Memories of HH Bhakti Tirtha Swami


By Bhakti Charu Swami

So just one stanza I shall sing from a song composed by Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura,

suddha-bhakata-carana-renu, bhajana-anukula bhakata-seva, parama-siddhi, prema-latikara mula

Will you be able to sing with me? [Audience agree.] I am sorry I thought I will use the harmonium myself.

suddha-bhakata-carana-renu bhajana-anukula – the dust from the lotus feet of a pure devotee is conducive to spiritual advancement. If we want to make spiritual advancement then it is important that we recognize a pure devotee. It is very difficult actually to recognize a pure devotee. In order to recognize a pure devotee we have to transcend the material platform and see their spiritual activities, appreciate their commitment to Krishna consciousness.

nama om visnu-padaya krsna-presthaya bhu-tale srimate bhaktitirtha-svamin iti namine

Srila Prabhupada came with a very special mission, to fulfill the prediction of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu that the Krishna consciousness movement would spread all over the world in every town and village. So in this way we can see that Krishna actually sent Srila Prabhupada to accomplish that mission. And in order to assist Srila Prabhupada Sri Krishna also sent many devotees. And undoubtedly HH Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj is one of them. To assist Srila Prabhupada Krishna planted different devotees in different parts of the world, in different communities, in different societies and when Srila Prabhupada went to America they came forward to assist Srila Prabhupada.

Srila Prabhupada himself admitted that quite a few times that many of his disciples are not just ordinary living entities, sadhaka bhaktas, they are his eternal associates. Just as he came from the spiritual sky these devotees also came from the spiritual sky. Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj was born in Cleveland, Ohio on this day in 1950. If he were here with us he would have been sixty years old today. He was born in a not very well-to-do American African family but his parents were wonderful people, especially his mother. Maharaj very often spoke about his mother very fondly and we can see what an important role she must have played in building up Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj, grooming up Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj.

Although he was no born in a very well-to-do family but one thing is very obvious that he was in his nature, in his way, in his taste, in his dealings, he was a very aristocratic person. He was extremely aristocratic and he was not like other young boys of that time in that neighborhood. He was very serious, aloof from everything and very determined about his objectives and ambitions. Even from his childhood he displayed that characteristic. When other boys were getting involved in other not-so-nice activities although provocation was there, although opportunities were there but Maharaj never allowed himself to be degraded.

Another very significant thing about Maharaj’s young days is that he had a speech defect. He used to stutter, he used to stammer but this teacher in his school noticed a very amazing thing about him was that when it came to reading Bible he didn’t have any problems. Otherwise he had problems speaking. He had problem reading. He used to stutter but while reading Bible he could read without any difficulty. So when he was telling me that I could consider that he was a spiritual personality. He had difficulty to deal with the material nature, materialistic activities but when it came to spiritual activities he didn’t have any difficulty at all.

He was a very bright individual, a very bright student. Once Maharaj, I think he was just in high school at that time, he used to give some tutorial maybe to earn some money. I don’t know exactly why he was doing that, maybe to help the not so literate individuals. And in that community where he used to do that, in the society where he used to conduct that service there was a white young girl from a very rich family and she saw such a brilliant possibility in Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj that she actually made arrangements for Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj to get admitted in the Hawkins School. It was a preparatory school which is meant for children from very, very rich families. She made arrangements for Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj to get admitted in that school. It was a very prestigious school. He cam out with a very brilliant academic result and he got admitted to all the iconic colleges, scholarship for all the ideal colleges including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford. He could join any of these colleges, the best colleges in America, the best universities in America. Maharaj decided to take his addition at Princeton.

Radhanath Maharaj was mentioning that he selected Princeton for two reasons. One was that it was relatively close to Cleveland. And that college along with the scholarship provided him with free books and a free passage during the vacation to his home. He could get a free flight. So that is why he selected Princeton but afterwards he realized that Princeton was not the best school to go to because Princeton was famous for its redneckish attitude. Mostly the southerners used to go to Princeton and they had a very strong tendency and Maharaj realized that that it was not the best selection that he made because he had to face a lot of difficulties at college. Sometimes people could even become quiet violent. Probably they might have become violent also.

I heard from Radhanath Maharaj that Maharaj actually told him once that he used to carry a gun with him at that time just for the sake of his safety. But in spite of all these difficulties and in spite of all these oppositions he had shorn forth very, very brilliantly. He became very, very actively involved not only in his studies but also in his college social activities. He became very actively involved in Dr. martin Luther’s civil right movement at that time and he became a member of the ABC association – association with black colleges in Princeton. He also founded a society called the Third World Sector in Princeton. He joined Princeton in 1968 and in 71 he actually became the president of the colleges student union. It was a brilliant achievement. Very, very brilliant person, in his academic career, in his dealings. We can well imagine how he must have been during that time. In
1972 he graduated from the university.

His original plan actually was to join the diplomatic service of the US government. That was his objective and he was preparing himself for that. But then there was an unusual turn soon after he finished his college. He came across the Hare Krishna movement and that was the end of his diplomatic career. Maharaj mentioned once how he first came to Iskcon. He went to I think Manhattan temple and he got some literature or got some flyers or leaflets on his way back from his office out of curiosity he came to the temple. He was dressed in his suit and tie so the devotees in the temple did not take hi so seriously or didn’t show enough interest so he was a little disappointed in the way they treated him at first but he became convinced about Srila Prabhupada’s teachings by reading just one or two books by Srila Prabhupada. He then decided to join.

Prabhupada gave him initiation in 1973 in Los Angeles and named him Ghanasyam dasa. It is a beautiful name, Ghanasyam. Krishna is Ghanasyam. His bodily complexion is like dark monsoon cloud. Ghana means deep. Krishna is Syamasundara but when that Syama complexion becomes even more intensified then it becomes Ghanasyam.

Maharaj was extremely committed to Srila Prabhupada’s mission. Whoever knew Maharaj knew how intense he was. Whatever he took to he was completely committed to that. He had a completely one-tracked mind. He took up the mission in assisting Srila Prabhupada in spreading Krishna consciousness all over the world and he committed himself fully to that. He recognized that the most important business is to distribute Prabhupada’s books.

In those days all the serious devotees were into distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books and Prabhupada also made it clear to everybody that the service that would please him the most is distribution of his books. So Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj joined the library party. The library party was a very special type of book distribution program in those days. They used to go to the universities and colleges and used to take standing orders from universities, colleges, libraries and various establishments like that. They used to take standing orders because books are coming out an Prabhupada had a plan to present Krishna consciousness through so many books. Prabhupada was constantly pumping out books.

So these devotees in the library parties they used to go to different institutions and used to take the standing order, meaning they would sell the books that have already been printed and take a standing order that whenever a new book would come out that they will be willing to take those books. That was a very exciting program. I remember those days in India also they had this library party and many devotees were traveling around going to different libraries, colleges and universities.

Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj became first very actively involved in America but then guess where he decided to go? The biggest challenge that anyone could ever accept! He decided to go beyond the iron curtain – East European Block, communist countries. In those days distributing books in those countries, even to go to those countries was difficult, what to speak of distributing books! The risk was inconceivable because the possibility was like going to those countries, those who are completely opposed to America. Their whole thing was anti-America. And if an American was found involved in an activity, which is not authorized it would have been seen as spies, espionage work. One can well imagine what the punishment for that was going to be.

So Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj took that risk and he went behind the iron curtain. Those days must have been extremely difficult. He did not have any regular place to live. There was no temple. What to speak of temple, there was no association of devotees. There was nothing even remotely related to Krishna consciousness in those countries in those days. For months together he had been engaged in those activities. Actually Maharaj did not speak much about those days but he used to write to Srila Prabhupada.

I had the good fortune of being with Srila Prabhupada in those days. Srila Prabhupada used to take his lunch and right after his lunch Prabhupada used to take lunch sitting on an asana like this. This is quite high. Prabhupada used to sit on an asana that about one foot high and there was a table and prasad was served on that table and Prabhupada used to eat. After eating we used to give Prabhupada water to wash his hands and mouth and then he would just sit there for quite some time. Then we used to take away Prabhupada’s plates and table and then Tamal Krishna Maharaj used to come and read out the letters to Srila Prabhupada, letters that came to Srila Prabhupada and the first letters that he would read those days were the letters from Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj. Those letters were so full of amazing anecdotes of distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books and Prabhupada was so excited. Prabhupada used to say that these letters give him life. He told Tamal Krishna Maharaj to write to him. Prabhupada gave the dictation to Tamal Krishna Maharaj that these letters gave him life. They gave him life!

Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj used to write quite frequently. He didn’t have any place to live. Often times he would just sleep in the trains, just traveling from one place to another. For food it must have been so difficult really. He was just surviving on just bread and butter and no cooked food to days together, weeks together. Such a sacrifice for his spiritual master! And Srila Prabhupada also recognized his sacrifice. And Krishna also assisted him in his mission. There were so many amazing stories that he used to write.

Once he was going to a university and he could sense that he was being followed. Naturally he was a big target for those spies, the KGB’s because obviously he was not a Russian. In Russia those days I don’t think there was any African bodied person there, any African there. Even if there were, there were so few. He would naturally attract everybody’s attention. And he mentioned that he was always the target of these KGB’s. He was trying to avoid that person. He was just trying to turn quickly from one corner to the other. Then he just saw the name of a professor on the door so he just opened the door and entered in there.

The Professor was quite surprised to see him and he told him that he had an appointment with the professor. The professor couldn’t remember that but he kept on insisting, “No I have an appointment with you.” Another amazing thing is that this professor spoke English. In Russia those days hardly anyone would speak English and this professor by Krishna’s arrangement spoke English and turned out to be a very nice person and finally said, “Tell me what you wanted to see me for.” And then he started to speak about Srila Prabhupada and Srila Prabhupada’s books, Indian culture and all that. Finally the person not only appreciated his effort but also placed a standing order on behalf of the university.

Prabhupada recognized Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja’s contribution, Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja’s dedication to his lotus feet. When Prabhupada went to London in August of 1977 many devotees came to see Srila Prabhupada in London at that time. Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj also came. Prabhupada was physically quite incapacitated at that time. He was quite sick and he was so pleased to see Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj. He embraced Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj and he assured him that he will go back to Godhead. Prabhupada considered him to be a very, very special devotee and he was a very special devotee. His service to Srila Prabhupada, his commitment to Krishna consciousness, his profound understanding of Krishna consciousness, his deep love for Sri Guru and Gauranga just stands out in all respects. And his dealing with devotees has always been very, very sweet.

I remember the first time I met him, that was I think in ’78. I met him in Calcutta temple. He was coming to Mayapur and he stopped in Calcutta on the way to Mayapur. That was the first time I met him. That was the first time we met each other. Immediately I recognized him. He recognized me and we embraced each other and practically both of us simultaneously said that, “I heard so much about you.” In this way I was fortunate to develop a friendship with him. He always treated me with great affection and I was proud to have such a wonderful personality who considered me to be his friend. He was actually so caring and sp respectful, so affectionate to all his godbrothers and godsisters. He was amazing. I mean his dealings were amazing, always so respectful, so caring.

Another incident that I remember in 1987 our movement was going through major difficulty and on senior devotee leader, one of the most senior leader of our movement at that time was being judged in his absence and Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj was no really his man as such. He respected him. He stood up and mentioned, “You have to wait ’til he comes here before you make any decision about him. You have to give him an opportunity to defend himself. You are making a judgment against him when he is not here.” He took such a strong stand on that principle that he stuck to it and it distanced him from Iskcon leadership for sometime, just that one incident. Different people may look at it in a different way but in my mind it was clear that he was actually standing on the principle. He was not reacting with such decision but he was actually standing on the principle. Although he distanced himself from Iskcon leadership but I had the good fortune of maintaining a relationship with him. We used to communicate not that often but sometimes we used to speak and he was happy carrying on in his mission.

He started to preach in Africa those days and he got tremendous success. He was actually coronated as the king of one tribe in a place called Wary in Nigeria. This is how well he was received and naturally people were very, very proud of him because he was such a brilliant personality. Wherever he went in Africa he got tremendous recognition.

I had the good fortune of working together with him in South Africa. I was involved in South Africa in 1989. Then when Maharaj started to get involved in Africa we invited him to come. Maharaj came and we requested him to become a co-GBC of South Africa. Giriraj maharaj, Bhakti Caitanya Maharaj and I were the co-GBC’s of South Africa and Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj became also co-GBC and we saw what amazing preaching he was doing in that country. He was an extremely brilliant speaker. In 1995 there was a world religious federation in Durban were he was a participant, where he was addressing. His speech was so brilliant that he got a standing ovation for that. Bhagavat Maharaj where you there at that time? That was in ’95? One MP, Member of Parliament from London was there in that conference, in that program and he told me that he heard many speeches. He was a politician. He was a Member of Parliament in London where there are so many brilliant speakers and he must be hearing speakers from all over the world and he admitted that that was the best ever speech that he has heard. I forgot the name of that person. He is commonly known amidst the community of devotees as Arjun dasa.

Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj left so many deep impressions in the lives of so many individuals. Whoever he came across became so impressed and he was so powerful and he was so clear in his thoughts, in his mind. He knew what he was doing and he just stuck to that.

While we were in South Africa I would notice while I was working with him that he would have his day just packed with hardly any break from morning to night, one after another programs. Also in this respect I must admit that he has some very, very wonderful organizers amidst his disciples. He used to actually direct them but they used to follow his instructions to the point.

I remember in South Africa, the opportunities were there. South Africa was just a blossoming new nation and he met Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela was very impressed with him. Another politician, he was the minister of the Zulu kingdom, Mangosuthu Buthelezi so often he would speak about Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj. Whenever we met him he would ask, “Where is Krishnapada?” That was Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj, Krishnapada. He was such an impressive personality and at the same time he was so composed.

I remember another example. Another experience I had with Maharaj. We were driving from Durban to New Castle to a program and on the way Maharaj needed to use the toilet so we stopped in one place practically in the middle of nowhere. It was just a restaurant. So we went there along with Maharaj, me and one of my disciples who was driving us, Jagadananda Pandit. So we went to that shop or whatever it was, shop or restaurant, everything was there. And there was a lady behind the counter so this disciple of mine approached her and asked her where the toilet was. Her reply was, “Yes we have but not for you people.” She was white. In South Africa there was such intense racial discrimination. This was after South Africa became independent. The apartheid was gone but still the mentality prevailed. And so she said, “Yes we have but not for you people.” Meaning this toilet is meant only for the whites, not for blacks or browns or others.

This disciple of mine became quite agitated. He said, “How much does this place cost? I want to buy it right now.” [Laughter.] They got into a big verbal bout. Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj just pacified him and said, “Don’t waste your time.” That was Bhakti Tirtha Maharaj. He would never waste his time in any undesirable activities. Srila Prabhupada held him in very, very high esteem and great affection and he stayed loyal to Srila Prabhupada in all respects.

How do we recognize Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja’s advanced situation as a pure devotee? The most important consideration in this respect is his total disregard for his physical condition. When his body was healthy we saw that he would dance for hours together. His clothes will become soaked with his perspiration as if he just had a bath with his clothes on. He had no concern about becoming tired. Here is a person who never got tired. That is actually what we often miss when we go to Ratha Yatras. We miss Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja’s dancing. We miss Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja’s classes. We miss Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja’s kirtans because he was just unique in whatever he did.

About this body consciousness culture I just remembered one incident also. I was in Washington DC and we just went one morning to Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja’s center in DC. It was a Bhagavatam class. We kind of gave a joint class but unfortunately the verse that day happen to be averse which kind of, which sort of gives a discrimination on complexion – that the white, black and yellow or brown. I don’t remember exactly in which canto that verse was. After the class many very weighty questions started to come, that why there is consideration of black to be, darker complexion to be inferior. So at one point Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja just – he was listening, listening but at one point he just flared up. He just shouted. That is another thing with Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja when he would get fired up, he would get really fiery and he started to just make the point that, “If you think that you are black then you are black!” Krishna consciousness is not based on bodily designations. Krishna consciousness is pure spiritual understanding. The spirit soul is neither black nor white. Those who are making those discriminations or being affected by those discriminations they are in the bodily platform of life. He gave a brilliant lecture on that in a very angry mood. Those who have seen Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja in that mood know what it is like. Sometimes we experience that in our GBC meetings. He will take up some cause and he would sometimes just reach his limit and he would flare up and then we would see a brilliant fire works.

It was so amazing the way Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja left. He was so full of life. So full of vitality! As I was saying he would dance and he would go on dancing for hours together and he was such a beautiful dancer. We hear of the dancing of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His associates and we could get a glimpse of that when Maharaj danced. I remember that year we just saw Maharaj at the Toronto Ratha Yatra and after Toronto I think there was Chicago Ratha Yatra and then in just a matter of two weeks and then it was Detroit RathaYatra. And in Toronto Ratha Yatra I remember Maharaj was dancing throughout. It was summertime. As I mentioned Maharaj was drenched as if with his clothes he just had a dip in a pool of water and came out.

In Detroit after Ratha Yatra he became sick and that is how actually all his treatment started and we got to know that, that he got cancer. It was shocking information to all of us. How could it happen that just two weeks back he was so healthy and strong? I was not there in Chicago Ratha Yatra and I am sure that there in Chicago Ratha Yatra also he must have been dancing like that. But in Detroit Maharaj was diagnosed of cancer. Those days we thought it was something very simple because we heard that melanoma cancer is a skin cancer. It is not very, very dangerous. At least that is how I felt because sometimes I was told that melanoma cancer is a cancer of the skin. So many people have this skin cancer so it is nothing serious. So when I heard..[End of recording!]

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