Chakra Discussions

Remembering Nitai Das

by Tukaram das, ISKCON Laguna Beach

Posted February 13, 2012

A portrait of Nitai das

I want to write something to honor the passing of my friend, Nitai das, but find myself questioning the purpose behind my writing.

On one hand, I'm writing for myself (out of necessity), to grieve and give shape to myriad thoughts that are inspiring (and vexing) me. On the other hand, it's also my hope that, by writing, I might be able to share my love, appreciation and understanding of Nitai prabhu with others. In some way, I'm just attempting to keep Nitai alive with my words, lest his memory be lost. Of course, to really perpetuate Nitai's memory, I'll have to continue the legacy of service he started. My own mortality is also splintering my mind's eye, and writing about Nitai is an attempt at staving off my own body's and memory's impending demise by doing for him what I hope someone else will do for me when my time inevitably comes. Finally and most importantly, I'm writing simply to honor my dear friend Nitai, to show him my affection.

Nitai prabhu at a Burning Man festival

I can't even remember exactly when I first met Nitai, but it must have been a dozen years ago. Nitai loved his spiritual master just like a disciple should, with a perfect mix of deep respect and admiration, intense trust and affection, and a touch of simple, childlike innocence. He spent heaps of time at the temple in Chowpatty, India, soaking up its sublime Vaikuntha atmosphere, and he cultivated lifetime friendships of service with several of his godbrothers and godsisters, imbibing their exemplary mood of sisyatva (discipleship).

His guru, H.H. Radhanath Swami, told me yesterday that he had given him his name in the belief that Nitai had been so "wild" that only by the mercy of the original Nityananda Prabhu (the divine Avatar of mercy) would the new disciple be sustained. He added that Nitai had been so independent as a brahmacari (temple monk) that none of the temple leaders would recommend him for formal initiation. Eventually, Nitai's uncle Nityodita prabhu personally gave a recommendation, and he was initiated into our spiritual family.

Nitai prabhu was one in a million. He had an infectious enthusiasm and loads of charisma. Nitai was a bit younger than I was, and although I wasn't able see it at first, eventually I could understand that he was a born leader; one whose magnetic personality gathered people together and inspired them to move mountains. He always thought "outside the box," and was ever pushing the envelope, looking for new ways to spread Lord Caitanya's message of love for Krsna and the chanting of the holy names. Nitai chanted japa seriously and loved kirtan. He was an object of affection for his elders and an inspiration for his peers. He lived the life of a full-time dedicated devotee, and he was perpetually convincing everyone around him to participate in his mission, a mission that was always increasing in both scope and magnitude. He was very sociable, he could outpace me in conversation, and I loved him for it. He was always vitally engaged in outreach and exemplified the axiom: "One who has life can preach." He touched the lives of so many people, including this humble soul.

Nitai had received the essence of his own innovative approach to outreach directly from his gurudeva. Maharaja had been going to the Rainbow Gatherings for years, giving kirtan and making huge vats of halava prasadam for all the attendees. At the Rainbow, Nitai also learned this art, and that experience became the genesis for "Krishna's Kitchen," a branch of Food For Life International. From their mission statement, we learn that "Krishna's Kitchen shares the ancient culture of Bhakti through the production and distribution of sacred food." Through Nitai's expert networking, Krishna's Kitchen ended up becoming an integral part of some of the biggest and most exciting alternative festivals of the new millennium, including Burning Man, Wanderlust and Bhaktifest.

This new outreach required that ISKCON follow Srila Prabhupada's directive to "give old wine in a new bottle." Perhaps this is where Nitai's brilliance shone forth most brightly, as he was both a visionary and a leader in this renovation project. As a visionary, he conceived of ways in which ISKCON would make inroads into these burgeoning communities of spiritual seekers, with whom we already shared so much in terms of ethos and lifestyle but had somehow been unable to seriously connect with. As a leader, Nitai was able to inspire and work with,large numbers of devotees in the effort to share our prasadam and culture, whilst simultaneously maintaining integrity. Nitai was at the vanguard of this renaissance in the Hare Krsna movement, and from his and a few other innovative devotees' vision, our movement is becoming more relevant than ever in North America.

Nitai was only 31 when his life was tragically cut short, but upon hearing that he and the other devotees in the car accident died instantly, one devotee remarked: "Krsna just scooped them all up." Nitai's mortal remains will be consigned to Mother Ganga's embrace at Mayapura. When his spiritual master became ill last summer, Nitai had personally cleansed and dressed his wounds multiple times daily, just like a loving mother. I was around during this time, and was sometimes disturbed at how Nitai was neglecting various managerial services, choosing instead to personally deliver nursing care. I can now see that the Lord arranged this special time so that he was able to have the experience of intimately serving his teacher (visrambhena guroh seva), in a way that normally only occurs on his departure from this world.

I was fortunate to have been in regular touch with Nitai over this last decade, and I witnessed his transformation from a young, energetic recruit to a stalwart officer in Lord Caitanya's sankirtan party. We became especially close this last year and spoke daily. We were kindred souls, and I appreciated his fine qualities so much that I was looking forward to the arcs of our lives intermingling for the next 50 years or so. We regularly talked about all the service we were going to do together; just the day before he left, he had confided in me his intention to start a family, and I had invited him to come and spend time with me and my family.

Although I'm devastated that Nitai das is no longer in our midst, I'm grateful that he and I became so close this last year, and see it as the Lord's special blessing upon me that I was able to pack a lifetime of friendship and all the affection it affords into such a short time with him. I also see that Nitai prabhu was blessed to be able to squeeze a lifetime's worth of adventurous service into his limited time among us. Nitai is survived by his loving wife Mandali Devi, a saintly devotee in her own right, and I'm praying that Lord Caitanya and Srila Prabhupada bless her with the courage to grow, even from this great tragedy. I hope that this short sketch of Nitai's life and my experiences with him will serve as an offering to him of a written samadhi, an appropriate testament as to how this great soul was very much a gift to the world, and how he enriched the lives of so many.

The Kitchen team has created a Facebook page called "Remembering Nitai Das." Please share your memories of Nitai das with us.

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