Diary of a Traveling Preacher
Although I have passed through America briefly on two or three occasions, for all practical purposes I haven't been here for 30 years - more than a quarter of a century. As a result, I felt almost like an immigrant entering a foreign country. And upon arriving in San Francisco, I even behaved like one! After passing through Customs and immigration I went to make a phone a call - but discovered I had no change. Looking closely at the telephone, I saw to my surprise that one could make calls using a credit card. So I pulled out the one my son sent me to use "in case of emergencies," and put it into the appropriate slot in the telephone. But as it started going in, I quickly pulled it out - afraid that it might disappear inside! I did this several times, unaware that the card was meant to stop three-quarters of the way in. The man standing behind me, waiting to use the phone, looked on in disbelief! He finally spoke up.
"What on earth are you doing?" he said.
Looking at him sheepishly I replied, "I'm afraid the phone will eat up my credit card."
Completely dumbfounded, he said, "Where in heck are you from?"
Trying to avoid the embarrassing situation, I replied with a slightly French accent, "I'm from Paris, France."
Taking pity on me, he reached over and pushed my credit card firmly into the slot (it didn't disappear) and said, "Just dial the number you want. Your card will be OK."
We were picked up at the airport by Krsna karuna das, a disciple of Radhanath Maharaja, who drove us south to San Jose where we were to observe the Gaura-purnima festival the next day. I was stupefied as we drove through the cities of Palo Alto and San Mateo, the famous Silicon Valley of California which produces much of the world's software for the computer industry. Everything was so opulent - the highways, the cars, the buildings, the shopping centers! Compared with my bases in Eastern Europe and Russia, where I've served for the past 16 years, everything seemed so clean, well organized and efficient.
Srila Prabhupada writes in his books that while traveling in this world, one can see both heaven and hell. No doubt! Recent travels have taken me through the most hellish conditions in both Russia and Africa, but now I was seeing "heaven on earth" in this part of America. On the flight from London, I read a report that America has generated more wealth in the past 10 years than has been available to the human race in the entire history of (what they know as) civilization. America is presently producing 33 percent of the world's economy, and as I would soon experience in walking through many American towns, you can get whatever you want, when you want it, anywhere, at any time.
But the opulence seemed strangely out of balance. As I looked out the window of the car, every second building seemed to be a fast food restaurant - a McDonald's, Denny's, Wendy's, or Presto Pasta. Fancy, expensive restaurants could also be seen here and there. From that I could conclude that although Americans are enjoying the greatest opulence of all time, they are paying a heavy price.
"There is no gathering the rose without being pricked by the thorn." [Fables of Bidpai, c.750]
They work so hard they have little, if any time to cook their own meals. The limitless fast food chains and restaurants in most towns indicate they prefer to grab a bite at Wendy's or McDonald's. The epitome of this became apparent to me a few weeks later on a flight from Arizona to New York. A smiling airline stewardess handed me a styrofoam box that read, "Real Fast Food - a tasty little snack served at jet speed."
Whatever fascination America held for this self-styled immigrant quickly faded, as I realized the heaven of California was simply the other side of the counterfeit coin of material existence. Being fixed in Krsna consciousness and having experienced the higher taste of devotional service to the Lord, a devotee is not attracted to living in heaven, nor is he repulsed by having to go to hell to serve his spiritual master.
na kutascana bibhyati
"Devotees solely engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana, never fear any condition of life. For them the heavenly planets, liberation and the hellish planets are all the same, for such devotees are interested only in the service of the Lord." [SB 6.17.28]
Gaura-purnima in San Jose was simple, but sweet. About 40 devotees attended the festivities, including a very wonderful god-brother of mine, Vaisesika prabhu. I had heard of Vaisesika as early as 1974. A tall and handsome devotee with a friendly smile, he was famous as a steady and determined book distributor. He was also well known as an avid reader and scholar of Srila Prabhupada's books. Through the years I never had the opportunity to sit down and get to know him (mainly because I was in Europe and he was in America), but I have sometimes used him as an example in my classes of an ideal sadhaka. He is a devotee who was always successful in distributing Srila Prabhupada's books - because he knew their contents. Not having heard of him for a number of years, I assumed that like many devotees with various other responsibilities, he had given up sankirtan at some point and got a regular job. Therefore, I was stunned when the San Jose devotees told me that Vaisesika has continued to distribute books almost every day! Although he does work to maintain himself and his good wife, Nirakula devi dasi, he can still be seen standing tall with his broad smile every morning at San Francisco Airport, addressing people as they get off the planes: "Excuse me sir, have you seen these books?" I offer my obeisances to such a sincere god-brother, and pray that I may imbibe his dedication in serving my spiritual master.
brahmanyah sila sampannah
satya sandho jitendriyah
atmavat sarva bhutanam
eka priya suhrttamah
"[Maharaja Prahlad] . . . was completely cultured as a qualified brahmana, having very good character and being determined to understand the Absolute Truth. He had full control of his senses and mind. . . . and he considered his teachers, spiritual masters and older god-brothers to be as good as the Supreme Personality of Godhead." [SB 7.4.31]
If someone asked me what was the greatest benefit in being a traveling preacher, I would reply that it is the opportunity to meet sincere devotees throughout the world. Srila Prabhupada once said that Lord Caitanya has placed His devotees in different parts of the world for the purpose of spreading His sankirtan mission.
After Gaura-purnima we traveled to southern California, where I was fortunate to get the brief association of another god-brother, Svavasa das. He is another devotee who has my constant admiration for his dedication to Srila Prabhupada. He has served as temple president of the Los Angeles temple for many years. Although I have heard that some temples in America are struggling, under Svavasa's guidance the Los Angeles temple has continued to steadily grow. Book distribution has never stopped, devotees continue to join, and the temple is maintained, in part, by a thriving gift shop that is situated within the temple complex. Devotees told me that numerous Hollywood movie stars often shop there.
In fact, Indian culture and philosophy appear to be very popular in America. Yoga, meditation and vegetarianism are practiced widely, and stores are full of books with spiritual messages. As a result, Krsna consciousness no longer carries a cult image in much of America. Times have changed. I even saw several billboards containing spiritual messages. Alluding to the temporary nature of life, one billboard in northern California read: "He who dies with the most toys, is still dead," while another in southern California said:
"Life is a game that can only be played - but never won."
It seems America is ripe for what our movement has to offer. When I first became a devotee, parts of the American public were somewhat skeptical about Krsna consciousness. One older lady, the mother of a devotee, recently told me that she once asked Srila Prabhupada why he didn't come to America earlier than 1965. He smiled and replied, "Because you weren't ready."
But now America seems more ready than ever. Unfortunately, it appears that our movement has not developed enough through the years to meet that need. I suppose there are a number of reasons for this, but it seems other spiritual movements have taken advantage of ISKCON's pioneer work in introducing Vedic culture in the US and are thriving. Buddhism is especially popular, although Buddhism is nothing more than covered atheism.
We spent several days in the Laguna Beach temple. The temple president, Tukarama prabhu, has been instrumental in organizing my American tour. Knowing the potential for preaching in America and wanting to help the temples here, Tukarama has been inviting sannyasis like myself to come to America for years. In Laguna Beach I also had the opportunity to associate with a dear god-brother, Adya prabhu. Enlivened by reports of the success of our festival program in Poland, he gave generously to help support it. The prasadam in Laguna Beach was especially wonderful, but after I left, in order to maintain my health I had to resolve to follow a Bengali proverb:
"There is not too much a young man can eat - nor too little an old man can eat!"
Inviting a devotee to take prasadam in one's house, and accepting such an invitation, are two of the six exchanges of love enjoyed between devotees as described in Upadesamrta. But a traveling preacher must be careful in this regard. Often he can have three preaching programs a day - and that may well mean three big meals a day! Recently I have been employing Queen Elizabeth II's reported technique, which is to eat a full meal at the beginning of the day, before any programs, and simply take a few bites of food at any engagements during the day.
Our trip through California was hectic, and by the time we reached our next destination, Arizona, I was completely exhausted. When I asked Sri Prahlad why he thought I was so tired, he looked at me incredulously and replied, "Because you've been on the road for 31 years!"
The morning after our arrival in Phoenix, I was unable to get up for mangala-arati. In fact, I lay in bed until well after 7am. Finally, I pulled myself out of my sleeping bag, reflecting on Srila Prabhupada's statement to Giriraja Maharaja: "If the Supreme Lord, Narayana, got up late and didn't wash his mouth in the morning, even Laksmi would leave him!"
Arizona showed me another interesting face of America. A desert region, it is the fourth most popular state in the US for tourism. Phoenix is the second fastest-growing city in the country. I found this surprising, for I couldn't imagine what in the world would attract someone to move to a desert. But I would soon find out!
My god-brother, Dasarath prabhu, and his good wife, Sandamani dasi, have built up two very impressive temples in Phoenix and Tucson. In Phoenix they purchased a large building that is now home to very beautiful Radha-Krsna Deities named Radha-Madhava Hari. The mainly Indian congregation numbers in the thousands and the devotees are well known throughout the city.
In Tucson, 160km south, they have a world-class Govinda's vegetarian restaurant on the temple property that serves more than 30,000 people a year. In its October 30, 1998, edition, the prominent national and globally read newspaper, USA Today, reviewed Govinda's in the entertainment section. Appearing as one of six restaurants described as top picks of the country, Govinda's was chosen as "the most unique eatery in Tucson." Complete with a large and beautiful outdoor patio that seats many guests, the feature of the restaurant is its excellent food and exotic ambiance.
Seeing that I was completely exhausted that morning, Dasarath suggested he take me into the desert to "refresh my soul." At first I hesitated, wondering what business a sannyasi had taking time off for a jaunt into the desert. But at dawn, while chanting my rounds outside, I had noticed the unique beauty of the desert. Coincidentally, that morning I had been reading the first canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, where Narada Muni describes how he became free from the fatigue of traveling, by taking shelter of the beauty of nature:
"I took this as the special mercy of the Lord, who always desires benediction for His devotees, and so thinking, I started for the north.
"After my departure, I passed through many flourishing metropolises, towns, villages, animal farms, mines, agricultural lands, valleys, flower gardens, nursery gardens and natural forests.
"I passed through hills and mountains full of reservoirs of various minerals like gold, silver and copper, and through tracts of land with reservoirs of water filled with beautiful lotus flowers, fit for the denizens of heaven, decorated with bewildered bees and singing birds.
"Thus traveling, I felt tired, both bodily and mentally, and I was both thirsty and hungry. So I took a bath in a river lake and also drank water. By contacting water, I got relief from my exhaustion." [SB 1.6.11-12,14]
Though I couldn't imagine a "river lake" in the desert by which I could relieve my fatigue, the natural beauty and absolute quiet seemed to beckon me for a brief respite. So I agreed to go - and off we went with Sri Prahald and Rukmini Priya.
On the way to a nearby canyon we passed a large Navajo Indian reservation. Dasarath explained to me that the native American Indians mostly keep to themselves on the reservation - watching television and drinking liquor. Recently, by building large casinos on their reservations they have attracted many tourists and made a lot of money. I asked if any Navajo Indians had ever become devotees, and he replied that to his knowledge only one native Indian had ever joined ISKCON. A young lady with a bad drinking habit, she had a hard time refraining from liquor. The devotees tried to supplement her habit with large quantities of gulabjammon juice - but in the long run she gave in to her old ways and returned to the reservation.
We drove several kilometers into the desert and eventually came to the entrance of a deep canyon. As we drove into the canyon, it was as if we were entering another world. A small river cascaded down unusual rock formations that appeared like a scene from the moon. Huge cactuses grew everywhere, some of them reaching 30ft high. Dasarath explained that this particular cactus grows only in this region of the world. The big ones can weigh as much as seven tons and live as long as 150 years. Dry and barren, except for the large cactuses, the area seemed uninhabitable. But Dasarath explained that there was in fact much wildlife in the canyon, including mountain lions, black bears and big horn sheep. Many animals, like coyotes, tortoises and snakes, come out only at night. Beautiful desert flowers bloomed in isolated patches, and the entire atmosphere was peaceful and tranquil. In fact, there was a stillness in that canyon that I had never experienced anywhere else. It was almost mystical and surprisingly therapeutic. As we proceeded further, I chanted softly on my beads. Time went by, and chanting in such an environment gave me a sense of peacefulness I hadn't felt in a long time. As we were leaving, I felt drawn back to the quiet of the desert and resolved that I would come again. My brief encounter with the solitude and calmness of this part of Krsna's creation had an amazing effect on me.
At the same time, I knew that because of my many services and responsibilities, I probably wouldn't be back. Deep inside, I knew that I will enjoy real peace and full satisfaction only when my service in helping Srila Prabhupada's mission is perfected. That is my duty as his disciple. As Henry Miller once wrote, "The only peace, the only security, is in fulfillment."
Surprisingly, I actually find the greatest peace and happiness while pursuing the greater challenges in service to my spiritual master. A well-known writer once observed that peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of God, no matter what the conflict. I feel closest to Krsna while preaching - especially on our festival tour in Poland. I can honestly say that my greatest satisfaction in life comes when after days of samkirtan and setting up our program in a town, thousands of people stream through the gates of our festival. Although I may be exhausted, I often stand on the main stage and just watch the people (who are eager for experiencing the wonderful world of Hare Krsna) pour in. I think of Srila Prabhupada and how happy he must be, looking down benevolently from his transcendental position in the spiritual sky. Those are the moments I feel most close to him . . . and those are those moments I feel the greatest peace and joy within my heart. Coming out of that mystical desert canyon I was refreshed and ready to travel on. How happy I am to be like this - always preaching and moving on!
Dearest Srila Prabhupada,
This year, in the wake of a disaster that claimed a friend
And brought the walls crumbling down,
I took up my staff and looked to the road,
Hoping to find you again.
To gain your favor I gave up all that I owned
And tried to renounce my pride,
And ever more cautious of women and fame,
I traveled far and wide.
Moving once in the north and twice in the south
And east and west in turn,
I learned firsthand of God's creation
And your kind mercy as well.
Soon austerity came, claiming all of my wealth,
But remained a welcome friend,
And strength I gained, and detachment too,
While traveling through foreign lands.
With no place to live, or a home of my own,
I learned to take shelter in you,
And the constant vision of birth and death
Kept me learned and true to my vows.
In forests and cities, villages and towns,
Repeating your words I roamed,
Witnessing your mercy, as kind as you are,
In delivering the fallen and poor.
Disease came in summer and near death in the fall,
In a jungle far to the south.
But your saving grace and Nrsimha's mace
Kept me safe and protected through all.
Oh, bow happy I am to serve you like this,
Always preaching and traveling on!
As a flowing river remains always clean,
I pray to remain always pure.
In happiness and distress, in heat and cold
I want to keep fighting on,
Delivering your message, as you asked me to,
While I'm enthusiastic, youthful, and strong.
But Prabhupada, the road is long,
And there are many dangers in between
Where I pause now...
And you rest safely on the other shore.
So on this day, so full of grace, Please hear my fervent prayer:
Within my heart, beyond what's dark
There's a shining love for you.
So guide me right, keep me in the fight,
And away from Maya's glare,
And when all is done, and the battle's won,
Take me home to be with you again!
Your eternal servant
[ Vyasa Puja Offering to Srila Prabhupada - 1988 ]