Remembering Nitai Das
By Tukaram Das (Temple President of ISKCON Laguna Beach)
I want to write something to honor the passing of my friend, Nitai Prabhu, but find myself questioning the purpose behind my writing.
On one hand, I’m writing for myself (out of necessity), to grieve and give shape to myriad thoughts that are inspiring (and vexing) me. On the other hand, it’s also my hope that, by writing, I might be able to share my love, appreciation and understanding of Nitai with others. In some way, I’m just attempting to keep Nitai alive with my words, lest his memory be lost. Of course, to really perpetuate Nitai’s memory, I’ll have to continue the legacy of service he started. My own mortality is also splintering my mind’s eye, and writing about Nitai is an attempt at staving off my own body and memory’s impending demise; by doing for him what I hope someone else will do for me, when my time inevitably comes. Finally, and most importantly, I’m writing simply to honor my dear friend Nitai; to show him my affection.
I can’t even remember exactly when I first met Nitai, but it must have been a dozen years ago, and it must have been in connection with HH Radhanath Maharaja; so we’ll start with Maharaja. Nitai loved Maharaja just like a disciple should; with that perfect mix of deep respect and admiration, intense trust and affection, and a touch of simple childlike innocence. He spent heaps of time at Radhanath Maharaja’s main temple in Chowpatty India, soaking up its Vaikuntha (sublime) atmosphere, and he cultivated lifetime friendships of service, with several of Maharaja’s leading disciples, imbibing their exemplary mood of sisyatva (discipleship).
I asked Maharaja yesterday, why he gave Nitai dasa that particular name (Nitai was his only disciple, to hold this name). He explained that the name was given, because when Maharaja first met him, Nitai was so wild, that Maharaja felt that it would only be by the mercy of the original Nityananda Prabhu (the divine Avatar of mercy), that Nitai dasa would be sustained. Maharaja also shared with me, that Nitai was so incredibly independent as a brahmacari (temple monk), that none of his authorities would recommend him for formal initiation, and Maharaja won’t initiate anyone without a proper recommendation. Finally, when Nitai’s uncle (Nityodita Prabhu) personally gave an official recommendation, Maharaja initiated him into our spiritual family.
About Nitai’s personality; he was one in a million. He had an infectious enthusiasm, and loads of charisma. Nitai was a bit younger than me and, although I wasn’t able see it at first, eventually I could understand that he was a natural born leader; one whose magnetic personality gathered people together and inspired them to move mountains. He always thought “outside the box,” and was ever pushing the envelope, looking for new ways to spread Lord Caitanya’s message, of love for Krsna and chanting of the holy names. Nitiai chanted japa seriously, and loved kirtan. He was an object of affection for his elders, and an inspiration for his peers. He lived the life of a full-time dedicated devotee, and he was perpetually convincing everyone around him to participate in his mission; a mission that was always increasing, in both scope and magnitude. He was super social, could outpace me in conversation, and I loved him for it. He was always vitally engaged in outreach, and exemplified the axiom “One who has life, they can preach.” He touched the lives of so many people, including this humble soul.
Nitai had received the essence, of his own innovative approach to outreach, directly from Radhanath Maharaja. Maharaja had been going to the Rainbow Gatherings for years, giving kirtan and making huge vats of bubbling halava prasada for all the attendees. At the Rainbow, Nitai learned this art from Maharaja personally, and that experience became the genesis for “Krishna’s Kitchen,” a branch of Food For Life International. From their mission statement, we learn that ” Krishna’s Kitchen shares the ancient culture of Bhakti, through the production and distribution of sacred food.” Through Nitai’s expert networking, Krishna’s Kitchen ended up becoming an integral part, of some of the biggest and most exciting alternative festivals of the new millennium; including Burning Man, Wanderlust and Bhaktifest.
This new outreach required that ISKCON (The International Society for Krsna Consciousness AKA The Hare Krsna Movement) follow Srila Prabhupada’s directive to “Give old wine in a new bottle.” Perhaps, this is where Nitai’s brilliance shined forth most brightly, as he was both a visionary and leader in this renovation project. As a visionary, he conceived of ways in which ISKCON would make inroads into these burgeoning communities of spiritual seekers, with whom we already shared so much, in terms of ethos and lifestyle, but had somehow been unable to seriously connect with. As a leader, Nitai was able to inspire and work with, large numbers of devotees, in the effort to share our prasadam and culture, whilst simultaneously maintaining integrity. Nitai was at the vanguard of this renaissance in the Hare Krsna movement, and from his and a few other innovative devotees’ vision, our movement is becoming more relevant than ever in North America.
Nitai was only 31 years old when his life was tragically cut short, but upon hearing that he and the other devotees in the car accident died instantly, Radhanath Maharaja remarked “Krsna just scooped them all up.” Maharaja demonstrated deep affection for Nitai by deciding to personally consign Nitai’s mortal remains to Mother Ganga’s embrace at Mayapura. About their relationship, Maharaja told me that when he became ill last summer, Nitai had personally cleansed and dressed Maharaja’s wounds multiple times daily, just like a loving mother. I was around during this time, and was sometimes disturbed at how Nitai was neglecting his various managerial services, choosing instead to personally tend to Maharaja’s every need. I can now see (in retrospect) that the Lord arranged this special time for Nitai, so that he was able to have the experience of intimately serving his teacher (visrambhena guroh seva), in a way that normally only occurs when one’s Guru leaves this world.
I was fortunate to have been in regular touch with Nitai over this last decade, and witnessed his transformation, from a young energetic recruit to a stalwart officer, in Lord Caitanya’s revolutionary sankirtana militia. We became especially close this last year, and spoke daily. We were kindred souls, and I appreciated his fine qualities so much, that I was looking forward to the arcs of our lives intermingling for the next 50 years or so. We regularly talked about all the service we were going to do together, and just the day before he left, he confided in me his intention to start a family, and I had invited him to come and spend time, with me and my family.
Although, I’m devastated that Nitai is no longer in our midst, I’m grateful that he and I became so close this last year, and see it as the Lord’s special blessing upon me; that I was able to pack a lifetime of friendship and all the affection it affords, into such a short time with him. I also see that Nitai was blessed, to be able to squeeze a lifetime’s worth of adventurous service, into his limited time here among us. Nitai is survived by his loving wife Mandali Devi, a saintly devotee in her own right, and I’m praying that Lord Caitanya and Srila Prabhupada bless her with the courage to grow; even from this great tragedy. It is my hope that this short sketch of Nitai’s life, and my experiences with him, will serve as my own humble offering to him, of a written samadhi; an appropriate testament, as to how this great soul was very much a gift to the world, and how he enriched the lives of so many.
The Krishna Kitchen ( http://www.krishnakitchen.org ) team has created a Facebook page “Remembering Nitai Das” at http://facebook.com/remembernitai Please share your memories of Nitai Das with us.