A devotee’s death in a car accident brings his sister to Mayapur for a moving and unforgettable experience.
By Dr. Nona Carter
“I could imagine Tim walking the streets of Mayapur as easily as I could see him lying prostrate in worship on the marble floor of the temple.”
One year ago today* I got the call:
“Mom, don’t you know it is 6:30 in the morning? Can’t this wait?”
“There was an accident last night. Honey, Tim is gone. He’s gone. Oh my God, he can’t be gone . . .”
After two hours of eternal hell punctuated only by denial, at 8:45 a.m. on February 1, 2012, the Buffalo police arrived at my parents’ house to deliver the official notice that their youngest child had been killed in a car accident. Although we could not imagine it at the time, my family’s pilgrimage to India and our journey back to Tim began that morning.
Much to the surprise of his thoroughly nonreligious family, in college my brother became a devout member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness movement, more informally known as the Hare Krishnas. Although his spirituality remained foreign to us, with time we learned to respect the selfless, austere and nonmaterialistic lifestyle that his love for Krishna inspired him to lead. When Tim traveled to India a year previous to his death, we all smiled endearingly at his stories of pilgrimage around Govardhan Hill barefoot, sleeping on the marble floors of temples, and staying up all night playing kirtan. Tim lived and breathed to the rhythm of kirtan, a style of devotional music involving the call and response chanting of a mantra. Kirtan was his spiritual sustenance, and while in India he often played and sang all through the night in the twenty-four-hour kirtan hut, where the live music never ends. How interesting, and yet how strange it seemed to my upper-middle-class American family that our little Tim was off doing such bizarre things in India – a place more alien to us than the many-headed deities who reside there.
After his passing, our endearing smiles dissolved into remorseful frowns. Why had we listened to his thoughts as if they were filtered through the veil of strangeness instead of whole-heartedly trying to understand him? We would never be given a second chance to truly hear him, but it was not too late for us to attempt to understand. It was with a deep desire for understanding that we booked our tickets to India: my mom and dad, my brother and sister-in-law, Tim’s fiancée and her mother, my husband and me, and a box of ashes. Nine of us. Destination: Mayapur. ETA: January 1, 2013.
A new year, a new beginning – if only it were that simple.
Mayapur, located 130 km north of Kolkata on the banks of the holy river Ganga, is the home to ISKCON headquarters. The Hare Krishna community in Mayapur lives within a large gated compound with guards stationed at all entrances and along the path leading to the residential area. Over a million Hindu pilgrims from around the world visit this holy place where Lord Chaitanya was born, but today the large number of “white Hindus” who worship there are as big a tourist attraction as any for domestic tourists. Having grown up near Alachua, Florida – another hotspot of the Hare Krishna movement – I immediately felt both at home and completely alien in Mayapur. Of all the places I visited in India, nowhere did I look more like I belong, yet feel more like I didn’t. Devotees from Russia, South America, the Balkans, the U.S., Europe and Africa all congregate there, giving the gated ISKCON temple complex the feel of an isolated world with fantastic diversity and stifling homogeneity. One would think I’d feel right at home in this scrupulously clean complex where nutella crepes were the featured breakfast item, but I was intensely aware of the world just outside the gates. While I had grown accustomed to being perceived of as rich because of the color of my skin in other parts of India, at first it was somewhat unnerving to be greeted with “Hare Krishna” on the streets, because in Mayapur my skin color became a marker of my devotion to Krishna. I secretly enjoyed this sense of belonging, as a child enjoys a secret handshake, but I was hyper-aware that my “Hare Krishna” response came from the lips of an imposter.
Imposter I may have been, but insincere I was not. Life had led me to Mayapur, and it was my challenge to tackle the enigmas inherent there. The place and the people sent my mind chasing after answers to questions I was not even able to articulate. My confusion was matched only by my sense of utter awe as I witnessed many fellow Americans passing me by on the streets mumbling “Hare Krishna” repeatedly under their breath. Beads in hand, heads hung, walking along a dirt road at dusk, chanting their way methodically through the strangely imposing fog: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
Each one hurriedly trying to fit in all sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra before dinner, their chants repeated seamlessly as they walked completely absorbed in their task towards the residential area of the compound. I listened hard, but I could not hear Tim’s voice amongst their breathy chants. I tried to make eye contact, but in their trancelike state it was as if they could not see me. I walked faster, back to our hotel, where I fell asleep to the muted sound of God’s name and the almost inaudible clinking of japa beads.
I jolted up on my rock-hard mattress, shaking my husband (who could sleep through Armageddon) awake. I could nearly feel the hot breath of some ferocious beast on my face as it bellowed out its most foreboding sound. “It’s a cow, Nona. Just a cow.” Well, it turns out it was not “just a cow.” It was a Brahma bull. Our hotel was directly across the street from the Goshala (cow sanctuary), which is the home to approximately fifty of the most majestic cows I’ve ever laid eyes on. I recalled a picture of Tim leaning down to pet a white calf taken a year earlier at this Goshala. I peeked out the window towards the sanctuary and through the thick fog I could see him there. The bulls’ bass calls were well matched with their strong physique and long powerful horns, and as they continued to call out for breakfast, my own stomach joined their chorus for food.
Eating options in the ISKCON compound were limited, and the litany of warnings we received against the complex’s sole Indian restaurant further restricted our options. Fortunately, there was the Russian-owned Madhu’s bakery, a small open-air restaurant that served delicious crepes, pasta, pizza, and about any other Western delicacy that one is apt to crave after an extended stay in India. Unfortunately, however, Madhu’s (or any other store in the complex) did not serve any caffeinated beverages or foods made with onions or garlic, which made Mayapur a great culinary challenge for me. Once, when I ventured outside of the temple gates to seek out a deliciously caffeinated chai masala from a street vendor, I was met by confusion as to why we would want to consume anything out there. In fact, as I spoke to more and more devotees, I sensed a latent antipathy towards the India that was bustling outside the complex’s boundary.
Although the two communities exist side by side peacefully, there are indeed some major differences between the Hare Krishna community and its neighboring villages. For example, Hare Krishnas are meticulously clean and understandably dislike it when masses of Indian tourists descend upon their compound and throw trash all over their grounds. Beyond such superficial annoyance, however, exists an underlying distaste towards the way they perceive of many contemporary Indians as having fallen away from religion. One devotee told me that it is one thing for someone who does not know the Vedic scripture to eat meat, and another thing entirely for an Indian who should know better to do so. What stood in starkest contrast between the two neighboring communities was the Indian mindset of practicality in the material world juxtaposed with the ISKCON single-minded devotion to the spiritual path. While religion seems to be one aspect of daily life for most Indian Hindus, for Hare Krishna devotees it is all consuming: Their religion seems to be a combination of a Western-style evangelist religious zeal with Hindu-based beliefs. I was surprised that people belonging to a Western-based religion that idolizes India were quite critical of Indians. Perhaps the problem is that the “real” India doesn’t fit nicely into the romanticized image of India that many Westerners construct in their minds.
But my purpose in Mayapur was neither material survival nor religious awakening. I was there to see the India that Tim had loved so deeply. I saw that India in both the chaotic vitality of the surrounding villages and in the sanctity within the ISKCON gates. I could imagine Tim walking the streets of Mayapur as easily as I could see him lying prostrate in worship on the marble floor of the temple.
After devouring our nutella crepes, my husband and I headed to the temple for the 7:00 a.m. morning worship. We happened to be in Mayapur during the Indian holidays, and the line for nondevotees to enter the temple was long. Unlike other “lines” we experienced in India, this one at least attempted to maintain its structure with line railings and guards performing security checks near the entrance, but nonetheless it was a struggle to maintain my own position against the many who tried to push to the front. We were forced to stand in separate lines for men and women, and after our separation, we never found each other again inside the massive temple. Before our journey I had read on various blogs about India as a “mass of humanity.” I did not internalize their meaning until I attended that Hare Krishna service.
Imagine a very spacious room decorated with marble carvings, arched doorways, and three sets of large, beautiful curtains behind which the statues of the deities reside. Now imagine this one room packed from wall to wall with people from around the world. India gives a new definition to “maximum capacity,” and a new meaning to “worship.” Many of the devotees in the room had already attended the 4:00 a.m. service earlier in the morning, but you would have never guessed it by their passion during the second. The people surrounding me alternated between singing, dancing, and lying prostrate on the cold floor, as the pujari priests bathed and changed the deities from their pajamas to their daytime clothes behind closed curtains. Once the deities were properly dressed in their brilliantly beaded outfits, the pujari blew the conch horn and the curtains opened in a climactic moment when the deities were revealed dressed in their magnificent robes. The crowd’s enthusiasm heightened and the singing grew more fervent:
Govindam adi purusham tam aham bhajami
Govindam adi purusham tam aham bhajami
Govindam adi purusham tam aham bhajami
As each of the three curtains was opened, the crowd moved in a rushed unison as if participating in a choreographed dance towards the next set of deities. Indian tourists pushed to the front to get the best view, and each time the curtains opened the crowd broke out into glorious kirtan once more.
For me, an unsuspecting outsider who did not grow up with organized religion, the experience of the morning service, known as mangala-arati, was an assault on all of my senses. The constant movement, bright colored saris, beautiful kirtan, low-pitched drone of the conch horn, outbursts of celebratory emotion, free-style dancing, and musky incense left me dizzy and exhilarated. Unlike how I have self-consciously tried to imitate others at church in an attempt to blend in and perform the rituals correctly, at the Hare Krishna temple I was freed from self-awareness by mind-blowing sensory overload, and I experienced what I believe to be unadulterated worship in its rawest form. I let go of all thoughts as I was herded by the crowd to face one set of deities after another, and while I was left in a state of dazed confusion, I too was finding what I sought in the wide-eyed faces of the gods: the answer to what drew Tim to this religion. ISKCON worship is invigorating and their music has the power to convert even a skeptic like me, at least in the moment.
After the service ended and I rejoined with my husband, we took some time to wander the grounds, eventually ending up at the immense Samadhi, or mausoleum, of the founder of ISKCON, Sri Prabhupada. Sri Prabhupada founded the ISKCON movement in 1966 on the belief in Lord Krishna as the supreme deity. During the last decade of his life he traveled as a monk propagating Guadiya Vaishnavism all over the world. After arriving in New York City by boat with only two dollars to his name, Prabhupada built from scratch the largest Hindu movement in the West, and is today worshiped internationally by approximately 250,000 Hare Krishna devotees. The Mayapur Pushpa Samadhi, one of many memorials of Sri Prabhupada, is at the heart of the ISKCON campus. After Prabhupada’s death in 1977, his followers built this large golden-domed palatial Samadhi over the garland that he was wearing when he died. At the center of the Samadhi building is a life-sized colored statue of Prabhupada surrounded by paintings depicting scenes from his life along the inner rim of the domed ceiling. The Samadhi building also includes a museum, gardens, an auditorium, and an expansive room for chanting on the exquisite marble floor around Sri Prabhupada’s statue. Visitors stream in and out only during limited hours, and despite it being the most architecturally impressive building in the complex, it is not heavily used. As we left through the marble arched doorway, I found myself lamenting the emptiness of such a magnificent structure, erected in close proximity to families living in poverty on the streets.
The rest of the day I spent with my family exploring the town and sharing stories about Tim. It was the first time since his death that we could remember him with laughter instead of tears. But concealed behind our laughter were heavy hearts and dread, knowing what awaited us the following day: the ashes ceremony.
Goodbye in the Ganges
It is Hindu tradition to spread the ashes of the deceased in the Ganges. The holy river Ganga is believed to be the manifestation of Mother Ganga, who came roaring to earth in the form of the river to offer purification in this world. By the release of their remains into this sacred river, the deceased return to the arms of Mother Ganga, where their soul is put to rest for eternity. During our meeting with the priest the next morning before the ceremony, we were assured that the faith of Hare Krishna devotees ensures their ascent to the side of Lord Krishna and their removal from the cycle of death and rebirth. The thought of my mischievous little brother, Tim “Gopinath” Carter, sitting by Krishna’s side made me smile. I tuned out the priest’s explanations of the rituals as I amused myself by imagining all the tricks he would surely play on Krishna once he got there.
My musings, however, were short-lived. We met a handful of Tim’s friends from Alachua at the main entrance to the ISKCON temple, and as I watched his beautiful young fiancée carefully and meticulously arrange a garland around a picture of him, the pain of our loss flooded me all over again. That picture was all she had left of the joyful, kind, gentle and loving man she had planned to spend her life with, and as she delicately arranged each petal perfectly around his image, I could see that all the tenderness she felt towards him was now directed at that photograph. As we all processed down the street towards the Ganges, she walked silently, gently cradling his picture to her breast, it hit me that this was our final goodbye.
Although my deeply rooted agnosticism serves as an impenetrable, and sometimes unwelcome, shield against faith of any kind, my spirituality has always been kindled by Hare Krishna music with its rich harmonies, infectious rhythms and its gradual progression towards a raucous climax. Over the years Tim sent me numerous CDs and I witnessed him play in many impassioned kirtan sessions. Tim lived for kirtan, and as we all walked through the ISKCON complex and out into the village towards the river, I truly understood why. The singer’s gentle and soulful voice accompanied by the slow mridanga rhythm as we walked and boarded the boat gave voice to our emotions. I could hear Tim in their tunes, and as I watched them tirelessly singing praises to God, I could see him there with his harmonium, playing along with them. He never could resist a chance to participate in a kirtan.
My memory of the ceremony is a blur of one ritualistic movement after another. My dad mixed Tim’s ashes with spices and mud, we bowed this way, repeated these lines, cupped water from the river in our hands, released the flowers that had been adorning the boat into the river, and finally, Tim’s fiancée, my older brother and I walked out into the cold Ganges water and let his ashes float away. The sensation of ice-cold water lapping at my waist; of my older brother’s calloused hand in mine; the frailty of Tim’s fiancée’s tiny shoulders as we embraced; my kurta top plastered to my legs as the water rose and fell around me; and my desperation to hold onto that last glimpse of Tim’s ashes as they sunk beneath the water, are all etched permanently into my mind like a series of snapshots that will forever form the landscape of my mind’s eye.
The ceremony was perfection, but what moved me more than the ritual was the feeling I had as I let go of his ashes that some of him would float out to the Indian Ocean, and a little of that part would make it to the Pacific Ocean. Eventually his matter would reach America and someday many years from now Tim might float up on the beach at Lake Erie near my home. Tim would end up in the soil and provide life force to growing plants. He would get evaporated and I could comfort myself on a rainy day knowing it would be raining Tim.
Food for Life
The day before the ashes ceremony, we met a devotee from Nigeria. He was one of those rare people who exudes peace and contentment from every pore in his body and who naturally wins the admiration of all who meet him. He is the leader of Food for Life in Mayapur, and remembered Tim from when he had visited the previous year. Through him my family was able to sponsor Food for Life in Tim’s name following the ashes ceremony. Hare Krishna Food for Life is an international food relief organization that distributes vegetarian food in over sixty countries worldwide, often responding to need after natural disasters. In Mayapur devotees walk the streets singing kirtan and distributing food every Thursday. For a donation of only $100 we were able to provide healthy kitchiri for hundreds of locals. $100 seems like such a small amount compared to the difference between health and hunger, but it seems like an even smaller sum of money to pay for the experience we had serving in Tim’s name.
We walked with a group of approximately 15 devotees behind large speakers and a statue of Lord Chaitanya and Nityananda singing the Hare Krishna mantra. Every day at 3:00 p.m. devotees walk through the streets towards the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya singing behind these deities, and locals know to expect them. Many emerged from their homes and stores to watch or even join our procession. For the domestic tourists, we provided a great photo opportunity, and the reversed gaze forced me into the shoes of the many people I had photographed going about their daily lives over the course of our trip. Once I acclimated to being photographed and shed my inhibitions – by nature I am not someone who feels at ease singing and dancing in public – Food for Life was the best celebration of life, both past and present, that I’ve ever experienced.
Sing. Stop. Serve. Keep walking. Keep singing. Keep serving. Hundreds of people ignoring the devotee who was desperately trying to organize them into a line, thrusting their leaf plates towards me, “Mataji! Please mataji.” I filled them as fast as I could with a healthy serving of kitchiri, a “Hare Krishna” and a lot of goodwill. My mom and Tim’s fiancée joined a group who began dancing, my sister-in-law served across from me, my dad and brother passed out leaf bowls, and my husband sang as he attempted to document the concoction of smells, laughter, food, colors, people, song, dance, and outreach.
Amidst all the activity and the barrage of people surrounding the kitchiri cart, it was difficult to coordinate with the other servers. One devotee thought we would start moving towards the next stop while another kept serving, resulting in the cart tipping and one huge three-foot-deep pot full of kitchiri crashing to the ground, spilling all of its contents on the side of the street. For a moment, everyone fell silent and collectively mourned the wasted food now lying in a yellow and green puddle on the dirt sidewalk. The silence was broken by the jovial laugh of our Nigerian friend and the resuming of kirtan. As we walked pulling the cart to our next distribution location, our friend, still smiling, told us a story.
Tim had loved serving with Food for Life, and had participated every chance he got while he was in Mayapur as well as in his daily life in Florida. Our Nigerian friend remembered Tim because he would always secretly save a little bowl of food for the many street dogs, who most people simply ignored. The Mayapur street dogs became so fond of Tim, that whenever he left the compound gates, they were there waiting for him and would follow him wherever he went. Once, when the singing procession led them across the river to a town on the other side, Tim begged unsuccessfully for the dogs to be able to join them. This devotee remembered Tim as the one who cared for the dogs when no one else did, and when the pot of food spilled onto the ground, he laughed knowing the street dogs would be having a feast in Tim’s name that evening. Upon hearing this story, I could almost hear Tim’s contagious laugh echoing from up above. If there is an afterlife, and if the ones we love really can see us, then knocking over that pot of food is exactly the type of good-spirited trick Tim would pull.
Our Food for Life experience transcended any particular religious belief and was a celebration of Tim’s spirit and our shared humanity. When Tim had visited Mayapur, he had been a regular presence in the streets. I could see him there with his slightly devious grin gleaming with amusement at watching his family singing Hare Krishna and serving food. I smiled. We all smiled. This is exactly what we had come to India for.
Like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence, Food for Life ended our time in Mayapur with an enthusiastic, climactic finality. After one last visit to the Goshala and some tearful goodbyes, we loaded into our twelve-seater van and headed off for Vrindavan. As we left Mayapur I caught one last glimpse at the still half-finished Vedic planetarium, which had been looming in the background during our entire visit. The building of the Planetarium was inspired by Sri Prabhupada in the 1970s. For a religion only half a century old, I was profoundly impressed by the enthusiasm and devotional energy of the Hare Krishna devotees. Our van turned the narrow corner to exit the ISKCON compound, and from the opening in my slightly cracked window I heard the faint sound of kirtan emanating from the twenty-four-hour kirtan hut. “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare . . . ,” until the song was drowned out by the sound of our driver’s honks as he navigated our large van through the narrow Mayapur streets that our vehicle shared with pedestrians, rickshaws, and many species of animals.
Devotees whom my family had never met previous to Tim’s passing helped arrange kirtans and memorials for him in Florida, West Virginia and Mayapur. Their community knows no national boundaries, their philosophy emphasizes similarities over differences, and their attitude is one of service and compassion. My gratitude and admiration for Hare Krishna devotees knows no end, and although I wish tragedy had not been the impetus for my encounter with ISKCON, I am sincerely thankful that our paths crossed. For at that intersection, I found my way back to Tim.
Rest in peace, my dear brother.
*This article, written in 2013, was received at BTG this year, which marks the tenth anniversary of the ashes-to-the-Ganges ceremony of the author’s brother, Tim.
Dr. Nona Carter was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, but currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a professor of Asian Studies and a homeschooling teacher/mom to her twins.