Raised in a middle-class, conservative family in Hyderabad, I was one of five siblings in our home. My father, a civil engineer, often went on tours for extended periods of time. My mother was a homemaker, who would stay back in Hyderabad to take care of the children and their education.
Every morning we would see our mother cleaning the puja room, which had about eight framed photographs of different Hindu gods. Ringing a bell and lighting a lamp, she would offer chana (chickpeas) with sugar, cashew and a fruit to them. We never participated in this daily worship nor did we ever inquire about the various religious rituals. Upon her insistence, however, we would obediently go into the puja room every Sunday, fold our hands, and ask for whatever we wanted.
Education and Career
Like many Indian students, excelling in studies was our topmost priority. After school, my eldest sister got into medical college by merit, and taking that as inspiration my second sister and I followed suit.
I felt this was a big milestone in my life. I completed my MBBS, dissecting every human limb and learning about every nerve and muscle fiber that is present inside our body. I learned about various diseases and their treatments, attended various emergency wards, and witnessed several fatal cases. I saw death as cardio-respiratory arrest or loss of brain function. I studied the intricate composition of DNA, the basic building block of the human body, and how the heartbeat originates from the sinus node by generating electrical impulses. During all this, I never thought that there could be more to life than what I am studying in medical textbooks.
Soon after MBBS, I got married to an engineer with a good private sector job who my parents thought fit. Three years later my husband, Ravikanth, following his dream of earning big, went to the United states of America. I later followed him in order to pursue higher studies. It took some time for us to get used to the American culture and weather. In the next six years I earned my residency and fellowship (PhD), which I thought was a big achievement. Soon after, I was offered the position of Assistant Professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University – the same university where I studied.
In the meantime my husband was making big money. Both of us had obtained our much-awaited green cards. We had two kids,and a big 3700-sq.ft house. We had our cars, lots of friends, weekend parties, and immense fun. Life was so wonderful! We had successfully achieved the big “American dream.”
A couple of years went by and everything appeared to go smoothly. But somewhere deep within, I started feeling a painful void. Our “American dream,” which many people dream to achieve, no longer appeared attractive. I started feeling aimless, with no clear goal in life. Questions like what is the purpose of life and why are we all here on earth started cropping up in my mind. For some unknown reason, I started feeling that having a job, raising kids, getting older and dying were not enough. There must be a higher purpose behind everything and the world around me, I thought. Staying in a foreign land far away from the family probably contributed to the vacuum inside.
I started feeling restless – life didn’t seem cool anymore; in fact it seemed pointless. When I shared my feelings with my husband, he thought I was crazy. He could think of no reason to not be happy. Maybe he was right, but my internal turmoil continued.
A Tryst with Destiny
One day I had to take Ravikanth to my hospital for a minor surgical operation. After putting him under a doctor’s care, I went to attend an emergency call, confident that my presence was not essential. I had barely reached my ward when I received a text message from my fellow surgeon attending to my husband. “Ravikanth’s heart has stopped beating. Rush back immediately!” I felt I missed a heartbeat. Shocked and confused, I raced to the surgery suite. When I arrived, they were resuscitating my husband; in a couple minutes he started breathing and had a pulse. I thanked God sincerely, probably for the first time.
The doctor explained that as he was preparing to give local anesthesia, Ravikanth suddenly stopped breathing and lost his pulse. His eyes rolled back and he became unresponsive. The surgery was cancelled, and after a few tests and observations, the doctor said he could go home. Ravikanth later explained how he felt nervous inside the hospital, andin a few minutes everything appeared to be going black. All sounds faded into silence and he went blank.
Following his discharge, I was driving him home, anxious to get him to bed at the earliest. But suddenly he said he wanted to eat in a five-star restaurant.I said food was ready at home, so there was no need to eat outside. Upon hearing this, he started yelling at me. “Take me to a restaurant now ! If you won’t take me, I will go on my own.”I obliged, trying to make sense of this strange behavior. With each passing day, his behavior got worse – picking up fights over little things, not paying attention to his work, always busy on the computer. It was a miserable time for both of us.
An Auspicious Turn in Life
One Friday, a friend invited me to attend a Bhagavad-gita class that was going to be conducted by an ISKCON monk from New Vrindavan, West Virginia. I said to her that I’ll try to come, but I had already decided to not attend. “I know the basics of Bhagavadgita,” I said to myself. “Moreover, who has got the patience to sit through a philosophy talk after attending to a hospital call for thirty-six hours?” Tired, hungry and sleepy, I was driving back home, while cursing the country for having to drive on my own. In India, I would have had a chauffeur.
Ordinarily, I would have driven straight home without taking the exit on the freeway that led to my friend’s house. But mysteriously on this day, the car swerved left into that exit as if someone turned my steering wheelwithout my knowledge. And within a few minutes, I was there at my friend’s doorstep!
As soon as I entered the house, someone came to me and put a long tilaka on my forehead. Men appeared weirdly dressed in dhotis, while women wore saris that covered their heads. Everyone was singing, dancing, clapping and tossing their hands up in the air – I was amazed to see all this. Then came another surprise – someone came and handed me a plate full of food and said it was prasada.
After all the singing and dancing got over, a young person in saffron robes introduced himself as Yugalakisora Dasa and started a PowerPoint presentation. What I saw in those slides for the next two hours left me spellbound. I listened with my mouth open – I felt that every point that he made was meant for me. Without even asking, I felt he had answered all my questions about my quest for inner fulfillment. It was as if a door to another world, which I didn’t know existed hitherto, had opened.
This was the first time I understood the concept of soul. He described who God is and what our relationship with Him was – nobody had ever explained these concepts so clearly before. Since we are part and parcel of the Supreme God, only a relationship with him would make us happy. This made sense; it explained why I was not happy with all the material comforts I had. Often quoting relevant verses from scriptures, he proved that the real purpose of our life is to love God and to serve him, and our attempts to enjoy material comforts can never give us true happiness.
The scientific nature of the whole presentation appealed to my intelligence, which had rejected many other theories and philosophies, and which was conditioned to analyze everything under the lens of modern science. After attending this session, I felt hopeful. It gave me a new goal to pursue, a goal that would last till the end of this lifetime, and more. I concluded that a grand event such as creation of this universe cannot be for a cheap goal of sense enjoyment!
I was eager to attend the next day’s session, but I wished my husband attended it too. He was not much of a believer in God; he visited temples occasionally just to be polite. He even hated ISKCON and saw it only as a dum-marodum fad. When I invited him for the second session, he flatly refused saying, “I know all about Bhagavad-gita.” The next day, however, before leaving home, he agreed to join me, saying he had nothing else to do.
The second session taught us the law of karma, why bad things happen to good people, reincarnation stories and near-death experiences. My husband heard the entire session attentively. We drove back home, without speaking a word. Before sitting for dinner, we saw prawn curry lying inside the refrigerator, and both of us threw it out, without any discussion. After dinner when I asked him about the class, he told me a few things that left me astounded.
Recalling Glimpses of Hell
Ravikanth said, “Let me share with you an experience that I went through during my stay in the hospital a few weeks ago. Within minutes after getting admitted, everything went dark – all external sounds and sights vanished. I felt I was falling down a dark black tunnel at a very high speed. I was screaming out of fear. Then suddenly I came to a halt and remained suspended above the ground level. When I looked down I saw many white floating bodies being inflicted with excruciating pain. Ferocious-looking people were torturing these people. It was so scary. I thought, ‘O my God, this is hell ! I don’t want to go through this.’ After some time, those horrible scenes disappeared and I came back to this world. I could see and hear everything that was happening in the hospital.”
Apparently he was unaware of the mouth-to-mouth breathing, the chest compressions and the chaos created around him in the area. After getting discharged from the hospital, he felt his days were numbered, so he wanted to enjoy things he couldn’t enjoy so far – eating outside, for example. Several questions started haunting him: “Why is this happening to me? I have always been a good person – never cheated, robbed or killed anyone. Why the hell am I going to hell?” He started searching for answers – mostly on the internet. These questions bothered him so much that he became irate and often neglected his work. But unfortunately he could never get satisfactory answers.
During the Gita session, however, we got to hear about Neardeath Experience (NDE), and my husband could immediately understand the concept because he himself and experienced it. After hearing about the soul and its eternality, he realized how he was not the body but a spirit soul, and how he had got a glimpse of hell in a short time while his body lay in the hospital. We understood the importance of following the four regulative principles (no meat eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication, and no gambling) and decided to follow them strictly. This series of enlightening lectures give both of us answers to our questions along with new hope and joy.
This is how we came to Krishna consciousness, and since then our lives have not been the same. Every day we eagerly wait for the weekends, so we could get to hear more nectar from the Bhagavadgita and Srimad -Bhagavatam. We started visiting the ISKCON temple in Detroit and soon became a part of the wonderful family there. By chanting the Hare Krishna mahamantra, I could feel my bad qualities being washed away. Morning japa has replaced sleeping until late in the morning, satvika food substituted for non-vegetarian food, Krishna -prasada traded outside foods, Sunday temple visits took over watching movies, bhakti-vrksa programs and service to Vaisnavas replaced mundane parties, and pictures of Radha-Krishna and the guru-parampara replaced demigods on our altar. Our relationship with each other improved remarkably as we made Krishna the center of our lives. Our egos faded, some humility crept in. We started distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books and sharing Krishna's message with everyone. Association of Vaisnavas along with singing and dancing in kirtana made us ecstatic. Both our parents took to Krishna consciousness when they visited us in Detroit, and they in turn spread it to their relatives on their return to India. By Krishna's mercy, a few years later I accepted spiritual initiation from His Holiness Radhanath Swami Maharaja and received the name Karuna Radhika Devi Dasi. We are extremely grateful to Yugala-kisora Prabhu for showing us the path towards eternal life. And we are grateful to Srila Prabhupada, his followers and ISKCON for changing our lives in ways unimaginable!
The inner fulfillment that comes from establishing a loving relationship with God has filled the void in our lives. We now a real goal, an eternal one – that of deepening our relationship with the Supreme. There’s no more looking back.
Karuna Radhika Devi Dasi is a Consultant Pediatric Cardiologist for Apollo Health City in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. Her husband, Ravikanth, is the CIO for a private IT company.