Bonds of Love: Nirmala Devi Dasi
Nirmala, 16, stood in the kitchen, surrounded by her parents, as she pulled the Bhagavad-gita out of a package sent by her sister, Rangavati. Nirmala felt there was something inexplicable about holding the large book in her hands. She flipped through its pages, puzzling over the contents, closed the book, then looked up at her father and assured him, “I’ve followed her in everything else, but I’m not following her into this!” Her father patted her on the head, “Good, girl.” As he walked away, Nirmala dove into the laddus and lugloos her sister had also sent.
Halfway through my last year of high school, without warning, one day I was stricken by a quaking, paralyzing fear: What am I going to do with my life? With great urgency and from deep within, I prayed, “Dear God, whoever You are, wherever You are, please help me. Please send me a sign.”
Then, two days later, a letter arrived. Rangavati, who was in the Detroit temple an hour away, invited me to visit her there. Wanting to see her, I headed off in my little red Plymouth Valiant. I walked into an immaculate, glowing temple. Everything about the atmosphere captured me – the smells, the paintings, the sense of purity, the happy people, and a deep awe rose in my heart. I had been a vegetarian since I was 13. Hearing that everyone in the temple was vegetarian, and didn’t take drugs or alcohol or engage in sex outside of marriage – everything that confronted my senses and sensibilities in this temple gave me an immediate and powerful feeling: I had arrived home. This is what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Returning the next weekend, I was unsuspectingly thrust into the service that would define me and my lifelong relationship with Srila Prabhupada. The temple was a bustle of activity. “We’re going out on sankirtana,” someone said. When my sister explained that that meant we’d be handing out Back to Godhead magazines, I said, “I can’t go. I don’t know what this is about. All I’ve heard is that God’s name is Krishna, He’s blue, and He plays a flute.” “That’s fine!” she said.
Alone on a street corner I was driven from within to go up to complete strangers and say, “Krishna is God and He plays a flute. Please take this.” The response astounded me. The devotees’ conviction had surcharged me with the simple trust that giving these magazines greatly benefited others, and Srila Prabhupada wanted more than anything to alleviate the suffering of the world with knowledge.
The carton of Back to Godheads was emptied and I had a bagful of lakshmi. Having been elevated outside of myself during the distribution I was fascinated, and really excited and deeply satisfied. Somebody had taken over. It was Krishna without a doubt. From that day on, distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books brought me joy and practically established my relationship with Srila Prabhupada.
Six months later, already delayed by a broken-down van, my sankirtana crew and this six-month veteran hurried toward the New Vrindavan temple, where Srila Prabhupada had already arrived in July 1974. As I ran up the knoll toward the temple I was unprepared for the visceral reaction that overtook me. Srila Prabhupada was singing Jaya Radha-Madhava, and his voice was being broadcast over the loudspeakers. At first the loud sound didn’t strike me, but then suddenly his voice penetrated into me and I became stunned. I began to shake, which slowed my steps, my heart raced, and tears ran down my cheeks. But I forced myself forward anxiously, now more eager. Now my eyes had to see him along with my ears. He had completely changed my life.
Still in shock but driven by a deep inner need to meet my spiritual master for the first time, I picked up speed. I ran into the temple room. But due to the number of devotees surrounding him, I had to stop about twenty feet from his vyasasana.
Prabhupada was looking around and into the faces of his dear disciples. As I watched him, I was unprepared for his eyes to lock on mine. Time stopped as he held me in his gaze. I was stripped of everything. I felt he saw to the inner depths of my being; he saw all of me. His look was confronting and comforting at the same time. Although I felt he saw my many faults, I felt safe with him; therefore his gaze comforted me. I already knew he was my guru, my teacher, my everything.
I hadn’t had any idea what one expects when seeing her spiritual master. But this experience – as seemingly insignificant as two people looking at each other for a brief moment – was far beyond anything I had imagined or hoped for. His look confirmed everything I felt in my heart and solidified my path forward. As I took in the experience, I noticed that I was standing in the midst of the brahmacaris. I slowly stepped back, still holding the moment in my heart when my spiritual guide had first taken notice of me.
A few days later, Srila Prabhupada sat outside on a vyasasana on a beautiful, hot July day. There he accepted me formally as his disciple. I was 17. He asked me to state the four regulative principles. He held my japa beads with just his thumbs – he had folded the string of japa beads in half, perhaps as one would fold a brahmana thread to prepare for twisting it. The beads hung off his thumbs as he extended his hands to me, saying, “Your name is Nirmalaaaaa.” By divine grace, I still chant every day on those precious beads given to me by Prabhupada. Two years later, in 1976, Srila Prabhupada returned to that very spot and gave me second initiation.
Because I was doing book distribution I traveled a lot, so I saw Srila Prabhupada in a number of temples. Srila Prabhupada visited Philadelphia in 1975 for Ratha-yatha, and I had the fortune of cleaning his quarters with some godsisters. When you’re in Srila Prabhupada’s space, everything feels sanctified. It was not an ordinary feeling to be in the room where he has been staying. To take advantage of being in that atmosphere I put my hands in the pockets of his long saffron coat with the peacock strings and pulled out tiny pieces of lint and put it in my own pockets.
During one of Prabhupada’s classes, some of the men were manning the doors. When someone left the temple room, these men would open and close the doors quietly behind them. On one occasion, Prabhupada noticed that there were many people outside the temple room doors trying to get a glimpse inside. When he saw this he motioned to the men to leave the doors open. This left a deep impression on me, as I saw and felt his kindness and love.
Similarly, I was struck by Prabhupada’s loving nature when he was visiting New Vrindavan. Nearly every day after class, he would hold a four-year-old boy’s hand from the temple room to the barn. It was a short walk, but that he loved and paid attention to the children was endearing. He was personable, thoughtful, caring, encouraging, conscious, and conscientious, and yet he accomplished so much.
A month later, Prabhupada visited the Detroit temple, which was on Jefferson Avenue at that time. Many people walked by our doors. I had the fortunate service to wash Srila Prabhupada’s clothes while he was there. Feeling protective of them and with affection for him I slept next to where I hung them to dry to make sure no one touched them. When they were dry I ironed them and brought them to his quarters. It’s hard to explain, but even after all these years I can still feel the deep satisfaction that I felt when doing this small service.
During that same visit I heard Srila Prabhupada lecture outside at Wayne State University. Srila Prabhupada was onstage, but he didn’t have a cup of water. We had one in our van, so I ran quite a distance to get it for him. With great fervor I ran faster than I had ever run in my life or have run since. This was a tiny incident for me, but it’s symbolic of that time in which so many of his disciples performed tremendous service beyond their capacity.
During one of the Gaura-Purnima festivals in Sridhama Mayapur, I was happy to be engaged in the service our Pishima, Srila Prabhupada’s sister. I loved to be with her, and she was always very kind to me. One evening I was taking her outside to the drama – it may have been the Ramayana – and as we were walking toward the event, I was holding her Ganga jal and helping her. Srila Prabhupada was already on his vyasasana, surrounded on three sides by a sea of sannyasis. Pishima walked toward Srila Prabhupada, and the closer we got, the slower I went. Pretty soon, Pishima was pulling me along. I was young and shy, and was nervous about walking into the midst of those sannyasis. Soon we were right up to the outer circle of sannyasis. She took her cane and shooed the men out of the way, tightly grabbing my hand and pulling me along. I was completely shocked as she walked right up to Srila Prabhupada, sprinkled her Ganga water, sat down, and pulled me down next to her. Srila Prabhupada looked over casually as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Instead of watching the play we happily watched Srila Prabhupada watch it. We just couldn't take our eyes off of him – he was absorbed in the pastimes and displayed such a variety of expression!
Another very significant event in my relationship with Prabhupada occurred in 1976 during this same visit to Mayapur. Every morning Prabhupada would descend the stairs from his quarters. On the landing, stairs descended from both sides. On one side, gurukula boys would be chanting kirtana, and on the other side the women would stand to greet Srila Prabhupada. Every day I’d go early so I could be in the front row. Prabhupada glanced toward both sides, acknowledging all the devotees.
I wanted Srila Prabhupada to see me, but he didn’t seem to notice me there in front. The same thing happened for a number of days. By the fourth day, it seemed that he was deliberately not looking at me. I was right in front of him – literally two feet away. He looked at the devotees to my right, to my left, and at all those behind me. After a few days of this I felt hopeless and dejected, perhaps even a little rejected. Throughout the day these feelings gained intensity.
I didn’t speak to anyone about it, but toward the end of this one heart-wrenching day, it dawned on me, like a gift from Krishna, that it didn’t matter if he noticed me because I had a service to offer him. I would return to my service of distributing his books. I could do that. I had a connection with him. Immediately I felt relief and light. I went from hopeless to hopeful.
The next morning I took my place again with a light heart and no expectations. And this time, when Srila Prabhupada came to the landing, he looked directly into my eyes, folded his hands, and bowed his head. He knew my consciousness had changed, and he acknowledged and appreciated the shift. Again, I felt he knew my heart. I understood that my connection with him was through service, not whether or not he saw me.
This incident remains a strong reminder to me and offers a powerful, enduring connection to Srila Prabhupada without his physical presence. I was trying to take in his physical presence as much as possible, and in this teaching moment I was given the greatest gift of being able to be in his presence always through realization in my heart.
Through the past decades, as we each age, our services may change, but the principle of service endures: our relationship with Srila Prabhupada is deepened through devotional service. Although I am unworthy, Srila Prabhupada gave me life. He leads my life and is always with me. I’m eternally grateful and forever indebted to His Divine Grace.