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?”


“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?"


"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?

Do I
Listen to others?
As if everyone were my Master
Speaking to me

- 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.


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

To write is to dare the soul. So write.