Yamuna in London

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Its seven days since the departure of one of the most beloved disciples of Srila Prabhupada, Her Grace Srimati Yamuna devi dasi on December 20 2011 in Melbourne Florida, Saphala Ekadasi. I have been musing on what to write, thinking that I could never say enough to properly glorify and appreciate such a great soul. There aren’t enough superlatives to adequately convey the respect and deep loving regard that Yamuna devi commanded by her purity, humility, deep devotion, personalism and precise absorption in the mellows of transcendental dealings.

Aside from Srila Prabhupada himself, it’s hard to think of anyone I have met who was as Krsna conscious as she.

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I have read over the last week a great outpouring of appreciation and love from all sectors of the Vaisnava community-men, women, sannyasis, new and old devotees. She touched the lives of millions directly and indirectly by her service and devotion. She was not an ordinary person nor indeed an ordinary devotee.

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One of the things that comes strikingly through from the offerings and eulogies is her unique ability to make everyone she met feel special. Her dealings were such that even a brief meeting with her left you feeling as if you had known her all your life. She was kind, attentive, appreciative, wise and completely present with whoever she was with. Even in seemingly casual conversation she had that deep and fathomless quality that only the very advanced  possess.  When you met her you felt that you had a special relationship with her; and that’s what made her special. She was a true daughter of Srila Prabhupada.

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I hope I can add to the portrayal of our dear Yamuna devi with a few anecdotes which may highlight her special relationship with Srila Prabhupada and with all of us.

My own first indirect contact with her started on the very first day I started doing service at the Sydney temple in February 1972. I was engaged with another bhakta in renovating a small storefront next door to the temple in Glebe. For a week I would walk over to the temple in the early morning and spend the day painting and decorating. We had a small record player and one record, the Radha Krsna Temple album.

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All day long we repeatedly played it, listening over and over again to music and singing that transported us to an otherworldly, mystical state  of consciousness.

Predominant was the slightly nasal, indescribably attractive Vaikuntha voice of Yamuna. I had never heard anything like it. The way she sang ‘Bhaja Mana Hure’ and ‘Govinda Jaya Jaya’ was totally captivating.

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And every morning we heard her lead the Brahma-samhita prayers “Govindam adi purusham tam aham bhajami” as we greeted the newly-dressed forms of Sri Sri Radha Gopinatha

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It was a great introduction to Krsna consciousness. When I asked one of the senior devotees, Baibhavi dasi, who the singer was, she replied in awed tones, “That’s Yamuna. Prabhupada said she is already on the stage of bhava.” I didn’t know what bhava was, but I could understand it was something very special from Yamuna’s singing.

The playing of the Govindam prayers each morning to greet the Deities became an ISKCON standard from the moment the recording was made. Srila Prabhupada had been sent some copies by Shyamasundara prabhu immediately after it was recorded by George Harrison:

Govindam record

Februrary 16 1970 – London

Dearest Prabhupada,

Please accept my most humble obeisances, though I am so unworthy even to accept crumbs from the plates of your devotees. Please find enclosed the first copy of “Govindam” which you have taught us, and which we, quite badly, have rendered for the glorification of your Guru Maharaj in the world at large.

Yamuna, myself, Mukunda and Janaki are singing, with everyone joining on the chorus. George plays guitar, Mukunda plays organ, a new boy, Hamper (an Armenian boy), plays “oud” (an Arabian stringed instrument), I play esraj, Gurudas and I play khartals and there is an orchestra of 6 violins, 6 violas, 2 double-bass, 2 tubas, 3 cellos, and one harp. Please accept this record as our humble offering unto your divine Lotus Feet.

As you can see by enclosure, we are very popular also in Yugoslavia, a communist country. Two weeks ago we were #1, now we are #5. George has received letters from young people in Yugoslavia asking him to send someone there to start a temple. I will xerox these and send them in due course to you. .

When the record is released here March 6 there will be a flurry of publicity and we shall have many occasions to mention the book [note: ‘Krsna’]. I will be with George all day Thursday walking on the grounds of his new monastery to asses the work he wants me to supervise and I shall discuss the foreword with him. I am pretty sure he will do it. Shall I ask him to say anything in particular?

Your idea of a small booklet is supreme, and I shall try to get that foreword from George as soon as possible. If Boston prints it, I can work out details with them (such as English spelling, English prices etc.) and begin taking orders. I may have to travel around Britain to sell Krsna book but the record publicity should make this easier. Since the record will not be released in U.S. til about first of May perhaps the U.S. centers can plan a double campaign (book and record).

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I have just come from the cutting room where this record was made, it is late at night in Trafalgar Square post office so I shall write a longer letter tomorrow to clarify some points. Your servant and friend forever, Shyamasundar.”

Srila Prabhupada sent a long reply, opening with an appreciation of the record:

Letter to: Syamasundara — Los Angeles 21 February, 1970

My Dear Syamasundara,
Please accept my blessings. I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 16 February, 1970, along with “Govindam” record. I have heard it played on a record player and, although the machine was not very good, still I enjoyed the transcendental vibration very much. .”

And in a subsequent letter on February 25 1970 Prabhupada commented:

“I have already acknowledged that the “Govindam” record is very nice, and I am sure it will be appreciated. Devananda also has liked it and says that the sound will be very attractive to the young people especially.
Regarding the presentation of “Govindam” as well as other mantras, the vibration is always pure. I will give the theme and if the sound is Westernized that does not matter.”

It was reported that when Srila Prabhupada heard the Govindam prayers he had tears in his eyes. And as he installed more and more Deities in his rapidly expanding ISKCON movement and standardized the sadhana and routines of temple life, the playing of the Govindam prayers at the greeting of the Deities became an integral and well-loved feature, giving transcendental pleasure to tens of thousands the world over.

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Later on, just after I joined Srila Prabhupada’s party in December 1975, a letter arrived addressed to His Divine Grace from some brahmacaris in Los Angeles. They were objecting to the playing of the London recording of the Govindam prayers, and particularly the fact that a woman, Yamuna devi, was singing them:

[TD1] December 12 1975 – Vrndavana-dhama

During his massage Prabhupada heard a letter from Jayasacinandana dasa in Los Angeles written on behalf of a group of brahmacaris. In every ISKCON temple in the world the assembled devotees offer their obeisances to the Deities in the morning as the Govindam prayers loudly play. George Harrison recorded it and Yamuna dasi sings the mantras.
Disturbed by this custom, Jayasacinandana quoted Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura (as well as Srila Prabhupada) that if a brahmacari hears and is attracted to a woman singing, it is a subtle falldown. “In light of this,” he wrote, “many of the brahmacaris approached the temple president to see if it would be possible that when the Deities are greeted in the morning that instead of listening to Gurudasa Maharaja’s former wife singing the Brahma-samhita prayers, we could listen to Your Divine Grace rather than hear a woman sing. He did not want to change the tape because it had been a standard thing in ISKCON since 1970. So requested by many devotees, I am enquiring from Your Divine Grace if we could play a tape recording of you singing instead of a woman when the Deities of Rukmini-Dvarakadisa are greeted in the morning. I am sure that all the devotees would be enlivened to hear you instead of electric guitars, the London symphonic orchestra, etc. etc.”
“Srila Prabhupada was not pleased. He said that constantly changing things is “our Western disease.” His reply was short and direct. “No! You have made some discovery. All along you have been hearing the recording of Yamuna dasi, and now you want to change. It is not ordinary singing, it is concert. Many people are singing, so it is not bad. Just like sankirtana, many voices are there — men and women; so it is the same thing, sankirtana. I approve of it. Here in the Krishna-Balaram temple we are hearing the same recording every morning. So if it is good here, why not there?”

Yamuna’s transcendental rendering of the Govindam prayers continues as a firmly established ISKCON tradition, and has been heard by millions over the last forty+ years. Let us hope that it continues to inspire hundreds of millions more for the millennia to come. As long as it is played, Yamuna devi remains firmly in our midst and in our hearts.

Yamuna devotees and George



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