Bonds of Love: Narayani Devi Dasi
For my whole life I never felt like I belonged anywhere in this world; I could never figure out where I belonged. One day when I was ten years old I was sitting in my classroom and looking at the other children and I thought, “Maybe I am from another country or maybe I am even from another planet. But one thing I know – I am not from here. I am not American. I am not like one of these children.” So when I saw Srila Prabhupada for the first time in the airport and I was following behind him, I felt that I finally had found a place where I belonged – following behind Srila Prabhupada – and that I could follow him for the rest of my life. In his presence I felt secure, protected, and in my eternal position.
When Prabhupada initiated me by letter in June 1971, he gave me important instructions: “Yes, now that you have come to Krishna consciousness, your spiritual life, the real life, has begun. First birth is from your parents but real birth, real life, begins when one accepts a bona fide spiritual master and renders service onto him. Then the path is open for going back to home, back to Godhead, to live eternally in full knowledge and full bliss, and in association with the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself, Lord Krishna. That is the goal, and the means to attain it are simple. You should strictly follow the regulative principles, chant at least 16 rounds of beads daily, read and study all our books, attend aratis, and go for street sankirtana, etc. In this way be engaged in Krishna’s business 24 hours and your rapid advancement in Krishna consciousness will be certain.” I have been trying to follow these instructions: I was a pujari for seven years in Calcutta, then doing traveling book distribution in Maharasthra, Gujarat and Rajasthan for seven years, then since 1994 I have been reading, studying, and teaching Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Whenever I saw Srila Prabhupada, I was always trying to use my intelligence to figure him out. Was he in this world or in another dimension? It seemed like he was projected on a screen from somewhere else. I would scrutinize him during class and on morning walks try to figure out how he walked so fast and why we were so tired and could not keep up with him, although he was over seventy years old and we were in our twenties. But then I gave up trying to figure him out with my intelligence, because I realized that I could only understand him by devotion.
After my husband and I had been devotees in the US for a year and a half, Prabhupada asked for fifty devotees to come to India. Satsvarupa, our temple president, told me and my husband that he was sending us. Out of the twenty-five devotees who went to India in 1972, only five stayed. The conditions were quite austere when we arrived in Bombay, with the men living in a hut and the women on the roof of one of the tenants’ buildings in the back.
During our first seven years in India, my husband and I were Radha-Govinda’s pujaris in the Calcutta temple. I offered mangala-arati, the twelve o’clock arati, the four o’clock arati, and the evening arati, and I dressed the Deities, put Them to rest, made garlands, took care of Tulasi, and sewed for the Deities (we made fifty-two Deity dresses). I also went out to collect money for the temple. I slept only four hours a day. The conditions were very austere – devotees were getting malaria and dysentery. I got a urinary tract infection repeatedly, and once ran a fever of 105°… But Srila Prabhupada was so caring. Often in his lectures he would thank us for preaching in Calcutta. One year he even told us that we didn’t need to follow Caturmasya because we were doing enough austerities already.
Once, when I was offering the ghee lamp during mangala-arati, I turned around and Prabhupada was just four inches behind me. I was so shocked I almost dropped the ghee lamp. I didn’t know what to do – should I offer the ghee lamp to him from his feet up? I don’t remember what I did, but I thought, “Wow! I should think that Prabhupada is right behind me, watching every move I make, for the rest of my life.”
In India, Prabhupada didn’t discriminate between men and women. Women did Deity worship in Bombay, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Calcutta – in every ISKCON temple in India except Mayapur. Women were doing all kinds of services: cooking, harinama, leading bhajanas, preaching, purchasing Deities for the temples. It was innocent in those days, informal and friendly, like a family. Godbrothers and godsisters were so enthusiastic to chant and preach, so dedicated to Srila Prabhupada, we never thought about mixing together improperly. The feelings we had toward each other were not those of hatred or superiority/inferiority. We had a mutual respect. I joined because we all felt that Srila Prabhupada was our common father.
I saw Srila Prabhupada in Vrndavana in 1972. Every day, after his evening lecture, we would pack into his small room for darshan. The first thing he said was “Don’t associate with the babajis. It’s called markata vairagya. Just like the monkeys, they’re renounced, they wear no clothes, they’re vegetarian. But they have many wives. One monkey, twenty wives. So don’t associate with the babajis.” At another darshan, a monkey ran into the room, grabbed some bananas, and ran out. Srila Prabhupada said, “See how intelligent he is. None of you would dare to do that! But the monkey is intelligent for eating, not for other things. So don’t be intelligent like the monkey.”
Once in a darshan he said to me, “My sister Pisima told me that you speak Bhagavatam very nicely.” I was bewildered because I had never spoken Bhagavatam in my life. What was he talking about? Then I remembered that Pisima was present on Janmastami when I’d read the rasa-lila chapter from Krishna Book. She didn’t speak English, but I got into the reading and she got into the mood and cried. But Srila Prabhupada’s words were prophetic, because thirty years later I started speaking Bhagavatam.
Pradyumna knew me from Boston, and when he saw me in Calcutta in 1973, he said, “Do you want to come to Mayapur with Prabhupada?” I said “Yes.” So he said, “Learn how to read Bengali. We’re leaving tomorrow. We want you to type the Caitanya-caritamrta for Prabhupada.” He gave me a Bengali book and I quickly learned to read and was able to join Srila Prabhupada in Mayapur the next day.
The first building in Mayapur, the Lotus Building, was being built even while we lived in it. There were no windows and the doors didn’t close. Prabhupada liked to see what the devotees were doing, and when he looked in the window where I was typing, I was sitting with earphones listening to a recording of him speaking Bengali verses and typing the English transliterations with a huge Bengali book in front of me. Prabhupada said, “Oh, you know Bengali?” I said, “Yes, Srila Prabhupada,” although I’d just learned the alphabet the day before. So he said, “Very nice editor.” Then Srila Prabhupada called me into his room and asked me to learn how to type in Bengali script on a Bengali typewriter. Then he said that we would do many books together. His words were prophetic, because thirty years later I started writing books, by Srila Prabhupada’s inspiration. I wrote Srimad-Bhagavatam at a Glance, which has a picture for every verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Bhagavad-gita at a Glance. Within two months in Mayapur I typed Adi-lila chapters 13–17. Then I returned to Calcutta to become the head pujari there. I also learned to type in Bengali script and taught the person who was teaching me that he could type without looking at the keys. So he said to me, “Oh, now I understood what Srila Prabhupada told me. Srila Prabhupada said to me that I should teach you and I should also learn from you.”
Once, in a Gita class in Calcutta that Prabhupada was giving, we were studying 9.11. The men all had the Gita so they could chant the verse, but the women did not have the book. So when my turn came, I chanted the verse from memory. Prabhupada, surprised and happy, gave me a look that I’ll never forget, like, “Wow, you know the verse!”
Srila Prabhupada especially liked the opulent flower decorations we had for Radha-Govinda. Every day a life member was donating fifty garlands, and I would change the flowers five times daily. We also had 144 lotus flowers, 144 roses, along with gardenias, mogra, jasmine, and other flowers. The bees used to come daily to the Deities. On Radha-Govinda’s side, two big bumblebees would come, and they would circumambulate the Deities, then sit inside a lotus flower. On Jagannatha’s side there were small bees who would come and sit on the garlands. This reminded me of the descriptions of Vaikuntha where bees sit on the garlands. Srila Prabhupada commented that when the bees come to the Deities, then Krsna is pleased with the worship. One of our ISKCON artists was painting pictures on the walls of the temple and Srila Prabhupada instructed him to come and get a picture of our Deities. Srila Prabhupada told him to paint Krishna like Govinda – very young.
Because we couldn’t manage things well in India, Prabhupada often stepped in. Once, he became our GBC, another time our temple president. He was also our temple commander, telling us to clean this and that. When the ghee lamp was dirty, he angrily said to me, “Who has done this?” I was shaking. I wanted to disappear into the floor, but I couldn’t, because I was face to face with Prabhupada. Sometimes we had to take it from him. But more often he praised the Deity worship. Once, after he’d taken darshan of Radha-Govinda, Prabhupada was so appreciative of the opulent flower decorations that he called my husband and I up to the vyasasana and said, “Thank you very much for worshiping the Deities so nicely.” After that, a sannyasi told us that while we were offering obeisances, Srila Prabhupada said to us, “Be blessed.” Then I felt, “I got Prabhupada’s blessings. My life is perfect.” The next day, though, I understood that I have to try to earn his blessings every day of my life. It is not enough to get his blessings once, but you need to always try to get his blessings every day, at every moment.
If we were hesitating and afraid in our spiritual lives, Srila Prabhupada would push us to take the next step. That’s the quality in him I most appreciated. Actually, from the very beginning, even before I joined the temple, it was only by Srila Prabhupada’s mercy that I actually took the step of living with the devotees. In 1970, Srila Prabhupada had called up the Boston temple and said that he was coming to visit. So I was invited to stay over on the weekend, but then Srila Prabhupada phoned and said that he was not coming and instead he was sending four sannyasis, among whom was Visnujana Maharaja.
After spending the weekend on the streets chanting harinama, I felt so happy that I thought, “Why should I go home?” Not only me, but perhaps four or five others also never went home after that weekend simply because Srila Prabhupada said he was coming. So Srila Prabhupada not only pushed me to take the first step by joining the devotees in the temple, but throughout my Krishna conscious life Srila Prabhupada has pushed me to take the next step in spiritual life. Through his books, through his instructions, through his devotees, and through his example, I am encouraged to continue serving his mission so that somehow he will again be pleased with me and bless me to serve with enthusiasm. In one letter to me, he said that three things are important for advancement in spiritual life: enthusiasm, sincerity, and cooperation with other devotees. So along with his instructions about which service to perform, he also told me in what consciousness to perform it. Thus I always meditate on his instructions to keep me determined in my service to him.