By Shyamasundara dasa
Last Monday, September 24, 2012 was the 36th anniversary of the day I first met Ramakeli Prabhu. I vividly recall it, because it was the day I surrendered to Srila Prabhupada. I had been reading Bhagavad Gita As it Is and Krsna Book, chanting the mahamantra as explained in the books and offering my food to the Gita. I had never been to a temple, I lived in Sudbury, Canada and the closest one was 400 km to the south in Toronto. For weeks I had prayed every day and night to Lord Krsna to send me a genuine guru. Then on September 23rd, my girlfriend told me she met some devotees but I was not able to meet them. The next day, Friday, when she told me they were again downtown I didn’t waste time and immediately went to meet them. The first person I met was Krsnadasa Kaviraja Prabhu and asked him where my girlfriend was? He pointed out that she was talking to Ramakeli Prabhu, the sankirtan leader. Ramakeli Prabhu stood out like the proverbial sore thumb because he was a black-bodied devotee. Living in Northern Ontario you rarely meet black people. I had only ever met 2-3 in my life till then. I went over to meet him.
Ramakeli Prabhu was very gregarious and spoke well. I recall that in his preaching to me about the power of Srila Prabhupada’s books and the process of Krsna Consciousness that he told me that he had formerly been a junkie, but by the effect of the Bhakti Yoga process he had left that all behind, and had joined the Radha Damodara Sankirtan party led by Tamal Krishna Goswami. I told him I had read Gita and Krsna Book, and he began asking me questions about mayavadis and other topics to see if I had actually comprehended anything. He was happy to see that something had penetrated my thick skull. He offered to buy us (my girlfriend and I) bus tickets to come to visit the Ottawa temple (he had been traded from Chicago to Ottawa for Mother Karana Karana and was the sankirtana leader). At that very moment I had a completely mystical experience in which all of the external sound suddenly turned off. By that I mean even though we were standing at a busy street corner full of traffic noise and him speaking to me right in my face, all external sounds were turned off and I just saw his lips moving. Then a very loud voice like a PA system inside of me told me repeatedly the command that, “This is the time to surrender” and finally said “This is what you were praying for.” After that all external sound returned including Ramakeli speaking to me in mid-sentence. My jaw must have dropped. What could I do after that? So I just told Ramakeli “I’m joining now!” Then his jaw dropped. I guess he never made a devotee so quickly (-:
I told him that I liked to read and study a lot I remember him telling me, “Don’t worry, you will have plenty of time to read and study.” Which of course was not the case as I was piled with service from the moment I moved into the ashram. No regrets.
I went back to work and informed them I had better offer in Ottawa and was quitting that day itself. Ramakeli and the others (Karttikeya Prabhu and Krsnadasa Kaviraja Prabhu) picked me up and I stayed the night with them, and the next day (Saturday) I was on the street with them. The next day after that was Sunday and time to go back to Ottawa (560 km away). This is when Ramakeli started training me in earnest. Even though I had a very sore throat, Ramakeli Prabhu insisted (and rightly so) that I chant all my 16 rounds. I had been chanting before but never on beads and never that much, what to speak of with a raw, sore throat, but he convinced me of how important it was to chant all my rounds. Ramakeli Prabhu, thank you for not being soft on me and making me understand the vital importance of chanting the Holy Name in any and all circumstances no matter what — a lesson I have never forgotten.
Then on Monday it was decided that I would join the sankirtan party (Ramakeli Prabhu, Laksminatha Prabhu and Dayalji Prabhu) to Rouyn-Noranda and Val-d’Or, small mining towns in the “gold belt” of French speaking Northern Quebec. Neither Ramakeli nor I knew French but the others taught us a few lines and off we went. Ramakeli Prabhu was a big hit with the locals, as they had never seen a black-bodied devotee before. He couldn’t speak French but he was all smiles and very friendly and he came back every evening with massive amounts of laksmi — more than the French speaking devotees. Every morning we had what might be considered a feast in some temples today. Two subjis, dahl, rice, oatmeal halava, etc. It was delicious and all cooked up by Ramakeli and the others on a small hotplate in a motel room.
Later the lease ran out on the Ottawa temple so while the Temple President was searching for a new location, the Gaura Nitai Deities and all other devotees temporarily relocated to Montreal temple for a few months. Here Ramakeli lead us out on many forays to collect laksmi for getting Gaura Nitai a new temple.
Ramakeli was very strict about making sure that no matter what, I would always come for the whole morning program. I remember one instance very well. IN those days the brahmacari ashrama in Montreal was just one huge room, a former gymnasium. We all slept on the floor; there must have been 30 of us. Anyway, one day I got a bad stomach flu and was up all night vomiting, probably kept everybody else up too. But to “Sargent” Ramakeli Prabhu this was not even close to a reason to miss mangala arotika, so he helped me to the shower and get dressed and even though I was turning various shades of green I was somehow in mangala arotika and the rest of the morning program as well. Thank you Ramakeli Prabhu for showing me the importance of attending the whole morning program, though I must admit that sometimes I wimp out and baby myself too much when I shouldn’t.
Soon after this the Chicago temple started missing Ramakeli Prabhu too much and he was traded for another devotee. We all missed him a lot, especially me. After that our paths went in different directions, I went to India and he to Africa. We would occasionally meet over the years at Panahati festival in Atlanta or elsewhere. The last time I saw him was in Mayapur 2006, it was a joyous occasion for me and nothing had changed. It was as if we had just returned after stepping out of the room, even though many years had passed since we last met.
Ramakeli was a very warm and friendly person, yet at the same time he was strict and deadly serious about spiritual life and pleasing Srila Prabhupada. You can see from the photograph of him in the hospice bed what a wonderful smile he had, he looks completely blissful. I want to thank Sikhi Mahiti Prabhu and others for taking care of this saintly devotee in his last days with us. Lord Krsna blessed him to have a painless death and in such auspicious circumstances that we can only imagine what good fortune he is now experiencing. In fact, I am not sure if I should be praying for him or to him.
I feel privileged to have had his blessed association and for the vital lessons he taught me as a new devotee. And, I lament that I will not get his association again in this life.
Your humble servant