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Devotees Say Their Goodbyes to Yamuna Devi at Alachua Memorial

By: for ISKCON News on Dec. 31, 2011
Around 200 devotees attended a memorial service for Yamuna Devi, an ISKCON pioneer, award-winning chef and much loved friend and guide, in Alachua, Florida on Tuesday December 27th.

Yamuna, who was famous for singing the Govindam prayers played every morning at every ISKCON temple, as well as bringing Krishna consciousness to San Francisco and London, had spent three months at Bhaktivedanta Hospital in Mumbai in early 2011 due to a weak heart. She seemed to recover, but later on December 20th, 2011 she passed away at age 69 due to further heart complications at her oceanside ashram in Melbourne, Florida.

“It was a few days after the appearance day of her beloved Deities Radha-Banabihari on December 14th, which she always celebrated with great pomp,” says Yamuna Devi’s friend Nirmala Dasi. “Some devotees were still staying with her by December 19th, and they had a beautiful kirtan that night. Yamuna was experiencing some chest pains, but they seemed to pass, and she went to bed. The next morning at 6:00am, her close friend and confidante Dinatarini Dasi checked in on her and she had passed on, during the sacred early morning Brahama-Muhurta hours. She was lying with her hand in her beadbag, and her face was serene. It was very auspicious.”

On December 22nd, a cremation ceremony was held for Yamuna Devi at a funeral home in local Melbourne where staff allowed Dinatarini and another friend, Srutirupa Dasi, to prepare her body with tilak, fresh cloth and Ganga water. The ceremony was attended by her close friends Malati Dasi—who accompanied her to London in the 1960s—Rangavati, Kartamasa and Radha.

The funeral ceremony was followed by many memorial services all over the world, including December 27th’s Alachua event.

For the service, the Alachua community’s temple room was decorated beautifully with potted plants and flowers. The lighting was dim, with candles illuminating photos of Srila Prabhupada, Yamuna, and her Deities Radha-Banabihari. The event seemed to bond the Alachua community together, with both younger second generation and senior devotees gathering to honor their beloved friend and inspiration, the mood in the room like a refugee camp during a calamity.

Through the memories spoken that night, as well as interviews with those close to her, we can piece together a personal and moving picture of Yamuna’s life, her personality, and the impact she had on so many devotees.

Early Years in Oregon and San Francisco

Yamuna was born in Oregon on May 19th 1942. Srila Prabhupada’s disciple Shyamasundara Dasa, one of the six devotees who, along with Yamuna, had started ISKCON in England, spoke at the memorial via Skype, describing how he first met her there while in fifth grade. Back then, he was Sam Speerstra and she was Joan Campanella.

“She came and sat in front of me, this little girl with black ponytails, and I couldn’t resist it,” he recalled. “I just had to pull one of them. So I did, and she yelped, which the teacher chastised her for. Since then, we were very special friends. We shared a sense of humor, as well as a search for the truth.”

While on a road trip to Los Angeles, during which the two told each other stories, made up silly poems, and talked about the meaning of life, Joan and Sam concluded that they needed a teacher ‘to tell them what was what.’ Later, when they moved, they got houses next to each other so that they could continue to talk about their search every day.

Soon it bore fruit. Sam was working with the US Forest Service, living with his girlfriend Melanie Nagel—later to become Malati—in a remote lookout tower and reporting forest fires. One day, after they hadn’t seen anyone in weeks, they spotted a car winding its way up to them. Out popped a breathless ‘Joanie’ along with Michael Grant and his girlfriend Jan—Mukunda and Janaki. They began to tell Sam and Melanie about the Swami they had just met.

“I trusted Yamuna so much—she was a very intelligent, critical-thinking person—that just knowing this teacher was good enough for her convinced me,” Shyamasundara said. “And then and there, I decided to help them open a temple in San Francisco.”

And so the group of six close friends and ISKCON pioneers was born—Yamuna and her husband Gurudasa, Shyamasundara and his wife Malati, and Mukunda and his wife Janaki. Together, they opened the second temple in ISKCON, a storefront in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood, in 1966.

Mukunda Goswami, who was not present at the memorial but spoke with ISKCON News recently, met Yamuna through a friend in Portland, Oregon in 1961. At the time she was learning calligraphy at Reed College from Lloyd Reynolds, who also taught Apple founder Steve Jobs.

“She was my wife’s sister, so she was family,” Mukunda Goswami told us. “I always looked up to her—in a way she was like a mother to me. I didn’t regard her as male or female, although she certainly possessed all the good qualities of a Vaishnavi. We got on well, and I don’t remember ever quarrelling with her. She was a true saint.”

Yamuna was ‘a key mover’ at ISKCON San Francisco, during the time when the famous “Mantra Rock Dance” was held, with Srila Prabhupada topping a line-up at the Avalon Ballroom that included The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Moby Grape.

“She and Guru Dasa lived in Jayananda’s former apartment, directly across from the house in which the Grateful Dead lived,” Mukunda Goswami recalled. “She was already a great cook back then, and used to cook for many devotees—her ‘Celestial Bananas,’ bananas in sour cream, was a particular favorite.”

Pioneering in the UK and the Heartfelt Devotion of “Govindam”

Mukunda Maharaja also had some sweet memories of Yamuna Devi during the “celebrated six’s” missionary excursion to England to establish Krishna consciousness in 1968.

“A few months after we arrived in England, we went, on invitation, to a costume party at a wealthy person’s estate in an area called ‘Harrow Hill, were everyone thought our costumes—devotee robes—were the best,” he said. “Yamuna was quick to seize the opportunity to preach. Soon I found myself playing the piano, accompanying her singing a bluesy Hare Krishna melody. An audience of fifty gathered, and by the end of the evening about four hundred people had chanted the Mahamantra with us.”

In June of 1969, Yamuna and Gurudas and the other four pioneers moved into Bury Place, the first ISKCON temple in the UK. Soon after, Yamuna sang the lead on the “Hare Krishna Mantra,” a single recorded at EMI studios and released that September, when it topped charts around the world.

“The record was even played at half-time during a soccer match in a large Manchester stadium,” said Mukunda Goswami. “Thousands of drunken Manchester United fans sang ‘Hare Krishna’ along with Yamuna.”

In January 1970, Yamuna sang the lead on ‘Govindam,’ recorded with George Harrison. Despite the track’s pedigree, ISKCON Los Angeles leaders exhibited their neophyte immaturity by refusing to play it for Srila Prabhupada because it featured a woman’s voice in the lead.

At 7:00am one morning, as Prabhupada sat on his vyasasana in the temple room and the curtains were about to open for the daily greeting of Sri-Sri Rukmini-Dwarkadish, he asked to hear the song. Even then, the New Dwaraka leaders resisted, telling Prabhupada he would have to wait until they could find a device to play it privately, not on the temple’s sound system where the Deities and everyone else could hear it.

But Srila Prabhupada insisted, and so they played the song as huge white clouds of incense smoke billowed off the altar into the temple room: “Govindam Adi Purusham Tam Aham Bhajami,” Yamuna sang in her clear voice with heartfelt devotion.

“The devotees anxiously awaited Srila Prabhupada’s response,” Mukunda Goswami said. “But his eyes were closed, and he wasn’t saying a word. After a few tense moments, devotees saw tears streaming down Srila Prabhupada’s cheeks. There was nothing more to say. The controversy had been put to rest.”

Shortly after, Prahupada told all the devotees present that the recording should be played every day in ISKCON temples all over the world at the time of greeting the Deities. “Govindam” continues to be an essential part of the ISKCON morning program to this day, and gained new appreciation from a worldwide audience of millions in 2009 when two Armenian figure ice-skating champions played it during their performance in the televised winter Olympics.

With Srila Prabhupada in India

Always a pioneer, Yamuna also travelled around India for two years with Srila Prabhupada during ISKCON’s formative time there. During these years, and for eight in total, she served as his personal cook, laying the foundation for her globally recognized culinary abilities.

Yamuna recalled these times herself at her memorial service, through audio clips recorded at a 1996 Alachua conference. In one memorable story, she told how, while traveling by train in India with Srila Prabhupada, she approached the train staff to ask if she could cook some rice for him in their kitchens, since they didn’t have any suitable food. When they refused, she replied, “My Guru Maharaja wants some rice—I’m going to make him some rice. If you don’t let me cook it I’ll jump off the train.”

She was completely serious—she didn’t want to go back to Srila Prabhupada empty-handed—and the train staff knew it. So although they called her, “the crazy white lady,” they gave her access to the kitchen, where she carefully washed a huge, banged-up pot and cooked a small amount of rice at the bottom of it. Despite the meager offering, when she brought it to him, Prabhupada was delighted, and his eyes became wide in that unique way of his.

Yamuna had a special and exemplary relationship with Srila Prabhupada, which inspired many devotees and continues to do so to this day. Speaking at the memorial, Kausalya Dasi related how Yamuna took her under her wing while traveling in India and gave her a firsthand glimpse of this relationship.

“She was always very loving and personal with Srila Prabhupada, and I learned a lot from her,” Kausalya said, describing a time when Yamuna went from store to store looking for new shoes for Prabhupada, and placed them next to his feet saying, “These are for your beautiful lotus feet, Prabhupada.”

In return, Srila Prabhupada took great care of Yamuna, as he did all his women disciples. While traveling in India, Kausalya and Yamuna, the only two women in the group, rode in a car while the men took rickshaws; and when there were only two rooms available at one location Srila Prabhupada made sure the women had one to themselves, while the men had to sleep in tents in the courtyard.

The Personification of Personalism

Kausalya wasn’t the only one Yamuna took under her wing—many, many devotees expressed how she had been their first, powerful introduction to Krishna consciousness, and an inspirational guide beyond that. Yogesvara Dasa, author of the spiritual Geoge Harrison biography Here Comes the Sun, explained how Yamuna had been the first devotee he had ever met, taking him under her wing when he was nineteen.

Devarshi Dasa also recalled her taking good care of him when he was a new devotee. “She was my best friend in Krishna consciousness,” he said. “She was the personification of personalism. Everyone felt so loved, cared for and acknowledged by her.”

And Devarshi’s wife Nirmala Dasi, who met Yamuna in New Vrindaban in 1985 and cared for her in her later days, said, “She was the closest connection to Prabhupada that I’ve experienced since Srila Prabhupada left.”

In the 1980s, Yamuna began to put everything she had learned about cooking for Krishna while traveling in India and serving Srila Prabhupada in one big book. At her memorial, Yogesvara recalled how every publisher she submitted it to turned it down because it was too big, but she refused to cut it, saying “If you’re going to do something for Prabhupada, don’t hold back. Do your best.”

Finally published by a division of Penguin books in 1987, the over 800-page Lord Krishna’s Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking created a huge splash, even in a year that saw cookbooks released by Julia Child and other famous chefs. It was named International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year, in an announcement that had ‘devotees running down Park Avenue and chanting in ecstasy,’ according to Yogesvara. It was dubbed “The Taj Mahal of cookbooks” by the Chicago Tribune, and even Julia Child weighed in, calling it “Big and beautiful.”

Final Years

Throughout all these efforts, one person always remained at Yamuna’s side, greatly influencing and inspiring both her and the devotees that came to them: Dinatarini Dasi. The two developed a friendship back in 1975 when Yamuna’s husband Gurudasa took sannyasa in 1975, and had lived and served together for 37 years, ever since Srila Prabhupada himself commented, “This is a good combination. You should always serve together.”

Later in Yamuna Devi’s life, the two built their own straw bale ashram in the rural community of Saranagati, British Columbia, where they lived “off the grid” from 1999 to 2010, worshipping Radha-Banabihari and inspiring ISKCON’s youth.

“The youth were Yamuna’s main focus in her final years, whether it was the Saranagati school children, visiting Krishna Culture bus tour teenagers, or my daughter Vani whom she taught cooking to at six years old,” said Nirmala Dasi. “She felt that the youth were really plugged in, and wanted Krishna in a way that really connected with her.”

Perhaps one of the most powerful things Yamuna shared with the youth was her love for kirtan.

“Because she was very humble and always wanted everyone to participate, she would very rarely just lead—she always did Round Robins, going around in a circle and inviting one person after another to sing,” Nirmala said.

In honor of this practice, the host of Yamuna’s Alachua memorial, Sudharma Dasi, passed the mic around, giving everyone in the room the chance to say a couple of words. The love was palpable, the magnitude of her impact on devotees of so many different ages and backgrounds overwhelming and deeply moving. All had been powerfully touched by her cooking classes and books, her kirtans, her spiritual guidance and her connection to Srila Prabhupada.

And while emotions ran high and tears were shed during the memorial, joy and laughter emerged as it went on, and devotees celebrated Yamuna’s life and the place of eternal bliss they were sure she was destined for.

The memorial concluded with a bhajan by Kartamasa Dasa and flower petals offered to photos of Srila Prabhupada and Yamuna Devi. Finally, after sampling some hot cider and shortbread—a recipe from her cookbook, they left at around 10pm, knowing in their hearts that Yamuna would never really be gone.

“The last time Devarshi and I saw her, she knew she could pass away at any time, but her mood was one of excitement and upliftment,” said Nirmala. “She said, ‘I am ready. I know I have a bright future.’ Then she looked at us and said, “We all have a bright future.”

As Yogesvara Dasa poignantly said: “Yamuna’s story is not over, it’s only just beginning.”

[ yamuna ]