Lessons on the Road
Volume 6, Chapter 5
| F E B R U A R Y 1 – A P R I L 1 3 , 2 0 0 5 |
Since leaving Sri Lanka in late February I have had several dreams of the devastation caused by the tsunami and of the victims that I attended to. That real-life drama left an indelible impression on my mind. Even the most beautiful scenes of nature now appear tainted, for I realize more than ever before that everything in this world is temporary and subject to destruction.
In late March, I took a flight from London to Los Angeles for my annual two-month preaching tour through the United States. But I could not forget the tsunami, so unlike some of the other pas- sengers, I was unimpressed by the glory and glitter of America upon our arrival. Many were awestruck at the well-organized and efficient procedures for customs and immigration in the huge arrival halls, amidst the latest technology and sophisticated security. And when we stepped outside the terminal, I recognized two passengers who stood motionless-mesmerized by the bigness of the American scene before them.
Only one thought came to my mind, however. It was a single line from a recording my spiritual master had made almost four de- cades ago. I’d heard it a thousand times, but it had more relevance now: “The whole show is only temporary.”
Fortunately, Srila Prabhupada had also introduced me to the positive alternative: spiritual life, Krsna consciousness, which since my experience in Sri Lanka, had taken on much more significance. Now I counted my blessings each day and found myself relishing and seeking more shelter in the daily spiritual activities that I had come to take for granted after many years. In that sense, the tragedy of the tsunami had started a renaissance in my spiritual life.
As I signaled to the vehicle that had come to pick me up, I was praying to the Lord not to let me forget recent lessons learned on the road back home.
When a relative dies one certainly becomes very much inter- ested in philosophy, but when the funeral ceremony is over one again becomes attentive to materialism. The technical term for this attitude of the materialistic person is smasana-vairagya, or detachment in a cemetery or place of cremation.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 7.2.61 purport]
To ensure that my lessons were not only learned but also real- ized, the Lord kindly made arrangements to refresh my memory throughout my visit. The first lesson was on the positive side.
I was traveling in upstate New York with Sri Prahlad and his wife, Rukmini Priya. We were just one week into our travels, and we had been invited for an evening of kirtan at the famous Kripalu Yoga Institute. The immense 300-room complex was once a Jesuit monastery and now serves as a yoga retreat for people on the East Coast of the United States.
I already knew about America’s ongoing fascination with yoga; otherwise, I would not have understood how such a large complex could be filled up most of the year. An estimated 16 million Ameri- cans practice one form of yoga or another, double the number of five years ago.
Recent articles in mainstream magazines like Time and Nation- al Geographic have extolled the glories of meditation, and America’s fascination with yoga could be seen everywhere. The popular Kimp- ton Hotel chain supplies guests with a free yoga mat and block and provides a 24-hour yoga channel, and in-flight magazines often in- clude simple five-minute yoga exercises to ease the stress of air travel, but most convincing of all was the many yoga studios in every town we visited.
Most of the yoga practices in America differ vastly from the bhakti yoga that we devotees practice. Yoga in America is based on physical well-being, and if there’s any philosophy at all, it’s of a non- devotional, impersonal nature. Therefore it has not been easy for devotees to introduce Krsna consciousness into the developing yoga scene.
Recently, however, the melodious chanting of mantras in kir- tan has become popular with several non-devotee groups playing to large crowds across the country. When the managers of Kripalu Institute received a CD of Sri Prahlad from a local devotee, they invited Sri Prahlad for an evening of bhajan. We eagerly looked for- ward to the program.
Indradyumna Swami, Sri Prahlada das, and Rukmini Priya dasi
As we entered the Kri- palu Institute, classes had just finished. People were walking through the halls or sitting in little groups chatting.
All eyes turned to us as we entered, dressed in robes and carrying musical instruments and trays of prasadam. As we walked to the main hall,, I noticed many people following us. When we entered the hall, the woman helping us politely closed the door so we could set up. “The whole complex is buzzing about the program,” she said.
Sure enough, when she opened the door 20 minutes later, a large crowd of over 150 people quickly entered and sat on the floor, most in meditative yogic asanas.
Up to that moment I had been wondering how to conduct the program. Normally I would speak at length about Krsna conscious- ness: its history, culture, and philosophy. But although the people here were obviously spiritual seekers, past experience had shown that such people are often the most difficult to convince because of their preconceived ideas of yoga and mysticism, so I took a different approach and simply depended on Krsna, that is to say, on His holy names. After a five-minute introduction I turned to Sri Prahlad. “Chant for at least an hour,” I said.
It was the shortest public lecture I had ever given, but I sat back confident. I knew Sri Prahlad’s chanting of the holy names would melt their hearts. And it did.
As Sri Prahlada began to play the harmonium and chant, I saw many of the yogis break their meditation and open their eyes in astonishment. Others closed their eyes and began swaying to the beautiful melodious kirtan. Within 30 minutes practically everyone was dancing in transcendental ecstasy.
I noticed people there from all walks of life. Such a program was an easy way to contact people we might not ordinarily reach. I sud- denly realized that kirtan programs might be the right way to enter into the spiraling interest in yoga in America. I exchanged glances with Sri Prahlad, and I could tell he had had the same realization.
The most convincing sign came after the two-hour kirtan fin- ished. People stood stunned, relishing the deep spiritual experience they’d just had. Finally a woman walked up to me. “That’s yoga,” she said. “I feel so happy!” As I picked up the drum to leave, I turned to her and smiled. “Yes, Ma’am,” I said. “Chanting that mantra is the topmost yoga system.”
A verse from scripture came to my mind: The Hare Krsna mantra is the only mantra for destroying one’s enemies—lust, greed etc.—and it is worshiped by all the words of the Upani- shads. That mantra causes the darkness of ignorance to vanish and puts an end to material existence. That mantra is the only cause of the attainment of spiritual opulence, and chanting it protects one from the bite of the poisonous snake of sinful reactions. O tongue! Please constantly chant this mantra and make my life successful.
[Mukunda-mala stotram, Verse 31]
Another stop on our trip was Washington D.C., where the Lord again blessed me so I would not forget the realities of life. The blessing came in the form of Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja. For months Maharaja had been fighting cancer and had only recently conceded defeat, as tumors began appearing throughout his body despite the various treatments. His disciples updated me on his condition, and
I expected to find him in bed, succumbing slowly to death in a meditative mood.
But when I entered his room, I was surprised to find him sitting up in a chair, looking cheerful and alert. He was thinner than I had last seen him, but smiling broadly and radiating a bright effulgence. As we began talking, it was obvious that he didn’t have long to live. His cancer had infiltrated his bones, and he showed me a large
tumor near his neck.
He wasn’t the first devotee on the verge of death that I had vis- ited, but his presence had an especially deep affect on me. In him, I saw myself, in the sense that his career in Krsna consciousness has been very similar to mine. A sannyasi and a traveling preacher, he has lived an active life, visiting many countries of the world. We have even preached in the same countries and often crossed paths at big festivals.
Only last year we spoke together on a famous Croatian morn- ing-television talk show. Like me he is a writer and thus known to the general mass of devotees. Now his career had suddenly been cut short, and he had only days or weeks to live. It was an eye-opener and made the reality of death even more real.
“Only time separates me from a similar fate,” I thought. I suddenly felt an urgent need to become Krsna conscious.
Today or tomorrow this worthless material body will leave me and all the material happiness connected with it will also leave. Because material happiness is temporary, it should be under- stood to be only a mirage of the real happiness. O my mind, please abandon this false happiness and enjoy the real, eternal happiness of devotional service within the land of Vrndavana.
[Vrindavan-mahimamrta Chapter 1, text 24]
Maharaja sensed my mood. “More difficult than the pain and inconvenience,” he said, “is that my days of traveling and preaching are over. After being active for so many years, I suddenly find myself confined to this room. No picking up and moving to the next town, the next program. It’s hard.” His face took on a sober look.
“I can understand that,” I said.
“No you can’t,” he said with a faint smile. “Can you share with me the thoughts and realizations of other devotees you’ve known on the verge of death?”
I thought carefully for a moment and then mentioned how our Godbrother Sridhar Swami was fearless in the face of death. I attrib- uted it to his having realized the continuity of devotional service to the Lord: As we are serving guru and Krsna in this life, we shall be doing the same in the next life.
Maharaja thought for a moment and then nodded his head.
Such topics carry more weight for one on the verge of death.
Then Maharaja switched the subject to something more impor- tant to him. “I’m concerned that the general mass of devotees won’t have the same facilities given to me near death,” he said. “Because I am a leader, devotees have given money and facilities to cure me. I’ve been to a number of clinics and have seen many doctors. It’s been costly. The normal devotee wouldn’t have such opportunities.”
I was amazed. “Here’s a real Vaisnava,” I thought. “He’s on the verge of death but concerned about the welfare of others.”
“So I’m going to start a trust,” he continued, “with any money left over from donations to me, to insure that others can have access to the same treatment I’ve had.”
His mind was working quickly. “I am conscious that there are still many anarthas in my heart,” he said, “and I’m anxious that there may not be time to purge them.”
He hadn’t stated it as a question, but it was obvious that he was looking for advice.
“Maharaja,” I said, “your service record throughout the years is outstanding. I have no doubt that is what Krsna will consider at the moment of your death.”
vayur anilam amrtam athedam
bhasmantam sariram om krato
smara krtam smara
krato smara krtam smara
Let this temporary body be burnt to ashes, and let the air of life be merged with the totality of air. Now, O my Lord, please remember all my sacrifices, and because You are the ultimate beneficiary, please remember all that I have done for You.
[Sri Isopanishad, Mantra 17]
To give Maharaja even more confidence I related the story of Ramanujacarya, who asked a similar question to the Deity of Ran- ganatha. “My Lord,” he said, “what is the fate of the devotee who cannot remember you at the moment of death?”
The Deity was silent for a few moments. “If my devotee cannot remember me at the moment of death,” said the Deity, “then I will remember my devotee.”
Then he began glorifying some of my preaching activities, and I decided it was time to go. As I left, I invited Maharaja to the Gaura Purnima celebrations the next day at the Potomac temple.
The next day, just before sundara arotik, I was pleasantly sur- prised when he showed up in his wheelchair in spite of his fragile condition. The temple room was packed, and when the devotees saw Maharaja they cheered. Although I was meant to be the keynote speaker, I asked Maharaja to give the lecture after arotik. He spoke wonderfully for half an hour and then gave the microphone to me. “I won’t speak more than a few words tonight,” I began. “I would
like this occasion to be remembered for the enlightening words of His Holiness Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja.”
Some devotees began to cry. I glorified Maharaja’s service over the years and finally said that I had no doubt he was going back to Godhead. “Our only qualification for achieving such an exalted state,” I added, “is the causeless mercy of the spiritual master, and the proof that Maharaja has achieved this grace is that after he re- turned from preaching behind the Iron Curtain, Srila Prabhupada warmly embraced him.”
The next morning, I declined to give class because I was too tired and needed to prepare my things before leaving. Later that day I was humbled when I heard that Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja, though exhausted from his illness and preparing to leave this very world, gave a class in his room. It was evident that although he had been inquiring from me, I had much more to learn from him.
Just before we left the city, the Lord again showed us the con- trast between the sober and the sublime when Sri Prahlad, Rukmini- priya, and I visited the home of Dr. Kaya Ploss, an affluent and dis- tinguished woman in American politics. At 74, Dr. Ploss is in charge of the Center for Polish and American Cultural Affairs, and the visit had been arranged by a devotee who lived next door to her.
I didn’t know how important she was until we were sitting in her living room. I saw photos of her with various world leaders in- cluding Pope John Paul II, former United States presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, a former Polish president, and the present one, Aleksander Kwasniewski, just to name a few.
At first she seemed a little uncomfortable about having us in her home, but after a while she relaxed. When she saw me staring at the photos, she began telling us the story of her life, most of which centered on American politics. Her second husband had served as an advisor to the secretary of state, so we heard many stories of gov- ernment intrigue and diplomacy. Every once in a while she would stop and ask us a question about Krsna consciousness.
After an hour, the phone rang and she got up to answer it. “Excuse me,” she said. “I’m expecting a call from my son. He is the Polish ambassador to the United Nations.”
She took the call in another room, but Rukmini Priya, a native of Poland, was sitting within hearing distance and later told us what she had heard. “My dear son,” Dr. Ploss had said, “something won- derful is happening. I have the Hare Krishnas in my home.”
We spent over an hour with her, and she invited us back next year. “Many guests visit me here,” she said, “and I visit them too. Next week I will be visiting the newly elected president of Ukraine, in Kiev. You are always welcome.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Thank you,” I said and gave her a copy of my newest book,
Diary of a Traveling Preacher, Volume 5. “I will definitely read it” she said.
A few days later, almost predictably, came the next lesson, yet another reminder that “the whole show is only temporary.”
In Laguna Beach, California, I was invited to the home of Gaura Priya dasi, a 73-year-old disciple of Virabahu prabhu. She was dying of cancer.
As I walked in her room, I could see she was only hours away from leaving her body. She lay unconscious in her bed, thin and pale, her chanting beads draped over her arm. Her family members asked me to put a Tulasi leaf and some Ganges water in her mouth. I was grateful for the service to a Vaisnavi, though the circumstances were difficult.
“I guess I’m still not convinced,” I thought, “so the Lord keeps hammering home the same point: Life is temporary, don’t get dis- tracted, keep your mind on the goal.”
We had kirtan for some time, but after a while my mind began to wander, and I left to get some fresh air. I felt a little uncomfortable about leaving, but I as I had never known Gaura Priya, it was dif- ficult to be in the same mood as those who had served with her.
Her daughter, who was not a devotee, came outside. “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for my mother,” she said.
“But I’ve only been here a few minutes,” I started to say. “I—“ “I mean your diary,” she said. “My mother loved to read it
and waited anxiously for each chapter to come out. The whole last month she has been glorifying you. She was particularly inspired by the story of your brother and how he became a devotee. She saw it as a small miracle, and it gave her so much faith and spiritual strength in these last days of her life.”
Again I was both embarrassed and humbled.
“She so much wanted to meet you,” The daughter said. “Thank you,” I said. “Now I can go and chant with feeling like the others.”
I returned to the room and started leading kirtan. This time I chanted from the heart, hoping that she would somehow hear by means of the transcendental medium. After some time, I concluded the kirtan, and before going whispered some words of encourage- ment into her ear.
My lessons seemed to be following a pattern of positive then negative, so I expected a positive one next, but I soon found myself face to face with death again. It seems to be one lesson we need be reminded of again and again.
ahany ahani bhutani
sesah sthavaram icchanti
kim ascaryam atah param
Day after day countless living entities in this world go to the kingdom of death. Still, those who remain aspire for a perma- nent situation here. What could be more amazing than this?
[Mahabharata Vana-parva 313.116]
But this time it was not a devotee in the Hare Krsna move- ment. It was Pope John Paul II. Like others, I was saddened to hear of his illness and death. Tears came to my eyes when I received the news of his dignified departure, surrounded by his associates in deep prayer.
A devotee looked at my face. “But Maharaja,” he said, “many of the problems you face in Poland come from the Church.”
“True,” I said, “but I don’t think they come from the Pope him- self. He always showed a willingness for interfaith dialogue.”
“Besides,” I added, “although our spiritual traditions differ in some ways, I always appreciated his conservative stance on religious issues and his courage in spreading his faith. The world is a better place for his missionary work.”
“Well,” said the devotee, “I wonder if Srila Prabhupada would have seen it that way.”
“He certainly did when he was with us,” I said, “as evidenced by his letter to Pope Paul VI. The lives and deaths of holy persons con- tain valuable lessons for those of us treading the straight and narrow path back to the spiritual world.”
Some passages from the letter follow:
Montreal, August 3, 1968
His Holiness The Pope Paul VI Vicar of Jesus Christ State of Vatican City, Rome, Italy
Please accept my respectful humble obeisances at Your lotus feet. I beg to introduce myself as an Indian monk, fol- lowing the Vedic principles of religious life. At the present I am in the renounced order of Sannyasa (aged 72 years) and preaching God consciousness all over the world ….
My mission is in the line of Lord Caitanya, Who is Per- sonified Love of Godhead and Who advented Himself 482 years ago in India His mission is to revive God consciousness all over the world on the basis of Srimad-Bhagavatam, the science of God ….
The principle of Srimad-Bhagavatam is that any religious faith which helps a man to develop Love of God, without any motive, and without being hampered by any material condi- tion, is transcendental religion The special significance of- human life is to achieve Love of God as the prime perfection of life …
This tendency is very much deteriorating, and because Your Holiness is the Head of a great religious sect, I think we should meet together and chalk out a program for coopera- tion ….
The human society cannot anymore be allowed to contin- ue a Godless civilization at the risk of decreasing truthfulness, hygienic principles, forgiveness, and mercifulness …
The Krishna Consciousness movement is meant for over- hauling the whole situation. We are creating men of charac- ter, and we are training our disciples to become Lovers of God, or Krishna ….
I do not wish to prolong the body of this letter further, but if you think that a meeting with you will be beneficial for the human society at large, I shall be very much pleased if Your Holiness will grant me an interview. Thanking you in anticipa- tion for an early reply.
Yours in the service of the Lord, AC Bhaktivedanta Swami