On the early morning of January 20th, a rare and special Vaishnava was taken from this world. Shyamdas, world-renowned scholar, author and translator, kirtan leader and dear devotee of Krishna was killed in a motorcycle accident while in Goa, India. He was there with a group of friends, students, god-brothers and sisters teaching Sanskrit, leading kirtans and sharing his deep love for Radha and Krishna. The following note is posted on his website about his final days in Goa.
“Hari OM…Our priceless friend Shyamdasji left this world last night. He spent his remaining hours, as usual, in satsang and bliss with a group of dear friends. On this night in particular they were reading Shri Vallabhacarya’s teaching “Krsnashraya” and reflecting deeply on and repeating the refrain, “Krsna eva gatir mama…Krishna is my refuge and destination.” He has arrived at his final refuge and destination now.”
His passing gives me an opportunity to share with our ISKCON community my appreciation for him as a genuine Vaishnava. We are indebted to him in various ways, for although he was from a different lineage (Vallabhacharya’s line, also called Pushti Marg), he made an undeniable impact in the world by tirelessly spreading the yuga-dharma of chanting Krishna’s names and introducing thousands to the beauty and joy of kirtan. Because of this, he holds a place as a very important Vaishnava in the modern age whose teachings influenced some of the most well-known and important cultural icons of our time, such as the musicians Sting, Madonna, and the Beastie Boys. He also acted as a link to the sacred land of Vrindavan for many in the modern American yoga scene, inviting them and guiding them into a physical and spiritual connection with the holy dham. So we celebrate his life with this humble remembrance.
Shyamdas is known by most as kind of divine madman whose kirtans were filled with spontaneity and humor. He was an incredible raconteur and extemporized during his kirtans about everything from current events to stories of Radha and Krishna. He could speak 5 languages and translated many of the songs and writings of saints from the Pushti Marg tradition, including those of Vallabhacharya, Govinda Svami, Raskhan, Surdas and others. He was always distributing prasad that he’d cooked for his deities and magically always had enough for any last minute guests. He played tennis in a dhoti. He always wore bundi style kurtas that seemed like a throwback to a bygone era in Indian devotional fashion. He was a do it yourself-er and had no problems doing any seva, whether it was humble or grand.
Shyamdas on the Yamuna
There are some beautiful stories about Shyamdas’ life and spiritual journey in the book The Yoga of Kirtan by Satyaraja Dasa (Steven J. Rosen) www.yogaofkirtan.com. One incredible story stands out in my mind. He was taken to a psychologist as a young child because he would often tell his family about a beautiful, “blackish boy” who would sometimes follow him. He remembers having visions of this boy throughout his childhood, which were accompanied by a mystical and transcendent feeling. Only later did he come to the conclusion that this boy was actually Krishna.
Shyamdas was introduced to spirituality in the 60’s and began reading books on Buddhism and yoga. Somehow from his reading, a very specific question arose clearly in his mind that fueled his search for a guru and led him to India and ultimately to his life’s work of Krishna bhakti and kirtan. He wanted to know whether God was formless and devoid of qualities or whether he was the possessor of all diversity and all qualities. This search brought him with a group of other young seekers to the ashram of his first guru Neem Karoli Baba in Vrindavan. Shyamdas stayed and studied with Vaishnava saints in Vrindavan, eventually meeting his second guru Sri Prathameshji, who he studied with for 20 years. Shyamdas began to carry these teachings with him when he would visit the West and was one of the first (if not the first) to begin chanting in yoga studios in America in the 1980s, beginning with the Jivamukti Yoga Center run by Sharon Gannon and David Life in New York City.
Jai Uttal, the influential kirtan artist, is a longtime friend of Shyamdas and told me a funny story about their time together in those days. Jai was living in Berkeley, California, and was a well-known and busy musician with a host of responsibilities. Shyamdas would often drop by unannounced (sometimes more than once a day) and just want to hang out and chat and share stories and do kirtan and Jai would be trying to politely get him to leave. But Shyamdas would say, “I’m not leaving until we sing Hari’s name together.” And he would practically force Jai to drop whatever plans he had and sit and sing with him or he would refuse to leave. Once they finished chanting, Shyam would leave happily.
I asked Satyaraja Dasa about his relationship with Shyamdas and why he thought the beloved kirtaniya was important to the modern kirtan scene. Here's what he said:
"Shyamdas was in a unique position to bring spiritual practitioners — especially in the modern yoga community — to the next step. You see, he was a disciple of the spiritual luminary Neem Karoli Baba, and he was also a disciple of Goswami Prathmeshji of the Vallabha Sampradaya, a legitimate Vaishnava lineage. Because of this, he was able to serve as a bridge, linking practitioners from the two traditions — this has proven to be beneficial for both. In addition, I would say that Shyamdas served the contemporary yoga world by conveying true jnana, i.e., knowledge, from a bona fide source. His bhakti-infused pronouncements were always rich with traditional commentary and insight. Indeed, he was a scholar of numerous Indic languages and he used that scholarship to good effect. But he was not merely a scholar; he was a consummate practitioner, and a jokester too. In fact, these latter qualities speak to why he will be so missed. It's why I miss him. I can say that for certain. His heart was full of joy, and this, more than anything else, came out in his kirtan. This joy, or ananda, is a gift from God, as was Shyamdas himself. He was a gift from above, no doubt, and I miss him already, more than words can say."
Shyamdas once told me that he was waiting for years for the Gaudiya Vaishnavas (followers of Chaitanya) to show up to the kirtan festivals.
In my experience, Shyamdas was a source of incredible encouragement and enthusiasm. He would often shower me and our kirtan groups with praise. He commented that he liked the way we presented Krishna and the Bhagavatam in an accessible way while still keeping the essence. We would often stay up with him late into the night long after the festival attendees had gone to bed discussing and even debating Vaishnava principles and sharing realizations and aspirations. We shared about Lord Chaitanya and he shared about his studies and translations from the Vaishnava saints. He urged us to think deeply about everything we said and did. He loved Prabhupada, his children and his grandchildren. He had limitless respect for Prabhupada’s teachings and books.
In my heart and mind Shyamdas is an uncle and friend, a mentor and champion in the mission of spreading the Holy Name. His companionship will be sorely missed. I am honored though to continue this seva in his absence. The famous poem about the passing of Vaishnavas by Bhaktivinoda Thakur hasn’t left my mind since I heard the tragic news.
“He reasons ill who says that Vaishnavas die,
When thou art living still in Sound!
The Vaishnavas die to live and living try,
To spread the holy life around!”
Below are some specifics about Shyamdas’ death, written by his friend Mohan Baba:
“Farewell Shyam Das Ji
In the early hours of January 20, 2013, we lost our dearest Shri Shyamdas-ji. Born Stephen Schaffer in Connecticut, USA, Shyamdas-ji passed away at the Vrindavan Hospital in Mapusa, North Goa, India following a tragic motorcycle accident on a winding, hilly road near the Goa-Maharashtra border. He was 21 days shy of his 60th birthday. […] Shyamdas Ji was a shining light for all of us, and we deeply mourn his passing. We mourn because we have lost one of the greatest Western scholar-practitioners of Sri Vallabhacharya’s Pushti Marg (Path of Grace). We mourn because he authored and translated so many beautiful and profound books, making available to the English-speaking world the sublime teachings of Shuddha Advaita in which Krishna himself is seen as everything, everywhere, and in everyone! We mourn because Shyamdas Ji was a master and lover of the divine language of Sanskrit, as well as Vrajbhasha, Hindi, and other regional languages. We mourn because of the many books that most certainly would have continued to come from the pen of his bhakti-filled hands. We mourn because Shyamdas Ji was a gifted kirtan singer, whose performances and recordings were so filled with love and joy. We mourn because of the ecstatic music he would have continued to make to uplift and inspire so many people, bringing them closer to the divine. But perhaps most of all, we mourn his loss because of what he taught us about bhakti—what it really means to love God with unswerving devotion every day, every week, every year, every decade. Writing about God, talking about God, singing about God, reveling in God, and doing God’s seva (devotional service) was the joy and the calling of Shyamdas Ji’s life. He was what is known as an ananya bhakta, “one who has exclusive devotion to God alone.” He was a powerhouse reveling in the divine play that is Krishna’s Lila. He could not be pried away. On the very day that Shyamdas Ji left behind his mortal form (at the Vrindavan Hospital, of course), he was teaching a Sanskrit text to a small group, repeating the refrain over and over again as it appears in the text: Krishna eva gatir mama—Krishna alone is where I am going; he is my only support, my only refuge. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says, “My bhakta comes to me.” There can be no doubt that our sweet Shyam Ji is now with his support, his refuge, his Beloved Krishna. We will miss him dearly."
In my recent conversation with Satyaraj-ji, he made the following point about Shyamdas's venue of departure. I think it an appropriate ending for this offering:
"I would like to comment to naysayers who might point out that Shyamdasji did not leave his body in Vrindavan. Ultimately, Vrindavan is a state of mind — an exalted state of mind, wherein one's service to the Supreme takes precedence over everything else. Not everyone will leave this world in geographic Vrindavan, as auspicious as that might be. For Shyamdas, his mission took him to Goa, where he was teaching Sanskrit mantras proclaiming Krishna as the ultimate goal of life, and, of course, he was engaging in kirtan. After the motorcycle accident, he was brought to "Vrundavan Shalby Hospital" in North Goa. He thus left his body in Vrundavan (an alternate spelling for Vrindavan), and this is no coincidence. Really, though, his life was absorbed in Hari-katha, and THAT is Vrindavan in the highest sense of the word."