One year on from the first lock-down in the UK due to the Coronavirus, Jaya Krishna das from Bhaktivedanta Manor shares his reflections during a most challenging yet unforgettable year:
Reflecting back to exactly this time last year, I remember it as highly unsettling. There was lots of news coverage about a new virus that had completely gone out of control. By then some parts of Europe were already in lockdown and there was a political debate about whether the UK should follow suit.
The government, health authorities, businesses, the National Health Service and the police were all making plans of what to do. Society went into a kind of overdrive amidst public hysteria. Some shopping queues went for miles and families began buying food supplies in bulk and even items like toilet paper, soap and paracetamol were stripped from the supermarket shelves.
Meanwhile, the devotees of Bhaktivedanta Manor were also preparing for lockdown. As reports began to come of members of our own community catching and some dying from the virus, the management and community as a whole knew matters were very serious. Immediately new rules were made in order to protect ashram devotees, regulars, volunteers and congregation. Strict social-distancing policies came into play. At that time, no devotees or guests from outside of the temple grounds were permitted to enter. Direct service for Sri Sri Radha Gokulananda was particularly affected because most of the Manor pujaris are grihastas and the standard of deity worship at the Manor is notoriously high, established personally by Srila Prabhupada in 1973.
I was one of those who had been helping out as part of a small emergency team, performing some aratis and dressing in the evening to help cover for absent pujaris. It was 22nd of March 2020 and I had just finished my evening seva. I went home and was listening to kirtan and chopping away a sublime pakora,when I received a phone call from Ananta Gopal prabhu, a brahmacari committed to deity worship.
“Prabhu, the UK will go into full lockdown at midnight tonight. That includes the Temple and no one will be able to enter or leave. We need you to come and stay here and help cover many pujari services. Can you do that?” Without hesitation I agreed. Ananta remarked “Great! Pack your things right away and arrive before midnight. Any time after that the police can stop you!”
Frantically I packed a healthy supply of dhotis, kurtas, chuddars and tilak and drove to the Temple like a devotional version of James Bond.
I arrived at the Temple by about 10.30pm but nothing was prepared for my arrival. However, I quickly settled in and was awarded my own room with en-suite facilities.
The following day I received a number of phone calls from concerned friends and family, suggesting that I shouldn’t stay at the Temple but instead remain at home in complete isolation. Especially as I fitted in the category of one who might die easily from the virus should I catch it as I was older person.
However I thought to myself that if the worst should happen, then to die serving Sri Sri Radha Gokulananda is glorious. I am not going to lie: I was scared. But I explained to my two children I was prepared to take such a risk for the Lord. Both of them agreed and it was the best choice I have ever made. My son, a former Gurukuli student, explained that if i die serving Lord Krishna at the Temple, then he will certainly take care of me.
I have performed pujari service for over 40 years now, but that time was the most ecstatic. It was an unbelievably intimate experience: doing the necessary as part of a team, and without any guests. Krishna was looking super amazing, as He accepted service from a motley crew of largely inexperienced but sincere devotees.
I always looked forward to put Krishna to sleep at night. What such great fortune I had! That is what Mother Yasoda got to do every day in Vrndavana. One could say I was in a similar situation. Those solitary moments late at night were deeply intimate because the rest of the Temple devotees were already fast asleep, ready to rise at 3am for service the next day.
Such quiet moments are extremely rare at Bhaktivedanta Manor, for it is well-known that it is usually extremely busy. Yet when I looked around there was no one except Krishna and me. I relished those rare moments, knowing it wouldn’t last long because the Temple will eventually have to open up again.
As days went by I felt highly privileged to be chosen to do this service, but I also felt unworthy because there are so many better pujaris of Radha Gokulananda than I. Why me? The devotees outside were intensely missing their seva and there I was feeding and dressing Krishna single-handedly. I sang lullabies as I put Him to sleep and even dared to speak to Him as He was lain to rest along with Srimati Radharani. I asked Him if He was happy with the seva I had offered that day. Was the sweet rice too hot? Was He comfortable enough? Finally I said to Krishna “I know I am putting you to sleep, but you are going to get up as soon as I turn off the lights and play on Manor front lawn with Radharani and the gopis. I kindly asked the Lord to try and come back before 3.45am the next morning, adding that “…the young brahmacari who comes to wake You will have heart attack if you are not there!”
Once, in 7 Bury Place, the first ISKCON temple in London, Srila Prabhupada said that the pujaris are most fortunate because they carry out the same activity as the residents of Vraja.
Morning kirtans at the Manor were ecstatic and really lively. It was a really unsettling period because at that time no one seemed to know anything about the virus, what to speak of having a vaccine. Meanwhile, the news was full of terrible stories and mortality figures. Bhagavatam classes were focused and dynamic as we tried to deepen our understanding of Krishna Consciousness and the temporal nature of our existence on this planet. Covid-19 was a big wake-up call for everybody.
I went for extended japa walks around the Temple grounds. On some days it was cold, cloudy and windy. It was quiet and empty, not a soul around. Random items blew around in the wind, reminiscent of a dusty town in a Western movie just before sun-down.
My relationship with the ashram devotees deepened as we talked Krishna katha with intensity. I arranged weekly bonfire nights to cheer the ashram devotees up. We sang and played Krishna conscious games around the camp fire, throwing potatoes into the flames for a later treat. Often I would treat them to stuffed parathas. We had become a family in our own right, cut off from the outside world but deeply connected to Krishna.
Due to my experience as the Director of the Bhaktivedanta Players, I managed to arrange four festival dramas with the ashram devotees during the full lockdown. They were broadcast live across most of the Temple’s social media platforms, and they were well received.
On the evening that I was due to return home, I sat on a bench looking at the iconic picturesque view of Bhaktivedanta Manor from the front lawn, where Srila Prabhupada would sit.
It was a pleasant warm evening with birds cheeping away and several pairs of green parrots flying around. A few scattered devotees chanting their japa. I reflected how I’d stayed at the Temple ashram as a brahmacari for 11 years in the 1970s and 80s. Those were passionate times, running around without a thought, young and zealous. “Get your quota done prabhu otherwise you’re in Maya!” “Work now samadhi later” was a mantra drilled into me.
Now at sixty years old the passion has somewhat receded. I was trying to do my service more nicely than ever before with bhakti, meaning and deliberation. That recent time in the Temple offered some of the most intimate moments I had ever spent with Radha Gokulnanda and the devotees. Over the course of my 45 years of ISKCON, one does become somewhat complacent and we can switch onto auto-pilot. These rare moments living at temple have revived my dormant Krishna consciousness and made me more appreciative, reminding me of why I joined all those years ago and what has ultimately kept me going.
I was initially meant to stay at the Temple for three weeks, but it ended up as four months. When government restrictions had eased a tad, some devotees asked me to stay longer. But I had done what I could do. To be honest I am too attached to my independence and creature comforts.
Reflecting back I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed my four months stay and I will be forever grateful for being asked to perform this rare service for the Lord during a time of need. Luckily I have been able to continue my pujari service, even though somewhat limited because of ongoing UK lockdown rules and the responsible policies of the Temple management.
Thank you to Ananta Gopal prabhu for giving me the opportunity to engage in such a wonderful seva and thanks to Sri Sri Radha Gokulananda for tolerating me and my lack of qualification.
Om tat sat