Chapter 5: Gypsies in tune with Bhakti-Yoga

Gypsies in tune with Bhakti-Yoga

Volume 3, Chapter 5

January 22, 2001, Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.


Exhausted from the program the night before, and tired in general from days of intense travel, I slept until 6am. When I awoke, the apartment was quiet and dark. All the devotees had gone to the temple.

The night before I had suggested that Sri Prahlad give class the next morning. Everyone took that idea to heart and gave me the few hours of extra rest I needed.

I showered and then sat down to chant my rounds peacefully, but intensely. I consider that to be real japa – sitting and chanting with concentration. Even standing or pacing back and forth while doing japa doesn’t produce the same results for me. I have trained myself, whenever possible, to simply sit and chant. I can’t say I always do it. My schedule as a traveling preacher means my sadhana is not always as regulated as I’d like it to be. But

sitting and concentrating on the holy names is my preferred japa. When I’m too old and can’t travel another mile, I’ll be happy just to sit and chant. Hopefully my heart will be purified enough that I can sit peacefully without material desires. That would be the ideal way to leave the body.

Yesterday, Sri Prahlad was speaking to me about the glories of a sadhu’s death. He was referring to a devotee who dies in Vrindavan, surrounded by other devotees who are loudly chanting the holy names. But a traveling preacher, serving in a foreign country, may leave his body in awkward circumstances, eg, he may die in a car accident, succumb to a serious illness, or even be killed by aggressors. But if he was in the midst of service to his spiritual master, I would say his death would also qualify as a true sadhu’s death. Certainly the Lord would not forget him.

vayur anilam amrtam

athedam bhasmantam sariram

om krato smara krtam smara

krato smara krtam smara

“Let this temporary body be burnt to ashes, and let the air of life be merged with the totality of air. Now, O my Lord, please remember all my sacrifices, and because You are the ultimate beneficiary, please remember all that I have done for You.” [ Isopanisad – Text 17 ]

At noon the devotees took me to the temple to perform a marriage ceremony. On the way, my driver asked if I’d like to see the “pride and joy of Krasnoyarsk.”

I replied, “Yes, of course.”

He drove me downtown to a beautiful small park that ran alongside the main street. To my amazement there were 30 or 40 gigantic ice sculptures throughout the park. Krasnoyarsk is renown for these works of art. From November through March the temperatures are below freezing here, so these beautiful sculptures remain unchanged. There were sculptures of huge swans, temples, flowers, boats and castles. Most were more than 5 meters tall. The artists take the ice from the nearby river and bring it to the park, where they carve the blocks with big tools into these beautiful creations. Because the water in the river is so clean the sculptures are practically transparent and appear almost like pure crystal. At night they are adorned with colorful lights. People come from all over Siberia to see them. It truly looked like a Winter Wonderland.

The marriage ceremony in the temple went well. I gave a 45-minute lecture that was both grave and humorous. Because it was a wedding, I wanted the atmosphere to be light. But because Krsna consciousness is, after all, serious business, I also interspersed my lecture with sober instructions to the couples. I requested them to remain faithful and chaste to each other, to be strict in following the regulative principles, to work out any differences in a Krsna conscious way, and to find time to share their good fortune as devotees with conditioned souls. After my talk, I went step by step through the marriage procedure. Sri Prahlad then expertly performed the fire yajna with all the appropriate mudras and mantras.

I’ll soon be greatly missing Sri Prahlad. He and his wife, Rukmini Priya, are seriously thinking of moving to Brisbane, Australia, next September to begin household life in earnest. The Brisbane devotees are ecstatic about the possibility of obtaining such a talented and qualified devotee in their area, and have offered to help Sri Prahlad obtain Australian citizenship. Losing him will be difficult for me. We’ve been preaching Krsna consciousness side by side around the world for 11 years. Together we built the Polish festival tour from nothing to the incredible success it has been in recent years.

Such experiences make for deep and profound friendship. Bhakti Bringa Govinda Maharaja put it aptly the other day. He said that Sri Prahlad and I are soul mates. The sense of losing such a companion can be expressed only in the words of Srila Narottam das Thakur: ‘Se saba sangria sange ye koilo bilas Se sanga na palya kande narottama das’ “Being unable to obtain the association of Lord Gauranga, accompanied by all those devotees in whose association He performed His pastimes, Narottam simply weeps.”

After the wedding, I had a discussion with 10 men from a local gypsy community. At the hall program the night before, I had noted with curiosity their ecstatic chanting and dancing. They had also listened attentively to my lecture. Afterwards, I inquired from Guru Vrata if these men were serious. He replied that they were. I have met gypsies often in my travels in Europe and Russia. Generally they are a closed community and infamous for their bad habits of begging and stealing. But I have always found them receptive to our chanting and dancing. Tradition has it that the gypsies originally came from India, and whenever I mention this to them they acknowledge it. However, to my knowledge not a single gypsy has ever joined our movement.

Guru Vrata invited the gypsies to the marriage ceremony, where I was pleased to meet them. I began by acknowledging that a group of gypsies had once saved my life. In the early 1970s my sankirtan party was camped for a week by a river in France. A group of gypsies were camped nearby and we gradually became good friends by chanting and taking prasadam together. One day a local motorcycle gang came to our camp and threatened to beat us. It was a very intense scene, as some of them had knives. We stood our ground, but in reality had little chance of winning a fight. Suddenly the gang members whirled around, jumped on their motorcycles and sped off.

I thought, “We must have scared them somehow!”

But turning around I saw the reason they left so quickly was the gypsy men had come running to defend us, brandishing their own weapons above their heads.

I spoke about gypsy culture and some of its similarities with Krsna consciousness. Traditionally, gypsy women stay at home and take care of their children; there is no divorce; and there are words in Romany, the gypsy language, that have meanings akin to Sanskrit. For example, the word bhakti (loving devotion in Sanskrit) means “the highest happiness” in Romany.

To my surprise, the men told me that they were regularly chanting on beads and studying our philosophy. They said they were also instructing their families and friends in Krsna consciousness and were holding weekly Nama Hatta sessions in their gypsy community. They had received strong opposition at first, but as they are leaders in the community they eventually got other gypsies to start chanting.

When they started speaking to me enthusiastically about the need to spread Krsna consciousness, I had the funny feeling that these men could well have been devotees in their past lives. Srila Prabhupada once said that Lord Caitanya has placed His devotees all over the earth planet in order to spread the sankirtan movement. Srila Rupa Goswmai hints in his play, Lalita Madhava, that such devotees, although they take birth in seemingly inauspicious circumstances, are always looked after by the Lord:

“Noble lady, great souls are always saved from sufferings. Even if, somehow or the other, a devotee takes birth as an animal in the jungle, as a human being in one of the directions of this world, as a demigod in the celestial planets, or even as a resident of hell, the Supreme Personality of Godhead always brings him to His lotus feet. The Lord never wishes to abandon him.”

[Introduction Text 14 ]

In appreciation of the service rendered by his disciples, Srila Prabhupada once said that his guru maharaja, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, had sent them all to help him in his preaching mission.

One disciple spoke up and said, “But Srila Prabhupada, how could that be? We were all so sinful before we met you.”

Srila Prabhupada replied, “That is all superficial; as soon as you heard the chanting of Hare Krsna, you came running!”

Looking at these gentlemen, I saw dark-skinned gypsy men – but their eyes shone like any other devotee’s. As we concluded our talk, I told them I was ready to come to their community anytime to preach. They smiled and said that the community wasn’t ready for that yet, but when it was I would be the first devotee they invited. I’m eagerly looking forward to that opportunity.

Sri Krsna sankirtan, ki jaya!