| March 17 – April 31, 2006 |
After my visit to Mexico in mid-March, I went on a whirl-wind preaching tour of the temples in the United States until the end of April. I kept a record of the programs I did in those six weeks, and I was surprised to see they totaled over 100.
I must have done thousands of such programs throughout my career as a traveling preacher, and as I thought about my 57th birthday, just weeks away, I smiled. “Physically, the tour been exhausting,” I thought, “but spiritually, I’m more enlivened than ever.”
ayur harati vai pumsam udyann astam ca yann asau tasyarte
yat-ksano nita uttama-loka-vartaya
“Both by rising and by setting, the sun decreases the duration of life of everyone, except one who utilizes the time by discussing topics of the all-good Personality of Godhead.”
In San Diego, on one of the last days of the tour, I visited the home of Guru Gauranga dasa, the sponsor of my festival program on the island of Mauritius. We made plans for the program and decided that we would hold it in April next year.
When I looked at his altar, I was taken by the beauty of the only Deity present, a salagrama-sila. Having worshiped salagrama-silas for years, I immediately saw that this Deity was special. He was small, perfectly round, smooth, and shiny. I remembered a verse from the Padma-purana, where Lord Visnu tells Brahma that smaller salagramas give the most auspicious results:
“O Brahma, in that sila, small like an amalaki fruit, I remain eternally with My divine consort, Srimati Laksmidevi.”
I looked closer. The salagrama had a beautifully formed mouth exactly in front. “A most auspicious cakra,” I said aloud.
“He has a small flat surface on the bottom too,” said Guru Gauranga.
I shook my head in amazement. “He’s the perfect salagrama,” I said, “the kind sought by every pious brahmana in ancient India. Many temples in India would give lacs of rupees for such a sila. Where in the world did you get Him?”
“It’s a long story,” Guru Gauranga replied. “If you have the time, I’ll tell you.”
I smiled and sat down. “What better way to spend our time?” I said.
“In 1992,” he said, “I was serving in Mayapura as a young brahmacari, when word came that the devotees in Bangladesh needed brahmacaris for a traveling festival program. At first I hesitated because Bangladesh is a Muslim country, but local devotees told me that there are hundreds of thousands of Vaisnavas in Bangladesh, many of whom regularly attend our programs, so I stepped forward.
“For several months we traveled throughout the country holding outdoor festivals in the villages, and sometimes as many as twenty thousand people would attend. In many places the locals had never seen white-skinned Westerners. The Muslims left us alone, and the Vaisnavas thronged to our programs.
“One night in a remote jungle village in the north, we had a late finish to our program. Along with the other bhramacaris, I lay down exhausted on the floor of the large pandal, but I had trouble sleeping because of the heat, the humidity, and the mosquitoes. I stood up and leaned against the wall of the tent. A young man dressed in a saffron-colored dhoti came up to me and asked why I wasn’t sleeping. I told him of my difficulties, and he offered to take me to an asrama where he lived, further into the jungle. ‘You’ll sleep peacefully there,’ he said.
“After an hour and a half of walking, I began to feel concerned, as we had still not reached our destination. Suddenly we came to a clearing where I saw fifteen large mud-brick huts, and nearby, a large stone temple. Judging from its appearance, the temple was very old.
“The young man took me to one of the huts. ‘Please sleep here,’ he said. ‘The mosquitoes won’t bite you. We burn a special wood inside to keep them away.’
“Within minutes I was sound asleep.
“I awoke in the morning, just as the sun was rising. I looked out the window and saw a beautiful scene of antiquity.
“Young brahmacari monks sitting on the banks of a nearby river were softly chanting on their japa beads. Beautiful Vaisnava tilaka adorned their bodies, and their saffron clothes rivaled the beauty of the sunrise. From the temple I could hear people singing a familiar bhajan, Lalasamayi-Prarthana by Narottam das Thakur.
“Several brahmacaris came and took me to the river to bathe. As we walked, we passed the kitchen, and I could smell the cow-dung fires cooking breakfast. While I bathed, the brahmacaris sat nearby and chanted japa.
“I looked around. ‘This is what life must have been in devotional asramas hundreds of years ago,’ I thought, ‘when young male students lived and studied with their Vaisnava gurus.’
“I wondered why no guru was present.
“ ‘How long will you stay with us?’ one of the boys asked as we walked towards the temple.
“ ‘Just a few more hours,’ I replied, ‘but I’d like to stay forever.’
“When we reached the temple, we entered and paid obeisances, but when I stood up, I was surprised to see there was no altar, only four decorated walls.
“Where are the Deities?” I asked.
“The boys smiled. ‘Be patient,’ said one of them, ‘and you’ll soon see the most beautiful Deities.’
“ ‘And famous,’ said another.
“ ‘Famous?’ I said. ‘Here in the middle of the jungle?’ “Suddenly a conch shell blew, and one of the giant walls slid open to reveal a beautiful marble altar. An intricately carved silver srngasana towered over graceful Radha-Krsna Deities. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I simply stood there.
“ ‘The altar is hidden to protect the Deities from Muslim attacks,’ said one of the young men. ‘They’ve remained safe like this for five hundred years.’
“ ‘Five hundred years!’ I said. I moved in closer to get a better look.
“Krsna was made of black stone, and Radharani of brass. I could see they were indeed very old Deities. Near Krsna’s feet I noticed a silver srngasana, with three beautiful salagrama-silas. Then – I don’t know what made me do it, perhaps the excitement of the moment – I blurted out, ‘Can I have one of those salagrama-silas?’
“The brahmacaris turned to me with looks of astonishment. “I mumbled something about a long-cherished desire to worship a salagrama-sila, but they remained silent, taken aback by my outburst.
“ ‘Well,’ said one, ‘you can ask our guru. He wants see you after breakfast.’
“ ‘Where is he now?’ I said.
“ ‘He’s finishing his one lac of japa,’ said another boy. “ ‘One lac of japa before breakfast!’ I exclaimed.
“After breakfast, one of the older brahmacaris took me to a small hut not far from the temple.
“ ‘Does the guru have many disciples?’ I asked as we walked. “ ‘More than 5,000,’ he replied.
“ ‘How old is he?’ I said. “ ‘Ninety-two,’ he said.
“ ‘He must have traveled a lot,’ I said.
“ ‘Actually,’ said the brahmacari, ‘he’s never left this village. It’s one reason he’s eager to meet you. He often quotes the prediction of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu mentioned in Caitanya-Bhagavata.’
prthivite ache yata nagaradi grama sarvatra
pracara haibe mora nama
“In as many towns and villages as there are on the surface of the earth, My holy name will be preached.”
[Chaitanya-Bhagavat, Antya 4, text 126]
“ ‘You know,’ said the brahmacari, ‘several times I’ve seen him shed tears as he talked about how the mercy of Lord Caitanya will one day leave India and flood the world with love of God. This morning, when we told him a Westerner dressed as a Vaisnava had arrived, he became very excited. I will translate for you when you meet him.’
As we entered the hut, I saw the guru, dressed only in a loin-cloth, sitting absorbed in chanting his japa. He opened his eyes and looked at me. ‘So, it is true,’ he said slowly.
“I paid my obeisances, and when I got up he called me to go near him. His disciples had told him of the program in the nearby village, and he asked a few questions about it. He paused for a moment.
“ ‘Who has done this service for Mahaprabhu?’ he said. ‘Who has introduced you Western boys and girls to the chanting of the holy names?’
“ ‘His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada,’ I said proudly. ‘He went to the West from India and gave us the chanting of Hare Krishna.’
“ ‘Please tell me more,’ he said.
“For over an hour he listened intently as I told him about Srila Prabhupada’s life: his childhood and youth, his meetings with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, his attempts to preach in India, and his eventual journey to the West. Several times the guru’s eyes welled up with tears.
“At the end he shook his head. ‘It was my great misfortune not to have met him, the person who fulfilled the prediction of Mahaprabhu. I can only offer him my dandavats.’
“He placed his folded hands above his head, and recited prayers for a long time. Then he turned to me. ‘You have asked for one of our salagrama-silas?’ he said.
“I was surprised. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I did.’ From the corner of my eye, I saw several brahmacaris looking intently at their guru.
“ ‘I will think about it,’ he said. The brahamacaris’ eyes opened wide.
“ ‘You must know the history of those Deities,’ he said. ‘It is written in our temple records. Five hundred years ago, my forefathers were sevaites [priests] in the temple of Gopal Bhatta Goswami in Vrindavan. Goswami engaged several families in the service of his beloved Deity, Radha-Raman. Do you know the history of Radha-Raman?’
“ ‘Yes, I do,’ I replied. ‘He is self-manifested from one of the salagrama-silas that Gopal Bhatta Goswami found in the Kali Gandaki River in Nepal.’
“The guru nodded his head. He seemed pleased that I knew the pastime. ‘In my family line,’ he said, ‘there were three brothers helping with that puja. One day in 1498 [1576 on the Western calendar], Gopal Bhatta Goswami asked them to come here, to what was formerly East Bengal but is now Bangladesh, to spread the teachings of Mahaprabhu.
“ ‘It was a great challenge, as the journey was long and dangerous and they would be on their own preaching Gauranga’s message. What’s more, he knew they would experience intense separation from Radha-Raman and from him himself, and also from Raghunatha Bhatta Goswami and Jiva Goswami, who were still living. So on the day of their departure, Gopal Bhatta Goswami called all of the brothers, and in the presence of Radha-Raman gave each of them a salagrama-sila. These are the three salagrama-silas you see on our altar.’
“He stopped talking and with closed eyes returned to chanting on his beads. I paid my obeisances and with the other brahmacaris left his quarters.
“I went and sat alone on the bank of the river, thinking about everything that was happening. I felt fortunate to have come to that peaceful asrama and met the guru and his disciples, but I felt embarrassed to have asked for such a special Deity.
“After a while I began wondering if it was all really true. I had never read that Gopal Bhatta Goswami had sent preachers out to spread Lord Caitanya’s message. ‘But then again,’ I thought, ‘it’s certainly possible. Little is actually recorded about those historic times.’
“I thought about a verse from the Bible I’d learned as a boy: ‘And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.’
“Then I thought about that gentle sadhu. He seemed the repository of all good qualities, and I felt ashamed that I might doubt his truthfulness.
“I finally concluded that I did believe him, but thought there was no chance he’d give me one of those historic salagrama-silas.
“Suddenly I looked at my watch. ‘Oh no!’ I thought. ‘I’m late. It’s almost noon. I have to get back. The devotees must be wondering where I am.’
“At that moment one of the brahmacaris came running.
“ ‘Guru Maharaja wants to see you!’ he said breathlessly. “We walked to the temple, entered, and paid our obeisances.
The guru was sitting in front of the altar chanting softly on his beads, eyes closed.
“Although he must have known we’d come in, he didn’t immediately acknowledge our presence. He remained absorbed in chanting Hare Krsna. After some time he opened his eyes and looked at me.
“ ‘I have decided to give you one of the salagramas,’ he said. “My heart was pounding.
“ ‘I feel that Mahaprabhu will be pleased that such a Deity is being worshiped by a Vaisnava from the West,’ he said. ‘It was His desire that His names be chanted in every town and village of the world. I have one request, however. Pray to that great acarya who delivered your people to kindly put the dust of his feet upon my head.’
“He motioned to one of the brahmacaris to take one of the salagramas from the altar. The boy sipped acamana from a small cup, went on the altar, and picked up the salagrama in the center. The brahmacari came back down, and the guru took the salagrama in the palm of his hand, looking at the sila affectionately for a long time. Then he touched the salagrama to his head, put some tulasi leaves and flowers around Him, and slowly placed Him in my trembling hands.
“Still trying to fathom my good fortune, I paid obeisances and tried to express my appreciation. But that saintly person had already closed his eyes and again returned to his chanting. I paid my obeisances one last time and left the temple.
“As I stepped outside I heard my name being called. ‘Guru Gauranga! Guru Gauranga! Where are you?’
“It was a devotee from the festival who had come looking for me.
“I’m here,” I called out.
“ ‘You’re in big trouble,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s been looking for you.’
“We walked quickly back to the village where we’d held the festival and left shortly thereafter.
“That was 14 years ago,” Guru Gauranga said.
I sat spellbound. I had not moved an inch the entire time. “Such mercy!” I said, gazing at the salagrama, which somehow seemed infinitely more beautiful than before.
“Yes,” Guru Gauranga said, “and mercy is something that should always be shared.”
It was more the way he said it than what he said that made me look up.
“Actually” he said, “I’ve been discussing with my wife how I’ve become so involved in my business nowadays that I hardly have time for puja. You know I’ve promised to help finance your festival program in Mauritius. On top of that, I’ve recently helped my own spiritual master, Bhakti Charu Maharaja, with the construction of his new temple in Ujjain. As a result, I’ve been working day and night.
He paused. “So we decided to ask you if you would take the Deity and worship Him.”
I looked at the salagrama. My mind was racing. “He was offered in service by the lotus hand of one of the Six Goswamis,” I thought. “What an honor it would be!”
Absorbed in my thoughts, I heard Guru Gauranga say in the background. “So will you accept Him?”
My meditation broke. “Yes,” I said, “of course. Thank you. What can I say? I’ll worship Him with all the love and devotion I can.” He handed me the Deity, and we talked about the details of his worship. Then I left for another appointment. As I drove through the suburbs of San Diego, I was now the one trying to fathom my good fortune.
“I can hardly believe it,” I thought. “What a wonderful conclusion to my preaching tour in America!”
I prayed to become a worthy recipient of the mercy I’d just received. I had a most wonderful incentive now: a Deity given twice over for the purpose of inspiring a preacher in his service to Lord Caitanya and the Six Goswamis of Vrindavan.
krsnokirtana gana nartana parau premamrtambho nidhhi
dhiradhira jana priyau priya karau nirmatsarau pujitau
sri caitanya krpa bharau bhuvi bhuvo bharavahantarakau
vande rupa sanatanau raghu yugau sri jiva gopalakau
“I offer my respectful obeisance to the six Goswamis, namely Sri Rupa Goswami, Sri Sanatana Goswami, Sri Raghunatha Bhatta Goswami, Sri Raghunatha das Goswami, Sri Jiva Goswami, and Sri Gopala Bhatta Goswami, who are always engaged in chanting the holy names and dancing. They are just like the ocean of love of God, and they are popular both with the gentle and the ruffians, because they are never envious of anyone. Whatever they do, they are all-pleasing to everyone, and they are fully blessed by Lord Caitanya. Thus they are engaged in missionary activities meant to deliver all the conditioned souls in the material universe.”
[Sri Sad Goswami-astaka, Srinivasa Acaraya, Verse 1]