Recently we heard the sad news of the passing of Jada Bharata Prabhu, one of the first disciples of Satsvarupa Maharaja who joined ISKCON in 1977 and who did outstanding service for ISKCON throughout his life. His passing was not unexpected, as he had a long bout with serious illness, but his departure represents a significant milestone for our society. Here we are witnessing a loss from the generation of devotees who performed their main service during the times directly following Srila Prabhupada’s departure. In a sense, these souls are most glorious, as their surrender came from spontaneous inspiration of Srila Prabhupada’s books and from the society he created. You could argue that these devotees were the first embodiment of nothing less than Srila Prabhupada’s greatest and most important legacy, the continuity of ISKCON.
Never having Prabhupada’s personal association, direct instruction or oversight, this often-overlooked first wave of devotees was the first proof that ISKCON itself could attract souls and give them shelter.
It should also be noted, these same devotees maintained their loyalty and service throughout the havoc our society experienced during the decade following Prabhupada’s departure.
Jada Bharata dasa was amongst the first of these great souls.
Jada was a shy devotee who had an avadhuta way about him, appearing to be a simple soul. He often referred to himself as, ”A slow from Slowville”, but I had the good fortune to have known him for almost 30 years, which allowed me to see this complex, brilliant, yet enigmatic devotee was much more than he let on.
I wish to offer some glimpses into his life for the appreciation, solace, and glory of all the assembled Vaisnavas.
Jada Bharata dasa
Jada Bharata das was born John Howley, of Irish descent, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1955. During his teenage years he helped his mother run their family restaurant where he would later say he learned how to properly care for other people. He lived near the beach and often said he spent his youth in the ocean. As a young man, he received a scholarship for a degree in Forensic Accounting from Drexel University. When this self-professed beach bum and hippy wasn’t in class, he attended grateful dead shows and dealt LSD. He recounted that whenever he would run into Sankirtan devotees at these shows, he would give them all the money he was carrying, regardless of the amount.
As fate would have it, before graduating, Jack was busted by the Feds with several sheets of acid in his dorm room freezer and charged with trafficking. Possessing a large quantity of LSD was a very serious matter in 1976, and could attract a lengthy prison sentence. In great anxiety, he went before the Deities of Radha Govinda at the 55th street temple in Manhattan and made a deal. If they could arrange for him not to go to prison, he would chant 64 rounds everyday until his court date and afterwards move into the temple.
The day of the trial came, and as his was later in the day, he sat in court in dhoti, kurta and shaved head, furiously trying to complete his 64 rounds. His name was finally called, and the prosecutor described at length how people like him were a menace to society and requested that the book be thrown at him. The judge listened for some time, then interrupted the prosecutor saying ”You keep saying he is such a bad guy, but I’ve been watching him all afternoon and he’s been praying the entire time!” with that the judge banged his gavel and declared a suspended sentence with probation. Bhakta Jack moved into the 55th street temple that very day.
Jada’s first service was to work under the great soul Jayananda Prabhu, going on errands and helping him with different tasks. Jada always attributed whatever he understood about KC to those times with Jayananda Prabhu.
Jada quickly became part of the dynamic book distribution teams based out of the 55th street temple, empowered souls going to busy spots all over Manhattan, selling huge numbers of books. Jada would go out everyday on 5th Avenue distributing books to the tourists. Jada related that sometimes-annoyed businessmen would greet his outstretched hand with a well-placed brief case slammed into his private parts. He said it was an austere, yet blissful time.
Jada was part the first generation that received initiation from the new Gurus of ISKCON. He said once that it was a little bit of an adjustment, as one moment this person was a god brother, then the next moment his Spiritual Master. In all of my time knowing him, however, I never heard him express any resentment for that arrangement.
Later, in the early eighties, Jada became a legendary book distributor, and if you read some recent offering from different devotees, you can see how much he was venerated for his determination on the field. (A chiropractor would later tell him after a scan of his body, that part of the reason he had such poor posture was due to permanently damaging his shoulder muscle from continually wearing a cheap, thin strapped Indian book bag filled with too many big books).
Often on the top of the Sankirtan newsletter, Jada was always thinking about how to increase book distribution. At a music festival in the early eighties he once distributed a record setting 900 copies of the small book “Search for Liberation”, a discussion between Srila Prabhupada and John Lennon. He later lamented when it went out of print, as he said it was great for opening dialogue with many different kinds of people.
During this time, Back To Godhead magazine was going through a severe financial crisis, so a team of Satsvarupa Maharaja’s disciples and well wishers created the BTG Party. It consisted of Jada Bharata, Raya Krishna, Ram Raya, Nama Sankirtan, Viudra, Partha Danadhara, Mahaprabhu and others. This team exclusively distributed BTG’s in enormous quantities and saved the magazine from financial ruin.
Jada would eventually become Sankirtan leader in New York, organizing teams of distributors as well as personally training new devotees. During this time he was responsible for the collection of untold millions of dollars for ISKCON.
Jada was quite a grave person, almost with a kind of military bearing, and observed what we called old school ISKCON etiquette. When I was first introduced to him as a new bhakta in 1985 by Braja Bihari in a parking structure in Louisiana, he didn’t even acknowledge my existence.
In 1986, while on parikrama at Radha Kund, Jada was asked by His Holiness Lokanath Maharaja to help him introduce Padayatra to America. Jada Bharata loved Lokanath Maharaja, particularly his kirtan, which he described as “diving into a cool pool”. He agreed to help in the preparation and organization. It was at this time that I began to work with him, also being instructed by Lokanath Maharaja to make Padayatra America my service. Under the auspices of Badrinarayan Maharaja, we opened the Padayatra America office in the Brahmacari ashram of the LA temple.
We were really a bit of an odd couple, he and I. He was a seasoned veteran of book distribution, skinny, sober and street wise in the ways of ISKCON, and I was an heavyset extroverted and naïve bhakta burfi. Early on, Jada realized if we were to succeed, he would have to train me, and in the beginning our relationship was quite formal, as mentor and trainee.
We faced many obstacles to Padayatra as many devotees believed it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done, but Jada’s nature was to take a challenge and work hard to strategize how to achieve victory. His conviction was that anything done on behalf of Prabhupada would succeed with the right amount of applied intelligence and effort.
He decided the first thing we needed was a confirmed route, so by himself he drove all the way from San Francisco down to the border of Mexico, mile by mile, turn by turn, block by block. This took him many days, and he would just sleep in his van at the side of the road when he was too tired to drive.
As I mentioned, we initially faced a lot of skepticism as many thought the Padayatra concept completely inappropriate for the US. One day Jada said we needed a document to convince people we knew what we were doing. With his training in accounting, he created a “Feasibility Study”, a professional looking pamphlet that contained the proposed route, turn by turn, along with a highlighted map. It contained bullet points of the legal research we had done with law enforcement concerning walking legalities, details of our contact with other organizations who had done similar walks in California, it described in detail the logistics of things like the release of grey water from the mobile Padayatra kitchen. The paper concluded with a proper balance sheet listing all income and both current and projected expenses. When we handed out the first copies of this feasibility study out at a meeting of the leaders of Southern California, the mood suddenly changed. They looked at us, still with some suspicion, but also with a new expression that said, “Maybe this can actually be done”.
Jada was definitely one of a kind character who Krishna broke the mold of after producing. He seemed simple externally, but was a deep thinking devotee who understood how ISKCON worked and had a kind of hard knocks education in this regard. I remember we had just opened our Padayatra office in the brahmacari ashram in LA, and the next morning I woke up a little late. He sat me down after I had showered and said that we were facing a great battle to organize and collect for a project some viewed as foreign, but he said, if we both attended Mangal Artik everyday without fail, “No one can touch us”.
Jada has incredible powers of observation and had the uncanny ability when in a room full of potential donors he didn’t know, he could always without fail point out the high net worth individuals. Even if to me they seemed to be like regular people, just by observing how they carried and conducted themselves, Jada could understand who was who, a very important skill for a fundraiser.
Jada was really a conundrum. If you look at the remembrances on his face book tribute page, you see one senior devotee saying that Jada taught him the importance of following senior authorities; yet other tribute mentions how he taught them to stay sane by practicing self-preservation in ISKCON. He was a soul fully dedicated to the mission, yet he retained his independent thoughtfulness, something Prabhupada wanted in his devotee Brahmanas. Jada’s posture as an unassuming individual hid the brilliant tactician he truly was. I will share a story that I have never shared before to illustrate this point.
At one point, our attempts to expand the Plans for Padayatra in California started to come to a head. We had had several programs cancelled by those worried we would take funds from local projects. Sankirtan devotees would report back to the treasurer if we were seen to be collecting in areas thought to be for their exclusive use. To make Padayatra America happen, we were going to have to be cleared for fundraising on a larger scale by the powers that be. Badrinarayan Maharaja set up a meeting in LA with who he referred to as the “Big men” to discuss how Padyatra down the coast of California was going to be funded.
The day before the meeting, Jada sat me down in the office; he began to explain exactly how the meeting was going to go. Who would speak at the meeting, in what order, and what they each would say. He then looked at me very seriously and told me that at one point everyone would turn to me and ask me what was my opinion on where the money was going to come from. He told me it at this moment it was critical I not say anything, with severe repercussions for me if I did.
The next day we were called into the meeting room with the leaders of the Southern Californian zone, Badri, Svavasa etc. Jada and I sat on the floor. They started to discuss where the money was going to come from, each saying how they didn’t really see how it was possible, considering the different temples situations. Everything unfolded exactly like Jada had said it would, who saying what, and in what order. After they had all spoken, after whipping up a kind of frenzy of how this money could ever be found, they turned to Jada and asked “Do you know where we will get the money?” and with the most sincere voice he said “no” while shrugging his shoulders. This sent everyone into a bigger spin, as they now felt it really on their shoulders, not getting anything from Jada. Then suddenly, everyone in the room looked at me and in a very intense voice, Badri asked ”What about you Bhakta Anthony, do you know where the money is going to come from?” Being almost unable to resist the opportunity to address such a rarified assembly, my mouth started to open involuntarily. Jada immediately shot me a look that would have sent a chill up the spine of Grim Reaper. ”No” I quickly responded, and pressed my mouth shut. This sent the discussion into further chaos with everyone offering conflicting opinions, mostly of doom.
After allowing this situation to increase for what seemed like an eternity, Jada slowly raised his hand. He spoke now as a mediator, not as someone who had a proposal they needed approved. He sheepishly said that he wasn’t sure, but maybe if the Padayatra organizers including Lokanath Maharaja travel to the California temples and some others that were favorable, they could do fundraisers at the Sunday Feast. A wave of relief seemed to come over the group immediately and looking at each other they then unanimously approved the idea and the meeting was quickly adjourned. We never had a problem raising funds for Padayatra America again.
Jada also had a unique perception of how devotional service worked in Krishna Consciousness. Once we had collected sufficient funds (due to our meeting) we finally opened our official Padyatra America office, an actual apartment facing the LA temple. Sitting alone in the rooms with our second-hand office furniture, Jada pointed to the front door of our new office and said, “You see that door? In time you will see that everyone who walks into this office has been sent by Krishna to give us help. Your job is to talk to everyone who walks in to find out exactly what it is.”
And to my amazement, it worked exactly like that. People started to walk in, I would invite them to sit down and tell me about themselves, and invariably they had some asset, talent or resource we required and were willing to offer and many times volunteered to us. One devotee who sauntered in, Bhaskar das, turned out to be a qualified mechanic and knew how we could obtain an old RTD LA city bus. He said it could be converted through renovation for our walkers to get to and from where they would stop walking for the day. He said that he would be glad to help renovate and do mechanical repairs. Another devotee, Mother Ujjvalla, popped in and sat down. While talking with her it came out that she had stored in Northern California a faux marble altar she wanted to donate to the Padayatra that ended up fitting perfectly in the back of the renovated bus, turning into a temple on wheels. Things like this were regular occurrences.
Jada could be eccentric, but in spiritual ways. When we were busy preparing for Padayatra in time for the spring of 1989, it was a little before Kartik in ‘88 and He suddenly announced that he was going to do Brajamandala parikrama which had only been done by ISKCON for the first time the year before. It was an unusual time to leave, as we had a lot to do. I asked him why he wanted to go, I told him it would be very austere; this was before support vehicles, accompanying doctors or even bottled drinking water. He replied that he had seen several devotee’s faces when they completed the first one and they had the “thousand mile stare” he had only seen on the faces of residents of Vrindavan, the Brijabasis. He said he wanted to experience that “thousand mile stare”. Jada quickly bought his ticket, went to India and completed the month long Parikrama barefoot. The funny thing is that a devotee snapped a photo just as Jada was being garlanded by Lokanath Maharaja at the concluding ceremonies at Vishram Ghata in Mathura, and sure enough in that picture, you can see Jada clearly had the “thousand mile stare”.
Padayatra in America began on Memorial day weekend of 1989 and was a great success, walking along the coast with Gaura Nitai and Srila Prabhupada, introducing the holy name to many places that had never seen a harinama party, distributed thousands of books, and garnered favorable press coverage all along the way. It’s success also inspired devotees around the world that Padayatra could indeed be done outside of India, and in time Padayatra spread to over one hundred countries.
After completing the California walk, the Padayatris and the bus traveled down to Mexico to walk from Guadalahara to Mexico City in the winter of 1989. Jada Bharata stayed in Los Angeles to help the BBT with their accounting as he had done before Padayatra. Jada was an extremely trustworthy and ethical person, especially when it came to money. In fact the only criticism of modern day ISKCON that I ever heard from him over the years was that he believed that any money donated to ISKCON, including money given directly to Spiritual Masters, should be considered as belonging to Prabhupada, and therefore required complete transparency and oversight about how it was spent. He said this should be done by the GBC. This is the only thing he would complain about over the years.
Another story about Jada not known by anyone sheds more light on the kind of person he was. At this point, while in LA, Padayatra America pretty much closed down with everyone on the Mexico walk. There was one devotee, Acyuta das, from England, who did advance party for Padayatra America, who had been promised that at the end he would be given airfare to India. Somehow this was overlooked, and there was no office and no funds to help him. In desperation he approached Jada, even though at the time Jada really had nothing to do with the program. Without telling anyone, because he was the one who had made the initial contact with Acyuta, Jada personally went out and collected that devotee’s entire airfare by himself.
Jada was also a dedicated reader of Srila Prabhupadas books. During his down time, he would read Srimad Bhagavatam. Whenever he finished his day’s work, he would curl up in his sleeping bag with a volume. By his own estimation, throughout his life, he had read it from start to finish about 13 times.
While working with the BBT in LA, Jada was invited by Badrinarayan Maharaja to attend an emergency meeting to discuss how money would be raised to pay for ISKCONS appeal to the Supreme Court after the courts in California upheld the unfair judgment in favor of disgruntled former devotee, Robin George, for $32 million. The courts were already taking steps to sell the LA, Laguna Beach, Dallas ,New York and many other temples to satisfy the judgment. At this meeting, Jada proposed that they employ the Padayatra America traveling fundraising team, and duplicate what they had done for Padayatra, but do it at every temple in North America. They accepted his advice, and that team went on to raise almost a quarter of a million dollars for the ISKCON Legal Defense Fund.
When the battle finally moved to Washington DC, the home of the Supreme Court, Mukunda Maharaja and Annuttama determined that the best PR strategy was to have a 24 hour prayer vigil in front of the National Archives building which housed the bill of rights situated between the Capitol Building and the White House. In January. And who would man this austere enterprise? It was the devotees of Jada’s Padayatra America who drove up all the way from Mexico to perform Kirtan in downtown DC day and night in three feet of snow for weeks on end. To make a long story short, due to ISKCON’S efforts and Krishna’s mercy, the case was ultimately heard by the Supreme Court and in one of our greatest victories, they essentially gutted the judgment and the temples were saved. You could say that Jada actually played a key role in saving ISKCON in the US in its darkest hour.
After some time in LA Jada returned to his greatest love, Sri Vrindavan Dham. He purchased an MVT apartment and moved in full time. There Jada decided to immerse himself in a great task. He wanted to produce a guidebook to India on the standard of the Lonely Planet guide, but one which gave people access to spiritual India. He spent years writing that book for 12 hours at a stretch in his apartment. He would also take time off to travel to all over the corners of India for researching his book. He once told me how he had taken an overnight bus ride (anyone who has had the experience knows it is something like a sentence in hell). I asked him why he would subject himself to such a thing as he could afford to travel in a little more comfort. He told me that this is what his readers would be subjected to, so how could he write about it if he had never experienced it?
He would often travel the two hours from Vrndavan to Delhi to spend time sitting in the lobby of the famous Hare Rama guesthouse in Pahar Ganj, where there were huge numbers of young spiritually inquisitive back packers that Jada found very receptive to KC. When he realized a large number of them were Israeli, he made an arrangement with the owners by personally donating cases of Srila Prabhupada’s Hebrew Bhagavad-Gita to be placed in each room like the Gideon bible. They would always disappear shortly after being put out, and Jada would have to deliver additional cases frequently.
While living in Vrindavan he also taught computer science to the children of the Gurukula, he was a favorite of the boys as he dealt with all of them very personally. He was firm, but he would always point out each boy’s best qualities and encouraged them that they could be successful at anything they attempted. He also continued to offer fundraising help to the Vrindavan temple, and during one campaign he got one of the largest donations in the temples history.
His Indian Guidebook was eventually published and became a great success. It was unlike anything on the market with its thoroughness and devotional emphasis. It is now out of print, but I recently saw the 700 page “Holy places and Temples of India” on sale on Amazon for $250! He published many other wonderful books, including thorough guides to Vrindavan and Mayapur which countless devotees have said enhanced their pilgrimage experience. He also published one of the first directories of vegetarian restaurants and health food stores in the US.
After many years in India Jada Bharata returned to America around the year 2000, putting his energy in a website that sold cruelty free products named Natural Nirvana. He also put the full content of all his books online for free. As the subject matter was so in demand, the ad sense revenue from all the clicks from people who visited his pages sometimes amounted to several thousand dollars a month. He would field calls from many different people who had questions about his products or his travels, he would always manage to make it a conversation about Krishna.
Over the last years, Jada dealt with many health issues, but always responded to any devotee’s request for help whether concerning accounting, fundraising, travel in India etc with full enthusiasm and patience. He told me once there is something called the “Guru Principle” where if you approach someone humbly concerning a particular knowledge they have, “they are obliged to help you, they can’t help it.”
Jada was a extremely self-effacing person and would deflect any attempt to glorify him. One time I was praising him for his dedication to book distribution and with a wave of his hand he said,” My understanding has always been that book distribution is for the devotees incapable of doing anything else”
The last memory I will share with you for me best sums up Jada Bharata. It occurred while we were in the first makeshift Padayatra America office in the LA Brahmacari ashram in 1987. It was the end of the day, and we had finished our office tasks, and were permitted, as Jada would say, to “Shoot the breeze”.
The conversation turned to Sankirtan and Jada suddenly was in a reflective mood, something he did not often display. He said once while he was distributing books, at the end of a very rough day, he had finally completed his quota. He jumped in his van and preparing to leave. At that moment he saw across the parking lot a man who was severely disabled slowing moving towards his car, struggling with crutches that extended from each arm. Jada said that he decided that this guy needed the mercy, and although exhausted, he reloaded his bag and jumped out to catch him. At this point in the story, Jada paused and his eyes became misty, something I had never seen. He then explained that when he finally crossed the lot and approached the man with book in hand, this man reacted as if he had been waiting for Jada Bharata his entire life. The man’s face beamed with joy and gratitude and while expressing thanks, he struggled to reach into his pockets to pull out some money. As Jada was describing this scene, he choked up and turned from me, but I could see that there was a rush of tears streaming down his face.
This is how I wish to remember Jada Bharata Prabhu, a beautiful Sankirtan Hero whose great happiness was to relieve the suffering of those less fortunate than himself. It is because of this, and all the sincere service he rendered to this great movement during some of its most challenging times, that surely Lord Caitanya will grant him a place at Prabhupada’s lotus feet, where he will be permitted to reside eternally.
* * *
Sometimes, when we hear about the departure of a devotee, due to the hard struggle for existence in the material world, they may have become a little isolated from the devotees. But in Jada’s last months of declining health, there were a number of his old friends like Surottama, Nama Sankirtana, Drtarashtra, Abhirama and Ram Raya Prabhus who all encouraged and cared for Jada. Special mention however goes to Braja Bihari Prabhu, whose friendship with Jada’s precedes mine, and who personally took responsibility for Jada’s care. He visited and called him regularly, paying for all his needs out of his own pocket, and even driving him to doctors’ appointments though living several states away.
Jada happened to call me a few days before his passing, on Radhastami day, and we had an exchange which has helped give me some peace amongst the sadness of losing such a devotee friend.
During that phone call, Jada completely shocked me by telling me had decided to return to Vrndavan. To put this in context, all of his friends forever have been telling him to move back to his flat where he would be much happier than in the States. We would remind him how much he loved it there but he would always say he wasn’t ready. He would rent his Vrindavan apartment out to friends for almost nothing, as he didn’t want to profit from his residence in the Dham. But here he was, telling me that he had decided it was time to return to Vrndavan, and he would spend his last days there. I told him this was wonderful news, and all his friends would be behind the move.
We then began discussing what he needed to do, and I mentioned that there would be some expenses involved. To this he said, “Braja Bihari will give me anything I need”.
You have to understand what an amazing thing that was to hear Jada say. He has always been extremely independent and self sufficient, refusing any kind of charity from anyone. But he made this statement with a softness in his voice, and in it I heard a kind of transcendental pride and satisfaction.
Then I saw it was time for Radhastami Pushpanjali, so we exchanged goodbyes, and I ran up to the temple.
It was the last time we spoke.
I would like to offer deep thanks to Braja Bihari Prabhu, as well as to the champion of His devotees, kind Lord Krishna, that the arrangement was made that in the final days of Jada’s time on this earth, he experienced the warm embrace of genuine love and care from members of the society that he had given his life to.
Jada Bharata Ki Jai!