Diary of a Traveling Preacher
I have decided to keep a diary again. Many disciples and friends have asked when I will be publishing another diary in book form, but for now I will simply send daily installments on e-mail. Perhaps at some stage they can be edited and compiled in a book.
If I get positive feedback from disciples and friends, it will encourage me to give the necessary input into this e-mail diary. My schedule is often so busy that I hardly have a minute to spare, but I know that disciples in particular are always eager to know where I am and what I am doing. I will send the installments daily on the ISM Disciples Conference on COM, a conference others can join if they desire.
Today I am traveling by train through the vast desert region of northern Kazakhstan in central Asia. I am alone in my compartment, and Sri Prahlad and his wife, Rukmini Priya, are in another. We are heading north to Russia. Our 34-hour ride will conclude in Barnaul, deep in the snows of Siberia, where we will have one-and-a-half days of programs with the local devotees. It will be the beginning of a four-week tour throughout Russia.
We left Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, yesterday. In Almaty we participated in the Vyasa-puja festival of my dear god-brother, Bhakti Bringa Govinda Maharaja. More than 200 devotees came from central Asia, Russia, and even Europe for the event.
When we arrived in Almaty we drove to Maharaja's developing farm project, Sri Vrindavan Dhama, 45 minutes outside of the city. Maharaja purchased the land three years ago. I was amazed at how much he has achieved in such a short time. Sri Vrindavan Dhama has a small but beautifully reconstructed house that serves as a temple, where the main Deity is a very large Govardhan sila. Also worshipped is a large Nrsimha salagram sila that I sent last year. He is probably the most terrifying Nrsimha salagram sila on earth, and Maharaja told me that since He arrived at the farm our movement has met with little resistance in Kazakhstan.
The property has a very large barn housing about 15 cows and bulls. It also serves as a base for small prasadam and candle-making businesses. There is a large area for cultivating fruits, vegetables and grains. I also noticed a large lake (renamed Radha-Kunda by the devotees), along the banks of which are many dachas, a type of cottage used as a retreat by Russians in the summer. Maharaja has purchased a number of dachas for housing his devotees.
Sri Vrindavan Dhama reminded me of New Vraja Dhama in Hungary. The Hungarian farm project manifested over 10 years by the strong desire of Sivarama Swami, and is already renown throughout Hungary. Obviously, Govinda Maharaja has started Sri Vrindavan Dhama in the same spirit, and no doubt it will eventually achieve the same fame within Kazakhstan. I know, however, how much blood, sweat and tears go into starting and developing such a community. Men and capital don't come easy in this world, but in Krsna consciousness we always have a special incentive: the mercy of Krsna. By His grace alone we can accomplish the great tasks that our spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, has requested of us. Govinda Maharaja has shown his worthiness as a disciple of His Divine Grace by developing New Vrindavan Dhama practically from dust-covered fields. Srila Prabhupada once said that a project is "only as good as the man who heads it up."
We observed Maharaja's 50th birthday anniversary in a medium-sized hall on the outskirts of Almaty. We focused mainly on lectures and kirtans. Some of the kirtans went for as long as three to four hours. The devotees also did two excellent dramas of Krsna lila. I have always noted that devotees from Russia and central Asia are talented in music, art and drama. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krsna says that He is the "ability in man," and surely the Lord's grace came through the beautiful dramas we saw at that festival. The dramas were taken from Rupa Goswami's play, Lalita Madhava. They were done so well that we all had the good fortune to experience what may have been genuine sentiments of affection for the Lord. I saw many devotees crying.
A snow storm was raging when we left our apartment in Almaty to go to the train station. We barely caught the train. The devotees had reserved us first-class compartments, although by western standards they would have been rated much less. However, they are comfortable and, most important, warm. Rumors have been circulating that in Siberia they are experiencing a record cold front of minus 47 degrees. A week ago I was in Sydney, Australia, where the temperatures were around 32 degree ABOVE zero. I find temperature variations one of the most difficult things about being a traveling preacher. Generally the body becomes accustomed to the heat of summer or the harshness of winter by gradually going through the temperature changes of spring and autumn. But preaching calls us to places according to need, and we have to accept the austerity of facing the heat or cold head on.
As our train proceeds through the barren, desert-like area of northern Kazakhstan, the scene outside remains the same hour after hour; an endless horizon of snow. The land is flat and the monotonous view is broken from time to time by small settlements of old wooden houses. I can't imagine how people live out here! I see them shuffling from house to house bundled up in old coats and fur hats. The fur hats are typical of Russia and the countries that used to be part of its empire. Full fur coats are also quite common.
Sometimes the train stops at a station and a few people, waiting patiently in the snow and freezing wind, climb aboard. At these stops a few brave souls get off the train to buy refreshments from the elderly ladies on the platform. They sell mainly meat and vodka - and what appears to be a flat bread. These ladies are the poorest of all, judging by their attire which often consists of only an old coat and rags around their bodies. Their faces are red from the cold. Because Kazakhstan borders western China, the Kazakhstanis all have black hair and slanted eyes.
As none of us speak Russian we can't ask anyone when we will cross the border into Russia. I want to be prepared, because past experience has shown that it can be an ordeal. The border guards in the outpost crossings can be very difficult. They sometimes like to intimidate foreigners. They demand to see all the things in our bags, and create an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. We can't communicate with the lady in charge of our coach, so I place myself on "red alert" and have my bags and identity papers ready at all times. I also sleep with all my clothes on so I won't be embarrassed by border guards bursting into my cabin in the dead of night and shouting at me in Russian.
There's not much more to report riding in a small compartment through northern Kazakhstan. We finally cross the Russian border 27 hours into the journey. By some quirk of fate the knock on my door was surprisingly soft, and when I opened it the border guard was a rather shy young woman in military fatigues. She silently took my passport and came back a half hour later with it stamped. She then looked briefly into the cabin, and left without a word. It was the easiest entry I've ever had into Russia.
We arrived in Barnaul at midnight in the midst of a huge blizzard. About 40 local devotees were having a rousing kirtan on the platform. My heart went out to them - it was 12 degrees below zero outside and the wind was raging! As I jumped off the train the cold hit me and I zipped my jacket up to the neck. When I tried to speak to a few devotees on the way to the car, my lips were so cold I couldn't say the words.
As we drove to a devotee's apartment, the Barnaul temple president, Visnu Tattva das, a disciple of Prabhavisnu Swami, told me that the morning program the next day was to begin at 7am. That meant only four hours of sleep! He had also scheduled a darsan with my disciples (who haven't seen me in three years) for the late morning, then Deity worship and japa, lunch, and a big evening program. Senior devotees rarely visit this isolated area, so devotees are really excited about the evening festival. They have invited many important people from Barnaul. Devotees from other regions of Siberia are also supposed to be coming, but Visnu Tattva says some may not make it because of the weather. The next day our train leaves for our next destination deeper into Siberia. I almost fainted when Visnu Tattva told me the journey will take 27 hours!