Monday, November 10, 2008

India Journal, Part 8

On the main road walking thru Loi Bazaar i run into my godbrother and friend, Radhapati das. Radhapati is a one-of-a-kind sadhu who lives in Vrindavan. He has been here for the past 18 years. He is one of the most honest men i know, in addition to one of the most disciplined and individualistic. He was a medic in Vietnam, where he saw, felt and touched repeated death and destruction close up. Many men died in his arms. A lot of his contemporaries were scarred for life by similar experiences with PTSD. Posttraumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder from exposure to terrifying events that threatened or caused grave physical harm. It is a severe and ongoing emotional reaction to an extreme psychological trauma.

Seeing Radhapati wander the streets and lanes of Vrindavan, wearing kajal (black eye ointment), a white turban, lungi, giant tulasi beads around his neck and a large shopping bag full of candy that he passes out to Braj kids, one would never imagine the horrors he experienced 40 years ago as a teenage medic in Vietnam. Every morning he walks barefoot thru Vrindavan (not so easy anymore when even the parikram marg is paved over with rough asphalt), calling out: Jai Jamuna Maharani! Jai Prabhupada! Jai Krishna Balaram! When the local children respond he reaches into his bag and pulls out lollipops and hard candy. The poor kids are his "market" and every one in town knows him. Sometimes fathers or mothers reach out for the candy to give to their kids, and he knows everyone of them. "Street sweeper with lots of kids" he tells me when one mustached man pauses in front of us, smiles and holds out his hands.

Radhapati takes me to what looks like a chai shop just around the corner from Loi Bazaar. Shyam, the proprietor, greets him. They are good friends. Radhapati has helped him and his family out of some serious jams over the years. I didn't know about this place, but they make subji, roti, rice and dhal-- 25 rupees for a complete thali. That's up from 12 rupees just a couple of years ago. But the preparations look sattvic. It's probably the best "restaurant" in town. We sit and talk. Radhapati insists he has no qualification to live in Vrindavan. But he has a gig here. He spends $100 of his own money every month to purchase candy to distribute. "The kids chant with me and glorify the dham, then they get some candy. It's a way of training them, reminding them, about their own spiritual culture."

For Radhapati, who has western sensibilities, it's a stretch to live in Vrindavan. He does not fit in with the locals, although they respect him, appreciate him and offer him food or whatever they have. Nor does he feel comfortable hanging out with the western devotees. He is here because he lost his ambition for living in the West and he decided to make a stand. He has a small apartment in Raman Reti where he takes rest every evening at 8 pm and gets up around 2 in the morning to chant and read. He does not go to the Iskcon temple at all these days. A recording of Srila Prabhupada chanting japa is continuously playing. "I get tired of everything. Except Prabhupada's voice. That's my one and only shelter," he says.

I have great affection for Radhapati. We have become good friends during my numerous visits and stays in the dham. When i come to Vrindavan, i bring him a bar of white chocolate from the West, and we have long conversations. He does what i cannot do: he stays and serves in the holy dham. It's not easy for him, but he has exceptional perseverance. And, like most western vaisnavas who manage to remain in Vrindavan, he created his own unique way to serve the Brijbasis. Such a great soul is very rare.

Radhapati is not someone who follows the crowd or who seeks anyone's approval. He stopped talking the talk a while back. Now he lives in Vrindavan just to walk his walk. That trek could well be his ticket home.

1 comment:

Babhru das said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. Radhapati is an old, dear friend. He committed his life to Srila Prabhupada's mission at the Honolulu temple, I think some time in 1971. Even then he stood out. His first morning in the temple, he cried all through mangal arati. That's how grateful he was to find shelter at Krishna's feet. He told me that he had visited India previously, but just missed visiting Vrindavan. He said he was obviously unqualified, but that he had found Vrindavan in the temple.

Radhapati's story is even more extraordinary, and was a little disturbing for me when we met. He and I both joined the Navy at about the same time, and for the same reason. We didn’t want to be drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam as cannon fodder. After basic training, I was sent to school for training as an intelligence analyst, then to Hawaii, where I worked at the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence center. This came about largely because of connections I had. Our neighbor was a Naval intelligence officer, and my dad was, I have come to discover recently, engaged in covert intelligence work.

After basic training, Radhapati was sent to school for training as a medic, then assigned to the Marines for combat training, then to the school for combat training, then to Vietnam. While there, as you mention, he lived with death. But he was also seriously wounded, shot in the abdomen while dragging a brother out of a firefight. As I remember, he was awarded a Bronze Star for his heroism. The Navy gave him a small pension for a couple of years. I remember being incensed when I heard they had discontinued it after only two or three years.

Throughout the years, Radhapati has been one-pointed in his dedication to spiritual life, and maintained the integrity of his personal dedication without deviation. For some years he lived in the New Dvaraka community in Los Angeles, where I think he worked in the BBT’s fulfillment department. He sent Prabhupada’s books all around the world. Nevertheless, he lived there virtually as a recluse, engaged solely in his service and his sadhana. Radhapati is a unique sadhu whose friendship I will always cherish. I hope I’ll soon have a chance to visit Vrindavan so I can see him again.