Near Death While Out Chanting
by Locanananda Dasa
Excerpted from Back to Godhead Magazine 1998 Vol. 32, No. 2
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Devotees are ready to take risks to assist the Lord in His mission
“All Glories to Sri Krsna sankirtana, the chanting of the holy names of the Lord,” Yajna Purusa Dasa and I recite as the D train makes its way toward midtown Manhattan. “Sankirtana cleanses the heart of all the dust accumulated for years …”
We’re leading a party of twenty-five enthusiastic devotees to Fifth Avenue, where Lord Jagannatha’s Rathayatra parade will take place in just a few days. More and more devotees have been arriving daily from all over the country to attend the festival, and our kirtana party is becoming more powerful and impressive. Jaded New Yorkers who have “seen it all” cannot help but notice our ecstatic chanting and dancing. The holy name is entering their hearts.
I joined the Krsna consciousness movement in Paris, France, in 1970, and from the beginning I loved street sankirtana going out with devotees to chant in public. Being in our early twenties, we could go out all day long to chant, dance, and tell others about Krsna, without feeling the least bit tired. Our enthusiasm for sankirtana was irrepressible, and when we tasted the sweetness of the holy name, we knew we’d been favored by Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Most important, by performing this yajna, or sacrifice, despite adversity, we were assisting our spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, in his mission to spread Krsna consciousness throughout the world.
Now, twenty-seven years later, we’re out for street sankirtana in America. As our chanting party rises out of the subway into the midday sun, we form two lines before heading to the front of the public library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Despite the ninety-degree heat, we dance with abandon and loudly chant the Hare Krsna mantra for all to hear.
After about an hour, a policeman tells us we’ve been chanting in a “quiet zone” (in midtown Manhattan?) and should move up the street. So we head north across 42nd Street. It’s my turn to pass out books, and I decide to first get a drink at the water fountain in Bryant Park, next to the library.
My thirst quenched, I start to rejoin the devotees, but a businessman seated in the park on a green folding chair calls me over. He asks some philosophical questions, and I’m happy to answer from what I’ve learned from Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Suddenly, I’m feeling sick, light-headed. Fearing I might have heat stroke, I excuse myself from our conversation. The businessman offers me his chair, accepts a booklet on the teachings of Prahlada Maharaja and an invitation to Rathayatra, and then leaves the park.
I sit down, but there’s no relief. Soon I’m kneeling on the pavement trying to get comfortable. I don’t have the strength or balance to rise to my feet.
Now I’m lying on the stone, and a policeman orders me to lie on the grass like everyone else. I stumble over to the wide lawn, but the sun makes me feel worse, so I move over to a shaded area and lie down on some matted vines. It’s cool, and I start to feel a little better, but within a moment a gardener rushes over to me holding a sign he has pulled from the ground. It reads, “Do Not Lie on the Vines.”
Another policeman comes over to order me off the vines and onto a bench. I comply, and a sympathetic woman offers me something to drink, assuming I might be diabetic. I thank her with a Prahlada pamphlet.
Now I’m feeling so alarmingly bad, I ask someone to have the policeman call an ambulance. Disgusted as I lie on the stone path amid cigarette butts and other filth, I begin to think of the sankirtanaparty, wondering if they will soon return this way. I hope to hear the sound of cymbals at any moment.
Several policemen are standing around me now. I’m clutching my beads, chanting Hare Krsna to myself, and wishing that by Krsna’s grace some devotee might come by and help me out.
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I overhear a conversation between a policemen and a passerby:
“Do you know this person?”
“Yes. He’s from our temple.”
“Where’s your temple?”
“At 305 Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn.”
I look up and see a devotee standing over me. I’ve never seen him before. He just happened to be passing through the park.
“Are you leaving your body or something?” he asks. “The best thing to do is just chant Hare Krsna.”
Introducing himself as Indranuja Dasa, he sits next to me, and we chant together, waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
I think, “Krsna is so kind that He has sent this nice devotee to help me prepare to go back to Godhead.”
But then my material attachments start to hit me. “If I’m leaving my body,” I think, “I’ll be losing the association of my friends and family.”
Anxiously, I begin to consider the pastime of Bharata Maharaja, whose path back to Godhead was blocked by his attachment to a deer, which he remembered affectionately at the time of death.
“If death is taking me now,” I think, “I have to fix my mind on Radha and Krsna.”
I picture the temple’s Radha-Krsna Deities wearing a beautiful red and black outfit with jewels and gold trim. As I remember Krsna in this way, tears fill my eyes. My life is now completely in Krsna’s hands, and if Krsna desires, I can leave my body at any moment.
The ambulance finally arrives, and Indranuja comes with me to the hospital. The doctors and nurses all want to know why a man my age is chanting and dancing on Fifth Avenue. I tell them Lord Caitanya wants us to spread love of God in this way.
“You’re having a heart attack,” one of the doctors says. “It runs in your family, but if you agree we can perform a procedure right now to save your life.”
As they describe the details of catheterization and angioplasty, Indranuja Prabhu passes out. With no time to waste, I sign the release. I’m quickly wheeled into the operating room, where the procedure is to be performed.
In angioplasty, a probe enters the coronary arteries and chambers of the heart, releasing dyes that can be monitored on a TV screen. As expert as the doctors at Bellevue Hospital are, they have no information about the invisible soul residing in the region of the heart. Their knowledge is limited to auricles and ventricles.
Forced to lie motionless on my back for more than two hours, I softly chant the maha-mantra on my beads. At one point the pain in my chest is so excruciating that a nurse has to give me a massive dose of morphine just so I can breathe. I feel like I’m having a second heart attack right on the operating table.
By the time I’m on a bed in the intensive care unit, I realize that not only did I not go back to Godhead, but instead I’m forced to endure a severe karmic reaction for some sinful activity. Or perhaps it’s Krsna’s mercy to make me more serious about spiritual life. Either way, I’m determined to get back to spreading Krsna consciousness as soon as I’m well enough. I want to continue to fulfill the order of my spiritual master to chant, dance, become purified, and engage others in the sankirtana movement, which is meant to uplift all of human society.
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Lord Caitanya predicted that the Hare Krsna mantra would be chanted in every town and village in the world. Echoing that prediction, Srila Prabhupada has written, “In all the cities, towns, and villages on the earth, from all the oceans, seas, rivers, and streams, everyone will chant the holy name of Krsna.” In a mood of pure devotion Srila Prabhupada prayed to the lotus feet of the Lord: “As the vast mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu conquers all directions, a flood of transcendental ecstasy will certainly cover the land. When all the sinful, miserable living entities become happy, the Vaisnavas’ desire is then fulfilled.”
The more one is dedicated to the sankirtana movement, the more one may be called upon to take risks for the mission of the spiritual master. One may even have to put one’s very life on the line. Being prepared to sacrifice everything to spread Krsna consciousness guarantees that at the moment of death we will go back home, back to Godhead. We don’t have to worry about our next destination. By Krsna’s arrangement we’ll give up our useless material bodies under the most auspicious conditions and return to the spiritual world. Not forgetting the service we have rendered to Him in this lifetime, the Lord will enter our minds to steady our meditation on His lotus feet and draw us into the eternally blissful association of pure devotees engaged in His loving service. When we take every opportunity to spread Krsna consciousness and discuss topics of Krsna, we will never have to fear coming back to this temporary world of flickering happiness.
Locanananda Dasa regularly leads out chanting parties in New York City, where he has been living since 1982.