September 25 – October 15, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami
As I continued my travels throughout Russia, crisscrossing from city to city, I wrote to my astrologer friend, who had warned me not to set foot in the country at that time. I told him I had not experienced any life-threatening situations apart from the usual austerities in traveling. His reply came quickly:
“It is a six-week transit, from September 16 to November 1. The final weeks will be the most difficult. Let me remind you, it is not a time to be traveling, while Mars is in your eighth house.”
But what choice does a traveling preacher have? He cannot pick and choose auspicious times and places to preach. He must go where duty calls, following the order of guru and Gauranga. And if danger should befall him, it should serve to make him more renounced and determined to free himself from the cycle of birth and death. Most important, it should help him to become dependent on the Lord.
“It is the duty of a mendicant to experience all varieties of God’s creation by traveling alone through all forests, hills, towns, villages, etc., to gain faith in God and strength of mind as well as to enlighten the inhabitants with the message of God. A sannyasi is duty-bound to take all these risks without fear, and the most typical sannyasi of the present age is Lord Caitanya, who traveled in the same manner through the central Indian jungles, enlightening even the tigers, bears, snakes, deer, elephants and many other jungle animals.” [Srimad Bhagavatam 1.6.13 purport]
Nevertheless I wasn’t inclined to throw caution to the winds, so when I boarded a midnight flight from Yekaterinburg to Samara, I chanted a mantra from the Narayana Kavaca, which I sing daily in the worship of my Nrsimha Salagrama-Sila:
srivatsa-dhamapara-ratra isah pratyusa iso ‘si-dharo janardanah damodaro ‘vyad anusandhyam prabhate visvesvaro bhagavan kala-murtih
“May the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who bears the Srivatsa on His chest, protect me after midnight until the sky becomes pinkish. May Lord Janardana, who carries a sword in His hand, protect me at the end of night [during the last four ghatikas of night]. May Lord Damodara protect me in the early morning, and may Lord Visvesvara protect me during the junctions of day and night.” [Srimad Bhagavatam 6.8.22]
After we landed and picked up our luggage, I found that one of my bags had been broken into. Several things were missing, none of great importance. And the thieves had played a joke by leaving an empty cigarette pack inside. Jananivasa was alarmed at the theft, but I just laughed. It was the least of what could have happened to us, considering the bad astrological period I was in. “More than likely,” I told him, “the mantra minimized the effect of the stars.”
I had last visited Samara seven years ago, and I was pleased to find the temple in good condition and the devotees happy. It is to the credit of temple presidents in our movement that they are able to maintain their centers year after year. It takes a balance of sound management, good finances, purity, and preaching. Even if one cannot expand the preaching in a temple, Srila Prabhupada considered maintaining the status quo as creditable. “At least maintain what I have done,” he told the GBC before his departure.
My own service in visiting temples is to enliven the devotees, and during my short stay in Samara I tried my best by leading kirtans and giving classes. I also tried to meet and help as many devotees as possible. Often in my travels, devotees come to me with problems. While in transit, I cannot always resolve problems in a few minutes or hours, and sometimes all I can do is encourage devotees to maintain their faith by taking shelter in the holy names.
During a darshan in Samara, I spoke with a couple who had an unusual problem. The wife had been my initiated disciple for many years, Indradyumna Swami worshipping his Salagrama-Sila’s but her husband, although an aspiring disciple, had not yet taken initiation. After speaking with them for several minutes, I could tell he was a sincere person, so I asked why he not taken that important step.
“I cannot bear the thought of your having to accept my karma,” he said.
“Accepting karma is one of the duties of an initiating guru,” I replied. He became silent. Then his wife spoke up. “My husband feels he was particularly sinful before becoming a devotee,” she said.
“How is that?” I asked.
“I was in the Russian Mafia,” he said softly.
Yet he seemed such a gentle soul. No doubt the process of Krsna consciousness had purified him through the years.
“You carried a weapon?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “a sawed-off shotgun.”
“Did you ever use it?” I asked.
He looked down at the floor and said nothing.
I decided to change the conversation. “But how does a Mafia man become a devotee of the Lord?” I asked.
Jananivasa spoke up. “I know another one of your disciples who was in the Mafia, Srila Gurudeva. He told me that he and his friend became interested in Krsna consciousness when they learned that the God we worship was born in a jail, was an excellent fighter, and danced with other men’s wives.”
Everyone started to laugh, but I felt it my duty to clarify his statement so as not to dishonor the Lord. “Yes,” I said, “Krsna appeared in jail, but He was not forced to take birth like an ordinary man. He came out of His own sweet will. His fighting served to liberate even those He killed, and because Krsna creates all living entities, there’s no possibility that anything He enjoys could belong to another man.”
I again asked my prospective disciple, how he became a devotee. I knew that in the mafia a man is duty bound to a code of honor never to leave. One reason is that he may share confidential knowledge of the Mafia’s dealings with others. Death is usually the punishment for trying to escape from the Mafia.
He looked up slowly. “I didn’t leave the Mafia,” he said. “They left me.”
“They left you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “In time, every man in my group was either killed or arrested. I was the only one left. I was depressed, and I was going to take my own life when one day my brother dragged me to the local Hare Krsna temple and left me on the doorstep. The devotees took me in and were kind to me. Gradually I realized my good fortune in being there. Finally I surrendered and became a devotee myself.”
When the darsan ended they got up to leave. As they turned to go, the man’s wife prodded him. Finally he looked at me with a humble gesture. “Srila Gurudeva,” he said, “will you initiate me?”
I looked over at my Nsrimha-Salagram Sila on a throne nearby. I meditated on His transcendental form and considered my disciple’s request.
“Yes,” I replied softly.
durgesv atavy-aji-mukhadisu prabhuh payan nrsimho ‘sura-yuthaparih vimuncato yasya mahatta-hasam diso vinedur nyapatams ca garbhah
“May Lord Nrsimhadeva, who appeared as the enemy of Hiranyakasipu, protect me in all directions. His loud laughing vibrated in all directions and caused the pregnant wives of the asuras to have miscarriages. May that Lord be kind enough to protect me in difficult places like the forest and battlefront.” [Srimad Bhagavatam 6.8.14]
While checking in for our flight to St. Petersburg the next day, I noticed some commotion and shouting at one of the check-in counters. I asked Jananinvasa to see what was happening. When he returned he said he couldn’t get close enough to see, but he added that tension in airports across the country was high because two planes flying out of Moscow recently were blown up in midair by Chechen terrorists. Newspapers were calling the anxiety in the airports “flying hysteria.”
“Yesterday in Moscow passengers themselves physically threw three Chechen women off a flight before it took off,” Jananivasa said. “In another instance a pilot himself forcibly took two Chechen men off his plane even though they’d passed all the strict security checks.”
“That kind of thing would never happen in America,” I said. “There’s strict control at the airports, but the pilots and the passengers don’t take the law into their own hands.”
“This is not America,” Jananivasa said. “It’s Russia.”
A few days later, I was reminded of people taking the law into their own hands. I was meeting with a family of disciples, during a large festival for devotees in Divnomorsk, in southern Russia. They were from Vladikavkaz, a town a few kilometers from Beslan, where Chechen terrorists had recently held over 1,000 children and teachers hostage in a school for three days.
The terrorists and hostages were holed up in a gymnasium, and the terrorists hung explosives on the basketball hoops. On the third day, one of the bombs accidentally fell and exploded causing the ceiling of the gym to collapse. Many teachers and children were killed.
The official story was that when some children began to flee, Russian security forces stormed the building. According to my disciples, however, most of the security forces were elsewhere at the time and it was the townspeople, armed with guns, who stormed the school. In the ensuing crossfire many children and their parents were killed, including several friends of my disciples.
“Every second house in the region is affected,” a disciple said. “Even now, the wailing of those in grief can be heard throughout the many towns and villages in our region.”
They went on to describe the carnage and the suffering of their friends and neighbors afterwards. I could see it had deeply affected them, so at the opportune moment I quoted a few verses from Bhagavad-gita about the temporary nature of life. Then I spoke on the urgency for spreading Krsna consciousness. Because of our discussion and the graphic details of the siege, I was especially sober the rest of the day.
Coming within several hundred kilometers of the tragedy and meeting people who were directly touched by it had a deep effect on me. For several days afterwards, I found myself speaking more about the miseries of material existence than the joy of the spiritual world. During a question- and-answer session, a devotee raised her hand and asked if I could say something about the spiritual world.
“What’s the use?” I answered. “As long as we think we can be happy in this material world, we’ll never understand the pastimes of the spiritual world.” Then I proceeded to speak more about material existence.
But as the festival went on, my mood lightened up from the association with the devotees, the blissful kirtans, and the lighter moments. At an initiation ceremony the day before I left Divnomorsk, a woman in her Initiation ceremony in Divnomorsk 80s, whose daughter and grandchildren were my initiated disciples, was taking her vows before me. After she promised to follow the four regulative principles, I asked her how many rounds she would chant every day.
She looked to the sky. “I promise to chant 16 rounds,” she said and made the sign of the cross over her chest with her right hand.
I smiled. I could appreciate how a lifetime of piety had culminated in her initiation into the holy names.
Later that day I was speaking with a large group of devotees in my room. I turned to a family who came from a predominately Muslim area and had previously practiced Islam. “What are your spiritual names?” I asked.
“My name is Madira dasi,” said the mother.
“My name is Nimai das,” said the older boy.
“My name is Visnu Priya dasi,” said the older daughter.
“My name is Lalita dasi,” said the younger daughter.
Then the youngest child, a six-year-old boy, stood up. “My name is Mohammed,” he said proudly.
Everyone looked at his mother. She blushed and then smiled. “It’s his legal name,” she said. “His spiritual name is Vrindavan das.”
From Divnomorsk, I flew 19 hours to Vladivostok on the eastern coast of Russia. Despite the city’s remoteness from the rest of the country, I immediately noticed how, like much of Russia, it had made significant progress since my last visit three years ago. Except for a few Russian-made cars�Ladas�most people were driving foreign cars. There were plans to open major hypermarkets like Auchun, Leroy Merlin, and Ikea. And here, like everywhere else I had been in Russia, the young people wore the latest fashions.
Of course such changes bring the drawbacks of material progress as well. Devotees confirmed that in the past 10 years, crime, violence, and drug use had increased to alarming rates throughout the country.
I could not help smiling when I heard that the government had taken unusual steps to fight the degradation. For example, throughout the country no advertisement is allowed for beer or liquor on television from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.
And for the past three months, anyone caught swearing in the region of Belogorod, on the western side of Russia, faces a hefty fine of 500 to 1,500 rubles ($17 to $51 dollars ) or up to 15 days in jail. Parents of offenders under 16 can also be penalized.
A total of 2,490 people have already been fined, most of them under 30, since police began cracking down on obscenities during the last three months, and more than half a million rubles have been collected. The amount of the fine varies with the offense. It’s worse if you swear in front of children or the elderly or in a place with many people, although no one has sworn badly enough to go to jail … yet.
After spending three days with the 100 devotees and congregation members of the Vladivostok temple, I went to Krasnoyarsk, in far eastern Siberia, for the last stop on my one-month tour. Of all the places I would visit in Russia this time, Krasnoyarsk was the city I most looked forward to.
It had been almost three years since I had been there, and I wanted to see a Gypsy community where I had held a program during my last visit. I was curious about whether the people there had taken up Krsna consciousness. At the time, the local devotees doubted they ever would.
As we were collecting our luggage after the flight, I saw a group of devotees waiting for us outside. One man in particular caught my attention. He was dark skinned with black hair and a black mustache, and he wore a heavy, dark coat, typical of the Gypsies. I remembered him. It was Alexander, one of the more enthusiastic Gypsies at the program I had held.
As we left the terminal, he came forward and took my bag. We exchanged greetings, and he led us to his car. “I will be your driver while you are in Krasnoyarsk,” he said with a proud smile.
“Oh,” I said, “very nice.”
As we drove into the city I asked him about the other Gypsy men who had attended the program. He paused a moment. “Some are dead,” he answered, “and most of the rest are in prison.”
Jananivasa turned to me. “Drugs and criminal activity,” he said quietly.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
Alexander smiled. “But our leader is well and eager to meet you,” he said. “He still has the garland you gave him three years ago.”
“Oh that’s wonderful,” I said. “Please convey my greetings to him.”
“You can do that yourself tomorrow,” Alexander said.
“We’ve arranged another program for you at the gypsy village,” said my disciple Guru Vrata, the temple president in Krasnoyarsk. “Is that okay?”
“It’s more than okay,” I answered. “It’s exactly what I prayed for.”
But when I thought of the doubts expressed by the local devotees after the gypsy program last time, I wondered whether returning to their village would be worth the trouble. I turned to Alexander. “Alexander,” I said, “do you chant Hare Krsna?”
He gave me another big smile. “Sixteen rounds a day, Guru Maharaja,” he said.
The next day we drove through the hills surrounding Krasnoyarsk out to the Gypsy village. I could see that it wasn’t a normal Russian town. The dirt streets were full of holes and most of the houses were in need of repair. Children played here and there, but when they saw our car, they scurried into their homes and watched us with suspicion from behind glass windows. “Just like the last time I came here,” I thought.
The program was to be at the same home as the last time. As we got out of the car, I remembered the somber atmosphere inside�dimly lit rooms, thick dirty rugs, old paintings of Gypsy history, and the sound of Gypsy music coming from a tape recorder. I closed my eyes and chanted softly, mentally preparing myself to tolerate the darkness and ignorance.
But Lord Caitanya had a surprise waiting for me.
“Guru Maharaja,” said Alexander, “welcome to my home.”
“Oh?” I said. “This house is yours?”
Alexander opened the door, and immediately his family members and several other Gypsies broke into a melodious kirtan, accompanied with mrdangas and kartalas.
I looked around. The whole house had been transformed. The walls were newly papered in a gentle off-white color, the rugs had been removed, and the wooden floors had been sanded and varnished. The room was well lit with bright chandeliers, and there were beautiful paintings of Krsna’s pastimes on the walls. I felt as if I were entering Vaikuntha.
The crowd of enthusiastic Gypsy devotees escorted me upstairs to a room that had a beautiful altar with a framed picture of Panca Tattva. As we entered the room everyone dived enthusiastically to floor and offered obeisances.
“What amazing devotion!” I thought, and I bowed down slowly, all the while watching the scene unfold before me. They led me to a big chair, sat me down, and garlanded me. Then they brought the kirtan to a close.
In the excitement I hadn’t noticed a group of 10 or 12 older Gypsy men, obviously village elders, seated around the room, looking at me suspiciously. When two of them smiled slightly, I remembered them from my last visit. The others however were yet to be convinced that I had come to their village for a good reason.
Alexander spoke. “We’re very honored to have Guru Maharaja come to our home,” he said. “Although he is busy traveling all over the world, he has kindly agreed to visit our village again.”
“Yes!” shouted one of the elders, “And you invited him! You’re the black sheep among us!”
The atmosphere was tense. Then another elder spoke up. “Is your message more appreciated in some places than in others?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure whether his question was sarcastic or not, but I answered him anyway. “Generally,” I said, “I find our message is more appreciated where people are in difficulty. In such conditions they are under no illusion about the temporary miserable nature of the world and they are eager to hear about God.”
A one-armed man in a black jacket spoke up. “Are you accepted everywhere you go?” he asked.
“Not always,” I answered. “People are often afraid of what they don’t know. Just you like you Gypsy people. You are often misunderstood as well.”
That broke the ice. They all nodded in agreement. Now we had something in common.
“How do you deal with that misunderstanding?” asked another man in a more respectful tone.
“We’re not shy about letting people know who we are,” I said. “We’re happy to share our singing, dancing, and food.”
A man with a doubtful expression spoke up. “Would you be willing to watch our singing and dancing?” he asked. “Or is this just a Hare Krsna program?”
All eyes were on me.
“I am a guest in your village,” I said. “I’d be honored to see your culture.”
Suddenly there was a shout. “Vyacheslav is here!” someone called out, and the leader of the Gypsies walked in. Everyone immediately stood up out of respect. His status as a leader was made even more apparent by his large stature and prominent dark mustache. The atmosphere became tense again, and no one seemed to know exactly what to do.
I smiled and approached Vyacheslav with open arms. He also smiled and opened his arms. We hugged each other tightly for a long time.
Then we stood facing each other, hand in hand. “I still have the garland you gave me three years ago,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I know. Your people told me.”
“It shines with the warmth of your last visit,” he said.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw surprised looks on the faces of the newly come elders.
“Come,” he said, “be seated.”
“No,” I said, “you first.” I took him by his hand and sat him respectfully in a seat near mine.
“People don’t always show us such respect,” said one of the elders.
“That’s because you are thieves,” said Vyacheslav with a loud laugh.
Everyone burst out laughing.
“Krishna was also a thief,” I said.
The elders raised their eyebrows.
“But your stealing brings grief to others. Krsna’s stealing butter brings happiness to His devotees, who like to see his childish pranks.”
Again there was laughter.
“Personally,” I said, “I prefer to appreciate your good qualities rather than dwell on the bad.”
Now the ice had completely melted.
“You see good qualities in us?” someone asked.
“Yes, of course,” I said. “For example you have invited me back to your village and received me well. And like everyone in the world, in your heart of hearts, you are all devotees of God. You’ve just gone astray, that’s all.”
No one disagreed.
“Then we’ll show you our Gypsy culture,” a man said.
“Yes,” I said, “I want to see it.”
Several of the men shouted for a boy to come forward. The boy seemed to jump out of nowhere into the center of the room and began doing a Gypsy dance. He was talented, and he had everyone’s attention, including mine.
When he finished, the men told him to sing, and he began. It seemed to me that I had never heard such a sweet and lovely voice in my whole life. When he finished, I asked him to sing again. The elders looked pleased at my request, and one of them gave me a thumbs-up.
After the second song, the boy sat down near the elders, and they all patted him on the back.
Suddenly, another boy, a little younger, turned to the first boy and spoke up.
“You sing beautifully,” he said, “but if you were to sing Hare Krsna, it would be perfect.”
You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone sat there, amazed.
Then the second boy closed his eyes and began singing Hare Krsna, also with a beautiful voice. His singing filled the entire room, and everyone seemed touched, even the elders.
When he finished, he opened his eyes and looked at the first boy.
“You see?” he said. “Now you chant.”
The first boy hesitated.
“Chant!” said the younger one. “Follow me!”
The younger one began singing Hare Krsna again, and soon the boy with the golden voice began singing with him.
The elders smiled at their duet.
Then the first boy turned to me. “Will you please give me a spiritual name?” he said.
I looked at the elders. They nodded in approval.
I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I said, “you can be called Gandharva das, the angel with the honey-coated voice.”
Then I took my harmonium and began chanting Hare Krsna. Several devotees picked up instruments and accompanied me, and within a few moments the elders began clapping. A few of them chanted along.
Vyacheslav sat there with a big smile on his face.
After bringing the kirtan to a close, I invited everyone to take prasadam. “How shall we sit?” I asked our host.
“We shall all sit together in a circle,” said Alexander. “That is our custom.”
“And ours too,” I said.
As the prasadam was being served, I told the devotees not to begin eating until Vyacheslav had taken his first bite. The elders looked at me and then nodded to each other in appreciation.
And did those men eat! It seemed I had only just begun when they had already finished.
After discussing Krsna-conscious philosophy with them for over an hour, I got up to go. Everyone respectfully stood up. I went into the bathroom, and after washing up, I came back into the room. Vyacheslav, surrounded by the other elders, gave me a big hug. Then he grabbed my shoulders. “We are brothers,” he said.
“Blood brothers,” I said.
He smiled. “Yes,” he said, “blood brothers.”
Then he reached into his pocket, took out a large wad of money, and slapped into my hand.
Indradyumna Swami’s Blood brothers “Thank you for what you have done for us,” he said.
Then he turned to Alexander, the black sheep, and took both of Alexander’s hands in his own, a Gypsy custom for showing one’s trust in another. “Thank you for inviting them,” he said.
Then Vyacheslav and the other elders escorted me outside to my car. Just as I was about to get in, Vyacheslav asked a devotee to take a photo of us all together. “To remember you,” he said to me.
I got into the car, and we drove away.
As I turned around in my seat for a last look at my Gypsy friends, I saw Vyacheslav and the elders standing respectfully, the palms of their hands joined together. I closed my eyes and silently prayed: “My dear Lord Caitanya, please be kind and give these fallen souls Your mercy.”
jive purnodaya yatah karunaya ha ha ravair prarthanam he he krsna krpa-nidhe
bhava maha davagni dagdhan janan trahi trahi mahaprabho sva krpaya bhaktim ni jam
dehy alam maivam gaura harih sada prakurute dinaka-nathah prabhuh
“Having extended His mercy to the living entities beyond what He had ever given before, Gaura Hari, the only Lord and refuge for the wretched, called out with a prayerful plea, ‘Hey Krsna! O ocean of Mercy! Protect! Please protect these people! O my master! They are burning in the great forest fire of birth and death. O ocean of mercy, kindly bestow Your service upon them.'”
[Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, verse 63]