By Vrndadevi Dasi

Though she never learned to read, Sara Kant Devi Dasi is dedicated to giving others the opportunity to read Srila Prabhupada’s books

Sarva Kanti Devi Dasi beams with pleasure as she hands over change to the man who just bought a Bhagavad-gita As It Is from the temple’s book table. Despite her advanced age and poor health, she loves spending most of her time at the Hare Krishna temple in Phoenix, Mauritius, welcoming guests and handing out transcendental literature and devotional gifts to visitors.

Before coming to Krishna consciousness some twenty years ago, Sarva Kanti, then known as Saraswati, was a pious Hindu lady who was widowed at the age of thirty-five. Not considering remarriage an option, she singlehandedly raised her eight children and painstakingly ensured that they received an education and did not end up illiterate like her.

In the summer of 1988 one of Saraswati’s daughters, Sunayna, came in touch with the Hare Krishna movement in Mauritius. Shortly thereafter, Sunayna went on a vacation to England, where she spent considerable time with devotees at Bhaktivedanta Manor, the headquarters of ISKCON U.K. The visit was a major turning point for Sunayna, and when she returned to her native country, she made a firm decision to dedicate her life to serving Krishna. She consequently joined the temple as a resident devotee, despite her mother’s disapproval. Sunayna had recently graduated from university, and her rejection of a promising future to pursue a spiritual path as a missionary distressed Saraswati. She could not understand why her daughter had to forsake a career and could not live at home and practice spiritual life at the same time.

A verbal tug-of-war began between mother and daughter. Saraswati came repeatedly to the temple to try to convince her daughter to come back home. Sunayna, on the other hand, did her best to gently impart the message of Krishna consciousness to her distraught mother and make her understand that this was her calling in life. Both their attempts were proving unsuccessful, as each staunchly stood her ground, set in her convictions.

Hailing from a Hindu background, Saraswati was already familiar with Lord Krishna. She and her husband used to argue sometimes about who was Supreme. Saraswati’s husband believed that Lord Shiva was superior, while she always maintained that Lord Krishna was the Supreme, although she could not articulate why. Somehow Saraswati had faith in Krishna, but she lacked knowledge to substantiate it. Influenced by common family traditions, however, she continued worshiping the demigods together with Krishna and took part in rites and rituals that were the norm for most Hindus.

With time, however, subtle transformations began taking place in Saraswati. She gradually and imperceptibly started becoming more favorably inclined towards Krishna consciousness. She found the devotees respectful and welcoming whenever she visited the temple to meet Sunayna. She felt happy when her daughter came to visit her, and she even started buying Srila Prabhupada’s books from Sunayna to give them as gifts to relatives. If she happened to bump into her daughter distributing books in town, she would walk up to her and buy one. Out of affection for her daughter, by these simple acts she was unknowingly performing devotional service, and Krishna was reciprocating by slowly relieving her of her apprehension and misgivings. Soon she started visiting the temple regularly, not to coax Sunayna back home but to spend more time with the devotees.

Deepening Conviction

What Saraswati previously knew at heart – that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead – she now began to understand in truth. It became clear to her that all other deities are subordinate to Krishna and should be offered due respect but not considered on the same level as Him. Furthermore, she understood that the supreme religious practice for this age is the simple chanting of the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Gradually she began chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, and since then she has not looked back.

As she became more convinced about Krishna consciousness, she became increasingly inspired to give back what she had learned. She thus decided to take up book distribution herself.

Young devotees selling transcendental literature in public were a common sight, but it was almost unheard of to see an elderly lady in a widow’s white sari with a book bag enthusiastically distributing books on the streets and door to door. She would also visit relatives, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances to tell them about Lord Krishna and appeal to them to buy a book. Although she could not read the books herself, she had firm faith in their potency. She understood the good fortune and happiness they could bring to peoples’ lives if they read them and took to the practice of Krishna consciousness. She would also unhesitatingly visit professionals like doctors and lawyers and was effective in influencing them. She lived up to the meaning of the traditional verse

mukam karoti vachalam
pangum langhayate girim
yat-kripa tam aham vande
shri-gurum dina-taranam

“I offer my respectful obeisances to my spiritual master, by whose mercy a dumb man can become a great speaker and a lame man can cross mountains.”

With time many of the people whose lives she touched with Srila Prabhupada’s message took to Krishna consciousness. Because of the impact of Saraswati’s example and preaching, many others who had looked at the movement as a new cult and who had been wary of its followers changed their impression and started showing appreciation for ISKCON and the devotees.

Finding Her Guru

Soon Saraswati began to understand that to make spiritual progress one had to accept the shelter of a spiritual master. After listening to and meeting various spiritual teachers, she decided to accept His Holiness Giriraja Swami as her spiritual master. Deeply inspired by him and attracted to his humble disposition, she resolved to request him for spiritual initiation. In 1992 Saraswati became Sarva Kanti Devi Dasi in a ceremony proudly attended by her whole family, including her daughter Sunayna, who was now Satyabhama Devi Dasi.

After initiation, to follow her guru’s instruction to continue preaching, Sarva Kanti became even more earnest in her efforts to enlighten others through book distribution and preaching. Almost every day, after quickly finishing her household duties she would go out by public transport or by foot to visit people, spend time with them, and leave them the gift of Krishna consciousness. For many years she steadily maintained this pace. She participated with full energy in the intense Maha Shivaratri book-distribution marathon, which lasts for four trying days on the island of Mauritius. During the festival, held at Ganga Talav, a sacred lake for the 630,000 Hindus on the island, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims throng to the site to offer worship to Lord Shiva. Hare Krishna devotees usually take this opportunity to flood Ganga Talav with transcendental literature. Despite her advanced age, Sarva Kanti would display uncommon zest and blissfully relish the chance to meet as many people as she could to offer them Srila Prabhupada’s books. Sometimes the younger devotees would feel the strain and succumb to exhaustion, but Sarva Kanti would inspire them by her example and enthusiasm.

Along with book distribution Sarva Kanti has also been engaged in worshiping and cooking for Sri Sri Radha-Golokananda, the presiding deities at ISKCON Phoenix. She loves making breakfast for the devotees too. She sometimes brings prasada for them from home or invites them to her house and serves them prasada of her beloved Gaura-Nitai deities. She is a mother figure for all devotees and is very affectionate to everyone.

Motivated by Gratitude

When asked what motivates her staunch faith in distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books, she responds, “Srila Prabhupada’s lectures and books have changed so many peoples’ lives, including my own in such a significant way. The only minute way I can express my gratitude towards him is to do what he requested us to do: distribute Krishna consciousness to others through his books. Also, my Guru Maharaja has requested me to preach, so I am trying to follow his instruction the best I can.”

Her daughter Satyabhama Dasi, a top book distributor in Mauritius, says, “My mother is an inspiration to me. A devotee once advised me not to exert myself because I will not be able to continue book distribution when I get older. When I heard this, I thought of my mother, who was still distributing books in her advanced age, and this thought made me persevere.

“Once, when I was ill, my mother came to see me at the temple, and when she was leaving, she said, ‘I pray that you get better soon so that you can continue your book distribution.’”

Ajaya Chaitanya Dasa, co–temple-president of ISKCON Phoenix, says, “Sarva Kanti is an inspiration to all. I have seen her going out door to door at 6:00 P.M., and also distributing books at a book table when her health was bad. She is very caring and treats everyone like her child. If someone is leaving without prasada, she calls after them and makes sure they get some.”

Persevering in Old Age

Sarva Kanti is now eighty-one, and her health is deteriorating, but she continues to be an example to others by her determination to preach Krishna consciousness. Although it is a struggle for her to walk or move about, she perseveres in going to the temple almost every day to take care of the book table. The story of how she took to Krishna consciousness and how she has dedicated her entire later life to sharing it is wonderful. Her eagerness and love to share what she has learned and realized will always be a part of the history of Krishna consciousness in Mauritius.