As huge temples such as Mayapur’s Temple of the Vedic Planetarium climb to the sky with much celebration, what could be one of ISKCON’s most important efforts has quietly arrived in Melkote, Karnataka, South India.
Vanaprastha Ashram: A Vedic Home for Elders is, for now, a rented building modified in November 2010 to suit the needs of elderly and sick ISKCON devotees. With its calm, pollution-free environment and moderate climate, the holy location—Vaishnava saint Ramanujacharya instructed his disciples to go to Melkote to “leave their bodies”—is perfect for providing one of the most important yet easily overlooked services our society could offer.
“Since joining ISKCON in 1996, I have noticed devotees leaving our movement for the sole reason of insecurity and lack of care,” says Sarvajna Krishna Dasa, who was born Shiraz Ahmed in a conservative Muslim family in Banglore. “There were no facilities in ISKCON that I knew of to take care of devotees free of cost when they grew old; this touched my heart, and so I started Vanaprastha Ashram to take care of elders with no material expectations from them.”
Sarvajna Krishna, a disciple of Jayapataka Swami who has served as a fundraiser for ISKCON temples in Bangalore, Chennai, and Moscow, began contemplating his Vedic Home for Elders project in 2008, and has been working on its design and structure since.
The current facility has eight well-ventilated dormitory rooms of ten by eight feet each, with attached bathrooms. It also has a temple hall for Sri Sri Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra and Srila Prabhupada where spiritual gatherings and festivals are held throughout the year; an Ayurvedic treatment room; a prasadam hall; a kitchen; and a Goshala, or cow protection center with four cows.
“Accommodation and prasadam is free for residents who are unable to afford it, and paid for those who can pay,” says Sarvajna. “Krishna is the maintainer—He gives us all good fortune to take care of the devotees.”
Sarvajna certainly believes this truth—he funds the entire project himself with the help of a few friends, and while there are some volunteers, most of his full compliment of dedicated staff are paid.
“We employ a hand-picked staff, mostly initiated devotees and all the best in their field, including a cook, a pujari, a cow servant, maids, and doctors who visit once a week,” he explains. “As the manager, I take care of all the residents’ physical, emotional and spiritual needs with the help of my staff. As per the advice of senior doctors, we also store all medicines and medical accessories that may be needed for the treatment of residents, and have an ambulance facility too.”
Right now, only three elderly devotees are residing at Vanaprastha Ashram, although there is space and facility for twenty.
The care home is oriented towards serious devotees—residents attend traditional morning, afternoon, and evening spiritual programs, and make garlands, help cook or even distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books during their free time. Age specific yogic asanas and pranayama is also part of the daily regime, while there are parks and gardens on the grounds with comfortable benches and walking/jogging tracks.
Devotees over forty-five, for whom Krishna consciousness is the center of their lives, are welcome to stay for as short or as long a time as they want at Vanaprastha Ashram. Some may even pass away there, an eventuality for which the ashram is also well-equipped.
“Our motto is ‘Ante Narayana Smriti’—everything we do throughout our lives is tested at the end of it, and our test is to remember the Lord at the end of our lives,” Sarvajna says. “We hope that the Krishna conscious atmosphere The Vedic Home for Elders provides for devotees to pass away in—in the presence of the
Deities, devotees, the holy name, and Ganga water—will help them remember the Lord at the most important moment.”
In the short term, Sarvajna hopes to secure land and move Vanaprastha Ashram from rented to owned property. In the long term, he hopes to establish similar projects in Mayapur, Vrindavana, and Udupi.
“I seek the blessings of all the Vaishnavas, and pray for the success of this humble project,” he says. “My hope is that our leaders will come out of the scarcity mentality and see how Krishna has given everything in abundance. Vaishnavas are rare and have to be taken care of. Devotees fall back to material life due to lack of care and the fear of insecurity. We have to show devotees that our movement does care for them, and will take care of them until they pass away and go back home, back to Godhead.”