December 11, 2002 – January 11, 2003
By Indradyumna Swami
While leaving the first country on my visit to the Middle East, I was questioned for some time by immigration officials. Eventually they stamped my passport and allowed me to board the airplane. On the flight I sat next to an American businessman, who expressed sympathy for the minor ordeal I had just experienced.
“Forgive me if I’m too inquisitive,” he said, “but are you part of a religious organization?”
Taken a little by surprise, I said, “Well, yes. I’m a member of the Hare Krsna movement.”
“OK, now I understand,” he replied with a smile. “I’m from New York. I know you people, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to give you some advice. You’re too visible. That’s the reason they pulled you aside.”
“How’s that?” I said.
“You look too happy,” the businessman responded. “I saw that at the check-in. It’s unusual and people notice. Another thing is the way you’re dressed. Foreigners here are either doing business or are in the military, and they dress accordingly. With your casual pants, T-shirt and baseball cap, you appear to be a budget tourist.”
During the flight I reflected on his words. While in India recently for two months I had embraced the mood of a sadhu, which included dressing simply and trying to renounce unessential possessions. Consequently, I left India with only one small bag I had purchased for 120 rupees in Vrindavan’s Loi Bazaar and in which I carried mostly books. But the zipper and strap had already broken and I was aware that it was attracting attention. Also, my non-devotional clothes were several years old. No wonder people noticed me in the high-profile, business-oriented Middle East.
I meditated on Srila Prabhupada’s principle of utilizing the material energy in Krsna’s service. Srila Prabhupada had authorized his disciples to wear non-devotional dress for preaching, but had emphasised that they should look like ladies and gentlemen. I resolved that in my heart I would continue to cultivate the mood of a renunciate, but for preaching purposes I would make the necessary adjustments.
Upon arrival at my next destination, before passing through customs and immigration I stopped at a duty-free shop and bought a designer shirt and a smart pair of pants. I also picked up a small Samsonite carry-on suitcase. I changed clothes in an airport bathroom (my belongings filling only one third of the suitcase) and approached immigration with a sober look on my face. The officer quickly stamped my passport, and as he waved me through said, “Have a nice visit, Sir.”
Stopping to adjust the collar on my new shirt, I replied, “Thank you. I hope my business goes well.”
The nation I was entering is one of the more liberal in the Middle East. I read in a travel guide that it was the first country to embrace Islam after the prophet Mohamed appeared, but during the past 30 years its oil trade has exposed it to western culture. This became apparent as the devotees who picked me up drove me to the apartment where I would stay for my three-day visit. On the way I took in the sights of one of the most opulent and affluent cities I have ever seen. Beautiful hotels, parks, gardens and high-rise apartments dotted the landscape. The roads were excellent and almost all the cars were new. Department stores were brimming with western products, and McDonald’s and Pizza Hut outlets were everywhere.
The well-to-do scene wasn’t what I had expected – and I wasn’t impressed. If there is anything I’ve learned from years of traveling and preaching Krsna consciousness around the world, it’s that wealthy nations are not necessarily happier than their poorer counterparts. Last year the BBC conducted a survey to determine the world’s happiest country. To everyone’s surprise, the survey found it was Bangladesh. Great Britain came ninth! Happiness is not determined by material wealth.
In Caitanya Bhagavat it is described that Kholaveca Sridhar, a poor but great devotee of the Lord, had a similar realization. Once Lord Caitanya approached him and asked if he was feeling inconvenience due to the simple existence he lived. Kholaveca Sridhar replied:
ratna ghare thake, raja divya khaye pare’
paksi-gana thake, dekha, vrksera upare
kala punah sabara samana hai’ yaya
sabe nija-karma bhunje isvara-icchaya
“A king may live in a house of jewels, while a bird lives in a tree. But they pass time in similar ways, enjoying the same pleasures of life in varying degrees. Therefore, I am quite satisfied with the simple life that I am living.”
[Caitanya Bhagavat, Adi-Khanda, Chapter 12, Texts 189-190]
Just as everyone experiences similar material pleasures, they also experience similar miseries, because material existence is one of duality. When I remarked about the opulence of the city, one devotee reminded me that it was, after all, a desert with temperatures often above 50 degrees celsius. As a result, everyone lives almost entirely indoors – in airconditioned apartments, offices, schools and cars. And rain is scarce. In fact, it doesn’t rain for years at a time in the Middle East. The devotees told me that recently after it had rained for the first time in three years (for seven minutes) the entire city came to a standstill.
“Why in the world did the city come to a halt because of a little rain?” I inquired.
“Because people were so curious to see the rain that they stopped what they were doing to go outside and look,” the devotee replied. “Even traffic stopped, because no one had experience of driving on wet roads. And there are also the occasional sandstorms which whip up in the desert and spread sand everywhere. In cold countries people have to shovel snow after snowstorms. Here people have the arduous task of shoveling sand after sandstorms.”
After settling into my apartment I was taken to a congregational member’s home for a program. Like the first country I had visited, my preaching here would be entirely to an Indian congregation. Even if local Muslims express an interest in Krsna consciousness, devotees do not encourage them, being fearful of resprisals from the Islamic government. At one program I did in a small village in the previous country, a local Muslim farmer walking by stopped and stared at us for some time. That was enough for the devotees to stop the program and whisk me away. “Someone may report that a Muslim was taking an interest in us, ” they said. “We don’t want to take any chances.”
The Indian families I visited and did programs with in the Middle East were all educated and cultured. Many come from south India, mainly Kerala, and strive to maintain their spiritual culture away from home. Ironically, living in an Islamic society helps them in this regard. Pornography is not tolerated and Muslims are not allowed to drink liquor. All Internet sites are scrutinized and controlled by the government. I was unable to access the new devotee website (www.dipika.org) where my diary chapters are now published.
The families reminded me of those I met while accompanying Srila Prabhupada on some of his house programs in India in the early 1970s. The etiquette they showed Srila Prabhupada and the excellent foodstuffs they served him left an indelible impression on me. Throughout my visit to the Middle East I often remembered Tamal Krsna Goswami, who learned from Srila Prabhupada the same standards of Vaisnava etiquette in dealing with cultured Indian people. As a result I dreamt of him several times. One night I awoke feeling strong separation from him. Like all relationships in Krsna consciousness, friendships do not end with death but become even more relevant with the passing of time. I got out of bed that night to read so as to console myself, but the pain only increased when I came across Srila Narottam das Thakur’s feelings of separation from Srila Rupa Goswami, which mirrored my own feelings towards Goswami Maharaja:
se rupa madhuri-rasi, prana kuvalaya sasi
praphullita habe nisi-dine
“Your absence from my vision is like a dose of strong poison, and I will suffer until the end of my life.”
[Sri Rupa Manjari Pada, Text 4]
Every day I preached to the Indian congregation, but in the back of my mind I was always wondering what Lord Caitanya’s plan was for the Muslims in the Middle East. Obviously, that plan has not yet fully manifested, but surely will in the course of time. Just as Lord Caitanya sent Srila Prabhupada to New York at the perfect moment in American history, when much of the youth, dissatisfied with material life, were seeking a spiritual alternative, that moment will also arrive in other parts of the world.
Curious to know more about Muslims, one day I asked a devotee to drive me to a market in the old part of the city, where I walked around alone for several hours. The bazaar seemed like something out of the Arabian Nights – small winding streets teeming with people shopping in old stores. There were fruits and vegetables of all descriptions, merchants displaying colorful bales of cloth, and shops selling all shapes and sizes of hookahs, an oriental tobacco-pipe used by men at streetside cafes, the smoke being drawn through fruit-scented water in a vase to which the tube and bowl are attached. And in every nook and cranny there were merchants plying dates.
Noticing a store selling oils and perfumes, I walked in and inquired about aguru, the most precious of oils. I once bought some in India for my deities, although only a tiny amount as it is more expensive than gold! But in the bazaar I was pleasantly surprised to find the oil affordable. I purchased a small bottle and thought to myself, “For now, this may be the only way to engage these people in Krsna consciousnes – using their products in the service of the Lord.”
Thoughts of how Lord Caitanya’s mercy would manifest in the Middle East remained with me during my stay. As I boarded my flight back to New Delhi, I reflected how it will be a monumental event in Gaudiya Vaisnava history when the holy names of Krsna freely resound throughout the Persian Gulf. It could only be compared with Krsna consciousness spreading across Russia. By the mercy of my spiritual master, I had the privilege of being a part of those historic events. The risks and adventures involved in preaching in the former Soviet Union were among the best years of my devotee life.
Are there other such challenges ahead? One cannot see the future, but I pray to Srila Prabhupada and our previous acaryas that if any such opportunities emerge, I’m ready and willing to go at a moment’s notice.
na dhanam na janam na sundarim
kavitam va jagad-isa kamaye
mama janmani janmanisvare
bhavatad bhaktir ahaituki tvayi
“O My Lord! I have no desire to accumulate wealth, nor do I want to enjoy beautiful women, nor do I want any number of followers. I only want Your causeless devotional service, birth after birth.”
[Sri Sri Siksastaka, Verse 4]