The Glorious Departure of Śrīla Prabhupāda
– By HG Śītalā Mataji
This is going to be very difficult today. I need to see lots of smiling faces out there because it’s very easy to cry today. Mahārāja couldn’t even get through the announcements. I don’t want to look at any of my God-brothers and God-sisters. I will look out here at smiling faces. Because this is a festival and every festival has a kind of different flavor to it. In Āyurveda we learn that we are supposed to get all the flavors. Some festivals are very sweet and joyful. But this one is the bitter-sweet day, especially for people who were here with Śrīla Prabhupāda at that time, it’s a very, very—very bitter. But if we take that bitter, somehow it turns sweet. They say in Āyurveda that bitter, it increases your appetite; it’s important. This particular day, this festival, this is extremely important day for everybody not just for Śrīla Prabhupāda disciples, but for every single one of us.
One time I was attending the festival at the temple and I had to leave for a few minutes. It was very-very intense, listening to all the devotees talk about Śrīla Prabhupāda. But I had to run a home and answer the call of nature for a few minutes. I was running through the MVT and then suddenly I noticed that there were about 25 younger devotees that I know, and they were all just sitting and chit-chatting together. I was so shocked by their light-hearted mood as compared to mood from where I had been coming from; that I just blurted out, “What are you doing? Why aren’t you hearing?” They said, “Oh, you know, we don’t like to hear all the old devotees just crying about Prabhupāda, it’s just so sad”. I was like, “What? What are you talking about? This is not like a bunch of old fogies sitting in their rocking chairs talking about the good old days when we were young.’”
Thus it’s important for us to know; every single one of us that, this is not about, “Oh, remember when—the old good days” —not at all. It’s about something Mahārāja spoken about, when we were in Kuruśetra. He was describing about—Vipralamba Bhāva and the mood of separation. Now of course we cannot compare our feelings with those of the Gopīs or Vipralamba Bhāva. But pure devotees, they come into the world to have relationships with us and to ignite some of these spiritual emotions, to give the seed for which we start to feel something real. It’s very, very important for all of us to feel some separation. If you look at the lives of Ācāryas like Narottama Dāsa Ṭhākur; his whole life was just, “Oh I wish I had been there.” This is not mundane lamentation; this is very-very deep spiritual emotions. This is a day of going deep; this is a deep day; this is not a light day. This is going deeper and deeper into real spiritual feelings.
In the very early days, like 1968-69, many of those devotees, their lives just revolved around the personal association of Śrīla Prabhupāda. I mean basically, their spiritual life was just being with Prabhupāda, that’s what it meant. Then Śrīla Prabhupāda became ill and he had to return to India, and Janakī who is a sister of Yamunā and one of the first female devotees, she was really suffering when Śrīla Prabhupāda left and so she wrote to him to express her feelings, and she was begging, “Please come back”. Śrīla Prabhupāda replied to her, it’s a very important point that Śrīla Prabhupāda makes. He said, “Your eagerness to get me back in the States will surely be a success, because I am also eager to return. Tears for Kṛṣṇa are as good as associating with Him personally. In the spiritual world, separation is more valuable than meeting. Your feelings and tears of Kṛṣṇa Consciousness will make you more enriched in spiritual advancement.” These tears and these thoughts on these days, this is helping us to become advanced. Then after a bit later, Janakī’s sister, Yamunā also had some very profound realizations about this deep feeling of separation. I am going to read that, it’s from her book, because I think it’s very—very valuable for all of us. Because every one of us is going to have to deal with separation, in one way or the other at some point in our life; and we need to know how to do that.
This is about 1971 and Yamunā was noticing that things were dramatically changing in the movement. Prior to this time she was always very close to Śrīla Prabhupāda physically and spending time with him, cooking with him; and everything just around—revolved around his personal association. But then she saw “Oh, things are changing; our movement is getting bigger, another kind of mood is coming in.” She said she was terrified, “Maybe I won’t be ableto so close to Śrīla Prabhupāda anymore”. She asked Śrīla Prabhupāda, ”How many times were you with your Guru Mahārāja?” Without pause, Śrīla Prabhupāda said, “Since I met him I have never been away from him. Not for one second.”
[Yamunā]—“But, but how many times?”
[Śrīla Prabhupāda] –“Very few, five or six times I met him; but it’s very intimate to me. He used to walk and talk with me so many intimate things. Many big Sannyāsīs thought associating with the Spiritual Master personally was most important. But in some cases they were no better than mosquitoes on the lap of the King. And what is the business of a mosquito? It is simply to suck blood. So don’t think the only way to associate with the Spiritual Master is by his physical association. You try to hear”.
Yamunā says, “For me, this was monumental,—a life changing moment; up until then I couldn’t conceive of being separated from Prabhupāda. Neither could I bear the thought that he would ever leave us. But I realized from this exchange that there would be a point in the future when I would be physically separated from him; and I would have to learn to feel his presence through his Vāṇī, his instructions, and his example. Then looking at me with great feeling and love he [Śrīla Prabhupāda] said, ‘I am giving these lectures because you want to hear them so much. That person who is most favored by the Spiritual Master is one who follows his instructions; so do not think you are being separated from me‘—and again the floods of tears came to my eyes”.
Yamunā continues, “So I could tell as early as January 1971, that from then on there was to be a seeming distance from the prior intimacy that I had with Śrīla Prabhupāda’s personal association and I was prepared for it. I knew that it was destined to come. Śrīla Prabhupāda had explained many times that in the early stages of association, the Spiritual Master is like a father. But he said that when the son matures, it is then the duty of the son to take care of the father. The father no longer has to spoon-feed the son. This was the maturing process in understanding my responsibility to my Spiritual Master and it began in this very small way on this very special day.”
So these are very-very big lessons for learning today. This is today’s lesson—union in separation. But most of us, I think probably 99.9% of us, were not so advanced as Yamunā. She was like the mature elder sister and we were very much like the children that were very dependent, that had no sense whatsoever that the parents can ever not be there.
Even when Śrīla Prabhupāda was in 1977 I was with him for a little while in Bombay and he was in his room most of the time. Of course, for any normal material perspective, anyone could see that Śrīla Prabhupāda was emaciated and very-very ill, but somehow we just couldn’t think, and didn’t consider that Śrīla Prabhupāda might be leaving. It was like Kṛṣṇa just didn’t allow those thoughts to go into your brain even though they were. It was such an obvious thing, but I think almost all of us, we just didn’t think about it.
Then in Bombay, one day Śrīla Prabhupāda, just announced. “Now I want to go to Vṛndāvan and I am going to leave my body there.” We were so shocked and we watched as Brahmānanda Prabhu carried Śrīla Prabhupāda. He was so weak and so frail, that big Brahmānanda, he carried Śrīla Prabhupāda in his arms from his room down the stairs, just like lovingly carrying a baby. Prabhupāda was so frail and I remember we all went to the train station to see Prabhupāda. They figured the train would be easiest way for Prabhupāda to travel and I remember standing at the bars and looking inside as Brahmānanda was carrying Śrīla Prabhupāda and laying him down on the bench in the train. I was like, “Oh God, couldn’t they at least get a first-class for Prabhupāda?” Pālikā said, “This is first class!” Then naturally everyone frantically, we would all been there; the hope was that the Bombay temple would open, I think in January, so a lot of devotees were there trying to accomplish this. But now that Prabhupāda made this announcement, then everyone, forget Bombay, forget everything; everybody there was just trying to get train tickets, plane tickets, bus tickets, “Anyway, by any means, let us get to Vṛndāvan”. Then even though Śrīla Prabhupāda said that he was going there for that purpose, still we all, we were thinking, “No, it’s not possible.” Of course there were many; I won’t go into all these things as they are documented in many of the books about Śrīla Prabhupāda.
There was a time period there of many-many very sweet exchanges, while Prabhupāda was lying on his bed. Śrīla Prabhupāda is lying on his bed, and I always think of it like Bhīṣma was lying on the bed of arrows. The Kavirāj said that his body was so emaciated that the feeling would be as if his skin were on fire. But in such a condition what was Śrīla Prabhupāda doing?
Laying on this, like bed of arrows, emaciated and he is speaking the Bhaktivedanta purports of Śrīmat–Bhāgavatam; and you could barely hear his words; and Jayādvaita Swami had to keep his ears literally right to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mouth and trying to record. It’s absolutely inconceivable how someone could have such presence of mind in such a state.
All of his God-brothers that came to visit, they were remarking in this way; they were amazed to see how Śrīla Prabhupāda was. One day, someone came running; I was living over at the Go-śālā and one devotee ran into the Go-śālā and said, “Śrīla Prabhupāda is leaving his body today”; so of course everyone dropped everything—whatever they were doing and ran to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s room. Now the doors were open; previously only a few people were in there with Śrīla Prabhupāda. But now the door was open and everyone could come in and sit and chant next to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s bed; so that was about 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon. Then there was everyone surrounding Śrīla Prabhupāda’s bed, just staring at Śrīla Prabhupāda and chanting in a way that never before or never since have I ever experienced. It was like being in a suspended animation—no past, no future—just now, was if it—for me. It was if my mind, it just stopped, there is nothing before, there is nothing after; there is just now and the Holy Name and there is Śrīla Prabhupāda laying there and there is the soft rise and fall of his chest and we just watched that chest for five hours [Pause … in remembrance] until there was no more rising and falling.
Then of course, there was madness. After this, it lost everyone in different states of madness. The inconceivable had happened and nobody knew what to do. I mean, of course there were those devotees, all glories to them, who actually had to do stuff, and they did the needful while the rest of us wandered. We were asked to leave the room and then I remember walking out and thinking, “Where do you go?”
I saw different devotees in varying degrees of madness basically; so I thought, “Well, I will go see Kṛṣṇa.” I remember walking in and looking at Rādhe–Śyāma and seeing Kṛṣṇa smiling, and I thought “How could you smile?” Then after sometime, I saw that the Palanquín of Śrīla Prabhupāda was coming out from his rooms and this is how kind of state of madness we were in, —I thought, “No..! He didn’t go! He is coming out now”.
I actually thought that; because we actually thought, “Prabhupāda—well, he can do anything; he is just teaching us a lesson. Now he is going to come out and now we will have his association again.” Then we saw, Prabhupāda looked so beautiful sitting on that Palanquín, and then they took that Palanquín and they started to circumambulate the temple. Then of course, somebody had to lead Kīrtana. There was one devotee, who was like dancing and singing like ecstatically, blissfully, and we were like, “Are you mad?” But the thing was that, there was just all different kind of madness at that moment.
Then they brought Śrīla Prabhupāda into the temple room on the Palanquín and placed the Palanquín on the Vyāsāsana. And then they just became utter silence. Like everyone was just standing, doing nothing, just staring at Śrīla Prabhupāda sitting on the Vyāsāsana in complete silence, and that was kind of when it actually hit, “Oh, it’s actually happened”; and then I remember that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s God-brothers, they took up the slack. We couldn’t even pick up a karatāl or a drum; so Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja, he stood up in that silent temple room, put his hands over his head and started to sing, “Je Anilo Prema Dhana ..”, and at that moment, just everybody collapsed, – just crying, crying, and crying. Then, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s God-brother Kṛṣṇadas Bābāji, very-very elderly amazing devotee, was playing the Mṛdaṅga. I remember, he was just playing his heart out; —you would have never seen such Mṛdaṅga playing—all night long. We all just sat with Śrīla Prabhupāda all night as somebody was digging the Samādhi.
That night, somehow it became freezing cold in every way on every level. It was so cold and we just sat in front of Śrīla Prabhupāda and chanted all night long until 6 in the morning and we were just thinking of all the missed opportunities for personal service. As soon as the Sun started to rise, then we took Śrīla Prabhupāda off of the Palanquín and we started a procession to all the major temples in Vṛndāvan.
Actually all the Vrajavāsīs, so many had come and they begged, “Please we want a final Darśana”; so we went on this Kīrtana procession that was just unbelievable. People were coming out from everywhere and just doing full Daṇḍavats as Prabhupāda went by and many people were rushing out to offer Āratī, and to offer flowers and many people thought Śrīla Prabhupāda actually there and he was still present, because he looked so beautiful.
It was such an incredible Kīrtana because on one hand, we felt so proud of how glorious was this glorious event; and how glorious is Śrīla Prabhupāda that all the Vrajavāsīs are coming out! We stopped at every temple, and Pūjārīs came out and offered garlands and garlands and garlands upon Śrīla Prabhupāda’s body.
It was devastating, but it was beautiful. Then when we brought Śrīla Prabhupāda back to what’s now the Samādhi area; and so many things were done there. Actually at that point I just couldn’t handle another second, after Śrīla Prabhupāda was put into the Samādhi. Devotees came forward and they were putting the dirt in and many other things happened and then there was a feast and stuff I am told, but I just couldn’t personally stand one more second of even just being conscious. I went to my room and I just lay down and went to sleep.
I will never forget the exact feeling I had when I woke up after that rest. There was a very-very strange feeling that I have never experienced before or after and it felt like there was just this vacuum in the universe, like this emptiness—like a void. Something had really happened to the world and you could really feel it—it was palpable.
I think there is something like that in the Bhāgavatam when it describes Bhīṣmadeva’s departure; that there was just this silence as the universe respected this soul who has gone back to Godhead.
So then I felt, “What do we do now? What do we do now?” We hadn’t thought of anything. We had never thought of this happening as strange as seems. “What do we do now?” Then I remember I went down to the temple room and there were so many devotees there and they were just talking about Prabhupāda. I was, “Ah! This is what we do!” We just keep talking about Prabhupāda and so for three days, I think it was three days—pretty much throughout the whole day, we just—I mean nobody planned it, nobody—you know it wasn’t a program, it was just like—there was nothing else to do; we just all got together and we just kept telling story after story after story of Prabhupāda and as long as we were talking, we were happy.
Then we were getting this little hint of a new kind of experience that is there on the transcendental platform. After about maybe a week, then there was this idea that we would fulfill Śrīla Prabhupāda’s last desire which was to do Govardhan Parikramā. It was the first time that most of us had done Govardhan Parikramā. I mean we just didn’t do that in those days; we were too busy with our services. But this was a very new and strange experience that we were going with Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Murti, so this was new. Now we could see Śrīla Prabhupāda in this Deity form. It was this most amazing and most incredible Parikramā we did with Śrīla Prabhupāda. We stopped at Rādhā-Kuṇḍa and bathed the Deity and somehow we were all so blissful, despite being utterly devastated.
Then I remember we ended our Parikramā at Kusuma Sarovara and I believe maybe it was BB Govinda—somehow had arranged that there was a big feast there. They had big speakers and they had the Kṛṣṇa–kīrtana album. They had Prabhupāda playing out, blaring out over Kusuma Sarovara—“kṛṣṇotkīrtana-gāna ….”; and I just remember it was a moment of profound realization that Prabhupāda was so present; he was there, but yet he wasn’t there. These are beginnings of some real spiritual emotions; so through hearing, just like now we are sitting here; we are feeling the same thing. It’s not that you can’t feel these things; you are feeling them,—how come some of you are crying? You are feeling, because the presence is there.
I remember one Vyāsa–Pūjā I was standing next to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Vyāsāsana, just a few years ago, and I was like, “Prabhupāda just seems so alive and he seems so present,” and I was just like overwhelmed; and tears were in my eyes and I was so excited about this that “Prabhupāda is so present!”. I went home and I told my husband, “Wow! Did you see Prabhupāda today? Did you see how present he was?” And he was just like, “You were just paying attention today. He is always there.” You know, I was totally blasī about it; “Oh, yeah!” That’s actually how it is, everything is all there. I mean, Vṛndāvan is here, great devotees are here, but we are just not really paying attention.
I think this is something to really think on particularly on this day, ‘how Śrīla Prabhupāda is present for each and every one of us’. Prabhupāda once said that, “I called and you came”; so out of the billions of living entities in the universe somehow you all heard the call and here we are. You might say that, “We are all marked men”. When there was a plague in Europe, anyone that had been touched by the plague then they would put a mark on their door, so you would know. All of us somehow have been marked by the touch of Śrīla Prabhupāda, regardless of your age, or when you joined, or whatever. Then all of us can realize in one way or another how Prabhupāda is alive and present in each of our lives.
Actually in Māyāpura we have started to have like four days of Vyāsa–Pūjā celebrations, so everybody gets to speak. I went to the community Vyāsa–Pūjā where, we old folks just sit and listen, to the younger generations speak about Prabhupāda and I was so moved, so touched, brought to tears by all the, you know expressions of all these second and third generation devotees, that they have as much love and as much relationship for Prabhupāda and they are alive in their relationship with Śrīla Prabhupāda. It’s not like Prabhupāda is just present for us; his disciples. Prabhupāda is present for all of us.
Actually, one devotee who is a younger devotee, but a very-very serious and very mature and very grounded second generation devotee, who is doing some very difficult and very serious service in America. She is under lot of pressure to do very big services; so she came to India to take a break and she went to Bombay, because she had this desire to go to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s rooms; and she was in Prabhupāda’s room and she said she was crying and praying and you know, “Please allow me to do my service,” and she had the experience that Śrīla Prabhupāda walked into the room where she was and offered her some advice. And I believe that she is a very sober lady. I am his disciple; I have never had such an experience.
So surely Śrīla Prabhupāda is there for all of us. What to speak of second and third generation, he is also there even for the most fallen devotees. He doesn’t forget service. Now there was an early devotee called Kauśalyā; she was a very, very nice devotee, but somehow or another she went away for a long time and then one night she had a dream and Śrīla Prabhupāda said very strongly, “Kauśalyā, where are your beads?” By that time she didn’t have any beads so next morning she was at the LA temple buying her beads; and many, many stories of devotees that are like as they are about to leave their bodies or whatever, —how Śrīla Prabhupāda comes even they have been away for many-many years; Prabhupāda never forgets service rendered.
I will just read a very beautiful letter Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote to one devotee, Umapati, who had fallen away for some time. This is what Prabhupāda wrote to him. He said, “When you left us, I simply prayed to Kṛṣṇa for your return to Kṛṣṇa Consciousness, because that was my duty. Any good soul who approaches me once for spiritual enlightenment is supposed to be depending on my responsibility to get him back to Kṛṣṇa, back home. The disciple may misunderstand a bonafide Spiritual Master being obliged to do so under pressure of Maya’s influence. But bonafide Spiritual Master never lets go of a devotee once accepted. When a disciple misunderstands a bonafide Spiritual Master, the Master regrets for his inability to protect the disciple and sometimes he cries with tears in his eyes”.
So how Śrīla Prabhupāda is there even for the fallen devotees and for the second and third and fourth generations and even for the parents of devotees? There are so many stories of how Prabhupāda has come to encourage the parents of devotees. There was a devotee in Alachua, who had decided to spend time and stay with his father till the last days, and the father was indifferent; he wasn’t really into Kṛṣṇa Consciousness at all. They made some practical arrangement, “You stay in that room, and maybe you will hear some bell ringing and things but you know somehow we will manage it”. Of course, they were feeding him Prasādam as much as possible and the chanting was going on in the house and then one day this devotee came in, and he saw that his father was beaming and smiling and looked so happy. And he was like, “Dad, what’s going on?” He said, “You don’t see him?” He was like, “See who?” “Your Prabhupāda, he is there at the end of my bed, you don’t see?” and devotee, ”No, you are so lucky Dad, I don’t see him!” Many stories like this. Prabhupāda was so kind, even to non-devotees.
There was a story in New-Vṛndāvan, of how one totally ordinary lady, who didn’t know anything, just was going on a tour through the palace. She went past the Vyāsāsana and she heard a voice that said, “Take my shoes”; and she was like looking around, “Who said that?” You know, there was just a Prabhupāda’s Murti was there. She was ignoring it like, “Aha, this is weird— this place is weird” Again and again, the voice was saying, “Take my shoes; take my shoes.” So she is like a really ordinary lady, she says, “I have never stolen anything in my life,” you know, and she sees the shoes are sitting there by Prabhupāda so she just slips them in her bag. And she took them home and she was like mortified, “What did I do at that crazy Hare Kṛṣṇa place, I have got these shoes”. She just put them in her closet and tried to forget about it. And then one day, she was in her house and she hears, “You can take my shoes back now”. [Laughter]
She said “Oh my God! How am I going to like—take these shoes back; [Laughter] without saying that I stole them?” She thought, “Well, you know, I better do it.” She takes the shoes back and she, very sheepishly said, “Well I brought these shoes back”. And she was like, “I don’t know why I took them and I don’t know why I just heard this voice and I don’t know understand—I am so sorry, I am so sorry”; and the devotees, “No—No, we understand; we know why you had taken them, we know why you brought it back; it’s very clear and wow, you are so lucky! Prabhupāda spoke to you twice! I never got to speak to Prabhupāda!” This was during a time when there was lot of difficulty in New–Vṛndāvana and actually it was not part of ISKCON for some years; so this was that period of time. After some time, all of that got sorted out, and as it was sorted then, “Okay, bring my shoes back!”
In this way, I am just saying a few stories; just so that we can all understand that Śrīla Prabhupāda is very much present although this is the separation day. We also want to think about the union and how he is present for everybody, for the first generation, second, third, non- devotees, fallen devotees—everybody. It’s a day for each one of us to examine: “What is my relationship with Śrīla Prabhupāda?”
It’s different for everyone, it’s not all the same; we all have different kinds of relationships with Śrīla Prabhupāda. That relationship of course is through your Spiritual Master, and through Prabhupāda’s books, and through really everyday at the programs that we follow; everything we do is Prabhupāda’s arrangement. Our whole life—how we dress, everything we do—it’s all connected with Śrīla Prabhupāda. Infact, Śrīla Prabhupāda he is like— the whole fabric of our life. On a fabric there is the weft and the web; this is like two pieces of thread that make a fabric; so that is what Śrīla Prabhupāda is in our life.
It’s important on this day, especially this bitter-sweet day, to meditate on that relationship, so that we never feel alone. That we know that Śrīla Prabhupāda is here and what to speak of Śrīla Prabhupāda, the whole Guru paramparā is there for us.
Actually before Śrīla Prabhupāda left, he sent a letter and he said, “I maybe going, but my Guru Mahārāja and Bhaktivinode Ṭhākur are here. I have asked them to kindly take care of all of you—my spiritual children. The grandfather always takes care of the children much better than the father; so do not fear; there is no question of separation. The sound vibration fixes us up together, even though the material body may not be there. What do we care for this material body? Just go on chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa and we will be packed up together. You will be chanting here and I will be chanting there and this vibration will circulate around this planet.”
This is our day:
- For remembering Śrīla Prabhupāda and trying to remember that we are never meant to forget him ever; his sacrifices and what he has given us, he has given us everything that’s of value.
- To pray that we not just take from him like little children do, but we become mature sons and daughters; and we actually give back and do something for Śrīla Prabhupāda, whether in this life or next life or how many zillions of lifetimes it takes. We owe a very, very, very great debt.
Śrīla Prabhupāda—ki Jaya! Hare Kṛṣṇa!