Mother Arca-vigraha and I were very good friends and had been friends for a long time. We first met in 1986, when she came to Vrindavan. Then, in 1987, I went to South Africa with Indradyumna Swami and we had some programs at her home in Yeoville.
Arca suffered from cancer. She got the news in late 1987, but she had some treatment done, and the doctors seemed to think that it had cleared up the cancer, but then she became affected again. She took some small treatment in South Africa, but by nature she wasn’t inclined to take a lot of heavy medications. She felt that she should depend more on her guru and Krishna. She wasn’t inclined to take heavy treatments that were likely to disturb her consciousness. That was a big factor for her: she didn’t want her Krishna consciousness to be affected. She wanted to always try to have a clear mind and consciousness so that she could meditate on the holy name and on the instructions of her spiritual master. She didn’t take the chemotherapy or other treatments they like to give in Western countries, which generally have the tendency to destroy a person suffering from such a disease.
Arca started coming to Vrindavan, and by the grace of Srimati Radharani and Krishna she was able to buy a plot of land in Vrindavan and build a house. She wanted to pass her final days there. I would say to her, “There are so many people in South Africa—twenty or thirty million—and out of them, how many have been blessed by Radha and Krishna to come to Vrindavan, purchase a piece of property, build a house, and live in that house in Vrindavan?”
So, she started staying there, and she took up service in Vrindavan, and because she was such a fine artist, she was always involved in different art projects. The last service she was given was to do the artwork for the large carved marble panels to be placed at the back of Srila Prabhupada’s samadhi.
Arca-vigraha was very serious about her work. In her final days she was in terrible pain, and her left arm was useless; the cancer was affecting her whole left side. Then the cancer grew and intruded upon her windpipe and esophagus, the food pipe, and eventually she couldn’t eat. She just stopped eating and was only drinking. She had no energy, and she became just like bones with some skin on top. But what would she do? She would ask the devotees caring for her to prop her up in bed, and then she would say, “Bring me my artwork,” and they would bring it to her. She was determined to do this service for Srila Prabhupada and the Vaishnavas. She would sit there, and with whatever little energy she had she would draw the designs of Prabhupada for those back panels. They were big panels, and she would cut out sections and put them together. Sometimes she could work for only five minutes before having to take rest, but then she would get up again, have the devotees bring her artwork back, and resume her work. She had so much transcendental determination.
Arca was like a different species of person. Sometimes I look at our present generation, and I have to admit that it is not very good. The postwar generation went down really fast—lack of honor, lack of credibility, lack of integrity. The world has become lost for want of integrity. People lie, say anything to achieve their end, to achieve sense gratification. They’ll say or do anything to get what they want as quickly as possible. I see this particularly in India, where I live, but I know it goes on everywhere. In India, I go mad at the lack of integrity. In contrast, in Srila Prabhupada’s generation, there were people who would die for principle. They had so much integrity, they would give their head for principle. Arca’s generation was like that, too. We find that generally the older people we meet are men and ladies of integrity and honor. And she was like that. She was a phenomenal person. And even though she was suffering from cancer and was in pain, she always held her head high. Her mentality was never that she wanted people to just come and pet her and give her consolation. What was her mentality? She was always trying to do good for others. Devotees were constantly coming to her. She would be suffering so much, but when devotees would come, she would immediately set herself upright and start preaching, preaching straight Krishna consciousness. She had so much character. She was so noble. And when the people would leave, she would collapse again. And then more people would come, and she would preach: “We are not this body. We should not identify with the pains and pleasures of this body. We should fix our mind on Krishna, fix the mind on the goal.”
After Gaura-purnima 1994, some young people from Bulgaria were in Vrindavan. They had become attracted to a famous yogi there. They had heard about him and come to Vrindavan because they thought, “He is our guru.” In Vrindavan they stayed with this yogi and found out that he was actually terrible: very angry at times and screaming and doing erratic things. So, these Bulgarians said, “We came all the way here, and we thought this guy was our guru, but he’s not.” They didn’t know what to do. They were coming by the Krishna-Balaram temple, and they met the devotees there and somehow the devotees introduced them to Giriraj Maharaja. So, they started coming over to listen to Giriraj Maharaja speak. They would come over to Arca-vigraha’s house, and we were doing a lot of reading there. There would often be kirtan, and on different occasions Arca would have the devotees sit her up and she would start preaching to these Bulgarian people. So much character. She had so much faith in Krishna and so much faith in the holy name. She was a unique personality.
I was Arca’s next-door neighbor, and every evening I would go over at about eight o’clock to check on how she was doing and how her day had passed. Up until Kartika 1993 she had been on her feet and was still moving and doing all right. But one evening at eight o’clock I walked into her house and what I found was not so pleasant. Arca was sitting on her bed crying and crying and crying. I had never seen her cry before. So, I walked over and asked what was wrong. “This pain is increasing every day,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.” I said, “You’re sure you don’t want to go to Delhi to take some treatment?” She said, “No, I don’t want to go that way; I don’t want my consciousness to be disturbed.” I used to argue with her about that, because I am the type that if I get a headache I take an aspirin. She wasn’t like that. She was tough. I used to argue with her about it, but it got to the point where it seemed that my arguments were exhausted. She was crying and saying, “I don’t know what’s going on with this pain. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I just don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Then I realized that the only thing to do was to speak about Krishna. So I got out the Krsna book and started reading about Krishna’s pastimes in Vrindavan. I said, “Mataji, there is no other medicine than this, so you just have to fix your mind on Krishna’s pastimes.” And I started reading to her about Krishna’s pastimes in Vrindavan. And I saw the most amazing thing: a person who just five minutes earlier had been weeping and crying—she just started listening to the pure recitation of Krishna’s pastimes, and her mind became absolutely absorbed. She was a phenomenal person, and she was an artist. She had an artist’s mind, and whenever she heard a beautiful description of Krishna, she could keep that impression in her mind. She would paint the whole scene within her mind and remain fixed on it.
So, I read her some stories about Krishna, and she became absorbed. When I started, she was crying, but when I finished, she was ecstatic. Then I went back to my place to take rest. The next day after the morning program, I came back to see how she was doing, and she told me that she had become so absorbed in hearing about Krishna—she had become so ecstatic from what we had read the previous night—that she couldn’t take rest and had stayed up until one o’clock just thinking about what we had read and discussed, and chanting japa. One amazing thing she said was, “When I was chanting japa, all I could think about was what you had read me from the Krishna book. It was the best japa I have ever chanted in my life, because I was chanting Krishna’s holy name and thinking about Krishna at the same time.” She became completely enlivened. It reminded me of when Srila Prabhupada came back to Vrindavan for the last time before he passed away. He said, “My diet is caranamrta, and my medicine is the holy name.” So that became her principle and policy too. Her diet became practically nothing, and her medicine became Krishna’s holy names and pastimes.
Because Arca was such a fine person, a lot of people in the Vrindavan community had a lot of love for her. So it was nonstop—from morning to night—that people were coming to her house to have the opportunity to be able to just sit and read from Prabhupada’s books for her. There was practically a queue, and for Arca it was exhausting. Here was a cancer patient who was going through her final stages, so she wanted to have some time to rest during the day, but from morning to night people were lining up to come and see her and read for her. So she would invite everyone and listen. Braja Bihari would read from Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, and I would read from Krsna book and Srimad-Bhagavatam, and different devotees would come, and they just wanted to read for Arca, because her mentality was, “I have to fix my mind on Krishna, I have to fix my mind on Krishna, I have to fix my mind. The best things for me to fix my mind on Krishna are the names and the pastimes of Krishna.” She just wanted to hear. She became very greedy and enthusiastic simply to hear about Krishna. That went on through the course of the winter.
One time, Arca put me in a predicament. In January of that year I had prepared everything to go abroad for a preaching tour. Everything was arranged, and I had told Arca that I was going, because I had really been helping her a lot. Then the night before I was to leave, she took her medicine as usual, but because the pipe in her throat was closing up, she started choking. She practically choked to death—but she survived. She became very nervous. When I went to see her the next day, I was getting ready to leave, and she said, “My guru maharaja can’t come here at this time. I’m really worried that I might die very soon, and I’d like to have one of my spiritual authorities here (she saw me as a siksa-guru) when I pass away. Please don’t go now on your preaching tour.”
It was a big shock. I had everything arranged, and I was ready to just get on the plane and fly. She said, “Please don’t go now, because I may die at any time.” So, I didn’t know what to do. I consulted some senior devotees at the Krishna-Balaram temple and explained the situation, that I had been requested to stay, and asked them, “What is your opinion?” Three or four different devotees came back with the same opinion, that we are continually traveling throughout the world and preaching to people that they should become devotees of Krishna, and so many people are surrendering and becoming devotees of Krishna, and once they surrender and give their lives to Krishna, at that last moment of their life when they need help as well, we shouldn’t abandon them. These devotees, whom I considered my authorities, requested, “Perhaps you should stay on here in Vrindavan and help.” So I chose to do that.
Things were going on. I had service in Vrindavan, so I stayed and did my service, and I was helping Arca-vigraha. Her condition was going down day by day, but she always maintained, “I have to hear.” Despite how bad she felt, “I have to hear about Krishna, I have to hear about Krishna.” She was becoming like a materialistic person who is eager for money, but she was becoming eager for Krishna: “I just have to hear about Krishna.” That continued until Gaura-purnima.
At Gaura-purnima her situation really started to decline. Her condition just went down and down, and she was becoming weaker and weaker, with more pain and more pain. Between Kartik and close to Gaura-purnima, Giriraj Maharaja had not been able to come to Vrindavan. Finally, immediately after the GBC meetings in Mayapur, he came, with the idea to spend some time there. It was interesting, because when Arca-vigraha would ask me about her spiritual position, I would speak to her as I had heard Srila Prabhupada preach: “Simply fix your mind on Krishna and understand Krishna, and punar janma naiti—there’ll be no more birth and death, and you’ll go back to Godhead. Just fix your mind on hearing Krishna’s names and pastimes, and you’ll go back to Godhead.” So, when Giriraj Maharaja came and in one of his first meetings with Arca-vigraha asked, “How are you doing?” she replied, “Everything is fine. The material situation is hopeless, but spiritually everything is fine. I’m fixing my mind. I’m going back to Godhead.” When Giriraj Maharaja heard his disciple saying, “I’m fixing my mind; I’m going back to Godhead,” he might have felt that was a bit bold, or presumptuous. She was thinking, “I’m getting enthused, I’m getting determined, I want to go back to Godhead, I want to get out of this material world, I want this to be the last time.”
So, he came over to my house, and he was in one of those very deep, deep, thoughtful moods. He wasn’t really saying anything. When eventually I asked, “What’s up, Maharaja?” he replied, “I just went to see Arca-vigraha.” “So, what’s up?” “She’s thinking that she will go back to Godhead.” I looked up and said, “Yes, I think she’ll go back to Godhead, too. Don’t you think she’ll go back to Godhead?” He said, “But I’ve heard that Madhavendra Puri was crying and Rupa Gosvami was crying and Raghunatha dasa Gosvami was crying, just hoping against hope to go back to Godhead, to attain the service of Radha and Krishna, and here she is—she’s chanting and she’s hearing, but she’s just assuming that she’s going to go back to Godhead. It doesn’t seem like she has the right mood.” I said, “Well, I think that Krishna has a special plan for each and every one of His devotees. For us, people who have taken up Krishna consciousness from the West and are following Srila Prabhupada and his instructions, we should constantly hear about Krishna. I think Krishna will construct a special program just for Arca-vigraha to take her back to Godhead.”
Then I asked Maharaja, “What thing enlivened you the very most in your entire life?” He thought and then replied, “The thing that enlivened me the most was when I would sit before Prabhupada and hear him speak Krishna consciousness.” Giriraj Maharaja was already planning to spend some time in Vrindavan, so I said to him, “I think that your prime responsibility and duty now, as Arca-vigraha’s spiritual master, is to sit with her and discuss with her about Krishna.” Maharaja was very serious. “I have to go now,” he said. And he left.
Maharaja took our discussion quite seriously, and he devised a schedule by which he was able to spend a great deal of quality time with Arca-vigraha. What was he doing when he was with her? He would sit there with Srimad-Bhagavatam. Any of you who have been to Vrindavan may have seen the big red chair in Arca-vigraha’s room. He would sit there in the red chair, and the rest of us would sit nearby—and from morning until night he would read Srimad-Bhagavatam or Sri Caitanya-caritamrta. He was just pouring the nectar of Krishna into the ears of his disciple. It was nonstop, incessant. I would come over from my place twice a day. The reading would have been going on for many hours, and I would come in to be with the devotees and we would start having bhajana and kirtan. That would go on for a few hours, and then the reading would start again. A big program was developed for just hearing about Krishna. Hearing about Krishna is the real medicine, the medicine to relieve us from birth and death, and that was her program.
There was another interesting time. Srila Rupa Gosvami wrote some dramas, which are discussed in the Caitanya-caritamrta. He wrote one called Lalita-madhava and one called Vidagdha-madhava. Vidagdha-madhava is about Krishna’s activities in Vrindavan, and Lalita-madhava is about His activities when He left Vrindavan and went to Dvaraka—a super beautiful play, the most beautiful play you could ever read in your life. One day someone may make a dramatic presentation of that play, and it will be beautiful. There are so many feelings of separation. It’s a ten-act play. In the first act Krishna is in Vrindavan and then, in the third act, Krishna leaves Vrindavan and goes to Mathura, and all the Vrindavan people are just cast into a terrible ocean of separation. And then, through so many dramatic devices, Srila Rupa Gosvami describes how all the people who were in Vrindavan rejoin Krishna in Dvaraka. So much intrigue, so many funny words, so many funny jokes. Rupa Gosvami is the most beautiful, fantastic poet that has ever existed.
So, that play, Lalita-madhava, has many different characters. And we did one thing for Arca-vigraha. Giriraj Maharaja, my friend Sivarama Swami, Kesava Bharati Maharaja, and Tamal Krishna Goswami, who were all in Vrindavan, all went over to Arca’s house and started reading Lalita-madhava, and we would each take a different character in the play, like we were actually performing the play. We were all assuming different voices and trying to read with feeling, and this amazing drama was being enacted right there in the house of Arca-vigraha. We read the whole play. It was something amazing.
So, we would just go on like that, reading and reading and reading. And I could see that Arca never tired of hearing about Krishna. It is described that this is the mentality of a devotee. A devotee never becomes satiated hearing about Krishna. Sometimes, because we have the diseased type of mentality described by Rupa Gosvami as jaundiced, it is as if our tongue has jaundice and cannot taste the sweetness of Krishna’s name or pastimes. But when that jaundice is cured, we can just go on relishing more and more. And that was the situation. It was a high, high intensity program of simply hearing about Krishna, hearing the philosophy of Krishna, hearing the pastimes of Krishna, and hearing kirtan of the holy name of Krishna. This is how Arca spent her final days in this world. And even though Arca’s suffering was becoming more and more intense, she was actually very peaceful.
At a certain point we came to realize that because Arca’s throat was closing up, she couldn’t drink, and the thing that would actually finish her life was not going to be the cancer but dehydration. At one stage she did become dehydrated, so I called the doctor and he put her on a drip, and she became resuscitated and full of life again. So we thought that putting her on the drip had improved the quality of her life and her situation. She said, “The quality of life may be there, but then the pain also comes back.” Later, she was becoming dehydrated again. My principle in dealing with her was that she was in control. I never made decisions about her independently. So when it became obvious that we would have to give her another drip, we asked her, “What is your decision?” She said, “Now I’m ready to go.” So we didn’t give her the drip. We fed her water by spoonfuls, and at the end of her life she couldn’t take even water; her caregivers would crush ice and put little bits in her mouth, and it would melt and trickle down her throat. And she very peacefully lay in her room hearing about Krishna from morning until night.
At that point all of us had more or less been staying up all day and all night, so it was becoming difficult, but on the night before Arca passed away, some devotees organized an all-night kirtan. The next morning, Giriraj Maharaja came down and started preaching to Arca and reading from Srimad-Bhagavatam and discussing Krishna’s activities in each section. Later he simply sat next to her bed and chanted japa. I was called over to the temple to do some work in the Food for Life office, and at about eleven o’clock that morning, while I was standing in the office, someone came over to tell me to come quickly to Arca’s house, because she was having difficulty breathing. When I arrived, Giriraj Maharaja was chanting the names of Krishna, and when I looked at Arca-vigraha, she had already left her body. It was actually a very auspicious situation.
The ladies prepared Arca’s body to be carried to the Yamuna. The devotees from the temple came, and we had kirtan. The devotees lifted up Arca’s body, and we performed parikrama of the Krishna-Balaram mandir. We put her body at the gate of the temple with her head facing the feet of Sri Sri Krishna-Balaram, Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai, and Sri Sri Radha-Shyamasundar. We had kirtan there for some time, and then we set out for the Yamuna. In India when there’s a funeral procession the ladies stay back, so the ladies stayed back. We went by all the major temples of Vrindavan with a big kirtan procession. Then, on the banks of the Yamuna, we had the cremation ceremony of Arca-vigraha, and then we all took bath in the Yamuna and returned to the temple in the evening.
Arca was not an ordinary person in any sense of the word. She was a famous artist in South Africa, and her nickname there was “Angel,” because she was such an angelic person. You always think an angel wants to do good for you, and that was Arca’s mood. She never wanted to stop doing good for the devotees. She was like the best mother you could ever have. I used to joke with her—she was born in a Jewish family, and there are so many jokes about the characteristics of Jewish mothers—that I had preached in Israel and had done so many things in relationships with Jewish people, but I had never had a Jewish mother, and now Krishna had arranged it. She was always caring for the devotees. She never stopped preaching or trying to encourage people. Her life was exemplary.
Today, as I think about Arca, there are two things that strike me: one, how she cared for other people and didn’t care for herself, and two, how fortunate she was to leave her body in Vrindavan and go through that high-intensity program of hearing about Krishna. When Srila Prabhupada came to Vrindavan to leave, he said that to be born in Vrindavan is good, to live in Vrindavan is better, but to die in Vrindavan is best. He had been on one last tour, and the devotees had brought him back to Bombay, and he was lying there in his new quarters in Juhu. He was very weak. Sometimes the devotees would meet around Prabhupada’s bed and discuss what to do, and Prabhupada would pretty much just lie there silently, not saying anything. Then one day after they had been discussing what to do—“Should Srila Prabhupada go to Vrindavan or stay in Bombay?”—one of my godbrothers, Kuladri, said, “Srila Prabhupada, it seems to me that you are waiting for Krishna to make some decision on whether you stay or go. If you are going to wait for Krishna’s decision, that might as well be in Vrindavan.” Thereupon Srila Prabhupada smiled and said, “Yes, that is very good advice.” And then the devotees arranged for his travel back to Vrindavan.
Arca was so fortunate. She wasn’t born in Vrindavan, but at the end of her life Krishna gave her the opportunity to live in Vrindavan, and He gave her the opportunity to die in Vrindavan. And Krishna gave her that opportunity because she was such a fine person. She was always making endeavors to help everyone else, and at the end of her life Krishna allowed her spiritual master to stay there and help her. It was a very wonderful situation, and she was a very wonderful person.
So, we should remember Arca-vigraha and pray for her mercy, that we may develop the quality to always be able to help other people and the quality to always be able to hear about Krishna and have great faith in Krishna’s names and Krishna’s pastimes.
—Bhakti Bhrnga Govinda Swami