"As I look at the lifeless body in the casket, I think of her good fortune for having unknowingly served Lord Krsna in the last months of her life."
AS I ENTER THE CHURCH, I survey the large crowd while looking for a vacant seat towards the back. Just as I spy an inconspicuous seat, Mrs. Williams sees me from the front of the church. I wave to her as I try to jostle my way to the seat I have found. But she emphatically motions for me to come to the front.
Mrs. Williams, a strong matriarchal figure, is not a person to easily challenge. I obediently approach her and give her a hug, hoping she will allow me to return to the back pews. Instead she makes room in the front row for me to sit next to her grandson Thomas. She looks up at me.
I sit and quietly squirm a little. It's not just that I have white skin in the midst of a mostly black-skinned congregation. And who will know that I am a Jewish-born Vaisnava, a Hare Krsna practitioner sitting down for a Baptist service? The problem is that I knew the deceased only in my capacity as a psychotherapist for a large urban health clinic. Do I really belong with her immediate family in the front pew?
Now as people file by to offer their condolences, I am included as part of the family. I feel uncomfortable as people shake my hand and offer words of sympathy. The awkward moment ends as the organ begins to resonate throughout the church and people take their seats.
Just a few feet away in the open casket is the body of Thomas's mother, Regina Scott. Her motionless body lies on silken pillows, dressed in white lace. Stuffed animals nestle close to her body, creating an illusion of serenity and everlasting peace.
I had met Regina on a few occasions when she came to family therapy. She had recently been released from prison and had come to live with Thomas and his grandmother. Thomas hardly knew his mother, since she had been in jail for a good portion of his life. During her short interludes of freedom over the years, she would go back to using heroin. To support her habit, she would turn to drug-selling and prostitution, which led to repeated arrests and incarcerations. Either from dirty needles or prostitution, Regina had contracted the HIV virus several years ago. For the past two years, she had suffered from a series of AIDS-related illnesses and had resigned herself to dying.
Regina left behind three children. Leon, her oldest, is an angry fifteen-year-old who already has several charges for drug sales and car theft. He sits incognito in a pew several rows back.
Thomas, her second child, a small, sensitive twelve-year-old, suffers from anxiety and depression. He had been referred for mental health therapy two years ago after placing a rope around his neck and saying he wanted to die. I had become Thomas's therapist then and had worked closely with the family ever since.
Troy, the youngest child, was born HIV positive two years ago, while Regina was still in jail. He has already surpassed the doctor's predictions for his life span. Today he is dressed in a little tuxedo and flops about in his baby chair, having no muscle control left in his body. He is a lovable, good-natured child and almost seems to have transcended his suffering.
I hold Thomas's warm and moist hand. Tears roll incessantly down his cheeks, forming little rivulets and puddles on his black dress pants. I pass some tissues to him, but they remain immobile in his hand. He stares off in a hypnotic state, his body frozen in time.
Several ministers ascend to the pulpit, dressed in long, flowing black gowns. This is my first time at a Baptist funeral service, and I'm eager to hear their message.
Only One Life?
In a deep commanding voice, the first reverend asks everyone who accepts Jesus to stand. I have no problem sincerely standing up. Through the teachings of Vaisnava philosophy, I accept Jesus as a pure devotee of God who descended to teach love of God to the fallen. Many times I have heard or read of my guru, Srila Prabhupada, glorifying Jesus Christ. Sometimes, though, he found fault in the way Jesus's followers misconstrued his teachings.
The reverend expounds on many truths consistent with my Vaisnava philosophy. The soul and the body are different. Life is a journey meant for loving God and helping others do the same. Most of what I hear could well have been spoken in aBhagavad-gita class in a Vaisnava temple.
Our agreement on scripture diverges when the reverend states that this one life determines our eternal existence in either heaven or hell. This is one of the tenets of modern Christianity that never sat well with me. If indeed this is our only chance, why does God allow so much inequity at birth? Why is one child born to a loving, nurturing, comfortable home while another child's home is an abusive, impoverished hell? Why would one have the opportunity to learn about God from childhood and another have no religious training? And if the child is sinless, as the Christians believe, then would it not be in the child's best interest to be killed at birth so he could go straight to heaven?
Why would God give us only one chance and eternally damn us? As a parent I watch my own child make mistake after mistake, yet I continue to stand by him and encourage him. God is infinitely more loving. Surely He would continue to help us beyond this one brief lifetime.
I soon sense that the good reverend is struggling with how to present the concept of one lifetime, heaven or hell, in this particular situation. He wants to comfort the family and loved ones. That usually comes from hearing that the dear departed has gone to heaven. Plainly, Regina's life up until the end was less than saintly. To say she had accepted Christ and purified her heart would have been quite a stretch.
Surely the reverend wonders what kind of a message he would impart by blessing Regina as heaven-bound. The young people in attendance would simply take this as an endorsement that you can sin all you want, then just accept Jesus in the end.
So if Regina didn't make it to heaven, that means, according to the modern Christian doctrine taught in this church, that she has now descended into an abysmal hell to suffer eternally. Not a very comforting thought for Thomas, whose tears continue to stream down his cheeks.
How much I wish I could share with Thomas the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita. While his mother most likely didn't go to heaven, she is not eternally damned. She will take a new body and make progress toward her original home in the spiritual world. How do I know?
The Lord's Mercy
During one of our family sessions, she accepted some prasadam, food offered to the Lord in love and devotion. As I watched Regina bite into the soft oatmeal raisin cookie, I reflected on how fortunate she was. Food accepted by the Lord becomes spiritualized and has the power to transform the heart of the person eating it. The Vedic literature explains that a person who eats prasadam will receive Krsna's mercy and have a greater chance of taking a human birth in the next life. This is significant, since there are millions of types of lesser bodies available, many of them more suitable for humans habituated to animalistic life. One who fails to use the human form of life for self realization risks gliding down into lower species of life and temporarily losing the chance to make spiritual advancement. But simply by taking a little prasadam, Regina may well again have the opportunity to start as a human being in her next life. She can continue the spiritual journey she had unknowingly begun.
I wish I could console Thomas with these Vedic truths. But in my role as his therapist, I have to be careful not to transgress his belief system. I can only use the tenets of what he believes to help him get through this difficult time. I can say that his mother is different from the body she left behind, that she is a soul and the soul is eternal. Beyond that I risk doing what would be professionally deemed proselytizing.
In my earlier years, when I distributed Bhagavad-gitas to the public, I would preach the Absolute Truth boldly and challenge many lame ideas. These days, while I still have opportunities to share Krsna consciousness directly, I often must use a more subtle approach. At my job, I always have prasadam cookies. On my office wall my clients see a large colorful picture of smiling Lord Jagannatha. People benefit from seeing Krsna's form, taking prasadam, and hearing Krsna's holy names, even if they don't know the significance of such activities. In Sanskrit this is called ajnata-sukrti, unknowing devotional service to the Lord. It is a powerful way to engage people in the Lord's service who might otherwise resist or be inimical.
Regina had seen Lord Jagannatha and commented on liking the picture as she accepted prasadam. As I look at her lifeless body in the casket, I think of her good fortune for having unknowingly done these small services in the last months of her life. I remember the story of Ajamila, a priest who became obsessed with a prostitute and abandoned all spirituality. As he lay dying, a spent old man, Ajamila called for his small son whose name was Narayana, a name for the Supreme Lord. Although Ajamila was calling his son, the Lord accepted that call as service. He nullified Ajamila's sins and purified his heart. As a result Ajamila soon returned to the spiritual kingdom.
Thinking in this way, I squeeze Thomas's hand. He looks at me for the first time that evening. With full conviction I tell Thomas, "Your Mom is going to be fine. The Lord is with her, and He'll always be with her." His eyes brighten as if he believes in the words, and he acknowledges them with a slight nod of his head.
At the end of the service Thomas hugs me and says, "Thanks for being the life of the funeral."
His words seem out of character for him, for they cleverly suggest a profound truth: in reality there is no death for the soul. Perhaps the Lord in his heart was able to communicate these thoughts to Thomas.
Thomas continues to come to therapy and address his feelings of loss and grief. And he continues to eat prasadam cookies and see the smiling face of Lord Jagannatha on my wall.
Arcana-siddhi Devi Dasi was initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1976. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband and son.