Updated: Mar 20, 2021
If you're just starting out, please read "My Many Things, But Rarely Boring Transgender Life...So Far" before picking up here. Thanks!
Above: Srimati Radharani...Krsna's eternal consort.
Some extra things AND initiation….
Three other instances of importance happened during this same time period. In the winter of 2009-2010, I was asked to attend the Southern Comfort Conference board of directors (BOD) retreat. I had not been involved with the conference since I resigned from the BOD in 2001. I had felt that I had kept my promise to AnnaStacia by helping others and, as I mentioned earlier, I just wanted to live life now. Since I was no longer in my relationship with Lesa, I decided to attend the meeting and see what they wanted. There were mostly new faces there that I didn’t know. It turns out that Lola Cola, who was the acting treasurer, wanted to step down and she had recommended me as someone the BOD could trust with the conference’s finances. I was assured that all I would to do would be to sign the checks and keep the QuickBooks account. I was heavily flattered and, like the sap I am, I accepted. Within two months I was back on the BOD and that would continue for the next nine years! I got to endure five years of being named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit by a disgruntled doctor who thought he was above the rules of the conference, was one of the people who voted to move the conference from Atlanta to Ft. Lauderdale (a decision I stand by to this day), which drew the ire of many in the trans community, and who, for the last few years of my tenure, was one of only two people who kept that conference going until we finally found a couple of wonderful people who agreed to take over. So, finally, I was once again finished with my duties to The Southern Comfort Transgender Conference. I have many, MANY more great memories than bad ones and I’m proud of the service I was able to for the trans community. I met so many amazing people: Kate Bornstein, Jazz Jennings and her amazing family, Isabella Santiago (perhaps the most gorgeous human being that I’ve ever met!), Les Feinberg, Robert Eads, Sarah McBride, Jaye McBride (no relation to Sarah), Jim Bridges, Kristen Beck, just to name some. Also, the opportunity to work alongside and learn from Terry Murphy, Sabrina Marcus, Holly Boswell, Lola Cola, and all the other people who were such an important part of making the conference happen. I’ll always be so grateful for that opportunity and I thank you all for all you taught me!
Above: Me (left) playing with Murari Band
The next significant event that happened was in December of 2010. I got a call from Balabhadra prabhu, who I was seeing on a weekly basis since returning to the temple. He asked me if I still had my bass guitar. I told him that I did, but I had picked it up MAYBE twice in the past 7 years for a total of a couple of hours. He said that I had better dust it off because he and Murari Band wanted me to come over and jam with them. I was truly flabbergasted! I had been a fan of Murari Band since 1987 and now I was going to get to jam with them!!! To say that I was nervous is a huge understatement, but there I was with Balabhadra, Hasyagrami, and Naradi...all Prabhupada disciples who had been devotees for about 40 years! Here I was...this person who had done everything she could do to AVOID Krishna Consciousness for 21 years before returning in Nov. of 2009. Yeah...I was very intimidated. I had no idea what to expect, but had always prided myself on the fact that I picked up songs quickly. I never took any lessons, and knew nothing about the technical side of music, but I trusted my gut and inherited my father’s good ear for music. We started playing and within five minutes the fingers on my left hand were killing me! I had lost all the callouses that I used to have and pressing down on the fat bass strings HURT!!!! When we finished jamming they asked me if I wanted to join the band. Of course, I jumped at the chance! These were all SUPERB musicians and it was going to force me to step up my game if I was going to be able to hang with them. Also, to have such close association with three Prabhupada disciples was just amazing! They knew so much and I knew nothing, so it was a great opportunity to learn for them all. Also, Hasyagrami prabhu started calling me a nickname that I love and hold extremely dear. Pretty much from the beginning, he called me “Shanti K”. I cherish that nickname and the time I got to spend with him before he left his body. Though the line-up has changed several times since I joined Murari Band, the band continues with Balabhadra prabhu leading the way. As of this writing (July 26, 2020), we are in the process of recording music and I still love playing in this band! You can check out some demos and videos at www.murariband.com. Because of playing with the caliber of musicians that I do I felt the urge to expand my playing which led me to put out a social media post about anyone looking for a bass player/vocalist and that led to my joining Exquisite Gender ...but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The last significant event that happened to me happened in summer of 2009. I got a call from a friend of mine and she asked me if I had ever thought of getting any other tattoos. She knew that I had one tattoo of a koala on my outer right calf. I asked her why and she said that her daughter was apprenticing as a tattoo artist and needed people to learn her craft. Now, it’s one thing to pose for a painting by someone studying art, but it’s entirely something else to have that painting be done on your body with permanent ink. However, I trusted Terri and agreed. At this point of her tattooing, her daughter, Kylie, was only allowed to use black ink, so I chose an Ohm symbol and decided that it would be done on my lower back. These are also known to laymen as “tramp stamps”. I got in touch with Kylie and made the appointment. Terri, her mom, went with me. It hurt like hell, but she did a great job and that began a relationship that continues to this day. These days, Kylie Greene is one of the very, very talented tattoo artists at Only You Tattoo in Atlanta and she has done almost 60 tattoos on my body, which translates to well over 100 hours of tattooing. I can honestly say that I’m close to being finished, but I still have a few more that I want Kylie to do. I’m happy to share some of her amazing work with you all.
Above: The amazing masterpiece that is my back! Srimati Radharani (c), Lalita, and Vishaka.
Above: The Divine Couple - Krsna and Radharani
Above: This lovely fellow adorns my left knee.
Above: Srimati Vrinda devi
Above: I have a matching tattoos on the tops of my feet.
Above: This beautiful lion is on my right knee.
Above: Sri Sri Gaura Nitai (Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda)
Ok. Back to our story. After taking shelter in June of 2010, I continued going to the temple each Sunday, speaking with Poonam almost daily, playing in Murari Band, and going to home programs. I was keeping extremely busy! On more than one occasion I can remember driving home late at night and I knew that my eyes were open, but everything would start to fade to black. I had several very scary experiences. I’m not one of those people who believes that you can just do anything that you want and Krsna (God) will protect you. I believe that He gave us all brains to use to NOT continuously keep putting ourselves in dangerous situations. I finally started learning to say, “No.” to some home program invitations and I will now stop and take an hour nap in a 24 hour store parking lot if I feel myself getting too tired. I highly recommend that you all do that, too!
One thing about Krsna Consciousness is that there are a LOT of holidays! It seems as if there’s something to celebrate almost weekly! Let you tell you something about Hare Krsna devotees, we know how to have a good time!!! The combination of incredibly exciting, energetic kirtans, ecstatic dancing, and incredibly delicious prasadam (spiritualized food), you can’t help but have a wonderful time! So many times I’ve experienced a “prasadam high” where you just can’t stop giggling and smiling. I can only speak from personal experience, but it’s very real and loads of fun when it happens. Keeping as busy as I did, time passed fairly quickly and, in May of 2011, Poonam graduated high school! She went to one of the most prestigious high schools in the state and I was honored that she invited me to her graduation, since it was invitation only and tickets were limited. As a graduation present, her parents were taking her and her younger brother, Sujay, to India for the summer. They would leave right after the Panihati Festival, which is when I was going to take….initiation.
Can I really do this? Mind you, every single day I wondered if I was really cut out to be an initiated devotee. Remember, I would be taking vows (not unlike a monk or nun) to chant a minimum of 16 rounds per day of the Maha Mantra each day (Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna, Krsna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare). That’s 16 words chanted as manta a minimum of 1728 times. Or, breaking it down further, that’s chanting the 16 words 27,648 times every day and I had promised myself that I would chant at least one extra round for my Guru Maharaja’s health. I know some people who are fast chanters, but for me, this takes about 2 hours 45 minutes to 3 hours. That’s a HUGE commitment! I would also be vowing to follow the four regulative principles. I mentioned them earlier. You get major points if you remember them: No meat eating (including eggs, onion, mushrooms, and garlic), No illicit sex, No intoxicants, and No gambling (even to try to get out the habit of saying things like, “I bet it’s going to rain today.”).
Above: His Holiness Jayapataka Swami dancing in an ecstatic kirtan on the day of my initiation.
Finally, the day was here….June 4th, 2011. Unfortunately, my mom wasn’t able to attend. It would have been much too long a day for her in her physical condition, but Poonam was going to be there as well as Kathleen, Geoff and his wife Kelli, and Celi. Of course, my devotee family would be there, too. Unlike 2010, when I expected to take shelter, then was told that I should take initiation and, ultimately, ended up taking shelter, which led to an incredibly chaotic day, this time I KNEW that I would be taking initiation (if I could make myself go through with it), so I was hoping that no surprises would be sprung on me. I took my written test in the morning, then had my oral interview. After that, I really didn’t know what to do and was just getting more and more nervous. It was then that I met an amazing devotee...Kalasudha devi dasi. I was hanging around in the Guest House, which is next to the temple and where my Guru Maharaj (GM) was staying. Kalasudha had actually done the verbal exam for several of us at the same time. Afterwards, she asked me if I was doing anything. I told her that I wasn’t and she asked me if I could help in the kitchen of the guest house. It turns out that she was my Guru Maharaj’s cook. She and her husband lived in Houston, but whenever my GM travelled in the US, she would travel with him since she knew how to prepare his special diet. She was so humble and I knew immediately that she was a very advanced devotee. She could sense how nervous I was so she pretended that she really needed help to prepare GM’s lunch. Of course, she didn’t, but I didn’t know that and she really made me feel as if I was helping her out of a jam! What she did served two purposes: 1. It’s a great honor to assist in the preparation of your guru’s meal and 2. It kept my mind off of being so nervous about initiation! Did I mention that she’s also brilliant! :-) I will never forget that day with her. It was extremely special and I’m forever grateful to her for being so kind and compassionate to me.
The last thing you do, paperwork-wise, is to fill out a form with all of your contact information for GM’s staff to get you on the disciple list so that they can keep in touch with you. The last line was a question. It asked, “Do you have any special request for a spiritual name or is there a lila (pastime) that you would like your name chosen from?” I thought to myself that it would be incredibly presumptuous of me to request anything from GM, so I just wrote, “I humbly request that GM choose my spiritual name as he sees fit.”
I got to spend some time with my friends who had come and then it was time to get started. I remember looking at Geoff and thinking, “Am I really never going to toss back a Schumacher Method with him ever again?” I mean, Geoff and I had been through SO MUCH together and had partied time and time again. Then I looked at Celi and thought to myself that it’s quite possible that I’ll never be in another relationship again. Was I willing to take that chance? Then I looked at Kathleen. I knew that she didn’t believe in any of this “spiritual stuff”, yet here she was supporting me and telling me that she was proud of me. Of course, Poonam was there and she had been absolutely integral to my being here today. She was directing some of the younger kids in a play under the big tent, but promised she’d be in the temple in time for my initiation.
Above: The fire sacrifice begins.
Above: Preparing for the fire sacrifice.
Part of the initiation ceremony is a fire sacrifice. They actually set up the sacrificial pit right in the temple room. It’s the first weekend of June in Atlanta, GA and the temple is completely packed (standing room only) with people. Yeah. It gets hot!!! There were about 20 of us who were taking initiation. I knew some of the devotees, but others had travelled in from all over the US for this opportunity. Jayapataka Swami’s travel was limited by his health, so this would be the only chance for devotees to take initiation for at least one year. I forget who spoke first, but one prabhu spoke about the importance and seriousness of taking initiation. My mind was racing a million miles an hour and I kept looking around for Poonam. Where was she?! I couldn’t bear to think that she would get tied up with the play and not make it in! My heart was pounding. What was just said? Did I miss something? Oh Krsna! Is this really happening! Looked around again. Still no Poonam. Fire sacrifice began. Lots of prayers said and lots of grain thrown into the fire. Of course, the people sitting behind you always throw grain in your hair, but you just have to deal with it! Fire sacrifice finished. Still no Poonam!!! Guru Maharaj comes in and one of his assistants has all of the beads that GM had chanted on that he would now be giving us after we took our vows and he gave us our spiritual name. Still no Poonam!!! I was now panicking!!! I wasn’t the first name called, but I was one of the first. As I heard my name, Stefanie Schumacher, being called out on the PA system, my heart skipped a beat. I got up (not easy to do when the temple is so crowded) and, as I looked behind me, there was Poonam smiling! She had made it! Ok….deep breath. I got to GM and bowed down to pay my obeisances. Then I was on my knees looking at him as he asked me what the four regulative principles were. I responded and he asked me if I vowed to keep them. I did. Then he asked me if I promised him to help spread Srila Prabupada’s Krsna Consciousness movement. I did. He asked me if I vowed to chant at least 16 rounds per day...every day. I said, “Yes, Guru Maharaj.” Now...mind you...up to this point I’ve heard everything my GM has said to me crystal clearly, ok? Then, he took the beads that I had given him to chant on and he said (and this is EXACTLY what I heard), “Your spiritual name is blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Now go pay obeisances to Srila Prabhupada.” I bowed once more, then started getting up. The assistant on the PA system announces all the names so everyone can hear them. I’ll hear my name when he does that. So I stand up to make my way to Srila Prabhupada’s murti (statue) and I hear, “BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH!!” and the entire temple room erupts in cheers! Poonam is smiling at me with tears in her eyes. We shared a look and she said how proud she was of me. Ok. I’m initiated, but I have NO IDEA what my spiritual name is!!!!
Above: You will NEVER see me look more serious (and a little frightened) as when I was taking my vows.
Above: Taking my vows and receiving my spiritual name....that I didn't hear! :-)
I went back to take my seat on the floor behind the fire pit and a very nice devotee, Mother Rati, leaned over and said to me, “That’s such a beautiful name.” I said, “Oh! You know what it is? Would you mind telling me?!!” She said, “Shanti Keshavi devi dasi. Do you know what it means?” I replied, “I have no clue!” She said, “It means the peaceful servant of Radharani”. I thanked her and started thinking, “How did my GM know that, ever since my first day in the temple, I’ve always been most drawn to Srimati Radharani?” I never said anything to him about it. To this day, I’ve never met another devotee with the same spiritual name and I am complimented on the beauty of my name all the time. So here I was...all initiated and now, Poonam was going to be leaving for India in the next couple of days. I didn’t know what I was going to do without our daily calls. I relied on her so much! She told me that I’d be fine, but to remember to be aware of Maya and how I had now declared war on her by taking initiation. I wouldn’t see Poonam for one month until I arrived in Mumbai, India for my very first trip to that incredibly spiritual land. It was an unbelievable 11 days on the ground there! So much happened, but that will have to wait for next time. :-)
My first trip to India...part one...
Above: Me with Kanchan (Poonam's mom), Poonam, and Sujay in Panihati.
Above: I was SO happy to see Poonam again!
I missed Poonam tremendously, but finally the last several weeks went by and it was now time for my first trip to India! The plan was to fly from Atlanta to Mumbai, where I’d meet up with Poonam and her family. We’d then fly to Kolkata and be driven to Panihati, where a senior god-brother of mine held a 9 day festival each year and he was kind enough to let us stay at his house. Since the Atlanta temple is named New Panihati Dham, I was excited to see the actual place that it was named after. After a few days in Panihati, we would travel by taxi to Mayapur, the appearance of Lord Caitanya, who Vaishnava devotees recognize as the most recent incarnation of Krishna. While there we would do a day trip to Ekachakra, the appearance place of Lord Nityananda, who was an incarnation of Krishna’s brother, Lord Balarama. From Mayapur, we would take an overnight train trip to Puri, where Lord Jagannath (Krishna in His ecstatic form) rules with his brother and sister, Baladeva and Subhadra. After 4 days there, we would fly back to Mumbai from Puri where I would have one last day before departing home. 11 days on the ground that were completely filled with going to holy places. Yeah...I was stoked!!!
I arrived in Mumbai, India about 9pm India time after about 18 hours in the air. I flew from Atlanta to New Jersey and then Jersey straight through to Mumbai. When I finally got through customs and got my luggage, I made my way to the main airport exit. The first thing that hits you about Mumbai is that it smells VERY different than the mountains of North Georgia and you are constantly hearing car horns!! There are 29 million people in Mumbai. If you’re claustrophobic, I highly recommend that you do not visit. It’s VERY difficult to not be around a lot of people. The main exit of the airport was, to say the least, chaotic. Lots of people all yelling to try to get the attention of other people. Poonam’s dad was supposed to meet me here. I didn’t see him. I looked again and again, but he was not there. Ok. I wasn’t panicking, but I figured I had better call to see what was going on. I had to ask to borrow a phone as my Straight Talk plan was not international. I was told that he was on his way and to wait there. I did and tried to let it soaked in that I was in INDIA!!!! I hadn’t done a trip this far from home since my Australia trip in 1989. I promise that I WILL go back and write about that later.
Above: A typical street in very overcrowded Mumbai.
After what seemed like a very, very long time, Poonam’s father finally got there in a taxi. We loaded my luggage and I got in the back seat. I then had my first experience with Indian driving. Yes. There are traffic signals. No. They are not obeyed. People use their car horns to indicate that they’re going to pass you. Sometimes the driver can see around the car or truck that they’re going to pass and sometimes that can’t. That doesn’t seem to matter at all!! I was gripping the back of the front passenger seat SO hard! It was a white-knuckled ride for sure. We got to Poonam’s aunt’s apartment. This was her mom’s sister, who lived there with her daughter, and mother and father. Poonam’s mom opened the door and Poonam was right before her. She was jumping up and down and so was I! I was trying to be polite and greet her mom, but I just wanted to hug Poonam!! We hadn’t seen each other in a month and we missed each other so much! That was a hug for the ages!!! I met everyone and figured we’d all go to bed immediately as we had to be up by 4am to catch a flight to Kolkata and by the time we got there, it was after 10pm. However, in the Indian custom, her aunt insisted on feeding me. It’s very rude to refuse, so I had a very late meal. It was fantastic, so I really didn’t mind! Before I went to bed, I was shown the bathroom and the Indian way of taking a shower. In most Indian bathrooms, there is no separate shower stall. The drain is in the floor and one wall will have the hot and cold knob for the shower. There’s a bucket on the floor where you mix the hot and cold water to your preferred temperature and there’s a small pitcher in the bucket. You pour the water over you, soap up, and rinse off. India is a very modest country, so you’re expected to get dressed in the bathroom before you come out. Now then, doing that in a very wet room must be an acquired skill because I found it extremely difficult...especially if I was trying to put on a choli so that I could wear a sari. Yes. I had to learn many, many things in India!
We all got up, got ready, had breakfast, and were driven to the airport. The 3 hour flight to Kolkata was uneventful except for one thing. At one point, Poonam was sleeping and laid her head on my shoulder. It was so sweet and I was so happy to be reunited with my friend!
We got to Kolkata and were met by the sons of my senior god-brother. Actually, that entire family all have Jayapataka Swami (JPS) as their guru, too, so they’re all god-brothers and god-sister to me. We were driven to their home (actually, they have two homes side-by-side) and, just as we were shown to our room (which had air conditioning!!!!!!!!), our host, Laxmanram prabhu, said that we had about an hour to get ready. “For what?” I asked. We were quite tired and ready to relax a bit. Laxmanram prabhu responded, “Guru Maharaja is coming.” It turns out that JPS was coming to speak at the nine day festival that Laxmanram and his family put on each year. It lasted nine days and they were right in the middle of it when we arrived. On the roof of one of his houses (which are all concrete), they did the cooking in HUGE pots! They could feed a couple of hundred people at a time! It was quite an impressive operation and the entire village of Panihati attended each year. So….we all jumped up to do a quick shower and change before JPS arrived. It was pretty hectic! How fortunate was I? I had just taken initiation one month ago and here I was going to get to see him on my first full day in India...in Panihati no less! :-)
Above: The main stage of the nine day festival that my senior god-brother, Laxmanram prabhu and his family organized and host each year.
Above: My Guru Maharaja arriving to speak at the festival.
Above: Lord Jagannath, Lord Baladeva, and Lady Subhadra presiding over the festival.
Above: His Holiness Jayapataka Swami (JPS)
They had a nice stage and sound system set up as well as an altar where Lord Jagannath, Lord Baladeva, and Lady Subhadra presided over the festivities. The Chakraborthy family has gorgeous deities and I really loved spending time in Their presence. JPS arrived and there must have been a couple of hundred in attendance. He gave the lecture in Bengali (he speaks it fluently and is a citizen of India), so I couldn’t understand anything he said, but that was ok. At least I got to see him! As soon as he finished, Laxmanram prabhu went onstage to speak with him and then he and his family got JPS’s blessings. Then he motioned for me to come up on the stage. My head started spinning! Why do I always get so nervous around my Guru Maharaj. Anyway, I went up, Laxmanram prabhu told JPS that this was my first trip to India after just taking initiation last month. Guru Maharaja asked me something, but I don’t even remember what I said! He gave me his blessings and then he made his way back to his car to return to Mayapur.
We went to the roof to eat. Whenever there are large gatherings, you sit down and someone will come with plates (usually made out of leaves for natural composting) and cups followed by people serving the different preparations. The one thing I didn’t see was a fork or spoon. I looked at Poonam and she just smiled and held up her hand. It was time for me to eat the traditional Indian way...with my hand. I could see everyone staring at me, so I said, “It’s perfectly ok to laugh at me. I’m fairly certain that I’ll be most entertaining!” I actually surprised myself! I realized that I wouldn’t have to worry about starving in Indian. I could feed myself! :-)
Above two pics: The main deities in the small temple at the site of the first Panihati Festival are Lord Nityanda (left) and Sadbhuja Gauranga (the 6 armed form of Lord Caitanya).
Above: Touching the Neem tree where the first Panihati Festival was held.
Above: One of my favorite pics! Poonam was so serene standing in front of the Neem tree as a light rain fell. It was an awesome day!
The next day, we went to the place of the first Panihati Festival that was held about 540 years ago. It’s marked by a large Neem tree where Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda sat and enjoyed the chipped rice that was prepared for all who attended. As I mentioned earlier, the Atlanta temple was named New Panihati Dham and it is the only other authentic place where a Panihati Festival can be held each year, though other places can certainly celebrate it, too. To be at this place, which was on the banks of the Ganges was just amazing! There was a small temple right next to the tree and we were able to take darshan (be in the presence and pay our respects) to the deities there. Afterwards, we went back to the house and we (me, Poonam, Sujay, and Laxmanram prabhu’s sons) decided to just do a walkabout. Panihati is a small village that’s about 15 miles to the north of Kolkata. The villagers there don’t see many white people, not to mention six foot tall white women! Suffice it to say that I REALLY stood out anywhere I went and almost everybody stared at me. It was a little unnerving at first, but I got somewhat used to it as time went on. We were walking down a road to go to a store and I remember saying that I needed some garbage bags for dirty laundry. Darpa and Partha (Laxmanram’s sons) started laughing. I then found out that there are no garbage bags available. Garbage is swept/raked into piles outside and, when large enough, set on fire. There is no garbage service in most of India. This was a new concept to me. After visiting the small grocery store...(Actually, ALL businesses are much smaller in India. You’ll see that as I post pics.)...and getting a Limca (a really excellent lemon-lime soda), we were making our way back and I was getting stared at a lot! There are several modes of transporting goods in India and one way is by bicycle. You see severely overloaded bikes being ridden down the roads just stacked with goods! It’s amazing how they can balance everything. Well, this one bicycle driver went past us. As he did, he saw me and started staring. He kept pedalling, but kept turning his head back to look at me. Sure enough...BOOM! He went right into the back of an auto-rickshaw!!! His bike went down and all of his goods went everywhere. Yes. We laughed and I told him that it served him right for staring at me. Thank you, karma!
Above: A street in Panihati, India.
Above: Taking in the sights!
Above two pics: Panihati, India
For our last meal in Panihati, Laxmanram prabhu invited us to eat in his house. As we were eating, he came in and said, “I have something for you to try.” and he put this wet, orange slice of something on my plate. I put it in my mouth and started chewing...and chewing...and chewing. It wouldn’t break down! Laxmanram said, “Do you know what it is? It’s jackfruit!” Now, I’ve had jackfruit many, many times. When it’s cooked, it has a wonderful texture and can be used in many, many dishes. I quite like it. However, in its raw state, it’s a wet, semi-slimy, unchewable mess! I never could get it to break down and it’s incredibly rude to spit something out, so I ended up swallowing it whole! Laxmanram was ready to put another slice on my plate when I begged off telling him how full I was. Oddly, everyone there who had all eaten a piece of raw jackfruit was suddenly full! :-) It was my first and last experience with raw jackfruit.
Above: Jackfruit cooked...excellent! Jackfruit raw...Never again!!!
Above: My senior god-brother and our wonderful Panihati host, Laxmanram prabhu (possibly eating raw jackfruit!!!)
Above: We met this sweet young girl named Payal. She spoke no English, but we bonded and she wanted us to meet her young sister. This was one of those unexpected, special moments that you savor!
The next morning, we all piled into a taxi and headed for our next destination...Mayapur, the appearance place of Krsna’s most recent incarnation, Lord Caitanya! Upon arrival to the ISKCON complex, we made our way to the Gada Bhavan Guest House, where we would stay for the next four days. Poonam’s family were ISKCON (International Society of Krsna Consciousness) Life Members, that means that they get free accommodations at ISKCON centers around the world and they are allowed to have guests with them. I was their guest on this trip. Before we left Mumbai, Poonam’s dad had told us to make copies of our passports to take with us, but to leave the actual passports in Mumbai at Poonam’s aunt’s apartment. Yeah...that’s a bit of foreshadowing, folks. We checked in and made sure that we asked for bottled water and toilet paper. The last thing you want to do in India, is to drink the local water. It’s fine for the people who live there, but if you’re not accustomed to it, it will do you in in no time! Poonam, her brother, mom, and aunt would stay in one room at one end of the guest house and I had my own room at the other end. I put my suitcases in my room and then went to Poonam’s families’ room. We were met there by Madhurya Madhavi, who we knew from Atlanta. She had married the manager of the guest house and moved to Mayapur. She was a very wonderful, advanced devotee and she was telling us about all of the amazing holy places that we were going to see.
Above: Part of ISKCON Mayapur
Above: One side of The Gada Bhavan Guest House.
Above: The view of the courtyard from my room at the guest house.
Above: Krsna dancing on the head of Kaliya. Just one of the gorgeous pieces of art on the ISKCON Mayapur grounds
While she was speaking with us, there was a knock at the door. Poonam’s aunt answered and it was one of the men from the check-in desk. He just leaned in, saw me, and said, “Would you please come with me?” Thinking that they were going to give me the bottled water and toilet paper that I asked for earlier, I got up and jokingly said as I left, “If I get arrested, I’ll see you back in the states.” We all laughed and I walked outside. The man immediately shut the door behind me. I immediately saw a security guard holding a rifle. I asked, “What’s going on?” and the desk clerk simply said, “Come with us.” He led the way. I walked behind him and the guard with two hands on his rifle was about two feet behind me. I had no idea what was happening. We got to the front desk and they immediately started grilling me! “Who are you? Why are you here? What are your intentions? Give us your passport!” I was shaking and stammered out, “I’m here as a guest of the Mahtanis. You saw me check in with them! Why are you doing this?” I started crying. They insisted upon seeing my passport. Remember when I said that I left it in Mumbai? Yeah. I was beginning to freak out! Then they said, “You owe us 32,000 rupees.” In shock, I yelled, “For what?” 32,000 rupees is about $430.00 US dollars. They said it was the cost of my room. Through my tears, I protested that I was in as a guest of the Mahtanis and that they, themselves, had been there 30 minutes earlier when we had all checked in. The entire time, the armed guard stood two feet behind me with both hands on his rifle. The desk clerk looked at me with disgust and said, “We’ll deal with you later.” I was completely in shock as I made my way back to the Mahtani’s room. I explained what had happened and then had to excuse myself as I knew I was about to completely breakdown. I just got to my room before I started sobbing uncontrollably. What the hell was going on? I was so dismayed that this is how I was being treated in the Holy Land of Lord Caitanya and, within one hour, I had a gun to my back and felt completely alienated!
About five minutes later there was a knock at my door. It was Poonam’s mother and Naru Gopal (Madhurya’s husband and manager of the guest house). He was all apologies. He told me that a terrible mistake had been made and he was very sorry at how I was treated. I told him that I didn’t feel very welcome and was contemplating returning home. He again apologized and asked me to please give them another chance. I agreed and asked for a few minutes to compose myself. After I pulled myself together, I met up with everyone and we went to the temple. The deities in Mayapur are amazing! There are two altars that are side by side, with some space in between them. If you’re looking at the altars, on the left is the Pancha Tattva (Lord Caitanya, Lord Nityananda, Sri Advaita, Gadadhara pandit, and Srivas pandit.) They’re spectacular! The other altar is Sri Sri Radha Madhava (Krsna and Radharani) along with the eight principal gopis (cowherd girls). The beauty is indescribable, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking. The deities are between 7 and 8 feet tall and they are decorated beautifully each day by the temple priests. At the side of the Pancha Tattva altar, a priest offers charanamrita, which is the water that was used to bathe the deities that morning. It’s usually flavored with some yogurt. Without thinking twice, I held out my hand, the priest put a few drops in my hand, and I drank it. BIG mistake!!!! I should have just put it on my head. More on this shortly.
Madhurya had told us to come back to the guest house after we visited the temple for lunch. She’s a superb cook and prepared a full meal for all of us! Everything was delicious and the plan was for us to take a little rest and then Madhurya would take us around to see the Holy places of Mayapur. Let me take a moment to talk about the weather in India. I took my first trip in July. I don’t recommend this. In Mayapur, the temperature was in the upper 90’s each day, but the humidity was UNBELIEVABLE!!! Logically, I know that humidity cannot be more than 100%, but I swear to you that it’s at least 180% in Mayapur! The air is so heavy that it physically hits you when you step outside. It’s so uncomfortable, that almost everything closes for a few hours in the afternoon and then reopens and stays open until well after dark.
Above: Sri Sri Radha Madhava
Above: The Pancha Tattva (from left - Advaita Acarya, Lord Nityananda, Lord Caitanya, Gadadhara pandit, and Srivas Pandit.
Above: Ugra Nrsimhadeva
By the time we ended lunch, I started feeling very bad. I went back to my room and it just got worse and worse. Fortunately, I had brought some very good anti-dysentery medicine with me and I immediately took some. Still, I was in no shape to walk around Mayapur to see the Holy places. All of the others came to my room to check on me and I told them that I would not be able to join them. I was so sad as they left and I laid down on my very hard bed. Did I mention that the beds in India are extremely hard? When I first got to my room, I plopped down on the bed and thought I had cracked my tailbone!!!! I read a little and tried to sleep. The medicine did keep me from having to run to the bathroom constantly, but I still felt really bad. Poonam came by my room about 9pm with some prasadam (spiritualized food). She also read to me a little and told me all about the places they visited. She asked me if I planned on attending Mangala Arati in the morning (the first temple service at 4:30am) and I told her that I did and would come to her room.
I got some sleep and, although I certainly was not at 100% I managed to shower and get dressed. I went to Poonam’s room and she told me that she was running late and would meet me at the temple. The temple is about a three minute walk from the guest house and it was 4:15am. I was wearing a cotton salwar...very lightweight. By the time I walked from the guest house to the temple, it looked as if someone had taken a 50 gallon barrel of water and poured it over my head. I was completely soaked with sweat! I had never experienced anything like it. I got in the temple and took my place in front of the altar. There are fans all along the walls of the temple. Of all of these fans, TWO were turned on. As more and more people gathered and the curtains were opened on the altar, I realized that I was standing in a puddle of my own sweat! After the Mangala Arati prayer is sung, everyone’s attention goes to the third altar in the temple. That’s where Lord Nrsinghadeva resides His ugra (fierce) form. Another beautiful prayer is sung, but I felt that I was about to pass out and I knew I had to get back to my room and the air conditioner!
I made it back and collapsed on the bed. I felt defeated. I slept a little and then chanted my rounds. About 10am Poonam knocked on my door and asked me where I had been. She told me that my Guru Maharaj had personally given the class that morning. I told her that I still wasn’t 100% and that I would meet her for lunch. I then politely asked her to leave. Almost as soon as the door closed I LOST IT!!! I started bawling my eyes out! I felt like such a failure! Here I was...so excited to come to Mayapur for the first time and what happens? I get a rifle to my back and interrogated by incredibly rude people. I get dysentery for being stupid and drinking caranamrita, which is local water. I missed seeing all of the Holy places. I can’t stay in the temple because I sweated so much that I thought I was going to pass out. And now I find out that I missed hearing my Guru Maharaja give a class, which is something I really wanted to attend and something that he doesn’t do every day! Why had I even bothered coming to India!? It was obvious to me that I wasn’t wanted here. Why had I taken initiation? This was all a mistake!! Maybe I can get something like an annulment. After all, it had just been one month. I could just tell my Guru Maharaha that this was all a mistake and go home!!!!!! Then I thought that if I go back to the way things were before I met Poonam, then I’d just be miserable again. What the hell was I going to do???!!! I literally fell to my knees sobbing and asking Krsna to help me. I was so completely lost and broken at that moment….
Part two coming soon...
Above: Me and Poonam in Navadwip.
Above: A kadamba flower.
So here I am on my knees, sobbing uncontrollably, not knowing what to do! I don’t feel welcome in Mayapur at all and everything keeps going wrong. I really just want to go home and forget that this trip and my initiation ever happened! But if I do that and go back to life as it was before I met Poonam, I’m just going to be miserable again! What am I going to do?
It’s said that when we call out to Krsna, we should be crying like a baby to its mother. I can honestly say that I did just that on that floor of my room in Mayapur. I begged for His help! When I finally composed myself, I went to meet the others and Madhurya. Madhurya asked if I minded helping her with something. Of course I didn’t, so the two of us went off together. She took me to the back part of the ISKCON complex and said, “Shanti. Do you see this tree? It’s a kadamba tree and Radharani LOVES the kadamba flowers. I’m never able to get the best ones because they’re too high up, but now you’re here and I was hoping that you’d help me pick those (as she pointed up). There was an old, rickety table and chair there. I had to put the chair on top of the table to reach them and I had to be very careful as this was a disaster just waiting to happen, but I was able to get a lot of the flowers for her. When she said that she had enough, we headed back and met Poonam in Madhurya’s office of the guest house. She called for one of the devotees and, handing the kadamba flowers to him said, “Please take these to the temple and make sure they’re used for Radharani’s garland in the morning.” My eyes got REALLY wide as I asked her what she meant. She just smiled and said, “You just picked the flowers that Radharani will be holding tomorrow morning.”
Above: Madhurya and Poonam on the banks of the Ganges.
Let me explain a little about devotional service. In Krsna Consciousness, the entire idea is that we should try to always be thinking about Krsna in everything that we do. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1. It’s practice for what we’ll be doing when we return to the spiritual world and 2. Krsna says in the Bhagavad Gita that anyone who is thinking of Him when they leave their body will surely return to Him. That’s why we chant the Maha Mantra so much...to try to cleanse our hearts of all the material contamination that we’ve accumulated while we’ve been in the material world and to try to re-train our brains to focus on Krsna.
Above: Making garlands.
I told you all of that so that you’ll understand better that, in Mayapur, devotees are always asking for the opportunity to do devotional service and it’s very, very difficult to get that privilege as there are so many devotees there! Here I was, just initiated one month before and having the worst first 48 hours that you could possibly imagine in Mayapur and I got to pick flowers for a garland that Radharani was going to hold? To say that I was blown away was an understatement! Later, Madhurya said that we would go see the Holy places of Mayapur. I told her that she didn’t have to do that as they all had just seen them on our first day there when I got sick and I didn’t want to be a burden. “Nonsense!”, she said and off we went. We went everywhere that they had previously gone and, in the midst of it all, Madhurya said, “Thank you, Shanti!”. I was completely baffled. She then explained that, when they had come before, almost all of the temples had been closed for various reasons and that they had not been able to see the deities. This time, every single temple and Holy place was open and we were able to see all the deities in Their splendor! Madhurya said, “Krsna wanted to make sure that we all got to see these, so you got sick so we have to come back. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have gotten all of this mercy!”
Above: Madhurya points out different places that we're going to see.
Above: Chanting japa in the Ganges.
Above: Crossing the Ganges to get to Navadwip. You can see how soaked with sweat I am in this picture...and we were just getting started!
Above: One of the kunds (lakes) in Mayapur. See the big fish? :-)
Above: This is the Neem tree where Lord Caitanya appeared some 543 years ago.
Above: One of the main streets in Navadwip.
Above: In the Ganges at Prabhupada Ghat.
Ok. What was going on? The first 48 hours sucked royally and now everything seemed to be making a 180 degree turn. I was going to keep my guard up just in case! After meeting up with Poonam’s mom and aunt, we all went to Prabhupada Ghat, which is a very popular place to go into the Ganges to bathe and chant. It’s said that if you chant with your japa beads in the waters of Mother Ganga, they are infused with spiritual energy. Besides, it was super hot and we wanted a dip!!! :-) Again, you have to be very careful not to take in any of the water as, in all probability, you’ll get sick. No worries for the locals! The local kids were frolicking and swimming like crazy! Another thing about India that I noticed was the abject poverty. A lot of India would be classified as third world and seeing the shacks that families lived in was very humbling. However, the people...especially the children...seemed very happy! Give some kids an old, discarded tire and some sticks and they could entertain themselves no end rolling that tire and running after it! It really made me realize just how much we take for granted in the west. India has this incredible wealth of spirituality to share with us and we have an abundance of material things! The odd thing is, more and more, India is becoming more westernized and the west seems to be searching harder for spirituality. At the time in India, it was a status symbol to buy gold. Even if it was a tiny speck in plastic on a card, people would work and save for months and months and months just for this status symbol. Somehow, that was supposed to make their lives better. It was very sad to see.
Above: One of the reasons that it takes 4.5 hours to drive the 70 miles from Mayapur to Navadwip.
Above: These two guys greeted us in Ekachakra.
Above: Deities of Sri Sri Gaura Nitai in Ekachakra.
Above: Construction was beginning in Ekachakra in 2011. A lot has occurred since then.
Above: Another temple's Gaura Nitai deities in Ekachakra.
One of the days there, we made the sojourn to Ekachakra, the appearance place of Lord Nityananda. It took 4.5 hours each way, so it was a full day trip! When we got there, we could see that there was a lot of construction going on. A new hotel, apartments, and a new temple were all being built. I must say that I’m not crazy about all of the construction going on at the Holy sites that we visited. It will completely change the atmosphere and landscape and, personally, I think India loses a piece of her charm with every new structure. Yes. This goes for the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium in Mayapur, too. In just the few years between my first trip to Mayapur and my most recent, I can see and feel the difference and it makes me sad. Anyway, we found a guide to take us to all of the Holy sites in Ekachakra, which was really cool! Also, I met two dogs who were super friendly and one of them led the way on our pilgrimage! He would walk about 20 feet ahead of us. Whenever we would stop and the guide would describe what we were seeing and tell us the story behind it, this dog would become very agitated and cry at me to “Come on, already!!” I would respond, “Hang on! We’ll be right there!” and the dog would immediately stop and sit patiently until we moved on. Then, the same thing would happen at the next site! I loved this dog! I found several years later that this dog is somewhat famous and does this with all the people who go to see the sites. He’s a very special soul and I was so fortunate to meet him! :-)
I mentioned that we were in Panihati during the festival that Laxmanram and his family put on. Well, one of the events that takes place daily during this time in India is Ratha Yatra. The biggest one occurs in Puri, but they’re held all over the world and, especially, all over India. Ratha Yatra is when Lord Jagannath, Lord Baladeva, and Lady Subhadra are placed on chariots and taken out for a parade. Everyone has the opportunity to pull the chariots. The symbolism is that you are pulling the Lord into your heart. It’s an amazingly festive event and we were in Mayapur for their Ratha Yatra! It was an absolute blast as we sang and danced and pulled the chariots around the complex! I was able to pull each of the chariots and we all had an ecstatic time!!!!
Above: Lord Baladeva during Ratha Yatra in Mayapur.
Above: Lost in ecstasy during Ratha Yatra.
Above (top pic): Lady Subhadra on her Mayapur chariot.
Immediately above: Poonam pulling one of the chariots.
Above: Lord Jagannath on His chariot.
Above: One of my favorite places in Mayapur is the Jagannath Mandir. These deities are awesome!!
Above: Poonam and Sujay pulling a chariot.
The next morning, Madhurya invited me and Poonam to her office. I don’t think that I’ve mentioned that Madhurya is an amazing pujari (priest) and an expert in serving the deities in all ways. She had a bunch of flowers on her desk and said, “I’m going to get you started, but I wanted you to finish these, ok?” Now then, Poonam is quite good at garland making, but I’m a novice (and that’s being generous!). However, I followed Madhurya’s pattern and Poonam and I both finished our small garlands. She then asked Poonam which was her favorite deity at the temple. Poonam said that she just loved the deity of Srivas Pandit (he’s on the far right of the Pancha Tattva deities, if you’re looking at them). Madhurya called for an assistant, gave him the garlands we had made, and said, “Give these to the pujaris and tell them that they’re for Srivas Pandit. Hurry! There’s not much time!” Poonam and I were incredulous! We looked at Madhurya and she just smiled. Later, when we went to see the deities, sure enough, Srivas Pandit was wearing the garlands that we had made!!! I don’t want to sound over-dramatic, but there are devotees who would do ANYTHING to be able to make garlands for the deities in the Holy Dham! This was no small thing and we are forever grateful to Madhurya Madhavi devi dasi for these amazing service opportunities.
Above: Anytime I can be with animals, I'm happy. This is the goshala in Mayapur.
Above: Poonam feeding bananas to the cows.
Above: Such special souls!
Above: This is the tree where Haridas Thakura (the keeper of the Holy Names) would sit and chant 192 round per day. That's about 20 hours of chanting each and every day!
We spent our final day in Mayapur and I remember standing in front of Sri Sri Radha Madhava with tears in my eyes. They were tears of gratitude. What had started out as an absolutely horrible time had turned into the most amazing couple of days that anyone could hope for! Over one million people make the pilgrimage to Mayapur each year and look at the amazing service opportunities that I got to perform! Unbelievable! As I was thinking about this, I had a seemingly obvious realization. Remember when Poonam gave me “the Maya speech” and told me that I was declaring war on Maya (Krsna’s illusion energy) and that she would really test me. Well, where was I? MAYApur!!!!!! I’m such an idiot. I let my guard down and she kicked my butt severely!! Talk about testing me! She had me questioning EVERYTHING! Since that time, she has tested me severely on several more occasions, but each time it seems to get a little easier to realize what’s happening and then I can get things under control again. Maya really isn’t bad. She’s just doing her job, which is to protect Krsna by making sure that we truly want to go back home...back to Godhead (the spiritual world).
It was difficult to say good-bye to our friends, but we had an evening train to catch to go to our next stop...Puri, the home base of Lord Jagannath, Lord Baladeva, and Lady Subhadra! We took a taxi back to Kolkata, which is just a 79 mile drive, but due to the roads and traffic, it takes 4 hours! Once we got to the train station, things got quite chaotic! The depot is super crowded and people are constantly pushing each other to try to get to their respective trains. The five of us struggled to not be separated by the massive crowds of people. We finally got our tickets, but it turned out that we were going to be in three separate places on the train, which didn’t thrill me. Poonam and her mom were together. Sujay and Aunt Anitha were together. I was alone. On the plus side, I ended up getting a tiny, little compartment all to myself. It was a 9 hour train ride from Kolkata to Puri overnight. I got a little bit of sleep, but not too much as it wasn’t very comfortable. As morning arrived, I was able to look out of the train window and see the Indian countryside. This is the India that I love, not the cities. People lead very, very simple lives. Srila Prabhupada taught us that we should strive for “simple living and higher thinking”. The world would be a much better place if more of us would try to remember this.
Above: A map showing you the distance between Kolkata and Puri. It was about a 10 hour overnight trip.
Above: My little compartment on the train.
Above: Sunrise out of the train window as we head to Puri.
Above: Ahead you can see the three chariots in Puri.
Above: Sujay approved of the view from his hotel room in Puri.
Above: Poonam looking radiant on the beach!
Above: Our hotel in Puri.
We arrived in Puri, got an auto rickshaw, and made our way to the hotel. I REALLY liked this hotel!! You could go out the back door, walk a couple of hundred yards, and be on the beach!!! Poonam and I shared a room and Kanchan, Anitha, and Sujay shared the other room. I was super stoked to be here!!! Puri is where the original Ratha Yatra was held and it was currently going on and I’d get to see the HUGE chariots!