A new two-volume work will give readers an in-depth, personal look at the journey of one of the most beloved devotees in ISKCON – Yamuna Devi, an ISKCON pioneer and one of the first disciples of Srila Prabhupada.
Yamuna passed away on December 20th 2011 at 69, and “Yamuna Devi: A Life of Unalloyed Devotion” is itself a loving offering of devotion from some of the many devotees who were deeply impacted by her.
This is evident in the high quality of the glossy-paged hardback set and its design by Raghu Consbruck, which conveys Yamuna’s personal style and artistic sense. The lettering of her name on the covers, for example, is lifted from her own calligraphied poem to Lord Krishna; while the back covers of the books feature her stained-glass style artwork.
Although many on the large team behind the book, such as researcher Kartamasa Das, delivered it as a heartfelt service to Yamuna, no one is the book more personal to than author Dinatarini Devi, Yamuna’s companion in devotional life for 37 years.
“Virtually days after she passed we began the process of research for this book,” she says. “It was a cathartic experience for me. It was a good way for me to channel my grief at her passing, and to deal with the change in my life.”
Interestingly, “A Life of Unalloyed Devotion” started out as a memoir by Yamuna herself, after many godbrothers and godsisters had asked her to write about her extraordinary life.
But while she tried at intermittent periods thoughout her life, her intrinsic humility left her feeling unqualified to write about her experiences with Srila Prabhupada, and led to her to put the work off or even write herself out of her own biography.
“She would give credit to everyone else but herself for things she in fact played a central role in,” Dinatarini says. “It was just very hard for her to put herself in a position of prominence. And anyone who knew Yamuna knew this about her.”
Before she passed away, Yamuna asked Dinatarini several times to complete her memoir for her. The result, at 1,080 pages, is an exhaustive and touchingly personal tapestry of Yamuna’s entire life, woven from Yamuna’s own written words, Dinatarini’s narrative, and recently recovered interviews from the Prabhupada-Lilamrita sessions conducted in the 1980s.
The two volumes—Preparing an Offering of Love, which focuses on Yamuna’s earlier life; and Offering the Gift of Bhakti to Others, which covers her later years—bring more insight and depth into the stories that made Yamuna famous.
They detail how she learned to cook from Srila Prabhupada; how she and her friends established the second-ever temple in ISKCON in San Francisco; how she and two other couples started the Hare Krishna Movement in England; and how she recorded the song “Govindam” with George Harrison.
And of course we hear about how she traveled with Prabhupada in India; and how her epic cookbook Lord Krishna’s Cuisine was named International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year.
But there are also gems we’re less familiar with. We hear about Yamuna’s early life, such as her simple childhood in Montana and Oregon, and her interests in ballet and calligraphy. We see a copy of Yamuna’s initiation certificate which she designed herself on Prabhupada request.
And we see a handwritten 1968 letter from Srila Prabhupada to Yamuna and her then husband Guru Das: “Dear Guru das and Yamuna devi,” it reads. “Be good boy and girl and always chant the HARE KRISHNA mantra and you will be so pleased with the result. Yamuna you are little better than Janaki but don’t get puffed up and be good to those a little less fortunate.”
The twist? Prabhupada was dictating the letter to Yamuna’s sister Janaki, whose handwriting it’s in, showing his humor and affectionate teasing relationship with her. “Seeing some of the wonderfully human and almost childlike interactions that he had with his devotees, both men and women, is invaluable,” says Dinatarini.
The book also openly talks about Yamuna’s challenges while working in a major managerial role in ISKCON Vrindavan, India, at a time in ISKCON’s history when women endured much mistreatment.
Feeling denigrated simply due to her gender, Yamuna left the Krishna Balarama temple project in 1974 to start a women’s ashram in Oregon with her godsister Dinatarini. Upon doing so, she met with criticism from male leaders who said she could never make advancement in spiritual life as she had “left ISKCON” and the association of devotees.
Yamuna wrote to Prabhupada to tell him that she had not left Krishna consciousness or her dedication to him, and to express her fear that she didn’t have his blessings anymore. In 1975, Prabhupada met Yamuna in LA, and with tears in his eyes, told her that he had missed her very much at the opening of the Krishna Balarama temple.
The two laughed and joked like old friends, and then responding to her letter, Prabhupada told Yamuna that “ISKCON is where you are chanting the Holy Names of Krishna,” and that “Assocation can be two or two hundred. But you must be compatible. If you are two and you are compatible you can go back to Godhead. But if you are two hundred and not compatible” -- here he opened his eyes wide – “Then no one will make any advancement.”
“There’s so much misinformation about Srila Prabhupada and his purported treatment of women,” Dinatarini says. “But we had direct experience where Srila Prabhupada personally protected us from so much of what was going on. And we understood that, we felt so deeply his care and his concern for all of the women within ISKCON.”
Finally, “A Life of Unalloyed Devotion” relates how Yamuna and Dinatarini moved extensively, then settled in Saranagati Village in Canada to live a simpler life and share kirtan, classes, deity seva and devotional inspiration. It especially recounts Yamuna’s deep empathy and care for ISKCON’s youth, how she spent so much time engaging and encouraging them in Krishna consciousness, and the powerful impact she had on their lives.
All of this is supplemented with many rare photos, as well as Yamuna’s calligraphic works, illustrations and art.
“Unalloyed” is more than just a book, however. It’s a full-blown “Yamuna Devi Legacy Project.” Available on Amazon and iTunes at the same time as the books will be an ebook for all devices, an enhanced ebook for Apple devices with embedded audio and video, and a companion website, krishnamagic.com, packed with videos, audio, and remembrances of Yamuna Devi.
Meanwhile all proceeds from the book will be used by non-profit publisher Unalloyed Inc. to establish a school that will teach what Yamuna was taught by Srila Prabhupada, and to publish more books by and about her.
Yamuna Devi: A Life of Unalloyed Devotion will be released through a series of worldwide special events. It will be first unveiled in Vrindavan, India on October 25th, where it will be offered to Yamuna and Srila Prabhupada in a ceremony at Yamuna’s samadhi along with readings from the book and kirtans by Bada Haridas, Madhava Das, Jahnavi Harrison and others.
Next, Radhanath Swami will host a Mumbai book launch on November 16th, at the Radha Gopinath Temple in Chowpatty, which Dinatarini will attend and speak at. Dinatarini will also present the book at the North American release event on November 30th at ISKCON Alachua, Florida, just after the Festival of the Holy Name.
The UK launch will also be on November 23rd, at Radha-Londonisvara’s 45th anniversary. And lastly, the Canadian launch on December 17th, the anniversary of Yamuna’s passing, will be held at Banebehari Mandir, her ashram in Saranagati.
Dinatarini describes Yamuna as having an “uncanny ability to connect with people,” an “almost limitless amount of compassion for others,” and an unwavering dedication to Srila Prabhupada’s instructions to share what she had learned with others. It’s these qualities about her that are likely to draw many readers to delve into the story of her life.
“She was able not only to turn the challenges and obstacles she encountered along the path into opportunities to grow in devotional service herself, but also to give the joy she experienced in the process freely and with great love to others,” says Dinatarini.
“Her story can give hope, and is just endlessly encouraging,” she adds. “That’s the message I want to give out with this book. That you’re never lost in devotional service. You can always pick up again from wherever you are in life. And you can move forward and upward, and taste that joy that we’re all seeking.”
“Yamuna Devi: A Life of Unalloyed Devotion” is available for pre-order from krishnamagic.com, Krishna.com, Bhaktivedanta Library Services (Europe), and De Publishers (India).[ biography ] [ book-review ] [ yamuna-devi ]