June 9, 1995
By Indradyumna Swami
Today was Pandava-nirjala ekadasi, and I decided to observe the full fast, even from water. It wasn’t easy because we were in the desert, and somehow there often seems to be many complications on ekadasi. Today was no exception.
I received an e-mail message early this morning that the temple presidents in South Africa were considering postponing the annual December Ratha-yatra in Durban until April. The reason was that Ratha-yatra interferes with the December book-distribution marathon. I was angry about a move to switch plans in mid-year and jeopardize such a big preaching program. After last year’s Ratha- yatra we discussed the pros and cons of changing the dates and decided to keep it in December. But recently someone again agitated the situation, and the desire to change was further expressed.
I feel protective of the festival because when Srila Prabhupada visited Durban in 1975, he told the devotees to build a beautiful temple and hold a big Ratha-yatra every year. It wasn’t until 1989, when I was temple president in Durban, that we succeeded in holding the first Ratha-yatra. It was an overwhelming success, which has increased every year since. To change to April is risky for a number of reasons: It’s not the festive season like December, it is subsequently more difficult to collect funds in April, and we may not get permission for our regular site.
I personally feel the real issue is that the devotees in Durban are not fully into the book-marathon spirit in December and are using the Ratha-yatra as a straw man. But I feel practically helpless to do anything from central Asia. It’s difficult to get out of Tashkent or Uzbekistan by phone or e-mail, and it’s expensive.
After hours of trying, I managed to contact Bhakti Caru Maharaja by telephone. I also managed to call Sruta Kirti, the temple president in Durban. I have a long-standing friendship and admiration for Sruta and appealed to him to go ahead with the plans to hold Ratha-yatra in December. He said it would be discussed during the weekend. In an effort to find a solution that would be acceptable to everyone concerned, I offered to take charge of the December book-marathon as well as the Ratha-yatra. For most of the ekadasi, I paced the ﬂoors in the sweltering heat, praying to Lord Jagannatha to let the festival go on as planned.
More bad news came this afternoon. When Vinod Bihari went to the office to buy train tickets for our next destination, Dushanbe in Tajikistan, he was told we were all in Uzbekistan illegally because we didn’t have visas. It was like a bad dream all over again. We had driven into the country but no one stopped us at the border from Kazakhstan into Uzbekistan. The rules are still unclear in these former Soviet Republics. Bureaucracy is slow moving, and laws change day by day. But it appeared we definitely needed visas.
So Vinod Bihari had to resort to our previous tactics in Baku. He was led to a dark, smoky office at the back of the train station, where a “friend” could help him. There he produced some American dollars and got special stamps put in our passports. They weren’t even stamps, just some writing. It is supposed to be enough, but we won’t know until we reach the border.
Getting to Dushanbe is not going to be easy. Islamic fundamentalist rebels are fighting government forces in the countryside, so we can’t ﬂy into Tajikistan from Tashkent, and the trains are diverted to safe passageways that change all the time. Nothing is sure or certain.
Besides that, the devotees said the train is a slow-moving train to hell. The toilets are never cleaned, and the windows are boarded up as protection from any fighting along the way. Our only real possibility is to drive to Dushanbe. But it’s a fourteen-hour drive through territory held by the rebels. Although the devotees said the rebels probably wouldn’t stop us, I am a bit nervous about the idea. They also told me that the border guards are known for taking some “help” in the form of money or anything they like from one’s bags. What’s more, the road is simply a dirt road etched out of the mountainside, with room for only one car to pass.
Once again, we are faced with a decision to go and give association to devotees who rarely see any senior devotees and who are preaching under difficult situations, or to play it safe. We decided to go to Dushanbe.
The problem was that we had only one vehicle. So Govinda Maharaja called all his disciples together and asked them to try to find a car that would take us through Samarkand and down to Dushanbe. It was not an attractive proposal—driving through rebel territory into an uneasy situation in Dushanbe.
But Maharaja’s disciples rushed off, eager to please him, and four hours later came back with several choices: an army jeep, an old Russian Volga, a Polish Nysa van, or a 1970 Mercedes. We chose the Mercedes with its professional driver named Boris, not because we wanted to go in style but because it was the safest vehicle.
This afternoon, Govinda Maharaja and I did an interview with the biggest television station in Tashkent. Having been told we couldn’t proselytize our faith in Uzbekistan, it wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to do a major television interview. But the interviewer gave me a list of questions, and then I understood how it was possible. Most of the questions were based around yoga, but as the interview went on Maharaja and I began to speak freely about Krsna consciousness: its history, traditions, and philosophy. No one objected, and the television personnel were thrilled with the program, which they said would be aired on Saturday at prime time. I took the whole thing as Krsna’s mystic power.
This evening Govinda Maharaja gave Bhagavad-gita class at the Tashkent temple. He began with the Jaya Radha-Madhava prayers, but as he kept going, the kirtana got bigger and bigger. Finally he got off the Vyasasana, and we had a two-and-a-half-hour kirtana that lasted until 10 p.m. With more than two hundred devotees and guests, we took the kirtana out in front of the temple, but no further. Many Muslim neighbors came out of their homes to see, and cars and buses stopped to watch. We had quite a crowd, and everyone was pleased. We may have been a different religion, but everyone enjoyed seeing us chanting Hare Krsna and dancing. Soon a number of the neighbors were chanting with us. Again, I marveled at how Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana transcends all barriers of birth, nationality, and religion. It is completely transcendental.
After the kirtana, all 200 of us plus many neighbors sat cramped on the small pathway into the temple as Govinda Maharaja, Sri Prahlada, Vinod Bihari, Uttamasloka, and I took turns preaching and reminiscing about our visit. Govinda Maharaja told the story of how Lord Caitanya defeated the Muslim Chand Kazi, who was initially opposed to the sankirtana movement. After discussing with Lord Caitanya, the Chand Kazi allowed the sankirtana of the holy names to continue throughout Navadvipa and requested all further generations of Muslims to permit the chanting of Hare Krsna to go on in the area.
As Maharaja pointed out, the first Muslims to invade and settle in India were from Uzbekistan, so this is where the Chand Kazi’s ancestors must have come from. Maharaja prayed that one day the Uzbekistan government would also honor the order made by the Chand Kazi of Navadvipa for Lord Caitanya and allow us the freedom to chant the holy names without restriction throughout the land.
Sri Prahlada’s final kirtana again brought a ﬂood of tears from the devotees as we said our final goodbyes. In The Nectar of Devotion Srila Prabhupada says that a devotee must learn the art of crying for Krsna:
“In other words, one should learn how to cry for the Lord. One should learn this small technique, and he should be very eager and actually cry to become engaged in some particular type of service. This is called laulyam, and. such tears are the price for the highest perfection.” [Nectar of Devotion, chapter 9)
This is possible only by the mercy of the sankirtana movement.
On our way back to our apartment at midnight, we were stopped at a police roadblock. But when they saw we were Hare Krsna devotees they laughed and waved us on. The next car wasn’t so fortunate. I saw the driver had to give the police a bottle of Russian vodka before they would let him go.
Govinda Maharaja told me that last year when they crossed the border into the country, his servant had to give his watch to the customs officer in order to be allowed in.