Puṣkar was born Matthew Goldman, on January 1, 1947, in Brooklyn, New York. He spent the first two and a half years of his life on Staten Island. Of his earliest childhood experiences, he recalls painting with his father, Louis:
“When I was one and a half, while watching my father paint murals on the wall with house paint, I was determined to do the same. He taught me how to tap the brush against the can and then gave me my own wall space, paint can, and brush, and I went to work.”
Both Lou and his wife, Alice, were socially and politically active. From his early childhood Puṣkar remembers going to peace rallies, parades, and demonstrations protesting all sorts of social injustices. He heard powerful performances by folk singers, and this instilled in him real compassion for suffering and exploited people. Later he would find it easy and natural to extend this compassion toward all living entities in all species. Puṣkar recalls that his father worked especially hard because he was a union leader and wanted to set a good example.
By age seven, he was already attending special art classes at the Brooklyn Museum and at Pratt Institute. At that time his father’s younger brother, Les, would often show him the rudiments of drawing, perspective, proportion, modulation of line, and the use of crosshatching.
Puṣkar was accepted into the High School of Music and Art in upper Manhattan. In the association of his bohemian friends from the Village, and as a result of using psychotropic, mind-altering substances, Puṣkar soon lost interest in academics. His rebellious nature, radical tendencies, and eccentric activities caused Puṣkar to be expelled from the High School of Music and Art. Nevertheless, he managed to receive a diploma from Tilden High School, in Brooklyn.
Puṣkar spent the next two or three years absorbed in intense artistic study and discipline. From 8:30 each morning until midday, he would be in class at the Brooklyn Museum. Then he would ride the subway and go directly to the Art Students League, working through the afternoon and into the evening, which meant ten to twelve hours of classes daily.
At various intervals during the summers of these years, Puṣkar would take a break from New York’s concrete and asphalt by traveling to the rural atmosphere of Woodstock. Puskar also became involved with guerrilla street theater. He worked with the Pageant Players and occasionally the Bread and Puppet Theater, sometimes acting and sometimes making props. Although not satisfying his deeper spiritual yearning to understand the eternal verities, this mode of expression had a strong appeal to him.
Some time in 1968, the lure of the West Coast drew Puṣkar out of the oppressive canyons of Manhattan. He and some friends took an old bakery truck and hit the interstate. They avoided the cities and stopped at many picturesque places along the way. After sojourning in Taos, New Mexico, for a number of weeks at a fledgling commune of tepees and adobe houses, they ended their drive in San Francisco’s North Beach.
Offering to pay his tuition, Puṣkar’s parents convinced him to go to the San Francisco Art Institute. There, along with continuing his painting, he tried his hand at etching and photography. To Puskar it all seemed dismal — particularly the painting department. By this time his mind had been too much “expanded” to deal with such a structured environment. While struggling with his own internal hypocrisies, Puskar saw the external world as so blatantly hypocritical that he had to challenge and revolt.
Puskar met a young man in the Haight who invited him to stay at a small communal home in the Napa hills. Eager to get closer to nature, Puskar joined him. They started an organic garden and practiced various spiritual disciplines. They practiced yoga and meditation, and in the morning they would play Bhaktivedanta Swami’s Happening album before they ate their food.
By this time Puskar, yet unsure of a positive alternative, was feeling intensely dissatisfied with his hippie lifestyle. The selfishness and hedonism of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll seemed hypocritical when contrasted with the ideals that the hippies pretended to represent.
Many of the books on mysticism, yoga, spirituality, and the occult which Puskar had been reading spoke of finding a teacher, a guru. Puskar began to see the need to find a guru, someone who could give direction in achieving transcendence, having already attained that state. But where to look? He thought of India, the land of spirituality, but the expense of the trip discouraged him. On the other hand, Hawaii, with its tropical, Eden-like allurement, was only a seventy-five-dollar plane ride away.
It was at the ashram of Sai, a young American spiritual teacher who had developed quite a following on the islands, that Puskar first fully experienced the gnosis of transcendence: to gain release from the dictates of the senses and resultant exploitative, materialistic consciousness, by going beyond, or transcending, their pushing. Through reawakened spiritual senses one could cultivate his relationship with the Supreme Transcendence.
Sai was regarded as a powerful mystic. He was described as having great śakti (spiritual potency) and siddhis (powers attained through mystic perfections), among other things.
Sai was drawing followers by teaching simple and direct spiritual truths derived from a broad range of sources. At one point (months before Puskar joined the ashram), Sai had attended a festival where he had met some disciples of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. He voraciously read Bhaktivedanta Swami’s books, and then he revealed to the Swami’s disciples his conclusion: Krishna consciousness, as Bhaktivedanta Swami had presented it, was the ultimate truth, the most complete philosophy he had ever encountered.
His following swelled. The disciples of Bhaktivedanta Swami, however, became concerned that Sai might consider himself a guru without following the spiritual etiquette that enjoins one from initiating disciples while one’s guru is still physically present. But Sai, who was already accustomed to followers, continued to amass a flock. A rift broke out between the local branch of ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, established by Bhaktivedanta Swami) and Sai’s ashram. Some detected egoism in Sai and were mildly suspicious of Sai’s motivations.
There was quite a commotion in the ashram after that. But within a few days, Sai did a noble thing: he requested his followers (there were some sixty to seventy) to take diksa (spiritual initiation) from Srila Prabhupada. He then broke his remaining flock into small groups of about ten persons each and sent them to various ISKCON centers around the world. Puskar was sent to Los Angeles.
“From my first days in L.A., seeing those early paintings and doing paintings of my own, I understood that this yoga of devotional service is really practical and is the true means of liberation. Here we are — meditating on the ultimate spiritual reality. What an occupation! That exquisite form of Krishna manifests through us, and we realize the instructions of Bhagavad-gita — engaging our senses, mind, and body and being gradually purified. While other artists go on struggling to come up with newer and newer, more satisfying forms, the devotional artist feels satisfied simply by painting Krishna’s eternally satisfying form and personality.”