by Madhava Smullen
Brahmananda Das, one of Srila Prabhupada’s very first disciples, passed away at his residence in the holy land of Vrindavana, India, at 3:31pm local time on June 7th, the auspicious day of Vakresvara Pandit’s disappearance. He was 71 years old.
Devotees all over the world are mourning the loss of the ISKCON legend, while at the same time rejoicing that “Prabhupada’s son” is surely back with his father now.
“His love for Srila Prabhupada is almost unparalleled,” said Bhakti Madhurya Govinda Swami, adding, “Brahmananda will go down in history as one of the foundational pillars in the founding of this movement.”
Brahmananda Das was born Bruce Scharf on July 14, 1943 in upper Manhattan. At 20 years old, he visited India while serving as a kitchen assistant on a tramp ship. He saw temples and appreciated the culture there, and upon returning, studied Hindu philosophy at NYU. But it was when he met Prabhupada at 26 2nd Avenue in New York, that his life truly changed.
“I felt as though I was leaving something behind and going to a new place,” says Brahmananda in Satyaraja Dasa’s book Swamiji. “I knew it was the beginning of an important transformation, a major turning point.”
He joined ISKCON in late summer of 1966, and his younger brother Gargamuni followed in mid-September.
Then came a series of firsts. In the fall of 1966, Brahmananda became the first temple president at the first ISKCON temple – 26 2nd Avenue. That October, he was among the first disciples to get up and dance at the very first outdoor kirtan in the Western world in Tompkins Square Park.
Then during the winter of 1966 to 1967, he and Gargamuni acquired ISKCON’s first Deity. As told to ISKCON New York president Ramabhadra Das, they were preaching to Mr. Sarana, the Indian owner of a Manhattan store called The Bells of Sarana, when they noticed a beautiful black Jaipur-style Deity of Lord Krishna. Mr. Sarana donated Him to them, and they took the Lord back to 26 2nd Avenue in a checkered cab. The Deity, whom they first named Govinda, later became ISKCON of Washington D.C.’s Madana-Mohana.
Next, in 1968, Brahmananda helped publish Srila Prabhupada’s first book in the West. As he recalls in Siddhanta Dasa’s Memories of Srila Prabhupada video series, Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is had been rejected by multiple publishers when the devotees got an order for their “Krishna consciousness” album from the major publishing company MacMillan.
Prabhupada told Brahmananda that he should personally bring the record to the company the next day, and tell them that he had a Bhagavad-gita to publish. “Should I bring the manuscript with me?” Brahmananda asked. “No, just tell them,” Prabhupada said. “But I have to say something about you as the author,” Brahmananda said. “Maybe I should bring some of the books you published in India.” “No,” Prabhupada insisted. “Just tell them that you have a Bhagavad-gita to publish.”
The next day, Brahmananda went uptown to the MacMillan Company skyscraper, but the person who bought the record was an accountant who had nothing to do with publishing. Brahmananda was wondering what to do when the door opened and in walked a man whom the accountant introduced as James Wade, MacMillan’s senior editor.
“I shook hands with Mr. Wade, looked him right in the face, and said, ‘I have a Bhagavad-gita to publish,’” Brahmananda recalled. “He said, ‘A Bhagavad-gita? That’s exactly what I am looking for to fill out our religion section. We will publish it.’ I couldn’t believe what had happened. He agreed to publish it without seeing the manuscript. I flew back to Prabhupada and told him the news. I was so excited. Prabhupada nodded as if he had expected it.”
In 1971, Brahmananda was the first to bring Krishna consciousness to Turkey, Pakistan, and Africa, often braving dangerous circumstances, which he described himself in a Back to Godhead magazine article.
In Erzurum, Turkey, when he and one other devotee performed Harinama sankirtana in the town square, they drew a crowd of several hundred curious onlookers but were arrested, had their passports confiscated, and spent several days in jail.
In war-torn Pakistan, Brahmananda was invited to speak at a philosophy class at the University of Punjab when he told students that the Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu had been written by a high official in the Muslim Government (Rupa Goswami). But the situation later became hostile.
“Students accused us of being spies and called us ill names,” Brahmananda wrote. “Some people once rubbed the tilaka off our foreheads and warned us not to walk on the streets or we’d be stabbed.”
Brahmananda escaped to Bombay, where Srila Prabhupada was holding a preaching program. “Although I had been traveling and was dirty and sweaty, Srila Prabhupada was so relieved to see me unharmed that he embraced me again and again,” Brahmananda recalled.
Next, Brahmananda went to Africa. At first, because of his bad experiences in Turkey and Pakistan, he was reluctant to hold public kirtans in Nairobi, and preached to the Indian population instead. But Prabhupada told him, “It is an African country. They are the proprietors. We should be preaching to them.”
Following Prabhupada’s directions, Brahmananda organized an event in a hall in a predominantly African downtown area and held kirtan with the hall doors open onto a busy street. Within five minutes, the hall began to fill up with curious people who joined the kirtan, smiling, clapping and dancing. On another occasion, he organized for Prabhupada to give a lecture at the University of Nairobi auditorium, which became so crowded with African students that people had to stand outside to look through the doors and windows.
In a replication of Tompkins Square Park, Brahmananda also organized Nairobi’s first outdoor kirtan performance under the largest tree in Kamakunji Park. As devotees stood chanting beneath the tree, a large crowd gathered, and many began chanting.
Brahmananda and other devotees then embarked on a series of extensive preaching safaris throughout northern and western Kenya, to neighboring Tanzania and Zambia, and even down to Rhodesia.
Next, Brahmananda had a major role in securing licenses for the Krishna-Balarama temple in Vrindavana. As described in the book Swamiji, he would take a two-hour tanga (donkey cart) ride to the Mathura government offices every day and report back to Prabhupada, who would tell him exactly how to reply.
Big, strong Brahmananda is also remembered as a protective, and rather intimidating presence next to Prabhupada. But he was also jolly, very friendly, affectionate, and had a heart of gold.
“Devotees used to call him ‘The Big B,’” says Ramabhadra Das. “He had a big heart, he had a big body, he had a big vision.”
Later in his life, Brahmananda moved to Vrindavana, India, with his brother Gargamuni. He spent the rest of his days there, making himself available to devotees and inspiring one and all with his talks about Prabhupada.
Battling obesity and diabetes for most of his later years, he suddenly developed a lung infection two years before passing away. On June 7th, when he couldn’t breathe, devotees arranged for an ambulance to take him to a hospital in Delhi. But he collapsed and expired as he sat waiting for it, while listening to Srila Prabhupada singing bhajans. His brother Gargamuni and local devotees Dharmatma Das, Saranga Thakura Das, and Mahadevi Dasi, who had been caring for him, were present.
Brahmananda had previously told several devotees that he didn’t want to go to the hospital in Delhi and wanted to stay in Vrindavana.
“In 1967, Srila Prabhupada didn’t want to go to the hospital,” recalled Gargamuni. “I brought Brahmananda upstairs to Prabhupada’s hospital room and next day Brahmananda took him out. This is Prabhupada’s way of reciprocating with Brahmananda for saving him from the hospital. He is saying, ‘My son will not die in Delhi or in a hospital; he will pass here in Vrindavan.’”
Brahmananda’s body was cleaned and dressed in a fresh dhoti, and tilak was applied on his forehead, along with Prabhupada’s name across his chest in tilak. He was decorated with maha flower garlands, and beside his head was a picture of him with Srila Prabhupada. Devotees streamed in to pay their last respects, and held sweet kirtan throughout the night.
At 7:00am the next morning, Brahmananda was brought on a beautifully decorated bullock cart in a Harinama procession to Srila Prabhupada’s Samadhi, then through Vrindavana town and to the banks of the Yamuna. There his body was sprinkled with Yamuna water and cremated, and the ashes cast into the sacred river.
“He was Prabhupada’s son in every sense of the word,” says Swamiji author Satyaraja, who was close friends with Brahmananda. “His love for Prabhupada was the closest thing to love in this world. In almost every respect — from the early organization of his movement, to overseeing the printing of his books, to pioneering Krishna consciousness in various parts of the world — he was among Prabhupada’s most trusted and loved right hand men.”
And Brahmananda’s legacy will continue on in his absence. “He inspires devotees in their love for Prabhupada by his own contagious love for Prabhupada,” says Satyaraja. “What greater gift can one give the world?”
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Readers interested in learning more about Brahmananda’s life may want to read Swamiji: An Early Disciple, Brahmananda Dasa, Remembers His Guru (Torchlight Publishing, 2014). By Steven J. Rosen.