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The Beautiful Life of Jayananda Thakur

Ratha-yatra Pastimes

Chapter 3

A devotee who is not dependent
on the ordinary course of activities,
who is pure, expert, without cares,
free from all pains, and who does not
strive for some result, is very dear to Me.
(Bhagavad-Gita 12.16)

Certain as death and taxes

These little memories are often the best. One thing was very certain – just as certain as death and taxes – and that was Jayananda losing his bead bag on a daily basis. I remember this well. It seemed almost every day I would see Jayananda walking around the Ratha site, scratching his head and muttering, “Where's my bead bag?” He would hint that it would be nice if we helped him look for it. Then I would stop what I was doing and help him look, and the bead bag would always be in some obscure place – on some beam, or in some nook or cranny in the shadows, or somewhere underneath the canopy of the cart, or somewhere like that. Then Jayananda would touch his beads to his forehead and continue chanting his 16 rounds and we would go back to our tasks.

Maricha wannabe backs off

One night Jayananda and I were alone at the Ratha site, it was my watch and Jayananda was sleeping in a car, and along came this demon.
He was either a descendant of Maricha (from Rama-lila), or he was some demon who came from the lower planets, or else he was just a town drunk raising Cain. And he decided it was his duty to defile our sacrificial arena with trash and garbage.
When devotees in the days of yore were preparing to conduct fire sacrifices for the pleasure of the Lord (as in the times of Treta-yuga, big fire sacrifice yagnas were done for Lord Vishnu), sometimes demons came to disturb the sacrifice. They would defile the arena with filth such as blood and pus and urine, and so forth. In Kali-yuga, devotees perform hari-nama-sankirtan as a yagna for the pleasure of Lord Chaitanya and Lord Krishna, and inevitably some demon would come along and disturb our street chanting, and sometimes our stronger devotees have to brandish metal kartals in his face and drive him off. In this case, since Jayananda and the devotees were performing yagna for Lord Jagannatha, this parking lot became our sacrificial arena for building the sacred carts, and this demon came to defile it.

Lord Rama thwarts the demons

In the case of our reference to Maricha, this applies to the lila of Lord Ramachandra, which is recorded in Valmiki's great epic Sri Ramayana. There was a great brahmana named Vishva-mitra Muni, who was trying to conduct a fire sacrifice in the forest, and two powerful rakshasa demons named Maricha and Subahu were defiling his yagna by raining down unclean blood and flesh into the sacred fire. So Vishva-mitra Muni came to King Dasaratha, who offered to grant any request for him. In reply, Vishva-mitra Muni asked for Dasaratha's son, Sri Rama, to come with him and fight the rakshasas. The request left Dasaratha trembling and speechless, as he was very fearful to send his young son to fight with these monstrous demons, and so he offered his whole army to go instead. But Vishva-mitra was adamant and insisted on Rama. So King Dasaratha had already given his word to the muni; thus he was bound by dharma and his word, and so with extreme reluctance he had to give his dear son Sri Rama to the service of the sage. Then Lord Rama went with Vishva-mitra Muni to the forest and there defeated the demons Maricha and Subahu.

Jayananda saves the day

So now this big demon was standing on the sidewalk outside our parking lot, about 20 yards away, and he was throwing garbage bags over the fence and screaming and taunting me. I was really scared and wondered how we could persuade this demon, obviously in the lowest modes of ignorance, to cease and desist his obnoxious defilement of our sacred arena. I was thinking, “Why am I guarding Lord Jagannatha's carts? Here I am, a scrawny brahmachari – what can I do to guard the Lord's carts from this formidable demon?”
Then, to save the day, Jayananda somehow woke up. I guess he heard all the ruckus. He and I stood there awhile, since he was still trying to wake up, and we stared at the Maricha wannabe throwing trash bags and defiling the ether with his foul exclamations. While I was helpless to solve the problem, Jayananda was empowered by Krishna with diplomatic skills to soothe any wild beast. And so he began to slowly stroll down the sidewalk toward this rascal, very nonchalantly, with a happy-go-lucky smile on his face and his arms swinging to and fro in a carefree manner – while my teeth were chattering with an ominous trepidation at what was about to happen. But I had firm faith in Jayananda and stood in my spot, so as not to intimidate the demon anymore and thus escalate the situation. I didn't know if the demon was going to fly into Jayananda's face or what, but I had faith that Jayananda knew what he was doing.
The demon watched Jayananda coming in his friendly mood, and instead of a possible row that I feared, the Maricha wannabe backed off and made retreat before the friendly yet formidable figure of Jayananda got close. Jayananda always knew just how to handle every confrontation with inimical people. And if the errant soul would have stayed, Jayananda undoubtedly would have befriended and endeared him. Jayananda was that way – always a kind friend to all ... even the ruffians.

Jayananda forgot to tell me

It was the summer of '75, and Srila Prabhupada came to the San Francisco Ratha-yatra. A bunch of us were up for initiation. Bhakta Dasa and Jayananda and Bahulasva Dasa were acting as temple presidents. I kept waiting for Bhakta Dasa or Jayananda to tell me that I was getting initiated, but they didn't. I was with Bhakta Dasa for an hour or so the night before Ratha-yatra, and I expected him to tell me about the initiations the next day and how I was a candidate, but he never said anything. Neither did Jayananda. And so I was thinking that I wasn't getting initiated.
The next day we were having the parade and Srila Prabhupada got out of his car to ride on Subhadra's cart. As he was walking toward the cart, he did a 180 degree turnaround and looked directly into my eyes. There were hundreds of people there, but he seemed to look right into my eyes alone. It was as if he was saying, “Yes, I know you're here.” I've heard many stories like this from other devotees. We all had this similar experience with Srila Prabhupada, sort of like how Krishna was with all the gopis but each gopi thought He was with her alone. It is a mystical thing, and since other devotees have told me the same thing, I suppose I was not delirious to think that it actually happened to me.
Then we had the festival, and when evening came I did my night watch to guard the Ratha carts. Consequently I was sleeping in the next morning. I was suddenly awakened by Jayananda, who exclaimed, “Oh Bhakta Tom, I'm so sorry, I forgot to tell you – you were supposed to get initiated this morning. I'm sorry, you missed it. But don't worry, Srila Prabhupada wants to see you in his room.” I said that I thought I wasn't going to get initiated, and Jayananda said how I was “humility personified,” which was his usual way of praising other devotees.

Tooting my horn

So I went to Berkeley and got to go into Srila Prabhupada's room and be alone with him for a minute. This is another tall tale, but I was paying my obeisances and while reciting the pranam prayers, I happened to glance from the corner of my eye at Srila Prabhupada and saw a bright glow all about him. Blinding glow in fact. I've been told in retrospect that auras are easier to see from a peripheral angle of vision. Oh well, this is another story like the one in Vaiyasaki's book, Radha-Damodara Vilasa, with Vishnujana Swami telling of how Srila Prabhupada's room was full of blinding light. But since we've all heard stories in ISKCON even more amazing than this (how tears shot out from Srila Prabhupada's eyes when he was singing Jaya Radha Madhava, some devotees getting sprinkled by these teardrops several feet away, and how some devotees saw him floating down some stairs, his feet not touching the stairs, and so on) then I see no harm in telling what I saw. Then I got my beads and my name of Vishoka Dasa.
Before I entered the room, I was thinking of how the disciple should always feel a fool before the spiritual master. I had no problem feeling the fool. But ... there was a vestige of pride in my heart. It was like I was thinking, “Well here I am – I'm getting initiated by the greatest acharya that was ever on the planet.” Even though this was philosophically correct, I was feeling unnecessary pride in my heart, and I was mentally tooting my own horn, so to speak. Srila Prabhupada looked at me and saw right through me and immediately detected the pride. Srila Prabhupada could read others' minds. He gave me a hard look and a sarcastic smile that cut me to the quick, totally devastating my petty pride. Although I was raised in Kansas, and although I never thought of myself as a hick, always thinking I was a city slicker – I had only one thought in my mind at that time, “I am just a hick from Kansas ... and that is all I am ... nothing more.” It was as if Srila Prabhupada projected this humbling thought into my brain.
After my initiation, Jayananda still kept calling me Bhakta Tom again and again. Jayananda and I had a special relationship, like he was the teacher and I was a student, yet friends too; but all of a sudden we became official godbrothers, and so it kind of changed things a little. Then one day he said, “I know you got a new spiritual name, and Vishoka is a very nice name. I'm sorry that I forget ... it's just that ... I guess I like to call you Bhakta Tom.”

Jayananda performed superhuman activities

Jayananda possessed a great mystic power. Those Ratha-yatra festivals would not have happened without Jayananda. He was empowered by Krishna to do superhuman feats that made Ratha-yatra happen ... even when the situation seemed impossible. Especially the New York Rathayatra in 1976, which Jayananda considered to be his crowning glory and the perfection of his life. At first he was not going to build the carts due to a bad back, but he got swept up into the service and agreed to do it. The New York temple had no money and Adikeshava Dasa said that “Srila Prabhupada doesn't trust us,” meaning that it was “iffy” in Srila Prabhupada's mind whether they could do it or not.
At first, Jayananda and devotees just drove around and around that area of town, and some devotee asked, “Why are we just driving around here all the time?” Jayananda was casing out the place. They were on a very low budget, so Jayananda made mental notes on where lumber and stuff just seemed to be laying around ... and then they came back in the dead of night for some discount lumber and parts. Sometimes this is known as a five-finger discount, and in devotee circles sometimes it's known as transcendental repossession. As everybody in the world is thinking, “This is mine, this is mine,” but the reality is ... that it's all Krishna's property. Always was and always will be. It was like Jayananda was saying to the New York residents, “My dear inhabitants of the Big Apple, please know that Lord Jagannatha already owns everything we see in this town ... actually He owns everything in the universe, we just forgot. And you may feel reluctant to freely donate, and so we guess that we'll just have to take some transcendental repossession of a few things for Lord Jagannatha's service ... and you will all benefit from it.”
Jayananda gathered his materials by hook or crook. And sometimes (like his bhoga shopping) he could persuade some merchants to donate or give big discounts.
As for manpower, Jayananda would grab people off the streets or out of the temple – bums, hippies, lazy devotees – and get them to work day and night, even against their will. You just couldn't stop your lazy self from helping Jayananda, it was impossible. Jayananda's enthusiasm was a most powerful and contagious spiritual energy that spread and infected everybody around him. And carts that normally would take many thousands of dollars to build, Jayananda would just transcendentally extract all the materials and manpower from the very woodwork of the neighborhood, so to speak – and he would stir his transcendental cauldron with the ladle of his great love for Srila Prabhupada – and poof! ... there would magically appear out of thin air ... these wonderful and colorful and majestic carts for Lord Jagannatha! In this way, Jayananda pulled off a veritable miracle by building carts on a practically nothing budget. Who could imagine such a feat? But wherever there is Jayananda and his ragtag band of merry street urchins (and discount parts and lumber laying about), there will certainly be opulence, victory, and extraordinary power. And then these wonderful majestic carts will certainly be rolling down the streets of big cities with thousands of devotees loudly chanting and dancing all around them to bless everyone with the Lord's mercy.

Impossible is not a word in Jayananda's dictionary

Then the day before the Ratha-yatra parade, a strong wind blew the dome over and there was a big groaning sound in the metal, the beam snapped, it was broken and devotees freaked out and were crying in despair. Some GBC said the whole thing was off, there'd be no parade, and they would have to tell Srila Prabhupada the bad news. The fainthearted will perceive these kinds of things to be insurmountable, and they would give up and say it's impossible. But impossible is not a word in Jayananda's dictionary. As the cliché says, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” In devotee language it's more like – “When maya attacks the strongest, then devotees depend on Krishna even stronger.” This material world is full of trials and tribulations, some are like insurmountable oceans, but Krishna says “mam eva ye prapadyante mayam etam taranti te...”

This divine energy of Mine,
consisting of the three modes of material nature,
is difficult to overcome.
But those who have surrendered unto Me
can easily cross beyond it.
(Bhagavad-Gita 7.14)

Here Krishna says, “Those who surrender unto Me can easily cross beyond the ocean of maya.” And when a devotee surrenders to Krishna, then the oceanic difficulty shrinks down to the amount of water left in a calf's hoofprint, and he easily crosses over. So Adikeshava Dasa said, “Don't worry, we've got Jayananda.” Then Jayananda and his men rolled up their sleeves and went to work all that night. The next day, the beam was repaired and Lord Jagannatha's cart was rolling. This was Jayananda's superhuman activity in New York.

* * * * *

Right on up to the festival day in New York, Jayananda was becoming increasingly crippled with the swollen lymph glands on his legs. He could hardly walk. Especially during the last few days before the parade, nobody got any sleep at all; that kind of schedule was very rough for us young, strapping youths, so certainly it must have been devastating for Jayananda with his failing health. But the amazing thing was that this crippled and hobbling Jayananda miraculously danced and danced and danced like an energetic teenager throughout the entire Rathayatra parade! All the way down Fifth Avenue from Central Park to Tompkin's Square Park – fifty-two blocks – Jayananda was dancing and chanting Hare Krishna while steering Lord Jagannatha's cart in the lead. He sometimes turned around and walked backwards in order to enthusiastically look up at Lord Jagannatha's smiling face, then he would turn around again and skip forward, shouting “Jaya Jagannatha!” as he raised one hand in the air. There is a movie taken of that parade, and you can see Jayananda cavorting about like a wild young stallion. So this was incredible to witness such a level of transcendental devotion being manifest in his person, especially if you were aware that his body was actually very ill and unable to walk very well. – Dasaratha-suta Dasa

So I saw Jayananda at that moment. He was just ... the look on his face was so ecstatic, you know it was like his crowning triumph. I couldn't help just bursting into tears, and I turned around and Srila Prabhupada also was crying, looking at Jayananda. And he said, “I am so pleased with him because he is so sincere.” – Adi-keshava Dasa

This is a tribute not to yourself, but to your shiksha-guru, Sri Jayananda, who I do actually remember. I was a herbed-out surfer puke who dropped by the San Francisco temple in 1971, and he was there, dirty, intensely laboring without anyone helping him, working on a large wooden cart. He stopped long enough to take time to say hari-bol to me and talk to me as if I mattered. He truly took Sri Siksastakam as his life and soul. – Your friend, Mahaksha Dasa

Chapter 4 - Jayananda Serves the Holy Name