A new autobiography by an ISKCON devotee, Braja Sorensen, has been released by a mainstream genre publisher, Hay House India, and is being distributed by Penguin.
Published this July, Lost & Found in India sees Braja take a spiritual and personal journey that ultimately leads to her finding a home in the sacred village of Mayapur, West Bengal. And it’s already earning rave reviews.
Indian readers appreciate Lost & Found’s genuine love for their country, in contrast to other books about India by Western writers, which are often filled with derision, criticism, and a lack of understanding of India’s vast history and culture.
On the other end of the scale, some writers veer towards the overblown when it comes to India.
Not so Braja Sorensen (Braja Sevaki Dasi), who is well known for her typical Australian straightforwardness.
“The least pretentious diary of life in India I have ever read,” comments famous Parsi author Farrukh Dhondy on the book’s cover. He adds, “Braja Sorensen describes her adopted India with no analytical or spiritual pretenses. A funny, committed book.”
It’s nice for Braja to hear such appreciation of a book that is essentially a love letter to Mayapur.
But getting to this point hasn’t been easy. Completing Lost & Found In India has been a long and perilous journey.
Braja, now 49, was born on Bombay Street in Adelaide, Australia, but apart from that quirky coincidence she had zero interest in India before becoming a Hare Krishna devotee.
Too young to be a part of the 1970s trend of interest in all things Indian, Braja was instead introduced to Krishna consciousness and India through her family.
“My oldest brother, Ramanuja, was already a devotee, and he made my younger brother Bhima and his family devotees,” she says. “In 1987 when I was 24, Bhima in turn made me a devotee.”
She laughs. “We had our own built-in family disciplic succession!”
Braja naturally developed a love and appreciation for India and its culture through her spiritual practices. But it wasn’t until a decade and a half later, in 2002, that she and her husband Jahnudvipa Das decided to move there.
At first they relocated to Mumbai. But the city had changed since they had last been there and wasn’t what they had expected. So instead, they settled in Mayapur.
“We live way down the back of the ISKCON compound,” says Braja. “It’s very quiet. All I see are rice fields all day. I do my writing, which is my service, through different sites online, and I serve Sivarama Swami with his writing, and with Latika Bhakti I also paint Sri Sri Pancha Tattva’s toenails. It’s a very simple life.”
In the1990s, while working for the Mayapur Project in London, Ambarish Das, Director of Mayapur’s Temple of the Vedic Planetarium project, told Braja of an exchange between him and ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada.
Ambarish recalled that in the 1970s, Srila Prabhupada had said to a group of his disciples: “Now you all together make this Vedic Planetarium very nice, so that people will come and see. From the description of the Srimad-Bhagavatam you prepare this Vedic Planetarium.”
Prabhupada turned to Ambarish and asked him how he liked the idea. When Ambarish said it seemed very nice, Prabhupada promptly responded, “So finance this project,” causing everyone to erupt into laughter. When it had subsided, Ambarish, taking the request seriously, asked, “Where will this be?” And Prabhupada replied, “Mayapur. My idea is to attract people of the whole world to Mayapur.”
This comment by Srila Prabhupada deeply impacted Braja. Wanting to do her own little bit to help this mission, she began in October 2008 to write a book that she hoped would attract the general public to Mayapur.
Lost & Found In India Author Braja Sorensen
“Everything was going smoothly,” she says. “I got the agent I always wanted, and we even got a couple of offers from publishers in January and February 2009.”
Then disaster struck.
As Braja and her husband Jahnu headed to the airport early one morning in March 2009 for a break in the cooler climate of New Zealand, their taxi had a head-on collision with a Tata truck at 100 kilometers per hour.
Jahnu was crushed by the front seat and the roof, and suffered a brain hemorrhage. He also received a shattered jaw, two broken forearms, and broken ribs that punctured his lungs.
Braja crashed headfirst into the windscreen, breaking it and tearing her face badly in several places. Her right hip, upper and lower back were dislocated. Two bones in her arm were broken, and three places in her spine came a hair’s breadth from shattering.
Both she and her husband were miraculously saved from death. But they spent several weeks in intensive care in a hospital in Kolkata, with Jahnu falling into a coma for some time and Braja needing seventy-eight stitches to repair her damaged face.
Still, surprisingly to some, the two decided to remain in Mayapur.
“Most people would run away after something like that,” Braja says. “They would go home.”
But Braja, who had been praying for direction -- questioning whether India was truly her home or just a temporary phase -- took the accident and its aftermath as a sign.
“You just can’t get the kind of care in the West that we got here,” she says. “It was really remarkable and amazing. It made us realize that this was home.”
Braja took other lessons from the accident.
“It really made me stop and evaluate what I took for granted,” she says. “And how dispensable the body is; anything material is."
The experience also took her to a new level of spiritual realization.
“You can read as much philosophy as you like, think about it, try to apply it to your life,” she says. “But when the accident happened I actually got it. I was like, “Oh, wow, okay, that’s what they mean by you’re not this body.” Because it really separates you from yourself in a way.”
At the behest of her publishers, Braja added the accident to her book, bringing it from the broader spiritual genre into the bio/inspirational memoir genre. And in July this year, Lost & Found in India was finally published.
The book is split into three parts. The first covers why Jahnu and Braja moved to India, the details of the accident, and how they decided India was home.
The second part delivers the personality of India through descriptions of village life. There’s villager’s quotes, comic moments, discussion of burning issues, and anecdotes about rickhsaw wallas, bathroom cleaners, and local workmen.
And of course there’s the culture and spirituality of Mayapur.
“One of the strongest elements is the sound vibration,” says Braja. “It’s all about glorification of Krishna. It’s all about chanting. You can hear kirtan and flute playing and temple bells anytime during the day. It’s really beautiful.”
Finally, the last part of the book ties together everything that has come before, in a chapter entitled Full Circle: Coming Home.
Lost & Found In India is snappy, witty, personable, honest, poetic, and of course, very funny. For example, the chapter titles are a quirky selection that include such gems as “Don’t take life so seriously -- no one gets out alive,” “Never trust a doctor whose office plants have died,” and “Don’t just stand there gawking like you’ve never seen the hand of God before.”
Even better, it will show people who think India is all chaos, pollution, filth, and poverty the heart of the country through the peaceful, picturesque and spiritual village of Mayapur.
The book aims at a mainstream audience and is built for sheer entertainment. It is not preachy, does not mention ISKCON, and doesn’t expressly state that Braja is a Hare Krishna devotee. Still, devotees will enjoy it and find it useful in helping family and friends understand their spiritual path and why India is so special to them.
Moreover, quotes from Lord Krishna and Srila Prabhupada are interspersed throughout the book as meditative thoughts at the end of each chapter, although they are not attributed. And descriptions of chanting, and of the Damodarastakam prayers at the local temple add some extra spiritual insight.
“But the underlying trick is that somewhere in that book readers will actually fall in love with Mayapur,” Braja says. “And hopefully I’ll be able to fulfill a tiny portion of Prabhupada’s desire that the whole world be attracted to Mayapur.”
“Then I could die happy.” She gives a typically good-humored laugh. “If that doesn’t happen, I’m just gonna keep living until it does!”mayapura ] [ vraja-mandala ]