The Spiritual Fire of Brahmachari Francis Jyoti


The last time I saw Jyoti (Brahmachari Francis) was about a year ago when he came to visit me at the Kali Mandir in Laguna Beach. He was with a few other SRF monks, dear friends of mine, who wanted to see me and visit the holy shrine of the Mother. I was so touched. When they arrived, each one entered the temple shrine where Dakshineshwari Kali has been ritually worshipped and adored, without missing a day, since 1993. The monks entered the temple and looked around curiously—not all of them knew what to do in a traditional Indian temple. A couple of them bowed and the others followed. Jyoti was the last to enter. 

As he crossed the threshold, he rang the bell loudly (this is tradition) and with great joy and reverence gazed at Ma Kali. He raised his arms in delight and chanted loudly:

japākusuma bhāsurāṃ japavidhau smaredambikām

["She wears a garland of red hibiscus, gems, and is Herself the color of the red hibiscus." A verse from the dhyanam, meditation, of the Sri Lalita Sahasranam.]

Ma Dakshineshwari kali at the kali mandir, laguna beach, ca. © 2016 Usha Harding

Ma Dakshineshwari kali at the kali mandir, laguna beach, ca. © 2016 Usha Harding

He folded his hands in prayer, and then bowed fully to the floor. He was engrossed in Ma and looked at Her for a long time. Ma had been offered many red hibiscus that morning. Jyoti rose and said, “I saw the Mother Kali with all the red hibiscus, and these verses came to life. Jai Ma!” He had tears of joy and devotion in his eyes.

And now tears fill my eyes. Tears of love for this soul Jyoti, who truly was a light in my life and in this world. That was the last time I saw him, but in my mind I see him all the time and in my heart I feel his spirit, his smile and light, the fire of his devotion and sadhana. 

His Passing

On Wednesday February 15th, I received an email from one of my dear friends who is a sannyasin in the SRF ashram, informing me that Brahmachari Francis had passed away that morning. In the Vedic calendar it was Phalguna Masa, Shukla Paksha, Panchami Tithi; one day after Paramahansa Yogananda Jayanti, or birth commemoration.

I cannot express in words the emotions the stirred in my heart. As yogis, we see death differently than most. The friendship, the God-brotherhood, between two strivers like Jyoti and myself is unique. Since that day I’ve been recollecting and reliving my experiences and friendship with this great soul. Jyoti was a saintly man, a hidden treasure of the SRF Ashram. I hope that my writing about him will inspire other devotees and seekers of all true paths. 

Many devotees (nearly 15,000) have read what I wrote about the spiritual life of Gangadhar (Br. Marcelo). In that memorial tribute, I often referred to the ‘other’ monk who was with us. I could not divulge his identity because I wanted to respect his privacy and independence as a monk in the SRF Ashram. It was Jyoti, Br. Francis. He loved all that I had written about our friend Gangadhar, and he understood the necessity of hiding his identity. Now that Jyoti is gone, it is important to complete the picture.

We Three - The Dead Yogis Society

My life was touched by Gangadhar (Br. Marcelo) and Jyoti (Br. Francis) during the time in my life when I was defining my spiritual self in this world. We were like the three musketeers, spiritually supporting and inspiring one another for eighteen years. We shared so much together, we took our monastic vows together, we worked together, and most importantly of all, we shared our spiritual striving and fanned the fires of each other's devotion. And now they’re both gone from this Earth. Yamaraj, the god who brings souls from Earth to heaven, arrived decades earlier than expected, swiftly and without notice, to take, just two years apart, the two most influential friends I had in the ashram.

We three joined the ashram within a six month period. Jyoti, born in Poland; Gangadhar, born in Brazil, and myself (I was Kenny and then named Brahmachari Laurence) from California. I was much younger than them, but the three of us formed a deep spiritual friendship. Each of us was very different. We weren’t likely to be friends, having so little in common. To this day I know little about their lives, their families, their personalities. But I daresay that I was closer to them spiritually than perhaps anyone else. This is not to say that they did not have other friends in the ashram or beyond—but it's the type of our friendship and the way we spent time together that was unique. We learned fairly quickly that we shared one common point: love for sadhana and appreciation for divine madness. There is a word in India, pagal or in Bengal, khaepa, which literally means ‘gone mad’ or ‘crazy’. But when it is applied to the saints, mystics and devotees of the Divine, it has a liberating meaning of one who is so absorbed in devotional communion, or so engrossed in spiritual practice, that he loses all practicality in the ordinary world and thrives in the unseen, extra-ordinary world. But the shift is only in consciousness. We were enamored with this state of being, we revered it, and we sought to at least taste it, even if only a little—to stand at the threshold of the doorway through which the Great Ones have walked.

Left to right: Jyoti, Gangadhar and myself, at the Lake Shrine.

Left to right: Jyoti, Gangadhar and myself, at the Lake Shrine.

We shared a deep bond, we shared sadhana, and we needed one another to strengthen our resolve. Those who've read my tribute to Gangadhar can imagine now the three of us, with our secret names, midnight vigils, reading of contraband scriptures, passionate sadhana, spirited and harmless rule breaking, and so on. A swami very dear to me in my present day life commented after reading that tribute, "You three had formed your own little Dead Yogis Society!" I loved the name, referring to the classic film Dead Poets Society. There were, in fact, quite a lot of parallels! And over the years a few more monks joined us. I wonder if there is a similar group now hidden in the SRF Ashram. I sure hope so.

Jyoti Card

We had special names for one another, sadhu names if you will. Later I reflected that our own Gurudeva, Paramahansa Yogananda, did something similar. When he left his family home after graduating high school in order to roam India as a sadhu, he called himself Yogeshwar among his circle of friends (refer to the book Mejda). Br. Marcelo chose Gangadhar, a name of Lord Shiva and also the name of our paramguru Sri Shyama Charan Lahiri Mahasaya in his past life as a yogi. Br. Francis chose Jyoti, simply meaning light, in the divine sense of spiritual light and illumination. At first I had chosen the name of one of Sri Yogananda's boyhood friends, Chandi, a name of the Goddess and also of the scripture Devi Mahatmyam. A few years later, I was reading the Srimad Bhagavatam (from a copy that I secretly obtained from an older monk) and I was fascinated by the story of Prahlad. One midnight I snuck into the Monk’s Main Office at Mother Center to photocopy over thirty pages of the book's chapters on Prahlad,  and then duplicated those two more times. I was breaking several rules in doing so—being up long past curfew, using the office photocopy machine for personal use, and studying a book (albeit an important Indian scripture) not approved for young monastics to read. I shared the story with Jyoti and Ganga who both loved it very much. It was our subject of discussion and inspiration for many weeks.

One day Jyoti said, “Our Chandi is like Prahlad. He is so young and full of joy, but so different from his own people and doesn’t quite fit in—and his devotion makes him a rebel!”

He looked at me and said, “Your name is now Prahlad—what do you think? You’ll be a bhakta even if they try to kill you for it!” We laughed.

"That's worth dying for! And living for!"

From that point on, they called me Prahlad. Jyoti did not write to me as much as Ganga did, but I still have a Christmas card from him, in which he writes:

Dear Prahladji, "One out of thousands seeks Me and out of one thousand that seek Me one finds Me." – Be that one. Put all your heart into sadhana and the highest realization will be yours. Jai Gurudev

Ma Bhakti — Devotion to Divine Mother

Dakshina Kali, Bhavatarini Ma in Dakshineshwar Temple, Kolkata, India.

Dakshina Kali, Bhavatarini Ma in Dakshineshwar Temple, Kolkata, India.

And now I want to share a little about Jyoti. Where do I begin? In a way it doesn’t matter because his beginning, middle, and end were the same—he was on fire for God. We shared the same ishta-devata (the aspect or ideal of Spirit that the heart especially enthrones) —the Divine Mother, specifically Dakshina Kali. He also worshiped Lalita Devi. He always spoke of Mother to me, often with tears in his eyes. When we were Novice monks, he shared some writings (photocopied contraband of course) about the Dasamahavidyas, the ten esoteric manifestations of the Goddess associated with Sri Vidya as well original Tantra. A few years later he delved into the Saundarya Lahari and that became the primary scripture from which he drew his inspiration and spiritual fervor. In the past few years, he began to memorize the Sri Lalita Sahasranam. Often he could be observed (only the the few of us that knew he was practicing this) silently whispering verses of this divine text. 

As an initiated disciple in the lineage of Paramahansa Yogananda, he was an ardent believer in the practice of Kriya Yoga coupled with intense devotion to Ma (the affectionate name referring to Mother Divine, the Goddess). He viewed Kriya, as do quite a few yogis in various traditions, as primarily a Tantric yoga method of ‘clearing the way’ for the Mother, in Her form of Kundalini Shakti, to ascend the inner spine and liberate the soul—devotionally viewed as the Mother ‘lifting’ Her child onto Her lap of eternal love.

Jyoti helped me so much in the beginning, and I will forever be grateful to him. Even now I can see the twinkle in his eyes, his smile and boisterous enthusiasm. He was very frank when it came to spirituality. One occasion that changed my life happened after I had known him for only a year. Although we had been talking a lot about Kriya Yoga, the extreme sadhana of our gurus and the devotional mood of Mother worship, I still was not aware of his intensity and clear understanding of spiritual priorities.

I was working on an important project for one of the older Brahmacharis in charge of us. Jyoti walked into the office and wanted to tell me something about our Gurudeva. I did not give my full attention. Then he said enthusiastically, “Imagine that! That’s the kind of devotion we need. That’s the goal. The fire!”

I smiled but did not want to engage. “Hey, let’s meditate right now, let’s take a few minutes to practice our mantra and Kriya Yoga with intense yearning, like Gurudeva would.”

I said, “Jyoti, I’d love to, but I’m busy. I have to get this important project done.”

Sri Lalita Devi, Ma Tripurasundari.

Sri Lalita Devi, Ma Tripurasundari.

“Busy?” His tone was strong and confronting, but the undercurrent of his love and respect for me did not change.

“I’m sure in your past lives you were busy, maybe even a monk working on all sorts of projects for the Church. Yes, busy, all the time busy for something ‘important’. And look where that got you! Not very far. How many more lifetimes do you want to be busy? Busy doing what?” 

It rang truth in my heart. Now looking back on that day, seventeen years ago, I can truly say that frequently stopping for ten minutes to deeply chant the mantra and practice kriya yoga has transformed my soul and shaped my life. I might add that whatever I was working on (I obviously do not remember) was of little, if any, importance at all.

On Fire Without Burning Others

We became closer and closer as friends. Every day we talked about a new facet of Sri Yogananda’s teachings, and how we could apply it in our modern life seemed so far removed from India's spiritual lifestyle of yore. We talked a lot about saints and mystics from India and Tibet, as well as the Christian mystics. Our heightened enthusiasm sometimes turned into criticism of the ashram, calling it bland, routinized, lacking devotional culture, lacking India’s traditions, with too much intellectuality and emphasis on the organization rather than the spirit. It gave us consolation to talk thus. Alas, misery— and criticism— love company. 

But one day—so clear in my memory!—we were walking side by side during our work hours in the Encinitas Meditation Gardens.  I was pushing a metal cart and he was carrying some tools. We were talking about the ashram. Then Jyoti said to me, “Listen, you and I are spiritual brothers and we have to help one another. We talk about all these inspiring things, and then we go into criticism. And even though we might be right, it does not feel good to me. It brings down my mind. And it is becoming a habit. Don't you notice?"

"Yes, I do," I was in total agreement. I had felt the change in my heart, too.

He went on, "We have to help each other, we have to be enthusiastic, strong. Let's be on fire! But without burning others. Our devotion has to go against the current, but let’s not be critical or negative of others as a habit. Let’s make a contract. Can you help me with that? I will help you too.”

And we did just that.

Practice the Presence

Jyoti inspired me to ‘practice the presence of God’ (from Brother Lawrence’s famous book) during all activity. We found various ways of doing this. Japa Yoga was one way—the repetition of the mantra over and over. I first heard the words Japa Yoga from a recorded talk by Sri Daya Mataji, who was always a deep inspiration to us to have a devotional practice of japa, meditation and loving faith to Gurudeva and Divine Mother. Feeling the currents of prana flowing within the spine was another way—but it was always devotional, being aware of this inner shrine where we worshipped our Mother, Goddess Kali or Lalita Devi, in Her form of prana and the lotus-chakras. But how to remember to do this at all times? Life, work, emotions, thoughts, interactions with people—these take the attention, whether stressful or enjoyable. 

Jyoti and I had often talked about sharing our joys with Ma, not just our struggles. So even in times of laughter and joy, Jyoti would look at me and blink both of his eyes, which was our sign to remind one another to ‘practice the presence’. After all, true joy is the fruit of bhakti yoga and spiritual life. Our chosen path is not one of suffering.

He was innovative, always coming up with creative ways to compete with the variations of distractions that lure our minds away. I remember the day when Jyoti came to me, enthusiastic as always, and told me how he came up with the idea of a watch that would vibrate silently to remind one to practice japa. He then thought that people who are deaf would likely have something like this. Being postulant monks, we had no internet access and could not make phone calls without special permission. But somehow Jyoti navigated his way though all of these obstacles and found a special watch that had a vibrating alarm especially for the hearing impaired. He ordered one for himself and one for me. 

When the watches arrived, we set the alarm timer to go off every ten minutes, vibrating on our wrist to remind us to practice the presence. I remember a few times we were in meetings after meals, all of the fifteen postulants sitting at the tables with the three monks in charge, sometimes for an hour, discussing aspects of monastic life. Every now and then in the gaps of silence, one of our watches would vibrate a little ‘bz bz’. I noticed that a few of the guys started looking around, trying to figure out where those sounds were coming from! Jyoti would look at me and blink both eyes, which were always twinkling when he practiced japa.

Burst the Heart

One day Jyoti and I were talking about chanting and the importance of devotion. There is a little know chant by Paramahansa Yogananda, rarely sung in the temples, in which the words, "burst the heart, burst the blue, burst the soul!" are sung with dramatic ascending notes. We talked about that, what it means to burst the heart, the soul, the blue sky. We talked about the gospel music of the African Americans, how it is perhaps the most devotional, heart opening music in America. We compared it to the devotional music that happens in India, which Sri Yoganandaji—and many Indian saints after him— tried to start here in America.

Jyoti said, “It’s so easy here to get methodical and dry. We chant every day but it sometimes sounds like a funeral march! We need to be on fire! Devotion has to soak into our being! We need the gospel music! Burst open our hearts and then practice Kriya Yoga with tears in our eyes!” This is how he spoke at times.

Then he said, “Listen, nobody here takes me seriously, but they like you, they listen to you. See if you can arrange a field trip for us all to go to a gospel music concert.”

So I worked on it and, to our surprise, I got the approval from our superiors. That in itself was an unusual miracle!

It was quite a scene: Fifteen Postulant monks dressed in conservative casual-formal dress (jackets mandatory, a few even wore a tie) , accompanied by four Brahmacharis and one Brother (also in jacket and tie) walking into the Holman United Methodist Church on Adams Boulevard in the heart of Los Angeles, for the event entitled “Gospel Explosion”. The senior pastor (Rev. Kelvin Sauls, who is still there today in service of the Lord) welcomed us all, adding, “It’s nice to see men folk in the Church!”  

the faces of the other monks are blurred to respect their privacy. i remember this photo was taken at intermission just after a song that brought jyoti and i to tears. praise the lord!

the faces of the other monks are blurred to respect their privacy. i remember this photo was taken at intermission just after a song that brought jyoti and i to tears. praise the lord!

The congregation was primarily African American, many of whom looked at us curiously (as would any congregation if twenty such men just walked in). They were all very cordial, smiling at us in the spirit of Christian brotherhood.  Several made the effort to walk up to us and give us a kind welcome. 

The concert was quite an experience. It was not the explosion that we were expecting, not the robed mass choirs that one sees in the South. These were smaller performances, junior choirs, dramatized dances and spoken word. And they were awesome. Jyoti and I felt as though the closed doors of our hearts were thrown open. I remember three of the performances to this day. One I will share here.

I was sitting next to Jyoti. He was eager to have his heart set aflame with the devotional explosion of this unrestrained fervor that is so strong among many African Americans. It was accomplished. Several times I looked over at Jyoti and saw his eyes filled with tears. About half way through the concert, the Reverend called up a woman from the congregation to sing. A beautiful, strong looking woman stood and walked towards the altar, when suddenly her son cried out, “Mama, don’t go. I want my Mama! I want my Mama!” 

She turned around, went back to pick him up into her arms, and returned to the altar. There, standing at the microphone in front of all, holding her boy, she sang a powerful, beautiful song to her Lord. The power of her voice and the power of her motherhood holding her child was overwhelming. Jyoti and I were again in tears, our hearts bursting.

After the musical worship, we made our farewells and entered the vans to drive back to Encinitas. Jyoti, Ganga and I sat in the back seat to meditate together. The drive home would take more than two hours. When the other postulants fell asleep, I winked to Jyoti and Ganga, and quietly moved into the very back of the van to sit cross legged on the floor and meditate, while Jyoti and Ganga had more room to meditate in the back seat. We took that flood of devotion and channeled it to quench our thirst, and to wash the dry and dusty altars of our hearts, to bathe the feet of the Divine Mother within. That two hour meditation, rumbling in the back of the van, continues to be a living memory that taught me so much about devotion, music, singing, and worship.

And I owe that to Jyoti's original inspiration, and to his passion, enthusiasm, devotion, and creative sadhana. 

Chant the Divine Name!

Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, chanting with harmonium

Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, chanting with harmonium

As I type, I look on my desk where I have a small picture that was taken of Paramahansa Yogananda in India, which Jyoti had given to me.  He always said to me, “I don’t like to call him ‘Master’, that word doesn’t do justice. I call him ‘Gurudeva’.”

He told me, “I can’t sing like you. But I love to listen and feel your devotion.”

So we had this agreement that I could chant at anytime of the night and it would not disturb him. Having him as a neighbor in the postulant ashram was such good fortune—we were not able to choose our rooms, and there were over twenty in the building.  Jyoti and I were on the ‘noisy’ side of the building, facing Highway 101.  As we attained more seniority, we could have moved into the nicer, quieter rooms. But we both chose to stay where we were for over three years because of the bond we had. This was unique—in other ashrams, my neighboring monks would complain that I would chant late at night, or in the early morning. They needed their sleep and quiet, while I needed Ma. But Jyoti and Ganga, and a few other brothers who came into my life later on, always fanned the flames of my devotion.

One day, as Novice monks (after about five years in the ashram), we went to a monastic event at Hidden Valley Ashram. After a hike, some sports, a short meditation followed by a large meal of pizza and ice cream, we began to watch an action movie. Jyoti and Ganga came to me to make our usual pact: We would sit on the chair but never let ourselves lean back to touch the back of the chair, and we vowed to not get too involved with the movie and practice japa instead. (This reminds me of one night when we were shown the epic movie Gladiator, and I kept my eyes closed throughout the entire film. To this day I've never seen it. I just heard it!)

Before we sat for the movie, Jyoti whispered to me, “Save your energy, we will meditate late tonight.” 

It was so sweet, at about 10:30pm when the others went to their rooms, we went to the tiny little Adobe Chapel to meditate. Jyoti said, “You chant whenever you want. I’ll just meditate and chant inwardly with you.”

So we had long periods of silent meditation till about 3:00am.  I chanted whenever I felt moved to do so, without any inhibition or worrying what others would think, and I could feel Jyoti's heart right there with mine, singing with me.

Years later, when he was stationed in Mount Washington's Garden Department and I was in Encinitas as the Assistant Housebrother, he came to visit us and stay at the Postulant Ashram as a guest of the Housebrother, Brother Jayanandaji, whom we loved dearly and respected so much. He recognized my unique friendship with Jyoti and supported it. Jyoti brought me a poem inspired by Sri Chaitanya. It was entitled, "Chant the Divine Name." After he gave me that poem, for about a year he would greet me on the phone or in person saying, "Chant the Divine Name!" I rejoice at the coincidence that today, when this writing is published, is the full moon day of Holi and Gaura Purnima, the birth appearance of Sri Chaitanya. 

The Magic Thread

Another way to keep the inner fire burning was to follow Brother Bhaktanandaji’s inspiring counsel to some of us: sit and practice six kriyas off and on throughout the day. Jyoti had the idea to do this many times during work hours—very controversial indeed. To prove his point he quoted from the Autobiography of a Yogi, how the young Mukunda, as a new monk in Swami Dayananda’s ashram, was praised for his work in the office but was criticized for neglecting some of his duties for prayer or staying in his sadhana room for long hours. “Don’t try to catch God so soon,” the other monks would say.

Jyoti made the comparison to our present situation. The key was, of course, not to get caught, and also to work very hard so that spiritual laziness would not creep in. Being a hard working boy, I resisted the idea. But Jytoti was convincing. He would come by and find me working and say, “Let’s take a break for the soul! Everyone takes 5 minutes to use the bathroom, why can’t we use 5 minutes for Divine Mother?” 

We would find a spot, sit for just five minutes, and practice six kriyas and japa. The results were stellar. I felt more energy, more devotion, and I felt that my life had a new and subtle purpose. What I realized is that these breaks were the magic thread that stitched together the morning meditation and study, practicing the presence during work, the evening meditation, and sleep. Doing this made it easier to keep the momentum going. This realization, this practice, was immense—an outstanding milestone in my life.

I looked forward to those breaks with Jyoti. I was in charge of the flower nursery and Jyoti was working on the cliff landscape, so both of our working areas had privacy. I loved to join him on the cliff. Sitting on the edge overlooking the vast Pacific, on the holy grounds where our Gurudeva and Rajarsi Janakananda would sit in blissful samadhi, was a blessing that was stunningly beautiful. Those five minutes were divine. On days when we had less work, the five minutes became fifteen.  

One day, a brother monk was mowing the lawn nearby and he saw us. Later that night he called me aside and confronted me strongly. He was a good friend of mine and his bluntness never hurt me because he respected me and he was an honorable man.

He said, “I’m working hard, and I see you and Francis sitting there meditating, and I resent that. I’d like to meditate too, but I can’t. I don’t have the time. It’s not fair that you neglect your duties and get away with it.” 

I responded, “I feel you. I was the same. But I made this change. Actually, I don’t have more time, I make more time. I have as much work as you. But I take these breaks and when I get back to work I work harder and more efficient and I get it done. I’m choosing this, it's not being handed to me.”  

He got it, and he tried it out for himself. He then became a devout practitioner—the toughest, hardest working postulant took these little secret breaks as well. We got more work done than ever. And nobody knew. 

Much to our joy, this practice spread to other younger monks and for a period of time was even a topic of discussion. We are eternally grateful to Brother Bhaktanandaji for encouraging this practice. 

Alakh Niranjan

A dear soul came into our lives about three years after we entered the ashram. Janzel, from Puerto Rico, had an innate love for India and the traditional ways of the yogis and sadhus. He had memorized the Lalita Sahasranam (in secret of course!) during his postulant years. He was also adept in hatha yoga and various kriyas. Those who read about Gangadhar will remember the part about the Kechari Mudra. Janzel was another one who had the desire and ability to practice it. He and Jyoti often talked about the preparatory kriyas for Kechari Mudra, mainly the Talabya Kriya. It makes a clucking sound with the tongue. Around this time of Kechari Mudra practice, Jyoti—as efficient as ever—told us that while we work we can stretch out the tongue and strengthen it for Kechari Mudra, thus accomplishing two goals at the same time. He’d call out to Janzel or myself—sometimes loudly, across the entire lawn of the Meditation Gardens in Encinitas—with both hands upraised and a strong smile, “Alakh Niranjan!”, often followed by a loud ‘cluck’ of his tongue doing Talabya Kriya as a reminder of how we could be spending our time. (Alakh Niranjan is an important affirmation and greeting started by the ancient Nath Yogi lineage of Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath, who are credited with developing many of the kriyas and hatha yoga.)

I feel it’s important to note how Jyoti regularly made these greetings to us. He never said "hello" to anyone. Rather, he'd make an enthusiastic greeting that was either a blessing or a reminder of God. The greetings changed—reflecting Jyoti's dynamic spiritual life. After the Gospel concert it was “Praise the Lord!”, most common was “Jai Guru!” or "Jai Ma", for a period of time it was “Only Love!”. I remember for a short time after Gangadhar had found beautiful verses about sacred ash—how all of us and all created things eventually become ash—Jyoti would greet Ganga and I with a dramatic, "Ashes!" 

Janzel Nandikesha, now living in Mexico, shared with me a very special experience he had on the day of Jyoti’s passing. It is another manifestation of how this soul has touched our lives, and how much he loved his little band of ‘crazy’ guru-bhais—so much so that he made it a point to touch us in some way after his passing, before he completely left this plane.

Mother Reveals

One day we found a lovely place that Ganga knew about—underneath a Maleluca tree up on the cliff. We sat there as usual, but this time Jyoti had a special request: “Would you sing Desire My Great Enemy?”

I sang it slowly and quietly,

Desire, my great enemy with his soldiers, surrounded me;
Is giving me lots of trouble O my Lord
That I enemy I will deceive, remaining in the castle of peace
Night and day in Thy joy, O my Lord.
What will be my fate, O Lord tell me?
Pranayam be thy religion, pranayam will give thee salvation
Pranayam is the wishing tree.
Pranayam is beloved God, pranayam is Creator Lord
Pranayam is the Cosmic World
Control the little pranayam, become All Pervading Pranayam
You won’t have to fear anything anymore.

[A Bengali chant that Sri Yoganandaji learned from his guru Swami Sri Yukteswar and later translated into English for his songbook, "Cosmic Chants").

The reality of these words was so tangible sitting there with Jyoti under the tree. Afterwards, we went to work. I kept thinking of the meaning. My ishta-devata had been Mother Kali ever since She touched my heart—through Sri Yoganandaji's devotion to Her— when I was 17.  So I began to sing "Pranayam is beloved Ma-a-a” over and over, dwelling on Her being within me as kula kundalini, and Her shakti giving me life. I was overwhelmed by this perception. I couldn’t wait to share it with Jyoti. That night I told him, and as he listened tears filled his eyes and, with a blissful smile, he said, “I had the same thought! The same! You see, Divine Mother gave us that thought. You see how much She can reveal in sadhana!” 

jyoti was full of a joy that springs unfailingly from his love and devotion for divine mother. and he loved to share that with other devotees.

jyoti was full of a joy that springs unfailingly from his love and devotion for divine mother. and he loved to share that with other devotees.

The Unfailing Spring

One day I was working in the flower nursery trying to locate a leak in one of the underground pipes. Ganga came over to help me and a few minutes later Jyoti stopped by to talk with us about God. I was digging here and there, not sure if I was in the right spot. The discussion centered around doubting the Guru, doubting the sadhana, doubting the nearness of Divine Mother.

Jyoti began to say, “It’s so simple, but we make it complicated. Gurudeva said that if you use the pickaxe of sadhana and dig into your own consciousness with love and devotion, the spring waters of Divine Mother’s love and joy spring forth unfailingly. Unfailingly he said. Unfailingly!” 

At that very moment, water began to spring forth from the hole that I was digging. We all stared for a moment, realizing the beautiful synchronicity, and we began to laugh. “Jai Ma! Jai Guru!” we called out. 

We looked at one another saying, “Unfailingly!” over and over, tears in our eyes. Even now I can see Jyoti’s eyes, radiant, deep, with tears of devotion.

Let's Talk About God

Jyoti had a big heart and expressed his love to others. Like Ganga, he had no enemies in the ashram or elsewhere, but neither did he have many close friends in the beginning. In a way, the monastic life is solitary even if one is around fellow monks everyday. Over time, of course, Jyoti developed friendships with other monks. He had told me that his hope was to be transferred to Hollywood Ashram, because there were only a few monks there and he would be left alone. He was delighted when, a few years ago, he was indeed transferred to the Hollywood Ashram. He wanted the freedom to worship in his own way, without having to explain or deal with criticism. He could certainly make some of the other monks uncomfortable with his blunt honesty and unbridled praise for God, even though he never intended to. At times he had no choice but to be ‘on guard’, just as Gangadhar and a few others of us had to be. But we learned over the years to keep part of our lives hidden and private. That helped. We all wanted harmony, and we did our best to navigate our way through the 'grey areas' of harmony, conformity and individuality.

In those early years, Jyoti, Ganga and I had no choice but to stick together. We took full advantage of our time together, and I'm glad we did because once we all received our assignments after initial training, we were placed in different ashram locations. During that monastic training period—the first five to six years—group participation is emphasized and self-will and individuality are extremely discouraged. One day, a senior monk who was on staff at the Postulant Ashram talked with Jyoti and I about this. 

“Master said we should not form cliques in the ashram,” he instructed us. “You three are together a lot. Why don’t you join with the others?” 

Jyoti said, “It’s not a clique. We are together because we want God and that’s the only thing we have in common. I don’t pick and choose. But the others, they are nice, but I don’t like their type of conversation. And they don’t like ours.”

The Brother said, “Oh really? Well what do you talk about?”

“GOD!” said Jyoti with his loud voice and thick accent.

The Brother laughed at his simple and blunt response. Then, realizing the sincere truth of Jyoti, welled up with tears in his eyes and said, “Well maybe we should all talk about God more.”

The Fire Continues to Burn

These are a few of the living memories in my heart of Jyoti. The other stories would be too difficult to share without giving a lot of explanation and context. And, as you surely know, there are memories that must remain in the secret garden of the heart, only to be shared in the most intimate circumstances.

In honor of Jyoti, I’ve been listening to the Saundarya Lahari (listen here) and Lalita Sahasranam (listen here) these past weeks, visualizing red hibiscus surrounding Ma’s lotus feet and reliving my times with Jyoti. He and Gangadhar came into my life during my formative years as a monk, and continued to inspire and love me throughout. And they still are. When I am up late at night for sadhana or a special puja like Mahashivaratri, I am with them. When I offer red hibiscus at Ma’s feet or chant to Her, I often feel Jyoti nearby. When I catch my mind wandering during intense activity or solving the complexities of my world, I see us together, reminding one another with winks, nods and smiles to keep the japa going within, burning up the ether with the Divine Name. When I talk with devotees and friends about spiritual topics, I imagine how much Jyoti would enjoy being there.

Jyoti  wanted to go to India, the source of our spiritual lineage, to touch the holy ‘sod’ that nourishes devotees and produces towering masters of whom one was our Gurudeva. I now have the freedom to go on pilgrimage. And when I go to that Motherland, I will offer flowers and mantras in Jyoti's name. I will think of him and Gangadhar when I bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga and meditate in the still darkness of the night. But not because they are missing out. I am quite certain that where they are now, the celestial Ganga flows pure light, the majestic nights are spent in the starlit presence of the Gurus and the sages, and the garlands of red hibiscus do not fade but rather bloom and sway on Mother’s body as She, in living glory, entrances them with Her dance of creation.

Ma Kali and Gurudeva gave me Jyoti and Gangadhar. I do miss them. But what great blessing was mine to know them and share their sat-sangha. They helped keep the fire burning. After I left the ashram, they were both happy to see my new life take shape—they never once thought that I had gone astray or was at risk of losing my spiritual focus and fire. I can hear their voices now: "Be on fire for Ma!"

Thank you, thank you, my Godbrothers, for your true, sacred friendship.

Now they soar. 
With hearts on fire.

Om Sri Sadgurudevaya Namaha

Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya

Om Sri Lalitambikayai Namaha

Om Sri Kalikayai Namaha

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Click here to read Naren's loving tribute that has inspired thousands of devotees: The Spiritual Life of Brahmachari Marcelo Gangadhar