All glories to Sri Sri Guru Gauranga
Villa Govinda Ashram, Italy:
A Glimpse of Heaven on Earth
|Report, pictures and web-page by Jagamohini Devi Dasi, USA
tasyaiva me sauhrda-sakhya-maitri-
dasyam punar janmani janmani syat
mahanubhavena guna layena
~Srimad Bhagavatam 10.81.36
Sudama Brahmana prayed:
"The Lord is the Supremely compassionate reservoir of all transcendental qualities. Life after life may I serve Him with love, friendship and sympathy, and may I cultivate such firm attachment for Him by the precious association of His devotees."
Recently, visitors from Ireland, England, Holland, USA and different regions of Italy made their way to Villa Govinda Ashram in northern Italy seeking the precious and valuable association of the Lord's devotees. When Mahananda Prabhu asked me to write a report from Villa Govinda he said that it should be very easy to do because there is much to glorify. This is true. The only difficulty comes in trying to find the words to adequately glorify the devotees and their devotional service.
There is a saying: 'Unlike mere travel, a pilgrimage is a journey into the landscape of the soul.' I feel as if I was drawn to Italy, actually, pulled there, by the affection and devotional example of the Italian devotees, headed by Krishna Kanta Didi and Munindra Mohan Prabhu. Remembering His Divine Grace Srila Govinda Maharaj's visit to Italy two summers ago, one can only think of the lovely Villa Govinda Ashram as a place of transcendental pilgrimage - a glimpse of heaven on earth. Everything I see reminds me of his holy visit and of his appreciation for this land of pious people and their gentle grace.
His Divine Grace will be pleased to see all the improvements and remodeling that have taken place at the ashram through the hard work of the devotees. The entire outside of the Villa has been freshly painted, there is a pond with lilies and colourful fish, and Srimati Tulasi Devi is very healthy. The temple room and prasadam room are full of natural light, new curtains and brilliant colors. Beautiful marble covers the floors. New double-glass doors and windows along with a new fireplace will help to keep the devotees warm this winter when the temperatures dip below freezing. Krishna Kanta Didi and Munindra Prabhu are now working on a new golden altar for Sri Sri Guru Gauranga Bala Gopaljiu. Everything here is done for the pleasure of Sri Guru, Vaisnava and Bhagavan with great care, devotion and artistic flair.
Reminders of Divinity
Previously, when His Divine Grace was here, there was a blistering heat wave across all of Europe. This year, the climate is milder. Occasionally, when the darkness softens into the light of dawn, there are thin tissues of mist that hang weightless between the tall trees, and sometimes a light, gentle rain nourishes the surrounding land. Other times, the sky outside the Villa is an ocean of blue - vast and brilliant. I think that it is easy to pray here - to see reminders of divinity in the elegant and charming environment and in the patterns of the rising and setting sun.
Emerson once said, "Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience." Here, the trees and flowers give sweet example by constantly and patiently offering themselves to the service of the Lord. There are so many flowers - wisteria, rose, hydrangea, sunflower and tuberose - all spilling their fragrance into the air. The garden is rich with eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, pumpkin, salad greens and deep purple grapes. Outside the kitchen door are a variety of herbs for cooking. There are auspicious magnolia trees and a fig tree that is heavy with the honeyed sweetness of fruit. Dandakaranya Prabhu from the UK picked bowl after bowl of ripe figs, but still could not empty the tree.
Srila Govinda Maharaj tells us, in Golden Reflections, how Duryodhan was trying to find the Pandavas during their final year of exile. He and his men searched the forests, mountains and caves without success. Feeling hopeless, he called a meeting of his top men and in that meeting Bhismadev told him that he was foolishly searching in all the wrong places. He told Duryodhan that wherever the Pandavas live one will be able to see the symptoms of their auspicious presence. Such a place would show an abundance of trees bearing nice fruit, cows giving milk, timely rains and fresh breezes. Noting the opulence of Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math, His Grace said that these auspicious symptoms are "happy indications. They are showing us that we are proceeding to our life's goal."
Sitting on the terrace in front of Villa Govinda, we remember His Divine Grace's visit, the hot sun and the feel of a cooling breeze when we received the mercy of his divine darshan. From the terrace there is a beautiful view of the green valley with its lush Mediterranean foliage. At regular intervals trains slice through the green fields below and the bells in the church tower chime with lovely precision. In the late evening the air is like silver. The sky at night is brilliant with the white fire of stars. Fireflies floating in the air land on the green grass like fallen stars. Everywhere in the natural world are reminders.
kantis tejah prabha satta
yat sthairyam bhu-bhrtam bhumer
vrttir gandho 'rthato bhavan
~Srimad Bhagavatam 10.85.7
"The glow of the moon, the brilliance of fire, the radiance of the sun, the twinkling of the stars, the flash of lightning, the permanence of mountains and the aroma and sustaining power of the earth - all these are actually You."
Simple and Dignified Gift
On the festival day of Lord Baladev's Appearance, the devotees brought Sri Harinam Sankirttan to the nearby town of Como. The area surrounding Lake Como has been a popular resort since the time of the Roman Empire. Now, many wealthy landowners have mansions and villas that take advantage of the breathtaking view of the lake and the backdrop of the pre-Alps. It is considered a jewel-like oasis. Sometimes the lake is referred to as a sapphire surrounded by pearls - or picturesque villages. On this day, the villagers and tourists receive the pearl-like gems of the Holy Names.
On Sri Krishna Janmastami, all of the visiting devotees were busy with service activity. A beautiful new golden-yellow flag was raised atop the Ashram roof. Before cooking, the devotees read and took inspiration from the story in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrta, which tells how Damayanti, the sister of Raghava Pandit, in her pure affection, made hundreds of preparations for the Lord of her heart, Sri Gaurahari. Many devotees, headed by Dandakaranya Prabhu, Divya Shari Didi, and their younger daughters, expertly cooked endless preparations late into the night. Ashapurna Didi made the recipe for Baja Pita that was given by Srila Gurudev through Sruta Srava Prabhu.
In the afternoon, we piled into cars and brought Sriman Mahaprabhu's Harinam Sankirttan to the town of Monza. There were many people walking and shopping in this popular and historic town. At one point, the kirttan party of devotees passed under a balcony that overlooked the town square. Krishna Kanta Didi told me that this was the spot where Mussolini had addressed the townspeople of Monza in 1932. Now the townspeople were hearing the golden message of Lord Gaurachandra. Guru Maharaj said that Bhaktivinoda Thakur saw it as self-evident that the intelligentsia could not but be attracted by such a plain, simple and dignified gift - the gift of Mahaprabhu, the conception of Mahaprabhu.
On the drive back to Villa Govinda, there was a heavy storm of pounding rain, thunder and lightning. I remembered the poetic images in Light of the Bhagavat, from the tenth canto of Srimad Bhagavatam, that describe India's rainy season as a metaphor for spiritual understanding. One section nicely describes the flash of lightning as the beam of hope that can lead one to the path of knowledge.
A Life of Nobility
On Sri Janmastami, and on Sri Nandostav and the observance of Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaj's Appearance, we heard beautiful readings from the Scriptures. It was especially pleasing to hear the sastra in the Italian language which is very musical, fluid and emotionally expressive. When devotees are together, we share the common language of the heart.
Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaj has said that the saintly devotees are one's real friends and relatives. And the Supreme Lord said to Uddhava:
santo disanti chaksumsi bahir arkah samutthitah
devata bandhavah santah santo atmaham eva cha
~Srimad Bhagavatam 11.26.34
"My devotees bestow divine eyes, whereas the sun allows only external sight, and that only when it is risen in the sky. My devotees are one's real worshipable deities and real family; they are one's own self, and ultimately, they are non-different from Me."
Srila Guru Maharaj has said, "A life of nobility, a life of dedication - and not only ordinary dedication for the environment, but dedication for the highest good - is the highest form of life." Here in Italy, we have a sweet glimpse of this life of dedication. On the first day I arrived, Krishna Kanta Didi spoke to the guests at the Sunday program. She told how she once had a job where she worked for eight hours a day for little pay. She was giving samples and selling hair shampoo. One day, she questioned, "Why am I doing this? Working so hard, and for whom?" She had the thought, the inner direction, to work for Srila Gurudev. Following that she began taking books and preaching at the university. She was still working hard, but, now, feeling so much happiness and satisfaction.
At one point, she and Munindra Mohan Prabhu were living in a very small place and considered taking a loan to get something larger. But again, following her heart, she questioned, "If we are going to go to all this trouble, why do it for ourselves?" The inspiration for Villa Govinda Ashram was born, and now all of their energy is going for Sri Guru and Vaisnava. Their example is very inspiring. As Srila Govinda Maharaj has said, "Devote, devotee, devotion. The word is very sweet because it is always giving, not taking anything."
Message for the Devotees
When I asked if they had a message for the devotees, Krishna Kanta Didi and Munindra Mohan Prabhu first offered their dandavat pranam and then said that Villa Govinda Ashram always has an open door. They welcome all the devotees of the world to visit - especially at festival times. If you go, you will find spiritual encouragement and many opportunities for meaningful seva.
At times, we may struggle and feel hopeless in our spiritual lives, but when we remember the devotees all over the world who are giving everything in service, then our hearts must be melted and we must feel inspired by their example. In Sermons of the Guardian of Devotion Srila Guru Maharaj has said, "Still, we have to persevere in this journey, and we shall take courage from those who are standing and who are deeply engaged."
I offer my respectful obeisances to His Divine Grace Srila Bhakti Sundar Govinda Dev-Goswami Maharaj, to all the devotees of Italy, all the devotees of India, and all around the world. Please excuse my offenses. I pray for your blessing and your gracious glance. May the remembrance of your lotus feet decorate my heart.