Chapter 20: The City of Doom and the Temple of Fire

June 17-27, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami

The second half of our spring tour was going well, and I was looking forward to the final program, to be held in Olsztyn in the north. Though our tour had been marred by run-ins with rougher elements of society, no real damage had been done and the festivals had brought good results. The congregation had been strengthened, and many people had been introduced to Krsna consciousness, some of them potential devotees. Olsztyn would be the icing on the cake.

It wasn’t to be, however. Disaster struck in a very personal way, halfway through the program. It would be one of my darker days.

After finishing my lecture to an especially receptive audience, I went outside to get a book from my van. My driver, Radhe Syama prabhu, always stays by the van to protect it during programs. He was chanting nearby, and when he saw me coming, he opened the passenger door and went around to the back door to take something out.

I settled into the passenger seat. Suddenly I heard a noise, and I looked out the window. I sat up in alarm. A group of some 15 hooligans was walking quickly toward the van. “Who are they?” I thought. “Maybe the young men from the political party in Kielce coming for revenge.”

I thought about our belongings in the van. I locked the door on the driver’s side and jumped out the passenger side to confront them. I knew we had no chance against them-two older men with no other devotees in sight-but I grabbed a stick and stood with it behind my back.

But as they came closer, their mood changed, and they started laughing and joking. By the time they reached us, they seemed almost friendly. One of the bigger boys, in a tight white t-shirt, Levis, and black boots, grabbed my neck and pulled me close. He put his forehead on mine. His forehead was covered with sweat, and his breath reeked of liquor.

“You like skinhead music?” he said in accented English.

I opted for diplomacy. “Why not?” I replied.

His face took on a smug, sarcastic smile. “What’s a good skinhead band?” he asked.

Failure to answer would be an excuse for him to become violent, so I tried to think of a skinhead band, but my mind was blank. I had never heard skinhead music.

One of his friends, even more drunk, gave me a hint. “Nazi Action!” he shouted.

“That’s right,” I said. “Nazi Action.”

The hooligan pushed me back against the van.

I noticed Radhe Syama trying to close the back door, but the hooligans were holding it open. They were laughing and joking. Three or four more of them moved toward the back and surrounded Radha Syama. I quickly walked to the back, grabbed the door, and slammed it shut.

It was a tense moment. I stood there with a smile on my face, playing their game.

One of the bigger hooligans put his arms around me and squeezed me tight. “Very funny,” he said, and muttered something in Polish. Sweat was dripping from his head onto my neck. His embrace was unbearable. Finally he let go and spit on my foot.

I saw some others reaching in through a side window. I turned to stop them. Suddenly Gokularani dasi walked up. She had come to take something from the van. Several of the hooligans came toward her, and one put his hand on her shoulder. I jumped forward and knocked his hand away. Then I grabbed Gokularani and pushed her into the van. I slammed the door shut. “Lock the door!” I shouted.

I turned around and braced myself for more trouble. But the hooligans left suddenly, as quickly as they had come. They were no longer laughing and joking. They had become serious and walked away without looking back. I couldn’t figure it out.

I walked back into the hall, feeling a little shaken. “Are you all right?” a devotee asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m okay.”

It was time for the last kirtan, and I was supposed to lead. I went to the restroom and washed my face and neck to get rid of the sweat and grime the hooligans had left there. Then I washed the spit off my foot. I looked in the mirror and started talking to my reflection. “Sometimes it’s rough out here,” I told myself, “but that’s what it takes to spread the movement. Now put yourself together and get onstage.”

As we left the hall that night, several devotees approached me. They told me how sad they were that the spring tour had ended. I was also sad that it was over, but my sadness was nothing compared to what I would feel the next morning.

After my morning shower, I asked Radhe Syama prabhu to bring me my Deity paraphernalia so I could begin my puja. He came back 20 minutes later, his face ashen. “Srila Gurudeva,” he said, “I’ve looked everywhere for the bag with the paraphernalia, but it’s nowhere to be found. I fear the hooligans stole it yesterday from the van.”

I swung around. “What?” I said. “Have you asked the other devotees if they’ve seen the bag?”

“Yes,” he replied, “and we’ve looked in every conceivable place.”

I was devastated. I had packed that bag for the upcoming summer festival tour with all the special Deity paraphernalia I had collected during my 34 years as a devotee: puja material, weapons for my Nrsimha deity, thrones, necklaces, rare pictures, and more.

“We’ve informed the police,” Radhe Syama continued, “but they say there’s little hope of recovering the bag.”

I just sat there with a sinking feeling in my stomach. My only consolation was that none of my Deities were in the bag.

Throughout the day I thought about the paraphernalia and lamented the loss.

That night as I drifted off to asleep, I thought about the thieves. No doubt they were laughing over their carefully orchestrated theft, but in reality they were the real losers. They had come so close to the all-merciful movement of Lord Caitanya, but they had only acquired heavy karma. They would soon eat the bitter fruit of their act.

“The universe was purified by the transcendental lilas of Lord Gauranga, but the enemies of the Vaisnavas were ever deprived of the pleasure of those pastimes.”
[Bhakti-ratnakara, Narahari Chakravarti, Chapter 1,verse 52]

That afternoon our tour committee held a meeting to analyze the spring tour and to begin making final preparations for the summer. The subject of security came up, and we decided that, all things considered, we needed to increase security, but the expense was not in the budget, so I volunteered to go and collect the money in the seven days before the first summer festival.

That evening Nandini dasi contacted our travel agent in Warsaw.

“Please,” she said, “Find a reservation for either Dubai, Durban, or London.”

“That’s an unusual request,” the travel agent said. “Exactly which city does he want to go to?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Nandini replied. “Any one of them will do.”

The next morning, Nandini came to see me. “The travel agent called this morning,” she said. “It’s the beginning of summer, and all the flights are booked up for weeks. She’s very sorry, but the only thing she can offer in the Middle East is a flight tomorrow to Baku, in Azerbaijan.”

“Azerbaijan?” I said. “Is that all that’s available?”

“Yes,” she replied. “That’s all there is for now.”

I reflected for a moment. “I certainly can’t raise funds there,” I thought, “but I can visit my disciples in Baku.”

Then I realized I hadn’t been there in seven years.

“Okay,” I said. “Baku it is.”

The next day I flew out of Warsaw to Baku. As the plane took off, I kept thinking of the Deity paraphernalia. “What a loss!” I thought. “What a loss!”

Those items had been my constant companions in service to my Lords for decades. Each and every item, even if apparently insignificant, was worshipable.

“He hastily sewed together a small cloth bag as a temple for his Deity. That small bag glowed with a divine light. Lokanath Goswami hung it around his neck and carried Radhavinode with him wherever he went.”
[Bhakti-ratnakara, Narahari Chakravarti, Chapter 1, verses 337-338]

I sighed. I would carry this loss with me for the rest of my life.

My flight landed in Baku early the next morning.

Azerbaijan is bordered by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, and the Caspian Sea. Oil refining is the country’s chief industry. Baku is a port on the western coast of the Caspian Sea, close to major petroleum fields.

Security was tight when I landed. Azerbaijan is technically at war with Armenia over Karabachos, a large tract of land south of Baku, claimed by both countries. In spite of a ceasefire, there are daily skirmishes, and soldiers are killed on both sides. Travel outside the country is restricted for men of military age, so many of my disciples waiting outside the airport terminal had not seen me since my last visit, in 1997.

Coming out of the airport, I was greeted by a wave of hot desert air and an enthusiastic kirtan party. Few senior preachers visit Azerbaijan, so the devotees were especially happy to see me.

I was also happy to see them. I always find that devotees who live under repressive governments or in poor countries have a special appreciation for Krsna consciousness. Their kirtans are longer and sweeter, and their questions after class are deeper and more relevant to solving the problems of life.

On the way to the temple, I asked the devotees in my car about changes in the country since my last visit. I was surprised to hear that two years ago the government closed down all but 20 of the 350 spiritual organizations in the country. We were one of the 20 that were accepted and officially registered as bonafide religions. I considered this quite a success in a Muslim country.

But despite the official recognition, the devotees could practice and preach Krsna consciousness only in the capital, Baku, and in no other cities or provinces. And services could be held only in the temple compound.

“That means no Harinam processions?” I asked. “No Ratha Yatras, and no hall festivals in the city?”

“Yes, Maharaja,” they replied.

“How do you spread the faith?” I asked. “How do you make devotees?”

“They let us distribute books on the streets,” one devotee replied.

“Yes,” said another. “They don’t consider it an effective way to spread our movement.”

I smiled and thought about Srila Prabhupada’s famous letter to Tamal Krsna Goswami:

“Regarding Samkirtan and book distribution, both should go on, but book distribution is more important. It is brihat kirtan. In Tokyo airport one boy had come up to me asking if he could speak with me. I said yes, and then he asked me “Swamiji, where do you get all that knowledge in your books?’ Of course it is Krishna’s knowledge, not mine. But the effect is there. So for wider kirtan book distribution is better. Book distribution is also kirtan.” [Letter, October 23, 1974]

When we arrived at the temple, there was a large assembly of devotees waiting in the driveway (they didn’t step an inch out of the compound). They were having a loud and enthusiastic kirtan. Neighbors were peering out from their windows, and some children ran behind our car calling out “Krsna! Krsna!” Small groups of mustached men watched my arrival with curiosity as they stood nearby, fingering their Muslim prayer beads.

As I got out of the car, I heard loudspeakers from a nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer. I marveled how here, in a land of Islam, the holy names of Krsna were resounding. “This is my treasure,” I thought. “This is my fortune- to witness the modern-day miracles of Lord Caitanya’s movement.”

kim ascaryam kim ascaryam
kalau jate saci sute
stri bala jada murkhadyah
sarve nama parayanah

“O what an astonishing thing! O how wonderful! When the son of Saci took birth in the age of Kali, women, children, dullards and indeed people of all description became fully absorbed in chanting the merciful names of Krsna!”
[Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, text 33]

As I walked into the temple room, I noticed heavy Persian carpets decorating the floors and walls. They seemed out of place in the sweltering heat, but it was a local tradition.

Aside from the carpets and a simple altar, there wasn’t much to see. The scene reflected the poverty and simple life of the people. But again, it only facilitated the devotees’ appreciation for the opulence of the holy names of Krsna. I remembered from my last visit that they had a special taste for this opulence.

I kept my lecture short. Then I took up a drum and plunged with the devotees for two hours into a nectarean kirtan of the holy names. How I relished that kirtan! The devotees were eager to chant, and I took delight in the fact that I was doing kirtan in the heart of the Islamic world. Shouting out the names of Gauranga as loud as I could, I danced with glee that afternoon on the swirling patterns of the Persian carpets.

At the end of the kirtan, all the devotees fell down in prostrated obeisances on the floor, some of them crisscrossing over each other. I kneeled among them, drenched in perspiration, and they responding loudly as I chanted the Premadvani prayers.

hare krsna rama nama gana dana karinim
soka moha lobha tapa sarva vigna nasinim
pada padma lubdha bhakta vrnda bhakti dayinim
gaura murtim asu naumi nama sutra dharinim

“He makes the gift of the song of the names “Hare, Krsna and Rama’, and destroys all obstacles such as sorrow, delusion, greed and suffering. He gives the devotional service of Lord Krsna to the multitude of devotees who are eager for the shelter of His lotus feet. I fall down swiftly to offer my prostrated obeisances to the Lord in His golden form, who holds a string of meditation beads.”
[Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka- Satakam, Text 23]

For the next few days, we repeated the same thing over and over: class, kirtan; class, kirtan; class, kirtan. The devotees had an unquenchable thirst for mercy, and they relished every drop of nectar in the holy names. I was in a kirtan man’s paradise, there in that oasis of a temple in the desert of Azerbaijan.

Early one morning, a devotee came to me with a list of 10 people wanting initiation. “How long have they been waiting?” I asked.

“They’ve been waiting patiently for seven years,” he said, “since your last visit.”

“That alone is sufficient qualification,” I said. “They’re all accepted without question, each and every one of them.”

I performed the initiation ceremony in the courtyard of the temple.

The day before I left, I asked to go into the desert to the Temple of Fire. I had gone there the last time I was in Baku, but that visit had been brief. It was an ancient Vedic temple in the outskirts of Baku, and I wanted to know more about it.

As we drove out of town, I turned to a devotee who knew about the site. “This place has remained undisturbed for centuries,” I said, “but how is that possible in a country where the religion is known for destroying Hindu temples?”

“It is some distance out of Baku,” the devotee said, “and sometimes it is covered with sand from sandstorms, so no one bothered with it. When Azerbaijan became part of the former Soviet Union and religion was restricted, the temple was indirectly protected because no one took interest in it, and the site became a garbage dump. When Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister of India, came to Baku in 1960, he visited the temple. Afterwards he requested the Russian government to clean up the site and establish it as a protected historical monument, which they did.”

The history of the place, with its natural-gas fires coming out of the earth, goes back thousands of years. The earliest written records of it date back to the followers of the ancient Zoroastrian faith, which preceded Islam. These people were mainly worshipers of the elements, and fire was their main meditation. In the fourth Century BC, they worshiped at the site.

After an hour, we arrived at the temple. It is an impressive structure, built by ascetics from India many centuries ago. From the 15th to the 18th centuries, Baku was one of the most important trade centers between Azerbaijan and India. Goods were brought by traders from India and then sent by sea to Russia and Western Europe. Some historians say the site was frequented by Indian sages for thousands of years. These descriptions conform to Srila Prabhupada’s statement that Vedic culture once flourished all over the world.

I entered the sacred compound with the understanding that I was visiting an ancient Vedic holy place. The compound is surrounded by large walls, with a main temple in the center and 26 other rooms. Small fires emanate from the rock floor of each room, and ascetics used to live in the rooms, worship the fires, and perform severe austerities.

The Azerbaijan government has decided to promote tourism there and recently installed dioramas of yogis performing austerities in many of the rooms. In one room, there is a diorama of a yogi lying on limestone, a severe skin irritant. In another room, a yogi is standing in heavy chains. The display board says he has vowed never to sit again. In another room, ascetics are fasting to death while meditating on the sacred flame.

Of course, such austerities have nothing to do with bhakti yoga, which aims at awakening one’s love for God through devotional activities, but it was fascinating to see the ancient site where sadhus attempted to become detached from this world of birth and death.

In one of the rooms was a register with the names of hundreds of visitors who had visited the site over the centuries:

1671 Streis, Dutch sailor; 1733 Lerh, German traveler; 1743 Ganvey Johnas, English merchant; 1780 Reinegs, Russian scientist; 1825 Keppel, German Traveler; 1879 Donovon, English Traveler; 1903 Jokson, American scientist.

There was also a book with references to the site from the writings of others who had visited the ancient site:

“Near the well was seen a volcano, erupting fire for eight or ten mouths. They call this place “Ateshgah’, which means the home of the fires. Even nowadays it is honored by Hindus and herbs. They come here to worship from different places and throw silver and gold coins and even keep two dervishes to guard this sacred fire.”
[Villot, French Missionary and Traveler, 1689]

“Here, near the fire some were cooking for the settlement Sroganny ates-gava, called so up to this fire. Others were burning lime. Two descendents of the ancient Persian tribe, newcomer Hindus, and fire worshipers were passively sitting around the wall, built by them and prayed, gazing at that flame gushing out of the ground and worshiped.”
[Kemper, German Traveler, 1683]

“Situated in the southern part of Russia, the city of Baku represents many things, noteworthy of full and deep attention of the visitors of all kinds. But without any doubt, inextinguishable fire is the unique phenomenon, attracting the glances of travelers.”
[I. Berjozin, Russian Traveler, 1842]

As our government guide, a young woman in her late teens, took us around, I noticed that the doorways were very low. I turned to my translator. “Why are the doorways so low?” I said. “Ask the guide whether it means the practitioners were small in stature.”

“Oh no,” the guide answered through the translator. “It was a way of making people bow in humility as they entered to worship the sacred fires that came from the earth. They were practicing to become saints.”

“But Srila Prabhupada was a modern-day saint,” she continued.

We all looked at one another in surprise.

“He taught people all over the world how to love God in a simple way,” she said.

“She knows about Srila Prabhupada?” I asked the translator.

The translator spoke with her briefly, then turned to me. “She says she has never met him,” he said, “but she hopes to, some day. She knows all about his mission to America in the 1960s. She wants to know if he will ever visit Azerbaijan.”

My eyes welled up with tears. There, in that remote part of the world, someone was speaking about and inquiring with such faith about my spiritual master.

I paused for a moment. “I’m sorry,” I said. “He passed away many years ago.”

She looked down, visibly affected. “Such saints are very rare in this world,” she said.

“Yes, they are,” I said, appreciating the fact more through her realization than mine.

“How do you know about my spiritual master?” I asked.

“I bought a book about him last year from one of your members on the street in Baku,” she said through the translator, “I learned to appreciate him from that book.”

“All glories to book distribution,” I said under my breath.

The whole discussion had taken my focus away from the temple, and so I continued my questions about the Temple of Fire.

The guide pointed out the fire burning in the main temple, in the middle of the compound. The main temple was a simple but impressive structure. On the top was a trident like those carried by worshipers of Lord Siva.

Nearby, another fire was burning in a smaller structure. When the yogis departed from this world, our guide explained, they were cremated there and their ashes taken back to India and placed in the holy Ganges River.

“What surprises me,” I said, “is that these fires are still burning after thousands of years.”

“The present fires are from gas piped into the site,” she said. “In 1883, the first digging for oil in this region took place nearby. As a result of the drilling, the natural gases just under the surface of the earth escaped, and soon all the fires went out.

“Of course, your yogis explained it differently,” she continued, “and maybe more accurately. They said that by drilling, the excavators created a wound in Mother Earth’s body, and the gods became displeased and withdrew their mercy-the fire.”

“The yogis then cursed the rulers,” she continued. “They said that this region would be plagued by war and poverty for centuries. Then they went back to India. And it’s a fact. Although we produce so much oil, we are at war and we remain poor.”

It was getting late, so I paid my obeisances and left that holy place with a deeper appreciation of Vedic history, and more important, a greater appreciation for my spiritual master, inspired by the words of a young Muslim girl who understood him to be a genuine saint of our times.

“The Vaisnavas are internal forms of the blissful mellows of Sri Caitanya’s samkirtan movement. Because they distribute the gifts of love of God, their consciousness is always purified. They are all great souls. Indeed, Lord Krsna empowers them as equal with Himself and they rescue the people from the cycle of birth and death.”
[Sri Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, verse 39]