The passing of Hari Priya dasi
Posted January 11, 2005
Hari Priya prabhu, our much loved friend and godsister, left her body on December 22, and I offer the following personal reflections on this for her many friends around the world.
Hari Priya dasi was initiated by Srila Prabhupada in Mayapur in 1972; she has served in Srila Prabhupada's temples in England, France, India and Australia.
She was first diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago but, in the last six months, the cancer had spread and, over the last two months, Hari Priya had been growing physically weaker and spiritually stronger. However, although we had been expecting it a couple of times during the previous week, her passing actually caught us unawares. Her breathing had become increasingly laboured, but she was not distressed; indeed quite peaceful. She had long before reached an acceptance of her impending death and had worked to become prepared, peaceful and fixed. Much of the focus we had encouraged in her was on Prabhupada and the confidence his followers feel in his presence at such a time.
My main duty was the night shift from 2 to 6 and, as her breath deteriorated, I would focus on her (internally) calling to Prabhupada with each breath, stroking her hand or arm as I encouraged her to visualise him reaching his hand out to her.
She left at 7:50 p.m. on December 22, 2004 and, although many people had gathered, and kirtan was continuing as it had for three weeks, I and others still felt she had a way to go. In fact a few of her loving friends who had supported her through it all had left the house briefly for different reasons. I went in to see her about 7:45 and lay next to her as was my usual way, stroking her arm and talking her through her breathing. Her husband, Isvara, was reading the consecutive translations of the Songs of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, which speak of the necessity of freeing oneself from all attachments. Ananda was on her other side.
I was exhorting her with our mantra, "every breath Prabhupada! -- see him". She took a breath and I was still visualising with her, "See him -- his hand reaching out to yours," etc. There had been increasingly long gaps between breaths but after an extended time she still did not take a breath. Nobody else had noticed -- I looked quizzically over at Ramai, a nurse, who moved closer. He told everyone to chant, I told the devotees to call her daughters in. Suddenly she took one more long sigh (on "see him!") and that was it. Very peaceful, a swell of chanting; we were still not sure for a while if it was indeed true.
Then her three beautiful daughters and her close friends -- Ambika, Rasanandi (both of whom had just returned), Mati and I -- bathed her, applied tilaka and dressed her in the gorgeous pink sari she had requested. Her daughters painted her nails and we did her hair and her face, honouring her special ways of being. Siddhi, with all timeliness, arrived from the temple with maha garlands in which we draped her body and she looked beautiful, peaceful and reposed.
Hari Priya was always extremely self-deprecating and had certainly never thought of herself as a leader. Before her death we told her of our admiration that she was guiding all her friends in how to leave the body with courage, dignity and a determined consciousness and expressed our gratitude for all she had given and continued to give us. Yesterday we had a memorial service. We all commented on the gifts we had gained from participating in this event.
For me, I am grateful that, when for so long chanting and kirtana have aroused in me feelings of great sadness and grief and loss, I can now chant again with a loving, open heart. It was also a great gift to see glimpses of other devotees --- the strengths in ones you know already, but also the hearts of others I did not know well or had previously perhaps dismissed perfunctorily for some reason.
It was exhilirating to see the power of the devotees (yes, from all branches of the Vaisnava tree) working together: Siddhi bringing garlands; the consistent, reliable attendance of many devotees to ensure she was never alone or not hearing; Vraja Kisori's big picture of Prabhupada which became the focus for everyone; Tulasi Mala regularly filling the room with gardenias; evocative bhajans from Ambika, Sarva, Aparajita and many others; young Lalita's moving poem and the regular tributes that flowed in; Madhava Priya and Syama bringing prasada to nourish the devotees who gathered there daily, their own lives on hold; constant kirtan, bhajans, readings, japa. So many threads woven together to create a suburban holy place in which every sense was stirred to remembrance of our Lord. All was orchestrated by her husband, Isvara, whose determination to support Hari Priya in this most difficult of life's tasks inspired us all.
We have always joked how Isvara was so aptly named by Srila Prabhupada and in this endeavour his organisational talents found their perfection. It was a joy also to get to know other aspects of him I had not previously seen. I had always known of his love of and commitment to Hari Priya and their family, but over the past few weeks I witnessed the devotion with which he served her. His attentive service was imbued with his deep human love of his wife and best friend, but even more so infused with his desire to honour and assist her in her relationship with Krsna and Srila Prabhupada. His service preserved her dignity, allayed her fears, built her trust and faith, and helped her to fix her focus on the lotus feet of Krsna and Srila Prabhupada. It is a rare and special achievement -- he fulfilled his duties both as a husband and as a god-brother.
In this, he was assisted by their daughters, Saci Davi, Kirti and Sarada. During the extended period of Hari Priya prabhu's deterioration, these girls were in uncharted waters, losing their mother, the attention of their father who had to devote his attention to Hari Priya, and their own lives as they had been. They were generous and affectionate to the devotees who took over their home day and night and they served their mother lovingly and intimately, which nourished her.
I was thinking that the family (both our small one and our large Krsna-centred one) is like sculptor's clay. We begin with a vision of what it should be and constantly chisel away at it often in deft, sure, wise strokes, often with sharp, painful cuts. What emerges is often (usually!) unlike our original "should" vision and can often disappoint on a superficial viewing but, when examined under certain conditions, it reveals itself as a thing of unique beauty.
Hari Priya touched many lives. At yesterday's memorial many people mentioned her lack of pretence -- her simple, straightforward demeanour that allowed her to reach out and make connections with everyone. This was attested to by the fact that over 60 people attended, from all generations and branches of our Krsna-conscious family and many others whose affection she had won. Even Kitty, the palliative care nurse assigned to her case, attended the whole day's service, telling us how she had been impressed by Hari Priya's acceptance and consciousness and by the love in the house. Many people spoke of her vibrancy and warmth and her passion for music. Isvara showed us a movie he had made of Hari Priya's life and passing, containing an interview with her in which she tells of her eventual realisation of the futility of trying to find happiness through the material senses.
I pray for sustained realisation. For those of us approaching the "fag end" of life it is wise to reflect on this. Those of us who have been blessed with timely reminders of this world's inability to satisfy should embrace these as gifts, rather than hindrances. And, in a world where the struggling jiva can be daily weakened by a barrage of distorted messages of ideals of happiness and success, all of us should maintain vigilance to fortify ourselves and our loved ones (all humanity) against them. We need to make the message that Srila Prabhupada came to give us a personal, relevant, regularly examined reality in our lives. And we need to remember the "many twigs" analogy -- we need each other to be strong against illusion.
I was thinking how wonderful it is that devotees come together so well to support someone passing. The real challenge is to support each other in our living. But it is so easy with the dying. It's so obvious what to do; the answers are so clear-cut and self-evident, and nothing obstructs the solution. The dying are compliant -- they don't argue; they accept whatever we offer. The living sometimes don't want our advice, or are not gracious, or argue and the issues are more complex. Assisting the dying, there is a finite time -- it is easy to rise to the challenge of "being there" when you know it's limited. Supporting the living can take one's energy over a much longer period. And yet therein lies our real challenge as part of Prabhupada's family and the real test of our sincerity. Not to act out of a sentimental love, but to respond to that real love wherein one jiva sees the connection to another, sees the same struggling journey back home and responds with loving compassion to that.
We thank Hari Priya prabhu, our dear friend, wife, mother and godsister, for the love she gave in her life and for the opportunity to become closer to Srila Prabhupada during her passing.