A couple at the ISKCON community on Los Angeles prove that age is no obstacle for one who sincerely desires to serve the Lord.
The home of Vidura and Manjari Mehta smells like worship. A soft scent of ghee wicks and incense and camphor fills the clean, simple rooms. From where I live next door, I regularly hear the conch shell announcing their twice-daily arati for their deities. Today, Radha-Gopinatha, Gaura-Nitai, and Laddu-Gopala are freshly bathed and immaculate, dressed in bright yellow-and-white cloth Manjari has sewn for Them. I offer my obeisances and take a seat as this couple, Vidura, 85, and Manjari, 83, recall for me their first encounter with Srila Prabhupada and his Western disciples.
They were strolling along the Chowpatty shore, as they did every evening in Mumbai in 1971. There was not so much to see, just a big stretch of beach and a few buildings. Yet that evening, in a large open area that was usually vacant, stood a big canopy with a group of men inside. They were wearing saffron, the color of cloth for a renunciant in the Mehta's Vedic culture. The men were dancing and were singing the names of Krsna, an activity familiar to Vidura and Manjari, chanters themselves.
But something was clearly different here. As they drew closer, they saw that it was foreigners who were singing.
This they had never seen—Americans dressed in the traditional sacred robes of their own Hare Krsna faith.
At first they couldn't believe what they were seeing. They stood with eyes fixed on the very enthusiastic sankirtana before them. The crowd grew thick with surprised and curious onlookers.
"This is not a miracle."
Vidura remembers the strong voice of Srila Prabhupada, standing outside the canopy and addressing the gathering crowd, gesturing toward his Western followers.
"I am not a miracle worker. These young Americans have become Vaisnava devotees of the Lord."
A few days later Vidura and Manjari saw the same group of devotees at the nearby Maha-Laksmi temple. They remember seeing a sannyasi with a birthmark on the left side of his forehead. They couldn't have known then what significance this sannyasiwould someday have in their lives.
"For me, the Western devotees were a very good sight to see," says Vidura.
Vidura and Manjari were both born into Vaisnava families and initiated in the Pusti line of Vallabhacarya, an associate of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Manjari has worshiped Bala (child) Krsna since she was seven years old. She remembers that in her childhood her mother would go every day to worship at the Kunja-Bihari temple in her neighborhood at Devgad Baria, Panchmahal District, Gujarat.
Vidura received his education in Ahmedabad, and later he moved to Mumbai, where he worked in a bank and then became the manager of a rubber factory on Grant Road. Vidura was twenty-three and Manjari twenty when they married. They have two sons, Madhukar and Kamal. During their years of raising the boys, they visited local temples, taught their sons to chant and worship in their home, and kept up their Krsna conscious practice of chanting on beads sixty-four rounds of the mantra sri krsna saranam mama ("Lord Krsna is my shelter").
Every year they took the boys on pilgrimage to visit the popular temple of Lord Krsna as Sri Nathaji, in Nathdwara, Rajasthan. When their sons graduated from high school and began college in Ahmedabad, Vidura and Manjari began a series of pilgrimages that took them to Gokula, Mathura, Vrndavana, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Tirupati, Madurai, Kanniyakumari, Mayapur, Jagannath Puri, and other holy places.
Finding Their Guru in America
Madhukar, the eldest son, graduated in Ahmedabad with a degree in pharmaceutical studies, and he moved to Boston for six more years of education in his field. In 1982, when Vidura and Manjari visited him there, Madhukar brought them to attend the services at the Boston Hare Krsna temple.
In the meantime their son Kamal took a job in architecture in Houston.
"We moved to Houston to be reunited with our son Kamal," says Vidura, "and we began to attend Krsna conscious programs every Friday evening. Lecturing at these programs was Tamal Krsna Goswami. We recognized him as the same sannyasi with the birthmark on his forehead whom we had seen twelve years before in Mumbai."
In Houston the Mehtas soon began their own spiritual home-programs, inviting friends and family to celebrate an evening of Krsna conscious singing, speaking, and feasting. Kamal Mehta became active in putting on the programs every week for the benefit of friends, family, and members of the Houston ISKCON congregation. Though the Mehta's had left India, they hadn't given up their spiritual heritage. They continued their personal spiritual practices and added the spirit of giving Krsna consciousness that was so evident to them in Srila Prabhupada's discourses at Chowpatty.
Vidura and Manjari became initiated by Tamal Krsna Goswami in Houston in 1986. At the time of their initiation they were each chanting sixty-four rounds of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra as well as the mantra sri krsna saranam mama of the Pusti line. Their son Kamal was later initiated by Lokanath Swami and received the name Krsna Prema Dasa.
Eventually Krsna Prema's architectural work took him to Tustin, California, near Los Angeles. Vidura and Manjari went with him and his wife, Gopi, to help take care of their three sons while the parents were at work. Every Saturday night all of the Mehtas attended ISKCON programs held in any of forty homes in southern California. (The various programs draw 150 families and include bhajanas that go on for well over three hours at every event. In the last few years the number of programs has more than doubled to include Friday nights as well as some Sunday afternoons.)
Nirantara Dasa, the director of life membership and home programs for ISKCON Los Angeles, asked Vidura to lead the opening kirtana and offer the final arati at every Saturday program. This required a lot of traveling to various homes, but Vidura, a very determined devotee of Krsna, enjoyed his assigned duty at every event.
In July 1996, Vidura was diagnosed with a lumbar disc disease called scoliosis, which severely afflicts the sciatic nerve. After five years, he was in great pain and confined to a wheelchair. His doctor suggested an operation but couldn't guarantee its success.
Vidura wrote to his guru, Tamal Krsna Goswami, for guidance, telling him that he was praying to Lord Krsna to either let him die during the operation and take him back to the spiritual world or heal him for vigorous devotional service.
Tamal Krsna Goswami replied that, lacking medical expertise, he could not advise Vidura on whether or not to have the operation, but if Vidura did have it and recovered, he must remember to follow through on his promise to dedicate his life to Krsna's service.
Vidura decided to have the six-hour operation. After six months of recuperation, he regained his ability to walk. He now lives at New Dwarka, the ISKCON community in Los Angeles. Nowadays we see Vidura early every morning before mangala-arati, preparing trays for the morning worship. For the last six years, he has offered mangala-arati every morning as well as the Sunday feast arati. After the Sunday feast arati Vidura helps Ravindranatha Dasa, the head priest, give a prasadam sweet to everyone who comes to the temple. For seven years Manjari has made the full supply of ghee wicks for the deity worship: five hundred tapered wicks and five hundred lamp wicks every week. They each chant daily thirty-two rounds of the Hare Krsnamaha-mantra on their beads.
"Since the passing of Tamal Krsna Goswami," says Vidura, "we have missed him very heavily. He loved us and treated us like his parents. We now feel like orphans in his absence."
Tamal Krsna Goswami once told him, "Vidura, I have done my duty to you, and now it is your turn to do your duty to me."
Vidura humbly asked, "Gurudeva, what is my duty to you?"
Tamal Krsna Goswami replied, "Please bless me. You are my parents."
"Vidura is a very determined, forceful, and principled devotee," says Nirantara, who has known him for fifteen years. "He takes his service very seriously. His dream is that he and his wife will pass away at the same time while doing service to Sri Sri Rukmini-Dvarakadhisa. Manjari is the universal mother. Nothing pleases her more than to cook for and feed devotees."
They are both very fond of their devotee grandchildren. Three generations of Mehtas engage in Krsna's service. All three of the Mehta grandsons took the Krsna book home-study program administered by Nirantara Dasa, and they graduated with high honors. They attend home programs and enjoy singing, and they play the harmonium and drums. They also help with life membership and the office that organizes the home programs. They live in New Dwarka and attend college at nearby UCLA and USC.
"New Dwarka is a very spiritual atmosphere," says Nisanth, who is studying to be a doctor. "I can really feel the difference when I come back to the community here. We visit the deities daily and like to do some service."
Anand, who is pursuing a degree in communications, adds, "And we get to see our grandpa. We feel inspired to see our grandparents serving Krsna in their advanced age."
I too am inspired by the example of Vidura and Manjari Mehta, including their life-long worship and chanting and their training of their family members to be Krsna conscious.
Vidura wrote in a letter to his guru, "Please let me tell you that I have experienced profound happiness and joy while doing arati at several ISKCON temples."
Steady devotional service to the Lord in the later years of life is a reward for those who have paid the price of surrender to guru and Krsna. Next stop, Krsna-loka.
Karuna Dharini Devi Dasi, a disciple of His Grace Virabahu Dasa, serves the deities at New Dwarka, where she joined ISKCON in 1979. She lives with her husband and daughter.