Chapter-1: Last Stops Before Vrndavana

 September 16–October 8, 2001

 By Indradyumna Swami

Because of the threat of war in Afghanistan and unrest in the surrounding region, I decided to postpone my trip to India until the situation cleared. Instead, I flew to the United States to visit one or two temples and associate with several godbrothers. 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 U.S. following the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Our flight was delayed two hours because security at London’s Heathrow Airport treated each passenger as a potential terrorist and searched them three times before they were allowed to board. The passengers on my flight were tense. I was seated next to an African woman, who began to shake uncontrollably just before take-off. I called an airhostess over, who asked me to leave my seat while she spoke to the woman. When the airhostess left I returned and asked the woman if she felt better. She said, “They know why I’m nervous, but they won’t let me tell anyone.”

To allay her fears I said, “It’s okay, you can tell me the problem. After all, we’ll be sitting next to one another for the next twelve hours.”

Leaning over, she whispered softly, “Two Arabs 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 wrestled them to the ground. Minutes later the police arrived and took them away. The cabin crew on this flight asked me not to mention the incident to anyone, but I’m terrified!”

I told the woman that this world is 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 asked, “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 began to chant louder. She gradually calmed, and by the time the flight took off, she had become peaceful.

An hour later she turned to me and said, “Your prayers are powerful. Can you teach them to me?” I then taught her the words to the maha-mantra, which she carefully noted on a piece of paper.

As our flight was landing in San Diego, California twelve hours later, I watched as she took the paper from her purse and softly chanted the maha-mantra to herself. Observing her newfound faith in Krishna’s holy name re-minded me of my own experiences when I first began to chant Hare Krishna thirty-two years ago. Although I knew little or nothing about the holy name’s glories, chanting quickly awakened in me a keen interest in spiritu-al life. My awakening has sometimes reminded me of Narada Muni’s amazing experience recorded in Srimad-Bhagavatam, where he became interested in Krishna consciousness after only one bite of prasadam received from merciful devotees.

ucchi߆a-lepan anumodito dvijai˙

sakrt sma bhuõje tad-apasta-kilbißa˙

evaµ pravrttasya viΩuddha-cetasas

tad-dharma evatma-ruci˙ 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.” (Bhag. 1.5.25)

Seeing the distraught woman’s faith in the holy name increased my own desire to chant and to continue to seek new realizations in service to the holy name.

My son Gaura-Sakti met me at the San Diego airport and drove me to his home to rest. His wife had recently given birth to a baby girl, whom they had named Amara-kelî. One evening Gaura and I were reminiscing about his own growing up. He expressed his disappointment that he had been born too late to have met Srila Prabhupada. He was pleasantly sur-prised when I told him that he had in fact received Srila Prabhupada’s mercy through a personal exchange they had had when he was barely twelve months old.

During the summer of 1974, Srila Prabhupada was visiting the New Mayapur community in France. One afternoon I was walking around the Chateau, carrying Gaura on my shoulders. I didn’t notice it at first, but Sri-la Prabhupada was watching us from his window. When Gaura saw Prabhu-pada, he waved his arms and kicked his legs, eagerly calling the only word he knew: “Prabhupada! Prabhupada! Prabhupada!” Seeing his enthusiasm, Prabhupada’s eyes widened and he waved at Gaura, causing the boy to be-come so excited that he almost fell off my shoulders.

Prabhupada referred to the incident that night while talking to the de-votees. “Today one young boy become so excited when he saw me that it was as if we were old friends!”

After a few day’s rest in San Diego, Gaura drove me north to the Laguna Beach temple, where I planned to stay for a few days. On the way, we stopped at a roadside stall next to a farm to buy fruits and vegetables. As Gaura was choosing the items, I noticed the woman who owned the farm watching me as I paced back and forth, chanting japa. Gaura took his time, and in the end brought a large supply of vegetables up to the cash register. The woman totaled his purchase. It came to $120. As Gaura reached for his wallet, the woman said, “Take it for free. These fruits and vegetables are a gift for the man you’re with.”

Surprised, Gaura told her, “That’s my father!”

“I’ve been watching him. The world needs more people like him.”

I was embarrassed by her remarks, which caused a number of other shoppers to look at me. I realized that the recent events in New York had made Americans more God conscious and respectful of spiritual val-ues. In the few days I had been in the United States, a number of people had approached me, asking me to explain why such terrible things had happened. I usually receive such philosophical inquiries only when I am visiting world trouble spots such as Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, or the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. Suddenly Americans are inquiring about the temporary and miserable nature of this world and searching for positive alternatives.

I wonder if their interest can last? Material nature easily covers what-ever minute spiritual knowledge we glean. The scriptures call this ΩmaΩana vairagya, the detachment we feel when we attend funerals. Such detach-menttends to disappear as soon as we leave the crematorium and again take up our activities.

It’s unfortunate that it often takes tragedy to awaken us to our existential purpose. People tend to be more pious when they are distressed. Haridasa Thakura once explained this while sharing a prison cell with cri-minals. Knowing a saint’s ability to bestow mercy, several criminals approached Haridasa Thakura and asked, “O great sadhu, please give us the blessing that we may quickly be released from this miserable place!”

Haridasa Thakura replied, “My blessings are that you remain in this prison cell for many years to come.”

The prisoners were shocked. “Dear sadhu, what kind of blessing is that?”

Haridasa Thakura replied, “I have given you this blessing because you are usually disrespectful to saintly persons. Being in such a miserable condition now has humbled you and made you respectful to sadhus. Now you have a good opportunity to attain spiritual emancipation. Better, then, that you remain in this miserable condition for as long as possible.”

In Laguna Beach I had the opportunity to thank Tukarama Prabhu, the temple president, for all the help he gave the Polish tour over the past year. He organized our fundraising drive in the United States last spring, and the money he collected gave us the opportunity to hold the festivals for a full five months.

In Laguna Beach, the Lord also instructed me in an unusual way. One evening as I sat in my room, I overheard the brahmacarîs in the next room comparing the classes of several sannyasîs who had recently visited. When my name was mentioned, there was a brief pause, and then one brahmacarî said, “I like his classes, but he’s not very erudite.” The boy’s words pierced my heart, but I managed to swallow my pride and admit that had I put as much time into studying Prabhupada’s books as I had into preaching, the boy might have been able to speak differently. How do we find the balance between bhajana and preaching? The boy’s words deepened my resolve to focus on hearing and chanting when I went to Vrindavana.

Just after this incident, Tukarama entered my room and asked me to give the Sunday feast lecture. I hesitated, still stung by the brahmacarî’s words, and then agreed. By the time I went downstairs to lecture, the tem-ple room was packed with both devotees and guests. Preaching to nondevo-tees comes easily to me—I’ve been doing it for most of my devotional life— so feeling relaxed and confident I presented the basic Krishna conscious phi-losophy, quoted verses, and told simple stories to illustrate my points.

Afterwards, Tukarama told me that it was the best Sunday feast lecture he had ever attended. His words eased the pain of my not being “erudite.” This back-to-back condemnation and praise reminded me of Srila Prabhupada’s advice to the gurukula teachers in Dallas: a good teacher knows the art of reprimand and encouragement. If a child makes a mistake, the teach-er should first reprimand him, then quickly smother him with love and at-tention. On this occasion Krishna scolded me for neglecting my study, then quickly embraced me through Tukarama’s kind words.

From Laguna Beach I traveled north to the home of my dear godbroth-er, Giriraja Maharaja, who is still recovering from the major heart surgery he underwent about two years ago. Maharaja is one of my closest friends, and I look to him for inspiration. I am especially inspired by his deep love for Srila Prabhupada. I also admire his unique ability to draw from memo-ry personal stories about Prabhupada to illustrate the philosophical points he makes while preaching. Giriraja Swami merits the most prestigious title any ISKCON devotee can achieve: he is a “Prabhupada man.”

On October 1 I flew to London and caught a connecting flight to Mos-cow. The next morning, I flew with my disciple Jananivasa to Dinamorsk in southern Russia to attend a festival for devotees. During the flight we were seated next to a Russian army officer. He had recently returned from fighting guerrillas in Chechnya. The officer observed us in silence for some time, and then exclaimed, “I am sorry that I killed so many men in the war.” A discussion ensued, during which Jananivasa explained the law of karma and how suffering is caused by our past impious deeds. With me coaching, he told how we can become free from karma by engaging in devotional ser-vice to God. The officer listened carefully, and at the end of Jananivasa’s discourse, thanked us for the knowledge he had received.

Dinamorsk is a resort town on the Black Sea coast. The festival there had attracted three thousand devotees and twelve sannyasîs. I was so jet-lagged, though, that I missed much association and a number of seminars. Still, I made it a point to spend time with the children who had come to the festival to see me. Every morning, thirty of us walked along the beach as I told them stories of my travels and listened to the problems they are experiencing as they grow up. Helping ISKCON’s children and inspiring them in their Krishna consciousness is another thing I like to do, perhaps because I saw what a lasting effect Srila Prabhupada’s mercy had on my own son when he was young.

But during the relaxing days in Dinamorsk, I found myself thinking more and more about my upcoming Vrindavana pilgrimage. I know I will soon have to meet the challenge of self-discipline as I sit and study for hours a day. I have already decided to reduce my eating and sleeping while I’m there so I can spend a maximum amount of time hearing and chanting. I also plan to decrease my social life. This comes easily for some devotees, but such an austere lifestyle may prove challenging for someone like me. I’m accustomed to always being on the move, surrounded by people. I pray I will succeed. I have a vision of giving class to the young brahmacarîs at the Laguna Beach temple, Sanskrit verses flowing easily off my tongue as I elab-orate on Prabhupada’s purports. I am using numerous analogies and citing commentaries by the previous acaryas. All of this will be the fruit of months of disciplined study, time well spent in the holy abode of Vrindavana, watered by the critique of an unknowing boy. The moment of change is at hand, because I leave for the sacred dhama in twenty-four hours.

“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 Vrindavana. My great-est desire will be fulfilled.

“Dressed in a kaupîna 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 Vrindavana.” (Sri Vrindavana-mahimamrta, Ûataka 1, texts 64–65)