By Prema Vilasa Dasa
A doctor in residency finds that the key to fulfilling the great American dream is not what he expected.
My alarm goes off at six thirty. It’s Sunday morning. I take a shower, put on my dhoti, kurta, and tilaka, and after chanting the Gayatri mantra drive to the temple, just a few blocks away.
The devotees are chanting the Brahma-samhita when I arrive. I join them until it’s time to cook Krishna’s breakfast, a service I have done for nine years now. I make split mung dal, kichari, and papadam, complemented with a fresh salad of seasonal fruit in organic yogurt.
After preparing breakfast, leading Srila Prabhupada’s Guru-puja kirtana, attending the shringara darshana (viewing the deities after Their dressing), and taking part in the group reading of Bhagavad-gita, I sit down with the devotees for honoring breakfast prasada. I then clean the kitchen, chant japa in front of the deities, and perform some weekly tasks for the temple, like sorting mail and organizing devotee schedules.
In the evening I take part in the Sunday Feast program, sing and dance for the pleasure of the deities, and speak with guests. Then my wife and I go for a long drive to connect, catch up, and close the week. I feel blissful here, serving Sri Sri Radha-Natabara in Columbus, Ohio, but this hasn’t always been a typical Sunday for me. Sometimes I wonder, How did I get to this point?
A Temple Nearby
I came to the United States in September of 2000 to pursue the great American dream. I was twenty-three, had just finished medical school in India, and had secured a residency spot with The Ohio State University Medical Center, one of the top internal medicine residency programs in the country. My apartment was but a few blocks away from the medical center, which I soon discovered was just across the street from an ISKCON temple.
During my residency, I started visiting the temple regularly for pious association, prasada, and some peace from a hectic life of training. The devotees were nice; they never “preached” to me but always gave me prasada and encouraged me to join the kirtanas. Over time, I made friends with lots of devotees and slowly started relishing going to the temple.
Then, in May 2003, something special happened. I overheard devotees talking about an upcoming festival at New Vrindavan, the ISKCON farm community in West Virginia. The festival had an alluring title: “The Festival of Inspiration.” They invited me to join them, but the festival dates conflicted with my planned visit to a high school friend living in New York City.
My friend, a twenty-five-year-old multimillionaire who had amassed his fortune dealing in Belgian and South African diamonds, lived in an apartment he owned on Park Avenue in Manhattan. We spent the first part of the week drinking at all the expensive bars and eating at gourmet restaurants. But Thursday morning he received a call and had to leave town on urgent business.
All alone, I began driving back to Columbus. On the road, I suddenly remembered the devotees talking about the festival in New Vrindavan, which was on the way back. I decided to check it out.
The next three days were the happiest of my life. I attended the morning programs, feasted on prasada, met many inspiring devotee exemplars like Peter Burwash, Yajna Purusha Dasa, His Holiness Bhakti Tirtha Swami, and His Holiness Radhanath Swami, and danced in the kirtanas with full abandon. I was amazed at the devotees’ beauty and simplicity. The experience was a huge contrast to Manhattan. There, I was spending hundreds of dollars to squeeze out some small semblance of happiness, and here, I was happy just eating simple kichari and fresh yogurt from the wonderfully protected New Vrindavan cows.
The festival made such an impact on my mind that before leaving I decided I’d start chanting a couple of rounds of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and following the regulative principles as far as possible.
Since I enjoyed the kirtanas so much, I bought a CD called Vrindavan Mellows, by Aindra Dasa, from the temple’s gift shop. Listening to it on my drive home gave me goose bumps. I began listening to it every day, and I became bewildered by what was happening to me – I couldn’t enjoy any other music. I soon collected all my nondevotional CDs and donated them to a charity.
Developing a Higher Taste
I started visiting the temple more often. What began as sporadic chanting of two rounds on my beads became a daily practice, and every week or so I embraced more and more chanting. I began to dislike the food I was eating at restaurants and cafes, looking forward instead to the Sunday Feast prasada. I also developed a distaste for the superficiality of modern society – the petty social and political concerns, partying, drinking, and just generally wasting time. I found myself thinking deeply about the meaning of life.
One day I was working a long shift at the hospital, and the local cafeteria had nothing vegetarian to eat. With lots of guilt I ordered a chicken sandwich and prayed to Lord Krishna to forgive me. After eating the sandwich I developed intense nausea and vomited during the night. That was the last time I ate meat.
Towards the end of my residency, one of my temple friends, Vrindavana-natha, told me he was getting married and invited me to his wedding at New Raman Reti, the ISKCON’s rural community in Alachua, Florida. I drove to the wedding with my friend Carl, a student at Ohio State. We had started going to the temple at about the same time and had become good friends. We would discuss Srila Prabhupada’s books, especially in terms of pragmatic philosophy and life in general.
While we were enjoying the wedding festivities in Alachua, Carl and I took a walk around New Raman Reti. From a distance we saw a saintly woman in a sari coming toward us. Something about her made us stop and talk to her. I said hello and asked her name. She was Ragatmika Devi Dasi, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, and she lived nearby. She agreed to my request to visit her house and ask her some questions about her life.
I was already intrigued by the sacrifice and surrender of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples. She especially looked radiant and genuinely spiritual as she invited us in to unpack her entire life story for us. We were stunned.
She told us about her one and only meeting with Srila Prabhupada and how she decided to dedicate her life to him completely by distributing his books and sharing Krishna consciousness with one and all. At the end of our discussion, she advised me to read Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita, the life story of Srila Prabhupada written by one of his earliest disciples, Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami.
Inspiration from Prabhupada’s Life Story
Some devotees had given me a copy of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, but it had sat on my desk for three years. I just couldn’t understand its structure or content. I came back to Columbus and bought a copy of Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita. I could not put it down. I read it for seventy-two hours straight, hardly sleeping or eating. I even called in sick for work.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I read about Srila Prabhupada distributing his books and magazines alone in Delhi in ninety-degree heat, and about how while trying to print his Bhagavatam he had no money to buy breakfast.
I was amazed at Srila Prabhupada’s determination, his faith in the Lord, and his compassion for the drunks and drug addicts on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. Equally astounding were his success at the end of his life and his devotion and detachment in general. You could say I was sold.
After finishing the last page of the Lilamrita, I went to the temple, took whatever books the temple had, and went to set up a book table outside an Indian grocery store. Before I went I prayed to the murti (image) of Srila Prabhupada, feeling that His Divine Grace was listening to me and blessing me to distribute his books.
That day, my first day on book distribution, I sold eighty hardbound books and fifty paperbacks. I was thrilled beyond my wildest expectations. Never before had I felt so connected to the Lord. I felt that Lord Krishna was pleased by this service. The entire time I was out distributing books, the holy name simply rolled off my tongue without effort, giving me further impetus to approach people and ask them to buy the nectarean literature blessing my hands.
From then on I distributed Srila Prabhupada’s books every day – and read them too. Miraculously, I was now able to understand them and relish them in a way that had previously escaped me. I would listen to Srila Prabhupada’s lectures and read his letters as well, trying to follow the language, philosophy, and context. Now I was “tasting the nectar for which I was always anxious,” to paraphrase Lord Chaitanya. I was happy beyond compare and had the answers to all my questions in life. Everything made sense. Through the lens of Srila Prabhupada’s words I was able to weave all religions, philosophies, and scientific theories into one cogent reality. Every conscious experience now had new meaning. I was becoming Krishna conscious, awakening to ultimate reality.
I had always loved reading, but now I would spend my entire day in the library relishing the literature left by the Goswamis (Lord Chaitanya’s direct followers), as well as the commentaries of Vaishnava acharyas and the works of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, and the current generation of Vaishnava writers. Sadaputa Dasa’s seminal work Mechanistic and Non-Mechanistic Science gave me intense conviction, and his books in general deepened my understanding of Krishna consciousness. Another contemporary author who influenced me was Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen). His works on Chaitanya Vaishnavism, comparative religion, vegetarianism, and yoga helped me bridge the gap between age-old wisdom and modernity. I was able to see Vaishnavism as a whole and in relationship to this world. He was deeply influential in the completion of my spiritual, intellectual, and emotional conversion to the world of devotion.
One day, in New Vrindavan, I heard a talk by Vaisheshika Dasa on how to distribute books. That presentation inspired me so much that I decided to dedicate my life to the cause of transcendental book distribution. Vaisheshika Dasa remains my hero and guide.
Finding My Guru
Shortly thereafter I met my spiritual master, His Holiness Radhanath Swami. His dedication to the mission of Srila Prabhupada and Lord Chaitanya inspired me greatly. I liked listening to his lectures on Lord Chaitanya’s pastimes and the Bhagavad-gita. He had inspired thousands of devotees in Chowpatty and Pune in India, and had started many centers and temples around the world. By this time I had met many of his disciples who were exemplary devotees and were trying to explain Krishna consciousness to others.
In my first meeting with him, he told me that the purpose of human life is not to work hard for material acquisitions and temporary sustenance, which only ends with the eventual destruction of the body. Rather, the purpose of human life is to find out who I am and my relationship with God.
This was the same message Srila Prabhupada had spoken to me in the first lecture I had heard so many months before, where he clearly explained that the human form of life is meant only for service to Krishna. For me, Radhanath Swami personified Vaishnava humility and etiquette. Everything about him was graceful, sublime, and saturated with divine peace. I felt I had finally met a representative in the mood of Srila Prabhupada. And I realized I was taking part in an entire movement of such representatives, although in my eyes Radhanath Swami shone even among so many bright stars.
I had read about the trinad api sunichena verse, in which Lord Chaitanya says that to properly chant the holy names one must be more tolerant than a tree and more humble than a blade of grass. But I never understood the purport of the verse until I met His Holiness Radhanath Swami. His humble dealings, forgiving nature, and indomitable zeal for spreading his teacher’s mission won my heart. I had found my preceptor. When I told him I wanted to take initiation from him, he instantly replied that initiation had already taken place in my heart and the remaining formalities could wait.
I was happy, however, that they didn’t have to wait too long.
A Partner in Krishna Consciousness
Gradually I felt that to practice Krishna consciousness properly I needed a partner to help me and to share my life. I prayed to Srila Prabhupada and Radha-Natabara for a suitable wife, asking them to send a dedicated servant of theirs to help me serve them.
Shortly thereafter I met my wife, Lalita Devi. She was visiting Columbus for a residency interview and by the Lord’s divine arrangement showed up at the temple. I wanted to marry someone very serious about Krishna consciousness and serving Srila Prabhupada’s mission. In Lalita Devi I found everything I wanted and much more.
Through her I got to meet His Holiness Giriraja Swami, the most honest, courageous, and fully integrated person I have ever met. He personifies the expression “Vaishnava Thakura,” which refers to all the finer qualities of a devotee. His association and my many brief encounters with his exemplary disciples and well-wishers have thoroughly enriched my devotional life.
The Real “Great American Dream”
Now, let’s return to the present. Each day feels special. I serve in the temple, distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books, facilitate their study, travel all over the world, and attend festivals such as Rathayatras and retreats organized by devotees I can spend time and make friends with. Wherever I go I receive Vaishnava association, service to the Lord, and delicious prasada. I like to spend the month of Karttika (Oct.-Nov.) in Govardhan, India, in the shelter of Vaisheshika Dasa and His Holiness Keshava Bharati Maharaja. I am grateful to Srila Prabhupada for giving us such an expansive society, which is continually growing worldwide. My great American dream is just beginning, as I explore this brave new world of devotional theism while continuing my practice as a doctor.