By Caitanya Carana Dasa
A retired college principal dedicated to delivering Krishna’s teachings passes away in the most favorable atmosphere for remembering the Lord.
“If Srila Prabhupada could go door to door distributing Back to Godheads in the burning heat of Delhi despite his advanced age, why can’t I serve similarly in my own small way?”
This thought galvanized Bhagavan Malwadkar, a retired college principal in Maharashtra. He hand delivered Back to Godhead (BTG) magazines to 170 subscribers in 10 cities, going to each of them month after month for thirteen years. He served the recipients of the magazine not just as a humble subscription deliverer, but also as a venerable spiritual mentor. Thus Baladeva Dasa (his initiated name) offered the tireless labor of the later half of his life to Krishna’s service. He had also offered the best fruits of the earlier half of his life – including a lion’s share of his savings, as well as two of his sons, who serve as brahmacharis in ISKCON. In reciprocation for his service, Krishna arranged for both of Baladeva Dasa’s sons to be by his side chanting the holy names as he breathed his last on March 23, 2014, in the auspicious morning hours.
A Principal with Principles
This remarkable life journey began in the pious land of Solapur, Maharashtra, close to Pandharpur, the abode of Vitthala, a celebrated, immensely loved form of Krishna. From childhood, Bhagavan grew up hearing the pastimes of Krishna and relishing the devotional songs of exalted Marathi saints such as Tukarama Maharaja. An excellent student, Bhagavan chose to dedicate his life to education, becoming an exemplary teacher at the Chintamani Vidya Mandir, a college in Pune.
Malwadkar Sir, as the students called him, soon became respected for his competence at teaching, his concern for his students, and his courage of conviction in maintaining his incorruptible integrity. In a country where education is worshiped with an almost religious frenzy, and where educational failure is a social stigma, students and parents often seek good grades by any means, including bribing or even threatening teachers. Amidst it all, Malwadkar Sir stood tall, remaining unfazed and uncompromising even when goons sent by disgruntled parents of underperforming students threatened him.
Once, when the disconsolate mother of a failed student sent her gold bangles with her son, asking that he be passed, Malwadkar Sir gently but firmly told the boy, “You don’t have to give me anything. Just give your studies more time. And if you have any difficulties in your studies, I will give you more time.”
Due to his sterling qualities and his commitment to serving the student community, he went on to become the principal of the college till he took voluntary retirement in 2002 at the age of fifty-four, wanting to devote himself more to spiritual growth.
“A Good Spiritual Institution” Becomes “My Spiritual Calling”
On the home front, he married a pious lady, Shailini Upale (who later became Sura-priya Devi Dasi), and had three sons: Prashant, Siddhnath, and Santosh. In the housing complex where he lived, Malwadkar would organize kirtana programs every Saturday evening, inviting different devotional groups to sing.
Siddhnath was my classmate at the Government College of Engineering, Pune, and was introduced to Krishna consciousness in 1997 through the weekly Bhagavad-gita program conducted at my hostel room. Both he and his younger brother Santosh became immensely inspired by the spiritual wisdom of the Gita and desired to dedicate their lives to sharing it by becoming brahmacharis. They told their father of their aspiration. Many fathers – perhaps most – would have been infuriated or devastated, unable to tolerate the idea of their son’s becoming the antithesis of their dreams: a shaven-headed robe-clad monk. In contrast, Malwadkar replied with equanimity.
“As a father I am sad, but as a spiritualist I am happy. And if doing this makes you happy, that will be my happiness.”
As a responsible father, he had already visited ISKCON when his sons started going there and had endorsed it as “a good spiritual institution.” From that level of distant appreciation, ISKCON rose, in his eyes, to the level of his spiritual calling when he read the condensed biography of its founder, Srila Prabhupada. The tireless, fearless, and peerless struggles of Srila Prabhupada to share krishna-bhakti all over the world became a life-transforming inspiration for Malwadkar. Becoming committed to serious spiritual practice, he soon received initiation from His Holiness Lokanath Swami, receiving the name Baladeva Dasa.
Personalized and Personal BTG Distribution
Inspired by Srila Prabhupada’s BTG distribution in Delhi, Baladeva Dasa took up – as his life’s mission – the distribution of BTG’s Marathi avatar, Jau Devachya Gava. He distributed thousands of BTGs not only to the hundreds of people he knew from his earlier life as a principal, but also to hundreds of strangers attracted by his gentle and dignified presentation. Additionally, he felt inspired to make annual subscriptions for BTG so that people would have a regular monthly connection with Krishna. Within a short period, he made hundreds of subscribers. But the infamous unreliability of the Indian postal system made the delivery of the BTGs erratic. Greater than the subscribers’ dissatisfaction at not getting their money’s worth was Baladeva Dasa’s dissatisfaction at not being able to keep his promise to share Krishna’s magazine regularly. In his typical roll-up-your-sleeves get-on-with-the-job attitude, he came up with a bold quintessentially do-it-yourself solution: “I will deliver BTG each month myself.”
That many of his subscribers lived in cities several hours away from Pune was no deterrent. That he would have to spend his own pension money to finance his distribution journeys was no deterrent. That he would have to travel in noisy, stuffy, bumpy buses for several days each month was no deterrent. Month after month, for over a dozen years, he hand delivered BTG to 170 subscribers. For most of them, he became a loved elderly relative and a revered messenger of Krishna. He continued his personalized and personal distribution till nearly the last year of his life – even after a deadly abdominal cancer eroded his vitals, and even after a major surgery sapped his remaining energy reserves.
A Family United Spiritually Amidst Calamity
Over a decade before cancer afflicted him, it took another toll in his family. In 2001, his wife was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer that had spread through the bones all over her body. He and his sons gallantly stood by her side in the last leg of her life, doing everything possible to assist her in departing with dignity in Krishna consciousness.*
Following India’s time-honored tradition of focusing on God in the later part of life, Baladeva Dasa had started minimizing his worldly entanglements, even before he came to know about his cancer. He sold both his houses and distributed the money equally among his three sons. As two of his sons were brahmacharis (Siddhnath had become Sankirtana Ananda Dasa, and Santosh had become Sundara Vara Dasa), he gave their share as a donation to the Pune temple. Wanting to live in the temple’s sanctified atmosphere and attend mangala-arati daily, he started staying in the temple’s crowded dormitory, as the small temple had no private room to offer him. Although this was a great austerity for him, given his advanced age and frail health, he accepted it gracefully and gratefully, focusing his mind on Krishna and preparing for the final exam of death.
During Baladeva Dasa’s last months, Sundara Vara Dasa took off from most of his services as a senior brahmachari at ISKCON Pune and focused on taking care of Baladeva. To offer better care than what was materially possible in the temple and spiritually possible in a hospital, Sundara Vara arranged for his father’s stay at the hospital-cum-home of Niraj Kamthe, an Ayurvedic doctor (Ayurvedacharya) and devotee, in Saswad, a suburb near Pune. Niraj Kamthe arranged one room with the necessary medical facilities for Baladeva Dasa and another for his caregiver. In the last month of Baladeva’s life, Sankirtana Ananda Dasa, who was now serving as a temple manager at ISKCON’s Kolkata temple, came to Pune, and both sons served as caregivers for their father in the improvised hospice.
Though his disease had now become devastating, Baladeva Dasa, far from feeling sorry for himself, remained in Krishna consciousness, requesting several of his counselees to continue his program of personal delivery of BTG.
He told Sundara Vara, “You are brahmacharis, meant to serve Krishna. You shouldn’t be serving me like this, nor should I be taking service from you.”
Sundara Vara replied, “If it had not been for Srila Prabhupada’s teachings, I would not be serving you. But having been blessed by those teachings, I cannot not be serving you.”
Spiritual Success Amidst Material Distress
Sarasvati Devi Dasi (Dr. Jadhav), the surgeon who operated on him as a last-ditch effort to check the cancer, noted that though his cancer was at an advanced stage where the pain becomes unbearable and even drives people mad, Baladeva Dasa remained stoic and focused on Krishna.
All who came to see Baladeva during his last days, he encouraged to take spiritual life more seriously.
On his last Gaura Purnima, the appearance day of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, he fasted fully and remained peaceful throughout the day.
When asked about his apparent serenity, he replied, “I just couldn’t come out of Shantipura.”
His sons understood. He had felt himself spiritually transported to Shantipura. During his pilgrimages to Lord Chaitanya’s birthplace in Mayapur, West Bengal, Baladeva had felt a mystical connection with Shantipura (about thirty-five kilometers from Mayapur), the abode of Adwaita Acharya. It was in response to Adwaita Acharya’s fervent petitions that Lord Chaitanya’s descended.
About a week before his departure, Baladeva offered his last good wishes and farewells to his relatives.
“Please don’t allow any material relatives to come to see me,” he requested. “From now onwards I want to focus on Vitthala alone.”
On his last night, he told his sons, “I feel as if an electric stove is burning in my body. Please help me remember Krishna.”
Sankirtana Ananda Dasa described the spiritual world by reciting and explaining Brahma-samhita verses, and described Krishna’s sweet glories by reciting and explaining the Gopi-gita of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Becoming spiritually absorbed, Baladeva Dasa transcended the pain and remained in devotional consciousness till morning, when he told Sankirtana Ananda, “Now it’s morning – go and chant your rounds.”
Recognizing signs of impending death, as described in Ayurvedic guidebooks, his sons knew that the end was now just minutes away. They called several more devotees for kirtana. Then they arranged to phone His Holiness Lokanath Swami, who chanted the Hare Krishna mantra and encouraged his disciple: “Please remember Krishna.”
Three minutes later, at 6:57 A.M., Baladeva Dasa departed from the world amidst the chanting of the holy names, leaving behind a legacy of hundreds of hearts that had come closer to Godhead, inspired not just by his vigorous distribution of Back to Godhead, but also by his dedicated living and leaving on the path back to Godhead.
* An article about her appeared in BTG and can be read here: http://www.thespiritualscientist.com/2012/04/how-my-cancer-became-a-blessing/