On this day two years ago, I received news of the passing of Srimati Yamuna devi. Though I had only known her as an adult for seven years, she had quickly become an extremely dear friend, guru and inspiration, who touched my life profoundly. She was first and foremost a devotee of Krishna, and a sincere student of her guru. In her lifetime of devoted activities, she utilised her formidable talents – whether singing, painting, drawing, sculpting, cooking, offering sanctified worship within the temple, nurturing others, writing, lecturing – the list goes on and on.
I remember that morning so well. I was in Hudson, upstate New York, to paint a mural in a yoga studio. The winter morning was bitterly cold and I sat while I ate breakfast, watching the brave flocks of birds fluttering over the bare trees outside. Then I got the phone call – I couldn’t immediately process the news. In shock, I decided to just press on and begin the mural, so on the drive into town we stopped at a hardware store to get blue painter’s tape. Wandering up and down the aisles while the radio played in the background, I felt I was in a dream. Bright colours looked indecently cheerful. It felt like everyone in the shop should be standing still – a moment of pause in honour of a very great soul leaving the world. But of course, not a single person knew of her. How could that be?
Over the next days, as I struggled to paint, I listened non-stop to recordings I had made of Yamuna devi and a small group of us singing kirtan and devotional songs together. Those times were some of the most transportive and deep experiences of my life, and I relived them, singing at the top of my lungs as I moved the brush in arcs and spirals across the large wall.
“The way for embracing and going into kirtan is endless. When a group of people gather together, we touch each other through sound vibration, and it’s endlessly exciting and changing and different at every moment, just like we are. Consciousness means that we’re changing; it’s nothing static. As we open ourselves through the chanting, through taking prasadam, we become conscious. First conscious, and as we become conscious, then we can become Krishna conscious. So we really want to try to live in a state of consciousness instead of unconsciousness. Unconsciousness means dull, unappreciative, half-asleep, veiled, unaware. And when you just think, “Oh, I want to become conscious,” and then put the number one factor in, Krishna, then life changes. Just that fast! We change this fast, and you start to feel the Krishna magic come in.”
–Yamuna Devi, Alachua FL, 2002
It is difficult to measure the impact that moments spent with a person of the highest calibre have. She was enormously talented, yet unbelievably humble. She gave incessantly to others, yet never neglected delving into the depths of devotional experience herself. She could be intimidatingly grave, yet with a sharp humour and wit that sparkled. In her I found a source of inspiration that has proved limitless, even in her physical absence. Her pure hearted devotion to serving her beloved guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was captivating, and her love for serving others was intertwined. In her company every person felt valued, loved and nurtured. Time and time again, I saw her focus in on the good qualities of others, appreciate them sincerely and water profusely until they began to grow and flourish.
Earlier this month I was in India, and with a dear friend organised a morning of remembrance at the samadhi (tomb) that was erected in January. We planned to only host a few people, but word soon spread, and on the day close to 200 attended, including many esteemed guests. You can hear a recording of that day here: Yamuna Devi Memorial in Vrindavan, Kartik 2013
Over the last 19 months her dearest friend and companion, Dina Tarine devi has been writing a book that recounts her life with rich detail and insight. I have been fortunate to play a very small part in the project – interviewing people in Europe and India. Getting to hear the different experiences that so many have had was like viewing a jewel’s different facets under a light – the overall effect has been dazzling. You can find out more about the book project and the fund to continue her educational legacy here: Unalloyed: The Yamuna Devi Legacy Project
Today as I remembered her, I sang a song by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, whose songs and writings were some of her favourites. His song ‘Suddha Bhakata‘ describes the mood of a sincere bhakti yogi – how they find profound joy in the simple elements of devotional life – the sound of kirtan and the mrdanga drum, the sight of the Deity within the temple, the taste of sanctified food (prasad) and the company of other devotees. She exemplified this simple mood – she saw every challenge and every delight as Krishna’s blessing, and shared that mood with whomever she met.
Her impact on the lives of many young people will surely be seen as time goes on. When her ashes were immersed in the sacred Yamuna river earlier this year, several of the young girls that she nurtured and trained sang her favourite bhajan, ‘Hari Hari Bifale’. Their earnest voices cut through the bustling crowds that had gathered that morning, and spoke volumes about how she spent her life. It is a moment I will never forget.