A story of how fear of cancer was instrumental
in making a whole family Krishna conscious

Cancer or Krishna

As I was running around with my cousin Ranjeet to arrange for the maiden satsanga program in my hometown, my grandmother observed us with visible irritation on her face. Every day she would advise us that we should practice this age-old devotion to Krishna once we become old. This philosophy, however, did not appeal to us youngsters because we never saw any old person practicing devotion to Krishna. Everyone old and young was absorbed in television, sports, movies, etc. Srila Prabhupada’s books had convinced us that youth is the time to practice Krishna consciousness, not old age. We must practice devotion to Krishna today because tomorrow we may die. Never plan to surrender to God at the eleventh hour; we may die at 10.30. Srila Prabhupada would ask, who is young and who is old. A young boy who is destined to die today is actually older than an old man who will live for ten more years. The terms young and old are quite confusing and misleading in this unpredictable world, as anybody can become a victim of the three-fold miseries at any time.

The Appearance of “Cancer”

My grandmother was next in queue to suffer the onslaught of this world. She had a small swelling in her neck, which was diagnosed as cancer. Doctors referred her to a cancer hospital. Since my elder sister, Aparna (now Ananga Gopi Devi Dasi) and I are doctors, we were called to make all the arrangements. We thought that as doctors one of our prime duties was to treat the soul. I handed sacred japa beads to my scared grandmother and told her to chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. We told her the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita (18.66), which states that one should surrender unto the Supreme Lord Krishna. He will deliver us from all sinful reactions. Diagnosed with cancer, my grandmother was shattered. In this stage, one realizes the futility of worldly happiness. The movies, media, television nothing seems to give solace due to the fear of impending death. My grandmother realized the emergency to take up to Krishna consciousness. Not only she, but also my grandfather, uncles, aunts, cousins twenty family members started chanting. Seeing all of them chanting, I realized that Krishna had entered our home in the form of cancer.

The Divine Hospital Stay

By the time we reached the hospital, my grandmother was chanting eight rounds. My elder sister stayed with her all the time. She kept on reciting the wonderful philosophy of Krishna consciousness: the impermanence of the material body and the eternality of the spirit soul; how there is life after death, which depends on our consciousness cultivated during this lifetime; the law of action and reaction, etc. All this was soothing my grandma. She had become deeply appreciative of the teachings of Srila Prabhupada. She lamented that she should have been convinced about the philosophy earlier.

On the day of surgery, she was taken to the operation theatre. Lying on a stretcher, her hands raised like Draupadi, she was loudly chanting the maha-mantra. My eyes filled with tears, and I thought, “She was just introduced to devotion at the fag end of her life. Will Krishna give her another chance to taste the nectar of Krishna consciousness?”

The Disappearance Of Cancer

The surgery was done. The tumor turned out to be benign; the previous diagnosis was wrong. How wonderful Krishna is: He came in the form of cancer, blessed the whole family with devotion, and granted a second chance to my grandmother. As we were about to leave the hospital, the cancer surgeon came near my grandmother and said, “Grandma, you don’t have cancer. Just relax now and enjoy life.” But my grandma was already enjoying the blissful life of Krishna consciousness. I cautioned my grandmother and instructed her not to be deluded by the doctor’s advice. She might have escaped death this time, but one day she will have to face it. We all have to face it.

In a chicken shop, a chicken sometimes escapes death when it weighs less than what the customer demands. When the chicken is put back in the cage, it foolishly thinks, “I have escaped death.” But for how long? After a few hours another customer who wants a smaller chicken comes, and the previously escaped chicken is then slaughtered. Our occasional escape from death is like the chicken’s death-escape temporary and short-lived.

In ISKCON Hospital

My grandmother and uncle returned to Pune. They remembered the grace of Krishna, and all of them started visiting the ISKCON temple in Pune. By the time my grandmother left the hospital she had started chanting 16 rounds. Senior devotees at the temple Jayadeva Dasa and Satyavati Devi Dasi guided her further. Now she had begun her new treatment of getting rid of the disease of materialism at the ISKCON temple, which is like a hospital. Devotees in the temple are like expert doctors who remove the cataract of illusion and grant us spiritual vision. My grandmother started following the spiritual diet of prasada and started regularly consuming the medicine of the holy name.

A year later her name was recommended for initiation, the ceremony in which one accepts a bona fide spiritual master. This is a special moment in every devotee’s life as this marks a solid connection with Krishna. When she visited Mumbai to receive initiation, she learned that her cancer doctor, who had told her to relax, had died of a heart attack at the age of 45. But she remained fearless because she had taken shelter of Lord Krishna.

When her name was called for initiation, we saw her swiftly getting up and prostrating before her spiritual master. But none of us could see what happened next as our eyes were loaded with tears. Then we heard her spiritual master saying, “Hirabai, from today onwards your spiritual name will be Hamsarupa Devi Dasi.”

(Hamsarupa Devi is now in her eighties. Despite her advanced age and physical weakness, she chants her 16 rounds of japa early in the morning.)

Yugavatara Dasa is an associate professor in Anatomy in a medical college in Mumbai. He is a regular contributor to BTG.