My Spiritual Brothers
Volume 11, Chapter 1
November – December, 2009
With the hustle-bustle of Hong Kong behind me, I boarded a plane and settled in for the long haul to Sydney. Twenty-eight devotees from my summer festival program in eastern Europe had arrived in Australia the previous week. We would be touring the country for three months.
I had brought several books to read, including an early volume of Diary of a Traveling Preacher. I wanted to look at it again with a view to improving my writing skills. I had just put the book in the pocket of the seat in front of me when a stewardess asked if I would change seats with another man, whose family was sitting across the aisle from me. So I picked up my things and moved a few rows back. The gentleman who was taking my seat thanked me profusely.
After getting comfortable again, I realized I’d forgotten the diary. “Don’t worry,” I told myself. “I’ll get it later in the flight.” But other things kept me occupied, including falling asleep for a number of hours, and by the time I woke up we were landing in Sydney.
As I was taking my hand luggage out of the overhead compartment, the man who had taken my seat came up to me, diary in hand.
“Fantastic reading,” he said. “I almost finished the entire book. I didn’t sleep all night. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t bring it over to you.”
“No,” I said. “It’s not a problem. In fact, you can keep it.”
“Can I?” he said. “Thank you so much.”
“By the way,” I said as we struggled with our luggage, “I hope you didn’t have any difficulty with some of the words or concepts.”
“I did find some of it difficult,” he said, “but most of it came through. I’m an avid reader of travel diaries, and I noticed the book was Volume 9. I haven’t seen the series in the bookstores.”
“It’s mainly for our congregation,” I said.
“That’s interesting,” he said. “I do feel that with a little editing your books could join the mainstream.”
“You do?” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “But change the title. You’re practicing an Eastern tradition, but the title rings a bit Christian evangelic. How about Diary of a Traveling Monk? I’d buy that.”
As I walked towards immigration I remembered how Srila Prabhupada had taken the advice of a friend. Srila Prabhupada was busy writing, publishing, and distributing his Back to Godhead magazine in New Delhi. “I think it would be better,” said the friend, “if you wrote and distributed big books. They have a long-term effect.”
Srila Prabhupada took those words to heart and turned to translating the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
I checked my watch for the time in India, and as I continued walking to passport control, I called Advaita-candra das, the owner of Torchlight Publishing. “Advaita,” I said, “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we see if we can get my diaries in the bookstores?”
And that was how Diary of a Traveling Monk came about, along with a new website, travelingmonk.com.
I collected my bags and headed for customs. I was nervous because Australian customs is never easy. The officers are serious about protecting the country from incoming diseases. Passengers arriving by plane are not allowed to bring in any foods, mineral, or seeds. Wood in any form is closely inspected. Often a wooden article is impounded and fumigated before being returned. Everything must be declared in writing, and if customs officers find something not declared a large fine is likely.
I was nervous because I was carrying a number of wooden articles, like large japa beads, sandalwood for my deity worship, neck beads, and most important, old Tulasi beads from the coat of Madhu Pandit in Jaipur. I also had many items that could be considered exotic and questionable, like aguru oil, blocks of camphor, boxes of saffron, and my salagrama-silas.
As I got closer to customs I began to sweat. I recognized an officer who had grilled me for more than an hour two years ago. He went through everything I had at the time and confiscated a few articles. As I pushed my luggage cart with two large bags forward, I remembered how customs had once impounded the sacred Siddha Bakula japa beads of my friend Bimala Krsna das, and I wondered if they would take my two-hundred-year-old rudraksa beads given to me by a Siva bhakta in South India.
There was a long line of people waiting, and a woman was directing the line and sending the people to the different inspectors. The customs officers were checking everyone’s luggage, and a number of passengers looked frustrated with the way they were being searched. Finally I came to the front of the line. “Next!” shouted the woman. “Stall four!”
As I rounded the corner into the stall, the officer had his head down and his back to me. Then he turned around. He was a burly Sikh with a blue turban. I gasped with surprise.
“Hare Krsna, Swamiji,” he said. “Are you coming to visit your temple in North Sydney?”
“What?” I said. “Oh yes…huh… well, yes, yes I am,” I said.
“Have you to been to the ISKCON Juhu Beach temple?” he said.
“Oh, uh… yes… yes I have,” I said, “I’ve been there a number of times. Um… Would you like to see my declaration?”
“Swamiji,” he continued, “did you eat in the restaurant at Juhu temple? Very good food. I recommend it.”
I noticed one or two of the other customs officers staring in our direction.
“I’ve also been to the North Sydney temple with my wife,” the Sikh continued. “Very nice bhajanas.”
“That’s nice,” I said, and I put the declaration on the table in front of him. “Here’s my form.”
He picked it up but didn’t look at it. “Have you anything to declare?” he said nonchalantly.
I had a long list ready and decided to start with my japa-beads. I took a deep breath. “Here,” I said, “We can start with these meditation beads.”
“Oh,” he said, “they are sacred wood aren’t they, Swamiji?”
I cleared my throat. Uh… Yes, sir,” I said. “Yes they are.”
“That’s fine,” he said. He stamped the form and put it in the drawer in front of him. “You can go now.”
“I can go?” I said.
“Yes, Swamiji,” he said with a big smile, “and all the best!”
As I walked out I looked back and saw customs inspectors going through the bags of the passengers in front of them. There were big piles of clothes, electronics, and other things all over the tables.
When I came to the arrival hall, I heard someone say, “Haribol, Gurudeva.” I looked over and saw my disciple Sundarananda-gopal das.
As we walked along I asked him for an update on the festival tour. “All the tour devotees from Russia and Ukraine have arrived,” he said. “They’re at the temple practicing their performances. We have a festival here in Sydney tomorrow, and then we’re off to the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne.”
“The Parliament?” I said. “You mean we got accepted?”
“Yes,” he replied. “There were more than two thousand applications to lecture, hold workshops, or perform, but only 500 hundred were accepted. We’re quite lucky.”
I smiled. “It’s not luck,” I said. “It’s Krsna’s mercy.”
The Parliament of World Religions dates back to 1893, when representatives from Eastern and Western spiritual traditions met in Chicago for inter-religious dialogue. The Parliament is now held every five years and strives to foster understanding and cooperation between spiritual cultures. ISKCON was also represented at the Parliament in Barcelona five years ago.
Now in Melbourne, some devotees had been invited to speak on a variety of topics, and our festival program had been chosen to entertain some of the ten thousand expected visitors.
I turned to Sundarananda. “This is a great opportunity to network and connect with other spiritual traditions,” I said. “Our GBC supports interfaith dialogue. Several years ago Saunaka Rsi das set up the ISKCON Interfaith Commission in Oxford, England, so people of different faiths could work together for the benefit of society.”
Sundarananda nodded. “Your festival program is scheduled to perform on the second day of the Parliament at prime time in one of the main auditoriums,” he said.
Two days later our festival troupe flew to Melbourne. On the opening day of the Parliament, I went to the large convention and exhibition center to see what was taking place. As I walked in with a young devotee, I saw thousands of people dressed in all sorts of spiritual clothes, going here and there to the lectures, seminars, and workshops.
“Maharaja,” said the young devotee, “There’s a big hall where all the different religions have booths. You can meet their representatives and get books on their teachings.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
As we walked into the exhibition hall, I saw hundreds of booths, all nicely decorated. The crowds were milling around them. In the midst of it all I saw our own booth, “The International Society for Krsna Consciousness,” with Srila Prabhupada’s books on display. The booth was full of people browsing through the books and talking to devotees.
As I headed in that direction, a gentleman in Arab clothes came up to me. “Swami,” he said, “I am Sheikh Abdul from Jerusalem. I am giving a seminar on Religion, Conflict, and Peace Building in the Middle East. I was speaking to some of your members here, and I find your philosophy very interesting.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I notice you are wearing a ring with Arabic script on it,” he continued. “That is the language of my people. But you are a Hindu. Why are you wearing an Islamic ring? ”
“It was given to me by a Muslim holy man,” I said. “I defended his faith in an argument with another man, and in appreciation he gave me his ring. He said the script on the stone is three hundred years old.”
I took the ring off my finger and handed it to him. “Do you think you could translate the inscription for me?” I asked.
He studied the ring then read the inscription: “Allah, the merciful one, bestows longevity and a healthy life to the bearer of this ring.”
He handed the ring back to me and smiled. “Swami,” he said, “what are your views on the many conflicts we have in our world, particularly in the Middle East?”
“Such conflicts are due to our being in the bodily conception of life,” I said. “Because we identify with our bodies we think ourselves American, Israeli, Palestinian. But we are not these bodies. We are spirit souls. In reality, we are children of one God. People are fighting over their differences, but peace will come only when we focus on what we have in common. On the spiritual platform we are all brothers and sisters.”
“Yes,” said the sheikh. “Our Koran advocates peace, even when one is wronged. Chapter 3, verse 172 says: ‘For those who responded to the call of Allah and the messenger after the wound had befallen them – those among them who do good to others and guard against evil shall have a great reward.’
“It’s that message I am trying to preach in Jerusalem. Swami, why don’t you visit my center some time? You could share your beliefs with our people, and I could enlighten you about Islam.”
“Thank you for the invitation,” I said. “If I am able I would like to take you up on it.”
We exchanged business cards, and as the sheik was leaving he turned to me and smiled. “Swami,” he said, “I’m planning to come to your show tomorrow.”
At the ISKCON booth I took the time to speak to several visitors, and then I went with a young disciple to the area where the seminars were being held. Many people were standing around discussing what they had heard in the various lectures. In the distance I saw an elderly Buddhist monk of Eastern origin dressed in flowing robes sitting with a number of his followers, also in robes. They were worshiping him with incense, flowers, and a yak-tail fan. As my disciple and I came closer, the master saw us and immediately rose to greet me.
“Welcome,” he said. “We are honored that you have come.”
“Honored that I have come, Your Holiness?” I said. “I am only an aspiring transcendentalist. Seeing the faith your followers have in you, I can ascertain that you are a realized soul.”
He smiled and began telling me a story: “A student once asked the Buddha, ‘Are you a God?’ ”
“‘No, my son,’ said the Blessed One.
“‘Are you a saint?’ the student asked.
“‘No, my son,’ said the Blessed One.
“‘Are you a magician?’ the student said.
“‘No, my dear one,’ said the Blessed One.
“‘What are you then?’ the student asked.
“‘I am awake,’ said the Buddha.”
I smiled. “Words of wisdom,” I said. “Most of us are asleep, unaware of the true purpose of life.”
“Yes,” he said, “but your eyes show that you are not asleep.”
I laughed. “It’s your kindness that you can see the potential for something that has not yet come,” I said.
I reached forward to embrace him, and his students reacted with alarm. One moved forward to stop me.
“No!” said the master. He put his arms around me, and we embraced for a long time.
“I have enjoyed meeting you, my brother,” he said.
“And I you,” I said as we stood holding hands.
“I would like you to visit our monastery in Thailand,” he said. “You will be my guest for three months. I will teach you about Buddhism, and you will enlighten me about your faith.”
We exchanged cards, and I promised to try to find an opportunity to attend his asrama. I slowly walked away with my disciple. “Srila Gurudeva,” my disciple said, “what will you benefit by learning the teachings of Buddha?”
“Buddha is an incarnation of Krsna,” I said. “Surely there is something to be learned. Just look how controlled these young monks are. See how they are sitting so composed and serene. Surely that is favorable for the practice of bhakti yoga.”
I quoted a verse:
“vaco vegam manasah krodha vegam
jivha vegam udaropastha vegam
etan vegan yo visaheta dhirah
sarvam apimam prthivim sa sisyat
“A sober person who can tolerate the urge to speak, the mind’s demands, the actions of anger, and the urges of the tongue, belly, and genitals, is qualified to make disciples all over the world.”
[Sri Upadesamrta, verse 1]
The next day we held our two-hour festival program in a hall with four hundred seats. The place filled up well before the program started, and we were turning people away when I saw Sheikh Abdul walking toward the entrance. I ran from the side of the stage and reached the sheikh before the devotees could block his path. “Come with me,” I said, out of breath. “I’ve reserved a seat for you.”
As we passed by the sound desk I grabbed the engineer’s chair and carried it with me to the front-row aisle. Apologizing to the guests seated there, I squeezed in the chair and asked the sheikh to sit down. The program began immediately, and as I surveyed the audience I understood that many important people from around the world, like the sheikh, were there to see our show.
Twenty minutes into the program I saw a woman making a call on her cell phone. I walked up to her.
“Please don’t use your phone during the performance,” I said.
She looked up. “This show is so amazing I’m calling one of the directors of the Parliament to come down from his office and see it,”
“No problem,” I said with a smile. “Continue with your call.”
I asked the devotee at the door to make sure that when the director arrived he would be given a seat.
The crowd roared in approval after every performance. During my twenty-minute talk I spoke from the Bhagavad-gita. I knew that these profound truths would impress many in the audience. After the show we sold twenty Gitas from the book table.
The sheikh loved the show, and afterwards he shook my hand repeatedly, while glorifying all the performers. “May I have the honor to invite you to my seminar tomorrow in room 104?” he asked.
“It would be a privilege to attend,” I said.
Just as we were about to leave the hall a director of the Parliament came up to me. “I would like your group to perform at the closing ceremonies in four days,” he said. “Your show is astounding, like a spiritual Cirque du Soleil.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Your comment means a lot to us.”
“There are going to be several four-minute performances,” he said. “There will be four thousand people attending. I’ll slot you into second spot right after the invocation.”
The next day we were scheduled to do harinama on the outskirts of Melbourne. I had to tell Gaura Hari das I wouldn’t be on the harinama. “I promised a good friend I would attend his lecture at the Parliament of World Religions,” I said.
“What’s the lecture about?” Gaura Hari asked.
“Representatives of Jewish, Christian, Druze, and Muslim faiths will share stories of peacemaking and hope in Jerusalem. My friend is the coordinator and main speaker.”
“That’s impressive,” Gaura Hari said. “How many people will be there?”
“Most seminars are attended by thirty to fifty people,” I said.
That afternoon I arrived at the sheikh’s seminar ten minutes late. As I pulled open the door I got a real surprise. More than three hundred people were crammed in. There wasn’t a seat free, and people were standing alongside the walls. Spectators four deep lined the back of the room. Sheikh Abdul was lecturing when he noticed me standing awkwardly at the entrance.
“My spiritual brother has come,” he said into the microphone with a big smile. “Please make way for him and give him a seat in the front row.”
Two or three people immediately stood up in the front. As I made my way forward the crowd respectfully parted for me. I felt humbled and honored to be in the sheikh’s presence.
“My spiritual brother is thinking to visit me in Jerusalem,” he said with a smile. Everyone looked at me as I nodded my head. The sheikh went on to give a moving appeal for peace in the Middle East.
“People are fighting over their differences. But peace will come to our region only when we focus on what we have in common. On the spiritual platform we are all brothers and sisters,” he concluded, glancing at me with a twinkle in his eye.
“Isn’t that exactly what I said!” I thought, I was touched, sensing the power of our newfound pledge to work together for enlightening people. Recalling a poem I had read that morning in one of the Parliament brochures, I made a vow then and there to visit the sheikh’s center in the Middle East.
Your friends are very special things,
Their love is like the rarest gem
But friends are hard to find and keep
Unless you are a friend to them.
When the lecture ended I filed out with the other guests and looked at the brochure to see if there were any other interesting seminars taking place. “A Panel Discussion on the Goal of Religion” caught my eye. There would be speakers from Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist faiths.
I quickly made my way to the room and found it almost as well attended as the sheikh’s seminar. This time I myself managed to find a seat close to the front. Everything went smoothly as the speakers shared their perspectives on the goal of religion. Then the floor was opened for questions.
Someone asked why women were not allowed to play more significant roles in world religion. Most of the panel said their faiths were open to women taking leadership roles, but when a Roman Catholic cardinal said that women had no role in the priesthood because it was not the church’s tradition, he was booed.
After the seminar people surged forward to meet the various religious leaders, but no one approached the cardinal. As people gradually filed out he was left sitting alone. I went up to him. “I admire your courage in not compromising your tradition,” I said.
“You do?” he said looking up.
“Yes,” I said. “There’s always room for adjusting things according to time, place, and circumstance, but we can’t compromise the word of scripture. It’s a delicate balance.”
He looked at me closely. “What group are you from?” he said.
“The Hare Krsna movement,” I said. “Our tradition is based on the Bhagavad-gita spoken five thousand years ago by Lord Krsna in India.
His face darkened. “I see,” he said. “You believe in many gods.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “Our philosophy is monotheistic. We believe in one God, just like you.”
“Really?” he said. “That’s not what I was told.”
“You would have to try hard to find any significant differences between our faiths,” I said. “Ultimately we follow the same commandment as you: to love and honor the Father with all our hearts and souls.”
“That’s in your scriptures?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “but expressed in a different way.”
“How?” he asked.
…quoted the Bhagavad-gita: “man-mana bhava mad-bhakto mad-yaji mam namaskuru mam evaisyasi satyam te pratijane priyo si me
“Always think of Me and become My devotee. Worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.” [Bhagavad-gita 18.65]
He looked at me. “Please bless me,” he said,
“Father,” I said, “how can I presume to bless you? You are my senior, much older than I. It is you who are in a position to bless someone like me.”
“No,” he said. “You came to comfort me. Now please bless me.”
“No, Father,” I said. “I can’t do that.”
Suddenly I thought of Poland, where I do most of my preaching. There, a priest – what to speak of a cardinal – would never think of such a thing.
“Please, my brother,” he said, “I am asking you.”
An idea came to me. “Father,” I said, “I will bless you if you bless me.”
We took each other’s hands and sat alone in that empty room, our eyes closed, blessing each other.
I went back to the Melbourne temple to practice our presentation for the closing ceremony with the devotees. We had chosen to do hip hop artist MC Yogi’s song Krsna Love. We devised a performance that included all parts of our normal two-hour show: bharata-natyam dance, yoga, artistic martial arts, and kirtana. Although the presentation would be only four minutes long, it took a couple of hours to put it together.
Sri Prahlada das smiled when I told him about this, and he quoted the writer Blaise Pascal: “I have made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
When our troupe of twenty-eight devotees arrived at the Parliament three days later, we were whisked backstage. As I looked out from behind the curtain, I was amazed to see the huge crowd. When the lights dimmed the master of ceremonies addressed the audience. He welcomed everyone, especially the spiritual leaders from different traditions around the world, and announced the dignitaries who would be speaking.
As he stepped back behind the curtain, Buddhist monks came onstage and beat a huge gong while playing large brass horns as other monks chanted spiritual incantations. It was beautiful and mystical and lasted for ten minutes. As they came offstage, the stage manager pointed to us. “You’re on,” he said. “Good luck.”
As the sound system bellowed forth with Krsna Love, the Hare Krsna mantra filled the auditorium. I could hear the audience gasp at our beautiful clothes and costumes, and as we went through our routine I saw that everyone was enthralled. When we came forward dancing in a straight line and threw large bunches of flowers into the audience, everyone cheered. Then it was over almost as soon as it had begun.
The crowd kept cheering as we exited the stage. Backstage the stage manager complimented us. “That was wonderful!” he said. “Listen to that applause. They can’t stop. ”
Spiritual dignitaries spoke, and there were other performances as well. When the ceremony ended, our troupe went quickly to the foyer, where people were exiting. A large crowd formed as people took their photos with us. But after an hour, I had to stop it.
“Let’s move on,” I told the devotees. “We’ve have another show in sixty minutes just outside the city. The organizers phoned me ten minutes ago and said eight hundred people are already seated in the hall. We can’t be late.”
As we drove off quickly, I looked back at the huge crowd still pouring out of the convention center.
I smiled at Gaura Hari. “And we didn’t even have time to relish our success,” I said.
“True” he said, smiling back, “But we made a deep impression on many of the spiritual leaders and participants at the Parliament, and you met a few new spiritual brothers as well.”
“We have been spreading this sankirtana movement in the Western countries, and in our recent tour of European cities like Rome, Geneva, Paris and Frankfurt, many learned Christian scholars, priests, philosophers and yogis came to see us, and by the grace of Krsna they agreed that this Krsna consciousness movement, the bhakti cult, offers the topmost conclusion. Following in the footsteps of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, we are trying to convince everyone that the devotional service of the Lord is enjoined in every scripture …It is not a question of being Christian, Mohammedan or Hindu … Due to our solid logic and scientific presentation, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s prediction that Krsna consciousness will spread in every town and village throughout the world is gradually being realized.
[Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 25.20, purport]