January 12 – February 6, 2003
By Indradyumna Swami
Soon after my departure from the Persian Gulf, my curiosity as to how Krsna consciousness would spread in Islamic countries was answered when my godbrother, Bhakti Bringa Govinda Maharaja, invited me to Kazakhstan to participate in a five-day festival celebrating the end of the Christmas Marathon. After tolerating the heat of Arabia, I braced myself for the severe winter of Central Asia and boarded a Kazakhstan Airlines flight from Delhi to Almaty on January 14.
Central Asia lies on the ancient silk route to the Far East, the trade link between China and Europe for 400 years until the 15th century. The inhabitants are mainly farmers, living in river valleys and oases. A few still live a nomadic lifestyle, continually moving with their livestock across the virtually uninhabited tracts of land in search of fresh pastures. By the 1930s, all of the countries in Central Asia (apart from Afghanistan) had been assimilated into the former Soviet Union, where they remained until 1991 when, with Russia, they formed the Commonwealth of Independent States. Since then, Kazakhstanis have reestablished their languages and their Islamic faith, both of which were restricted under Soviet rule.
Two of the world’s great sandy deserts, Karakum and Kyzylkum, cover much of the western portion of Central Asia. To the south and south-east a belt of mountain ranges, the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, and Tien Shan, tower above the land. It is at the base of these rugged mountains in Kazakhstan that in 1997 Maharaja established his rural community, Sri Vrindavan Dhama. At that time there were only a handful of devotees in the region, but due to Maharaja’s powerful kirtans and sweet lectures the entire community, including congregation, now numbers more than 600 devotees.
His success was not without struggle, however, for the obvious reason that he has been preaching Krsna consciousness in a Muslim country. Just last year, the authorities confiscated the passports of all active devotees, threatening to jail the locals and deport the foreigners. Appealing to those sympathetic to our movement with connections in Almaty (the former capital, which remains host to all foreign embassies and Kazakhstani government agencies), Maharaja managed to get all the passports returned without complication. In the process, he developed a close relationship with the Indian Ambassador, who arranged for Maharaja to meet the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was visiting Kazakhstan. When Maharaja brought up the matter of restrictions experienced by our movement in Kazakhstan, Mr Vajpayee said to the ambassador, “That’s your department. Give them all the assistance they require.”
Mr Vajpayee’s help could not have come at a better moment, for recently Maharaja has embarked on a most ambitious project: the construction at his community of the first full-scale Vedic temple in a Muslim country. Styled after a beautiful temple on the banks of Manasa-ganga near Govardhan Hill in India, the 5000sqm-building will include surrounding gardens, a lake, a gosala, a gurukul and orchards. Maharaja expects the project to attract tourists from throughout Central Asia. The architectural design is complete and Maharaja already has a team of devotees raising funds. When I asked from where they were seeking donations, I almost fell off my chair when he replied, “Mostly here in Kazakhstan and other Muslim countries.”
“You’re funding a Vedic temple in an Islamic country from Islamic donations,” I said in disbelief.
Maharaja calmly replied, “Yes, we even have plans to approach the wealthy sheikhs in the Persian Gulf. Why shouldn’t they appreciate a project like this? It’s culture of the highest order.”
I was impressed with his determination.
The celebrations at Sri Vrindavan Dhama consisted mainly of long kirtans. Typical of festivals in Maharaja’s zone, we had one day entirely devoted to kirtan – a Holy Name Day – when we literally chanted all day long, from 7am to midnight. On another evening a group of distinguished visitors attended the festivities. I was not informed beforehand who was coming, thus when the Indian Ambassador, a prominent local mullah (Muslim cleric), the Kazakhstan Minister of Religious Affairs, and representatives from various religious organizations were announced I was quite surprised. The guests all gave short speeches pledging to support the new temple. As they spoke, I sat mesmerized. By taking up the risks and challenges to preach Krsna consciousness in a Muslim country, Maharaja was getting unlimited mercy from Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu:
“The members of this [ISKCON] Society must always remember that if they stick to the regulative principles and preach sincerely according to the instructions of the acarayas, surely they will have the profound blessings of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and their preaching work will be successful everywhere throughout the world.”
[Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila, 7.171, purport]
The mercy continued to flow the next day when Maharaja received a call from the secretary of the wife of the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. She wanted to meet Maharaja about a project on which Mrs Nazarbayev was working – a meditation course to be made available in all high schools. The secretary requested Maharaja to write a syllabus for the course, leaving everything to his discretion. I thought, “Now the glories of the holy name will surely flood the land.” To me, such an opportunity was simply another sign of Maharaja’s love for (and ability to inspire others in) the chanting of the maha-mantra.
The time spent with Maharaja and the Kazakhstani devotees passed quickly and soon I was on my way back to Delhi. These days when my closest godbrothers are scattered throughout the world establishing Krsna consciousness, I rarely get their association. The need for spreading the movement to every town and village has forced us to go our separate ways. While traveling to the airport, I thought of Maharaja and hankered for his association again soon. I long for the day that we can associate closely in service to our spiritual master – if not in this life, then in the next.
ramacandra kabiraja sei sange mora kaja
tanra sanga binu saba sunya
jadi haya janma punah tanra sanga haya jena
tabe haya narottama dhanya
“I desire the association of Ramacandra Kaviraja. Without his company the entire world is like a desert. If I must take birth again, I would feel myself most fortunate to have his association.”
[Narottam das Thakur: Prema Bhakti Candrika, Chapter 9, Verse 18]
The return flight was courtesy of an old Russian plane, as unclean as usual and with a cabin crew of grumpy air hostesses. It was the beginning of several awkward experiences before I would arrive in Vrindavan. Unfortunately, I found myself seated next to a large Kazakhstan lady and her three unruly children. From the moment I sat down the children were fighting. Just before we took off, the lady asked if I would consider moving to another seat, giving her children more room. As unhappy as I was with the children’s behaviour, I replied that I preferred staying in my window seat. She then stood up and scanned the cabin. As she sat down again she announced that there was one seat available at the back of the plane. I hesitated, but as if on cue all three children started screaming, and I lost interest in my window seat. Getting up slowly, I moved to the back of the plane.
The flight was full of Indian labourers returning home from Kazakhstan. Some appeared to have been drinking. When I arrived at the empty seat I was discouraged to find it was between the aisle and the window. After putting my bag in the overhead rack, I was preparing to sit down when the man in the aisle seat screamed, “What are you doing? You can’t sit here! Sit somewhere else!”
I replied, “Sir, I’ve given my seat to some children. This is the only seat left.”
“There’s no way you can sit here,” he barked. “If you want another seat you’ll have to sit on the floor!”
Although a few of his friends laughed, most people in the section became quiet. The Indian workers especially were shocked by his behavior. When the air hostess walked by I appealed to her, “Madam, can you tell this man to let me pass so I can sit here,” but to my surprise she ignored me and walked away.
I managed to force my way past the man and land in the middle seat just as the plane began taxiing down the runway. At this point there was nothing he could do to stop me. Both he and the man in the window seat grumbled and moved in their seats in such a way as to enhance my discomfort. Rather than confront them again I decided to try the humble approach, and started chanting softly on my japa beads. This only infuriated them more, and the man in the aisle seat shouted, “Shut up!”
But I didn’t shut up, having no other shelter than the holy names.
An hour into the flight, the air hostesses started serving meals, and when I refused the man in the window seat said loudly, “So, you don’t eat meat then!”
I was about to change my strategy and take a heavy approach, when a nicely dressed man showed up in the aisle. He had been sitting in business class as I entered the plane and had nodded his head as I passed. I had responded by smiling and saying, “Hare Krsna.” He had heard the commotion about the meal at the front of the plane, and was now at the back to see if he could help. With a raised voice he said, “Leave this man alone! Can’t you see that he’s a sannyasi? Have you no shame?”
The man in the aisle seat was about to reply, when the man in the aisle said, “I’ll say it once more. The gentleman sitting next to you is a sannyasi. If you persist I will notify the pilot!”
This prevented the belligerent man from further abuse. I thanked the gentleman in the aisle, and as things quieted down I started chanting japa again. I chanted loudly for well over an hour and finally dozed off. When I awoke 30 minutes later, the man in the aisle seat turned to me and said, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I shouldn’t have treated you in that way. You’re a sannyasi. Please forgive me.”
The man next to the window then said, “Me too. We acted improperly. Our anger got the best of us.”
I was amazed. I could only assume that the unexpected chastisement they received had changed their hearts. Srila Prabhupada once said of his fellow countrymen that whoever they appear to be, just under the surface they are Krsna consciousness, and if one knows the right method that Krsna consciousness can be made manifest.
Seeing their change of heart, I immediately said, “Please don’t worry. It’s OK.”
The man in the window seat got up and said, “Take my seat.” When I hesitated, he said, “Please you must.”
The man in the aisle seat then got up and left, returning five minutes later with some bread and jam. “Here, take this,” he said. “You have to eat something.” I wasn’t hungry, but took the bread and jam from him out of gratitude.
When the flight landed, the pair were the first to jump up and retrieve my luggage, clearing an area so I could get out of my seat and into the aisle without difficulty. At the baggage claim they collected my luggage and carried it through customs and immigration for me.
As we were leaving the arrival hall, I wanted to reserve a taxi for Vrindavan from the official taxi offices, but my new-found friends said, “Don’t worry, we’ll arrange a cheaper taxi for you outside.” By this time it was after 11pm and becoming foggy. Under the circumstances I considered staying in Delhi and not risk taking a taxi to Vrindavan. However, my traveling companions encouraged me to get a taxi and continue on my way. I have no doubt that they were sincere in their attempts to help me, but as an experienced traveler in India I should have known not to take a non-registered taxi from the airport so late at night. Walking in the cold night air to the far end of a parking lot, we found an old taxi parked in the shadows near some dim street lights. One of the men inquired about the fare, which turned out to be 1000 rupees (compared with 1500 rupees normally). Opening the door for me and throwing my bags in the trunk, they apologized once again for their behavior on the plane and waved goodbye.
From the beginning I was suspicious. The driver had a scarf wrapped around his mouth and nose preventing me from getting a good look at him, and he didn’t speak much English. After reminding him of my destination, I fell asleep in the back seat. Almost one hour later I woke up and was surprised to see that we were still in Delhi and driving down a dirt road in what appeared to be a poor part of town, even by Delhi standards. The houses were nothing more than shacks. I sat up and said, “Where are you taking me?”
The driver replied in broken English, “My brother come with us.”
Because it’s not uncommon for taxi drivers in India to take another person with them on a long journey, especially at night, I relaxed a little. However, I was becoming increasingly wary of the surroundings. After another few minutes he stopped the car and got out, saying he was going to get his brother. As I waited, the fog became thicker so that I couldn’t even see the shacks three meters away. When another 40 minutes had gone by I’d finally had enough and got out of the car. When I noticed the vehicle’s license plates were different in the front and back I became apprehensive. I thought, “Could this be a setup for a robbery?” When the dim street lights suddenly went out 10 seconds later I decided not to wait around for an answer. Reaching into the taxi I grabbed my bag and started walking quickly in the direction from which we had come. When I heard men shouting behind me I broke into a run, and after 10 minutes I reached a well-lit major road where I flagged down a taxi. As I got in the driver said, “What in the world are you doing here?”
I was wondering the same thing.
Driving slowly through the thick fog we arrived at an hotel back near the airport well after 1am. When the man at the reception told me the price of a room was equivalent to $180 I hesitated, but then relented, wanting to bring that day’s difficult and arduous journey to an end. While taking the elevator to the third floor, I scolded myself for the stupidity which had put me into a potentially dangerous situation. I also reflected on finding a traveling companion. Of course, a sannyasi is meant to travel alone and learn to depend on God’s mercy, but he shouldn’t throw caution to the wind. As I settled into bed I considered Chanakya Pandit’s sober advice:
ekakina tapo dvabhyam pathanam gayanam tribhih
caturbhir gamanam ksetram pancabhir bahubhi ranah
“Religious austerities should be practiced alone, study by two, and singing by three. A journey should be undertaken by four, agriculture by five, and war by many together.”
[Niti Sastra, Chapter 4, Verse 12]