Diary of a Traveling Preacher
We left our apartment at 6.30am for the flight from Vladivostok to Omsk.
Typical of Russia, the airport is an hour and a half outside the city. One always has to give plenty of time to get to Russian airports, as poor road conditions, police checks and bad weather are common.
During the drive I spoke to Vrajendra Kumara about my visit. I always like to work closely with the temple presidents in the temples I visit. Upon arriving I generally inquire about the present situation in the temple, its strong and weak points, and ask the temple president if there are any particular points or issues he would like to me to emphasize (or avoid) in classes. During the visit, I prefer the temple president to be present when I meet the individual devotees.
Vrajendra Kumara is one of those rare devotees who has been in charge of his temple since its inception, in his case since 1990. He was born and raised in Vladivostok, graduating from the local university with a degree in Japanese Language and Culture in 1983. Fluent in English as well, he got a job as an interpreter on an Australian-based cruise liner sailing between Australia, Japan and Russia. During communism in Russia, he had the rare opportunity to leave his country and travel abroad for his work. In 1983, when the ship was docked in Sydney, he asked the cleaning ladies to bring him all the English books left behind in the passenger cabins. They found only one: Srila Prabhupada's Coming Back - the Science of Reincarnation.
On the way back to Russia he read the book with interest. Stopping in Cairns, further north along Australia's east coast, he and some shipmates were granted a short leave from the ship. As they were walking through the town mesmerized by the opulence of a western democratic country, they met a Hare Krsna devotee. Vrajendra Kumara mentioned that he had Coming Back. When the devotee learned he was Russian, he requested him to visit the local temple. But Vrajendra Kumara and his shipmates didn't have time, and returned to the ship. Actually, one of the men disappeared and later asked the Australian government for asylum, which was granted. From just a short contact, Vrajendra Kumara started chanting Hare Krsna. A few months later he met Russian devotees while he was taking an advanced training course for his company in St Petersburg. Although Krsna consciousness was banned in those days in Russia, he enthusiastically became a practicing devotee. Continuing to work for the shipping company, he regularly chanted. Unlike many devotees who were persecuted and jailed for their practices, Vrajendra Kumara remained free and gradually began preaching Krsna consciousness in Vladivostok. When democracy came to Russia in 1990, he opened the temple.
Several disciples came to see me off at the airport. Vrajendra Kumara introduced me to one of them named Bhakta Anatoly. A middle-aged man, he works in the mayor's office in a nearby city. An enthusiastic preacher, he has most of the 80 workers and members of the city council chanting 16 rounds a day. They meet regularly to chant and discuss Krsna conscious philosophy. Twice a month they go into the woods for a retreat, which consists mainly of big kirtans. Anatoly introduced me to the deputy mayor of his city, a distinguished-looking woman in expensive clothing. She is also chanting 16 rounds a day.
The flight was austere by any measure. In Russia people are allowed to carry practically as much hand luggage as they want on to the plane. There are no baggage compartments in the cabin - just overhead railings where everyone stuffs their belongings. Large bags are jammed under the seats or in the aisle. Dogs and cats (there were four big dogs and two cats on the flight) sit under people's legs. After waiting an hour in the plane before taking off (no explanation was given as to why we were delayed), we spent two hours flying to Khabarovsk. Upon arriving in Khabarovsk we had to leave the plane and wait in the airport lounge for an hour and a half. Then we were subjected to the check-in procedure again, although we were boarding the same plane.
We followed a similar routine when we landed four hours later in Irkutsk. We left the plane, took a bus to the terminal, waited an hour and checked in again! Then we waited another hour to board. By the time we had taken off for Omsk I was ready to call it quits. The only concession was a well-dressed lady who boarded in Irkutsk and sat across from us in the aisle. When she saw us her face lit up.
"Hare Krsna," she said. "My son is a devotee in your organization."
She remained silent for a few minutes, and then to the surprise of the other passengers loudly blurted out,
"Do you have any prasadam?"
Of course we did, and we gave her a big bag of samosas, cake and gulabjamans. The she said even louder, "I love prasadam!" She and her friend devoured the prasadam during the four-hour flight to Omsk.
After 12 hours of traveling we finally landed, exhausted, in Omsk. The temple president, my disciple Siksastakam das, picked us up and drove us straight to a hall program. A local television crew jumped in the van and interviewed me during the entire one-hour drive to the program. Immediately upon arriving I went on to the stage and delivered a lecture to 200 devotees about the meaning of om.
"After being situated in this yoga practice and vibrating the sacred syllable om, the supreme combination of letters, if one thinks of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and quits his body, he will certainly reach the spiritual planets."
I purposefully chose this topic as the city itself, Omsk, contains this auspicious combination of letters, OM. I mentioned that even unconscious chanting of the holy name, or a portion of it, produces auspicious results.
"One who chants the holy name of the Lord is immediately freed from the reactions of unlimited sins, even if he chants indirectly [to indicate something else], jokingly, for musical entertainment, or even neglectfully. This is accepted by all the learned scholars of the scriptures. [SB 6.2.14]
I humorously suggested that the devotees approach the city authorities and request them to drop the last two letters of the city's name and simply call it Om. Srila Prabhupada himself once asked the devotees in Chicago to ask the airport authorities there to rename O'Hare Airport O Hare.
After the lecture, a distinguished and intelligent-looking man came forward, offered obeisances and respectfully gave me several fruits. He told me his first contact with Krsna consciousness was during my last visit to Omsk three years ago. That visit had inspired him to seriously take up the process of devotional service. I wanted to speak to him, but so many devotees were coming forward that he was gradually pushed to the back.
Later I lamented that I didn't take the time. Siksastakam told me that he was the former head of the KGB in the Siberian region, a PhD, lawyer, prominent scholar and member of the city council in Omsk. If anyone could change the name of the city, it was him!