Bonds of Love: Srimati Devi Dasi (part one)
Srila Prabhupada came to Seattle, near where I was living, in September 1968. And one day, I decided to go the Krishna temple, which was on Roosevelt in those days. The devotees had just moved into town, and since Srila Prabhupada was coming, they had posted flyers on telephone poles to advertise. I got up early one morning and walked into a temple full of incense and beautiful devotees sitting on the floor looking up at Jagannatha and playing this strange music, which I found out later was being played with harmonium, mridanga, and karatalas.
That evening he gave a lecture. The small living room of the rented house Upendra and Gargamuni had set up as the Seattle temple was so full that people were standing outside, poking their heads in windows and doors. Later, Tamal Krishna told me that Srila Prabhupada had asked who I was. Tamal Krishna told him I had come to the first morning program, had gone home to get my sleeping bag, and come back to stay. Srila Prabhupada said, “Oh! Very good.” For my part, I had been broken down by the material world and I wanted a Father with “The Answer.”
One evening, Srila Prabhupada instructed Harsharani how to do a full arati ceremony, with incense, camphor, ghee lamp, water conch, handkerchief, flower, and fan. Prior to this we were only doing dhupa aratis (incense and a flower). Harsharani offered these articles to the Jagannatha and Balarama (Subhadra was not there yet) while we chanted Hare Krishna. It wasn’t until later on in L.A. that Srila Prabhpada gave us the “Kiba Jaya” prayer to sing along with the ceremony.
We were all going out on sankirtana. Visnujana was taking us out. One afternoon, my friend saw me from a bus, singing and dancing on University Avenue. She got off the bus, and I pulled her into our chanting. She never left. She was later initiated as Jahnava, and she and her husband have put on many plays depicting Krishna’s pastimes.
I was soon initiated myself, during a meditative fire ceremony. Vishnujana had given me some large black beads made from some kind of seed he called “Krishna bullets.” Srila Prabhupada named me Srimati Dasi, saying Srimati was another name for Srimati Radharani. I was initiated with Revatinandana and Jai Gopal.
The next day, six brahmacharis and I headed to L.A. in a van to help Dayananda and Nandarani develop the space they had acquired on Hollywood Blvd. into a temple. Each night we chanted and danced on Hollywood Boulevard. On Sunset Strip we set up in front of the theater where Hair was playing. The hippies had very long hair in those days, and they thought we were chanting “hair” when we were actually chanting “Hare.” Anyway, we got many of them to chant after the play each night.
About three months later Srila Prabhupada gave me second initiation. We were now brahmanas. The Hollywood Boulevard temple closed down shortly after that due to pressure from local businessmen. No temple, no home. We got Srila Prabhupada a small quaint apartment next to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The temple’s deities, Jagannatha, Subhadra, and Balarama, were housed in Srila Prabhupada’s small apartment with all the devotees cramming in to see the arati ceremony he had established in Seattle. Jagannatha and Balarama looked really big in that small bedroom.
Srila Prabhupada asked regularly when we would find a new temple building, and he said he must be preaching from somewhere, even a garage. The next day Tamal Krishna met a woman on sankirtana who offered her garage for Srila Prabhupada’s preaching. It was in a nice neighborhood, and the double garage was clean, but we cleaned it even more. We put up madrases on the walls, hung pictures over those, built a large altar for Jagannatha and a vyasasana for Srila Prabhupada. It was cold out, so we kept the double doors closed so we could heat the place.
Incense filled the space as we sat waiting for Srila Prabhupada to arrive. He would be there at any moment. Many neighbors and devotees filled the garage. Jai Gopal was out front, ready to blow a blast on the conch as soon as Srila Prabhupada appeared. Finally, we heard the conch three times, and when we opened the garage doors, there was Srila Prabhupada, his body looking small in that large opening.
It was a garage, but he walked in majestically, took his seat on the vyasasana, and began kirtana. His lecture attracted the curiosity of the neighbors and guests, who all went home with magazines, prasada, and a something new to tell their friends. Thus Srila Prabhupada’s preaching was going on.
Srila Prabhupada was so anxious for us to get a temple started in Los Angeles that he gave up his morning walks to look for a building himself. He found an old church on La Cienega for sale and told Tamal Krishna to buy it. Tamal Krishna was amazed that Srila Prabhupada could make such a request. “We couldn’t afford that much money every month!” he told Srila Prabhupada. But Srila Prabhupada insisted. The building seemed hollow at first, being so large and we having only a handful of devotees, but it was very soon filled appropriately, as Srila Prabhupada knew it would be.
Visnujana and I had started making puppets of Krishna’s pastimes back in Seattle, and we had ten three-foot-tall functioning puppets with interchangeable costumes. Visnujana had created a way for their heads to bobble. Their arms could move up and down and their bodies turn with the puppeteer’s movements. I formed the bodies from dolls we got from Goodwill, which I painted and dressed. We rehearsed different puppet shows with them – a Prahlada show, a show about Krishna stealing butter from the gopis, and others. We took those puppets out to Griffith Park and put on skits to attract people. We also had kirtanas, of course, with Visnujana playing harmonium or mridanga. Many people followed us to the temple from the park.
One day, after Srila Prabhupada’s Sunday feast lecture, we invited him to watch a puppet show. I managed to sit right next to Srila Prabhupada’s chair so I could watch him enjoy the show. While we were waiting for the show to start, I asked Srila Prabhupada how to say Hare Krishna, was it Hareee or HarA. I was still a rather new devotee, and thought I would take this opportunity to ask him. “Srila Prabhupada,” I began. “Yes?” He spoke even that one word with such presence in his voice that I was startled into joy. “How do you say Hare Krishna?” He replied in my ear immediately: “HARE KRISHNA.” I melted just hearing him say the words, and my happy grin remained throughout the evening. I still relish that moment, recollecting it.