Preparing For The Final Exam
By Bhakti Prabhava Swami
Facing the imminent separation of body and soul because of a terminal illness requires a response to one’s physical decline but also to one’s state of mind. Can we let go of all lingering material attachments? Can we fix our mind on Krishna? Are we ready?
Over the years and during the final stages of their lives, I was frequently in the company of two devotees — Hamsagati Krishna Dasa and Bhaktin Veerle — offering support, guidance, and friendship. For several months I saw them endure painful, irreversible bodily deterioration and I admired how they held onto their Krishna consciousness despite their hardship. In this article I want to briefly tell their stories and share my experiences and observations. I hope that others who offer end-of-life care to devotees will find some valuable suggestions.
Hamsagati Krishna Dasa
Hamsagati Krishna Dasa, a disciple of Bhakti Charu Swami, was a life-long bachelor who had a successful career as a professional herbalist. He cured many patients of diseases that could not be cured by conventional medicine. For many years, Hamsagati Krishna actively supported ISKCON Leicester, and devotees remember him as a gentleman with a deep appreciation and affection for Srila Prabhupada. He had a full library of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s books in his living room and he shared his appreciation of Srila Prabhupada with whoever he met. Devotees much admired his endeavours to contact influential people, asking them to help finance the organisation of the annual Ratha Yatra festival. He passed away on 12 August 2016 at age sixty-one.
In 2011, Hamsagati Krishna suffered from severe colitis (inflammation of the colon). He tried his own herbal treatment, the applied allopathic medicine and Ayurvedic treatment but none of them could cure it. As a result, part of his colon was surgically removed. After a successful operation, his condition remained relatively stable until the beginning of 2016, when he again developed severe colitis. Chronic inflammations of his liver and colon strongly reduced his appetite and made it practically impossible for him to eat or digest any food. Consequently, he lost twelve kilograms of body weight in only a few months. In April 2016, a medical check-up revealed that a tumour was developing in his bowels. Although the tumour was successfully removed, further research showed that cancer cells had spread all over his body. Because he had lost so much weight and because drinking liquids was difficult, his body soon became frail and dehydrated. Inevitably, at the beginning of July, Hamsagati Krishna was hospitalised. He returned home after a one-week treatment and remained there until his departure on August 12.
When Hamsagati Krishna was diagnosed with cancer I began visiting him twice a week. He soon became very weak and his condition often forced him to take rest, even during the daytime. Aware that long visits would exhaust him, I kept them short. By the end of May he found it more and more difficult to keep up a fluent conversation; even speaking softly took great effort. As a result his daily chanting of audible japa (chanting Krishna’s holy names on prayer beads) was out of question. Instead of chanting aloud, he would hear Srila Prabhupada’s audio recordings of the Hare Krishna mantra. He said that he could listen to Prabhupada’s chanting for hours, but other devotees’ kirtana (chanting together often accompanied by musical instruments) would eventually make him feel fatigued.
On the rare occasions that he could read, he would read Srila Prabhupada’s books, especially Beyond Birth and Death. During my visits he would quote short passages from it with great respect. Whatever he said was always Krishna conscious. I once asked him if he would accept whatever happens, good or bad, as Lord Krishna’s mercy. He replied: ‘Everything that happens is Lord Krishna’s mercy — there’s only good.’
During his first days in the Leicester Royal Infirmary (Leicester’s main hospital), Hamsagati Krishna was so weak that he could not speak anymore. During that time, he was scarcely awake, and I became convinced that he would leave his body within the next few days.
Hamsagati Krishna Dasa on July 13, 2016, at Leicester Royal Infirmary, Leicester (UK).
At noon on 14 July I went to the hospital to see Hamsagati Krishna. To my surprise, he was sitting on a seat close to his bed. The rehydration of his body through intravenous infusions had restored some of his strength. I went straight to him and offered him Srila Prabhupada’s garland. I had offered this garland the day before during guru-puja (the ceremony of worshipping the spiritual master) on the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of ISKCON’s establishment in New York. I said, ‘Here’s Srila Prabhupada’s garland.’ He immediately gave me an ecstatic smile and, almost inaudibly, said ‘Last night I dreamt that Srila Prabhupada offered me his garland.’
On 7 August, after three weeks of preaching in England, Belgium, and Bulgaria, I attended the Ratha Yatra festival in Leicester. In the afternoon Hamsagati Krishna came to the festival site in a wheel chair. Despite his emaciated body he said he accepted his condition as Lord Krishna’s mercy and smiled broadly.
Hamsagati Krishna Dasa (left) on August 7, 2016, at the ISKCON Leicester (UK) Ratha Yatra festival.
The day after the ISKCON Leicester Ratha Yatra I left for Northern Ireland. On 12 August at 2.30pm the devotees from Leicester called me to tell me that Hamsagati Krishna was on the verge of passing away. They put the mobile phone to his ear and I said to him, ‘Krishna is waiting for you. Don’t look back. Just go. We will pray for you.’ About forty minutes later, surrounded by devotees chanting the holy names of Krishna, Hamsagati Krishna left this world.
As a congregational member, Bhaktin Veerle participated in all Krishna conscious programmes organised in her hometown of Ghent, Belgium. She had been practising Krishna consciousness for more than a decade when, in April 2016, doctors discovered that the stomach cancer from which she was cured three years previously, had returned with a vengeance. Although she had received medical check-ups every two or three months, the cancer had spread to almost every part of her body since her last check-up. It had spread at tremendous speed, affecting every organ, especially her bones, liver, lungs, and stomach.
Veerle (right), age 53, in July 2014, at the summer festival in Radhadesh, Belgium.
From May 2016 onwards, Acyuta Jagannatha Dasa, who has preached in Ghent since 1996, nobly decided to sacrifice most of his time to take care of Veerle. He cleaned her apartment daily and he and his wife made sure that she received prasada daily (food preparations offered to Krishna). They supplied her with whatever she needed. Acyuta Jagannatha Dasa served Veerle with great care up to her passing away.
Acyuta Jagannatha Dasa and his daughter Taruni on 17 May 2014 in Ghent, Belgium.
From the end of May onwards, Veerle and I had weekly Skype calls. Because of her advanced cancer, she suffered from intense pain, despite taking strong painkillers. She also experienced severe difficulty in digesting food. Since she was in constant pain, I kept our talks to less than twenty minutes. At the beginning of our chats she would tell me what had been happening during the week.
During our talks, Veerle and I also discussed questions such as;
-How can we remember Krishna?
-How can we always feel Krishna’s presence?
-What’s the relationship between suffering and misidentifying our real self with our subtle and gross physical bodies?
We talked about seeing suffering as Krishna’s mercy. To help her detach herself from her deteriorating body, we discussed the temporality of material nature and the necessity of leaving the past behind.
Although her health was declining rapidly, Veerle remained sober. She never expressed any feelings of dejection. During her slightly better moments she tried to listen to lectures or even read Srila Prabhupada’s books. With the progression of her terminal illness, however, these moments became rare. Sometimes she would hear audio recordings of Srila Prabhupada’s chanting or give ear to Acyuta Jagannatha’s reading passages from Srila Prabhupada’s books.
By the middle of July Veerle could no longer take care of her basic bodily needs. She was admitted to AZ Sint-Lucas hospital in Ghent and a few weeks later she was transferred to a flat in the palliative care unit. On Friday 15 July I travelled from England to Belgium to visit Veerle in the hospital along with Acyuta Jagannatha and Prasanatma Dasa, who had driven me to Ghent. During that visit, it became clear that Veerle would soon leave her body, and I became greatly concerned about her leaving this world alone, without the presence of devotees. Over the following days, I prayed intensely to Lord Krishna, begging for His mercy and asking Him to allow Veerle to leave her body amidst devotees chanting His holy names.
On July 26 I phoned Veerle for the last time. During that conversation she told me that the pain had become unbearable despite regular morphine injections. She could barely speak, but I sensed that she listened attentively. I planned to call her again on August 5 but shortly before that Acyuta Jagannatha wrote to tell me that she was no longer able to take calls.
Laksmipriya Devi Dasi, who serves at the Bhaktivedanta Library Services in Radhadesh, Belgium, had a longstanding friendship with Veerle. In the months before Veerle’s departure, Laksmipriya had phoned her nearly every day. During the first weekend of August Acyuta Jagannatha informed the devotees of Veerle`s imminent departure. Laksmipriya immediately decided to go to her.
On the morning of 8 August Acyuta Jagannatha, sensing that Veerle was on the verge of leaving her body, went to the hospital very early. Meanwhile, Laksmipriya was on her way to Ghent with tulasi leaves, Ganges water, Maha Narasimha oil and flower garlands that Sri Sri Radha-Gopinatha, Radhadesh’s presiding Deities, had worn the previous day. However, on the highway to Ghent, just fifteen kilometers away from the hospital, she got stuck in a traffic jam. Fearing that she would arrive too late, she prayed intensely to Lord Krishna: ‘I want to serve your devotee by assisting her to leave her body. If you so desire, my Lord, please let me do this service. I am at Your disposal and already on the way and so near. If You want to use me, please do so. Please take charge of this situation, as I am not able to do so alone.’ No sooner had she spoken to her Lord like this than the traffic jam miraculously cleared up. Soon she arrived at the hospital.
A few hours later, Veerle’s organs started to fail and both Acyuta Jagannatha and Laksmipriya observed that Veerle was close to leaving. Laksmipriya immediately offered her the garland, put the tulasi leaves in her mouth, and sprinkled the Ganges water on her body. She rubbed the Narasimha oil into her palms and with decisive strokes smeared it on Veerle’s forehead, cheeks, and neck. She then spoke into Veerle’s ear, ‘Go Veerle. Krishna and Srila Prabhupada are waiting for you right here — now leave.’ Veerle must have heard that. She completely relaxed and her breathing slowed down. While hearing Krishna’s holy names, Veerle left her body moments later.
Both Hamsagati Krishna’s and Bhaktin Veerle’s story demonstrate that when a cancerous disease takes control of one’s body, chanting Krishna’s names becomes very difficult. In Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.15.50 purport), Srila Prabhupada writes:
When flying an airplane, one cannot take care of other planes. Everyone has to take care of his own plane, and if there is any danger, no other plane can help another in that condition. Similarly, at the end of life, when one has to go back home, back to Godhead, everyone has to take care of himself without help rendered by another. The help is, however, offered on the ground before flying in space.
Srila Prabhupada recommends that we prepare ourselves for death by training our minds to constantly remember the Lord and His holy names. We should become capable of continuously remembering the Lord, even amidst the disturbances of a rapidly deteriorating body. Such training includes chanting the holy names in our minds, a practice that comes easily to one who has practiced attentive chanting throughout his or her life.
In his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.18.4, Srila Prabhupada writes:
By scientific adoption [of the process of devotional service], one is able to remember the Lord even at the end of life, when the power of remembrance is slackened due to derangement of bodily membranes. For a common man, it is very difficult to remember things as they are at the time of death, but by the grace of the Lord and His bona fide devotees, the spiritual masters, one can get this opportunity without difficulty.
When devotees become severely ill and disabled, they need plenty of rest. Moments in which they can interact are often rare. They tend to become exhausted by visits that are too frequent or too lengthy and this may worsen their situation. Therefore, I limit my visits to a maximum of thirty minutes.
At the beginning of my visit I generally ask what has been happening during the last few days, and often the devotee shares his or her Krishna conscious realizations, not just a report of their bodily hardship.
During these short visits, we usually speak about
-How we can enhance our remembrance of Krishna in difficult or painful situations, especially the situation the particular devotee is in;
-How the body is actually a machine to give us pain;
-Not looking back and letting go of the past because ‘If you look back, you’ll need to be born again’;
-The temporality of the body: ‘everyone has to go sooner or later’.
Sometimes I read and discuss a selection of verses from the second chapter of Bhagavad-gita, especially verses 2.11 to 2.30, or I recite slokas from Srimad-Bhagavatam in connection to
– Narada Muni’s previous life and his experience of receiving a spiritual body (Bhavatam 1.6.27)
– Dhruva Maharaja’s stepping on the head of death (Bhagavatam 4.12.30), and
– Bali Maharaja’s mood of surrender (Bhagavatam Canto 8 Chapter 21 and 22).
While visiting Hamsagati Krishna and Veerle, I observed how they were both advancing in spiritual conscious. When I offered Srila Prabhupada’s garland to Hamsagati Krishna, he smiled, and his happy expression strongly contrasted with the other patients in the hospital ward. A middle-aged man in the bed opposite Hamsagati Krishna’s was crying from pain. And an elderly lady elsewhere in the room looked dejected and was crying. Although Hamsagati Krishna’s health was worse — he was about to pass away — he did not lament. Rather, he often smiled and expressed his acceptance of his condition as Lord Krishna’s mercy. The same is true of Bhaktin Veerle. Although she was obviously in pain and experienced intense bodily discomfort, she never lamented but remained sober and unsentimental about her imminent departure.
Finally, the departures of these two devotees demonstrate Lord Krishna’s mercy. Lord Krishna does reciprocate with the prayers of devotees on behalf of the dying. The prayers of devotees and their sincere wishes that the departing soul may leave in full Krishna consciousness, are powerful.
Two hours before passing away, Hamsagati Krishna heard the voice of his spiritual master and he was surrounded by many devotees chanting Krishna’s holy names. And when Veerle left her body, she heard Krishna’s names and had Acyuta Jagannatha and Laksmipriya with her. I have no doubt that both Hamsagati Krishna and Veerle have reached greatly auspicious destinations.