Bonds of Love: Praharana Devi Dasi
Praharana became a devotee in Toronto in the fall of ’71. At the time she was studying science at the University of Western Ontario. She received a copy of Sri Isopanisad from a friend. It made so much sense that it prompted her to start chanting even though she had never met a devotee. She was also very attracted to Spiritual Sky incense, with the beautiful picture of Vishnu on its packaging and its exotic scents. At that time, Govindam, with Yamuna and George Harrison, was a hit on the radio, and for some reason it was being played every morning when her clock radio alarm activated. It seemed mystical to her. A few months later the Toronto devotees visited the university where she was attending and served a prasada feast. She was reluctant to go to the program when she saw how the devotees were dressed and the way they carried on during their kirtana – one devotee had neck beads the size of golf balls – but curiosity and hunger somehow got her to the feast. There she bought a Macmillan Gita and read it within a few days – after which she wanted to quit school and move into the temple. She spent a week at the temple during her spring break. However, Jagadisa and Laxmimoni told her that since she was only a few months from graduating, she should get her degree. So she received her degree and moved into the temple. In retrospect, she is grateful for that short delay because sixteen years later, as a single mother receiving almost no child support from a devotee ex-husband, she was able to go back to school for her master’s degree and subsequently find a job.
I saw Srila Prabhupada for the first time in July 1972 in New York. The temple was packed with devotees – they were in the hallways, the temple room, everywhere. When Prabhupada came around a corner to enter the temple room, everybody threw themselves on the floor in obeisances. I couldn’t get down – there wasn’t a spare centimeter on the floor! I was stunned. I was in a state of awe. I watched him walk by, and he looked at me and I felt touched, “Wow, he noticed me!” I felt blessed by Srila Prabhupada.
About four months after I moved into the Toronto temple, the temple’s large Deities arrived from India. When Laxmimoni told Srila Prabhupada on the phone that the Deity of Krishna had a little belly, Prabhupada laughed and said, “Oh, that’s because He’s Ksiracora Gopinatha, and you have to serve Him twelve pots of ksira every day.” (Ksiracora Gopinatha is the Deity in Remuna who stole the ksira [sweet rice] for Madhavendra Puri.) Every single night since the Deities were installed in 1972 we’ve offered Them twelve small pots of ksira.
I was initiated on the same day Sri Sri Radha Ksiracora Gopintha were installed. It was Radhastami 1972. I had been scheduled to take initiation with Srila Prabhupada at New Vrindavan during his Bhagavata-dharma discourses that summer, but in the end, the women initiates stayed back in Toronto to finish preparations for the installation and all took initiation in Toronto instead. It felt like a great honor. We sewed seven wonderful dresses covered with stones and beads in record time, working day and night, for that installation.
There were about seventy devotees crammed into a little house on Gerrard Street East in those days. Gerrard Street was in an unsafe neighborhood. A large men’s hostel was close by, and the residents tended to drink a great deal of alcohol. But the devotees had a nice spirit; everybody was fired up. The girls would go across the street to a park before sunrise to steal flowers from the park’s gardens. The homeless men sleeping around the park would watch us, pointing out good flowers and saying Hare Krishna. One day a police car stopped and we were terrified. They saw the bunches of flowers under our saris, but all they said was “Nice morning for Krishna, isn’t it?” and laughed. I think being jammed in together in that little house was good for us at our age – we were all in our early 20s. One day, our temple president, Uttamasloka Dasa, wanted to rent a car to pick up a large order of flowers at the airport. He went through the temple trying to find any devotee older than 25, which was the required age for renting a vehicle. But there wasn’t even one! We all lived a life of great austerity, sleeping on the cold hardwood floor, fifteen girls to a room, having only cold water in the shower, eating mostly cabbage and potatoes plus exactly three chickpeas on wax paper plates. We served flat out from 3:00 am to 9:00 pm. We were so exhausted most of the time that staying awake during class was only achievable with the use of water spritzers. It was an intense and sweet time. We had very little laxmi, having not yet figured out how to generate income from book distribution. We were selling BTGs for a quarter. We shared our clothing – orange saris made from six yards of orange broadcloth for the unmarried girls and the same in yellow for those who were married. Men and women also shared a number of “moon boots” for winter sankirtana. Unfortunately, they were all the same size, and we girls had to shuffle and wear many pairs of socks to keep them on our feet. The woolen long underwear was intensely itchy. It kept us focused!
We would return from Yonge Street harināma – a street we shared most evenings with the Children of God and other strange bewildered souls – just as the 8:00 pm arati started. I still remember how we would burst through the door. Arati would be so intense. In the winter, when we went back outside, we could judge who had been the most ecstatic during ārati by the amount of steam rising from our bodies in the cold night air. It was a lot of transcendental fun and a real family feeling.
Many times the girls would come home from sankirtana after very long days in the cold with frozen fingers and toes, and our dear godbrother Ayodhyapati Dasa, (now BB Govinda Maharaja) would have steaming hot burfi ready for us at the door, served in little pointy paper cups. It was such a treat.
Srila Prabhupada came to Toronto for the first time in 1975. He stayed in a little apartment around the corner. Seeing the crowded conditions he said, “You have to buy a building. The BBT will help you. Start looking.” So we set our sights on that goal and began to collect money for it, mostly selling lollipops on the street. Even though we were only collecting dimes and nickels, we had faith that we would raise the money because Srila Prabhupada had given us this direct instruction.
I was the head pujari during that 1975 visit. One morning, after I’d bathed and dressed the Deities, I was nervous, thinking “I don’t know what I’m doing. This is Ksiracora Gopinatha, such a famous and wonderful Deity. He’s going to complain to Prabhupada for sure; ‘Save Me from this situation!’” Like most mornings, the men were with Srila Prabhupada on the morning walk and the women were at the temple doing service – cleaning, cooking, and Deity worship. That morning, like all mornings, I started the arati at seven am, and at that moment Prabhupada entered the temple room. He had walked in ahead of the crowd, having arrived in the lead car.
Srila Prabhupada and Radha-Ksiracora Gopinatha and myself were alone in the temple room. Srila Prabhupada walked to the altar and with folded hands looked at Radha-Ksiracora Gopinatha. He offered dandavats, and then stood about two feet behind me, gazing intensely at the Deities. My hand was shaking as I offered the arati flame. Then devotees started entering the room and Prabhupada walked to the vyasasana and sat down. The whole room instantly filled with devotees. I finished the arati and guru-puja began. Throughout that day I was wondering what Srila Prabhupada thought, what Gopinatha had said to him.
That afternoon, Ayodhyapati told me he had just been with Srila Prabhupada, who had told him to tell the pujari to get a bigger bell. That’s something I could at least do! I’d been using one of those teeny tinkly bells. So that afternoon I bought a big bell in China town. I felt relieved, because I thought, “He could have said so much more. At least he gave me something to do to improve things.” I felt Prabhupada knew that this young girl needed a little instruction and attention. So the next morning I offered arati using my big bell. Instead of “tinkle, tinkle,” it was “dong, dong.” I thought, “Do you hear it, Prabhupada? I did it. I found a bell.” I felt Prabhupada had blessed me and given me something special. Gopinatha had given me unfathomable mercy despite my considerable shortcomings as His pujari.
When Prabhupada was leaving Toronto, the temple president, Visvakarma, told the women that the men would be driving him to the airport and that we were to stay back and finish our services. We were upset with this instruction. We hadn’t had a chance to go on morning walks or to be with Srila Prabupada privately. There was a “saffron wall” of visiting sannyasis and bramacharis in front of Srila Prabhupada most of the time, and we felt we had missed out.
We decided to go to the airport anyway. We took an arati tray for guru-puja with us, and some sweets we knew Srila Prabhupada would like, and about ten of us piled into a van. We passed Srila Prabhupada’s car on the highway. I was driving, and I intentionally pulled up next to his car on the highway. We rolled down our windows and screamed, “Jaya, Prabhupada! Jaya, Prabhupada! Prabhupada! Prabhupada!” The temple president looked at us with great annoyance. He couldn’t believe we were making such a scene. But Srila Prabhupada looked over from the back seat, folded his hands, and smiled at us. He was surprised, I’m sure, but gracious and loving.
We were already there when Prabhupada arrived at the airport. We had set up a comfortable spot with the arati paraphernalia ready. Prabhupada sat down and Visvakarma offered arati. The plane was delayed, so there was plenty of time. We felt ecstatic and the men forgave us after all.
At the end of that ’75 visit, we had shown Prabhupada a large church for sale for $410,000. We had no idea how we could afford it, but Prabhupada liked the building, so we decided to “go for the rhinoceros.” And we really went after it. I remember thinking, “This building is just too much for us. I don’t know how on earth …” But Srila Prabhupada said, “There has to be anxiety. Get that building. Krishna wants it.”
Then in ’76 Prabhupada came back to Toronto, because somehow or other, through many trials and tribulations, we had purchased it. Prabhupada was pleased and stayed in his new rooms at the top of the stairs. He then directed us to make the kitchen like this and the altars like that.
I went a few times to Prabhupada’s room to hear him speak. Once, he told an Indian couple that they should “help these devotees. That is your job. You are from India. You help these devotees to spread Krishna consciousness.” I thought, “Wow, that’s a nice thing to say,” because we were struggling for money. There were a lot of us, but we bought the temple by selling lollipops day and night. We owed a lot of money. Once we purchased the building, the Indian devotees started coming forward.
In 1977 I saw Prabhupada in Mayapur when he was ill and physically weak. It was my first trip to India. Every morning he was carried on a palanquin around the temple. He would circumambulate the altar, wham the bell, and everybody would cheer. Prabhupada was transcendentally fixed even though he was so sick.
I’m grateful I was able to see the joy on his face. I was pregnant and also had “Delhi Belly,” so I felt really unwell, but I’m so grateful that I was able to go to India to see Srila Prabhupada in Mayapur. I will always remember that clearly. I tell my son Abhay Charan that even though he was very small (just a few centimeters long!) he was still in Srila Prabhupada’s personal presence.
(compliments of Aprakrita das)