Written by Bhakta Nandan
Arrival in England (10 June)
The time is 6.38 pm at Luton Airport. A handful of Maharaj’s disciples are waiting in anticipation at the arrivals lounge, namely Sutapa, Ter Kadamba, Saurab, Godruma, Ganesh and Nandan. Maharaj was coming to the UK from Zurich where the temperature was reportedly a lot better. What to expect, Great Britain has never been known for her great weather!
After about half an hour, Maharaj came out and when he saw the devotees, he immediately started grinning. Needless to say, so were the devotees. He looks up at Godruma Prabhu – a tall, robust German disciple who had just arrived the day before and remarked to him, ‘You’re floating! Ratha Yatra is coming up!!’ So it seems Maharaj was already tingling in anticipation of the festivities.
From the airport, Maharaj along with his merry band of disciples, set off for Krishna Kirtan Prabhu’s house and after about an hour, everyone arrived at the house. After a bit of conversing, it was inevitable Maharaj would soon steer the subject towards Brahmananda Prabhu who had just recently passed away and was one of the pivotal members in setting up Iskcon.
It was obvious that Maharaj had a deep reverence, love and friendship with Brahmananda Prabhu and he recalled that no one had such absorption in always remembering Srila Prabhupada, twenty-four hours a day as did Brahmananda Prabhu.
For the next few hours, Maharaj just started glorifying Brahmananda Prabhu nonstop – his life, his achievements, his qualities and everything in between. It was truly wonderful to behold. Details will be shared later.
Whilst Maharaj is revealing all this nectar, I was actually seated opposite Maharaj, trying to subtly scribble away in my notebook; primarily for the blog but also for my personal benefit for posterity. Anyhow, as I am writing away, Maharaj gradually looks at me straight in the eye and in a loud but humorous manner; Maharaj says to me “What are you? The paparazzi for ISKCON? Is this your swarupa bhava?!!!!?”
All the devotees became hysterical at Maharaj’s jolly outburst. And Maharaj then went onto say how in the spiritual world there are various personalities passing notes and exchanging information from Radha and Krishna or from one group to another etc. On that note, Maharaj called it a day and the devotees left thoroughly satisfied and looking forward to what would be a great week ahead
Morning Class at the Bhaktivedanta Manor, Srimad Bhagavatam 9.18.39
The next morning Maharaj arrived at the Manor temple to give class. He started with a wonderfully, jazzy Jaya Radha Madhava prayer and then went onto speak on how King Yayati regained his youth, all for the purpose of sex enjoyment. It was a brilliant class and true to form, Maharaj told it like it is – straight and direct. He continuously emphasized throughout the class that no amount of sense enjoyment can extinguish lusty desires. Rather one’s thirst will increase even when the body is gradually breaking down.
After the class, Maharaj received a whole bunch of Mother Kalangana’s legendary mangal arati sweets along with the morning maha-prasadam. Needless to say, Maharaj couldn’t physically honor all of the sweets but at least he did in spirit. After spending time speaking to some of the Manor devotees, who had a lot of great affection for him, Maharaj made his way to Krishna Kirtan Prabhu’s dental surgery for that much needed appointment for a niggling toothache. In the evening, an interesting Chinese sanga program awaited Maharaj at Reading University, thanks to the intrepid preaching efforts of Bhaktin Suan.
Reading University, Chinese Sanga group
A spacious room at the university was provided for Maharaj at the evening program. A handful of Maharaj’s disciples were present but the main audience consisted of about thirty Chinese women in their late 30’s and early 40’s, who were predominantly teachers. They seemed to be quite a sober, reserved but a very respectful bunch.
The disciples had arranged so that all the chairs were at the back of the room and most of the space was cleared so that people could sit on the floor; thus creating a more informal atmosphere. At the front, a makeshift vyasasana with cushions and covering shawl was created for Maharaj. The overall effect was appealing. It signified something exotic but not too bohemian. So Maharaj started off with a quote from social anthropology about the human personality being composed of nature and culture,
“Nature is deep within us, whilst culture is something we grew up with. Culture has many functions, it is meant for cultivating certain qualities and avoiding certain qualities. In this way, the world has culture in which humans find shelter and protection. The ancient cultures, including Indian and China, were of a deeper nature with more emphasis on values; whereas the modern cultures are based on, ‘When’s the money coming?’”
A few of the Chinese women were nodding their heads, seemingly in agreement, although one could have also considered it as some form of cultural etiquette. Saying that, they were diligently taking notes… more so than probably a lot of devotees do! Further details of the class will be shared later.
At the end of the class, the final question to Maharaj was rather funny. One of the ladies asked why did Maharaj have a Chinese surname.
It goes without saying that this question did bring forth a few chuckles from those assembled. For those of you who don’t know, Maharaj’s birth surname is Kok. Maharaj said how he was in Canada at the time of the SARS virus so his name came up on the computer. The airport official looked at the name and was a little perplexed. Here was Maharaj, by all accounts having very North European features but with a dhoti and chadar and a name like Kok. Somehow, the official concluded this gentleman must be in Chinese and so they kept him in custody! (Further laughter)
Maharaj then finally clarified that Kok is also a Dutch surname meaning ‘to cook’. The Chinese lady then responded by saying that Kok in Chinese is related to castles. Maharaj then thought for a while and with a grin stated that he preferred the Chinese definition for his name! The Chinese ladies then all laughed in appreciation.
Maharaj then finished off with a sweet melodic, low-key kirtan – just right for the mood and audience. And while it would’ve been too much to expect the ladies to join in the kirtan full on, it was nice to see most of them cheerfully clapping and tapping their feet to Maharaj’s lilting harmony. Overall it was a good preaching engagement, but Maharaj did confess afterwards that he would’ve preferred seeing more men in the audience. I guess that is something extra the dynamic Bhaktin Suan can put on her ‘to do’ list.
Morning Class at the Bhaktivedanta Manor, Srimad Bhagavatam 9.18.40
The life of a sannyasi in Iskcon is extremely busy. Maharaj’s schedule bears this out explicitly. Straight after yesterday’s late program at Reading University, Maharaj was again ready for another action packed day. First stop, the Manor, to give another Bhagavatam class. Carrying on with the adventures of King Yayati, Maharaj spoke on why King Yadu refused the request of his father – not a particularly Vedic thing to do.
Whilst the previous class was quite punchy, designed to jolt and excite, this class was more reflective with moments of tenderness and poignancy. The class finished with a video of Brahmananda Prabhu recollecting his experiences with Srila Prabhupada. Maharaj meanwhile went to the back of the temple room and just stood there upright watching the video with what seemed like a look of pleasure and reminiscence on his face.
Matchless Gifts Program
Later on in the day at Krishna Kirtan Prabhu’s house, Maharaj’s disciples talked with him about the horrors of ageing and growing old whilst desperately clinging to one’s fading youth. In a wonderful show of humour, Maharaj started impersonating himself doing kirtan in classic rocker style.
Later that evening, Maharaj and the devotees got ready to go to the Matchless Gifts program at King’s Cross. Whilst there was a lot of traffic, the journey was very pleasant, mainly because of all the wonderful conversations Maharaj was having with the devotees in the car. The topics covered almost everything under the sun from Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Srila Prabhupada, one’s personal spiritual life and fellow devotees, all the way to the state of modern society and contemporary history. After about an hour of driving, the unmistakable Matchless Gifts storefront in King’s Cross came into view. As Jayadvaita Maharaj once remarked, “It’s straight from 1968.” Outside the storefront on the street, there was already a huge group of devotees doing an exuberant harinam. Unsurprisingly, this was led by the Harinam Ruci guys and they were going for it full throttle.
Once inside, I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever saw Matchless gifts that packed!! There was a time, a few years back, when Lokanatha Maharaj was at Matchless Gifts that could’ve possibly rivalled today in terms of crowd, either way, it was absolutely heaving inside. Maharaj knew very well that the Matchless Gifts crowd have got a strong ‘social fringe’ element to it and they really dig kirtan – the funkier and fired up, the better. So Maharaj didn’t even go for any small talk, just went straight into kirtan. He immediately noticed Gopinath Prabhu at the back of the room and says in his deep voice, ‘Gopinatha Prabu, where’s your base?’ Gopinatha Prabhu was on it like a shot. Vishnujana Prabhu from Harinam Ruci was already going crazy on his trademark golden, band-style drum nicknamed the ‘Golden Avatar’ and Arjuna Prabhu was pulling out all the stops on the mrdanga.
The crowd was an eclectic mix of Reiki masters, herbalists, Hare Krishnas, ayurvedic doctors and lawyers amongst others. The kirtan was something out of this world, one still wonders how a gentleman in his 60’s can bring out so much gusto, limitless energy, potency and whip the crowd into a complete state of frenzy and obsession on the holy name. It could only be Krishna’s empowerment. Maharaj was giving two hundred percent on the harmonium and the tamboura drums were working in tenth gear. Initially, Maharaj started with one of his famous kirtan mela tunes but as he built the tune to a crescendo, it sort of morphed into this deep tribal way of chanting. It was all over for any prudes in the room. Everyone just got up and Gaura Karuna Prabhu stood on one of the seats, blowing his bugle with every single bit of air left in his lungs. Everyone was jumping up and shouting, boiling and sweating. At one point, Maharaj himself just stopped singing, and the devotees just kept going on, firing it away.
Maharaj then exclaimed, ‘It’s too hot in here! Let’s cool down.’ Everyone just sat down and then Maharaj broke into slow, traditional Vrindavana style kirtan. Maharaj then told everyone to close their eyes and go deep! He then started lilting the melody and gradually increased the speed. The first line would be high; the second line would be low – like a meandering river. Then Maharaj started putting in some tonal breaks which rose like jagged mountain peaks, in the otherwise smooth melodic landscape. Soon the speed, the energy and tonality started getting more intense and before you knew it, people started getting up and the kirtan just got faster and faster, more intense, more fiery.
Maharaj started waving his arms and everyone started doing the same. Then one of the guys in the room bought out an Islamic war drum (complete with Arabic inscriptions on it) and started playing it with incredible dexterity and skill. Then the beat just got faster, faster, faster, faster, louder, louder, louder and the guy on the drum started banging it unbelievably HARD!! As abruptly as it started, it then slowed down suddenly as well! The kirtan then seamlessly changed into a nice chilling beat.
At this point, the harmonium keys started playing up, Maharaj said that it ‘needs a dentist to straighten out the teeth’. Once the kirtan started to calm down, Maharaj decided to speak a little. The audience looked like they just came out of a blast furnace. So Maharaj spoke about how the holy names are the most merciful form of Krishna. In this yuga, chanting is the quickest way. In Caitanya Bhagavata, Caitanya Mahaprabhu would dance like he was cracking the floor. In Mauritius kirtan mela, he had mentioned this to the devotees and the next day, they cracked the floor!
Maharaj concluded the talk by saying he hoped to meet everyone at Ratha Yatra which took place on Sunday (14 June). In Srila Prabhupada’s time, newspapers wrote how the Chariots rivalled Nelson’s column; this was Srila Prabhupada’s victory. So these London Chariots are special. The London Ratha Yatra is so special that Srila Prabhupada just went for it here; he just danced and danced. In other words, this festival made it into his ecstasies.
Maharaj then ended the night with a Western style, folksy kirtan. It was steady and powerful. Maharaj’s voice went deep for this one and he was really holding the notes. One of Maharaj’s senior disciples, Sadbhuja Prabhu from Germany, was especially noted for his wild dancing to this kirtan. This was quite extraordinary, since Sadbhuja is actually one of the most serious, ‘prim and proper’ devotees one could meet. Whilst Sadbhuja was getting his groove on at the front, the rest of the people linked together and did a kind of ‘soul train’ around the room. All in all, a transcendentally exhilarating evening and then on the way back in the car, Maharaj spent most of the journey glorifying Parashuram Prabhu, the dynamic devotee who runs Matchless Gifts, Food for life and a whole host of other projects in the UK.
The London Ratha Yatra festival took place the next day; a report will follow soon. On Wednesday, 17 June, Maharaj left for the USA.