January 21, 2013

Get It While You Can: Thoughts on the Unexpected Death of Shyam Das. ~ Ananda Dasi

Another day, and sadly, we’ve lost another Das.

I know, I know, there are a lot of Dasses (with or without the extra “s”) to keep track of, and it seems there are more of us every day. Ram Dass, Krishna Das, Bhagavan Das, Bhakti Das, Shambo Das, and on and on.

I’m pretty sure Shyam Das was not the most famous Das. He was (oh God, only 40 or so hours ago) a different kind of Das—the kind you could still see, in his body. As a Das, he followed the Bhakti path, finding the One through love and service. He was an amazing kirtan wallah.

But he was something else as well: a Jnana yogi— one who finds the divine through the intellect.

This made Shyam Das a little different from the other Dasses. Of course he was a Bhakta; I had the blessing of hearing him sing the Names, many times. Pure devotion rang from his heart—a bell with a never-ending echo. But his scholarly work was as deservedly renowned as that of any professor to walk the halls of the Ivy League.

Shyam Das translated poems from Sanskrit that had not seen the light of day for centuries. Thanks to him, we have years of devotional poetry, beautifully translated, waiting for us to do with it what we will.

In recent years, he split his time between India and the United States. He is known here among us kirtanistas for his Bhajan Boat, his kirtans and workshops at ashrams, Bhaktifest and yoga studios across the country.

What will I do now, with the space I had marked out for the Shyam Das weekend up at Ananda in Monroe? I rather dislike the mall, and movies, and I’m pretty sure we don’t own a television. (We might, but I probably banished the evil thing to the basement.) I guess I’ll just sing by myself, “Radhe, govinda….”

How many books, how many translations has he published? Go check, I dare you.

I doubt I will ever read them all.

I had the blessing to first meet Shyam Das at a weekend workshop he gave at Ananda Ashram in Monroe, New York. Someone had passed along to him the knowledge that my older son was (at that time) a cancer patient. At the end of the workshop, Shyam Das said little to me, but he grabbed me by the arm and gave me copies of all his CDs, then his books, and he looked so purely compassionate—as if saddened that these were the only gifts he had to give.

He would have given me a healthy son, if he could. But he couldn’t. He gave me his songs instead.

Shyam then invited me to a workshop on the Hanuman Chalisa, which is a 40-verse Hindi song based on certain episodes of the Ramayana. (Doesn’t that sound like fun?) We met, only about 12 of us, in a private home. We would pick the lyrics apart and study the etymology and the connections. My best friend from college, God bless her, had come with me. I was still mostly catatonic, after six months of hanging out with the bald kids at Sloan Kettering Pediatric Oncology, especially because one of the bald kids was mine.

Shyam Das’ knowledge was so deep, and so thorough, that he fascinated us for three and a half hours on the different meanings of “hare,” “hari” and I think somehow a different “hare.” In 12 hours of study, I think we almost got through the four-line intro to the hymn. Almost. My notes on those four lines are 12 pages long.

I have to pause here to praise Shyam’s intellect. It is rare to meet someone with the singing voice of his caliber; even rarer to have that same person be one of the smartest people ever. And I’m pretty sure I know—I went to college at Bard and studied Nietzsche with our genius President Leon Botstein, who could somehow elucidate the entirety of world history from one line of Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Shyam Das could do that.

I wish he was here to do it still.

I cried, even though I hope or know or pray that he left his body with the Name on his lips. I wished that my co-parent, or my kids or my mother could feel the depth of my grief. It isn’t their fault, of course. But I want—no, I long to be with satsang. There are teachers and there are Teachers, and Shyam Das is the first of my Teachers to leave his body. I’ve been meditating for two years to prepare myself for the mahasamadhi of my Guru Ram Dass (after all, my little son knew by the age of four that Neem Karoli Baba and Ram Dass were the same). I certainly never thought one of the other guys on the field was going to leave the game before Ram Dass did!

This one came out of nowhere. Shyam looked good the last time I saw him. Young, despite the long and recent flight from India. Surely there would be at least a few more lunches on the picnic benches overlooking the lake at Ananda.

I’ll never forget the last time I saw him.

He waved me over, but he was with another Das and I didn’t want to interrupt. I was antsy, as I always was in those days. Plus, my old friend Self-Hatred reared its ugly head, and monkey mind said, “As if he really wanted to eat with you, you’re no one…” Maybe I would talk to him later, but by the time I finished my lunch he was gone.

No big deal. It was the April Krishna Das thing and maybe later, like in August, Shyam would come up and I’d see him then. And of course he always did a few events in the city, maybe I’d get to one of those.

But life happened. Things changed. And I’ll never regret my stupidity, thinking I would always have the chance to eat with him again.

Oh, we stupid, stupid, mortals. Always thinking there is another lunch—next time, next time. We berate ourselves instead.


If I had only known it would be the last time…

Instead, perhaps, we should switch it around. “This may be the last time.” Life is dangerous, and nothing is guaranteed, except that one day, we will all die. We can try another way, as Ram Dass has been saying for 40 years, and another 40,000 before that…

Be here now.

So when your friend or your teacher waves you over for what may be your last lunch together, bring your tray over and sit down.




Ananda Dasi is a devotee of Neem Karoli Baba, a mother of two sons, an occasional writer and kirtan wallah, and an inveterate procrastinator. In her spare time she likes to walk near the reservoir down the block, listening to Jeff Buckley under the light of a full moon. Although usually that makes her cry. Oh yeah—she wrote and ghostwrote a yoga book or two, and taught all sorts of yoga for ten years.



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Ed: Brianna Bemel
Assistant Ed: Caroline Scherer

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