On July 18 Uttama Chaitanya Dasa, the temple president of ISKCON Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, was attending a two-day seminar hosted by ISKCON’s Congregational Development Ministry. He had complained of some heart pain earlier that day but otherwise seemed fine. As devotees playing futsal (indoor soccer) after the seminar to relax, however, he collapsed. He was rushed to the hospital with devotees chanting Hare Krishna in his ear, but passed away at 5pm. It was the holy day of Kamika Ekadasi. While the exact cause of death has not yet been confirmed, initial hospital reports suggest cardiac arrest.
Uttama Chaitanya’s body was brought to Kuala Lumpur’s Jagannath Mandir on Sunday July 19 at 9am for his memorial service. Such was his popularity as the community’s long-serving temple president that around 500 devotees attended the memorial service, honoring him with prayers, offerings, and kirtan.
“His passing came as a shock, and he will be sadly missed by all,” said Ajamila Dasa, speaking on behalf of the ISKCON Kuala Lumpur congregation. “But he was a dedicated preacher, and we can rejoice knowing that his destination is now wonderfully auspicious.”
Originally from Batu Gajah, a small Malaysian town in the state of Perak, Uttama Chaitanya met devotees while studying in college and began to chant the Hare Krishna mantra. He finished his four-year degree in Business Management at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, while continuing to attend ISKCON programs. Gradually he became more deeply involved in Krishna consciousness and would himself give regular classes at the Govinda’s Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. His scriptural knowledge and natural gift of the gab made his lectures so riveting that many took up Krishna consciousness after attending them.
His writing skills were just as impressive as his speaking, and they soon earned him the position of sub-editor of the Business Times section in Malaysia’s leading daily newspaper, The New Straits Times Press. Uttama Chaitanya would often use his position to announce Vaishnava festivals and latest releases from the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. He also wrote several Krishna conscious articles, including one on the “Reforestation of Vrindavana” which appeared in the paper’s Life and Times section.
In 1995, he was initiated by Jayapataka Swami. Despite being twenty-nine years old and in the midst of a very materially lucrative career, he immediately committed himself to being a celibate student and full-time devotee. Living in Kuala Lumpur’s Jaganath Mandir, he was soon offered the position of temple commander by the then temple president Simheswar Dasa. Initially declining because he believed other senior devotees to be more qualified, he finally accepted when Jayapataka Swami encouraged him to do so.
When he was eventually made the temple president, Uttama Chaitanya proved to be a visionary leader. Within months, he took an extremely bold step by renovating the current premises despite an initial low level of funds.
A true ISKCON man, he strongly believed in Srila Prabhupada’s formula for spreading Krishna consciousness—book distribution, sacred food distribution, and public chanting—and he worked hard to develop these areas. A few days before his death, he had formally registered ISKCON Kuala Lumpur’s Food For Life program. Over one hundred harinamas (public chanting performances) were held every year during his presidency. And he brought Klang’s Jaganath Mandir to the position of top book distributor in ISKCON Malaysia.
Uttama Chaitanya was devoted to his guru, and made significant progress in organizing Jayapataka Swami’s beloved Congregation Development program in Klang Valley. He also extended his help in this area to other Malaysian centers and organized regular international congregational development meetings. He introduced to Kuala Lumpur the tried and tested Spiritual Counsellor system of ISKCON’s Radha Gopinatha Mandir in Chowpatti, India, thus accelerating the spiritual growth of his congregation.
He also conceived the Damodara Project, under which devotees visited thousands of homes during the sacred month of Damodara to chant Damodara “carols” and delivered ghee lamps and small figurines of Mother Yashoda and baby Krishna. To train others in the program, he and his team members visited Delhi, Tirupati, and even locations as far-flung as Mauritius, South Africa, and Indonesia.
Training and care for devotees were even more important to Uttama Chaitanya. He strongly encouraged the development of Vaishnava training programs such as the the Gokul Garden for children, Pandava Sena for teenagers, and many seasonal courses on philosophical topics. And he lent undivided support to the university preaching program (VOICE), which has been expanding rapidly.
During his tenure as temple president, Uttama Chaitanya also brought about tremendous changes in ISKCON Klang’s deity worship department. He would dress the deities in a rich and opulent style and spend thousands just on flower decorations for the Krishna Janmastami festival. He ensured that guests and regular devotees alike were always welcomed warmly with a smile, folded hands, and a generous helping of sacred food. “This is Jagannatha’s temple—no one should ever leave hungry,” he would say.
He also loved to act, and ISKCON Kuala Lumpur’s Vraja Arts Theater was a project close to his heart. “Srila Prabhupada very much wanted devotees to engage in Vedic drama,” he would say, “Because its impact is much stronger than that of a lecture.” In 2001, his Jagannatha Priya Nataka—Drama of Lord Jagannatha—won rave reviews in many leading local newspapers.
“For most of us, he came across as a character straight out of Shri Chaitanya’s pastimes,” said Klang congregational member Shanti Rupa Dasi. “He was always smiling, had a soft, compassionate nature, and was always mild and gentle in his dealings. He took inspiration from many previous noted ISKCON devotees, such as Gour Govinda Swami and Jayananda Dasa, and would try to follow in their footsteps.”
Fellow devotees remember Uttama Chaitanya as a simple person, wearing plain, often worn-out robes and living very austerely, as befitting a brahmacari (celibate student). Between the double festival-days of Krishna Janmastami and Srila Prabhupada’s appearance day he would barely sleep. Yet still he was seen moving swiftly around the temple with long strides, ensuring that every department worked like clockwork. During festivals he would fast all day and lead the chanting until very late; then serve food to all the devotees and only eat something himself when they had finished.
“He remained humble and unassuming even amongst all his successes,” says Shanti Rupa. “His life has been a wonderful source of inspiration for all of us here at the Kuala Lumpur temple, and we will miss him very much.”
May 15, 2022
Sunanda Das, Temple of the Vedic Planetarium