By Indradyumna Swami
Memories of my two-month pilgrimage to Vrindavana were still fresh in my mind as I boarded the flight from Moscow to Barnaul, deep in the Siberian countryside. As the old Russian plane lumbered down the dark runway at midnight, the dirty seats, the stench of perspiration, and the stewardesses’ unfriendly attitudes all provided a stark reminder that I had indeed left the haven of Vrindavana’s spiritual atmosphere.
In accordance with our acaryas’ instructions to remember Vrindavana while living outside the holy abode, I tried to meditate on Manasaganga, the beautiful lake at the foot of Govardhana where Krsna performs His boating pastimes with His beloved gopîs. After a few moments, my meditation was rudely broken by the copilot, who began rummaging under my seat for the bottles of wine he had stowed there. After retrieving the bottles, he went behind a curtain where to my horror he poured glasses of wine for himself and several of the stewardesses. I turned to my disciple, UttamaSloka dasa, and asked if such activity was common on Russian airlines. He replied, “It’s the national pastime in the air, on the ground, or at sea. We should be thankful they’re not drinking vodka!”
Many passengers also began to drink, and that combined with the fact that we were flying early in the morning caused everyone to soon fall asleep. Even the stewardesses were napping in seats at the back of the plane. In this uncomfortable environment I drifted off to sleep myself, consoling myself that I must have made some spiritual advancement in Vrindavana: in my early days as a devotee, I would experience culture shock upon going to India; now, I experience culture shock upon leaving Vrindavana and returning to the West!
I was still dozing when hours later the plane began its descent into Barnaul. I awoke as a stewardess announced our destination’s weather conditions. I shuddered as I thought I heard her say the temperature on the ground was minus 14°C. I cringed at the thought of getting out of the plane and boarding the bus to get to the terminal (a typical procedure at Russian airports), but I was hardly prepared for the reality of the situation. When the plane landed and we were walking down the aisle, I asked UttamaSloka to confirm the outside temperature with another stewardess. She responded by saying, “We didn’t announce minus 14°C, sir, we announced minus 43°C! This is Siberia, not Moscow.”
As we disembarked, a blast of wind drove the temperature even lower, and I gasped for air. Immediately I felt a sharp pain in my lungs as the freezing air entered them. Slipping and sliding on the icy tarmac, I groped my way in the darkness toward the waiting bus, the hardy Siberian passengers making their way past me without difficulty. As we walked the short distance (which seemed to take an eternity), I wondered what in the world I was doing here. Just at that moment, a young man walked up alongside me and said, “Sir, may I ask you a question?”
Trying to move my lips to form words in the freezing temperature I said, “Yes, of course.”
“I’ve been watching you and your friend. It seems you are part of a religious tradition. Is that true?”
His words shattered my illusions and quickly reminded me of why I had come to Siberia. “Yes, we’re practicing an ancient spiritual tradition that’s over five thousand years old. It’s part of India’s great religious heritage. We’ve come to Siberia to share it with the people here.”
As the passengers began to board the bus, the young man asked me to explain the difference between Krsna consciousness and Christianity.
As time was short, I explained the similarities and differences quickly. Noticing my gloved hand in my bead bag he asked what was inside. I showed him my beads and explained the meaning of the Hare Krsna mantra. As a smile crossed his face, I thought, “This is his first step in Krsna consciousness.”
As we exchanged questions and answers, I became oblivious to the cold. When he asked about the nature of the spiritual world, I described the glories of Vrindavana and the pure love the devotees there have for Krsna. His eyes opened wide in amazement. Suddenly he looked over and saw that all the passengers had boarded the bus. He said, “We have to be quick now, but thank you so much for answering my questions.”
I stood there alone on the runway for a moment before moving toward the bus. Krsna had sent that young man to remind me of my purpose in this inhospitable land. The bliss of sharing Krsna consciousness suddenly far outweighed the austerities.
UttamaSloka and I gathered our bags, then left the terminal. To my surprise, a kîrtana party of fifteen devotees greeted us! I was amazed that they could have kîrtana outside in such freezing conditions. One of the devotees came forward and placed a flower garland around my neck. The flowers were completely frozen, and when I bumped into another devotee, the garland shattered and fell to the ground. A car arrived and drove us straight to an apartment, where I was able to shower and change my clothes. Then we went to a large hall in the city center.
As I walked in, more than four hundred devotees were holding a rousing kîrtana. In my lecture, I spoke about Lord Caitanya’s mercy. Lord Caitanya gave the people of the world—regardless of race or religion—an opportunity to return to the spiritual sky in this lifetime. Inspired by the lecture, the devotees held another kîrtana, dancing, leaping, twirling, jumping, and laughing in great happiness. The atmosphere was very similar to the atmosphere I had just left behind in Vraja. I smiled as I thought, “No doubt I am in Siberia, but by swimming in the nectarean ocean of Lord Caitanya’s saõkîrtana, I am again experiencing the blissful atmosphere of Lord Krsna’s Vrindavanadhama!”
“I pray that my mind may always remember Lord Gauranga, the sannyasî whose eyes are like two bumblebees drawn to the glistening lotus flower of Lord Jagannatha’s face in the festive city of Nîlacala, who is tossed by great waves of ecstatic love of God, and who is the same Lord Krsna who appeared like Cupid to the doeeyed girls of Vraja.”
(Prabodhananda Sarasvatî: Caitanyacandramrta, Chapter 7, text 70)