Spiritual Exchange: A Correspondence Leading to Krishna<

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"I spent many years thinking that voidism and impersonalism were desirable concepts and that the goals of pursuing truth in those ways were noble aspirations."

My journey to Krishna consciousness has been a long one, but it began to take formal shape through a correspondence with Satyaraja Dasa, a devotee scholar whose writings have helped me along the path. That exchange of emails occurred a year ago, and since then I have relished the most glorious twelve months of my life. Since then, I have asked Giriraja Swami to allow me the outstanding privilege of becoming his disciple, and I am happy to say that I am now moving in that direction.

When I first wrote to Satyaraja, I thanked him for his considerate article on Buddhists and Vaishnavas, clarifying ideas and misconceived notions I had carried with me for decades. I spent many years thinking that voidism (the idea that everything is nothing) and impersonalism (the notion that God is formless) were desirable concepts and that the goals of pursuing truth in those ways were noble aspirations.

When a close relationship went badly, I realized how adept I had become at wanting to block things out, at numbing myself to the very real feelings and perceptions of interpersonal relationship and things that mattered. The calamitous end of the relationship in my life made me cautious of acknowledging any others, including one with God. So I leaned toward the impersonal. But more, the pain of my break-up exposed me to the harsh truth that after years of meditation practice, I was nowhere. I pondered the nature of love and also realized that at an advanced age, in spite of a long-term marriage (which ended after twenty-five years) and four children, I essentially knew very little about love.

All for the Love of Krishna

The year before, a mere facsimile of the Gayatri mantra awakened me to Krishna’s loving mercy. After hearing an appealing version of this mantra from a popular recording artist, I began to chant it 108 times each morning. After a few months had passed, I awoke with the following thought: IT’S ALL FOR THE LOVE OF KRISHNA, even if I didn't know what that meant.

But the thought kept crossing my mind throughout the days to come. I believe it was chanting the mantra that helped me recognize, at least on a theoretical level, Lord Sri Krishna as the Paramatma within my heart, accompanying me wherever I go. So there I was, abandoning Buddhist aspirations and sitting in the emptiness I had been successfully trained to tolerate when Krishna’s far-reaching arms wrapped themselves around me and led me down the road to Govinda’s restaurant and temple in Tucson. There I met many delightful devotees, but especially Krishna Kumari, who has become a great friend, ally, educator, and mentor. And when she told me she was a friend of Satyaraja’s, well, I knew I was on the right path.

As part of this story I should say that I have a tiny yoga center in a tiny remote desert town. During my classes I began to interject: IT’S ALL FOR THE LOVE OF KRISHNA! Around this time, I began ordering art books, because Krishna’s form became more and more alluring to me. Because I’m a visual artist, B. G. Sharma’s renditions of Krishna and the book Gods in Print pulled me further along. In one of my exchanges with Satyaraja, I sent him one of my favorite Krishna prints. He replied, “Regarding the picture you sent me of Krishna with the blind bard, I wrote an article about this for BTG, and it ended up in my book The Agni and the Ecstasy. The article is entitled, 'Blind Visionaries: The Twin Lives of Bilvamangala Thakura and Surdas.'"

Visually I began to embrace Krishna’s beauty more and more. I then began to chant the maha-mantra, appreciating not only the pop recordings by Krishna Das and George Harrison, but also genuine kirtanas by ISKCON devotees. All of this further awakened me to the Paramatma within my heart.

A Visit to Govinda’s

My home and yoga center is seventy miles from Tucson. After a session with an acupuncturist in the city, I realized that Govinda’s Vegetarian Buffet was just around the corner. Pulling into the temple grounds, I felt reassured that my life was moving ever consistently in the right direction. Though I still suffered from a feeling of separateness and isolation, I wrote to Satyaraja again, and it was at that time that he replied to one of my letters saying, “You’re one of us now.” He said it with such confidence. Those five words were cause for deep rejoicing. I knew it was true. I was ready. The stage had been set; all the experiences I needed to realize the truth and miracles of Srila Prabhupada’s mission had occurred. I had finished my lessons in material living. Therefore, everything I read and heard went off in my head like rockets to the Vaikuntha planets.

But my heart was still downtrodden by the dissolution of my relationship; I knew I had to be proactive and come to understand my shortcomings, and that I needed to resolve certain things even as I progressed in Krishna consciousness. Somehow I understood that happiness is the condition of true spiritual life, and I wasn’t yet happy in the way I am now. I knew that spiritual life in itself can make one happy, but I also knew that my unresolved issues could be obstacles, preventing me from pursuing my path with the needed enthusiasm.

Planning a Trip to Vrindavan

I had been in India a few years prior with a Tibetan Rinpoche, and many years before that I had traveled with Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga, to Agra, Delhi, and Pune. My desire to return – but this time with some Krishna conscious background – fueled my life. I thought I would go back in a few years. But I began to feel a nudge to go to India very soon. I pushed it aside, saying, this is not the time to go, but the feeling wouldn’t go away. When I thought I had gotten it out of my system, the prodding would grow stronger.

So I began to investigate a trip to Vrindavan, the holy land of Lord Krishna. The inner push, guidance, or voice told me to go for my sixty-sixth birthday, which would occur on November 9. I knew nothing of Karttika, which occurs at that time. I was just listening to inner directives. After considerable soul-searching, I booked a five-week trip. In researching Vrindavan, I came across the Jiva Institute and thought I might stay there and view ISKCON from afar, wary of false teachers. I had no reason to think ISKCON teachers false, but because of my experience outside of ISKCON, I didn’t want to take any chances. Following the Buddhist and impersonalist paths for so long, where I found many sincere people but just as many frauds and charlatans, caused me to realize that I had built my house on the wrong street, and I didn’t want to do that again. That’s why I was cautious.

I contacted Jaya Devi, the assistant to Jiva Institute’s guru, Satyanarayana. She replied that lodging would be available for me. I saw she had written a small book, From Taj to Vraj, and I also noticed that Satyaraja had endorsed her book. My world was getting smaller, and I felt certain I was on the right track. I made the arrangements.

Shortly afterward, however, His Holiness Giriraja Swami came to Govinda’s in Arizona to give brahminical initiation to Ananta Dasa. There were only a few of us around, as the summer heat there can be intolerable. Sandamini Dasi, the temple founder and president, was in India, and the evening program was sparsely attended. When I finished dinner, I saw that Giriraja Swami was in the temple room with only one other person. I took the opportunity to introduce myself, and I benefited from a delightful conversation with him. I told him I would be going to Vrindavan, and he asked me questions about the nature of my visit. Looking back, I am embarrassed by my ignorance, but we have to begin somewhere, yes?

The evening drive home through the high Sonoran Desert is often exhilaratingly beautiful. That night the drive home was particularly wondrous. I had a happy heart! I knew Giriraja Swami was the real deal. I loved his sincerity and humor, and his quiet demeanor. Later on, when I began to read the Srimad-Bhagavatam I also knew that if I were to go further within Prabhupada’s mission, I would have to have a spiritual master. At first I didn’t understand the term spiritual master because I was not ready to understand the relevance and importance of disciplic succession, or the all-important lineage that bona fide gurus come in. But again, I believe surrender comes in different ways, at different times, to different people. For me, the time seemed right.

Request to Become a Disciple

I emailed Giriraja Swami with my awareness and request to become his disciple. Guru Maharaja replied that if I were serious about my request, I would have to change my plans for India and associate with him before leaving. I will never forget that moment when the world as I had previously known it ceased. I knew I had to respond appropriately. I knew I had stepped into an accelerated time and a true spiritual relationship. Since my divorce so many years ago, I had been on my own. Now, I was required to put my life, once again, in someone else’s hands – but this time it was someone who was spiritually evolved and fully trustworthy.

Standing outside on the doorstep, I realized that moment of exchange with Giriraja Swami was the most serious moment to date. My travel plans were already made, house sitters lined up, tickets purchased, but upon realizing the impact of this decision and saying yes to His Holiness, my true spiritual life began and I made an about-face. The physical sensation of spiritually aligning myself correctly was visceral.

I was to meet with him in Dallas for three days before leaving for Vrindavan. Guru Maharaja then arranged for me to attend the retreats sponsored by VIHE (Vrindavan Institute for Higher Education). Not only was I able to attend these amazing sessions, but I also stayed at the Kirtan Ashram for women and associated with the brilliant Vishakha Prabhu. The Jiva Institute was no longer in my future.

But I can honestly say that my journey down the Vaishnava path all began with Satyaraja, whose association was so valuable to me. He helped me to understand why Buddhist and impersonalist practices may have some merit regarding detachment and discipline but fall short in terms of true spiritual realization. Once I became aware of my relational situation with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, my life went into overdrive, and miracles continue to occur daily. Satyaraja’s encouraging letters led me to Srila Prabhupada’s lotus feet. And I thank him forever for his kind, intelligent, and compassionate sincerity. In fact, I hope to return his service by this retelling of my story here in BTG, which I hope, in turn, will help others put aside impersonal voidism and know the glory of a relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

I also wish to thank everyone who has encouraged me and helped me along the way, especially Sandamini Dasi. As time passed and another year went by before my little story found its way into BTG, I also finished writing a book entitled Up the Ladder, now in editing. The book details the journey a bit more, taking me up to my impending initiation by His Holiness Giriraja Swami, and proves it is never too late to come to the lotus feet of the Supreme. Hare Krishna.

Donna Lee is now initiated as Danakeli Devi Dasi.