October 26, 1996
By Indradyumna Swami
We rose at midnight to catch the 4:00 a.m. flight to Baku, Azerbaijan. Russian flights often leave in the early morning hours. It’s another austerity to be accepted if one desires to preach in this country. On the way to the airport, I realized that we were into the first hours of Kartika, the auspicious month of Lord Damodara. I thought that many devotees must be on their way to Sri Vrndavana dhama in India at that moment. Devotional service to the Lord is magnified many times in the holy atmosphere of Vrndavana in the month of Kartika, and traditionally devotees go there to make spiritual progress.
Thus, it could be said that I was headed in the wrong direction: Azerbaijan. A Muslim country north of Iran could hardly be considered an auspicious place by any strict Vaisnava. Nevertheless, I was happy to be going there. I like to go to India when the opportunity arises, but even when I’m there I find myself praying to the Deities of Vrndavana—Madana-mohana, Govindaji, and Gopinatha—to please give me service in the sankirtana movement in the West. So this morning I somehow felt closer to Lord Damodara by going to Baku, rather than Vrndavana. I was serving Their Lordships’ desires.
Srila Prabhupada sent a letter to Kirtiräja dasa in 1976:
“If you can preach vigorously in Poland it will be a great asset. You may come to Vrndavana if you like, but preaching in Poland is my greater interest. So, now Vrndavana is somehow being managed. Now the most important work is that side in the communist countries. If you can do something there, it is more than if you come here. Our business is to glorify Krsna as the Lord of Vrndavana and to popularize Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s Hare Krsna Movement.
“I was a resident in Vrndavana, but at the age of seventy I tried to preach Krsna consciousness a little bit, and now this institution has come out. So, I think it is more profitable to preach about the master of Vrndavana, Krsna, outside of Vrndavana. A devotee of Krsna can create Vrndavana everywhere by preaching the glories of Krsna.”
Because Azerbaijan is at war with neighboring Armenia, at Ekaterinburg Airport we went through a grueling three-hour routine of three security checks. The atmosphere was tense as the crowd, ninety percent Azerbaijani men, submitted to the ordeal. I mentioned to Uttama Sloka how strange it seemed that there were no women.
He smiled. “In Muslim countries,” he said, “women don’t travel very much. They stay at home and take care of the children.”
Every one of the men checking in had tough-looking features. They were all burly, and each had a moustache and was dressed in a dirty black leather jacket and a typical fur hat. Altogether it made me a bit uneasy.
“Are they as mean as they look?” I asked Uttama Sloka.
“They’re mean because all of them have fought in the war with Armenia,” he said, “but they’re not as tough as the Chechens.”
While I was meditating on Uttama Sloka’s unusual reply to an unusual question from his Guru Maharaja, one of the men startled me when he approached me abruptly.
“Are you Hare Krsnas?” he asked.
Not knowing if he was friend or foe, I took the risk to extend my hand and answer. “Yes,” I said, “we’re devotees of Krsna.”
His steel-like grip around my hand indicated he was favorable, and we started talking. He admitted he knew nothing about us, but was eager to learn. All eyes were upon us as I asked Uttama Sloka to give him a Russian Bhagavad-gita. Within a moment the man had bought the book and then took it back for his friends to see. Thus, by the time we had finished with the security and were waiting to board, we had become a sensation. A large crowd of men gathered around us and in a respectful way began asking questions.
“Why are you coming to our country?” a man asked. “We are Muslims.”
“We’re coming to encourage the people in devotion to Allah,” I replied.
“But you’re not a Muslim,” he said.
“God is one and is called by many names: Allah, Jehovah, Buddha, Krsna. We want to encourage people in religious principles,” I said. “What do you think of our Azerbaijani soldiers?” he said.
“When I was a young man in the army,” I said, “my commander used to praise the courage of the Azerbaijani soldier.”
“We like you,” the man said. “You are our brother. May Allah bless you!”
When it came time to board, the men cleared a path for us so we could enter the plane first. They stepped aside to let me on.
“Salaam alekum! May God be with you!” they said, nodding their heads.
We arrived at Baku two hours later. The Azerbaijani customs officers were just as difficult as the Russian officers had been, questioning and searching everyone. As we stood nervously in line, a large man in front of me turned around and smiled. “You have nothing to worry about,” he said. “I will be your bodyguard.”
And our fears were for naught. When we came to the combined immigration and customs desk, the men in uniform were respectful. They asked about our faith and even our philosophy, and quickly processed us. As we entered the reception hall, we met a large crowd of Azerbaijanis, but this time they were dressed in dhotis and saris.
In many ways the devotees looked similar to their countrymen— the black hair, the dark eyes, and the Muslim jewelry—but their faces shone with enthusiasm and purity as they greeted us with the chanting of the holy names. They looked like angels to me. Seeing this contrast to the men I’d traveled with, one of my favorite verses came to mind:
kirata-hunandhra-pulinda-pulkasa abhira-sumbha yavanah khasädayah ye ‘nye ca papa yad-apasrayasrayah
sudhyanti tasmai prabhavisnave namah
“Kirata, Huna, Andhra, Pulinda, Pulkasa, Abhira, Sumbha, Yavana, members of the Khasa races and even others addicted to sinful acts can be purified by taking shelter of the devotees of the Lord, due to His being the supreme power. I beg to offer my respectful obeisances unto Him.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.4.18)
Every preacher has his favorite places, and the Baku temple is one of mine. I am always happy to be back in this Islamic country, where it is so fascinating to preach. It is usually extremely difficult to preach Krsna consciousness in the Arab world, but we are registered in Azerbaijan as a bona fide religion with limited rights to propagate our faith.
Certainly the limitations are restrictive: no public assemblies, no public programs, no harinama sankirtana, and no television or radio shows. And the government recently blocked a shipment of twenty- three tons of books sent by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. However, I was surprised when temple president, Ameya dasa, told me the government had recently put a ban on all foreign preachers in order to curtail their activities in Azerbaijan.
“Then how did I get in?” I asked.
“They don’t see us as a real threat yet,” he replied.
Through the years, the Baku temple has built up a sincere and devout following of more than a thousand devotees and members. From the rented house that serves as a temple, one can see the local mosque. The neighborhood is always bustling with devotee activity. The temple has an open courtyard, which often resounds with kirtana that can be heard for blocks, but no one complains. In fact, a number of the local people have become devotees. When I arrived at the temple, many neighbors were standing among the devotees, and some of them even greeted me with “Hare Krsna.”
I smiled back and in appreciation of their politeness in addressing me so, replied, “Allahu Akbar” (‘God is great’).
I also appreciate Azerbaijan because Islamic tradition has similarities to Vedic culture. For example, men and women don’t mix freely. Women are taught to be chaste and shy, and gambling and intoxication are discouraged, although not forbidden. There is also a strong sense of respect for one’s superiors within Islam. Young boys and girls are trained to be respectful to their elders, and they are.
This is an invaluable quality that devotees who join ISKCON in Azerbaijan bring with them. I find it most helpful in my relationship with my thirty disciples here. Their mood is always one of deep respect and veneration for their spiritual master. It is helpful in training them in Krsna consciousness.