Diary of a Traveling Preacher
HH Indradyumna Swami Maharaj
After our visit to the orphanage in Chelyabinsk, Uttamasloka das and I caught a flight to Moscow. It was the first time in many weeks that we'd afforded the luxury to fly, and although Russian airline Aeroflot is undoubtedly my least favorite, I welcomed the change. The rigors of driving and taking trains across the vast expanse of Siberia and through the Urals had taken its toll on me. I was completely exhausted. It wasn't simply the mode of transportation, but living in a different apartment almost every night, eating irregularly, and having practically no regular sleep. Altogether, it had brought my health to a dangerously low level. I was aware of it because my vision was sometimes blurring, my knees gave in when I walked up stairs, and I was forgetting the most simple things. My body was warning me to slow down.
On the flight to Moscow I began seriously considering my god-brother, Atmarama prabhu's invitation to visit the Sydney temple. He had recently offered to pay for my flight there as well as give a donation towards my festival tour in Poland. He repeatedly mentioned the hot summer in Australia. As I settled into my seat for the flight to Moscow, I asked Uttamasloka how my Russian disciples would feel if I took time away to briefly visit Australia. I didn't even hear his answer as I fell asleep. I woke up three hours later as our plane began its descent into Moscow. Uttamasloka was shaking me, trying to wake me from my unconscious state. As I came to, he repeated what must have been his answer to my question hours ago, "Your disciples will be disappointed if you shorten your Russian tour, but they will certainly understand."
When we arrived at a disciple's apartment in Moscow, I called Atmarama and accepted his invitation. As I had to wait two days for the flight to Australia, I decided to go to Riga in Latvia to spend time with the devotees there. Latvia was in the midst of the severest winter in memory, and when I arrived at the airport the devotees apologized for the austere conditions. I asked how cold it was, and they replied, "Minus 5░C."
To their amazement I replied, "Oh, that's warm," as I remembered the chilling minus 47░C I had endured for weeks in Siberia. In fact, when we left the airport and walked outside, I took off my jacket, wearing only my heavy sweater on the way to the car.
After many years of legal battles, the Latvian devotees have finally gained ownership of their temple building, situated on one of Riga's main streets. The five-story building is over 100 years old, but in fairly good shape. Its prominent location downtown adds to the stature of the temple restaurant inside the building and the attendance at the Sunday feasts. The devotees have also maintained a Food for Life program in Riga for nine years. Hundreds of plates of prasadam are served daily from a temple kitchen on street level.
Because I was in Riga for only two days, the devotees kept me busy with classes, kirtans and individual meetings with my disciples. But I had to struggle through every minute, as my health continued to deteriorate. I began to seriously consider taking a month or two break, before this year's Polish festival tour begins. I will be 53 in May, and Canakya Pandit's aphorism about aging was becoming more apparent to me:
"A horse becomes old by remaining tied up, a woman ages by lack of attention from her husband, a garment becomes old by being left in the sun, and a man becomes old by constant travel."
[Niti Sastra, Chapter 4, Verse 7]
But I had many miles to go before experiencing the peace and solitude any rest and recuperation would offer. On December 26, I boarded a flight for Moscow where I then caught a 15-hour flight to Tokyo. I had requested the travel agent for a day's stopover in Tokyo before continuing south to Sydney. I wanted a break in the journey to ease the travel, but also out of curiosity to see Japan. It is one of the few countries I haven't been to in my years as a traveling preacher.
Visiting the many parts of God's creation is one of the ways in which a sannyasi gains detachment from the world and inspiration to go back home, back to the spiritual sky. Everywhere a sannyasi goes in the temporary, material world he sees nothing that compares with the beauty of the spiritual world he hears about in the Vedic scriptures.
"It is the duty of a mendicant to experience all varieties of God's creation by traveling alone through all forests, hills, towns, villages, etc., to gain faith in God and strength of mind as well as to enlighten the inhabitants with the message of God."
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.6.13, purport]
For some reason I had assumed Tokyo would be warm, and I wasn't prepared for the chilly winter weather that was, in fact, in season. I had not brought any warm clothes, and during my 36-hour layover (during which the Japanese devotees kindly showed me their temple, restaurant and some of the country's sites) I started to come down with bronchitis. Of course, the illness was the cumulative affect of many months of intense service in austere conditions, and by the time I reached Sydney two days later, even the warmth of summer couldn't check the illness.
Nevertheless, although the bronchitis got worse day by day, I gave my best to preaching during my 10-day visit to Australia and New Zealand and tried not to let on how sick I was getting. After several days in Sydney, I traveled north to the Gold Coast, Australia's summer resort area, and participated in a wonderful evening Ratha-yatra festival in Byron Bay in New South Wales on December 31. Over 45,000 people witnessed the chariot festival that had many dancing in kirtan with us until the stroke of midnight, when we all welcomed in the New Year with Krsna's holy names.
The next day, as I lay ill in bed at the New Govardhan farm, I decided that Mother Nature was giving me a clear signal: it was time to stop for a rest. I decided not to return to the Russian winter and instead booked a ticket to Durban, South Africa. The devotees there keep a room for me in the temple - a vestige from when I was temple president in 1987. It would also be mid-summer there, and I figured I could rest and recuperate completely before a preaching tour of America with Sri Prahlad in March and April.
To confirm my decision, that morning a young boy walked up to me on my way to the temple and said, "You don't look well, Maharaja. My daddy says you're traveling too much. He says it's not good. He says more rest and a good swim would fix you up."
"OK," I replied, remembering the swimming pool near the temple in Durban - and the words of Lord Jesus, "From the mouth of a child."
On January 7, I flew from Sydney to Johannesburg. It was a long flight, during which I sat next to a businessman from New Zealand. An hour into the flight, he asked me who I was and what I was doing. He had heard something about the Krsna consciousness movement and wanted to know more. I told him I was a traveling monk on my way to South Africa for rest and recuperation. I mentioned a few of the ordeals of traveling that I had experienced in the past few months, but he wasn't impressed. In fact, he replied that I shouldn't complain. Then he showed me a book he was reading, Farther Than Any Man, about the life of Captain James Cook, the 18th century British navigator. He briefly explained that traveling during the days of Captain Cook was much more difficult and austere than I could ever imagine. He handed the book to me and asked me to read the first chapter. Out of curiosity, I began to read.
Captain Cook was a sailor by profession, as well as an adventurer, but his life at sea was certainly not a pleasure cruise. The wooden sailing ships in those days could hardly be called comfortable or safe. The upper decks were full with huge masts and ropes, leaving little space for walking. Down below, the crew slept in dingy, rat-infested, foul-smelling holds. Sailors slept in hammocks 2m long and strung just 350cm apart. At sea they faced storms, lightning, freezing temperatures, danger from fire, and sudden death from crashing masts or amputation from snapped ropes.
The ships' toilets - "seats of ease" - were planks, one extended over either side of the bow. A hole was cut, and the edges sanded. A man did his business precariously, dangling over an open ocean. When the weather was perfectly calm (which was rare), there was no problem, but when the sea was violent, answering nature's call became difficult - if not extremely dangerous.
"Those who go to sea for pleasure would go to hell for pastime" was a popular saying. If one chose to travel from Australia to South Africa (as I was doing), his association would be more austere than my friend the businessman, who comfortably fell asleep as I read the first chapter of his book.
Sailors in those days were poor, foul-mouthed and disease prone. Most would die at sea, so they drank as if there were no tomorrow. Earnings were often squandered gambling or getting drunk, and fights were common because of heavy drinking and the close living quarters. The fights tended to be bloody and fatal, as sailors were in the habit of arming themselves with a sharp knife at all times.
Most sailors in the Royal Navy in those days were the dregs of society, physically abducted by press gangs and thrown onboard ships against their will. Most didn't know how to swim and were prone to seasickness. The long duration of voyages meant ships were deliberately over-manned at the start to compensate for the multitudes of deaths. Hundreds of men died of typhus or scurvy on every voyage.
I'd had enough after finishing the first chapter and put the book aside, counting my blessings as a traveling preacher in the 21st century. I wasn't ready to give up my idea of a short break for one month, but I would never complain again about the trans-Siberian railroad. I never had to deal with typhus, scurvy and drunken sailors wielding knives!
I landed in South Africa on January 8. After resting for a few days, I did a little preaching to keep in form, including an interview with a local newspaper. The subject was genetic engineering through cloning, for the eventual purpose of using pigs' organs for human transplants. I told the reporter that such procedures were demoniac, and the severe karmic reactions for such experiments on animals far out-weighed the so-called medical benefits. I quoted Prahlad Maharaja in Srimad-Bhagavatam - a verse which states that often the solution the materialists pose for solving problems is worse than the problem itself.
yasmat priyapriya viyoga samyoga janma
sokagnina sakala yonisu dahyamanah
duhkhausadham tad api du¨kham atad dhiyaham
bhuman bhramami vada me tava dasya yogam
"O great one, O Supreme Lord, because of combination with pleasing and displeasing circumstances and because of separation from them, one is placed in a most regrettable position, within heavenly or hellish planets, as if burning in a fire of lamentation. Although there are many remedies by which to get out of miserable life, any such remedies in the material world are more miserable than the miseries themselves. Therefore I think that the only remedy is to engage in Your service. Kindly instruct me in such service." [Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.9.17]
The next day my picture, along with my name, appeared on the second page of the newspaper with the article condemning cloning.
After one week in Durban, I decided to begin a light exercise program to build back my strength. Remembering the young boy's words at New Govardhan, whose father had recommended a good swim, I decided to visit the nearby swimming pool. The next morning, as I dove in the clear water and raced back and forth in the lanes, I remembered my days as a swimmer in high school. Memories of racing competitions surfaced in my mind. My father and mother would often be in the bleachers cheering me on. But I quickly thought, "Of what use are such memories, now faded with time? Where are all the family members who used to encourage me? Most are dead and gone. Now I'm alone in a pool, just exercising to stay alive."
plavanam srotaso yatha
"Many planks and sticks, unable to stay together, are carried away by the force of a river's waves. Similarly, although we are intimately related with friends and family members, we are unable to stay together because of our varied past deeds and the waves of time."
Pushing aside thoughts of times gone by, I began reciting Sanskrit slokas that I had been learning during the past few weeks. With each stroke in the water, I repeated a line from a verse and tried to remember the meanings. After swimming 1km (which surprised even myself), I sat catching my breath on the side of the pool. An elderly Indian man, who had just finished his own exercise in the pool, came alongside me and said, "Aren't you the swami whose interview about cloning pigs appeared in the newspaper yesterday?"
"Yes, sir," I said, "that was me."
"I appreciated your comments," he said. "Cloning is tampering with the laws of nature given by God. No good can come from it. But Swami, I have another question for you."
"Yes, of course," I said, adjusting my goggles for my next set of laps.
"You're a sannyasi," he said. "What business do you have in a pool like this? Sannyasis should be studying scripture or traveling to enlighten others."
"It's a long story," I said as I jumped back in the pool. "Come to the temple for the program tonight and we can discuss it."
I smiled to myself as I raced to the other end of the pool. It seemed I was subject to criticism whether I continued traveling or took a break! I remembered a story that Srila Prabhupada told of a man and his son's journey on a horse.
Once a man and his son were traveling to visit family in a nearby village. The man was riding the horse and the son was walking alongside. As they passed through one village, they heard a man criticize, "Just see, that man is riding the horse and his son has to walk."
Hearing this criticism, the man got off the horse and put his son on it. When they passed through the next village, a man spoke up saying, "Just look, the boy is riding the horse and his father has to walk."
So the man jumped on the horse along with his son, and they rode together towards the next village. As they entered the town, they heard a man exclaim, "Just consider how cruel that man and his son are. They are both riding the poor horse!"
Finally, the man and the boy got off the horse and walked alongside it into their relatives' village. But as soon as they arrived at their destination, their relatives greeted them with the words, "How foolish you both are not to ride on that horse."
That night the Indian gentleman came to the temple and asked for me. I was a little surprised when he came to my room. I asked him to sit down, and after a half hour of discussion he again brought up the issue of a sannyasi's traveling as opposed to recreation. Suddenly, an idea came to me and I reached into my dresser drawer, and pulling out my passport I handed it to him. The eighty-eight pages (I have had supplementary pages added three times) were full of immigration stamps from all over the world. His eyes lit up.
"You do travel a lot," he exclaimed.
"Yes," I replied, "and now on the advice of the Lord, I'm taking a short break."
"On the advice of the Lord?" he said, with a puzzled look on his face.
"Yes, on the advice of the Lord even a yogi is allowed recreation from time to time," I said.
Picking up the Bhagavad-gita, I read to him from the Sixth Chapter:
"He who is regulated in his habits of eating, sleeping, recreation and work can mitigate all material pains by practicing the yoga system." [Bhagavad-gita 6.17]
As he stood up, he smiled and said, "We'll meet at the pool tomorrow, Swami.
Thank you very much."