Chapter-30: Bhagavad-gita in the Undertaker’s Office

February 7-March 4, 2003

By Indradyumna Swami

I spent two days in Vrindavan recuperating from the close call I’d had at the hands of a bogus taxi driver in Delhi, and then traveled to Durban, South Africa. North India had been experiencing its coldest winter in 50 years. By contrast, South Africa was seasonably hot, and as I descended from the plane I welcomed the warm summer air.

I use my annual, one-month visit to Durban to improve my health in preparation for the intensity of our Festival of India tour in Poland, now only months away. I began this year’s routine by rising early each morning to chant and do puja to my govardhan-sila and nrsimha-sila, and praying to Giriraja that I may always remember the sweet mood of devotional service in Vrindavan and to my nrsimha-sila to purify me for the Polish mission.

Later in the morning I would go to an Olympic-size public pool near the Durban temple and swim 40 laps – exactly 2km – in just under an hour. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable expending so much energy for my material body, but when I reflected how many devotees my age are becoming ill with the onslaught of old age, constant travel and stress of management, I persevered. Good health calculates in the life of a traveling preacher. It is said that if you lose your money you’ve lost nothing, if you lose your health you’ve lost something, but if you lose your spiritual life you’ve lost everything.

I would often venture out in the afternoon to raise funds for the festival in Poland. Stopping into shops, offices and homes, or just meeting people on the streets, I would humbly request donations. Often people would question giving money to help those on the other side of the world when South Africa has problems of its own. I would reply that as a sannyasi I don’t discriminate between country, race or religion, for everyone in the world is suffering for lack of Krsna consciousness. Sometimes my arguments worked and sometimes they didn’t. Begging is not an easy affair.

Nevertheless, I was happy to be preaching on the streets. Having done book distribution from 1971-1982, I attribute much of what I use now in my devotional service to those formative years. A sankirtan devotee is constantly reminded of the temporary and miserable nature of the material world, and often bears witness to amazing transformations in people’s lives as a result of their coming in contact with Krsna consciousness. One day in Pietermaritzburg, 70km from Durban, I had the good fortune to meet one such recipient of Lord Caitanya’s mercy.

Fatigued by the late afternoon sun, I decided to finish the day’s collecting and began walking back to my car. Stopping to rest in the shade, I looked up and saw a sign above the door where I stood. It read, “City Funeral Home.” Thinking it might be a suitable place to invoke sympathy for my cause, I opened the door. I cringed a little as I walked into the somber atmosphere of the funeral parlor, wherein were displayed all sorts of coffins, tombstones and plastic floral arrangements. Not finding anyone at the reception, I peered through an office window and saw a man sitting at a desk reading a book. He was so absorbed in reading that at first he didn’t hear me knock, and upon seeing me in my saffron robes and shaved head was a little startled, but he then invited me to enter.

As I made my way in, his attention went back to his book. Sitting patiently for a few moments in front of his desk, I finally said, “It must be an important book you’re reading.”

“Oh, yes,” he replied, “it’s the most important book I’ve ever read.”

Squinting in the dim lights, I tried to see what he was reading. Noticing my curiosity, he said with affection, “This is Bhagavad-gita, As It Is.”

Leaning closer, I saw the familiar picture of Lord Krsna driving Arjuna’s chariot on the cover.

“I started reading this book one year ago – after my son died in a traffic accident,” he said.

“I’m sorry to hear you lost your son,” I said.

He closed the book and looked wistfully at a framed picture of the young man on the wall. “He was only 22 years old, in the prime of his life. He was a good boy.”

Looking at me again, he then said, “A year before his death he came in contact with your movement. He became a vegetarian, started chanting and visiting your temple. He tried his best to get me involved, but I had no interest. I was concerned only with making money and enjoying life. As a result, sometimes we would quarrel about his new-found faith. I was hoping it was just a temporary phase.

“One day he came home and said that I should put my shoe shop on the market, because selling leather shoes was bad karma. Can you believe it? For 20 years I had that shop, and one day he tells me I should sell it! And you know what? I sold it. Not because of the leather shoes, but because I loved my son. I decided to retire and use the money from the sale to start him in a business of his own. This funeral home was a bargain. He managed it for only a week, then one day on his way to work he was killed. A friend who survived told me he called out Hare Krsna at the last moment.

“I was devastated. My only son had perished, vanished from the face of the earth, ceased to exist. It was too much for me. One morning I got the strength to come down here to collect his things and close the business. When I walked in here, to my son’s office, I saw this book open. There were none of the usual things on the desk – no papers, files, or pens – just this Bhagavad-gita open at this very page. I was irresistibly drawn to read it, and as I did the words acted as a soothing balm to my distraught soul. I discovered that my son had not actually perished – only his body had died. I learned that he was an eternal soul, and having chanted the name of God at the moment of his death may well have gone back to the spiritual world.

“I no longer lament the tragedy that took him, I’m only sorry I didn’t take up his entreaties to practice spiritual life with him, while he was alive. I’ve kept this business going in his memory. Being an undertaker is an unusual occupation. I don’t have to advertise, there’s always work in this profession. But many of my customers are in the same position I was, distraught and suffering. So I share with them the knowledge in this book. My real business, therefore, is reading Bhagavad-gita – and chanting Hare Krsna, like my son.”

With that, he opened the Bhagavad-gita and began reading again. I took it as my cue and stood up to leave. Grateful for the experience, I didn’t seek a donation. I felt I had received the most valuable thing – deeper faith in the Bhagavad-gita and the chanting of Krsna’s holy name. However, as I walked to the door the gentleman looked up and extended his hand. “Here, take this,” he said. “You can use it to get this knowledge to others who are suffering.”

I turned and accepted his offering, and as I did my eyes fell on the open page of the Bhagavad-gita. It was the last verse his son had read, and a source of great solace to his father. Although I had read it hundreds of times, by the grace of the Lord it now meant much more to me.

janma karma ca me divyam
evam yo vetti tattvatah
tyaktva deham punar janma
naiti mam eti so ‘rjuna

“One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving his body, take birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.”

[Bhagavad-gita 4.9]