May 16 – 23, 2005
By Indradyumna Swami
I took a flight from Warsaw to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, with Sri Prahlad das and Rukmini Priya dasi. We landed in the early afternoon on a warm spring day. As we walked outside from the international terminal to the domestic for our connecting flight, we saw many people lounging about casually on benches or sitting at small sidewalk cafes.
A number of elderly women in headscarves, typical of the older generation, were selling their wares of honey, fruit, vodka, and candy from small tables. Taxi drivers approached the crowd of passengers leaving the terminal, and big, burly men stood about in small groups, talking and smoking.
Although I visit Ukraine every year, the arrival is always somewhat of a culture shock, and it takes me a few hours to adjust. The scene was much the same as when I first visited here 15 years ago: old, poorly maintained gray buildings, rusted iron lampposts, potholes in the roads all from another era.
To be sure, there were superficial changes: fancy shops, nice cars, people wearing the latest Western fashions with cell phones in hand. And Ukraine had recently undergone a major change with its Orange revolution, when the people elected a liberal, democratic president who proposed joining the European Union. But it would take centuries to change the external look of the country, the result of 50 years under the old government.
As we boarded our fight to Dniepropetrovsk, I was again reminded of the old status quo. The plane was typical of those I’d been flying on for years in Ukraine: foul-smelling and messy, with a grimy carpet. There was little leg room, and the food table on the back of the seat in front of me had a broken hinge and rested permanently folded out in front me.
Worse yet, I had a seat in the middle of a row, with a heavy-set woman on one side and what appeared to be a foreign businessman with suit, tie, and briefcase on the other. I settled in and prepared myself for one hour of pure austerity.
But as is often the case, the lord took advantage of the situation to deepen my appreciation of his glories and to let me share them with others.
A half an hour into the flight, the gentleman on my side turned to me and began speaking with a British accent. “Are you part of a spiritual organization?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “I’m from the hare Krsna movement.” “I see,” he said. “I’m also on a spiritual search.”
I thought his comment a little odd, considering his clothes and briefcase.
My surprise must have shown in my face. “Don’t be fooled by my appearance,” he said. “I am retired and divorced, and I’m traveling looking for the deeper meaning of life.”
“In Ukraine?” I said. “It’s an unusual destination for a spiritual seeker.”
“I’ve traveled to over a hundred counties in the last thirty-five years,” he said. “Mostly for business, mind you, but always searching for what was missing in my life.”
I studied him closely. “What could be missing?” I said, trying to get the right question out of him. “Judging from your appearance, you look quite successful.”
“I’m a millionaire many times over,” he said without emotion, “but I’m not happy. Wealth came to me without much effort, but it’s never been my goal. ever since I was young, I’ve been searching for something more meaningful. It began when I was 17. I was a fan of the Beatles. In 1967, when I heard they had gone to India on a spiritual quest, I also felt a strong desire to go there.”
“How old are you?” I asked. “I’m 56,” he replied.
“So am I,” I said. “It seems that there are similarities in our lives. I was born in America, and like much of the youth in the 1960s, I rejected the status quo of the times, looking for a spiritual alternative.”
“Is that so?” he said. “My parents made sure I finished my education and then set me up in business. It was only then that I could fulfill my ambition to start traveling. I went to India and visited many holy places, but even there I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for.”
I decided it was time to offer some spiritual advice.
“You know,” I said, “the ancient scriptures of India say the most important thing about a holy place is the holy men who live there. By hearing from such enlightened souls, we can appreciate the true sanctity of the place. Because we are conditioned souls, our senses are covered by illusion. “
He thought for a moment. “That makes sense,” he said.
He then continued with his story. “Though I am busy with family affairs and work, my main objective in life has always been the spiritual. I made it a point to inquire about the spiritual tradition of any country my business took me to. I’ve been to more churches, temples, and mosques in my life than you can count.” He shook his head.
“What have you learned from all those visits?” I asked. he thought for a moment. “Not a lot, really,” he said.
A verse came to my mind from Prema Bhakti Candrika, by Srila Narottam das Thakur. I always travel with a copy, and I quickly pulled the book out of my shoulder bag and showed the man the verse:
tirtha jatra parisrama kevala manera bhrama
sarba siddhi govinda carana
drdha visvasa hrde dhari mada matsarjya parihari
sada kara ananya bhajana
Traveling to the holy places is a waste of energy and born from illusion, for the lotus feet of Sri govinda are the perfection of one’s life. Therefore, one should give up pride and envy and with firm determination in the heart, always worship the lord without deviation.
I added some explanation. “It doesn’t means we shouldn’t visit holy places,” I said, “but the objective is to find god there. Churches, temples, and mosques are houses of God.”
“houses of god?” he said. “Do you actually believe god is a person?”
I smiled. “There’s not much time to debate,” I said, “but if God is not a person, where has your own personality come from?”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“god means the Absolute Truth, that from which everything is coming,” I said.
“That sounds logical,” he said,
“Something cannot come from nothing,” I said. “Because you have personality, god must also be a person.”
I see what you’re getting at,” he said. “It makes sense … again.” he paused for a moment, then continued. “Where have you gotten all this knowledge?” he said. “have you traveled a lot also?” “yes, I have,” I said. “Perhaps not to a hundred countries like you; still, I’ve traveled far and wide, but my source of knowledge comes not as much from my travels as from what I’ve heard from my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada.”
I started to take down notes of the conversation. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m writing down our conversation,” I replied. “If I don’t, I’ll quickly forget it. I keep a diary.”
He looked a little puzzled. “Why is our conversation so important to you?” he asked.
“I’ll be sharing it with others,” I said with a smile. “I send my diary out regularly to receivers on the internet.”
“You must be well known then,” he said. “I suppose so,” I said.
“I’d like to be famous,” he said. “It’s the one thing I have never achieved in life.”
“No you wouldn’t,” I said.
He looked surprised. “I wouldn’t?” he said.
“Material opulence hasn’t brought you any lasting satisfaction,” I said, “and neither would fame. It’s a subtle material pleasure, but material all the same.”
“That’s true,” he said nodding his head. “Everything you say is true.”
“It’s because I have a spiritual teacher,” I said.
He started speaking excitedly. “After Ukraine, I’m going to Moldova,” he said, “then Romania, and then Bulgaria. This summer I plan to go to Africa, to the Congo. And then I hope to return to India in the autumn. I’ve heard India is very beautiful in that season.” “Time is running out,” I said. “you’ve only got another fifteen or twenty years left, at best.”
“What are you getting at?” he said.
“Both you and I have been traveling for thirty-five years,” I said, “but soon we’re going to die. Are you ready for death? In all your travels, have you learned what happens after death?”
“No I haven’t,” he answered, looking a little embarrassed. “That subject is just the beginning of spiritual knowledge,” I said. “Maybe you should change your approach to learning about spiritual life.”
Just then the stewardess announced over the sound system that the plane was about to land. The conversation was about to end.
“Where will I go after I die?” he said. his voice had an edge of desperation.
“That depends on your consciousness at the moment of death,” I said. “you could descend into the animal species, be reborn in the human form of life, or go back to the spiritual world.”
“You also learned that from your spiritual teacher?” he asked. “I didn’t learn it in a taxi,” I said. I couldn’t help smiling.
Our plane landed and started towards the airport terminal. he was quiet. After a few minutes he turned to me. “It’s a fact that our lives have been similar,” he said. “We were born in the same year, grew up in the same generation, listened to the same music, and traveled to many of the same places.”
He turned to look out the window, and I scribbled his words down on my notepad. “But what we have most in common,” he said, continuing to look outside, “is that we’re spiritual seekers.” he turned to me. “But the difference,” he said slowly, “is that you found what I was looking for.”
“The difference, my friend,” I said, “is that I found a spiritual teacher.”
His eyes opened wide as he suddenly realized what I had been stressing the whole time. “Yes, it’s clear now,” he said softly. “That’s what I’ve been missing: a spiritual teacher.”
The plane had come to a full stop, and the passengers were busy gathering their belongings and starting to move out.
“But it’s not too late,” I said.
I quickly wrote down my e-mail address and handed it to him. “here’s my e-mail address,” I said. “Write to me.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “I promise you,” I said, “I’ll share with you everything I have ever learned from him.”
He closed his eyes for a moment and nodded his head. “Thank you,” he said. “I think my search has finally ended.”
I smiled. “It’s more like a new beginning,” I said. “Only now, you’ll have Srila Prabhupada to show you the way.”
I thought of Srila Prabhupada’s introduction to Sri Isopanisad:
If you want to attain knowledge by any personal endeavor, by exercising your imperfect senses, you will never come to the right conclusion. That is not possible. There is a statement in Brahma-samhita: Just ride on the airplane which runs at the speed of mind. Our material airplanes can run two thousand miles per hour, but what is the speed of mind? you are sitting at home, you immediately think of India, say ten thousand miles away, and at once it is in your home. your mind has gone there. The mind-speed is so swift. Therefore it is stated, ‘If you travel at this speed for millions of years, you’ll find that the spiritual sky is unlimited.’ It is not possible even to approach it. Therefore, the Vedic injunction is that one must approach—the word ‘compulsory’ is used—a bona fide spiritual master, a guru.