A Few Memories of Yamuna Prabhu
By Kalakantha das and Jitamitra dasi
We became close to Yamuna and Dinatarine Prabhus over the last five years. We run a busy college outreach program in Gainesville and, in 2006, looking for a getaway during the summer breaks, we decided to visit Saranagati, as we had lived and served in Vancouver temple years ago and had many friends there.
Soon after arriving in Saranagati we discovered Banabihari Ashram, a straw bale house plastered in adobe covered with a green metal roof perched on a small hilltop overlooking the five-mile long Saranagati Valley. There lived the servants of Radha Banabihari, Yamuna and Dinatarine, whom Srila Prabhupada had instructed in the 1970’s to open a widow’s ashram. They had run one ever since in various ways and places, always worshipping their beloved Lordships Radha Banabihari, most recently in this breathtaking ashram they had built with their own hands.
There are many wonderful devotees in the Saranagati community who have built attractive and functional houses. Here, though, we found an extraordinary masterpiece of thoughtful devotional craftsmanship: rough-hewn wooden paneling; peeled logs serving as beams and spanning the ceiling; stained glass insets on the windows; rustic built-in bookshelves packed with hundreds of devotional and other interesting books on gardening, construction, cooking and more; hand-made (and very comfortable) furniture in the center of the large main room; an exquisite altar with a large stained-glass backdrop featuring the gopis in Vrindavan; a brilliantly designed kitchen centered around a woodstove that heated the entire ashram; all kinds of eco-friendly and ingenious systems for living off the grid; and nooks and shelves placed tastefully here and there displaying devotional treasures such as Srila Prabhupada’s original three-tiered cooker.
Admiring the gorgeous stained glass work I asked Yamuna who made them. “Yamuna devi,” she replied in a curt tone that indicated nothing more was to be said on the subject.
Yamuna and Dina charmed us with their very gracious mood and inspired us with their unalloyed dedication to Srila Prabhupada. Meeting them tipped the scales; we decided that Saranagati was the place to spend our summers. The two ladies were the heart of the ashram. They held a punctual morning program every day, open to all, plus evening reading and kirtan meetings two or three times a week. During the months we were there, we did not miss a morning, walking or driving the two miles from our residence to savor the sweet association.
Dina and Yamuna took turns performing the mangala arati. On her singing days Yamuna accompanied herself during Guruvastakam with a small keyboard instrument whose soft bell-like tone mingled with her gentle, angelic voice, creating a wonderfully mystical devotional atmosphere in the cool Canadian pre-dawn mountain air. She insisted we sing not with call-and-response but in unison, a method creating a warm intimacy among the devotees that melted away any bodily considerations of ashram, gender or seniority, bringing everyone present together in an infectuous mood of love for Srila Prabhupada and Radha Banabihari.
After kirtan everyone chanted japa for an hour. Yamuna would sometimes bring out her set of large red wooden beads dating back to her early days with Srila Prabhupada, beads he had personally chanted on for her. She would invite devotees present to chant a round on these special beads. She did not hoard her blessings from Srila Prabhupada but shared them with everyone.
After japa was Srimad Bhagavatam class. Dina began each class with an excerpt from a selected book such as Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur’s biography or Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s writings. Then we read Srila Prabhuapda’s Srimad Bhagavatam, often several verses and purports each day, always nicely facilitated by Dina, always conducted in an interactive discussion format involving all present without a main speaker. Yamuna would often stir the discussion with thoughtful questions, steering the topic from the day’s verses and purports into a variety of facinating directions. Many days it was just the four of us for class, and we talked about everything; their experiences with Srila Prabhupada, the dynamics of ashram and community life, the state of Kali yuga, India, off-grid living, cow protection, Gaudiya Math/ISKCON issues, upcoming festivals, and much more.
During the class, though she conscientiously made sure that everyone present spoke up and took part in the discussion, Yamuna would also add special little memories of Srila Prabhupada. Once, on Lord Balaram’s appearance day, she told us of how she came in to Srila Prabhupada’s room and found him standing before a painting of Lord Balaram killing a demon, imitating with his own transcendental body the pose struck by the Lord in the painting.
She also told us of her adventures in Srila Prabhupada’s service. Once, when preparing for a festival in London, she called George Harrison to invite him, mentioning that a particular rice pudding dish that he loved was on the menu. “Shall I set a plate for you?” she asked. “You’d better set two,” he replied.
She described how, when recording the famous ‘Radha Krishna Temple’ album, that she and all the devotees were up late in George’s studio as he and Paul McCartney worked on the mixing. Many of the devotees were asleep here and there, so she sat at the harmonium and began chanting, “Bhaja Hure Mana.” She said that during the early and very difficult days in London she had learned that bhajan by listening over and over again to a recording of Srila Prabhupada singing it. “There were no songbooks,” she added.
As she sang the bhajan, accompanying herself with the harmonium, she did not know that George was recording her. Much to her chagrin, he insisted on including the recording on the album, dubbing over some simple hand-clapping percussion. Later it was pointed out that the title had been transposed and sung as “Bhaja Mana Hure”. “It is all right,” Srila Prabhupada had told her upon hearing it, “You can fix it later.”
Though we would have been happy for those classes to go on all day, the ladies would end them punctually, distribute some maha-prasad, and shoo everyone out to go on with their day’s service. For Dina and Yamuna the day often included writing, cooking, gardening, work on the ashram, hosting guests, weekly town runs for shopping and laundry, and doing crafts and other projects with the ‘milkmaids’, the half-dozen teenage daughters of Saranagati families who dearly loved their sixty-something friends.
Wednesday evenings many devotees would gather at the ashram for Caitanya Caritamrta readings. Inspired by Yamuna and Dina, the group had been meeting for years, and by now they were on their third complete reading of the text. Friday nights were set aside for bhajans. At one point each summer the ladies would host Kartamisa from Alachua and his wife, Radha, a former milkmaid from the Valley. Togther with Yamuna and Dina they organized two or three-week marathons of singing Bhaktivinode Thakur bhajans each evening, completing the entire “Sarangati” and “Godruma Kalpataru” songbooks by the Thakur.
During the bhajans Yamuna always sat as if in trance, eyes closed, swaying to the music, singing vigorously in her clear and penetrating voice, fully abosorbed. At the end of each bhajan she would express deep satisfaction. “Such nectar, such nectar.”
Yamuna would organize the milkmaids to sing bhajans at the Saranagati festivals and play other leading roles in the community. Once, before the Saranagati Rathayatra, she took the bullhorn and made an introductory speech to the devotees standing before the cart. Pointing to the majestic forest-covered hills on each side of the valley, she proclaimed, “There are more living entities here to be blessed by the holy names than there are at the New York Rathayatra.”
On special occasions Yamuna would cook for us. Whatever she prepared was unfailingly delicious and healthful. Someone once said something about a “chaunce.” “The word is ‘chonk,'” she replied. “‘Chaunce’ is a word made up by Kirtanananda which apparently means putting spices in overheated ghee and burning them to charcoal.”
Yamuna recounted the old days when a family atmosphere pervaded the temples and everyone was addressed and treated as “Prabhu.” She did not care for the later stuffy formalities that evolved in ISKCON. “Mother Yamuna,” I once said. “Yes, Father Kalakantha,” she replied sweetly.
We took much of what we learned from Yamuna and Dina back to Gainesville and applied it. We sought to make devotees feel loved and welcomed and involved, and Krishna blessed us with many new Vaishnavas in our community. After three years we were unable to continue coming to Saranagati for the summers. We saw Yamuna and Dina again a few times, in Alachua and India and finally at their kutir in Melbourne beach. Though Yamuna’s health was in serious decline they were both always happy and upbeat in Krishna consciousness. Their steady sadhana and love for chanting had only increased.
As with everyone she met, Yamuna was always very kind and encouraging to us. Just a couple of days before her departure she sent us this letter:
Dear Kala and Jita, Hare Krishna Pranam Dandavats Jaya Srila Prabhupada
Pray this meets you happy, healthy and well in ways you need.
Can literally feel the efforts of your service to Srila Prabhupada across the miles down here in Melbourne.
Thought to share these photos taken on Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur’s disappearance day and Their Lordships 36th, in hopes that it might bring a smile to your faces and brighten your day.
Yamuna, you have brightened our lives and remembering you will always bring a smile. You are an irreplaceable treasure in our lives. Clearly you are an intimate eternal associate of Srila Prabhupada. You were finished with this world and Krishna has brought you back to His in the most gentle way. We pray to again be in your company in some early morning kirtan hearing your sweet voice, feeling your incredible strength of devotion, experiencing and learning from your sweet devotional charm and your unabashed love for Srila Prabhupada.
We pray too that our wonderful Godsister Dinatarine will find solace and strength to carry on with her service to Srila Prabhupada and thus continue to inspire us all.
With sadness and much appreciation, Kalakantha das and Jitamitra dasi
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