By Rukmini Devi Dasi
“Shoot him,” said the man with the crowbar. Kshudhi felt the cold metal against his skull and chanted Hare Krishna like never before. His nimble nineteenyear old body was tucked under the bed. The other four men with guns hesitated. They attacked the house knowing that a Johannesburg vegetable merchant had kept cash there, but were they ready to kill for it?
Less than two years before, Kshudhi had purchased a copy of Teachings of Lord Chaitanya from a book store in Los Angeles. The book introduced him to bhakti, the means of approaching God selflessly. One day, he sat on his favourite ‘meditation rock’ and called out to God, asking Him to please show him how he could serve Him. He opened his eyes and in front of him stood a Hare Krishna devotee. Kshudhi had never seen one before. The devotee had instinctively wandered off from his harinam group to Kshudhi. That was how Kshudhi’s bhakti journey began. In the early 1970s, Krishna consciousness under the direction of its founder, Srila Prabhupada, was making its debut around the western world at breakneck speed. Every devotee wanted to be a part of the action. In that spirit, Kshudhi, together with Rishi Kumar Swami (who was twenty years old), had set out for South Africa hoping to share Srila Prabhupada’s message.
And now, just days into their mission, they were facing death. Were it not for their bold hostess who locked the thieves in and shouted for help, the dream of ISKCON South Africa could have come to an abrupt halt. But even in danger, Kshudhi felt Krishna’s presence and protection; he was part of a divine master plan.
Without skipping a beat, the young foreigners set off for Durban hoping to gain assistance from the Indian community there. They were two white preachers in the heart of the Indian community at the peak of apartheid, living life on the edge, and never returning to the same place, shop, or person for fear of being caught. Equipped only with a list of possible sympathizers, they went from person to person, spoke at community gatherings, and eventually were offered a base at a beach cottage in La Mercy. They ordered four thousand of Srila Prabhupada’s books, propagating a message that was in direct contradiction to the ruling thoughts of the time. Within the cold concrete of apartheid, seeds of spiritual unity were being sown.
But time was running out. Within four months, Kshudhi’s visa would expire. In December of 1972 his parents came to visit. They had placed their teenage son in Srila Prabhupada’s care and now he was on a lethal mission in Africa. And as if that was not sacrifice enough, they helped further by providing a car and a stock of incense which he could use to generate an income and keep his project afloat. In Johannesburg they attempted to renew his visa but Kshudhi was unexpectedly detained and taken in for questioning by the secret police. As Kshudhi ascended to the notorious eleventh floor of the John Vorster Square, he was painfully aware of the large number of apartheid activists who had “committed suicide” by being pushed out of the building. Kshudhi was close to the window and stared out.
“So you think you can fly?” asked one of the officers. Kshudhi waved out the window and said, “My mother is an attorney from Los Angeles and she is down below. It may be a bad political move to throw me out while she is watching. What do you think?” It was a narrow escape from the brink of death. They refused to renew his visa, forcing him and Rishi Kumar Swami to leave to Mozambique and re-enter the country for an automatic four-month visa extension.
Upon returning, the word of their illegal gatherings spread and the secret police were hot on their trail. They were missionaries in a foreign country instilling a message of love in a war zone. The only devotees they had were each other and a handful of goodhearted supporters. They owed a debt to the book publishers for the spiritual books they had shipped in. And the government was determined to hunt them down. It was too much for the young swami so one day Rishi Kumar wrote Kshudhi a note: ‘Dear Kshudhi, decided to split.’ He had left the country. Kshudhi was alone. It was a moment of pure desolation. Who could blame him if he would walk away? He had tried everything he could, risked his life at every turn. In desperation he wrote to Srila Prabhupada who dropped all matters on hand and immediately replied to his fledgling spiritual son who was bravely holding fort.
“I am very much pleased by the responsibility that you have taken to spread Krishna consciousness in South Africa at such a young age. Just like our Narada Muni who was left alone, somehow or another you were also left alone by Krishna’s arrangement. I am praying to Krishna that you will have the strength and enthusiasm to carry out His mission.” (Kshudhi Prabhu’s personal letter, Jan 1973)
Srila Prabhupada’s blessings replaced Kshudhi’s despair with an irrevocable determination to continue against all odds. He was spurred into action ordering more Bhagavad-gitas, a best seller on their book list, and sourcing help to get the incense sales in top gear. The police raided the La Mercy beach cottage in his absence. Kshudhi was forced to head south towards the Cape to escape them. In Grahamstown he met Greg Castel who would later become Gokulendra Das, the first initiated South African devotee.
Srila Prabhupada simultaneously sensed the dangerous position Kshudhi was in and was arranging for another devotee, Pusta Krishna Swami, to help. As Kshudhi left for Durban on the last Friday in May 1973, he was arrested. The police wanted to him deported immediately, but Kshudhi hid his visa trying to buy himself time. He had only until Monday morning to either produce the visa or be imprisoned. Time was of the essence. He called his successors Pusta Krishna Swami and Janakaraja Das, from England, impelling them to come to South Africa that very day and volunteered to help with their ticket costs. He called his mother asking her to send him a ticket to America immediately. In the weekend he showed the two new arrivals his operation procedures and introduced them to all the persons who were helping him. He gave them the car and told them to go as far away from Durban as possible. In his stay, Kshudhi had shared the vision of Krishna consciousness with many South Africans. And with the sale of books and incense, he singlehandedly cleared the debt owed to the publishers.
On Monday, June 1st, Kshudhi handed his expired visa to the police. For eight long hours they interrogated him, screamed at him in Afrikaans and threatened to force him to eat meat. Kshudhi boldly presented his American citizenship. America was practically the only country to support South Africa at that time. “If you harm me,” Kshudhi threatened back, “I’ll do everything in my power to change that.” Finally, because he was already in possession of a paid ticket, they approved his flight to America on the next day. “You’re banning me now,” Kshudhi remarked with calm conviction, “But, in the future I will return and you will be long gone.”
And true to his words, the Hare Krishna Temple in Durban, the fruit of Kshudhi’s and other pioneers’ efforts, sits like a serene golden lotus admist bustling central Chatsworth. Millions of people have contacted it in some form or another and with invisible hands it reaches out to schools, universities, and communities all over Kwazulu-Natal and broader South Africa. In keeping with his promise, Kshudhi Das now returns yearly. Although older, he still has an innocent, child-like air. It bears testimony to the unwavering faith that has made him a victor. It’s easy to see why Krishna chose him to fulfill such a vital mission. He is down to earth and a people’s person with the soft heart of a true teacher. He has no cape, no statue of recognition, no badges upon his shoulders. You might miss him. But he remains a hero living among us.
Hare Krishna News – Published by ISKCON Durban. Used with permission