Yamuna Devi, a pioneer and influential early Western convert to the Hare Krishna movement, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), passed away early on the morning of December 20th in Melbourne Beach, Florida.
From meeting the Beatles and recording soundtracks with George Harrison in London to travelling throughout India with Srila Prabhupada and leading kirtans in front of thousands, Yamuna Devi led an inspirational life. She also published a first-of-its-kind, authentic, vegetarian Indian cookbook, which won top international awards.
She had dedicated the last 45 years of her life to Krsna consciousness and was a beloved member and well-known figure of the Hare Krishna movement.
Born Joan Campanella, Yamuna Devi first encountered ISKCON in September of 1966 through her sister, and it was then that she met A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, or Srila Prabhupada. Later she and five other followers opened the first temple in San Francisco. She soon became one of the first Western adherents of India’s ancient Vaishnava, or devotional, culture and was given the name Yamuna Devi Dasi.
Yamuna Devi is credited with being one of the most influential and inspiring voices during ISKCON’s fledgling years. The movement now boasts over 400 international temples, farm communities, restaurants and eco-villages. During a time when immigration laws gave waves of South Asians the opportunity to come to the West and be assimilated within American culture, she embodied a unique voice that spoke of maintaining the values of India’s spiritual heritage.
Malati Devi Dasi, a Governing Body Commission member of ISKCON, comments, “Yamuna Devi was known for her deeply spiritual qualities and connection with Srila Prabhupada, her glorious offering of the Govindam prayers that are chanted daily in our temples, her love of kirtan, her ecstatic, award-winning cookbooks infused with spiritual anecdotes, and for greatly inspiring and encouraging the younger generation of ISKCON devotees in their faith.”
In August of 1968, Yamuna Devi, along with her husband, Guru Dasa, and four other disciples of Srila Prabhupada (including Malati) broke new ground as they brought the Hare Krishna culture to London. Still relative newcomers to the faith and tradition, they arrived in the United Kingdom with no financial or institutional support and only the hopes of introducing the worship of Lord Krishna to the British people. Despite their lack of resources, money and contacts, they achieved staggering success and eventually connected with the Beatles and struck up a strong relationship with George Harrison.
It was with Harrison in the iconic Apple Studios, famous for churning out many albums for the Beatles, that they recorded both the Hare Krishna mantra and the Govindam prayers, consisting of ancient Sanksrit verses of the Brahma-Samhita. Yamuna Devi, a natural musician, led the vocals for the Govindam recording, and the composition, produced and accompanied by Harrison himself, was released to the public and topped the European music charts along with the Hare Krishna chant. To this day, Yamuna Devi’s voice can be heard in every ISKCON temple during morning services when the Govindam bhajan is played.
Having travelled to India with Srila Prabhupada during the Hare Krishna movement’s formative years, Yamuna Devi imbibed the culture of Krishna consciousness into her heart. She served as the personal cook for Srila Prabhupada for eight years, which laid the foundation for what became her globally recognized culinary abilities.
She later wrote, “For two years, I was part of a group that accompanied Srila Prabhupada on extensive tours of the subcontinent that gave me the opportunity to learn from scores of famous temple brahamana cooks. In some cases, I was privileged to be the first Westerner allowed in previously restricted temple kitchens.”
She later published her own cookbook entitled, “Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking,” which garnered multiple awards, including the International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year.
Spending recent years in western Canada, where she dedicated her efforts to promoting vegetarianism and environmental sustainability, Yamuna Devi eventually relocated to a Krishna community in Florida.
In the coming days, Hare Krishna followers around the world plan to commemorate Yamuna Devi’s contributions to their movement and her expression of Vaishnava culture. As Yamuna Devi herself noted: “Looking back, when I first climbed the stairs to Prabhupada’s apartment, I could never have imagined the treasure of transcendental philosophy, music, art and cuisine that awaited me.”