Sankirtan to the Pacific
Volume 3, Chapter 7
Januarry 25, 2001, Irkutsk, Siberia.
We rose early today and chanted a few rounds before going to the Irkutsk temple. When we arrived, the small building was packed with young devotees. Reminiscent of ISKCON in its early days, devotees were dressed in improvised dhotis and saris, the men in white linen and the ladies in cheap, local cloth with popular Russian patterns. The young ladies wore plastic jewelry and self-made bindis. There were no fancy saris and no expensive jewelry. If devotees in western temples had to wear these bright, white linen sheets and candy-colored saris they would probably die of embarrassment. But the new-found enthusiasm of these young men and women for Krsna consciousness made up for any lack of sophistication in their dress. Eager to chant with them, I led guru-puja to Srila Prabhupada and we sang and danced in great happiness. The window panes shook and the floorboards heaved as the kirtan went on for more than an hour. I took special pleasure in having kirtan with these devotees, whose lack of material opulence in their lives gives them a kind of advantage to taste the nectar of the holy names. In the midst of the kirtan one verse came to my mind:
naivarhaty abhidhatum vai
“My Lord, Your Lordship can easily be approached, but only by those who are materially exhausted. One who is on the path of [material] progress, trying to improve himself with respectable parentage, great opulence, high education and bodily beauty, cannot approach You with sincere feeling.” [ SB. 1.8.26 ]
After the morning program I chanted and then read from Ananda Vrindavan Campu, by Kavi Karnapurna. I am doing my best to keep whatever taste I have for Vrindavan, after recently spending three months there. Each year I am trying to develop and strengthen my attachment to Vrindavan, the very goal of our lives, by residing there and increasing my hearing and chanting. I spent a large amount of my recent trip at Govardhan Hill at the Bhaktivedanta Swami Sadhana Asrama, which is overseen by my god-brother, Kesava Bharati prabhu. ISKCON owns an old palace there, which has been renovated and now serves as an asrama for brahmacaris and sannyasis in particular. Each day I would rise early, chant the holy names and study Caitanya-caritamrta. In the afternoon I would bathe in nearby Syama Kunda and Radha Kunda as often as possible. The glories of such holy tirthas are beyond a sadhaka like me, but I hoped that by rolling in the dust of such sacred places I could better understand the depth of Krsna consciousness and become more qualified as a spiritual master to inspire my disciples to go back home, back to Godhead. I was also intent on purifying my heart, so that I can improve my preaching services to Srila Prabhupada in western countries. I can’t say if I actually made any spiritual advancement while there, but I do miss Vrindavan terribly. I’m torn between residing there and preaching here. A proper balance of the two is the secret, I believe. Both activities feed and stimulate each other.
This afternoon I delivered a lecture at the hall from Bhagavad-gita 18.58.
mac cittah sarva-durgani
mat prasada tarisyasi
atha cet tvam ahankaran
na srosyasi vinksyasi
“If you become conscious of Me, you will pass over all the obstacles of conditioned life by My grace. If, however, you do not work in such consciousness but act through false ego, not hearing Me, you will be lost.”
I carefully pointed out the various obstacles we face in our lives as devotees, internally and externally, and concluded with Krsna’s offer to help us overcome them. The internal obstacles are no doubt lust, anger and greed, and the more subtle desires for name and fame. The external obstacles are non-devotees who may obstruct our service in spreading the sankirtan movement. But the formidable task of overcoming these obstacles is reduced by the Lord’s mercy:
Om namo bhagavate narasimhaya namas tejas-tejase avir-avirbhava vajra-nakha vajra-damstra karmasayan randhaya randhaya tamo grasa grasa om svaha; abhayam abhayam atmani bhuistha om ksraum.
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto Lord Narasimhadeva, the source of all power. O my Lord who possesses nails and teeth just like thunderbolts, kindly vanquish our demon-like desires for fruitive activity in this material world. Please appear in our hearts and drive away our ignorance so that by Your mercy we may become fearless in the struggle for existence in this material world.
That evening, Uttamasloka and I left for the airport to catch a flight to Vladivostok, the furthest city east in Russia. Because we couldn’t afford the airfare for all our group, Sri Prahlad, Rukmini Priya and Jananivasa took a train west to Omsk, where we will meet them in a few days. I didn’t envy the prospect of their 42-hour train ride.
However, our flight wasn’t a bowl of cherries either. Uttamasloka and I were to board the plane at 1am, which is typical in Russia. The flight was coming from Moscow and making a stopover to pick up passengers in Irkutsk before proceeding to Vladivostok. As the flight was delayed, we waited in a lounge at the airport where I fell asleep at the computer at 2am trying to catch up on my diary. Finally we boarded a bus to take us to the plane. As usual, we were let off at the steps leading up to the plane where we had to wait more than half an hour at 20 below zero before boarding. As we entered the plane all the window and aisle seats had been taken by the passengers who boarded in Moscow, and not one of them was eager to let another passenger take the middle seat between them. All the middle seats were piled up with coats, hats and various parcels. The 20 of us who boarded had to literally beg the other passengers to allow us access to the vacant seats.
The air hostesses stood chatting near the kitchen cabin, wanting nothing to do with our dilemma. I know only one word in Russian, spasibo, which means thank you. I was going up and down the aisle saying spasibo, spasibo to all the passengers in their seats. They looked at me incredulously, because what I should have been saying was pozhalusta, please. After 100 thank you’s, one man took pity on me and gave me his aisle seat. To him I offered my most hearty “spasibo!”
Of course, no seat on a Russian airliner is anything to brag about. The planes are rarely cleaned inside. The seats smell of years of sweat and grime, and on a number of occasions I have even encountered fleas. And I don’t think I’ve ever met an air hostess who has smiled even once. They just “do their duty.” I settled in as best I could, but didn’t manage to sleep even a minute all night.
When we arrived in Vladivostok four hours later, the captain announced that the police would be checking everyone’s documents before we left the plane.
I thought to myself, “They’re still going to do that?”
During the communist era, Vladivostok was off limits to most Russians and all foreigners. Even people who lived there could hardly come and go. It was a restricted area because it has a huge naval base, being a port on the Pacific Ocean. Each time I used to come to Vladivostok, in the years just after glasnost and perestroika (openness and rejuvenation), the authorities would carefully check our papers, and sometimes interview us, before allowing us to come into the city. Now here it was 10 years later, and they were still sensitive to who is coming in and out.
The police officers made their way fairly quickly through the plane checking documents. When they came to me, I casually handed them my passport and Russian visa. They stopped and inspected it carefully and then started asking me questions in Russian. Of course, I could neither understand them nor answer them, and Uttamasloka had already left the plane. They seemed very upset about something and were demanding an answer. The rest of the passengers all looked at me intensely, and I got the feeling I was in big trouble. But what could I do? I just smiled at the officers and said, “Jai Nrsimhadeva!” At that, one of them put my passport in his pocket and ordered me off the plane. I was escorted to the passenger bus where I met Uttamasloka, and together we all went to a special office in the building. Uttamasloka told me not to worry, as he felt it wasn’t anything serious. He said whatever it was could probably be solved by a few rubles under the table.
We were soon met by Vrajendra Kumara prabhu, the temple president of Vladivostok, who had come to pick us up. As it turned out, I hadn’t fulfilled the visa requirement of registering within three days of entering the country, and the police fined me several hundred rubles. I suppose it was nothing to be nervous about – but as they say, “once burnt, twice shy.” For those of us who preached here in communist times, when we see “red” we still become a little nervous, like the bull.