Her voice hesitates. "I have bad news for you."
BREATHLESS FROM running to the phone, I pick up the receiver, my seven-week-old daughter gurgling playfully in my arms.
"Can I speak to Rosalynne?" asks the voice at the other end.
"Speaking," I pipe back.
"This is Anna."
Anna … I try to think who it could be … Of course! My brother's girl-friend! I've never met her, though I've heard a lot about her.
"Hello, Anna. What can I do for you?"
My voice conveys that I'm happy she has rung. After all, I love my brother, and I know she means a lot to him.
Her voice hesitates. "I have bad news for you."
Bad news … The words are just registering as she continues to blurt out, "Colin is dead. He died in a road accident."
The smile from a few seconds ago is still painted on my face. I try to make sense of what I've just heard. Maybe this is a sick joke. No, I can't imagine a girl like Anna playing such a hoax. Maybe I heard wrong.
"What did you say, Anna?"
"Colin is dead, Rosalynne. He died yesterday."
Colin, my younger brother tall, good-looking Colin. Just a few weeks ago he had happily boasted to me about the amazing job he'd landed as an assistant buyer for an international corporation.
"I'll be flying all over Europe and the States now," he'd said. "And I've got myself a brand-new car."
"Great," I said, laughing. "Now you can afford to give the temple a donation. You've got no excuses now."
We were very different, Colin and I. More than ten years ago, I had chosen to become a devotee of Krsna, abandoning my career for a more renounced life in search of spiritual knowledge. Colin, on the other hand, was materially ambitious and barely able to conceal his disdain for religious people. So I never tried discussing with him topics like the soul, karma, or reincarnation, and he appreciated that. He said that of all religious people he thought the Hare Krsnas were the nicest because at least we didn't force religion down his throat. Now I wish I'd tried harder to interest him. Anyway, it's too late. He's dead.
I sit silently, possibly in shock, little Lalita cooing contentedly in my arms.
Anna's voice continues, giving details of the accident, the funeral, the state of my parents. I thank her and we hang up.
The finality of death hits me, and the shock gives way to grief. I'm unable to keep from wailing. My three-year-old son, Gopala, rushes in. He's surprised to see mummy crying. He comes up to me, smiles consolingly, and strokes my face and head.
"Mummy, don't cry."
I try to smile. "It's all right, Colin. Mummy's all right."
It's the first time I've made the mistake of calling Gopala Colin. My mistake triggers another bout of sobbing. Gopala reminds me of Colin when we were little. Colin was also gentle and loving, and suddenly the physical similarities become more obvious as well.
"Mummy, don't cry." Gopala smiles anxiously as he stares with concern into my eyes and continues stroking me. He tries to give me a hug, but Lalita's in the way. For his sake I feel I must get hold of myself.
I try to control my grief with knowledge. "The wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead." I've been studying the Bhagavad-gita for eleven years, and now Krsna's teachings try to penetrate my grief. But my mind wavers between Krsna's instructions and my sense of irreversible loss.
I try chanting the maha-mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. As I chant, my mind wanders to childhood scenes with my brother how we used to go swimming together. Though younger, he was a better swimmer, and I used to feel envious. Now, remembering that envy causes me guilt. Other scenes materialize in my mind: our excursions to the park, to the beach, and then back further in time and playing hide-and-seek, the playground …
I weep. Even after eleven years of practicing bhakti-yoga, I find it hard to control my mind. Bodily identifications are deep-rooted. Because I think I'm my body, I think I have an eternal relationship with my brother, my parents, and my child. But the body is temporary, and my misperception causes me suffering.
"Mummy, don't cry." Gopala tries to console me, and I smile back re-assuringly.
But the mind is difficult to control. Still, as Krsna explains in the Gita, we can control it with practice and detachment. Realizing our spiritual identity becomes easier as we practice detachment from bodily pleasures. If we've practiced throughout our life, then we may be able to fix the mind on Krsna at death. The Gita explains that our thoughts at death determine our next destination. So if we think of a loved one or of material happiness, we'll take birth again to continue "enjoying" and suffering. But if we can fix the mind on Krsna, we'll escape the cycle of birth and death and go back to Godhead to serve the Supreme Lord in loving reciprocation.
I can now understand how difficult it will be to think of Krsna at death. If with the death of my brother I'm unable to fix my mind on Krsna's holy names, how much more difficult it will be to do this when I face my own death. I must practice, and this is a good opportunity.
I turn to the Gita (2.17-25):
That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul. The material body of the indestructible, immeasurable, and eternal living entity is sure to come to an end….
Neither he who thinks the living entity the slayer nor he who thinks it slain is in knowledge, for the self slays not nor is slain. For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain….
As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones….
This individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried. He is everlasting, present everywhere, unchangeable, immovable, and eternally the same. It is said that the soul is invisible, inconceivable, and immutable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body.
The phone rings again, my husband this time. He's in a meeting, but he's just calling to see if there are any messages. I wonder whether or not I should tell him. I decide I will. Reading the Bhagavad-gita has pacified my mind. It has reminded me that the real Colin the eternal soul, the eternal servant of God continues to exist. Only his temporary identity as Colin Dodds has ceased, and the real Colin the soul I never saw anyway has gone on to his next destination. Why lament for his temporary body, which was destined to be destroyed sooner or later?
As I tell my husband, however, my composure cracks and I fight to keep back the tears. Applying transcendental knowledge takes practice. Therefore, the scriptures advise that we take up this practice at once so we can endure undisturbed when our own death is upon us.
Half an hour later my husband is home. He decided to come and help. I appreciate his presence. As a devotee, he's sympathetic but not sentimental. He has come not to join in my grief but to help me transcend it. Being with another devotee strengthens my own resolve to act as a devotee and take shelter of Krsna.
We decide to sing a devotional song. We sit cross-legged in our temple room, Lalita sleeping peacefully on my lap, Gopala resting against my shoulders. Normally he would go to his father, but today he stays close by me.
Gopala's concern is touching. If this small child has such a capacity to love, I think, how much greater is God's. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna reassures us that He is our most intimate well-wisher. If I loved Colin, how much more Krsna loves him. My relationship with Colin goes back only twenty-nine years, but he is eternally Krsna's. The Vedic scriptures say that throughout our sojourn in the material world the Supreme Lord stays with us as the witness of our activities. On the merit of our past acts, He sanctions or thwarts our endeavors for material happiness. The materialist is elated in material happiness, taking all credit for himself, and depressed in material distress, blaming God. But the transcendentalist remains steady in happiness and distress, gain and loss. He sees material happiness as the mercy of Krsna because it provides a comfortable circumstance for practicing spiritual life. And he sees in suffering an impetus for becoming detached from material life. He never blames God for his suffering; rather, he sees suffering as the result of his past sinful acts.
I find comfort in these thoughts. I know that as the Supersoul, Lord Krsna accompanies Colin. Krsna is callous to the fleeting happiness and distress of this material world. He wants to help us become exhausted with our futile attempts at happiness. He wants us to surrender to Him in loving service and return to a life of eternal bliss and knowledge in the spiritual world. So my faith is that though I may not be able to understand how, Krsna is in control and is acting for Colin's ultimate benefit.
My husband plays the harmonium, and I the karatalas (cymbals). I close my eyes and allow myself to become immersed in the sweet melody of Krsna's holy names: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The chant is like the crying of a child to its parent. "My dear lord Krsna, please rescue me from the ocean of material suffering and again engage me in Your service."
As my husband brings the chanting to a close, I feel peaceful and composed. He consoles me with more thoughts from the Gita.
"We feel anxiety because we are eternal beings in an atmosphere of temporality," he says. "We hanker for stability a stable environment and stable relationships. But in the material world, nothing is stable. And death is the most thorough destabilizer. But not if we can become fixed in our eternal identity as spirit souls, parts of the Supreme Lord. If we can realize our eternal loving relationship with Him, nothing not even death can take that away."
I feel grateful for this knowledge. My thoughts go to my parents. How much more difficult for them. They were never interested in the soul, karma, reincarnation, meditation. They accept only the here and now, what they can directly see with their eyes. I wonder if my brother's death will make them more thoughtful.
I hope my brother's short life and his death will not be futile. I hope that at least I can now become more resolute in my pursuit of spiritual perfection. The scriptures say that if someone attains pure devotion for God, he benefits ten generations of his family before and after him. But more than just helping myself and my own family, I pray I can become determined to help give this knowledge to others.
Cintamani Dhama Devi Dasi holds a joint honors degree in philosophy and politics from Bristol University. She and her husband, Krsna Dharma Dasa, run the Manchester ISKCON center, which they opened in 1986.