By Patita Pavana das Adhikary
The soulful sankirtan of Shri Vishnujana Maharaja illuminated the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles , and then across the States, from the earliest days of Krishna consciousness. Today his uplifting bhajans and melodious kirtans still echo in the halls of ISKCON centers around the world. There was never a more faithful servant of Shrila Prabhupada, and the fortunate Vaishnavas who served under his loving care always keep his memories in their hearts. Shrila Prabhupada, who by his mystic potency sometimes appeared more as a member of ISKCON than the exalted founder-acharya, also expressed a desire to spend a week traveling with the bus party led by Vishnujana Swami.
Many fell under the irresistible spell of Vishnujana Maharaja and became Prabhupada’s devotees. HH Indradyumna Swami met him on a college campus in Michigan . He accepted his invitation to the love feast, and when he first showed up at the Detroit temple, he asked for Vishnujana Swami saying, “I want to be like him.”
Vishnujana Maharaja disappeared in 1977 never to be seen again. It is said that he followed in the footsteps of Lord Chaitanya’s servant, Shri Chhota Haridas who left this world at Prayag’s Triveni Sangam. His disappearance is discussed in the Lilamrita and in the Memories DVD interview with Pusta Krishna das, Shrila Prabhupada’s servant at that time.
Although Vishnujana Maharaja was known for his pure and simple explanations of the unquestionable need to surrender to the Supreme Lord Shri Krishna through service to His pure devotee, he remains a complex personality who is little understood. Those of us who look with wonder to such great pioneers can only try to empathize with the loneliness felt at the zenith. The following memoirs are extracted from the In2MeC Diary of His Holiness Suhotra Maharaja, who traveled with Vishnujana Swami on the legendary Radha-Damodar Traveling Sankirtan Party bus from 1972. In the following extracts Suhotra Maharaja unravels a little about the mystery of the mahatma, our departed Godbrother.
Condensed from: “Listen! Vishnujana Maharaja is Singing”
Shripada Vihsnujana Maharaja
…I stayed on in Boston and learned to do big book distribution, a new phenomenon in the ISKCON of that time. I traveled around New England with a team of brahmacharis in a sankirtana van. This was nectar, but we always had to come back to a temple that stood on uncertain managerial legs. So by the end of ’72 I was looking for a way to stay on the book distribution road and never come back.
…To make a long story short, I begged Vishnujana Maharaja to take me with him when he left Boston for New York . Trai Dasa, our new temple president, was not happy with me, but what could he do? As the Road Show pulled out before dawn, I jumped onto one of the buses. Bliss! …The same day we arrived in New York , SURPRISE! Vishnujana Maharaja was unseated as the director of the Road Show. The very next morning, again before dawn, I was on the road with him and a half-dozen brahmacharis in the Radha-Damodara bus. We drove to Atlanta . This was the beginning of the Radha-Damodara Traveling Sankirtana Party (known popularly by the acronym “RD TSKP”).
…Vishnujana Maharaja remains for me the most compelling preacher I’ve ever known, except of course for His Divine Grace Shrila Prabhupada. Mahamaya Mataji (in her book Shrila Prabhupada is Coming) describes Maharaja’s speeches as “heart-penetrating”. That’s an excellent description. …Maharaja told me that when Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu departed on his South Indian tour, even He felt perturbed in His mind due to separation from the devotees whom He’d left behind. So He chanted loudly like a lion,
KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA HE !
KRISHNA KRISINA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA HE !
KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA RAKSHA MAM !
KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA PAHI MAM !
RAMA RAGHAVA RAMA RAGHAVA RAMA RAGHAVA RAKSHA MAM !
KRISHNA KESHAVA KRISHNA KESHAVA KRISHNA KESHAVA PAHI MAM !
Thus while the bus was rolling down the road to Atlanta , Vishnujana Maharaja encouraged me to lead the brahmacaris in what he called “a liberating kirtana”. I tried my best to chant like a lion. It was wild. But it really got rid of the blues.
…We all were ready to enter fire for him. At this point I should mention the other RD TSKP brahmacaris of that beginning period. There was Narada Muni Prabhu, Vishnudatta Prabhu, Dayal Chandra Prabhu, Sri Ballabha Prabhu, Patatriraja Prabhu, Hasyagrami Prabhu, and Jamadagni Prabhu. Soon Jamadagni left, while Aja, Riksharaja and Sri Galim Prabhus joined. During the two years I was with the RD TSKP, these devotees–and of course Maharaja and myself–made up the nucleus of the party. Bhakta Marty from Denver , who became Mahamantra Prabhu (and now is Bhakti Vishrambha Madhava Maharaja), joined us a bit later. He too became a core Radha-Damodara devotee.
By the time we arrived in Atlanta , I was so taken with Maharaja’s association that I went out on a Sunday, door-to-door, to collect $100 for him. In those days that was an almost unheard-of amount for one devotee to bring home. If a devotee came back with $20, that was really big news. I left Maharaja at 10:00 AM and returned at 8:00 PM to hand him $70 in bills and $30 in change. He was so pleased.
Another time I was going door-to-door in an apartment building, distributing books. …I was wearing dhoti, tilaka and shaved head. I knocked on a door and a man called from behind it, “Who are you?” I explained who I was and why I was at the door. I heard a woman say, “Open the door, let’s have a look at him.” In an instant, the door banged opened. I found myself face to face with a man aiming a revolver at my head. His wife was hiding behind him. I started preaching. Gradually the man lowered his gun and finally gave me a donation for a Krishna Book. I was so happy after that, because I had a great story to tell Vishnujana Maharaja when I got back to the bus! And, yes, he was very enlivened to hear it.
Vishnujana Maharaja was blessed with a soft, gentle heart. His prayer was that he might give that heart completely to the service of the lotus feet of his spiritual master and Shri-Shri Radha-Krishna. What fascinated me about him is that this mood of devotion was completely natural, and therefore completely authentic. …He was just following Shrila Prabhupada’s mood as he had personally experienced it. He told me a little about those (early) days. Before meeting Shrila Prabhupada, he lived in a tree on the Morning Star Ranch, which was a hippie commune outside of San Francisco . His name was Mark and his best friend was Tom (later to be initiated as Tamal Krishna das Brahmachari). Mark would sometimes come into the city to make a little money by selling wooden flutes that he’d carve on the farm. He’d sit with the flutes spread out on the sidewalk in Haight-Ashbury , sometimes wearing nothing but a blanket with a hole in the center through which he thrust his head.
He started visiting the temple on Frederick Street to join in the kirtanas. When the kirtana ended and Shrila Prabhupada started the lecture, Mark would stretch out on the floor and go to sleep, sometimes keeping his head on the lap of a girlfriend. Before joining ISKCON, he got married. His wife was very attached to him. She did not agree to join, so they separated painfully.
Vishnujana Maharaja told me that he became serious about joining after Shrila Prabhupada referred to him in his lecture (or perhaps it was in an instruction to the temple managers) as an example of a demon. It had to do with his sleeping in the class. Something like, “Here is a demon. Even he gets the opportunity to purify himself, he goes back to maya. So? Then go. Don’t come back again and again to do your nonsense here.” That’s not meant to be a quotation. It was Prabhupada’s mood, as least as Mark understood it then. It shook him up.
Later, after he’d been initiated, Shrila Prabhupada praised him: “You are advancing nicely.” “It is by your mercy, Shrila Prabhupada,” Vishnujana answered. “No, not like that. My mercy is open to everyone. You are taking it.”
Vishnujana had attracted that praise of His Divine Grace because of his ecstatic kirtanas. But sometimes Shrila Prabhupada had to chastise him still. Once Shrila Prabhupada was driven to see the evening chanting party in the Los Angeles streets. Vishnujana, as usual, was leading. But he was playing two mridangas at the same time. Shrila Prabhupada commented, “He cannot even play one mridanga properly, yet he beats two.”
From somewhere Vishnujana picked up a Mira Bai song that goes, “Gopala, Gopala, Devakinandana Gopala; Gopala, Gopala, Yasodanandana Gopala. “Shrila Prabhupada told him to stop singing it. “It may have been sung by great devotees,” he said, “but it was not sung by great authorities.”
Being a musically talented person, Vishnujana would invent melodies for the mahamantra. Once Shrila Prabhupada saw him composing a melody at the harmonium. “And what is wrong with my melodies?” His Divine Grace demanded.
Once Prabhupada asked why so many American gentlemen would go on walks with dogs on leashes. Vishnujana answered, “So they can watch how their dogs are nicely passing stool.” Shrila Prabhupada laughed and laughed at this.
Vishnujana Maharaja told us that he had personally witnessed Shrila Prabhupada talking to his spiritual master’s photograph, eyes flooded with tears.
About Vishnujana Swami Shrila Prabhupada said, “By his singing alone, he can go back to Godhead.”
Maharaja loved Shri-Shri Radha-Damodara. Here is the proof. One morning at 4:00 AM , he was preparing Their Lordships for Mangala-arati. By this time we’d left Atlanta . We were somewhere in the South, where winters are milder than Northern states like New York . But this morning it was soooooo cold! And there was no proper heating system on the bus. It was so frozen that Maharaja couldn’t move his fingers properly. I remember him so clearly, coming out from behind the velvet Deity curtains, bundled up against the cold, a forlorn look on his face. “It’s so cold. I can’t control my senses to serve Their Lordships,” he lamented. He was not complaining about the cold for himself. He was complaining for the sake of the Deities. That is love.
…A couple days later I got a phone call from Visnujana Maharaja. The Radha-Damodara bus had just gone up in flames in the middle of the desert! The differential on the rear axle got overheated and the grease and oil inside combusted. The devotees barely managed to save the Deities and themselves before the blaze turned the bus into a charred metal skeleton.
Maharaja went to LA and borrowed money from Karandhara Prabhu, the West Coast GBC. He bought a much better bus. The old one was just a plodding school bus; the new one was a long-distance coach. This was the first of a fleet of such busses. In the later part of 1974 HH Tamal Krsna Maharaja arrived from India to re-join his old friend from the Morning Star Ranch. Their teaming up was when the Radha-Damodara TSKP started to expand: first from one bus to three, then finally up to a dozen.
I mentioned earlier that I believe that Vishnujana Maharaja, though apparently not a siddha during his life, did achieve perfection. I know this from a vivid dream I had in the 1980s. Under an intense blue sky I saw a huge, perfectly manicured lawn extending in all directions as far as the eye could see. The only thing standing on the lawn was a huge white temple in the distance. I walked a long way across the grass to the temple, and then I started to climb wide marble stairs to reach the ornately arched entranceway. I noticed a sadhu sitting against a pillar halfway up the stairway. It was Vishnujana Maharaja. He smiled at me in the warmest way and said, “It’s wonderful here! When are you coming to join me?”
-His Holiness Suhotra Maharaja left this world from Mayapur while chanting Hare Krishna on his japa mala in his kutir in 2007