In this presentation, Hari-dhama dasa discusses an
important social issue for the Society: that of providing care for
the terminally ill in the movement. Since Vaisnava hold very dear
the hope of dying in the association of devotees and at a place
of pilgrimage, ISKCON faces a challenging task in providing this
facility and care for its members. The author argues that both spiritual
care and medical care should be available to patients, be they in
a secular hospice or in a religious institution. He goes on to present
some possible methods of approach to both carers in ISKCON and the
caring profession in general. The author is currently in the process
of conducting further research into the needs for spiritual care
specifically within the Vaisnava context.
As ISKCON looks toward the twenty-first century it will face
increased demands both from its members and from those outside the
movement to address its social, political and economic fabric, it
will have to recognise and provide more for the spiritual needs
of its members, and this will also have to include preparation and
support for those facing old age and death. For a devotee to leave
his or her body in the company of other Vaishnava devotees is considered
the mercy of the Lord, and to depart from the body at a place of
pilgrimage is the fulfilment of life on earth. As yet, death, dying
and bereavement amongst devotees around the world have not reached
proportions where ISKCON has had to provide facilities common to
the Society at large. Providing for the devotee with a terminal
illness, taking care of the elderly and dying within ISKCON, and
providing professional facilities for those in need of spiritual
care will need to be an important component of social development
This paper is also addressed to lay and professional carers, advocating
the need to include and develop spiritual care in their work if
they are to provide holistic care to patients. Holistic care of
the body, mind and spirit involves an appreciation of the term 'spirituality'
and the knowledge of how to respond effectively to the spiritual
needs of the individual. Vaishnavas will refer to the term ' spiritual'
in a very specific sense; for them this refers to the eternal relationship
between the individual and God, but for the purposes of this article
the word will be used as understood in the western generic sense
of the term.
As sentient beings, spirituality is a constitutional part of human
life and for this reason, carers can not ignore the spiritual needs
of patients in their care. Dying is more than a biological occurrence:
it is a physical, social and spiritual event. The real challenge
to the caring profession is the cultivation and expression of an
increased quality of spirituality and spiritual care. Nurses, doctors
and carers, due to their constant contact with the patient have
a unique role when spiritual care presents itself at its most profound:
when a person is preparing to face death. In those areas of the
world where medical care has been shaped by sophisticated technologies
and complicated health care delivery systems, efforts to humanise
patient care are essential if the integrity of the human being is
not to be obscured by the system. This is needed especially for
individuals with chronic maladies, or those who are in the process
This paper will examine the need for ISKCON to provide professional
care to the terminally ill who come to their centres for the sole
purpose of passing their last days in the company of devotees. The
following discussion of the responsibilities and training that professional
carers should have are also applicable to those devotees that would
like to enter, or are at present in the caring field. Issues raised
in this article are intended to help in the formulation of a practical
policy for taking care of the sick and dying in ISKCON's care.
Spirituality: what does it mean?
Spiritual care aims at bringing harmony and balance back into
the life of a patient. Thus for a person to function as an integrated
whole, the individual must experience harmony amongst mind, spirit
and body. Spiritual care is therefore not restricted to patients
with a terminal illness, but to all those who find themselves neglected
in one or more aspect of their wholeness. This paper, however, will
deal mainly with diagnosing and responding to the spiritual pain
The awareness and appreciation of a patient's individual spiritual
orientation is essential to holistic care. Transcendence, or the
striving for an existence apart from this world, is probably the
most powerful way that one is restored to wholeness after an injury
to their person, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. The sufferer
is not isolated by pain, but is brought closer to a transcendental
source of that meaning, and to the human community that shares these
values. This paper will also address the diagnosing and response
to spiritual pain as experienced by dying patients.
Spirituality and the carer
Spirituality is concerned with the transcendental, inspirational
and existential way to live one's life, and this could also include,
in a fundamental and profound sense, the individual in relation
to God. An individual's perception of spirituality and their spiritual
need are normally heightened as the individual confronts spiritual
pain and ultimately faces death. A holistic approach to patient
and individual care implies care for the body, mind and spirit.
Spirituality is often mistakenly equated to, or used synonymously
with, institutionalised religion, therefore for the purpose of this
article M. E. O'Brien's definition will be used: he has defined
spirituality very broadly as 'that which inspires in one the desire
to transcend the realm of the material.'
This definition is helpful as it is broad enough to include a religious
understanding of the term, but yet is not specific to any one religion
and allows for the inclusion of those that have a personal philosophy
to the meaning of life.
The basis for determining the level of an individual's spiritual
health or integrity can be ascertained in the following ways:
- Stallwood and Kreidler
recognise relational aspects within the concept of spirituality.
The qualities of forgiveness, love, hope and trust can be experienced
in relationship between two people as well as God. Relationships
such as these bring meaning and fulfilment to life itself, providing
a purpose for living.
- Spirituality is an aspect of the total person that is related
to and integrated with the functioning and expression of all other
aspects of the person.
- Spirituality can also be expressed through the relationships
between the individual and others, and through a transcendental
relationship with God or another realm where spirituality involves
and produces behaviours and feelings which demonstrate the existence
of love, faith, hope and trust, therein providing meaning to life
and a reason for being.
Spiritual integrity is present when the person experiences wholeness
within the self, with other human beings and living entities, and
in transcendence with God. Spiritual integrity is furthermore demonstrated
through such acts that show love, hope, humility, trust and forgiveness
Spirituality is a quality that goes beyond religious affiliation.
Spirituality inspires one to strive for inspirations, reverence,
awe, meaning and purpose even in those who do not believe in a God-applying
equally to the needs of believers and non-believers. Spiritual beliefs
and practices permeate the life of a person, whether in health or
illness. The influence of spirituality is manifested in our relationship
with others, life styles and habits, required and prohibited behaviours,
and the general frame during our spiritual development and growth.
Religious affiliation may foster attention on, or hinder spiritual
issues. We should understand that patients and family are in a vulnerable
state when dealing with terminal illness, and it should be the needs
of the patient that dictate the role of religious representatives
and not vice versa.
How is spirituality expressed?
The expression of spirituality is shaped by the accepted practices
and beliefs of a particular culture and this may be expressed in
some cases by the practices and beliefs of an institutionalised
religion. Spiritual needs are fulfilled through such avenues as
prayers, rituals, religious communities and worship. The institution
codifies and provides pathways for the expression of beliefs and
values held by the person. It provides meaning to life, and sustains
the person through personal hardships such as illness, pain and
personal difficulties. It also provides an avenue for celebration
when hardships are overcome.
Mystical experiences can also bring about a sense of peaceful calm
and stability in the turmoil of those experiencing personal calamities.
These experiences are often described as another reality and provide
hope, faith in a future, and a sense of love and meaning to life.
Here the physical and the emotional interact with the spiritual
to change the focus in the person's life. Meaningful and purposeful
work, or creative expression, is often an expression of spirituality.
The person may feel a need to communicate experiences of feelings
which relate to the ' other worldly' aspects of life.
Another manner in which the spirituality of the person
may be recognised is through behaviour or feelings that convey an
altered spiritual integrity. O'Brien has listed seven common human
experiences under the general category of altered spiritual integrity.
These experiences include spiritual pain, alienation, anxiety, guilt,
anger, loss and despair. Let us examine spiritual pain, as this
is an area of care in which both carer and sufferer find the greatest
How can spiritual pain be recognised?
Spiritual pain can be defined as an individual's perception
of hurt or suffering associated with that part of his or her person
that seeks to transcend the realm of the material; it is manifested
by a deep sense of hurt stemming from feelings of loss or separation
from one's God or deity, a sense of personal inadequacy before God
and humanity, or a lasting condition of loneliness of spirit. Kim
et al defines spiritual pain as ' a disruption in the life principle
that pervades a person's entire being and that integrates and transcends
one's biological and psycho-social nature.' 
Although spiritual pain has achieved comparable recognition
to physical and emotional pain in the care of patients with terminal
disease, it is less well recognised in those who are not terminally
ill. When comparing the assessment of spiritual pain to physical
pain, there are few guidelines that can be utilised. It is mainly
the lack of objective symptoms of spiritual pain that hinder the
diagnostic process. On the other hand, friends and family may be
a resource for eliciting suffering from a patient. As with physical
pain, there are some patients who feel the need to suffer from spiritual
pain for specific reasons. We must appreciate that for them pain
is not a ' problem' in our sense of the word. Spiritual pain represents
the agony of an unmet need, whether it is psychological, emotional,
mental or physical. Dame Cecily Saunders, founder of the modern
day hospice movement, writes: 'The realisation that life is likely
to end soon may well give rise to feelings of the unfairness of
what is happening, and at much of what as gone before, and above
all a desolate feeling of meaninglessness. Here lies, I believe
the essence of spiritual pain.'  This is echoed by the Austrian psychologist V. Frankl, that
'Man is not destroyed by suffering, he is destroyed by suffering
without meaning.' 
Spiritual pain can be the result of an experience which completely
shattered a previously held view of life for an individual, taking
the meaning and focus out of their existence, leaving them desolate
and helpless. This experience may be an illness, or an accident,
or some catastrophic event in their life. During these traumatic
events the individual's assumptions about life, trust and love,
may be found to be misplaced, leaving them with nothing to hold
onto for hope and security in the present and the foreseeable future.
In these situations suicide often seems the only way out 'I feel
empty and shattered' or 'There is nothing left for me' .
It is important to recognise that there is often a level of pain
far deeper than the pain of a particular loss. That deeper pain
is often associated with something totally destroyed at the centre
of the individual's being. This 'something' can be described as
the person's view of life, their relationship with God, a map or
picture of what life is about for them, or the values and principles
they hold dear in their lives. An individual's response to any event
in life partly arises from the view of life that lies at his or
her centre. It is because this shattering of a person's view of
life leads to a loss of a sense of meaning to existence, that meaninglessness
is often seen as the centre of spiritual pain. It is often expressed
as 'Why?' or 'Why me?' Spiritual pain can also be recognised in
the individual's perception of life. When this fundamental perception
has been radically changed, impaired or broken by some event, spiritual
pain is at its most profound; this is often expressed as, ' I can't
see any meaning in anything' , 'Nothing adds up any more', or 'My
world is in pieces and I am lost and lonely.'
The management of spiritual pain
Spiritual pain is managed not only by professionals, but more
often through relationships amongst the individual and their friends
and family. It is a normal human activity which takes place on various
levels: anything from a hug, holding a hand, empathic listening,
a prayer, a gift or even a massage, may be a valuable part of spiritual
Professionally, spiritual care could include therapy, counselling
and medication. Whilst we care for the body and mind by means of
medication we can treat the spirit by means of non-medication based
therapy; this would include alternative and complementary therapies
such as art therapy, acupuncture, homeopathy, reflexology, music
therapy and so on, these should be combined with excellent inter-personal
communication and counselling skills. Both the medication and non-medication
approach work hand-in-hand towards the ultimate goal of spiritual
care: providing quality of life when facing death. They are both
parallel and complementary if need be. Carers should acknowledge
that that they have a responsibility for the spiritual well-being
of the patient, and should not avoid providing this level of care.
As we assess physical pain on a continuous basis, spiritual pain
requires the same frequency of assessment; it is not just a matter
of ticking a box on the patient's admission form that asks about
their religious affiliation. As a lack of homeostasis may manifest
itself as physical pain, spiritual pain also represents a lack of
balance or adjustment to one's immediate self; (this would be the
result of something that had happened very recently rather than
from something in the patient's long-term personal history). Consequently,
an evaluation of a patient's spiritual orientation seems appropriate
in order to diagnose spiritual pain.
With spiritual pain one cannot simply point a finger
to exactly where it hurts. Feifel stresses that it is not necessary
to understand fully a patient's spiritual orientation when creating
an environment to offer nurturing. However, studies have shown that
carers are less than willing to provide such care. Those caring
for the terminally ill complained that too much was being asked
of their own spiritual orientation, with them being unwilling to
provide this care as one of their functions. 
It seems reasonable to conclude that some health professionals may
be holding back this nurturing ability in order to be perceived
as credible health care practitioners¾offering 'spiritual care'
may not be seen as part of their role. Yet, spiritual care need
not trigger inferences of faith healing or hocus-pocus. The essence
of spiritual care-giving is not administering religious doctrine
or dogma, but the capacity to enter into the world of others and
to respond with feeling.
This fundamental capacity involves touching another
at a level that is deeper than ideological or doctrinal differences.
In this capacity it is essential that carers are willing to address
their own spiritual orientation in relation to the needs of their
patients without influencing the patient's right to receive the
type of spiritual support that they desire. Carers must examine
their own personal belief system. Self examination will enable them
to understand and empathise with the need of the patient on a spiritual
level, Burnard supports this when he asks, ' If we do not clarify
our own spiritual beliefs or lack of them, how can we help those
in our care to clarify theirs?' 
If carers fail to address their own spirituality and the meaning
behind it, they will fail those who depend on us for making their
passage through death less painful. It is the responsibility of
those caring for the spiritually needy to add the spiritual dimension
to their care, irrespective of being theistically, atheistically
or agnostically inclined.
Carers can help by being with the person suffering spiritual pain
and offering their support according to their capabilities. In this
capacity it is important to avoid easy optimism: 'You'll be all
right', hasty analysis of the situation (there may be deeper levels
of pain than the obvious) or, too early affirmation or comfort (stopping
the sufferer going deeper into the pain).
Another common mistake that carers make when dealing
with patients is allowing their own anxieties to dictate their course
of action. This is commonly manifested by talking unnecessarily
(the best form of communication in some situations may be silence),
or providing uninvited sharing of the carer's own experience (one
should avoid saying, 'I understand', as this factually may not be
the case). It is more important to be a good listener than someone
who has all the answers for solving a patient's pain. Each person
has to bear his or her own pain and find their own way through it;
the carer can only be a support in this process, as Ainsworth-Smith
and Speck write: 'we must all grieve our own grief so we must do
our own dying, and face the possibility and reality of our own mortality,
and others should enable us to do this in our own way.' 
During times of crises, a person or patient may have the resources
of his or her own religion as a support. Nevertheless, I have found
in my experience as a carer and counsellor that although religious
faith may help people bear spiritual pain, it seldom takes it away.
To help someone with religious needs we do not necessarily have
to share that faith, but we can help by being more understanding
and respectful toward their chosen faith and try and ensure that
their religious needs are met. Spiritual care requires an understanding
of the patient's unique philosophical or religious views. It requires
respect and understanding for the patient's belief and practices
even though they are different to those providing the care. In order
to attain this level of understanding, the carer must establish
rapport and trust which allows the patient to disclose those beliefs.
The carer should also be willing to recognise limitations in their
understanding of these beliefs and seek outside help as necessary.
Spiritual Needs: what is to be understood?
Spiritual needs can be broadly categorised as the need for meaning
and purpose in life, the need for love and harmonious relationships
with humans, living entities and God, the need for forgiveness,
the need for a source of hope and strength, the need for trust,
the need for expression of personal beliefs and values, and the
need for spiritual practices, expression of an understanding of
God and/or a deity and creation.
Meaning in the context of spirituality can be defined as the reason
given to a particular life experience by the individual, bringing
about a sense of purpose from their life and illness. There is evidence
to suggest that patients struggle with finding a source of meaning
and purpose in their lives. It is also suggested that people with
a sense of meaning and purpose survive more readily in difficult
circumstances. The experience of suffering can bring about meaning
and purpose to our lives. It is interesting to note that there is
a distinction between the religious and the apparently non-religious
person in the way they approach spirituality. A non-religious person's
spiritual needs are more often focused around themselves and others.
The religious person experiences their spirituality more around
their relationship with a deity or God. However, those who have
strong religious convictions and sense of God, may still need encouragement
to adapt to unexpected changes when they are facing death.
It is important for carers to understand the fundamental
needs of individuals. The need for love and harmonious relationships
go hand in hand with a need for meaning and purpose. Unconditional
love is usually the
prime requirement for a person suffering from spiritual pain. The
symptoms of the need for unconditional love are self-pity, depression,
insecurity, isolation and fear. Unconditional love transforms these
symptoms into feelings of self-worth, joy, security, belonging,
hope and courage.
One of the most effective processes that can release a patient
from suffering is forgiveness, and carers can be part of this healing
process by gently encouraging this process in an individual. Nothing
clutters a life more than resentment, remorse and recrimination.
These three emotional responses to life are based on anger, guilt
and hostility. Untreated, these can manifest themselves in physical
illness. When held in the mind and in the heart, they occupy a fearsome
amount of space, colouring our perception of reality to an alarmingly
large degree. Forgiveness allows the individual to neutralise the
toxic emotional investment. The process of forgiveness requires
the individual to examine the reasons for their negative emotions
and to deal with them, thus freeing them from self-destructive emotions.
The consequences of not forgiving are high. The person who carries
anger and hate carries a toxic attitude of resentment into his or
her relationships with others and ultimately themselves.
I have only touched upon some of the fundamental needs of individuals,
and the ways in which carers can help those who are spiritually
distressed. Suffice to say that the spiritually distressed person
needs an environment that conveys this trust. Such an environment
is one that demonstrates that carers make themselves accessible
to others, both physically and emotionally. Trusting is the ability
to place confidence in the trustworthiness of others and this is
essential for spiritual health.
How is spiritual care administered?
Any interpretation of the word 'spiritual' can present confusion
when discussed outside the framework of religion or beyond one's
personal belief systems. Likewise, the concepts of spiritual care
become even more elusive when a non-dogmatic approach to spirituality
attempts to explain a dimension of health care that is provided
by a variety of professional disciplines and lay people. The terms
'religious care' and 'spiritual care' are frequently used synonymously.
Religious care can be spiritual care but spiritual care is not necessarily
religious care. Out of the five types of pain: physical, psychological,
social, emotional and spiritual, religious suffering comes under
the last category.
From my work with dying patients in a hospice environment,
I developed a typology of five religious preferences. It is interesting
that the majority of these classifications are devoid of religious
doctrine: atheism, metaphysics, personal religion, personal religion
combined with institutional religion, and institutional religion
alone. This separation
of doctrine from religion, but not from personal faith, may serve
as a first step in distinguishing religiosity from spiritual orientation.
How is spiritual care to be evaluated?
The patient, who experiences spiritual integrity and demonstrates
this integrity through reality-based tranquillity or peace, or through
the development of meaningful, purposeful behaviour, displays a
restored sense of spiritual integrity. The overall evaluation of
spiritual care should establish the degree to which spiritual pain
was relieved. The patient's communication and interaction may also
indicate spiritual growth through greater understanding of life
or an acceptance and creativity within a particular situation.
Spiritual care enables carers to provide more holistic care for patients,
as Cousins points out, ' Death and dying are not the ultimate tragedy
of life. The ultimate tragedy of life is depersonalisation, separated
from the spiritual nourishment . . .'
The ability to address spiritual issues is no longer a matter of
choice, but rather it is fundamental to providing holistic medical
care to the terminally ill.
What is the role of the interdisciplinary team?
As hospice care attempts to provide holistic care to persons
nearing the end of their life, there is a wide agreement that this
care ought to include a dimension that is best described as 'spiritual'.
Though few agree on the commonalties of the spiritual dimension,
many caregivers in my experience profess ability and a satisfaction
in providing such care.
The continued lack of clarity in understanding what is meant by
'spiritual care' however, prevents the development of meaningful
criteria upon which to base a measurement. Inevitably, attitudes
concerning the role of spiritual care rarely achieve conformity.
If it is the aim of a hospice to provide holistic care, its potential
to achieve this rests on the ability of caregivers to assist patients
and families in finding hope and reconciliation during the last
days of life. Carers need to be prepared for this role.
In delivering physical, psycho-social and spiritual
patient care, caregivers must recognise their strengths and limitations.
In Highfield and Cason's study of spiritual needs in cancer patients,
it was reported that the only problems that the respondents confidently
associated with a spiritual dimension were concerned with the meaning
of suffering, death or God. The nurses' inability to distinguish spiritual problems
from psycho-social ones led to inappropriate interventions that
implied that the needs of these patients were not met. This data
clearly demonstrates that carers must be trained to recognise the
various types of care a patient will need-when facing terminal illness
they cannot abdicate their responsibility to treat an individual's
spiritual needs to the chaplain, any more than they can abdicate
their responsibility for a patient's physical care to the physician.
These requirements for a hospice nurse are not unrealistic, various
studies have reported such as Amenta, (1984), Chariboga et al. (1983)
and Vincent and Peace (1986), that hospice nurses tend to posses
stronger beliefs in a life after death, and were frequently characterised
as being more assertive, imaginative and independent than nurses
working in more structured environments. 
What does this mean for ISKCON?
As ISKCON prepares to provide care for the terminally ill at
major places of pilgrimage, such as Mayapura and Vrndavana, it would
be useful for the Social Development Ministry, the Health and Welfare
Ministry and the Ministry for Education to consider the issues raised
in this article. An earlier attempt in 1995-6 to provide informal
'hospice care' for dying devotees in Vrndavan, India, accentuated
the need for such specialised care to form part of our social development
and health and welfare programmes. In the past devotees with a terminal
diagnosis have been brought to Vrindavana, under the impression
that they could comfortably prepare to spend their last days at
this place of pilgrimage. However, those who were offering this
care (with the best intentions) were unfortunately ill equipped
both medically, psychologically and spiritually to deal with the
many challenges a carer has to face when dealing with the inevitable
trauma of death.
We as a Society need to examine our attitude towards
the care that we need to provide the terminally ill in our midst.
Our scriptures teach us that spiritual pain is ultimately a symptom
of the individual's forgetfulness of, and subsequent separation
from, God. Therefore, the Bhagavad-Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam recommend
spiritual care as a process of devotional service to God, with chanting
His names as the primary practice.
We need to become more sensitive and better equipped to deal with
the need of terminally ill devotees and more realistic in our care
approach. A devotee who has come to a holy land to prepare for and
face death may have spent many years preparing for this event through
their spiritual practices, however, this does not necessarily mean
they will be able to face death without the necessary medical, emotional
and psychological support from suitably trained devotees. Experience
shows me that it is imperative that, unless devotees are trained
in palliative, terminal and hospice care, dying devotees are best
cared for by medical professionals outside of ISKCON. This care
can be provided in consultation and co-operation with the dying
devotee's loved ones. Suitably trained devotees can be active in
the capacity of pastoral support, together with friends and family.
To achieve these goals it would be prudent to introduce a training
programme in palliative and spiritual care. Such a programme has
the potential to empower devotees with the relevant qualifications
to mindfully administer, help and support those devotees in need
of spiritual care, living or dying. Until such an internal educational
programme is set up, it would be wise for those devotees who wish
to serve the Society by taking care of the dying, to take advantage
of the training opportunities outside of ISKCON.
ISKCON already has a wealth of devotees trained, qualified and
experienced in subjects directly and indirectly related to spiritual
care. It would be a very useful resource if the various Ministries
compile a database of devotees qualified and experienced in this
field to bring their resources together. It is recommended that
even these devotees broaden their existing knowledge base by gaining
further education in palliative and terminal care.
ISKCON has already taken some steps in the right direction. There
is a planned hospice and residential home in Vrndavana, India and
concrete progress has been made with the founding of Bhaktivedanta
Hospital in Mumbai, India. Holistic care, and this includes spiritual
care, is embraced in the hospital's mission statement: ' With love
and devotion we will offer everyone a modern, scientific, holistic
health care service, based on true awareness and understanding of
the needs of the body, mind and soul.' This project has confirmed
plans for its own palliative care unit being set-up in co-operation
with medical institutes in London, England and this is an encouraging
sign that we are beginning to respond to the need for systematic
and professional palliative and spiritual care in our Society.
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love is a love that is given freely, without expecting anything
in return. It is both unselfish and non-judgmental. Among Vaisnavas
and members of ISKCON the epitomy of love is that between the
Lord and His devotees.
H.T., The Hospice as an Extended Provider or Post-Modern
Spirituality, M.Phil. dissertation, University of Cape Town,
N., Anatomy of Illness, New York: Norton, 1979, pp. 78-82
J. M. & McCarthy, M., 'Dying From Cancer: Results of a National
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M. & Cason, C., 'Spiritual Needs of Patients: Are They Recognised?',
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Marie & O'Neill, Bill (eds.) ABC of Pallitive Care, London:
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the following references:
-Bhaktivedantat Swami, A. C., Srimad Bhagavatam, Los Angeles,
CA: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1994, 6.3.22;
-Bhaktivedanta Swami, A. C., Bhagavad-gita, Los Angeles, CA: Bhaktivedanta
Book Trust, 1994, 8.13