About five years devotee now, I had been engaged in Montreal temple as sometimes sankirtana devotee brahmacari cook and pujari of Jagannatha Swami, Baladeva Prabhuji, and Srimati Subhadra-deviji. Between duties, I was one of the best candle carvers of our temple-purchase business, and earned a smallish stipend which enabled me to head to India after the Christmas rush was over. Montreal was big back then, and we had at least 25 brahmacaris living there at any time. Nandikeswara Prabhu was the president. Knowing what variety was there in India from previous visits, I prayed to Jagannatha Swami to guide me to the service He wanted me to do once I got there.
We were standing atop the apartment / brahmacari quarters at the rear of the property behind the temple, shortly after arriving in Bombay. I was wondering what Krsna had in store for me. Then Bhagavata dasa brahmacari saw me there, and came up beside me with, "Jaya Jagannatha! " He proceeded to explain that they were planning a Rathayatra and other services, and could use some help. Seeing this as Krsna's plan manifesting, I quickly agreed.
The Bhubaneswara temple was well outside of town, beside a village called Nayapalli. Red sandy soil, scrub cactus, termites, and ants, adorned the land scape. A large perhaps banyan tree stood towards the rear of the property. There were two buildings, so to speak; a tiny go-down, and a rectangular one-floor earth and cement and bamboo structure, no glass in the small windows, no furniture etc except a chair for a picture of Srila Prabhupada and a small altar in the temple room. This room could comfortably hold maybe twelve persons standing. Attached, in the middle section, was a room about ten by twleve feet. Gour Govinda Swami and his writing trunk / book storage occupied one corner, Bhagavata another, and I in yet another. It had a cement floor, no fan, strings tied across the back wall for drying clothes, clean, no cover over the light switch, black very old finger dialing heavy-duty telephone on the floor. Rafters held up the straw roof, and aluminum biscuit cans were tied to these, strings soaked in kerosene to keep the ants and termites away. The third room was a duck-in-only clay fireplace at one end of a tiny room. One or two only could squeeze in at a time. The go-down was separate, partially completed, and very small. In back, the brahmacaris had literally dug a hole in the ground to sleep in.
The veranda or court area was sizeable, coverd by bamboo lattice work and branches to give some shade. All round was a sweet garden of Tulsis, all looking good, arranged such that the water could be poured at one end, and it flowed by gravity to the whole garden by a clever system of irrigation that Vaisnava dasa had constructed. The termites built up coverings of sand around the foot of these poles in a matter of hours, and their constructions had to be knocked down daily. Ants criss-crossed the landscap in long lines. Geckos clung to the walls, making chirping noises.
The land was unfenced, and no sign. For bathing, there was a slab of concrete, later surrounded by a bamboo mat, with a pole and shower head, next to the outdoor latrine facilities, Indian style. It was always very fresh and clean, and pleasant to shower there. In back, some forty yards behind the courtyard, another pipe had a spiggot. Maharajah often preferred to bath here, with a bucket. This arrangement was fine in the summer, but in winter with the cold wind blowing, it made for some gasping chants of Hare Krsna!
Across the street was the water tower, and the house of Sooji and Soorya Kumara, tiny devotee children, and not far away, the houses of Dikpati Prabhu and his seven daughters. He is a very good musician and mrdanga player, and a devotee of Maharajah. Several nice devotee householder families were here, too. About a half mile down the street was the nearest bulding, a commercial Bank of India. There, the riksha wallas could sometimes be found. About two miles across mostly barren red packed and scrub and cactus, were the Kundagiri hills, which held carvings left by mendicants, and even a renounced king, who had once lived in caves carved in the redstone hill sides.
I was not at all disturbed by the simplicity, but rather found it to my tastes, and soon began to fall into the rhythm of life here.
I had the greatest respect for Gour Govinda Swami right away. One could see his transcendental spirit. He was non-assuming, joyful, glowing, self controlled, simple, personable, pure, unfetterred by illusion. He was always friendly, though sometimes his scholarly side would be more apparent, such as when giving Sunday class, or by dint of the simple fact that he worked so hard on translating Srila Prabhupada's books into English for many hours each day. He would work in total absorbtion for hours, days, and hardly say so much as a single word.
GGS looked rather to me like a slightly heavier version of a Gour Nitai deity, if you can picture. Smooth ageless appearance; was he ancient or a small child? His brown skin shone from natural health, and his maha size tilak was very sadhu-like. He had almost no possessions, as did none of us there. He did not even have a mosquito net, nor a desk, nor a chair. He sat on the floor, on a small straw mat, before a steel trunk , in which he kept his books away from the ants. His lota sat on the floor behind him, and here was also the home of a fat bullfrog or possibly a toad. Every evening, the creature would hop out in serach of his daily meal. Then, before day got hot, he was again in his shady corner sleeping peacefully behind Maharajah.
A mole used to come visit me during the night. I don't know why he never bothered Maharajaha or Bhagavata Prabhu, but this little creature would burrow beneath my sleeping bag in cold weather, sometimes waking me up. It was startling, believe me, to feel something suddenly wriggling you awake! It could be a snake or anything! One day, I saw him during the daylight hours, and picked up a broom to smack him one, and he ran around the wall perimeter and out his hole, and he didn't come back again after that. The ants ate anything within a matter of time. Books included. In mosquito season , monsoon times, hoards of mosquitos would humm like death personified in gray clouds, but in a lacsadaisical lazy manner, would take ages to bother to land on you, so unlike our aggressive man-eating Canadian versions. They could carry malaria or filaria, though. GG said not to eat after five in India, and chew a nim leaf or three every day, and one would not get sick. Soon enough , the next season would come, and the singing pests were much reduced.
The routine was very simple. We we all resting by nine or ten, then up promptly at about 3AM. Maharajah was generally up a half hour before us all. Rounds were great, and we could often see the stars and the moon at the pre-managala artik time, then watch the sun rise and chant gayatri facing north as the chariot of Aruna broke free of the night's darkness, pulling Soorya brightly through the horizon's palms.
For Mangala arotika, there was Lagudi Prabhu, a short but strong Yugoslavian devotee, with a very friendly and avadhuta-like county-raised character. He was austere and jolly, and distributed books single handedly each day by doing kirtana by sitting and cahnting and talking, with a blanket and books in front of various business and govenment buldings. He would do kirtana alsmot daily in the market, soliciting donations of the day's vegetables. Although we had a million plus rupees in the bank, as it turned out, we spent very little. We would call Lagudi; Lagudi Baba. He didn't care for that, and joked, but it very much suited him, actually.ervery on in town knew him as Lagudi baba. He was the pujari of our small altar, which held Gour Nitai; beautiful long-armed sweetly smiling merciful golden small-medium sized Deities. Lord Jagannatha, Baladeva Maharajah, and Subhadra devi were there, colorful nicely chaddared small forms.
Vaisnava dasa prabhu was there, usually playing mrdanga, unless Dikpati Prabhu arrived to play. Vaisnava dasa was an Ooriya lad, who had been faithfuly serving GGS, and refused to take initiation form anyone else, though Maharajah was not giving yet at that period. He was always engaged in services, and although he knew hardly a word of English, I tried to teach him some, and he showed me some Oriya, also. He was a very good natured and serious Vaisnava, both at the same time. Everyone there was good natured, happy, and yet serious all at once, actually. I suppose we were much like Gour Govinda, come to think about it now. It was the simplest and ahppiest period of my life. Vaisnava dasa and I shared the cooking. He took sannyasa from another camp at a very young age, and I saw him again in 1997, some fifteen years later, but cannot recall his sannyasa name. There was some hard feeling which had arisen between he and the Iskcon gurus of that time. I will not attempt to elaborate here, and do not know the details.
Bhagavata, now Maharajah by sannyasa initiation of HH Narayana Maharajah Swami, and preaching world-wide, is a well known devotee by all . I belieive he is fom New York or Boston or some larger US city? We frankly did not discuss our material pasts at all. Somewhat on the physically heavy side, and sometimes using a cane, he always had a friendly and jolly attitude. He also knew the Gita backwards and sideways, as we say in my native country, meaning he knew it very well, indeed, and could recite every sloka. He was always an engaging preacher, and very renounced. He treated me like a younger brother. He was often going to Calcutta to meet Jayapataka et al, or otherwise went to Puri or Vrndavana or Delhi or Bombay also, sometimes to further the preaching, take darsana, do temple business, and arrange passports etc. The local police used to hastle him over passport issues.
Nila madhava prabhu joined us later. He came from the town of Nilamadhava, where we once held a program, and he shaved up beside the Mahanadi river with GGS there. He also spoke limited English, though a little more than Vaisnava dasa. A strongly built farming lad, he was intelligent and simple hearted and happy. He usually served with Vaisnava dasa, and very much appreciated the door to door sankirtana party which I initiated there after a while. We were good friends. He also refused any initiations other than those given by GGS. He later married and had a son, and is associated with the ISKCON Puri gurukula. I saw him last in 1997.
Urukrama Prabhu and two or three travelling sankirtana men from England, and Indian devotee inmates of Bhadraka temple weer sometimes visiting, but mostly away. There was also a nice householder couple preaching strongy in Cuttack, about 50 kilometers down the road. That was the Oriya yatra.
Many local Vaisnava grhastas also would visit our little ashrama, and helped in countless ways. They would sit patiently for as much as two hours as Maharajahf gave the Sunday lecture. I could follow the slokas, and otherwise, his preahing style was abosorbing. He made his points strongly, sometimes saying in English, : " So, Krsna says this thing in the Bhagavada Gita!" there was no doubt in any of our minds that what Sri Krsna says in the Gita is certainly true and must be followed. Towards the end, he would start to tie up his sastras in a protective cloth cover, but this process was done in increments, with ten minutes extra lecture thrown in between this fold and that tie! It was a mesmerizing ritual ! Then we all, about 50 people, sat in rows, and took simple prasad on banana leaf plates.
Sanat and Sooji Kumara usually attended managala arotika. They were lovely little Vaisnava children from across National Hwy 5 ,which runs directly in front of our land. He was about ten ish, and she only about four years old, but bright faced and cute as a Baby Gopal deity. Between the two of thme, they had maybe a total heigth of five feet! Sanat regularly banged the gong, and was very enthusiastic for devotional service and kirtana. He spoke quickly and was clearly an intelligent young lad.
Maharajah generally led kirtana. Same tune pretty much always. I loved it. The kirtan is much like Bengali style of course. Very Very Iskcon. Just between you and I, almost invariably he would have tears in his eyes before the kirtana ended. Oriya devotees pronounce Krishna as Krooshna. And amrita as amroot, etc. So I often exaggerated the sound just to make Vaisnava dasa laugh. He found my imitations of Oriya dialect quite hilarious. This was a daily function at mangala arotika.
Afterwards, we would wrap our chaddars and wander about the land, or sit and chant japa. Maharajah alwasy chanted his gayatri before arotik. In later years, I now find that chanting 16 rounds before the morning program starts , or twelve anyway, puts one in the absorbed trance state necesasary for me to get the most from the morning program. As well, Gour Govinda Swami used to drink a glass of water before going to bed. He said that this would wake us up early, so that we could get up and chant our rounds. On that sleeping topic, often we heard him call out, "Govinda!" in his sleep late at night.
GGS did not give classes to the Western devotees at that time. He actually considerd us his gurus, and although he was a true renounced scholarly Vaisnava sannyasi and paramahamsa, he treated us as his superiors in this regards, which caused us no end of thought on that matter. In fact, by a prolonged program of persuasion, we eventually managed to get Maharajah to accept the fact that he should preach in English to the Western Godbrothers, as well. But usually, especially at the Bhubanewara ashrama, he did not.
He woudn't even sit on a cushion to give Sunday class. I had to have a special pillow, with nice flowers on it, sewn in town, without telling him, of course. He refused to sit on it. I insisted, saying that it was for preaching. We had spent some money, and it was for the sake of the audience that they will show some respect for the Vaisnava teacher and the sampradaya more, therefore he must accept it for the sake of preaching. On this grounds, he second Sunday accepted it to facilitate the sankirtana. Otherwise, no way he would accept even this simple honor, until by force of our love and sense of duty, we made him do it, by his grace. Of course, in our own minds, this was out and out respect and worship of Sri Guru.
Maharajah was definitely the diamond under the hay stack. We who lived with him and the devotees of the Bengal and Orissa temples knew of his advanced status. Others in Iskcon thought him just some simple country Vaisnava gentleman, but didn't know his name even. When we went to Mayapura for Gour Purnima, they didn't even schedule him to give a single class! So I sat in the room with him and chanted a lot, mostly not going to the classes, either. This arrangement changed after I left the country, but for three Gour Purnimas in a row, that was the pattern. GGS was atually qualified to take disciples from all over the world. He was qualified spiritually to lead us after Srila Prabhupada had left. He was the most advanced and realized of all the devotees of Iskcon, to our best knowledge, but he was neglected by them at the time.
Srila Gour Govinda