Bonds of Love: Nanda Devi Dasi (part one)
Nanda joined ISKCON in 1972 in Boston. In 1974, she was serving as the head pujari and head cook at the Mexico City temple when Srila Prabhupada visited there.
I didn’t go to greet Srila Prabhupada at the airport when he arrived because I was so busy with the Deities. The next morning he went out for a morning walk. I couldn’t go, because I had to dress the Deities. Only a few of us stayed back because we had service. Then it was time to greet the Deities, but Srila Prabhupada hadn’t returned from his walk. What should we do? Should we open the curtains? Should we not open the curtains? We didn’t know what to do – no one had told us what to do, and there was nobody there at the moment with any authority to decide. So the three or four of us who were there had a quick little meeting, and after some discussion I said, “We should open the curtains, because Prabhupada wouldn’t want us to change the Deities’ schedule for him.” I thought Srila Prabhupada would want us to open the curtains. And so we did. We turned on the “Govindam” recording and, as usual, threw flower petals on the Deities.
But what we didn’t know is that one of the brahmacharis who had stayed back had run to meet up with the walkers and has asked our GBC, Hridayananda Maharaja what we should do. Then while we were in the midst of greeting the Deities and bowing down, this brahmachari returned and said, “Hridayananda Maharaja told us not to open the curtains and to wait for Prabhupada.”
Oh, gosh, so *then* what to do? We stopped everything, shut the curtain, and were in the middle of sweeping up the flower petals when Srila Prabhupada walked in. Then in the middle of our cleanup we started the Govindam prayers all over again … I remember Jagadisa Maharaja looking at us quizzically as we continued to sweep up flower petals while devotees were still throwing flower petals.
A few days later, we were told that Srila Prabhupada was going to tour the building. Oh, my gosh! We had to make sure everything was clean! Whenever Prabhupada would visit a temple, there would be extra services and extra devotees to take care of, and one of the things that there’s always extra of is flowers, because we had to make extra garlands for Prabhupada. We would also have other types of extra paraphernalia according to his needs.
So all the extra flowers and paraphernalia were being stored in a pantrylike room just outside the entrance to the kitchen. These flowers, of course, were standing in buckets, and as is typical in every ISKCON temple since Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita, when devotees make garlands from store-bought flowers stored in buckets, they pick the flowers off the stems and leave the stems with any rejected flowers on them in the buckets. We had many buckets of these trashy remnants, and I didn’t know what to do with them. That little entry room was a mess.
But the room had double doors that opened from the center. You walked through those doors and through that room on your way to the kitchen. I decided that if I left the two doors open, I could hide the flower buckets behind the doors and Prabhupada wouldn’t see them. Just moving those flower buckets would leave the room looking almost neat.
But you can guess what happened. Prabhupada entered the small room with Hridayananda Maharaja and the temple president and stopped right there. And of course he immediately turned and looked behind the doors – on both sides! – and saw the buckets of half-used, broken flowers. “Who has done this?” he asked.
The devotees present responded, “The pujaris, Srila Prabhupada.”
Srila Prabhupada said, “These pujaris should be replaced.”
And that’s what he said: “These pujaris should be replaced.” I was the pujari, and my friend Sita was too. But I never actually took it that Prabhupada wanted me replaced. Somehow or other, for whatever reason, his words never affected me like that. It was like he was talking to someone else, somehow. Besides, there was no one else who could be the pujari.
Then Prabhupada entered the small kitchen. We had a small candy stove. A candy stove sits about thirty inches off the ground, but this one had a big pot on it. The stove and the pot were so tall that Prabhupada had to stand on his tiptoes and lean in to see what was inside.
“What is this?”
“Oh, Prabhupada, these are lentils. We’re serving the devotees lentils.”
Prabhupada’s eyes got wide and he said, “Lentils are for horses.”
Bonds of Love: Nanda Devi Dasi (part two)
Srila Prabhupada did not give morning Bhagavatam classes while he was in Mexico City on that visit. Instead, he gave evening classes. So that evening, Prabhupada came to sit on the vyasasana. Whenever Prabhupada would visit somewhere, there are ten million things to do. We wanted to make a vyasasana for him, but no one knew how to build one. We were in such anxiety about this. Then suddenly an American devotee showed up offering service. When we asked what he could do, he said he was a carpenter, so we gave him the task of building the vyasasana.
Just after that, a devotee from Venezuela arrived named Varaha Prakash. He helped us in many ways to prepare for Prabhupada’s visit. The devotees chose a beautiful blue print to upholster the vyasasana, and a blue velvet for its back. Sita and I sewed on trim and some small ornaments. You can see pictures of Prabhupada on that vyasasana – there’s one picture of him on it on the back of one volume of the Caitanya-caritamrta.
But what you don’t see is the umbrella I made for it. I had no idea how to make an umbrella from scratch and have it look good, so I decided to use a beach umbrella for the frame. The outcome was this pretty saggy, sad affair. Prabhupada sat on that vyasasana with this blue, saggy, drippy, sad umbrella. So whenever you see pictures of Prabhupada on that very nice vyasasana, it always stops a couple inches above his head and you never see the umbrella – if you’re fortunate, anyway!
One evening, Prabhupada was singing “Jaya Radha-Madhava,” and he glanced over the packed audience and it was like the sun gradually peeking out from behind a cloud. His glance looked casual, but we felt its warmth. For the split second his glance caught my eye, time stopped and he looked deeply into my soul. He looked so far into the sojourn I’d taken away from Krishna that I immediately felt a long-forgotten connection with my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada. As he saw me and I saw him, tears inexplicably welled up in my eyes and ran down my face. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before simply by someone glancing at me, and it hasn’t happened since. Whenever I think of it, tears still come.
Another evening during the Bhagavad-gita class, I had just settled down to listen. I was sitting near those now infamous doors leading through the pantry and into the kitchen, when the doors burst open and the devotee scheduled to cook the evening offering told me, “I’m not cooking. I’m going to listen to my spiritual master. I’m not cooking!” So I got up from the class and went to cook the offering as best I could.
After class each evening, Prabhupada would offer his obeisances to the Deities and then go upstairs to his rooms. It was during the offering and the Deity curtains were closed, but we opened them for Srila Prabhupada with the plates still on the altar.
Then Srutakirti came down and told us that Prabhupada wanted to taste the offering. We used to leave the plates on the altar all through the arati, so again, we weren’t sure what to do. Srutakirti said, “Go on and get one. It’s for Srila Prabhupada.” Sita was doing the arati, and so as I walked on the altar I whispered to her, “Prabhupada wants to taste the offering,” then took one of the plates and transferred it. Srutakirti took some prasada up to Prabhupada, who approved of it. I’m sure it was nothing special, but I got some mercy simply because that devotee refused to cook.
Another evening, encouraged by Hridayananda Maharaja, my friend Sita and I attended Srila Prabhupada’s evening darshan in his room, where he was talking with two priests who were representatives of the Cardinal of Mexico. Prabhupada explained to them the four regulative principles and said, “Meat eating is very bad. You should stop meat eating. And you should stop bull-fighting. Bull-fighting is sinful.” The priests became fidgety and said, “Thank you very much for your time. It’s late now. We have to go.”
As soon as the door clicked shut behind them, Prabhupada chuckled and said to the devotees in the room, “These are not true Christians. As soon as I said they had to stop eating meat, they left. Jesus Christ couldn’t save his followers because his followers were degraded.”
Sita asked, “Why couldn’t Jesus Christ save his followers if Christ was a pure devotee?” Prabhupada answered, “These people were degraded. They were low-class people, so he couldn’t save them.”
I asked again, “But if Jesus Christ was a pure devotee, how come he couldn’t save his followers?”
Prabhupada leaned forward, looked at me, tilted his head, opened his eyes wide, lifted his eyebrows, and said, “If somebody is a murderer, he’s not a very good man, is he?”
“No, Srila Prabhupada.”
“These were murderers – they were low-class men.”
Rohini Kumar said, “Jaya! All glories to you, Srila Prabhupada! You are so great that even though we were so degraded, you saved us!”
Prabhupada said, “No, no, I am not so great. It is this Hare Krishna mantra that’s great.”
Srutakirti said, “Jaya! Jaya! All glories to you, Srila Prabhupada! You are so great that you brought us this Hare Krishna mantra and, therefore we are saved!”
I was sitting next to the corner of Prabhupada’s desk, and to me it appeared that his cheeks got red. He was embarrassed to hear himself glorified. He turned his head to the side and said, “Oh, that may be so, but it is this Hare Krishna mantra that is great.” It was sweet.
Hanuman Dasa, who had been a sannyasi had married and caused a disturbance at the temple, asked Prabhupada, “You say that we accept Jesus Christ as our guru. Does that mean we should put a picture of Christ on our altar?” Prabhupada said, “I have not told you this. Do not do this.”
Then Hanuman asked, “Prabhupada, I want to know if you’ve rejected me like Lord Caitanya rejected Junior Haridas.”
I remember thinking, “Now Prabhupada’s going to tell him what a nonsense he is!” After all, we had never seen a sannyasi get married before, and he had caused a serious disturbance among the devotees. But Prabhupada said, “No, I have not rejected you. Lord Caitanya was God, and He could spread this movement around the world without any help. But I am not God. I am totally dependent on the assistance you have given me. No, I have not rejected you.”
I was floored by Prabhupada’s compassion and mercy. How low and degraded my own attitude was and how pure and exalted was Srila Prabhupada’s. It was a moving exchange. Then Hanuman said, “Prabhupada, we’ve named our baby Bhaktivedanta.” With Hanuman’s first question about being rejected, I expected Prabhupada to smash him; with this second question, which I thought was Hanuman’s way of saying how much he honored Srila Prabhupada, I expected Prabhupada to say something nice. But Prabhupada said, “No, you cannot name your child Bhaktivedanta. That’s the name of your guru. Sometimes you’ll have to chastise your child. ‘Bhaktivedanta, don’t do this.’ You can’t do that.” Hanuman told Prabhupada that he and his wife had already become attached to the name, and then he said, “We’ll call him Bhaktivedanta Dasa.” Prabhupada replied, “Then it is okay.”
Then Srutakirti told Prabhupada that the evening arati had started and that it was time for Prabhupada to get ready for class. We were about to leave when Prabhupada held up his hand. “Just a little Bhagavatam,” he said. He casually reached over with his right hand, pulled a volume of the Bhagavatam from his bookshelf, opened it on his desk, and said, “You see, it says right here.” He had the part of the Third Canto where Devahuti speaks about how those who have chanted the holy name are glorious even if they have taken birth in a low family – a family of meat eaters. If they’ve chanted Hare Krishna, they’re eligible to perform Vedic sacrifices. Prabhupada said, “You must follow the four regulative principles, chant your rounds every day, and read these books every day. There are so many Christians, but they don’t follow the instructions of Jesus Christ. Don’t become like the Christians. You must follow.” Then he added, “Even I read my books every day.”