This one is hard to look at. It brings up so many emotions: loss, sadness, regret, resentment, confusion. I’ll never forget where I was when he left his body. My wife, Kadamba mala, and I were in the car heading to Gita-nagari from New Jersey. We were about half way there when my cell phone rang. It was an automated voice announcing that he had departed. And that was it. He was gone. By the time we made it to Gita-nagari and the Institute House the devotees were milling around. There was a heavy atmosphere of sadness and loss. It was quiet and sober. There was a small group of devotees in his quarters, preparing his body for the last rites. I didn’t see his body until it was brought out on a palanquin and marched in a procession of kirtan down to the temple room.
When I finally had the opportunity to approach his body and offer flower petals, I looked down at his lifeless face and closed eyes. Mother Vraja-lila was standing next to me. I think she put her hand on my back. I can’t remember. She handed me a stick of maha-incense. I didn’t know what to feel. I felt empty. I felt speechless. I felt like I failed him by not staying true to my vows. I held back my tears and quickly scurried away into the crowd of assembled devotees.
Part of me felt resentment for a while. I always wondered why he didn’t pursue more traditional cancer treatment therapies. I would wonder if he would still be with us physically if he had gone through chemotherapy instead of heading down to a jungle in South America to visit a healer. I know, it sounds terrible to even write that, but I don’t say it out of spite. I say it with love and attachment to him. Maybe it’s just selfish on my part anyway, because I’m thinking how I would have liked for him to meet my daughter and to be able to dance in kirtan with him and to be able to talk to him. It could just be my selfishness resenting the choices he made when he discovered the cancer.
I can’t talk too much more about this image. I don’t feel like crying right now, as I’m at work before the day begins. I’ll just say to wrap this up, part of me is glad I didn’t see him like this in person. I would have been devastated. I wasn’t there to see the gradual progression to this state, so it would have been a terrible shock to see him lying there like this, unresponsive and so close to death. I probably would have lost it. Maybe knowing this Krishna saved me from the pain of witnessing him in this condition, because the last time I had seen him in person he was still bright and fresh and smiling.
I also wanted to say that this image really makes me confront my own mortality. It’s a stark reminder of the fate that awaits us all; a fate that many of us don’t want to think about. My Gurudeva was a shining example of how to embrace and accept this fate. He stayed true and strong until the end. I hope that my departure from this material world can be even just a tiny bit as glorious and auspicious as his was.
Soaked in sweat and effulgent. A familiar sight considering the way in which my Gurudeva would lead kirtans. I wasn’t here and I’m not sure where this is, but it appears that he is sitting on the Vyasasana and singing Jaya Radha-Madhava before giving class. Is that Sri Hanuman in the background? Or is it Sri Varahadeva? I can’t tell. It’s an interesting photo composition though. My Gurudeva’s profile paralleled with the profile behind him. It looks as if the Deity is controlling my Guru Maharaja, like a puppet, with His arms inside my Gurudeva’s back, making him move and speak. How fitting, as everything my Gurudeva did and said was not from the platform of his own desires and wants. He was truly the “transparent via medium” for Sri Guru to manifest and act on this material plane. My Gurudeva knew my heart so intimately and when he would speak to me, it wasn’t John Favors or Bhakti Tirtha Swami talking to me, it was Sri Guru/Paramatma. This Bhakti Tirtha Swami was just the outward, external form in which Sri Guru was appearing and speaking to me.
What an incredibly sweet photo and moment captured in time. It embodies the compassion and love that my Gurudeva carried within his heart for all living entities. When I see this photo I feel jealous and sad, because I wish that my daughter had had the opportunity to meet my Guru Maharaja and to receive his direct blessings and mercy, not only as a baby, but as she grows up over the years.
Of course, it’s all karma isn’t it? The people that we meet, the blessings we receive, the experiences we have, the sadhus that we encounter. I could say the baby in this photo is fortunate, but aren’t we all fortunate having come in contact with the process and path of bhakti? In one way or another that mercy is coming down through the parampara and touching us all in some capacity. The real question is: what do we do with that mercy and those blessings that we receive? A baby can meet a sadhu yet end up becoming a completely mundane materialist with no devotional inclination. On the other hand, one can grow up in a meat-eating, materialistic family and later take up the process of devotional service to go on and become quite spiritually advanced.
I pray to my Gurudeva to not waste the blessings and mercy that I have received. I pray to always appreciate them and to be aware of my great fortune. I pray to never see Krishna Consciousness as just another religion. It’s all about the consciousness and the soul. It’s all about loving and serving God and His devotees.
This is an iconic, famous photo of my Gurudeva with Nelson Mandela. I don’t know what this event was, nor do I know the details of what my Gurudeva would talk about with Mandela. It does go to show however that his interest was in trying to preach to the upper echelons of society. He wanted to reach the leaders and the people with influence and power. This is why he was so interested in meeting with or getting on the Oprah Winfrey show (it unfortunately never materialized before he departed).
The thing that interests me most about this photo is his Nrsimhadeva cane in the foreground. I had once heard the story that it was carved for him by a man named “Uncle Nanda” and that this man came to my Guru Maharaja when a lot of leaders were falling down and leaving ISKCON. He came to my Gurudeva and told him that Srila Prabhupada didn’t want him to leave ISKCON and that he should stay within the society to try and help heal it. There was also a story about how this Uncle Nanda and my Gurudeva stayed in a room for three days without eating or sleeping and that he taught my Gurudeva about subtle, psychic things, like astral projection and the like. Then I heard this Uncle Nanda had revealed his form on the astral plane as a unicorn or Pegasus. Uhh…yeah.
I can’t remember the name of the devotee that told me these stories. It was while I was at the Potomac temple. My Guru Maharaja was in some meetings and I was chanting japa outside when this devotee started talking to me. Come to think of it, I don’t even know where that devotee is now or what happened to him. Were his stories some crazy flights of the imagination? Or did those things really happen in some capacity? I don’t know for certain. Surely my Guru Maharaja would have never talked about those things with me even if I inquired. (On a side note, one time I asked him if he remembered his past lives and his previous relationship(s) with Srila Prabhupada. I remember it vividly. We were driving back from the Lewistown Walmart, just he and I in the car. He was quiet and grave and responded with an emotionless, “Uh, yes. To some degree” (or something like that. His exact words are vague now). Then he was silent and his energy indicated that I shouldn’t be asking him those kinds of questions. So anyway, if I asked him about Uncle Nanda I’m sure it would be a similar response.
Like I said, I don’t know if those stories are true, but I do know that I can’t look at that old cane of his and not think about all these things.
This is a tiny, low-resolution picture, but the moment is so sweet. I remember when my Guru Maharaja used to do this in kirtans. He was such a transcendental MC (master of ceremonies). He would guide the devotees how to dance and have us following his moves. It was never in an egotistical way. It was in a spirit of community and getting everyone involved and absorbed in the kirtan and Holy Name.
Recently a god brother of mine posted a video on my Facebook wall of some intense kirtan. There were three or four devotees in the kirtan that started doing crazy break dancing moves, like doing the worm across the temple room floor and doing back spins. At one point a devotee was sitting on the ground with his leg behind his neck then he jumped up and did a head stand, flashing his kaupins for everyone to see. I couldn’t believe how self-centered and egotistical they were being. They turned it into a mundane dance contest with no focus on the Holy Name, the Deities or the other devotees present. It was just like, “Hey! Look at me!” Maybe I shouldn’t judge like that. Maybe they were experiencing some deep bhava and it was being expressed in that way. But still, even if it were some kind of genuine bhava they shouldn’t let it out like that or display it in such a way as to make people question their motives. Srila Prabhupada never did head spins and splits, nor did my Guru Maharaja. When my Gurudeva did “let himself go” the temple room would light up with ecstasy and joy, but it was never all about him. It was like his enthusiasm and spiritual emotions would spill out to everyone around him and make everyone else feel enlivened in devotional service. It would be an encouraging thing, not an excluding thing. You would feel inspired as he would dance wildly, not thinking, “This Swami is just showing off.”
In this photo he’s parting the devotees into two sides to create a sort of aisle. Then he would push devotees into the aisle to dance along to the end or sometimes they would dance down to one end and then come back to where they began. It was sweet and loving. If put the spotlight on everyone and gave everyone a chance to express themselves in the kirtan. So beautiful, so wonderful. That was my Gurudeva’s mood and it flowed from his kirtans.
More kirtan. My Guru Maharaja was known for his kirtans. Everyone knew when he was leading the kirtan there was going to be a lot of dancing. In this particular photo he’s walking down the streets of New York City at the Ratha Yatra festival. I don’t think it was this year that I was with him, but seeing this photo reminds me of a memory.
Gurudeva had to go to the bathroom. So he asked Agnideva to find a restroom for him. The problem was that we were walking down a street with no public restrooms. There were just various businesses. We ended up heading into some sort of shopping mall or large chain store, like a Macy’s or something. I was following behind Agnideva and my Guru Maharaja, weaving around customers in the store. We passed by the clothing section, then the perfume and make up section then through the shoes. We were trying to find the elevator. I remember we were all soaked with sweat. What a sight it must have been for the people in that store: a black Hare Krishna with two white Hare Krishnas, all sweaty and speedily darting through the aisles.
We finally made it to the elevator, which we had to share with the shoppers. The silence was more awkward than usual in an elevator. After we found the restroom and my Gurudeva went we did the same sprint back through the store. We then had to weave through the crowds of people on the sidewalk to get back to the kirtan procession.
Such a simple and insignificant memory, but it’s a memory I cherish, just as everyone moment I had with my Guru Maharaja.