Monday, May 26, 2008

Seeking the Essence

We park the bus at an outpost, locals staring at us curiously. We throw on our gamshas, chattering and laughing, and traipse into the jungle. We wind along the path... we're getting closer... I can hear the muted roar through the rich, dripping jungle. And at last we emerge onto a precipice... to overlook a thunderous, misty waterfall, the water eddying in deep blue/gray pools.

When I retire from my adventures of exploring the hot spring waterfalls, I join a crew of those in a special spot to allow the hot water to pound on their heads like a massage. As we lounge there, Mahajan Prabhu approaches us with a rock.

"Look, gold," he says. I lean forward, dubious but suddenly intensely curious. "See? When you turn it in the light..." he holds out one of his black rocks and I take it in my hands. My scientific brain kicks in as I turn it this way and that.

"No, I think the river has just pounded this rock in a certain way, in certain places to make it shine..." I say, but I'm entranced.

I return Mahajan his rock. "I think it's just some kind of fool's gold. Where did you find it?" I ask.

"Over here, in the rock bed," he gestures me over. I hop off my rock ledge (my spot immediately taken by Amal) and follow him across the stream.

Mahajan shows me how to look for the rocks with gold. "You pick the black ones up, turn them this way and that, let them catch the light..."

I settle into the rocky bank and begin my search. To my surprise, I find that nearly every rock shimmers with flecks and stripes of gold, if only I turn it in such a way to reflect the light.

Spellbound, I sit there for a long time, sifting through stones, searching for gold. Some fellow Bus Tourians pass by and inquire into my curious quest, and then continue on their way.

But a beautiful realization begins to blossom inside of me: saragrahi. Seek the essence. Right now, I am seeking the essence. And with the Vaishnavas, it's a bit like this. Everyone looks like a simple stone. But with a careful eye, I can search out the gold in everyone - not by direct glare, but rather a sideways tilt. It's the little things someone does, when no one's looking, that burnishes them gold, that gives a Vaishnava their subtle glory.

And my work, as a saragrahi Vaishnava, is to find that gold, and bring it into the light.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

My Moment of Christmas

Note: I know we're nearing the heat of summer - a far cry from Christmas - but I believe you can relate with curiosity and, above all, seeking the essence. So have some fun while you're at it.

The Market of Chichicastenango, December 21st, 2007

I'm searching for an authentic Christmas, none of this American Christmas trees-Rudolph the Reindeer-Santa Claus bunk. Something with soul.

So I capture photos of children, courtyards, fruit vendors... but I think my highlight happens, though, when I approach a bright white building, towering over the whole town, colorful flags in fluttering stripes hanging from the peak.

Curious, I scale the steps, where men in sombreros and elder Guatemalan women lounge ponderously.

I reach the surreally bright white walls. I read a sign that looks as though a 5-year-old created and it survived Vietnam. The English warns (basically): Don't take pictures. Please give alms.

I pocket my camera. I breathe in deep, then step into the cool air of the church. I slowly make my way to the altar, passing pews that look as handmade as the sign.

Another sign awaits me at the altar, as if berating me for the thoughts of photography that flood my mind. Homemade candles flicker as an offering to... what? Someone in a coffin? A woman worships behind the glass box which contains a manequin. She knits the air with her hands as she prays and murmurs and prays. I believe she's been there all day, if not for days.

I feel as though I'm holding my breath. But this strange monophonic machine that plays American Christmas carol tunes (Jingle bells... jingle bells...) from somewhere behind the altar/coffin breaks the mood and adds to the eeriness. A small, bloody effigy of Christ stands to my right, a glass coca-cola bottle placed in front of Him, as if an offering.

I can't resist. I dart furtive glances around me, then pull out my camera. My heart pumping and probably looking totally guilty, I shoot several photos of the candles, the coffin, the effigy... I curse my camera when the flash goes off... twice.

A very old man approaches the altar. I nearly jump, then discreetly tuck my camera under my hand. "Ahhhh... senor... who is the man in the coffin?" I ask in Spanish.

"Jesus," he replies simply.

"Really? Interesting..." I say. Then with a pause, I begin to back away. I admire the church as I leave and nod to a family that's staring at me from the pews, then step out into the bright sunshine and the noise and ruckus of the market below me.

I dig into my pocket. Wait! I dash back into the church. The old man is tidying the altar. I place 10 quetzales (about one dollar) in his hands. "I know, it's not very much... I want to give more, but it is all I have..." I say rushedly in Spanish, but he just nods appreciatively and smiles just a bit...

"Feliz Navidad," I finish sincerely, and he replies,

"Feliz Navidad," his eyes twinkle, then he turns and places the money in the beat-up wooden box and returns to sweeping. That's it, I think breathlessly. That's my moment.

I bound out of the iglesia, beaming, laughing, the locals examining my peculiar behavior. I wave to them. Okay, so maybe I reasoned that 10 quetzales kinda canceled out my sneaky photography, but I don't think Jesus minded. He seemed quite well-acquainted with modern culture.

I don't care, because I got my moment.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My Last Morning

The morning after I attended Mother Mitravinda's memorial, I was given the chance to dress the installed deities of her son, Ragunath. I asked Ragu if I could choose the outfit for Radha Madan Mohan, and he smilingly obliged. So I chose the outfit (above) that his mother had ingeniously created from the shorts of one of Shyamasundar's outfits from the temple. Mother Mitravinda would often engage me in helping her prepare to dress Their Lordships, and I remember often begging Mother Mitravinda to please bless me so that one day I would be able to dress Radha Shyamasundar upon the altar.

I spent several hours dressing Radha Madan Mohan, absorbed in meditations of how to serve more. When Ragu returned from his morning errands, he glanced over to Radha Madan Mohan and said, "Hm, I can't tell if They're beautiful from here, but I'll give you a call and let you know."

I just laughed. That's Ragu and his high standards for you.

Then Ragu told me that in his mother's final days, he had recorded many hours of her speaking her last words, feelings, and thoughts. Ragu let me listen to a recording of Mother Mitravinda wherein she mentioned me.

He searched for quite some time and then finally found the recording. Her words moved me deeply.

Paraphrase: "Oh Bhakti, don't cry. Don't worry, you'll be up there soon, dressing my beautiful boy and girl, Radha Shyamasundara."

p.s. Thank you Vijay for approaching me at the Festival of Inspiration and thanking me personally for these posts about Radha Madan Mohan.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


I feel surrounded by death. I have attended more memorials in the past eight or nine months than in my entire life, and my mind is filled every waking moment of when my own time will come.

Yesterday I underwent surgery; a procedure to remove a bone in my left foot. The doctors hooked me up to an IV, they placed monitors on my chest, and I stared at a screen that pulsated with sharp lines that signified my heartbeat.

I felt so fragile. In those moments I felt as though I was on the brink of my final moments in this world.

I have had serious issues of faith with the holy name. But in those precarious moments, as I cast around for anything to take shelter of - anything - my mouth formed the holy name. I didn't even speak it out loud, just formed the syllables with my mouth.

And I realized: the holy name will never abandon me.

Moments before the anesthesia took over, I relished the holy name in my mind. I felt at peace to know that if my last cognizant thought was of the holy name, my life was - and is - complete.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A New Vrindavan Morning

My first Festival of Inspiration, I'm still reeling from such a rollercoaster of adventure. I found myself reveling in every single moment and did not even note the absence of e-mail or phonecalls or... sigh... my camera. For once I didn't go nuts taking pictures. Well, except in the beginning... and at the end.

Rupa and I have formed somewhat of a dynamic duo. For our last project in Alachua before we scattered off to the world, we organized a bus of 40 people (mostly second generation) to head up to Festival of Inspiration.
A little crazy but highly successful, the bus was packed come Thursday evening. Here we are singing Sundara Arati.

One hour before I was scheduled to head to Pittsburgh airport, I realized that I had not visited the Palace of Gold. So in the soft, gray, rainy morning, I grabbed my camera and strapped on my tennis shoes. Time to do some serious dashing.

New Vrindavan in springtime.

On March 22, 1987 around Mangala Arati time, I was born in this house, which is across the road from Radha Vrindavan Chandra temple.

The Palace of Gold was my playground - when I was a kid, I used to roll down this very hill, dizzy and exhilarated.

And when I boarded my flight at Pittsburgh airport only a few hours later, the entire experience of exploring the Palace of Gold felt surreal, what to speak of the Festival of Inspiration. Now that I am thousands of miles away from Radha Vrindavan Chandra (and Radhanath Swami), I can only sigh.

For more photos, visit:
A New Vrindavan Morning

As a P.S., I would like to thank those who came up to me at the Festival and personally thanked me for writing this blog. I always find it amazing to meet people on the other side of the screen.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

An English Major's Humor

Last Friday I graduated with Honors from Santa Fe College with an Associate of Arts degree. The following was posted on my favorite professor's office door.

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. "In English," he said, "A double negative forms a positive. In some languages though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However," he pointed out, "There is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative."

A voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah. Right."


brahmanda brahmite kona bhagyavan jiva
guru krishna prasade bhai bhakti lata bija

"There are innumerable living entities traveling throughout the different planets of the universe, and out of them there are a few who are fortunate enough to meet a pure devotee and get the chance to understand devotional service. This devotional service is just like a seed, and if it is sown in the heart of a living entity, and if he goes on hearing and chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare, that seed fructifies, just as the seed of a tree fructifies with regular watering."

- Bhagavad Gita 10:9 Purport

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Memorial for Mother Mitravinda

Tears at times have all the weight of speech.
- Ovid, 43 BCE

I dash to the templeroom door the moment the conch shell blows. No time to offer obeisance, just drink in every moment of Radhe Shyam as the curtains close. They're wearing Mother Mitravinda's lace and raw brown silk outfit, with accents of green giving Them a glow.

The templeroom is a sea of people as I settle down in the middle of it. I take a deep breath: brace yourself, Bhakti. No need to cry. You can feel appreciation and grief in your heart without having to cry, Bhakti... I tend to feel emotions so deeply and intensely, and especially lately I feel as though tears are my shadows, following me everywhere.

At moments, my eyes shine at poignant memories and realizations. But I hold myself still and manage to make it through the memorial without breaking down - I simply bask in the glory of Mother Mitravinda.

And then... the curtains open for Sayana Arati, and Radhe Shyam radiate their beauty into the deep night, to the sea of people.

And I break down. Crying and crying, I remember and hold dear in my heart Mother Mitravinda's service to Gaura Nitai and Radhe Shyam - her utter devotion and dedication... and how she engaged me.

The memorial continues out of sheer demand after the arati to continue appreciations. I take steadying breaths, telling myself, "Bhakti, when you share, just hold your composure, okay?"

Gaura Shakti finally calls me, and as I sit down in the speaker's seat, I am overwhelmed by how many people had stayed. And so I say how often we tend to appreciate someone when they leave us. Knowing this, I wrote a letter to appreciate Mother Mitravinda and drove over to hospice one morning to read it to her. You can read it here: A Letter to an Inspiration. Halfway through, my composure crumbles. I regain it again, but I feel a little mortified to have expressed such emotion.

Appreciations continue on until a quarter to 11. When I first sat down in the early evening, I knew there would not be a dry eye in the house by the final word. And of course, as I look around now, there isn't: grown men, gurukulis, children. Mother Mitravinda was just that amazing, that beautiful, that touching, that inspiring.

But for some reason, I hadn't included myself in the "dry eye in the house" prediction. Yet I realize now that this is the space to weep for her, here in Radhe Shyam's temple, surrounded by these beautiful vaishnavas. Tears are not my shadows, but my lamp to see.

To write is to dare the soul. So write.