Positive Chronicles - Boatman for the Other Shore
by Rajendar Menen
As spiritual counsellor for iskcon’s bhaktivedanta hospital in mumbai, damodar pandita dasa smoothens the passage between life and death for terminal patients
He is tall, fair and slim. His head is shaved, and he is in spotless white cotton kurta and dhoti. His long feet are shod in rubber chappals. We haven’t met in a decade, but Damodar Pandita Dasa, the chief counsellor for patients at the Bhaktivedanta Hospital at Mira Road in Mumbai, hasn’t changed much. He is still in the garb of an ascetic. If anything, his smile lingers longer, and his gaze is charged with more benevolence. We decide to meet in the Krishna temple in Juhu.
Damodar Pandita has had a life of several twists and turns. Born to an upper class Roman Catholic family in India, he graduated in English Literature, studied law, and then went to Vienna in 1974 for higher training in Orchestral Conducting and Composition. In Vienna, he started questioning the purpose of life, became interested in spiritual matters, and returned to Mumbai in 1981 to pursue his spiritual inclinations. He joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in Juhu, headed its Public and Cultural Affairs department, and travelled frequently to the Far East for fund raising, drug counselling and flood relief. He also met with and fell in love with a devotee. They got married but she left her body a few years later, struck by brain cancer. In 1998, he joined the Bhaktivedanta Hospital and has been actively involved in patient care and child counselling. He is also the advisor to schools on the Cell System of counselling, and is the chief coordinator of Bal Samskara Kala.
After the pleasantries, I ask him about his work. How does it feel to be surrounded by the terminally ill every moment of his life? Doesn’t he burn out?
“The body is the droppings of the soul,” he says gently, the soft smile not leaving him even for a moment, quoting John Dryden, the renowned 17th century bard. “But the Bhagavad Gita elaborates on that highly esoteric subject matter in such a succinct but elaborate manner (specifically verses 13-30 of the Second Chapter) that one has no more queries about the dubious distinction between the perishable and mutable gross material body (comprised of ‘panchamahabhuta’ viz. earth, water, fire, air and ether [space]) and the immutable, eternal and indestructible spirit soul or ‘atma’. Due to ignorance and delusion, the eternal soul identifies itself with the outer coverings including the subtle body, comprising mind, intelligence, and the sense of one’s misperceived identity or false ego.
“There are four irrevocable phenomena that confront and plague all embodied beings. They are birth, old age, disease and death,” he continues. “Of these, the word ‘death’ generally strikes terror in the heart and evokes a spontaneous response of revulsion – ‘Why me? Not me!’ Within the subtle body, there are 72,000 nadis or passages through which the universal energy (prana) flows. As the gross physical body becomes more and more disabled, due to advanced age and terminal disease, this inner subtle body becomes more and more hyperactive, thus compensating for the disability of its gross counterpart. When the process of death commences, the spirit soul (whose dimension is calculated to be the ten thousandth part of a hair tip) ceases to illuminate and activate all gross bodily processes.
“In the event of such an internal blackout, the Supersoul or Paramatma takes charge and illuminates one of the major 118 nadis through which the individual soul may leave the body (along with the subtle body) for judgement by higher authorities under the surveillance of the Supersoul. If the living being has realised and perfected his/her relationship with the Almighty Lord, then the soul (atma) departs for the abode of the Lord, deserting both the gross and subtle material bodies.”
Damodar Pandita continues, “As long as the distinction between body and soul is not clear, terminally ill patients are bound to be dragged through the gamut of emotional phases like Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Despair, and ultimately Acceptance or Resignation. The scriptures explain that death, for an ignorant being, is more painful than being stung by 42,000 scorpions at one time.
“I am honoured and privileged to be of some help to people in the darkest moments of their lives. I am never burnt out. On the contrary, I am enegised.”
How does he explain all this to grieving next of kin?
“It is important to be the bridge,” he tells me. “I help by being with their loved ones and assist him/her traverse the various phases – from the dread of the dark, unknown and unfathomable to the illuminating vision of the definite mercy of an all-caring and all-protective Father. It is my role to provide the stimulus to gain courage, and inspire the patient to enter the sublime process of relinquishing his/her incapacitated body in divine consciousness. The relatives are encouraged to take part in scriptural readings and prayer, either by the bedside or in the lobby. This helps the terminally ill to progress steadily from the morbid to the sublime.”
"Death is only a physical separation; it is the sublime gateway to an eternal reunion with the Creator."
As the spiritual counsellor of the Bhaktivedanta Hospital, Damodar Pandita is always at the deathbed of someone or the other. His door is always open and strict instructions are left with the operator to allow every call to reach him any time of the day or night. It is his responsibility to help patients come to terms with their situation, to facilitate the need for forgiveness by clearing emotional and physical baggage, to deepen already existent familial and fraternal ties with a deep sense of gratitude, and to renew and reaffirm sagging faith in “His divine will.”
There have been thousands of memorable cases; so many have died smiling in his arms. He recounts the case of Rubina, a young Muslim housewife who had tried to immolate herself due to family problems. She survived and was brought to the hospital with 92 per cent burns. With the permission of her spouse and family members, Rubina heard the entire Bhagavad Gita (700 shlokas) twice. “So dependent were her relatives on the spiritual care at Bhaktivedanta Hospital, and the extraordinary efforts of Spiritual Care Nurse, Vishrita Patil, that they insisted that Vishrita remain in the room, alone, with Rubina, read the Gita, and put Ganga jal and tulasi in her mouth as Rubina was slowly leaving her body,” says Damodar Pandita. “Christians and Muslims, people of every faith, allow their dying relatives to hear readings exclusively from the Gita and listen to the chant of Hare Krishna either alone, or accompanied by readings and chants from their sacred texts.”
The toughest part is counselling and consoling the relatives. “They adamantly hang on to the misconception that their loved ones will not die. They pray for life. When that doesn’t happen, the family members lose faith in God. Instead of putting the onus on God to do the irrational, they could, instead, utilise this phase of intense emotional activity to reinforce their faith in His goodwill. Death is only a physical separation; it is the sublime gateway to an eternal reunion with the Creator.”
There are also other, more earthly, needs to look into. Family members can squabble over financial and property matters, and the terminally ill have their own feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and helplessness.
But Damodar Pandita Dasa is always there with a smile playing on his serene face, and kind, shining eyes as he guides them from this life to the next on the toes of the last sonata.
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