How My Cancer Became a Blessing
(The gist of this article was told by Surapriya Mataji to her husband. He told that gist to Chaitanya Charan das, who integrated it with other relevant researched information to write this article.)
On August 18, 2002, my life took a fateful turn. A persistent leg-pain was diagnosed as being caused by malignant terminal breast cancer that had spread all over the body.
Till then my life had been, more or less, similar to that of most Indian Hindu housewives. I had been born and brought up in Maharashtra, a province in Western India, in a cultured and pious family and had married a respectable school teacher, Bhagavan Malwadkar, who went on to become the principal of his school. All our three sons became well-educated young men, with bright careers in front of them.
Then Lord Krishna entered my life. Two of my sons – Siddhanath and Santosh – met devotees of the ISKCON Youth Forum, Pune, in the middle of 1997 and, being inspired by their association, they took to the practice of Krishna consciousness enthusiastically. I was somewhat taken aback by their sudden transformation, but after I met Gaursundar Prabhu, the devotee who had preached to them, I was also attracted by his disarming simplicity and profound wisdom. My husband and I invited him to start a weekly Bhagavad-gita program at our house in Kothrud, one of the main suburbs of Pune and he agreed. As the weeks passed by, I was drawn more and more towards Krishna consciousness.
In the middle of 2000, both my devotee sons decided to renounce their promising careers to join ISKCON full-time to become brahmacaris (celibate preachers). I was aghast; all the dreams that I had cherished since their birth about their glorious future lay shattered. But I continued my devotional practices and gradually came to accept this as the inconceivable sweet will of the Lord. Meanwhile I suffered periods of poor health, but nothing seemed to be seriously wrong – till the day of that devastating diagnosis.
Within days of the diagnosis I was operated, but it was a lost cause. The cancer was so widespread, doctors told my family members, that treatment could at best delay the inevitable by a few months. Not only was the disease itself very painful, but the treatment brought its own pains with it and there was little chance that it would succeed. As the horrifying reality of my plight sank into me, I sensed that the pain, which was already excruciating, would keep worsening till the moment death took its final toll. I felt that it would be far easier to end my life myself right away than to try to endure the pain in an agonizing wait for an uncertain yet imminent death.
My sons, who had by now become initiated, (Siddhnath had become Sankirtananand das and Santosh had become Sundarvar das) were alarmed when I revealed my thoughts to them. In gentle yet firm words, they told me that suicide would not solve my problems; rather it would aggravate them. They explained how all suffering came upon one due to one’s own past karma and could not be avoided by any artificial means. They cautioned me that my trying to escape my destined suffering through suicide would only postpone the suffering to my next life and that the reaction to the sinful act of destroying one’s own body by suicide would add to that future suffering. It was better, they told me, to take shelter of Lord Krishna through devotional service, tolerate the suffering seeing it as His mercy, become purified and return back home, back to Godhead, never to take birth again in this world of suffering. They reassured me that prayerful remembrance of the Lord would provide me relief from my pain even in this life. I was stunned to hear such profound philosophy from my young sons, whom, just around two decades ago, I had nourished with my own breast milk. But soon the truth and the wisdom in their words entered my heart and I became filled with new hope. I resolved to spend the rest of my life cultivating devotional remembrance of Lord Krishna.
The doctors told me that I had around seven months left. I started thinking of King Parikshit, who had only seven days to prepare for his death. He had gone to the banks of the Ganges, heard Srimad Bhagavatam continuously for those seven days and had perfected his life. I decided to follow in his footsteps. I told my husband that I wanted to spend the last days of my life in the ISKCON temple at Pune. The Temple President, Radheshyam Prabhu, whom I had always revered as a very compassionate saintly person, promptly agreed to provide us a room in the temple premises. I was moved by his kindness as I knew there was an acute space shortage in the temple; forty-three brahmacharis lived in three rooms! We immediately moved into the temple. As I started taking darshana daily, hearing the classes and kirtans and reading Srila Prabhupada’s books, I discovered something amazing: fixing my consciousness on Krishna protected me from the unbearable pain my body was inflicting upon me.
For a short period, my health seemed to improve and my husband and I returned to our home due to the shortage of space in the temple. But as soon as I left the temple, my bodily pain became so excruciating that I felt like I was being pierced from within at a thousand places. No amount of painkillers helped, but as soon as I returned to the temple, my pain subsided. I realized again that it was Lord Krishna who was protecting me from my pain, not the medicines. I begged to Radheshyam Prabhu to please allow me to spend the brief remainder of my life in the temple and he graciously consented, despite the inconveniences that it would invariably cause him and the other devotees in the temple.
Since childhood I had heard about krishna-bhakti and I knew that devotion was incomplete without initiation from a bona fide spiritual master. I started praying intensely, “Dear Lord Krishna, please give me the shelter of a guru before I leave this body.” On January 23, 2003 I underwent a major surgery. In the course of the operation, my breath stopped completely for several minutes. During those traumatic minutes, I realized my identity to be distinct from my body; I could see, from a vantage point above the operation theater, my frail body lying lifeless on the operation table. I saw the doctors and nurses running around, trying frantically to revive me. I do not know what happened thereafter, but I woke up to find myself inside my body again. After that out-of-body experience (OBE) I felt intuitively that Krishna had given me a fresh lease of life just so that I could get the shelter of a guru. And, sure enough, on April 4, 2003, His Holiness Radhanath Swami Maharaj, the spiritual master of both my devotee sons, accepted me as his disciple and gave me the name Surapriya devi dasi. I loved my new name, which meant “the maidservant of one who loves the sweet sound of Krishna’s flute”.
In retrospect when I look back at my life and the great spiritual transformation that has taken place in it over the last few months, I feel strongly that cancer has proved to be a blessing for me. Had it not been for this deadly disease, I would never have risen about ritualistic piety to heartfelt devotion; I would simply have grown old, got diseased and died and continued on aimlessly in the cycle of birth and death. I would never have got the great fortune of living in the Lord’s temple and I would probably never have sought or received initiation. And certainly I would never have experienced the sweetness of helpless remembrance of Lord Krishna. I feel therefore that the Lord has blessed me by giving me cancer and by simultaneously giving me shelter through His devotees and mission.
Generally when a young son renounces the world to serve God, his parents in particular and people in general are shocked at, what they consider to be, irresponsibility and escapism. I was no exception to such sentiments. My anguish was, in fact, much greater because, not one, but two of my sons decided to forsake everything for the Lord’s service. But now on the verge of death, when the futility of all material achievements stands exposed before me and when the inestimable value of devotional service is dawning upon me, I realize how wise my sons were in dedicating their life to the service of the Lord in the prime of their youth.
During my sickness, my two devotee sons carefully attended to my needs, arranging for me to come and stay in the temple with them, cooking for me, accompanying me to the hospital and taking turns in serving me. Whenever I was in pain or distress, they were always there by my side to support and encourage me. They thus did all that a faithful son can be expected to do for his mother. But over and above caring for my body, they cared for the real me – my soul. They provided me with the spiritual knowledge and devotional practices, which saved me from unbearable bodily pain and brought me indescribable inner happiness. I therefore feel that what they have done for me is far more than what an ordinary son can ever do for his mother. I feel proud that they were so intelligent that they took to devotional service even before me. It is sometimes said that the child is the father of the man. In my case, the sons have become the spiritual guides of their mother. And lastly I feel profound gratitude to Srila Prabhupada, his followers and his mission, ISKCON, for having provided me with the shelter of Lord Krishna’s lotus feet in my last days, when I so desperately needed it. It is only due to their grace that cancer has been transformed from a curse into a blessing for me.
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Surapriya devi dasi passed away on June 13, 2003 at 3:15 am within the premises of Sri Sri Radha Kunjabihari temple, ISKCON, Pune. At that time, a CD player was playing a recording of Srila Prabhupada singing the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and her youngest son Sundarvar das was chanting on his beads next to her. Before losing consciousness the previous night, she repeatedly chanted the name of Srila Prabhupada and said that she very distinctly felt his presence in the room at that time, something which she had felt dimly on several occasions earlier. A few hours before her departure, her husband told her that his presence next to her would distract her from thinking of Lord Krishna at the time of death and that he would therefore go to a nearby relative’s house for the night. She readily agreed.
During her last days, her relatives said that they saw no fear of death in her; rather they felt a divine peace pervade her being progressively. Even the doctors treating her commented that they had never seen a bone cancer patient so peaceful amidst so much pain. (Cancer spread through the bones is known to be extremely painful) She also requested her husband that, after her death, he should take to the vanaprastha (retired) order of life and dedicate his life to the service of Lord Krishna in ISKCON.
At the time of her initiation, Surapriya devi dasi wrote in her initiation form that she would like to preach Krishna consciousness. Devotees were surprised as to how she could possibly preach, being in such a precarious physical condition. She would fervently request every relative who came to see her to start chanting at least one round of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Most of her relatives, being moved by her earnest concern for their spiritual well-being despite being herself on her deathbed, started chanting at once.
Moreover Lord Krishna fulfilled His devotee’s pure desire in a very special way. June 13 and 14 happened to be the dates of a spiritual youth camp at the Pune temple for over hundred and fifty devotee youths from all over India. By arranging for her death on the first day of this camp, Krishna gave all these youths a timely reminder of the harsh reality of death, a reality that most modern society tried to hide and ignore. Through her shining example, they also realized the necessity of accepting the saving grace of devotional service. Surapriya devi dasi thus preached the glory of devotional service through the way she accepted death. Krishna also glorified Surapriya devi dasi for her sincere devotion by arranging to have multitudes of devotees chanting to create an auspicious atmosphere at the time of her departure from her body.