By Madhava Smullen
Kaliyaphani Das, an English disciple of Srila Prabhupada known for being multi-talented and always ready to serve – as an actor/director, book distributor, kirtan leader, and groundskeeper to name but a few – passed away in a motorcycle accident on January 3rd, 2019 in Alachua, Florida. He was sixty-five.
Born in Hambledon, Surrey on May 21st, 1953, Kaliyaphani grew up in an upper-middle class family and went to a prestigious private school. It was there that some of his more athletic skills began to develop – he excelled in gymnastics and sports, particularly pole vaulting.
He joined ISKCON in 1975 and became an initiated disciple of Srila Prabhupada in August that year, at the age of 22. He was initiated alongside his brother Satyavak, who passed away in the late 1980s, and Alapati Das, who later became Bhakti Vikasa Swami.
Early on, Kaliyaphani became a traveling sankirtan devotee, leading one of a fleet of sankirtan vans.
“At the time, England was one of the top book distribution yatras,” recalls Adikarta Das. “Kaliyaphani was the rock on which the great British sankirtan army was built. He might not have been the top book distributor, but he was the backbone of the party. He was one of the most stable, dependable people, and very serious about spreading Krishna consciousness.”
Tulasi-Priya Das, an Irish Prabhupada disciple who travelled with Kaliyaphani from 1976 to 1977, agrees.
“He was very disciplined,” he recalls. “I remember we used to get up at 3 o’clock in the morning, and even sometimes at 2. We had a Bhagavad-gita curriculum study program that he conducted every morning, reading a chapter and then asking questions. He was very organized and kept the van clean and tidy. It was a military-like program.
“Some devotees would say, ‘I don’t want to go on Kaliyaphani’s party, he’s too austere! But I actually found it a very good experience, very good for my Krishna consciousness. At the time, the whole movement was a preaching machine. When you went out on book distribution, it was like being in the army. And Kaliyaphani was a very good officer in the army.”
Next Kaliyaphani became the temple commander at Chaitanya College in Croome Court, England, under president Sivarama Swami.
“He was extremely energetic, and would always do whatever was needed,” Adikarta says. “We used to call him ‘action man.’”
Danavir Goswami also recalls, “He was a good kirtan leader and dancer. Sometimes in the big kirtans he would delight everyone by interspersing somersaults and flips into his dancing.”
In the early 1980s, Chaitanya College was sold and closed, and Kaliyaphani was sent to New Mayapur, France, where he served as an ashram teacher for the older boys at the gurukula there.
During this time, he also did a lot of street sankirtan, and performed in plays. Kaliyaphani’s acting skills were legendary. One highlight was an epic drama about the Appearance of Lord Nrsimhadeva in which Indradyumna Swami – then the temple president at New Mayapur – was Nrsimhadeva, and Kaliyaphani was the demon Hiranyakasipu. The final battle lasted nearly half an hour, and was so realistic it scared the gurukula children.
Around this time, in 1985, Kaliyaphani was engaged to Syamakund, now Shyamarani Dasi, and the two were married in 1987.
In 1989, when managerial problems caused the New Mayapur gurukula to shut down, the couple left to preach. Kaliyaphani led a festival program team of ten devotees, which traveled from town to town, doing Harinama Sankirtan, and putting on festivals in town halls, consisting of kirtan, prasadam, a lecture, and Bharatanatyam dance.
After this, Kaliyaphani returned to the UK, where he served in a variety of positions, including Namahatta group leader, and minister of spiritual standards at Bhaktivedanta Manor. But he struggled to find his place there.
In 1994, Kaliyaphani and Shyamarani separated, and he went traveling, looking for a temple and service that suited him. Eventually, in the early 2000s, he moved to Alachua, where he found peer association, a men’s group he loved, and happiness in a variety of different services.
“He was an expert arborist and took care of all the hundreds of trees at New Raman Reti, served the guests at the Sunday feast, and was an important part of the ‘farm family,’ our devotees who live on temple property and keep the back end running,” says temple president Mukhya Dasi. “He took care of the men in the ashram, and the the sannyasis when they visited. He was so amenable to helping in every way. I don’t have so many people I can call on at any time, but he was always, always willing to help.”
Kaliyaphani also wrote, directed and starred in many Krishna conscious plays, which were extremely enlivening for the community. In the process he often worked with the younger generations of devotees – from children, to teenagers, to young adults – many of whom saw him as a mentor and friend.
Although, like all of us, Kaliyaphani had ups and downs in his faith, despite his difficulties he always held on to Srila Prabhupada’s books, the chanting of the Holy Name, and the process of sadhana bhakti.
In his final months, devotees close to him describe his spiritual life as being in a particularly strong phase. He was seen attending mangala arati every day, chanting japa with devotees and attending Srimad Bhagavatam class. Confiding in Adikarta Das the day before he passed away, he said that “he now felt very happy and satisfied in his Krishna consciousness.”
On the night he left this world, Kaliyaphani attended his senior Vaishnava men’s group meeting, where they read from the scriptures and shared Krishna conscious association. On his way back, less than half a mile from the temple and right in front of a devotee family’s home where Lord Jagannath’s Rathayatra cart was stationed, he was involved in a fatal auto accident.
Upon coming out of their home and seeing who it was, the devotee family all sat with Kaliyaphani and chanted the Holy Names to him for four hours. He left his body on the scene. Many devotees concur that this was an auspicious and glorious passing.
“I’m shocked,” says Shyamarani. “It’s a significant loss. His passing leaves a hole, an empty space. I will miss his friendship.”
“He was multi-talented, humble, friendly, a gentleman, and a saintly person,” says Adikarta. “I’ll miss him.”
And Indradyumna Swami wrote, “I will miss you my friend. I have no doubt you are serving our beloved spiritual master now in accordance with your heart’s desire.”