A flower offering in remembrance of Sankara devi dasi.
By Madhava Smullen
Friends and family are remembering Srimati Sankara devi dasi — known for her deep love of her children and quiet dedication to Krishna’s service — as the 30th anniversary of her passing approaches on January 25th, 2015. On that day, the Sunday Feast program at ISKCON New Vrindaban will be held in her honor.
Born Sylvia S. Walker on January 5th, 1946, Sankara dasi was raised in Michigan. She first met ISKCON devotees in San Francisco in 1969, two years after the first ever Rathayatra there.
Returning to Michigan, she lived near the Detroit temple with her young family and visited often. In the early 1970s, she and her husband regularly invited devotees to hold weekend festivals at their farm near Ann Arbor.
In 1978, tragedy struck. Sankara was diagnosed with acute hypereosinophilic syndrome (HES), an extremely rare form of leukemia. She wanted to use whatever time she had left delving deep into her Krishna consciousness. So she moved into the Detroit temple full-time.
“When I first met Sankara and her children, in Detroit, she was a happy introspective person who held an extraordinary ability to see God everywhere,” recalls her friend Mrigaksi Dasi.
In 1980, when her eldest children had grown too old for the small devotee school in Detroit, Sankara moved to ISKCON’s New Vrindaban farm community near Wheeling, West Virginia, which she felt would be the best place for them.
Her own children weren’t the only ones Sankara cared for. From 1980 to 1983, she watched many young kids at the New Vrindaban nursery. From 1983 on, she taught kindergarten and first grade at the community’s Nandagram School to children from all around North America. Many of her former students remember her fondly as patient, sweet and caring.
Sankara also sewed for New Vrindaban’s presiding Deities Sri Sri Radha-Vrindaban Chandra and made their garlands daily, which was her favorite service.
“Sankara was easy to do service with; having an insightful and creative nature,” says Rupa Dasi, who worked with her on a sewing project. “She had a keen sense of focus for the project and really put all her heart into the service. She also was always very concerned for the welfare of her children. And this was a frequent topic of her talks. She knew her time was limited, and she was determined to use it to the very best advantage she possibly could on their behalf.”
During this time, Sankara had to go for heart surgery more than once due to the stresses her chronic condition placed on her heart. She also suffered from asthma. Yet Vidya Dasi, who lived and worked with her – both in the nursery and in garland-making – says that no matter how sick she got, Sankara always did her service with devotion and dedication.
“I don’t think we understood at the time how her failing health must have made her feel,” says Vidya. “And I’m thinking back, ‘How did she not complain, how did she keep up with us?’”
Even on the morning when Sankara went to the hospital for the last time, devotees remember her making sure her daily garland-making service would be covered and that her children would be looked after. It was this mood that encapsulated her life.
At the Intensive Care Unit, when doctors declared they couldn’t do anything more and invited her devotee friends in, Sankara’s vitals stabilized as she heard them chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. It was in this setting, surrounded by a number of her godsisters, that she finally left this world on January 25th, 1985.
Sankara Dasi is survived by her five children, Chaitanya Mangala, Makara, Veena, Sesa and Bhima; her five grandchildren, Kalindi, Airavata, Lauren, Hayden and Daniel; and her former husband, Danakeli Das.
Her family had her remains cremated, and scattered her ashes among the flower beds at Prabhupada’s Palace Rose Garden, one of her most cherished places. In 2005, on the 20th anniversary of her passing, they dedicated a Nama Samadhi in the form of a granite memorial bench in her honor at New Vrindaban.
The bench is situated along the scenic walkway that winds around the Kusum Sarovara Lake at the lotus feet of Gaura Nitai and in the shadow of Srila Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold. It serves as a place for people to relax and appreciate their surroundings as they follow a parikrama path through the holy dham.
Sankara dasi’s memorial bench, situated at the Lotus Feet of big Gaura Nitai (bottom left corner).
Etched into the bench are the words: “In loving memory: Sylvia S. Walker – Sankara devi dasi. January 5th, 1946 – January 25th, 1985” and a quote from Sankara herself – “I am surrounded by the radiance, glory and richness of the Creator. In the final analysis, all things come from the same Source. We are all related; even the rocks are our brothers.”
“My mother was a sensitive, thoughtful and highly spiritual person who quietly and determinedly performed her services despite whatever obstacles were placed in her path,” says her eldest son, Chaitanya Mangala, who is a board member for both ISKCON New Vrindaban and ECO-Vrindaban. “To me, that’s a sign of a genuine devotee.”
“Moreover,” he continues, “She cared deeply for her children and was totally convinced that the fledgling Hare Krishna Society, and more specifically New Vrindaban, was the best place to raise us. Despite the hardships and shortcomings, I do appreciate the sincere attempts made by my mother and others of her pioneer generation. And, as we honor the 30th anniversary of her passing, I humbly dedicate my community building efforts in her memory.”
Members of Sankara dasi’s family with her memorial bench.