In Vrindaban, India, on the evening of December 22, my godbrother Vibhu Chaitanya Dasa, a pure devotee of Krishna, passed away from this world, surrounded by devotees singing the Hare Krishna mantra. He was 84 years old.
Vibhu Chaitanya joined the followers of our spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, in 1975. Some time earlier in Kolkata, Vibhu Chaitanya had renounced family life, and now he showed up at the Krishna-Balarama Temple in Vrindaban and asked to join. Srila Prabhupada’s followers at that time, mostly Westerners in their twenties, quickly warmed to this humble, joyful Bengali devotee thirty or forty years older.
He soon received initiation from Srila Prabhupada, who then gave him the service of cooking for the temple Deities. This entailed preparing six offerings of food every day, on simple coal stoves, starting well before sunrise and ending after 8 o’clock at night. This was a service he performed every day for the next fifteen years.
While cooking he would sweetly sing the Hare Krishna mantra. Once in 1976 while passing by the kitchen, Srila Prabhupada heard him singing and asked, “Who is that?”
A devotee replied, “It’s Vibhu Chaitanya, Srila Prabhupada. He sings all day long as he’s cooking the offerings.”
“Ah, this is Krishna consciousness,” Srila Prabhupada said, a bright smile on his face. “Very nice.”
Some devotee had mentioned to Srila Prabhupada that Vibhu Chaitanya was not chanting the full sixteen “rounds” initiated devotees pledge to chant every day on their beads, a personal meditation of two hours or so. But Srila Prabhupada, who was always strict and particular about devotees chanting their rounds, said, “He doesn’t need to chant them. He is singing all day and doing his service.”
Srila Prabhupada had told his followers in Vrindaban there was no need to go anywhere outside the temple grounds. The whole spiritual world, Srila Prabhupada said, was there within the temple compound. This was an instruction Vibhu Chaitanya took to heart. While devotees from around the world came to tour Vrindaban and visit its thousands of temples and holy places, Vibhu Chaitanya stayed happily at the temple of Krishna-Balarama, never going anywhere else. (Once in all those years—some say twice—devotees obliged him to go out to visit a doctor. But he quickly returned, dismissing the visit as a waste of time.)
When old age and arthritis finally obliged him to give up cooking, taking over the service he had been doing alone now took five men. He then took up the simple service of sitting in the temple and spooning out caranamrita, the flavored and scented water devotees drink as a blessing when they visit a temple. For me, his radiant smile and his strong and affectionate grasp on my wrist as he pulled my hand forward to receive the caranamrita was a still greater blessing. The caranamrita was sweeter when he was the one who gave it.
During those ten years, his back gradually lost its straightness and bowed forward, till it was nearly parallel to the ground. But he was always joyful, chanting Hare Krishna. I would see him looking at Krishna in the temple or attending the early-morning chanting at Srila Prabhupada’s samadhi, or burial place, on the temple grounds. He never asked for any special honor or attention, but his face always showed his pleasure to be there. As my godbrother Hari Sauri Dasa said of him, “Clear eyes, clear heart, clear consciousness. Happy in Krishna consciousness, with no shadows.”
After ten years, when Vibhu Caitanya could no longer serve caranamrita, he retired to a small room, eventually on the ground floor of the temple guesthouse. There he chanted on his beads, listened to chanting piped in from the temple or recorded on cassettes, and worshiped pictures of the same Krishna who in the temple he had served. This is where I visited him this past November.
He was so keen to receive me nicely, making sure I had a comfortable place to sit. And he loaded me up with gifts.
In that month, known in Sanskrit as Kartika, a festival time when many devotees visit Vrindaban, he had arranged to distribute gifts to his godbrothers and godsisters and other devotees: metal cups and spoons (very useful!) and some other small things. A devotee who had assisted him in this recalls asking him, “What is your plan? Are you not going to be with us for the next Kartika?” He just smiled, the devotee recalls, and spoke about the sacred land of Vrindaban and of Krishna’s spiritual consort, Srimati Radharani. “Srimati Radharani is very merciful upon me,” he said. “She took a lot of service from me, a humble servant.”
Now that humble servant insisted on serving me. He gave me another cup and spoon, and some sweets, and some mishri (rock candy) sprinkled with sacred tulasi leaves.
“Back broken,” he told me. “Mind happy.”
The entire spiritual world lay within the grounds of the Krishna-Balarama temple and the happy mind of that pure and humble devotee.