Lives of Service is an ISKCON News interview series that recreates the feel of 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. Kalasamvara Das is one of the most joyful, ecstatic and dedicated devotees we’ve had the fortune to speak to. We hope you enjoy this chat with him!
Where are you from and where are you based now? I was born in a little farming area just outside of Christchurch, New Zealand, called Leeston. Now I am based at New Varshana, a 100-acre farm property in the suburbs of Auckland.
When did you join ISKCON? I first saw the devotees on a TV interview when they were here in 1972, when Srila Prabhupada installed Sri Sri Radha Giridhari (The presiding deities of New Varshana.) Then I came in contact with the devotees in 1973. I was initiated by Srila Prabhupada in July 1976 at Gribblehirst Rd.
What is one way that joining ISKCON changed your life? I was born with a hole in my heart. So I was supposed to die when I was young. Before I became a devotee, I was in and out of hospital (with different illnesses). Everything that could go wrong, went wrong with me. But since I’ve been a devotee, I’ve had really good health. Actually, I never knew that I had a hole in my heart until a family reunion five years ago. After the reunion, I went to the doctor and told him. He said it must have covered over, because it’s not there now. So that’s the mystical potency of chanting the Holy Names, coming in contact with Srila Prabhupada, and eating tons of halava. I think the hole was filled with halava! (laughs)
What is your current service? Temple President at New Varshana, Regional Secretary for New Zealand, and GBC Deputy, helping the GBC with secretarial work.
What are some other services you’ve done over the years? When I first met the devotees, I had just finished my apprenticeship in tailoring. So I’m a professional tailor and patent maker. When I first moved up to Auckland, I used to sit in a little room and sew for four or five days and nights at a time, just before Janmastami. And I used to sew the deity sets. That was my first service.
I also used to love cleaning. One day, at the temple on Gribblehirst Road in Auckland, I washed the whole outside of the building with a scrubbing brush! After the Sunday Feast, I would take everything out of the kitchen, scrub it down, hose it down, and at 4:30 in the morning, when the devotees were coming to Mangala-arati, I would just be finishing. Prabhupada said cleanliness is next to Godliness, and that Srimati Radharani likes cleanliness, and that really stuck with me.
I was also involved with book distribution and deity worship right from the beginning. It wasn’t until later on in life that I became involved with management. I was temple president of Wellington for a couple of years, then Christchurch for twelve years. I’ve been in management at New Varshana for the last thirty years.
What services do you love most? I’m a Harinama man. I love going on Harinama, I think it’s the ultimate thing. I haven’t missed a Friday Harinama in the last fifty years. The three things that I preach the most, and I ask the devotees not to give up is feeding people, chanting the Holy Name, and distributing books. I say keep that as a foundation, and add what you want to on top of that. But don’t lose sight of the basics that our whole movement was established on.
I also dress the deities every festival. I don’t think there’s a day in my life that I haven’t gone to see the deities in the temple and taken Their association. Those are the main things that I like. I tell the devotees that we have the ultimate life, centered around these incredible activities.
Please share a funny or inspiring story about your bhakta (young devotee) days. When we used to go on book distribution, I used to travel with my temple president, Balarama, who later became the temple president at ISKCON Melbourne. We would fill the van right up to the top with layers of books, so there was no room to sleep unless you cleared away the books. Of course, on the first couple of nights, we’d only clear away a few boxes. So most of the time, we just slept outside, because we didn’t want to waste any money on accommodation. I remember on occasions it would rain at night, so Balarama would sleep under the van, and I would sleep in the public toilets on the side of the road.
But looking back, I never thought it was an austerity, I never thought it was something you didn’t do. Because we were just so absorbed in distributing Prabhupada’s books, we didn’t consider our own health and welfare.
What inspires or drives you in your service and in Krishna consciousness even after all these years? I have transcendental heroes. Arjuna is one of my greatest heroes, because he never left Krishna even through great adversities. Queen Kunti is another one of my heroes. Apart from them Srila Prabhupada is my greatest hero. If I ever have any problems, they always come to the forefront of my mind, and I take shelter in them. Non-devotees have their heroes such as great leaders or athletes… So I think devotees need to have heroes also. Within the sastra there are so many heroes. So if I see someone having difficulty, I say, “Just think of Queen Kunti. Just think of Arjuna. Can your difficulties compare to these great devotees, who were personal associates with the Lord?” And when you put it in perspective, what really is the difficulty?
Who is a modern day Vaishnava who inspires you? Tamala Krishna Goswami (who passed away in 2002) was one of my best friends and mentors, and had the biggest influence on me as a devotee and as a manager. He’s the one who first took me to Vrindavan. Every time we were together, it was sweet, nectarean. From his philosophy – he was an incredible speaker – to his prasadam feasts, to spending time with him in Vrindavana and Mayapur. His disciples are incredible, as is the legacy that he’s left behind here in Australasia, especially in Fiji where there are now four beautiful temples.
What’s a challenge you’ve had in your service and how did you overcome it? Every temple I’ve served at has been in debt. When I went to Christchurch temple, there were a few hundred thousand dollars worth of debt on the table, and there were all these balloon payments on cars that were going to be taken off us in a few weeks’ time. There were about five devotees collecting funds, and in the first week’s collection, they made about $730. The temple was going more and more into debt.
So I went in front of Sri Sri Gaura Nitai, and said, “Somehow or other You’ve brought me here. What am I supposed to do?” Then the mood of kirtan entered my mind and my heart. It was like the deities were saying, “Just do kirtan.” So I called all the sankirtan devotees back, and started these one, two and three-hour kirtans, and daily Harinama. About two or three weeks later, they went out collecting again. This time, they did about $10,000. The second week we went out and did $30,000, and paid back all the balloon payments, and we could keep all of our vehicles. I could see that through us doing lots of chanting, Krishna was reciprocating. Eventually we got out of debt. I’m really inspired by the potency of chanting, and to this day, that’s what I would recommend to anybody. Good japa, good kirtan, good philosophy, and good prasad is so sweet it can’t be beat!
Share an inspiring or memorable experience from your current service. Every festival here in New Varshana is inspirational. In 2016, we started the Krishna Holi (color) festival. It’s been so inspirational to see all these people coming to the farm for it. We keep the temple open the whole time, so that people can come and have darshan and bhajans in the temple (while the outdoor Holi festival is going on). One year this top lawyer came, and sat in the temple and didn’t leave the temple the whole time – she was so inspired just to sit in front of the deities and hear the kirtan. After five hours, she just had some prasad, picked up a couple of books and left.
What was your favorite experience with Srila Prabhupada? I was a young devotee, and had just taken initiation at the temple on Gribblehirst Road. One day I went upstairs, thinking Prabhupada wasn’t there. Hari Sauri was Prabhupada’s servant at that point, and he came out of Prabhupada’s room, saying, “I’ve got some maha. Let’s eat it together.” So we sat down and ate Prabhupada’s maha prasad. Afterwards, Hari Sauri said, “Come and help me pack in Prabhupada’s room.” (For a flight)
As I walked in, Prabhupada came out of the bathroom. I was in a little shock, because I hadn’t known Prabhupada was up there. I’d just been outside cleaning, so my dhoti was filthy from the knee down. When I paid my obeisances and got up, my knee went through my dhoti and ripped it. I was thinking, “What a flaming idiot I am,” and I looked at Prabhupada, but Prabhupada had just gone back to walking up and down in his room, chanting Hare Krishna.
Later, when Prabhupada was leaving the room, he went up to a picture of Narada Muni, and touched his head to Narada Muni. Then Madhudvisa, Hari Sauri and the other devotees who were there all touched their heads to the picture too. I was just a spaced out bhakta, and I went, “Oh, this is what you do.” So I also went up and put my head to the picture, and they all walked out (to leave for the airport).
After they had gone, Prabhupada’s plate of prasad was left there. And there were sweets on the plate that he had just taken a bite from. So I grabbed them off the plate and ate them. Then I was in so much ecstasy at that particular point, that instead of going with them, I just sat in his room, thinking this was the ultimate. You couldn’t get more perfection than this – being in Prabhupada’s association, eating Prabhupada’s sweets, seeing Prabhupada walk up and down chanting his japa.
What is your favorite kirtan memory? I met Indradyumna Swami for the first time at a management meeting in Australia in the mid ‘90s, so I invited him to Christchurch, because I knew he was into kirtan, and the devotees there were into kirtan. We used to have these kirtans that would finish at about 11 or 12 o’clock at night, and then we’d go upstairs and have these huge feasts. One night, Indradyumna Swami was leading kirtan, and I brought the hose into the temple and turned it on. We had about 3 or 4 inches of water in the temple, and people were sliding around in the water. It went on for hours and hours. Then I went and got colored dyes, and rice, and took then into the temple and basically just threw them all over the devotees. So it turned into one crazy Harinama festival.
What is your favorite prasadam dish? My favorite prasad is halava! The devotees here make it like in the old days – golden, with butter, and raisins and fruit in it. Prabhupada really loved the butter, milk and ghee here in New Zealand. I also love the 12 o’clock offering here at New Varshana – potato subji with beans and curd.
What is a piece of wisdom you’d like to share with devotees? There are highs and lows, but just stick with the process. Don’t give up. Don’t give up chanting or devotee association. Find devotees you like and associate with them. Get inspired by the devotees that you see every day who are dedicating their life to the sankirtan movement. Be patient. And the rewards are unbelievable. If you stick with Krishna, He’ll stick with you, and the end results are nectar.[ auckland ] [ devotee-profiles ] [ lives of service ] [ new-zealand ]