Diary of a Traveling Preacher
HH Indradyumna Swami Maharaj
On Tuesday, December 11, we awoke early to prepare for our journey to Krasnoyarsk, 1000km farther east in Siberia. I was a little nervous about traveling as it was ekadasi, which is generally considered an inauspicious day for starting a journey of any sort. My apprehensions were enhanced by the fact that I had entered a minor period of Rahu (within a major period of Ketu) that very day. The sub-period of Rahu will run for six months, and the forecast is anything but pleasant: "Favorable for spiritual endeavor, but marred by danger of sickness, air crashes, burns, moving vehicles and opposing enemies."
Rahu seemed to enter "stage right" when our plans to take a train directly to Krasnoyarsk were changed because the train was canceled. Uttamasloka suggested we drive 350km north to Novosibirsk and then catch a train to Krasnoyarsk. I objected, saying, "The road through the forest to Novosibirsk is unsafe, and if our vehicle was to break down we'd be in real trouble at minus 45°C outside!"
But there was no alternative, and by noon we were driving slowly north on the icy road to Novosibirsk. As a strong wind began to blow, I positioned my Nrsimha salagram sila in a small pouch just over my heart and prayed for a safe journey. With the Lord personally accompanying us, there was nothing to fear:
"Because a sannyasi has to be alone without any support or guarantee of support, he has simply to depend on the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. 'I shall never be alone,' one should think. 'Even if I live in the darkest regions of a forest I shall be accompanied by Krsna, and He will give me all protection.' That conviction is called abhayam, fearlessness. This state of mind is necessary for a person in the renounced order of life." [Bhagavad-gita 16.1-3, purport]
Recently, the Lord had come to me in His most fearful form of Ugra-Nrsimha.
My dear god-brother, Chaturatma prabhu, gave me a salagram sila that perfectly meets the criteria of an Ugra-Nrsimha sila. According to sastra, such a sila must have a big gaping mouth, large uneven cakras inside His mouth, must be tawny-brown in color and, most important, be "fearsome to behold." Chaturatma had been worshipping the sila for many years, but was uncomfortable with the puja because sastra says that only renunciants may worship the fearsome form of Ugra-Nrsimha. In that form, the Lord takes all material possessions away from His devotee in order to make him a fully surrendered soul. That is suitable for a sannyasi, but not necessarily for householders.
Rupa Goswami mentions some of the benefits of worshipping a Nrsimha salagram sila in his book, Padyavali: "A tulasi leaf offered to the lotus feet of the Nrsimha salagram sila destroys the sin of murder. Water that has washed the lotus feet of the Nrsimha salagram sila destroys the sin of theft. Foodstuff offered to the Nrsimha salagram sila destroys the sin of drinking liquor. Sincere surrender to the Nrsimha salagram sila destroys the sin of adultery with the wife of the spiritual master. Association with the devotees of the Nrsimha salagram sila destroys the sin of offenses to the devotees. This is the extraordinary glory of the Nrsimha salagram sila." [ Srila Rupa Goswami: Padyavali, Verse 116]
The drive north was risky, but I thought, "There is no use in having a salagram sila of this nature unless one is prepared to take risks for the Lord." This Deity will be my constant companion until the day I leave this mortal frame.
Two hours into our journey, our devotee driver began falling asleep and I made him pull over. Switching seats with him, I drove the car most of the rest of the way. We arrived safely in Novosibirsk five hours later, just in time to catch our train to Krasnoyarsk. As we settled in for the 15-hour journey through the Siberian countryside, I breathed easy. I prefer trains to cars while traveling in these remote areas.
Not long after leaving Novosibirsk we were passing through dense forest regions, blanketed in thick snowdrifts. Although rich in gold, iron ore, natural gas and oil, Siberia to this day remains mostly undeveloped due to its remote location and harsh climate. The northern area, in particular, is inaccessible to humans, with its treeless marshy plains that are perpetually frozen to great depths. Most of the rivers here are frozen solid six to nine months of the year. The only souls brave enough to venture beyond the cities are hunters searching for wolves, reindeer, bears, antelopes and, in the Amur River region near China, leopards and tigers. Perhaps another reason the region is slow to develop is the stigma attached to it. In the 1930s and 1940s the Soviets used it as a place to exile criminals and political dissidents. Siberian prison camps absorbed tens of millions of victims into a forced labor system that mainly worked the salt mines. Many perished. However, I have always found that the more extreme regions of the world are better for preaching. People are not in illusion about the temporary and miserable nature of this material world and are, therefore, more inclined to accept Krsna consciousness.
One hour into our journey, the lady in charge of our coach came to our compartment to check on our sheets and blankets. While doing so, I noticed she was carefully observing our luggage. Sometimes these ladies inform professional thieves on the train about travelers' belongings, and the thieves then deviously steal those possessions and reward the ladies with a few rubles. So before she left, I exchanged a few pleasantries with her and gave her 100 rubles, much more than any thief would reward her. She smiled at my insight and winked at me as she departed. We were safe. My giving her money was a tactful move, a "trick of the trade" of a traveling preacher. It was actually something I learned from Caitanya-caritamrta.
When Sanatan Goswami escaped from Nawab Hussain Shah's jail in Bengal, he traveled through the jungle with the intention of meeting Lord Caitanya at Vrindavan. Along the way he was accompanied by his servant, Isan, who without Sanatan Goswami's knowledge was carrying eight gold coins. Sanatan and his servant spent a night in a small hotel in the hilly tract of land known as Patada (in Bihar), where through his palmist their host learned that Isan had eight gold coins. Having decided to kill them and take the money, the hotel-keeper bided his time and treated the pair as honorable guests. However, having previously been involved in government affairs, Sanatan Goswami was well-versed in diplomacy and noted the extra respect the hotel-keeper was offering. Concluding that their host had evil intentions, Sanatan asked Isan how much money he had, and on being told gave the coins to the hotel-keeper. Impressed by Sanatan Goswami's gesture, as well as his intelligence, the hotel-keeper assisted him in his journey through the Hazaribagh mountains and out of Patada.
When we arrived in Krasnoyarsk we were met at the station by the temple president, my disciple Guru Vrata das, and a number of devotees. Due to its isolated location, Krasnoyarsk receives only one or two visiting sannyasis a year, so the devotees were very happy to see us. That evening, the devotees drove me to a hall program where, once again, I found a gathering of more than 500 enthusiastic congregation members. Among them I spotted a group of ten gypsy men whom I had met last year when visiting Krasnoyarsk. When they saw me they folded their hands in pranam and smiled. I turned to Guru Vrata and asked if we would be having a program for the gypsies while I was in Krasnoyarsk, something we had discussed on my previous visit. He replied, "Yes, Srila Gurudeva, they've been waiting one year for you."
The program that night was especially nice. Guru Vrata had informed me that many of the congregation were well educated, being teachers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen. So I carefully developed my theme of the glories of the holy name, accentuating it with verses and pastimes, and spoke for over an hour. After the lecture, each and every member of the audience, without exception, came forward in file and offered me a flower or a small donation. I was a little embarrassed by the generous response of so many learned people, and even while receiving their kind offerings I was eager to have kirtan with them as a gesture of my gratitude. I had to wait almost an hour before everyone had come forward, but then we had a kirtan that had everyone (even the finely dressed ladies and gentlemen) chanting and dancing in ecstasy.
The next morning, Guru Vrata came to my apartment and informed me that the leaders of the gypsy community had agreed that I could visit their village just outside of Krasnoyarsk. Guru Vrata himself was surprised, because no "outsiders" had ever been invited to the gypsy town. Gypsies are generally fiercely independent and keep to themselves, retaining their customs and traditions in an age when many ethnic groups are blending into society. But the ten men I had met last year have been practicing Krsna consciousness for more than four years and are regularly chanting sixteen rounds, following the regulative principles and visiting the temple. Last year, when I asked if I could visit their village they replied that the elders of their community would not accept it, but they promised to work on them. It appeared that the elders gave their consent only at the last moment.
It was arranged that we would meet in the house of one of the gypsy men who is practicing Krsna consciousness. No women were allowed, because gypsy tradition has it that ladies are not included in public functions involving outsiders. So myself and a group of devotee men headed out of town in the temple van, and after an hour and a half came to a village consisting mainly of old wooden houses. Gypsy children were playing in the snow, but when they saw our van they all ran away to the safety of their homes and peered out the windows at us.
Finding the house where the program was to be held, we got out of our van and walked to the door through the thick snowdrifts. I had no idea what to expect. When we knocked on the door, a gypsy devotee opened it and greeted us with, "Hari bol!" As we walked in, I was amazed at the devotional atmosphere in the home. Everything was spotlessly clean and there were nicely framed pictures of Krsna and Srila Prabhupada on practically every wall. There was one large bookcase in the living room which contained only Srila Prabhupada's books, and a nice altar with photographs of the disciplic succession and Panca Tattva on one side of the room.
I noticed that the gypsy men were a little nervous, and I was soon to discover the reason. They all motioned that I was to go upstairs to a large room where we would have our meeting. I walked up the stairs and into the room, where I found the nine elders of the community who had come personally to meet me, one of leaders of the Hare Krsna movement. The atmosphere was tense. As I entered I smiled and greeted them, with absolutely no response from any of the elders. Rather, they stared at me in disbelief, having never seen a devotee in robes before. A few of them even scowled as they looked me up and down. All were dressed in dark clothes and, with a chill in the old wooden house, some were still wearing their large fur coats. I also noted that several of them had scars on their heads and faces.
As I sat down on a big chair provided for me, the gypsy devotees and the temple devotees sat in front of me. When one of the gypsy devotees gave me a big flower garland I just smiled nervously at the nine elders, but again got only a cold stare.
After a few moments, I began my talk by stating that our two communities were closely related, because both had their origins in India. That I knew that gypsies hailed from India impressed the elders, especially the biggest man among them who appeared to be their leader. After I had spoken for some time about the similarities in our cultures (we are both God conscious communities and we both love to sing and dance), the leader suddenly stood up and, while pointing at the gypsy men who were practicing Krsna consciousness, challenged me loudly, "Do our people have to give up our culture to practice your religion!"
"No," I calmly replied, "it's not necessary. In the beginning, one simply has to add the chanting of Hare Krsna (the names of God) to one's life. You don't have to give up anything. By chanting, one naturally gives up all bad habits."
"Gypsies have bad habits?" he retorted, and at that very moment began coughing heavily, unable to control himself.
Praying to Krsna that my guess was right, I said, "Yes, smoking cigarettes is a nasty habit."
At that, everyone started laughing. Even the leader accepted that I had defeated him on that one, and he gave me a small (a very small) smile in recognition.
Then one of the elders, who was holding a badly injured hand (I learned later that it was a gunshot wound), challenged, "And our children?" That's all he said, but the inference was clear: "Are we interested in turning the gypsy children into Hare Krsna devotees?"
I thought for a moment, carefully choosing my words, knowing that the future of the gypsy devotees lay in what I said. "What is the harm if a child is being taught to love God?" I replied. "Love of God is natural and the most important thing a child can learn. Nowadays, children are losing the sense of God consciousness and developing so many negative traits. If we encourage your children to love God through singing His names, dancing in happiness and eating pure food offered to Him in love, we are actually doing a service to your community. Gypsies believe in God. It is a part of your tradition."
All eyes were on the elder as everyone waited for him to respond. He sat there for a few moments, contemplating what I had said and looking at the five or six gypsy children sitting on the floor. Suddenly, to everyone's surprise, one of the children, a boy about 10 years old, looked up at me and said, "God is very great. How can we, who are so small, understand Him?"
I was stunned by his intelligent and thoughtful question, as was everyone. Looking at the boy, I replied, "Just as you learn an important subject matter from a teacher, you also learn about God from a teacher."
The boy said, "Are you such a teacher? Can you teach us about God?"
Putting aside humility for the need of the hour, I replied slowly, "Yes, by the mercy of my spiritual master, I am."
"Then tell me of what the soul is made," he said, "and tell me what happens to the soul when we die. Then tell me what God is like."
The room became completely silent. I looked at the gypsy elders and saw them staring at me intently.
I said, "The soul is a spiritual person with a spiritual form. God is the Supreme Person, and His form is also spiritual. As His parts and parcels, as His servants, we all have a loving relationship with Him. At the present moment, we have forgotten that relationship, because we think we are these material bodies and that the goal of life is material enjoyment."
I spoke pure Krsna conscious philosophy for forty-five minutes. I watched in amazement as everyone, children and adults, listened. The boy's questions had taken the conversation to another dimension, not challenging and threatening but sincere and searching. I could see that the elders were impressed with him and, by Krsna's grace, the philosophy I was presenting.
At the end of my talk, the leader of the gypsies himself began asking deeper questions. He'd heard about karma. "What is karma, and why is it bad to kill animals?" he said. And, finally, "How does one become free from sinful reactions?"
The last question was the one I had been waiting for, and I began to explain the glories of chanting Hare Krsna - how it destroys sinful reactions, how it uproots our material desires, and how it awakens our love for God. Then I took the drum and said boldly, "So now we will all sing and dance." Everyone's eyes lit up as their faces broke out in smiles. I thought to myself, "Now that we've broken the ice, here's our chance."
I started chanting slowly, beginning with Srila Prabhupada's pranam-mantra. I was concentrating and focusing on His Divine Grace, praying that the chanting of the holy names would enter the hearts of the gypsy elders and purify them. To my knowledge, no gypsies have yet been initiated in Krsna consciousness. It would be a great victory if the community elders allowed their people to freely practice bhakti-yoga. When I got to the maha-mantra, I continued chanting slowly so that everyone could follow. I became so immersed in the chanting that I had my eyes closed for a long time, and when I finally opened them I was surprised to see everyone, including the gypsy leader, chanting Hare Krsna loudly with big smiles showing through their huge mustaches. Everyone was clapping and rocking back and forth. I kept the kirtan going, beating on the mrdanga loudly, for almost an hour. When I finally finished, I looked around and saw that once again the holy names had defeated all logic and reason and had melted the hearts of a few more conditioned souls.
Just at that moment, devotees started bringing in prasadam. A huge feast had been prepared, so all of us (devotees and gypsies alike) took our seats on the ground, and after saying the prayer to prasadam we then proceeded to honor it. The gypsy leader, however, couldn't sit comfortably on the ground because his body was so large, so he remained in his chair. Halfway through the meal he spoke up, and as he did everyone respectfully stopped eating. Looking at me, he said, "Sir, is it all right that I am sitting higher than you? I can't sit on the floor, but I don't want to disrespect you."
I replied, "No, please don't worry. It's perfectly all right that you are sitting higher than me. I am simply a guest in your village. You are the leader."
When I said that he looked down, and he didn't say anything for the rest of the meal. Upon finishing prasadam, I washed my hands and stood up. When he saw me stand, the gypsy leader also stood, and we were spontaneously and simultaneously drawn to each other. As I approached him, I took off my big garland and, to the astonishment of all the gypsies, put it around his neck. There was a brief moment of silence, and then suddenly he reached out with his big arms and embraced me. As devotees and gypsies applauded, he held me tightly and I embraced him with the same intensity. Afterwards, he stepped back and announced, "They are welcome in our village at any time."
As I prepared to leave for another program at the temple, the gypsy children started pleading with their fathers to let them come to the temple with me. The men looked at their leader, and when he smiled and nodded all the children rushed to put on their coats and boots. Within a few moments they were piling into the back of the van with one of the fathers. We had kirtan all the way to temple, happily chanting the holy names of the Lord.
That evening I had seen the mercy of Lord Caitanya unfold before my very eyes. Krsna consciousness had come to stay in that gypsy community. I pray I may always have a part to play in Mahaprabhu's mission of mercy - the sankirtan movement of the holy names of the Lord.
"He does not consider whether a person is qualified or not. He does not see who is His own and who is an outsider. He does not consider who should receive and who should not. He does not consider whether it is the proper time. The Lord at once gives that nectar of pure devotional service that is difficult to attain even by hearing the message of the Lord, seeing the Deity, offering obeisances, meditating, or following a host of spiritual practices. That Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Gaurahari, is my only shelter."
[Prabodhananda Saraswati: Caitanya-candramrta, Chapter 7, Verse 75]