28 January 2003
Listen! Visnujana Maharaja is singing:
avtra kalini nire
raja-hamsa keli kore
tahe sobha kanaka-kamala
The beautiful place known as Vrndavana is a transcendental abode in the spiritual world, and is composed entirely of divine touch-stones. There are many enchanting temples bedecked with costly jewels. The royal swans known as raja-hamsa frolic in the waters of the river Yamuna, which surrounds that transcendental island. In the midst of that divine river is a beautiful golden lotus of a hundred jewels.
About Visnujana Swami Srila Prabhupada said, "By his singing alone, he can go back to Godhead. "
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|I first saw Sripada Visnujana Maharaja when the Transcendental Road Show stopped in Boston in early 1972. First Toshan Krsna Prabhu arrived as the advance man, arranging venues where the Show devotees would perform. I think they played in Amherst, a university town about 45 minutes west on the Interstate freeway from Boston. They may have played in other places. For sure they put on a limited presentation (not the complete show) during the Boston temple Sunday feast program.|
My Godsister Mahamaya Mataji gives a very apt description of the Road Show in Chapter 4 of her exciting book, Srila Prabhupada is Coming, so I'll just quote her:
The Transcendental Road Show was one of the most ecstatic experiences of my life. We traveled around in the buses with beautiful Radha-Krishna Deities, preached at colleges and universities, distributed massive amounts of prasadam, held ecstatic kirtans, performed well-rehearsed dramas, heard philosophical lectures by sannyasis, enjoyed Krishna-conscious guitar music, and more. We had a tie-dyed parachute backdrop for our rock band. It was unique.
Started by Kirtanananda Swami and the multi-talented Mangalananda Prabhu for preaching in the southern United States, the Road Show rapidly expanded to a troupe of 35 devotees. Many thanks to Mahamaya Mataji for reminding me of the words to two of Mangalananda's melodious songs, which I used to know by heart:
Lord Caitanya's moon is rising
And it's not at all surprising
That we're singing in the street
Telling everyone we meet
We're going home--Back to Godhead
This next song was sung to the Kiba jaya, jaya gaurachande melody (not Prabhupada's original melody, but the one that ISKCON assimilated from India in 1971):
Hey, you don't have to worry
All your cares will soon all be gone
Try to understand the problem
There's no place for you to put your love
So take this simple message
It will carry you so very far
Back to Home, Back to Godhead
Chant these names and give yourself to God
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama Rama, Hare Hare
In the next excerpt, Mahamaya Mataji describes the arrival of Visnujana Maharaja at the Road Show's headquarters--an empty airplane hangar in Orlando, Florida--in 1971:
Visnujana Swami, hearing the glories of the Road Show, came to check it out. He was based in Texas, running preaching centers in San Antonio and Austin. He loved our breadsticks [a Mangalananda Prabhu creation] and kittri and said we had the best prasadam. He immediately jumped into service. He taught us dramas, including one about Magrari the hunter, performed with handheld tin masks that warbled when shaken. The Deities needed a better altar, and he built a new one.
So in early 1972 the Road Show's four converted school buses cruised up to 40 North Beacon Street to spill their blissful, enthusiastic occupants into our temple. I was over-awed, especially by the two swamis, and especially by Visnujana Swami. It was a potent program. As a direct result of the Road Show's visit, five or seven new devotees joined the temple. Sahadeva Prabhu, who got initiated by Srila Prabhupada on the same day as me, was so inspired he went out and got a "preaching bus" for ISKCON Boston. We painted it blue with a big "Hare Krishna" in multicolored letters on each side.
A number of Boston devotees rode in this bus to New Vrndavana in September '72 to attend Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavat Dharma Discourses. In a later entry I will have more to say about that wonderful event. But here I just want to mention that at this time I met up with the Road Show troupe a second time. By then Kirtanananda Swami was fully occupied with the New Vrndavana project, so Visnujana Maharaja was completely in charge of the Road Show. If I am not mistaken, the charismatic Sudama Maharaja was traveling with him also.
In any case, Sudama Maharaja was certainly teamed up with him when the Road Show returned to Boston in late 1972. The mood had changed somewhat. Now the troupe performed a full-fledged rock opera. There were some new songs, harder and heavier; one was called "The Party" and was sung by a raucous-voiced Mataji decked out in witchy makeup and clothes. Yes, the Road Show certainly looked and sounded more professional, but at the cost of its former innocent charm, I thought.
On his way to the Bhagavat Dharma Discourses, Srila Prabhupada caught the new show in Pittsburgh. Rumor had it he wasn't so pleased. Some devotees played parts of drugged-out hippies, and perhaps they embraced their roles too closely to their hearts. His Divine Grace asked, "Are these our men?" Thus when the Road Show returned to Boston it was under a cloud of doubt.
On top of that, a disagreement was cooking up between Visnujana and Sudama Swamis. Now, these events are more than thirty years gone and both Maharajas, great souls, are departed from this world. But right after the second round in Boston, Sudama Swami got together with Bali Mardana Maharaja, the GBC for New York, to redefine and redesign the program. The plan was that under Sudama Maharaja's direction--he came from a family of professional stage performers--the troupe would remain permanently in the Henry Street Temple and work on "making it" in the New York theater scene. Like that old Sinatra song about New York City: "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. " Visnujana Maharaja was (how else can I say it?) given the boot. Scuttlebutt had it that Sudama and Bali Mardana Swamis considered Visnujana Maharaja just too bush league for The Big Apple. [Translation for non-American readers: "scuttlebutt" means gossip; "bush league" means rustic and unsophisticated; "The Big Apple" means New York City. ]
While all that was cooking up, I was morose in Boston. Not long after my first initiation in the summer of '71, Satsvarupa Prabhu was transferred by Srila Prabhupada to Texas. Before he left, Satsvarupa got myself and Sahadeva Prabhu second-initiated by mail. We two were to be "senior devotees" in a temple where the "rank-and-file devotees" had been first-initiated on the same day with us. Thus within a month of getting my spiritual name I found myself wearing a brahmana thread. I felt over-rated and under-qualified. With Satsvarupa Prabhu gone, Harer Nama Prabhu was for a short time the caretaker temple president. I would have been satisfied had he remained in the post, but I think he felt uninspired in Satsvarupa's absence. Well, he wasn't the only one.
One after another during a period of one year, three temple presidents were shipped in. Harer Nama Prabhu departed for another temple, I've forgotten which one. I stayed on in Boston and learned to do big book distribution, a new phenomenon in the ISKCON of that time. I traveled around New England with a team of brahmacaris in a sankirtana van. This was nectar, but we always had to come back to a temple that stood on uncertain managerial legs. So by the end of '72 I was looking for a way to stay on the book distribution road and never come back.
To make a long story short, I begged Visnujana Maharaja to take me with him when he left Boston for New York. Trai Dasa, our new temple president, was not happy with me, but what could he do? As the Road Show pulled out before dawn, I jumped onto one of the buses. Bliss! At that time I didn't know about the politics between the swamis. The same day we arrived in New York, SURPRISE! Visnujana Maharaja was unseated as the director of the Road Show. The very next morning, again before dawn, I was on the road with him and a half-dozen brahmacaris in the Radha-Damodara bus. We drove to Atlanta. This was the beginning of the Radha-Damodara Traveling Sankirtana Party (known popularly by the acronym "RD TSKP").
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tar madhye hema-pitha
asta-dale pradhana nayika
tar madhye ratnasane
bosi achen dui jane
syama-sange sundari radhika
In the center of that lotus is a golden platform surrounded by eight petals. Situated upon those eight petals are the eight principal sakhis, headed by Lalita and Visakha. In the center of the surrounding petals the Divine Couple presides, seated upon a jeweled throne. In the company of Lord Syama sits the beautiful Radhika.
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Visnujana Maharaja remains for me the most compelling preacher I've ever known, except of course for His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada. Mahamaya Mataji describes Maharaja's speeches as "heart-penetrating". That's an excellent description.
But let me tell you right off the bat: traveling with him for nearly two years, I came to know his so-called "shortcomings. " I love him to this very day, but I won't hype him to you as some kind of siddha (perfected being). Yet at the same time I do believe that, by Srila Prabhupada's Divine Grace, Visnujana Maharaja attained perfection. (More about that a little later. )
The thing is, even his shortcomings were endearing. And that was very helpful to me in those sometimes dark days I served on the Radha-Damodara TSKP. To explain: he and I had similar mentalities. Everyone thought he was so blissful, but he had a melancholy side also. I told him about the depression I had struggled with in Boston after Satsvarupa Prabhu's departure to Texas. He showed me a letter he'd gotten from Srila Prabhupada about his (Visnujana Maharaja's) own depression.
I am glad to note that from your recent letter under reply you are feeling better than you previously expressed. So when you may feel morose, chant Hare Krsna Mantra loudly and hear it. That will reestablish you on the platform of transcendental bliss. Sometimes it appears that the devotee is put into some difficulty unreasonably, but the devotee does not take even this adverse circumstance as other that a manifestation of the Lord's Supreme Mercy. Anyway, such feelings come and go like seasonal changes and we should not deviate for that reason from our prescribed duty.
Then Maharaja told me that when Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu departed on his South Indian tour, even He felt perturbed in His mind due to separation from the devotees whom He'd left behind. So He chanted loudly like a lion,
KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA HE!
KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA HE!
KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA RAKSA MAM!
KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA PAHI MAM!
RAMA RAGHAVA RAMA RAGHAVA RAMA RAGHAVA RAKA MAM!
KRSNA KESAVA KRSNA KESAVA KRSNA KESAVA PAHI MAM!
Thus while the bus was rolling down the road to Atlanta, Visnujana Maharaja encouraged me to lead the brahmacaris in what he called "a liberating kirtana. " I tried my best to chant like a lion. It was wild. But it really got rid of the blues.
Right from the beginning he moved my heart with his honesty and simplicity. You see, as a result of the teaming up of Bali Mardana and Sudama Maharajas to get the Road Show out of Visnujana Maharaja's hands, some criticisms were made about Maharaja to Srila Prabhupada. His Divine Grace replied in a letter to Sudama Swami dated November 11, 1972. It was in Atlanta, or perhaps while we were still on the way down to Atlanta, that Visnujana Maharaja read the letter aloud to all of us, his "boys. " Here are some pertinent lines:
So far the Road Show and this Yoga Village are concerned, these things should be stopped. Simply perform our kirtana. If we divert our attention in this way, the whole thing will gradually deteriorate. He is going far away. All these things are nonsense inventions.
I still remember Maharaja's voice--soft, calm, yet pained--as he pointed out to us that the "he" in the sentence, "He is going far away," was he himself. He wanted us to know plainly that--at least at the moment in time Srila Prabhupada wrote that letter--His Divine Grace considered Visnujana Maharaja to be off the parampara track. Maharaja humbled himself before us and said, "Please consider this carefully and decide whether you wish to continue on with me. I have no choice. I must somehow or other find a way to satisfy my spiritual master. But you are under no obligation to help me. You all have your own relationships with him. If you fear your relationship with him may suffer in my association, then tell me and I will help you resettle in a more favorable situation. " He had the gift of crystal-clear diction that was ornamented by first-class vocabulary and grammar. His talks were so good you'd be ready to believe he prepared and memorized them beforehand. But no, that was just his usual speaking style.
After he told us so straightforwardly about the letter, we all were ready to enter fire for him. At this point I should mention the other RD TSKP brahmacaris of that beginning period. There was Narada Muni Prabhu, Visnudatta Prabhu, Dayal Chandra Prabhu, Sri Ballabha Prabhu, Patatriraja Prabhu, Hasyagrami Prabhu, and Jamadagni Prabhu. Soon Jamadagni left, while Aja, Rksaraja and Sri Galim Prabhus joined. During the two years I was with the RD TSKP, these devotees--and of course Maharaja and myself--made up the nucleus of the party. Bhakta Marty from Denver, who became Mahamantra Prabhu (and now is Bhakti Visrambha Madhava Maharaja), joined us a bit later. He too became a core Radha-Damodara devotee.
By the time we arrived in Atlanta, I was so taken with Maharaja's association that I went out on a Sunday, door-to-door, to collect $100 for him. In those days that was an almost unheard-of amount for one devotee to bring home. If a devotee came back with $20, that was really big news. I left Maharaja at 10:00 AM and returned at 8:00 PM to hand him $70 in bills and $30 in change. He was so pleased.
Another time I was going door-to-door in an apartment building, distributing books. This was before so-called "plainclothes sankirtana" became the norm in ISKCON. I was wearing dhoti, tilaka and shaved head. I knocked on a door and a man called from behind it, "Who are you?" I explained who I was and why I was at the door. I heard a woman say, "Open the door, let's have a look at him. " In an instant, the door banged opened. I found myself face to face with a man aiming a revolver at my head. His wife was hiding behind him. I started preaching. Gradually the man lowered his gun and finally gave me a donation for a Krsna Book. I was so happy after that, because I had a great story to tell Visnujana Maharaja when I got back to the bus! And, yes, he was very enlivened to hear it.
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Visnujana Maharaja was blessed with a soft, gentle heart. His prayer was that he might give that heart completely to the service of the lotus feet of his spiritual master and Sri-Sri Radha-Krsna. What fascinated me about him is that this mood of devotion was completely natural, and therefore completely authentic. It had been awakened by Srila Prabhupada's mercy in late-sixties San Francisco. Visnujana Maharaja, when I started traveling with him, had not yet visited India. In 1973 and thereafter, some tough, outspoken "made in India" ISKCON sannyasis started arriving on America's shores. Not to say they were insincere, but I just found Visnujana's homegrown sincerity more appropriate and accessible. It was not obscured behind a "swami profile" that I suspected was a clumsy imitation of the strictness Srila Prabhupada showed in his preaching to the Indian public. I thought, "But when Prabhupada started preaching here to us--to Americans, Western people--he showed a different side: patient, understanding, yet quietly firm and uncompromising. That seems more natural and suitable. " It wasn't a question of Visnujana Maharaja's being "sentimental" (a favorite slur word of those times). He was just following Srila Prabhupada's mood as he had personally experienced it. He told me a little about those days. Before meeting Srila Prabhupada, he lived in a tree on the Morning Star Ranch, which was a hippie commune outside of San Francisco. His name was Mark and his best friend was Tom (later to be initiated as Tamal Krsna). Mark would sometimes come into the city to make a little money by selling wooden flutes that he'd carve on the farm. He'd sit with the flutes spread out on the sidewalk in Haight-Ashbury, sometimes wearing nothing but a blanket with a hole in the center through which he thrust his head.
He started visiting the temple on Frederick Street to join in the kirtanas. When the kirtana ended and Srila Prabhupada started the lecture, Mark would stretch out on the floor and go to sleep, sometimes keeping his head on the lap of a girlfriend. Before joining ISKCON, he got married. His wife was very attached to him. She did not agree to join, so they separated painfully.
Visnujana Maharaja told me that he became serious about joining after Srila Prabhupada referred to him in his lecture (or perhaps it was in an instruction to the temple managers) as an example of a demon. It had to do with his sleeping in the class. Something like, "Here is a demon. Even he gets the opportunity to purify himself, he goes back to maya. So? Then go. Don't come back again and again to do your nonsense here. " That's not meant to be a quotation. It was Prabhupada's mood, as least as Mark understood it then. It shook him up.
Later, after he'd been initiated, Srila Prabhupada praised him: "You are advancing nicely. "
"It is by your mercy, Srila Prabhupada," Visnujana answered.
"No, not like that. My mercy is open to everyone. You are taking it. "
Visnujana had attracted that praise of His Divine Grace because of his ecstatic kirtanas. But sometimes Srila Prabhupada had to chastise him still. Once Srila Prabhupada was driven to see the evening chanting party in the Los Angeles streets. Visnujana, as usual, was leading. But he was playing two mrdangas at the same time. Srila Prabhupada commented, "He cannot even play one mrdanga properly, yet he beats two. "
From somewhere Visnujana picked up a Mira Bai song that goes, "Gopala, Gopala, Devakinandana Gopala; Gopala, Gopala, Yasodanandana Gopala. " Srila Prabhupada told him to stop singing it. "It may have been sung by great devotees," he said, "but it was not sung by great authorities. "
Being a musically talented person, Visnujana would invent melodies for the mahamantra. Once Srila Prabhupada saw him composing a melody at the harmonium. "And what is wrong with my melodies?" His Divine Grace demanded.
Once Prabhupada asked why so many American gentlemen would go on walks with dogs on leashes. Visnujana answered, "So they can watch how their dogs are nicely passing stool. " Srila Prabhupada laughed and laughed at this.
Visnujana Maharaja told us that he had personally witnessed Srila Prabhupada talking to his spiritual master's photograph, eyes flooded with tears.
Maharaja loved Sri-Sri Radha-Damodara. Here is the proof. One morning at 4:00 AM, he was preparing Their Lordships for Mangala-arati. By this time we'd left Atlanta. We were somewhere in the South, where winters are milder than Northern states like New York. But this morning it was soooooo cold! And there was no proper heating system on the bus. It was so frozen that Maharaja couldn't move his fingers properly. I remember him so clearly, coming out from behind the velvet Deity curtains, bundled up against the cold, a forlorn look on his face. "It's so cold I can't control my senses to serve Their Lordships," he lamented. He was not complaining about the cold for himself. He was complaining for the sake of the Deities. That is love.
In the beginning he used to do all the puja himself. A little later, when Sri Galim joined the party, they shared pujari duties. I remember once when Maharaja finished the morning bathing and dressing; he came out from behind the curtains in complete bliss. "Their beautiful forms are burnt into my mind!" he exulted.
One time he was about to take rasgula prasada of the Deities. He held up the round white milk sweet and asked it, "My dear rasgula, have you come to break my heart?"
In Miami, Sri Ballabha climbed through the back door of the bus kitchen to rob the Deity maha sweets. Bhakta Marty (Mahamantra Prabhu) was the kitchen assistant (he did an excellent job of that, I might add). To get at the sweets Sri Ballabha roughly handled him, so Marty called to Visnujana Maharaja for help. In an angry mood, Maharaja jumped out of the forward door of the bus and chased Sri Ballabha all around the yard. As he ran, Sri Ballabha stuffed his face with maha sweets. This sight was so funny that Maharaja's anger evaporated. All he could do was laugh. But whenever he would talk about this incident later, he would always compare Sri Ballabha to various demons in the Krsna book.
The RD TSKP went through an evolution in its preaching mission. At first, Maharaja focused on college preaching. He tried to do a purer and simpler version of the Road Show. Instead of a rock band, Maharaja formed an amplified bhajan band with Rksaraja, Visnudatta and Hasyagrami Prabhus. They performed "new" Vaishnava songs that Acytananda Maharaja had recorded on tape (like Gurudeva, Ohe Vaisnava Thakura, Suddha Bhakata, and Gopinatha with Maharaja's beautiful harmonium riff). Instead of a psychedelic light show of swirling colors splashing the walls and ceiling, Maharaja projected a nice slide show about the Hare Krsna Movement, and gave a "heart-penetrating" explanation. Then he led kirtana, getting the audience off its feet to chant and dance. In tandem with this college preaching sankirtana, I led a party of brahmacaris in a van on book distribution sankirtana.
But the college programs weren't so regular. For various reasons, they too often just weren't possible to arrange. So then Maharaja started preaching in state fairs. In America, each of the 50 states holds a big fair or exhibition festival. For a week or so, the glories of a state (especially its farm produce) are put on display at a big fairground in the state capital. (I. e. the Minnesota State Fair is in the capital city of Minneapolis; the Arizona State Fair is in the capital city of Phoenix. ) There are rides, contests, games, amusements, and stalls that sell all kinds of things. The exhibition in each state is scheduled so that week after week, a state fair happens in a different place around the USA. There are 52 weeks in a year, so 50 one-week fairs scheduled that way meant that Maharaja had a full year of preaching. He got the RD TSKP into the fairs as an "Indian boutique. " We preached from a booth that offered incense, clothes, posters and Prabhupada's books for sale.
Usually I was off somewhere in a sankirtana van instead of helping at the state fairs. But in late '73 I did work the boutique at the fair in Arizona. Three pretty Christian girls started hanging around the booth. They said they wanted to talk about God. I preached to them a bit, but soon I got annoyed with their behavior. They seemed too friendly and kept asking me to come out of the booth and go with them somewhere to pray. I told them I was a brahmacari and had no business leaving my prescribed service to do anything with girls. They got offended but still kept hanging around. Finally Visnujana Maharaja arrived at the booth. They complained to him about me. So he went to pray with them. They didn't go far, just onto a grassy area near the booth, so I was able to watch what they did. Maharaja and the girls got down on their knees and each recited some prayer. The girls were very satisfied by this and went home. I still felt I was right to have stayed away from them. But I appreciated the way Maharaja dealt with them. It was innocent. This little story may sum up Maharaja's nature best of all.
Near the end of the Arizona State Fair, Maharaja told me to drive a van all by myself to the Houston temple in Texas. He gave me some duty to take care of there; he told me he and the rest of the brahmacaris would join me in Houston after a few days had passed.
For two days I drove through some of the loneliest desert country in all of America. I thought I was really taking a risk for Krsna, driving such a distance all alone.
But I made it to Houston fine. A couple days later I got a phone call from Visnujana Maharaja. The Radha-Damodara bus had just gone up in flames in the middle of the desert! The differential on the rear axle got overheated and the grease and oil inside combusted. The devotees barely managed to save the Deities and themselves before the blaze turned the bus into a charred metal skeleton.
Maharaja went to LA and borrowed money from Karandhara Prabhu, the West Coast GBC. He bought a much better bus. The old one was just a plodding school bus, the new one was a long-distance coach. This was the first of a fleet of such busses. In the later part of 1974 HH Tamal Krsna Maharaja arrived from India to re-join his old friend from the Morning Star Ranch. Their teaming up was when the Radha-Damodara TSKP started to expand: first from one bus to three, then finally up to a dozen.
For a few reasons I didn't fit into the "new, bigger and better" RD TSKP that grew up out of Tamal Krsna Maharaja's preaching and managerial skills. So shortly I transferred to the BBT Library Party, which was directed by Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami. Still, in the three-month period that Tamal Krsna Gosvami and I shared on the Radha-Damodara TSKP, we became friendly.
Once while we were in Gainesville, Florida, I complained to him I had a pain in my spine. TKG told me, "Well, you're lucky because I know Japanese massage. I'll have you fixed up in no time. " He had me lay face-down on the floor. Then he proceeded to walk up and down my back! He had to stop because he couldn't control his laughter. Visnujana Maharaja was there too, and they both just totally cracked up. That was TKG's "Japanese massage:" just a joke at my expense. But I loved it. I was laughing too.
And there was the morning Berkeley that I arranged with the bus kitchen to eat one maha gulab jamun after completing each of my sixteen rounds of japa. At the end of my rounds I drank all the sugar juice that the gulab jamuns had been suspended in. Someone told Tamal Krsna Maharaja about this, so probably intending to teach me a lesson by publically embarrassing me, he informed me at the Deity greeting that I'd be giving the Srimad-Bhagavatam class. I suppose he expected me to be too intoxicated to speak sensibly. But I gave what the devotees said afterward was a "real fired-up talk. " It was then that Tamal Krsna Maharaja decided to send me to the library party. "Suhotra," he said, looking at me with a slightly sour expression, "I can't do anything with you. "
All glories to Srila Prabhupada and His eternal servitors.
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I mentioned earlier that I believe that Visnujana Maharaja, though apparently not a siddha during his life, did achieve perfection. I know this from a vivid dream I had in the 1980s.
Under an intense blue sky I saw a huge, perfectly manicured lawn extending in all directions as far as the eye could see. The only thing standing on the lawn was a huge white temple in the distance. I walked a long way across the grass to the temple, and then I started to climb wide marble stairs to reach the ornately arched entranceway. I noticed a sadhu sitting against a pillar halfway up the stairway. It was Visnujana Maharaja. He smiled at me in the warmest way and said, "It's wonderful here! When are you coming to join me?"
amiya podiche khasi
narottam das koy
nitya-lila sukha moy
sadai spuruka more mane
The waves of Their beauty and sweetness are emanating showers of nectar in the form of Their talks, which are filled with a flood of laughing and joking as they address one another. Narottama Dasa says, "May these
eternal pastimes overflowing with transcendental joy by ever being manifest in my heart. "
"That's perfect. "