Remembering My Beloved Teacher Shyamdas

by John Smrtic

My phone battery had died, so after I woke up that morning, I plugged in my cell and found an unusual series of messages.

My head was already spinning as my father had failed precipitously from Alzheimer’s in just over a month’s time and was placed on Hospice care days earlier. But could it really be? Shyamdas had passed away? We sat stunned in my Albany apartment, not sure how to react or what to do. It was a heavy Sunday morning. There was still so much left, I thought, in our lila. And of course, I had to visit him in Vrindavan. Shyamdas was killed in a motorcycle accident in Goa? I couldn’t even wrap my head around this given the rest of my circumstances. Tears paraded consistently down my cheeks for some time and eventually dissipated into a cold silence.

Processing and coming to terms with the loss of Shyamdas has been a long journey. In fact, I miss him more with each passing day. Knowing the intensity of his devotion and the depth of his spiritual life, there was a part of me that knew in my heart that he was going to be OK in his transition.

Dealing with my father’s impending death and the devastation of end stage Alzheimer’s at his very young age of 62 (at the time), had consumed me mentally and emotionally and it was a challenge to keep my head above water while trying to cope with it all, care for him and maintain the rest of my life. Because of this, it wasn’t until months after Shyamdas’s passing that I was able to mourn in a way that I felt was appropriate and to begin to even understand the profundity of the gifts that he had so freely given to me.

Shyamdas Taught Bhakti

Shyamdas was my first bhakti teacher. He didn’t open the doors to Krishna devotion for me, but rather blew them right off the hinges. He taught me the power of a devotional lifestyle and the potency of bhajan and the Holy Names of Hari. In a short amount of time, he gave me direct access to the bhav, as it can be experienced in the presence of those who are like him, rasikas, or nectar connoisseurs. Shyamdas taught me so many important lessons on the yogic path, some that were challenging at the time, and others which brought a chuckle but were deep nonetheless. I recall the first time he came to Heartspace Yoga in Albany to give satsang and kirtan after my class.

As my students emptied out and he entered to set up, he approached, in his unique, swaying gait, belly first, and spoke in his way so familiar to those dear to him: “John, man, slow boat. Asana. Slow Boat. Devotion is where it’s at.” I’m smiling so wide as I type these words and recall this experience.

Shyamdas was a devotee and a scholar, which suited me well, with a devotional constitution and sincere interest in the deep teachings and scriptures. He was the type of person that I could email at any time and ask for the etymology of a Sanskrit word or the “inner meaning” of a mantra – and get a quick, thorough response. I could write him and ask for his translation of Shri Vallabhacharya’s “Nirodah Lakshana” and he would eagerly reply. I could sense a sincere thrill in him that a young Westerner was even slightly interested in these life-changing yogic teachings of non-dual devotion.

Shyamdas was always going to be around. He would always return from his beloved Vraj to bless us in the upstate New York “Bhajan Belt.” We would always get to take a blissful spin down the Hudson once or twice a year on the Bhajan Boat. We would always be able to ask him for his unique tulsi necklaces from Vraj, so they could adorn our necks. We would always have his unique presence at the Omega ecstatic chants. We would forever be greeting each other saying, “Hari Hari,” “Radhe Radhe,” or “Jai Shri Krishna” (JSK for short).

But how truly blessed we were to have even a moment with this rare, ignited soul. His quirkiness was matched and exceeded by his intense devotional sincerity and this made him a “character” to hold dear and treasure. Sometimes my friends and I joked that he was like a “mad scientist” of bhakti – mad for Krishna. Dare I even say (and I will speak for no one but myself here) that because we were around him so much and had such access to him and his teachings and bhajan, that we may have lapsed into the smallest amount of taking him for granted. Shyamdas was always going to be around.

Perhaps this was his final teaching to me, to us. Don’t ever take anything for granted, and don’t ever miss the opportunity to tell someone you love them. We literally have no idea what the next day, yet alone moment, will bring.

I did make it to Shyamdas’ home in Jaitpura, a town in Vraj, at the foot of the sacred Govardhan Hill. However, he was not there, in body anyway.

Just over a year to the day of his passing, I sat on his beloved rooftop overlooking Giriraj Govardhan and the Shri Nathji temple. His passing taught me to indeed, never take anything for granted, and as a result and in the midst of caring for my father in his terminal, devastating condition, I took three weeks to travel to India on pilgrimage with my beloved teachers Sharon Gannon and His Holiness Radhanath Swami Maharaj. Would I ever again have the chance to go India with my two teachers? Thanks to Shyamdas, I knew I had to go, and I finally did make it to his beloved Vraj. Now I know why he called this sacred land home and why it was difficult for him to leave… and why he always kept going back. That’s why I am going back to Vrindavan too, because in his words, “The bhav is too good here to leave.”

Find Good Company

Beloved Shyam. He taught me, us, so much. Once he said to me, “The only thing I really got good at was hanging out.”

This is a very profound teaching. “Seek exalted company,” he would say. And just keep showing up. This is the power of satsang. All can be accomplished in the company of exalted bhaktas. From Neem Karoli Baba to his beloved guru, lineage holder in the Pushti Marg, His Holiness Shri Goswami Prathameshji, Shyamdas sought and found the pure saints and devotees of mystical India and he got really good at hanging out. Through his commitment and curiosity, his direct realization and blazing passion and experiential insight, Shyamdas brought and unraveled the deepest yoga mysteries and revelations to us. Shyamdas’s impact on the Western yoga movement cannot be quantified and he is one of the true pioneers and teachers. He brought India to us.

In so many ways, Shyamdas’s path and teachings are the embodiment of pure yoga and must be exemplary in the burgeoning Western yoga culture. Shyamdas’ life demonstrated that devotion and humility are two of the most, if not the most, quintessential ingredients to spiritual realization and growth. We needn’t look far to see the “follow me” and “look at me” culture of yoga in the West, particularly relating to the physical practices.

The Path of Grace

Shyamdas taught that in the Path of Grace, the highest aspiration, the goal even, of this life is to be a dasa or dasi, “a follower of God”. The goal isn’t to be a famous, popular teacher with lots of “followers,” or a kirtan celebrity, but rather to serve and follow the One.

All grace and realization flows from that divine relationship. In bhakti yoga, the constitutional position of the individual soul, which Shyamdas would say is comprised of sat, chit “but mostly ananda,” to the Source, is one of eternal servitude. Without devotion and humility, the nectar stream of grace runs dry. Grace is the condition, as Shyamdas taught, where through love, God falls under the sway of the devotee. It is through grace that all things are possible. It is the supreme state that leads to bhava, enlightened devotional sentiment. The condition of law is the natural condition and is when the individual soul is under the control of God. It is through this devotion and humility that we enter the lila, or eternal love play of the Lord and his beloved souls, a playful, bliss-filled reality that is beyond reason and is available to experience in this world, in one’s purified heart and beyond.

“All is Hari’s grace,” Shyamdas would frequently say. Stephen Theodore Schaffer is a servant and follower of the Lila Master, Shyam (Krishna who is dark like a rain cloud).

Once in an email, I greeted Shyamdas as “Prabhu,” which means “master,” and it is also a name of Krishna. In certain Krishna devotional communities, but not in his Pushti Marg, prabhu is a greeting for a man. He immediately responded, “I am not Prabhu. Krishna is Prabhu. I am a das.”

Shyamdas taught me that in this age where it seems like everyone wants to be a master, offer “master classes,” have followers, the real movement in our sadhanas must be from the mentality of master to becoming a humble, loving servant.

Shyamdas, my teacher and friend, thank you for letting me hang out with you.

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