Diary of a Traveling Preacher
On February 13, Sri Prahlad, Rukmini Priya and myself arrived in New Delhi from Moscow. I will be spending 10 days in India, resting and recuperating from our trip to Russia, before embarking on a preaching tour in Africa.
After spending one precious day in Vrindavan, I traveled south to Udaipur to join my son, Gaura Sakti das, and two of his business associates, Mickey and Sherry Goldman, all of whom are on a business and recreation trip in Rajasthan. After meeting Mickey and Sherry, I was a little apprehensive about spending a planned five days with them, as our initial conversations didn't go much beyond the daily news and the weather. Mickey and Sherry are both older than me and come from conservative Jewish backgrounds, and I could sense they felt a little uncomfortable around a Hare Krsna devotee in saffron robes. But it appeared that Krsna had a plan for them, which gradually unfolded as the days went by.
When Mickey and Sherry inquired from me what sites would be interesting to visit in Udaipur, they seemed a little surprised by my detailed reply. I have been interested in Rajasthan for a long time, as much of its history concerns Vrindavan Deities, many of Whom were moved to Rajasthani locations such as Jaipur and Nathdwar during the 1700s to save Them from the Mulsim invaders. The original city of Jaipur was built by Maharaja Jai Singh II to protect Srila Rupa Goswami's Deities, Sri Sri Radha-Govinda. Nathdwar, near Udaipur, has been home to Madhavendra Puri's Deity, Sri Gopala (Sri Nathji), for hundreds of years for the same reason.
In his book, Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, an extensive diary written in the early 1800s, British Colonel James Todd describes Udaipur as "the most diversified and romantic spot on the continent of India." Even today, with its grandiose palaces, hilltop forts and beautiful temples, Udaipur looks as it has been lifted straight from the pages of a fairy tale book.
When I suggested to Mickey and Sherry that they begin by visiting Udaipur Palace, they asked if I would come along. Though the palace is of little spiritual interest, I agreed hoping to develop a deeper relationship with them in which I might be able to inspire them in Krsna consciousness.
At the palace we began making our way through the inner chambers. When Mickey asked why the hallways are so narrow and the entrances to all the rooms so low, I explained that they were built like that as a strategy to deal with enemy soldiers attacking the palace. Invading soldiers could advance only one at a time through the narrow hallways, and bowing their heads low upon entering the rooms gave an advantage to the palace soldiers on the other side who would easily behead them.
When we reached the renowned Room of Mirrors, a young American man, seeing my saffron cloth, approached and asked if he could speak with me. Folding his hands and saying, "Hari Om," he asked if I had ever read the Bhagavad-gita. When I replied that I had, a lively conversation began, wherein we debated if God were a person or an energy. Mickey and Sherry listened intently as I presented arguments for the existence of a personal God. I took advantage of the situation more to preach to them than to my impersonalist acquaintance. Though the young man would not concede defeat, my arguments seemed to impress Mickey and Sherry, who as the day wore on began asking questions of a spiritual nature. Last night over dinner we discussed a number of spiritual topics, and our conversation seemed to make them more relaxed in my presence. In fact, at the end of the evening Mickey concluded by stating that in America it is unfortunate that Krsna consciousness is sometimes thought of as a cult, when in fact it is an ancient religion. On the way home, I reflected that although I wasn't giving class to hundreds of devotees, as I was a few days ago in Russia, at least I was able to convince one gentleman about the authenticity of Krsna consciousness. Canakya Pandit states that even small doses of such spiritual welfare are beneficial:
"Let not a single day pass without your learning a verse, half a verse, or a fourth of it, or even one letter of it; nor without attending to charity, study and other pious activity." [Niti-Sastra, Chapter 2, Verse 13]
Pleased with our venture to Udaipur Palace yesterday, Mickey and Sherry today asked my advice for another place to go. I was planning to visit the temple of Sri Nathji in Nathdwar, about 50km south of Udaipur, and offered to take them along. They were excited about the opportunity, as it was a journey off the general tourist route, but afterwards I wondered if I had made the right decision to invite them along. How would they, as members of the Jewish faith, relate to Deity worship?
I decided to explain the principle of Deity worship to them before we left.
As we all sat waiting for a car to take us to Nathdwar, I asked them if in the Jewish faith a material object can be accepted as spiritual, due to its association with God? I gave the example of the holy Cross in the Christian faith, and the wine and wafers given to the faithful in the Catholic Church.
Although obviously material by nature, those items are accepted as having taken on a spiritual quality, due to their being used in the service of God.
But Mickey and Sherry couldn't think of any such example in their faith, until I suggested the Torah, the sacred book of the Jews. I said it was only paper - but revered by the faithful and given a special place in any home or synagogue because of its spiritual content. When they agreed, I explained that in the Vedic tradition, the Deity is carved from stone, marble or wood, and after installation according to authorized scriptures, is accepted as non-different from the Lord.
Grappling with the new idea, at first they seemed confused. Mickey said, "We were taught that worshipping such statues is idol worship." Then to my surprise, Sherry spoke up and said that because God is present everywhere, there is no reason He couldn't be in the Deity while at the same time not being limited to that form. Mickey nodded his head in agreement. Confident that my new friends had made a little progress in Krsna consciousness, I opened the door of the taxi as it arrived and we began our journey to Nathdwar.
Mickey and Sherry were obviously pleased with the exotic atmosphere of Nathdwar, with its colorful flags, banners and shani bands that welcome thousands of pilgrims. I did note, however, that there were far less pilgrims present than during my last visit three years ago. Obviously, the recent earthquake in nearby Gujarat has had an effect on the number of pilgrims visiting Nathdwar. Sri Nathji is the worshipful Deity of most Gujaratis, but with Indian officials putting the death toll of the earthquake at more than 30,000 (locals say 100,000), and with many more people homeless and relief work making travel difficult, most Gujaratis are not making the pilgrimage to Nathdwar at present.
A curious thing happened as we approached the temple, which surprised all of us. As I stopped in a shop to purchase a small silver box for my Deities, a poor sadhu approached me and held out his hand for a donation. I don't generally give laksmi in such situations, but I relented and decided to give the poor man 10 rupees. Not having any small bills with me, I asked the shop owner to change a larger bill for smaller ones. To my surprise, he gave the bill to an equally poor woman who happened to come by begging at that same moment. Without a word, she reached into her old cloth and pulled out a wad of bills and a large bag of coins, and right there on the street changed the large bill for the shop owner!
The incident reminded me of Srila Prabhupada's instructions on giving money to beggars in India. When his disciples first came to India, they didn't know how to respond to the repeated requests for money from the poor and the sadhus on the street. Srila Prabhupada replied that they could give, but only to sadhus, and in particular to those sadhus who sat calmly on the ground, as is customary, waiting for mercy from others.
Approaching the Sri Nathji temple we saw many pilgrims waiting for the doors to open. The men were waiting outside one set of doors, the women by another. The custom at the temple is that when the doors are opened, the pilgrims charge forward to have the best vantage point for seeing Sri Nathji. The ladies are directed to the front of the temple and the men towards the back.
I told Mickey and Sherry that it would be "every man for himself" when the doors opened, and that they should try their best to get inside the temple and see the Deity. We would meet outside after the 30-minute darsan was over. There wasn't much else I could do. I knew from past experience that darsan of Sri Nathji was like a transcendental football match, with thousands of pilgrims pushing and shoving to see Him in a very limited space.
Sure enough, when the conch sounded and the doors opened, thousands of men and women surged forward to get Sri Nathji's darsan. Sherry's eyes opened widely as she was suddenly swept into the temple with a wave of women. I grabbed Mickey by the arm as the men's group tumbled into the darsan hall. As the crowd surged forward Mickey and I were shoved backwards and forwards, while simultaneously being spun around as everyone clamored to see Krsna.
Knowing that I would have only a few precious moments before Madhavendra Puri's Deity of Sri Gopala (Sri Nathji), I had memorized Madhavendra Puri's prayer to the Lord that I had read recently in Caitanya-caritamrta. Although it was a very deep prayer, beyond my realization as an aspiring devotee, Srila Rupa Goswami has stated that if we don't have the desire for pure devotional service, at least we should "desire to desire" to have it. I felt if I was going to see this special Deity for only a few moments, I may as well pray to Him in the mood of His most beloved servant who is training us to approach Krsna without any material aspirations. When suddenly I got a glimpse of Sri Gopala, I managed to stand still for a few moments and folding my hands made my supplication to Him:
ayi dina dayardra natha he
mathura natha kadavalokyase
hrdayam tvad aloka kataram
dayita bhramyati kim karomy aham
"O My Lord! O most merciful master! O master of Mathura! When shall I see You again? Because of My not seeing You, My agitated heart has become unsteady. O most beloved one, what shall I do now?" [CC Madhya 4.197]
In this prayer Madhavendra Puri is praying in the mood of separation, the highest sentiment of love of God. It is very rare to attain, but it's certainly possible if we strictly follow Srila Prabhupada. Once I asked Srila Prabhupada about the mood of separation. He was visiting our New Mayapur community in France in 1974 and was giving darsan on the lawn outside the chateaux. He was speaking about how the pure devotee sees Krsna everywhere because of his deep love for the Lord. When he finished and asked for questions, I raised my hand and said, "Srila Prabhupada, if the pure devotee sees Krsna everywhere, why does Lord Caitanya, who is in the mood of a devotee, say in His Siksastakam prayers that He is feeling so much separation from Krsna?
Srila Prabhupada looked at me for what seemed eternity, then replied, "That is difficult to know, but some day you will understand."
Srila Prabhupada, I'm still far from that realization, but I have faith that by menial service to your lotus feet, all these things will be revealed to me in time.
My brief meditation on Sri Gopala was broken when the huge crowd, heaving with hundreds of devotees, suddenly spilled Mickey and myself back out on to the stone steps in front of the temple. While gathering ourselves, I looked anxiously at Mickey, wondering how he had fared with his first darsan of the Lord in a temple. Buttoning up his shirt and rearranging his disheveled clothes, he looked at me and said with a surprised look on his face, "I made it!" It wasn't exactly the reaction I had hoped for.
A few moments later Sherry emerged from the temple with a blissful look on her face. With a big smile she said, "Maharaja, I got some of the sacred water and I also ate the little green leaves the priest gave me!" As we walked back to the car she excitedly told us how she had been "right in front of the Deity," and began explaining in detail how beautiful He looked.
As she described His big eyes, His charming smile, and curious form "bent in three places," I smiled remembering my apprehension as to how she and her husband would understand what a Deity was. A few days ago they had come to India as simple tourists, but by the Lord's mercy had already begun to understand some aspects of the all-beautiful Lord.
smerambhangi traya paricitam saci vistirna drstim
vamsi nyastadhara kisalayam ujjvalam candrakena
govindakhyam hari tanum itah kesi tirthpakanthe
ma preksisthas tava yadi sakhe bandhu sange sti rangah
"My dear friend, if you are indeed attached to your worldly friends, do not look at the smiling face of Lord Govinda as He stands on the bank of the Yamuna at Kesighata. Casting sidelong glances, He places His flute to His lips, which seem like newly blossomed twigs. His transcendental body, bending in three places, appears very bright in the moonlight." [CC Adi 5.224]