Diary of a Traveling Preacher
Last night we had to fly to St Petersburg from Moscow because of the large bomb that exploded in the Moscow train station yesterday. We are four devotees, and the flight was much more expensive, but we didn't want to risk taking the train. There's a saying that lightening never strikes the same place twice, but the same day the bomb went off in Moscow I read how the Palestinians detonated two powerful bombs in Israel minutes apart, in the same location.
St Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia and the country's largest seaport. Construction of the city began in 1703, ordered by Russian Tsar Peter the Great. It is one of those cities that was actually planned, thus unlike many other cities there is order and semblance, at least in the sections that Peter the Great built. Wide avenues crisscross the town and large parks are everywhere. St Petersburg is also known for its many canals.
Peter the Great brought in architects, builders and artisans from all over Europe to accomplish his feat of building the city on what was previously a huge swamp.
But time, and mainly communism, ruined much of what he did. Most of the beautiful churches and cathedrals he built were torn down by the communists, who used the very same bricks to build factories on the same location. That is why while driving through St Petersburg, one finds huge factories spewing dark smoke right in the center of town. And most of the beautiful buildings, canals and parks have deteriorated due to neglect. Unlike Moscow, where reconstruction is going strong because 90 percent of Russia's money is invested there, the people of St Petersburg haven't been able to restore their beautiful city. I remember in 1991 there was a brief effort to do so by the local city government, but due to corruption the whole thing fell apart.
ISKCON also built up an impressive yatra here in the late 1990s, but recent events have also brought the yatra to its knees. The departure of prominent leaders of the highest order have left devotees confused and unorganized. It is something I encounter in other places on my travels, a dark chapter in the history of our movement that I pray will not happen again.
The most visual effect of such a problem here is that we lost the large and beautiful temple that we had. In an ironic twist of history, my lecture this morning was held in the very same hall that I spoke in when I first came to St Petersburg in 1989. When we entered the old hall, the devotees were in a very somber mood. The hall itself was unclean and too small for the 50 devotees present. Being there was like deja vu for me - the same hall, the same old stage and curtain and the same devotees, the only difference being that 12 years down the road the devotees don't have the same enthusiasm due to the problems in the yatra. Nevertheless, they have remained faithful to Krsna consciousness despite those difficulties, and I felt it my duty to help uplift their spirits and inspire them. So did Sri Prahlad, who taking compassion on the these devotees upon arriving, picked up an old broken drum and led a one-and-a half-hour kirtan that had us transcending all problems.
I also gave more time to my lecture and answering the devotees' questions.
During my talk I noticed a girl in her late teens listening attentively. Generally when I lecture, I try to find two or three people in the audience who are keen to hear what I am saying, and I concentrate my talk on them. It's a technique I learned in a public speaking class I took in high school.
In any public audience you will find a variety of listeners, from casual to eyes wide open. This particular young lady seemed to be staring ahead, without moving at all. I thought it was unusual, and because she was so fixed she caught my attention and I choose her as the recipient of my talk.
After a lecture, it is customary for visiting sannyasis to distribute prasadam to the members of the audience, who eagerly come forward to receive cookies, sweet balls, or even cake. When they approach I sometimes speak briefly with them; inquiring how they are, giving quick advice to their problems, and often giving spiritual names to newborn babies! When the teenage girl who was listening so carefully to my lecture came forward, I was shocked to see that she was blind. With the help of a friend, she held out her hand for prasadam and thanked me for the talk. I inquired how long she had been practicing Krsna consciousness, and she replied six months. Curious about her situation, I asked her to come and see me after the program. During Sri Prahlad's kirtan, I noticed her chanting and dancing enthusiastically, although because she was blind her dancing was not synchronized with the devotees around her.
Holding on to the arm of her friend, she later came to see me, introducing herself as Katya. She told me she had lost her sight several years ago, when doctors had given her the wrong injections for an illness. She came in contact with Krsna consciousness by hearing the kirtans of devotees who moved into the apartment next to her family. Because she had lost her sight, her sense of hearing had become more sensitive and she was immediately attracted to the sound of the holy name, as well as the smell of her new neighbors cooking prasadam. She finally visited the devotees next door, who preached to her and encouraged her in Krsna consciousness.
I was very inspired by her story. For me it once again demonstrated the glories of the holy name to reveal everything to us in spiritual life. As Srila Prabhupada often said, our eyes are limited to what little they can see in this world, but through our ears we can "see" everything of the spiritual world by hearing from a pure devotee of the Lord.
I told Katya the story of the saint Bivalmangal Thakura, who took his own eyesight because he could not refrain from looking at the beauty of the opposite sex. Retiring to Vrindavan, he peacefully practiced Krsna consciousness, eventually becoming a pure devotee of the Lord.
As I told the story, Katya was absorbed and listening to every detail. At the end she said, "Yes, my blindness is a mixed blessing. Had I not lost my eyesight, I may never have developed an interest in spiritual life. After meeting devotees I don't lament I can't see this world, because I know one day I'll see the beauty of the spiritual world."
vyadhasyacaranam dhruvasya ca vidya gejendrasya ka
kubjayah kim u nama rupam adhikam kim tat sudamno dhanam
vamsah ko vidurasya yadava pater ugrasya kim paurusam
bhaktya tusyati kevalam na ca gunair bhakti priyo madhavah
"Where were the hunter Dharma's piety, Dhruva's maturity, and Gajendra's knowledge? Where was Kubja's beauty? Where was Sudama's wealth? Where was Vidura's noble birth? Where was Ugrasena's chivalrous strength? Lord Madhava is pleased only by devotional service and not by material qualifications." [ Rupa Goswami's Padyavali]
This evening I gave another lecture, finishing with an impromtu initiation on the stage. As I won't be returning here for some time, two aspiring disciples in their late 70s requested I accept them as disciples before going. To one who was bedridden at home, I gave the name Bhakti Priya dasi, and to another who made her vows and accepted her beads before me, I gave the name Lalita Sakhi dasi. I was surprised when I asked Lalita Sakhi what her service was. She replied that she goes around St Petersburg collecting old clothes from people, which she then repairs and gives to devotees who can't afford to buy such things. When she said that, several devotees smiled and pointed to their coats or sweaters, which although old were in suitable shape to wear, by the loving devotion of Lalita sakhi dasi. I also gave initiation to 17-year-old Vrnda, who became Vrinda rani. She has been sick with tuberculosis for years and missed out on the initiation ceremonies I performed for her gurukula classmates during that time. With that I stood up to leave and begin my long journey back to India, and onwards to South Africa.
Upon walking downstairs, I met six men from Turkmenistan who were waiting in the lobby. Poorly dressed in traditional Muslim attire, they came forward to meet me. I greeted them with an Islamic expression, "Salaam-alekam," and they replied the same. They said they were refugees who had no work or money, and a friend had told them they could meet someone who would help them at the hall this evening. I apologized, saying that I was also visiting Russia and couldn't help them in a practical way. But I offered to pray for their spiritual progress and assured them that Allah would protect them. Being pious men, they were satisfied with that and they all embraced me simultaneously. Speaking in Arabic, they gave me their own blessings for a safe onward journey. I took their blessings to heart and walked out of the building to a rousing kirtan of blissful devotees. Many were crying.
We had spent only two days together, but because of the deep bonds created by chanting and dancing together on the transcendental platform, the ties of affection for each other were strong - and so too the feelings of separation. It's always difficult for me to leave devotees after a visit. It's probably the greatest austerity in being a traveling preacher.
ISKCON devotees are special souls, serving the mission of Srila Prabhupada and Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. I offer them my most respectful obeisances.
yad avadhi hari nama
pradur asit prthivyam
tad avadhi khalu loka
vaisnavah sarvatas te
tilaka vimala mala
nama yuktah pavitrah
hari hari kalin madhye
evam evam babhuva
"From the time that the Holy Name of Hari was manifest on the earth, Vaisnava folk began appearing everywhere, adorned with faultless tiloka and neck beads and equipped with the maha mantra. In the midst of the age of Kali, they purified the atmosphere, chanting 'Hari! Hari!' So indeed it came to pass." [Sri Gauranga-mahimamrta - Sarvabhauma Battacarya]