October 21, 1996
By Indradyumna Swami
After Srimad-Bhagavatam class, I asked to see a grhasta couple, disciples of H.H. Prabhavisnu Maharaja and H.H. Bhakti Vaibhava Maharaja. The mataji had recently given birth, but the baby died two minutes after being born. I had been told that although they accepted everything as the arrangement of the Lord, they were still struggling with the ordeal.
After they came in, they thanked me for taking the time to speak to them. I could appreciate how much personal attention devotees need, and I thought for a moment how I wished I had more time to spend on the personal lives of devotees. But my life, at least at this point, is so full of organizing festivals and visiting temples all over the world that I hardly have time for such attention.
I told the couple what Srila Prabhupada had said many years ago in Los Angeles when one of his disciples had also lost her baby just after birth. Srila Prabhupada told the mother that her baby was a devotee who simply needed a brief moment of purification in order to be qualified to go back home, back to Godhead.
In the afternoon, Vrajendra Kumara drove me to the Vladivostok apartment of my disciple Damodara dasa, who has been seriously ill for the past year with Parkinson’s Disease. The doctors say he doesn’t have long to live.
I spoke with Damodara for an hour, once again preparing a disciple for the final test:
“In some ways Damodara, you are fortunate. Your situation is very similar to that of Maharaja Pariksit, who was cursed to die within seven days. This means he knew he didn’t have long to live, so he became very serious about Krsna consciousness. Most of us are under the illusion that we have a long time to live. You should follow in the footsteps of Maharaja Pariksit. He asked the sages, ‘What is the duty of one who is about to die?’ Their reply was to hear, chant, and remember about the pastimes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
“Krsna has given you a little more time. Why? Because leaving the body can be a difficult task, and we need to prepare ourselves. But for someone like you, who has suffered for so long, it shouldn’t be that difficult to relinquish the body. Srila Prabhupada wrote a posthumous letter to Jayananda dasa, that Krsna had taken away his diseased body and given him a body which was suitable for his desires to serve Him in the spiritual world. Most people are intoxicated with the false promise that their body can give them pleasure, but you should know for sure, because of your disease, that the body is simply an abode of suffering.
“Sometimes we take service for granted, but the next time you get active service it will be like pure nectar. You’ll think, ‘How fortunate I am to engage in active service for Krsna.’ When something important is taken away from us and is given back to us again, we appreciate it a million times more. When you get the opportunity to perform active service again, you’ll be very, very appreciative.
“Death serves the devotee’s interest to come closer to Krsna. Thus there’s absolutely nothing to fear at death for a devotee. Especially for you. What do you have to lose by giving up this diseased body? If someone loses his body in the prime of his youth, when he’s healthy and strong, he may try to hold on. He’s afraid: ‘I don’t want to lose this situation.’
“But Krsna is teaching you to be renounced before death. People may look at you and lament, but you can smile and say, ‘Better lament for that person who is in a healthy and sound condition and is still thinking that he’ll find some happiness in this world.’
“Absorb yourself in Krsna’s pastimes, His dealings with His devotees, His loving exchanges with them, His form, His dress, His ornaments, His lotus eyes. Krsna says, ‘One who knows the transcendental nature of My activities doesn’t take birth again.’ You don’t have to hear so much about the material world any more, because you’re at the last stage of life.
“Of course, you can hear something about the nature of this world, because there may be lingering attachments in your heart. But the main thing is to hear about Krsna. Krsna is so attractive that you can’t help but be enchanted by Him.
“Great devotees sometimes retire at the end of their lives for the purpose of immersing themselves in thoughts of Krsna. Even Srila Bhaktivinoda Thäkura gave up all his duties and responsibilities and went into samadhi for the last four years of his life, simply meditating on Krsna. His purpose was to give us an example of how important it is to prepare ourselves for the final test. In real life, whatever’s left of it, one should just be fully immersed in Krsna.
“This is your service now: to prepare for death. It’s also a service to the Vaisnava community in order to show them how to be fearless and inspired at the moment of death. Please remember these instructions and also share your realizations with other devotees. Our Krsna consciousness is often accelerated at the end of life. We’re forced to develop a true sense of renunciation and dependency on Krsna. It’s your duty to share those realizations with others. Keep a little journal or a little diary and help the devotees in general prepare for that inevitable moment we all must face.”
This evening, before taking rest, I downloaded my e-mail and found the following message from a devotee in St. Petersburg. He was responding to my preaching to the devotees in Moscow that devotees in Russia should, as far as possible, wear Vaisnava dress:
Dear Indradyumna Swami,
Please accept my respectful obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
I have heard that while staying in Moscow, you emphasized again the importance of wearing Vaisnava dress. I was told that you even said you won’t accept a disciple if he or she is not accustomed to wearing a dhoti or sari. I understand the importance of the dress. But still, I have my doubts if this should be so much obligatory, especially for Russian devotees. My arguments are as follows:
Some devotees in the former Soviet Union tend to be very fanatical. They take any Diary of a Traveling Preacher instruction as a rule without exclusions. When one wears a dhoti or a sari, it means that he or she is representing ISKCON. With the low spiritual and cultural standards of many Russian devotees, I do not trust them to represent ISKCON in public. Many devotees can’t represent ISKCON properly even in the temple. They don’t know how to preach to their parents and friends, what to speak of representing the movement in the streets.
The public opinion in Russia is still not very nice. And I don’t think that a bunch of strange-looking guys in saffron bedsheets will help improve the situation. The cases of devotees beaten by some drunkards and nationalistic youngsters (many of them even in the cultural capital of Russia, St. Petersburg) will increase.
Since some devotees are fanatical, and the weather here (especially in St. Petersburg) is quite cold, many will have colds very soon. Chronic diseases are guaranteed in the nearest future. Since some devotees already have troubles with their digestion, it is not really wanted to add colds to their poor health.
Maybe I don’t understand something. Please enlighten me.
I immediately sent the following reply: Dear Prabhu,
Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
Thank you for your email.
Yes, I did stress the importance of wearing Vaisnava attire to the devotees while I was in Moscow. I was shocked to see that a number of devotees were wearing dhoti and sari to the morning program and then putting on blue jeans the rest of the day for their temple services. I was also surprised that although many devotees gathered throughout the day on the temple property, it was rare to see anyone in Vedic dress. I was also amazed that, when I visited Radio Krsnaloka, none of the devotee staff were in Vaisnava dress, although the studio and offices belong entirely to ISKCON.
So I discussed my concern with Ekanätha Prabhu and then spoke to the general devotees, because I don’t feel that this should be the standard. I certainly didn’t say that I won’t accept a disciple who wears nondevotee attire. Nondevotee dress is appropriate for sankirtana [book distribution] and business. There may be other exceptions as well. For example, if devotees are in a sensitive area that is extremely nationalistic, like Armenia or Tajikistan. But in general, devotees should dress like devotees. It creates a nice spiritual atmosphere.
You say in your message that many devotees shouldn’t wear Vaisnava dress because of their low cultural and spiritual standards. Yes, there certainly may be some devotees whose standards are so low that they shouldn’t represent ISKCON by dressing in public in Vaisnava attire, but that shouldn’t be the general practice for most devotees. The unnecessary wearing of nondevotee dress itself encourages a mentality of low standards. For most devotees, wearing Vaisnava dress helps them to act in an exemplary way.
You say that public opinion toward devotees in Russia is not nice. I say you are dead wrong. I travel all over this country in a dhoti, and in general I find most people are respectful, many people interested, or at worst indifferent. No doubt there are the exceptional cases of demoniac people getting upset when they see us—, but that is the exception, not the rule as you seem to indicate.
Devotees like you, who preach your misconception about the public’s opinion of us, create an unnecessary paranoia among the devotees. Some people may take offense when they see us in devotee dress, but the general public doesn’t look upon us as “strange-looking guys in saffron bedsheets.” Maybe you don’t know this because you never wear a dhoti in public. Atmavan manyate jalgat. “A person tends to assess others according to his own mentality.”
I know a number of Russian devotees who even do sankirtana in devotee dress and rarely, if ever, have problems. One of them is my disciple, Uttama Sloka dasa. He’s done sankirtana for three years in a dhoti and has never been attacked. In fact, he carries on all his regional secretary affairs (meeting VIPs, contacting public officials, etc.) and has never once had a person even speak harshly to him. He says he finds people more receptive because he’s in devotee attire.
I don’t say that this has to always be the standard. I myself did sankirtana for eleven years. I know the necessity of wearing karmi clothes to facilitate book distribution. But my point to the devotees in Moscow was that many of them have gone too far.
I think your argument about the weather is ridiculous. Long underwear is much warmer than jeans, and can easily be worn under a dhoti or sari. I did harinama in the winter snows of Paris for six years in a dhoti, wearing long underwear.
I’d like to remind you that during Srila Prabhupada’s time, we didn’t wear nondevotee clothes, except for the obvious reasons I mentioned above. We didn’t put on jeans to leave the temple simply to buy a bottle of milk, as many devotees do these days. The American and European public didn’t know much about us at that time either, and some of them may have been hostile, but we didn’t change our dress because of that.
When Srila Prabhupada was here we always wore traditional Vedic dress. We were proud to wear the symbols of a Vaisnava. People thought of Krsna when they saw us. Now it’s almost as if devotees are embarrassed to be seen in traditional Vaisnava dress and tilaka, or paranoid to wear it, because devotees like you instill a false conception that the people in this country have a bad opinion of us. Many people don’t even know we exist, because they never see devotees in attractive Vaisnava attire any more.
You say that some Russian devotees “take an instruction as a rule without an exception.” But in my preaching on the benefits of wearing Vaisnava dress for oneself and the public, I made it very clear that there are obvious exceptions to this rule—again sankirtana, business, or areas where the public may actually be hostile to us. I feel my preaching in Moscow was well balanced, as opposed to your preaching, which I feel lowers the spiritual standards of the devotees and leaves room for more and more compromise.