Diary of a Traveling Preacher
Before leaving Chelyabinsk yesterday we held a program in a small orphanage.
The local devotees have been visiting the orphanage several times a week for the past six months, distributing prasadam, having kirtan and entertaining the children in various Krsna conscious ways. They took on the project as a way to win the favor of local city officials. The devotees are in the process of completing construction on a small, but very beautiful temple near the center of town. It has attracted much attention, and in order to keep any opposition at bay the devotees have taken on charity work of a spiritual nature.
The orphanage readily accepted the devotees' offer of help. Like many orphanages in Russia it is independent, surviving without government aid.
The 50 children, ranging from 7-14 years of age, were eagerly awaiting our arrival. They were especially keen, as they were told foreigners would be coming.
I was a bit taken aback by the facilities the children lived in. The building was quite old, there was little furniture, and from the way the children were dressed it appeared their clothes were handed down from one generation to another. However, they were well disciplined and clean - and elated that we had come.
As we entered all eyes were upon us. I stepped forward to give a short introduction in English (which was translated into Russian), and some of the kids' mouths dropped open. They were all sitting up straight in chairs, and when I called them to come and sit with me on the floor there was a stampede to see who could sit closest to me. I had a captive audience and took full advantage of it, telling the children of my adventures in the Amazon Jungle.
Each time I brought up an alligator, a piranha fish, a spider or a snake there were exclamations of surprise and several "Hare Krsnas!" At the end of the story, Sri Prahlad led an ecstatic kirtan and the children danced blissfully, loudly chanting the holy names. When I distributed fruit prasadam there was another stampede. I suppose things that we take for granted are much appreciated by those less fortunate than us.
We embarked on a four-hour journey to Ekaterinburg in a caravan of cars at 3pm. We were on our way to do a small program there. I was a little uneasy, however, as a snowstorm had started. I also noticed that the three cars we were traveling in looked old and unreliable, but it seemed the best our hosts could do, and as "beggars can't be choosers" I didn't make any objection. One hour into the journey one of the cars broke down. In the midst of the snowstorm we tried our best to get it started again, but to no avail. So we divided the passengers and luggage between the two remaining vehicles and, leaving the driver with the disabled car, continued on our way. One hour later, in the middle of nowhere, one of the vehicles ran out of petrol! With no recourse, we tied a cable to it and towed it. At one point the police pulled us over and checked our papers. The snowstorm made driving difficult, but we managed to hobble into Ekaterinburg five hours later. It was a long and arduous trip. But when I looked at my watch and saw the day and date, I realized our mistake - we had begun a journey on Thursday afternoon!
According to astrological calculations, it is inauspicious to begin a journey on a Thursday afternoon. One of Srila Prabhupada's secretaries told me that Srila Prabhupada himself was cautious not to travel at this time, to the point of postponing a Thursday afternoon departure to Friday morning. It is said that Srila Bhaktisiddanta Saraswati dealt with the problem of having to leave on a Thursday afternoon by putting his shoes and baggage outside the door the night before, indicating that the journey had already begun.
Knowing that the workings of material nature are never fully auspicious, a devotee is careful how he proceeds in life. Once, when a devotee sneezed at the beginning of a journey, Srila Prabhupada stopped walking, until Brahmananda explained that the devotee had a cold, after which Srila Prabhupada continued. If someone sneezes for no apparent reason before a journey, it is considered inauspicious.
The hall program last night was a preview of a puppet theater being prepared for the Polish tour by my disciple, Subhuddi raya. A talented artist, he has put together an amazing production of Krsna's Vrindavan pastimes. The 20 large puppets are skillfully and attractively presented. The entire production covers more than 12 meters of stage. Professional, colorful and dynamic, with a beautiful soundtrack, it came across as a major production.
It gave me confidence that this year we will have a wonderful stage program that the Polish public will love.
We arrived exhausted at our apartment at 11pm. To my surprise, 30 disciples were waiting for me with a reception! Not wanting to disappoint them, I sat and received their loving gestures of fruits and flowers accompanied by a sweet kirtan. Then I gave a short lecture, several times catching myself falling asleep. At the stroke of midnight they brought in a big cake for me to distribute. At the same moment, however, a distraught young lady appeared at the door and asked to see me. With tears in her eyes, she came into the room and told me that her mother, my disciple, Gitanjali dasi, who is gravely ill with cancer, was about to leave her body. She begged me to come and see her.
Picking up a pair of karatalas and a mrdunga, myself, Sri Prahlad, Rukmini Priya and Uttamasloka quickly left the apartment for a waiting car. The journey beyond the city took over an hour and a half. We finally arrived at Gitanjali's apartment at 1.45am. Entering her room, we saw her frail, thin body covered by blankets. Hearing us, she opened her eyes and smiled. I placed my garland around her neck, and sitting next to her began giving her final instructions. It was not the first time I have been in such a situation, so I knew what to do and how to proceed.
There is really only one subject matter to dwell on at death, and that is the beautiful pastimes of the Lord in Vrindavan. As Gaudiya Vaisnavas, that is the specific goal we must fix our minds on at the moment of death. That, of course, takes a lifetime of preparation. We must purify our hearts of all material attachment and then awaken our love for the Lord. Srila Prabhodananda Saraswati prays:
"Today or tomorrow this worthless material body will leave me and all the material happiness connected with it will also leave. Because material happiness is temporary, it should be understood to be only a mirage of the real happiness. O my mind, please abandon this false happiness and enjoy the real, eternal happiness of devotional service within the land of Vrindavan."
[Vrindavan Mahimamrta Sakata 1, Text 24]
Before describing the beauty of Vrindavan and the pastimes of Radha and Krsna, I first wanted to see if Gitanjali had any remorse about leaving this world. If any attachments remained in her heart, I would encourage her to let them go so she wouldn't become entangled again in this world of birth and death. I gently inquired if she was ready to leave. She spoke softly and said she had no reason whatsoever to remain here. So confident was she that later on Sri Prahlad and I remarked how she was indeed fearless in the face of death.
I recounted a few pastimes of the Lord to help her fix her mind, and then led kirtan. During the kirtan I was praying to Srila Prabhupada to please give her the qualification to achieve an auspicious destination. By 4am it was clear that she wasn't going to leave her body immediately, so I stopped the kirtan and spoke a few last words to her. In a weak voice she thanked me for coming, and said that now all her desires had been fulfilled she would soon leave peacefully. Her eyes followed me intensely until I left the room.
Srila Prabhupada, please take her soon and place her in your association!
Grant her an auspicious destination. As you wrote to Jayananda: "Krsna is very kind, for He has taken away your diseased body and has now given you a body which is suitable to your desires to serve Him in the spiritual world."
We returned to our apartment at 5.30am and took rest, rising at 8am to perform our sadhana. At 11am we went a hall to perform a wedding for 15 devotee couples. Most of the devotees were my disciples, many of whom I have known since they were children. It is very satisfying to personally help them through the various milestones of their lives. Of course, traditionally it is not the business of a sannyasi to perform a marriage ceremony. He is supposed to be aloof from such things, being in the renounced order. Following in Srila Prabhupada's footsteps, however, we do it to encourage our disciples. At a marriage Srila Prabhupada presided over in Montreal in 1968, he said: "So I am a sannyasi. I have renounced my family life. I have got my children, my grandchildren, I have my wife still living, but I have separated from them. This is called sannyńsa. Why I am taking interest again, this family life of my students? Because I want to see them properly progress towards spiritual life. Therefore, although it is not the business of a sannyńsÚ to take part in marriage ceremony, in this country, just to save my students, both boys and girls, from sinful activities, I am personally taking interest that they may become good gentleman and lady by marriage."
This evening the older children presented a theater of Krsna's Vrindavan lila. For a number years, each time I visit Ekaterinburg these children have performed theater for me. Under the guidance of my disciple, Subuddhi raya das, they practice for months before I come. They memorize pages of lines and carefully refine all their movements in the play. The dramas are always straight from Srimad-Bhagavatam, Brhat Bhagavatamrta, or from Srila Rupa Goswami's plays like Lalita Madhava or Vidagdha Madhava. The subject matter is always very deep, the acting very professional, and the mood permeated with love.
Srila Prabhupada once said that the purpose of theater is to invoke spiritual emotions in the audience. He related how he once took part in a drama about Lord Caitanya when he was in school. He and his friends practiced for six months before their first performance. When they presented the play, he said many people in the audience cried.
As we sat and watched the children's production in Ekaterinburg, many of us also shed a few tears. It was clear that loving relationships in the spiritual world are far superior to any of this world. The play made me hanker to be back in Vrindavan, but I spent several months there recently and now it's my duty to travel and tell others of that transcendental abode.
But it was a pleasant surprise to be transported there again for two hours by the wonderful acting of these young adults.
"Where do all people automatically and effortlessly obtain pure ecstatic love for Krsna? Where does the Supreme Personality of Godhead manifest His supremely wonderful pastime form? Where is the empire of the bliss of devotional service to Krsna's lotus feet manifest? O brother, listen I will tell you a secret. All this is present here in Vrindavan." [Vrindavan Mahimamrta Sataka 1, Text 24]