April 14-28, 2005
By Indradyumna Swami
As our two-month tour of the American temples was coming to a close, I found myself drawing on my body’s reserve energies. Our schedule of two or three programs a day meant I rarely went to bed before midnight. Constantly on the move, traveling back and forth through different time zones, eating irregularly, and sleeping in a different home every other day had become a taxing routine and had taken its toll on me.
In Alachua, Florida, I fainted one morning as I left the temple. A devotee helped me outside and sat me on the lawn. Maharaja, he said, you’d better slow down. Take it easy.
Actually I’m in good shape, I replied. I had a full medical checkup in Mumbai two months ago, and the doctors said I was fine.
Then why did you faint? he asked.
I did my best to smile. It’s the last leg of the trip, I said. I’ll be okay. Don’t worry.
As I sat on the lawn recuperating, I thought back on the past two months. If I had to do it over again, I said to myself, I wouldn’t change a thing.
I love my life as a traveling preacher. I relish preaching in any given place and then picking up and moving on. Even before I was a devotee I had traveled the length and breadth of America by the time I was 14 years old. When I accepted sannyasa at 29 and started traveling extensively, it was the perfection of that desire. It was no longer the wanderlust of a restless teenager, but the solemn duty of spreading the mission of the Lord. Remaining fixed in that service has required keeping focused on the goal – and never looking back.
I often remember Srila Prabhupada’s words as he handed the danda to a new sannyasi in Mayapura: Don’t look back and think you have left anything behind, and never envy the position of the materialistic householders.
Forget the past that sleeps and ne’er
The future dream at all
But act in times that are with thee
And progress thee shall call.
[Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, Saragrahi Vaisnava, 16th stanza]
But the past eight weeks had been pure preaching, and there was no harm in reflecting on the many highlights that came to mind: big temple kirtans at morning programs, selected verses from Srimad Bhagavatam that I had enjoyed speaking on, numerous sweet bhajans by Sri Prahlad, and the special feasts.
But the most precious memories of all were of the many devotees I’d met. The nectar of their association far outweighed any austerities I’d encountered. And I’d had plenty of association.
I suddenly realized that I was alone for the first time in months, sitting there on the lawn. I laughed out loud.
Many devotees came to mind, big and small. I remembered a middle-aged woman on Harinam in New Orleans who caught my attention because she seemed to be the happiest of all the devotees there. After the Harinam, as we all walked back to the van, she approached me.
Maharaja, she said, my name is Sarva Laskmi dasi, and I’m the happiest woman on earth.
I won’t contest that, I said smiling.
I’ll tell you why, she said. In the 1960s I committed a horrible crime and was sentenced to 90 years in jail.
My eyebrows went up.
But several years ago, she continued, some devotees started a bhakti yoga program in the federal penitentiary where I was incarcerated. I began attending the programs and soon took up Krsna consciousness in earnest.
I was trying hard to become a good devotee, so I also became a model prisoner. Two years later, after my spiritual master, Bir Krsna Maharaja, initiated me inside the prison, I was suddenly granted a full pardon and released.
No official explanation was ever given why they let me go, but I knew it was simply Krsna’s mercy. Now I try to share my good fortune with those who are prisoners in the jailhouse of material existence by preaching Krsna consciousness.
As the woman left, I could only marvel at the clemency of the prison officials, and even more at the mercy of the Lord. And more surprises came at the Sunday feast the next day.
During the program, a woman devotee asked me to bless her baby. She held the child up and said, He’s special.
Of course, I replied, thinking that all mothers think their babies are special.
She smiled. No, she said, he really is special. He hardly moved in my womb. In fact, I didn’t know I was pregnant until the eighth month.
My eyebrows went up again.
I had been experiencing a number of medical problems, she continued, but one particularly bad day I visited my doctor. Suddenly he got a surprised look on his face. Young lady, he said, you’re pregnant!
Her husband smiled and nodded his head. I wish the child well, I said. I pray this may be his last birth in the material world.
Then another woman approached me. I couldn’t help overhearing, she said.
You know, I’ve recently been born as well.
After all I’d heard in the last two days, I was ready for anything. How’s that? I asked.
I lived in this temple 30 years ago and saw Srila Prabhupada several times, she said. But foolishly I left early in my devotional life. Recently I’ve come back. I feel hope again. In effect, I’ve been reborn.
Will you stay with us now? I asked.
Definitely, she replied. I’ll never leave again.
The trip through the United States was filled with nectar – the kirtans, the stories of how devotees came to Krsna consciousness, the preaching, but the Lord was saving the best for last.
Our last stop was the Miami temple in Coconut Grove, a beautiful property in a well-known and well-to-do area. Trivikrama Maharaja had come from Orlando for our visit, and when Sri Prahlad, Rukmini Priya, and I arrived, he greeted us with a small group of devotees having kirtan.
I noted one devotee in particular, who seemed to be especially absorbed in the chanting. His eyes were closed as he concentrated on the holy names, and a blissful smile adorned his face. As the kirtan party took us into the temple, I noticed that his fixation with chanting didn’t diminish.
He obviously has a strong attraction for Krsna’s holy names, I thought. I hope I can get his association.
I turned to Trivikrama Maharaja. Who is that devotee who’s relishing the kirtan so much? I asked.
Maharaja smiled. His name is Siddha-vidya dasa, he said. He’s our Godbrother, and he’s been part of the Miami temple practically from the beginning.
I couldn’t wait to meet him, but during my short arrival talk, I noticed him get up and go out of the temple. I became anxious that I might not get his association that day.
As soon as I finished my talk, I turned to another devotee. Where did Siddha-vidya go? I asked.
He’s getting ready for Harinam, the devotee said.
I was surprised because a big program was scheduled in the temple that evening.
But the program’s in just a few hours, I said.
The devotee laughed. You don’t know Siddha-vidya. He’s been going on Harinam sankirtan in Miami practically every single day since he joined in 1971.
I made a quick calculation in my mind. Every day for 33 years? I asked.
For the most part, yes, he replied, except when he’s sick or in India or there’s a special event happening.
He appears to be a humble Vaisnava, I thought, one of those silent soldiers in ISKCON who carries on year after year, not wanting any recognition.
Sometimes he’s out there all by himself, the devotee continued. In Miami everyone knows him.
Year’s ago he was chanting outside the Super Bowl football game, and a television crew approached him. ‘Whose going to win the game?’ they asked.
‘Krishna,’ he said with a big smile. They put that on the evening news, and he became famous.
I became even more anxious to get his association.
He rarely misses a morning program as well, the devotee continued proudly.
Makes sense, I thought. That’s were he gets his taste for the holy name.
Some years ago there was a serious misunderstanding between him and the local management, the devotee continued. The management went so far as to ban him from coming into the temple room. So you know what he did?
No, what? I asked.
Every single morning for two and a half years he came and watched the mangala arati from the window. He was even there during a hurricane.
When can I meet him? I asked.
On the Harinam this afternoon, the devotee said. We’re all going down to chant at South Beach.
I was the first in the van.
South Beach is a hip area of restaurants and cafés stretching half a mile along the seaside. It is frequented by locals and tourists alike. Though it was a weekday when our group of 15 devotees arrived, there were plenty of people walking on the streets and sitting in the sidewalk cafés.
I was hoping that Siddha-vidya would lead the kirtan, but in humility he deferred to Sri Prahlad. Sri Prahlad began to sing and play his accordion, and our kirtan party was an immediate hit. The area was full of Cubans and other Latinos, and they couldn’t resist dancing to the beat. People soon began spilling out of the restaurants and dancing with us on the sidewalks. I wasn’t used to such a reaction to Harinam. In Poland people smile and wave, but here people jumped right into the kirtan party.
I was absorbed in the kirtan when I noticed how Siddha-vidya was interacting with the crowd. He showed no inhibition in welcoming people to join from the sidelines. Many could not resist his invitation. As we moved along the sidewalk, he waved at the groups that had gathered to watch us, and many people waved back.
Hare Krsna, Sid! a man yelled out.
Hari Bol, fellas! said another.
I watched as Siddha-vidya shook hands with several passersby who obviously knew him. When he raised his hand and slapped a high-five with a black man, the man smiled warmly, as if an old friend.
Siddha-vidya moved easily through the streets. He was in his element -giving Krsna consciousness to the people. He was a sankirtan devotee to the core. He loved the people, and they loved him too. When we came close to some rough-looking men sitting at a table with their girlfriends, I avoided getting close. But Siddha Vidya approached them with a smile and gave one of the women a maha garland from the temple Deities. The group roared with approval. I jockeyed myself to get closer to Sid. I wanted his mercy too.
At one point he suddenly turned left off the sidewalk and led us directly through the doors of a big restaurant. The restaurant had just opened, and the waiters were still busy setting things up, but as soon as they saw Siddha-vidya, they dropped everything and started singing, clapping, and dancing alongside us.
I stood back for a moment. Who is he? I thought. Who is this devotee who inspires people to dance wildly to the sound of Krsna’s holy names?
Obviously it wasn’t the first time he’d been in the restaurant, but he seemed to be taking special pleasure in the fact that he had a big group of devotees with him this time and that Sri Prahlada, who was in true form, was rocking the house with the sound of the holy names. Even the bartender raised his arms in ecstasy.
As we continued down the street more people whistled and hollered to get his attention. This devotee has created a revolution of the holy names in this little corner of the world, I thought. By diligently going out day after day, month after month, year after year, he has melted these people’s hearts and started them on the path of devotion.
The Harinam ended after two hours, and people smiled and waved as we drove off. It was all due to the determined efforts of Siddha-vidya to spread the glories of the holy names.
tebhyo namo stu bhava varidhi jirna panka
sammagna moksana vicaksana padukebhyah
krsneti varna yugala sravanena yesam
anandathur bhavati nartita roma vrndah
I offer my respectful obeisances to the devotees of the Lord. When they simply hear the two syllables ‘Krsna,’ their bodily hairs stand up in ecstasy and they become moved to dance in ecstatic bliss. With their sandals they expertly extricate the fallen souls deeply sunk in the fetid mud of the ocean of repeated birth and death.
[Srila Rupa Goswami’s Padyavali, Text 54 by Sri Autkala]
My good fortune didn’t end with Harinam that day. Before my visit was over I heard another tale of wonder, attributed to the causeless mercy of the Lord.
I was in the temple restaurant just about to begin my meal when I looked up and saw a man in a suit and tie enter. In the casual atmosphere he looked almost out of place in such formal clothes. Assuming he was a guest, I was about to ask a local devotee to invite him to sit with me, but when the gentleman saw me he immediately paid obeisances.
Trivikrama Maharaja spoke up. That’s Murari Gupta das, he said. He’s a doctor and recently initiated by Bhakti Marg Swami.
Murari Gupta came over. After exchanging pleasantries I asked how long he had been involved in Krsna consciousness. He told me that in 1973 he was 17 and attending his first semester at the University of Florida. While walking to class one afternoon, he saw Tamal Krsna Goswami preaching to some students on a lawn of the university.
The Radha Damodar Traveling festival was visiting the campus for a few days, Murari Gupta said. Maharaja had arrived early that day, before the other devotees.
I was interested in the spiritual teachings of the East, and I had read a version of the Bhagavad Gita several times, so I was immediately attracted, seeing Maharaja standing there in saffron cloth. Although he was young at the time, he appeared elderly and wise.
Over the next three days, Tamal Krsna Maharaja spoke with me on several occasions, encouraging me to join their traveling festival. I wasn’t ready, however. Nevertheless, after they left I started visiting the local Gainesville temple. Six months later I finally gave up my studies and moved into the temple. For the next six months I distributed Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Then one day I left to join the Radha Damodar party. I traveled on one of the buses and continued my service of book distribution.
During the next year I was recommended twice for initiation from Srila Prabhupada, but both times I refused. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to take initiation. Rather, I took it as a serious commitment. I came from a well-to-do family, where my father had instilled in me the importance of accepting responsibility seriously. I wanted to be 100 percent sure that if I took my vows, I would never fail my spiritual master.
At the same time, my family was putting pressure on me to go back to school. My parents would visit me in different temples. They were respectful to Krsna consciousness but insistent that I finish my education. As a result, I was often in duality as to what I should do.
In Atlanta, in 1974, during a visit by Srila Prabhupada to the temple, I was again recommended for initiation. But once again I hesitated. I had just read an article on the importance of initiation written by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, and he was firm about the loyalty of a disciple. I wasn’t sure I met the criteria for being such a surrendered soul.
On the morning of the initiation I was sitting outside the temple, confused. Suddenly I saw Srila Prabhupada coming my way, returning from his morning walk, surrounded by many disciples. Srila Prabhupada seemed to sense my dilemma and spoke a few words of reassurance to me as he passed.
But just before the ceremony began, I left the temple and quickly made my way back home to Chicago. To make a long story short, I went back to school and eventually graduated with a medical degree. I was soon a practicing doctor. Later I married and had three children.
My work often took me overseas where I would visit temples incognito. Wherever I went I carried a picture of Srila Prabhupada and chanted rounds on my beads each day. But I never revealed to the devotees I met that I was a covered bhakta. I was always a guest. I considered myself a thief in the night. I would come to a temple, see the Deities, take prasadam, and get some association. But I never offered any service in return.
That all changed, however, after the terrorist attack in New York on September 11, 2001. At the time I was working in a hospital in Miami, and in the interest of national security the Florida Department of Health requested a security check on all doctors and nurses in the state. All our records and data were scrutinized, and one day I was called into the head office of the hospital. They had discovered that I had been arrested 17 times in my youth. I winced as I remembered that all those arrests were in connection with distributing books during the Radha Damodar traveling party days.
There were no convictions because the police always let us go after a verbal thrashing, but the head of the hospital did note with concern the most serious arrest: several other brahmacaris and I had dressed as soldiers to facilitate our book distribution. We had done it only once but were caught. The military became involved, but eventually dropped charges.
You can imagine how frustrated I was. I had to do a lot of explaining to the head of the hospital. But I did not want to ever be questioned again, so I called my lawyer and asked how to clear the record for good. He checked with the government and they said they would expunge all information from my records if I paid a fine of $5,000 and did 100 hours of community service.
As a doctor, it wasn’t a big obstacle to pay the fine, but I couldn’t imagine how I would do 100 hours of community service. Suddenly I got the idea that I could do service at the local Hare Krsna Temple. They were one of the organizations listed under authorized places for this kind of service.
I had been visiting the temple incognito, and so no one knew me when I approached the temple authorities for service. They were happy to let me serve my 100 hours in temple duties, and so several times a week I would go to the temple and wash pots.
Boy, were the devotees surprised when they finally learned I was a doctor! They were even more amazed when they found out I was actually a devotee who had served on the Radha Damodhar party for a couple of years. They were kind to me, and gradually I became fully reinstated in Krsna consciousness. Eventually I became the temple treasurer. And now, of course, I’m the temple doctor.
On December 18, 2004, 32 years after meeting the devotees, I finally took initiation from His Holiness Bhakti Marg Maharaja.
I’m glad you finally made it, I said. I wish you all success.
Soon after my visit to Miami I left America for Europe. As I boarded the flight to London, I reminisced once again on the nectar of associating with devotees like Siddha-vidya and Murari Gupta. I would miss them. The only consolation was that on the other side of the ocean, I would meet more devotees, and more again wherever my travels took me. Such is the great mercy of the Lord.
hari smrty ahlada stimita manaso yasya krtinah
sa romancah kayah nayanam api sananda salilam
tam evacandrarkam vaha purusa dhaureyam avane
kim anyais tair bharair yama sadana gaty agati paraih
When the devotees remember Lord Hari, their hearts become overwhelmed with bliss, their bodily hairs stand erect, and their eyes become filled with tears of joy. O Earth, these devotees are the best of men. Please carefully maintain them for long as the sun and the moon shine in the sky. What is the use of your carefully maintaining those other burdensome persons who are simply intent on coming and going to and from the house of Yamaraja?
[Padyavali, Srila Rupa Goswami, Text 55 by Sri Sarvananda]