In the 1990s, Arca Vigraha Dasi, a famous artist from South Africa, built a house in Vrindavana—Krishna’s birthplace in India—to do her artwork. But soon thereafter she discovered that she had cancer, which proved to be terminal. As well as her guru Giriraj Swami, many other senior devotees, such as B. B. Govinda Swami, Bhurijana Dasa, Kesava Bharati das Goswami, Sivarama Swami, and Tamal Krishna Goswami, would visit her and give her their association and encouragement in her last days.
Arca Vigraha felt fortunate to have a house in Vrindavana where these devotees could come and assist her, and she wanted other devotees to have the same opportunity. So she expressed her desire to Giriraj Swami that a “Back-to-Godhead Clinic” be created in Vrindavana where devotees could leave their bodies in a sublime spiritual atmosphere, supported by competent medical care. Girraj Swami took this request to heart and gradually developed the idea of building a hospice in Vrindavana for this purpose.
The first big challenge was to get land near ISKCON’s Krishna-Balaram temple. The price of land near the temple had skyrocketed, but more affordable land would have taken the project far away from the temple, which would not have been ideal.
Then one devotee, Abhirama Dasa, mentioned to Giriraj Swami that the ISKCON Foundation Trust had purchased some land near the old Krishna-Balaram tree on the Vrindavana Parikrama Marg (pilgrimage path) to be made into a park but that somehow not much progress had been made.
Abhirama spoke with the other donors, and they all agreed that the land would be suitably used in service to Srila Prabhupada’s followers, provided that the hospice was built in such a way as to preserve the trees. And so an excellent site was found.
Later, Giriraj Swami presented the project to Radhanath Swami and leaders of Bhaktivedanta Hospital in Bombay, and they also jumped at the chance to serve the Vaishnavas in this most significant way. Meanwhile, Giriraj Swami, along with Sangita Dasi, the foremost authority in ISKCON on hospice care, found a most excellent facility in San Diego upon which to model the project.
Despite many obstacles and delays, finally the hospice was becoming a reality. Some friends suggested that besides caring for ISKCON devotees, the team should create a facility for the local Brijbasis, and even before the hospice was built, a temporary facility was established not far from the temple in a rented building. Free treatment of Brijbasis began under the name Vrindavana Institute of Palliative Care (VIPC), and almost a thousand in- and out-patients were treated in the twenty-eight months before the permanent hospice building was even ready.
Finally, on August 26th 2010, two days after the appearance day of Lord Balarama, who gives spiritual strength, Bhaktivedanta Hospice was inaugurated. Finally the Back-to-Godhead Clinic, Arca Vigraha’s dream, had been realized.
Despite his frail health, Giriraj Swami arrived in Vrindavana to oversee the opening. At the ceremony, His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada was present in his beautiful deity form, sitting on an ornately carved wooden Vyasanana—the first thing one sees upon entering the hospice.
The inauguration was graced by many sannyasis and senior devotees, including Gopal Krishna Goswami, Brahmananda Dasa, Bhakti Brihat Bhagavata Swami, Prabodhananda Sarasvati Swami, Abhirama Dasa, Narataki Dasi (who will be serving in the hospice), Daivishakti Dasi, and many others.
Giriraj Swami began by make an arati offering to Srila Prabhupada. Dr. Ajay Sankhe, medical director of Bhaktivedanta Hospital, gave a PowerPoint presentation describing the history and development of the Bhaktivedanta Hospice, highlighting the wonderful features of the present facility. Gopal Krishna Goswami and others also addressed the audience.
Then Sri Padmanabha Goswami of Vrindavana’s ancient Radha-Ramana temple spoke. He mentioned that the land on which the hospice was built had been considered the most beautiful in Vrindavana and that three generations of his ancestors, who had had relations with Gaudiya Vaishnava saints Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, used to chant there amidst the peacocks and parrots and tamal and kadamba trees.
He added that he had even seen Srila Prabhupada here, chanting japa with his disciples. And so this place was auspicious not only because it was in Sri Vrindavana Dhama, the holiest of places, but also because it had been blessed by the presence of so many holy men, who had chanted the holy names here. This was truly the place for leaving this world!
Padmanabha Goswami also expressed his happiness that the devotees had taken care to build the hospice in such a way that all the trees were preserved, because that had been a condition when he and his family had sold the plot to ISKCON.
After the talks, the senior devotees and dignitaries were taken on a tour of the facility. Everyone marveled at how nicely everything had been constructed, with many large windows overlooking the Vrindavana gardens and trees. On the second floor they saw where the Brijbasis were being taken care of, and they gave them their association and blessings. Then a wonderful feast was served to all.
Abhirama Dasa, who has been involved in resort development and management, quipped, “This is ‘The Last Resort’—when you want to get away from it all!”