November 2 – December 17, 2003
By Indradyumna Swami
As my flight circled over Sarajevo, Bosnia, waiting for permission to land, I saw that the first snow of winter had already fallen on the city. On our descent, I also caught a glimpse of the ancient mosque in the city center. During my last visit, seven years ago, Muslim soldiers attacked our Harinama procession there. The people of Sarajevo were shocked by this provocation on foreigners, only months after a prolonged war in the Balkans had ended, and they came by the thousands to our festival the next day to express their sympathy.
As the devotees drove me to an apartment, my mind was filled with vivid memories of how the city had looked seven years ago, with almost every building damaged by the war, so I was surprised to see that they had almost all been repaired. “International funding built the city back up quickly,” said Damodar Prema.
“Things look normal here now,” I said as we passed through the downtown area.
“Only on the surface,” said Damodar Prema.
“There are still thousands of international peacekeeper soldiers here. If they want to leave, a civil war would erupt immediately. The tension between the Muslims, Serbs and Croats in this area goes back centuries.”
“Remember the mosque you chanted by last time you were here?” he continued. “It’s right over there.” He pointed down a street.
I couldn’t look. I still see the mosque in my dreams. One doesn’t easily forget angry men stabbing devotees and beating them mercilessly on the ground.
“Maharaja,” said another devotee, “some devotees are asking if we’ll have Harinama while you’re here. We haven’t had one since the day you were attacked in 1996.”
I did not know what to say.
Damodhar Prema noticed my hesitation. “There is no law against it, Maharaja,” he said, “but there are two opinions among the devotees. Some say the time is right to chant on the streets again, and others caution that Sarajevo is seventy percent Muslim.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I’m not sure” he replied. “There’s an unspoken agreement among the different religions here that none of them will agitate the situation by openly proselytizing. But then again, Harinama is our means of spreading our faith, isn’t it, Maharaja?”
“Yes,” I replied, “but it might better to wait to wait for a more favorable time. There’s a saying: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
I became lost in thought. “Did I just give a realistic assessment of the situation?” I wondered. “Or was I speaking out of my own fear?”
The devotee community had grown significantly since my last visit. There were now 100 members, but they still did not have a temple. Despite the millions of dollars that have been spent on reconstruction in Sarajevo, unemployment is high and devotees have difficulty finding work. They meet regularly in each other’s apartments, but the sense of a devotee community is lacking because of not having a fixed center to congregate in.
I also discovered that their difficulties were not only in finding work and getting a temple, but in forgetting the war as well. It was an especially brutal war, with the city of Sarajevo under total siege for years. The Serbian army encircled the city and mercilessly shelled the streets each day without discrimination. People would stay inside their homes for months, fearing to walk outside even to find fresh water and food.
Later, a devotee came to see me for a personal darsan. “How are you doing in your spiritual life?” I asked.
“Maharaja,” he said, “I can’t get up early in the morning. I just wake up and go back to sleep.”
“That’s not good,” I replied in a stern voice. “You should be up before sunrise to chant your rounds.”
He looked down at the floor. “It’s because of the war, Maharaja,” he said. “I’m still traumatized by it all. It was so horrible.”
“Oh,” I said, softening my voice, “I’m sorry to hear that. Just be patient. You’ll get better sooner or later.”
“But will he?” I wondered. “I can’t even look down the street where my Harinam party was attacked, and this poor boy went through four years of war. Better I offer some practical spiritual advice.”
“Actually,” I said, “the holy names are the only real solution to our fears of material existence.” Then I quoted a verse:
apannah samsrtim ghoram
yan-nama vivaso grnan
tatah sadyo vimucyeta
vad bibheti svayam hayam
“Living beings who are entangled in the complicated meshes of birth and death can be freed immediately by even unconsciously chanting the holy name of Krsna, which is feared by fear personified.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.1.14)
He looked up at me, hoping for more advice, but I left it at that. I knew that if I wanted to be effective in my preaching, I too had to deepen my faith in the holy names, and deep faith comes after years of concentrated chanting and service.
A devotee girl came to see me. “I just want to forget the war and get on with my life,” she said. “If it weren’t for the happiness I find in Krsna consciousness, I couldn’t deal with the experiences I had in the war.”
She was young, so I was curious about how she had experienced the war as a child. I listened attentively, trying to grasp the ugliness of material life through her in order to deepen my own detachment from this world of birth and death.
drsta maya divi vibho khila dhisnya panam
ayuh sriyo vibhava icchati yan jano ayam
“My dear Lord, people in general want to be elevated to the higher planetary systems for a long duration of life, opulence and enjoyment, but I have seen all of these through the activities of my father… ” (Prahlada Maharaja, Srimad Bhagavatam 7.9.23)
“My family is Muslim,” the girl continued. “When I was seven years old, my next-door neighbor, who was Serbian, shot at me six times as I walked past his house. I remember the bullets whizzing past my head. I ran home and told my father, who was an officer in the Bosnian army. I don’t know if he tried to do anything, but several weeks later my father disappeared and was never seen again.
“A few weeks later, the Serbian army in the hills fired several rocket-propelled grenades onto the street where I was playing with my friends. The explosions tore a huge gash in my head. I went into a coma in the hospital when they operated on me without any anesthetic. There were so many casualties in Sarajevo every day that the doctors ran out of it.
“But the whole experience eventually brought me to Krsna consciousness. I will never leave this movement.”
I believed her, and I appreciated her conviction, which made my own even stronger.
“Although some of us begin as gurus for our disciples, it seems that these disciples are sometimes more fortunate than we are… Actually many of them are elevated personalities.” (Tamal Krishna Goswami, from Vraja Lila)
My appreciation for the power of Krsna consciousness increased even more when I asked another disciple how she became a devotee.
“When my son joined the movement, my husband and I were very upset,” she said. “We tried everything we could to dissuade him from becoming a devotee. Months later, when he was drafted into the army to fight in the war, we thought it was the best thing that could happen to him, but when he was killed on the battlefront two weeks later, we were devastated. We didn’t know whom to turn to. We found his Bhagavad-gita in his room, and as we read it, it became our only shelter. As a result, we ourselves soon became devotees.”
I had been looking forward to a public program the devotees had organized to help people forget the war memories that haunted the city, but I was soon reminded of the dark past. As I was lecturing to the audience of 300, I spoke about death as one of the miseries of material existence. Suddenly 10 or 12 people in the audience got up and walked out.
I leaned toward my translator. “Why are they leaving so early?” I asked under my breath.
“It’s what you said about death,” she answered. “People still can’t deal with the fact that they lost so many loved ones in the war.”
Despite the constant reminders of the karma of Sarajevo, our devotional programs elevated us beyond the dualities of material existence. We held several events, including a nama yajna where we had kirtan with the devotees for many hours in a rented hall. Another was Bosnia’s first-ever Vedic wedding. I performed the ceremony for Damodar Prema and Manjari Rupa in a small hall near the center of the city.
At first I wasn’t sure how successful the program would be. We had advertised the historic event for 5 PM sharp, but when the time came, hardly any guests had arrived.
“Where are all the people?” I asked a devotee.
“It’s Ramadan,” he said, “the holy month of fasting for the Muslims. They only eat after sunset. At that time, the whole city slows down. Wait a few more minutes, and guests will start to arrive.”
By 6 PM all the guests had indeed arrived, and we had a particularly sweet vivaha-yajna.
When the devotees saw me off at the airport, they thanked me again and again for coming. As I waved my final goodbye from passport control, a boy called out to me. “Maharaja!” he shouted. “Maybe next time we can have a Harinam through the city!”
“Yes,” I said to myself, “the day will come when the time will be right and my faith in the holy name will have deepened.”
kah pareta nagari purandarah
ko bhaved atha tadiya kinkarah
krsna-nama jagad eka mangalam
kantha pitham urari karoti cet
“Lord Krsna’s holy name is the only auspiciousness in this world. If one keeps it in his throat, then what is Yamaraja, the king of the other world, to him? What are Yamaraja’s sevants to him? (Sri Anandacarya as quoted in Rupa Goswami’s Padyavali, verse 21)