September 15 – November 1, 2003
By Indradyumna Swami
After the meetings in Rome, I went on a whirlwind tour of temples in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine.
These countries share a common past of authoritarian communist rule, and their present situations are similar: weak economies, unemployment, crime, and political uncertainty. Although some things have changed superficially since these countries were freed and took up democratic rule, the pace of progress is slow and the struggle for existence as real as ever. Most of my disciples live in this part of the world, and as their spiritual master, I share their happiness and distress as they struggle with the material world and advance in Krsna consciousness. When these disciples are sometimes overcome by the strong force of the material energy, I must practice tolerance and patience in my dealings with them, like a father with his children. While in Russia, I learned of one disciple who, in a moment of spiritual weakness, joined the Russian mafia for quick money. Through bad association he gradually gave up his spiritual practices. He lost his intelligence and engaged in many criminal activities. One day he ran away in fear, with the mafia in close pursuit. He managed to elude them for some time, but fearing they might find him, he robbed a bank and let himself be caught. Now he sits in jail in relative safety. Recently he wrote that he is chanting again and asked for spiritual guidance.
On my trip through Ukraine, my heart went out to many disciples who, like most people in their country, live a meager existence, earning a wage of no more than $100 a month. On their insistence only, I would accept their donations of $10 and $20 bills for my preaching programs in other parts of the world. In fact, I kept their donations in a special pouch marked “For Krsna’s service only,” not wanting to spend their money on my bodily needs.
I saw further evidence of the struggle for existence in southern Ukraine when I gave a darshan to 30 children of the devotee community in Dnepropetrovsk. The young audience included some kids from the congregation. When I asked how many children chanted japa, all but two raised their hands. Those two children, sitting just in front of me, turned out to be a brother and sister, 11 and 9 years old respectively.
I innocently asked why they didn’t chant, and the boy shot back, “Our father’s a drunkard and a thief! What do we have to thank God for?”
I was unprepared for such a sharp answer, and as I gathered myself to reply, his sister started sobbing. “I want to chant,” she said, “but my brother won’t let me.”
“Why should we chant?” he shouted at her. “You think anyone cares for us?”
A silence came over the room. I put my arms around the two children and hugged them. “I care,” I said. Then I let go.
The boy turned to his sister. “Okay,” he said, to my surprise, “you can start chanting, and if you want, I’ll chant too.”
For the rest of my three-day stay in the temple, they wouldn’t leave my side, and during kirtans they jumped the highest of all. On their last day in the temple, they came into my room with tears in their eyes.
“We have to go back to our village for school,” the boy said.
“But we wanted to give you a donation,” his sister added.
Then they handed me all the money they had the equivalent of two dollars but I wouldn’t take it. When I saw how upset they were that I wouldn’t accept their offering of love, I opened up my “For Krsna’s service only” pouch, and they happily put their donation inside.
That morning, the devotees were rehearsing a marriage ceremony in the back yard of the temple for a festival in the park that afternoon. While I was looking on, I noticed an old couple watching us from their porch just a few feet away. I asked a devotee who they were.
“They sold us the house we use for our guests,” he said. “Then they wasted the money on gambling and liquor. They’re quite bitter now.”
But I noticed the old woman couldn’t help but smile as she watched the young couple rehearse the wedding. Afterwards, I walked over and sat down on a chair next to them, much to their surprise.
“Did you like the wedding rehearsal?” I asked.
The old man scowled. “What’s there to like?” he said.
His wife remained silent.
“Don’t you speak to him,” the man said to her.
“I’d like to invite your both to the festival we’re having in the park this afternoon,” I said.
The man was obviously startled by the invitation. “We’re not interested,” he said, “and besides, my wife can’t walk. She’s crippled. Can’t you see? She hasn’t left this house in six years.”
“It’s going to be a wonderful program,” I said. “Indian dance, theater, singing, and music.” The old woman’s eyes lit up.
“I’ll send a car for you,” I said. “We’ll pick you up at your doorstep and bring you straight home after the program.”
For the first time the old woman spoke. “Konstantin,” she said, “can’t I go? I haven’t been out in such a long time.”
Her husband relented. “Okay,” he said, “you can go but not me. They took our house away.”
I arranged for a car to pick up the old woman at 4:30 that afternoon. The devotees put her in the seat and drove her to the park. When she arrived, I had her brought before the big stage and we gave her a seat in the front row. She seemed amused by the way people were looking at her, as if she were a celebrity.
And wasn’t she thrilled when the show started! She rocked back and forth during the Bharat Natyam dance, clapped her hands during the bhajan, and cried during the wedding. And to my amazement, as I led the final kirtan from the stage, I saw her chanting Hare Krsna along with us.
After everything was over, I went down to help escort her to the car waiting to take her home. When she was in her seat she called me over and took my hand. “Young man,” she said softly, “this was the best day of my life. Thank you.” Then she kissed me on the cheek.
As the car pulled away, I noticed she’d put some money in my hand. I shook my head and put it in my special pouch. “I’ll really have to find a good service for all this,” I said to myself.
As I left the temple the next day, the devotees crowded around the car and had a big kirtan. There were so many that my driver was worried about how we would get away and make it to the airport in time.
“Drive slowly” I said. “I’ll open the window and ask them to move aside.”
As we drove carefully down the street, devotees threw fruit, flowers, and even coins through the open window. We picked up speed and broke free from the crowd. Then we sped off to the airport. I gave the fruit and flowers to my driver and put the coins in my special pouch. It was quite heavy by now the accumulated offerings of love from my disciples and well wishers.
When we arrived at the airport, I was one of the last persons to check in for the flight to Warsaw, Poland. After getting my boarding pass, I changed the local currency I had received during my visit. It came to $200.
I carefully put it into my pouch. “This is two months’ salary in this country,” I thought, shaking my head.
As I was late, I proceeded straight to customs and passport control. In Ukraine, one has to fill out a form declaring how much money one is carrying, both upon entering and leaving the country. As I had no money coming into the country, I filled out the departure form and declared $200.
I was in no anxiety. Customs officials are only concerned about large sums of money going out. Little did I know how greedy they would be for my disciples’ offerings of love.
“Show me your money!” barked the customs official in English.
“I only have two hundred dollars,” I replied.
“Show me!” he said louder.
I could tell something was up. I pulled out the $200 and showed it to him from a careful distance.
He looked around to make sure no one was watching. “You must give me one hundred dollars customs tax,” he said.
I knew from years of traveling in and out of Ukraine, that there was no customs tax for travelers, so I put the money back in my pouch.
“Quickly!” he said, looking around him again.
“Sir,” I said, “you know as well as I do that there is no such thing as customs tax for someone carrying this amount of money.”
“Give it now, or I won’t let you go any further,” he said impatiently. I could see he was determined, but so was I. I wasn’t about to hand over the money I’d received with love from the little boy and girl, the old woman, and the devotees as I’d left the temple. No way!
The customs official grabbed my passport, put it in the drawer in front of him, and locked the drawer. He was smiling with confidence. “You’re going to miss your flight unless you give the tax,” he said.
Angry at his audacity, I leaned over the counter. “Go to hell,” I said.
It may not have been the most tactful thing to do. He picked up the phone and called several other customs officials over. As they talked off to the side, it was obvious that they were all in on the effort and for me to appeal to higher authority would be useless.
Another customs official, apparently of higher rank, then came around the counter. “Come with me,” he said as he led me to a nearby office.
With the rest of the officials behind him, he turned on the computer and made a show of looking for something. “Ah!” he said. “Mr. Tibbitts, you’ve had some trouble in this country before, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“Some criminal activity,” he said with a little grin.
I knew what he was up to.
“Shall we blacklist you?”
One of the customs officials, younger than the rest, looked at me from the back and shook his head from side to side. He was giving me a silent message: “Don’t do this. Don’t fight them.”
I hesitated for a moment. These criminals were stealing Krsna’s money. But if I didn’t give in, my disciples and I would suffer a worse fate. I wouldn’t be able to visit Ukraine again.
I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and I slowly slid a $100 bill across the table.
The customs officer slid my passport across the table.
I gathered my things, stood up, and walked towards the door. As I walked out, an official standing there put out his foot, and I tripped and fell to the ground. Because I had not closed my handbag properly, everything spilled out onto the floor. Without looking back at the customs officials, who I imagined were getting a good laugh, I collected my things on my hands and knees and then stood up and left.
As I went through passport control without incident and proceeded quickly to the departure gate, I tried to understand what lesson Krsna was trying to teach me. I was angry that I had been forced to give away the money of my disciples. And I was disgusted by the behavior of the customs officials. I concluded it was just another of the rigors of being a traveling preacher and one more lesson from the road to make me more humble and dependent on the Lord.
trasto smy aham krpana vatsala duhsahogra samsara cakra kadanad grasatam pranitah
baddhah sva karmabhir usattama te nghri mulam prito pavarga saranam hvayase kada nu
“O most powerful, insurmountable Lord, who are kind to the fallen souls, I have been put into the association of demons as a result of my activities, and therefore I am very much afraid of my condition of life within this material world. When will that moment come when you will call me to the shelter of Your lotus feet, which are the ultimate goal of liberation from conditional life?” (“Prahlada Pacifies the Lord with Prayers,” Srimad Bhagavatam 7.9.16 )