February 12,2002–March 7,2002
By Indradyumna Swami
After nearly two months of rest and recuperation in Durban, I realized it was time to continue my preaching. I had already arranged a two-month tour of America, so I made a reservation on a flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta, Georgia for March 2.
Of the many things with which I need to concern myself before leaving the country, I was most interested in picking up a small piece of jewelry I had asked to have made for my Deities. On February 28, I tried to telephone Cookie, the sister of my aspiring disciple, Suren Vallabjee. The Vallabjee family has owned a jewelry store in the Durban suburb of Tongat for years, and Cookie was instrumental in ensuring that the piece I ordered would be ready on time. After repeatedly getting a busy signal, I decided to drive to the shop to see how the work was progressing. As I got into the car I asked the driver to head north to Tongat, calculating that we would arrive at the shop around 11:00 a.m.
But as we were driving out of the driveway, I received a call from Classic Eyes, an optometrist with whom I had placed an order for a new pair of glasses. I was surprised to learn that the glasses, including a prescription lens imported from London, were ready. “That’s odd,” I thought, “those glasses aren’t supposed to be ready until the day after tomorrow.”
I decided to pick up the glasses first. I told the driver to change direction and make for the optometrists in the south of Durban instead.
“But Maharaja, it makes more sense to go to Tongat first. If we do that, we’ll miss the traffic.”
I hesitated, then said, “Let’s pick up the glasses first. That way, if there’s something wrong with them there is still time to have them corrected.”
We arrived at Classic Eyes at 11:00 a.m. and spent the next fifteen minutes determining that the glasses were suitable and paying the bill. As we left the shop, ready to drive back through Durban to Tongat, my cell phone rang again. The news I received sent a chill up my spine: “Maharaja, this is Sukumarî dasî. A terrible thing has happened. There was an armed robbery at the Vallabjee’s jewelry shop fifteen minutes ago. Ten African men armed with AK–47s burst in and made everyone lie on the floor. When Suren’s twenty-eight-year-old nephew, Vishal, stumbled into the scene, one of the gunmen shot him dead. They stole all the cash in the safe and many items of jewelry. The family is in shock.”
“Phone them and tell them I’ll be there in an hour.” It was only as we were racing to Tongat that I realized that I had originally planned to be in the shop at 11:00 a.m., just as the holdup was taking place.
Vishal’s funeral was held on the morning I was to fly to America. He was a pious man, and he left behind his wife and two children. More than five thousand people attended, and I was asked to speak. I emphasized the temporary nature of material life and how we must all be prepared to die. Death often comes unexpectedly and it is never welcome. We must prepare ourselves by always remaining Krishna conscious. I spoke from the heart because I felt close to the family. I also spoke with a sense of urgency, realizing that had it not been for Krsna’s mercy, it could easily have been me who had been shot. I experienced a deepening conviction to take full advantage of all my opportunities to become Krishna conscious before my own departure.
“Friend, when you will die? Do you know? Do not even infants sometimes die unexpectedly? With clear intelligence, without attachment to the body and senses, and without stopping to think, run to Vrndavana.” (Vrndavana-mahimamrta, Sataka 1, text 78)
Two hours later I was on my way to Johannesburg airport. When I had checked in for my flight and cleared Immigration and Customs, I found myself relaxing in the departure lounge. It was a large area, with hundreds of passengers waiting for flights. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain on my right cheek. It stunned me. When I looked around I saw a trio of rough young men about twenty meters away. They were all laughing. The next moment, one of them put what looked like a small metallic ball into his mouth, placed a metal straw to his lips, and blew the object toward me. It came fast, and before I could move it hit me in the temple. I stood up immediately.
The young men motioned for me to come forward. Instead, I stepped back, picked up my bags, and moved to another part of the lounge. They followed me, unnoticed by the other passengers, and the young man blew another projectile at me. This time it missed. Not wanting to be detected, the young men pretended nothing had happened. No one else in the lounge was aware of what was going on. I was unsure of what to do. I wished I had another devotee with me. I have been traveling alone since Srî Prahlada and his wife moved to Mayapur last September. This isn’t the first time I had found myself in an awkward situation.
Suddenly two policemen appeared nearby, so I picked up my bags and walked toward them. As I approached, I looked over my shoulder for the young men, but they had disappeared. When the policemen asked me what I wanted, I told them that a group of young men had been harassing me. The officers said they would keep a lookout for them. As we were talking, my flight was called and I excused myself to board the plane.
As a result of the incident I was one of the last to board, and when I entered the cabin I saw that the section was full except for my seat. As I headed for my place and put my bags in the overhead compartment, I noticed all eyes upon me. At first I thought it must have been my cloth (which I had dyed a bright saffron the day before), but it was unusual that every single person in that section of the plane was studying me.
When I sat down, I looked around and noticed that everyone in my section was in their sixties or seventies. I sensed they were part of an organization. After we took off and people began to speak freely, I realized that they were all Americans. I thought, “Oh no, there’s going to be a real party spirit as we cross the Atlantic. I probably won’t get a moment’s rest!” It is difficult enough on long international flights to associate with materialistic people. They tend to drink alcohol, eat meat, and watch movies, absorbing their minds in sinful activities. It had already been a tough day. I wasn’t looking forward to being in the middle of a group of Americans celebrating the last day of their vacation. I longed for the association of devotees, with whom I could read and chant peacefully.
Soon the hostesses came around with drinks. I was surprised that no one in my section ordered anything alcoholic. One after another they ordered fruit juice. Never have I seen that! I also ordered a fruit juice, and as I did, the gentleman next to me smiled.
When the hostesses served the meal half an hour later, all the passengers in my section took a tray but did not begin eating. When everyone had their food in front of them, one of the men stood and said, “We will all say grace together.” With that, everyone offered a prayer thanking God for the food. Then they began to eat.
By now I realized I was in the midst of a group of devout Christians, and taking advantage of the beneficial association, I unpacked my prasadam, said a quick prayer, and began to eat along with everyone else. They may not have had shaved heads, but I was certainly happy to be in their company.
After we had eaten the cabin crew turned on the movie. Everyone in my section took out their Bibles and began reading privately. Taking my cue, I took out my pocket Bhagavad-gîta and, smiling, also began to read. My desire to hear and chant among devotees was coming true!
Eventually, I turned to the man next to me and asked what Christian denomination he was affiliated with. I didn’t catch the name of the group, but he said there were fifty members of his “faith” returning from missionary work in Africa. When I said I was thankful for their association, he smiled and asked if I was a Buddhist. I told him I was a Hare Krishna devotee and that I was also engaged in global missionary work. We spoke briefly about the need for God consciousness in the world, then drifted off to sleep.
Sastra states that there are two kinds of men, the divine and the demonic:
dvau bhūta-sargau loke ’smin
daiva āsura eva ca
viṣṇu-bhaktaḥ smṛto daiva
“There are two classes of men in this created world. One consists of the demonic and the other the godly. The devotees of Lord Viß∫u are the godly whereas those who are just the opposite are called demons.” (Padma Pura∫a)
After a brush with the demoniac and hankering for the association of the pious, I was thankful that Krishna had placed me in a pious situation for the twentyhour flight to Atlanta. It seemed an auspicious beginning to my tour of America. I pray it will give rise to more good association and opportunities to preach the Lord’s glories.