Diary of a Traveling Preacher
HH Indradyumna Swami Maharaj
The road leading up to the old orphanage on the hill was icy, and so we needed several tries before our van reached the top. We'd get halfway, and then the wheels would spin on the ice and we'd begin sliding backwards. As we struggled, I could see little faces peering out of the orphanage windows, anxious that we'd make it. Deprived by destiny of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, they were hankering for some Christmas cheer, like all children at this time of year. When we finally succeeded in maneuvering beyond the icy patches, all the faces lit up and then suddenly disappeared. It wasn't hard to imagine where the children had gone-I envisioned all of them running out of their rooms and down the stairs to greet us.
It wasn't the first time I'd been to that house in Chelyabinsk, which has served as an orphanage since the communist era. I had come a year earlier during my last visit to the Ural Mountains region in central Russia. As I got out of the van, I saw that the house hadn't improved much-in fact, the place had deteriorated. The roof gutters hung over the side, paint was peeling off the walls, several windows were broken, and in general the creaky wooden building was badly in need of repair.
But there had been some improvements. As a result of the kirtan we'd had, the stories I'd told, and the wonderful feast we'd distributed the previous year, many children had taken a serious interest in devotional service. It hadn't taken much to convince the orphans about the happiness of Krsna consciousness. Srila Prabhupada once said that when a spark from a fire lands on wet grass it's extinguished at once, when it lands on damp grass it smolders for some time, but when it lands on dry grass it immediately ignites a fire. Similarly, when Krsna consciousness is presented to sinful materialists nothing usually happens, when it's presented to pious people they may become curious, but when it's presented to those seeking real relief from the miseries of material life, it often ignites within their hearts a fire of devotion to the Lord.
A few days after my last visit, several of the teenage boys in the orphanage had begun chanting Hare Krsna on beads, and gradually they had worked their way up to sixteen rounds a day. Their new-found enthusiasm was infectious, and soon other children became interested in chanting. Because the orphans were poor and couldn't afford to buy beads, they had ingeniously carved them from the branches of trees on the property. Before long, most of the fifty children were waking early in the morning to chant together. In the evenings they would assemble and read the Bhagavad-gita, the older boys trying their best to explain the philosophical concepts to the younger ones. The more talented children began drawing and painting Krsna's pastimes, and within a few weeks every room of the orphanage boasted several "windows to the spiritual world." Devotees from the area continued their weekly visits, bringing prasadam and having kirtan with the children. Those devotees soon became the kids' heroes.
But when some of the children refused to eat meat by feigning illness or lack of appetite, the authorities had finally had enough. They didn't appreciate Krsna consciousness like the children. At first they had agreed that devotees could visit and teach the orphans devotional practices, but after some time, when they saw the spontaneous attraction the children had developed for Krsna consciousness and how every one of them had embraced devotional service, they put a stop to the practices. They forbade the children to chant Hare Krsna, read Srila Prabhupada's books, or decorate the orphanage with devotional drawings and paintings. They couldn't forbid the devotees' visits, however, because they provided the children's main meal of the week. But the authorities stopped everything else-or so they thought.
In fact, Krsna consciousness had given the children such soothing relief from their bleak orphanage existence that nothing could hold them back. They began going to sleep early to wake up before dawn and chant softly on their beads so as not to wake the authorities. They would also meet in their rooms or on the playground and secretly share stories about Krsna. When three of the boys reached legal age and "graduated" from the orphanage, they went straight to the local temple and joined. Orphans who found a place in foster homes (a step up from the orphanage) continued their Krsna conscious practices and began interesting their new stepbrothers and stepsisters in devotional service.
A spiritual revolution was taking place in Chelyabinsk, with the orphanage at its center! Rumor had it that the head of the orphanage was about to really clamp down on all devotional activity-but then she mysteriously lost her job. When I heard this news, I suspected Krsna was taking a direct hand in the orphans' lives, and I saw the work of the Supersoul in everyone's heart when the new director turned out to be favorable to the devotees' visits and concern for the children. When she heard I was coming to Chelyabinsk, she asked the devotees to invite me to the orphanage to meet the children, most of whom had no memory of my previous visit because many new orphans had replaced the graduates and those who had gone to foster homes.
When I entered the room where the children were assembled, the head of the orphanage introduced me as a Hare Krsna monk from America. Most of the children had never met a foreigner, and as I stood tall before them with my shaved head, saffron robes, and tridanda, they stared in wonder. At that point one of their teachers ordered them to stand and sing a song for me. As they rose I couldn't help but feel pity for them-their clothes were obviously hand-me-downs, and some children didn't even have socks or shoelaces. A number of the little girls' heads had been shaved due to lice, and when I saw the dark circles under the children's eyes due to the rigors of orphanage life, the whole scene reminded me of old black-and-white pictures of distressed children in World War II. The lady at the piano cued them, and as she began to play, the children started mechanically singing a song about Christmas-but with no Christmas presents and no families to share them with, the children simply sang the blues.
Then the director asked a nine-year-old girl to come forward and recite a poem. Uttamasloka translated for me as she began: "And life is full of happiness at the time of the holiday season, when we meet and share the joys of life with all our friends and loved ones . . ." Suddenly she stopped short and her eyes welled up with tears. "But it's not actually like that," she said, and covering her face with her hands, she ran crying back to her seat.
For a few moments no one said or did anything. Then I stood up and said, "OK kids, we don't want this to be an unhappy holiday! Everybody come sit down here on the floor with me!"
The children hesitated, unused to such informality. "It's OK," said the director, and all the children ran forward and sat close to me.
"We'll make sure you have a nice holiday-at least today," I said to the little girl who had tried to recite the poem. After telling the kids a few Krsna pastimes, which had them wide-eyed and opened-mouthed, I grabbed a mrdanga and said, "And now our holiday will really begin!"
I asked them if they knew the Hare Krsna song we sing, but only three children raised their hands, the ones who were still in the orphanage from the previous year. We were beginning anew, so I went through the mantra several times until they had learnt it. Then I started the kirtan. At first the children seemed too shy to chant, but when they noticed last year's veterans chanting enthusiastically, it caught on, and soon all fifty kids were chanting at the top of their lungs. When one of them stood up spontaneously to dance they all followed, and soon we were all dancing around the room. The children were desperate to enjoy the holiday season and gave the kirtan all they had, and in so doing everyone was swept away in bliss. I had the kids take turns dancing in the middle of our big circle, and even the orphanage teachers were amazed at their feats of twisting, turning, and leaping. There was no containing them, and I began to wonder if I had the energy to keep up. After an hour I brought the kirtan to a close, and as I sat on the floor all the kids crowded around me. One boy said, "That was a real party, sir!"
Just then several devotees brought in a multilayered cake. The children's eyes lit up and they all ran for their plates. I served big pieces to everyone, and they all came back for seconds. I told a few more pastimes of Krsna as the children, completely satisfied by kirtan and prasadam, sat listening intently.
Finally, as I stood up to go, the kids pushed one of the older boys forward with a question: "Can we write to you?"
"Yes, of course," I said, "and I'll write back." Then there was a stampede for pencils and paper-they wanted to write their first letter right then and there!
As they started to write, one boy looked up and said, "What do we call you?"
"Just call me Maharaja," I said.
"What does it mean?" he said.
"Something like a big father," I said, and all the kids clapped.
As we got into our van and started back down the icy road, with fifty or so heartfelt letters tucked into my bag, I again saw all the little faces peering from behind the windowpanes. But this time each one was smiling. I laughed to myself and wondered how soon it would be before they'd all be carving their japa beads and putting pictures of Krsna on the walls. It didn't look like there'd be any impediment this time. The Hare Krsna revolution in Chelyabinsk would continue in earnest.
karnanandi-kala-dhvanir vahatu me jihva-maru-prangane
sri-caitanya daya-nidhe tava lasal-lila-sudha-svardhuni
"O my merciful Lord Caitanya, may the nectarean Ganges waters of Your transcendental activities flow on the surface of my desertlike tongue. Beautifying these waters are the lotus flowers of singing, dancing and loud chanting of Krsna's holy name, which are the pleasure abodes of unalloyed devotees. These devotees are compared to swans, ducks and bees. The river's flowing produces a melodious sound that gladdens their ears." [Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 2.2]