September 12-24, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami
This year’s summer tour was especially successful, with over 300,000 people all together visiting our programs, including the Woodstock festival. It was a sad moment indeed when the tour came to an end and most of the devotees packed up and headed home to return to school or work.
Even sadder, we had to cancel our autumn tour because of a lack of funds, so I decided to go to Russia for a month and visit a number of temples, some of which I had not been to in years.
I knew that the situation in Russia was tense. There had been a recent spate of gruesome terrorist bombings, and Chechen rebels had killed a number of people in a school in Beslan, in the south of the country.
Devotees in Russia also warned me that the Russian Orthodox Church was bitterly contesting a recent grant to us by the mayor of Moscow: a choice piece of property near the center of the city, where devotees planned to build a big temple. The church had used all the facilities at their disposal to attack our movement with several huge media campaigns, which had split the general population, some in favor of us, some against us.
Besides that, recent government policies had brought on a sweeping resurgence of nationalism, so some devotees felt it might not be the best time for a lone American to be touring the country.
Nevertheless, I decided in favor of going, if only because I would not have another chance to see my disciples in Russia for the rest of the year.
The day after I purchased a cheap, non-refundable ticket, a well- wishing friend sent me a warning:
“Since you now have Moon in Kumbha you should know that the next six weeks are not going to be very smooth. Guru has already moved into the 8th Virgo, and Moon is also there. While Moon is in Virgo, both Sun and Mars will also move into Virgo�the 8th from your Moon.
Depending on what planetary periods you are running the effects will be modified for the worse. If it is going well, then it will slow down, if it is neutral then it will be bad, but if it is already bad, then it will be hell. It could prove to be as bad as a serious illness, an accident, or an attack on you. This should not be taken lightly.”
I would never cancel a preaching venture simply because of inauspicious stars. Preaching itself makes everything auspicious. Nevertheless, it’s good to know when there’s a dangerous curve down the road. I decided I wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks.
Apparently my Russian disciples felt the same. When I arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, I found that they had arranged for a secretary and a bodyguard to travel with me. I accepted the precautions, but then I discovered that my bodyguard was carrying a loaded pistol.
I objected even though the pistol was legally registered. “Guns attract guns,” I told him. “Leave it behind. We have something much more powerful with us.” I showed him my Nrsimha Salagram.
Hatyam hanti yad anghri sanga tulasi steyam ca toyam pador naivedyam bahu
madya pana duritam gurv angina sanga jam srisadhina matih sthitir hari janais tat sanga
jam kilbisam salagrama sila nrsimha mahima ko ‘py esa lokottarah
“A tulasi leaf offered to the lotus feet of the Nrsimha Salagrama Sila destroys the sin of murder. Water that has washed the lotus feet of the Nrsimha Salagrama Sila destroys the sin of theft. Foodstuff offered to the Nrsimha Salagrama Sila destroys the sin of drinking liquor. Sincere surrender to the Nrsimha Salagrama Sila destroys the sin of adultery with the wife of the spiritual master. Association with the devotees of the Nrsimha Salagrama Sila destroys the sin of offenses to the devotees. This is the extraordinary glory of the Nrsimha Salagrama Sila.” [Sri Agama, quoted in Sri Rupa Goswami’s Padyavali]
As I walked through the airport, I could sense that the terrorist attacks had changed Russia into a security-conscious country overnight, much like the United States after the attack on September 11, 2001. There were policemen and heavily armed men patrolling throughout the airport. People in general seemed nervous as they moved quickly to their destinations.
I noticed a number of posters on the walls with pictures of Chechen women known as black widows-suspected suicide bombers who might attack at any time.
We drove to an apartment where I would rest for a few hours before taking an evening flight to Yekaterinburg. On the way, I noticed other changes since my last visit. Russia had prospered materially. In fact, from the look of it, Moscow was on a level with Paris and London as far as fancy stores, nice cars, and well-dressed people go. It was a strong contrast to what I saw when I first came to Moscow in 1989.
“Yes, it’s true,” said Jananivasa das, my secretary, “and not only in Moscow. The economy of the whole country is slowly developing. One sign is that many people carry cell phones now. And among the young, CD players, computers, and video games are common. There is even a Russian version of MTV on television.”
“Because of the glare of technology, not as many young people are joining our movement as before,” he continued. “During communist times, everything was gray here, literally. Devotees stood out as they chanted on the streets in their colorful dhotis and saris. People noticed us, and young people saw Krsna consciousness as a positive alternative to the struggle for existence. That’s all changed. Now it’s mainly middle-aged people who join or become part of our congregation.”
Despite the progress, however, Russia still has a long way to go, as I saw on the flight to Yekaterinburg, 1,000 kilometers to the east. Our 20-year-old, TU 154 plane, the most commonly used plane in Russia, was just as cramped, uncomfortable, and dirty as any previous flight I’d taken in Russia, and the stewardesses just as grumpy and rude.
When we landed in Yekaterinburg, it was obvious that the modernization happening in Moscow had barely begun there. It seemed as if time had stood still as we drove on a road full of holes into the city, passing old cars and trucks and looking at the endless gray concrete apartment buildings.
“The higher-ups in the Russian Orthodox Church are especially powerful here,” said Jananivasa as we drove along, “and they are very much against our movement. They send their people to harass the book distributors, often stopping their sales, and whenever there is a Harinam party, their people walk in front and in back screaming that we are a cult and dangerous to Russian society.”
That evening we had a program in a rented hall. When I arrived, I was taken aback. “It’s an old building, converted into a disco,” Jananivasa said. “It’s all the devotees could get.”
I smiled. “Well at least there’s plenty of room for dancing,” I said.
I went in and looked at the concrete walls and the old wooden floor.
I stepped up onto the stage and sat on a cushion. When I looked around, I saw 400 beautiful devotees, their smiles an obvious contrast to the stony faces I had seen while traveling across the country. I started the program with a bhajan and then began to speak from Prahlad Maharaja’s teachings in the seventh canto of Srimad Bhagavatam.
As I developed the theme of the verse, punctuating the philosophical points with verses, analogies, and stories, we were all transported out of the concrete disco into the world of Vaikuntha. “How powerful is this transcendental sound of the Bhagavatam!” I thought. “It makes the grayness around us disappear, and floods this hall with light and joy.”
krsne sva dhamopagate
dharma jnanadibhih saha
kalau nasta drsam esa
“This Bhagavata Purana is as brilliant as the sun, and it has arisen just after the departure of Lord Krsna for His own abode, accompanied by religion, knowledge, etc. Persons who have lost their vision due to the dense darkness of ignorance in the age of Kali shall get light from this Purana.” [Srimad Bhagavatam 1.3.43]
I didn’t want to stop, and I kept speaking for over two hours. Finally, Jananivasa pointed to his watch. Our time was up, and we had to leave.
On the way out, one of my disciples, Ragalekha dasi, approached me. She is a woman in her late 40s, and I remembered her as a faithful disciple who always made it a point to come to my programs when I visited Russia. So when she asked me to visit her apartment to see her Govardhan Sila, I agreed.
The next day, I went there with Jananivasa. I had several other appointments that afternoon, so I was in a hurry. “We’ll have to make this quick,” I told Jananivasa. But I was soon to be reminded that a spiritual master must never be so busy that he cannot take the time to reciprocate with and acknowledge a disciple’s loving service.
Ragalekha’s apartment was just one room in an old building in the center of the city. As I walked in, I was struck by the spiritual atmosphere. There were few possessions�a chair, an old wooden bookshelf, an altar for her Deity�but the mood was rich with devotion. Her Govardhan- Sila, named Lala, was sitting on a little cushion, beautifully decorated with flowers and simple ornaments. A variety of sweets were on a plate before Him.
Ragalekha, dressed in an old sari, sat shyly in the corner. The whole situation reminded me of a small, bhajan kutir in Vrindavan.
“Do you live here alone?” I asked her.
“I’m a guest here,” she said looking downwards. “This is Lala’s home.”
“Oh I see,” I said.
“That’s a nice realization,” I thought. Then I looked anxiously at my watch. My next appointment was in 30 minutes.
“Well what do you do each day?” I asked.
“I distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books,” she said.
“Do you do anything else?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “That’s the instruction you gave me 13 years ago.”
I stopped looking at my watch. I could hardly believe my ears. “You’ve been distributing books for 13 years?” I asked.
Jananivasa spoke up. “Srila Gurudeva,” he said, “all the devotees in Yekaterinburg know that Ragalekha’s been going out eight hours a day, six days a week, for thirteen years, distributing books, except when she’s sick.”
Ragalekha was looking at Lala.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked her.
“She’s too shy and humble,” said Jananivasa.
I felt tears coming into my eyes. I sat there looking at her. “Thirteen years,” I thought, “every day on the streets of Yekaterinburg, distributing my spiritual master’s books. What austerities this woman must have endured!”
I suddenly thought of the previous day and how I had complained to Jananivasa about the inconvenience on the flight. I felt ashamed of myself. “She’s well known among the people in this city,” Jananivasa continued. “You can just imagine, so many years on the street, in the heat, the rain, the wind, and the snow. She’s out there when it’s 20 below zero.”
My tears started running down my face.
“And she doesn’t keep a ruble for herself,” he continued. “I’ve heard she keeps all the profit for you.”
Ragalekha reached under the altar, took out an old worn-out envelope, and shyly handed it to me. I opened it and saw US dollars inside. I handed it to Jananivasa.
Jananivasa took the money out of the envelope. His eyes started turning red and moist. “There’s 1,500 dollars here,” he said in a quivering voice. “It’s the equivalent of two years of wages for a working man in this country.”
I looked around at the chair and the simple bookshelf and into the small kitchen. Inside there was an old stove�and one pot.
“She only has that one sari she’s wearing,” Jananivasa said. “I’ve never seen her dressed in anything else.”
I handed the laksmi back to Ragalekha. “Here,” I said. “You use this money for buying a ticket to India this fall. I will be taking devotees on parikrama in Vrindavan for the month of Kartika. I want you to join us.”
Her body tensed up. “No, Srila Gurudeva!” she said and pushed the envelope back. “Please! The people who gave that money will get much more benefit if it’s used in your service than mine. Think of their welfare.”
I was speechless. “Who is this woman?” I thought. “Living so simply, serving the sankirtan mission of Lord Caitanya faithfully for so many years, desiring no fame or recognition, and showing such concern for the conditioned souls!”
I thought of something Tamal Krishna Goswami had once written:
“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.” [from Vraja Lila]
“Srila Gurudeva,” said Jananivasa, “this morning she admitted to me that she took a break from her book distribution for the first time since you gave her that instruction 13 years ago. For two weeks she repaired her apartment, hoping you would visit.
“She had also taken the advice of the security guards at the open market where she often distributes. For years, those big burly men used to throw her out of the market whenever they caught her distributing books. Finally they relented. They began to appreciate her determination and purity. Two weeks ago one of them said, ‘Please take a break. You’re here every single day. We’re afraid you’ll get worn down and influenced by the bad character of those around you. Please!’
“She took it that the Lord was speaking through them, and she took the time off. Gurudeva, we, your disciples, will arrange for her ticket to India. Don’t worry. Already devotees here in Yekaterinburg have arranged things so she doesn’t have to pay for the books she takes. They even pay the BBT for the books she distributes. When necessary they also help pay her rent, electricity, and water. She lives in another world. She just distributes books day in and day out and spends a little on the worship of her Govardhan Sila. She puts the rest of the money under the altar for you.
By now, the tears were pouring from my eyes.
Ragalekha came forward, with folded hands and tears in her own eyes. “Srila Gurudeva,” she said, “please bless me that I may distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books until the day I die and that I will always be a faithful follower of you and my Lala.”
She started to pay full dandavats on the floor. Since women don’t generally pay full dandavats, Jananivasa reached forward to stop her. I caught his hand.
“There’s no harm,” I said. “This woman is transcendental.”
As Jananivasa and I walked out of the apartment, Ragalekha was packing her book bag. I turned to Jananivasa. “It was worth it,” I said. “Meeting her was worth all the austerities, inconveniences, and dangers I’ll ever encounter in your country.” I thought about the words of Srila Prabhupada: “These news are giving me new life … In my horoscope just done, they have described although this is a critical period, if I pass through, I will live 100 years. Then I shall surely come to visit your farm … The project is very nice. When I hear this report my chest swells up, being so proud of my disciples’ achievements.”
[Srila Prabhupada commenting on Tulasi das’s service, quoted by Srila Prabhupada’s secretary, Tamal Krsna Goswami, in a letter to Ramesvara dasa, August 22, 1977]