Updated: Jul 18
Close Together Or Far Apart, You’re Forever In Our Hearts
Everything was new for me. The place, the people, the culture, the way of life. We had moved to Columbus, Indiana and were trying to settle into the community. We got into our daily routine, managing our home and professions but there was a feeling of loneliness, emptiness within. Then one day, we decided to go on a drive. We searched and came to know about Krishna House in Columbus, Ohio. After driving for 3 hours, we arrived in front of our destination. It was a small house and we were debating if it was the right address, when we heard echoes of sankirtan coming from inside. Taking this as a sign for us to follow, we made our way inside and were immediately met with the radiantly beautiful deities of Sri Sri Radha Natabara in the centre of the altar. The deities were so stunningly decorated that it became almost impossible for me to tear my eyes away from them. I stood there in a trance like state, mesmerised by everything I was taking in. It felt as if I was meeting Krishna after eons. I couldn’t control the tears that rolled down my face without any barrier. My heart was overwhelmed with joy and though I wanted to visit this place every single week, I knew it wouldn’t be possible.
A few days after this visit, my husband came home from work and declared that we would have to go to Greenwood that weekend as his colleague, Thiru Sethuraman, was celebrating Govardhan Utsav. It was as if Krishna had answered my prayers. I waited eagerly for that day, since it had been years since I had been to an Annakuta celebration. Back at home, in Bhubaneswar, we used to celebrate Govardhan Utsav on the day after Deepavali, mostly in the Radha Krishna Temple down the road. We would plan ahead of time, invite people over, have discourses, bhajans, and sit down for prasad. As we arrived at our friend’s place, we saw the devotees had got together and offered a mountain of prasad and were singing in chorus to a bhajan led by an American man dressed in saffron robes, a calm demeanor, eyes full of life, a gentle smile that never faded from his lips and a lock of hair tied in a knot on top of his clean shaved head. He was leading the discussion and, in the end, when everyone took prasad, he went to the other room and started taking out the books and images and displaying them telling the people interested how to read and understand the Bhagavad Gita. I was in awe and there were so many questions I had for him.
The next thing which happened was no less than a miracle. Thiru asked us if we could host the gathering at our place in the following month. Our joy knew no bounds. Too excited to form any words in our mouth, we nodded a big yes, and returned home. Our ride home was filled with a new found excitement with the moon smiling at us and its silver rays sparkling in the snow. We soon got to know that Rupa Sanatana Prabhu was the president of the Iskcon at St. Louis. We were informed that he would arrive on a Saturday for sankirtana at our home, stay over that night and leave the following morning to be back at the St. Louis Temple for the Sunday feast. It took a little more than 5 hours to drive from St. Louis to our home in Columbus, Indiana. After the first programme, it was decided that we would have a gathering every month and have Rupa Sanatan Prabhu preside over them. Our friends in Columbus and many devotees from all over Indiana joined in and it became a festive affair. I was in charge of the decoration and my husband was devoted to cooking prasad for around 40/50 devotees. As the programme would come to an end, my friends and I would pack up the left over prasad for the devotees to take back and then stand at the sink washing the dishes and cleaning up the place. Household chores had never been such fun before! Life became colourful again. It was like revisiting my childhood when we always had people gathering at our home for Puja, and the rehearsals for bhajans, discourses and prasad.
I was always curious to find out Rupa Sanatana Prabhu’s journey and how he was attracted to Krishna bhakti. One day after the program, while he was playing with my daughter, I asked him that question. He looked at us, gave a warm smile, and said that it was a long story.
Our eyes grew wider and wider as we sat listening to his story with our mouth open. Rupa Sanatana Prabhu’s earlier name was Stephen Ritz and he was a very well-known architect. He was married and had a daughter. He first met devotees when he helped them by giving them a ride to a congregation. Throughout the ride they were chanting and singing bhajans which were so new and felt like nectar to his ears. Little was he aware that the devotees were on their way to listen to Sri Prabhupada. On his way back, he started missing their association and while he was driving, tears ran uncontrollably down his face. Soon after, he started visiting the devotees in Kansas. The first book he picked up was the life of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. While going through it he was in awe of everything he read. He slowly got attracted to the life of a devotee and wanted to experience it too. So, he rented a small cottage in the Kansas wilderness which didn’t even have any water or electricity. Thus began his sadhana.
Every day, on his way back from work, he would pick up 2 gallons of water and come to that cottage. In the evening he studied the Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, Chaitanya Charitamrita by candle light and by morning he would shave, put on his coat and arrive at the office. He lived like that for a couple of years and one fine day he submitted his resignation. His boss stared at him wide eyed as he had no clue about this transformation in Stephen’s life. Stephen would visit the temple in St. Louis and meet HH Romapada Swami. He was a good carpenter and even made the bed for Sri Sri Radha Shyamsundar and helped in the beautification of the temple. He received the blessings of Harinama and learnt brahminical initiations from HH Romapada Swami and came to be known as Rupa Sanatana Prabhu. He started working for the temple, stayed there and eventually became the president of the St. Louis temple. As the temple president he introduced many wonderful services. He was involved in book distribution, prasad distribution and used his van to help out. Even when he visited our place for home programmes on Saturday evenings, he would leave for St. Louis the next morning since he had to be back in the temple to cut vegetables and help in cooking prasad for the Sunday feast.
Always with a smile on his face and humour in his speech, he would embrace everyone full of warmth and ask them to chant. He taught me how to chant, a practice that continues till today and has taught me patience. One day, he invited me to perform in the Ratha Yatra in St. Louis temple, a memory that I will cherish forever. My daughter performed along with me in ‘My Darling Krishna’. After that I got so hooked into performing in Ratha Yatra that I either drove or booked myself in a flight to perform in the Ratha Yatras at Chicago, New York and other places.
Once during a home programme, Rupa Sanatana Prabhu asked us if we could get him some avocados as he was advised not to consume food rich in oil and spices. That very day we came to know that he was suffering from cancer. We were shocked but it didn’t stay for very long as he continued his visits driving for more than 5 hours, presiding over the program, illuminating us with his words and bhajans, with the same positivity and enthusiasm. He taught us a bhajan ‘Radhe Jaya Jaya Madhava Dayite’ which my daughter was very fond of and used to repeat after him. He always had so many stories for my daughter and he loved her name ‘Shyama’. It all comes back to me as I open and go through our earlier email exchanges with Prabhu. With every passing program, we noticed his body becoming frail but his spirit soaring higher. He informed us that he had given up the post of President in the temple and had taken up book distribution actively. He loaded his van with books and went about his day. He had a wish to visit Puri and see the Lord in the chariot during Ratha Yatra. We had planned that when we would travel together to Odisha, he could spend some time with my father at home and have darshan of Lord Jagannath on the chariot. Everything was planned out and ready and we were so excited – a plan that was never executed. Soon the programmes became scarce as his health didn’t allow it. We could only speak with him over phone.
Once in the snowy winter we were visiting my sister in Chicago and went to the temple there for Sunday evening congregation. After kirtan, I was in the prasad hall when my husband came running to inform me that Rupa Santana Prabhu wanted to meet me. I couldn’t believe my ears. I put the plate down and followed him to a hall where a frail man with saffron robes and a stick in his hand was sitting in a chair. I stood there, stunned. Prabhu had lost so much weight as if his bones were wrapped up by his skin to hold them in place. But the disease hadn’t dampened his spirit, the sparkle in his eyes and the generous smile. We didn’t speak much but as I sat down beside him, I felt as if he was pouring all his blessings on us. I still remember his figure sitting on a chair near the door as we bade him good night with our word that we would come to meet him soon in St. Louis.
A few days later we called him to inform him that we were planning to visit him in St. Louis. That conversation still resonates in my head. His voice sounded feeble and he told us that he was going to Vrindavan. We were sad that we wouldn’t be able to meet him. Then I enquired about his return plans as I yearned to see him again and spend some time with him. He simply replied, “I will leave my body there.” I stood there shocked, with the phone in my hand. My husband kept on asking what was the matter and I couldn’t find words to repeat what I had just heard.
A few days after that we received a letter which announced,
“Yesterday at 7:45 p.m. Rupa Sanatana Dasa, a disciple of Romapada Swami and a former temple president of ISKCON St. Louis, left his body at Bhaktivedanta Hospice in Vrindavan, surrounded by devotees chanting Lord Krishna’s holy names. Two weeks ago, Rupa Sanatana came to the hospice with advanced, terminal cancer. Romapada Swami phoned him soon thereafter to give him a final message.”
So, he surrendered himself completely and Krishna welcomed him to His Vrindavan with open arms.
ye yatha mam prapadyante tans tathaiva bhajamyaham mama vartmanuvartante manushyah partha sarvashah
-Srimad Bhagavad Gita
(In whatever way people surrender unto Me, I reciprocate accordingly. Everyone follows My path, knowingly or unknowingly, O son of Pritha.)
Rupa Sanatan Prabhu - He came to us when we were looking for solace in that distant land. His smile, his preachings, his kindness, are still so fresh. We got to be in his company for such a short span of time, but now I understand, we were there as our paths had to cross and our hearts had to be filled with his love. You are in our thoughts and our prayers, Prabhu, as the search continues.
Rupa Sanatana Prabhu, decorating the chariot and dancing along with devotees in the streets of St. Louis during Ratha Yatra celebration
- From my travel diaries