Of Early Morning News and Sacred Rivers

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I find myself in a confluence of remembrance and prayer this week. It’s at this time of year that a few dear souls have departed over the last few years, and somehow they are all linked in different ways, subtle and overt.

I have posted quite a bit about death in my blogging days. It is a catalyst to write like no other. An event that requires processing and careful reflection, that opens the channels of the heart to expression, even if painful.

Today I sat down with one of my harmonium students for our class. She is a yoga teacher who has grown up in the Pushti Marg Vaishnava tradition. I wanted her to play and sing prayers that are close to her heart, so a few weeks ago we began to learn the most beloved prayer of the Pushtis – Shri Yamunastakam, an eight verse ode to the sacred river Yamuna. Though I could teach her how to play the tune, I had never sung it myself before. Over the last few weeks we have been stumbling over and learning it together – me the words, and her the keys. It has been a very sweet experience.

The first person the Yamunastakam reminds me of is Shyamdas – from whom I first heard it sung. It was a staple of his kirtan, and the song I most associated with him. He was a scholar of the devotional teachings of Srimad Vallabhacarya, and knew reams about the Yamuna River, and the land of Braj. His wild devotion inspired me so much, as well as his enthusiasm to share love of God with anyone who would listen. I received a call, telling of his passing, in the early morning of winter 2013.

Next the prayer reminds me of Yamuna Devi, my beloved mentor and guide, who was named after that same holy river. Tomorrow is the anniversary of her passing and I feel sombre and reflective remembering that cold December morning when I received the phone call with the news. I stared out the window at the bare trees. Small birds were darting back and forth, landing on the branches and flying off again in swooping flocks. The sun was rising but the day felt frozen, knowing that she had departed. I have since come to appreciate that just like her name, her blessings, devotion and love are always flowing in a very real and tangible way.

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The third person the prayer reminds me of is Keshava dasi, another friend and kindred spirit, who passed away last year on 19th December. Again, I received an early morning call as I sat warming my back against the radiator – doing my japa meditation. She was a sensitive and deep woman, whose ailing body belied the gushing current of dynamic devotion within her heart. She would do anything within her capability to introduce others to the loving path of bhakti yoga – for years she was the driving force behind kirtan gatherings in Oxford, nurturing a community of kirtan lovers that had never existed there before. I miss her very much.

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All of them requested their ashes to be returned to the Yamuna River, and so they were, on different mornings, different years, yet in the same place – Keshi Ghat, a place where Lord Krishna once stood. The great saint Rupa Goswami narrates a warning about this place: “My dear friend, if you are indeed attached to your worldly friends, do not look at the smiling face of Lord Govinda as He stands on the bank of the Yamuna at Keshi Ghat. Casting sidelong glances, He places His flute to His lips, which seem like newly blossomed twigs. His transcendental body, bending in three places, appears very bright in the moonlight.”

Singing the serene Yamunastakam I remember them all.

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