June 4 – 6, 2009
By Indradyumna Swami
One thing I appreciate about traveling in Russia is the constant reminders that this world is an unhappy place. I am reminded again and again to become serious and to focus on my devotional service. Russia is a G-8 country, but life is hard there, owing in part to the political situation, the economy, and the weather.
I was again reminded at the airport when I was leaving Moscow. A devotee woman asked me for guidance in her despair: her three-year-old daughter had recently drowned in a river near their house. The little girl would charm everyone with her singing. Even though she had a speech defect and could not talk properly, she sang Hare Krsna perfectly and learned complicated melodies instantly.
Another devotee broke my heart when she told me that her seventeen-year-old daughter, Visakha dasi, had been abducted off the streets of Moscow a few years ago and had not been seen since. The police suspected it was organized crime, which kidnaps and sells young women as sex slaves around the world. I had watched Visakha grow up in the early days of the Moscow gurukula, and I couldn’t imagine a sweeter, more sincere devotee. I consoled her mother, but I was shocked.
I also spoke with a devotee man in his mid-forties who had been disfigured in a car accident.
“My heart goes out to all these devotees,” I said to Uttama-sloka das, as our flight took off for Baku, Azerbaijan.
“I know, Guru Maharaja,” he said. “That’s one reason devotees in Russia appreciate that you and your godbrothers come here despite the many inconveniences you go through.”
“I wish we could do more to help them,” I said.
“You’re doing a lot by giving them transcendental knowledge,” Uttama-sloka said.
“But that won’t help Visakha,” I said. “I still feel shaken by the story. It’s one of the worst things happening to a devotee that I’ve ever heard about.”
“I can see how much it has affected you,” said Uttama-sloka. “It’s not only that,” I said, “but I’m tired. We’ve been on the road for seven weeks. Before that I was preaching in South Africa and the United States. I haven’t had a real break for a long time. I’d like to go to Vrindavan to read and chant for a while. Maybe we can continue this tour later.”
“Please forgive me, Guru Maharaja,” he said, “but many devotees are waiting in the cities we’re supposed to visit, and many programs have been arranged. We can’t cancel now.”
I thought for a moment. “You’re right,” I said. “We have to keep going.”
“If it’s any consolation,” he said, “Baku is supposed to be where the great sage and prajapati Kasyapa Muni had his asrama on the Caspian Sea. I found this quote from Srila Prabhupada yesterday, and I was looking for a chance to share it with you.” He handed me his computer, and I started to read: “The Caspian Sea was the place of Kasyapa Muni. From Kasyapa the [word] Caspian has come. Just like formerly the capital of Afghanistan was known as Gandhar, now it has become Kandahar.” [Lecture, Los Angeles, May 7, 1973]
“Guru Maharaja,” Uttama-sloka said gently, “while we’re in Baku you can bathe in the sea and take it easy. For spiritual inspiration we can visit the old Vedic temple in the desert, the Temple of Fire. You wrote about it in your diary after you went there many years ago. Baku devotees have told me that it was a place of pilgrimage in ancient times. Pilgrims used to travel three thousand kilometers from India to visit it.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll rest, and we’ll go to the temple on Pilgrimage. I’d like to pray for Visakha there.”
When we arrived at Baku Airport I had to wait two hours to get a visa because the man issuing them was having lunch. When he returned I handed him my passport and visa application.
“Where are your two photos?” he asked.
“Photos?” I said. “What photos? There was nothing on your website about needing photos.”
“No photos, no visa,” he said firmly.
“But I don’t have any photos,” I said. “Can’t something be done?”
A little smile came over his face. “Of course,” he said. “In my country there are always ways to sort out these things.”
I could swear I saw dollar signs in his eyes as I handed him a “donation.”
“You see?” he said. “Problem is solved.”
Uttama-sloka and I then waited in the immigration line to have our passports stamped. Behind the immigration window was a woman with a black scarf covering her head. She looked up at me and smiled. “Are you from the Temple of Fire, sir?” she said.
I wasn’t expecting that, and I had to think for a moment. “Why…uh…Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I am connected with the Temple of Fire. It’s part of our tradition, and I’ve come here on pilgrimage.”
“Very nice,” she said, and stamped my passport.
As I stood waiting for Uttama-sloka to be cleared at another window, I overheard his conversation with the immigration officer.
“What organization are you with?” the official asked as he looked at the passport.
“The Hare Krsna Movement,” Uttama-sloka said.
The man looked up and smiled. “Oh?” he said. “Do you have any books?”
Uttama-sloka looked confused.
“Hare Krsna books,” the officer said. “Many years ago I bought one on the street. It was fascinating. I’ve been looking for more ever since.”
“Just give me your address,” said Uttama-sloka. “I’ll mail some to you.”
The officer wrote down his address and stamped the passport.
As we went to collect our luggage, I looked at Uttama-sloka and started to chuckle. “You know,” I said, “that’s got to be the most unusual clearing of immigration I’ve seen in all my years on the road.”
Outside the terminal we were greeted by a group of devotees who escorted us to our car. On the way into the city I studied the scenery and buildings to get the feel of the country, as I often do when I come to a new place. We were driving on a new highway complete with picturesque barriers and architectural designs along the way, but I noticed there were no signs posting the speed limit.
Just then a police car raced by us, its siren wailing, and signaled to the car in front of us to pull over.
“What’s happening?” I asked our driver.
“The man was speeding,” he said.
I laughed. “How do you know if you’re speeding here?” I said. “There are no signs posting the limit.”
“The limit is ninety kilometers an hour,” the driver said, “but the city purposely doesn’t post it so they can give people tickets and generate revenue.”
Further on, I spoke to another devotee. “The last time I was here,” I said, “we were restricted in our preaching. Has anything changed?”
“Yes,” he said. “We have never gotten permission to do harinama or hold public programs, but we were allowed to distribute books throughout the country. Now we’re still allowed to distribute them, but only in Baku.”
“That’s unusual,” I said.
“It’s not a restriction applying to us alone,” he said. “The government wants to control any propaganda or proselytizing in the villages and towns because of the influence of the mujahideen from Dagestan. They preach a fanatic message that doesn’t sit well with the liberal Muslim community here.”
“Women don’t wear the burka,” he continued, “men and women mingle freely, and women vote. Still, it’s a Muslim country with Muslim customs, so we’re happy that at least we’re allowed to distribute books and preach within our congregation. We have our own temple and about three hundred devotees.”
He smiled and lowered his eyes a bit. “You’re the first senior devotee to visit us in more than a year,” he said. “Do you have anything special you’d like to do apart from the temple programs?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’d like to go on pilgrimage to the Temple of Fire.”
He nodded. “Here we call it Ateshgah, the eternal flame,” he said. “It’s actually a place for demigod worshipers. Yogis would worship Agnideva there and perform austerities. It wasn’t really a Vaisnava tirtha.”
“Actually it was,” I said. “I did some research on it after my last visit. A German geologist named Eichwald visited the temple in the late eighteen hundreds. He wrote that the worship of Lord Ramacandra and Lord Krsna was prominent there. A German poet, Friedrich Bodenstedt, who visited the temple in 1847, wrote that Visnu was the main deity.”
“Besides,” I continued, “Srila Prabhupada said that the sage Kasyapa Muni had his asrama near here. It is stated elsewhere that he washed his hands in the Caspian Sea after conceiving Hiranyakasipu and Hiranyaksa with his wife, Diti. He’s the father of Upendra, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and he’s the father of Garuda, the gigantic bird who carries Lord Visnu on his back. He’s also the father of many demigods. I consider the area a sacred place of pilgrimage. I want to go there for inspiration to continue with my preaching and to pray for the soul of a devotee girl whose cruel fate haunts me.”
That evening we had a wonderful program in the temple. It is an ISKCON center, but it has a touch of Muslim culture, with colorful Persian rugs on the floors and walls and Arabic texts inscribed on the flower vases. The women dress in saris made from local cloth, bearing patterns that remind me of Muslim designs I’ve seen in other places. Even the Gaura-Nitai deities had clothes with a Muslim touch.
But there was no mistaking the sound of Krsna’s holy names, coming straight from Goloka Vrindavan, as the devotees chanted and danced with abandon. After the kirtan, devotees came forward, and I distributed baklava, a local sweet made from thin pastry, nuts, and honey.
But despite the wonderful association and the rousing kirtan, I had a terrible dream that night: Four bearded men were bundling a woman into a car in the street. “Where are you taking her?” I shouted.
“None of your business!” snarled one of the men. “She’s ours now!”
I woke up in a sweat and could not fall asleep again. I went on the internet and learned that human trafficking was the third most profitable crime in the world. Each year more than eight hundred thousand men, women, and children are kidnapped and sold into prostitution and forced labor.
Immediately after breakfast, I asked Uttma-sloka to arrange a car to take us and a small group of devotee men to the Temple of Fire.
“Now?” Uttama-sloka said. “But it’s out in the desert near the oilfields, and you have several programs today.”
“That’s all right,” I said, “but first I want to visit that temple.
We got into a jeep, and within an hour we were near the oilfields. I was surprised to see the outdated machinery, and I mentioned it to one of the local devotees.
“The Russians began drilling for oil here more than a hundred years ago,” he said. “As a result the natural gas reserves underground gradually dried up. The yogis who still worshiped the fire on the site said the mlecchas had contaminated the area and that Agni had left in disgust. So they went to India.”
After driving for another half hour we reached the temple. Although the simple beauty of its design was still visible, I could see that little had been done to develop it as a shrine since my last visit.
I turned to another devotee. “They haven’t done much to develop it,” I said.
“To develop it?” said the devotee. “It’s amazing that it’s still here at all. It was saved only by the intervention of Indira Gandhi. When she was prime minister of India in the early 1980s, she asked then Soviet chairman Leonid Brezhnev to restore the dilapidated site to its original glory. Afterwards it was declared a national heritage, but few foreign tourists visit.
“Because of the temple’s Hindu origins, local Muslims have no interest. That’s ironic because previously we Azerbaijanis were Zoroastrians. We were converted to Islam by the sword. The Zoroastrian religion appeared in the fifth century, and it believes in a universal and transcendental God. Zoroastrians say that God’s greatness can be appreciated in material elements. Worshiping fire, in particular, is seen as a way to develop spiritual insight and wisdom. The site, with its natural gas fires, was important to our forefathers.
“Some scholars say we were originally part of Vedic culture and that Agni had been worshiped here since the beginning of time. There is evidence that this area was called Sura-hani. “Sura” means “of God,” and “Hani” means “kingdom.” Even more interesting is that it was called Rama-ni, which means “the place of Rama.” Nearby is a lake called Gopal.”
Inside the compound, we saw a stone shrine in the center, with a fire burning up from the ground through the middle of the shrine. A small sign said that the gas was now piped from Baku.
We began by visiting the rooms along the boundary wall, where yogis and ascetics performed austerities that were said to give them mystical powers to bless or curse. Merchants traveling on the Silk Road would visit the temple and make offerings to the sadhus to receive their blessings. But the sadhus were renunciants and would cast any gifts they received into the fire. There were originally seven main fires in the compound. One was used for cremating the yogis when they passed away.
We stopped to look at some dioramas showing the yogis in meditation and some manuscripts, hundreds of years old, attesting to the antiquity of the site. A number of them had been added since my last visit:
“One mile from Baku there is a place where fire burns eternally and without torches.”
[Ibn Aljas, Arab geographer, sixteenth century]
“There is nowhere [else] in the world where one can find white oil like here. There is a volcano, continuously erupting flame in this oil-rich place.”
[Masudy, Arab geographer, tenth century]
“In the suburbs of Baku, in some places the soil was dug out and food was instantly ready from the heat coming out of the ground.”
[Evleya Cheleby, Turkish traveler, sixteenth century]
After some time I turned to Uttama-sloka. “These dioramas and manuscripts are all very interesting,” I said, “but I’ve come here for a different purpose. I’d like to spend some time alone.” As the group of devotees continued their tour, I walked over to the stone shrine where yogis had worshiped the sacred fire.
I closed my eyes and chanted on my beads. Then I read from Prema Bhakti Candrika, by Narottam das Thakur.
My thoughts turned to Visakha. I folded my hands and prayed for her for a long time. “My dear Lord,” I concluded, “please look after Your devotee, Visakha. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand Your plan. We can only surrender to Your will, which ultimately brings us back to the refuge of Your lotus feet.”
A while later Uttama-sloka came over. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “we have to go now.”
“All right,” I said. “Even a short visit here was enough to satisfy the heart.”
As we walked towards the exit, Uttama-sloka turned to me. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “may I ask if you are thinking of mentioning Visakha in your diary?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“I don’t think you should,” he said. “It’s too tragic a story.” I stopped. “A devotee can find inspiration even in tragedy,” I said. “It can help us become detached from this world and turn to the Lord for shelter.”
“Yes,” he said, “but your diary chapters are generally full of hope and inspiration. Her abduction won’t fit in.”
“I have a reason,” I said. “My hope is that when others hear of her plight, they’ll be inspired to pray for her.”
“But she was abducted years ago,” he said.
I looked back at the eternal flame. “It’s never too late,” I said. “Praying is a powerful way to solicit the mercy of the Lord. By praying, we can approach Him anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. Even here in this land of Islam, so far from India, the Lord has provided a place where we can purify ourselves and pray for the welfare of His devotees.”
Srila Prabhupada says:
If you are in danger, you ask your friends to help you. This is prayer. So our prayer is … ‘My dear Lord Krsna, I am your eternal servant. Somehow or other, I am now fallen in this ocean. Please pick me up and fix me again at the dust of Your lotus feet.’ … Prayer is needed because we are in danger … [That] we are in this material condition of life means we are in danger. Therefore we should pray.
[Lecture, Durban City Hall, October 7, 1975]