Prabhupada initiated his disciples in many different countries: London one day, Germany one day, France one day, and Holland another day. We were from Amsterdam, Holland, and so everyone came there for initiation. Prabhupada was very happy that we all came from Holland. The room was full of devotees and a little intimidating since I’d never really been in a bigger association than my family of eight. When I went to get my name from Srila Prabhupada, he said, “Your name is Surabhi devi dasi, the name of the transcendental cow, the giver of abundance of milk.” He must have seen I was a little bit uncomfortable in the whole situation with all the people, so he said, “Don’t be afraid.” He said, “If you follow this process, you will go back home, back to Godhead, at the end of your life.” That was pretty amazing for me as I could feel the love from Srila Prabhupada. He was such a beautiful, caring person.
We traveled from Germany to France to see Srila Prabhupada because whenever he went somewhere in Europe, most of the temples would go to wherever he was visiting. At this time the temple wasn’t very big at all as the temple room itself was more like the size of a garage. In those days the men and women didn’t sit separately, and as I was one of the first devotees to enter the temple room, I thought, “Oh, I’m going to sit up front.” Then Prabhupada gave the class, and after he read the Sanskrit, he said, “Men,” prompting the men to repeat the Sanskrit verse. After some time I thought, “He’s going to say ‘Women,’ and since I am sitting right up front, they are going to give the book to me.” As we hadn’t read the Sanskrit in Germany, I thought, “Oh, my God! What am I going to do?” Sure enough, they handed me the book and I felt like crawling under the carpet. I was so embarrassed because I really hadn’t pronounced Sanskrit that much beforehand. I must have been as red as a beet. Anyway, I started pronouncing the verse and I couldn’t say it properly at all. But Prabhupada began saying the verse along with me. He was so kind as I was just hopeless. In the end, he said, “Very good.” I thought, “This man, this beautiful man, is just so wonderful.” I can never forget these things that make me love Prabhupada even more. I found that he was such a caring person and he was always concerned about us. That was Srila Prabhupada.
I remember once Prabhupada came back from his morning walk, and as he was going up the stairs, it was completely silent. I thought, “Oh, I’ve got to start a kirtan. It just can’t be silent like this.” I started singing “nama om vishnu-padaya,” and as Prabhupada went up the stairs, he turned around and looked down at me and nodded his head. For me, Prabhupada was always noticing every little thing. He cared for us, and any little thing that we did for him, he acknowledged it. Even though it was a small gesture of starting a kirtan, he appreciated that service. I’ve always felt like Prabhupada was and is my father because of the way he always treated us with love.
On our way to Sweden we went to various cities and participated in the festivals that were held at each location. I can’t remember exactly which city, but Prabhupada came to give a talk, and on his way to the stage, he came upon the prasadam booth. The devotees offered him a strawberry drink. Prabhupada said, “Oh, very nice. Real strawberries?” Umapati said, “No, Srila Prabhupada, not real strawberries.” Prabhupada replied, “Oh, they should be real.” He was very concerned not only just for the devotees but for the public as well. He always wanted us to give a good example and have the best for everyone.
We went to Sweden on the ferry and drove to the temple where Vegavan and Padmavati were heading up the yatra. Prabhupada gave a lot of classes at the temple, but the highlight of that trip was when Prabhupada went to the Uppsala University. Prabhupada talked about first-class men, second-class men, third-class men and fourth- class men. One arrogant hippie stood up and in a challenging voice asked, “And you? What class are you?” Prabhupada put his head down and said, “I am fifth-class man.” I thought, “Wow!” Prabhupada was just so humble that the hippie immediately sat down and never said a thing after that. Srila Prabhupada displayed his genuine humility that not only affected that student, but it also had an amazing impact on me as well.
In 1975 when we were in Hyderabad, I got the opportunity to go with Srila Prabhupada out to the hundred acres of land that had been donated. Prabhupada walked around looking at the land, and we also got to go for a swim in the pukur. Afterwards we all took prasadam and then Prabhupada took rest. When Prabhupada came out, he was talking to us and later everyone commented, “Srila Prabhupada was looking right at me and he was speaking to me.” I said, “Yes, he did that to me too.” There were about three or four devotees and every one of them thought Srila Prabhupada was speaking directly to them. That is what he was like. He was so personal because he really loved us. He really cared for us and gave us so much attention. Even if it was only a little bit of attention, he knew that meant a lot to us, so much so that for the rest of our lives we never forgot. Srila Prabhupada was the most merciful, kind and loving person.
My service now is that I like to look after the devotees. Somehow or other I’ve imbibed some of those qualities from Srila Prabhupada, to be loving, caring, interested in each devotee as a person, making sure that their health is good. One time on a cool morning Prabhupada saw one mataji who didn’t have a chaddar or a sweater on. Prabhupada said, “Aren’t you cold?” She said, “No.” But Prabhupada told the temple president, “You must make sure all the devotees have warm clothing. Whatever they need you must make sure they have that.” I have never met a person in my life that really went out of his way to look at every little aspect like that. He always wanted to know if we were in good health. If the devotees were sick, he would tell the temple president, “You make sure they have the medicine they need.” You can see the love that Srila Prabhupada had for us. He really genuinely cared for us. He was that type of person naturally. But he also imbibed a bit of that from his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, as well. The devotees asked Prabhupada, “How can you say that we were sent to you by your guru when we were meat eaters, womanizers or drug takers?” Prabhupada said, “All that was superficial. As soon as you heard the chanting of the maha-mantra, you came running.”