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New Vrindaban Days

As New Vrindaban winds up its celebration for its 50th anniversary (1968 to 2018), begins its 50th year of cow protection (1969 to 2019) as well as the 40th anniversary of the dedication of Srila Prabhupada’s Palace (1979 to 2019), I wrote this series of articles for the Brijabasi Spirit in an attempt to give the reader not only an “understanding,” but more importantly a “taste,” of what life in early New Vrindaban was like – through the stories of one devotee’s personal journey.

The title of this series, “New Vrindaban Days,” is in tribute to the wonderful book “Vrindaban Days: Memories of an Indian Holy Town” written by Howard Wheeler, Hayagriva Dasa. He was one of Srila Prabhupada’s first disciples, a co-founder of New Vrindaban, and, a great writer. As with Hayagriva’s book, this series focuses on a period of time in the 1970’s.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank Chaitanya Mangala Dasa, for spending untold hours assisting me in refining my writing for your reading pleasure.

I have been asked to describe certain aspects of early New Vrindaban Community life such as the nature of the austerities, what it was like for a new person coming here, cooking, anecdotes about particular devotees, etc.

I attempt to tell these stories in some semblance of a chronological order, beginning with my first meeting with devotees in 1968, leading to my arrival in New Vrindaban in late 1973 and carrying through to the official opening of Srila Prabhupada’s Palace in 1979.

This article does not fit into that exact timeline although it touches on something crucial to both my life in New Vrindaban as well as the lives of the thousands of Brijabasis who have lived here over the years – Krishna prasadam, and the deep and abiding relationships we have experienced.

Forgive me if this article seems a bit reverent and overly sentimental. I originally began writing it as a tribute to a friend, who by nature shies away from such attention. But, as it was already in the process of being written and I was requested to tell some stories relating to both the devotees that built New Vrindaban and about prasadam, I believe it apropos.

Hopefully the reader will find it acceptable and my preemptive statement will not be necessary.

I know my friend will not and to him I apologize.

Advaitacharya Dasa

CHAPTER ELEVEN: A Lifelong Pact (Sudhanu and Advaita)

ISKCON New Vrindaban Bahulaban 1970s Sudhanu
Sudhanu working in a flower garden, early 1970s.

My first memory of Sudhanu as a cook is being in Kirtanananda Swami’s cabin one morning in 1974 and hearing him say he believes Sudhanu is the best cook in ISKCON. Knowing Srila Prabhupada himself referred to the Swami as “Kitchen-ananda,” and even said in a letter his “cooking surpassed everyone’s cooking,” I take what he says about Sudhanu very seriously.

He goes on to say Sudhanu has the ability to make every preparation delicious, to make it look as good as it tastes and even to make the exact right quantities, no matter if he is cooking for five or five hundred. As cooking and prasadam are such an important aspect of every devotee’s life, I mentally decide if I ever get a chance to watch Sudhanu cook, I would take it. Of course, my service is in the horse barn and I have no real cooking experience. The likelihood I would ever be in a kitchen with Sudhanu does not seem realistic.

It is not unusual for me to finish work after all the devotees are already at sundar arti. One evening, well after dark, as I head towards the temple after putting the horses to rest, I walk past the outdoor kitchen – known as “the pits” – and see Sudhanu organizing things in preparation for a festival feast he would cook the next day.

I don’t really know Sudhanu. He has been a devotee for a few years. I am a new bhakta and don’t really have much contact with him. Still, I stop by the kitchen and ask him a few questions (more than likely trying to figure out what preps we might have the next day). After a few minutes he asks if I would like to help him the following morning. When I tell him I would, I am a bit surprised when he asks me to meet him in “the pits” at 3 A.M.

New Vrindaban ISKCON Pits Kitchen Sudhanu
Sudhanu cooks in the Bahulaban Pits – mid 1970s.

It is a cold, dark winter’s morning when I arrive at the outdoor kitchen and find Sudhanu already busy getting things ready. A wood fire rages in the center of the three pits which hold a thirty-gallon pot, about three feet tall. From a wire dangles a single bulb whose light reveals the inside of the cavernous cooking receptacle. Sudhanu pours a few cups of ghee into it. I peer down to see the bottom covered in about a quarter inch of ghee.

“The first thing we do is to make the chaunce,” he says.

He picks up a tray containing quart jars, each full of a different spice. I have no idea what any of them are. Sudhanu hands me the tray and directs me to stand at the ready, hovering over the now boiling ghee. Carefully, he chooses one of the jars and pours the contents into the pot. After pondering for a moment, he chooses another and repeats the same thing. I am in awe.

Here I am assisting the best cook in ISKCON. Me, Bhakta Emil, the horse driver. Visions of me learning from the master dance in my head. As the maestro acts I struggle to remember the name of each spice labeling the various jars, as well as the respective amounts he uses.

Unexpectedly, Sudhanu looks up from the pot, and asks me, “Do you think that’s enough?”

I am flabbergasted. Did I hear him right? Did he just ask if I think he used the right amount of spice? I don’t even know what he is making. “Do you think that’s enough?” Really? Does he not know I am a new bhakta and have no idea what he is doing? Then a thought passed through my mind. Perhaps the master is testing me. That must be it.

Almost childlike, he is sincerely asking me if I think he is using the right spicing. Being the humble devotee I am, I look him square in the eye and say, “Are you kidding me? What are you asking me for? You’re supposed to be the best cook in the movement! I have no idea what I’m doing and you’re asking me?”

Genuinely surprised, Sudhanu responds: “Best cook in the movement? I have no idea what I’m doing here. I’m just depending on Krishna!”

He isn’t just feigning humility. I can tell from the look on his face. I can tell from the look in his eyes. He is serious. He is depending on Krishna. He isn’t the master. He isn’t the best cook in the movement. He is just depending on Krishna. He knows it, and right then and there, I also know it. Standing in the darkness, breathing in the cold morning air, with the heat of the fire on our legs, and the billowing smoke in our faces, we both crack up laughing.

Advaita and Sudhanu cook outside Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra’s temple kitchen, mid 1980s.

That was in the first months of 1974. We have been cooking together ever since.

I am a cook. I am an okay cook. I can cook a few things that more often than not turn out well. Sudhanu is a great cook. Who knows if he is the best cook in ISKCON? Who cares? He is, hands down, the best cook in New Vrndaban. Yes, there have been many great cooks in the history of New Vrindaban.
Among them, Sudhanu is the best. He is the best for all the reasons I previously mentioned and he is the best for so many reasons more.

Yes, everything he cooks is delicious. It is delicious because of his attention to detail. It is delicious because of his understanding of so many aspects of the ingredients he is using. It is delicious because of his wide range of offerings – from veg’s, to chutneys, to sweets, to baked goods. Sudhanu does it all extraordinarily with Krishna, Prabhupada, and the devotees in mind.

Days before cooking a festival he will grab a pad and a pencil and meet with me to go over the entire menu. Each preparation is not only designed to taste good together but to look good as well. And, the amounts – the math is figured out well in advance, by the serving, per person. The final presentation has everything he will be cooking broken down by the ingredients required. He makes a cumulative shopping list. He meets with Bhokta Dasa, who does the purchasing. He makes sure every cook has what they need. He plans his cast of helpers. He considers everything – even having new wood paddles made by the wood shop, if necessary.

Sudhanu cooks on an outdoor fire pit in the early 1980s.

To understand Sudhanu’s love for cooking you first need to understand his love for Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra, Srila Prabhupada, and most importantly, for the devotees. He cooks for the pleasure of the devotees. I never see him seek any praise or attention for what he does. In fact, he cringes at the thought.

I have seen him head up the cooking for over two thousand people, three meals a day, for three days straight during the opening of Srila Prabhupada’s Palace. I did not see him sleep over those three days. I did see him rush out to personally serve out each of those meals – walking down the rows with a bucket and spoon – happily conversing with every guest he served.

Since that morning in 1974 there has not been a major festival Sudhanu cooked where I was not his assistant. Over the years we even made an official pact. If he is cooking, anytime, anywhere, for any reason and he needs help, I am there. If I am cooking anytime, anywhere, for any reason and I need help, he is there.

How strong is our pact? In 1983 my wife Madri was pregnant and due to deliver right around the time of Srila Prabhupada’s appearance day. Although we were living in New York, I was scheduled to leave early in the morning to catch a flight to New Vrindaban. Since the opening of Prabhupada’s Palace in 1979, the Labor Day weekend was traditionally the time we held the largest festival of the year. Generally, a couple of thousand people were expected to attend.

When we woke that morning my wife started having labor pains. Of course, I was ready to call New Vrindaban and inform Sudhanu I would not be able to be there to help him cook. After a few minutes Madri insisted I couldn’t do that as Sudhanu was depending on me. I soon left for the airport and Madri was taken to the hospital by Tejomaya’s wife, Kelly, to give birth to our son Abhay. A bit extreme no doubt, but I imagine that would give the reader an insight into the depth of our relationship and commitment to cooking together for Krishna.

Whether or not Sudhanu is the best cook may be a matter of opinion. But, what is not at question is the fact that Sudhanu is my best friend.

Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita He is “Directing the wanderings of every living being.” Srila Prabhupada describes the ocean’s waves as carrying grains of sand together and then separating them. He compares that to the way time brings different souls together and then pushes them apart.

He also explains how the relationships between Krishna, the spiritual master, and devotees are eternal. So, whether it is today, tomorrow, in this life, or the next, wherever Sudhanu is cooking for Srila Prabhupada, Krishna, and the devotees – that is where I want to be.

Sudhanu and Advaita walk with Srila Prabhupada to the Vrindaban farmhouse, June 1976.


Did you miss a previous chapter? Click the links below and catch up:

Chapter 1: Every Journey Begins With a Single Step

Chapter 2: Srila Prabhupada – Jaya Radha Madhava

Chapter 3: Captured by the Beauty of Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra

Chapter 4: Fired Up – We Depend On Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra

Chapter 5: The New Vrindaban Landscape – January 1974

Chapter 6: In The Woods

Chapter 7: Prasadam

Chapter 8: Propaganda

Chapter 9: The Death of Vedic Civilization

Chapter 10: Fire and Brimstone – Cooking It Up

Stay tuned for Chapter 12: Prabhupada is coming!

The next monthly installment will be posted March 2019.

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