After Srila Prabhupada left us on November 14, 1977, I came across a section in Srimad-Bhagavatam—Canto 4, Chapter 28—in which he explicitly discusses the disappearance of the spiritual master and how the disciple is to serve him—even in separation. The following paragraph summarizes the essence of his instructions:
“The disciple and spiritual master are never separated, because the spiritual master always keeps company with the disciple as long as the disciple follows strictly the instructions of the spiritual master. This is called the association of vani (words). Physical presence is called vapuh. As long as the spiritual master is physically present, the disciple should serve the physical body of the spiritual master, and when the spiritual master is no longer physically existing, the disciple should serve the instructions of the spiritual master.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.47, purport)
This instruction—“As long as the spiritual master is physically present, the disciple should serve the physical body of the spiritual master, and when the spiritual master is no longer physically existing, the disciple should serve the instructions of the spiritual master”—seems simple enough, but like almost all of Srila Prabhupada’s instructions, to follow it properly requires deep faith, surrender, and realization.
For example, we may want to render personal service to the spiritual master, but we may also be afraid—that we might disappoint him, that we might fail, that he might chastise us, even that he might reject us or banish us. Thus disciples may shy away from direct, personal service. We must have faith that whatever the spiritual master does will be beneficial for us, purifying and edifying for us, whether or not it is pleasing to our mind and senses.
I sometimes experienced chastisement by Srila Prabhupada, and sometimes my mind and senses revolted, but he would pacify me with his clear explanations, such as in this letter to me:
“It is the duty of the spiritual master to find fault with his students so that they may make progress, not that he should always be praising them. So if you find some criticism, kindly accept it in that spirit. I am only interested in that you, along with all my other students, should become Krsna conscious.” (May 24, 1972)
One person who exhibited an extraordinarily high standard of service to Srila Prabhupada, to both his vapuh and vani forms, was our godsister Yamuna-devi Dasi.
Two of Yamuna-devi’s main direct, personal services to Srila Prabhupada were cooking and cleaning. She was extremely expert in both, and yet when she received correction from Srila Prabhupada she accepted and followed it wholeheartedly.
Around the time of the first Bombay pandal, when we were staying in Akash Ganga, a high-rise apartment building in an affluent part of central Bombay, Yamuna-devi would stay back and clean. She would clean the whole place, for hours. And while cleaning, she would sing in a very ecstatic mood. She put her whole heart into it.
Later, in April 2007, when she visited me in my ashram in Carpinteria, California, I asked her about this, and she said that Srila Prabhupada had put greater emphasis on bhagavata-marga because he wanted his books produced, so they would be there for all time, and because he wanted his books distributed, so the income from the sales would support the expansion of the mission. Thus he didn’t have much time to personally train disciples in pancaratriki-vidhi. But he did train her. She explained that Srila Prabhupada would teach each servant about the importance and standards of cleanliness according to the servant’s capacity to understand. And he had trained her very strictly. For example, she often had to clean his four-tiered cooker, and if he found a black spot on the bottom of any of the sections, he would really chastise her, or whoever had done the cleaning: “This is not Vaisnava. This is Muslim. No Vaisnava will ever leave a black spot on any of the pots in the kitchen.” Prabhupada’s cooker was always to shine like gold.
Based on Srila Prabhupada’s instructions, Yamuna developed a system for cleaning his quarters in Vrndavana—an elaborate five-step procedure in which she would go from bottom to top and top to bottom. First she would get the big dirt off the floor, then she would work her way up the walls as far as she could reach, dusting, and then she would go back to the bottom, cleaning everything as perfectly as she could. If there was anything wrong, Prabhupada would notice and tell her about it. And keeping the rooms in Vrndavana clean was very hard: With the drifting sands of Ramana-reti and the whole place being a construction zone, there was always dirt and corrosion everywhere.
One morning when Srila Prabhupada came back from his walk after Yamuna had gone through her five-step procedure and everything looked as clean as could be, he told her, “Please clean my room, Yamuna. Haven’t I taught you to clean?”
“No, Srila Prabhupada,” she replied, meaning that she hadn’t yet learned. “How may I improve my cleaning?”
He didn’t say anything. On his desk were a picture of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, his eyeglass case, his tilaka, pens, a flower vase, and a stapler. Srila Prabhupada took the stapler, which was about two and a half inches long, removed it from its plastic case, lifted up the metal staple holder, and ran his pinkie across the thin metal strip between the staple holder and the hinge, and . . . dust. “When will you learn how to clean?” he asked.
If Srila Prabhupada had had the time, Yamuna told me, he would have trained all his disciples in both pancaratriki-vidhi and bhagavata-vidhi, but because he was focused more on bhagavata-vidhi he mainly trained only his close managers and personal servants, be they men or women, in both. Srila Prabhupada knew the consciousness of his disciples—their capacity to absorb his instruction—and he would train them accordingly.
Yamuna-devi absorbed his training enthusiastically. More than thirty years later she told me, “I can honestly say that I engage in cleaning joyously. In our ashram [in Saranagati, Canada] we sometimes sing and clean for hours and hours. Our place is very primitive—we have a dirt floor and walls—but we like to clean a lot. We enjoy cleaning for Srila Prabhupada and the Deities.”
Cooking, like cleanliness, is also part of Deity worship, and Yamuna-devi was most expert. Once when Srila Prabhupada was coming to Vrndavana she went to some Vraja-vasis and asked, “What is the best way to make Vraja-vasi rotis?” They told her, “You have to get red Punjabi wheat berries. You have to grind them in the morning, and then you have to cook the rotis with neem wood.”
When Prabhupada came she didn’t say a word to him, but she got red Punjabi wheat berries, had them ground in the morning, and then cooked the rotis with neem wood. When she went in to serve Srila Prabhupada and put a hot roti on his plate, he took one bite and said, “This is from red Punjabi wheat berries. You ground them this morning and cooked the rotis with neem wood.” She hadn’t said a word to him—he just knew. And even then, he had a suggestion for improvement. “Just one thing,” he said. “If you cook them one or two seconds more, they will be perfect.”
That was at the Radha-Damodara temple in 1972. Yamuna also recounted a sequel, from Ramana-reti in 1973:
“One time when Srila Prabhupada came—I think it was the first time I met Satsvarupa dasa Goswami; he was Prabhupada’s servant—I was on a bucket stove again, on the floor—no kitchen. I was making Prabhupada’s prasada, and as you may or may not know, when you cook with a bucket stove and you have a little bit of hard coal and then a little bit of soft coal and then a little bit of cow dung, it is a little hard to regulate. There is a certain temperature, and you cannot turn a switch to make it higher or lower. And then, depending on the thickness of the pot, you know what intensity you want. And then there is what you call a thawa, which is an iron griddle, concave, and to make a chapati you keep that on the stove and then you lift it off and you put the chapati on top of the flame. So, I made chapatis for Prabhupada’s lunch.
“Satsvarupa Maharaja wanted to bring in the lunch, thinking that I probably shouldn’t do it. He brought in the plate, came back into the kitchen, and said, ‘Prabhupada wants me to teach you how to make chapatis.’ And I said, ‘Oh, Maharaja, I would be so grateful if you could do that. I’d love to learn to make chapatis. Please.’
“Then I got up, and he began to wash his hands. By the time he sat down and rolled out a chapati, the thawa was really hot. He rolled out an octopuslike chapati. Now, when you roll out a chapati, the ball bearing for rolling it out is the dusting of flour, and if you roll the chapati in too much flour you actually roll flour into the surface of the flatbread, and then even if you try to flap it off you will still have a crust of flour. So you should use a minimal amount for the ball bearing and then flap off the little extra.
“Maharaja’s octopus was covered with flour on a hot thawa. When he put it on, I said, ‘Maharaja, what should I be looking for?’
“He said, ‘You wait until there are pimples on the top.’
“As soon as the chapati hit the griddle—very hot—the pimples came very fast. He turned the chapati over, and there were little burnt holes. So there was no question of it puffing up.
“So, he put it on, and the little bubbles appeared at different places, and he took it in to Prabhupada. Then he came back and told me, ‘Prabhupada said, “This is excellent.” ’
“So that’s how Prabhupada taught me. It was never with a whip, but they were beatings nonetheless. They were beatings over my head.”
Vapuh: Service Without Expectation or Demand
Personal service should be offered without expectation of or demand for external reciprocation—for attention or expressions of approval or affection. When Yamuna-devi was undergoing treatment at Bhaktivedanta Hospital toward the end of her life, I encouraged some of my disciples to take the opportunity to serve her, and I asked her to guide and instruct them as she saw fit. Here is a written exchange she had with one disciple, a copy of which she sent me. The disciple wrote:
“I want to reconfirm with you my tomorrow’s visit, whether it would be convenient if I come around noon. I don’t want to disturb you, so let me know exactly what time I could drop in. One of my dear godsisters is craving to see you. Can she come along, if it’s not inconvenient?”
“Unfortunately, being in the hospital means being inconvenienced with medicines to help my condition. Three days ago I was put on new diuretics and am not up for any visits or visitors at all. . . . So many want to visit, but it is not possible.
“When you come you will have to be like the cook I was for Srila Prabhupada: bring the prasada for respecting and leave unspoken to. That was the norm, unless he gave some instruction how to make adjustment in the cooking or unless he made the occasional comment.
“Giriraj Swami asked me to instruct you, so I am passing this on to you. It is a small aspect of the classical teacher-apprentice mood—serve in silence unless spoken to. While I never took a teacher mood with you, this is a rich rasa to explore on different levels.
“If you continue to bring baked goods once or twice again, at least you will have access into experiencing the tip of the richness of this kind of service. It is similar to what we do when we offer bhoga on the altar: pray, cook in a meditative mood, deliver, offer, and depart—bas.
“I believe you are sincere and mature enough to do this. It was expected of Srila Prabhupada’s cooks. In fact, it was a prerequisite for cooking for him at all. Hopefully it will bring you to a new level of service, something you can use in your service to your own guru maharaja.”
When Srila Prabhupada was in Allahabad for the Ardha-kumbha-mela in December 1970 and January 1971, Yamuna-devi and I were there with him. Srila Prabhupada spoke on the story of Ajamila and the holy name from the Sixth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Only the first two cantos had been translated and published then, so Prabhupada read from his Sanskrit Bhagavatam with commentaries, sometimes translating from Sridhara Svami’s comments and occasionally from Jiva Gosvami’s. While there, I heard that Srila Prabhupada had said he was speaking for Yamuna.
In April 2007, when Yamuna visited me in Carpinteria, I asked her about it. And she told me something that etched an indelible impression on my heart. As she explained, she had always thought she had as much right as anyone to walk or sit close to Srila Prabhupada. And generally when he spoke, she would sit in front of the vyasasana at his feet. She had never really considered that men should walk or sit closer to Prabhupada, women further away. The movement had been like that in the early days—like a family.
In Allahabad, however, one of the sannyasis explained to Yamuna that in India the women sat apart and that she should too. So during the next morning’s lecture she sat at some distance from Srila Prabhupada. Later that morning, Prabhupada noticed her passing by his tent, and he called, “Yamuna, come in here.” She entered and offered her obeisances, and before she got up he said, “So, you don’t want to hear anymore?” Yamuna burst into tears; Prabhupada—hearing from him—was her life. “Where were you this morning?” he asked. Yamuna told him exactly what had happened. Prabhupada was silent.
That, as she told me, was a turning point in her life; it changed her whole orientation in Krsna consciousness. She suddenly had the realization that she would not always have Prabhupada’s company. Since 1967, when Srila Prabhupada recovered from his stroke, she had never been able to conceive of ever being separated from him. The devotees were so dependent on him for everything, it was inconceivable to them that he would not always be with them. But, she told me, every disciple must come to a personal realization that there will come a time when the spiritual master will not be present. And for her that moment came in Allahabad, after her talks with the sannyasi and then Srila Prabhupada.
Sitting in Prabhupada’s tent, she asked him, “How much time did you actually spend with your guru maharaja?”
“Very few occasions,” he said, “maybe five or six. But they were very intimate. We used to walk and talk so many things.” Then he said, “Those who think that association with the spiritual master is physical, they are no better than a mosquito sitting on the lap of a king. And what is the business of a mosquito? Simply to suck blood. So many of my godbrothers, they were big, big sannyasis, and they thought like that, and they simply sucked blood.”
Yamuna took Prabhupada’s words as confirmation. She now understood that she needed to go to another place to explore her relationship with him and her service to him in separation. She began to consider the question of vani (words, instructions) and vapuh (body, form), and she got more and more insight into it. As she told me, it is “unlimitedly deep and profound. You can hear the terms on the surface, but vani means to again be in Prabhupada’s presence”—to be in his presence in separation as much as when you were in his physical association. “So that was a turning point for me,” she said, “to realize that Prabhupada was going to leave this planet: ‘He is an old man, and he is going to leave, and I have to prepare.’ ” She understood that from that moment she must start mentally preparing—find a way of continuing in Krsna consciousness that was not based on Srila Prabhupada’s personal association.
“So, that is that story of hearing,” she continued. “Prabhupada said, ‘I am speaking so much because you want to hear so much.’ So he knew that hunger. I never expressed that to him, but he knew.” As Yamuna often said, Srila Prabhupada was completely aware of every disciple in every way—both their internal consciousness and the external manifestations of their service.
Vani and vapuh became a major theme in Yamuna-devi’s life—how to maintain one’s connection with Srila Prabhupada through vani to the same degree and with the same intensity as in his physical, even close personal, presence. She was convinced that it was possible, and she arranged her life in such a way as to always receive his guidance and mercy—to always be in his association.
In conclusion, I quote from a letter Yamuna wrote me some years ago, which has given me some solace and guidance in separation:
“I remember when Dina and I visited you in your house in Vrndavana. We asked you one question, and you took three hours to answer it: ‘How has your relationship with Srila Prabhupada changed since his departure?’ The departure of loved ones helps us to change, to go deeper. Surely this will happen.”