During COVID-19, we are missing out on devotee association. Lives of Service is an ISKCON News interview series that we hope feels like sitting down for a chat at the Sunday Feast with an old friend or a devotee you’d like to get to know. Told in their own words, it’s an insightful, inspiring, and at times humorous look at their stories and lives of service. We hope you enjoy this second installment in the series!
Madhava Smullen: Where are you from, and where are you based now?
Arcana siddhi Devi Dasi: I was born in El Paso, then we moved to Rhode Island, then to Philadelphia, Cheyenne, Wyoming, Washington State, and Baltimore! (laughs) My dad was an electronic engineer, and his company contracted with military projects. When each project was completed, they would send him somewhere else, and we’d all pick up and move. It got real old after a while! Now my husband Karnamrita Das and I live in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, near Asheville.
What is your current service?
I’ve been counseling devotees for thirty years, including individual and relationship counseling, and premarital education. After living in the ashram for twelve years, I went back to school and in 1988 got my Masters degree in Clinical Social Work. I worked in a mental health clinic for a number of years. Later we brought our overhead down so that we could have a practice of just devotees.
I also work with the Grihastha Vision Team (who provide resources for healthy Vaishnava marriages and families), and before COVID we would hold retreats every year. We just had a question and answer call on Facebook Live and Zoom last month, and we’re going to have another one on December 5th, where people can ask questions about grihastha life.
The cover of Arcana siddhi's booklet 'Vaishnava Marriage Challenge'
What are some of the other services you’ve done over the years?
Book distribution, deity service, writing for Back to Godhead magazine, and facilitator at Bhagavat Life japa retreats. I have also done a lot of seminars on my own and with my husband on psychology and spirituality and relationships.
Each member of the Grihastha Vision Team including myself wrote a chapter in the book Heart and Soul Connection. I also wrote a booklet called “Vaishnava Marriage Challenge.” (Which aims to enhance loving relationships by putting into practice the teachings of Lord Chaitanya from the Sri Siksasatakam verse “trinad api suinicena,” such as tolerance and respect.) A lot of devotees have appreciated that little book. I’m also working on another little book, called “Taking the ‘Re’ out of the Reactive Relationship.”
Arcana-siddhi (with garland) giving a class at the Baltimore temple, 1993
When and how did you join ISKCON?
I moved into the ISKCON temple in Potomac, Maryland in 1976, at the tail-end of Srila Prabhupada giving initiations.
How I joined is an interesting story that has always kept me so strong in my faith that Krishna is God. I was in the graduate program for counseling at the University of Maryland. I had two friends I used to sit with in the cafeteria and talk about philosophy with, who became devotees. One day they just disappeared; I didn’t know where they went or what happened to them.
When I was a junior in college, one of them came to see me at my dorm. He gave me a Bhagavad-gita and chanting beads, and made me promise him I would chant a round. So I did, sitting on my tile floor in the dorm room. But I didn’t get anything from it at the time. So I just put the book and the beads away and forgot about them.
Two years later, I had an existential crisis. My material life came to a screeching halt, and I started to see life from a whole different perspective. Suddenly I had this burning desire to understand who I was, and who God was. I started thinking that maybe death was the way to get free and liberated from this body, and maybe suicide was a shortcut. It was just a philosophical musing, but when I started discussing it with teachers and my rabbi, I guess I didn’t word things so well, because they all got together and had an intervention for me. They thought I had had a breakdown and needed to be hospitalized.
Arcana-siddhi with her son Nitai Gauranga Das at his first birthday party (Arcana-siddhi's mother on the left)
I explained, “I don’t want to kill myself. I’m just trying to understand – I know there’s something beyond this life, I know this is not the reason I’m here.” I convinced them that I was okay, and they let me leave the room. As I left I was like, “I just want to find my two Hare Krishna friends! I know they’re going to understand me, I just know it!”
It was a very beautiful summer’s day as I walked out of the University of Maryland counseling center. And who was standing there? My two Hare Krishna friends. I couldn’t believe it. I just knew at that moment, that Krishna is God.
We sat at talked for about three hours, and they answered my question about why suicide was not a viable answer, and what the answer was. That night I went and spent the weekend at the Potomac temple. On Monday I withdrew from school, and lived in the Potomac temple for twelve years after that. The whole thing was just so perfect. It gave me a lot of appreciation for how God really is a person, and is really orchestrating everything in my life.
Can you share some memories of your young devotee days?
As a brahmacharini, book distribution was my main service, going out with a van full of young ladies my age. It was association that made it possible to do that service. Because it was just so hard, especially for my personality type. We were in the national airport, which was very different to the way it is now – it was pretty much just businessmen. We had to have a sense of humor to keep from crying. We would huddle like a football team and share, “Guess what this guy said to me!” Something to keep each other laughing.
I joined when the BBT had just finished their Caitanya-caritamrita marathon. So we’d be going up to some businessman from New York and saying, “This book is Antya-lila, here you can see that all Lord Chaitanya’s limbs are going inside of His body due to ecstasy, and He’s resembling a large pumpkin.” (C.C. 17.17) Can you imagine? (laughs)
We were distributing that to the average materialist out in the world. We had to have faith, that somehow these books are going to get into the hands of the people they’re supposed to go to.
Devotees would always tell me, “You don’t have to go out,” because I loved doing deity service. But I’d say, “No, I have to do it,” because I really wanted to get beyond the point where my mind was controlling me, and that service was a fast track there. I don’t regret it at all, it gave me a lot of special mercy.
What are some of your most cherished memories of service over the years?
One of the things I loved most is for a couple of years, I worked with Bhagavat Life helping to facilitate japa retreats all over the U.S. They were run by Purusa Sukta and his wife Divyambhara; Sacinandana Swami and Giriraja Maharaja were some of the main sadhus.
Japa Retreat in Philadelphia, 2011 - Arcana siddhi recalls helping to facilitate such japa retreats as some of her most cherished memories of service
We would try and have a couple days during the retreat where we’d do at least 64 rounds, And it was such an amazing experience. Those retreats were so powerful for my spiritual life, and a game changer in my japa… Japa is so powerful. I started seeing that on the days I got up early and had focused japa, I was able to stay focused in all my service during the day.
Also, I wrote about thirty articles for Back to Godhead magazine. Writing is so helpful as an introspection tool. And introspection is useful for anartha nivritti (rooting out unwanted weeds on the creeper of devotion). As we advance in Krishna consciousness, one of the byproducts is that you get some people who like you, and give you some praise; adoration and distinction. And that can be a real pitfall for making progress. So writing has always helped me stay in an authentic space of what am I doing and why am I doing it?
Finally, the Grihastha Vision team is just such a wonderful group of devotees to work with. This year we didn’t because of COVID, but we usually have a retreat in Gita Nagari, and a two-and-a-half day annual meeting afterwards. And we laugh so much! We have so much fun together!
Arcana-siddhi teaches a relationship seminar in New Vrindaban, 1998
Which Vaishnava inspires you most and why?
Krsnanandini (of the Grihastha Vision Team, who passed away on November 13th) has inspired me a lot. She has ten biological children, plus step-children from her husband. So they have a very big blended family. Yet whenever anyone was with her, you felt like you were the only one that was important to her. She had this amazing ability to fully give everything to whoever she was with. She was so loving, and such a great role model. Her patience was amazing. She has been a very big inspiration for me. I miss her dearly.
What’s a challenge you encounter in service, and how do you overcome it?
My health issues. Pretty much my whole life, I’ve had a sickly kind of body. But the beauty of it is that Krishna always gives me enough health to be able to do my service. I was able to work, I raised a son, I was able to run a household. But never anymore than was necessary to accomplish my sadhana and do the bare necessities. There was no extra energy for sense gratification. So Krishna’s kept me on the straight and narrow my whole life! When I was younger, it was frustrating, because there were so many things I wanted to do that I couldn’t. But I’m very grateful for it now.
What inspires you in Krishna consciousness?
In the beginning, it was freedom from the material world, and from my mind and senses that drove my practice. Now, it’s the actual goal of Krishna consciousness – to have an eternal loving relationship with Krishna – that’s become more of an impetus for motivation.
It’s just beautiful to see the whole process of bhakti unfolding in your life. To see yourself going through the stages of bhakti from the Madhurya Kadambini, and think, “Wow, I’m getting somewhere! I’m not just stagnating.” That’s very enlivening and encouraging to me. That you just stick to the path, and all the wonderful things you read about in Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu and other books will become a reality. You’re gonna get there!
(From left to right) son Nitai Gauranga Das, Arcana siddhi Devi Dasi, husband Karnamrita Das
Do you have a favorite Prabhupada story or quote?
A devotee who had just gotten married asked Srila Prabhupada, what’s the most important thing I should know about being a grihastha (person in family life)? And Prabhupada said, “After cooking prasadam, you should go outside and call three times, ‘Does anyone want prasadam? Does anyone want prasadam? Does anyone want prasadam?’” The devotee thought, “Prabhupada didn’t understand my question.” So he asked it again, and Prabhupada just repeated the exact same words again.
Of course, it may not be practical for us to go out and do that in most neighborhoods, especially during COVID! But the essence of that instruction is that grihastha life can become very self-centered, thinking I, me, and mine. So that instruction means always be a giver. Always be trying to do something outside of yourself, and share what you have, whether it’s tithing, or doing temple services, or something else. To always be in the mood of service for others. So that story impacted me a lot as a grihastha.
Arcana siddhi Devi Dasi and Karnamrita Das at the Sadhu Sanga Retreat in 2014
What piece of wisdom would you like to share?
The more we can see that Krishna’s my dearmost friend, my ever wellwisher, and everything He does is for my highest good; the more we keep that in our head 24/7, that’s really the difference between seeing our lives as truly spiritual versus just being tossed around by the material energy.
What are your future hopes?
That somehow Krishna will protect me from Vaishnava aparadha, and allow me to continue to make progress at my slow and steady pace.
This life is just a flash in the pan, and once you reach perfection, material life is over forever. The suffering is finished, the material world is finished. We never have to be in samsara (the cycle of birth and death) ever again. That’s exciting to me!
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