Bay Area remembers the great soul Pt Damodar Dutt ShastriJi
Pt Damodar Shastri Ji (14th March 1928 – 14th June 2013). Pics Neeloo Kapoor
FREMONT: “Character is like a tree and reputation is like its shade.” This is an old saying which I memorized since my childhood and have always kept it before me. A tree can be seen as standing sturdy, robust and immovable against all odds of nature like strong winds and storms, rain or shine. Reputation is bound to be there as the shade of a tree, means when there is a tree its shade is there. A person with a strong and good character enjoys a good reputation. To become a tree it takes a long time. Same is the case of character. It is not built in a day or two. Once character is built, reputation is there like the other side of a coin. This was the case with our respected and Principal Priest of Fremont Hindu Temple, Pandit Shree Damodar Dutt Saraswat Shastriji, popularly known as Shastriji.
“Radhey-Radhey Govind, Govind Radhey…” enchanter of these lines, was born to a well to do and reputed family of Vaidya (Ayurvedic doctor) Brij Bhushan Dutt Saraswat and Yshoda Agnihotri, in a small town named Shamli of Meerut District, Uttar Pradesh, India, on 14th March 1928. Father Brij Bhushanji was also a good vocalist and had a good knowledge of music. Mother Yashodaji was from a very reputed Agnihotri family.
Damodarji completed his schooling in Shamli only. He had a fairly good knowledge of Urdu and interest in Shero-Shayari (Urdu poetry) because of the local influence of Muslim population. He studied Ghalib and other ace Urdu poets but he got his degree in Sanskrit from the esteemed Government Sanskrit College of Benaras.
He did his B.A. with Violin Madhav from Sangeet Mahavidyalaya, Gwalior and M.A. with Vocal Music from Morris Music College, Lucknow.
(It is a surprising a co-incidence that I also hail from Meerut and was fond of reading Urdu poetry and doing Hindi theatre. So we used to sit in his office and recite Nazms & Ghazals to each other.
During his education Damodarji was married to Shantaji who comes from a very reputed family. She was daughter of Pandit Ayodhya Prasad Sharma who himself was Principal Priest with the King of Gabhana State near Aligarh, U.P., India. That was the reason that his marriage was accomplished in a grand manner and with full pomp and show. Moreover, the fire (Agni) was brought for the ritual, Saat Phere, from Damodar’s mother side who was daughter of Agnihotris. So the Pious Agni was brought from the Agnihotri family which is considered as a good omen.
After this Damodarji mastered himself in the Holy books Ramayan and Gita. He not only possessed deep knowledge of these “Granthas” but also developed a unique singing presentation which was very poetic, beautiful and charming. Like grandfather like father like son, Damodarji inherited the singing from the Saraswat family. His lectures were laced with musical rendition of chopais of Ramayan and even shlokas from scriptures. He also wanted to do his masters in English language but could not do so because of upcoming programs and numerous invitations for chanting of mantras, shlokas and above all reciting Ramayana and Gita.
After completing his education in Music and getting the degree of “Shastri” from Benaras he started touring India singing his melodious style of Ramayan and Gita. In 1958 he was called to Haridwar for Ramayan presentation. After his lyrical presentation the Dave family of Ahmedabad was so mesmerized that they invited him to come along with them to stay with them and sing for them the holy books in Gujarat.
They in fact offered to adopt him as they were childless. We do not have a clue that Damodarji was adopted or not but it is a fact that the Dave family was responsible for bringing this “Kohinoor” to Gujarat State with great honor. Shastriji now was transpiring into a great artist of epic teller. The love and affection of Gujarat revealed a star in him. Just because of that he started visiting important cities of the state like Kathiyawad, Porbandar, Bhavnagar, Surat, Bharuch etc.
Shastriji was a master of musical presentations and he enthralled the audiences with his euphonious voice. He had a grip on classical ragas and also a different style of music such as ghazals, bhajans and traditional songs. His presentations made the audiences stand hypnotically even in the rains. Tears were brought to the eyes of Pt. Omkar Nath Thakur, winner of 1955 Padma Shree Award and 1956 Sangeet Natak Academy Award and an honorary Doctorate Degree from Benaras Hindu University, when he heard his Ramayana presentation in Bharuch near Ahmedabad. It has been a matter of great honor that Sanand Baba, the king of Sanand, used to invite Shastriji to come to his place and deliver the Ramayan presentations, some time the whole night. He also used to come to Shastriji’s place also and that was an honor in its own for him.
Once in Ahmedabad, a couple from Africa called Dollar Couple heard Shastriji and strongly insisted that he visit their country. He accepted the invitation and they took him along with them. Shastriji toured the popular cities like Nairobi, Zambia, Uganda etc. and popularized the Ramayana there.
Dr Japra adressing the condolence meet at the temple
In 1972-1973 Damodar Shastriji toured Middle East also. A Gujarati couple invited him and he chanted both Ramayna and Gita to a Sheikh businessman. In 1974 this great epic teller touched down in the US, landing at Baltimore, Maryland State. After settling down there he visited all the big cities of the East Coast like New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Washington etc. with his charismatic style of telling the saga of Ramayana and Gita. How lucky he would have been to sing those sacred lines repeatedly before the audiences around the globe for which an ordinary person hardly gets some time to just utter if not read.
In 1980 he was invited by Benin and Bindu, a couple from London. They specially came to US to take him along with them because they had heard a lot about him and his distinctive style of delivering the sacred epics. After coming back from London, Shastriji took full command of the Fremont temple and became very popular within no time. He started taking interest in all the religious activities and started introducing innovative ideas. Many a times the musical and vocal meets were organized by the temple in his supervision. Later he started giving the pravachans also with the touch of his magic of vocal and musical ability and became a star overnight.
People started waiting for the Sundays so that they could hear him not only for his voice but also to have the flavor of his deep knowledge of the Vedas and Upanishads. He kept doing this for years and years and the temple started growing day by day.
By 2009-2010 at the age of approximately 80 the ailments had already started. His knees were getting from bad to worse.
He started walking with the help of a stick and then the walker replaced the stick. In mid 2012 his health started deteriorating. He was still coming to the office with the help of his daughter Shweta.
In 2012 he was invited to address the North America’s Brahmin Sabha at LA. There also he won the hearts of the audience. In India Pt. Damodar Shastriji was honored with the Tulsi Award by none other than Morari Bapuji of Gujarat. In late 2012 Shastriji was admitted to hospital. After nine months hospital stay he came back to his house and everybody was hopeful that he would be alright and very soon his devotees will be able to see him and listen him. But this was not to be. Ten days before his death he was again taken to hospital with a mild heart attack and was put on to life saving belt till the last day of his life – again the 14th day but of June 2013.
Era comes to an end
An era has come to an end. The whole temple was in deep grief. Everybody was in a shock. Nobody was expecting this because when he came back from the long stay in hospital, the expectations of the devotees were very high about his being cured. However, “Man proposes and God disposes” and see the coincidence that just before Father’s Day, the father of Anirudh, Kalpana, Shweta and Vandana left for his heavenly abode.
“God saw you getting tired and a cure not to be, so he put his arms around you and whispered…come to me”
Shastriji was cremated on 16thjune at Chapel of Angels, Fremont CA. On 26th Wednesday, a condolence meeting was organized in the temple. The temple staff, priests, trustees, management board members along with all those devotees and friends whom he had touched in his life, were present to say him good-bye for ever.
Dr Romesh Japra was the Master of Ceremony. In the beginning he invited the family for the Pagri rituals. Shastriji’s son along with the daughters sang bhajans for their departed father. Kusum Behn from Brahakumaris adopted silence and did “Om Shanti Om” meditation. Bharti Joshi sang a Bhajan in Gujarati which was a favorite of Shastriji. Rachna Bhatnagar also sang a bhajan in homage to the divine practitioner of music.
Among those present were Sunita Japra, Rajesh Verma, Nandini Verma, Manorama Joshi, Lalit Mathur, Leela Mathur, Vijay Thapar, Govind Pasumarthi, Shalini and Dharminder Dewan, Yogi and Amrit Chugh, Satya Kalra, Kusum Behn from Brhamkumaris, Surendra Sharma, Pt Kalyan Sharma Ji, Pt Bhushan Kesarji, Keshab Chopra, Jerry Ahuja, Raj and Motilal Parimoo, Ram and Rekha Malik, Bharti Joshi, Santosh Bhatia, Mansur Nur, Vikram Kohli, Dr Bhandari, Shashi Relhan, Manali Brahmbhatt, Jeevan Jutshi, Anita Chopra, Sunita Gupta, Shyam Rao, Mrs and Dr Salwan, Rachna Bhatnagar and lots of other devotees.
In the middle of the program “Hamare ShastriJi” a small film of 20 minutes was presented by Rakesh Kapoor and Neeloo Kapoor as a homage on behalf of the family and the Temple management in a spellbound atmosphere.
Shastriji is survived by his wife, Shanta Shastri. Their eldest child is Anirudh Saraswat Shastri who is married to Reena. Eldest daughter, Kalpana is married to Arun Mishra. They are blessed with two daughters Krishna and Radha.
Middle Daughter Mahashweta is married to Dr Sushil Ojha. They are blessed with one son, Vijay. The youngest daughter Vandana is married to Ravi Jethi. They are blessed with daughter Isha and son Rishi.
Followings are the views of the family members and friends:
Anirudh Shastri (Eldest son): Whatever I am today is all because of his teachings, music, Yoga philosophy, my livelihood everything. What I know and share with my American friends in Yoga is all taught by him. I won’t be able to say anything because there is a lot which cannot be summed up in this small meeting. Yes one thing I would like to share is that once I went to my father with a long list of yoga asana on which I was to give a workshop the next day. He defined each asana with so much clarity that it felt like each asana stood right in front of me. I shared that with my students. The workshop was a huge success. Pitaji’s physical presence is not with me, but he has left me with so many invaluable and indelible memories.
Kalpana Mishra (Daughter): Pitaji, where Ramnaam exists, there you too exist. Pitaji, you are my hero. You are the one who introduced me to my best friend. Bhagvan Shree Krishna.
Shweta Ojha (Daughter): I am his number three child. I always wanted my parents to be happy. Since he was in hospital for so long, I always encouraged him to have courage and not to worry about anything. My goal was to keep him worriless. also whenever he asked for anything, like getting food at unusual time I made arrangement. I mean if I heard something from him I just did it no matter it was day or night. One day I heard him talking to my mom, hamari beti shweta sabse alag hai. I am sure he loved all of us, but for me he had some special place in his heart. He always said that Shweta is always right. In last eight months I was with him, but sometimes I had to go to Los Angeles once in a while. He was always sad when I left, and when I came back he said, “Shweta tu aagayi to mujhe lagata hai meri jingdagi aagayi.” For me he was a perfect father. I have got all of his goodness, like kindness, mercy on others, respecting others. One thing he said was always welcome a guest, treat them with good food and comfort. I can’t explain in words what I have learned from him. I am very proud of myself that I am his daughter.
Vandana Jethi (Daughter): My Pitaji was like God to me. His type of personality is found one in a billion. We are fortunate to receive his learnings and teachings in such a simple way that we can apply it in our everyday life.
Isha Jethi (Grand daughter): All that I am today is because of my Nanaji. My culture, my religion, my identity all stemmed from his great teachings. He was my number one fan, always making me feel on top of the world. The confidence and strength I have is all because of his constant encouragement and praise. He once told me, “Beta, whatever you do in life, make sure you help people.” These words particularly resonated with me and I will uphold them as long as I live. Thank you Nanaji for making me who I am today. I promise I will never let you down. I love you.
Vijay Ojha (Grandson): Nanaji was a mentor of spiritual concepts, an avid teacher of Hinduism, a preacher of Indian culture, and a talented artist, but to me he was all of that as well as grandfather. His biggest influence on our family was to stay united and to care for one another, as he had done for many years. He has had a great influence of Indian classical music to me, and led me to be a big fan of it. I hope to carry on his legacy of great knowledge, great talent, and pride of our culture. Nanaji’s love towards us is priceless and endless. I miss you and love you. Ram Ram Nanaji.
Krishna Mishra (Grand daughter): Nanaji, I am very sorry I did not spend enough time with you. I will always regret that. You are always in my heart. You brought me close to God and instilled all values in me. However, words can never describe just how much you did for not only me, but everyone. I love you always. Our mother has been a Krishna devotee since her childhood after hearing our Nanaji’s lectures. This is why I am honored to have my name as Krishna today.
Radha Mishra (Grand daughter): My Nana Ji was an amazing person. He was extremely talented and spread his love for God through his music and lectures. Thanks to him, I have music in my blood. I never realized how much of an impact he has had on my life. I have a keen sense for music, and I am positive that I received this trait from him. I am also very unique compared to other people who are of my age.
I listen to classical Indian music on a daily basis. I couldn’t be any more proud than I am that I am his granddaughter. My goal in life now is to spread the knowledge and talent that he has passed on to me. I love you dearly Nana Ji. Rajesh Verma (Chairman Fremont Hindu Temple): I have never experienced a person or priest passing away of Shastriji’s stature . This is my first time. If I made any mistake it is inadvertent. Every body knows about him. He was a great soul and lot of people have expressed already about him.
I remember one instance. Once I went to Shastriji and asked him to explain about Gita and Moksha in a plain manner. I told him, “If you say any Shloka or Mantra, I may walk away.” He said, “OK, you are an engineer so think like this that God is a Super Computer and each soul has its account in this. Within the journey of a soul into this world whatever is done whether good or bad, goes into the computer memory.
In the end all the entries are taken into account and the result is declared. Depending on the percentage your next birth or no birth or Moksha is decided. If you have good percentage than re-birth is awarded and in case of 100% result, Moksha is awarded to the soul.”
I understood that we have to do good Karmas and understand this also that he is not going to come back. He has achieved Moksha with 100% result. We will be lucky if we get even 10% of him. On behalf of the temple and Management I send my homage for respected Shastriji. One instance which I remember the most is about his humanity. Sometime in the past the financial position was not running well and we were planning to curb some expenses at that time. He offered himself and said, “You can stop my salary if need be.” Such a good human being he was.
Dr Romesh Japra (Co-Chairman, Fremont Hindu Temple): We are sad that he has expired and left us for his heavenly abode. We do not want to mourn for him but to celebrate it as a festival. He was such a great personality, a learned priest and a philosopher. He is too huge to settle in a meager festival. Being so big, so vast and so huge in knowledge still attached with our temple, he has done so much for the temple that perhaps nobody can do that. With all this he had reached a level that no other priest can touch the marks he has created.
Dr Japra went down memory lane and said that about 30 years ago we met him at the residence of Gajendra and Veena Mishra for the first time. Then he called us in his Mountain View apartment.
There we exchanged some talks. Within those meeting one important fact came out very clearly that no one except him was befitting as Priest of our temple.
When we offered him his association with our temple he said, “I am a moving person you cannot tie me up at one place.” Still in 1984 he joined the temple and till the rest of his life, he gave so much to us, to our temple and to the community. It is precious. You all know that he had a special kind of skill for singing Ramayan and Gita for which he had toured almost all the world. Hats off to him.
I see his life in five different ways: 1. As a family and as a well-wisher. He used to advise on the issues pertaining to the temple. We used to sit in his house along with other trustees to seek his opinion. He always wanted the temple to grow. As a great vocalist and musician he had started giving Pravachans with the Bhajans and the devotees had started waiting eagerly for the Sundays. When the Sunday will come and Shastriji will bring the “Sun “(Light or Knowledge) on that “Day”.
2. He was like a big brother to me. Whenever I used to go to his house, Bhabhiji used to give me a cup of tea and whenever Shastriji wanted me to come to his house, he used to remind me of that “cup of tea” and used to say, “Bhai Romesh Ji your Bhabhi has made tea for you and she is calling you to have the tea.”
3. Third relation is of a doctor and patient. It is taught to us that the relation between the two is not only pertaining to medical issues but it is an emotional relation and harmony should also be cultivated, as it is good for the patient. The patient feels better and medicine also works potentially and positively. Healing power is also catalyzed.
4. As you all know that I am here for the last many years and have always studied and spoken the English language only. When we started the temple then we had to talk to the audiences or devotees and used to speak in English. That time Shastriji started giving us pieces of Urdu Shero-Shayri or some mantras to start with. It worked magically and we felt better in terms of controlling the devotees and we were able to deliver the messages properly. Shastriji was so patriotic that he always urged us to celebrate Indian Independence, Republic Day or whatsoever related with Mother India. He always pushed us to do so.
5. I was a big admirer of his art of vocal and music and wanted to learn from him on a regular basis, but because of busy schedule I could not do it. Now the time has gone with Shastriji, for which I will always repent.
On behalf of all of you, Trustees and Management I assure that we will always be with you Bhabhiji and the rest of the family. We will also plan something so that Shastriji can be associated with the temple for ever. We will think how to celebrate his presence, though without him, so that people can remember him for years to come. Once again we want to celebrate him and not mourn as he has lived a fantastic life with all the love and honor from the family, from the temple and its devotees. Shastriji might have gone from this materialistic world but not from our hearts.
Gajendra Mishra (In his house Dr Japra met Shastriji for the first time): He sang the following bhajan: Param Hans Guru Punya Dham Tum; Lo Pranam Lo Pranam Shat Koti Shat Koti; Tumhi Gita Tumhi Ramayan; VyasTumhi, Tumhi Vaishampayan; Shant Viveka Mahattam Tumhi, Param Hans Guru Punya Dham Tum. Om Shanti Om.
Leela Mathur (Religious Chair for the last thirty years with the temple): He was not an ordinary person. In 1985, 17th Oct 5.04 pm, there was an earthquake of 7.1 rector scale in the Bay Area and that was the day of Karva Chauth. We all ladies were in the main hall of the temple and when we felt something shaky we ran outside leaving all the pooja thalis behind. Outside the weather looked so bad with the sound of thunder as something bad is going to happen. After few minutes when we felt that it is calming down we went inside the temple and heard the singing of Shastriji while playing the harmonium. We said you are not afraid of all this. Look outside, Nature was playing havoc and there was a big earthquake and you even do not know about that. He smiled and kept playing harmonium and singing.
He was so calm and quiet. He was really a great soul. He knew that nothing is going to happen around the temple. Rachna Bhatnagar (Singer & devotee): Whenever I used to come to the temple I used to go to his office. One day I asked him what is the difference between Sadhu (Good person) and Asadhu (Bad person)? He said in a very simple way and spontaneously, Sadhu is the person whose company you do not want to leave and Asadhu is the person in whose company you do not want to stay. What he said was amazing, I mean why we could not think of this? This kind of a person he was and we used to take these kind of tips as Prasad with us.
Rakesh Kapoor India Post News Service