(Click photo to see a larger image of kirtan over the Atlantic.)
Although I was a Canadian citizen, I had officially joined the Chicago temple and was initiated by His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada at the newly acquired Devasadan Mandir, in Detroit, June, 1976. I was offered the option to serve "legally" in Canada at our Ottawa, Ontario Hare Krishna temple by my temple president, and I enthusiastically took up the offer like a new adventure. After doing book distribution at our Ottawa temple for a few months, I was ecstatically surpised by our temple president, who asked me if I would like to go to Mayapura to see Srila Prabhupada, and receive my brahminical initiation while I was there. Help was needed on the altar to worship our gorgeous golden Deities of Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai. I was jumping out of my skin to get this invitation to go. In those days, I actually was just doing my service, not anticipating that I would be "rewarded" by going to India, what to speak of seeing Srila Prabhupada!
Flying on the plane was unbelievable. We took a chartered flight with an entire plane full of hundreds of devotees. I guess it must have been Air India, because who else would have allowed us to stand up and have ecstatic Hare Krishna mrdanga/karatala kirtans while flying thousands of feet in the sky?!? I remember enjoying a very fired up and sweet kirtan, and it felt like the entire jet was rocking back and forth as we jumped and chanted the Holy Names of the Lord. Who could have imagined having a kirtan in space with hundreds of devotees? It was like we were already nearing the heavenly planets, and only had a little further to go back to Godhead! In every town, village, and cloud, the chanting of Krishna's names shall be heard!
When we arrived in Calcutta about a day later, and the jet's doors opened the first surprise was to get a giant oven blast of hot air right in the face. Ths was India! As we walked through the customs, our hearts were melted by the Calcutta devotees who had hundreds of marigold flower garlands made to give to each of us. I felt like I was arriving home, being reunited with my loving family. Such wonderful Vaisnava etiquette!
After staying overnight at the famous #9 Albert Road ISKCON temple, we took the buses into Mayapura. Miles and miles of lush green rice fields, as far as the eyes could see. Simple village life, unchanged, even from the invasions of the British and the Moghuls, except for the train lines and roads. Finally we arrived at the entrance of Sri Dhama Mayapura Candrodoya Mandir, the home of Lord Sri Krishna Caitanya Mahaprabhu's transcendental pastimes. I couldn't believe it that I had made it. I saw children picking up the cow patties dropped along the road, and going splat with them on the side of the thatched roof huts, making them look peculiar with brown polka dots. I found out later that the dung was used as fuel, and had a higher combustibility than even wood or coal. The Vedas state that cow dung is the very best and healthy fuel to cook with.
As I got off the bus and was going to enter the Mayapura gate for the first time, I felt very embarassed that elderly Bengali men and women were coming to touch my feet. I had only been living in ISKCON for a year, and did not consider myself to be much of a devotee. A little more that a year before I was playing rock and blues in the bars of Chicago,and providing background music for people to go to hell while intoxicating themselves, and now people were treating me as though I was some kind of sadhu?!?? In the west I might get heckled at being dressed like this, and told to "Get a life, get a job!" but here, people were honoring me as though I was some kind of saint!?! What a culture shock! This was happening all by the grace of Srila Prabhupada that I was being given the privilege of the renounced and dedicated life of a brahmacari. I was thinking that I really had a lot to live up to if my freshly shaved head, tilak, bead bag and saffron cloth invoked this kind of honor from people who probably had been devotees all their lives, or many lives! By this kind of respectful treatment, I felt a great desire surge in my heart to not want to let Srila Prabhupada down, and bring more glory to him for what he had given me, pure devotional service. I am reminded of this nice quote from that moment: "Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
At that time, all the various vegetable, bangle, tulasi bead, juice vendors, etc., had not yet sprouted up in their shanty-like stalls, so all the walls were visibly decorated with gorgeous paintings of the various pastimes of Lord Chaitanya, as found in the Sri Caitanya-Caritamrita. After getting to the long building, we could see construction dust everywhere. The devotees had been on a marathon to get the building completed in time for the big Gaura Purnima festival, and the thousands of devotees arriving from all over the world!
After getting settled in, I remembered that when you are in the Holy Dhama, it is very valuable to render service there, and not just go there for "spiritual enjoyment." I heard over the announcements that devotees were wanted for service, so I went to volunteer after the morning program.
I was told they needed someone to go around to all the sannyasis and senior devotees to get them booked to give the various Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-Gita classes, and to make a schedule with them, finding out when they were available. I felt extremely honored to do this service. When I was a new bhakta in Chicago, I had the privilege to do the laundry and serve prasadam to some leading sannyasis, and I became a little puffed-up, thinking that I was now rubbing shoulders with the "big guns" of ISKCON, and now I was being elevated to a special status. How funny it is for the conditioned soul to seek out profit adoration and distinction, even from menial service. In Kali-yuga, even a pauper is proud of his penny.
So here I was, not yet a "big devotee," but in my illusion, climbing the ISKCON ladder, to have the special blessing to go around with a clip board inquiring, "Excuse me Maharaja (after offering obeisances of course), when would you like to give a Bhagavatam and/or Bhagavad-Gita class over the next two weeks. So and so Maharaja has already taken this time and that time. Things are filling up pretty fast. Are you available for any of these days?" In this way I was thinking I was becoming a "big shot," now that I was "controlling" all of ISKCON's sannyasis, lol. Was I ever in maya! Prabhupada once said "Big devotee means 'big hearted' devotee." It wasn't about post, order of life, or anything external; it was about knowing how to love and serve the Lord's devotees. As Christ said at the Last Supper: "People will know you to be my followers, by how you love one another," and as Prabhupada said, "Your love for me will be shown by how you co-operate together to serve."
I think I must have been over-doing it, because I was rushing around from one Swami to another, trying to get as much done as possible, in as little time as possible. I was not yet aware how intense the afternoon sun could be, and how depleting it could be. Srila Prabhupada was giving Srimad-Bhagavatam class every morning, on the newly published 7th Canto, the teachings of Sri Prahlad Maharaja, and it was a great joy to hear him expounding the philosophy of pure devotional service to a jam-packed temple room with rapt attention. He would even be carried downstairs to the temple room on a pallenquin, in which he laid, almost like a stretcher, because his external health was already deteriorating, and he gave the opportunity to his disciples to serve him by carrying him to the Deity Greeting, guru-puja and Bhagavatam class. He would even be carried to the mangala-arati, against the wishes of some of his personal servants, but Srila Prabhupada said: "If I do not come to the mangala-arati, even though my health is so much compromised, then the rascals will simply use it as an excuse also not to come, so I must set the example." Prabhupada didn't leave us any precedents to slack off from the path of pure bhakti to Lord Krishna.
A few days after, I found myself with stomach cramps and feeling weak with a fever. I started to become incapacitated, and had to lie down. I was told that it was normal in the beginning to get diarrhea or have problems with the bowels, but my condition kept getting worse and worse. Local devotees told me to take green bananas (because they are astringent) and dahi (yoghurt), but nothing worked. I could not hold any food down. I was dehydrating and losing weight very fast, and was in agony. The bathrooms were also not so well developed then, so that was just one more austerity to have to stagger some distance to use what was sometimes an overused bathroom, as they were not working in all the rooms yet. Then when you got there, you were a feast for the mosquitoes! The miseries of material existence were also to be experienced in Mayapura, but here it was all purification from past token karma.
One morning, while lying under my mosquito net, I heard over the loud speakers that Srila Prabhupada was giving darsana to any of his disciples that would like to come up and visit him in his quarters at 11 AM. I thought to myself, "How wonderful! What a rare and most coveted privilege. A chance to go and see my Divine Master, my savior, my dearmost friend and spiritual father, Srila Prabhupada! Who knows how much longer he may be with us with all the reports we have been hearing about his health? This may be my very last chance to actually speak to him, face to face, intimately!!! What will I say to him? What would you say to Srila Prabhupada if you could sit alone with him? An intelligent disciple is supposed to place relevant inquires before his spiritual master. I've been working my way through my first read of the Bhagavatam, and I am on the 2nd Canto, but what will I ask him? How dull I am to not know what to say!?! Although a disciple is supposed to always feel himself to be a fool before his spiritual master, it doesn't mean that I should remain one!?! I wished I had already read through the entire Bhagavatam so that I could be more advanced and conversant with Prabhupada's books."
I felt panicky, and full of anxiety, yet I was driven to want to go up to that second (or third?) floor to his personal quarters. At the same time, I was wondering if it was even appropriate to come sit before him when I was so sick. I thought it would be most embarrassing, as well as offensive while sitting before him in that condition. What to do? I decided that I would struggle to walk there, and do my utmost to control myself, once I was in his presence, and Krishna would help me.
Up the stairs I climbed, until I was met with one of Prabhupada's servants. He looked like a transcendental Mr. Clean with his arms crossed, as he stood guard on the lower level of stairs before coming to Prabhupada's floor. I tried to slip by him, and continue my way to see His Divine Grace. As I was just about to go around him, he asked me in a deep voice, "Where do you think you're going?" I replied that there had been an announcement that morning for any disciples who wanted darsana with Srila Prabhupada to come at 11 AM, so that was what I was doing. He said, "Srila Prabhupada is busy right now." I said, "I understand Maharaja, I don't want to disturb him. I'd just like to see him from outside his room, and offer my obeisances to him, and then come back." (Of course I was still hoping he might see me and invite me in.)
Prabhupada's servant then gestured to a few feet away from us and said, "This is Srila Prabhupada's sister. Her name is Pisima. She's a pure devotee. If you offer your obeisances to her, it's just as good as offering them to Prabhupada."
I looked behind me, and there was this elderly looking lady that was a female version of Srila Prabhupada. She was rocking in a rocking chair, with her bead bag wrapped around her hand. She was smiling in an affectionate, motherly way at me, while she was chanting her japa, and rocking back and forth. I had a mixture of emotions all at once. I felt honored to meet the sister of Prabhupada. I didn't even know he had one, yet I was disappointed that I was being denied the privilege to go upstairs. I had a similar circumstance in Detroit just nine months before when I wanted to go with Srila Prabhupada on his morning walks, but I was informed by Srila Prabhupada's servant that only the "big devotees" could go with him, so my plans were being thwarted by him again. I guess his service was kind of a thankless task, except Prabhupada was grateful for keeping him free to do his service.
I walked over to Pisima, right at her feet, and I bowed down and repeated the Vaisnava pranama mantra:
"vancha kalpa tarubyas ca/ krpa sindhubya eva ca/ patitanam pavanebyo/ vaisnavebyo namo namah"
"I offer my obeisances to all the Vaisnava/Vaisnavi devotees of the Lord, who are just like desire trees, who are full of compassion for the fallen conditioned souls, and who can thus fulfill everyone's wish."
Before I could fully get up, she patted me on the head, just like a Grandma might do with her grandchild implying, "That's a good boy." I felt extremely blessed to receive this loving pat from a most exalted soul, and it almost completely satisfied my desire to jump over Prabhupada's servant to see Srila Prabhupada himself.
After this, my health kept getting even worse, and I was literally getting ready to leave my body. I chanted my rounds as if these would be my last, I was in such excrutiating abdominal pain. I was given a powerful antibiotic, chlorostreptomyseine, and I am not sure what that did as no more nourishment could be absorbed by my body. I was drinking electrolyte water for minerals. I was getting ready to check out, not very confident that I would be going back to Godhead so soon as I knew I had so much purification to undergo before being qualified, but confident I would have a better birth to do more devotional service to Prabhupada and Krishna.
Then one evening, a miraculous thing happened. I was chanting some rounds while lying under my net, and a devotee entered my room that I had never met before. He was a brahmacari that had joined in my birthplace of Canada, that had been serving for some years in Mayapura. I was so happy to have a visitor come to see me in this most dejected condition. This is reminding me of how people who are ill appreciate a friendly visit from another when they are in a suffering condition. It brightens the morale so much to know that someone cares enough to take the time to visit, but this person didn't even know me?? This kind devotee said:
"Srila Prabhupada heard that there were a couple of devotees from Canada that had amoebic dysentry, and Prabhupada said to arrange for you to recieve hot salty puris. At that point, he unwrapped some newspaper, and there were two large leaf plates that he uncovered. Billowing out from the plates came a cloud of steam, and the room became filled with the wonderful fragrance of freshly milled wheat flour cooked in ghee. I had not eaten in a couple of weeks, and I ate those puris like a dying man having his last meal, with great relish and gusto. They were so incredibly delicious. More than that, what really blew me away, was that even though there were big worldwide meetings going on, discussing the major plans of how to increase book distribution, manage temples, legal issues, etc., somehow or other, my loving spiritual father found the time to take an interest in a puny, insignificant "nobody" like me to render me personal care. My whole consciousness started to bloom. I felt as though Prabhupada was right there in the room, giving me the puris himself. I felt his love, and that gave me the will to keep struggling to live. I was also very impressed that Prabhupada's own health was compromised, yet his consciousness was so great, that he was able to focus on my well being.
Soon I went for a check up by one of the widows that served as a nurse on our grounds. Although I was trained as a new brahmacari to call all women "mother" this was the first "mother" that called me "son," so it was even easier to see her as "mother." "Alright son, roll over. Son, now stick out your tounge, etc." It was great. In that traumatized state, the spirit of enjoyment had also gone very far away.
The severe amoebic dysentery did not get any better, so I heard that Prabhupada ordered that we take one of the black Ambassador taxis to the Calcutta Reserach Hospital. I thought I was going to die before I got to the hospital en route, because the driver was driving so fast, I thought we were going to have a head-on collision many times into the wide Tata buses, on the narrow bumpy roads. He drove donkeys carrying hay off the road, and I was totally freaked out by his driving, praying I would survive. When we arrived at the big hospital, I was very relieved and enlivened to see the big white murti of Lord Vishnu in the hallway before I was taken to the elevator and to my room. I thought that this is the difference between a hospital in the west and one here in India. They know who God is, although sometimes you see His pure devotee Lord Jesus, or Mother Mary in some of the traditional hospitals in the west.
Soon I was on intravenous with glucose being pumped into the arms of my dying body (it's actually dying at every moment, isn't it, why just then?), and after a couple of weeks thrombosis set in when my arteries all got hard in my arm from all the fluid. I was put on dahl broth at first, and then gradually boiled vegetables, while my health was monitored by many kind nurses and doctors. All the time I was there I kept up my 16 rounds, still thinking that I might have to leave my body, and continuing with the Second Canto of the Bhagavatam. I find it ironical that I was a lot more serious about my spiritual life then, although I was very ill than I am now, even though I appear to have my health. Will it take another severe illness before I become serious about fixing my mind on Krishna again? I pray for all the readers' blessings that I may become more serious to serve our beloved spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, and care for others, as he is always caring for me.