So as he dipped his head, I simultaneously raised the lamp and completely burnt off his eyebrows. I didn’t just slightly singe them, I completely scorched them off.
I'd only recently moved into the temple, and was often in a state of confusion mixed with the joy and inspiration of having found the only philosophy that ever made sense to me. I was impressed that devotees of Kṛṣṇa were genuinely trying to live the message they taught. At some point early on, I was (rightly) advised to focus on the essential message of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu's Śikṣāṣṭaka. Of these eight verses, one stands out so much that A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda said that we should wear it around our necks:
tṛṇād api sunīcena
taror api sahiṣṇunā
kīrtanīyaḥ sadā hariḥ
"One should chant the holy names of God in a humble state of mind, thinking himself lower than the straw in the street. One should be more tolerant than the tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and ready to offer all respects to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of God constantly."
I wanted to experience the sanctity and inner peace that such a state of mind awarded, and I yearned and even prayed for examples of tolerance to serve as inspiration. Here's the strange way that I believe Kṛṣṇa reciprocated with my desire.
Temple ritual was new to me. I'd not experienced anything remotely close to an ārati in my life, but I found it fascinating and was eager to participate. Not trained at the time, I was limited to simple tasks such as taking the ārati lamp around for devotees to honour. An ārati lamp is generally a brass or silver vessel that supports several enflamed handmade ghee candles. I've included a picture for reference. The task was to take the lamp from the pūjārī (priest) who is performing the ritual and then go around the temple room holding it out in front of devotees so that they could honour it. Some devotees wave their hand over the flames then touch that to their foreheads, some bow their heads to the lamp in a show of respect. If a devotee's hands are occupied by playing karatāla cymbals or mṛdaṅga drum, they generally nod their head in respect. Such was the case with Bhakta Sasha from Russia. He was playing karatāla when I approached him, so he nodded towards the flaming lamp.
I'm not exactly sure why I did what I did next. I suppose my inner-dialogue in the moment may have been, "Why should I make this esteemed prabhu do the work of having to bow down, I should bring the lamp up closer to his head to make the job easier. I'm ‘the servant’ after all."
So as he dipped his head, I simultaneously raised the lamp and completely burnt off his eyebrows. I didn’t just slightly singe them, I completely scorched them off, although there were still some velcro looking bits left on the sides closer to his ears. Oh, and his eyelashes were mostly gone too. The whole temple room smelt of burnt hair.
Yup. I did that. I'm obviously not proud, but I did it. What happened next was a huge life lesson for me on so many levels.
We both reflexively pulled away from each other; he with an expression of bewilderment and incredulity towards what just transpired, myself with a look of shock at my own stupidity. I almost expected to be punched in the face, and braced myself for it. To my amazement, I only saw the slightest flash of anger in his eyes, then he went back to playing karatāla. I stood there, mouth agape for a moment, then attempted an apology. He seemed understandably annoyed by my presence, so I moved on, offering the lamp to the few male devotees remaining before I handed it off to the ladies. I then left the temple room for a few minutes to assess the situation.
“How completely stupid are you?”, I bashed myself, “What kind of idiot burns off a devotee’s eyebrows? Surely you’ve made an uber-mahā offense and Kṛṣṇa is going to kick you out of the temple, take away your interest in bhakti and maybe even have you step in front of a moving bus.”
The level of humiliation I felt was debilitating, yet I somehow tried to intellectually steer myself to follow the most immediate example of Sasha just carrying on with his service. So I returned to the temple room, red-faced, and participated in the last part of the kīrtana. Then we had class and prasādam as usual. I tried not to look towards Bhakta Sasha as he’d already expressed annoyance and I wanted to respect that.
After prasādam I was next to Sasha as he was washing his plate and I saw the damage I’d done. I felt so horrible inside that I wanted to cry. My emotions were strong and I again apologized. This time he acknowledged me and said, “It’s ok, Prabhu. It’s Kṛṣṇa’s mercy.” Then he walked away towards his house. His Russian accent and phrasing of these words still ring in my mind. He saw me suffering with humiliation and wanted to relieve me, otherwise, I doubt he would have said a thing. In fact, he never did mention it after that.
More tolerant than a tree. The man just had his eyebrows burnt off, and he reacted with, “It’s ok, Prabhu. It’s Kṛṣṇa’s mercy.” More tolerant than a tree.
My emotional state of humiliation gave way to a stronger realisation. I had to become like this.
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These words were not generated with or augmented by artificial intelligence; just “flawsome” human thoughts here … with, of course, due homage to The Algorithm that abides over us all.
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