Bonds of Love: Nartaka Gopala Devi Dasi
Nartaka Gopala first saw Srila Prabhupada in Miami in 1975, again the following year when she and four other Miami book distributors went to the Mayapur festival, and then again at the 1976 New York Ratha-yatra.
Srila Prabhupada came to Miami in February 1975. Our temple was on Kumquat Street in the Coconut Grove area of Miami, on a rented property with several acres of banyan trees. Srila Prabhupada gave the lecture one evening outside under the banyan trees; it was an astoundingly beautiful atmosphere.
I was fortunate in that I was making his garlands every day. One garland was a petal garland: carnation petals in a design with roses and mango leaves. I made it super long and when Prabhupada put it on, he double looped it around his neck, and it still came to his waist. Later for a few years our photo of Prabhupada on the altar was of him wearing one of my garlands.
We took Srila Prabhupada around on a tour of the property and he actually stepped into our walk-in cooler, which was about nine feet square. One wall was completely stacked with small flavored yogurts. Prabhupada’s eyes got big when he saw them, and a devotee explained to him that the stores donate the yogurt once it was past the sell-by date. Srila Prabhupada remarked, “Yogurt never goes bad.”
I went to India for the first time in 1976. We arrived in Calcutta and immediately took the bus to Mayapur, put our bags in a room, and went to look for some service at the temple. Sukhada Devi Dasi and I were decorating the umbrellalike chatri above Prabhupada’s vyasasana, when Srutitupa Devi Dasi told us that our temple president, Abhirama Dasa, wanted to see us upstairs. We went up the stairs and suddenly people were whispering, “Quiet!” We found ourselves in front of Prabhupada’s door. Prabhupada was sitting inside. I offered my obeisances and thought, “Prabhupada, can we really come in to see you?” Prabhupada looked over and nodded his yes, so Sukhada and I went in and sat next to Pishima. The darshan last forty-five minutes. Everyone was speaking in Bengali. Prabhupada didn’t speak to us and we didn’t speak to him. But Sukhada and I were in ecstasy just to be near him – all our desires were fulfilled. We had devoted our lives to his service, so just to be in his presence on this rare occasion was the perfection of our lives.
Afterward, we served Srila Prabhupada’s sister, Pishima. Being with her was so much like being with Prabhupada because she looked so much like him. Even though she didn’t speak a word of English, there was always someone around to translate for us. She taught us a lot about the Vedic standards of etiquette and cleanliness. Pishima’s love and admiration for Srila Prabhupada was infectious.
After Mayapur, we traveled with Prabhupada to Calcutta, then to Delhi for a five-day pandal program, where we distributed books while Prabhupada spoke to hundreds of people. When the pandal was over, it got around that Prabhupada wanted twenty book distributors to go on traveling sankirtan with Prabhupada. Sukhada and I went – first to Modi Nagar, and in some of the Vyasa-puja books you can see photos of Srila Prabhupada in a huge, elaborately carved, solid silver vyasasana there. The head of the town, Mr. Modi, had a brass band waiting to greet us when we arrived.
Srila Prabhupada traveled by car while our bus of twenty-one devotees followed him. Aligarh was next, and we had a fantastic mangala-arati on the roof of the house where Prabhupada was staying. All of us were running around in circles, dancing and chanting, with Lokanath Swami leading.
Finally, we went to Sri Vrindavana, where Prabhupada gave me second initiation. There was a huge yajna in the mandira, with over forty devotees receiving first and second initiations. There were so many devotees getting brahmana initiation that Prabhupada had to give the Gayatri mantra in small batches. I received mine probably three or four days after the yajna.
A few months before, during my daily lunch break while distributing books at the Miami International Airport, I’d carved Srila Prabhupada some beautiful wooden shoes with gold leaf along the edges and a toe peg shaped like a lotus flower with a jewel in its center. They were his exact size, as I had carefully measured his lotus feet on our vyasasana. I made a velvet bag for the shoes and embroidered his name on it. I’d been carrying them all over India, waiting for a chance to give them to him.
So in Vrindavana, Prabhupada, with a transcendental Vaikuntha radiance, was sitting at his desk in his quarters. He gave me and the four other women with me the Gayatri mantra. One woman couldn’t get the finger movements correct, so Prabhupada told me to show her how to do it. Then the others left, but I hadn’t given him my gift. I was alone with him and said, “Prabhupada, I made these for you,” and I handed him the bag. He opened it, took out a shoe, held it up, and said, “Thank you very much.” Then I gave him flowers and left. In my heart I felt satisfied that I had a little bit of one-on-one time with my beloved Guru Maharaja, to whom I had dedicated my life.
During the ten days we were in Vrindavana, I cleaned Prabhupada’s quarters with a group of women every morning. We did the cleaning when he was out for his morning walk, before greeting the Deities. We each had our own area to clean – bedroom, bathroom… It was my service to clean his desk and darshan room. Srila Prabhupada would leave his previous day’s garland in that room, and somehow or other I had the mercy to get it every day. What ecstasy! Also, I loved cleaning his desk, as the personal items he traveled with were all set out there: his tilaka, his silver acamana, a silver mirror a devotee had made for him in the shape of a compact with Krishna and Balarama carved in silver relief on the cover … When I went to clean his darshan room the morning after I gave Srila Prabhupada the shoes I had made, I saw that he had placed them on the mantel.
One day, I went with all the other devotees on parikrama to Radha-kunda. There were several buses of male devotees, and the women had their own three buses. When we finished our parikrama, the men left, but one of the women’s buses wouldn’t start. We decided that all the women with children should go back on the two good buses, and the rest of us would wait until the third bus got fixed.
It was getting dark and we were stuck. Back at the Krishna-Balaram Mandir, Prabhupada asked, “Where are all the ladies?” He was told that no one knew and that a group of us had never come back. Prabhupada said, “What! Immediately tell the Chief of Police.” We had felt abandoned, but when we heard how Srila Prabhupada cared about us, our hearts were touched.
The Tenth Anniversary of ISKCON was celebrated in Washington, DC in 1976. The devotees made a huge cake. There’s a now famous photo, taken by Visakha Devi Dasi, of Prabhupada cutting the cake. I made the garland he is wearing in that photo from marigolds grown on our property in Miami. Our temple president at the time, Narahari Prabhu, had gone to Washington to see Prabhupada, so I asked him to offer my garland.
When it was time for the cake-cutting, the temple authorities in Washington said: “Oh no! We don’t have a garland for Prabhupada!” They had had one for guru-puja and Bhagavatam class, but now they wanted to offer another one. Narahari Prabhu heard this and remembered in time to offer my garland.
The New York Ratha-yatra in 1976 was the last Ratha-yatra Srila Prabhupada attended in his physical manifestation. It was the last for Jayananda Prabhu as well. It was also the first Ratha-yatra in New York that traveled down Fifth Avenue, which Srila Prabhupada had called “the most important street in the most important city in the most important country in the world.” There were three huge, gorgeously decorated chariots and hundreds of devotees chanting and dancing. Ten of us sankirtana devotees had flown up from Miami to attend. The parade started without Srila Prabhupada – he said he would come after everything started. We had gone about a mile – I was dancing in front of Subhadra Devi’s chariot, and when I looked to the left, down the small side street, I saw Srila Prabhupada walking toward us. He got on Subhadra Devi’s chariot and we began dancing in a frenzy. It was so exciting!
When I look at the many blessings I’ve had, the greatest blessing in my life has been distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books for so many years. It makes you feel like he is standing right alongside you. Now I do sastra-dana – I buy his books and give them to other devotees to distribute. As Srila Prabhupada once remarked: “If you want to please me, distribute my books.”