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Lives of Service: The Chaturatma Das Interview

By: on Aug. 14, 2020
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Photo Credits: Ananta Vrindavan

Chaturatma Das leading kirtan in Ukraine, 2017, while traveling with Indradyumna Swami and Bada Haridas

During COVID-19, we are missing out on the association of devotees, as well as on many of the devotional activities we used to do in person. Lives of Service is a new ISKCON News interview series that we hope feels like sitting down for a chat at the Sunday Feast with an old friend or a devotee you’d like to get to know. Told in their own words, it’s an insightful, inspiring, lighthearted, and at times humorous look at their stories and lives of service. We hope you enjoy!

Madhava Smullen: Where are you based now, and where are you from? Chaturatma Das: I live in Alachua, Florida. Born and bred in St. Louis, and joined the temple there in 1973.

What is your current service? Traveling and preaching [in Poland, Russia, and India with Indradyumna Swami and Bada Haridas before COVID-19], brahminical services like assisting with the Deity worship in Alachua and doing samskaras for the community. I also give classes on the lives of the Vaishnava Acharyas (https://chaturatmadasa.com/index.php/media/) – well-known ones like the Six Goswamis and Svarupa Damodar, as well as lesser-known ones like Pundarik Vidyanidhi or Nrsimhananda Brahmachari. I try to weave a combination between the philosophy of the individual and the timeline of their life, and then throw in humor as I can to keep it light.

What are some of the other services you’ve done over the years? I was assistant pujari in all three of the New York temples – 55th Street (in the late 70s and early 80s), 7th Avenue, and the current Brooklyn temple. I was the head pujari in Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, and Houston. And I was the temple president in St. Louis, my home temple, from about 1990 to 1995. I was also a cook, sankirtan leader, and temple commander.

Can you share some memories of your bhakta (young devotee) days? I lived in a fun temple, St Louis. The temple president was a devotee named Makhanlal, and he had a very wonderful mood of dealing with the devotees – very loving, fatherly, and encouraging.

There were 26 or 27 devotees in the temple, a good balance of men and women. Four were initiated, and the rest of us were all bhaktas and bhaktins. So breakfast at that time was as much halava and sweet rice as any person could eat!

After breakfast we’d spend an hour cleaning the temple; with that many people, the temple was spotlessly clean all the time. Then we’d have our first class of the day on the Nectar of Devotion; a second on Sri Isopanisad; and a rip-roaring noon arati, with the old [prayer] “Bhaja bhakata vatsala sri gaura hari.”

Then we’d go out on either street Harinama Sankirtan or book distribution until the evening; come back, shower, change, and go to evening arati, singing, “(kiba) jaya jaya gouracander!” Devotees were bouncing up the walls – we were one energetic, enthusiastic crew! Then we’d have Bhagavad-gita class, followd by hot milk while reading Krishna book. This happened six days a week! And we loved every minute of it.

Chanting in St Louis

Chaturatma Das (front, left) on Harinama party, 1974, St. Louis, Missouri

What’s your favorite kirtan memory? My most vivid and impressionable kirtan memory is from 1976, at the 55th Street temple in New York City, the evening before Ratha Yatra. It was the 10th anniversary of ISKCON, and was set to be the first Ratha Yatra down Fifth Avenue, and Srila Prabhupada’s first visit to the 55th Street building.

All the kirtan singers were there – Visnugada, Baradraj, Buddhimanta, Vakresvara Pandit – the list goes on and on. Everyone was packed up tight. And the kirtan was so amazing you could physically feel the waves of ecstasy rolling over the bodies of the devotees. You could feel the next wave coming in as if you were in an ocean. I remember looking around, and you could see this look on the devotees’ faces, like, “Yeah, I’m experiencing it too.” Some devotees were crying. It was the most amazing kirtan experience I’ve ever had in my life. It made such an impression on me. And I truly believe that it’s one of the reasons I have such a taste for kirtan now.

Chaturatma Das 1977

Chaturatma Das, 1977 passport photo used during his second trip to India

Can you share a memory of Srila Prabhupada from that 1976 Ratha Yatra in New York? That was the year that I got to sit on Subhadra’s cart and fan Srila Prabhupada all the way down Fifth Avenue. I was one of the assistants to the parade marshals, and we knew that Prabhupada was going to join the Ratha Yatra parade at 34th Street. By 39th, I ran ahead, climbed up on Subhadra’s cart and sat down next to the vyasasana.

Sure enough, Subhadra’s cart pulled up to 34th and 5th, the cart stopped, Prabhupada’s limousine pulled up, and Prabhupada got out. The devotees went wild. It was like pandemonium in the streets. All the sannyasis, locked arm in arm with their dandas, walked Prabhupada over, and he climbed up the steps and sat down on his vyasasana. The parade began, and I picked up the peacock fan. There are pictures of Prabhupada going down Fifth Avenue, with a peacock fan fanning him. You can’t see who’s holding it, they’re out of frame – but that’s me!

Srila Prabhupada was incredibly appreciative and happy [throughout the event]. You could see him beaming with happiness at every stage.  

What are some of your most cherished memories of service over the years? Assisting with the installation of Srila Prabhupada’s deity at his Samadhi in Vrindavan in 1984; with the installation of the Gopis in Mayapur in 1986; and with the installation here in Alachua of Sri Sri Radha-Shyamasundar in 2000 and Sri Sri Krsna-Balaram in 2010.

At the Samadhi installation in Vrindavan, we did the abhisekha for Prabhupada [his murti form] in the courtyard of Krishna Balarama Mandir, and Prabhupada was up on a big platform. Buckets [capturing liquids] from the abhisekha were regularly being changed underneath the platform, and the devotee doing that was Kadamba Kanana Das Adhikari (later Swami). By the time he was through, he came out literally covered in milk and honey. I was joking with him, “Kadamba Kanana, you’re completely covered in everything that Prabhupada got bathed in!” And he chuckled and said, “Yes, I knew that would happen. I planned it that way.”

Then when we were carrying Srila Prabhupada from the temple room to where the Samadhi currently is, a couple of devotees said, “I’m losing my grip!” There was no question of setting Prabhupada down on the ground, so Brahmananda Prabhu got down on all fours, and we rested Prabhupada on his back just for a second while we tightened our grip. When Brahmananda got back up, he said, “Now I know why Krishna gave me this big body, just to serve Prabhupada.”

Prabhupada samadhi

Applying chandan to Srila Prabhupada's murti in Vrindavan, India, during the 1984 installation at his samadhi

What are some of the things that keep you going in Krishna consciousness? Two things really keep me fired up. Good association is essential. You have to associate with devotees that keep you enthusiastic, that challenge you, that don’t let you get in a rut.

I also feel it’s important to share my experience and my life’s lessons in Krishna consciousness with younger devotees. I like to associate with younger devotees so much – they’ve got that energy that I had when I was a brahmachari back in the St. Louis temple. 

Which Vaishnavas inspire you the most and why? Indradyumna Swami and Bada Hari Prabhu, whom I spend half of the year traveling with; as well as Madhava Prabhu [the kirtan leader], Sesa Prabhu [ISKCON GBC and Minister of Education] and B.B. Govinda Swami.

Indradyumna Swami’s amazing vision for preaching, the insight and constant level of energy he has, inspires me. Sesa Prabhu is so sober and stable, yet very enthusiastic about Krishna consciousness. I’ve got a very close friendship with him, and we constantly counsel, console, advise and open up to each other, which keeps us both going. Whenever I get Govinda Swami’s association, I just feel so satisfied, so complete. Bada Hari’s level of enthusiasm is incredible, but his level of maturity equally matches that. And Madhava and I both love kirtan, and we’re both crazy as loons!

Do you have a funny or inspiring story from more recent years in service? While traveling with Indradyumna Swami and Bada Hari, there’s a close traveling relationship between three friends. You’ve got your very serious, forward presentation of Krishna consciousness. But then when you retreat back to your residence, there’s a lighter mood.

For instance, the prasadam antics that go on between myself and Indradyumna Swami are always a great source of entertainment for everybody else. I have this complete and utter dislike of olives. I think olives are the worst tasting thing in the world, and you couldn’t pay me enough to eat them. So Indradyumna Swami is constantly trying to trick me into eating olives – throwing them in my soup, sticking them underneath my fruit, or hiding them in my juice!

Serving the Lord

Serving the Lord for life - (left) New York, 1976, (right) Janmastami in Alachua, Florida, 2015

What’s your favorite mangala arati sweet? Burfi or rasgulla, depending on what temple I’m in. If I’m in New York, it’s gonna be burfi, because the New York style of cooking the mangala arati burfi, developed decades ago by Bhaktivinode Das and passed down, is exceptional and beyond compare. Here in Alachua, the rasgullas are generally made by Rucira [Devi Dasi]. And nobody makes rasgullas like Rucira does – they’re just off the charts!

What’s a challenge you’ve encountered in Krishna consciousness or in your service, and how did you overcome it? I’ve had to experience both of my younger children and my wife be in separate serious life-threatening vehicular accidents. [they all fully recovered] That really brings you to grips with what your appreciation of Krishna consciousness is, as it practically applies to the possibility of losing a loved one.

The only way I got through those once again was the shelter and friendship with senior devotees like Sesa Prabhu and Indradyumna Swami. These devotees regularly kept me in their counsel as I went through these things. If you have strong association you can lean on, that will help you get through those challenging times.

What is a piece of wisdom you’d like to share? Always be honest, and always keep good association. Because if you’re dishonest, you cheat yourself and others you associate with. And if you keep good association, you won’t be able to be dishonest.

What are your future hopes? I’m not a pessimist. I really feel optimistic and upbeat when I look at the younger generations of devotees. Everywhere I go – Alachua, New York, Russia, Poland, India – I find devotees who are enthusiastic, sincere, eager and willing to challenge themselves to come up with ways to share Krishna consciousness.

And it may not be in the same manner as our old early days of just book distribution and Harinama on the streets. It may be through their working relationships in the secular world; it may be through academic positions; it may be through ministerial connections. In all of these different avenues we see generations of new devotees establishing themselves, and having an influence. This is how Krishna consciousness is going to spread.

Chaturatma fire yajna

Conducting the fire yajna for Sacinandana Swami at Manorama and Jaya Sri Radhe's initiation in 2011

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[ chaturatma ] [ deity-worship ] [ devotional-service ] [ kirtan ] [ service ]
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