Yesterday I went with Jaya and Manjari to Kiki Nagla where Kurma Rupa was resting. As it turns out, it was his last day in this body and it was our good fortune to see him one last time.
He had an incurable stomach cancer and had been suffering for several months. Just a few days ago his condition took a turn for the worse and he was moved to the hospital for rest and comfort. Kurma Rupa and I were acquaintances. I liked him. I thought him an exemplary person, someone who was trying to find a way to make a contribution to the growth of bhakti culture. He was actually a closer friend to Babaji and was a frequent visitor to Jiva for Bhagavatam classes. Babaji had gone to visit him a few days earlier when he heard that he was in serious condition, but before he had been moved back to Kiki Nagla.
When I was doing the Vrindavan Today project I went to him a couple of times to ask him to become our “cow protection” correspondent. Somehow that never worked out. I saw him around the time he was being forced to move the Goshala from Sunrakh out to Belvan and to Kiki Nagla. Kurma Rupa’s periodical magazine “Care for Cows” appeared regularly and his mission to protect Vrindavan’s cows was his life.
Kiki Nagla is a breath of fresh air itself. It is nice to know that there is still so much of the rural and agricultural Braj so close to Vrindavan. The fields are open and even though the development along the Chattikara Road lines the horizon, and although the road from Sunrakh is also clearly being marked for development, Kiki is still open countryside.
Kurma Rupa’s goshala takes up an important part of the Food for Life (FFLV) campus there, along with the hospital and high school. And the cow dung is piled high to be recycled as compost for a large organic garden, which mostly goes to feed FFLV schoolchildren their daily meals.
Kurma Rupa’s room has a large balcony that overlooks the open fields of Braj and to one side you can see a portion of the goshala, where fifty cows mill around placidly, looking up, oddly enough, in the direction of his room.
The door has a sign on it warning everyone not to cause a disturbance to “prabhu.” And indeed, once inside, the atmosphere is hushed, even reverent. There are half a dozen devotees of various ages busying themselves with providing comfort to Kurma Rupa. The whole time we were there, people were constantly coming and going, offering some greetings and a word, or simply standing by.
Kurma Rupa seemed barely to recognize anyone. People were talking to him, but he wasn’t answering. Someone would help him sit up so he could be toweled down. Kusha Devi toweled from one side, a young Indian man dressed in the Iskcon fashion from the other. Manjari and Jaya rubbed his feet. Everything was done in whispered tones. Brajavasi Devi Dasi came in wearing her customary saffron sari. She sang various kirtans in a soft voice. A young western woman came in and sang along with her. A couple of other Indian men also seemed to be directly involved in Kurmarupa’s care. The patient himself seemed resigned to the attention.
I decided to just sit in the only chair in the room. I thought the best way would be to commune in silence. Beside me on a table was a computer with Prabhupada’s japa tape playing on a non-stop loop. The far wall was covered with pictures of cows, Kurmarupa with cows and, in the center of the collage, of course, a picture of Srila Prabhupada in one of his most brilliant smiling moments.
Some of the best pictures of cows were taken by Kurma Rupa. He managed to show his love for go mata through his photography.
I went into a meditation on Kurmarupa, trying to feel his vibration and communicate mentally from my seat, though I could see that in a way the attention he was getting seemed to be more of a distraction from the inner-mindedness that one might crave in one’s last moments.
Kurma Rupa is a unique character in our Krishna consciousness movement in the west. Dying in Vrindavan, still surrounded by cows.
agrataḥ santu me gāvaḥ gāvo me santu pṛṣṭhataḥ |
gāvo me pārśvataḥ santu gavāṁ madhye vasāmy aham ||
May cows go before me, may they follow me.
May cows surround me, I live among cows.
HBV 16.252, Skanda-purana
So I was sitting in Kurma Rupa’s room, with the background sound Prabhupada chanting japa determinedly, like an army general beating the drum of discipline and purpose, while a number of well-meaning people were looking at the dying man as a saint. There was little fear of death in that room. It seemed more like a very reverent sending off party.
Because he is dying in Vrindavan after remaining true to the message of Vaishnavism in one form, a form that was bestowed on him by Srila Prabhupada, this mysterious, even esoteric religion of "cow protection." And what to speak that this man is a convert, someone who most probably used to eat cows before becoming a devotee. And now in a country where eating beef is increasingly considered a healthy sign of progress and defiance to a ridiculous superstitious past.
What is the benefit of cows? What does it mean to live among cows, to serve cows, to love cows?
A friend of mine has a firm belief in the beneficial effects of living in the proximity of cows, especially the breeds that are special to Vraj, the tall, noble looking white bovine with a hump and a flap hanging from its neck. They are imposing and even a little intimidating to the uninitiated, but a more peaceful and affectionate creature cannot be found. And to live among cows means to become calm and gentle.
So this was a man transformed by Guru’s mercy, the dust of Vrindavan and the company of Krishna’s favorite beast. He took one segment of his guru's mano'bhishta and made it his life. As a result he helped make cow protection a real issue for devotees.
Was Kurma Rupa a saint? I think that Iskcon and the Western Krishna movement is in need of saints right now. It has had its blemished leaders, but like all religions, the simple devotees will look for those who remained simple in their devotion, who eschewed power and leadership roles and exemplified saintliness in non-official capacities, by their character and commitment to service. Aindra Das, the kirtaniya, was one such person.
Coincidentally, it was just a few days ago that Brahmananda Das left his body.
I saw a bit of his video memories of the 40th anniversary of Krishna-Balaram, which he helped construct, one of those early Iskcon pioneers without whom Prabhupada would have accomplished nothing. Brahmananda had long ceased to be a player in Iskcon, but he was a great fountain of Srila Prabhupada lore, and his presence in Vrindavan to speak at every occasion was an exercise in oral history that confirmed the mythology of Prabhupada and Iskcon’s destiny.
In the video he says, with tremendous humility, that the temple was built in spite of him. Actually the story is quite good and quite indicative of the kinds of relations that early American devotees had with Indian people back in the early days when the big construction projects in Bombay, Vrindavan and Mayapur were all going ahead full steam. I was in Mayapur so I have a little direct experience of that time.
Luckily, Prabhupada was able to find good Vrindavan contacts to help, his influence was considerable, but the direct management of the western devotees was problematic. Cultural differences, language differences, perhaps a dose of racism, and a general lack of experience were the obstacles these young men faced, who had little more going for them than the natural innocent hubris of being young and American, the current masters of the human race.
In an event that would not have been atypical, Brahmananda recounts that he and Prabhupada were living in the first building to be completed, which was Prabhupada's house. He had bought a nice new gamcha and after bathing would hang it on a clothesline in the middle of what was a construction site. And of course one of the workers stole it.
This happened twice and Brahmananda was getting all disturbed and self righteous. So, after buying a third gamcha, he placed it on the line and then hid in waiting to see who took it. Sure enough, a scrawny laborer came into the courtyard after work, looked around and then, sure no one was looking, grabbed the gamcha. Brahmananda immediately pounced on the man and started to pound him. Brahmananda was stout even in his youth and I am sure he was a giant compared to the average village laborer in Vrindavan of the epoch. It was not a fair fight.
Immediately the entire work force went on strike and refused to work for as long as no reparations were made. Prabhupada gave Brahmananda a good talking to and sent him out to prostrate himself in front of the worker and ask for forgiveness. I am sure Prabhupada thought it would be a good exercise for his devotional growth. How do you teach civilization to those who are already more civilized?
But there is no doubt that Brahmananda will always be a noble part of Iskcon’s history. He did things I never could have done to make it possible for me to do what I do today. And also what Kurma Rupa did.
Now the long slow process of Srila Prabhupada's initiated disciples dying off is well underway. More and more we will ask, Who is left? It will take thirty or forty years for everyone who had their second birth in that time to die off. They will be sought out, like Siddhanta Saraswati's last disciples, because the ones who last the longest have the greatest chance of aging gracefully into wisdom and saintliness.
When we went out, I went to Kurmarupa and we exchanged looks, I folded my hands and said Jai Radhe. He looked at me with recognition and folded his hands and nodded. Jai Sri Radhe.
Look closely at the picture of Kurma Rupa and see what a good man looks like in death. Look at the lips that were habituated to chanting the holy name.