The year was 1977 and I had just returned to Vrindavana after visiting Jaipur. It was quite a decision to visit India since it was public knowledge that His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada was traveling to the west even though gravely ill. It was a difficult decision based upon the fear that the frailness of his health could rob us of a last opportunity to spend time with the spiritual master.
Rightly or wrongly, I went to India and immediately preceding my return to the holy dhama, Srila Prabhupada arrived unannounced from England. We quickly learned the news that his health had taken a turn for the worse and that he had come to Vrindavana to spend his last days. To say the least, the devotees were in shock at the thought of losing Srila Prabhupada’s association and guidance. We all prayed that our worst nightmare wouldn’t come true.
Srila Prabhupada left his quarters only twice after his return from England and both times were to circumambulate the Deities. Recently, I saw a video of him circumambulating the temple and was surprised that the kirtan was so subdued. I had attended his last two outings and the kirtans were incredibly intense. My only thought is that the video-recorded instance occurred upon his arrival before my return.
In any event, the next day, as Srila Prabhupada sat on his palanquin, he was accompanied by a throng of devotees and a roaring kirtan. We were leaping and chanting in a manner I don’t think any of us had experienced before. It was a herd of singing and dancing white elephants.
To see His Divine Grace in such a weakened condition was a jolt for us all. It drew out our love but was mixed with the unthinkable thought that Srila Prabhupada may not be in our midst forever. The chanting and dancing reflected our love for Srila Prabhupada and the thought of losing his direct association drew out even more intense emotion. The threat of his departure brought new realizations and intense appreciation of what he had done for us. It was both wonderful and horrible all mixed together. The sweet and sour emotions sparked intense kirtan, wild dancing and free-flowing tears. Our only contribution was to bathe him in the holy name and pray that Lord Krsna would save the situation for our benefit.
As we accompanied His Divine Grace around the temple courtyard, I had the opportunity to be dancing directly by his side. As I looked his way, there was a tear flowing from the corner of his eye and down the length of his cheek.
Of course, I cannot say for certain what was on Srila Prabhupada’s mind. But my feeling was that he deeply appreciated that his disciples had developed a genuine attachment and affection for him and the holy name. Even in the closing moments of his pastimes he inspired us and drew out our dormant love of Godhead. As always, he was the perfect devotee and our spiritual beacon. Life without him was unimaginable.
After Srila Prabhupada’s two outings to circumambulate his beloved Deities, Radha Syamsundara and Krsna Balarama at Vrindavana dhama, he returned to his quarters and was to remain there until his departure. It was then, during a visit to Srila Prabhupada’s rooms, that provided me with the most moving experience of my life.
The pastime of the devotees approaching Srila Prabhupada to plead with him to remain with us is well known. Since I was not a member of the “inner circle,” I had no direct experience with these going-ons as my time was spent chanting outside Srila Prabhupada’s rooms amongst other devotees awaiting news of Srila Prabhupada’s health.
There was always a large contingent of devotees present and to say that you could cut the atmosphere with a knife would be an understatement. I don’t think any of us could be more Srila Prabhupada conscious than during those long days. Time took on a new dimension as seconds seemed like hours and hours seemed like days. Everyone was immersed in thoughts of Srila Prabhupada while praying to Lord Krsna to allow his pure devotee to remain with us. The Hare Krsna mantra resonated in all directions. Even during his illness, Srila Prabhupada inspired us in our Krsna consciousness.
The thought of not having Srila Prabhupada to uplift us with a Srimad-Bhagavatam class or to walk alongside him during a morning walk seemed too much to bear. Life without the opportunity to hear about Srila Prabhupada’s inspired preaching; to no longer live in anticipation of when we could see him next; or to find out which book he was working on and the snippets of nectar from therein appeared before us like a nightmare. It just didn’t seem possible that the movement could carry on without his supervision. When the news arrived that Srila Prabhupada had agreed to stay and that he had begun working again on the Srimad-Bhagavatam, it caused elation throughout the community of devotees. It was as if life had returned to us all once again.
Since the Christmas marathon was quickly approaching, my temple president asked me to return to Montreal. After all the crisis seemed to have passed and it was time to get back to our practical service to His Divine Grace. Since Srila Prabhupada had declared that he was going to begin eating again and return to his writing, it seemed the practical thing to do. If any of us had realized that Srila Prabhupada would become discouraged by our leaving, certainly none of us would have considered departing. As well, the fact of the matter was that being a mere rank and file devotee, it was very difficult to get into Srila Prabhupada’s rooms to chant for him.
But seeing it was time to leave and not knowing if this could be the last opportunity to see Srila Prabhupada, on the last day of my stay I summoned the courage and attempted to get into Srila Prabhupada’s rooms. The sannyasi guard relented to my pitiful begging and allowed me in to see His Divine Grace. But for five minutes only. No longer!
As I entered Srila Prabhupada’s bedroom the mood was very somber. Rupanuga Prabhu was there with one other devotee chanting plus another sitting by Srila Prabhupada caressing his lotus feet as he lay in bed. Some prabhus get all the luck.
Srila Prabhupada’s body had been reduced to skin and bones. In order to hear him speak, it was required to place one’s ear close to his mouth. And he was in such a weakened state that assistance was required even to move. To see him in such a condition was a shock. It had been described to us that Srila Prabhupada’s bodily sensations compared to burning in fire. True or not, his frailty was beyond comprehension let alone description. It was devastating to think of the difficulties he was forced to bear in those last months.
As we sat there chanting for our beloved spiritual master, he suddenly began to speak. His servants instantly appeared from another room to see what Srila Prabhupada required and to tape his every word. He summoned the disciple in charge of arranging the first “Life Comes from Life” conference which was currently being organized in Vrindavana.
Srila Prabhupada began inquiring about the lodging of the scientists and wanted to ensure that the guests would be comfortable and properly taken care of. Watching this lila of the pure devotee left me in total awe and reverence of His Divine Grace.
Here I was sitting there worrying about Srila Prabhupada’s physical condition and the pain he must be suffering while lying there in a near impossible situation physically. On the contrary, Srila Prabhupada was there meditating on his service of smashing impersonalism and atheism throughout the world. I cannot describe the effect observing this had on me.
How many times had Srila Prabhupada told us that we were not this body? But this time Srila Prabhupada was teaching once again through his example. There could never be a more difficult circumstance for Srila Prabhupada to show that he had transcended bodily attachment. And simultaneously there could never be a more graphic nor potent situation to teach us this most important, yet basic, axiom of Krsna consciousness.
If there was any doubt in my mind that Srila Prabhupada was a pure devotee, it quickly evaporated. Who could ever question Srila Prabhupada’s position as an acarya? He not only talked the talk but walked the walk. Who amongst us could have ascended the gangplank of the Jaladuta penniless, unsure of even being able to find vegetables in a foreign country and with only the name of a complete stranger as his contact in the U.S. Was this gangplank fabricated from wood and steel or in reality a construct of the faith and love Srila Prabhupada had for his own beloved spiritual master and his compassion for the conditioned souls? Now Srila Prabhupada was showing his mettle once again.
So, sitting watching Srila Prabhupada worry about his guests’ accommodations became the most moving moment of my life. Pure devotion in action. A Vaikuntha man. This simple act provided me a glimpse of the stark difference between the consciousness of a neophyte bhakta and a bonafide spiritual master.
So, as I slipped out of Prabhupada’s room, I carried with me a memory of seeing a true paramahamsa in action. It was an humbling, enlivening and enlightening event all rolled into one. Krsna consciousness never seemed more real, alive or attractive. And all by the grace of Srila Prabhupada. May I be his eternal servant.