Mahattama Dasi had worked as a supervisor at an insurance company in her native Mexico before joining ISKCON, and as a teacher afterwards. But she had not had any experience as a nurse or professional caregiver when Lord Krishna guided her to her calling.
“It fell into my lap,” she says. “I never planned on doing this.”
It all started in the early 1990s, when Mahattama was living at the ISKCON community in Venice, Los Angeles.
The local mailman at the time, a sixty-five-year-old Japanese gentleman named Ernie Miyashima, had delivered mail to the devotee community for seventeen years, and was so personal in his service that he would always find a devotee even if they moved to a new address.
When Mahattama moved to a new apartment, he found her too and brought her her mail. Grateful for his efforts, she gave him some maha-prasad, food offered to the Deities of Sri Sri Rukmini-Dwarakadish.
“When he tasted the maha sweets for the first time, well, you know how it is,” Mahattama says. “You get intoxicated! He just became a devotee right on the spot.”
The two became friends, and Ernie began visiting the temple.
In 1993, when Mahattama moved from LA to the ISKCON community in Alachua, Florida, Ernie decided to follow after being offered early retirement.
Three months later, however, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Feeling obliged to her friend whom she had encouraged to move to Alachua, Mahattama moved in with him to care for him. She couldn’t stand by and do nothing, after he had served the devotees in Los Angeles for so many years.
“It was my first case, learning how to give care,” she says. “It was very intense.”
Ernie begged Mahattama not to send him to a hospital. So for more than six months, she cared for him, carrying out difficult and intimate tasks usually assigned to a nurse. During this time, many devotees from throughout the Alachua community came to visit Ernie. And at the end, a fire ceremony was held for his auspicious passing. He left this world with the sacred plant Tulasi at his side and an audio recording of Srila Prabhupada chanting Sri Isopanisad reverberating in his ears.
The devotee community was extremely moved by how Mahattama had cared for Ernie, and now they all began to ask her if she could act as caregiver for their elderly parents.
Mahattama with her old high school classmate Enrique, who took to Krishna consciousness when she cared for him at the end of his life
Mahattama first travelled to Michigan to care for former restaurant owner Armando, the father of devotee sisters Rangavati and Nirmala.
“He had had a stroke, and he had a whole team of people taking care of him: a nurse, a therapist, and a cleaner,” says Mahattama. “But his daughters wanted a devotee there too, someone who could feed him prasadam and have him listen to the Holy Names. It was very comforting for them to know that someone from their big Krishna conscious family was taking care of him.”
Since then, Mahattama has had around a dozen patients—including devotees, parents of devotees, and outside clients.
Some of Mahattama’s patients have terminal cancer or have suffered strokes. Others deal with Alzheimers. Some she spends a year with; others only three or six months.
But whoever Mahattama cares for, she always gives them Krishna consciousness at this crucial point in their lives.
Recently, for instance, she took care of Enrique, an old High School classmate from Mexico.
“I introduced him to the chanting of the Holy Name, and he started to chant when the end was near,” she says. “I went to say goodbye when he was on his hospital bed, breathing through an oxygen mask. I brought him some Nrisimhadeva oil from Mayapur, incense, a Maha Mantra banner, a Radha Krishna picture, his japa beads and the Bhagavad Gita by our Srila Prabhupada. May the Lord takes compassion on his soul and remembers the little service my friend was able to perform for Him.”
Mahattama also cared for the mother of Srila Prabhupada’s early disciple Govinda Dasi.
“She was a Christian, and didn’t want to know anything about Krishna consciousness,” she says. “She didn’t have a good relationship with Govinda. But when I got there, everything changed. I reinforced her own beliefs by making an altar with Jesus Christ. I told her we need to offer our food to him and give thanks. Of course, I put Krishna on the altar too. And I convinced her that becoming a Hare Krishna was the best thing that could have happened to Govinda.”
Mahattama also took care of her own mother, who passed away due to throat cancer.
“I would play Prabhupada’s tapes for her and chant,” she recalls. “When she was dying, I arrived there at 2:00am, and whispered ‘Hare Krishna,’ in her ear. She was only semi-conscious, but she said, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ She knew it was me because I said ‘Hare Krishna.’”
During her free time while taking care of patients, Mahattama likes to distribute Srila Prabhupada's books
Of course, Mahattama fulfills all the normal tasks of a nurse / caregiver. But she also chants with all her patients, gives them prasadam and has them listen to Krishna conscious music and watch Krishna conscious videos. When they pass away, she adorns them with sacred Tulasi beads, Vrindavana dust, Ganga water, and
a shawl inscribed with the Hare Krishna mantra, while a tape of Srila Prabhupada plays.
“The main concern for the devotee relative is to have a caregiver for their parent that reminds them of God, or Krishna, at the time of death,” she says.
Mahattama is gifted with a special ability to introduce people to Krishna late in their lives, and to bring about transformation.
She explains that sometimes devotees are worried about hiring her, a devotee, to care for their parents because their parents still eat meat.
“But somehow or other, when I get there, that always changes,” she says. “I explain to them what I do, why I don’t eat animals, and why it’s important that they don’t eat them too. Not only due to compassion, but also for health and other reasons. They understand, and after they take prasadam, they don’t want anything else.”
Mahattama has even brought vegetarianism and Krishna consciousness to the lives of patients who were not familiar with such a lifestyle.
“I had one patient who was not related to our family of devotees at all,” she says. “But her husband was very understanding. When I told him that I was vegetarian, he said, ‘Perfect. From now on, she’ll eat whatever you eat. So she’ll be vegetarian too!’ So I introduced that diet to her life.”
Mahattama also recalls how her patient, who was in a very advanced stage of Alzheimers, would sometimes get violent, but when played Srila Prabhupada tapes, she would calm down.
“Eventually, she was not talking anymore,” Mahattama says. “But one day, when I took her to the park and was chanting on my beads, she turned to me and said, ‘You already said that so many times.’ So she had been listening!”
Mahattama says that taking care of elderly folks is not like caring for children.
“A kid will come and give you a hug, and then you feel paid,” she says. “But an elderly person with Alzheimers, sometimes they forget your name. Sometimes they don’t know who you are. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘What are you doing here?’ and get violent. But it’s rewarding in a different sense. The reward is that you’re doing this last little straw for these souls, that might open the gate back to Godhead. I see it as a mission Krishna has given me, a service, not just a job.”
Seven years ago, Mahattama was diagnosed with cancer herself. Immediately, the entire ISKCON Alachua community rallied to her aid, wanting to reciprocate with all her service. Fortunately, their prayers for her welfare where answered. After a successful surgery that removed a tumor and fifteen contaminated lymphatic nodes, Mahattama is now healthy and cancer-free.
She currently lives in her home town two hours from Mexico City, where she teaches English as a second language, and continues to travel to the US to care for devotees and their families when requested.
She has also been invited to participate in several major, much-needed ISKCON care projects. The first is a house for war veterans to be located in Lacrosse, near Alachua, and run by war veteran and amputee Sarva Satya Das. Here, veterans will be given shelter and introduced to Krishna consciousness through prasadam.
The second is a planned care facility for elderly or ill devotees in Alachua. And the third is a possible future hospice in New Vrindaban, West Virginia.
“When we joined ISKCON, we were all young,” Mahattama says. “And just like any youth, we thought we could conquer the world. We thought we were never going to get old and die, even though Prabhupada repeated it so many times. It wasn’t until we started seeing it happen that we realized the need. Having centers like this, where devotees know they can go, is such a need now.”
Mahattama feels that in today’s world, not enough care and thought is given to the dying, and she hopes to remedy that.
“The attitude is like, ‘Oh yeah, he died, just go bury him. Yeah, yeah, whatever,’ she says. “But that last period is one of the most important periods of your life. It’s the time when it is decided whether your soul will go on to a good body, or back to a good place.”