My visit to Hridayananda Maharaj
(by Dhanvantari Swami)
I’ve been writing about my impressions after associating with various devotees, especially in the last three months when I was traveling through Mexico, the United States and India. Today I want to talk about Hridayananda Maharaj.
Hridayananda Maharaj came to Brazil as a sannyasi back in ‘74, while Prabhupada was still with us. The few devotees around at that time were inexperienced and none had been initiated. Maharaj came to our country to attend to a request that was made through a letter to Prabhupada, signed by Aradhya and myself.
He landed in Rio de Janeiro, but soon went to Salvador. It was there that he first met with devotees in Brazil. From that moment onward, his relationship with our country was noted for his great interest in the institutional development of Srila Prabhupada’s mission and every devotee. He always looked for even the slightest tendency of leadership in senior devotees and encouraged everyone to take responsibility.
Time passed, everything grew, everyone matured, and new panoramas compatible with the current times arose.
I spent the month of October with Hridayananda Maharaj in California. The three weeks I spent with him were very interesting and culminated in the celebration of the disappearance of Prabhupada one day and Maharaj’s 63rd birthday the next day.
It was the month of Kartika and together we performed daily puja to Yasoda-Damodara singing the Damodarastaka. Every day Maharaj commented on the meaning of the song and the most notable words. Everything was nectar to me.
Our sadhana was very simple. The altar in Hridayananda Maharaj’s house is composed of pictures on the wall. We would sing bhajans and even kirtans to Tulasi. It was all very fun, and he was dressed in a kurta and lungi, as if in a temple … Every night Maharaj would read the Bhagavad-gita in the traditional form of a lecture for which I was the only one there to listen. I, of course, took the opportunity to ask a thousand questions.
At the three sandhyas of the day he would invite me to leave the house and go to the nearby gardens or parks to chant Gayatri. At each sandhya, a different place according to the sun’s position. Each place more beautiful and inspiring…
Although it may not be easily perceived from a distance, in intimacy it becomes clear that Maharaj is a very methodical person, who likes to sit in the same place to chant japa, in the same chair for meals, and in his kitchen and bedroom the furniture and utensils are arranged in a very practical and functional way … and always the same. To interact with him in the kitchen I had to learn to do things his way. For me it was not difficult, because for years I have not gone into a kitchen, and therefore I didn’t arrive with my own, personal ways of doing what was necessary. I quickly learned to wash pots, make popcorn and sandwiches and keep everything clean and tidy.
Hridayananda Maharaj lives in the style of a sadhu. He lives alone, receives few visitors, and is always absorbed in his writing and his communications with other intellectual devotees around the world, and when the opportunity arises, preaches vigorously. At the moment, he cooks for himself, cleans, washes his clothes, shops, takes the trash out… in other words, he does everything himself with no help. This is an important phase in his intellectual life. This is how he’s found it best to do his writing.
The apartment that he moved into a short time before I got there is located in a non-gated condominium. Maybe this is common in the United States, but in Brazil I have never seen a condominium with centralized administration in an open area like that. It seems that the violence in that region is negligible. For us Brazilians, who live in a climate of great urban and rural violence, it is difficult to understand their context and to just relax and enjoy the surroundings. In Brazil we have already lost our privacy and there are cameras everywhere, electrified fences, ostensible private security … For me, these days with him were a very interesting experience even in regards to this type of observation.
Maharaj’s literary work is going well. He is currently revising his text and adjusting some ideas after a careful evaluation by professionals. He has made a vow to remain in the same place until he’s finished the book he’s working on.
His apartment is in a small town near Los Angeles, called Camarillo. The condo, near California State University, lies at the base of a valley surrounded by an environmentally preserved area. The block he lives in is next to a gravel path that runs alongside a large mountain. He calls this the parikrama path. The mountain vegetation is typical of this semi-arid region and there are many rocks. A group of them forms the shape of an elephant head, which he calls Ganesha. Passing by it, he always bows his head in reverence and good humor. In this same block, a little after “Ganesha”, you can see, in one house, on the window sill, a sculpture of a chariot drawn by four horses, with a chariot driver and a passenger. This is the duo Arjuna and Partha Sarathi. The house belongs to an Indian devotee couple who are university professors and disciples of Radhanatha Swami. They are educated and cordial people who greatly admire Hridayananda Maharaj. While I was there, we did some programs in their home, which included excellent prasada.
My private conversations with Hridayananda Maharaj led me to hours and hours of reflection. He is a member of the GBC Hermeneutics committee, and is often called upon to do video conferences with devotees from all over the world who preach to academics. His preaching has reached a range of people often neglected in our missionary activities. The effect of this can already be perceived and it seems that as the Hare Krishna movement becomes more integrated with society at large these effects will become even more apparent.
While I was there he gave two important video conferences. One in English, on “The Failures of Atheism”, organized by devotees from Hawaii, and one in Spanish, for a philosophy course at a university in Mexico.
I think the high point of our conversations was his analysis of the meaning of the song “Gaurangera Duti Pada” by Narottam Das Thakur. Talking to him about my imminent trip to India, I told him that I would visit Jagannatha Puri for the first time. That reminded him of his time in Puri years ago and he told me that India has a “special charm” and that while there he would sing this song meditating on Caitanya and Nityananda. I told him that it was the song I most liked hearing him sing and that I still had a very old recording of it on cassette. Not having a harmonium to hand, he created a piano accompaniment for it, and from that day on, I was “rewarded” with a daily, private performance of this beautiful song.
Hridayananda Maharaj’s association is very desirable for any devotee who aspires to preach Krsna consciousness understanding the basis of material entanglement of modern man. His current vision goes far beyond what he has written and published in recent years.
He has no plans to come to Brazil in the near future. He told me he sees how mature Brazilian devotees have become and feels that both he and us Brazilians are going through interesting phases in the construction of something significant for Prabhupada.
I was welcomed into his home with great distinction and warmth. He is a gentleman and a devotee whose internal level of Krishna consciousness is very difficult to find in this day and age.