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Ratnavrinda-devi dasi, a Real-Life Saranagata

by Swami Bhakti Abhaya Ashrama

Posted January 6, 2013

Rosette Sullivan moved into the San Diego, California ISKCON temple in 1972. She was 50 years old, and she so urgently felt the need to heed Krishna's call in Bhagavad-gita to abandon all else and surrender exclusively to him that, when her husband, Ron, hesitated to move into the temple, she told him, "Well, when you want to see me, you know where to find me." He followed shortly after that. She was from a cultured, pious, professional-class family in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her family included physicians, attorneys, teachers, Roman Catholic priests, nuns, and bishops.

The strength of her faith in devotional service as taught by Srila Prabhupada kept the couple in the temple community. When they got their own apartment some time later, they volunteered it to serve as Srila Prabhupada's quarters when he visited San Diego. I met them shortly after I married in 1973. My wife counted Rose, as she was known, as her best friend. At that time Rose and Ron were living in El Cajon, which was pretty rural at the time. Whenever I spoke with her, Rose would ask, "Please tell me, prabhu: What colors are the Deities wearing today?" At the time I had the service of doing the noon worship of Sri Sri Radha-Giridhari, so she assumed that I would notice—and remember—what Their Lordships were wearing as I served them. I was often embarrassed to have been caught short, despite knowing that she would ask me, and her prompting helped me improve at taking note of how the Deities were dressed each day. She thought always of the Lord and his devotees.

Toward the end of the year Srila Prabhupada asked us to return to Hawaii. But the next summer, after having been initiated by Srila Prabhupada as Revati-ramana das and Ratnavrinda-devi dasi, they joined us in Hawaii at the request of Sudama Maharaja, our temple president, to help open the first Govinda's Restaurant, a project spearheaded by Tosan Krishna prabhu. It was at Govinda's that fall that Revati-ramana got the idea for making sandwiches with oversized chapattis, rather than baking bread. This was the first appearance of the wrap sandwich, as far as I can tell.

Revati and Ratnavrinda spent a couple of years in Honolulu before returning to California, serving in the Los Angleles, Laguna Beach, and San Diego temples. Everyone recognized their gentle characters and their dedication to Srila Prabhupada. And always Ratnavrinda dedicated herself to the service of the devotees and the temples' presiding Deities. Over the years, one service she rendered steadily to Sri Sri Radha-Giridhari was embroidering, cleaning, and ironing handkerchiefs for the Deities.

About 20 years ago, Revati-ramana fell ill with a terrible flu and died in the hospital of a heart attack. Ratnavrinda was naturally devastated. But her faith in Srila Prabhupada and Lord Krishna never flagged. Neither did her service. For years she came to the temple as often as she could, depending on family and friends for rides, since she could not afford to live in the temple neighborhood in Pacific Beach. She occasionally would express her hope that she could somehow just live close to the temple, so she could take Their Lordships' darshan regularly and do as much service as she could. She was disappointed that she was never able to do so.

At the same time, she daily worshiped her own Deities at home, her beloved Govinda and Sri Kaliya Krishna. Anyone who visited her was impressed by the standard of worship in her home, and she always brought her guests to her altar before settling down to visit. And all this time, despite her very limited income, Ratnavrinda saw another aspect of her service as faithfully tithing every month to help support the temple's programs.

After we moved back to Hawaii again, around the turn of the millennium, we stayed in touch with Ratnavrinda. We hoped that we might be able to bring her to our home on the Big Island, but her declining health made a big move inadvisable. We called regularly, however. And when I asked how she was, Ratnavrinda knew it was because I cared, because I wanted to know, so she would catch me up on the ways her aging body was deteriorating. But she never did so as a complaint; it was always very matter of fact. Until, that is, she thought about how her declining health was impacting her service. Then she would begin to cry in despair, lamenting that she may have to scale back her service to both the temple's Deities and hers at home. This gave me a glimpse into her heart, a hint at the depth of her dedication. And sometimes I pointed her good fortune out to her. In his Nectar of Devotion, Srila Prabhupada, paraphrasing Srila Rupa Goswami's Bhaktirasamrita-sindhu in describing an aspect of devotional perfection. He writes, "One should feelingly pray and become eager to render his particular type of service to the Lord. This is the teaching of all great devotees, especially Lord Caitanya.

"In other words, one should learn how to cry for the Lord. One should learn this small technique, and he should be very eager and actually cry to become engaged in some particular type of service. This is called laulyam, and such tears are the price for the highest perfection. If one develops this laulyam, or excessive eagerness for meeting and serving the Lord in a particular way, that is the price to enter into the kingdom of God. Otherwise, there is no material calculation for the value of the ticket by which one can enter the kingdom of God. The only price for such entrance is this laulyam lalasa-mayi, or desire and great eagerness." My mind went to this passage whenever I thought of Ratnavrinda, and to Ratnavrinda whenever I read this passage.

It had also become clear to me over the years of our friendship that Ratnavrinda was a saranagata, a soul surrendered to Krishna. The essential aspect among the six facets of saranagati is goptrve-varanam, accepting Krishna as one's exclusive maintainer. I would sometimes remind Ratnavrinda, "You are probably the most fortunate person I know. After all, you have nothing but Krishna, and you know it. More than that: you have embraced it." This, of course, embarrassed her because of her natural humility. But this accurately describes Ratnavrinda's mentality. Her life was all about surrendering to Srila Prabhupada and his beloved Lord Krishna.

At one point she was so worried about her health that she convinced us to bring Govinda and Kaliya Krishna to Hawaii and take over their service, afraid that she would no longer be able to maintain her standard. But when it came time to send Them, she simply could not bring herself to do it. She just could not bear the thought of being separated from Them, of not being able to do even some simple service for Them. So she kept them at home and, with our encouragement, found a level of service she could maintain.

And throughout it all, Ratnavrinda's greatest pleasures were whatever association she could get with devotees and attending to her daily sadhana, including service to her Deities and to Radha-Giridhari. After the first stroke she had earlier last year, she had to scale back all her activities, but she never lost her spirit of devotion, her optimism about making spiritual progress, and her good humor. And throughout all her illnesses, she retained her sharp mind and her nearly infallible memory. Ratnavrinda was one of the softest-hearted devotees I have ever known, and one of the toughest. It took a second, massive stroke to stop her service to her beloved Deities. She finally gave up her body at home on the morning of January 5, 2013, at the age of 91. Whenever devotees were not present chanting, her adopted son Jean-Pierre, who had been devoted to her for many years, kept recorded kirtans and bhajans playing continuously.

Over the decades of her service to Srila Prabhupada and the sankirtana movement, Ratnavrinda's dedication, good humor, and her example of forbearance in surrender have inspired more people, devotees and "outsiders" alike, than I can count. We will all miss her company, her tendency for engaging in Krishna-katha, her encouragement, her gentle, motherly chiding, and her love for Krishna and His devotees.

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