Diary of a Traveling Preacher
Today when we awoke we returned to the hall for a last program before leaving Barnaul. Although we had all taken rest late that night and the program was early in the morning, 200 devotees were there to greet us and listen to class. I spoke on Rupa Goswami's verse from Bhakti-rasamrta-sindu, which gives the standard for pure devotional service:
jnana karmady anavrtam
silanam bhaktir uttama
"When first-class devotional service develops, one is devoid of all material desires, knowledge of impersonalism and fruitive activities. The devotee must serve Krsna favorably, as Krsna desires."
Our acrayas have said that this is the essential verse of Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, upon which the rest of the book is based.
At 11.30am we rushed to the station to catch the train to our next destination, Krasnoyarsk. I was happy to see that four of my lady disciples had purchased tickets for a compartment on the train. They boarded the train with stockpiles of prasadam for the 27-hour journey. I settled into my compartment and happily sat finishing my rounds in a rare moment of peace and solitude. I watched the white, cold countryside flash by as the train proceeded into Siberia.
Darkness set in just as we arrived in Novosibirsk, the capital of the Siberian region. As the train pulled into the station, I saw on the main platform a neon sign that displayed the time and temperature. It is a curious thing that in each and every train station in Russia, there is a huge sign displaying time and temperature. I stared in disbelief - the time was 6pm and the temperature 20 degrees below zero!
Suddenly Uttamasloka, who is accompanying us as my Russian translator, entered my compartment and said the train would be delayed in the station for five hours. I immediately suggested paying a surprise visit to the Novosibirsk temple. When I asked how far away it was, another devotee innocently replied that it was only 15 minutes from the station. I told Uttamasloka to go on to the platform and telephone the temple to inform them that we were coming. We would walk the short distance. Little did I know what it is to walk even 10 meters in 20-degree below weather!
Within minutes our little band of devotees had jumped off the train and begun the short walk to the temple. A chilling wind had come up, driving the temperature down to 30 degrees below. I had never experienced anything like it. Any portion of exposed flesh on my body immediately experienced intense pain from the cold. After walking just 50 meters, I couldn't imagine going one step further. We were just outside the train station and so I asked Uttamasloka to order a taxi to the temple. He found a big taxi-van and we all piled in, thankful for the warmth inside. After half an hour we arrived at the temple. Luckily, we hadn't attempted to walk the "15-minute" distance!
Arriving at the temple, we were greeted by 20 enthusiastic devotees. Sri Prahlad led kirtan and I spoke on atiti-seva, receiving the unexpected guest. I mentioned that in Vedic culture the householder has five duties to perform: to honor the forefathers, the earth, the devas, the animals, and any unexpected guest. I told the story from Srimad-Bhagavatam of King Rantidev, who received three different guests in his home. He respectfully fed them according to their desires, but in the end had no prasadam left for himself and his family members. Later the three personalities revealed themselves as Brahma, Visnu and Siva, and blessed him for his proper etiquette in serving his guests. Sri Prahlad then led an amazing kirtan which sent the devotees to Vaikunatha.
After three hours we got back in the taxi and returned to the train station. As we entered all eyes were upon us! Here we were, dressed in dhotis and saris in one of the coldest places on earth. Besides that, our colorful attire greatly contrasted with the dark, heavy leather coats and fur hats that everyone else wore. The people of Siberia are a hardy bunch. All the men look to me like burley woodsmen. Many of them are bigger than me, and with all their dark furry, winter clothing come across a bit intimidating. Russian people in general have a tough demeanor. They don't easily smile, but that's deceptive because Russian people are generally soft-hearted.
As we walked through the throngs of heavy set men and women in their fur hats and skins, several people called out "Hare Krsna" in gruff voices. As we approached our train, I was thinking to myself that although it's austere to travel and preach here, I prefer it to other countries where life is more opulent and there are more facilities. Here in Russia everyone shares common austerities, and the only noticeable opulence I've seen is the bright-faced and colorfully dressed Hare Krsna devotees.
Finding our way to our train we settled in for the overnight ride to Krasnoyarsk. Earlier in the day, Jananivasa, my Russian secretary, had given me a mobile telephone that works throughout the entire country. It's expensive to use, so I'll have it mainly for receiving calls. But as I had not heard from Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda (the disciples in charge of organizing our Polish festival programs) in more than a week, I decided to call them. Both of these ladies have taken on an incredible amount of responsibility on the Polish tour. They are reorganizing it as a legal foundation, arranging all the festivals for the spring, summer and autumn tours, and handling all the initial preparations for the gigantic Woodstock festival in Zary. Recently they were in Zary looking for accommodations for the 400 devotees we expect to join us for our preaching at Woodstock in August.
When I called them they reported that the local priest in Zary is doing everything he can to place obstacles before us. During the past two Woodstock festivals we stayed in a large school, not far from the center of town. But when Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrinda visited the school to rent the facilities, the authorities adamantly refused. At every school they went to in the town they encountered the same cold mood. Finally one school authority informed them that the local priest had sent word that no school should cooperate with the Hare Krsnas in their attempt to get facility for Woodstock. The priests are very powerful in Poland, especially in small towns. People are afraid of them, because if they don't cooperate with the priests they may lose their jobs. Determined to find accommodation, Nandini and Radha Sakki Vrnda persevered and finally found two schools which agreed to rent facilities to us. Nandini said that the local mayor, who is our friend, had stepped in and used his influence.
Putting down the phone, my heart was pounding and I was back in the fighting mood I live in for six months of the year in Poland. I mentioned to Uttamasloka that I couldn't think of many places in the world, aside from China and Islamic countries, where our movement still faces so much aggressive hostility. He replied that he sees the aggression in proportion to the amount of preaching that we have done in Poland.
Poland is a devoutly Catholic country where countless numbers of Srila Prabhupada's books have been distributed. The hostility arises from the church due to our success in preaching, but it's not easy to live with that hostility year after year. It also means that we can't ease up on our preaching for a moment. If we were to slow down, the church would immediately appropriate any gains we have made over the years. We have to keep up a blistering pace, especially on the tour, but after 10 years of festivals my body is showing signs of aging. I pray the Lord will give me the strength to go on. But what can He do with this aging body? He can inspire us in the heart to do His service, but He can't bring back our youth.
I suppose the answer lies with disciples like Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda. As I looked out the window, I thought of their constant engagement and struggle to set up our festival programs. They are working day and night, even now in the winter season. I eventually drifted off to sleep, thanking the Lord for disciples like them and asking Srila Prabhupada to bless them.