The Mood of the Day
Volume 15, Chapter 3
May 13, 2019
Aeroflot flight SU 1492 took off from Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow at 18:02 on May 6th. It reported a malfunction 28 minutes into the flight. The captain requested and was given permission by airport control to return to the airport and make an emergency landing. Unfortunately, the plane burst into flames upon landing and 41 passengers lost their lives. A person on the ground who observed the crash said it was a miracle that 33 of the passengers and 4 of the crew members survived. The news spread quickly via social media and was accompanied by horrifying videos of the ill-fated landing.
We are all both terrified of and fascinated by death, particularly when it happens in unusual ways. But the likelihood of dying in a plane crash is so slim it’s almost pointless to quantify. According to authorities, the probability of a plane going down is around one in 5.4 million. Other reports place the odds closer to one in 11 million.
“There’s one dangerous part of the airplane trip and that’s the drive to the airport,” said John Cox, a retired US airline captain and aviation accident investigator.
Of course, these statistics do nothing to diminish the sorrow of the families who lost their loved ones in the Sheremetyevo airport crash. The day it happened I overheard one devotee callously refer to the event as karma. While that may be true, that does not diminish the Vaisnavas’ sympathy for those afflicted. In a purport in Bhagavad Gita, Srila Prabhupada glorifies Arjuna’s soft-hearted nature when lamenting the impending demise of soldiers on the battlefield:
“As far as his soldiers were concerned, he was sympathetic from the beginning, but he felt compassion even for the soldiers of the opposite party foreseeing their imminent death. This overwhelmed a kind devotee like Arjuna. Such symptoms in Arjuna were not due to weakness but his softheartedness, a characteristic of a pure devotee of the Lord.”
[Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1, verse 28, purport]
If anything, such tragedies serve to remind us about the temporary nature of this world and the need to be more serious about our spiritual lives.
ahany ahani bhutani
sesah sthavaram icchanti
kim ascaryam atah param
“Every day, hundreds and millions of living entities go to the kingdom of death. Still, those who are remaining aspire for a permanent situation. What could be more wonderful than this?”
[Mahabharata, Vana-parva 313.116]
These thoughts were on my mind and certainly on the minds of the 12 devotees in my party too as we drove to the Sochi Airport to catch our 3-hour flight to Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. When we arrived at the airport it was obvious to me that we were not the only ones with the plane crash on our minds. The atmosphere was quieter and more somber than normal. There wasn’t the usual boisterous noise and excitement emitted by people travelling on vacation or business. There appeared to be an atmosphere composed in equal parts of sobriety and anxiety.
In such situations, I often find people are inclined to be more spiritual. They think more about God and care more for each other. As we walked towards the check-in area, I noticed people were staring at me in my sannyasi cloth as usual, but their stares seemed more compassionate and understanding. At one point a burley well-dressed man approached me with his arms outstretched; he smiled and embraced me. Then he took out his phone and politely asked if he could take a selfie with me. Afterwards, he shook my hand in firm appreciation. Several people walking by nodded and smiled, as if agreeing with his attitude.
“That never happens,” Mahavan das said.
“It’s the mood of the day,” I said. “People are affected by the tragedy in Moscow and are expressing their emotions.”
While many people seemed sympathetic, though, I saw the lady at the check-in counter roll her eyes when she saw our party of devotees. We were all dressed in vaisnava clothes and our luggage carts were overflowing with bags. The check-in lady motioned to another woman to come and help her. Neither of them looked very happy with the prospect of dealing with all our luggage and the variety of foreign passports we piled on the counter.
Vrajamrita dasi, the organizer of our 3-week Russia tour, came forward. There was a tense exchange of words between her and the check-in ladies.
“This is not going to be easy,” I said to Mahavan.
Sure enough, as soon as we started placing bags on the carousel one of the women refused to accept them.
“Most are three or four kilos overweight,” she said decisively.
“That’s not a lot,” said Vrajamrita. “And some of our bags are far under the weight limit. Put them on the scales and see. Considering that, you can let all our luggage through.”
“Absolutely not!” said the lady firmly.
“It means we’ll have to take things from some bags and put them into others,” Vrajamrita said. “But the end result will the same.”
The lady shrugged, indicating our luggage wasn’t her problem.
When the devotees started unpacking, the intensity of the situation increased as the long line of passengers behind us became restless.
A woman in uniform came to the front of the line where devotees were mired in repacking. It was obvious from her demeanor that she was the superintendent authority of the airline.
“What is going on here?” she asked.
Vrajamrita politely and calmly explained the situation. The superintendent glanced at the devotees. “You don’t deserve this treatment,” she said. “You need not worry. It’s only a few extra kilos. Put all the bags on the carousel. We’ll just check them through.”
Vrajamrita looked surprised. “This never happens with this airline,” she said.
“It’s the mood of the day,” I said.
People appeared unusually nervous as we boarded our flight. I was upgraded to Business Class and as the flight took off, I chanted softly on my japa beads. The roar of the engine got louder and I started chanting a little louder too. After 20 minutes the man in the seat in front of me turned around and said rudely, “Stop the mumbling! You’re disturbing all of us!”
“Hey! Leave him alone,” the man in the aisle next to me said. “Can’t you see he’s praying?”
Then the man in the seat behind piped up, “Yes, he’s praying. That’s a good thing. Perhaps that’s what all of us should be doing now!”
As the roar of the plane’s engines died down I was inclined to chant softer, but since people seemed pleased by my japa and perceived it as prayer, I just kept going. A few times during the flight passengers looked over at me and smiled.
“It’s unusual,” I thought to myself. “But it’s the mood of the day.”
After our flight landed in Moscow, I stood up to take my bags out of the luggage compartment. One of the gentlemen who had defended me stepped forward and said, “Let me help you, sir.”
When we parted ways at the plane exit, he said, “You keep well.”
“You too,” I replied.
No doubt our well-wishes were a product of the heightened awareness of human fragility brought on by the horrific crash of flight SU 1492. As terrible as such tragedies are, they serve to bring out sympathy and empathy for each other and an urgency to take shelter of the Lord.
Exiting the airport, I reflected on the tragedy and the reactions of the people I had encountered in my travels. Determined to transcend the miseries of this world and desiring the same for all of them, I prayed:
vivrta vividha badhe bhranti vegad agadhe
balavati bhava pure majjato me vidure
asarana gana bandho ha krpa kaumudindo
sakrd akrta vilambam dehi hastavalambam
“I am drowning in the painful, fathomless whirlpool of repeated birth and death. O Lord, O friend of the shelterless, O effulgent moon of mercy, please, just this one time, quickly extend Your hand to save me!”
[Srila Rupa Goswami, Padyavali, text 61]