Memorial for Sudama
By Omkara devi dasi (Ann Di Nicola)
Memoires of Sudama Maharaj Leaving His Body And My Experiences Taking Care of Him
August 5, 2008
I pay my respectful obeisances to my loving Spiritual Master A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, my eternal guru whom I love and thank for giving me the Hare Krishna mantra and instructions on devotional service. I pay my obeisances to all the assembled devotees who I know, whom I don’t know but am spiritually related to and to all the spirit souls I have known in this lifetime that have left their bodies and gone back to Srila Prabhupada, to Vaikuntha, reunited once again in devotional love.
Recently my Godsister Koumadakee left her body and at her memorial service many old Godbrothers and Godsisters gathered, along with newer devotees and we had a very nice memorial. I felt so close to Srila Prabhupada during the kirtan, seeing and hearing Baradraj sing, being the m. c., hearing the chanting and memorial. I contemplated how fortunate we are to have each other. How fortunate we are to serve and be connected. I pray to somehow once again serve someone who leaves his body, to chant by his/her side and help that person, that spirit soul have the peace of mind, the contentment to go back to Srila Prabhupada, back to Krsna.
When I was young I often was thinking about death and was convinced about the existence of the soul. I remember I was about 11 years old and saw a car accident on the highway and above the sprawled body there was a glowing emanating ball, glow of light hovering. I knew, without a doubt, without anyone telling me, that was the soul hovering. Hovering from attachment, bewilderment, and waiting for it’s future fate, it’s future journey of existence. That was one of the starting points of my contemplating the existence of the soul after death. I knew there was more.
I was fascinated with death and often wondered what actually happens at that time. For years I wanted to see death in another person and experience it firsthand. Approximately 14 years ago when I moved back into the temple I took a break from having a 9:00 – 5:00 job and went back into spiritual activities. I started chanting again and offering my food, going to the temple regularly and really liking it. I had a close friend Krodhashamani who was just starting her yoga business and we became good friends. It was nice living at the temple again. I never thought I’d like it. It’s like this…. you cannot pretend to be spiritual, you must feel it from deep within. You can’t fake it. I went through a period of growth, perhaps trying to grow emotionally as a person and thinking maybe I missed something because I became a Hare Krishna at 17 years of age. So I dated a little, I worked full time, overtime, sometimes on weekends, and I had a regular life. But after I got laid off and after my mom died I got a small inheritance and at that time I felt free, and I felt like I really wanted to be more spiritual. It was good and felt good, natural — something I really wanted.
One day Krodhashamani came to my apartment and asked me to come see Sudama. He arrived in Los Angeles from San Francisco, and was dying of Aids. I knew Sudama from the Brooklyn temple. At that time he was a sannyasi, therefore we never spoke. I liked him a lot because he was flamboyant, had a beautiful face and features and was very vocal in his expressions. He also was in charge of the Vaikuntha Players, a group of devotees who had plays. When we went on sankirtan there were skits about Krsna’s pastimes during our break on the chanting party. He orchestrated everything. The public seemed to really appreciate it and we drew a big crowd. Mostly we would go to 42nd street and Times Square. I went to visit Sudama with Krodhashamani and we spoke very briefly. I didn’t know if he remembered me from New York but he acknowledged me and at that time I could see he was overwhelmed with what was happening to him.
After a few days one afternoon, I remember it was after Christmas, because I still had a small Christmas tree up. One afternoon, I heard a thunking noise in the hallway on the stairs. “Thunk, thunk, thunk…..” It was a strange noise. It reminded me of Srila Prabhupada. At the Brooklyn temple one time I was leaving the pujari room and I heard the same noise…….. “thunk, thunk, thunk….” It was Srila Prabhupada! The thunking noise came from Prabhupada’s cane. All alone coming down the stairs from his quarters. I think he was headed for the kitchen. I paid my obeisances and looked at him with folded hands. I was speechless. It was only him and me. He held up his cane and looked at me smiling he said, “chant Hare Krishna”. I was shivering and excited to come so close to him. So Sudama brought this same sounding thunk to my door with his cane. I greeted Sudama into my apartment and he layed on to sofa very despondent. He acknowledged that Bhakta Chuck couldn’t take care of him and he had no one that would take care of him. He was very sad and scared. He looked very lonely. We spoke for a long time and he would stare at the lights of my Christmas tree. He would contemplate very heavily. Krodhashamani came to me later on and told me he needed someone to take care of him too, so I agreed. I never took care of a dying man but I knew the most important thing was to chant Hare Krishna for him and to make him feel comfortable. The less anxiety the better, the mind can be focused on Krishna and Prabhupada. So we got to know each other pretty well. I took care of him for approximately 2 months before he left his body.
He stayed in my apartment because he just didn’t want to leave. He only stayed for a few days because my daughter had a hard time dealing with it. Then we moved into an empty temple apartment. I slept in the same room because I feared he would die in the middle of the night and I wanted to be there to chant for him. In the morning I would go home briefly to shower and change and eat. Even though we had a Prabhupada tape playing all the time I wanted to comfort him if he needed someone. Prior to moving into his temple apartment Siddhanta went to a Chinese herbalogist and got him some herbal tea. The doctor told him he had no electrolytes and he didn’t have much time left. When Sudama and I were alone after Siddhanta left, all of a sudden Sudama started crying like a baby. Tears fell from his eyes and he put his head on my shoulder. I felt so sorry for him. Previously he had been in some denial about dying and sometimes was stubborn about it. He would not come to terms on his dying. Finally at this stage it began to sank in and he started to realize, yes this is it, he is very sick and is a dying man. I let him cry and told him in as many kind words I could gather that I would be there for him, Prabhupada and Krsna are there for him and for all the service he performed for Prabhupada he should have faith and be strong. He mustered up some strength and he was able to regain his wits again. This was a steppingstone, since now he was embracing the fact, yes I am in the process and will soon leave my body. He often lay on my sofa and lament about all the things he should have done, could have done. I let him talk a lot because I could see it gave him strength, it gave him a release and in this process he was entrusting in me to serve him as a devotee and help him think about Krsna and Prabhupada. Sometimes Sudama called some old friends in San Francisco. He called Bhavananda and spoke to him for a while. One of his friends just contracted Aids and it shocked Sudama. Another friend just passed away. The news affected him deeply.
Sudama often talked about his services for Prabhupada in the old days. How he would compete with other devotees who can serve Prabhupada better, who can spend more time with Prabhupada. Who can make the better garland for Prabhupada, who can cook for Prabhupada. Sudama helped open the Tokyo temple and had a lot to do with the Hawaii temple. He traveled as a sannyasi and stayed in the Brooklyn temple for a while. He traveled and preached and made devotees. He loved Srila Prabhupada with all his heart. He often regretted he didn’t serve enough. He regretted his falldown and other things. Sudama even told me he tried to be straight, got married and had a son named Aaron. But that didn’t work. Sudama came from a pious family. His brother was also initiated by Srila Prabhupada and his mother met Srila Prabhupada many years ago. She liked Krsna and thanked Prabhupada for taking care of her two sons. During the dying process his mother Claire would bring supplies and things we needed to take care of him. It was very hard for her to deal with this however she visited him often and was there when he left his body.
Sudama had a deep spiritual side and a little of the worldly side too. He lamented that he was dying and said to me often that he would like to take me to Paris. He exclaimed where was I all his life? And I laughed with him, thinking such is karma. Many devotees, young and old would come visit him. I remember Radha Kunda came a few times. He was very emotional about seeing his Godbrother in the process of leaving his body. We were alone a lot and I would just sit and chant by his side. Sometimes I would read from the Bhagavad Gita. Always a Prabhupada tape would be playing. His sickness took it’s toll quickly. The first sign was he would have diarrhea and couldn’t control his bowels. He couldn’t really walk to the bathroom alone so I would semi-carry him. He was embarrassed that a woman had to help him and I reminded him that I am not my body, I am spirit soul. To take it as Krsna’s mercy and not think of me as a woman. I felt this must have been very humbling for him. After a few days his bowels really went out of control so we had to use adult diapers. I would change him and clean him up. I was never scared of contracting Aids because I knew fully that Krishna would protect me. He didn’t have open sores, only at the very end he started getting bed sores. I was never affected by the stool or urine, and just did it out of duty, thinking if I was dying how badly would I want someone to take care of me like this. I wanted to help him feel comfortable with my presence and not feel attached or ashamed of what was going on during the different stages. I wished for him to just have peace of mind and want to have the desire to go back to Krishna, back to Srila Prabhupada.
So in the empty temple apartment we stayed. During the course of taking care of Sudama devotees would bring me things that were special and important. I had Vrndavan dust, Ganges and Radha Kunda water, tilak, tulasi leaf, oftentimes garlands and other things. Someone brought a really nice big brass medallian of Lord Nrsingha deva that we put on his chest during his last hour. Lots of pictures of Srila Prabhupada, Rukmini Dwarakadish and so many spiritual momentos. One day when I was walking quickly to my apartment to shower and change Svavas stopped me in the street to thank me for the service of taking care of Sudama. He said he had no one to do it. Little did he know I was in my heart profusely thanking him and Krishna for giving me this opportunity. It was so valuable to me.
Approxiamately three days before he left his body Claire, Sudama’s mother and Sudama were discussing the cremation and other arrangements. Sudama looked at me and begged me to take his ashes to India. I was a little taken aback and didn’t expect it. I could not refuse a dying man and I agreed. I have never been to India and in the past years I really didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to get sick. I didn’t want to get malaria, jaundice or any other third world country illness. This time it was different. I wanted to go. Claire didn’t offer to pay for the trip and that put me out a bit. I was almost out of money and had just enough for India. I hesitated but felt moved and inclined to do this. So I paid for the trip myself and went to Vrindavan and Mayapur.
The last two weeks prior to Sudama dying he could barely eat. I got a dropper and would drop some water down his mouth oftentimes. I could see him getting weaker and skinnier each day. One morning around 2:00 a. m. I was awakened by Sudama gurgling and struggling. This scared me a little bit and I immediately got up to chant Hare Krishna and hold his hand. I could hear him try to enunciate the Hare Krishna mantra through his intrepid gurgles. He would say, “ ha….. kh…. kh….. ra…. ha….. “ and gurgle at the same time. Sudama was trying to chant and he was struggling. This went on for a few minutes. I thought this is it. He’s dying. I chanted Hare Krishna and just prayed, please let this be auspicious. Then all of a sudden he turned to me and in a clear voice said, “I am going to pick my time to die.” Then he layed his head down and fell asleep. I was stunned. I was still a little scared but hearing him breathe gave me consolation. I chanted for a while and then went back to sleep. In the morning he told me he remembered what happened. He saw the Vishnudutas come in the room and he wasn’t ready. He tried to chant Hare Krsna and couldn’t. Then he had peace and fell asleep. The next morning I thought I should get stronger. I shouldn’t be scared of death, my fears might show to Sudama and increase some fear in him. I need to welcome death and help Sudama to want to leave his body in a good strong spiritual fashion. The doctor and nurses came. The doctor said it was only a matter of one or two days. Then later he said probably a day. We called his mother and other close friends. In the morning he looked very different. His neck, chest and face had another changed look that is hard to describe. It looked a little stiff, a lot different. I recognized the time is close. I still gave him drops of water, I still chanted, but this time I got what I needed all together by his bedside. I made sure the Vrndavan dust was close by, Ganges and Radha Kunda water, fresh tilak, tulasi leaf, and yes more garlands. I started regularly sprinkling him with Vrndavan dust and anointing him with Ganges and Radha Kunda water and I spelled Hare Krsna on the side of his stomach in large lettering. Sometimes he would get phone calls from devotees. Even though he was at the point he couldn’t talk, he could hear and acknowledge. Sometimes he had the strength to nod his head or squeeze my hand. The nurse would take his vitals and the doctor said only a few hours. At a late point almost just before he left his body the doctor started giving him morphine shots because he said his pain was very intense. Still once in a while I could feel Sudama squeezing my hand in a form of communication, however, the squeezes were very light now. He had no strength. It was around 4:20 in the morning and I called Krodhashamani. She in turn called other devotees and the room quickly became filled with devotees. A nice kirtan started. He was full of garlands, he had charinamrta. At one point his old friend Tamal Krishna called and told him to think of Prabhupada and Krishna to go back to Krishna and Prabhupada. Tamal told me to put Tulasi leaf in his mouth under his tongue. We chanted and chanted. The room was ecstatic. Sudama left his body, his mouth a little open, however he had a golden aura and looked very very beautiful. Lord Nrsingha deva on his chest and Prabhupada close by waiting to welcome him home.
Incidentally, even though the doctors said he was dying of Aids on his death certificate it said he had heart failure. The doctor was constantly checking his pulse and heart and almost was able to time his death. His heart gave out.
His mother Claire lamented however she knew he was back in the spiritual sky and she helped with the cremation and other arrangements. Then my journey to India began. The cremation was delayed due to several days of intense earthquakes. I never before attended a cremation. Many devotees came. There was a nice rip roaring kirtan and his body was burned. Put in an urn. His mother gave me the urn and then I made arrangements to go to India. Even though it was the first time I went and I was traveling alone I didn’t feel any anxiety. On the airplane, the long trip, I often contemplated Sudama in his urn, accompanied by Srila Prabhupada and Krsna. They were flying the plane. They were all with me. It was a good journey and made me very happy, very excited that I would go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Dham. I stayed in Vrndavan for a week and then to Mayapur for a week and back to Vrndavan for a half week and then back to Los Angeles. A devotee, Upendranath, picked me up. I arrived at night and could smell the cow dung burning. I liked the smell. I heard the pigs eating the garbage and snorting. It was an interesting new sound to me. When I arrived the only place that was available to stay in was a room down the road. The toilet was a hole in the floor and the shower was freezing. I didn’t mind at all. I was on a special mission and this is the Holy Place. When I laid down to rest I heard all the peacocks and other animals with their sounds. It was so beautiful and reminded me very much of that blue boy Krishna playing his flute. I woke up and went to Mangala Arotik. Sri Krsna Balaram Mandir was so exquisite. Large, full of ornate marble, and the deities enraptured my very breath. I felt so fortunate to be there. The next day I got a room at the temple. It was a simple but pleasant room and more opulent than I expected. I was happy to have a room in the temple complex. The next day I met a rigshaw walla (so called by chance). He was specifically someone that was recommended to me. He was out in the front of the temple just waiting for his next ride. He told me his name and I knew everything would be okay. Each morning he would pick me up, we would go around town visiting temples and other places and at early evening he would bring me back to the temple. He was my guide. One time he took me to the woods to see a very old babaji who was 106 years old. The babaji was performing puja. After puja he gave me maha prasadam. I felt very blessed. My most important part of the journey was to go to Mayapur and give the ashes to Jayapataka Maharaj. After arriving there I informed the devotees the reason for my visit. I was greeted very warmly. I gave the ashes to a devotee. In a few days there was a big kirtan and we went chanting to the spot where Sudama wanted his ashes strewn. That is where the three rivers meet, The Saraswati, The Ganges and The Jamuna. This is a very sacred place and many devotees go for Khumba Mehla there. Trivem Sangam – union of the holy rivers. We had a great chanting party and puja. Then back to the temple to honor and enjoy a big feast. After a few more days I returned to Vrndavan. During my stay in India at the beginning I was very careful of what I ate and drank. I had a burner and cooked soup for myself but mostly ate granola, nuts and very simple prasadam for the first week. While I was in Mayapur after a while I wanted to get purified and thought if I get sick in India that would be a good purification. I started drinking tap water and eating temple prasadam. I didn’t get sick even though I tried.
Ever since this big event I have always thought about how blessed I was to take care of Sudama and how important it is to take care of dying devotees and help them think of Krishna and Prabhupada. I would very much like to do that service again. It is the most important act of spirituality for me. And I also pray somehow I can be in this same situation and be guided by a devotee. That would be my success. For years I would think of Sudama and wonder what kind of karma that is to be placed in this situation. Taking care of a godbrother and someone who was a sannyasi at one time, a servant of Prabhupada. That is good karma for me. One day I was on the computer googling things about Sudama and came across a letter from Srila Prabhupada to Sudama thanking him for his letter. In the text of the letter Srila Prabhupada is accepting me as his disciple based on Sudama’s recommendation. I was so surprised, as I didn’t know this. I thought the temple president had asked Prabhupada to accept me as his disciple. Maybe taking care of Sudama was my way of expressing gratitude for connecting me with Srila Prabhupada. I am ever grateful. Hare Krishna.
Your servant, Omkara devi dasi