Disappearance of Hridayananda Das Babaji Maharaj
I just learned of this from Subrata's Nitai Gaura Radhe Shyam webiste. He has written a nice article about Hridayananda Dasji, to whom he was quite close. He also has a couple of nice pictures. I have added a couple of my own memories of Baba.
Disappearance of Hridayananda Das Babaji Maharaj
Since for whatever reason my comment never made it on to that page, I will try to reproduce my thoughts here.
In 2005, by the kindness of several devotees, I was able to return to Nabadwip after more than 20 years of absence. One evening I went into town and was making the tour of the various temples when I came to the Samaj Bari. Samaj Bari celebrates its annual festival in honour of Radha Raman Charan Das Babaji Maharaj a few weeks before Gaur Purnima. I had come specifically because I had been told that Hridayananda Dasji was there and I wanted to talk to him. That night, however, the suchak kirtan was being sung and Maharaj was in the group of singers. He wasn't leading, but sitting behind the main singer and instructing him. As usual, he was sitting up very straight and was extremely serious and concentrated. Knowing I would not get a chance to see him and I had to get back to Gadadhar's that night, I left.
The next evening I returned with Gadadhar and we both went and met with Hridayanandaji in his room where we spent about an hour in his association. He told us that he had recently undergone surgery and that made it impossible for him to lead the kirtan, but he was still there to teach and guide those who would be playing this important role in the Nitai Gaura Radhe Shyam sect. He had, as usual, a supply of short books and pamphlets that he had written, sharing his unique insights into Gaura and Nitai tattvas. Gadadhar Pran especially loved Hridayanandaji because of one book he had written about Gadadhar Prabhu. Gadadhar Pran ended up keeping all the books, so I don't have one to look at now to share with you the kind of things he used to write.
The followers of Ramdas Babaji and Radharaman Charandas play an extremely important role in the landscape of modern Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and it is primarily through their kirtan that they do so. Their presence is demanded at every major mahotsava commemorating events in the life of Mahaprabhu and his parshads. Ramdas Babaji established a kind of annual calendar of major kirtans following Mahaprabhu lila, including the Rathayatra kirtan cycle, Jhulan in Vrindavan, which follows Mahaprabhu's pilgrimage there, Panihati Danda Mahotsava, and so on. The role of principal kirtaniya is thus the most coveted and most respected role anyone in the line of Ramdas Babaji can have. Hridayanandaji spent his entire life training for this role and indeed he was born to it.
I met Hridayananda Dasji for the first time in 1985 at Mahesh Pandit's Sripat in Chakdaha. Mahesh Pandit was a parshad of Nityananda Prabhu and one of the 12 Gopals. Keshava Priya Dasji, the Mahanta, was one of our favorite Vaishnavas due to his connection to Krishna Prema, the British devotee who had taken initiation in the Gopala Bhatta Goswami line. I was there for the annual festival, and Hridayananda was there to sing the suchak, etc. He was living somewhere in Howrah district as he had left the Path Bari for a time. I can't remember all the details, but certainly part of it was that he had been passed over as principal kirtaniya after the departure of the previous Mahanta. So he was travelling around Bengal, doing minor utsavas like this one, accompanied by his young disciple and mridanga player, Birbhadra Dasji, nicknamed Bablu.
Hridayananda Dasji and I hit it off right away. He had a contagious enthusiasm for Gaura Katha and it seemed that he was always producing a small pamphlet whenever he had one of his extraordinary insights. I remember enjoying one in which he related the ecstatic manifestation of Lord Jagannath and its esoteric relationship to Mahaprabhu lila. We had a long discussion about the relation of Nityananda Prabhu to Radharani and madhura rasa. He had a very original way of thinking analogically, and was always making parallels between the tattvas and lilas of different deities, sometimes coming up with rather controversial connections.
What I liked about Hridayananda was that he was not afraid to look you right in the eye (and he had marvellous watery eyes) and sing a bhajan to make a point. His conversation would often be as much sung as spoken. His culture was all kirtan, but that is what Mahaprabhu and Ramdas Babaji were all about. In kirtan, Maharaj was, like Subrata describes, in the mood of Ramdas Babaji--his absorption was complete, tears came to him easily as he sang Ramdas's and his own akhars, plunging into the honored, traditional bhavas.
Maharaj invited me to go with him on a tour of Orissa that year. He had a number of disciples in the area, some of them very respectable individuals, as well as other "allies," where he would annually go and put on programs prior to going to Puri for the Rathayatra. He wanted me to give Bhagavata and Chaitanya Charitamrita lectures at all these places--Bhubaneswar, Jagdishpur, Katak, etc. Though we passed through all these places in a whirl--I was myself already in the endgame of my stay in India and not altogether in the right spirit--it was one of my most memorable experiences in the eleven years I was there. I still have very vivid pictures in my mind of the villages and towns we saw, even though the names and the people have faded.
One stop I remember most vividly was at the home of a disciple of Ramdas Babaji's who had become very rich by providing labor for building a railroad through that part of Orissa. He lived in a large house in a rather dry and desolate section of the state, with a Nat Mandir and temple surrounded by rooms for visiting Vaishnavas. I remember being quite struck by the poverty of the villagers who lived right next to him in windowless houses made of the porous red stone that is ubiquitous in the region. The contrast was quite medieval and discomfiting. Another disciple was an engineer at an electric plant, another a bureaucrat in the capital Bhubaneswar. The town of Jagdishpur was typical of coastal Orissa, with its lush vegetation and countless palm trees. In each of these places, we rigorously followed the morning program of mangal arati, midday bhoga arati, as well as an evening program.
When we got to Puri, Hridayanandaji put aside any politics to stay with his spiritual family at the Jhanj Pitha Math. Staying in the midst of the NGRS devotees, participating with them at the Radha Kanta Math kirtans and feasts and all the rest of the Rathayatra festival, has to be one of the highlights of my spiritual life, worth a Raghavera jholi worth of insights and ecstasies. (I have written on the Prema Prayojan site about the NGRS version of the Rathayatra festival, but it is currently down. I will post the link when it comes back on line). Just watching the tilak ritual the NGRS bhaktas have is a trip in itself. They all carry a bag filled with bottles of sand and water from all the different tirthas--some are obligatory, like the sand from Ishwar Puri's Sripat. The black mark they put in the middle of their tilak is the oil and soot from the lamps that burn during Nam Yajnas. The mood was so different from the Gaudiya Math, a different world!
From Hridayanandaji I learned an awful lot about his tradition, about stalwart commmitment to a path, about kirtan (I wish I had learned more), about bhava and the cultivation of bhava through kirtan. It is really too bad that it was interrupted and I had to leave so soon after being blessed by his association. I feel most fortunate that on my trip back a couple of years ago, by the blessings of so many devotees, I was able to get his darshan and the dust of his feet for a last time before he entered the Nitya Dham. May he continue to shower his blessings on us all.