My mind is so filled with memories of Mother Arca-vigraha that it is difficult to isolate what inspired me about her. But I think she embodied the two most important devotional principles—chanting the holy names and serving the Vaishnavas—and she performed these activities with great determination and enthusiasm.
I miss her as a friend. She was older than I, and more experienced, and I learned a lot from her training, instructions, and association. I often share thoughts and experiences with her in my mind—especially things that I wouldn’t share with anyone else. She was very understanding and completely trustworthy.
I first met Mother Arca-vigraha in 1985 in Durban, South Africa, at the opening of the Sri Sri Radha-Radhanath Temple. I had met the devotees and moved into the temple just two weeks earlier. Arca, Aileen Lipkin—or “Angel,” as she was then known—had come from Johannesburg to attend the opening festival, and we were part of a large group of women who shared a small room stacked with bunk beds, with a primitive shower in the corner.
I was struck by how Angel seemed to transcend her surroundings. She was always beautifully dressed in gorgeous designer Punjabi suits with matching bead bags of the same cloth. Petite, with a colorful shock of red curls and bright, piercing brown eyes, she was worldly and sophisticated, but also funny and down-to-earth. And she was a perfectionist. Whatever she did, from making a salad to completing a painting or sculpture, she did with artistic precision. I never detected in her even a trace of laziness or sloppiness, and she never compromised on quality. I liked her immediately.
Shortly after the temple opening, I was sent to Johannesburg to do sankirtana. There was a vibrant devotee community in Muldersdrift, a semirural area just north of the city, and there, at the temple, I again met Angel. We would often sit together and talk, but I was frequently traveling, so she and I also exchanged letters. Hers were works of art, written on huge pieces of drawing paper in beautiful, meticulous script, often accompanied by a small watercolor painting or pencil drawing. Her letters were filled with wisdom and realization. I remember one that I found particularly interesting—an account of Angel’s meeting with a Buddhist nun who had taught her that a woman did not have to have many, or even any, children of her own; she could be the mother of all living entities, showing mercy and kindness to all.
Angel had perceived her identity as an artist from an early age. As a child, she would spend hours drawing and would even dab turpentine on her wrists the way other girls would perfume. Her spiritual search had begun at the age of twelve. Angel’s mother, with whom she enjoyed a very close, deep relationship, fell ill with cancer. Angel would sometimes come home from school and find her mother in bed, shaking with tremors, and she would lie down with her and try to stop the shaking.
When her mother died, Angel was devastated. She would spend hours swinging back and forth on the front gate, gazing at the blue sky and feeling very alone. It was, she said, the first time in her life that she was confronted with death. Her father was grief-stricken and unable to take care of his children. So he handed them over to other families—Angel to the care of a Catholic lady, Mrs. Schneider, who lived next-door. Although Angel was Jewish by birth, Mrs. Schneider trained her how to pray with folded hands and bended knees, how to call out to and take shelter of God. She taught her, Arca later realized, to develop a personal relationship with God, something that stayed with her for the rest of her life.
After high school, Angel apprenticed as a display artist in a Johannesburg department store, and soon thereafter she started her own commercial art studio and quickly built up a successful practice. She married, and later credited much of her success to her husband, Lee, who encouraged her to dedicate herself fully to her art. The couple had two children, but tragically, some years later, Lee passed away following a heart attack.
In the years after her husband’s death, Angel found herself increasingly weary of the materialism that surrounded her. Even though she had two beautiful children and had accumulated wealth, success, fame, and popularity, she felt that her life was incomplete, that her soul was yearning for deeper satisfaction and answers. She longed for solitude. So she traveled alone to Israel, and at the edge of the Sinai desert she joined a band of Bedouin nomads—the only woman, only outsider, in the group.
The solitude of the desert and the simple, rugged, austere life of the nomads had a profound effect on Angel; it was a turning point in her life. When, about two months later, she returned to “civilization,” sunburned, relaxed, and revived, she determined to devote herself fully and relentlessly to her search for higher meaning.
Notwithstanding her professional and commercial success—her painting “Woman on a Donkey” was one of the best-selling poster prints of all time—Angel’s art had always been part of her inner search, a road map of her spiritual journey. And by the mid-’80s, she had explored many paths: the major religious traditions as well as others more occult, mystical, and philosophical—anthroposophy, Egyptology, and Kabbalah. She had read books by Rajneesh and visited Sai Baba in India, and she had learned from the Bedouins in the desert. She practiced and taught Tai Chi and fencing and was well versed in naturopathy, homeopathy, acupuncture, and Ayurveda. But still she yearned for something more.
In 1984, while doing research for an art project at the University of Witwatersrand, Angel met the devotees and began attending programs. She and a friend would drive the hour or so from where she was living, in Yeoville, to the temple in Muldersdrift, pitch a tent, and stay the weekend. She had already been following a vegan and mostly raw diet, and she was attracted to the philosophy of Krishna consciousness and liked both the austerity of the devotees’ lifestyle and the genuine spiritual atmosphere. The only thing she couldn’t come to terms with was the quantity and opulence of the devotees’ diet. So instead of honoring (eating) the prasada, she would take it back to Johannesburg to distribute to “Twilight Kids,” homeless boys living on the streets.
One highlight of the Sunday programs for Angel, and for me as well, was Bhakti Caitanya Swami’s (then named Raghubir dasa) Krsna book classes. She was always eager to learn about the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, and she loved to hear about Krishna’s pastimes.
Whatever path she had followed earlier, she had learned whatever she could about it and practiced it very seriously. Gradually she rejected all the other theories and came to Krishna consciousness. She realized that Krishna consciousness was the process she had always been yearning and searching for. And when she joined and became a devotee, she already had had a lot of spiritual training and realization.
At a time when “joining” Krishna consciousness meant moving into the temple and adopting the strict rules of ashram life, Arca lived “outside” in her own house. She was more natural and spontaneous in her devotional service and could not always remember details such as how many times to offer an incense stick or ghee lamp. But gradually I understood that the purpose of all the rules and regulations was to remember Krishna and that she was remembering Him, so what was the problem if she made some small mistakes?
She lived “outside” in her own house at a time when we all lived in the temple and were trained to be very, very strict. There were so many rules and regulations, and the slightest “deviation” had tremendous consequences, or so it seemed at the time. But she was so natural and spontaneous, and in the beginning she couldn’t get every detail right, such as how many times to offer an incense stick or ghee lamp. I gradually understood that the purpose of all the rules and regulations was to remember Krishna and that she was remembering Him, so what was the problem if she made some small mistakes?
On May 3, 1987, Angel, I, and three other aspiring devotees received initiation from Giriraj Swami—his first disciples. Derek became Damodara dasa; Paolo, Patraka dasa; and Aditi, Vrajesvari dasi. And Angel became Arca-vigraha dasi. Maharaja explained how one devotee, an artist, had asked Srila Prabhupada, “Of the nine types of devotional service, which is painting?” Prabhupada had answered, “Arcanam, decorating the form of the Lord.” And from then on, painting the Deities became one of Arca’s main services.
Toward the end of that year Arca was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors removed a lymph node in her right armpit, and the cancer went into remission.
About a year later, Indradyumna Maharaja organized a Ratha-yatra festival in Durban, and he asked Arca-vigraha to help paint the chariots, which she did in the most beautiful way. As usual, she worked very hard, taking time off only to chant her rounds. She would walk up and down in the parking lot in front of the Sri Sri Radha-Radhanath temple, chanting intensely.
At that time I was based at a new preaching center not far from Arca’s house. There was no facility for women at the center, however, so I stayed with her. She just opened up her home to me—and to ISKCON—and I ended up living there for two years, until we moved to India. She often held programs at the house, where she had the most beautiful temple room, with large Jagannatha-Baladeva-Subhadra deities, covered from floor to ceiling in colorful Orissan cloth and adorned with sequined pillows and embroidered carpets. She attracted a varied group of people—artists and intellectuals—different from those who would usually come to the temple, and even the mayor of Johannesburg, with whom she was friends, once came to a program.
Arca would get up very early every morning, around three o’clock, and she never failed to chant her sixteen rounds. We would go to the morning program at the center, and then she would get to work and I would go out and distribute books all day and then come back to attend the evening program. When I would finally get home, at about ten, ready to collapse, she would still be awake and would make hot milk with molasses, and we would talk until late at night, sometimes reading from Srimad-Bhagavatam. The next morning, she would be up again at three, ready to start another day (though she would often encourage me to take a little extra rest).
Arca always said that Jayananda Prabhu was her role model. His example inspired her with the determination to always finish her rounds, no matter what. While taking Giriraj Swami’s course on The Nectar of Devotion at the Vrindavan Institute for Higher Education (VIHE) in Vrindavan, she commented that the real nectar of devotion was to do service. She had such a taste for service that she often said that she wanted to become like the Six Gosvamis, and she lamented that she had to sleep at night. Later, when she was painting the deities in Vrindavan, she would hardly sleep for days, sometimes weeks.
In Johannesburg I would often read aloud to Arca. She did not read so much herself, but she always enjoyed hearing. Sometimes, when she was working in her studio, I would sit in a chair in the corner and read from Srimad-Bhagavatam. Sometimes we would listen to devotional recordings. We both found it all—the philosophy, the descriptions, the pastimes—wondrous, mind-blowing, and would talk about how to incorporate the ideas into her art.
Inspired by Srimad-Bhagavatam and the Bhagavad-gita, Arca developed the idea of organizing some of their themes into a series of drawings. She had a vision of starting with charcoal drawings depicting different aspects of sinful, materialistic life and then gradually introducing more and more color as she moved into depictions of spiritual life. She planned to culminate the series with a gorgeous image of Goloka Vrindavan, all in color. She called the series “The Eye Opener.”
Arca worked on “The Eye Opener” for years, and when the owner of the prestigious Goodman Gallery, where Arca had exhibited throughout her career, first saw the drawings, she exclaimed, “I want them!” But when she realized what a challenge they represented to contemporary life, she refused to exhibit the work, and her relationship with Arca-vigraha became strained.
That was a blow to Arca’s professional career, but instead of being discouraged, she took it as Krishna’s mercy to further cut her ties with the material world. She had faith that eventually someone, somewhere, would exhibit her new work or use it in Krishna’s service. She never completed “The Eye Opener,” partly because she got sick, partly because her other services demanded increasing amounts of her time. Her art was her only means of livelihood, but she was so immersed in Krishna consciousness that she just kept taking on more devotee projects—anything from designing incense packets to painting the personal deities of whoever asked.
Arca’s service to the devotees was incredible. She never held back. She was friendly to everybody and made everyone feel special and loved. One day, before I lived with Arca, I went to visit her. I knocked on the door, and when she opened it she exclaimed, “Oh, Kuntidevi!” with such joy. I thought, Wow, she really likes me! Then, about an hour later, somebody else came and knocked, and when Arca opened the door she greeted that person with exactly the same joy and enthusiasm. I was surprised and a little disappointed at first to realize that it wasn’t just me whom she liked so much, but then I realized what a special quality it was to be so warm and gracious, not just as a social mannerism but from a genuine love and appreciation in her heart for all kinds of people.
In the late eighties, Giriraj Maharaja became very ill on one of his visits to Johannesburg. Arca took charge of the situation and insisted on taking Maharaja to the hospital. There, they told us that if we had brought Maharaja even a few minutes later, he would have left his body. If Arca, in her fearless, spontaneous manner, had not taken charge, overriding the indecision and hesitation of others, the incident might have had a very different outcome.
Arca then insisted on taking Maharaja back to her house, where she could administer the proper care. This kind of arrangement was unheard of, but Arca knew what had to be done and just did it. A number of devotees moved in with her to help, and Arca did not spare any cost or effort to take care of Maharaja. She pushed all else aside. As she did with everything, she embraced the service of Maharaja’s care wholeheartedly, with full dedication and surrender, and poured every ounce of her being into it. She never held back from Krishna or His devotees.
Maharaja stayed at Arca’s house for many weeks, gradually gaining strength, and when he was strong enough to travel again, she accompanied him to Mauritius to make sure he would get the right kind of care and prasada. She trained the Mauritian devotees how and what to cook. And more than that, she trained all of us to take care of each other. At that time this kind of love and care was not really emphasized in ISKCON; we tended to be a bit regimented in our service and often neglected ourselves and others. But Arca taught us how to be personal and loving.
Arca’s cooking, like everything else she did, was superb. She was a very conscious cook, preparing food with the freshest, most wholesome ingredients. She never compromised on quality, even though she was sometimes criticized for spending extra money. Her salads were big bowls of nutritious art, perfectly cut and gorgeously assembled. Everything was done to create healthy and delicious offerings, but also with the same beauty and elegance that characterized everything she did.
She took equal care with her possessions. She had a juicer that she had received as a wedding present, and she took such good care of it that it was still in first-class condition thirty years later, even though she used it every day. This was one of the first practical lessons I learned from her—after every use to immediately take the machine apart, wash every piece, dry every part, put it together again, and pack it away. I learned how to take care of things and how to perform even simple tasks thoroughly. This may not seem like a very profound lesson, but Srila Prabhupada said that Krishna consciousness means to be conscious, and she taught me to become conscious of details.
Arca was also a friend with whom one could talk about anything and freely reveal one’s heart. She never indulged in gossip, and, in addition to being a good listener, she gave excellent advice. Many devotees, young and old, took shelter of her and confided in her, and she had the ability to see the uniquely beautiful qualities in each of us. She would often emphatically declare, “We should just use this one little incarnation for Krishna.” If she saw the need, she could also speak sternly to someone about correcting his or her behavior. Finally, in the end, Arca really had only one message: full surrender to guru and Krishna. There was no time to waste.
Arca’s devotion to Krishna was wonderfully spontaneous; she just followed her heart. Sometimes, while offering bhoga to her Deities, she would stop and say, “Wait, Lord Jagannatha, wait! I have something else for You!” Then she would run back to the kitchen, cut up an apple, and run back to the altar to complete the offering. She knew that bhakti was the most important offering of all and understood that the first principle of Deity worship was to remember that Krishna was a person and that we should treat Him with love. If something disturbed her, she would call out loud, “Krishna!” and when confronted with a difficult problem, she would say, “I will speak to Krishna,” and then she would talk to Him just like she would talk to a dear friend. We weren’t quite sure how to understand her spontaneity, but her relationship with Krishna was indisputably real.
She would befriend all kinds of devotees, even if they were shunned or ostracized by others. For example, in Vrindavan Arca made friends with one devotee who was extremely critical and offensive and welcomed him into her house. I was really concerned and could not understand why she had befriended him, so I asked Govinda Maharaja and Giriraj Swami what we should do about her association with this person. But eventually I realized that Arca was simply willing to give everyone a chance.
In the late eighties Arca traveled to India often and fell in love with Vrindavan. On one trip, she bought a plot of land and decided to build a house—one of the first Western devotees to do so. It was a struggle, and being a Western woman, she was cheated and taken advantage of, but still she persevered, selling her paintings in the West and returning to India, and in this way, with her going back and forth, the construction progressed.
Then, on Nrsimha-caturdasi in 1991, at a program at the Hillbrow temple in Johannesburg, Arca felt some pain just beneath her collarbone. She knew that the cancer had returned. Medical tests confirmed it, and the doctors’ prognosis was that she had only another seven to nine months to live.
Arca was devastated. We sat in her kitchen and pondered it all. She wanted to speak to her spiritual master, so we tracked down Giriraj Swami in Portugal. “Let go of everything,” he told her. “Go to Vrindavan and let Srimati Radharani take over.”
Arca took her guru maharaja’s words to heart and wholeheartedly surrendered her life to his instruction. Over the next few months, she wound up her affairs in Johannesburg, and in September 1991 she, her daughter Sara, and I left for Vrindavan—Arca-vigraha for good, Sara to help with the move, and me to be with Arca for what I thought would be a few months.
When we arrived in Vrindavan, Arca’s house was not yet ready, so for the first few months we lived in the temple guesthouse, at the far end of the outside passage, in a dark, unheated room with a cold-water shower. A group of aggressive monkeys lived on the adjacent boundary wall, and it was frightening even to step outside.
In time, the house was completed and we moved in. We were on a secluded lane nearby the temple and just off the parikrama path, diagonally across from Balaram Baba’s ashram, where the sound of kirtan could be heard twenty-four hours a day. There was a small goshala on the one side, and Sivarama Swami and B. B. Govinda Swami shared a house on the other. It was perfect.
From the beginning, Arca intended the house to be not just for herself, but as an offering to her spiritual master, a place for him to stay during his visits to the holy dhama. She would work and live on the ground floor, and the upper floor, with a separate entrance and quarters, would accommodate her guru maharaja. That was her mood: to offer everything to her spiritual master and Krishna.
Arca was a well-known figure in Vrindavan, and all the devotees were aware that now she had come to leave her body. Several, especially Bhaktisiddhanta Prabhu and Mother Vidya, helped her settle in, and serious devotees absorbed in cultivating Krishna consciousness were eager to help her attain her spiritual goals. Our lives became completely surcharged with the mood of Vraja.
B. B. Govinda Maharaja (at first still Ayodhyapati dasa) was already Arca’s friend, but now he also became her spiritual guide. Not knowing how long she had to live, he wanted her to deepen her relationship with Sri Vrindavan dhama. He would take us to the holy places in his big brown Food for Life van, and through him we developed a taste for the beauty of Krishna’s pastimes and dhama.
Govinda Maharaja came to see Arca almost every day. He had so much love and compassion and had been living in Vrindavan for so long that he was able to advise us both spiritually and practically. He would read to Arca, sing bhajanas, and bring his Deities over to stay with her. He was the best possible friend and benefactor, with his blend of down-to-earth humor and wisdom. Sometimes, when I would find my service challenging, he would tell me to just shower Arca with “love bombs.” Without his help and support and encouragement, I never could have accomplished my service to her. Arca adored Govinda Maharaja, and he really helped her.
Despite the dire prognosis handed down by the doctors in South Africa, Arca still had some health and vitality. She still wore beautiful, colorful saris, and her short hair remained a rich reddish color. And initially, for the first year or so, she continued to live a fairly normal life. She attended the full morning program at the temple, and almost every morning after mangala-arati, together with Bhaktisiddhanta Prabhu, we would do Vrindavan parikrama, taking a bath in the Yamuna along the way, and be back at the temple in time for greeting of the Deities.
We often went to Delhi to purchase household items for the new house, or to Jaipur for service and darshan—even as far as Bombay, where Giriraj Swami was based. One time, Govinda Maharaja took us for darshan of Sri Govindaji and Sri Gopinatha in Jaipur and Sri Madana-mohana in Karoli all in one day, because it is said that if one has had darshan of all three Deities on the same day, one has seen the complete form of Krishna. These experiences were drawing her deeper and deeper into spiritual consciousness.
All the shopkeepers and rickshaw wallas in Vrindavan knew Arca and respected her for leaving her comfortable life in the West to prepare for her departure in the holy place of Vrindavan. At times some of the Vraja-vasis would invite us to their homes for lunch, and we always accepted. People of all types and walks of life wanted to know Arca and serve her in some way. Everyone accepted me as her daughter, even though we explained that that was not our biological relation. To the Vraja-vasis, my serving her like a daughter meant that I was her daughter, and I was afforded a degree of respect, even honor, for serving Arca this way.
Arca was always seeking ways to employ her skills and talents to render devotional service. Srila Prabhupada had said that by tradition in India, women did not go on the altar. So the idea of Arca painting the temple deities there was unheard of. But Bhaktisiddhanta Prabhu, who was serving as head pujari in Vrindavan and was also an artist, had arranged for her to paint Sri Sri Radha-Shyamasundara secretly at night. He was the first to arrive at the temple in the morning and the last to leave at night, so he was able to open the doors and let her in and out without anyone knowing. In Juhu also, after being requested, she would paint the deities at night; no one knew who was doing the beautiful work.
When Arca served like this, she would hardly sleep for weeks on end. I think that is one of the reasons she got so sick. She would be up all night on the altar and busy during the day. She was always very controlled, never sleeping much and eating only healthy food and even then not too much. But when she was absorbed in service, she would forget eating and sleeping entirely. And she couldn’t refuse any devotee who asked her to paint their deities or help with some project. This in turn endeared her even further to the devotees, with whom she forged close friendships.
Over time, Arca was able to use her artistic talent in the service of some very special projects. Once, a Gaudiya Vaishnava at Radha-kunda wanted to renovate Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami’s bhajana-kutira and was looking for an artist to paint a new portrait. It would be served and worshiped like a deity, nondifferent from the transcendental personality it represented, and since Radha-kunda was one of the most important holy sites, visited by millions of pilgrims every year, the painting had to look exactly like the one it was replacing, and the artist had to be carefully chosen. This young Vaishnava from Radha-kunda, who was friendly with Bhurijana Prabhu and his wife, Mother Jagattarini, asked them to help him find the right person—“but not a foreigner and not a woman.” So Bhurijana and Jagattarini asked Arca-vigraha to do the service, but secretly—she couldn’t even sign the painting or reveal herself as the artist.
On the day of the bhajana-kutira’s reopening, the painting was unveiled for all to see, and everyone thought it was wonderful. Then someone pointed to Arca-vigraha, who was sitting at the back of the assembly, and exclaimed, “And here is the artist!” We froze on the spot. But the local babajis were so enchanted with the painting that they no longer cared who had painted it. In fact, they requested Arca to also paint Jiva Goswami, and Ananta dasa Babaji, Radha-kunda’s chief mahant, requested a meeting with Arca to thank her personally. Both paintings are still there at Radha-kunda, installed and worshiped.
Another wonderful service opportunity came when Govinda Maharaja arranged for Arca to paint a large govardhana-sila for the Houston ISKCON temple. We had never seen such a large sila, and it stayed with us for several weeks, while Arca contemplated how to paint the features. She was a perfectionist and never rushed a task, no matter what. She painted Giriraja with gorgeous, full lips and expressive lotus eyes. I had never seen a govardhana-sila painted quite like that. Usually silas had conchshell eyes and a simple, linear, half-moon smile. But Arca infused so much transcendental personality into the deities she painted. All her hearing and meditation on Krishna’s name, form, qualities, and pastimes were translated into her art.
She still wanted to complete some of her own projects too—to finish “The Eye Opener” and do something big for Srila Prabhupada. Bhurijana Prabhu once preached to her that not even Srila Prabhupada had been able to finish his work of translating Srimad-Bhagavatam, and this comforted her a little. But she never let up.
Even before we arrived in Vrindavan, Arca had already decided that she did not want chemotherapy or any other conventional cancer treatment. She decided to accept Ayurvedic care and eventually settled on that, but at first she was also open to a variety of alternative approaches, and strangers often approached her with claims of a cure. One local baba claimed that the cancer was the result of a ghost and prescribed a black rubber band to be worn around Arca’s waist; another recommended mantras and talismans invoking Hanuman, another one those invoking the lower spirits. Ananta-santi dasa, Srila Prabhupada’s first disciple in Russia, who had endured many hardships and was now wandering around India, an emaciated ascetic with his blond hair in a topknot, insisted that she go to the Himalayas to fast and submerge herself in icy cold water every day for forty days.
Initially we also injected an experimental homeopathic drug from Switzerland directly into the tumor. Due to the lack of proper medical facilities and personnel, I would often administer the injections myself, despite my lack of training. Eventually, with the help of a young Ayurvedic doctor, Liladhar Gupta—the son of a reputed Ayurvedic physician—she settled on a regimen of treatments that for a while seemed to soften and shrink the tumor. But whatever the treatment, Arca was adamant that she wanted to maintain a clear consciousness right until the moment of death.
In 1992 Arca contracted hepatitis, probably from drinking contaminated water, and as a result she could not tolerate any medicine. Then, while still struggling with the hepatitis, she developed a severe case of pneumonia. It was a battle for her life, and a great setback in her fight against the cancer. After this incident, we realized that there really was no hope of a cure or even an extended remission. More and more, Arca accepted the inevitable.
Despite the steady decline in her health, Arca continued to work at her art until almost the very end. She took inspiration from the verse tat te ’nukampam su-samiksamano—that if one is suffering but takes the misery as the mercy of Krishna, tolerates it, and takes the opportunity to become more serious about Krishna consciousness, he or she can earn the right to enter the kingdom of God. Although she was in such extreme pain—every doctor said that the type of cancer she had was the most painful—she never begrudged it but always took it as Krishna’s purifying mercy upon her.
Sometimes the local Vraja-vasis would affectionately joke about that “tough English woman” and say that she had been a yogi in a previous life. Many people thought that Arca was a very wealthy woman, but the truth was that she still had to work to earn the money she used for the house and her medical expenses. She would paint floral still lifes, for which there was a demand in South Africa, and her daughter, Sara, who served as Arca’s agent, would travel back and forth between India and South Africa, collecting the paintings, selling them, and bringing back the payment and more art supplies.
Although Arca was very sick at that time and the pain in her arm was almost unbearable, she would still paint. I would go into the fields in Vrindavan to collect flowers for her to paint. It wasn’t so easy to find flowers on stems in Vrindavan, because people there grow flowers mainly for garlands. So sometimes I would go to Khan Market in Delhi and pick out some beautiful flowers and bring them back to Vrindavan. We would arrange them in one of her colorful Rajasthani ceramic vases, and then she would just paint for days. It was a momentous effort every time. But she was so determined. Then we would have to package the paintings so that Sara could sell them. Arca was very particular about the packing. She did it with great care and precision and artistry, the way she did everything. I would watch her and help her, and eventually I was entrusted with doing the packing.
In addition to being an amazing devotee, Arca was a wonderful person. She was balanced—deeply absorbed in Krishna consciousness, but not fanatical or dogmatic.
Arca often said that we should see the divinity in everyone. She had great respect for all living entities—even the dogs. When she saw dogs suffering in Vrindavan, she would cry. Sometimes she would say that she was crying for the whole world. Of course, her emotions were heightened by her personal suffering, but she was always very sensitive.
She always had a sense of adventure and curiosity about life, even when she was sick and dying. At one stage, when she was still exploring different treatment options, we were going to many doctors and healers and going to different hospitals in Delhi and Mumbai. But through all of this, which was a very emotionally intense experience, Arca always maintained a sense of humor and compassion. Looking back on it now, I can see how incredible it was for her to have maintained this spirit under such circumstances. But back then I just saw it as an adventure—not only the physical adventure of traveling throughout India, but also a spiritual journey.
Arca still had commitments to her children. Her son, Michael, a brilliant and successful advertising executive in Canada, had suffered from a nervous breakdown, and Arca was very concerned about him and tried to help him through his struggle with stress and depression. Eventually he was able to overcome his problems and became a successful author and motivational speaker, often referring to her in his talks and books.
While Arca was still able to go out, we went on parikramas whenever we could, visiting the holy places. She had a special affinity for Vrindadevi, and we often drove to Kamyavana for Vrindadevi’s darshan. Later on, when Mother Daivisakti and Deena Bandhu Prabhu began the renovation of Vrinda-kunda, they arranged for Arca to paint the deity there. (Later, after Arca left, Guru Maharaja, Govinda Maharaja, and a few close devotees visited Vrinda-kunda, and Guru Maharaja mentioned to the pujari that Arca was sorry she could not finish her work on the deity. The pujari smiled, pointed upward, and replied, “Her service to Vrindadevi will be complete there.”)
All the while, Arca was aware that part of her process was to let go of her remaining material attachments, even natural, loving attachments like family and friends, and subtle ones like art—her paper, brushes, and paints. One of her final attachments, she said, was color. She understood how all the tastes and impressions we gather throughout a lifetime become imprinted on our hearts and how eventually we have to let them all go.
In the summer of 1993, when Arca, in frail health, could no longer tolerate the intense heat in Vrindavan, where there was still no air conditioning and even electricity was sporadic, we flew north to Kullu Manali, in the Himalayan foothills near India’s border with Tibet. While we were staying in the small village of Kullu, one young man invited us to visit his family, high in the mountain slopes. The only way to reach their village was by foot, a steep three-hour climb from Kullu, and there was no way Arca could make the trek, but she insisted I go. One morning the young man and I set out. The ascent was magnificent, with beautiful vistas of the surrounding mountain peaks and the river below. I knew Mother Arca would love it and resolved to bring her.
First our friend offered to carry her on his back. Then he said he could take her on a mountain horse, but she was too frail for such a bumpy ride. Reluctantly, we gave up the idea. At nine o’clock the next morning, however, our friend burst into our room and said, “Come, let’s go!” He had four other men with him, and they had crafted a special palanquin, or palki, for Arca, complete with curtains and a roof to shield her from the sun. For a reasonable sum, they would carry her up and down the mountain.
Arca loved the palki and was excited about the adventure. Not wanting to miss the beautiful scenery, she had us take down the curtain and the roof, and she made herself as comfortable as possible, sitting cross-legged, sketching. The palanquin bearers carried her with the utmost care and respect. She had that effect on people—everyone recognized her as someone special, and wherever we went around Kullu, people would offer respect and address her as “holy mother.”
Eventually we reached the village. First we visited the village temple, where there were a deity of Lord Ramachandra and a shiva-lingam. Then the boy took us further up the mountain to his family home. They lived in a simple log cabin, with sheep downstairs and the people above, overlooking groves of almond and apple trees. Huge hemp bushes grew wild.
Arca was fascinated by the villagers’ simple, self-sufficient way of life. They grew their own wheat, dal, and vegetables; herded sheep for wool; and kept short-legged Himalayan cows for milk. They ground their own atta and spun and dyed the wool to weave their famous Kullu shawls and tunics. Using the hemp, they made shoes.
With classic Indian hospitality, the mother offered us lunch. She gathered bundles of wheat, ground them in a stone grinder, and with this freshly-ground atta, hand-formed thick rotis. Then, squatting on the floor, with her baby playing in a corner, she cooked dal and a sabji of fresh, tiny eggplants with chili-masala stuffing. It was simple and delicious.
After lunch, we drank glacier water from a mountain stream. According to legend, the Pandavas, as well as many sages and rishis, had spent time in the area, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine these great devotees living there, drinking fresh water from the streams, eating fruits and berries from the trees, and meditating on God.
Arca gained a lot of inspiration from that trip up the mountain. She saw it as a symbolic journey—surveying from above the world she was leaving behind and embracing the world beyond.
One morning while we were still in Kullu, Arca woke up with intense pain. She could tell that the cancer had spread, so we immediately returned by bus to Delhi—a fifteen-hour journey winding down steep, narrow mountain passes. In Delhi we went straight to Batra Hospital to meet Dr. Ghosh, an oncologist whom she had previously consulted. He was very straightforward and told her that the cancer had come to a critical point; she did not have long to live.
Arca was shaken. The only thing she could do was try to manage the pain through radiation therapy. So we went back to Vrindavan for a few days, before returning to Delhi, to Batra Hospital, where she would receive a series of treatments.
She wanted her art equipment with her—her pencils and brushes and paints and papers—in case she felt inspired to work. We also took a portable kitchen—stoves, pots, and dry goods. And her special pillow, sheets, and personal effects.
The taxi left us at the hospital, and there were throngs of people. Struggling with all our luggage, we took our places in a long line leading to the front desk and eventually reached the admissions clerk. Our idea was that I would stay at the hospital with Arca and cook and take care of her. But the hospital refused. Hearing that, Arca turned around and walked out.
“We’re going to Kaya Maya,” she declared—to a nearby Ayurvedic clinic. So, we piled into an auto rickshaw, with Arca in the back on top of the luggage and me squeezed in next to the driver. When we arrived at Kaya Maya, however, we found that the facility was just a day clinic. Still, the manager agreed to give us a place to stay—a small dark room full of cobwebs, with a simple tap-and-toilet bathroom and another room, a crude cement structure with a tap and a basin, to use as a kitchen.
Every day people would come to consult “Guruji,” the clinic’s famous Ayurvedic kaviraja, and as they waited for hours in the courtyard, they would come right up to our door and window and stare at Arca and me. And Arca, also intrigued, would return their gazes, noting something unique and beautiful about each person, no matter how ordinary he or she seemed.
But she was very sick and in great pain. We had no transport to get back to the hospital, where she was receiving treatments, so every day I would walk down to the main road to hitchhike. When a car stopped I would tell the driver, “Just wait; I have to call my mother,” and run back up to get Arca.
Arca had been accustomed to having the best of everything, but here she was, far from country and family and modern facilities, accepting rides from strangers to a mediocre hospital. There, we met people from all over India and Nepal, some with huge tumors, like footballs, protruding from their bodies. It was difficult to be surrounded by so much suffering.
When the series of treatments was complete, we returned one last time to Vrindavan, where Arca became more and more absorbed in Krishna consciousness. She was like a great saintly person, finishing up her life on earth, and other saintly personalities came to see her, both to bless her and to receive her blessings. Giriraj Swami came to Vrindavan to be with her, and despite his duties in Bombay, he stayed with her until the very end. (Arca’s experience during this time convinced her of the need for a hospice in Vrindavan, and Maharaja promised her that he would establish one—which he did.) Govinda Maharaja still came every day, positioning his govardhana-sila in Arca’s line of vision and helping her focus on Krishna’s pastimes by recounting them and reading aloud. Tamal Krishna Goswami came every morning to read from the portion of Srimad-Bhagavatam known as the Venu-gita. Bhurijana Prabhu also came daily, and Sivarama Swami and Kesava Bharati Maharaja visited often. Sometimes they would all read to her from the Lalita-madhava, each reciting the part of a different character. She had retained her great taste for hearing and absorbed it all with enthusiasm. Sometimes, as she listened to the beautiful pastimes of Krishna in Vrindavan, her heart would melt and she would cry. Narayana Maharaja also came to bless her, as well as other senior Vaishnavas, and some of the senior female devotees would visit regularly and we would sing bhajanas together. The atmosphere was surcharged with profound spiritual energy, and as Arca in this way became more and more absorbed in Krishna consciousness, her focus shifted from her life and service in this world to her life and service in Goloka Vrindavan.
By Gaura-purnima of 1994, Arca was no longer able to eat. The tumor was pressing down on her food pipe and she couldn’t swallow. She wasn’t able to keep her Ayurvedic medicine down and was becoming increasingly dehydrated and weak; we were afraid she would fall into a coma. Just then, a wonderful devotee doctor from France—Gopaswami Prabhu, who had a certificate in hospice care—arrived in Vrindavan, and with his help we learned how to manage the different symptoms of her failing body. There was no hope or chance of recovery, but Gopaswami Prabhu showed us how to keep Arca’s body comfortable enough so that she could remain conscious, in keeping with her desire. She was often in great pain, and her body was barely more than a skeleton. But she still relished hearing Krishna’s pastimes—sometimes laughing, sometimes crying.
Arca had always said that she wanted only five devotees present at the time of her passing. For the previous few weeks, we had screened her visitors, allowing only her closest friends to visit. But on the night before she left her body, we sensed that the time was near, and there was an all-night kirtan and vigil to which everyone was welcome. Many devotees came, and everyone who wanted to serve her got the chance to do so. We took turns crushing ice and putting small amounts into her mouth.
Late the next morning—Jahnu-saptami, May 18—only Giriraj Swami, Nama Chintamani, Rasikananda, Krishna Kumari, and I were present.
At around noon Mother Arca-vigraha breathed in deeply a few times, flung her right arm backwards, and took her last breath. One tear ran from the corner of her right eye. There were tulasi leaves on her tongue and forehead, and she was surrounded by sacred objects. Giriraj Maharaja was chanting japa, and the recorded sound of Srila Prabhupada chanting filled the room.
Govinda Maharaja, who had been called away to attend to something urgent at the temple, returned moments later; then, after a few minutes, the door flew open and devotees poured in. Deena Bandhu Prabhu, Gauri dasa and the gurukula boys, and so many other devotees came in, and there was a beautiful kirtan. We bathed Arca’s body in water from Radha-kunda; decorated it with tilak; and painted the names of Radharani on different parts of her body, dressed it in a fresh white sari, placed it on a palanquin, and festooned it with garlands. Everything was so beautiful and auspicious.
The men then took Arca’s body on a procession to all the main temples in Vrindavan, starting at the Krishna-Balaram Mandir, and finally to the cremation ghat on the banks of the Yamuna. Arca’s closest friends and well-wishers—her guru maharaja, Govinda Maharaja, Bhurijana Prabhu, and others—lit her funeral pyre and stayed for hours, until it was all over.
By her own example, Mother Arca-vigraha taught us about wholehearted, unflinching faith and surrender to guru and Krishna. She showed us how to live with grace and dignity, and she showed us how to leave in the same manner. Her last few months had extracted from her the ultimate in surrender and purification, and by the time she passed away, her consciousness had become highly exalted.
Arca had taken her spiritual master’s instruction, “Just go to Vrindavan and let Radharani take over,” completely to heart. Her faith in guru and her love for Vrindavan had assured her complete victory, and there is no doubt that she entered the eternal pastimes of Radha and Krishna.
[A talk by Kuntidevi dasi on Mother Arca-vigraha’s disappearance day, May 9, 2000, in Carpinteria, California.]