To the River
I first came in contact with Sri Ananta Das Baba through his books sometime in the early 1990s, probably around 1992. For that I must thank offer copious thanks to both Advaita Dasji for his translations and also to the ISKCON rasikas who were reading them, somewhat surreptitiously. (Un)fortunately they hadn’t run a background check on me and uncovered my irrepressible reading urge so giving me a task related to the stock of books resulted in one set “disappearing.” I hauled it around the world with me, taking it through Asia to the Antipodes and back several times. The hefty tomes made more than an impression on my shoulders however. From the outset I had a sense that the books were authentic. That some of them were by my heroes—Raghunatha Das Goswami and Visvanatha Chakravartipada—delighted me no end and hinted of a journey to be undertaken, of relationships to be developed. I bowed down to Das Goswami’s tears for his Swamini and swam in Chakravartipada’s humor and verve but didn’t know or even have an urge to go further. Attention can wane, books can be closed—and even when open, they are at an arm’s length away.
But slowly the world turned and I found myself hankering, desperate for the shelter of Sri Caitanya’s feet. My social, religious and emotional world wasn’t providing the comfort and inspiration I needed. I wanted to connect with Mahaprabhu, wanted to hear from those he empowered with his message. I wanted to get as close to the source as possible…but always at an arm’s length.
As my faith in Caitanya Vaisnavism broadened and deepened I took a gamble and booked a ticket to India months in advance. The move didn’t make a lot of sense when factoring in my life, family and business but this was destiny. I visited Ananta Das Baba and soon asked a question that was somewhat challenging. (By then I had already been disarmed by his laugh and his amiable and learned character but I felt a duty to my skepticlectic side to ask anyway.) His reply caught me. Knocked me. Grabbed me. In my heart, my head, my gut.
Caitanya Maharaprabhu came to teach raga bhakti and the message descends in a pranali, a channel, like a river. The river does not come to you, you have to go to the river. To go further, I’d need to get off the fence, I’d need to move away from the comfort of holding the teachings at arm’s length.
I still wasn’t certain of diksha but on my next visit I asked Babaji Maharaja a technical question about the responsibilities involved and he laughed, asking “Who is interested in diksha?” Then he went on to quote Sri Chakravartipada and both the content of the citation and the citing itself were enough for me to know that it was time to move forward.
As I waited for the day to come around, there were some challenges due to my relationships with those from other groups but I really wanted to remain focused and address any issues later. When the day finally came, I shared a taxi with Rasaraja—dandavats to you my friend, a godsend of a companion—and we journeyed thru the roads of Vraja in the early morning to Sri Radha-kunda. After a visit to Madhava and Malati, I left, wanting to perform parikrama and take bath in the kunda.
My parikrama was quite meditative and by the time I reached Mahaprabhu’s sitting place, I was quite emotional. Alone there, I plead for mercy. The sum total of my faith, my existence and all the imperfections of myself and this world came forth in a desperate prayer. I wanted, needed, to identify myself as a servant of Sri Gauranga Mahaprabhu, as improbable and unattainable as that may be.
I then walked on—I can see and feel the paving stones, the unevenness, the cracks for the drains now as I write. What a wonderful place! The stores, the tulasi wallahs—one of whom washed my sons muddy feet when he fooled around waiting for me to buy my new mala—the temples, asramas, and darshan of Sri Radha and Sri Syama-kundas: it stays with you.
I stopped again at Jahnava Ma Baithak, a few square feet of paradise and prayer. Chanting there comes so easily. Although it was winter, the sun had appeared making the environment simply gorgeous. I submerged in the waters of the kunda and climbed the steps to dress. I struggled with the new cloth as it was the typical overly-starched affair. But the discomfit of not being able to “look right” felt right. I’d also shaved earlier and the barber had given me a Brijbasi sikha, a/k/a/ a nerd sikha. It was too high on my head, waving like some ungainly antenna.
I was then called to Baba’s asrama and the combination of nerves and seeing the others broke my reverie. Rasaraja wasn’t shy in going first when Baba was ready ;-) so I had a little more time to wait. When I was called in, Baba told me where to sit and then began to perform acamana. He drew the tilaka on me and then wrote the name of Radha upon my chest. He wrote the name of Radha upon my chest.
Although I hadn’t received gayatri previously, I found it easy to follow as he spoke and I repeated. The Bengali pronunciation of the Sanskrit made it even sweeter. As the mantras were given I began to swim—they were so beautiful! I wanted to stop and just contemplate each mantra again. Who were these divine personalities? I wanted to know them, connect with them. And they kept coming! Gauranga, lover of Jahnava, Sri Radha, Lalita…It was too much to bear. I thought that I would break down right there. My voice quivered, I had to catch my breath. Please, let this moment never end. If it must, let me never forget it.
Babaji Maharaja spoke a few words at the end, about Caitanya Mahaprabu and prema. And there, in front of him and Giridhari, I offered my heart at his feet.
I feel that I could write this in a thousand different ways but I will leave it here for now. I hope that you, dear friends and readers, will please offer your blessings upon me. If you have harbored some ill feeling toward me, either due to my offenses or neglect, I ask that out of your own kindness you please forgive me. Every day I live with what I am and that is punishment enough.
As a child I had a favorite t-shirt, embossed with a picture of Charlie Brown carrying a baseball bat and glove—you all probably know how good he was at baseball. Around the picture were the words, “I need all the friends I can get.”
And as for those friends who have particularly helped me in recent times, I must take this opportunity to thank them.
Jagat: the favorite uncle, always showering gifts upon us children. Somehow it was your heart--beyond even all your thoughtfulness, eloquence and learning—that attracted me to this wonderful path. I am indebted.
Rasaraja: although we split the cost of the taxis, I have still somehow managed to bum a ride--and with the best of traveling partners. Thank you, my friend and brother.
Madhava and Malati: What to say about this couple? The best of hosts, the best of guides, guardians, gatekeepers…they seem to fully deserve the mercy they receive in the form of guru-seva, sanga and residence in the dhama—and they are even better in person than in print! Your kindness is impossible to repay.
Yugal: I have never met someone better suited to being a manjari! From the first long conversation on the banks of Sri Radha-kunda as the night settled in, to the taxi rides to Delhi that seemed to pass in minutes, I have swum in your beautiful recollections and story.
That friends like these—and more—have manifest from out of the blue astonishes me. But so much on this path astonishes me now.
My humble dandavats to you all.