August 26 – September 26, 2005
By Indradyumna Swami
Soon after our summer festival season, Nandini dasi and Jayatam dasa offered to organize a retreat for me so I could recover from the strain of 61 festivals in three months.
No doubt I needed rest, but I turned the offer down. “I need to keep active,” I thought, “otherwise the pain of separation from the festivals will be too great.”
Jayatam was not happy. “Srila Gurudeva,” he said, “you’re almost 57. you should start taking better care of yourself. It took you a long time to get over that flu recently.”
Then an invitation came to a festival in the city of Odessa, on the Black Sea in Ukraine. I jumped at the chance.
“At least take time to go swimming,” said Jayatam. “It will do you wonders.”
“Good idea,” I said and threw a pair of swimming trunks in my suitcase.
The three-day event turned out to be one lecture and kirtan after another, and I only saw the sea from a distance. But on the evening of the second day, my body gave me a warning.
I stepped forward to lead arotika in the main tent. A thousand devotees had crammed in, eager for kirtan. As I reached down to pick up a mrdanga, I felt a sharp pain shoot through my right side. I stood up straight, and the pain slowly subsided.
“Too much lunch,” I thought, and I started to sing.
As the kirtan built up, I passed the microphone to someone else and began dancing with the devotees. After an hour we were all leaping high. Suddenly I felt the same sharp pain in my abdomen. I continued dancing, trying to ignore it, but it became too much.
I had to slow down. I took back the microphone and starting singing again, but the pain kept getting worse. My voice trailed off, and I had to bring the kirtan to a close.
“More kirtan!” the devotees shouted. “More Kirtan!” I tried to smile as I turned around and walked to the nearest chair.
A brahmacari quickly walked over to me. “Is everything okay?”
He said. “You look pale.”
“I feel fine,” I said. “No problem.”
A few minutes later a senior devotee began lecturing on stage, and I retired to my room.
“I’ll be okay tomorrow,” I thought as I drifted off to sleep.
The next morning I was to give Srimad Bhagavatam class. As I sat playing the harmonium and singing before the lecture, I felt the pain in my abdomen again.
“What’s happening?” I thought, and I quickly ended the bhajan.
That afternoon, before leaving for Poland, I initiated 10 disciples in my room. Sadhumati dasi, an 85-year-old disciple came in to receive gayatri mantra.
She had tears in her eyes. “I’ve waited years for this moment,” she said. “Guru Maharaja, I’ve had a hard life, but the lord has always watched over and protected me.”
As I was chanting the Gayatri mantra in her right ear, the pain in my side appeared again. I winced, and I struggled to keep my concentration.
I was curious how Sadhumati had kept her strong faith in the lord throughout her life, so I asked her to tell me about herself.
“I was born near Nikolayev, Ukraine,” she began, “the youngest of six children. My family was very poor, and life was austere. even as children, we worked so hard that we rarely had time to attend church.
“I was in my early twenties when World War II started. I was sent to Saratov to sew clothes for the soldiers. Those were difficult times. We got only 500 grams of bread a day. Sometimes I cried because I was so hungry. I remember praying to god that I wouldn’t starve.
“I thought that anything would be better than the terrible conditions we lived in, so I volunteered to fight on the front lines. Because I was a woman, the local military commander refused, but I insisted, and he finally agreed. The Russian army had lost many men in the war. After three months of training, I was sent to help defend St. Petersburg from the Nazi invasion.
“Although I was a communist, I had deep faith in God. I saw many terrible things during the war. I often prayed, ‘My lord, if I’m killed today, please take me to you.’
“Once I had to climb a telephone pole to fix a wire. Just at that moment two fighter planes collided above and the falling debris knocked me down. I was severely injured, but I survived.
“After the war I married a soldier, and we had three children. When my eldest son grew up, he fell into bad association and started drinking and taking drugs. To maintain these vices, he began stealing. Finally he left home. Suddenly life had no meaning for me at all, and I prayed desperately to the lord to help me.
“Then one day my son came home to visit, and I saw many wonderful qualities in him. He’d given up his bad habits and was peaceful and serene. he said it was due to his faith in God. he told me he had joined a spiritual movement from India and asked me to visit his temple. When I did, I was impressed with the spiritual atmosphere.
“I visited the temple regularly. I was happy in God’s house, cutting vegetables and cleaning floors.
“Several years later you came to visit us, and after your first morning class, I asked if I could become your disciple. Now I am getting my second initiation, and I feel completely safe in Krsna’s hands.”
I was amazed. “Such is the mercy of the lord,” I thought, “that an elderly woman from the Ukrainian countryside-a former soldier in the red Army-has become a brahmani vaisnavi.”
I asked her one last question. “Despite your 85 years, you look quite healthy. What is your secret?”
She smiled. “I take care of myself,” she said.
Her answer echoed the advice Jayatam and Nandini had given me a few days earlier: to take better care of my own health.
“In one week I’ll be in hungary,” I thought, “and I’ll see a doctor about the pain in my side.”
After I arrived in Budapest, the devotees quickly arranged an appointment for me with a good doctor.
The doctor wanted me to first have a blood test and an ultrasound scan of my abdomen. During the scan a trainee-nurse gasped in shock. “O my God!” she blurted out. “your liver is so swollen!” The older nurses admonished her with strong looks.
“So that’s were the pain is coming from,” I said.
Several hours later, the doctor was studying the scan. “how long have you had this condition?” he asked. he looked concerned.
“I’ve felt the pain for ten days now,” I replied.
“Ten days?” he said. “And only now you’ve come in?” I was silent.
“Have you ever had liver problems before?”
“I had hepatitis A in India 10 years ago,” I said.
A devotee who had come with me spoke up. “And he assisted a senior devotee in our movement, Sridhar Swami, in his final days. Sridhar Maharaja had hepatitis C. Indradyumna Swami ate something that Maharaja had eaten.”
The doctor looked worried.
“You can only get hepatitis C from contaminated blood,” I said to the devotee.
“Or food contaminated from blood in the mouth of a patient with the virus,” the devotee replied. “Maharaja’s gums were bleeding toward the end.”
The possibility that I could be seriously ill suddenly hit me, and I began to sweat.
“Hepatitis C,” I thought. “Can kill.” I felt weak.
“We need to see the results of the blood tests tomorrow,” the doctor said in a professional tone. “There’s no use discussing this any further until then.”
On the way back to the temple I was quiet. Back in my room, I sat on a bed. “Is this the beginning of a long drawn-out disease?” I thought.
I shook my head. “No, no,” I thought. “It’s much too early to start thinking like this. The doctor said we should wait for the results of the blood tests.”
But the persistent pain, the worried look on the doctor’s face, and the devotee’s words had all affected me.
“If it actually turns out that I have a serious disease,” I thought, “I’ll keep preaching as long as I can and try to deepen my own Krsna consciousness at the same time. And I’ll make a serious effort to renounce everything that’s not essential to awakening my love for Krsna.”
I looked around the room and managed a small laugh. “I doubt whether such nice facilities as these will have any relevance when death is just around the corner,” I thought.
I shook my head and began to talk softly to myself. “Shame on you,” I said. “you’re probably more aware of hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq than Krishna’s pastimes in Vrindavan.”
I caught my reflection in a nearby mirror. “And you’ve put on weight,” I said.
I reached for a pen and paper. “eat frugally,” I wrote.
“And how have I been spending my spare time?” I thought. “Socializing,” I said softly, answering my own question. “But better to use that time in study, chanting the holy names, and prayer.”
Someone knocked on the door, and I awoke from my self-analysis. “Come in,” I said.
A devotee opened the door and peeked in. “Maharaja,” he said, “what did the doctor say?”
“Not much,” I replied. “he’s waiting for the results of my blood tests, but it could be serious.”
“I really hope not, Maharaja,” he said and closed the door. “Me too,” I said under my breath. “But what if it’s the beginning of the end?”
As I lay down that night, the pain came back, and I tossed and turned trying to find a comfortable position.
After some time I sat up straight. “Am I ready to die?” I said to myself. “I should be. A devotee’s whole life is preparation for that final moment.”
I remembered a Bengali Proverb:
bhajan kara sadhana kara-murte janle hoy
Whatever bhajan and sadhana one has performed throughout his life will be tested at the time of death.
[Srila Prabhupada lecture, Mumbai January 11, 1975]
I lay back down, and as I finally drifted off to sleep I made a promise to myself: “Whatever comes of this, I’m going to try and become a better devotee.”
Five hours later I awoke, thinking I’d had a nightmare about being sick. But the pain in my side came back, and I remembered the reality at hand.
The morning dragged on as I waited to go back to the clinic. Finally, 10 AM came, and when we entered the doctor’s office, I saw the results of my blood tests on his desk. he was on the phone, a serious look on his face. I became nervous. After what seemed like an eternity, he finished the call and picked up the results. he slowly turned around in his chair.
It was a tense moment.
He looked over the results. Then he smiled. “I see we’re not dealing with anything sinister,” he said. “There’s no virus, infection, or tumor.”
A wave of relief came over me.
“My opinion is that your liver was already weak from the hepatitis you had years ago, and combined with your present state of exhaustion, the long influenza you had, and perhaps the medication you were taking, it has become swollen.
“The swelling will gradually reduce over one month, but only if you take complete rest, eat properly, and do some moderate exercise.”
As we came out of the office the devotee with me heaved a sigh of relief.
“That was a close call, Maharaja,” he said.
“More like a wakeup call,” I said.
“To take care better care of yourself?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “and to take Krsna consciousness more seriously.” his face brightened. “Soon you’ll be just like before,” he said.
I was going to agree, when I suddenly remembered my realizations the night before. “Actually,” I said, “I don’t think things will ever be the same again.”
His smile vanished. “What do you mean?” he said. “The doctor said you’ll be fine in one month.”
“Last night I made some promises to myself,” I said, “and I feel they are as valid now as they were when I thought I was facing a long illness.”
The devotee raised his eyebrows.
“There will come a time when a medical exam won’t be so favorable,” I said. “And no doubt, one day I’ll have to die. I need to make some adjustments in my spiritual life. A sannyasi is meant to be the emblem of renunciation.
“A fish can swim in water, but if he tries to swim in milk he’ll drown. Similarly, one in the renounced order should live a simple life. If he accepts too much opulence he can fall down.
“While I recuperate, I’ll use the time to increase my hearing and chanting about the lord. It will help me and help my preaching. A sadhu shouldn’t be like a cow—always giving nectarean milk but only eating grass.”
“Where will you go to recuperate?” the devotee asked.
“For my body,” I said, “I’ll go immediately to Durban, South Africa, and rest for a month in our temple there. And for my soul, I’ll go to Vrindavan during Kartika. I’ll take shelter of the devotees there and try to remember the transcendental pastimes of the lord.”
svantar bhava virodhini vyavahrtih sarva sanais tyajyatam
svantas cintita tattvam eva satatam sarvatra sandhiyatam
tad bhaveksanatah sada sthira care nya drk tiro bhavayatam
vrindaranya vilasinor nisi dasyotsave sthiyatam
One by one, give up all activities that are averse to your internal mood. Always meditate on the subject matter that is firmly fixed in your heart. Consider all the animate and inanimate living entities of Vrindavan to be absorbed in thoughts of Radha and Krsna. In this way always reside in Vrindavan in a festive mood in the service of the youthful divine couple.
[Srila Prabodhananda Saraswati, Sri Vrindavan Mahimamrta, Sataka 3, Text 1]