Chapter 3: Sojourn in Novosibirsk

Sojourn in Novosibirsk


Volume 3, Chapter 3

January 20, 2001, Novosibirsk, Siberia.


Today when we awoke, we returned to the hall for a last program before leaving Barnoul. Although we had all taken rest late that night and the program was early in the morning, 200 devotees were there to greet us and listen to class. I spoke on Rupa Goswami’s verse from Bhakti Rasamrta Sindu, which gives the standard for pure devotional service:

anyabhilasita sunyam

jnana karmady anavrtam

anukulyena krsnanu

silanam bhakir uttama

“When first class devotional service develops, one is devoid of all material desires, knowledge of impersonalism and fruitive activities. The devotee must serve Krsna favorably, as Krsna desires”

Our acrayas have said that this verse is the essential verse of Bhakti Rasamrta Sindhu, upon which the rest of the book is based.

At 11:30 in the morning we rushed to the station to catch the train to our next destination, Krasnoyarsk. I was happy to see that four of my lady disciples had purchased tickets for a compartment on the train. They boarded the train with stockpiles of prasadam for the 26 hour train ride. I settled into my compartment and happily sat finishing my rounds in a rare moment of peace and solitude. I watched the white, cold countryside flash by as the train proceeded deep into the Siberian countryside.

Darkness set in after a few hours, just as we arrived in Novosibirsk, the capitol of the Siberian region. As the train pulled into the station, I saw on the main platform a big neon

sign that displayed the time and temperature. It is a curious thing that in each and every train station in Russia, there is a huge sign displaying time and temperature. I stared out in disbelief; the time was 6 pm, the temperature 20 degrees below zero!

Suddenly Uttamasloka, who is accompanying us as my Russian translator, came to my cabin and said the train will be delayed in the station for 5 hours. I immediately asked, “Is there a temple in this city?”.

He replied to the affirmative. I asked how far away it was and another devotee innocently replied that is was only 15 minutes from the station. I told Uttamasloka to go out on the platform and call the temple to inform them that we were coming for a surprise visit. We would walk the short distance. Little did I know what it is to walk even ten meters in 20 degree below zero weather!

Within minutes our little band of ten devotees had jumped off the train and began the short walk to the temple. A chilling wind had come up, driving the temperature down to 30 degrees below zero. I had never experienced anything like it in my life. Any small portion of exposed flesh on my body immediately experienced intense pain from the cold. After walking just fifty meters, I couldn’t imagine going one step further. We were just outside the train station and so I asked Uttamasloka to order a taxi for us to continue to the temple. He found a big taxi-van and we all piled in, thankful for the warmth inside. After half an hour, we arrived at the temple. Luckily, we hadn’t attempted to walk the “15 minutes” distance!

Arriving at the temple, we were greeted by twenty very enthusiastic devotees. Sri Prahlad led kirtan and I spoke on “atiti -seva”; receiving the “unexpected” guest. I mentioned that in Vedic culture the householder has five duties to perform; to honor the forefathers, the earth, the devas, the animal and any unexpected guest. I told the story from Srimad Bhagavatam of King Rantidev, who received 3 different guests in his home. He respectfully fed them according to their desires, but in the end had no prasadam left for himself and his family members. Later the three personalities revealed themselves as Brahma, Visnu and Siva and blessed him for his proper etiquette in serving his guests. Sri Prahlad then led an amazing kirtan which sent the devotees to Vaikunatha.

After three hours we got back in the taxi and returned to the train station. As we walked in, all eyes were upon us! Here we were, dressed in dhoti and saris, in one of the coldest places on earth. Besides that, our colorful attire greatly contrasted with the dark, heavy leather coats

and fur hats that everyone else wore. The people of Siberia are a hardy bunch; all the men look to me like burley woodsmen. Many of them are bigger than me and with all their dark furry, winter clothing come across as a bit intimidating. Russian people in general have a sort of tough looking demeanor about them. They don’t easily smile. But that’s deceptive, because actually Russian people are generally soft-hearted.

As we walked through the throngs of heavy set men and women in their furs hats and skins, several people called out, “Hare Krsna!” in gruff voices. As we approached our train, I was thinking to myself that although it’s so austere to travel and preach here, I actually prefer it to other countries where life is more opulent and there are more facilities. Here in Russia everyone shares common austerities and the only noticeable “opulence” I’ve seen is the bright faced and colorfully dressed Hare Krsna devotees.

Finding our way to our train we settled in for the overnight ride to Krasnoyarsk. Earlier in the day, Jananivasa, my Russian secretary, had given me a mobile telephone that works throughout the entire country.

As it is expensive to use, I’ll have it mainly for receiving calls. But as I had not heard from Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda in over a week, I decided to call them. They are two disciples in Poland who are in charge of organizing our Polish Festival Programs. Both of these ladies have taken on an incredible amount of responsibility on the tour. They are reorganizing it as a legal foundation, arranging all the festivals for the upcoming spring, summer and fall tours and handling all the initial preparations for the gigantic Woodstock festival this coming summer. Recently they had been in Zary, looking for accommodations for the 400 devotees we expect to join us for our preaching at Woodstock in August.

When I called them they reported that the local priest in Zary is doing everything he can to place obstacles before us . During the last two Woodstock festivals we had stayed in a large school, not far from the center of town. But when Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrinda visited this school to rent the facilities, they adamantly refused. At every school they went in town, they encountered the same cold mood. Finally one school authority informed them that the local priest had sent word out, that no school should cooperate with the Hare Krsna’s in their attempt to get facility for Woodstock. The priests are very powerful in Poland, especially in small towns. People are afraid of them because if they don’t cooperate with the priests, that may lose their jobs.

Determined to find accommodation, Nandini and Radha Sakki Vrnda persevered and finally found two schools who agreed to rent their facilties to us. Nandini said that the local mayor, who is our friend, had stepped in and used his influence.

Putting down the phone, my heart was pounding and I was back in the “fighting mood” I live in six months of the year in Poland. I mentioned to Uttamasloka that I can’t think of many places in the world, aside from China and Islamic countries, where our movement still faces so much hostile aggression. He replied that he sees the aggression in proportion to the amount preaching that we have done in Poland. It’s a devoutly Catholic country, where countless numbers of Srila Prabhupada books have been distributed. The hostility arises from the church due to our success in preaching. But it’s not easy to live with that hostility year after year. It also means we can’t ease up on our preaching for a moment. If we were to slow down, the church would immediately take any “territory” we have gained over the years.

We have to keep up a blistering pace, especially on the tour. But after ten years of festivals, my body is showing signs of aging. I pray the Lord will give me the required strength to go on. But what can He do with this aging body? He can inspire us in the heart to do His service, but he can’t bring back our youth. I suppose the answer lies with disciples like Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda.

As I looked out the window, I thought of their constant engagement and struggle to set up our festival programs. They are working day and night, even now in the winter season. I drifted off to sleep that night, thanking the Lord for disciples like them and asking Srila Prabhupada to bless them.