Diary of a Traveling Preacher
With this chapter, I begin a new volume of my Diary of a Traveling Preacher.
Due to the threat of war in Afghanistan and unrest in the surrounding region, I decided to postpone my trip to India for three weeks until the situation became clear. Instead I flew to the United States on September 16. My main purpose was to visit one or two temples and associate with several god-brothers.
My flight out of London was one of the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean after the five-day, government-imposed ban on international flights into the US following the terrorist attacks in New York City and near Washington, DC. Our flight was delayed two hours because of security at London's Heathrow Airport, where each passenger was treated as a potential terrorist and searched three times before boarding.
Because of the attacks, and the resulting media coverage, all the passengers on the flight were nervous and tense. I was sitting next to an African woman, who started shaking uncontrollably just before take-off. I called an air hostess, who asked me to leave my seat while she spoke to the woman. When the air hostess left, I came back and asked the lady if everything was all right. She said, "They know why I'm so nervous, but they won't let me tell anyone."
Wanting to ally her fears, I said, "It's OK, you can tell me what the problem is. After all, we'll be sitting next to each other for the next 12 hours."
Leaning over, she whispered softly, "Two Arab men tried to hijack the British Airways flight I was on from Nairobi to London yesterday. They came aboard just before we left, pulled out guns and threatened to kill us. Several men jumped up and wrestled them to the ground, and minutes later the police arrived and took them away. The cabin crew on this flight know about it and asked me not to mention the incident to anyone. But I'm so scared!"
I told her that this world is always a dangerous place, but if we are conscious of God and pray for His shelter, He will protect us. Seeing me fingering my japa beads, she said, "Is that what you're doing there?"
"Yes," I replied. "I'm chanting God's names."
She asked if she could listen.
"Of course," I said, and I started chanting louder. She gradually calmed down, and by the time the flight took off she was peaceful.
An hour later, she turned to me and said, "Your prayers are very powerful.
Can you teach them to me?"
I then taught her the maha mantra, which she carefully noted on a piece of paper.
As our flight was landing in San Diego, California, 12 hours later, I watched as she took out the paper from her purse and softly chanted the maha mantra to herself. Observing her newfound faith in Krsna's holy names brought back memories of my own experiences while first chanting Hare Krsna, about 32 years ago. Although at that time I knew little or nothing of the glories of the holy names, they quickly awakened within me a keen interest in spiritual life similar to the amazing experience we read about in Srimad-Bhagavatam, whereby Narada Muni becomes interested in Krsna consciousness after his first bite of the prasadam given to him by some merciful devotees.
ucchista lepan anumodito dvijaih
sakrt sma bhunje tad apasta kilbisah
evam pravrttasya visuddha cetasas
tad dharma evatma rucih prajayate
"Once only, by their permission, I took the remnants of their food, and by so doing all my sins were at once eradicated. Thus being engaged, I became purified in heart, and at that time the very nature of the transcendentalist became attractive to me."
Seeing the distraught lady's faith in the holy names increased my own desire to chant more and continue to discover new and ever-fresh realizations in service to the holy names.
I was met at San Diego Airport by my son, Gaura Sakti, who took me to his home where I rested for several days. His wife had recently given birth to a baby girl, whom they named Amara Keli, and one evening Gaura and I reminisced about his own growing up in Krsna consciousness. At one point he expressed his disappointment that he was born too late to have met Srila Prabhupada, but was pleasantly surprised when I told him that he had, in fact, received mercy from Srila Prabhupada in a personal exchange with him when he was barely 12 months.
Srila Prabhupada was visiting our New Mayapur community in France in the summer of 1974, when one afternoon I was carrying Gaura on my shoulders on a walk around the Chateaux. At one point Srila Prabhupada looked out his window at us, and when Gaura saw Srila Prabhupada he started flapping his arms and kicking his legs, while calling out with eagerness the only word he knew, "Prabhupada! Prabhupada! Prabhupada!"
Seeing his enthusiasm, Srila Prabhupada's eyes opened wide and he waved at Gaura, causing the boy to become so excited that he almost fell off my shoulders.
That night in a darsan with the devotees, Srila Prabhupada referred to the incident, saying, "Today one young boy become so excited when he saw me, that it was as if we were old friends!"
After my rest in San Diego, Gaura drove me north to stay a few days in the Laguna Beach temple. On the way we stopped at a roadside stall next to a farm to buy some fruits and vegetables. As Gaura was picking out the items he wanted, I noticed the lady who owned the farm watching me as I slowly paced back and forth chanting my rounds.
Gaura took time to pick out a large supply of vegetables, and when the lady totaled up his purchase it came to $120. But as he reached for his wallet, the woman said to him, "Take everything home for free. These fruits and vegetables are a gift for the man you're with."
Surprised, Gaura said to the woman, "That's my father."
She said, "I've been watching him carefully. The world needs more people like him."
I was embarrassed by her remarks, which caused a number of other shoppers to look admiringly at me, but was aware that the recent events in New York had made many Americans more conscious of God and respectful to spiritual traditions and values. In the few days I had been in the US, a number of people had approached asking me to explain why such terrible things had happened. I generally experience such philosophical inquiries only in trouble spots where I preach, like Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union, but suddenly many Americans were inquiring about the temporary and miserable nature of this world and searching for a positive alternative.
I wondered if their interest would last? One has to be careful, because the material nature can quickly cover whatever minute spiritual knowledge we glean. There is a saying to this effect, smasana-vairagya, which means the detachment from worldly affairs that one feels upon attending a funeral, but which quickly disappears as soon as one leaves and begins one's activities again.
It's unfortunate that it often takes a tragedy to wake us up to the purpose of our existence. It's a fact that people are generally more pious in times of distress. Once Haridas Thakur was sharing a prison cell with some criminals. Knowing the ability of a saintly person to bestow mercy, several criminals approached Haridas Thakur and said, "O great sadhu, please give us the blessing that we may quickly be released from this miserable place!"
Reflecting for a moment, Haridas Thakur replied, "My blessings are that you remain in this prison cell for many years to come."
The prisoners were shocked, and said, "Dear sadhu, what kind of blessing is that?"
Haridas Thakur replied, "I have given you this blessing because generally you are all disrespectful to saintly persons. But here in jail, as a result of your miserable condition, you are humbled in the presence of a sadhu and thus your chances for spiritual emancipation are quite good. So better you remain in this miserable condition for as long as possible!"
While in Laguna Beach I had the opportunity to thank the temple president, Tukarama prabhu, for all the help he has given our festival tour in Poland during the past year. It was he who organized our fund-raising drive in the US last spring, which for all practical purposes gave us the opportunity to put on festivals for a full five months.
During my visit to Laguna Beach the Lord instructed me in a most unusual way. One evening as I sat in my room, I overheard a conversation among brahmacaris in the next room. They were speaking about several sannyasis, including myself, who had recently visited the temple, and going over the merits of their classes. When they came to me there was a brief silence, until one boy said, "I like his classes - but he's not very erudite."
The boy's words pierced my heart, but after several moments I swallowed my pride and admitted to myself that had I put as much time over the years into studying Srila Prabhupada's books as I had into spreading Krsna consciousness, the boy may have spoken differently. The secret is in finding the balance between bhajan and preaching. The boy's words served to deepen my resolve to hurry to Vrindavan to focus on hearing and chanting.
A few minutes later Tukarama came into my room and asked me to give the Sunday Feast lecture.
Reflecting on the brahmacari's words I hesitated for a few moments, but then agreed. When I went downstairs to give the lecture, I found the temple room packed with hundreds of devotees and guests. Preaching to non-devotees comes easily to me, if only because I've been doing it for most of my life as a devotee. So relaxed and confident I presented the basic philosophy of Krsna consciousness, quoting simple verses and telling stories to illustrate my points.
Afterwards, Tukurama approached me and said that it was the best Sunday Feast lecture he had ever heard. His words of appreciation eased the pain of my not being "erudite." The back-to-back condemnation and praise reminded me of Srila Prabhupada's advice to the gurukula teachers in Dallas, Texas, many years ago. He said that a good teacher knows the art of chastising and then encouraging his student. If a child makes a mistake, Srila Prabhupada said, then the teacher should first chastise him, but afterwards quickly smother the student with love and attention. On this occasion, Krsna scolded me for my negligence in study and then quickly embraced me with Tukarama's kind words.
From Laguna Beach I traveled north to the home of my dear god-brother, Giriraja Maharaja, who is still in the process of fully recovering from major heart surgery almost two years ago. Maharaja is one of my closest friends and I look to him for inspiration in many ways - most notably his deep love and attachment for Srila Prabhupada. I also admire his unique ability to draw from memory personal stories about Srila Prabhupada to illustrate philosophical points he makes during his preaching. He merits the most prestigious title any ISKCON devotee can achieve, that of being "a Prabhupada man."
On October 1, I flew to London and quickly caught a connecting flight to Moscow. The next morning I flew with my disciple, Jananivasa, to Dinamorsk in southern Russia to attend a big festival for devotees. On the flight, we sat next to an officer in the Russian Army who had recently returned from fighting guerrillas in Chechnya. The officer sat observing us silently for some time, and then suddenly exclaimed, "I am sorry that I killed so many men in the war."
An intense discussion ensued, during which Jananivasa explained the law of karma and how suffering is a result of our past impious deeds. With me coaching, he told how we can become free from such karma by engaging in devotional service to God. The officer listened carefully, and at the end of Jananivasa's discourse thanked us for the knowledge he had received.
In Dinamorsk, a resort on the Black Sea coast, 3000 devotees were attending a huge festival along with 12 ISKCON sannyasis. Due to jet lag I missed much association and many seminars, but made it a point to spend time with the many children who had come to the festival just to see me. Each morning, 30 of us walked along the beach as I told them stories of my travels and listened to the problems they experience growing up. Helping ISKCON children and inspiring them in their Krsna consciousness is another thing that I like to do, perhaps as a result of seeing the lasting effect Srila Prabhupada's act of mercy had on my own son when he was young.
But during the relaxing days in Dinamorsk my mind kept projecting to my Vrindavan pilgrimage, when I will have to meet the challenge of disciplining myself to sit and study for many hours a day. I had already decided that in order to get maximum time for hearing and chanting, I will have to cut down my eating and sleeping to the minimum and spend most of my time in self-imposed solitude. I also had plans to decrease my social life. For some devotees, such things come easy, but such an austere lifestyle may well prove a challenge for a preacher like myself, who's constantly on the move. I pray I will succeed.
I have a vision of myself further down the road, giving class to the young brahmacaris in the Laguna Beach temple, quoting Sanskrit verses which easily flow from my mouth as I elaborate on Srila Prabhupada's purports. I use numerous analogies, replete with commentaries of the previous acaryas, all the fruit of many months of disciplined study, watered by the critique of an unknowing boy and culled by time well spent in the holy abode of Vrindavan. The moment for change is at hand, for in 24 hours I leave for that sacred dhama.
"If people criticize me, what is that? If I become the poorest of the poor, barely able to eke out a living for my family, what is that? If all calamities befall me, what is that? If I do not serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead, what is that? I will patiently remain in Sri Vrindavan. My greatest desire will be fulfilled.
"Dressed in a kaupina and kantha, living by eating fruit fallen from the trees, not speaking useless words, not passing time in useless deeds, abandoning all pride, going to each house to beg a little alms, and following those for whom Sri Radhika is their entire life, I will live in Vrindavan."
[Vrindavan Mahimamrta, Chapter 1, Texts 64 and 65]