Shyamdas on the Yamuna river
On the early morning of January 20th,2013, a rare and special Vaishnava was taken from this world. Shyamdas, world-renowned scholar, author and translator, kirtan leader and dear devotee of Krishna was killed in a motorcycle accident while in Goa, India. He was there with a group of friends, students, god-brothers and sisters teaching Sanskrit, leading kirtans and sharing his deep love for Radha and Krishna. The following note is posted on his website about his final days in Goa.
"Hari OM...Our priceless friend Shyamdasji left this world last night. He spent his remaining hours, as usual, in satsang and bliss with a group of dear friends. On this night in particular they were reading Shri Vallabhacarya's teaching "Krsnashraya" and reflecting deeply on and repeating the refrain, "Krsna eva gatir mama…Krishna is my refuge and destination." He has arrived at his final refuge and destination now."
Shyamdas is known by most as kind of divine madman whose kirtans were filled with spontaneity and humor. He was an incredible raconteur and extemporized during his kirtans about everything from current events to stories of Radha and Krishna. He could speak 5 languages and translated many of the songs and writings of saints from the Pushti Marg tradition, including those of Vallabhacharya, Govinda Svami, Raskhan, Surdas and others. He was always distributing prasad that he'd cooked for his deities and magically always had enough for any last minute guests. He played tennis in a dhoti. He always wore bundi style kurtas that seemed like a throwback to a bygone era in Indian devotional fashion. He was a do it yourself-er and had no problems doing any seva, whether it was humble or grand.
He was taken to a psychologist as a young child because he would often tell his family about a beautiful, "blackish boy" who would sometimes follow him. He remembers having visions of this boy throughout his childhood, which were accompanied by a mystical and transcendent feeling. Only later did he come to the conclusion that this boy was actually Krishna.
Shyamdas was introduced to spirituality in the 60’s and began reading books on Buddhism and yoga. Somehow from his reading, a very specific question arose clearly in his mind that fueled his search for a guru and led him to India and ultimately to his life’s work of Krishna bhakti and kirtan. He wanted to know whether God was formless and devoid of qualities or whether he was the possessor of all diversity and all qualities. This search brought him with a group of other young seekers to the ashram of his first guru Neem Karoli Baba in Vrindavan. Shyamdas stayed and studied with Vaishnava saints in Vrindavan, eventually meeting his second guru Sri Prathameshji, who he studied with for 20 years. Shyamdas began to carry these teachings with him when he would visit the West and was one of the first (if not the first) to begin chanting in yoga studios in America in the 1980s, beginning with the Jivamukti Yoga Center run by Sharon Gannon and David Life in New York City.
Jai Uttal, the influential kirtan artist, is a longtime friend of Shyamdas and told me a funny story about their time together in those days. Jai was living in Berkeley, California, and was a well-known and busy musician with a host of responsibilities. Shyamdas would often drop by unannounced (sometimes more than once a day) and just want to hang out and chat and share stories and do kirtan and Jai would be trying to politely get him to leave. But Shyamdas would say, "I’m not leaving until we sing Hari’s name together." And he would practically force Jai to drop whatever plans he had and sit and sing with him or he would refuse to leave. Once they finished chanting, Shyam would leave happily.
Below are some specifics about Shyamdas’ death, written by his friend Mohan Baba:
"Farewell Shyam Das Ji
In the early hours of January 20, 2013, we lost our dearest Shri Shyamdas-ji. Born Stephen Schaffer in Connecticut, USA, Shyamdas-ji passed away at the Vrindavan Hospital in Mapusa, North Goa, India following a tragic motorcycle accident on a winding, hilly road near the Goa-Maharashtra border. He was 21 days shy of his 60th birthday. [...] Shyamdas Ji was a shining light for all of us, and we deeply mourn his passing. We mourn because we have lost one of the greatest Western scholar-practitioners of Sri Vallabhacharya’s Pushti Marg (Path of Grace). We mourn because he authored and translated so many beautiful and profound books, making available to the English-speaking world the sublime teachings of Shuddha Advaita in which Krishna himself is seen as everything, everywhere, and in everyone! We mourn because Shyamdas Ji was a master and lover of the divine language of Sanskrit, as well as Vrajbhasha, Hindi, and other regional languages. We mourn because of the many books that most certainly would have continued to come from the pen of his bhakti-filled hands. We mourn because Shyamdas Ji was a gifted kirtan singer, whose performances and recordings were so filled with love and joy. We mourn because of the ecstatic music he would have continued to make to uplift and inspire so many people, bringing them closer to the divine. But perhaps most of all, we mourn his loss because of what he taught us about bhakti — what it really means to love God with unswerving devotion every day, every week, every year, every decade. Writing about God, talking about God, singing about God, reveling in God, and doing God’s seva (devotional service) was the joy and the calling of Shyamdas Ji’s life. He was what is known as an ananya bhakta, "one who has exclusive devotion to God alone." He was a powerhouse reveling in the divine play that is Krishna’s Lila. He could not be pried away. On the very day that Shyamdas Ji left behind his mortal form (at the Vrindavan Hospital, of course), he was teaching a Sanskrit text to a small group, repeating the refrain over and over again as it appears in the text: Krishna eva gatir mama-Krishna alone is where I am going; he is my only support, my only refuge. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says, "My bhakta comes to me." There can be no doubt that our sweet Shyam Ji is now with his support, his refuge, his Beloved Krishna. We will miss him dearly."