by Madhava Ghosh
(The following is an article I wrote that was published in the Brijabasi Spirit in Dec.1982 (Vol. IX, #7 ). I don’t know who the artist was who did the drawing of Sonny.
Somehow the editor misspelled Sonny’s name as Sony, also his last name is wrong. I may have scribbled this out by hand and, as my C in Handwriting grades in school attest, it may have been hard for the editor to read. Since it is a historical document, I am leaving it “as is”. The same goes for the references to Bhaktipada; although it is now correct to refer to him as Kirtanananda, that wasn’t the case in 1982 so I am also letting that stand (more on this topic later).
I remember one time Sonny wanted to take a load of pig manure to some place other than his farm (FYI, I now live in the house from what was then his farm). He rode along on the fender of my tractor to guide me to the place. We ended up going out Rte 250 and then onto Rte 88. He started laughing and said that if anyone saw us, they would say there goes two turds on a tractor. That is the kind of humor I liked! )
Sony Neibragell 1922-1982
Cloud covered darkness, punctuated by the nearness of headlights and distant houses, surrounded me as I drove from Bahulaban to Guruban. Rounding a bend, my attention was suddenly drawn to the Palace as it seemingly hovered, bathed in orange tinged light, ringed by lanterns, an oasis of illumination in a lightless desert. Its beauty is a sight one never tires of seeing.
As I drew closer, dividing my vi sion between driving and the Palace, another area of light at tracted my eyes. It was in an unusual place — in the woods behind Srila Bhaktipada’s house. It also seemed unusual due to the late hour. At this time most of the devotees were taking rest.
I parked in the lot by the Palace, and walked past Bhaktipada’s house, then through the woods, over to the festival parking area where several spotlights were set up. Jaya Murari, Jambhu, and Jaya Nitai were busily engaged. In quiring, I learned that the new pumps for the Palace area water system had failed.
Without water, life becomes dif ficult, especially at the Palace, the hub of New Vrindaban’s activities. Without sufficient water, the restaurant, where hundreds of peo ple are daily receiving the mercy of prasadam, would have been unable to open. The plants in the garden would wilt, and the con crete work would be brought to a halt. These devotees were working late, sacrificing their sleep to make an arrangement for water. They were rigging up a pump to transfer water from the Garvin’s milk truck to the water system’s main tank. Then they could haul water in the truck until the pumps were restored.
Seeing the Garvin’s truck, I thought of Sony Niebragell. He had set up the deal for us to pur chase the truck, with its 1800 gallon stainless steel tank. It was so cheap that we couldn’t afford not to get it. Without Sony’s connec tions, we wouldn’t have gotten it, and now it was being used in Krsna’s service to solve a problem. It was just like Sony, who had helped us solve so many problems. But here was the truck, not Sony. Sony had left his old body just a few days before, and the realization of material life’s brevity still filled his vacant position in my life with some grief.
Grief is not something one can describe easily; it is starkly ex perienced at the passing of one’s close friend or at the passing of one’s own life. The first time I ex perienced this grief was when my father’s best friend, who had spent a lot of happy hours with us, was killed. The tractor he was driving rolled over backwards on him. The steering wheel had crushed his neck. There were other such oc curences in my life. A friend I worked with for many years was drafted into the Army, sent to Viet nam, and was suddenly snuffed out by an explosion in the Mekong Delta. My mother was slowly crushed by cancer.
What is death? “As a person puts on new garments, giving up the old and useless ones, similar ly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor can he be burned by fire, moistened by water, nor withered by the wind. The individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble. He is everlasting, all pervading, un changeable, immovable and eter nally the same. It is said that the soul is invisible, inconceivable, and immutable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body.” (Bg. 2.22-25)
Death is the changing of bodies. By understanding this fact through the eyes of spiritual authority — the eyes of the Bhagavad-gita — death is seen not as an end, but as a transmigration of the eternal spirit soul from one bodily cover ing to another. This is very comforting.
To most New Vrindaban devotees, Sony was known as the pig farmer. That was his business. I first met him when he bought a farm adjacent to us and built a hog facility, the largest in the county. Despite the fact that I had philosophical differences with him over the nature of his business — raising animals for slaughter — we started seeing each other regular ly. To him, his business was nor mal. He had been involved with it all of his life, and had never ex perienced a society where animals weren’t slaughtered. The fact that we didn’t kill our animals was new and unusual for him. Other dif ferences had placed a cultural bar rier between us, the community of devotees, and the larger culture surrounding us. But Sony wasn’t put off just because of differences; he always had an open mind.
I found that I could relate to Sony on a pragmatic basis because we had similar problems. One of them was manure. We have the largest herd of cows in the coun ty. Lots of animals meant lots of manure. We had invested in a li quid manure handling system, and one of the first mutually beneficial deals we made with him was that we would haul his manure away in exchange for keeping some of it for fertilizing our own fields.
I naturally took him around the farm, showing him all the crops and, finally, the Palace. He was really attracted. As in the case when something is unknown, rumors spread. So many rumors had been spread around about what we were doing and how we lived. When people heard that Sony was associating with us, he would be criticized. Because our community has strong communal aspects, people sometimes equated us with hippies, thinking that we are into free sex, drugs and laziness. When Sony learned that actually we follow the four regulative principles — no illicit sex, no intoxication, no meat eating and no gambling — he realized that there was much misinformation concerning us. Soon he became quite a preacher of Krsna Consciousness.
He was a familiar figure on the farm. Whenever his doubting friends would say something about the Krsnas, he brought them out, and gave them a grand tour. The Palace was becoming famous and attracting a lot of interest, and everyone wanted to see it. Many of the local people would ask Sony to bring them out to the Krsna farm and the Palace of Gold. And he would. He brought politicians, doc tors, lawyers, auctioneers, and in fluential people. He also brought regular folks, and visitors from near and far. He brought them up the steps of the Palace and in troduced them to the devotees. As a matter of fact, he was probably our leading public relations man until Mahabuddhi dasa came along.
Not only did he bring people, but he seemingly knew everyone around and knew how to get prac tically anything. Whenever I got stumped, I always knew that I could go to Sony, and he’d put me in the right direction. He was a real friend. Bhaktipada was so pleased with him that he gave Sony the benediction that he could eat in the Palace restaurant free anytime he wanted. (Now that’s a benedic tion that many devotees would like to have.)
But now he has gone on. To where? The law of karma dictates that by our activities we receive our next body. “For one who worships Me, giving up all his activities un to Me and being devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, who has fixed his mind upon Me, O son of Pritha. for him I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.” (Bg. 12. 6-7)
By becoming a pure devotee of the Lord, we can escape the cycle of birth and death, the endless changing of bodies, and resume our original position with Krsna in the spiritual sky.
Human life is meant for self-realization. Materialistic activities, desiring fruitive results, binds us to birth and death, but spiritual ac tivities elevate us to the platform of Krsna Consciousness — the means of escaping this bondage. In the Bhagauad-gita, 2.4-1. Krsna says, “In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little ad vancement on this path can pro tect one from the most dangerous type of fear.” In the purport, Prabhupada explains, “Activity in Krsna Consciousness is the highest transcendental quality of work. Even a small beginning of such ac tivity finds no impediment, nor can that small beginning be lost at any stage. Any work on the material platform has to be completed, otherwise the whole attempt becomes a failure. But any work begun in Krsna Consciousness has a permanent effect, even if not finished.” In this connection, Prabhupada quotes the Bible,
“What profit a man if he gains the whole world yet suffers the loss of his eternal soul?”
So, even if Sony’s material ac tivities have ended, his journey back home, back to Godhead, has certainly started. Srila Bhaktipada said that Sony will take birth in a family of devotees. This is the most auspicious birth for the purpose of getting out of this material world.
Although I may feel sorry to see him leave the body that I met him in, I know that if I can somehow become serious in spiritual life, I’ll meet him again in the spiritual sky. That is the real antidote for grief.
I walked back through the woods towards the Palace, where just two days before Sony had brought some people to visit and take prasadam. Now they come by the busloads to see Prabhupada, hear about Krsna, and move fur ther along the path to God con sciousness. Just as the Palace at tracted Sony, it’s attracting so many people.
Rising mist played through illumination. Calming water, mur muring through the fountains, soothed my ears.