Personal Service

A few days after Prabhupada left for Los Angeles, our temple president received a phone call from Brahmananda, who had also gone Los Angeles. According to Brahmananda, Gargamuni had just rented a house in Beverly Hills, and Prabhupada was living there with his servant, Devananda. Because Gargamuni wanted to protect Prabhupada from distraction so that he could finish his Krsna book dictations, only Brahmananda and Gargamuni knew his address.

Brahmananda related some of his personal services to Prabhuapada, and about his discussions with him on publication matters. He said that Prabhupada sometimes told him and Gargamuni 'secret' pastimes of Lord Krsna, which none of the other devotees had heard. In one pastime, Lord Balarama visited the holy place of Naimisaranya, where He attended a great sacrifice and Srimad Bhagavatam dissertation. On His arrival, all the sages offered Him respectful obeisances, except for the speaker, Romaharsana Suta, who remained seated on the vyasasana. Seeing Romaharsana act as though he were greater that God Himself, Balarama became angry. As the original spiritual master and God’s first manifestation, He wanted to teach everyone that one cannot be a true spiritual master if he does not worship Him. He also wanted to show mercy to Romaharsana – to rectify his faulty mentality. He picked up a blade of kusa grass and touched it to Romaharsana, who died immediately. Not subject to the limiting laws of nature, the Lord could kill Romaharsana with a mere blade of grass.

We had been receiving Krsna book tapes regularly over the past six months, but we had never heard such a pastime. It made Balarama more real for me.

A few days later a message arrived from Prabhupada. That confidential pastime about Lord Balarama, which he had privately told Gargamuni and Brahmananda, arrived in the mail on a dictaphone tape – to be transcribed, edited, painted and turned into a book by the press devotees. Prabhupada wanted this pastime to be distributed to millions of lost souls, as part of the Krsna book, so that those souls could derive spiritual enlightenment by reading it, and gradually enter Krsna's own personal service.

In a letter to us early in the year, Prabhupada had written that with Muralidhara, Baradraja, and Devahuti now in Boston, we had a good board of artists that should be able to produce "at least one nice picture daily." I figured this would be a good way for us to come to the standard of serving Krsna twenty-four hours a day, as Prabhupada had often said we should. I had no real knowledge of the depth of the mission of Lord Caitanya and Srila Rupa Gosvami that Prabhupada was bringing to this world. I had no idea that twenty-four hours-a-day service to Krsna could only be done by a person serving internally as well, by his spiritual body, which personally serves Sri Sri Radha and Krsna in Their pastimes. I did, however, soon understand that it did not mean only painting. Besides painting, for example, I would have to learn how to serve Prabhupada's disciples.

As a pure devotee, Prabhupada was sarvajna and trikalojna, fully knowing everything past, present and future. He must have known that before meeting him I had never learned how to treat family members. He knew, in fact, that it was the American way to grow up by disregarding elders. He had even once said that due to the wrong type of education in the universities, boys all over the world have caused elderly people headaches. Now, although he had already asked me to put Devahuti in charge of the art department, I hadn't, and the other artists also did not treat her as the leader. Although I made some endeavor to assist her, it was hard to change my old habits. I sometimes criticized her work insensitively and I saw her requests for personal needs as maya for her and a burden for me. I was doing exactly the opposite of Vaisnava etiquette. I didn't know if anyone had complained – or if Prabhupada just knew – but he wrote me on January 14th: "As far as Devahuti is concerned, she is an elder woman, but very nice and sober as well as qualified. Because she is of the age of all of your mothers, she should be treated very respectfully. Nothing should be ordered to her, but simply suggested so that she may work in her own way. You should personally see to her comforts and conveniences, so that she may feel very happy to stay with you all young boys and girls. As far as I have studied, and it is quite natural, she requires a little respectful dealing from the young boys and girls."

I was caught. Prabhupada did not think her requests were maya at all. He thought them natural. I began doing small services for her, smiling when she asked for something, and I even tried to anticipate her needs. Once again, Prabhupada showed me that he was my guide in more ways than I knew. By his own way of dealing in the matter, he also showed me that service to others, according to their position, is symptomatic of Vaisnava character, and he wanted me and his other students to develop that character. Before we reformed the world, we would have to reform ourselves, and that would be a good service to Prabhupada.

Besides this, he showed me by his own example how he cares for his young daughters. He letter continued, "I asked you to work only four hours just to give you not very much strain, because I found you weaker than when I saw you before. On the whole, you can work conscientiously so that you may not feel tired due to your weakness. Sometimes, if you go with the sankirtana party, that will be a nice relaxation. You need not write me each and every time, but use your best discretion and do everything easily and without strain. That is my advice."

I'd written him, asking, "Although I am weak, I still think I should transcend the body and just work. Didn't you say we should preach Krsna consciousness to others without personal consideration?" So now his letter continued, "Being in the disciplic succession of Prahlada Maharaja, certainly we are not interested for our personal liberation as much as we want to work for the liberation of the conditioned souls, because Krsna desires it. You are an intelligent girl; I need not talk much. Be happy in Krsna conscious business. I am very glad to learn that Murlidhara, Devahuti and Baradraja are working together. You simply supervise them. I know Baradraja is a very fast working painter and, if he sticks to his work, certainly he will do wonderfully."

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Assembly Line

February 25th was the Appearance Day of Prabhupada's own Guru Maharaja, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada. We in Boston continued to work on the Krsna book, not knowing that a special function should be observed, but in Los Angeles, Prabhupada observed the holy day with a big celebration. The devotees in Los Angeles had just received permission from the city authorities to move into their new temple on Watseka Avenue. Although the rooms were not yet cleaned and the large main hall was bare, Prabhupada had a few devotees bring in his vyasasana and place on it a large painting of his spiritual master.

Surrounded by about fifty disciples, Prabhupada led them in offering arati, flowers, and mantras to the picture of his Prabhupada. As he stood before the vyasasana, he said he had nothing to offer his Guru Maharaja on this day, except his own disciples, and he read their names aloud. Sitting at the feet of his Gurudeva who, thirty-five years earlier had given him the order to publish the Vedic scriptures in English, Prabhupada gave a summary of his life and mission. The next day, we in Boston heard about the event by phone.

Five days later we press devotees received a special letter from him, describing a technique for getting the blessings of his Guru Maharaja. This technique was a process by which we could more quickly and efficiently produce his books, and it was similar to the assembly line technique the artists had begun two months earlier.

Although Devahuti usually preferred to do her own paintings, for the three of us, Muralidhara, Baradraja, and I, each painting was passed through each of us every two days. In this way, although the paintings took six days to complete, every two days a new painting came out. Now, in this letter, Prabhupada asked that each dictaphone tape he recorded go through its own assembly line – two days for transcribing, four days for first and second editing, two days for diacritic marks and two days for composing. In that way, together we could produce fifteen tapes, or three hundred pages, per month. That meant that one book would be ready for publishing every two months, which meant we would publish six books a year and the sixty volumes of the Bhagavatam would be completed in ten years.

Prabhupada had written to Brahmananda that the Press members should compete with him and publish each new book with higher quality than the previous one. Now, in this recent letter, he was similarly encouraging us to keep up with him.

Although the material world seems to become smaller by mass communication, the ISKCON world seemed to expand as we shared Prabhupada's letters with each other. This letter made me happy. It made me want to expand my service, because knowing about the other Press workers' deadlines helped me to remember the urgency of my own. Whenever I saw Arundhati, Palika, Lilasuka, or any of the other Press devotees walking quickly up or down the stairs, my own enthusiasm increased and my own pace quickened.

* * * *

Among the artists, Baradraja was the genius – the most creative and imaginative. I thought, "Due to some special karma mixed with the devotional activities he had performed in past lives, and by Lord Krsna's and Srila Prabhupada's mercy, he had an extraordinary ability to visually articulate any pastime or philosophical concept. He also had the power to envision a beautiful, finished painting of that in his mind. Like the rest of us he tried to see everything as Krsna's energy, at least intellectually, but he also saw everything as Krsna's painting. If he noticed one person talking to another outside on the street, he studied the shadows on their faces, how their clothing folded, and he would appreciate the use of contrast and color by Krsna's divine material energy. He knew how to see Krsna's artistry and thus take Krsna (through His material energy) as his art teacher. He told me, "I learned painting from watching 'life'."

Naturally, Baradraja became the first artist of the assembly line. He designed the compositions for each new painting, and sometimes a few alternative compositions. Then we would all look at the choices together and agree on the final idea. Baradraja would then draw a detailed sketch on paper, sometimes in color, and would copy that same sketch on the canvas. This would take him one day, and then on the second day he would put on the first layer of oil paint. Then, after finishing his part, he would hand the canvas to me. I was supposed to develop his work by making the colors richer, increasing the contrast, and adding some details.

"Alright," I thought to myself as I applied the paint, "There's some orange for the light part of the sidewalk, and a touch of purple for the shadows. A real artist will know not to paint it light grey and dark grey, or 'light white' and 'dark white', but who made the orange and purple sidewalk? And who created the eyes to see it? Krsna." I preferred, although I was not a very talented artist of Krsna's pictures, to be two per cent talented of a hundred per cent concept – the concept of Krsna consciousness – than ninety-eight per cent talented or a hundred per cent talented in a two per cent concept – the concept of mundane art.

It sounded easy enough to just take Baradraja's canvas and develop his work, but it was not easy at all. Often, if not always, due to lack of experience and ability, I flattened out his subtleties. Not being able to read his mind, I could not develop his ideas as he envisioned them, and this was quite frustrating. Even though Baradraja tried to carefully explain his intentions, I could not see his mind in my own mind's eye, and he also became frustrated. I depended on him to keep me engaged with a new canvas every two days, and since his talents and desires went beyond painting, I figured he depended on me to remind him of his art related responsibility. Besides his vigor and love for kirtana, he also liked people and he liked to help them come to understand what he’d learned from Prabhupada. Absorbed in speaking to guests, he was often late for work in the morning, and whenever my watch told me he was a few minutes late, I ran to get him. He tolerated my calling out his name almost as much as I called out the name of Krsna, and both of us felt frustration. But how could we not continue? Prabhupada had said he wanted fifty-two paintings for volume one alone.

After Baradraja and I worked on each canvas for our respective two days, Muralidhara put on the fine details – the golden jari (gold-embroidered designs), jewelry, flowers, and so on. He was very expert at making minute details, so that instead of looking flat by having hard-lined edges, the cloth, foliage and figures looked round and soft.

Sometimes our assembly line process worked smoothly, and sometimes we all disagreed on how various elements or details should look. When we were doing the cover painting of Krsna book – Sri Sri Radha-Krsna standing in a beautiful Vrndavana forest – we disagreed on how Their effulgence should look. If a neutral party were to give his opinion, all the effulgences would have probably been equally acceptable, yet none of us wanted to compromise our own views. The painting therefore went around the assembly line three times, and Radha-Krsna's effulgence was changed at least seven times before we agreed to call it finished. One of us agreed happily, and the other two agreed less happily, but the good thing about this kind of incident was that it didn't happen often.

Prabhupada's assembly line continued, and as a result I learned a lot about painting from Baradraja and Muralidhara. Besides having a tremendous sense for color, composition, and animation, Baradraja made the trees, houses, clothing and faces look more 'Indian' than Muralidhara and I did. He knew well how to copy the small, flat, stylized Indian poster prints in such a way as to make them look three dimensional and realistic. I figured he must have been an Indian in his last life.

He had joined the Montreal temple in December, l968, exactly the same time Prabhupada wrote to me, "I will require some artist who will paint pictures for the Bhagavatam as I give hints on what to paint. But the artist must be very quick." When I had first received that letter, I thought that quick painter was me. Now I understood that it was probably Baradraja. As for Muralidhara, his painting had a delicate sense and a reserve that was similar to his own personality, as well as a sense of fineness in minute detail. I was grateful that we were all on the same team.

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World Shaking Answers

The more we painted, the more we realized how much we didn't know about painting and Krsna consciousness. As we began work on the second volume of Krsna book, we found we had more and more questions. And why should we not? We had come to Prabhupada straight out of 'hippydom'. Personally, I had been spinning in and out of LSD and marijuana, Andy Warhol, left-wing politics, the 'I Love Lucy' TV comedy series, and the New York Yankees. Muralidhara, previously an art major in college, had been trying to find himself through his paintings, and he was therefore absorbed in abstracts, western landscapes and still-life painting. As for Baradraja, he had been a psychedelic rock'n roll star in Canada.

How could we have known how to draw or paint the people, places and paraphernalia of the ancient Vedic culture – and what to speak of Krsna's transcendental pastimes, which are beyond mundane sense perception?

Hardly any of the devotees had been to India, and those who were already in India had not returned. To our knowledge, none of our god-brothers or sisters had accumulated any reference materials showing details of Indian architecture, huts, clothing, or anything else. We were fully dependent on Prabhupada's personal instructions to visually interpret the scenes in his manuscripts.

We had taken up a task which was impossible to do without Lord Krsna's and Srila Prabhupada's mercy. We were not just dealing with something like reflections in a pond, as did Monet, Rembrandt, and so many other artists. That in itself would have been so difficult. I’s read what those famous artists had personally written about their own situations, that trying to create water as a mirror of what is going on in the “real” world is an impossibility, and only a few became masters. Water changes at every instant because of the way bits of sky are reflected in it, giving it life and movement. The oncoming cloud, the threat of a rainstorm, the gust of wind, all unnoticed by an untrained eye, create constant changes and alter the water's surface. Those artists had to capture a particle of a moment, and at the same time create an essence. That was their aim and that was almost impossible, but our art would be still more difficult.

Therefore, although we knew Prabhupada was busy, we still asked for his help without reservation. He'd said that the world's problems were due to forgetfulness of Krsna and His devotional service, and that all problems would be solved by remembering Him. He had already written to Baradraja: "In our Krsna book we are showing the Western world for the first time what is God. So it is no unimportant task, and try to help us out in this as far as possible." We had faith, therefore, that his answers to our questions would affect the course of history. We felt we were not wasting his time, and therefore we freely wrote down our list of questions.

In the manuscript for Krsna Book Volume Two, one pastime was about a princess named Laksmana, who became one of Krsna's wives when He was a prince in Dvaraka. During her svayamvara ceremony she had to select her husband from the group of suitors who came to show their prowess. Quoting Laksmana speaking to Draupadi, Prabhupada's manuscript stated that of all the powerful contestants, only Krsna would be able to perform the impossible task given: "During the svayamvara, the prospective bridegrooms had to pierce the eyes of a fish with their arrows. The difference between the competition in your svayamvara and mine was that in yours the fish was hanging openly in the ceiling, in clear view, but in mine the fish was covered with a cloth and could only be seen by the reflection of the cloth in a pot of water. That was the special feature of my svayamvara."

We artists could not at all imagine what this scene looked like. Did it take place in a big arena? Did it take place outside or inside? Prabhupada replied our queries in his letter of April 11, and he made us work a bit to understand his reply. He wrote, "Regarding your first question, there is no difference between the svayamvara ceremonies of Draupadi and Laksmana; they are almost alike. The only difference was that the fish was covered with a cloth in the case of Laksmana, but the fish was naked in the case of Draupadi."

Prabhupada gave only a clue, which only confirmed that the two svayamvaras were similar. I opened up my copy of the First Canto Srimad-Bhagavatam, which had the story of Draupadi’s svayamvara ceremony, and searched there for the 'rest of Prabhupada's letter'. Sure enough, it stated that the fish hung on the inner roof of the house, and that the ceremony took place at Draupadi's father's palace – just what we needed to know. Of course, the ceremony of Laksmana would not take place in Draupadi’s palace, but in Laksmana’s, but like Draupadi’s ceremony, Laksmana’s would be in a palace interior.

* * * *

Another history in the Krsna Book manuscript told of the reunion of the inhabitants of Vrndavana and the Yadu dynasty. Having met at Kuruksetra during the solar eclipse, they performed ceremonial baths in the lakes of blood that had been created thousands of years earlier by Lord Parasurama. Prabhupada's manuscript stated, "Because the ksatriyas, the men of power in government, were performing sinful activities, Lord Parasurama rid all the ksatriyas from the face of the earth twenty-one times, and He created nine lakes filled with their blood."

"How could elevated souls bathe in blood?" I asked Rukmini. "It sounds repulsive. Even bathing in good people's blood sounds ghastly, never mind sinful people's blood." Rukmini also didn't know. Who could know the answer unless we asked Prabhupada? We had therefore included that question in our letter, and Prabhupada now replied, "Regarding your second question, when blood stands for some time, it coagulates and the coagulum subsides, leaving the serum or water. The lakes then became full with water."

"He knows everything," we agreed.

* * * *

Even though we were still painting for Krsna Book Volume Two, Prabhupada now wanted us to begin work on the soon-to-be-published Nectar of Devotion. I was excited, because he had said Nectar of Devotion would be a lawbook of Krsna consciousness. Even the title was exciting. Although the summary title, Nectar of Devotion, was on the book's cover, in the introduction Prabhupada explained the full title, as a direct translation of Srila Rupa Gosvami's work, "The Ocean of the Pure Nectar of Devotional Service." And inside, just as the title promised, there was plenty of nectar.

In the beginning of the introduction, Prabhupada had personally written a glorification of the book's message: "Let me offer my respectful obeisances unto the lotus feet of Srila Rupa Gosvami Prabhupada and Srila Bhaktisiddanta Sarasvati Gosvami Prabhupada, by whose inspiration I have been engaged in the matter of compiling this summary study of Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu. This is the sublime science of devotional service as propounded by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who appeared five hundred years ago in West Bengal, India to propagate the movement of Krsna consciousness."

Each successive part of the book was designed to take the reader from the first day of coming to Krsna consciousness to the stage of perfection in the spiritual world.

One story in the final part described fraternal love for Krsna in Vrndavana, and Prabhupada explained there the significance of such love. Being the Supreme Person, Lord Krsna is also the reservoir of all relationships and the supreme friend. Although He does not require the help of any friends, He takes pleasure in giving them the pleasure of assisting Him. In this scene, His cowherd friends were helping Him to relieve His fatigue after He had killed a demon. Prabhupada wrote, "Some friends would say, 'My dear Visala, please take this fan of lotus leaves, and fan Krsna so that He may feel some comfort. Varuthapa, you just brush the scattered hairs on Krsna's head which have fallen upon His face. Vrsabha, don't talk unnecessarily! Immediately massage Krsna's body. His arms have become tired from fighting and wrestling with that demon. Oh, just see how our friend Krsna has become tired!' These are some of the treatment given to Krsna by the sakhas."

Here we had no questions. Not only was there a lot of detailed information – who, where, how and what, but the manuscript even described what Krsna's friends looked like. Devaprastha, for example, was 'very strong, a ready scholar, and was very expert in playing ball. He wore a white dress and tied his hair into a bunch with a rope.

Besides the description of the boys, even the particulars of who rendered what services were clearly given. Krsna was keeping His head on the arms of Sridama, with His left hand on Dama's chest. Seeing all this, Devaprastha, out of his strong affection for Krsna, took the opportunity to immediately begin massaging His legs.

Although the supreme secrets of life were there on the pages for anyone qualified to see them, I could not understand them. I could not understand that Prabhupada's only aim, his only mission, and our only purpose for existing was to live in those boys' neighborhood and personally serve Radha and Krsna.

Baradraja made an exciting composition in almost aerial perspective, and the fact that he put the scene on a slight hill contributed to that aerial vision. He filled the entire canvas with the forms of the cowherd boys, with small patches of background landscape peeping out between them. I enjoyed putting the second layer on Baradraja's unusual colors; the golden-green grass, the purple-pink dhotis, and the light golden-pink complexion of the boys. It was a beautiful scene of transcendental loving friendship.

* * * *

Another story in Prabhupada’s Nectar of Devotion manuscript was about a poor brahmana who could not afford to purchase paraphernalia for opulent worship of his Deity, and he therefore performed all his worship by meditation. He dressed his worshipful Deity in beautiful clothing and ornaments, cleaned the temple, and brought many gold and silver jugs to holy rivers to fill them with water. He collected flowers, fruits, incense and sandalwood pulp to place before the Deity, and he offered arati. One day, as the brahmana meditated that he was preparing sweet rice, he touched the pot to see if it was cool enough to offer. As soon as he touched the pot, however, his finger was burnt and his meditation broke. When he looked at his finger, he was astonished to see that it was actually burnt.

At this same moment, Lord Narayana began to smile in Vaikuntha. When Laksmi and her attendants asked him why he was smiling, instead of simply replying by words, he immediately sent a Vaikuntha airplane to bring the brahmana to His abode. The brahmana arrived a moment later, and Lord Narayana explained the whole story to Laksmi. Because Lord Narayana is concerned only with devotion, he had accepted this brahmana's meditation as first-class service, and the brahmana was fortunate enough to get an eternal place in Vaikuntha.

Here we had a question for Prabhupada. Since the pastime was in the scriptures, we did not doubt that there was such a thing as a 'Vaikuntha airplane.' If this world is a reflection of the spiritual world, our planes must be reflections of those. I had already read about them in the Third Canto, and Prabhupada had also written to me about them in the previous year: "The airplane in Vaikuntha are not exactly like the airplane here. It is something like the shape of the swan while flying, with a throne on his back. It is bedecked all over with golden filigree works, and it looks very brilliant. It isn't a bird flying, but the shape of the plane is like the swan bird flying." Now I hoped to get more details, and therefore, when I wrote our Krsna book questions, I also asked about the airplane. Prabhupada replied in his April 11th letter: "Regarding the third question…And on the back they put a dome, as on a chariot, with seats for sitting and driving. I have drawn you a picture to convey the idea; please find it enclosed herewith. You are at liberty to make many questions like that."

I loved Prabhupada's enclosed stick-figure sketch of the Vaikuntha airplane. It was simple and childlike, drawn on a small piece of paper with a pen, but it was clear enough for us to get the idea. I immediately gave it to Baradraja, the mastermind, who would be creating the composition.
Besides the fact that Prabhupada's letter was full of knowledge, it was also full with humility. I had just read in the Nectar of Devotion manuscript that pure devotees like Prabhupada are worshiped by the great sages and demigods. Still, he was so humble. In the last sentence of his letter he made it sound like he was our servant. He wrote, "As long as I can, I must make answers to your questions; but when I fail I shall ask you to excuse me."

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Copyright 2001-2002 Jadurani/Syamarani dasi.
All Rights Reserved.