ISKCON devotees from around the world welcomed a new temple president to the Bhaktivedanta Manor, nestled in England’s Hertfordshire countryside, at the beginning of the year.
Known fondly as Visakha Dasi, the new president had two months of engaging with the public before lockdown was announced in March 2020. She made the most of her time engaging in meditations and live discussions about “Krishna Consciousness” with the global community.
The temple, donated by Beatle George Harrison, is a spiritual sanctuary, educational hub and venue for many extravagant festivals all year around. But like many institutions covered in our FaithTech Series, it has had to adapt to the digital world and harness technology in order to meet the spiritual needs of the community without too much disruption.
‘iGlobal’ caught up with Visakha Dasi for this regular Profile Series to find out how her first year of temple presidency is going, her life and experiences before initiation and her message for the community as the world enters a new normal.
Born Jean Papert Griesser in New York, Visakha Dasi had a typically American suburban upbringing in Long Island.
“What was somewhat atypical at the time was that both my parents were atheists – so my brother and I were atheists too, and very adamant ones,” she says. “I wasn’t interested in spiritual life at all, what to speak of something as ‘eccentric’ as Krishna Consciousness.”
Both her parents had extremely orthodox religious childhoods. Her mother was born into the Catholic church and her father was from Poland, born and raised in the Jewish community.
“They found that their religious practices had no substance and so we never went to a temple, church or synagogue and had minimal exposure to religion growing up.”
By the time Jean was 19, she had accumulated relative success in her professional career, having published her first book on photography.
“Even though I had this success, I felt an emptiness within me. I didn’t understand what it was all for. What is success for? What is the purpose? We make money, we spend money, we seek pleasure in different ways, but why? With that emptiness, I was not looking for spirituality, but through a series of circumstances, I came into contact with the Hare Krishna movement.”
The turning point for Jean was in 1970 when she and her then boyfriend, John Greisser (who went on to become her husband, Yadubara Dasa), had landed an assignment, photographing and writing about Hare Krishna movement for ‘Asia’ Magazine.
They spent two weeks at the Brooklyn temple, and although she found the devotees hard to relate to and lost a lot of weight eating a bland oatmeal diet, she accepted John’s offer to visit Vrindavana in India to complete his Masters’ thesis on ‘The Hare Krishna People’ the following year.
Here, she absorbed the bhakti way of life directly from ISKCON founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
“The logic of what he was saying, the beauty of the lifestyle they promoted and the philosophy very much captivated me. I went from being an atheist to a theist.”
Their time in India was difficult in parts, which she writes about candidly in her latest bestseller ‘Five Years, Eleven Months and a Lifetime of Unexpected Love’.
“‘We were preached to by the temple president, who was as delicate as a charging rhinoceros,'” she writes.
“There was a language barrier, but from what I could see, the people there didn’t have the same goals for profit, adoration and distinction that I was exposed to in the West,” she says. “Yet they seemed much happier than people in the West. I spent a lot of time with the Vrindavana widows, and they would chant the maha-mantra every morning. Then I’d see them doing their business around town in the afternoon, and they just seemed so satisfied to me. They had reached a place that I was completely unaware of. And I became very curious about that place.”
On the whole, the sincerity of the devotees and the energy of the environment was transformational for the couple. Jean recounts and shares three aspects of her time which proved effective for her understanding of the ISKCON philosophy and allowed her to access the spiritual dimension.
“One aspect of meditation that captivated me, and that we now do daily that is very potent is the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Sitting quietly and meditating on these sacred words can actually bring us peace and relieve our stress.”
For those who like to read, she recounts ‘The Science of Self-Realisation’, by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, has had a great impact on many since it was published in 1968 for its way of making spirituality practical and accessible.
Jean also remembers meeting many guides during her time in Vrindavan, who enhanced her experience and gave her the support she needed to seek deeper.
“Finding a devotee to associate with them helps both parties as it allows them to put into practise what they’ve learnt about the philosophy and guide others.”
“Visakha Dasi” was the name given to Jean at the end of her initiation with ISKCON, after one of Krishna’s associates in Vrindavana.
“Just by saying the name, I am reminded of Krishna and his wonderful personality traits – it is a way of increasing my Krishna Consciousness.”
“Krishna is a name for God. God has many names according to his qualities and activities. The name ‘Krishna’ means all-attractive. He has formless energy and is within each person.”
As a photographer, Visakha Dasi travelled with and photographed A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and his students in India, Europe, and the United States.
As a writer, she wrote numerous ‘Back to Godhead’ magazine articles as well as five books, most recently her award-winning memoir ‘Five Years, Eleven Months and a Lifetime of Unexpected Love’.
She also assists her husband in making documentary films, most recently the 90-minute award-winning ‘Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami who Started it All’.
“Faith is so important in all times – good times and bad times. Everything in this world is temporary, it transforms. It’s so important to keep in mind the reality of spiritual life – that’s something that’s lasting. If you are simply involved in this temporary world, there is going to be pain inevitably. Coronavirus is prime example of how dangerous and unpredictable this world is. Faith gives us an inspiration, a drive to become involved with a high reality, and will give us much relief from the distress and the pressure.”
by Vidhu Sharma