Srila Giri Maharaja – In Memoriam of “That Gentleman.”

Saturday night my next younger brother (Gary) called to inform me that a gentleman known as ‘our father’ had passed away that evening at the age of 97. When I tried to turn the subject to the spiritual implications of the event he closed that door declaring “I don’t want to discuss religion.” That is his prerogative. Mine is to open the discussion to those who are inclined to have it. I do so herein.

While no one can be compelled to discuss the spiritual implications of death, no one can avoid the event. Srila Sridhara Maharaja several times referred to these lines of Thomas Gray to illustrate the point:

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour;
The path of glory leads but to the grave.”

Elegy in a Country Churchyard

I had first thought to title this article “Eulogy to ‘That Gentleman.’” but found that ‘eulogy’ meant high praise of someone, “typically someone who has just died” (American English). Praise could be justified to a certain extent, but it seemed a rather superficial treatment of the subject matter. ‘Elegy’ then came to mind. But a search of the same source revealed that, while the term may be used in the way I had thought: “For all of its pervasiveness, however, the ‘elegy’ remains remarkably ill-defined: sometimes used as a catch-all to denominate texts of a somber or pessimistic tone, sometimes as a marker for textual monumentalizing,
and sometimes strictly as a sign of a lament for the dead.”, its precise meaning is “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.” Addressing the complexities involved in writing a poem would require more energy than I could muster. At last the proper term came to my mind: ‘in memoriam’.

Those familiar with the talks of Srila Sridhara Maharaja know why I chose the term “that gentleman” to refer to ‘our father’:

[In college] I tried to associate with him [Suresh Bhatächäryya] and one day when we two were going on a morning walk, . . . he told that his father, he mentioned about his father, in the expression that: “That gentleman.” 

    I took exception to that: “Why do you express this word, your father, you say ‘that gentleman’, what is this?” 

    Then he told: “Yes I have committed wrong. I should not have said in this way before you. But really it is like that. That gentleman, he was a gentleman. In this life I have come to him and he protected me for some time and next birth I shall go to some other place, in this way all of us are moving, moving, hither thither, coming from some gentleman and there to another gentleman.” In this way he told. 

    I gave opposition but that point hit me very hard. I began to think. “Yes it is true that we are in the midst of father, mother, brother, or ‘that gentleman.’ What real connection I have got with them or they have got with me. Thinking and thinking from this point, the whole world became to me as a vacant and a furious atmosphere. No shelter to take anywhere, a position, chaotic position and I have no position of stability. Where from I am coming? Where to go? How long you’re to stay? This is all a point in the infinite, uncertain point, I am in the whole of infinite.” Thus a great shock came over me this way and that was the great turn in my life. 

    The worldly achievement has no value, this reading of the class, I’m fourth year student, I’m to appear after a few months in the examination final. My friends they’re alarmed seeing my position. “What, you’re neglecting your studies, how will you be able to pass? Your father sent you money, you’re not so rich a man.” In this way they tried to help me as their best. I can’t concentrate in the book, this study. (Tape: 83.07-25 autobiog – Guru 4)

The name of ‘that gentleman’ of which I write is Gene. A name, as it turned out, well suited to a man who had a keen interest in science and genes; sought and achieved a degree in chemical engineering, kept abreast of scientific literature (with a subscription to “Scientific American”, among others) even into his later years and thought like many scientists who doubted life had anything to do with God. Unlike my brother, he was not averse to my introduction of spiritual subjects. Perhaps his scientific curiosity allowed for the possibility of the discovery of truths that were existing, albeit beyond his grasp or comprehension. As such, we had long discussions on a variety of spiritual subjects wherein I tried to convince him of the science still unknown and unexplored by him, the science of the Absolute Truth. These discussions were very open and honest and always resulted in his frank admission that, while my arguments were unassailable, he was not yet persuaded as to the conclusion (īśvaraḥ paramaḥ kṛṣṇaḥ, sac-cid-ānanda-vigrahaḥ, anādir ādir govindaḥ, sarva-kāraṇa-kāraṇam).

Although each of my male family connections of which I write may rightly be referred to as ‘that gentleman’; to lesson confusion I will generally refer to them by name.

My youngest brother (Steve), who I would characterize as a Christian zealot, had far more interactions with Gene than I and, to my wonder, more success at turning him towards a belief and faith in God. Whereas I rarely spoke with Gene, Steve was in constant communication and contact with him and his faith, as illogical and misconceived as it was, seemed to provide the catalyst for the ‘scientist’s’ conversion to a belief in God. The scientist, unable to distance himself from the bane of scientific research known to scientists as confirmation bias, left science aside to opt for the religion of sentiment over the science of God consciousness. Srila Prabhupada explains the difference:

Religion means a kind of faith. It is not faith. It is a science. Science must be based on logic and philosophy. Science means that. And religion means sometimes sentiments. So religion without philosophy is sentiment, and philosophy without religion is mental speculation. Both must be combined. Then it is perfect. You cannot have religion without philosophy. That is sentiment, fanaticism. And if you simply take philosophy without religion, without sense of God, this is mental speculation. So religion must be on the basis of science and logic. That is first-class religion.

—A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Tape 730910BG.STO

“There are no atheists in foxholes.” is as true an aphorism as one might find, and it seems to apply here. As Gene’s death grew nearer and nearer—and the “path of glory” proclaimed in “the boast of heraldry” of materialistic science was obviously leading “but to the grave”—his faith in an afterlife grew stronger and stronger. Apparently, the horror associated with the near-to-death experience, i.e. the nearness of one’s certain demise or, in scientific terms—extinction, is more persuasive in convincing one of the eternal nature of the soul than the text of revealed scriptures that warn us in advance to prepare for this inevitable event. Here the aphorism “Better late than never.” is apt.

Unfortunately, I have no doubt ’that gentleman’ left this world in much the same way he entered it: dazed and confused. I was unable to convince him to take to the path of self-realization and serious study of Bhagavad-gita and other texts I had given him, that would have prepared him to leave this world in a sober state of mind, the state of a ‘dhira’:

Bg 2.13

dehino ’smin yathā dehe
kaumāraṁ yauvanaṁ jarā
tathā dehāntara-prāptir
dhīras tatra na muhyati

dehinaḥ — of the embodied; asmin — in this; yathā — as; dehe — in the body; kaumāram — boyhood; yauvanam— youth; jarā — old age; tathā — similarly; deha-antara — of transference of the body; prāptiḥ — achievement; dhīraḥ — the sober; tatra — thereupon; na — never; muhyati — is deluded.

As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.

Still, I do not conclude that his life was entirely in vein, nor his death.

While he spent most of his life as an agnostic and was, by his own admission, uneducated and incoherent on matters of philosophy, he took some pains to see that I was better prepared than he in these fields of study.

When I was about eleven years old he purchased this set of books:

Great Books of the Western World is a series of books originally published in the United States in 1952, by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., to present the Great Books in a 54-volume set.” (Wikipedia)

Some background for this compendium is found in this entry in Wikipedia:

The project for the Great Books of the Western World began at the University of Chicago, where the president, Robert Hutchins, collaborated with Mortimer Adler to develop a course — generally aimed at businesspeople — for the purpose of filling the gaps in their liberal education; to render the reader as an intellectually rounded man or woman familiar with the Great Books of the Western canon, and knowledgeable of the great ideas developed in the course of three millennia.

. . .

On April 15, 1952, the Great Books of the Western World were presented at a publication party in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in New York City. In his speech, Hutchins said, “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.” The first two sets of books were given to Elizabeth II, Queen of the U.K., and to Harry S. Truman, the incumbent U.S. President.

‘That gentleman’ made me read these books, which I diligently did between the ages of roughly eleven to fifteen. The ‘liberal education’ I received in “categories including fictionhistorypoetrynatural sciencemathematicsphilosophydramapoliticsreligioneconomics, and ethics.” (Wikipediawas from such authors as, to name but a few: Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hegel, Kant etc.

Despite the gentleman’s own agnosticism, which I was unaware of until much later in my life, we rarely missed a Sunday service at one church or another, usually Presbyterian. At the age of thirteen he added the Holy Bible to my list of compulsory reading material. Within a year or so I had read the Bible from cover to cover and, moved by the life of Jesus and his disciples, became convinced that I should try to follow a similar path, if only I could find someone to lead me on it.

Beginning with high school the compulsory reading was relaxed and the summer vacations and other non-school times I had spent painfully laboring over difficult texts morphed into the more usual preoccupations of an American youth.

“In this life I have come to him and he protected me for some time” is a fair description of my relationship with the gentleman who did well by me in all the usual ways a father is expected to. I’m sure my two brothers are of the same opinion. While a fairly strict disciplinarian with me, a feature that seemed to slacken a bit with my substantially younger brothers, he was not dogmatic as to our thinking. I was free to think and believe as I chose, so long as I obeyed the rules of the house. With me he was generous, he was kind, he was forthright and honest; he was firm. He was also absent a great deal. He worked long hours and had a private life that resulted in his being an intolerable husband that my mother somehow tolerated; some further reasons I am writing a memoriam, not a eulogy.

Our first birth is given by our seminal father, the second by our spiritual father, our guru; one who is able to deliver his dependents from the cycle of repeated birth and death. If asked to recall some portion of my reading of Great Books of the Western World, I would be hopeless in remembering a single passage. Neither did those readings, which I remember for the most part as being dry and difficult, prompt me to engage in a formal study of philosophy; a task I would presently apprehend as being as dry and tedious as much of the Great Books reading the gentleman had required of me. The Bible, on the other hand, aroused the sentiments of faith which persisted to sustain me until the vicissitudes of the university experience—which incorporates all the best methods to make atheists of us all—buried the sentiments under a pile of earth and rubble comprised of all the clever materialistic arguments that justify unrestrained sensual indulgence at the cost of the loss of one’s soul.

My spiritual father dragged me out from the burial grounds of the university killing fields. My seminal father, ‘that gentleman’, could offer no objection to the slaughter of spiritual thought and sentiment that occurred there. What could he say? He had no more insight into the spiritual purpose of human life, and the direction it should take, than the speculating authors of the Great Books he had demanded I read. In fact, he had less insight than they did; for he had not read those books himself.

The Great Books, although not conclusive, did at least inspire serious questioning on my part; and the Bible’s texts provided some inspiration to believe that a spiritual life was possible. While unable to fulfill the duties of a spiritual father, I cannot dismiss the fact that my material father “protected me for some time” and even demanded I be educated in the schools of reason and philosophy taught by Western professors who could not rise to the level of the emperor kings of philosophy like Vyasadeva or Sri Krishna Chaitanya, but were, nevertheless, lords of some manors that made valuable contributions as stepping stones towards higher thought. Srila Bhakti Vinoda Thakura explained how we might benefit from those who made such contributions to our education:

     “Subjects of philosophy and theology are like the peaks of large towering and inaccessible mountains standing in the midst of our planet inviting attention and investigation. Thinkers and men of deep speculation take their observations through the instruments of reason and consciousness. But they take different points when they carry on their work. These points are positions chalked out by the circumstances of their social and philosophical life, different as they are in the different parts of the world. Plato looked at the peak of the Spiritual question from the West and Vyasa made the observation from the East. So Confucius did it from further East, and Schlegel, Spinoza, Kant, and Goethe from further West. These observations were made at different times and by different means, but the conclusion is all the same in as much as the object of observation was one and the same. They all hunted after the Great Spirit, the unconditioned Soul of the Universe. They could not but get an insight into it. Their words and expressions are different, but their import is the same.”

The Bhagavata, Its Philosophy, Its Ethics, and Its Theology

A close friend of mine expressed affectionate concern that I would be saddened and mournful over the death of my father. Those sentiments have not arisen in me. By the grace of my spiritual masters I am certain ‘that gentleman’, my “father”, Gene, did not die. Neither do any of those terms tell us anything meaningful about him. He is a jiva, an eternal spirit soul, whose transmigration through different material bodies happened to coincide with mine, for a brief time, during which he served the function of father, to me, brother to others, a son to someone, and so on. He will continue to serve such functions in his next life, and life after life, until he is blessed with the same sort of causeless mercy that fell upon me and he finds shelter under the direction of his own spiritual father, a bonafide guru. In that I sincerely wish him all good fortune and success.

I wish such spiritual success to everyone, with some special partiality towards those who helped me in my spiritual practicing life. That is natural. Even Sri Krishna, although the original “seed giving father” to all, cannot be entirely neutral in his relationships with various living entities:

Bg 4.11

ye yathā māṁ prapadyante
tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham
mama vartmānuvartante
manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ

As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pṛthā.

So it was, and is, with me. I cannot help but feel some partiality towards those who have assisted me in some way with my service to Sri Sri Guru Gauranga. “The environment is friendly.” As such, everything in it points us towards the service of Sri Krishna, if we can read it properly. The signs all say “Go that way, the way of surrender and dedication to Sri Sri Guru and Krishna.” That said, there is an even more pronounced feeling of kinship with devotees whose help is more directly perceived. We are proceeding along the same path and offer to help each other, should one of us chance to stumble or miss a sign and wander off the path. Ties to mundane family and friends are forks in that road that branch off in many directions and divert us from our destination. As the ties to mundane friends and family slowly dissolve, and those relationships vanish, I feel an ever increasing gratitude to my second father who accepted me into his family, a much larger family than any that could be formed through material bonds.

Thus, several decades ago, when I entered the brahmachari ashram, my view towards my birth father shifted from father to acquaintance, a friendly relationship with someone who I did not ignore, but neither could I feel the sort of bond between us that one feels as a son towards his father. That relationship was supplanted by another, as I increasingly felt my second birth had given me a relationship with my eternal spiritual father, His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada.

The lines of distinction between father and gentleman were further established after receiving sannyasa from Srila Sridhara Maharaja, a formal declaration that one intends to sever all ties with his material relationships and dedicate his life solely to the service of Mukunda:

etāṁ sa āsthāya parātma-niṣṭhām
adhyāsitāṁ pūrvatamair mahadbhiḥ
ahaṁ tariṣyāmi duranta-pāraṁ
tamo mukundāṅghri-niṣevayaiva

“[As a brāhmaṇa from Avantī-deśa said:] ‘I shall cross over the insurmountable ocean of nescience by being firmly fixed in the service of the lotus feet of Kṛṣṇa. This was approved by the previous ācāryas, who were fixed in firm devotion to the Lord, Paramātmā, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.’ ”

. . . “The word parātma-niṣṭhā means being a devotee of Lord Kṛṣṇa. Parātmā, the Supreme Person, is Kṛṣṇa. Īśvaraḥ paramaḥ kṛṣṇaḥ sac-cid-ānanda-vigrahaḥ. Those who are completely dedicated to the lotus feet of Kṛṣṇa in service are actually sannyāsīs. As a matter of formality, the devotee accepts the sannyāsa dress as previous ācāryas did.”

—CC Madhya 3.6 [SB verse 11.23.57]

Srila Govinda Maharaja further solidified my understanding of my position as a sannyasi. Several years ago, having seen many devotees over the years perform a śrāddha ceremony for their departed parents, I had some doubt about my intention to completely avoid my mother’s funeral, and events related to it, following her passing away. I called Srila Gurudeva and asked him if I had any duty related to these things. He said flatly “No.”

At another time I was speaking with Srila Gurudeva about my travel arrangements for a preaching tour of Mexico. When I mentioned I had to spend some hours in Dallas, Texas waiting for a connecting flight, Prabhu Jagadananda asked “Will you be visiting your parents?” I had already decided I would not make any effort to contact them or visit them, but before I could answer the question Srila Govinda Maharaja answered it for me, saying “No. He’s a sannyasi.” I was very happy to hear that Srila Gurudeva had such confidence in me that he knew my answer would be the correct one and, therefore, he could answer the question for me.

If my spiritual guardians kindly take notice that ‘that gentleman’ helped to prepare me for serving them, as I think they will, then his life was not in vein. As death is but the transfer station to our next life, where the spiritual progress of this life is carried with us, where it will be continued in the next, then the gentleman’s so-called death, will also serve a positive function.

Bg 2.40

nehābhikrama-nāśo ’sti
pratyavāyo na vidyate
sv-alpam apy asya dharmasya
trāyate mahato bhayāt

In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.

‘That gentleman’ encouraged me to think about important matters of philosophy and spirituality, and to see them from different perspectives. I, in turn, provoked him to do the same. I doubt such provocation went in vein.

May he not rest in peace.

May he anxiously, urgently and eagerly run after that which he did not get in this life. May he search for Sri Krishna, reality the beautiful.

Swami B.K. Giri