Birth, Death, Old Age and Disease

Champaka

Champaka blossom

My 18th birthday came and went in December. We didn’t celebrate birthdays, although I’d made a cake for Mike’s birthday in September. I was disappointed that he did nothing for mine. I was used to celebrating it every year in some way.

In January of 1977 Mike and I were preparing to ask for initiation. We were carefully composing letters to Srila Prabhupada to indicate that we understood the commitment we were making and hoped that he would accept us as disciples. Mike shaved his head, something he’d avoided up until that point. He knew he would not get a recommendation for initiation from the temple authorities if he kept his hair shoulder length. Embarrassed, he wore a cap over his head until it grew out again. We were more strictly abstaining from sex as well, trying to genuinely follow the instructions we had received from Srila Prabhupada.

My initiation letter is dated February 2nd, 1977. We expected a wait before we heard whether or not we were accepted. Occasionally we knew that initiations were delayed, and Srila Prabhupada was said to be gravely ill. In March we were asked to pray for him and there were 24 hour a day kirtans on his behalf. He improved for awhile after that but remained ill and under medical guidance.

The day came when we heard that we were accepted, and Radhaballabha Dasa was informed by telegram that our names were to be Mahasraya* Dasa and Tapati* Dasi. We were ecstatic! Both of us felt like we had waited so long for this. Mahasraya had been involved in the movement for several years and I had first written to ISKCON members in 1974. We knew it was a big step and a huge commitment. We were agreeing to spend the rest of our lives in the service of our spiritual master and to follow the four regulative principles—no meat eating, intoxication, illicit sex life or gambling, plus we would be required to chant at least sixteen rounds of the mahamantra each day.

In mid-March there was an initiation ceremony in the temple and we received new japa beads that had been chanted on by Ramesvara Swami. In April the official letter arrived with our names signed not by Srila Prabhupada but by Tamal Krishna Swami. We understood that with his illness, our spiritual master (how exciting those words sounded to us) had been forced to delegate these duties.

I began to talk about having a baby. It seemed like many of the women were having babies in New Dwaraka and the more time I spent with moms, the more I wanted a baby of my own. While there was no expectation that we would have lots of children, having children was the point of being householders. We were supposed to raise good devotee children, children who would be even more devoted than we were because they wanted to take birth as devotees while we were born karmis. These children would help change the world and bring about the Golden Age predicted by scriptures, an age where peace and devotion to Krishna would sweep the earth.

I wanted to conceive a child in the right way, by chanting 50 rounds of the Hare Krishna mahamantra–thereby calling a Krishna Conscious soul to take birth as our child. I was babysitting on Sunday mornings for Srilekha while she taught Sunday school to Indian children. Her little girl Kishori was conceived in this way. Kishori was a delightful little girl and spending time with her only increased my desire to have a child.

Mike didn’t want to plan a child and so he wouldn’t agree to chanting 50 rounds. On the other hand, he didn’t want to use condoms or other birth control. I figured we’d end up having a baby anyway, though not the way I preferred to. We discussed this a few times but when he became frustrated and a little angry, I backed off. I didn’t want to inspire his anger because I was never sure where it would lead.

Not long after our initiation an old correspondent from the registered membership program, Pastora Roldan, came to visit and stayed with us for a couple of days. She had tried to surrender twice before in London and Los Angeles and even considered coming to St. Louis, but didn’t seem to be able to adjust to life in the temple. I tried to show her that life could be pleasant if she gave it a chance and cooked for her and took her to the kirtans with me.

At the temple they showed some film of Srila Prabhupada that shocked us all and brought many to tears. He was very thin and frail-looking, lying in bed with a microphone held up to his mouth, still translating, desperately trying to finish Chaitanya Charitamrita, a multi-volume chronicle of the life and preaching of Lord Chaitanya in the 16th century. We took up our kirtan with renewed fervor, as if we could transfer our very life force to our Guru Maharaja. Devotees were saying that it was our sinful activities that contributed to his poor health, since he was taking on our karma. We hoped that pious activities would improve it.

When Pastora left, Mahasraya and I fell down from our lofty platform of compliance with the rules. After suppressing our desire for over a month we had sex. Feeling guilty, we returned to following the rule of chastity for married couples who are not actively trying to conceive. I knew that “illicit sex life” was supposed to mean even in marriage unless one chanted 50 rounds of the mahamantra and deliberately tried to conceive a child. This was to be a conflict for me the entire time we were married and I would go back and forth between resisting my desire to have sex and giving in. I was often consumed with guilt and felt like I was endangering Srila Prabhupada’s health with my weak will.

It was at about this same period of time that my grandma told me my mom was going to have a coronary bypass operation. I had been out of touch with her ever since our fight in Chicago. In fact, I was a little cautious about writing to my family because soon after we arrived in Los Angeles a devotee named Kulapriya was kidnapped by her family when she told them she was getting married, and turned over to deprogrammers. I helped protest their actions by picketing.

My neighbor Sri Prada was a good friend of Kulapriya’s and was really anxious. We had heard the stories of attempted deprogramming, some attempts involving sexual assault and all of them involving blasphemy, efforts to get the devotee to eat meat or drink alcohol or otherwise break our rules, being kept awake for hours, blasting loud music, and other forms of manipulation and harassment. Devotees had learned to pretend to “break” and do whatever they had to do to get released and return to the safety of the temple.

Given that my grandma had cursed Makanlal to rot in hell and always referred to Gaudiya Vaishnavism as “that crazy religion” I had to wonder if she’d arrange to have me deprogrammed. She seemed to be all about controlling me throughout my teen years and I’m sure my mom would have been on board. In retrospect the only thing that stopped them was the expense and the fact that they might not have known any way to contact a deprogrammer.

I was leery of giving them my direct address and had them write to me care of the temple. We arranged on the day of the surgery for me to call them collect from the Millers’ residence. The Millers were very kind and concerned for me and graciously offered to help.

The night before Mom’s heart surgery I realized I was scared. Up until this point I really thought I hated my mom. I had spent all my energy trying to pull away from her and make my own life, and she had made that nearly impossible. I was filled with resentment—until I thought I might lose her forever! I was surprised at the panic I felt over the very idea that my mom might die and I might never be able to see her again. I realized I still loved her! I was genuinely surprised to realize this. I remember telling Mike.

“I’m afraid Mom might die—I still love her!” I said.

He looked at me like I was crazy. “Of course you do,” he replied.

“I didn’t think so, the way she’s treated me,” I said.

“You’ll always love your mom, no matter what.” He said wisely.

Mom did pull through her bypass surgery and I sent her a card. Our communication tentatively resumed, with sporadic letters. I was still trying to maintain a bit of distance between us. We never mentioned the fight, though she did complain about my taking the stainless steel cake pan. I told her I really needed it. (It was one half of a set.) I figured she didn’t bake layer cakes much anyway. It was one of our two “plates” and I also baked cakes and quick breads in it regularly.

Mike also reconnected with his dad. John had left when Mike was just two years old and had spent his life traveling around, getting women pregnant and then fleeing. Finally one young woman, my age at the time, had the baby and left her son with his father and disappeared herself! So John and his son Shawn traveled with his girlfriend Lori in a van, making a circuit between Vegas and Los Angeles and Sacramento where her parents lived. Lori was in her early twenties and was a more stable influence on his young son, becoming his de facto mother. We met them at the temple when John came to the feast, surprised to see his son there. They had last seen each other in Chicago after the birth of Mike’s first child. They looked a lot alike—only the eyes were different. Mike had his mother Patricia’s eyes.

John and Lori would drop by every now and then, sleeping in their van, often coming for the Sunday Feast. The Sunday program drew members of the counterculture and other down and out people who were willing to hear a lecture and engage in kirtan before they ate. People would fill their plates to overflowing and go back for more until the prasadam (spiritual food) was gone. We enjoyed it as much as they did, of course. All of the best Indian dishes were cooked for the feasts, including pakoras and samosas, sought after fried foods often served at Indian restaurants.

Indian feast

Rice, samosa, eggplant-tomato vegetable, and raita.

I became severely “morning sick.” As the sickness continued I needed no pregnancy test to realize what had happened. We had conceived after Pastora left, when we “fell down.” I found out later that what I had was not morning sickness but a condition called hyperemesis gravidarum. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t keep from vomiting even if I managed to choke a little food down, and grew weak and light-headed. I tried to drink liquids all day, teas and water, and struggled to keep them down. I tried to keep my mind off of how I felt by reading scripture.

We had many volumes and I began to read all day long. I wasn’t able to cook or do housework so I just kept reading, trying to push down the guilt. I felt like I was letting Mike down. I was supposed to be serving him, and here he was bringing me tea and trying to find things I could eat. He was really concerned about my health and very gentle with me during this time.

I read through our entire collection of Srimad Bhagavatam, one volume right after another. I would have vivid dreams about what I was reading, stories of demigods and the different incarnations of Krishna, hellish planets and heavenly realms, stories about the sage Narada Muni and his teachings and many other fantastic stories.

Throughout them all was dharma, the righteous path that leads one to the ultimate goal of bhakti: pure love of God and therefore liberation from the material world of birth and death. I felt that I was having all kinds of spiritual realizations as I immersed myself in these books. When I wasn’t reading I was chanting and trying to imagine the Krishna conscious soul that was growing within my womb. I hoped that in spite of my inability to eat much that this little spirit soul was getting enough nourishment to grow. I was in awe of the process of creation taking place inside me.

In this way I passed two-and-a-half months, from mid-April to the end of June. Just as I began to feel a little better in early July we got word that Mike’s mom had been found dead in her car. This was quite unexpected and a huge shock, since Patricia was only 44 years old and we hadn’t been aware that she was ill. I vaguely knew she had a drinking problem but I didn’t realize how serious this could be. It turned out that she died from liver and kidney failure. If she had felt sick in the days before her death she hadn’t told anyone.

Mike was devastated, crying and berating himself for not writing to her, for being selfish and not taking care of her. He was inconsolable. I felt powerless to help him get through this awful tragedy. Just as we were welcoming a new person into our family, we were losing a grandma who would never get to see her grandchild. I kept thinking to myself: only 44 years old, just a few years older than my own mother. I pictured her body in her car, waiting to be discovered. We were forbidden to drink alcohol or take any other intoxicant, and now I understood the power of such things to destroy life itself.

“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one, who attains to my abode, O son of Kunté, never takes birth again.”

Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-Gita 8.16

*Tapati rhymes with cup o’ TEA.
*Mahasraya is pronounced Muh HAAH shreye uh

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