1995 Family Albums – Sāraṅga Ṭhākura
Dear Śrīla Prabhupāda,
Please accept my humble obeisances at the dust of your divine lotus feet. All glories to Your Divine Grace, the savior of the fallen.
Last fall I visited my mother in Toronto. In the process I witnessed a strong reminder of your kindness. That experience is the basis of this humble offering for the celebration of your 99th appearance day.
After my father’s demise, mother moved from Montreal to share a flat with her sister. On my visit I stayed at our Avenue Road Temple and visited her daily. In good health and spirits, at the fag end of this life, the threshold of another, my mother inhabits a world dominated by memories. Aside from the two children of my cousin, bodily necessities, and trivial entertainment, there are no rewarding events to anchor her to the present. The main thrust of our conversations lay in history. She showed me family albums featuring grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts—a countless variety of relatives. I shared this common exchange with little interest, solely as a matter of obligation.
“Do you want to see pictures of you?” she asked.
“Hardly interested,” I thought, but replied, “All right.”
She unveiled a stack of albums and opened them one by one. The years of struggle comprising my pre-devotional life passed by in minutes.
There was Peter—
a naked baby belly-down on a sheet
at 2 dressed in knitted winter wear (wasn’t he cute?)
at 5 standing at the doorsteps in shorts, first day at school
at 10 with friend Tony fishing in the Laurentians
at 16 high school graduation and on to university
at 19 the marriage that would last forever
at 20 working for the summer at a mine in Manitoba
at 21 in his fourth year at McGill
at 23 a bearded hippie searching for light
at 24 the last picture as a “normal” person
These were but some of countless photos, each marking another event in the abject failure of just one of the unlimited conditioned living entities suffering in this world.
“All the other pictures are after you joined to become a Kṛṣṇa,” she said. “Aren’t you sorry you didn’t continue in your profession in the real world?”
I looked up from the photo album. Before me sat the remnants of how many generations of my line? Two elderly ladies struggling with senility, scraps of paper their past, the present governed by disease, the finality of death to come.
“This is all your family,” they said as they pointed to the heaps of photo albums on the table.
I looked at them with incredulity, then back to the collection of discoloring Kodak paper.
Your voice echoed in my heart.
“My spiritual master was no ordinary spiritual master. He saved me.”
* * *
Murāri Caitanya Dāsa died of snakebite at an early age, and his parents placed his body in the Ganges. When the great devotee Sāraṅga Ṭhākura took his bath that day, the corpse of the boy brushed against his body. With the strength of his devotion, the Ṭhākura brought Murāri Caitanya back to life. From that time they were inseparable companions.
Hearing of the reappearance of their son, Murāri’s parents came to Sāraṅga Ṭhākura’s kuṭīra to claim him.
The boy said. “Why do you claim to be my parents? You had given me up for dead and cast me into the Gaṅgā. Sāraṅga Ṭhākura gave me new life and taught me the service of Lord Caitanya. He is my father, this is my home.”
Under the spell of māyā, coerced by sweet words into bodily identification, I too was cast by family, lovers, and friends into the irresistible current that is the material world. When I became a “Kṛṣṇa” they had given me up for a dead corpse. But you, like Sāraṅga Ṭhākura, gave me life, service, and love. Now once again death comes with open arms in the form of family enticements. “Now come back home.”
Where is that home? Who is that family?
It is you that saved me from the horrible abyss depicted in the photos before me. You are my only father, friend, and guide. Those who are your servants are my family, and wherever they reside is my home. Strangers are those who after four decades still offer the poison chalice of material enjoyment, albeit with all best intentions.
Yes, you saved me—
from madness caused by intoxication,
from senseless toil born of lust,
from slavery to wife, dog, and home,
from heartbreaking materialistic values,
from the loneliness of meaningless efforts,
from the disappointment of cheating religions.
And I did not even want to be saved! Still you forced the medicine of hari-nāma into my unwilling lips.
apāyayan mām anabhīpsum andham
kṛpāmbudhir yaḥ para-duḥkha-duḥkhī
sanātanas taṁ prabhum āśrayāmi
“I was unwilling to drink the nectar of devotional service possessed of renunciation, but Sanātana Gosvāmī, out of his causeless mercy, made me drink it, even though I was otherwise unable to do so. Therefore he is an ocean of mercy. He is very compassionate to fallen souls like me, and thus it is my duty to offer my respectful obeisances unto his lotus feet.”
In my heart rises another picture. It is not to be found in mother’s photo album. It is a mid-spring afternoon. There is Peter sitting in the green Vokswagen, driving toward the temple. Both the reluctant wife and amiable dog have been dropped off at the mother-in-law’s. There are tears in his eyes, his heart pierced by attachment.
Driving, driving through the tears
Driving away from that world
Driving as if someone else was in control
Driving back to Godhead
Driving or being driven?
On the dashboard the only object in focus, a picture of you. Finally finding himself standing in the center of the prasādam room with luggage in hand, he stammers, “I am here, prabhus.”
That was half a lifetime ago. Now there are so many more pictures. They are in the photo album deep in my heart. In 1973 I turned on the ignition with a plan to drive to the temple and to Kṛṣṇa. Twenty-two years later I continue to drive, not having yet arrived at my destination. As then, so now, I am reluctant. As then, so now, you are in control, forcing me to keep moving forward. As then, so now, you are saving me.
Śrīla Prabhupāda, you are no ordinary spiritual master. Please continue to save me, despite my stubbornness. Please bring me, the black sheep of your family, struggling desperately to serve you by serving your mission, ever closer to you. It is my only hope to repay your kindness. Please accept my humble effort. Please always keep me among the members of your transcendental family. I have nowhere else to go.
* * *
“Do you want to see any more pictures?”
I looked up at my mother,
“No thank you.”
Then I left.
* * *
Yes, I do want to see more pictures.
I want to always remember, always see the pictures of you, Śrīla Prabhupāda—
preaching with youthful vigor
chanting with eyes closed in ecstasy
sitting on the vyāsāsana
smiling that incomparable smile
saving the unsavable
happy that your ISKCON is fulfilling your will
pleased with all your followers,
even this insignificant person who is trying to become your servant,
… to whom you will never be an ordinary spiritual master, another spiritual master, or just a spiritual master. You saved me then, and you are saving me now, Śrīla Prabhupāda. You are master of my heart.