Friday, September 28, 2007

Symphony of Light

Bhakti Roberto
Professor Robitaille - ENC2305
September 26th, 2007
Descriptive Essay

I step out into the sultry night onto the winding temple road and let down my hair. I slip off my shoes and place them on the side of the road to return to later. 

I drink in the night. The moon embroiders the trees draped in Spanish moss with silver. The stars glisten. The sand warms my toes and the air is thick like velvet on my skin. 

Suddenly I glimpse a flash of light. Curiosity spiked, I scurry around the corner to clear the trees.

And there… out on the distant horizon loom kingdoms of clouds, rich and powerful, the color of Shyam’s monsoon skin. I gaze in wonder and then – there! The clouds seem to catch on fire, glowing golden in their bellies. No sooner does the flame race through the clouds does it snuff out.

My jaw softly drops. I witness the spectacle again and again, and it catches my awe every time. At one point I glance around, desperately searching for someone to share this with. Yet it’s just me, barefoot, loose hair, on some winding, starlit road.

So I walk a ways to find the perfect spot to settle down and watch the show. My heart quiets to take in the sweeping majesty of those clouds in the distance. They must be several miles high, billowing and dense like spools of black spun silk. What’s more, the sky opens up above me, utterly clear of the tiniest wisp of cloud. The moon smiles serenely and casts moon shadows everywhere.

The kingdoms of clouds pulsate with billowing flashes of golden light, and I immerse myself in the music of this symphony of light. I juxtapose the mischievous, irregular rhythm of the lightning with the still gaze of the stars and the gentle eye of the moon. How small I am! I simply watch as the gods play their silent symphony. I am just a grain of sand… watching.

I don’t know how long I sit there in the grass, my toes in the sand, entranced. I lose sense of time.

Deeper into the night, the symphony of light crescendos... and then falls away.

When I return to my shoes and braid up my hair once again, I feel an awe that I could be a witness to such splendor, and an ache that I had been alone.

I hope this essay invited you in.  

heat lightening, image courtesy of

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

In The Stillness

March 16th, 2006

The sun sillhouettes the tree moss in gold, and in the cool evening I make my way to the temple. Tents lay empty, and powerlines and lights are still strung about. Hundreds of people milled about on these grounds only last night for the Gaura Purnima festival.

Now, not a soul stirs in the stillness. Except... over there, on the verandah, a man reads a soul-searching book. I smile. I pad across the grass and enter the templeroom.

The deities of Radha Shyamasundara grace my eyes with Their splendor. I pick up the harmonium and place it close to the altar - I settle down and begin to sing a bhajan.

No one is here, only the Deities, and I sing the bhajan over and over again, Ohe Vaishnava Thakura. I don't even realize that I'm singing in a loop. So many times I've sung this song in the misery of living away from the devotees, always in some secluded place or along some abandoned road, wishing I could be whereever the devotees were.

And yet here I am, alone, and my soul is at rest.

But in Alachua, I am realizing, I am never alone.

ekaki amare nahi paya bala
Without you [the vaishnava] I have no strength."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Value of My Question

The morning after LA Rathayatra, I slept terribly. I awoke to a dark and silent bus at around 5am, and I was buzzing with raw nerves. I thought of how impossible it would be to get back to sleep, so I decided I would take a shower and go chant in the front of the bus.

As I went in to use the bathroom, Manu passed me (of all people, I swear, HE was up) and said, "Change of plans. Radhanath Swami is going to be on THIS bus, instead of the boy's, in about a half an hour. We're driving to the LA temple right now to pick him up. The bathrooms need to get cleaned."

That's all he said before he whisked in to clean a bathroom. I blinked in response. What?

Without thinking too much, I cleaned the other bathroom. I took a shower - which soothed my nerves - and dressed in fresh clothes. Outside a blue light began to filter through the world. Everyone was still sleeping.

With some hesitation, I slowly opened the door to the front of the bus. My heart skipped a beat. Manu and Radhanath Swami both turned around. I just sat down to write in my journal.

There I was in this cool, blue morning, driving along some California highway, sitting about two feet away from the very person who gives my life meaning. I stayed quiet, though. I wanted to ask Maharaj a question, but I wanted it to be thought out and real.

So maybe a half an hour went by while I gazed out the window to the eucalyptus trees and the golden light illuminating the rolling terra-cotta hills. I was meditating on a question the whole time. I couldn't decide. So guess what? I asked the question that I have been asking for years, to almost any bloke who crossed my path.


Radhanath Swami turned around. "Yes?" he replied.

"May I ask you a hypothetical question?"

The corners of his mouth twitched. He pronounced, "Yes, you may ask me a hypothetical question."

I took a breath. "Would you rather be blind or deaf?"

He paused and became serious. "Either way, as long as Krishna allows me to serve Him. I pray that being blind or deaf would only draw me closer to Krishna."

I laughed and dared, "Yes, but Maharaj, you've got to answer the question; you've got to choose one." I really wanted to hear Maharaj's choice. I'd been asking this question for so many years and had received so many different answers and reasons. His would surely settle the case.

But his reply shall remain with me for the rest of my life, precisely because I was not expecting it.

He spoke in return, "Yes, but I believe the value of your question lies in appreciating being able to see and appreciating being able to hear, and not so much that I must choose. Your question allows one to consider how important each sense is to live our lives."

I sat there, astounded to silence. I replied quietly, "You know, I've never thought of it like that,"

Maharaj then turned around and we all resumed our chanting of japa. I pondered his reply, realizing all these years that I've never felt fully satisfied with anyone's response, ever. There were always holes or counterarguments or debates that sprung up.

And yet there I was, void of all reprisal.

After awhile, Maharaj then turned around again. He said slowly, "Bhakti lata, your question is like having two daughters and asking me which one I would rather have die. Each one is so precious and unique." He paused. "Because of your question, I am now listening to the maha-mantra as we chant as I have never heard in my life, and gazing at these Deities - " he gestured to the framed photo of Radha-Madhava propped up on the dashboard of the bus - "with appreciation for Their smiles like I have never seen in my life."

He smiled. "Thank you."

Friday, September 14, 2007

Questions of Death

Death has woven herself into my life. As a guest, her presence allows me to appreciate life. I reflect on death pretty much every day, from snippets of a thought of five seconds, to a deep contemplation for five minutes. At least once a day I muse: If I died today, would I regret my life? my choices? What would I leave behind?

Would I remember my spiritual life? Srila Prabhupad? my spiritual master, Radhanath Swami? Would my soul come to find him for shelter again?

What would the last words on my tongue be? The last thoughts on my mind?

Krishna. Krishna. Krishna.

When the sun sets on my life, please allow me to return to You.


Is it possible for Alachua to get any sweeter? deeper? cooler?

As Radhanath Swami put it, "There's no where else on Planet Earth I'd rather be than right here [in Alachua], right now, with all of you."

This community makes my heart beat. The devotees, the temple, the Deities, Prabhupad...

This Janmastami stirred something within me.

photos courtesy of
Jahnavi Harrison

Monday, September 10, 2007

Reflections on 2004

Summer 2004 was incredible. I was browsing through some pictures from that summer and I felt transported back in time. Taking up Radhanath Swami even more as my teacher, teaching at Camp Govardhan in Saranagati, flying down to LA to perform with Krishna Devata, Karnam, Gauravani, and Anapayini; joining the Bus Tour for the first time in a whirlwind tour of the West Coast, then to end the summer on a grand note, Kartamasa and Radha's wedding...

... then back to zero devotees, festivals, sadhus, and temples in Hawaii.

decorating the rathayatra cart with pine boughs (Canada style ;)

Rathayatra began as a cloudy day in the valley, and then brightened up to smile on Lord Jagannath!

canoeing in the duck-poo lake in Saranagati.

chilling out after LA Rathayatra.

I dubbed this picture "Krishna Balaram"

getting ready... in a closet?
in LA, a day after our performance

mangoes in Mexico

a poetic moment on a japa walk on the beach, Baja California, Mexico
The Bus Tour performance.... Kapila was one lucky guy.

The bridesmaids at Kar and Radha's wedding.
The Saranagati Crew after the Feast!

On Janmastami... back in Hawaii.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Vyasa Puja Offering 2006

I was fifteen in the year 2002. I had been so desperate for a temple and spiritual association that my parents had let me fly alone from Hawaii to my hometown of New Vrindavan, West Virginia for the summer.

The day before the Rathayatra festival, I was conversing with Mother Jayasri in the temple when suddenly we heard a distant, "Jaaaaai! Hariboooool!"

A look of delight crossed Jayasri’s face. "Oh, I completely forgot! Maharaj is having a darshan!"

"Darshan?" I inquired, "Who? Which Maharaj?"

"Just come," she ushered me into the hallway and grasped my hand. We joined a cluster of people that spilled out into the hall, and everyone was on tiptoes or ducked down low to see into a room. We nudged our way through the crowd but a sudden bout of shyness overcame me, and I simply peeked past the doorframe.

The crowd of people in the sunwashed room gazed attentively upon two people: a bright-eyed boy who was narrating a story from the Mahabharata, and Radhanath Swami. The Swami shone in his saffron robes.

Suddenly, Maharaj gestured for the boy to stop. "And who is this?" he peered straight at me. All heads in the room swiveled to the back of the room where we stood.

"Oh yes, Maharaj," Jayasri said, "This is Bhakti lata, Mahesh and Brihan's daughter." She clasped my shoulders and steered me more into view. I'm not one to be shy. But right then I wanted to melt.

Radhanath Swami's eyes lit up. "Ah yes, the last time I saw you, you were about this high - " he gestured to somewhere around his shoulders... and he was sitting down. The room swelled with laughter, and I smiled abashedly.

"You're making me blush," I replied.

He laughed. "Please, come sit down," he gestured to a spot directly in front of him, and the devotees cleared some space. All eyes in the room were trained on me as I sat down; I felt like a specimen under a microscope. Maharaj smiled serenely, his gaze seeming to peer into my mind. Then he turned towards the boy and nodded for him to continue his story.

Without missing a beat, the boy continued his colorful tale. The tale was so outlandish, I was in shock and disbelief. But slowly I began to warm; I chuckled and gasped along with everyone else. Every so often I would glance at Maharaj to see that he laughed and listened intently, and suddenly I gained more meaning from the story, suddenly I found something more funny.

After the finale of the story, Maharaj began to converse easily with other devotees in the room. I have grown up around Swamis, including Radhanath Swami, and although I've been trained to respect the renounced order of life, it's always been a kind of "Yo, what's up Swamiji?"

But in that light-filled room long ago, a light clicked on inside my mind, and I understood the bowing, the use of titles, the shyness of almost everyone in the room. This was no ordinary person.

In silence, Maharaj began to hand out cookies; he would place cookies into my hand and I would ferry them to the back of the room. At last, Maharaj placed the cookie meant for me in my hand with a smile. Everyone sat in silence, holding or nibbling our cookies.

Maharaj spoke into the quiet, matter-of-factly, "My dear Mataji, I'm sure they're wonderful, but are these cookies green?" Everyone burst into laughter.

A lady replied from the back of the room, “Well, Maharaj, I wanted to be creative,”

Maharaj simply laughed, his whole body shaking.

The gathering ended and I rose and left from the room. I walked down the hallway, nibbling my green cookie, lost in thought. My mind was etched with the image of Radhanath Swami illuminated by the light from the window in his orange robes. In all my life I had never seen a Swami so... effulgent. And for the first time in my life, I wondered how it would feel to be under the guidance of a guru, a teacher.

So began my quest for a guru.

Over the years, I met many wonderful saints in the line of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur. And each time I would associate with each exalted Vaishnava, I would wonder, Maybe this is my guru... maybe this is the one...

Each Swami taught me a lesson in the principles of Krishna Consciousness. But year after year I would simply recall that match being lit in a distant summer in a distant room, listening to a strange story, eating green cookies, sitting directly in front of a smiling, glowing man.

Three years after that darshan, I was traveling on the 2005 Bus Tour. We were in Washington DC for the Rathayatra when Yadu Kumar returned from Gita Nagari – he had just experienced his guru, Bhakti Tirtha Swami, leave this world. Yadu recounted beautiful stories of his own guru and Radhanath Swami in those final days.

Suddenly I realized, "Who knows how long Radhanath Swami will be in this world? He himself is very ill.

"It's time to surrender."

Manu granted me permission to leave the Tour for three weeks to visit New Vrindavan, where Radhanath Swami was staying.

So three years later, I found myself in that very same sunwashed room. Once again, the sun illuminated Radhanath Swami's saffron robes. He peered at me with kind eyes that seemed weary. The lines in his face were deep; signs that the departure of his dear friend and godbrother had taken its toll.

At the time, I didn’t know the formal words “take shelter”. I didn’t even know all the requisites for initiation, such as recommendation letters and standards for japa meditation. All I knew was that my soul had recognized Radhanath Swami as my guru.

I took a deep breath and said, "Radhanath Swami, I want to receive instruction from you. What does it mean to be a disciple?"

“I am your servant,” he replied solemnly. “And to be a disciple means to be exemplary.”

His words and his love echo within me to this day, and I pray to surrender to his feet. One day.

Bhakti lata dasi

image courtesy of Gopi Kumari

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