Diary of a Traveling Preacher
On March 7, I flew from South Africa to London, where I took one day of rest before traveling on to San Francisco to begin a five-week tour of our ISKCON temples in America. In London, I took a hotel room near the airport in order to get sufficient rest before my flight the next day. I was joined by my disciple, Sri Thakur Mahasaya, who kindly assisted me during the layover.
Before I left South Africa, one devotee had mistakenly dyed my only two sets of cloth a dark red. Poor Sri Thakur Mahasaya spent most of our short stay in the hotel repeatedly washing the clothes in the bathtub to try to soften the color. However, when he brought the clothes to me just before I left for my flight, to my horror I saw they had turned bright pink! Even the hotel employees couldn't keep from smiling as they saw me.
Unfortunately, the light mood didn't last long. The phone rang just as we were leaving the hotel room. A devotee called to inform me that my god-brother, Tribuvanath prabhu, from London, had just been diagnosed with cancer of the stomach and given only six weeks to live. As always in such situations, the news came as a shock to me. Tribuvanath prabhu, who came to Krsna consciousness in the late 1960s, has been a brahmacari most of his life in ISKCON, and has always been one of my favorite devotees. Although our association has been limited through the years, I have always admired his bright face, blissful smile, and taste for the holy names. Like myself, he has focused mainly on organizing big festivals throughout Europe and Africa for much of his career as a devotee.
Hearing of his imminent departure made me realize that if he can go, I can also die at any moment. The fact is, we never really expect we're going to die. If we did, we would take full advantage of each and every minute in devotional service. I thought to myself, "When will I actually become serious about Krsna consciousness and deal with the lust, anger and greed within my heart? When will that day come when I will chant the holy names with genuine feeling? When will my compassion for all living entities manifest, and with a lowly heart I will go out to preach the divine command?" I pray that Tribuvanath prabhu's condition will be the catalyst that finally manifests these changes within my heart. I realize that time is short. As Srila Prabhupada said to his disciples who surrounded his bed the last days of his life: "Don't think this won't happen to you!"
"Friend, when you will die? Do you know? Do not even infants sometimes die unexpectedly? With clear intelligence, without attachment to the body and senses, and without stopping to think, run to Vrindavan!" [Vrindavan Mahimamrta, Introduction, Text 78]
Sri Prahlad and Rukmini Priya joined me at Heathrow Airport for the flight to America. Because I went alone to South Africa, we had been separated for 10 days. I was overjoyed to see them again. It's not easy to travel alone.
Canayaka Pandit recommends that one travel with others:
"Religious austerities should be practiced alone, study by two and singing by three. A journey should be undertaken by four, agriculture by five and war by many together."
[Niti Sastra, Chapter 4, Text 12]
From a mundane view, I was flying home. I was born and raised in San Francisco before joining the Krsna consciousness movement in 1970. But there's nothing left for me there now. Both my parents have passed away, and my brothers and sisters are scattered throughout the country. Nevertheless, as I looked out of the plane window, memories of my childhood came to mind, bringing with them sentiments not worthy of my attention. I quickly caught myself and came back to reality, remembering the written words of my spiritual master - reflections on his own family members with the passing of time:
Where have my affectionate
Father and mother gone now?
And where are all my elders and other relatives,
Who were my own folk?
Who will give me news of them now?
I ask you - tell me who?
All that is left of this so-called family
Is a list of their names.
As the froth upon the sea water
Arises for a moment and then subsides,
The play of maya's worldly illusion
Is exactly like that.
No one is actually a mother or father,
A family member or relative.
Everyone is just like foam on the sea water,
Remaining in view for only a few moments.
But all of us are actually relatives,
O brothers, on the platform of pure spirit soul.
These eternal relationships are not tinged
With the temporary delusions of maya.
The Supreme Lord is Himself
The ultimate soul of everyone.
In their eternal relationship to Him,
Everyone in the universe is equal.
[Srila Prabhupada, Vrindavan Bhajan, circa 1958]
Srila Prabhupada writes that no one is our "mother or father," but rather "everyone in the universe is equal." In other words, all of us are equal as brothers and sisters, due to the fact that we have one common father, God. A devotee of the Lord takes every opportunity to remind all conditioned souls of this fact. Therefore, although a devotee may renounce the idea that he is part of a particular family, society or nation, he is not at all adverse to helping even his own "mother and father" in Krsna consciousness. In fact, simply having a devotee in one's family benefits that family immensely.
Srila Bhaktisiddanta Saraswati once said:
"When a great saint, a pure devotee, appears in a family, then his ancestors and descendants for a hundred generations each are elevated. When a devotee of middle stature (madhyam bhagavat) appears in a family, then his ancestors and descendants for fourteen generations each are elevated. When a neophyte devotee appears in a family, then his ancestors and descendants for three generations each are elevated." [Srila Prabhupader Upadesamrta - Quotes of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati ]
Personally, I tried my best to help my own mother in spiritual life.
Unfortunately, throughout most her life she never showed the slightest interest in religion. I once asked her if she believed in God, and she replied, "Something may be out there." Whenever I visited her we would often debate the existence of the soul, life after death, karma, etc. Throughout the years I continued cultivating that little "something" in her heart by sending her Srila Prabhupada's books, which invariably ended up in a pile at the back of her garage collecting grease and dust.
A few years ago she telephoned me late one night. It was an unusual hour to call, and I was surprised to hear from her. She began the conversation by asking if I would take her to Vrindavan, India! I was shocked. I thought, "Mother wants to go to Vrindavan, to the land of Krsna's birth! What is this? How does she even know what Vrindavan is?"
But she insisted and wanted to know when we could go. Although I was intrigued at the prospect of taking my mother to Vrindavan, because it was late (and I was very tired), I told her I'd call her back early the next morning and we could discuss the matter in detail. I woke up refreshed the next day, and after my shower excitedly dialed her phone number. My brother answered.
I said, "Pete, can I speak to Mom?"
There was a prolonged silence, and I sensed something was wrong. Finally, his voice choked with emotion, he replied, "Mom passed away last night."
I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. Once again, the reality of death was staring me in the face.
I said to my brother, "What happened? I talked to Mom only last night!"
He said, "I know. She's been battling cancer for six months. She didn't want to tell you."
Collecting myself, I said, "Cancer! Did she say anything at the end?"
"Yes, she did," he replied. "She said, 'Don't lament for me! I'm not this body. I'm eternal spirit soul. I'll never die. I'm going to Krsna!' With those words on her lips, she passed away."
I was stunned. My mother, the intellectual who never went to church, who never inquired about God (who debated His very existence), was "going to Krsna!" I couldn't believe she had said such a thing.
I said to my brother, "But how is it possible Mom said those things at death?"
He replied, "When Mom learned she had cancer and was going to die, a strange transformation came over her. She became restless and unsettled. She began asking about you, wanting to know where you were and what you were doing. She had an intense desire to meet with you, to speak with you. But when I suggested calling you she'd always say, 'No, don't bother him now. We'll contact him later.'
"One morning I went out to the garage to empty the garbage, and I found her going through all those books you had sent her during the past 25 years. She looked up at me and asked me to carry them into the house. That afternoon she carefully dusted them off. For the last five months she just sat in her rocking chair reading those books. Sometimes she'd underline a certain passage or quote that had particular relevance or importance to her. She also contacted your tape ministry in London and ordered all your lecture tapes. She'd listen to them on her headphones, rocking back and forth in her armchair looking at your picture which she kept on the table nearby. She must have listened to at least three a day!
"Gradually her condition deteriorated, but she wasn't afraid. I think there was something in those books that made her fearless. Then last night she sensed she was going to die. She told me to call you. Her last request was that you take her to a place called Vrindavan."
I put the phone down and cried - not out of mundane sentiment or attachment, but in appreciation that my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, had extended his mercy to my mother and delivered her from material existence.
I went home for the memorial service and arranged her estate. Just before I was leaving to return to Europe, my brother and sister approached me and asked what they should do with her ashes. Remembering my last conversation with her, I smiled and took the ashes with me. Several weeks later one of my disciples placed them in the sacred waters of the Yamuna River in Vrindavan, India. I had fulfilled my mother's last request to me, a request that I pray will also be on my lips the day I leave this mortal frame!
"May the land of Sri Vrindavan where Subala and the other wonderful cowherd boys, who are all dear friends of Sri Krsna, play, where Lalita and the other splendidly beautiful young gopis, who are all filled with love for Srimati Radharani, enjoy transcendental bliss, and where Sri Sri Radha-Krsna thirst to enjoy wonderful transcendental amorous pastimes day and night, become manifest in my heart."
[Vrindavan Mahimamrta, Introduction, Text 15]