When I think of Mother Arca and her myriad of good qualities, I am reminded of Srila Prabhupada’s instructions to one of his disciples: “Do it enthusiastically, with the courage of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother.” I was fortunate to see both these sides in her—her nurturing affection and her courage—in her pursuit for excellence.
I first met her some days before the first Ratha-yatra festival in Durban, while she was painting swans on the chariot. We were told that she was a famous artist in South Africa, Aileen (Angel) Lipkin—hence I became interested in seeing her at work. As I made my way to the makeshift workshop, I stood some five meters away from the chariot and watched her work. I marvelled at her perfection, her deft control of the brush and steady hands. I could see that art was the core of her life, that she probably woke up and went to sleep thinking of it.
It was late at night, and there were not many devotees around. One of the first things that struck me was that she was totally absorbed in her service. I was reminded of Arjuna striking the eye of the bird perched on the tree by his teacher Drona. When asked by the teacher whether he saw the tree or the sky before he took aim, Arjuna replied that he only saw the eye of the bird. In the same way, I felt like Mother Arca was seeing only the swan she was painting, and nothing else.
When her meditation broke, she became aware of me standing there and welcomed me with a beautiful smile. My hard heart softened with her simple smile. She was a beautiful person, an angelic person, but when she smiled she became even more so.
“Those are perfect swans, and you’re making it look easy painting them,” I said.
“They are beautiful, aren’t they?” she replied. “You want to try painting one?”
“I don’t want to spoil your work,” I laughed, while thinking to myself that the service required not only skill but also bhakti and that I was sadly lacking in both. She was a genius: one who makes the difficult look ridiculously easy, giving the impression that it is effortless.
On the first day of the Ratha-yatra festival, when I saw the chariot going down the promenade, it looked like a piece of art in motion. In retrospect, I feel that Mother Arca was a swan-like devotee in our midst. The swan that moves gracefully on a lake is a picture of elegance. What is going on beneath the surface is hidden from the eye. We don’t see the hard work done by the swan’s webbed feet, which creates the graceful motion that we admire. The swan’s movement is an ideal metaphor for expertise and excellence. In the same way, Arca was an emblem of these twin traits, but she kept them hidden from general view.
I was in awe of her absorption. When she was working on the chariot, it was not unusual for her to go to sleep in the early hours of the morning. It was obvious that she was inspired and hence forgot everything but her work. Although my interaction with her was brief, when I walked away, I felt inspired to emulate her dedication and perfection in my own service, which was mostly book distribution and Deity worship. She truly was able to inspire others by her example.
The following year, I met her on a flight from Bombay to South Africa. She had resolved to relocate to Vrindavan and begun acquiring property to build a house there. It was a sign of her courage, that she was willing to leave her comfort zone and move to unknown territory. The Indian philosopher Patanjali once said, “When you are inspired by some great purpose, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties, and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
When we met in the aisle of the plane, she was so happy and greeted me with such love and affection that I was taken aback. Anyone observing us would have thought we were the best of friends. I wasn’t accustomed to receiving such warmth in the association of devotees.
I had fallen seriously ill while in Vrindavan; a typhoid attack had left me emaciated, and I pondered how I would be able to take care of my health. She showed such concern that her loving magnetism and care had me narrate the details of my illness to her. And then, oblivious of anyone around us, like a caring mother, she began giving me recipes for foods to prepare to help me recuperate. It was as if my own mother had appeared before me in the form of Mother Arca. She herself was ill, having been diagnosed with cancer, but she appeared to be more concerned about me than about herself.
I’ve forgotten most of what she told me that day, but what stayed with me was the love and empathy with which she spoke to me. Throughout the entire conversation, she didn’t say anything about herself. It was all about giving advice on how to recover.
She was a teacher of compassion, love, and fearlessness. She was not bound by the codes of an institutional religious framework but lived like a Mother Theresa in our midst, giving hundreds of devotees hope. Radhanath Swami put it aptly: “Religion is meant to teach us true spiritual human character. It is meant for self-transformation. It is meant to transform anxiety into peace, arrogance into humility, envy into compassion, to awaken the pure soul in man and his love for the Source, which is God.”
One of the things she mentioned I should eat was a rich pea soup. Fortunately for me, while she was in Durban, she prepared the soup for Indradyumna Swami, who had taken ill and was being nursed back to health by her and some other devotees. I sometimes took lunch with him, and one day I was lucky to receive a healthy portion of her soup. It was absolute nectar. A later attempt by me to emulate her efforts went in vain. The soup dish flopped, and I was left to rue my efforts. But I persisted, and now every time I make that soup, I think of her. I feel that my pea soup can withstand tough competition from the best cooks. Perhaps it’s her mercy.
What was her magic ingredient? Surely it was her bhakti. I believe that she was a pure devotee masquerading before us like an ordinary soul. Maybe I was so neophyte at the time—and even now—that I couldn’t fully appreciate her glories.
I remember meeting HH B.B. Govinda Swami and telling him about Mother Arca’s magical pea soup and my failed attempt to replicate her efforts. Maharaja, with his wry sense of humor, replied, “Raghava, if you don’t have bhakti, use extra ghee.”
I subsequently heard that Mother Arca nursed HH Giriraj Swami back to health when he had taken ill in Johannesburg. Sometimes I feel that only she could have done that service. She took the “bull by the horns,” so to speak. Those of you who have had some experience serving Giriraj Swami know that, among other things, you must have your “ducks in a row.” So it was not surprising that devotees were reluctant to step forward and take ownership of the problem—after all, it was a matter of life and death. But with profound service comes profound mercy. Arca took that risk; she stood up for that service, and the resultant grace from her spiritual master opened the doors to liberation and transported her to the lotus feet of Lord Krishna. It was a glorious lesson in guru-bhakti. Her guru-bhakti was extraordinary, and I believe it was her very nistha in guru that carried her beyond the threshold of birth and death.
As the Svetasvara Upanishad (6.23) says,
yasya deve para bhaktir
yatha deve tatha gurau
tasyaite kathita hy arthah
“Only unto those great souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of the Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.”
In my interactions with Arca, I expressed myself openly. This was very unusual for me, because generally I am not comfortable doing so and struggle to express my deepest sentiments. But then again, she made devotees feel loved and wanted and drew them out of their cocoons. Devotees were happy to be dependent on her mercy, and I think it’s one of the reasons she could instantly win people’s hearts. One never felt like one was being judged in her presence. She felt genuine joy upon seeing devotees, and she had the uncanny art of making them feel special—as, in fact, they all are. If I was offered a benediction by the gods to have any of her qualities, I would ask for her quality of love that she had for the devotees.
The following year, I visited her at her house in Vrindavan with Kalindi. I thought it would be nice to see their interaction and to see her “love in motion.” As I witnessed the love between them, it occurred to me that every devotee must feel loved in Arca’s presence. Before long she engaged Kalindi in making a bandh gobhi [cabbage] salad, which she relished with delight. It was one of her favorite dishes.
At one point, while we were eating, she turned to me and said, “Isn’t this nice?”
I must admit that I pretended it was. With my Indian upbringing, I considered salad too plain, and I hadn’t developed a taste for it.
While in Vrindavan then, we used to visit Arca every other day. I was struck by the courage and determination she must have had to build a house in Vrindavan. It is said that uncharted waters are a courageous person’s playground. Being a Westerner in a woman’s body, she could not have found it easy. But she fought against all odds and built her home as an offering to her spiritual master; that in itself is testimony to her tenacity to accomplish her goals.
I wondered whether I would not have thrown in the towel in the face of all the wheeling and dealing that needs to be done to accomplish a task like that in India. While at her ashram, I saw that she wouldn’t allow the workers to take advantage of her. She dealt with them with a firm hand and was very particular about cleanliness. I am sure those fortunate devotees who served her closely would easily find in her personality the twenty-six qualities of a devotee.
When Arca passed away, it was as if a shining jewel had left this world. I remember Giriraj Swami and other devotees glorifying her at the Radha-Radhanath temple, and I, caught in the euphoria of it all, also began to pray to her for her mercy—and I still do.
Arca’s mercy comes to me in the most mystical ways. Just before leaving this world, she was painting flowers in various colors, which her daughter Sara was selling to raise funds for Arca’s house. When I saw them, I fell in love with one particular painting. I marvelled at how someone in a state of advanced cancer could paint so beautifully. But that was Arca: she never gave up in the midst of adversity. I secretly desired one of her paintings, but I had gradually forgotten about it as I moved house in Johannesburg.
Then, one day, I heard that my Italian neighbors were emigrating after having lost their twin children in an accident. I paid them a visit to offer my condolences, and there hanging on the wall was my favorite painting of flowers by Arca. I began to preach her glories to the distraught couple, and out of their generosity, they gave me the painting. I felt that Arca was coming to me in that painting, teaching me one of the greatest lessons I still carry with me in my sojourn through life: “Never quit, no matter what.”
Arca did those paintings at an advanced stage of her cancer. But no one would know. Just looking at the painting gives me happiness, and it still hangs in my living room as a testament to her creativity, passion, and zeal. She talks to me from that painting in the midst of my struggles, telling me to never quit, no matter what.