What Gunagrahi Maharaja Taught Me That He Didn’t Know He Taught Me
By Mahatma das
You were special. I have never met anyone like you. You were so cool, totally real, and uniquely funny; and you had this unusual sixth sense for making people Krishna conscious. You just knew how to get into people’s hearts, both devotees and non-devotees, and you knew exactly what was needed to do this in every situation. You touched the lives of many, many people because you were both a special person and deeply cared for others. You related to everyone and thus everyone related to you, and people felt so comfortable around you. As a result, we see today in the offerings from around the world how many devotees were transformed by your great affection.
We spent a lot of time together and so I was not only able to observe you, but I was constantly being taught, although unknown to you, by your example. I would like to share with the world the valuable lessons your life taught me.
The Gunagrahi Maharaja Magic Touch
I never saw you work on any project that didn’t take off. Wherever you would go it was guaranteed that Krishna conscious would expand. You intuitively understood the best way to attract people to Krishna consciousness, no matter the situation. This ability you had was so obvious that I would often think of areas in the world where our movement had been declining for decades, and think “If Gunagrahi Maharaja could go there, everything would change.” In fact, some places needed so much help that I had made a list of places I knew you could help and wanted to ask you to go because I couldn’t think of anyone else who could make something happen there. (But by time I was going to ask, you had already gone to India to try to recuperate your health.)
Maharaja, Prabhupada once wrote to me saying that an advanced devotee is one who takes advantage of every opportunity to spread Krishna consciousness. You taught me to seize the moment wherever it may be. Whenever there was an opportunity to give people Krishna, you took advantage of it and did what was needed to make it happen. You never were hesitant about whether or not to do something if it would help someone advance. Whatever would bring people to Krishna you immediately did. By this definition you are a most advanced devotee. You also did this in your last days in Vrindavana with your evening kirtans. They were uniquely special and popular because of that special Gunagrahi Maharaja magic touch.
Maharaja, we did some extremely successful preaching together. When I look back at my 48 years in Krishna consciousness, the most successful preaching I have ever done was when I worked with you. We built up the San Diego temple together and innovated powerful preaching strategies, some of which I have yet to see done anywhere else. And what we did with Krishnafest was amazing. We touched the lives of thousands and thousands of young people around America with our kirtans and the special pamphlets and booklets we produced. We were answering almost a hundred letters a month because of the relevancy of our approach and writing.
Maharaja, you taught me that preaching is not stereotyped and we have to inject Krishna consciousness according to the specific needs and mentality of an ever changing audience. When we do this people will find Krishna consciousness resonating deeply in their hearts.
A Prabhupada Man
I remember when you visited Mauritius in 1992 and were answering questions after class. Although you never thought of yourself as a scholar (you used to tell me how hard it was for you to memorize slokas), the answers you gave perfectly represented what Prabhupada taught us. You knew Prabhupada inside and out: his mood, his mission, his teachings, how he wanted us to behave and the way he wanted us to manage.
We often would discuss difficult philosophical issues and innovative ideas for preaching. During these discussions I could clearly see your concern for perfectly aligning our understanding and ideas with Prabhupada’s mood and teachings. If you had even a little doubt about something Prabhupada might not approve, then there was no question of you doing or teaching it.
You modeled your life around Prabhupada’s desires. You were extremely cautious to not do or be anything that Prabhupada wouldn’t absolutely approve of, to not water down our process or teachings, and to not introduce standards that Prabhupada never gave us. At the same time, when you brought the philosophy to the world, like Prabhupada, you were not stereotyped. You made it relevant and accessible to all kinds of people without watering down our teachings.
Maharaja, there were so many other ways in which you were a Prabhupada man. You taught me that if we don’t align 100 percent with Prabhupada’s teachings and mission, we’ll only be in for trouble.
The Friend of the Fallen
Devotees who loved Krishna consciousness but who had an especially difficult time following Krishna consciousness well were drawn to you like magnets, and you became their best friend. You had a special rasa with these “home boys,” those devotees who always seemed to end up in jail or were messing up their lives doing something stupid. You loved hanging out with them sharing Krishna in a special way. And they were willing to literally die for you. You accepted them because you saw that they loved Prabhupada even though they were heavily under the grips of tama-guna.
There were a lot of “tough guys” in this group and you loved to punch them as hard as you could when you met them. And how they loved to be punched by you! Today, those tough boys, at least those who didn’t die from a drug overdose or who are not in jail, are now all sweet devotees doing well in Krishna consciousness.
No other devotee I know had such a special relationship with such “unsavory characters.” I once asked you about this and you laughingly said, “Yeah, my chart says that I would be attracted to low class people.”
Maharaja, you taught me how love and kindness given to those who everyone else has given up on can melt hearts, both the hearts of those you show that love to and the hearts of those fortunate souls who see you showing that love.
You Were Loved by So Many People
I noticed from the very early days that many, many devotees gravitated towards you and loved to serve you. This is because you accepted and loved people in a way that they couldn’t but love you back. As such you always had devotees helping you personally and with your projects.
This was abundantly demonstrated in Vrindavana in how many devotees came to visit and serve you, raise money for you, and came to your kirtans, and now in the outpouring of affection from around the world after your departure. The sign of a great soul is in the number of lives they touch and now I am just starting to see how many more lives you touched than I was ever aware of.
Maharaja, you demonstrated that when we give our life and love to others, they will give their life and love to us.
I repeatedly saw that when you wanted someone to become a devotee, and decided to put time and energy into him or her, their life would change. When you saw someone had the potential to become a devotee, you gave them as much of your time as they needed to become Krishna consciousness. You came up with many creative ways to make them devotees. For example, you would arrange various home programs just so you had a reason to invite these new people to a gathering, knowing that by association they would become devotees.
The most classic case of your mercy was given to a boy, a house painter, who was becoming very interested in Krishna consciousness. You asked him if he could paint the prasadam room. You asked him to come early so he could hear class, and kept him at the temple late because you didn’t want him to have any time left in the day for maya. You kept him working so late that it became more practical for him to stay at the temple. He finished the job in a week and because of being with the devotees so much, he decided to move into the temple.
The most interesting thing about this story is that the prasadam room did not need painting! But he was a painter, he liked to paint, and if he stayed with the devotees for a week you knew he would become a devotee. So you told him we definitely need your help painting the temple. Your strategy succeeded.
And you cared so much about devotees. I saw this again and again when you were temple president. You gave all the devotees one-on-one time on a regular basis. I remember when there was a problem with a women’s traveling party being mismanaged by a male leader, you immediately jumped on an airplane flying halfway across the country to intervene and protect the women.
Maharaja, I saw over and over again how those people you decided to focus your attention on, and give your mercy to, became devotees. You taught me that when we want someone to be Krishna conscious, Krishna’s mercy flows to that person and they become relieved from maya’s entanglement, not as much by their own efforts as by the power of the mercy given to them. And this is something any of us can do. If we sincerely want someone to be Krishna conscious, and do our best to help them, Krishna helps bring them to His lotus feet.
Rising Early and Having a Morning Program
When traveling and preaching on Krishnafest, no matter where we were, what we were doing, or how tired we were, you would wake us up six hours after we took rest (sometimes you were exhausted but still you kept this standard) and we would do a full morning program (sometimes condensed because of time constraints, but still full).
In 1993, when we lived together on your bus, studying for a course on preaching we were to give in Vrindavana, you loved to rise super early and chant and study in those early morning hours. I hate to wake up tired, but you did it all the time so you could fully embrace the early morning. You preferred to compensate for the insufficient rest later during the day rather than compromise on the spiritually potent early morning hours.
When you came to Mauritius in 1992 to ask me to join Krishnafest, you arrived with a horrible flu. You were so sick that you couldn’t really do much. You stayed in the room next to me and I could hear you wake at 3 am. Even though you were so ill that you had to spend much of the day resting, you were up at 3 am chanting your japa!
Maharaja, you taught me the importance of rising early and following a regulated morning program every day of our lives, no matter what’s going on around, what’s going on inside us, or whether or not it’s convenient.
Like all of us, you had your struggles. But taking sannyasa in one’s early thirties a decade after becoming a devotee naturally has its own set of special challenges. Yet you never let maya keep you down no matter what she threw at you. You were always more strict than I was, and now I understand that this level of strictness was what you knew you needed to protect yourself from the allurements that had caused many a young sannyasi to fall. And even though maya placed some big hurdles on your path, you didn’t become depressed or quit fighting. You always strived to be the kind of devotee that you knew Prabhupada wanted you to be no matter what challenges you faced.
Maharaja, you taught me that the harder maya hits, the harder we need to hit back by being even more strict and enthusiastic.
Humble and Honest
You would always talk to me and others very openly about your challenges, and seek advice and guidance from us. You would also often humbly ask us questions about practically applying our philosophy to various situations.Among all our godbrothers none were as open and honest as you about their challenges. Everyone knows you were very humble, but these open exchanges showed your humility in ways I have rarely seen. It simply was not your nature to pretend to be someone you weren’t.
Maharaja, your openness and honestly about your personal challenges humbled me and taught me that this level of honestly and humility is both necessary and foundational to being Krishna conscious.
Our daily diet on Krishnafest was kitchiri, salad, bread and baked potatoes. But at other times, when we traveled with a small crew, our diet was mostly kitchiri, made just as you liked it – “loose and juicy.” You would cook enough kitchiri for a week, put it in the fridge, and then daily take out what was needed to feed our crew. In this way we maximized our time for preaching by minimizing our time for cooking. When people joined Krishnafest I used to joke, “I hope you like kitchiri.”
Maharaja, you taught me that we should keep the cooking and eating simple in order to keep our consciousness clean and maximize our time for service.
You Knew How to Feast
Our diet was a little austere, but you were not a hard-hearted austere person, so periodically we had pizza feasts. Now every pizza I eat I compare to yours, the gold standard pizza. And for me it’s impossible to think of or see a pizza without thinking of you.
When you were a kid in New York you used to eat pizza at an authentic Italian pizza parlor. You had such an affinity for their pizza that you never forgot those pizzas. Eventually you decided that you had to go there and get their recipe. You then started making your own thin crusted bona-fide Italian pizza. You were meticulous about everything that went into cooking the perfect pizza and you even had you own special traveling pizza oven pans.
Not only were you meticulous about making the pizza, you were meticulous about how it was served and eaten, so meticulous that you came up with the Ten Offenses Against Pizza!
Periodically you would declare that today is pizza and ice cream day (on a day off or some special occasion, or just an ordinary day that needed to become a special occasion). You were the main chef and our party were your assistants. It was your greatest pleasure to encourage the devotees to eat as much pizza as they possibly could. To this end you advised us to put dried crushed chili on our pizza. As the pizza acarya, you always ate more than anyone else. You told me the only reason you would stop eating pizza is that you didn’t want to keep eating after everyone finished. You would keep eating pizza until you couldn’t force anyone else to take another piece. Of course, you jokingly called us neophytes because we couldn’t keep up with you.
Because of your high cholesterol you followed a strict low fat diet, but you calculated that if you followed that diet regularly, then every so often you could break it. And with the same regularity that you would rise early, you regularly, at the right time, went off your diet to enjoy some special prasadam (you loved to eat the icing on cake without the cake!). You had a scoring system through which you could decide when you had earned enough austerity points to break away from your diet for one special meal. You would say “Now I have enough credits to break my diet today, and if I am going to use up my credits I might as well use them up on something really special.”
Maharaja, you taught me that austerity must be balanced with regulated transcendental enjoyment, otherwise we’ll either go crazy, become hard-hearted, or else just become weird.
Love Makes Fault-Finding Impossible
I am not immune to seeing the faults of others, and during the 80’s and early 90’s when ISKCON suffered immense growing pains there were certainly faults to be seen in many of our leaders. Even though our leaders were still young and had taken a huge burden of responsibility for Prabhupada, their faults became a focus of much discussion among godbrothers during those troubled times. However, somehow or other I never saw a fault in you. I know all of us tend to do something foolish now and then, yet for some reason I just had no interest or taste to think or hear for a moment anything bad about you. I can honestly say that I never had this experience with anyone else to the degree I had it with you.
Maharaja, you taught me that where there is love we don’t notice faults; and conversely in the absence of love other’s faults burden our hearts.
You Never Asked Me to do Anything (and Always Gave Me Everything)
You had great respect for me although I didn’t deserve it. You always loved what I did, no matter what it was. And whenever you thought I should do some specific service or preaching, or even when you needed me to do something for you, you would never ask or order me. You would say something like, “It would be really great if you could …”
When I joined Krishnafest in 1992, I had no personal money. So you adopted me as your younger brother and whatever you got for yourself, you got for me too: a new laptop (expensive in those days), a really nice bike, a ticket to India, the herbs and vitamins you took, etc.) You showed your respect by not enjoying anything for yourself that you didn’t share with me. I felt that you were extremely conscious at all times of my needs, feelings and desires, and would always get whatever I told you I needed (which is why I rarely asked).
You came to Mauritius in early 1992 to inspire me to join Krishnafest. At that time I was living as a vanaprastha and was moving in the direction of sannyasa. I soon left Mauritius to join your Krishnafest team and we did many wonderful services together over the next few years.
In 1993 I realized I was not ready for sannyasa and to marry would be better for me. It was difficult for some devotees to accept this decision, thinking it was unwise, that I was giving in to maya, or was allowing my attachments to rule me. But you were totally understanding and supportive, and never thought less of me for doing this. As you told me, “You gotta do what you gotta do.” And this became your mantra for dealing with all kinds of situations.
Maharaja you taught me not to judge others, to respect their needs and decisions, and to support them in their goals. You were a sannyasi but you never felt superior to me. You taught me that no matter what one’s exalted position is, he should not become proud nor use his position to criticize or condemn others.
Always Concerned That You Were Pleasing Prabhupada
Although you were always doing so much to please Prabhupada, still you were concerned that you were always pleasing him. When determining any plan of action, if there was any doubt that Prabhupada wouldn’t like it, you would ponder it, discuss it, and pray about it. Even after doing all this if there was still even 1% of doubt that you were not pleasing Prabhupada, you would continue to scrutinize the situation in an effort to make certain that you were perfectly aligned with Prabhupada’s instructions.
Maharaja, you taught me to be careful to not doing anything for my own satisfaction but always entirely for the pleasure of our spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada.
You Taught Us to be Detached
We were very close, so close that I dreaded the thought of your departure. Even before you became ill I would worry, “What if Gunagrahi Maharaja dies before I do; I don’t know how I am going to deal with this?” I would think about this often and had no idea how I would deal with your loss. Of course I didn’t want to think about this so I just put it out of my mind.
As you began to fight your cancer, it seemed unlikely you would win, but true to your nature you gave it a try. As you tried different cures, each one not working as well as you hoped, you would say, “Well, if it doesn’t work, then we’ll just prepare for the end.” You said this in a way that made me see you had already accepted you may not be around much longer. Seeing how you accepted your approaching death made it easier for me to accept it as well.
You finally went to Vrindavana to prepare for the end, but still you decided to try this or that cure (you were always into trying different cures and medicines long before you had cancer). The underlying assumption was that you are in Vrindavana to die and it’s unlikely any medicine will cure you completely. After you stayed in Vrindavana for some time, I saw that you were happier than you had ever been and you were being blessed by Krishna in many ways. This relieved the longtime anxiety I had about your departure, both because you were happy and because I had a couple years to adjust to the fact that you would not be with us much longer.
Your coming to Vrindavana was due to your cancer, and this situation was so beneficial for you that your godbrothers saw the cancer as Krishna’s direct hand to bring you to Vrindavana and prepare you for your departure. It was obvious to us how Krishna was taking care of everything, and this pacified my heart to such an extent that I became as ready for you to leave as you were.
Of course, as I am writing this I am lamenting your loss as I remember all the wonderful times we had spent together. I lost my father and mother over 25 years ago, but we had become distant after I became a devotee so their loss was not so greatly felt. But I had never lost such a close friend before, and it is painful. Every day I feel this loss. Yet, I know that you would not want me to lament but be happy that you are in a better position now. And it was for this reason that I was happy for you when you left your body even before I could make it to Vrindavana to see you, because now your suffering is finally over.
Maharaja, you taught me not to lament the loss of a devotee but to celebrate the times we were able to spend ogether and how the devotee’s life enriches us. Because of your association, I have so many fond memories to cherish, and these memories, although causing me pain, are also causing me great happiness. I am getting so many realizations and so much strength by remembering you. I am learning how powerful it is to remember a devotee’s activities.
Your Desires for Me
During the last two times I saw you, you made two requests of me. When doing the evening kirtan in Vrindavana, I played a song I wrote, Siksastakam in English. It has a real catchy tune and when it was over you said, “That’s the best song you’ve ever done. You have to record it.” In January of 2018 I gave you the first book I wrote, a book geared towards a broad audience outside of ISKCON. You had read bits and pieces of it and on the day I was leaving you told me, “This book is a best-seller. You need to promote it.” I took this to mean that you want me to make this a best-seller. So for you I will record that song and try to make my book a best-seller.
Over the years you invited me to come to Argentina, and finally a few years back I was able to come. Subsequently I visited two more times. Argentina was your baby and you put most of your energy into that project, even giving your entire inheritance to it. You revitalized a project that was suffering in the wake of the fall of a prominent ISKCON guru. Whenever I was with you, Argentina was on your mind. You told me that more people wanted to join than you had room for. But you needed help. There was a lack of money and lack of seniors and qualified leaders. It was a huge challenge for you, but once you gave your heart to it, you never turned back.
I know you so much wanted me to spend more time in Argentina and help out. I know you wanted me to take care of your disciples when you became ill. I know your greatest happiness was to see the preaching in Argentina become a grand success. But because of your nature, you only humbly suggested that it would be nice if I could come more often. But because I know you want me to do this service I promise to do what I can to continue what you started there. In this way we can remain together in service.
And lastly is the book, the book about your life that needs to be written. Of course, if you were alive you would never in a million years allow me to write it. But the book needs to be written for the benefit of the Vaishnava community and it will be my greatest pleasure and honor to do it. And Bhurijana Prabhu has already given the title: Amazing Grace, The Story of His Holiness Gunagrahi Goswami.
Maharaja, when you called me from another room, you would yell out “Mahat!” Perhaps in trying to please you I will still be able to hear you calling my name, and maybe someday I can actually fulfill the meaning of this name by coming closer to your greatness.
PS. Some interesting things about Maharaja.
He was an Amazing Actor
Maharaja was an amazingly good actor. When we did our course together in Vrindavana, we did some skits. We never rehearsed them, only discussed how the skit should go. Those who attended that class in 1993 may remember the skit, “Prabhupada’s Pizza Palace.” We played incompetent temple leaders who were deciding to use money designated for the BBT to open a pizza restaurant (one leader loved pizza and had the crazy idea that the world would become Krishna conscious through pizza). I was shocked how well Maharaja played his part. I thought I was a pretty good actor because I studied acting in college, but Maharaja was in another league. In fact, he was so funny that I could hardly keep a straight face during the skit.
He Could be Like a Little Kid
Once when Maharaja stayed at our home in Dallas, he had so much fun with a toy bird that would record your voice and play it back in a funny voice. He used to say something that he said as a kid, imitating an African American accent (he loved the “bros” and it seemed he wanted to be one!). And he had so much fun repeating it over and over. If you want to know what he said, ask me when you see me. If I write it you won’t really fully understand and appreciate it.
He was an Amazing Writer
When we lived on his bus in the early 90’s, we wrote our Vyasa-puja offerings together. Maharaja was an amazing writer. Like everything else he did, it had to be perfect. He would edit, edit, edit and then re-edit to perfection. I wasn’t a good writer, so he would help me with my offerings, which greatly helped me improve my writing.. He was always active, always starting a new project, so it wasn’t his nature to sit and write. But for the record, he was an amazingly good writer.
It wasn’t his idea to take sannyasa, but many seniors encouraged him, and his wife was really into the idea, so he naturally accepted this as Krishna’s desire even though he and his wife got along well and were an amazingly talented team. Often when something needed to be done that only his former wife could do, he would say if she were here then we could make this happen. He wasn’t lamenting that she wasn’t present, or regretting he took sannyasa, he was just nonchalantly stating that we couldn’t do this or that because none of us were qualified to do it, but she could have done it. It was nice to see how he still respected and appreciated her.
He told me years ago that if he wasn’t pushed into sannyasa, he’d probably still be married working together with his wife. He didn’t mean to say he didn’t like sannyasa, or was complaining that he was “forced” to take sannyasa, but was just commenting in a detached way. I could see he loved being single and he never told me he ever regretted the decision to take sannyasa. And it was nice to see that after taking sannyasa he remained as kind to women as he always was.
Dramatic Challenges/Drastic Ordeals
Maharaja had a dramatic life. In the years we were not working closely together (from 1996 onwards) he would periodically write, call or visit me when there was an ordeal going on in his life or service. It seemed to me there was regularly a challenge, a crisis, or something trying to push him back. This was because he was always on the edge, innovating and expanding, and with this came many difficulties. But no matter what he was creating, or how hard it was to create, I remember him always coming to the same conclusion: just keep plugging away and relishing kirtan. And whenever he focused on kirtan all that was bothering him would just disappear from his heart.