There’s something about the Bhaktivedanta Hospice that, even at first glance, fills the heart with peace and a sense of the spiritual. The tall, green trees clustered around it could have something to do with it. So could the bright, saffron color, the accessible simplicity of the architecture or the bright blue sky above it.
But to the 400 terminally ill patients that have been cared for there in the past two-and-a-half years, what most soothes their hearts is the Hospice’s location: Sri Vrindavana Dhama, Lord Krishna’s birthplace—praised by Vaishnava saints as the most auspicious place in the world from which to leave this mortal body behind.
Bhaktivedanta Hospice’s story begins with Archa Vigraha Dasi, an ISKCON artist who moved to Vrindavana in the 1990s and was stricken with terminal cancer soon after. In her last days, she felt extremely fortunate to be able to reside in the holy Dhama, and to be visited by her guru Giriraja Swami and other Vaishnavas.
Wanting other devotees to have the same opportunity, she expressed her desire to her guru that a “Back-to-Godhead Clinic” be created in Vrindavana, where devotees could pass away in a sublime spiritual atmosphere, supported by competent medical care.
Giriraj Swami took Archa Vigraha’s request to heart, and with the help of Radhanath Swami and the staff of Mumbai’s Bhaktivedanta Hospital, he gradually developed Bhaktivedanta Hospice, which began its services in January 2008 and moved into its own building near ISKCON’s Krishna Balarama Mandir in August 2010.
Giriraj Swami and Gopal Krishna Goswami tour the hospice
“Before our Hospice, devotees would come in a very devotional mood to spend their final days in Vrindavana, but the austere setting and lack of good medical facilities led many to return to their respective countries,” says medical co-ordinator Dr. Avnish Panday. “At the Bhaktivedanta Hospice, however, both in-patients and patients in their homes can receive quality palliative care and hospice facilities, along with spiritual end of life care. We also offer emotional support to their families, which continues after their loved one’s passing in the form of bereavement care.”
As well as ISKCON devotees from India, Russia and the rest of the world, the facility also offers care to local Brijabasi patients from low socio-economic backgrounds. Patients—the majority of whom suffer from terminal cancer, but also HIV, Alzheimer’s and other diseases—usually have a prognosis of less than six months.
“We currently have eight patients, although the Hospice has a capacity for twenty-two,” says Dr. Panday. “Each patient has a 575 square-foot room with big French windows, which give a beautiful view of our garden on one side and the Vrindavana pilgrimage path on the other. There’s a fully automatic bed for them, a sofa bed for their caregiver, a large bathroom, plentiful storage space, a pantry, chairs and sofas for visitors, a nurse call-bell and intercom system, a writing table, and reverse-osmosis drinking water.”
To create a secure spiritual atmosphere, the rooms are also home to a small altar with Deities, while an audio system feeds the patients live lectures and kirtan from the nearby Krishna Balarama temple, as well as Srila Prabhupada singing.
A staff of thirty-two—including five devotees—is trained to give personalized care to each patient, and is adept at managing pain and all other physical and psychological symptoms. Along with conventional allopathic care, they also utilize acupuncture, acupressure, Ayurvedic and homeopathic medicines, massage, aromatherapy and physiotherapy when needed.
The Brijbhasi patient ward
“All the staff are very sensitive to the mood of the Hospice,” says Dr. Panday. “Even those who are not ISKCON devotees have a very respectful attitude towards Srila Prabhupada, chant two to four rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra daily, and come for daily prayers and weekly Srimad-Bhagavatam classes at the Hospice.”
This spiritual thread is of course what makes the Bhaktivedanta Hospice unique amongst care facilities, and it runs through every aspect of life there.
The three-floor building has its own Srila Prabhupada deity in the reception area, as well as its own temple where patients and staff can chant, spend time with the Lord, and attend spiritual programs.
Every day after their bathing, medical care and doctors’ rounds, patients receive a flower garland from the temple and charanamrita, sacred liquid that has touched the Deity’s feet. In the evenings, they may go for a stroll in the garden, avail of book reading programs arranged by the spiritual care department, or meet with senior devotees who regularly come to see them.
“We have a full-time spiritual care nurse based at the Hospice, who meets with the patients daily,” says Dr. Panday. “He spends quality time with them to understand their spiritual needs, answers questions about doubts they may have, and reads spiritual books to them every day for a minimum of half an hour.”
Extra special care is provided for patients in the active dying stages—they are shifted to the “Back to Godhead room,” where they are surrounded by devotees chanting the Holy Names of the Lord until their last breath. They are also read sacred scriptures such as the Srimad Bhagavatam, a collection of 18,000 verses spoken by the saint Shukadeva Goswami as an answer to King Pariksit’s question, “What is the duty of a person who is about to die?”
Relatives and friends participate in this care, making it more personal and intimate both for the dying person, who shared a bond of love with them—and for themselves, leaving them feeling satisfied and honored that they could do something substantial for their departing loved one.
Finally, just as the patient is about to pass away, they are garlanded with flowers offered to the Lord, and given holy water from the Yamuna or Ganga rivers. Their forehead is anointed with the dust of Krishna’s birthplace Vrindavana, and the sacred Tulasi leaf, so beloved by the Lord, is placed upon their tongue. The chanting reaches a crescendo, and friends and relatives offer intense prayers for their ascension away from this world of suffering to the spiritual world, where they will be free of pain and anxiety forever.
“I remember when Mr. Babasaheb, the father of ISKCON Calcutta’s Vice President Acharya Ratna Prabhu, passed away,” Dr. Panday says. “He was suffering from Alzheimers and came to us with a high fever and bed sores, since his family didn’t know how to treat them. But by the excellent service of our staff, these symptoms subsided.”
Devotee counsels bereaved relatives
Meanwhile, his relatives were counselled about the six expressions of love that family and friends should say to a dying person: “We love you,” “We are grateful that you have loved us and cared for us,” “We will never forget you and will always remember you,” “We will miss you always,” “Don’t worry about us,” and “Please chant the Holy Name of the Lord.”
“Generally, if a patient is unconscious people don’t talk to him, but hospice philosophy understands that even if a patient is unconscious, he can still hear and is to be treated with dignity and care,” says Dr. Panday. “So everday, devotees would come to chant near Mr. Babasaheb’s bedside, and Giriraja Swami and Radhanath Swami called him on the phone from the U.S. to chant in his ear and pray for him.”
After his passing, the hospice team arranged for his cremation and final rites, while doctor Vishwarup Dasa gave a talk the next day about the soul and the importance of passing away in Vrindavana. Vishwarup even answered the various queries of Mr. Babasaheb’s relatives, leading Acharya Ratna’s brother to say feelingly, “Even we could never have cared for our father so nicely.”
As well as caring for terminally ill patients themselves, the staff of Bhaktivedanta Hospice have inspired others to do so too. When Cynthia Wagner, who came to Vrindavana from the USA at age sixty in search of God, learned about the project, she wanted to help, as she had previously taken a volunteer course in hospice care.
Patient home care
“She had had no contact with ISKCON prior to coming to Vrindavana,” says Dr. Panday. “But now she has started chanting, attending the temple, and reading spiritual books. She regularly volunteers both at the hospice and for local home care, and she is taking Vaishnavas C.A.R.E. founder Sangita Dasi’s course on Krishna conscious end of life care.”
For Dr. Panday and the other staff at Bhaktivedanta Hospice, the most important thing they can do is serve the devotees at this crucial juncture in their life.
“So many devotees have dedicated their lives to Srila Prabhupada’s mission, leaving their families and jobs in the process,” Dr. Panday says. “And now, when they are suffering, often they have no one to look after them and nowhere to go. What’s more, when they try to come to Vrindavana, Western devotees especially often find the Indian medical system and infrastructure a stark contrast to what they’ve been used to throughout their lives. So at Bhaktivedanta Hospice we take all this into consideration—from the type of building we have to our behavior—in an effort to give devotees the best possible care.”
“We just hope that we will be able to please the devotees by our service,” he concludes.
Jun 25, 2022
Radhapriya Chawla, ISKCON Toronto Communications