December 7-10, 2002
By Indradyumna Swami
“Alas, when will that auspicious day arrive when the actual glories of Vrindavan will be manifested to me? The scriptures are unable to touch even one millionth portion of its wonderful glories. Great personalities like Lord Brahma, Lord Siva, Laksmi, Sukadeva Goswami, Arjuna and Uddhava are unable to get darsana of its confidential form. The yogis cannot understand the glories of this land through their yogic performances. What to speak of others, even ordinary Vrajavasis cannot see it. Sri Vrindavan exhibits her real form only to those fortunate devotees who have taken shelter of Srimate Radhika.”
[Vrindavan-mahimamrta, Sataka 17, Text 60]
I returned alone to Vrindavan from our pilgrimage to Puri and Mayapur. Craig went on to visit the site of Lord Buddha’s self-realisation in Bihar and the Ganges river at Varanasi. I wished him well as we embraced on our farewell. I was happy that our childhood friendship had evolved into a deeper, spiritual relationship. Knowing Craig’s newfound enthusiasm for Krsna consciousness, I had no doubt our paths would cross again.
In Vrindavan I had mixed feelings. I was attached to the holy dhama, as much as a neophyte devotee can be, and hankered to continue my bhajan, but I had accepted an invitation to visit devotees in the Middle East. I was, therefore, limited to only three more days in India. As I prepared to leave, I reflected on whatever advancement I may have made during the past two months. I can’t say for sure if I made much progress in purifying my heart, what to speak of awakening any genuine love for the Lord, and the glories of Vrindavan still evade me. But I can say that I developed a stronger desire to become a devotee and follow in the footsteps of those who have a genuine attachment for Vraja. The most exalted of such devotees is my glorious spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, who left Vrindavan to preach Krsna consciousness throughout the world. Following in his footsteps was the process to enter into the mysteries of Vrindavan. And so I left, hoping to return one day more purified in heart and able to understand the truths of that transcendental abode.
My first destination was a small country on the Arabian Peninsula, which for security reasons (to protect the local devotees) I cannot name. It would be my first trip to Arabia, and I was excited about the prospect of preaching in a new place. There are not many countries I haven’t experienced in my 23 years as a traveling sannyasi, and the initial visit anywhere is always special.
The Arabian Peninsula has been populated for thousands of years. In ancient times, the Arabs achieved distinction at sea. Ships carried goods to and from the shores of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Most of the peninsula is desert, and it is one of the hottest places in the world with temperatures often reaching 55 degrees Centigrade. But the land yields oil, which provides much of the region’s income. The people of the country I was visiting are Ibadi Muslims, who practice a strict interpretation of Islam. The former ruler was opposed to modernization, but was overthrown by his son in 1970. The new ruler then initiated an overhaul of the country’s infrastructure. Building numerous roads, hospitals and schools (and encouraging education for women), he is seen as benevolent and is much loved by the citizens.
As my flight circled the capital, it was strange to see that all the buildings in the city were painted the same shade of white, without exception. Later I learned that the government oversees all construction, emphasizing that each and every building has an Arabic design and is painted the same color. I found the uniform effect tasteful and attractive.
Due to the strict Islamic code, I was required to arrive in non-devotional dress. Despite the precaution, the immigration officials were suspicious of me, most likely because of my United States passport. Tensions are high in this region in close proximity to Iraq, which is currently subject to a United Nations weapons inspection program. Unconvinced that Iraqi leader Suddam Hussain is truthful about having no weapons of mass destruction, America is threatening an invasion. The country I was visiting is accommodating to the West, allowing U.S. aircraft to fly from its bases and the stationing of 3,000 U.S. troops on its soil. But in this part of the world they are always dubious about American intentions, feeling that America’s interest is more in Iraq’s oil deposits, which are second only to those of the increasingly fragile Saudi Arabia.
As I passed through Customs the officer in charge called me to the side and questioned me. I told him I had simply come to visit friends. Unconvinced, he asked me to open my luggage and empty my pockets. Several times he asked me to take off my baseball cap (I ignored his requests), but after scrutinizing my bags he waved me through, warning me not to eat in public as it was still Ramadan, the holy month of fasting when Muslims eat only once daily – at night.
Outside the terminal I was first greeted by the arid conditions, and then by Vijaya Venugopal das and Prema Padmini dasi, householder disciples of Jayapataka Swami who have been instrumental in running what is possibly ISKCON’s most successful Nama Hatta program. There are more than 2,000 members in their congregation, and it is expanding daily. Of course, the congregation are all of Indian and Bangladesh origin, as the government forbids the proselytizing of religions other than Islam. Surprisingly, however, it allows and even facilitates the practice of Chistianity and Hinduism among foreigners. Due to the large labor force required for exporting the country’s oil, 40% of the population are Indians and Bangladeshis. Thus, besides several churches in the capital there is also a Krsna temple (with a beautiful Krsna Deity) and a Siva temple, both said to be over 150 years old. Vijaya told me that the country’s ruler is tolerant of other religions due to having been educated in India.
As I took in the surroundings from the car on the way to Vijaya’s home, it was interesting to see that just about everyone was dressed in traditional Arabic clothes, the men in flowing white robes with a peculiar head-dress and the ladies in black robes with only their faces exposed. I noticed that men and women did not mix freely. Mosques were located throughout the city, which was immaculate and full of beautiful parks and gardens. Vijaya told me the city was originally planned with a mosque within walking distance of any quarter.
The lifestyle seemed to reflect Islamic scripture, and this was made clear as we passed a roundabout on which stood a huge statue of the Koran with Arabic letters in the middle of its open pages. There were no dogs anywhere, as Muslims consider them to be unclean. Dogs are to be found only with foreigners, who are not allowed to bring them on to the street. The foreigners themselves were well dressed. The government is very strict about who gains entry. Although tourism is encouraged, backpackers are prohibited. And if any tourist is foolish enough to carry drugs and is caught, they may well get a life sentence – a stiff punishment no doubt, but the result is that drugs are practically non-existent. There were also no billboards to be seen, and Vijaya said the newspapers are forbidden to report sensuous topics. Generally they print only good news. Western society would consider this repressive, but I did note a calm among the citizens, part of which could be attributed to the lack of advertising and such sinful activities as intoxication, gambling and illicit sex.
My preaching consisted mainly in giving lectures and doing kirtans with our congregation at the Siva temple, which the devotees rented for the purpose. Several hundred devotees crammed into a hall attached to the temple, where we were free to have discourses and loud kirtans. Due to the potentially watchful eye of the internal security forces monitoring adherence to the religious code, I was careful to choose my words during public lectures (as I am now writing this chapter of the diary), so as not to offend anyone in any way. During lectures, I often heard the numerous mosques surrounding the temple calling the faithful to worship, and I marveled that we were able to have krsna katha and kirtan in the midst of such a strictly Islamic society.
I also visited the “labor camp,” a congregation of Indian nationals who provide the work force for the capital. The workers, who come from all regions of India, are housed in simple wooden barracks just outside the city. One night, under a starry sky, I gave a class to 500 workers, which was translated into several Indian dialects. Then we had a rousing kirtan – which must have projected far into the desert, with its clear, still atmosphere.
Each day, before leaving Vijay’s house for the morning and evening programs, I was obliged to change into non-devotional clothes. Upon arrival at the program, I would change back into my devotional clothes. Then before leaving, I would again change back into pants, shirt and baseball cap. After a while it became quite tiresome, and I asked if I could simply put on a kandura – the flowing robes the Muslim men wear – over my sannyasi dress. I figured it would be easier to put on and take off than my western garb. Vijay and some of the congregation were a little surprised at the prospect, but eventually agreed. For the rest of my visit, whenever I went outside I dressed in a kandura, which easily hid my devotional attire. The local Muslims found it curious and the congregation dubbed me “Mullah Maharaja.”
Ramadan came to a close during my visit. The day after the fasting period is called Eid al-Fitr, a time of festivities for Muslims. The elderly Indian ladies in our congregation had been begging to cook for me since I arrived, and had been disappointed that I took only simple prasadam once a day. So to please them, I suggested they cook a feast on Eid al-Fitr, and I enjoyed wonderful prasadam while the country’s citizens celebrated their annual festival.
After four days the time allotted for my stay expired, and I left without incident. Once again, I felt privileged to assist Lord Caitanya’s sankirtan movement by traveling to a remote region of the world to spread the glories of the holy name. My next destination is another Arab country. What wonderful service does the Lord have for me there? My heart beat in great expectation, relishing the life of a traveling preacher. By serving Lord Caitanya’s mission, I remain immersed in thoughts of Him.
“I took this as the special mercy of the Lord, who always desires benediction for His devotees, and so thinking, I started for the north. After my departure, I passed through many flourishing metropolises, towns, villages, animal farms, mines, agricultural lands, valleys, flower gardens, nursery gardens and natural forests. I passed through hills and mountains full of reservoirs of various minerals like gold, silver and copper, and through tracts of land with reservoirs of water filled with beautiful lotus flowers, fit for the denizens of heaven, decorated with bewildered bees and singing birds. . . . After that, under the shadow of a banyan tree in an uninhabited forest I began to meditate upon the Supersoul situated within, using my intelligence, as I had learned from liberated souls.”
[Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 1, Chapter 6, verses 10, 11, 12, 15]