By Ananda Vrindavana Dasa (As told to Vraja Bihari Dasa)
I was born in December 1962 to a well-to-do Gujarati family in Mumbai. I was the only son and was pampered with comforts and servants who attended to my beck and call. My wealthy businessman father was deeply religious; two of India’s most popular gurus were the spiritual guides of our family. Each of them had millions of followers, and more than a hundred thousand people attended the public lecture programs of these influential spiritual leaders. Since my father was close to them, our family was happy to serve them and their followers. As a child, I was an object of their affection, and due to a spiritual atmosphere at home, I was attracted to hearing and chanting Krishna’s holy names and pastimes.
I also excelled in my studies. In 1981 I stood first among 300,000 students appearing for the sales-management exam conducted by the London Chamber of Commerce. The Bombay Chamber of Commerce honored me for being the first Indian in a hundred years and the youngest in the world-as a nineteen-year-old-to bag this prestigious gold medal. After securing seven post-graduate management degrees by 1985, I was all set to take over my father’s business. Meanwhile, as my own stock-market career flourished, I underwent an unforgettable experience.
The Spark Becomes a Flame
In 1989 my M.B.A classmate and friend Dilip Upponi took me to an ISKCON temple in South Mumbai to hear a discourse by His Holiness Radhanatha Swami, who described Vrindavana and Krishna’s pastimes in great detail. His class fanned the spark of attraction for Krishna I already had in my heart. I became irresistibly attracted to Radhanatha Swami and began to attend more of his classes. Dilip then gave me books written by Srila Prabhupada, the guru of Radhanatha Swami and the founder of ISKCON. The combination of Radhanatha Swami’s lectures and Srila Prabhupada’s books had a mesmerizing effect on me. I was stunned to read in Srila Prabhupada’s books that the highest expression of religion is when a devotee approaches God without any desire except to serve and please Him. I was fascinated by Srila Prabhupada’s explanation of pure devotional service, where a devotee aspires to be free from the selfish desires of seeking name, fame, prestige, or position in the material world. Instead, a devotee of Krishna, Srila Prabhupada explained, only wants to satisfy Krishna’s senses. This profound depth of Krishna consciousness attracted my heart like nothing I had heard or read before.
I was also attached to my father’s two gurus and wondered if I was being disloyal to them by coming to ISKCON. My heart pulled me closer to Srila Prabhupada and his sincere followers, who were teaching essentially the same things my parents and family gurus had been teaching. Yet I found Srila Prabhupada and Radhanatha Swami urging me to take my devotional service a step higher-to offer my whole existence to God without expecting anything in return.
Meanwhile I saw my friend Dilip move into the temple as a full-time resident devotee (an ashram member). The Krishna conscious wisdom, the simple and austere lifestyle of Dilip and his colleagues at the ashram, and the loving dealings and relationships that Radhanatha Swami shared with all devotees won my heart. Deciding to commit to the path of Krishna consciousness, I took spiritual initiation from Radhanatha Swami and received the name Ananda Vrindavana Dasa, while my friend Dilip became Devamrita Dasa. However, my innocent hopes of living a happy life centered on Krishna and devotees was soon to be challenged.
Family Relationships Strained
Since Radhanatha Swami was born in America, my conservative, orthodox father was outraged at my decision to accept initiation from someone who wasn’t born in India and was from another race. My father claimed the organization I was connecting to was dubious. He wanted me to take initiation from one of his gurus. Although I was now officially connected to Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON, I still had deep love for both our family gurus, and I assured my father I would continue to serve them. But he insisted I reject the American guru and accept an Indian guru. My frantic attempts to pacify my family failed, and even my friends and relatives were deeply anguished at my decision.
While everyone protested and discouraged me from attending ISKCON programs, I became firmer in my resolve to pursue my inner calling. My father had trained me to pursue a pious life, but with mounting pressure I sensed him becoming distanced from me. I could feel his pain, but I felt helpless. Our relationship became strained.
During this time I was working as a research analyst with Capital Market,India’s leading finance magazine. My father thought my prestigious job and my pride in my own abilities were making me rebellious. He tried convincing my employer that I had been brainwashed and was associating with a dangerous cult. My father hoped that if my company would threaten or fire me, I might buckle under pressure and revert to the family ways. My employer, being highly appreciative of my professional expertise, assured my father that I was all right and had become an invaluable asset to the company. Exasperated, my father issued an ultimatum: If I didn’t give up associating with ISKCON, I would be deprived of our family fortune. In my youthful frenzy, I responded to the threat by claiming I didn’t want any of his wealth.
Leaving the Comforts of Family
Although I was doing well in my job, I was young and had no experience of staying alone without servants attending to me. I sensed that if my father were to kick me out of our home, my life would be difficult. But I was determined to pursue Krishna consciousness.
My father was unrelenting, and I didn’t budge either. One evening, after yet another confrontation, I left home and angrily vowed never to return. I sought to one day prove to him that I could amass a lot of wealth on my own. The devotees at Mumbai ISKCON encouraged me to stay at the temple rather than live alone. As I daily commuted from the temple to the office, I began to find the lifestyle at the ISKCON ashram tough. The living conditions were meager and austere. Accustomed to living with plenty of comforts, I struggled.
Meanwhile, my friend Devamrita Dasa, who had relinquished a flourishing career as a manager with a multinational bank, was dedicating himself to the cause of Krishna consciousness as a full-time ISKCON member. One day he asked me to withdraw his life’s savings from the bank. I brought him the huge sum of money, and right in front of me he put all of it in the temple donation box. I was shocked to see him give away all of his wealth to the temple and prefer to live as a poor monk. I was from a business family, and although I had seen many religious people, I had never before seen someone so materially qualified give up his wealth and fortune for the service of God. I sensed my relationship with him was now changing. He was no longer just a friend; rather, he now became my spiritual mentor and guide, and I trusted his character. A new surge of determination flooded my heart, and I increased my commitment to pursue Krishna consciousness.
The love and care I received from the devotees at the temple, the power of pure Krishna conscious philosophy, and the joy I felt in hearing and chanting Krishna’s names helped me take the bold steps to leave home.
The Krishna consciousness philosophy convinced me that the stock market is beset with anxiety borne out of gambling. I vowed never to gamble in stocks. I invested only in safe long-term securities and bonds. In my last twenty-five years in the stock market, I never once did short-term or daily trading, lest I get implicated in the complexities of this volatile market.
At Capital Market my professional skill as a research analyst and an advisor on stock market fluctuations helped many clients become millionaires, while my company earned a handsome brokerage. I took no money out of the profits my company or clients earned from risky short-term investments, for this was against my principle and vow that I had taken of “no gambling.” After my stint with Capital Market, I worked for eighteen years as a partner with J.G. Shah & Co, a brokerage firm ranked fifth in the Bombay Stock Exchange. Despite being a partner in the firm, by the Lord’s grace not once did I succumb to any gambling-like transaction.
The Greed for Money
I bought a small house in the suburbs of Mumbai, and Radhanatha Swami arranged for me to marry a devout girl from the temple congregation. As my father had removed my name from the family inheritance, I felt a need to earn more money. A friend and former business partner of mine proposed a scheme that would make us millionaires overnight. The offer had legal discrepancies, however, and could lead to complications later. My friend dismissed my apprehension and assured me it was a foolproof plan. With our combined financial know-how we could take this enterprise to new heights. The temptation was difficult to resist; I could now prove to my father that I could be wealthier than he was, and didn’t need any of his goodwill or inheritance. I also thought I could use my increased wealth to serve Krishna and His devotees. The temple needed funds. I was all set to join the business, but first I needed to ask my friend Devamrita Dasa.
He patiently heard my story but didn’t share my enthusiasm.
“Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead,” he said, “and He will provide whatever we need. We don’t need illegal money. That won’t be pleasing to Krishna.”
I was caught in the sea of confusion. On the one hand, the wave of my partner’s attractive offer pulled me. I could make it big and once and for all silence all my critics, including my father. On the other hand, a devotee of Krishna was asking me to refrain. After weeks of being tossed by conflicting thoughts and feelings, I finally made the painful decision: I withdrew from the plan. My partner expressed shock at my “foolishness.” But I was now firm in my choice to live by the wisdom of Krishna’s devotees.
A year later my erstwhile partner invited me to a business conference in a leading five-star hotel. By now he was a multi-millionaire and a business star, adored by the media. As cameras flashed and reporters interviewed him, I stood in a corner and watched his quick ascension to the hall of fame and success. At the end of the conference he called me over and rebuked me.
“You fool,” he said. “You could have had this success. It’s still not too late. My invitation is on. Trust me, I’m your friend. With your intelligence, you could be twice as wealthy as me.”
I heard him patiently but wasn’t tempted. I was now deeply attached to devotees and the Krishna conscious way of life. My earnings were sufficient to keep our family content. My wife, Tulasi Devi Dasi, and son, Raghunath, supported my Krishna conscious values and spiritual practices and abhorred the greed-impelled pursuit of wealth. I left the meeting unruffled, yet disappointed at my inability to convince my friend to abandon his dangerous ways.
A few days later, yet another reality hit me.
The headlines of all the national newspapers and television channels carried the story of one of the three biggest financial scams India had ever witnessed. My former friend was exposed in a fifty-billion-rupee fraud, and his photograph flashed all over. He was now in jail, condemned by the media, government, and police, and charged with over a hundred serious financial crimes. As I followed the news carefully, I realized how Krishna consciousness and the association of devotees had saved me. Had it not been for my devotee friend Devamrita Dasa, I too would be languishing in prison today. Krishna had saved me by sending me His loving devotees as my friends and saviors.
Learning the Lessons of Life
Over the last two decades of practicing Krishna consciousness and seeing the swinging fortunes of the volatile financial markets, I have learned valuable lessons in spiritual life. Strong hearing and chanting have sustained me over the last two decades. I have vowed to never enter the stock market without first completing my sixteen rounds of chanting Hare Krishna on my prayer beads. I also first hear one spiritual lecture on my iPod or at the temple, and only then do I enter my business arena. These practices have given me the strength from within to resist temptations and make the right decisions.
Another lesson I’ve learned is the value of the association of saintly devotees. I have observed that devotees in the renounced order are blissful even without having money. In stark contrast, I saw people in the stock market earning up to 200,000 rupees daily, yet they were miserable and needed to take sleeping pills. This convinced me that money is not the source of happiness. This realization also helped me say no to the tempting offers of some business entrepreneurs who wanted to share fifty per cent of their profits with me if I would offer them advice on daily stock trading. They even assured me they would bear any losses, while I only needed to offer my intuitive stock-market sense to help them. I’ve rejected these offers because they are open gambling and injurious to my spiritual health.
I presently own an investment company that helps people manage their portfolios by investing in secure mutual funds and government bonds. Recently our firm won the first prize among ten thousand firms in Mumbai for excellence in managing hybrid funds, a category of mutual funds. The Wealth Forum, which monitors mutual funds in western India, conferred upon me the runner-up title for Financial Advisor of the Year.
As a service to the growing temple congregation, a few of us have also started a small bank, Yamuna Kinara. Our team of financially astute devotees offers other devotees a better interest rate on their deposits than the market rates. And on loans taken from the bank, we charge a lesser rate than the prevailing market rates. These lower interest loans are given primarily to financially challenged devotees from the community, and the bank’s exclusive motive is to serve the Vaishnavas.
My spiritual master gave us the vision that sincere practicing devotees shouldn’t have to face difficulty in their Krishna conscious practice due to financial or other worldly problems. Over the last four years this nonprofit service has given me immense satisfaction. I am using my skills in the service of Krishna and His devotees.
I also haven’t forgotten the childhood affection of my family. I daily remember and offer prayers and thanks to my father and his gurus. They showed me the path of devotional service. I am forever indebted to my friend Devamrita Dasa, who has now taken the vows of sannyasa, or lifelong celibacy, and is known as Bhakti Rasamrita Swami.
My realizations can be summed up in one sentence: Life is a struggle, but it is a happy struggle if we can remember Krishna and be attached to hearing and chanting His holy names in the association of His loving devotees.