Sunday, December 25, 2011

Words in Praise of Yamuna Devi

Words in Praise of Yamuna Devi

While chanting on my meditation beads on Christmas morning it occurred to me I should write in honor of Srila Prabhupada’s disciple, Yamuna Devi, who passed away recently. I met her just a few times. Although she was gracious and friendly, I had a sense she was on a level of sincerity and devotion way above me. I think my limited sincerity kept me a little distant from her. I wanted to say a few things which I was able to appreciate about the interactions I had with her, tell my favorite recipe from her most famous cookbook, and conclude by sharing the notes I took on what she said [and what others said of her] at the fortieth anniversary of the installation of their most beautiful and most merciful Lordships Sri Sri Radha Londonisvara at Soho Street, London, back in November 2009.

My first contact with Yamuna Devi was indirect, by hearing her voice. Back in the late 1970s I was a student at Brown University, where my friend would play the Radha Krishna Temple Album after we would do our meditation. I loved all the songs on the record, including the “Govindam” recording in which Yamuna Devi was the lead singer.

I first recall meeting Yamuna Devi when she attended a wonderful program that Kartamasa Prabhu (known by most as Kar), a very devoted Vaishnava youth, had at his place in Alachua. Almost every other Sunday, as far as I recall, Kar would invite a senior devotee to his house to speak to his friends, mostly a crowd of the Vaishnava youth, the children of the Hare Krishna devotees. I would come too because I knew Kar from chanting with him at Krishna Lunch in Gainesville one or twice a week for two hours while was working on his master degree in sociology. Kar would ask the senior devotee he invited two questions:
(1) How did you join the Hare Krishna movement?
(2) Why have you stayed in the Hare Krishna movement?

Usually he would record these programs on video, and I hope he still has the tapes. There would also be worship and singing for his deities of Krishna and Balarama. Yamuna Devi was a devotee Kar had the utmost respect and affection for. When Yamuna came, that was the first time I got to hear her singing live. Then in addition to her beautiful voice in the kirtana, I recall most how she tried to encourage each devotee there. She asked a question to the devotees and had each one of us respond. She listened carefully and discussed what each person had to say. I could see from that that she really cared about the devotional lives of each of us, and that impression remains in my mind until this day. That was more powerful to me than how she answered Kar’s two questions, which I actually forgot.

When I go home to visit my mother, sister, and niece, I do all the cooking, and my sister has a copy of Yamuna Devi’s largest cookbook, Lord Krishna’s Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking. Yamuna includes a recipe I love for a rice with carrot and coconut which is really simple and tasty, and comes out every time. I thank her for the tremendous achievement of writing such a voluminous cookbook that received awards for being the best vegetarian and best Indian cookbook when it came out, all as a beautiful devotional offering to Srila Prabhupada and Lord Krishna.

In December 2009, Kar was in Mayapur, and he invited me to come each evening to a program they had there with Mother Yamuna, where they chanted all the bhajanas in Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Gitavali over a period of several days. It was attended by about twenty devotees, ranging from Vaishava youth teenagers to Prabhupada disciples in their sixties. I could not attend the whole program each day as it overlapped with the three-hour harinama program in Mayapur I attend which ends at 6:00 p.m., but I came several times and I was there for the last session. You could see she really appreciated the message and mood of Bhaktivinoda Thakura and wanted to share that. At the last session, she asked for our realizations of the program. I expressed that her program of hearing the bhajanas and their meaning made me realize that these are a gift that Srila Prabhupada gave us that many of us do not fully appreciate. We have systematic study of the scriptures like at Mayapur Institute for Higher Education and Training and other places, but we do not, as a worldwide society, encourage the devotees to sing, learn, and appreciate the bhajans of the acaryas. Perhaps we should do that more in general and also, in a systematic way. I felt she appreciated my words. Perhaps now as Yamuna Devi has passed away, in her honor, our leaders might consider promoting bhajana study throughout the movement at their upcoming meetings in Mayapur.

Devotees Speak About Yamuna Devi at the London Forty Years Festival

Guru Das Prabhu:

Srila Prabhupada himself said that the Bury Place temple was like a family, that I (Guru Das) was the father, and Yamuna was the mother, and the proof that it was like a family is that the men and women were just a floor apart, but there was no mixing because they were so happy being engaged in devotional service.

Malati Prabhu:

Yamuna was attentive, submissive and always inquiring. Thus Srila Prabhupada taught her many things.

Bhagavat-asraya Prabhu:

I was always told that Guru Das Prabhu and Yamuna Prabhu were the father and mother of the family. There are different conceptions of ISKCON, the corporate conception, etc., but the family conception is the best. We always tried to keep it like a family.

Sarva Mangala Prabhu (Bhagavat-asraya’s wife):

The devotees really loved the devotees who introduced them to Srila Prabhupada, who had since gone to India, and they would often talk of them, especially Yamuna Prabhu. I think that Radha-Londonisvara have really blessed us that when we serve Them together we develop nice relationships between each other. When you practice Krishna consciousness it changes your heart, and you can pass that on to others. Let’s keep the family spirit.

Dhananjaya Prabhu:

Srila Prabhupada gave Yamuna lessons in singing the slokas of Bhagavad-gita. I do not recall he did that for anyone else.

When Srila Prabhupada was sick he engaged Yamuna in making hot chili pakoras to increase his body heat. As a person who regularly massages Srila Prabhupada, I was entitled to the remnants of his lunch. Since I did not want to share them with anyone, I ate them in a room with the light off. The pakoras were unbearably spicy hot, but I was determined to eat them anyway. Besides, I didn’t want to be caught with some of the remnants, although I felt there must be smoke coming out of my ears.

Srutakirti Prabhu:

I always remember seeing Yamuna making chapatis for Srila Prabhupada at Radha Damodara. All I could think is about Mother Yasoda cooking for Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada insisted that I take prasadam, and so I did. I never tasted anything that was as good as what Yamuna cooked for Srila Prabhupada.

Yamuna Devi Speaking at the London Forty Years Festival

I never had a desire to cook. Cooking, for me, meant cleaning up all the time, so I was not attracted. But I found out cooking for Krishna was different.

Within an hour of meeting Srila Prabhupada, he engaged me in cooking.

Srila Prabhupada was expert in so many things, besides being a devotee empowered to spread Krishna consciousness. He learned cooking from his maternal uncle, auntie, and street wallas (vendors).

There was never a time Srila Prabhupada did not ask a guest to take prasadam.

After meals, Prabhupada asked me if knew how to cook everything that was served. If not, he wanted me to learn.

Sometimes Prabhupada was lenient, and sometimes he would reprimand with such subtlety we would only understand it years later.

Prabhupada would describe the ingredients in a dish, and then critique it after we made it, indicating first class, second class, and third class with gestures.

He demonstrated how to make pera, explaining the principles.

Srila Prabhupada revealed a buni or bunji kitri, a thick kitri, for Ratha-yatra for Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra. It should be the main dish at every Ratha-yatra feast.

All I have is a notebook from autumn 1969. I like to remember the pastimes with other devotees. We all remember different things. It is wonderful having Malati’s association.

Srila Prabhupada said of deity worship, you are dealing with the supreme pure, so you have to become pure. The same is true of him.

This is the only place Srila Prabhupada gave the instruction for mantra-snana [bathing by mantra] Deity worship. We did not ask why. Perhaps it was we were understaffed.

I came to the marriage of my sister. I thought Krishna consciousness was alright for my friends but not for me. I liked Srila Prabhupada. At one point, I decided I would do an experiment and try to follow the four principles and chant. I read the first seventeen chapters of Srimad-Bhagavatam and was truly impressed. I was chanting practically all day.

Next time I saw Srila Prabhupada, he inquired about my plans, and I said I wanted to go to a higher place, like the Himalayas. Srila Prabhupada replied, “I can take you to a higher place than the Himalayas. Just see. Just see.”

My cooking for Srila Prabhupada, I felt, was progressing from kindergarten through high school. In London, we had been devotees only a year and a half.

Srila Prabhupada was so perceptive on so many levels. We all appreciated him differently. Sometimes he would just indicate things with his eyes.

Srila Prabhupada would repeat an instruction until we got it, and then he would move on.

All glories to Yamuna Devi, a great devotee of Srila Prabhupada, who imbibed the devotional attitude from him.

All glories to Srila Prabhupada, who spread Krishna-bhakti all over the world.

For those wanting to read a broader descriptions of Yamuna Devi’s life, click here.