.” And he was quite humble about himself. How did all this perfection come about?

My conservative Jewish family instilled in me an inner longing to understand God. Self-discovery and anti-war protests highlighted my college years, though in 1971 I did manage to graduate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in chemistry. In that milieu of introspection and protest I became fascinated by the Hare Kṛṣṇa chant, which I first heard in the late ’60s in Greenwich Village, and by the Bhagavad-gītā, the primer on yoga.

I learned that yoga means “union with God.” The concepts of yoga attracted me, yet did not contradict the tenets of my upbringing. Still, the presentation of yoga in America troubled me. Every week the New York Daily News ran a centerfold of the latest Indian guru proclaiming his enlightenment to the world. Who could I trust? It seemed I needed to go to the source – mystical, faraway India. After college, the Peace Corps looked like an attractive way for me to explore India, live in a village, learn the language, and genuinely check out the Gītā and the chanting.

India was not as I had imagined. Abject poverty was, I discovered, for the most part an urban phenomenon. Though beggars swarmed through the cities, the countryside was lush with farms and peaceful villages of content people. A subtle, elusive transcendence permeated everything.

After starting my assignment as a high school science teacher in Bihar, I began visiting temples, mosques, and churches. It was disenchanting. The congregations were not seeking realization; they were seeking money, good luck, and prestige. It was the religious version of the ’70s TV show “Let’s Make a Deal.” Had I traveled halfway around the world and endured “Delhi belly” only to find the same shallow values I had seen in materialistic America? I met various gurus, but remained unimpressed.

My existential search began to go up in smoke. In February 1972, I visited Calcutta during a school break. There were the Hare Kṛṣṇa devotees, mostly Westerners, chanting just as I’d seen them in Greenwich Village. They invited me to visit a retreat a hundred miles north of Calcutta. Deciding it fit in well with my quest, I agreed.

We took a train through the verdant Bengali countryside to Māyāpur, a beautiful spot near the Ganges River. Upon arriving, I discovered that Māyāpur was more of a planned retreat – for now, it was a recently purchased rice paddy with tents and a hut. However, the paddy was near a sacred birthplace of the famed medieval saint Śrī Caitanya. And in the hut was the founder of the international Kṛṣṇa movement himself, an elderly gentleman named Śrīla Prabhupāda. His followers were busy running a soup kitchen for the many refugees from the recent Indo-Pakistani war. I plunked down in the men’s tent and volunteered for the food relief effort.

There were sixty or so Kṛṣṇa followers, mostly American or European and under twenty-five years old. They were enthusiastic to say the least. Many were anxious to share their persuasion with the only English-speaking guest – me. However, I was invited to meet Śrīla Prabhupāda, and I sensed that this was the reason I had come to India.

Now for the “perfect questions” part that has caused me so much discomfort. The Bhagavad-gītā (the primer on transcendence) includes this admonition for a seeker: “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.” (Gītā 4.34)

According to this instruction there are three qualifications for the novice:

visit the guru
inquire without challenging
assist the guru in some way

The Gītā suggests that the guru can “impart knowledge” when these three conditions are met.

My intention in visiting Śrīla Prabhupāda was to explore rather than contend. After meeting and studying many self-proclaimed instructors, I was extremely skeptical, yet Śrīla Prabhupāda’s followers intrigued me.

Once I got past their zealousness, I found a genuine blend of mysticism and renunciation along with convincing explications. I resolved to spend my time with Śrīla Prabhupāda learning rather than challenging. Later on I could always decide to accept or reject what I had heard.

In this way I met the first and second of the Gītā’s three credentials. The famine relief program of the Kṛṣṇa movement also occupied my day, so I was able to meet number three as well.

From Śrīla Prabhupāda’s point of view I was following the Gītā’s edicts: hence Perfect Questions. Meanwhile, Śrīla Prabhupāda answered my questions based on this prescription from the Gītā (4.2): “This supreme science was thus received through the chain of disciplic succession, and the saintly kings understood it in that way.”

Śrīla Prabhupāda answered my questions based on the ancient system of disciplic succession – repeating what he had heard from previous authorities, and not making anything up. Thus I had Perfect Answers for my respectful questions, presented by a humble messenger of his predecessors.

The first conversation I had with Śrīla Prabhupāda was not recorded by his secretary. Therefore the book begins without our introductions and initial dialogue. All of the substantive matters begin with the second dialogue – the first chapter.

May reading my conversations with Śrīla Prabhupāda lead you to your own perfection.

– Bob Cohen

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