PASSAGES: Mukta Kesa dasa, 1947-2007
PITTSBURGH, USA (Brijbasi Spirit) - Although I have no qualification to write about the passing of a Vaishnava due to my own tendency to find fault and commit offenses, I humbly attempt to do so regardless because I was at Muktakesh's departure from this world and some godbrothers have requested me to share my observations and limited realizations. I hope others will do the same, as I can only report what I personally experienced or heard.
Mukta joined ISKCON in Buffalo, New York, and was initiated in March 1974. (His brother Lokavarnottama was initiated 9 months earlier during June 1973.) Both brothers excelled at book distribution and rapidly became known as maharatis: big guns.
As Buffalo was part of Kirtanananda's GBC Zone, both brothers had a strong relationship with New Vrindaban, and eventually relocated there when the Buffalo temple and farm was disbanded.
I first met Mukta in 1979. He was one of New Vrindaban's biggest collectors and I admired him and tried to follow in his footsteps. More recently he served as Director of the New Vrindaban Office for the ISKCON Prison Ministry and I had some opportunity to assist him in editing and publishing books about Krishna Consciousness for prisoners.
Mukta married another big sankirtan devotee, Mother Lilamrita, and they had one son: Cediraja, affectionately named after Mukta's dear friend and godbrother from Buffalo who passed away tragically in 1985 while on the pick. Today Cedi is a student at West Virginia University and pursuing a career in biology.
As explained by Loka, during the last few weeks Mukta had been complaining of neck pains, and the doctors at first were unable to properly diagnose his condition. Later it was discovered he had a cyst in his throat and another in the spinal column in his neck, which needed immediate attention. Then a terrible accident prevented him from breathing for many minutes and irreparable brain damage ensued.
Three tests were performed to determine the condition of Mukta's brain, and each test revealed that cognitive brain functions were practically nil. After these tests confirmed that Mukta would most likely never recover external consciousness, it was decided that he should be removed from life support and allowed to die naturally.
I arrived at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Montefiore Hospital Intensive Care Unit at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 7. One of Mukta's godbrothers was massaging his head, and Gadadhara (one of Cedi's friends) was massaging Mukta's left hand. A tape of kirtan was playing in the background. Mukta was covered with a harinama chaddar, and tilak was on his forehead. Pictures of Krishna, Prabhupada and Lord Nrsimhadev were strategically placed near Mukta on his hospital bed and on the walls.
After a while Cediraja entered, sat down next to the bed and began holding his father's right hand. Cedi's great love for his father was obvious at every moment of the vigil. Throughout the turbulent emotions he experienced, he remained at his father's side continually. Loka also soon appeared with his son Krishnaloka, along with other devotees, including one Bhakta Bill who drove from Detroit to be with his Siksha Guru at his passing.
Bill had been in prison for some time, and Mukta ministered to him through his ISKCON Prison Ministry. Because of Mukta's ministry, Bill adopted the Vaishnava ways and developed a deep love for his Guru who had changed his life. I was very happy to meet Bill, one success of Mukta's preaching.
After some time, Mukta was moved from intensive care to another floor where the hospital staff thought there would be more room for visiting devotees who would arrive for his passing. Although the room did not appear to be any bigger, it was situated at the end of a hallway with a lounge where devotees could sit if the room became full.
Mukta was moved about 3 p.m. We assisted by carrying devotional articles, pictures, tape player, etc. I carried a large photograph of Radha-Vrindaban Chandra and a colorful helium balloon someone had brought. We decorated the new room with pictures of Krishna and Prabhupada and devotional paraphernalia, so much so that I thought the room looked like a temple. We gave Mukta some privacy while the hospital staff cleaned him and transferred him to the new bed. Then we entered the room and Loka began leading kirtan.
Cedi sat at his father's right hand, and Loka sat by Mukta's head. Both obviously have great love for their father and brother, as evidenced by their fond and intimate ministrations. Soon many other devotees arrived: Varshan Swami, Soma, Tapapunja and his wife Kamalavati, Nitodita and his wife Ria and her two sisters Vidya Ratna and Purnamasi and her husband Tattva, Sri Galim (who flew up from Texas on short notice), Yogini, Sankirtan and his son Sanjaya, Mother Jaya Sri, Rupanuga & Vani, Vrsni, Sacipita, Devavati, Gopalasapriya, Purnima, Mother Chaitanya with her daughter Dove and two grandchildren, the brahmacaris Balarama Chandra, Chaitanya and Krishnadas. There were others also, but I do not know their names.
I guess that maybe 20-25 devotees packed the room at once, but throughout the day probably 40-50 devotees came to offer respects, including Damodar who visited in the morning and Loka's other two sons who came earlier in the week. There was standing room only. There were more devotees standing outside the door.
Devotees brought deity garlands from New Vrindaban; two or three garlands were placed around Mukta's head. Tapapunja played the mrdanga and I played a small accordion. Someone else played karatals softly. Several devotees took turns leading kirtan.
Devavati placed what appeared to be a small Salagram deity on Mukta's chest. Kamalavati sprinkled what appeared to be Ganga water and Vrindaban dust on Mukta. Mother Gopa held a large framed picture of Prabhupada at the foot of Mukta's bed.
I was especially impressed with the great love emanating from the devotees which filled the room. Everyone was there to support their dear friend and godbrother in his momentous passage from this life to the next. We were sad to see him go, but glad to be able to help make his passing more auspicious by chanting the Holy Names.
Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita: "And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt. Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail." (B.G. 8:5-6)
Of course, Mukta and I had our disagreements at times through the years, as can be expected in any family, but to be truthful, I was amazed that I had forgotten all these things. There in the hospital room with Mukta lying unconscious and all of us chanting, I could only remember Mukta's service for Krishna, his devotion to Prabhupada, and his wonderful qualities. My heart was absorbed in love for Mukta: a love that I frankly did not know existed. It is said that one doesn't realize what is important to them until it is taken away. Now I was all too conscious of my great affection for Mukta, and I regretted not always being kind to him while he was with us.
I believe Srila Prabhupada taught us the proper way to perceive our sincere godbrothers, despite their faults. Once Prabhupada was informed that one of his uninitiated disciples had begun to backslide and was not always strictly following the regulative principles. Prabhupada declared: "No, no, he is very good boy. . . He is keeping Jagannatha within his beadbag and chanting. . . No, he's our well-wisher, a good boy." (Srila Prabhupada quoted by Hari Sauri Dasa in "A Transcendental Diary: Travels With His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada," Volume 1 (pp. 156-157).
Prabhupada did not see the faults of this disciple. Prabhupada only saw the devotion, just as Radharani sees only the good in others. I believe if others might criticize, Prabhupada would have said the same thing about Muktakesh: "No, no. He's a good boy."
About 4:30 p.m. a hospital staff member entered the room and disconnected Mukta's breathing tube, as Cedi and Loka had requested. Now Mukta had to breathe on his own. He also hooked Mukta up intravenously to a bottle of morphine which would relax his body, slow his breathing, and make him as pain-free and comfortable as possible.
I had spoken to this staff member earlier in the company of Cedi and he said that normally a patient in this condition may continue to breath for an hour. Perhaps four hours at most. He also explained that normally before a person dies, their breathing becomes shallow and irregular and less frequent. There may be a prolonged time of stillness between each breath. This is known as agonal respiration.
When Mukta was taken off life support, our emotions became very strong and tears flowed freely, because we knew Mukta's remaining time in this world was coming to an end. The kirtan became more intense. Loka began kissing his brother. Cedi's tears flowed profusely. Even Mukta shed a few glistening tears periodically. The room became very hot and stuffy, as we had to close the door to the hallway to keep from disturbing the other patients and hospital staff. Although cool air blew from the heater/air conditioner vent, it had little effect. It became so warm that Mukta began perspiring, and periodically Loka and Mother Devavati wiped the sweat from his brow and saliva from his lips.
At 5 p.m. I left to play organ at a Good Friday Church Service, but I had the feeling that when I returned Mukta would still be breathing. I had told Cedi earlier, "Your father is so stubborn, I wouldn't be surprised if he kept breathing for another 12 hours after life support is removed."
When I returned to the hospital shortly before 9 p.m., Mukta was still alive and breathing. The kirtan had stopped for a while and devotees were speaking about Mukta. I heard Varshan Swami glorify Mukta and his enthusiasm for chanting japa loudly.
At 9 p.m. an announcement was broadcast on the hallway loudspeaker: "Visiting hours are over. All visitors must leave now." Quickly I ducked out of the hallway, entered Mukta's room and stationed myself near his bed with my accordion. I wasn't planning on leaving before Mukta. I picked up my accordion and the kirtan resumed. Several times the nurses and staff knocked on the door, apparently in an attempt to get us to leave, but no one budged. We did however chant softly as not to cause the hospital staff any additional stress.
Gradually the space between Mukta's breaths became longer and longer and it seemed he was going to leave soon. At around 9:35 or 9:36, he took his last breath. There was no more movement in his chest. We waited and waited for the next breath. Nothing. No more movement.
Nityo stood up next to Mukta and examined him closely. Mother Devavati placed her fingers on Mukta's neck to feel for a pulse, then sprinkled some Ganga water on Mukta's lips. The kirtan softened. Mukta was unmoving. Gadadhara said he noticed an immediate change in the color of Mukta's face. Two small silver tears appear in the corners of Mukta's eyes. Gauranga Kishore (Narada Muni's son) was leading the chanting when Mukta departed.
Someone called for a nurse who came with a stethoscope. The room became silent as she listened for a heartbeat. I could not hear what she said, but it seemed she said something like: "We must have a doctor confirm."
Song sheets were passed out and Nityodita lead the singing of "Song for a Departed Vaishnava," accompanying himself on the harmonium.
Shortly after this I departed for my home. I was extremely grateful to be able to assist in the passing of Muktakesh in some small way by providing pleasing musical accompaniment for the kirtan. I was briefly reminded of the passing of Bhismadeva, as both Bhisma and Mukta were maharatis in their own respective fields of expertise: Bhisma on the battlefield and Mukta in the parking lots.
"Thus Bhismadeva merged himself in the Supersoul, Lord Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, with his mind, speech, sight and actions, and thus he became silent, and his breathing stopped. Knowing that Bhismadeva had merged into the unlimited eternity of the Supreme Absolute, all present there became silent like birds at the end of the day. Thereafter, both men and demigods sounded drums in honor, and the honest royal order commenced demonstrations of honor and respect. And from the sky fell showers of flowers. O descendent of Bhrgu, after performing funeral rituals for the dead body of Bhismadeva, Maharaja Yudhisthira was momentarily overtaken with grief. All the great sages then glorified Lord Sri Krishna, who was present there, by confidential Vedic hymns. Then all of them returned to their respective hermitages, bearing always Lord Krishna within their hearts." (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.9.43-47)
Originally written for and published on the Brijabasi Spirit Website.