Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #19 – What I Learned from Great Men

May 8th, 2017

The glory of a culture is most fully understood through the people that live and exemplify it. During the forty years I lived in India, especially my early years, I was fortunate to meet many pious devotees of Kṛṣṇa, people who were elderly enough to have imbibed its culture before the accelerated onslaught on that culture by everything modern and western. The following is just a glimpse of what I saw and learned from them.
 
Integrity

It’s not easy today to find a man whose attachment to keeping his word is stronger than even his desire for life itself. I was fortunate to meet such a man.
 
Dr. Omkarnath Sharma, the first principal of the Vṛndāvana Gurukula, was quite an accomplished person. I looked up to him in many ways, but to me, more impressive than his scholarship or success in business, his accomplishments in fine art or his mastership of yoga, or even the startling fact that he also held an advanced degree in film-making in 1950 from the University of Southern California, was his unshakeable adherence to his vows. He shared with me his story:
 
He was the elder brother in a joint family of brāhmaṇas in Agra. To keep peace in the family, and to follow family etiquette, he sometimes had to side with his youngest brother in conflicts with his youngest son, although he confided to me that his younger brother was a bit of a rascal. At the age of twenty his only son left home as a result of such a dispute. When, after a year, his son had still not returned, his wife died of heartbreak. He then immediately responded with a stringent vow of renunciation:
 
“Until my son comes home, I will never again return home, I will never again eat any grains, beans or anything with oil, nor will I ever take anything sweet or salty, or with any spice at all!”
 
I met him thirty years after that vow. His son never returned home, and neither did he. He remained unwavering in his promise and kept his fast. His daily diet for the last thirty years: a single cup of yogurt in the late morning with a small bowl of steamed vegetables and a glass of milk with a little fruit in the evening.
 
The foundation of Indian culture was primarily adherence to one’s words, often expressed in the vows one would make. I was happy to have met a person whose character reflected the integrity of that bygone era.
 
Submissiveness

It was the tirobhava tithi, the disappearance celebration, of Śrīla Bhakti Dayitā Mādhava Mahārāja, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s god-brother. I had come on the invitation of Śrīla Maṅgala Mahārāja, his disciple, who had kindly befriended me when he came to New York in the late eighties. Soon after I arrived Maṅgala Mahārāja invited to me to the second floor to take darśana of one of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s last living god-brothers, Śrīla Bhakti Promode Purī Mahārāja, and to wait for the feast.
 
Now just past his hundredth birthday, Purī Mahārāja was sitting peacefully, but crouched over by force of age, his drooping eyelids practically covering his eyes. I remember his beatific smile and how honored I felt to sit in his presence. Suddenly a brahmacārī passionately entered the room and announced in Bengali, “The feast is being served. All the Vaiṣṇavas must come!” I was startled by the stampede of saffron rushing past me to the door as Maṅgala Mahārāja translated for me what had just been said. Then, to my surprise, I saw the elderly and bent over Purī Mahārāja suddenly pick himself up and with great effort start shuffling slowing towards the door. When his servant looked up and noticed what was happening, he was also surprised. He quickly called out, “But Mahārāja you know we will bring your prasādam here. You don’t have to go downstairs.” I will never forget his humble reply:
 
“When the Vaiṣṇavas command, I must obey!”
 
In the modern world of exploitation and low self-esteem it is easy to miss the beauty of the gentle and submissive unless you see it embodied in the behavior of a great soul. I was fortunate to have sat in the presence of such a person.
 
Humility

I met Dr. Fakir Mohan about fifteen or twenty years ago. I was staying at ISKCON Govardhana and was told that an elderly Vaiṣṇava from Orissa, who was a renowned Vaiṣṇava scholar, had just arrived. I went to greet him to pay respects, but when I introduced myself he moved a few steps to the left and when I again went to face him, he moved again to his right. I was puzzled until someone whispered that he would not step on a Vaiṣṇava’s shadow, so as the sun was to my back he moved every time I would directly face him.
 
The next morning, we asked him to give class, but before he sat on the seat he bowed to every sannyāsi, affectionately clasping their hands and in a heartfelt voice murmuring, “Bless me. I know nothing.”
 
Kṛṣṇa Mohan was an elderly and pious Indian who had been a doctor in Mathura in 1950. He now lived in the USA and was seeking to take initiation from me, but I refused. I wasn’t accepting any disciples at that time. One day after the Sunday Feast at ISKCON Towaco he came to my room, paid prostrated obeisances, and then crying begged for my mercy. He was so sincere. I felt embarrassed. I overheard a young devotee nearby aptly comment, “Now I know what Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu meant when he said to Śrīla Rūpa, ‘Your humility is breaking my heart’.”
 
True humility is not just a concept that one accepts and executes. It’s something that overflows from the simple and pure heart. It was inspiring to meet such devotees.
 
Wisdom

In the early Nineties, I became somewhat close with Śrīpāda B.V. Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja. Śrīla Prabhupāda had asked him to supervise the rituals of his samādhi ceremony after he had passed away. It was natural for us to take advantage of his association for advice – advice born from years of śāstric study and application.
 
When I was asked to take sannyāsa initiation, the formal order of renunciation, I was in a dilemma. At that time ISKCON was under a system that practically obliged one to take sannyāsa, or any initiation, from the guru who managed the zone in which one served. Although I liked and respected our flamboyant local GBC/guru, I was less impressed with his renunciation. I feared taking this solemn vow from someone who was not an example of detachment. I put this matter before Śrīla Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja. I told him the situation, and offered that taking sannyāsa was just a formality anyway. He replied soberly: “There are no formalities in Vaiṣṇava relations! All are real. Take from the person who inspires you the most.”
 
I did. I took sannyāsa from His Holiness Satsvarūpa Goswami, who lived a simple and renounced life. I also somehow able to do so without disturbing others attached to the present system.
 
On another occasion Mahārāja asked me to relay a message to one of my god-brothers who had held a grudge against another god-brother and was seeking punitive action. The potential victim begged Mahārāja to speak to that devotee. Factually, his mistake was neither personal nor very serious, but whether it was or not was irrelevant to the crux of the message that Mahārāja asked me to relay, “When a Vaiṣṇava begs forgiveness, then it is finished.” He then shook his hand in the air in the gesture that indicated that something was gone or finished. His instruction struck me deeply. I remember several times calling on that instruction to forgive those that asked for pardon, never considering or dwelling on that offense again. It was gone or finished.
 
Another instruction I heard from him that I followed despite the impulse sometimes in human interaction to want to act otherwise: “A Vaiṣṇava is one who promotes faith in guru.”
 
Good instructions when spoken with conviction by one who has realized them have a potency to make one assimilate them quickly. It’s a great blessing to have known people of knowledge and wisdom based on śāstra.
 
Realization and Fearlessness

I awoke one morning to the unexpected news that Śrīla Prabhupāda was coming in a few hours. He was supposed to have stayed in Rishikesh to recover his health, but when his feet suddenly swelled up at night during a shutter-rattling storm, he read it as a sign that he might leave this world soon. He requested his disciples to immediately return to Vṛndāvana. When he arrived, we greeted him and he summoned us at once into his house. Due to health, instead of sitting yogic style behind his desk, he sat in a chair to the left of his desk. What he said was difficult for us to hear. He had come to leave this world, he announced, but assured us that Vṛndāvana was the best place to remember Kṛṣṇa at the time of death because everything was here. I specifically remember him noting the Yamuna and the white sands of Ramaṇa-reti where our temple was located. He then quoted with conviction a relevant verse from the Gītā:
 
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Bg. 2.13)
 
With startling nonchalance, he concluded: “But what is death but a change of body!”
 
Three month later I stood by the side of his bed for hours and joined with other disciples fervently chanting the holy name as we witnessed his passing from this world completely undisturbed.
 
I had read in the Gītā about the sober in the face of death and remembered the casualness with which Śrīla Prabhupāda had addressed death, but now I saw that it was just not words: a self-realized soul was not bewildered by such a change.
 
 

 

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