The Heart of a Vaishnava

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An appreciation of the extraordinarily devoted life of Srila Prabhupada’s beloved disciple Yamuna Devi Dasi (1942–2011).

Sitting on the front porch of her Oregon home, Joan Campanella was delighting in the Pacific thunderstorm drenching the coastline when, with surprise, she noted the mailman on his rounds despite the foul weather. Bent against the wind, rain dripping from his long hair, the mailman walked up her porch steps, reached into his waterproof mailbag, and handed her a blue aerogram from her sister, Jan, who had recently gone to New York City with her boyfriend, Michael. Jan wrote that she and Michael had met a Swami in New York and the Swami was going to marry them. She asked Joan to come for the wedding. Soon Joan was off to New York.

New York City, 1966

Joan: Little did I know what kind of wedding it would be. All I knew was that they had received the names Mukunda and Janaki from a swami. When I saw the Swami he was sitting beside the window in his front room, bathed in sunlight, distributing prasada to the devotees who were sitting around him. Mukunda introduced me, and Swamiji offered me some prasada. Because I was a devotee of macrobiotics, this prasada was very unpalatable to me, yet this radiant and beautiful person was eager for me to take it. I took it, but in my mind I decided this would be the last time I would have lunch with the devotees. Then Swamiji put his hand into a big pot with crystallized sugar syrup sticking to the outside and pulled up a huge, round, dripping gulabjamun. I said, “Oh, no. I am so full I couldn’t take any.” He said, “Take, take.” He made me take it. When I finished the gulabjamun I was fully convinced that this would be the last time I would ever come there.

San Francisco, 1967

After her ten-day trip to New York, Joan returned to Oregon along with Mukunda and Janaki. Swamiji had asked the newly married couple to try to start a Krishna conscious temple on the West Coast, and en route they picked up two old friends, Sam Speerstra (later initiated as Syamasundara Dasa) and his girlfriend, Melanie Nagel (Malati Devi Dasi), as well as Joan's boyfriend, Roger Siegel. In Oregon’s quiet forests these three couples began chanting Hare Krishna together and Joan spent hours studying the first three volumes of the Srimad-Bhagavatam that Swamiji had written and brought with him from India. Before long the small group started a temple in San Francisco and soon Swamiji joined them. Attending his lectures, kirtanas, and informal gatherings, tasting the depth of his wisdom, the purity of his love, and the beauty of the Krishna conscious philosophy he presented and lived, Joan was captivated. She decided to become Swamiji's disciple.

On initiation, Joan received the name Yamuna Devi Dasi, and Roger, initiated at the same time, became Gurudasa. The next day Swamiji married them and explained how husband and wife should keep Krishna in the center of their lives, serve Him, and assist one another.

Yamuna: When Swamiji went on his daily morning walks anyone could go with him. So I was walking with him one morning and I said, “Swamiji, do you think sometime you could allow us to go to Vrindavan with you?” He turned around and said, “Yes, I will take you to Vrindavan one day, I will show you Vrindavan on foot.” I thought that was the most hopeful thing I had ever heard in my life. I was just waiting for that time to come.

By the time Swamiji left San Francisco in April, he had introduced Yamuna to traditional Vaishnava cooking, prasada distribution, singing devotional songs, and deity worship. Yamuna, an exceptionally sincere student, took up these devotional activities with care, attention, and love.

In May, Yamuna and Gurudasa received their first letter from Swamiji, sent from New York: “I have very good appreciation for both of you, Gurudasa and Yamuna. You are two good souls, now you have combined. Live peacefully, chant Hare Krishna, and be happy in your life.” (May 5, 1967)

The next month, Swamiji suffered a stroke and asked all his disciples to petition Lord Krishna with the prayer “My dear Lord, my spiritual master has not yet completed his work. Please protect him.” In the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury temple, Yamuna and the other devotees stayed up all night praying and chanting. They later received word from Swamiji: “Due to your sincere and ardent prayer, Krishna has saved my life.” To recuperate, Swamiji returned to India, and from Vrindavan wrote to Gurudasa: “Regarding Yamuna, your wife, I’ve got a very great regard, because she is a very sincere girl. I’m sure you should feel fortunate to have such a wife. Please offer my blessings to her, and always cooperate with your wife in the service of the Lord. You'll be happy eternally.” (August 24, 1967)

Inspired to please Swamiji and Lord Krishna, in 1967 the San Francisco devotees celebrated the Western world’s first Rathayatra. They reported to Swamiji: “It was wonderful! It was a beautiful day. The hippies loved it, and so many joined the procession that the parade had to move slowly.” Yamuna was on the cart, sometimes playing the harmonium and singing over the loudspeakers and at other times distributing flowers and cut fruits to people in the crowd.

His health restored, Swamiji continued to enhance his followers’ service to Krishna.

Yamuna: The very first decoration that was given to Lord Jagannatha was given by Swamiji in December of 1967 when he returned from India. He explained that we could make clothes for Lord Jagannatha, and he asked for volunteers to sew. Harsharani and I volunteered. So for the 1968 Rathayatra, Jagannatha, Subhadra, and Balarama were in red satin, and we got some wonderful garlands of fragrant flowers for their red turbans.

London, 1968

Swamiji had complete faith in Krishna and faith that his disciples’ bold, enthusiastic, and confident preaching would establish Krishna consciousness in Europe just as it had in North America. At Swamiji’s request, the same three couples who had started the San Francisco temple—Mukunda and Janaki, Syamasundara and Malati (now with their infant daughter, Sarasvati), and Gurudasa and Yamuna—went to London.

In London, with little money, living as separate couples in different parts of the city, and without tangible progress even after months of trying, the six of them sometimes became discouraged and talked of going back to America. Swamiji’s letters to them, however, gave them the inspiration and strength to continue. They’d read and re-read his words and dream of him joining them.

Yamuna: I had to move to a Jamaican ghetto, the top floor of one of the buildings. It was awful. Day after day after day I would sit and listen to a tape of Swamiji singing. It was a beautiful tape he had just done in Los Angeles. And I would pray to him, “Please come. Please come.”

Swamiji wrote to Yamuna: “Your appreciation of Srimad-Bhagavad-gita and Teachings of Lord Chaitanya is so nice. Please continue to study and preach in this way to all you meet. I am very happy to learn that you are going to various homes and lecture halls and holding kirtana and delivering lectures from these transcendental literatures. This is very nice. And if you continue in this way, gradually so many people will be attracted, and our London center will be very soon successful.” (October 3, 1968)

The six of them repeatedly tried to contact the Beatles, and after many failed attempts, in the middle of a winter of struggle, Syamasundara finally met George Harrison. George, searching for spirituality, was attracted to the devotees and offered to produce a record on the Apple label with the devotees singing.

On the day of the recording the devotees assembled at EMI studios on Abbey Road. Yamuna applied Vaishnava tilaka to the foreheads of the recording technicians, and then, with Paul McCartney and his wife, Linda, operating the control console, the session began. George played organ and Mukunda played mridanga. Yamuna, praying to Prabhupada for spiritual strength, sang the lead, with Syamasundara backing her and the other voices blended in a chorus. Afterward George said, “This is going to be big.” In a short time the song was on the top of the charts, a smash hit.

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Eager to fulfill his spiritual master’s desire to bring Krishna conscious to Europe and drawn by his disciples’ dedication, Swamiji joined them in England. On the invitation of Beatle John Lennon he stayed with his disciples in John’s Tittenhurst Park estate. There, after his daily morning walk on the estate, Swamiji would sit alone and sing prayers, accompanying himself on the harmonium. Yamuna would sit silently on the stairs outside his room, listening and crying in appreciation. One morning when he’d finished singing, Swamiji called her. She went into his room, and he asked her what she was doing.

“I’m listening, Swamiji. Your singing is beautiful.”

“Do you want to come in and listen?”

“Yes, very much.”

“You can play drum and I will play harmonium. Purushottama can play karatalas.

For several mornings Yamuna recorded Swamiji singing a prayer by Narottama Dasa Thakura called Hari Hari Bifale. Swamiji explained the meaning: “O Lord Hari, I have wasted my life. Although I have taken a rare human birth, like a miser I have not served Radha and Krishna and thus I have knowingly drunk poison.”

Swamiji then said, “Yamuna Prabhu, what is your favorite prayer?”

“I like the Sikshashtaka prayers.”

“That’s very nice.”

“Swamiji, what is your favorite prayer?”

“This prayer, Hari Hari Bifale.”

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Before Swamiji had arrived in England, the devotees had acquired a building at Bury Place in central London. When Syamasundara completed the renovation needed to turn it into a temple, Swamiji, now addressed by the more appropriate name Srila Prabhupada, installed beautiful white marble deities of Radha and Krishna.

Yamuna: This was a real growth period in London. Just as there was a burgeoning of youth interested in spiritual life and breaking out of the mold of the ’50s and ’60s in the United States, this happened in London at the same time. We attracted people mostly through the holy name. Prabhupada’s arrival in 1969 was the catalyst. We were the seeds being planted, and he was the blossoming creeper of Lord Chaitanya’s love. And when he came, everything ignited with the thunder and voracity and speed of a firestorm.

From the San Francisco days, Prabhupada had encouraged Yamuna to train newcomers in Krishna consciousness. He’d written her: “I am very glad to learn that you are training the two boys in Krishna consciousness. . . . You are a very nice girl and I have got full faith in you and I wish that you can develop this line of service to the society.” (May 23, 1968) And in London, Prabhupada’s desire that she train others continued: “I am very glad to learn that your training program is going on and the result is that now men are trained for opening and maintaining new branches. This is very encouraging to me.” (July 26, 1970)

Prabhupada also personally taught Yamuna deity worship and was pleased with her service: “Regarding our London Math at 7 Bury Place, it was very successfully opened and the seva puja operations are going on very, very nicely under the care of Srimati Yamuna Devi.” (January 21, 1970)

Based on Yamuna’s recommendations Srila Prabhupada accepted new disciples: “I received [Monique’s, Evelyne’s, and Joelle’s] respective letters and recommendations of initiation from Yamuna Devi, and I am sending the beads by separate mail duly chanted.” (February 8, 1970)

Also by letter Srila Prabhupada acknowledged Yamuna’s preaching in London: “I was so glad to learn that you have defeated four of the whips of the Rama Krishna Mission by giving quotation from the Bhagavad-gita.” (February 10, 1970) And he wrote, “If you carry on your service to Radha and Krishna according to the prescribed rules, your love of Krishna will increase more and more; this you are seeing practically by the grace of Krishna.” (January 16, 1970)

India, 1970

Yamuna: The two weeks we spent in Bombay were two of the most powerful weeks in my life because at this time Srila Prabhupada allowed us to taste kirtana in Lord Krishna’s Bharatavarsha. The center of our activity every day was nagar sankirtana. Our kirtana party was like a family, a tight family. We were shoulder to shoulder, just like godbrothers and godsisters, with so much affection and respect for each other. We felt that Srila Prabhupada was our father and we were his spiritual children. Kirtana was the life-giving aspect of our existence.

From Bombay Srila Prabhupada took his disciples throughout India to preach. One evening, when their train pulled into the New Delhi station for a twenty-minute stopover, a Mr. D. D. Gupta from Delhi, whom Prabhupada had corresponded with, met Prabhupada on the train. He wanted to help the preaching and invited Prabhupada to stay in Delhi. Prabhupada already had programs scheduled in Bombay but told Gurudasa, “This man is inviting us. Get down and see what you can do.” The train was to leave immediately; there was no time for discussion. Gurudasa agreed, and he and Yamuna and four brahmacharis got off the train to try to start an ISKCON temple in Delhi. Her few belongings beside her, Yamuna offered obeisances outside Prabhupada’s window and prayed for his blessings as the train pulled away.

From Bombay Prabhupada wrote to Gurudasa and at the end of the letter added, “My dear Yamuna, please accept my blessings. Practically you are the leader of the party. Please let me know how things are going. Hope you are all well. ACB” (November 7, 1970)

In their attempts to get things going in Delhi, Yamuna and Gurudasa met many Indian leaders, and Prabhupada wrote to them, “I am so glad to know that you are seeing all the MPs and officials in the government service and if you can make each of them a member of our Society it will be a great service. Try to do it to your best capacity. I am also very much pleased that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is now personally well known to you. For your presence only she has given special order for our devotees stay in Delhi. Certainly this is a good achievement.” (October 17, 1971)

Later, Gurudasa and Yamuna agreed to remain in Vrindavan to help build a temple there, and Prabhupada wrote them, “If you can construct a nice temple in Vrindavan for me in this way, I shall be eternally grateful. . . . Because you are sincere devotees of Krishna, He is giving you all strength and intelligence how to do it.” (December 19, 1972)

And to Gurudasa Srila Prabhupada wrote separately, “I am confident I have entrusted this Vrindavan project, which is one of the most important of our ISKCON, to the right persons, namely, yourself, your good wife, Yamuna Devi, and Kshirodakashayi Prabhu. . . . So far your question regarding women, I have always accepted the service of women without any discrimination.” (May 13 and 26, 1972)

Renunciation, 1975

In 1975 Gurudasa took sannyasa. On the occasion Srila Prabhupada said, “Now he is Gurudasa Swami . . . . I got him married. His wife is also a great devotee, Yamuna. So now Yamuna has taken a very nice path. She has also become sannyasini. Although there is no sannyasini for women, but she has voluntarily taken. She is doing very nicely; therefore I advised her husband, 'You also take sannyasa.'" (July 21, 1975)

Yamuna and her friend Dinatarine began worshiping small Radha-Krishna deities Srila Prabhupada named Sri Sri Radha Banabehari. Prabhupada instructed his two devoted disciples, “You can attract the fair sex community. . . . If you can organize all these girls they will get a transcendental engagement and may not be allured to the frustration of life. Your engagement should be chanting and worship of the deity. . . . It is better that you don't make a large program. Remain a humble program.” (January 13, 1976) Yamuna and Dinatarine reported to him, “We have taken your instructions very seriously . . . living a pure simple life in the full fire of Krishna consciousness. We think this is most beneficial and are factually tasting the results of this simple life."

Srila Prabhupada’s Beloved Disciple

In 1971 Srila Prabhupada had told Yamuna, “Don’t think that physical presence is the only way to associate with the spiritual master. You try to hear.”

Yamuna: For me this was a tremendous learning moment. Up until then, I couldn’t conceive of being separated from Prabhupada or that he would die. But at this time I realized that there would be a point in the future when I would be physically separated from him and I would have to come to terms with that.

From the time of her initiation until her passing in 2011, Yamuna Devi Dasi followed Srila Prabhupada’s instructions with abiding faith, daily serving Krishna with exceptional expertise and deep devotion, profoundly relishing Krishna’s holy names through kirtana and japa, and absorbing herself in Srila Prabhupada’s books and recorded words. During decades of devoted service, her love for Prabhupada and his gift of Krishna consciousness intensified, transcending time and circumstance, and she sincerely extended that love to all, especially young people. In her presence, the joy and wonder of faithfully following Srila Prabhupada’s instructions made Srila Prabhupada’s presence palpable. People throughout the world have been and continue to be transcendentally inspired by Srila Prabhupada’s devoted servant Yamuna Devi Dasi. And the hearts of those who were close to her continue to reverberate with her humility, affection, cheerfulness, incredible creativity, loving encouragement, and the gratitude she felt for every aspect of bhakti.

***

"Your appreciation of the Rathayatra festival and realizing the beauty of kirtana and Jagannatha as well as the magnanimity of Lord Chaitanya in His sublime teachings, are some of the wonderful things that I mark in your progressive advancement in Krishna consciousness. Please try to continue this attitude and you will be more and more happy in your life, and at the end, get entrance into the association of Krishna." (Letter from Srila Prabhupada to Yamuna Devi Dasi, July 16, 1968)

About the Author: 

Vishakha Devi Dasi

Vishakha (pronounced Vi-shA-khA) Devi Dasi received an Associate of Applied Science degree with honors from Rochester Institute of Technology and shortly afterwards published her first book, Photomacrography: Art and Techniques. In 1971 she traveled to India, where she met His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, read his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, and eventually became his student. She traveled with and photographed Bhaktivedanta Swami and his students in India, Europe, and the United States.