Diary of a Traveling Preacher
This morning we went to the temple in Omsk for the program. The temple is a 100-year-old wooden house in a neighborhood just outside of town. The entire area was covered in meters of snow. We walked into the temple and I sat down on an old vyasasana to give class. As soon as I sat on it I was attacked by bed bugs. Their method of giving a double bite in the same area is indicative of their presence. I requested Uttamasloka to ask how old the vyasasana was, and after inquiring he told me it was nine years old and stored in the attic upstairs. I maintained my composure while giving class, surrendering to the probability that the bites represented reactions to past offenses to Vaisnavas who were more qualified than me to sit on the seat.
After class I saw a young boy and his sister whom I had met two years ago. They had come to Omsk from southern Russia on a three-day train ride just to see me. I am quite attached to them, for their story is one that breaks the heart. In 1995 they lived with their Russian parents in Grozny, Chechnya, when Russian forces invaded to crack down on Chechen militants. It was a vicious and brutal war in which no one was spared, including women and children. The fighting in Grozny was so fierce that practically the entire city was leveled by daily bombing and shelling. Troops from both sides of the conflict roamed the streets for months, engaging in fire-fights and shooting innocent civilians at whim.
Seven year old Amrta Keli and her 10-year-old brother, Vinode Behari, lived underground in the cellar of their house (it was all that was left of the building) for five months without going outside. The sounds of nearby explosions shook their small shelter and the stench of death outside entered within. The only thing that kept the family sane was their practice of Krsna consciousness. Most of the day they would chant or read from Srila Prabhupada's books.
Several times a week the mother and father took turns at venturing outside into the mayhem to search for food and water. One day the mother left and didn't return. The family waited for her in great anxiety, and when she didn't come back the next day the father went outside to look for her. He found her not far from their shelter, felled by a sniper's bullet to her head. He returned and broke the sad news to the children. The glamour of war is only in the minds of fools who have never seen the faces of such poor children.
Only because of Krsna consciousness did the family survive their ordeal. The philosophy of Bhagavad-gita and the chanting of the holy names gave them relief from the anguish of war. With the help of Russian troops they eventually escaped, but the children were deeply scarred by the emotional pain they had endured. By the time I met them in southern Russia, they were receiving professional counseling to deal with the nightmares and emotional outbursts they often experienced.
When I spoke with them I was touched by their sincere attachment to devotees and the holy names. They somehow seemed much older and more realized than most children their age. No one needed to convince them of the miseries of material existence and no one had to tell them to chant their rounds. Because I gave them special attention, they opened their hearts to me . . . and I gave mine to them. I spent a lot of time with them, knowing that the real counseling they required was the love and affection of a Vaisnava. We spent hours together walking and talking, and a deep friendship developed.
Our meeting this morning rekindled our feeling of love. For most of my devotional career I have tried to give time and attention to the children of our movement. They are our future and will one day continue with the work we have done. Though young and innocent they are responsive to the love we give them, and such attention serves as a foundation for their faith in devotees and the Lord. The other day I received a wonderful letter from a young lady in America, thanking me for the attention I gave her as a child and asking for spiritual guidance now that she has grown up.
Dear Indradyumna Swami,
Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to our beloved Srila Prabhupada.
Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Sachi. My parents are Vamanadeva das and Sangita devi dasi (a disciple of Srila Prabhupada since 1973). I first met you in 1980 when you visited the Honolulu temple where we were living. I was only a 3-year-old little girl at the time. You were so kind to me and danced with me during aratis and even had me drive with you to harinama in Waikiki. When you were leaving Hawaii, you gave me a photo of your Nrsimhadeva Deity which I treasured. Growing up in Honolulu and the Los Angeles gurukulas (not in the asramas), we were taught the zonal acarya system which was in place in ISKCON at that time. Still, I somehow always felt a connection to you. Even at a young age I told my friends that I was going to someday take initiation from you. In retrospect, this is surprising because we knew of and had only 11 initiating gurus in the movement.
I am now 23 years old, living with my parents and sister outside of the Philadelphia temple and about to receive my Master's degree in Psychology. As a teenager I went full circle, so to speak, in my spiritual life. Having been born in ISKCON, I felt a need to explore other religions to be sure that Krishna consciousness was how I wanted to live my life. After a year-long search I came back to Srila Prabhupada. Just recently my mother gave me a bhajan tape made by you. Hearing your chanting rekindled the sense of connection I felt to you as a young child. I cannot fully understand or explain this spiritual feeling. I am in no means feeling qualified to approach you at this time for possible initiation. I sometimes have questions regarding Krsna consciousness, and am asking you if I can occasionally write to you with my inquiries. I approach you and ask for this assistance with all sincerity and humility.
Just the other day a devotee asked me why I give so much attention to the children in our movement. When thinking about it later, I remembered a story from my own youth. When I was a young boy I loved American football and was a loyal fan of the local professional team, the San Francisco 49ers. When I was 10 years old, my father took me to the city for a big game they were playing that would decide if they would win the national championships. The stadium was packed to capacity with fans rooting for their home team.
My father worked in the advertising business with a prominent organization, BBD and O. He recently had been working on an advertising campaign with the 49ers and had developed a close relationship with their quarterback, Y. A. Title. Title was one of the best quarterbacks American football had ever seen, and he was the pre-eminent hero of all American boys. We knew everything about him, and his performance on the field was our constant meditation.
Just before the game was about to begin my father took me down to the field to meet him. I was shaking like a leaf at the prospect of meeting the famous Y. A. Title. I'd be a big man back in my neighborhood, especially if I could get his autograph! The team charged out of the locker room on to the sidelines to begin warming up for the game. My father approached Title, who came over to meet me. A huge man, made even bigger by his padded uniform, he got down on one knee and shook my hand. It was as if a demigod had come down from heaven to meet me. Many years later my father recounted to me my conversation with my childhood hero.
Title said, "I'm happy to meet you, son. Your father told me about you. He says you like football."
I said, "Mr Title, I love football and one day I want to be like you."
"Fine, son," he replied. "Let me give you a few tips. In fact, I'll let you in on a few secrets about how I make my touchdown passes. Keep it between you and me and you'll lead this team one day."
He proceeded to show me his special way to hold the ball and how he threw it high in the air.
"Learn this trick and you'll be a winner," he said. "But remember, son, football's not just about technique, it's about being a good person, too. You have to do good in school and learn your lessons. And don't be intimidated by guys who smoke. You have to be healthy to play good football."
"Can I ask you one more question, Mr Title?" I said.
"Yes, son, of course," he replied.
At that moment the whistle sounded indicating the game was about to start, and the rest of the players ran on to the field. But Title remained with me on the sideline, down on one knee looking me in the eye. The 49ers' head coach came over and growled, "Title, out on the field. The crowd's waiting. Move!"
Title looked over at him and very coolly said, "I'm making an investment here. This little boy wants to play football. I'm HIS coach, OK?" The 49ers' coach stormed off, and the multitudes waited for me to ask my last question.
"Mr Title, will you sign an autograph for me?" I said.
"Of course," he replied. "Anything else?"
"Yes," I said. "Can I write to you sometimes?"
He said, "You sure can, boy. You're the next quarterback and you'll need lots of tips! Your father and I are having lunch next Tuesday. Come along and I'll give you the address then."
With that he ran on to the field . . . and won the game.
Title gave me only 10 minutes, but he made an impression on me for life. He was always in my thoughts as I practiced sports in high school and college. His 10 minutes gave me the inspiration to become a star athlete in football and swimming. I was the captain of my high school swimming team for four years in a row, and I remained undefeated in the 200 meter backstroke that entire time.
Of course, advancing in Krsna consciousness is infinitely more challenging than athletic competition, and our children need inspiration from the beginning of their careers in devotional service as well. So whenever a devotee child approaches me I try to kneel down and give them that 10 minutes. I know it can go a long way. As Sachi wrote: "Hearing your chanting rekindled the sense of connection I felt to you as a young child. I cannot fully understand or explain this spiritual feeling . . . I sometimes have questions regarding Krsna consciousness and am asking you if I can occasionally write to you with my inquiries."
Yes, Sachi dasi, please do write back. You're the next generation and you'll need lots of tips!