Is Vrndavana the only choice for devotees of the Lord?
DEVOTEES OF Krsna traditionally go to Vrndavana, the divine place of Krsna's pastimes, when their time comes to leave this world. The great devotee Prabodhananda Sarasvati Thakura praised residence in Vrndavana especially at death without mincing his words:
I pray that this land of Vrndavana, which great sages experience as sweet nectar, give me shelter until the moment I leave this body….They who somehow or other remain up to the moment of death here in Vrndavana, which with its splendor bathes all moving and non-moving creatures in an ocean of bliss, are at the head of all great Vaisnavas….Brother, do you know for certain when you will die? Do you think the maha-mantra will check powerful death? Do you think death will patiently wait and allow you to die at the time you prescribe? Is it for these reasons that you again and again fearlessly leave Vrndavana? Even if my heart were pierced by thousands of thunderbolts, I would not leave Vrndavana. (Sri Vrndavana-mahimamrta, Sataka 1.17, 43, 50, 6)
Scriptures describe earthly Vrndavana (Gokula Vrndavana) as essentially identical to Krsna's supreme abode in the spiritual sky, Goloka Vrndavana. Although to conditioned souls earthly Vrndavana may appear similar to other rural towns or forests of this world, the scriptures explain that its spiritual nature is inaccessible to mundane vision, just as the sun's brilliance can be obscured by a thick, dark cloud.
Regardless of how one perceives Vrndavana, Prabodhananda Sarasvati explains that contact with Vrndavana gives immeasurable spiritual benefit: "If one lives in the earthly land of Vrndavana, touches it, sees it, travels to it, meditates upon it, bows down to it, sings or hears about its glorious qualities, carries its dust on his head, or has any relationship with it, then this purifying earthly Vrndavana will carry him to the supreme abode of Vrndavana in the spiritual world." (V.M. 6.29)
He adds that in earthly Vrndavana "all people automatically and effortlessly obtain pure ecstatic love for Krsna" and that Vrndavana "transforms sinners into saints" and is pavana pavane, "the most purifying of all purifiers." (V.M. 1.47, 39, 41) For these reasons and many more, serious devotees of Krsna have always valued the chance to reside in Vrndavana, to perform devotional service there, and ultimately to depart from this world in that sacred land. [See Sidebar: "Leaving and Not Leaving Vrndavana."]
As a consequence of this, in Vrndavana today you will find samadhis, or sacred tombs, honoring great devotees of Krsna who passed away there. His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada left this world in Vrndavana in 1977, and a large samadhi, part of the Krishna-Balaram Temple complex, stands in his honor.
Shelter For Iskcon Members
A number of ISKCON devotees have traveled to Vrndavana to leave this world. Gauri Dasi, a shy, warm devotee who overcame her timidity and became a compassionate and empowered distributor of Srila Prabhupada's books, departed in Vrndavana. She is said to have had ecstatic experiences of communion with Krsna in her final days. Buddhimanta Dasa, a pioneer of book distribution in the West, also departed in sacred Vrndavana, graced by a chanting party led by Aindra Dasa, which came just at the time of his departure. A book has been written about Vraja-lila Dasi, a saintly young disciple of Indradyumna Swami who took shelter in Vrndavana in her final days.
Lohitaksa Dasa from New York traveled to Vrndavana in serious condition, taking the risk that he might die en route, but was able to exit within days of his arrival. The Italian devotee Namananda Dasa, once ISKCON's number one book distributor in the world, passed away at the Prabhupada-vani Ashram, perhaps getting special mercy for his years of intense endeavor to share Krsna consciousness with others. Krsna Mayi Dasi, a rather new and inexperienced devotee, by special good fortune made her way to Vrndavana in her last days. She departed as her spiritual master, Dhanurdhara Swami, was singing the devotional song Jaya Radhe, Jaya Radhe Radhe. An elderly pujari from the Nairobi temple named Tulasi Priya Devi Dasi visited Vrndavana and came down with pneumonia, which proved fatal. Although she had no family there, Aindra Dasa and other brahmacaris chanted at her passing, and the gurukula students and teachers took her body to the Yamuna for cremation.
These are a few examples of the many devotees who departed in Vrnda-vana. Most had enough notice of their impending demise to allow them to go to Vrndavana, but some, unaware of their impending death, were the beneficiaries of a special arrangement by Krsna.
Given the choice and the means, it seems unlikely that a devotee would choose to depart in a materialistic city in the West rather than a holy place like Vrndavana. Still, no one who saw my dear friend Kirtida Devi Dasi in her final days argued that she should have departed in Vrndavana, rather than Dallas, Texas.
Despite the onslaught of cancer, which ravaged her frail sixty-one-year-old body, Kirtida remained blissful and Krsna conscious through her final days, spent in a small room filled with pictures of Vrndavana. On her altar were many deities brought by local devotees. The home she departed from stood on Gurley Avenue, just across the street from the temple of Sri Sri Radha-Kalachandji, the Radha-Krsna deities installed by Srila Prabhupada in 1972.
Considering earlier events in Kirtida's life, that she chose to leave this world from anywhere but Vrndavana was surprising. She had nearly died from health problems in the late 1980s while working as a surgical nurse in Dallas hospitals. Devotee friends often repeated to her Srila Prabhupada's instruction that Vrndavana is the best place for the soul to depart from the body, and she began to resolve to spend her last days there.
As early as 199l, when doctors estimated that Kirtida had only six months to live, a devotee gave her a free plane ticket to India. She gratefully accepted it, seeing it as a sign of Krsna's sanction of her desire to go there and pass from this world. Soon she retired, bought a flat in Vrndavana, and spent six years there, always aware that each day could be her last. Remarkably, the spiritual atmosphere gave her new life. At first she survived in Vrndavana only by taking intravenous chemicals. But after praying at sacred Govardhana Hill, she found she was able to take solid food again for the first time in years.
Kirtida grew to truly love Vrndavana, and whatever energy or strength Krsna gave her, she gave back in the form of devotional service. She became a volunteer nurse at the gurukula dispensary and took visiting devotees on tours of the holy places. She even started walking barefoot on arduous pilgrimages, such as the twenty-six kilometer parikrama (circumambulation) of Govardhana Hill, while devotees half her age struggled to keep up. As years passed, Kirtida was no longer a visitor: she was a resident of the holy dhama (abode).
So why did she leave Vrndavana and die in the West? In 1997 her spiritual master, Tamal Krsna Goswami, began academic work in England, but after some time he was diagnosed to have cancer and underwent surgery in Dallas. Kirtida offered her assistance, even if it meant leaving her beloved shelter, Sri Vrndavana Dhama. For six months Kirtida offered medical service twenty-four-hours a day as Tamal Krsna Goswami recovered at the Dallas temple. Then, when he went back to England to resume his studies in less than full health, she offered to go there to assist him.
It was in England that Kirtida herself was found to have cancer. She underwent a major surgery in London that appeared to cure the cancer. She began recuperating in sunnier Dallas, where she could also get the audience of her beloved deities again and visit with her old devotee friends. But during this happy visit to Dallas came the bad news: tests revealed that her cancer had returned. She began treatment at a local hospital, but the cancer got worse. Finally she decided to stop all therapy, check out of the hospital, and prepare for death.
Tamal Krsna Goswami, who for years had instructed Kirtida to pass away in Vrndavana, suggested that she stay in Dallas rather than try to travel to India. One consideration was the heat: it is swelteringly hot in Vrndavana in May and June, and many devotees leave the dhama at that time. In Dallas she would have more devotees to chant with and give her support. And her departure could be instructive, since no elderly devotee had ever died in the community.
So it was that Kirtida Devi Dasi passed away in Dallas, surrounded by loving devotees, her spiritual master, and the continuous chanting of the holy names of Krsna.
Glorious Departures In The West
Many devotees have chosen to pass away in the West in Krsna consciousness. Jayananda Dasa, famed for his humble service attitude in the early days of ISKCON, died of leukemia in the Los Angeles temple community, serving Srila Prabhupada until almost the end by organizing the Rathayatra festival.
Other devotees who were unable to always practice Krsna consciousness strictly nonetheless were able to associate with devotees at the end of their lives. Hayagriva Dasa, who had been away from the devotees for some time, returned to New Vrindaban (in West Virginia) at the end of his life and benefited from the devotees' association in his last days. Sudama Dasa, once a personal servant of Srila Prabhupada and a preacher in Japan, had also drifted away from strict practice of Krsna consciousness. But when he learned he had a terminal illness, he moved to the devotee community in Los Angeles and passed away surrounded by well-wishing devotees chanting the holy names. He was covered with garlands from the deities Sri Sri Rukmini-Dvarakadhisa, and at the time of his passing, his mother was entreating, "Go back to Prabhupada, Sudama! Go back to Prabhupada!"
Upendra Dasa, also a former personal servant to Srila Prabhupada and a pioneer of Krsna consciousness in Australia, had left the association of devotees and was near death in San Francisco. Kurma Dasa, from Australia, raised money so that Upendra could pass away with his old devotee friends at the New Govardhan farm in Australia. Kurma describes the flight and ensuing events:
Upendra ended up going into a coma and almost dying on the plane. The United Airlines flight to Sydney was almost forced to make an emergency landing on the way. He stayed in intensive care in a major Sydney hospital for over two weeks. His health improved enough for him to move up to the farm, where many devotees looked after him until his departure a few months later. At the time of his passing, Jayadvaita Swami suddenly arrived on the farm. He was rushed up the hill to the house, where a resounding kirtana was in full force, and he took over leading the kirtana. As Upendra gazed at a picture of Gaura-Nitai held at the foot of his bed, he passed away peacefully.
When Ratnaranjini Devi Dasi, a senior devotee in Scotland, learned she had a brain tumor a few years ago, devotees booked her a flight to Delhi. But just two days before her scheduled departure, she had a seizure. Doctors changed her destination from holy Vrndavana to Glasgow's Western General Hospital. After another seizure, when everything seemed bleak, she told her husband, Balabhadra dasa (now Bhakti Balabha Puri Goswami), "The Lord is so merciful! All the time I was having the fit, all I could see was Vrndavana Syamasundara's face in my mind. He is so kind!" After this, Balabhadra helped his wife perform Vrndavana pilgrimage in her mind, meditating on each sacred landmark in perfect order. She was blissful in her final days, always chanting the Hare Krsna maha-mantra. A small book about her life and passing has recently been published.
Malati Devi Dasi describes how a Kunti Dasi, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada in New Vrindaban, accepted the news of death's approach:
Kunti could have gone to India. Although it would have been a difficult trip, there were devotees ready to pay the extra cost of arranging a bed for her on the flight. I reminded her that New Vrindaban is nondifferent from Vrndavana in India, and with that in mind she chose to remain. It was a glorious passing, and every member of our community benefited from the experience in so many diverse ways. Many served her personally, many came to chant again after a lengthy absence, many came to speak to devotees again after a long silence, and everyone saw the closeness of death as a reality. She who was the closest to the door of death remained calm, sanguine, and immersed in topics of Krsna, blissfully going about the process of exiting the physical body. She also kept up a tremendous sense of humor. She said that she had taken her second birth [spiritual initiation] in New Vrindaban and that she would leave her body here.
Sunita Devi Dasi, a senior disciple of Srila Prabhupada, was born in Mathura, near Vrndavana, but she passed away in the devotee community in Alachua, Florida. Her passing inspired an outpouring of support and emotion by a great number of devotee friends and acquaintances.
Savitri Priya Dasi, a seemingly ordinary housewife in London who took initiation from His Holiness Bhakti Caru Swami, received a tremendous boost from devotees who visited at her hospital and home in her final weeks. Many devotees from Bhaktivedanta Manor visited and poured affection on her daily. Interrupting his filming in America, her spiritual master came to London and gave her many valuable instructions. She received phone calls from Tamal Krsna Go-swami and visits from Sivarama Swami, Vipramukhya Swami, Radhanatha Swami, Radha-Govinda Swami, Maha-Visnu Swami, and many other devotees. Although she had planned to go to Mayapur or Vrndavana to die, travel was deemed too risky when her condition deteriorated rapidly. At the moment of her passing, Savitri Priya lifted her chanting beads to her forehead and chanted Hare Krsna.
At a talk at the ISKCON center at 26 Second Avenue in New York, Radhanatha Swami discussed the passing of his dear disciple Abhirama Tha-kura Dasa, a great devotee of Krsna and Srimati Radharani. Abhirama passed away in Mumbai in the association of his dear devotee associates and close to his worshipful deities, Sri Sri Radha-Gopinatha.
Namacarya Dasa, who chanted incessantly and lived a simple, Krsna conscious life, left this world peacefully and nobly in deepest China, surrounded by devotees.
Mahatma Dasa, of the Hare Krsna community in Dallas, explains how Kirtida's presence there in her final days benefited all the devotees: "Because there was so much hearing and chanting going on, we saw a tremendous change in the consciousness of the devotees. The whole community was thousands of times more Krsna conscious than ever before."
When a nurse named Jerry, assigned by a local agency to attend to Kirtida, arrived at the devotee home and saw forty devotees chanting sweetly, she was deeply moved. Within days, Jerry, a devout Christian, learned to chant on beads, took prasadam, wore a sari, and watched Krsna conscious videos all while taking care of Kirtida.
Bir Krsna Dasa Goswami, who guides a Krsna conscious community in North Carolina, notes, "It is very important for devotees to see realized Vaisnavas leaving their bodies. This is another consideration for having the devotee pass away close to his or her associates." He adds, "When I die, I wish to die near my deities of Radha-Golokananda in North Carolina, because my heart is dedicated to Them. I could not bear to be anywhere else. I consider where my deities are to be identical to Vrndavana. Or anywhere there is pure devotional service is identical to Vrndavana."
Flying Our Own Plane
In one sense, death is a very personal, internal, and solitary experience. We may die in Vrndavana or surrounded by loving devotees in the West. Or it could happen when we are alone at home, in a hospital at 1:00 A.M. with no devotees around, in a bus station, or on an airplane. There is no certainty exactly what our environment will be at that unknown time. But, our own consciousness or inner state of being will be there; that is certain. And ultimately that is under our control alone. Prabhupada made an analogy with the airplane: "So you go high in the sky. But if you are in danger, no other airplane can help you. You are finished. Therefore you must be a very careful pilot to take care of yourself."
In commenting on a verse in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.19.15), however, Prabhupada explained that the association of devotees significantly helped King Pariksit go back to Godhead. Even though he "sew his own plane," he also had assistance: "The atmosphere created by the presence of great devotees of the Lord on the bank of the Ganges and [my emphasis] Maharaja Pariksit's complete acceptance of the Lord's lotus feet were sufficient guarantee to the king for going back to Godhead."
The presence of devotees sadhu sanga helped King Pariksit go back to Godhead. Prabhupada considered it helpful when devotees chanted while he and others were departing from this world. He wrote a disciple, "You have done your duty at the last moment of your wife's life, so that she could hear them chanting."
Returning to the analogy of the airplane: Although a pilot controls the plane, who can deny that a pilot has assistance? He has associates on the ground (air traffic controllers) who give him constant guidance, and he has technicians and staff who help him on the plane as well. Similarly, devotees can help dying friends remember Krsna at the time of death.
A dramatic example of how a devotee can assist another at the time of death is that of Kesava Bharati Dasa, whose elderly mother passed away a few years ago in her home in Northern California. Kesava Bharati read the book Krsna to his mother, a devout Christian, to help her stay conscious. She began to enjoy hearing about Krsna and finally asked her son "Who is God?" When he replied that Krsna is the same God she had worshiped her entire life, she nodded that she understood. In her last days she received Vaisnava initiation by telephone from His Holiness Sivarama Swami. Although she was far from Vrndavana at the time of her passing, Vrndavana and its king and queen came to her by the association of her devotee son. This is not surprising, because Krsna is bhakta-vatsala, never failing in His affection for His devotees.
Radhika Desai, a devotee in Dallas who spent part of her youth in Vrndavana and chanted long hours for Kirtida in her final days, expressed how although Kirtida's departure did not take place in Vrndavana, Krsna could manifest Vrndavana in a materialistic city in the West for His devotee. She recounted two pastimes in which the Lord's mercy made it easier for His devotee. In the first, Sanatana Gosvami, a leading disciple of Lord Caitanya, was so old that it was difficult for him to go on the arduous circumambulation of Govardhana Hill. Lord Caitanya then told him that if he just went around the Govardhana sila (a sacred stone from the hill) in the Radha-Damodara temple seven times, that would be equal to walking the twenty-six kilometers around the hill. In the second, Krsna's parents, Nanda and Yasoda, wanted to visit the four chief holy places in the four directions of India as was the custom of pious people. But because His parents were old, Krsna summoned the holy places to Vrndavana.
Who can put a limit on Krsna's mercy?
Sarvabhauma Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Tamal Krsna Goswami, is based in Texas, but for the last few years he has been doing devotional service in England.