Directly seeing and hearing from Srila Prabhupada removed any traces of doubt I may have had. It made it very clear to me that “this is a perfect master.” I already knew that by reading his books and by following his path in a rudimentary way, but by directly seeing him, my conviction deepened. He was in harmony with the Divine. He was a true saint. I never thought that he was God, or a god, but a saint. Being a human being, a jiva, and yet being so perfectly and finely tuned to the Divine is very inspiring because it means there’s hope for us. If we see Prabhupada as God, we may give up any concept of perfection, just as Christians do. They find perfection repugnant and unachievable, so they don’t try for it. But Srila Prabhupada’s mission was to avoid being tagged as God, or as a god. “Nirvisesa sunyavadi.” In those days gurus were talking about becoming God, but Srila Prabhupada was very clearly not God and not a god, but a saint. To accept someone as a god is a kind of mass hypnosis, a mass agreement to be in delusion while deep in our heart we know that it’s a great fake. But to see a real saint, that is a very profound truth.
Srila Prabhupada had a very powerful countenance. Once, three or four of us were walking with him from Henry Street to the old press building in Brooklyn, New York. We had to cross the freeway and a bridge and pass a very bad section of warehouses where stolen cars were stripped down. It was a chilly winter morning, and Srila Prabhupada was carrying his cane and walking with his head tilted up slightly. As he walked past some row houses, three tattered and torn homeless winos were lying on the warmth of the stoop, away from the wind. They appeared beaten by the world. As we came along they suddenly noticed Srila Prabhupada, and all three of them, without communicating to one another, stood up in a straight line like saluting soldiers, like someone had pulled them from the nape of the neck. Their eyes opened, and they looked at Srila Prabhupada with awe in their face and nodded at him in recognition. Srila Prabhupada turned and said, “Hare Krishna” and marched right by. It was a surprising thing. But that was Srila Prabhupada’s countenance. People recognized him as somebody, even if they had no idea who he was.
I always felt that Srila Prabhupada believed in me more than I believed in myself, that he had more faith in me than I had in myself. Srila Prabhupada saw the best in us, and that was one of his strong leadership points. Of course, a person tends to see others as he sees himself. A thief will think everyone is trying to cheat him. Srila Prabhupada, being a saint, he almost naively—and I say that with the deepest respect and affection—saw in us all good and saintly qualities. Of course, he could realistically observe our faults, and he did so, but overall he saw the very best in us. And we felt, “I don’t want to disappoint him. I’ve never been appreciated like this before, and I really like this identity of being a pure, spiritual person and a servant of Krishna.” This was a very strong and encouraging aspect of interacting with Prabhupada. He treated me as if I were a gentleman. He was polite and courteous and concerned about my well-being, which increased my desire to do something special for him and not to disappoint him.
Once in Calcutta I had a little tiff with my wife, and Srila Prabhupada somehow became aware of it. It was not known in the temple, but that day Prabhupada could see that I was disturbed and when he probed I mentioned that that we had had an argument. Then Srila Prabhupada spoke about his family life. With the greatest sincerity and humility he said, “My wife was very tolerant. That was her great qualification, and to this day I regret how harsh I was. But what can I do? I have a hot temper.” He was feeling, to use his words, “A little remorse.” Srila Prabhupada was not only a powerful orator, a knower of the Supreme Truth and the mystery of the Bhagavat, but also a person who felt sad if he had hurt others, or could laugh heartily on hearing a good joke. In every respect he was a most sublime and developed person.
Srila Prabhupada asked, “What is the spelling of your name? Is it ‘Avhiram’ or is it ‘Abhiram?’” I said, “Well, Srila Prabhupada, when you initiated me you wrote ‘Avhiram,’ A-V-H-I. But you always call me ‘Abhiram.’ So, which is it? You say.” Prabhupada said, “Both are good.” I said, “What do they mean?” Prabhupada said, “‘Abhiram’ means without tiresomeness. ‘Avhiram’ means always chanting ‘Rama.’” It was a casual, light moment, and partly in a joking mood I said to Prabhupada, “So, should I always be chanting ‘Rama,’ Srila Prabhupada?” Srila Prabhupada was lying down, and at that point he became grave and made an “Hmmm” sound, as he often did. He folded his hands across his stomach and said, “We should always be chanting ‘Rama.’ It is a nasty world.”
Prabhupada said to me, “Everything is so nice in the Western countries; if they would simply stop eating the cow. Isn’t there any other kind of meat they can eat besides the cow?”
Once at midday Prabhupada was lying on his bed resting in London. I was chanting silently on my japa beads, attending to him to see if he needed anything. His eyes were closed, so he appeared to be resting, but suddenly he said, “The drum should not be louder than the voice.” This was during a completely quiet, peaceful summer afternoon at Bhaktivedanta Manor. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Most of the devotees were on sankirtan because they were eager to please Prabhupada, so the temple was practically empty. I listened very carefully and through the floor I could hear arati going on in the temple room, which was underneath Prabhupada’s room. I ran downstairs. There was one brahmachari playing the mridanga, one brahmachari playing kartals, and one pujari offering arati. From his nap Prabhupada gave that instruction, “The drum should not be louder than the voice.”
Shortly before Srila Prabhupada departed from this world, there were a few conversations he had about Gita-nagari. In one conversation, downstairs in his house in Vrindavan, he was talking about his impending death, and he said, “I have no lamentation.” Naturally, he was free of all hankering and lamenting. But then he paused and said, “No, I have a lamentation.” Three or four people were there at the time, and someone asked, “Do you mean because you have not finished translating the Srimad-Bhagavatam?” Srila Prabhupada said, “No, because I have not established varnashram. Fifty percent of my work is incomplete because I have not established varnashram.” Then the question arose, “What to do about this uncompleted work?” In another conversation on the roof, Srila Prabhupada said, “I want to establish varnashram,” and one of us asked, “How will you do that?” Prabhupada said, “I will sit down in Gita-nagari and teach you to live off the land.” He made it as simple as that.
We used to get some nice letters of “get well” and “good wishes” for Srila Prabhupada, and we would read them to him. Once at the Manor, Prabhupada was lying in bed, and I was standing near him, reading a card from our God-brother Siddhasvarupa. Siddhasvarupa had been a bit of an iconoclast in ISKCON. He stayed apart from most of his God-brothers, and he had his own unique style and perspective. By this time Siddhasvarupa had gone back to his own establishment in Hawaii, although he was still a devotee of Prabhupada. His card said, “Dear Srila Prabhupada, I am praying for your health” and so forth, and on one line he wrote, “I am a resident of Hawaii, and I hope that if you sometimes think of Hawaii you may also think of me.” At that point, Prabhupada suddenly choked up and burst into tears. I looked up from the card to Prabhupada’s face, and tears were halfway down his cheeks. He said, “I am always thinking of you. I can never forget.” This is indicative of the way he was at that time. Any nice thought brought tears of deep appreciation. Srila Prabhupada’s memory and sleeping habits were amazing. I observed his so-called sleep every single day in those last six months. When Srila Prabhupada slept he would close his eyes, usually fold his hands across his chest, and relax his mouth slightly. I never heard him snore. But when he awoke, I never saw any grogginess. His eyes would open calmly, and he would be fully alert. There was no intermediate period, which I found very surprising, especially considering his condition, how little sleep he got, and all the physical traumas that he underwent, like surgery and traveling in bad conditions. Another of Prabhupada’s surprising characteristics was that sometimes he would have a casual conversation, and midway in the conversation he would become quiet. The conversation wouldn’t progress to a conclusion. After a while there would be a new subject, or nothing. Suddenly, a week or two later, he would start talking in the middle of a sentence. At first I thought, “Well, maybe he is just rattling on. He has become old.” But in my heart I knew, “That’s not Prabhupada. He wouldn’t do that.” So I’d search my memory, “What is he talking about?” and I’d remember the conversation that we had a week or two before, and that he had again begun talking exactly where it stopped. Prabhupada expected me to remember. He certainly hadn’t forgotten, because for him there was no space of time in there. So, while at first I doubted his coherency, later I was absolutely amazed at the incredible power of his memory and the fact that there was no time in his consciousness. It was not a limiting factor for him. For five or six hours at different times during the day I would massage Prabhupada. There was always someone touching him, on the feet, on the hands, rubbing his arm, rubbing his leg. He had pain in his legs. Srila Prabhupada did not let everybody move him or change him. He was comfortable with certain people who handled him in a matter-of-fact and proper way. Prabhupada didn’t like it if a devotee were nervous in touching him. By then there were a lot of devotees in Vrindavan, so I was able to get more sleep. I would go to the next room and lie down knowing that there were at least six or eight people watching and they would call me if anything were needed. One hot night I was sleeping under the fan in Prabhupada’s prasadam room in Vrindavan, when a devotee roused me and said, “Srila Prabhupada’s calling for you.” I went in the room, and apparently some sound had been disturbing Prabhupada’s sleep. He had asked the devotees what it was, but they didn’t know. They couldn’t hear anything. So he said, “Call Abhiram.” When I came in, Prabhupada said, “What is that sound?” I listened carefully and just barely made out in the distance a slight “whoo, whoo, whoo,” which was the ceiling fan I was sleeping under. I said, “Oh, Prabhupada, that is the ceiling fan I am sleeping under. I’ll turn it off.” He said, “No, no.” He put his hand on my hand, “It is for your comfort.” I said, “Srila Prabhupada we are here only for your comfort.” He said, “No, no, no.” I said, “No, I don’t mind, Prabhupada. I’ll turn it off.” Srila Prabhupada was very considerate. At this time he only lay in bed, so he had to be cleaned in every way and his clothes and sheets changed. To do this, I rolled him to one side, rolled the sheets under him and then rolled him back across to pull the sheet out. Then I did the reverse to replace the sheet. Once, when I was moving the sheet out from under him, his head was resting on my arm, which was under his neck, and he was looking at me, although I didn’t realize it because I was busy cleaning him and changing him. He said, “It is nasty?” I looked at his face and realized he was talking about me cleaning him. I said, “No, Srila Prabhupada, it’s not nasty.” He said, “You don’t mind?” I said, “No, Srila Prabhupada, I don’t mind. If you don’t let me serve you, then I will serve maya.” He thought for a moment and said, “That is true.” If we ever let him feel undignified or that he was a burden to us in any way, he would give up his life. He had no ability to handle any kind of dependency or indignity. At every moment he was a very noble, dignified person. As far as the conspiracy theory that Prabhupada was poisoned, if there were an issue that concerned him, Srila Prabhupada was not a turn-the-other-cheek person. He was a strong, warrior type, and many loyal people surrounded him. At that time many of the devotees present were not in accord with each other. They would have loved to get a favor from Prabhupada and to use it against another, but this didn’t happen. Even before 1977, it was well known that Srila Prabhupada had severe diabetes. As Prabhupada’s nurse, I was never bewildered by what his disease was. Dr. McIrving in London gave a very clear analysis. He said that for his whole life, Srila Prabhupada had a small urinary tract. Swelling from diabetes caused further constriction of his urinary tract, so that when Prabhupada passed water, he had to push, and there was pressure on his kidneys. Over the years that pressure caused kidney damage, which meant increased uric acid in his body, which caused his digestion to become poor, and it caused nausea. Those were Prabhupada’s symptoms exactly. He had silky soft skin, feet, and hands, but they were swollen and puffy. These are classic symptoms of diabetes, and Prabhupada consistently refused to do anything to take care of it. He wouldn’t even avoid sweets. He was stubborn in these things. So, he suffered from the complications of acute diabetes and uric acid poisoning from kidney damage, then malnutrition from not eating. At that point, the body starts consuming itself, and there is a complete collapse, which is verbatim what happened to Srila Prabhupada. It was obvious. Certainly, there is a mystical level to all of it, as there is to everything in this world and certainly to a divine person like Prabhupada. But there are also the external practical realities. Once, in Vrindavan during these ill months, Brahmananda said to Srila Prabhupada, “Srila Prabhupada, you are a Vaishnava. As such, you have all the powers of the demigods.” Prabhupada looked at him curiously as if to say, “What is this? Where is this going?” Brahmananda said, “Since you have all mystic powers, you don’t have to submit to this disease. You can get up and shake it off.” Prabhupada looked at him with great surprise and said, “That is fanaticism.” Prabhupada was ill. He was not a god, not Vishnu-tattva; he was a saint, a pure devotee, and this was the lila that Krishna had arranged for him. Out of His mercy and for our benefit, this was the circumstance that Krishna had put Prabhupada in and put us in. That is a simple summary of my observation as Prabhupada’s nurse.
After Prabhupada departed, I spent a lot of time in Vrindavan with Bhagaji, and we used to reminisce. We were consoling each other with memories. To try to sum up Prabhupada was difficult, but one day Bhagaji tried it. We were talking about Prabhupada, and he was reaching a crescendo. Excited, he started shaking a little bit and said, “Prabhupada . . . was . . . Prabhupada.” That’s all he could say. At the last minute he became lost for words. He thought he was going to come up with some way to capture Srila Prabhupada. But Srila Prabhupada defies captivity. He defies a complete definition.