Chapter 12: A Train Ride West

A Train Ride West

Volume 3, Chapter 12

January 29 – 30, 2001, Chelyabinsk, Russia.


Our train left Omsk at 3pm headed for Chelyabinsk, a 12-hour ride west. On the journey we passed through northern Kazakhstan. There was no immigration or Customs, however, because the train made no stop there. On the way I was thinking about our last kirtan in Omsk, the night before we left. There were about 200 devotees in the hall. Sri Prahlad was playing an ancient accordion; aptly described by Uttamasloka as an old squeeze box. I had a clay drum that had also seen better days. The best sound I could get out of it resembled a thump on a wet cardboard box. Jananivasa played the only pair of karatalas available, which sounded like two pieces of lead banging together. But all that made no difference. Sri Pralad was leading and had us diving and surfacing in the nectarian ocean of the holy names.

At one point the devotees swayed back and forth in unison, while at other times they broke into small groups and spun around in eccentric circles, smiling and laughing and sometimes rolling on the ground. It was the type of kirtan where one loses any sense of time and wish it would go on forever. It’s often like that when Sri Prahald leads. He’s a gifted musician with a taste for the holy name. I couldn’t think of a better combination of qualities.

Momentarily, I stepped a little to the side, just to watch the bliss. Here we were with 200 devotees and only three old, useless instruments. It reminded me of scenes from South Africa where, when passing through impoverished black townships, I’ve often see small groups of little boys with no instruments whatsoever just clapping their hands, happily absorbed in singing an ancestral song. But our kirtan was the most ancient of hymns, descending directly from the spiritual sky and lifting us to the greatest heights of happiness and bliss. As the township boys sang:

“Down on the corner, down on the street, Willie and the poor boys singing a song that can’t be beat!”

A few hours into the journey, Jananivasa informed me that little Amrta Keli and Vinode Behari were with their father on the train on their way back to southern Russia. I immediately asked him to get them. He searched through the long train, and an hour later brought the family to my compartment. I proceeded to tell stories of Krsna and His devotees. When I began the pastime of Bivamangala Thakur, Amrta Keli’s eyes lit up and she took over, telling the lila in much more detail than I. Afterwards, I asked their father if they could all stay in Chelyabinsk with us for the program. He replied that they had special tickets for disabled citizens of war that couldn’t be changed. To buy new tickets for the three-day journey home would be more than he could earn in a year. In English I inquired from Jananivasa how much such tickets would be, and he replied $150. When I told the father and children that I’d be happy to pay for those tickets, their mouths dropped open in disbelief. In fact I added a few more dollars, so they’ll be accompanying us all the way through Ekaterinburg, Perm, and on to Moscow.

“That’s my investment – I’m their coach.”

At one point in the journey, two young men who appeared to be close friends met Jananivasa in the corridor just outside my cabin. They were rough characters, but showed a little interest in what we were doing. Jananivasa spent a few minutes explaining the philosophy to them. Eventually one of the friends left, and $800 in bills dropped out of his pocket as he walked away. The other so-called friend stooped over, picked the money up and quickly put it in his pocket. Staring intensely at Jananivasa, he said to him that if he told his friend that he’d found the money he’d “smash him in the face!” A few minutes later the first boy returned in anxiety. He told his friend he had lost his money and began desperately searching for it throughout the corridor. His friend feigned sympathy and half-heartedly began to look for the money as well. The first boy was practically in tears. After some time they gave up and stood talking with Jananivasa again. Jananivasa very carefully began explaining the law of karma, how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When he used the analogy that if one steals from someone then in a future birth the same thing will happen to him, the boy who took the money off the floor became a little nervous. As Jananivasa went into more detail of the results of sinful acts, the thief broke out in a sweat. Finally, he looked over his shoulder and blurted out,

“Oh look, there’s the money on the floor!”

In one careful motion he took the money from his pocket, threw it on the floor, picked it up and gave it back to his friend.

When Jananivasa told me the story, I reflected how a real friend is one who helps you in times of adversity, not abandons you – or worse yet takes advantage of your misfortune.

apatsu mitram janiyad/yuddhe suram rne sucim

bharyam ksinesu vittesu/vyasanesu ca bandhavan

“A friend is tested in adversity, a hero in war, an honest man when in debt, and relatives in time of distress.” [Hitopanisad Part 1, Text 73]

Sometimes a friend can help us solve our problems. But the very least he can do is share or sympathize with our misfortune. In dealing with my own disciples’ problems, I can always offer the ultimate solution of going back to Godhead, but sometimes I am at a loss to offer a practical solution to a material difficulty. In such cases I just try to be a good listener. Sometimes that alone is the best medicine.

utsave vyasane caiva/ durbhikse rastra viplave

raja dvare smasane ca/ yastisthati sa bandhavah

“One who accompanies another during festivals, in misery, in famine, in national calamity, in court, and finally in the crematorium is the real, true friend.” [Hitopanishad Part 1, Text 74]

We arrived in Chelyabinsk at 3am. Upon arriving at Russian train stations, my conditioned reaction is to first look out of the window at the neon sign displaying the temperature. When I saw the temperature in Chelyabinsk I thought,

“Wow, it’s warm here! It’s only 10 degrees below zero.”

Siberia has made me a veteran of Russian winters. Real cold means anything less than 40 degrees below! As the weather wasn’t too bad I wore only two coats (as opposed the three), and jumped off the train with the other devotees. The Chelyabinsk devotees had not arrived in time to pick us up, so we waited outside the station for them to come. The temperature soon got the better of me, and I told Uttamasloka to order a taxi to take me to the apartment where we would be staying. As soon as he called for a taxi we were deluged by drivers offering us their services. They were all screaming at the same time and bargaining with Uttamasloka. Sri Prahlad said,

“Mosquitoes sucking blood.”

Standing in the middle of it all, I appreciated Guru Vrata’s military precision in “picking up the troops” in Krasnoyarsk. A traveling preacher, however, should never expect, what to speak of demand, any facility as he moves through the world. He is everyone’s servant. But if facility is offered, he should be thankful and express his appreciation to his hosts by sharing the very best of his Krsna consciousness with them.

We arrived at the apartment at 4.30am, and instead of sleeping I stayed up and chanted my rounds. Then after studying a little, we left for the morning program. A devotee must constantly be studying and learning in order to make his preaching interesting. I’m giving class twice a day during these tours, and although it’s a routine of sorts for me, for most of my disciples it’s the class of the year for them, because many see me only once a year. It’s essential I deliver the philosophy in an authorized way, while at the same time inspiring them in their progress. I can’t afford to be tired – a headache is no excuse to refuse class and I can’t even afford to be a minute late for the program. Every second counts for them.

At the hall the devotees had a small reception for me, and then I gave class on Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.6.1. The verse spoke of the glories of Narada Muni. I briefly told his history and emphasized that, like us, he became a devotee by the mercy of a Bhaktivedanta, a pure devotee of the Lord. Simply by taking the remnants of prasadam from such a pure Vaisnava,

the very nature of the transcendentalist became attractive to him. I enjoyed giving class and relished the long kirtan we had afterwards. In fact, we could have been anywhere in the world, but really we were in Vaikuntha. Although I sometimes hanker for the old days in Russia when we preached in secret and literally ran for our lives from the KGB, I appreciate the big movement here now and the many devotees who have come as a result of those original seeds we planted. The ranks are still swelling here. There are also more facilities. I sat for a few moments on the vyasasana before leaving, thinking how much Srila Prabhuapa sacrificed for all of us to come to this stage. It was very austere here when he came, but he didn’t mind if he could spread the message of Lord Caitanya. Once Govinda dasi wrote to Srila Prabhupada inviting him to come to Hawaii to rest and work on his translations.

Knowing that he already had plans to visit Moscow, she attempted to attract him by saying that it was mango season in Hawaii. Srila Prabhupada wrote back,

“Preaching in the snows of Russia is sweeter than the sweetest mango!”

Just as I thought that, a devotee came up and handed me a ripe red mango! I’d never seen a mango in Russia! I laughed and said to myself,

“Srila Prabhupada, now we have the best of both worlds here – mangos and preaching! We have no excuse not to work hard to push on this movement here for your pleasure.”