Sunday, December 26, 2010

River of Prayer




I sit in the corridor of a thousand pillars in the Ramanatha temple in Rameshvaram. I overlook a great pond which is filled with delicate pink lotuses. A cement platform extends out over the pond, and high up on the ledge, men toss down metal buckets into the water over and over again, reeling them up expertly. The men splash that holy water onto the heads of swarms of eager pilgrims who flow out onto the platform.

This is only one stop in the maze of 22 holy wells within the temple complex.

I feel like one of the columns here, watching and watching, very, very still. I have begun to see the moods of the variety of pilgrims who come - most people are rushed and a little frantic in their quest to visit all 22 holy wells; some arrive with creased eyebrows, some demand more water.

But every so often a group of Vaishnava devotees will come. They smile from ear to ear and chant Hare Krishna, sometimes with arms upraised or palms folded. Ha! A crowd of devotees just arrived, grinning and jumping, chanting "Haribol! Haribol! Haribol!" They are so happy, so in bliss! They receive the water on their heads and dash off with the cry, “JAI!!!"

Every day, day in and day out, people come to receive the holy water. The people change, but the lake remains, the columns remain. Upon closer inspection, I see that the columns are pockmarked with graffiti. I see names, numbers, dates... actually, the pillar in front of me has a faded heart with two names inside scrawled in Telugu.

Amazing. No matter the country or language or culture, people will graffiti monuments, buildings, trees, or even bathroom stalls and picnic tables. People want to leave a mark that will live on long after they're gone.

Isn't that the nature of the soul, to be eternal? It is so painful to die. We all want to live on forever.

But the truth is, we are all like someone in this river of pilgrims who come to receive their splash of water. Our time in this world is just for one fleeting minute. And some of us arrive with arms upraised or palms folded, smiling, chanting the Lord's name… and maybe that's all I can ask of this life.




Saturday, December 18, 2010

Owner vs. Thief

Mayapur doesn't care if I love it here or not. Mayapur doesn't care if I'm a devotee or if I'm a dog.

Mayapur just loves me.

Mayapur didn't have to steal my heart. Mayapur owned it from the moment I stepped upon the ground of soft dust here on my first moonlit night.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Refuge

It was my last night in Vrindavan, and I wound my way through the bustling temple grounds to the rooms of Srila Prabhupad. When I entered, I felt washed with that clean scent of home; wherever Srila Prabhupad resides is where my heart finds refuge.

I chanted for awhile and was about to leave when a brahmachari came and turned on a CD of Srila Prabhupad singing the Brahma Samhita. Prabhupad's tone was so grave. The brahmachari set down an arati tray, and everyone stood up.

I decided to stay. I gazed upon Srila Prabhupad's writing murti, which captures the essence of his mood so exquisitely.

Then my eyes fell on several framed photos hung on the wall across the room. I believe they were all of Srila Prabhupad here in his house. In the photos he was singing, conversing, taking prasad...but the last photo of the series jarred me a little - it wasn't sweet, happy, or even meditative. It was actually stark and intense, and seemed out of place. It was a photo of Srila Prabhupad lying on his deathbed in this very room. He was covered in a blue blanket, his face was sunken, his eyes were closed, and two disciples were watching over him.

I crossed the room to get a closer look at the picture. I saw something close up that I had not seen from a distance.

A reference book lay open on the side table.

Someone was holding a dictophone up to his mouth.

Chills raced all up and down my body. That photo brought my heart to its knees. In that moment, I glimpsed just a spark of Prabhupad's purity and his beauty; he was thinking of all of us with his dying breaths. Tell me, who will pray for you when you are on your deathbed?

Tell me, who?

Tears were streaming down my face. I gazed and gazed at that picture, listening to the arati bell and Prabhupad's grave voice. In those moments, I felt as though I had been picked up and placed in the hands of Srila Prabhupad, and he would protect me forever.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Live Forever. Die Tomorrow.


"Live your material life like you will live forever; live your spiritual life as though you will die tomorrow."
 - Unknown

Tomorrow I leave for India.

It was around 5pm this evening when I pressed "Send" on my last school assignment of the Fall 2010 semester. I was a week early. In every area of my life, I have striven to tie up all loose ends by December 8th. I even registered for classes for next semester, and I have my weekly schedule mapped out.

But this evening, I've put it all aside for a month. I bundled up in the bitingly cold weather and drove over to the temple for Sayana Arati to bid goodnight to Radhe Shyam one last time. Only two or three people were there when the curtains gently swooshed open, and I sang for Them.

I prayed and prayed to Radhe Shyam to please protect my heart on this voyage to India - I prayed that I would not be a tourist, that I would not socialize, and - because this is one of my greatest challenges - I prayed that I would gain even a morsel of appreciation for the holy dham.

And then I meditated on the above opening quote - I have planned out my material life... so now how do I live my spiritual life?

After all, like a countdown, my last day in this world will come. On the eve of my departure from New Raman Reti as I sang for Radhe Shyam, I imagined that I would never return. I imagined that this would be the last time I would ever get to offer my obeisance when the curtains swoosh open, and this would be the last time I would sing for Radhe Shyam.

This is my last time. 

Suddenly, the pain of the moment became as beautiful as cut glass.

I pray to live every day like my last.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

An Unexpected Guru

The bench in front of Turlington Hall

This afternoon on a break between classes, I sat down on the big circular bench in front of Turlington to eat some pretzels. Just around the curve of the bench, I saw a young man absorbed in a small black book with gold on the edges of the paper. I felt washed with curiosity.

For several minutes, I debated whether I should begin a conversation. The young man closed his book and sat back to gaze at the sky with a ponderous tone. Finally I thought, What do I have to lose?

So I picked up my backpack and sat 3 or 4 feet away from him. "Excuse me," I said. "May I ask a personal question?"

He turned his gentle brown eyes to me. "Yes," he said.

"Why do you read the Bible?"

The young man's balance and grasp of the Bible and Christianity was like clear, clean water. And yet he maintained that he still has many questions, like "Why would God allow suffering in the world?" "Is there any second chance at salvation?" "Why are we here?" I believe that Krishna Consciousness answers those questions, but I never replied.

I simply inquired. I simply listened.

I never brought up my religion, or that my views of love and faith come from Krishna consciousness. Even when he asked me if I was interested in reading the Bible, I kept out any mention of the scriptures follow. I inquired purely as a seeker.

I'm not sure how long we sat there beneath the giant oak tree in the midst of the whorls of students all rushing to their business. Time seemed to suspend in the presence of such a timeless conversation.

But the most timeless moment came when the young man said, "The Bible describes a standard, and I strive to live by that standard every day. But... I fail. Every day, I fail. And yet God loves me anyway. To me... that is how God becomes more and more beautiful, every day."

We were silent for several moments. Then he asked me, "What are your thoughts on all this?"

I collected my thoughts and said, "It almost brings tears to my eyes..." and then tears stung my eyes, "... that we are so undeserving, but God loves us anyway. That if we surrender, the Lord can become more and more beautiful every day." I wiped away my tears.

The young man asked, "What is your name?"

"Bhakti," I replied.

"Bhak...ti?"

"Yes. It means 'devotion'." I said. "What is your name?"

"Cory. I don't know its meaning, though." He smiled.

"Thank you for sharing, Cory," and with that I packed up my things and we said goodbye.

That may be the last time I ever speak with or even see Cory again.

Of course I did not agree with a lot of the Christian philosophy we discussed. But I did not ask questions to find out what I disagreed on. I asked questions to seek the essence, to inquire into the beauty of his faith.

And I truly feel that I found it, I found a drop of essence.

I just did a Google search on the meaning of the name Cory, and it means "God's peace." So thank you, Cory. Today you gave me a sense of peace that God is present in every faith. Today you were my guru.

***

Related Posts:
A Glorious Encounter: In Mexico, there is a mystical place called Agua Azul where a series of waterfalls cascade down a mountain. Once a year, the Bus Tour visits for one glorious day...
Politics of Inspiration: Narayan Maharaj is coming to Alachua next week...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Amidst the Waves

I write this in Madhava's kirtan at Radha Govinda Mandir. My pen moves to the throb of the mridanga drum which reverberates like the most powerful heartbeat. Voices fill the room in ocean waves that rise and fall, rise and fall in the full moon rising tide. The tide of the holy name keeps rising.The waves wash over me. I am the sharpest, roughest stone, but the waves wash over me, again and again... over, above, around... over, above, around... if I stay in these waves, they will wash my heart, smooth my heart, wash away the rock that surrounds the diamond of my soul.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Never, Ever Stop


I hold the iron in my hand and the soft, damp smell of India surrounds me like a cloud. For two hours, I have meticulously folded and ironed electric blue silk, shimmering red fans, and tangerine cotton. The hands on my computer clock don't seem to move, and flute and sitar music from Pandora radio spindle from my speakers.

As I have sat in my chair for two hours now ironing my dance costumes, I've been pondering what it takes to become really, really good at something. I mean, life and soul.  When Hariprasad Chaurasia - the virtuoso flute player - came on the radio, I felt awed by perfection. His whole life and soul is to play the flute. That's it. He has practiced, studied, practiced, performed, practiced, taught, practiced, lost his ability to blow his breath into a flute, practiced, got Carpal's tunnel, practiced, and everything again a thousand times over... just flute, flute, flute. And after he has played the flute for more waking hours than sleeping hours in his life, he plays the flute some more.

And that is why I feel awed by Chaurasia's perfection. Because he never, ever stops playing.


I wondered how it would feel to dance and dance my whole life as a service to Krishna. To attend so many practices that when I walk I begin to dance; to iron costumes countless midnights; to tie on my dance jewelry for countless performances...

But of course, I know that at some point the body gives out, and dance is the prerogative of youth.

So in my meditation I went a little deeper. What would it take to reach perfection in... chanting? Devotion for Krishna? Service?

Maybe perfection is to chant so many names of the Lord that they just circle around and around in my mind like the moon. Or maybe perfection is to feel so humbled by the tragedies of life that I fall at the feet of strangers. Or maybe perfection is to drink in scripture like cool water on a hot day.

All day. Every day. Never, ever stop. And death is not the conclusion of devotion, but the beginning.

Beginning of what?

I don't know. If I keep chanting, if I never, ever stop, maybe I'll find out.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Countdown of Fate


This is a screenshot of the countdown gadget on my Google homepage. I put it there about 120 days ago.

But today I looked at it, really looked at it.

I have often quoted the word “serendipity” in this blog because sometimes the little chances of life stack up like dominoes, and then there’s simply no other word to describe the beauty of adventure. When you unfurl the sails of travel, the winds of serendipity carry you to unknown shores.

This is why I have a countdown on my homepage...

***

On a soft June evening, I stood outside of the Columbus temple in a sarong and tank top, my skin brown from canoeing all day with 17 other girls. A big yellow schoolbus rumbled slowly down the street, and many hands stuck out the windows and waved furiously. Girls called out, “Bye, Bhakti! Bye!!! Hariboool!!”

I lifted my hand to wave in return, and unexpected tears stung my eyes. “Haribol,” I murmured. I savored the final moments of my summer travels, and how each of the girls on the Yatra had all moved me with their unique love for Krishna.

But my first semester at the University of Florida began in mere days, and I had to leave the Yatra early.

Now, for you to fully understand the serendipity of my story, I need to describe my stack of dominoes.

Several months ago, Festival of India published a tentative schedule which stated that Detroit Rathayatra would occur on June 19th. Kishori Yatra would follow Festival of India, so naturally we would be there that weekend. So I bought my plane ticket from Detroit.

Then, Festival of India changed their schedule.

But my flight could not change.

So Columbus became the closest city to leave the Yatra from. Then I would catch a Greyhound bus to Detroit to then catch my flight back to Florida...! (Dizzy yet?) And that is why I found myself in a sarong on a soft summer evening, watching a big yellow schoolbus disappear around a corner. I turned around to face the quiet, empty temple.

An hour later, I searched for Hari Venu, the kind, older gurukuli who was also in charge of the temple. But I couldn’t find him. I peered into the kitchen, where a lone young woman was busy cooking for the late evening offering.

“Excuse me,” I asked. “Do you know how I can reach Hari Venu?”

She turned around. “What for?”

“He said he would take me to the bus station tomorrow morning,”

“Oh, well I’ll take you,” she said.

I spluttered a moment. “Ah, are you sure?”

“Yes,”

“Well, ah, thank you. And what is your name?”

“Gokul Vilasini,” she replied.

“Nice to meet you, my name is Bhakti lata,” I said.

That evening, I sang for Sayana Arati for Sri Radha Natabara, and she offered arati. The next morning we went on a long japa walk down by the river. When we returned, we sat down to have breakfast and ended up talking until noon.

At one point, an elder Prabhupad disciple, Mother Kamagiri, came over to discuss travel arrangements, for she had decided to come on the South India Yatra. Gokul seemed to be in charge of a traveling party that was all leaving together in December.

While Mother Kamagiri and Gokul discussed the Yatra, I sat there in silence. I felt an odd desire blossom inside me.

I wish I could go.

A little later, Gokul drove me to the bus station, and she came in to wait with me. In the midst of our enthusiastic conversation, I said, "You know what, Gokul? We should travel together."

"Yes, let's do it," she said.

"Yes! Let's go to Vrindavan, Mayapur, Chowpatty...."

"What about South India?"

"Oh, definitely South India! South India is lovely. So I'm thinking India 2012, when I graduate. Take a year off before I start teaching, you know? What about you?"

"Isn't that a bit far in the future?"

"Yeah, well, it's tough to travel when you're a student. Believe me, I've thought the possibilities through. I want to go back to India so much."

"Well what about the South India Yatra?"

"This December?"

"Yeah."

"Oh," I laughed. "It's the dilemma of the starving student - no money. Besides, I'm going on the Winter Bus Tour. I've already saved up for it."

"But would you go if you could?"

"Well, it's not really my style. I like to spend time in one place, especially in India - really soak it in. But the South India Yatra does sound pretty cool."

"What if I found you a sponsor?"

I stared at Gokul. "Excuse me?"

"What if I found you a sponsor? Would you go?"

I was silent. Then I laughed. "Well...! Maybe!"

"Well, noodle over it," she smiled and pointed to her head. "Think about it. I'll e-mail you in a couple days to confirm about a sponsor."

We hugged goodbye and I got onto my bus, completely derailed. On the bus ride to Detroit, I wondered at how the dominoes of fate had led me to this moment - Kishori Yatra. My school schedule. The change of dates. The bus ride. That conversation with Mother Kamagiri. The ride to the bus station. One slight shift in events and none of this would have happened.

It was an incredible idea, but the possibility that Gokul would find a sponsor for me seemed nil. So I just reveled in the possibility, amazed that someone would even offer such generosity, amazed that the Lord would arrange such a meeting.

Three days later, Gokul e-mailed me. "I found you a sponsor. You decide if you want to come."

All of my indecision melted in that moment. I replied: "Yes!  I'll come."

That was around 120 days ago.

I have 30 days to go.

My gratitude goes out to my dear godsister, Gokul Vilasini, and the anonymous devotee who has offered me such unconditional generosity to experience the holy dham. Amazing how with one drop of grace, the Lord can alter our lives in 24 hours.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Humility as a Verb

How Do I Listen?

How
Do I
Listen to others?
As if everyone were my Master
Speaking to me
His
Cherished
Last
Words.

- Hafiz (14th Century Sufi Poet) 

This weekend at the 24 Hour Kirtan in New Vrindavan, I learned that one facet of humility boils down to a verb.

Listen.

No, not hear. Listen. I have realized that it is impossible to be proud and to listen. Listening is a verb of the heart - it means that I set aside my own life, my own chatter, and my own ideas to look into another's eyes and absorb what he or she says. There is no agenda, no plan.

Just listen.

So at noon on October 30th, I took a vow of silence. I chose to set aside my life, my chatter, and my own ideas for 24 hours to look into the eyes of the holy name with no agenda and no plan. I opened my ears to hear.

Many kirtaniyas stepped up to the microphone to sing the holy name. I slowly set aside my inner music critic. Hour after hour passed and the holy name began to circle around and around in my head until it became the only sound I could feel - even the words to the mantra began to roll across my mind's eye.

In the early evening, I remembered the Hafiz poem, and it began to echo in the halls of my strangely quiet mind. Each kirtan became transformed, as if each devotee who sang truly was my beloved master, and each mantra was the last words he or she would ever say. Each kirtan rested like a jewel upon the thread of the holy name.

I was disarmed by surprise. I rarely ever feel such unconditional acceptance.

I began to listen to devotees even as they spoke to each other at lunch, or when they walked down the halls. I found Krishna in every word, even if that wasn't the intention. At times I wanted to walk up to someone, anyone, and beg, "Please, tell me your realization. Please tell me about the holy name, please tell me anything,"

When the clock struck noon on October 31st and the kirtans came to a tumultuous close, I slipped away from the templeroom and avoided crowds. Soon, too soon, the quiet of my mind would slip away, too, like water cupped in my hand.

Maybe if I pray enough, I can listen with my heart beyond 24 hours... beyond one week... beyond years... decades...

...Or maybe I will leave this world tomorrow. Then I pray to listen to my master of the holy name when I speak my own cherished last words.

"Silence means don't talk nonsense. Whenever you speak, you speak about Krishna. That is real silence."
Srila Prabhupada, Vrindavan 1974

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Midnight Writer

6 minutes to midnight.

Now 5.

The moments at this time of night feel so deep, so quiet, like a lake that reflects the sky in a vast mirror.

As of late, my life runs like a clock, and the gears of my life fit together so that I go from one place to the next, one class to the next, one assignment to the next... tick, tick, tick... click, click, click... sometimes the pace speeds up to dizzy whirls, and I can barely find a moment to steady myself and catch my breath.

But right now, it's 2 minutes to midnight, and while I watch the clock, there's no ticks, no clicks. Time right now just feels like that vast lake, all the moments of eternity at rest beneath the mirror.

These midnight moments bring out my soft words and poetry. All day long I write hard prose that brims with knives of citations and theses. But now, there's no professor to please, no manuscript to submit, and it's just me seeking solace in words.

These are moments when the world is asleep. I get to find a glimpse of peace, like watching shadows pass over the moon, and listening to rhythm of my breath as I dream.

Midnight.

Good night.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

An Ancient Power


Yesterday I took the elevator up to the second floor of a certain building built in 1929 on the campus of the University of Florida. I rung the doorbell and the woman at the desk motioned for me to enter through the glass doors.

I stepped into the deep quiet of the Baldwin Library, Special Collections. The vaulted wood ceilings cast a hush over me, as if I was entering a cathedral. After I signed a plethora of permission sheets, the librarian disappeared to fetch two books for me.

When she returned, she placed two books upon the table. My heart jumped. I glanced at the librarian and she gave me a smile.



With a cautious hand, I opened the cover of the first book, which was covered in maroon leather that dully shone. Upon the brittle pages was a copyright date from over 230 years ago.

230 years ago.

In awe, I opened to a random page. The author was a man who traveled with the British embassy - he told of his adventures and the diplomacy of missions to the Far East. The author spoke about the 1760s as if that era was not so long ago. On one page I saw ancient Devanagari script scribbled in pencil, as if a scholar in India had taken notes.

I flagged down a librarian. "This little piece of paper says that this book was sold to the University around 60 or 70 years ago for $375. How much is it worth today?"

The librarian grinned. "Oh, 230 years old? Over 10,000 dollars."

I gasped.

I opened the second book, which told the tales of two boys and a Doctor who travel the world.

130 years old.

I skipped ahead to the chapter when the crew touches shore in "Pooree". The book overflowed with meticulous and stunning illustrations, and so lo and behold when I turned a page, there was Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra! The author even drew a map of the famous temple. I guess that was before the priests outlawed the entrance of Westerners into the temple.

For an hour, I entered the ancient world of these books. The sound of turning brittle pages seemed to echo off the ceiling.

As I was about to leave, I took one last glance upon the inside cover of the children's book. In faded script was a little note that said something like, "To Harry, Dec. 25, '81"

It took me a moment to process the year.

1881.

Where have these books been? Who were the people that wrote them? Who were the people that turned these pages before me, throughout the decades... throughout the centuries...?

Somehow, a person who lived a hundred and two hundred years ago set words to paper. I will never know how he looks, never know how he speaks, and he is forever lost to the sands of time. But somehow, that person has reached out through the centuries to speak with me.

Then I pondered how Srila Prabhupad's books continue to change lives to this very day, even though he's no longer on the planet. His books will continue to reach out and mold the lives of people all over the world, for hundreds - for thousands - of years to come. His books have certainly changed my life.

That is the power of the written word.

And then I wonder: Will someone a hundred, two hundred, maybe even three hundred years from now be reading these words of an insignificant young woman?


***


Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Champion of Logic

"Okay professor," I said during break in my Bioethics class. "We're discussing the philosophy of animal rights, sure, but it has to have practical implications. This subject demands that you take a stance." I paused a moment, then challenged, "So what's yours?"

Professor Butchard laughed dryly. "Actually, I find it one of my failings in life to not be a vegetarian," 

"Seriously?"

"Yeah. It's just not practical. And I like meat." Then he added, "But I've decreased how much I eat."  


Respect, I thought. 

When class convened again, I raised my hand and declared, "Look, all the arguments that it's okay to eat animals could be defeated in like, 20 seconds." I gave example after example of my own life. "So ultimately, the only reason anyone still eats meat is because it tastes good, and you've been eating it your whole life." 

Even the most adamant students against vegetarianism remained quiet after my speech. Even Jake. 

The following class, a snag in the logic of the philosopher who was arguing for animal rights caught my attention. After class was dismissed, I approached the professor. I systematically countered the logic of the philosopher while my professor nodded and prompted me on. 

It was weird to argue for the devil.

At the conclusion, the professor only nodded in agreement, and then said, "Hm, e-mail me with more ideas," 

I turned to leave. Jake was sitting there, waiting to speak to the professor. He grinned and raised his hand. A little baffled, I high-fived him. He declared, "That was awesome,"

"Oh whatever!" I laughed and scaled the auditorium stairs. "Of course I'm still a vegetarian."

Then I remembered how Lord Chaitanya as Nimai Pandit used to debate with the most esteemed scholars in all of India - and he would demolish the logic of each and every one. He would argue for one side, then defeat it, then argue again, then defeat it... And in the end, it was to show the world that logic was pretty much word jugglery. Pretty much pointless.

The only logic that works is spiritual logic. 

I'm not a vegetarian for health, economic, social, or convenience reasons. I'm a vegetarian because hey, God is compassionate and likes vegetarian food, and I can offer it to Him. 

Can't beat that.     


"The lover knows much more about absolute good and universal beauty than any logician or theologian, unless the latter, too, be lovers in disguise."  - George Santayana

Friday, September 3, 2010

Memo

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fated Words

On the evening of May 30th, 2010, I was in anxiety.

Sure, the grounds of New Raman Reti were alive with celebration - after all these years of anticipation, Sri Krishna and Balaram had just been placed upon the altar only an hour before. Tumultuous kirtans of welcome rocked the templeroom.  

But I was outside, pacing. I still didn't know if I would be joining the other devotees the next morning to receive initiation. After all of these years of contemplation and prayer, the initiation ceremony was only hours away, and I still didn't know if I would be in it. 

Then, I saw Radhanath Swami talking with devotees amidst some picnic tables. This was my last chance. With a deep, deep breath, I approached him.

The whole issue of initiation awkwardly tumbled out into our conversation, and with mild surprise Maharaj asked me, "Are you chanting 16 rounds?"

"Yes, Maharaj," I replied. At last I had said it. Although I'm sure some had had their suspicions, I had not told a soul about how many rounds I had been chanting since last August.

Without a moment's hesitation, Maharaj agreed to give me initiation the following morning.

I was in shock. Instead of grinning and laughing in amazement and gratitude - at last, at last!, I wrung my hands a little. For years now, Maharaj has been a witness to my japa journey, and he intimately knows my issues of faith in the holy name.

"You look a little hesitant," Maharaj said. "Do you want to receive initiation?"

"Oh yes, Maharaj, more than anything in the world." I paused and sighed a heavy sigh. "But... I've only been chanting 16 rounds... for ten months," I thought of all the people who have been chanting 16 rounds for years and years with such faith, waiting and waiting to receive initiation from Radhanath Swami. And yet here he had only inquired if I was chanting at all.

Then, Maharaj said the words that will remain with me my entire life. He looked into my eyes and said,

"I trust you."  


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Just One Glance

Several nights ago, I came for a quiet Sayana Arati, and the only other person was Bibhatsu Prabhu, an elderly man a world away from mine. But over the years we have formed a kind of quiet companionship because we both come so often for the last arati.

The other night, though, Bibhatsu looked especially frail with his arm crutches and a new addition, a tube that wrapped across his face to assist with his breathing. After the arati we settled outside on the verandah to honor our mahaprasad together. We haven't talked much over the years, but right then I felt this urgency to know more about Bibhatsu Prabhu.

"So," I asked, "did you ever meet Srila Prabhupad?"

"I was in his presence," he replied brightly.

"Oh really?"

"Yes." He paused a moment to recollect. "Prabhupad came through New York in 1976 for the Rathayatra, and I lived about a block away from the 55th Street temple. So I came to the temple, and we were all waiting to greet Prabhupad. I was in the very back of the packed crowd, at the back of the room. So when Prabhupad came, the kirtan got louder and everyone was crowding around him so much that I couldn't see him.


"But he was there," Bibhatsu emphasized. "Then he went up to his room. So I was in Prabhupad's presence, but I never got to see him." He said it with absolutely no regret, and continued to eat his maha with gusto.

"You... you were in his presence... but you never got to see him?" I wrapped my arms around my legs and looked off into the distance. Tears stung my eyes.

Oh, what fate! What would I have given to have even been in that room like Bibhatsu, to have even been in Prabhupad's presence. Maybe I would have elbowed my way to the front of the crowd, and maybe caught a glimpse of Prabhupad before he disappeared up the stairs. And maybe he would have looked back one last time, and we could have exchanged a glance, just one glance.

With that, I glanced over my shoulder into the templeroom. And for a moment I understood why there had been no regret in Bibhatsu's voice, for there sat Srila Prabhupad upon his vyasasan in a pool of soft light.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Loss

Three and a half years ago, I bought a laptop and named it Hanuman. It revolutionized my experience of life - Seed of Devotion took off, I edited books, edited all my photography, stored all my dance music and experimented with video-editing. My laptop literally circled the world with me. Next to my pen-and-paper journals, Hanuman held the most treasured content of my life.

Then, several days ago, I came home to find my laptop gone from the kitchen table.

"Jivi," I asked my roommate, a little unnerved. "Where's my laptop?"

She came out from her room, a perplexed look on her face.

"And," I said, "where's your grandmother's quilt?" I gestured to the sofa - the pillows had been thrown to the floor; the handmade quilt was gone.

"The door was ajar when I came home," Jivi said quietly. She picked up her cell phone and called the police.

I began to pace. As my loss hit me full force, I dissolved into tears. "Why? The machine was old and beat-up, worth nothing. But... but... all my writings... my photography... unfinished videos... all my editing for Jadurani's memoirs... it's all gone! Take my camera, take my cash, take my jewellry, take it all! Why this?" Jivi held me while I cried. "It's all gone."

It was an act of a desperate drug addict - Jivi later found that her prescription medicine had also been stolen. The police came and took fingerprints and asked questions, but I knew: I would never see Hanuman again.

The thief did not steal my laptop from my bag or from a bookstore table. The thief broke into my own locked home. All week long, I have tried to feel angry, but all I feel is a deep, deep sadness, like grieving the loss of a loved one.

And I realize that this whole experience is like death. Death does not ask to come and does not annouce when he will steal what I hold most dear.

Death just comes.

I understand that this post is grave. But I feel it is my duty to share my sense of urgency to not take one moment in this life for granted, as many of us have realized with the sudden, tragic loss of Aindra Prabhu.

One day, death will come for each and every one of us, and we must ask ourselves every morning: "Am I ready?"

"When death, like a gypsy,
Comes to steal what I love
I will still look to the heavens
I will still seek Your face."
- The Valley Song
by Jars of Clay

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Escape

Tell me: what does it mean for you to escape?

And where would you go? A shimmering white beach? The summit of a mountain that touches the sky? Or maybe a holy village, a temple, or a sacred river?

But still, I ask you: have you really escaped?

***

I get out of the car and walk along the sandy driveway in the velvet summer evening. Light slants through the majestic oak trees, and Spanish moss forms golden canopies above my head. My mind whirs with a thousand plans and a thousand anxieties.

I reach the front door of a renovated barn and sigh. I slip off my shoes and enter a room with warm wood floors and saffron walls. I join the other students in front of the wall-to-wall mirrors and we fold our palms and recite prayers in unison.

We offer our respects to the earth, to God, to our guru, to the audience, and then we turn to the corner of the room to offer obeisance to the deity of Lord Nataraj – the Lord of Dance.

We begin to dance, and the room resounds with the rhythm of our feet. One by one, my thousands of thoughts drop away. My worries, daydreams, plans, schedule... my excitement, sadness, anger…

Everything.

When I dance Bharatanatyam, my mind washes clean. If I think about a single plan, even form a single sentence in my head, my hands slip, my feet fall off beat, and I lose my expression. It’s impossible to dance and to think.

Every moment I feel the fire circulate through my body; I focus on every moment to bend, jump, smile, and shift my gaze. Just to breathe is an adventure. Every moment is alive. I am alive.

This is my addiction to Bharatanatyam dance.

Amazing how in life so often we want to escape the present moment into an other world.

But dance is an escape from my world into the pure and present moment.

“The same stream of life
that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world
and dances in rhythmic measures.”
 Rabindranath Tagore 

Anapayani dasi, my dance guru






So please tell me now: what is your escape? 


Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Trump-all Answer

Chandramukhi (photo by Indradyumna Swami)

One afternoon, several of us on the young-girls tour, Kishori Yatra, were swimming in a lake, laughing and fooling around. Then Chandramukhi, the youngest girl on the whole Yatra, swam up to me. She's five.

"Hey Bhakti," her eyes were wide. "Which one do you like better, the sun or the moon?"

I was utterly unarmed. Usually I'm the one asking the hypothetical questions.

I studied her for a moment and a slow smile crept up my face. "Why... the sun."

"Why?" she persisted.

And so I gave her my reasons - the sun is bright, steady, and helps us all to grow. "Which one do you like better?" I asked.

"The moon," she said instantly. I smiled to think that maybe she liked the moon because her name means 'the maiden with the moon-face'.

She told me her reason with a grin and then swam off, and I just stood there, more unarmed by her reason even than her question.

Later that evening, the whole Kishori Yatra sat on the beach around a campfire under an almost-full moon. We had a weird talent show, we sang some songs, and then... we asked hypothetical questions. Everyone threw around gross and crazy questions that had us all laughing.

Then I called out, "Well, which one do you prefer, the sun or the moon?"

Everyone had their answer - the sun because it's cheery, the moon because you can look at it... some answers were scientific, some were just based on feeling.

Finally I said, "You see, Chandramukhi asked me this question earlier today." I looked at Chandramukhi across the campfire. "You want to tell everyone what your answer was?"

She shook her head.

"Please?"

She shook her head again, and I knew she'd never say it. She's a shy girl.

"Go ahead," Yamuna, her mother, said. "Just say it, Bhakti,"

"Yeah, we all want to know!" some girls chorused.

"Well," I began. "She said that she loves the moon more... because Krishna and the gopis dance under the moon for the rasa dance."

Sighs and "wow"s chased around the campfire circle. Some of us glanced up at the moon, which shone down on us in silver shadows.

"That answer trumps all," one girl sighed.

I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Offering Homage


My hair stood on end when I entered Tompkins Square Park. The Park was lush and green, but lined with derelicts on benches, muttering to themselves. Rollerbladers sped by, and children with balls ran past. Everyone seemed so relaxed, as if there was nothing remarkable about this place at all.

Deeper into the park, there is a certain tree that spirals into the sky. When I turned a bend and the majestic branches of that tree came into view, shivers rolled through my body. As if entering a temple, I slipped off my shoes and got down on my hands and knees to offer my obeisance to this tree.

Fresh and old rose garlands were strewn around the base of the tree. High up in the first fork in the trunk was a small, official green sign that read, "The Hare Krishna Tree".

This is where it all began.

I sat down on the uneven bricks and took out my journal to write:


Forty-five years ago, an elderly Indian gentleman sat down about where I'm sitting, right now. He sat under this tree with a little bongo drum and sang the mahamantra...


... and changed the world. 


People who sit on the benches in a ring around this tree have no idea that the young woman who writes in her journal is only here and breathing because of a man who came 45 years before. That he sat under this tree and changed the lives of millions upon millions of people by simply playing a bongo drum and singing an ancient mantra. 


Srila Prabhupad loves me so much. He thought of me and prayed for me before I was even born. He wanted to give me the gift of the holy name, and his only motivation was compassion.


Prabhupad blows my mind.  


I realize that there is no way to repay the debt of wealth Prabhupad has given me.


Well, there is a way: to chant the gift of the holy name that he came to the West to give. 


I offer my respects to this tree. It is a great devotee - it intimately served and associated with my beloved Srila Prabhupad.


Thank you, my dear tree. Thank you Srila Prabhupad. I owe you my life. 



Monday, June 14, 2010

A Hug from the Lord

I can't even count how many Rathayatras I have attended over the years. But I will honestly say that this morning was the most blissful Rathayatra experience of my life.

At Brooklyn temple the night before New York Rathayatra, I overheard a woman speaking to another devotee about decorating the carts early the next morning. A desire sparked to life, and so I tracked the woman down for more information.

This summer I'm traveling with the young-girls Tour, Kishori Yatra, so I proposed the idea to the group. At last one twelve-year-old girl, Sita, volunteered to come with me, despite all of my warnings about waking up early and serving for hours. She never wavered in her determination to come.

Saturday dawned cold and blustery. After catching several subway trains and walking many blocks, we arrived at the street where the giant Rathayatra carts awaited us. Only a few devotees moved amongst the carts, tying flower garlands and hoisting balloons.

Sita and I jumped in... and got lost in service. When other women arrived, we conferred and laughed about the decorations.

When the giant deities of Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra arrived, I felt overcome with awe to be so close to Lady Subhadra. Several of us women gathered around Her and gushed about Her beauty.  A thought occurred to me: in Puri, the pujaris allow pilgrims to receive a hug from the Deities.

So I asked! The pujari grinned and motioned me forward. I called to Sita to step forward and receive a hug from Lady Subhadra, too. Then with a breath of excitement, I proposed that we could receive a hug - or at least touch the feet - of both Baladeva and Jagannath!

Sita and I danced to Baladeva's cart. People were starting to gather for the parade - time was ticking until the pujaris would put away the ladders. So we scaled the steps, bowed before Lord Baladeva, and then touched the wood of His feet. I told Sita to pray to Lord Baladeva for strength and guidance, because He is the original spiritual master. The moment was magic as we knelt there in silence, so close to the glowing form of Lord Baladeva.

We offered out final respects, then dashed to Lord Jagannath's cart. The kirtan party was building, the music of mridanga and karatalas resounding off of the buildings.

Only minutes left!

We climbed the narrow steps, and in all that building whirl of energy, we bowed before Lord Jagannath. We reached under His skirt to touch His wooden feet. We then knelt in silent prayer.

"Pray to learn to love and serve the Lord and His devotees," I murmured to Sita. I felt such awe and peace settle over my heart to be so close to the Lord of the Universe. 

When Sita and I climbed down, I knew that she had also felt the unforgettable magic of the morning.

Decorating the carts - doing some humble, simple service - allowed us to come so close and receive so much mercy from the Lord.

Service, association, and prayer.

What else IS there in life?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Voyage to India

Several days ago, my father sent me a rough draft CD that he recently recorded of his bansuri flute ragas. When I heard the first note, memories of growing up with my father's flute-playing washed over my mind in soft waves.

I realize that Vrindavan draws me more powerfully than any other holy place in the world because of my father's flute. Often he would play a full moon raga on the porch as I fell asleep, or he would bring his flute to play in a bamboo forest, or I would hear the echoes of his bansuri in an empty templeroom.

Each and every time I heard my father play, my thoughts would wander to my mind's vision of Vrindavan... to a little blue boy playing his flute along the banks of a sacred river.

In 2008, I visited India - and Vrindavan - for the first time in my life. I don't know when I'll return, but I hope that when I do, I'll return with my father and listen to him play along the banks of the Yamuna.

Below is a slideshow of my photography while in India, accompanied by the music and poetry of my father. [e-mail subscribers need to click through to seedofdevotion.blogspot.com, or visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Z5OImiB9uM]

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dance on the Edge of Life


(© all photos by Adideva das)

My story begins several months ago, when Malati devi asked me to organize the entertainment for the Festival of Inspiration. With caution (and naivete), I agreed.

At last, in the culmination of months of work, I traveled up to New Vrindavan for the final showdown.

Saturday morning dawned very cold and very, very windy. So windy, in fact, that the gigantic rented tent was on the verge of blowing to the sky and a crew of men dismantled it mid-morning.

There went the prasadam and entertainment facility.

A crew of us regrouped in Malati's office and mapped out Plan B - we decided to move the entertainment to the templeroom.

Little did I know that we'd get to Plan-freakin'-Z by the end of the night.

A little while later, I was absorbed in bhajans in the templeroom when every single light flickered off and died. Pujaris brought out hurricane lamps to light the altars, and seminars made do with lamps and flashlights. The entire temple complex had not a drop of electricity.

We would have to run the entire evening program off of a generator.

A very dinky generator.

I began to feel anxious. Two hours before showtime, the hired sound people told us that we couldn't plug in our mics and speakers to their sound board. The generator could surge and blow the whole, expensive thing.

Translation: "Go find your own sound system."

A half an hour later, because of some 'family emergency', the light and sound people vanished without a goodbye. I never saw them again.

A cold sweat began to form on my brow. Mic channels? Wireless and cordless mics? Sound boards? Generators? Surges?

Oh God, help me!

Ha! And God helped me! He sent Govinda Ghosh and Krishna Balaram, two talented gurukulis. They smattered together a sound system of several sound boards, CD players, and wireless and handheld mics, all connected to our one power source - the generator.

By the time the first act began, we were running an hour late... but we had full light and full sound.

Performance after performance we danced on the edge, playing everything by ear in the dark. At one point, I moved out from behind our side wing curtain and looked out onto a sea of people. A SEA. People stood up two or three deep on all edges of the templeroom. The crowd roared and watched spellbound every moment.

At the conclusion of the final act, a wave of relief and triumph crashed over me. My friend Jvala and I hugged each other. "We DID it!" I cried. "And we did it with bliss."

"Girl, you just got a degree in Crisis Management," she laughed.

At 2am, I finally laid my head to my pillow in the women's asram on the third floor of the temple. I wondered to myself: "Bhakti, would you do this again? No, seriously?"

Suddenly, I heard shrieks of glee from down the hall. I blearily opened my eyes. And there - from the hallway, a bright stripe of light shone through the bottom of the door.

I closed my eyes and grinned. 

I would live it all over again, every single insane moment. 

Life is nothing if not an adventure, a risk, a dance on the edge of life for Krishna.




 

 



The beautiful Gopal Nathaji deity in New Vrindavan - the King of crisis management.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Japaholics Anonymous

Manu wrote this blog post several weeks ago (you can read it here) about an alcoholic who falls to his knees every morning to pray to God to give him the strength to be sober for that day.

This man has fallen to his knees for forty years. He's been sober for forty years.

In connection with chanting the holy name, I realize that I'm that alcoholic. I've been in a space where I haven't chanted japa, and I never want to go back.

So I need to fall to my knees. I need to BEG God every single morning to please allow me to chant His name sincerely for that day, for every day, for all of my life.

Some people can be sober their whole life with no problem, just like there are people who can chant their rounds every day on the simple merit of regularity. It's a non-issue. 

But I'm like the alcoholic. I am in danger of falling away every single day. I need to pray every single day for God's grace to allow me to even wake up in the morning, to even pick up my beads, to even utter one syllable.  

And every morning, before I chant, I fall to the floor and I pray to Krishna: Please allow me to chant Your name today. Give me the strength to make it through this one day.

Just this one day.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Installation of Sri Nitai Gaurachandra

Krishna Dhama and Gaura Shakti are two second-generation devotees who recently invited the Lord as Sri Nitai Gaurachandra into their home and into their family.   

Come and celebrate!

The family offers prayers


        




spellbound







[below photo courtesy of Jaya Radhe]

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Story of a Vow

Around five years ago, on a warm summer night in Alachua, Dattatreya, Jaya Radhe, and I sat in a circle with Bhagavad Gitas in our laps.

"So, if we're going to do this Bhagavad Gita study group, I say we have a vow in order," I declared.

"Vow?" Jaya said.

"Yeah." I put my hand in the center of our circle. "You guys in?"

Jaya slowly placed her hand on top of mine.

"I'm in," Datta said, and he placed his hand on Jaya's.

"So," I intoned. "We must vow to read, study, and complete the entire Bhagavad Gita, together."

"Agreed." Jaya said.

"Agreed." Datta said.

We looked around the circle and grinned at each other. Then I shouted, "Srila Prabhupada, ki - "

"JAI!" And our hands flew to the sky.

One night a week, we meet in one of our living rooms to read the ancient Bhagavad Gita and Srila Prabhupad's timeless words. We discuss, we debate, and we confront our issues of faith with gruelling honesty. Each one of us contribute something unique, each of us with a dynamic and perspective that balances the discussion.

But life has drawn the three of us down paths into unknown worlds, paths that have lead away from Alachua, away from each other, sometimes for months and months at a time. We all have been turned upside down, twisted inside out, and had our heart put through the washing machine a couple times.

But always, after our sojourns into the world, our paths return to the confluence of one of our living rooms on a Monday night, and to the words of the Bhagavad Gita and Srila Prabhupad.  

At the time we made our fateful vow, we all thought it would take us a year, maybe two to complete the Bhagavad Gita.

Five years later, and we're on Chapter Five. 

We've stopped trying to calculate when we'll finish, because we've all realized that there is no finish line. Through each other's association, the words of the Gita have leapt from the pages and have irrevocably changed each of our lives.   

Man, we had no idea what we were getting into when we put our hands into that circle. 


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

House of God

I so happened to purchase a moped for the coldest recorded winter of America (It snowed - in Florida). I tend to visit the temple almost every day, but for the past several months my visits have tapered off. The cold air from riding a moped has seeped into my bones.

But tonight, I decided I needed the temple. I needed Radhe Shyam.

When I stepped into the templeroom, Prabhupad's voice washed over me. I felt my anxieties dissolve into the cool marble floor. It's that feeling I get when I gaze up at the stars - that beautiful humility. It's like I suddenly have a perspective on how tiny and insignificant I am. This is a place where nothing revolves around me and everything revolves around God.

I pray to be a servant in the house of God. Then I can bathe in the humility of gazing at the stars of Radha Shyamasundar.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Radha Madan Mohan, Gaura Purnima

My dear friend and roommate, Shalagram Shila, used to dress Radha Damodar in Gita Nagari. So on Gaura Purnima morning, I invited her to come dress Radha Madan Mohan with me. 
She dressed Radha.
I dressed Madan Mohan.




To write is to dare the soul. So write.