ISKCON


This article is dedicated to Inno, Emina, Simone, Wepener, Ingrid, the BYS students at Wits and UJ and all those who want to know the techniques of mantra meditation.

I first spoke to Hare Krishna devotees in Cape Town in February 1997. Most of the devotees were in their early twenties. They wore eastern clothes. And they seemed to be happy. They were always chanting which sometimes frustrated me because I wanted to speak to them. I had so many questions.

The devotees had something I had been ardently looking for – a method of self-realization that connected them to God twenty-four hours a day. What was this? The chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Yes. It was that simple: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama/Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Their spiritual lifestyle complemented their constant chanting of the mantra. They refrained from intoxicants, meat-eating, gambling and were celibate. Everything they seemed to know – the philosophy, wisdom and practices of Krishna consciousness – was attributed to a teacher named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Aside from the obvious pleasure they derived from chanting, the devotees substantiated their practices with quotes from the Vedas. My second or third meeting with the devotees took place amidst the Parthenon-like architecture of the University of Cape Town (UCT). On this particular occasion, I approached a scholarly young woman named Rati. It was an incongruous situation. I was talking to a western girl, dressed in a sari, about the Ancient Indian spiritual culture. And this conversation was taking place amidst the neoclassical columns and steps of a university campus in Africa!

We philosophized on the Bhagavad-gita before Rati launched into an explanation of the chanting. I asked her, ‘How long should we chant?’ Rati answered matter-of-factly, ‘Twenty-four hours a day’. There was a distant look in her eyes as she quoted a verse from an ancient Sanskrit writing called the Brihad-aranyika Purana: harer nama harer nama/harer nama eva kevalam/kalau nasty eva nasty/eva nasty gatir anyatha. In this age of Kali the method for self-realization is the chanting of the holy names, the chanting of the holy names, the chanting of the holy names. There is no other way, there is no other way, there is no other way’.

After reading Juan Mascaro’s Bhagavad-gita I was convinced that I could become ‘enlightened’ or ‘self-realized’ through spiritual knowledge and principled living. Impressed by my knowledge of Hinduism and my interest in the Vedas, Rati encouraged me to read Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. We spoke again, a few days later, and she asked me if I had gained anything significant from the book. I replied, ‘Determination’. Prabhupada seemed, however, to be repeating the same thing over and over again in his ‘purports’ or commentaries to the Gita – chant Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/Hare Rama Hare Rama/Rama Rama Hare Hare. It was the same message and practice the devotees advocated.

Rati carefully pulled some wooden prayer beads from a cloth bag and, very gently, extolled the glories of chanting the mantra. ‘These are for you’, she said. There was no need for me to chant, I thought. I was quite happy reading the Bhagavad-gita. Sensing my apprehension, Rati said, ‘Just try’. ‘Okay’, I replied. That night I chanted on the beads for about half-an-hour. The chanting had a profound effect on me. Everything slowed down. The mantra seemed to open my perceptions and my ability to see the unity of God’s creation. All the knowledge in the Bhagavad-gita assumed a tangible form in the chanting of Hare Krishna.  Statements of Krishna like, ‘I am the light of the sun and the moon’, ‘I am the strength of the strong’ and ‘of bodies of water I am the ocean’ made perfect sense.  The chanting gave me a sense of God’s presence within and without myself.

I saw Rati the next day. ‘How was it?’ she said. ‘I feel like there is no need to read the Bhagavad-gita now. The chanting seems to encapsulate everything Krishna says in the Gita.’ ‘Well, the two go hand-in-hand’, she said. Rati was very convincing.

We ascended the flight of stairs behind Braja Mohan prabhu’s house for the Sriji Mandir.  We stood on the top of the hill and admired the view of Varsana.  I followed Braja Mohan to the entrance of the Temple.  ‘You can leave your capalas here’, he said.  We took off our shoes and entered the crowded Temple.  I was the only westerner – something you would not find in a cosmopolitan ISKCON Temple.  Had I stepped back in time?  A group of local devotees, some in dhotis and some in western dress, huddled around a harmonium singing songs of praise to the Divine Couple.  Braja Mohan took me by the hand and led me through the crowd.  We wormed our way near to the front of the altar.

The brahmana priests were engaged in concentrated worship of Radha and Krishna.  The bell above the Temple Room door clanged incessantly.  The Deities were brightly dressed and, when the pujari blew the  conch, the restless-looking crowd burst into  rapturous song.  I closed my eyes and lost myself in song.   The assembly had become one mouth in their spirited praise of the ultimate worshipper, Sri Radha.  No hype.  No spiritual celebrity.   Just a heartfelt offering of love from a congregation to their Deities.  When the singing stopped there was a press of devotees towards the altar, where old women and men-with-moustaches-and-pants stretched to reach the sacred ghee-lamps.  By Braja Mohan’s grace, I was able to get a nice view of the Deities and offer prayers to the Divine Couple.  We left the Temple and retraced our way down the ancient stairway.  I bade good night to my friend, and took rest.

ISKCON Mayapur, 19 March 2001

I made friends with Gulap Kali today.  Gulap is a female elephant, and her stable is near Srila Prabhupada’s Samadhi.  Gulap was orphaned when the Ganga flooded, and adopted by the devotees of ISKCON Mayapur.  She has been engaged in the service of Sri Sri Radha-Madhava ever since.  She has the good fortune of carrying Radha-Madhava on her head during the Elephant Procession around the Temple Compound every Saturday night.  I have been told that she was once in a kirtan procession at the Yoga Pitha (next door to ISKCON Mayapur) and tears were streaming down her eyes as she danced with the devotees in ecstasy.  I called out to her – ‘Gulap’ – but she was a little shy.  Her minder allowed me to stroke the top of  her trunk.  And she acceded.

I bathed in Ganga around noon.  I visited the Jagannath Temple down the road from our Temple.  I took darsan of Jagannath-Baladeva-Subhadra and bought some maha-prasada at the little gift shop next to the Temple.  I also purchased a hand-woven dhoti at the hand-loom behind the Temple.

We took the ferry to Navadvipa.  By Krishna’s grace we met our brahmacari host Advaita Acarya prabhu.  Looking at the majestic white dome of Srila Prabhupada’s Samadhi Mandir, Advaita Acarya remarked, ‘It is getting late.  Srila Prabhupada instructed his disciples to build the Mayapur Temple, but most of them are sick now.’  He mentioned how Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja had brought up this point in a lecture in Mayapur.  The ferry chugged along with its cargo of bicycles, women in colourful saris and men in gamchas and dirty shirts.  When will the Temple be built?

We just managed to get a train from Navadvipa to Howrah.  I decided not to go to Jagannath Puri, as it was outside of the authorized programme my Temple President, Sikhi Mahiti prabhu, had prescribed for me.  The beautiful green rice paddy fields of Gauradesa almost took my breath away.  Sadly, we were going back into the city.  Gaurakishore Babaji Maharaja – the Spiritual Master of Srila Prabhuapada’s guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur – told Bhaktisiddhanta that Calcutta was hell.  ‘Never leave Vrindavan’, he instructed him.  Why, then, did Bhaktisiddhanta make Calcutta the headquarters of the Gaudiya Matha?  And why did he leave his body in Calcutta?  Did he disobey his guru?  Vrindavan is a state of consciousness.  Lord Chaitanya, for example, danced ecstatically before Lord Jagannath at the Ratha Yatra Festival singing, ‘Mora mana Vrindavan! Mora mana Vrindavan!’ (‘My mind is Vrindavan!  My mind is Vrindavan!).  Similarly, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was always in Vrindavan consciousness and, therefore, never left Vrindavan – even when he was physically in Calcutta.

Calcutta was like a black-and-white ink sketch:  sooty, full of crows, full of dust and noisy.  We spent three hours at the station trying to buy tickets.  To no avail.  We crossed the Ganga, and tried to get ‘Tourist Quota’ tickets (tickets reserved for tourists) at Fairlie Place.  No luck there. I informed Padmanabha prabhu that the clerk had recommended we return tomorrow.  Padmanabha prabhu said, ‘No problem’.

20 March 2001 – Taking the train from Navadvipa Station to Howrah Station

My train to Howrah Station was delayed by 3 hours at Navadvipa Station.  Padmanabh and I visited the ISKCON Preaching Centre at Lake Avenue, Calcutta.  We were directed to an ISKCON Guest House called Geeta Bhavan (‘Gita House’).  Geeta Bhavan had been donated to ISKCON by a wealthy Calcutta businessman.  We were hungry so we left our bags in the room, hailed a cab and combed the streets of Calcutta looking for the Govinda’s Restaurant.

‘But worldly people take a contrary view and give the service of Godhead the second or subsidiary place to morality on the assumption that moral living may easily dispense the same.  There are people who admit the existence of God in their practical conduct as a means of establishing themselves in moral life as if Godhead is a mere steward and caterer of their worldly conveniences and comforts.  They opine that Godhead exists only for making us moral and not for our service.  To make Him exist for morality is to make Him an order-supplier.  Such misguided persons make a show of serving God for a time in order that while leading a life of gross worldliness they may pass before the world as self-restrained holy personages, but their purpose is to turn their so-called object of worship into an Impersonal Entity in the long run.  Godhead exists in His Transcendental Form that is visible only to His devotees who render their services for the gratification of His Senses.  Neither conventional morality, which are divorced from the service of Godhead and are practised for the sensual gratification of men, has any place in the conduct of those who live for the gratification of the Senses of God.  All morality, sanctity, good manners, patience, humility, and every other good quality of the head and heart are alway anxious to serve the purpose of the devotees if they are accepted for the worship of God.  Thus it should be admitted on all hands that to seek to separate morality from theism and to imagine Godhead Himself to be subservient to the rules of conventional morality, is nothing short of undiluted atheism’

[Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur, ‘Spiritual Morality and Aesthetic Culture’ p.107-8]

Pankajanghri prabhu taking us on a tour of Mayapur

18 March 2001, ISKCON Mayapur

Pankajanghri prabhu gave Bhagavad-gita class in the evening.  His words were simple, but profound: ‘There is the theoretical understanding, ‘I am eternal servant of Krishna’; and  there is the practical application based on sadhu, sastra and guru.  Many cannot put this into practice.  Then, there are those who put this into practice but cannot practice for long.  And there are those who practice for long, but who still fall away.  Devotional service can be quite testing‘.

I met Pankajanghri some hours later behind Radha-Madhava’s kitchen.  He was pacing up and down in the darkness, chanting his japa.  I offered him my obeisances.  I was surprised when he did the same back.  Senior devotees normally just fold their palms and say, ‘Hare Krishna!’  He reminded me of a schoolboy.  Youthful, despite his age.  He was very humble.  I asked him about the wooden Deity of Lord Chaitanya in Prabhupada’s rooms.  He dead-panned, ‘Clay’.  The Deity was made from clay.  I had some pictures of Radha-Madhava which I had bought at one of the gift shop booths on the Campus.  I asked him to write something at the back of one of the photos.  He asked me what I should write.  I said, ‘I just want your blessings, prabhu’.  He wrote, ‘May you always think of Radha-Madhava’.

Pankajanghri prabhu changed track and said, ‘It’s my birthday today’.  I said, ‘But I thought it was at your birthday the other day’.  He replied, ‘Yesterday.  That was our tithi.  Tithi is the according to the moon.  Today is our actual birthday’.  He went on, ‘One Vaisnava near here from the Gaudiya Math is a hundred years old.  He says, ‘Trees live to be a hundred’.  So, what’s the big deal about having a birthday?’.  I said, ‘It is different.  You are a Vaishnava’.  Pankajanghri then asked, ‘What is your name?’  ‘Michael’.  ‘How long have you been at the Temple?’ I said, ‘Here?’ ‘No.  In ISKCON’.  ‘Four years’.  ‘And you are uninitiated?’  I told him about my meeting with Radhanath Maharaja and he said, ‘He’s accepted you.  That’s real initiation.  You are fortunate to have a Spiritual Master!’

Since Pankajanghri prabhu is such a revered pujari (priest of the Deity), I wanted to ask him a pertinent question.  So I asked,’What is the essence of Deity worship?’  He replied, ‘You have to understand who you’re dealing with.   The Deity is not just wood or stone.  If you think like that, it’s because you think you are made of blood and marrow.  The Deity is spiritual.  Krishna mercifully comes in the form of the Deity for our benefit.  We should always have the consciousness that the Lord is sentient.  The Lord can, of course, alternate between matter and spirit, spirit and matter’.  His words shed new light on Deity worship for me.  He continued, ‘We have to be careful of offences.  In the beginning we are absent-minded.  We have bad thoughts and commit seva-aparadhas [offences while serving the Deity].  As we progress, there is improvement.  Everntually, after some years, our consciousness develops by serving the Deity.  We can take that consciousness outside the Temple and see the Lord everywhere’.

I thanked Pankajanghri prabhu, and took his leave.

18 March 2001, Sri Mayapur Dhama

Vaishnavas are like salt.  Salt pervades a dish, but cannot be seen.  Similarly, the presence of great devotees has a high impact, yet they never push themselves forward.  Jananivas and Pankajanghri prabhus are like that.   I never met them during my first visit to Mayapur in 1997, but certainly felt their presence.  As twin pujaris of ISKCON Mayapur, Jananivas and Pankajanghri are an integral part of the Mayapur experience.  This time I had heard more of their glories and wanted to hear from them and witness their unwavering dedication to Radha-Madhava.  I was not  disappointed.

Subhaga Maharaja gave the English Srimad Bhagavatam class in the Sankirtan Building on the morning of March 18 2001.  He spoke philosophically about the beauty and joyfulness of the bhakti process from Chapter 15 of the 7th Canto.  He related an incident where an impersonalist came to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur with mangos.  Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati distributed the mangoes to his disciples, leaving one rotten one for the impersonalist.  Bhaktisiddhanta said, ‘All is one.  So, this is the same’.  The man reluctantly ate the rotten mango.  He explained how Bhaktisiddhanta encouraged his disciples to honour sumptuous offerings of prashadam (offered foods) – gaja, sweet dal and laddhu – in Jagannatha Puri.  He quoted the founder of the Hare Krishna Movement, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, telling his disciples to ‘Eat Simply Wonderful [a delicious milk sweet], and go back to the wonderful world’.  Prashadam should be taken in moderation, however.  As we make advancement we should minimize our intake of prasada.  Today was Srivas Thakur’s Appearance Day.  It was also the tithi celebration of Jananivas and Pankajanghri prabhu’s Appearance Day.  Subhaga Maharaja ended his class by saying, ‘Happy Birthday’ to the twins.  Pankajanghri prabhu humbly responded, ‘Make us happy’.

I visited the Yoga Pitha – the Birthplace of Lord Chaitanya – with Padmanabha prabhu.  Yoga Pitha means ‘blending-spot’ – where the spiritual comes in contact with the material creation.  We offered our obeisances to lord Siva – at the site where Mahaprabhu appeared. We bathed in Ganga again.  Then went home. I heard there was going to be a celebration – a vyasa-puja ceremony – for the twins, but did not know where it was going to take place.  The observance of the twins’ birthday was kept  secret because, in their humility, they often disappeared at the hint of a celebration.  They lived to serve Radha-Madhava and the Deities of the ISKCON Mayapura Candrodaya Mandir.

Some time after noon I saw Ganga prabhu, one of the local residents of Mayapur, leaving the Conch Building.  I followed him to Jananivas and Pankajanghri’s quarters, behind the Altar.  The devotees had brought two vyasasanas into their room and the brothers were seated next to each other with garlands around their necks.  A group of about thirty devotees – permanent residents of Mayapur – were singing the guru vandanam prayers, offering garlands and gifts to the brothers.  There was a queue of devotees standing in line.  Some were standing, some were making offerings to them and others were bowing at their feet.  The twins, in return, were handing out maha-prasada from the Deities.  It was a sweet and moving scene.

I gave Jananivas prabhu a picture of Radhanath Maharaja and His Grace dressing Radha-Gopinatha.  He exclaimed, ‘Oh, it’s Chowpatty!’  Jananivas placed a large simply wonderful in my hand.  I bowed and made way for the next person in  line.  Someone handed me a pair of karatalas, which I played ecstatically.  The kirtan was brief, but rousing.  Then Bhakti Purussotama Maharaja recited the prema-dhvani prayers.  The devotees moved in a colourful procession to the marble corridor behind the Deities.  A huge transcendental feast was served.  Some of the local preparations and western dishes that the twins liked were served.  The feast was out of this world:  I ate and ate but did not feel full.

Jananivas and Pankajanghri were sitting on the far end of the corridor with the Bengali brahmacaris.  At one point a cluster of brahmacaris leaned forward and took the remnants of both twins from their plates!  This is very rare because Jananivas and Pankajanghri are very humble and rarely let anyone take their remnants.  I sat there and appreciated their wonderful qualities and the wonderful celebration of their lives.

17 March 2001

I was happy to be in Mayapur after the Gaura Purnima Festival.  Although it is wonderfully auspicious to observe Gaura Purnima (the Appearance Day of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu) in the Holy Dhama, I was happy the crowds had left.  A handful of western pilgrims remained – burnt out after a month festivities.  Padmanabha prabhu and I savoured the transcendental atmosphere of Sri Mayapur Dhama.

We walked out of the brahmacari ashram into the car-park, wearing only gamchas and capalas.  Padmanabha led the way to a pier on the bank of the Ganges where devotees liked to bathe.  I was amazed how soft and smooth her banks were.  We took off our capalas and offered obeisances to Mother Ganga.  Padmanabha covered himself in Ganges mud and wallowed in her shallows.  I reverentially immersed my self in Ganga’s soothing waters.  I felt the deep-seated burdens of my western heart fly away like birds in the sky.  I had the distinct feeling that the Ganga is our Mother – they call her Ganga Mata in India – and that she cares for all living beings and that she is our well-wisher.

We could see the dome of Srila Prabhupada’s samadhi against the blue sky.  I lost myself in the beauty of Mayapur for a moment.  I then heard Padmanabha prabhu’s voice, ‘Come, prabhuji.  Let’s go’.  We got out the water and dried ourselves.  We returned to the brahmacari ashram and changed into fresh cloth.

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