By Indradyumna Swami
On Tuesday, December 11, we awoke early to prepare for our journey to Krasnoyarsk, 1000 km further east in Siberia. I was nervous about traveling, because it was Ekadasî. It is generally considered inauspicious to start a journey on EkadaSî. My apprehensions were enhanced by the fact that I had just entered a Rahu subperiod within my major Ketu period that day. The Rahu subperiod would run for six months, and the forecast was anything but pleasant: “Favorable for spiritual endeavor, but marred by danger from sickness, air crashes, burns, moving vehicles, and opposing enemies.” Rahu seemed to enter stage right when our plans to take a train directly to Krasnoyarsk were changed: the train had been canceled. UttamaSloka suggested we drive the 350 km north to Novosibirsk, then catch a train to Krasnoyarsk. I objected. “The road through the forest to Novosibirsk is unsafe, and if our vehicle were to break down, we’d be in real trouble at minus 45°C!”
But there was no alternative, and by noon we were slowly driving north on the icy road to Novosibirsk. As a strong wind began to blow, I positioned my Narasimha Sila in a small pouch just over my heart. I prayed for a safe journey. With the Lord personally accompanying us, I knew there was nothing to fear: “Because a sannyasî has to be alone without any support or guarantee of support, he has simply to depend on the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. ‘I shall never be alone,’ one should think. ‘Even if I live in the darkest regions of a forest I shall be accompanied by Krsna, and He will give me all protection.’ That conviction is called abhayam, fearlessness. This state of mind is necessary for a person in the renounced order of life.” (Bg. 16.1–3, purport)
The Lord in His most fearful form as Ugra Narasimhahad only recently come to me. My dear godbrother, Caturatma Prabhu, gave me a Sila that perfectly matches the criteria of an Ugra Narasimha Sila. According to Sastra such a Sila must have a large, gaping mouth, large, uneven cakras inside the mouth, be tawny brown in color, and, most importantly, be “fearsome to behold.” Caturatma had been worshiping the Sila for years but was uncomfortable with the püja because Sastra says that only renunciants may worship the fearsome form of Ugra Nrsiµha. In that form, the Lord removes all His devotee’s material possessions in order to make him a fully surrendered soul. Such a benediction is suitable for a sannyasî but not necessarily for a householder. Srila Rüpa Gosvamî mentions some of the benefits of worshiping a Narasimha Sila in text 116 of his book, Padyavalî:
“A tulasî leaf offered to the lotus feet of the Narasimha Sila destroys the sin of murder. Water that has washed the lotus feet of the Narasimha Sila destroys the sin of theft. Foodstuff offered to the Narasimha Sila destroys the sin of drinking liquor. Sincere surrender to the Narasimha Sila destroys the sin of adultery with the wife of the spiritual master. Association with the devotees of the Narasimha Sila destroys the sin of offenses to the devotees. This is the extraordinary glory of the Narasimha Sila.”
The drive north was risky, but I thought, “There is no use in having a Sila of this nature unless I am prepared to take risks for the Lord.” This Deity will be my constant companion until the day I leave this mortal frame.
Two hours into our journey, our devotee driver began to fall asleep at the wheel. I made him pull over and let me drive. I drove most of the rest of the way. We arrived safely in Novosibirsk five hours later, just in time to catch our train to Krasnoyarsk. As we settled in for the fifteen-hour journey through the Siberian countryside, I breathed easier. I prefer trains to cars while traveling in remote areas.
Soon we were traveling through a densely forested region, covered in snowdrifts. Although rich in gold, iron ore, natural gas, and oil, to this day Siberia remains mostly undeveloped due to its remote location and harsh climate. The northern area in particular is inaccessible to humans, with its treeless marshy plains that never thaw. Most of the rivers here are frozen solid six to nine months of the year. The only souls brave enough to venture beyond the cities are hunters searching for wolves, reindeer, bear, antelope, and, in the Amur River region near China, Perhaps another reason the region is slow to develop is the stigma it bears. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Soviets exiled criminals and political dissidents to this area. Siberian prison camps absorbed tens of millions of victims into a forced labor system that mainly worked the salt mines. Many perished. However, I have always found that the more extreme regions of the world are better for preaching. People are not in illusion about the temporary and miserable nature of matter and are therefore more inclined to accept Krishna consciousness.
One hour into our journey, the lady in charge of our coach came to our compartment to check our sheets and blankets. While doing so, I noticed she was studying our luggage carefully. Sometimes these ladies inform professional thieves on the train about travelers’ belongings, and the thieves then steal those possessions and reward the ladies with a few rubles. Before she left, therefore, I exchanged pleasantries with her and presented her with 100 rubles, much more than any thief would reward her. She smiled at my insight and winked at me as she departed. We were safe. Giving her money was a tactful move, a traveling preacher’s “trick of the trade.” I learned it from Caitanyacaritamrta in the story about Sanatana Gosvamî.
When Sanatana Gosvamî escaped from Nawab Hussain Shah’s jail in Bengal, he traveled through the jungle, hoping to join Lord Caitanya in Vrndavana. He was accompanied by his servant, ÈSana. ÈSana was carrying eight gold coins without Sanatana Gosvamî’s knowledge. Sanatana and his servant spent a night in a small hotel in the hilly tract of land known as Pata∂a in Bihar, where through his palmist their host learned that ÈSana possessed gold. He decided to kill them for their money. To hide his intention, the hotelkeeper treated them as honored guests. But Sanatana had worked for the government. He was wellversed in the art of diplomacy. He easily noted the extra respect with which the hotelkeeper treated them. Assuming their host had evil intentions, Sanatana asked ÈSana how much money he was carrying, and on being told about the gold, presented the coins to the hotelkeeper. Impressed by Sanatana Gosvamî’s gesture and intelligence, the hotelkeeper assisted him in his journey through the Hazaribagh mountains and out of Pata∂a.
When we arrived in Krasnoyarsk, we were met at the station by the temple president, who is my disciple, Guruvrata dasa, along with a number of other devotees. Due to its isolated location, Krasnoyarsk receives only one or two visiting sannyasîs a year, so the devotees were happy to see us. In the evening I attended a hall program where once again I found a gathering of more than five hundred enthusiastic congregational members. Among them I spotted a group of ten gypsy men, whom I had met last year when visiting Krasnoyarsk. When they saw me they folded their hands in pranama and smiled. I turned to Guruvrata and asked if we would be having a program for the gypsies while I was in Krasnoyarsk, something we had discussed on my previous visit. He replied, “Yes, Gurudeva, they’ve been waiting one year for you.”
The program that night was especially nice. Guruvrata had informed me that many among the congregation were educated, working as teachers, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. I developed my theme of the glories of the holy name carefully for them, accenting it with verses and pastimes. I spoke for over an hour. After the lecture, each member of the audience without exception came forward to offer me a flower or small donation. I was embarrassed by the generous response of so many learned people, and as I received their kind offerings, I became more and more eager to hold kîrtana with them as a gesture of my own gratitude. I had to wait almost an hour before everyone had come forward, but then we had our kîrtana—a kîrtana so wonderful that even the finely dressed women and men chanted and danced in ecstasy.
The next morning Guruvrata came to my apartment and informed me that the leaders of the gypsy community had agreed that I could visit their village just outside Krasnoyarsk. Guruvrata himself was surprised, because no “outsiders” had ever been invited to the gypsy town. Gypsies are generally fiercely independent; they keep to themselves. This is how they have managed to retain their customs and traditions in an age when most ethnic groups blend into the greater society. He told me that the ten men I had met last year have been practicing Krishna consciousness for more than four years now, regularly chanting sixteen rounds, following the regulative principles, and visiting the temple. Last year when I asked if I could visit their village, they replied that their elders would not permit it. Still, they had promised to work on them. Guruvrata said the elders gave their consent at the last moment.
It was arranged that we meet at the house of one of the gypsy men who was practicing Krishna consciousness. No women were allowed to attend, because gypsy tradition prohibits women to attend public functions involving outsiders. So a group of devotee men and I headed out of town in the temple van. An hour and a half later we entered the gypsy village, which consisted mainly of old wooden houses. We saw gypsy children playing in the snow, but when they saw our van, they ran to the safety of their homes and peered at us out the windows.
We located the house where the program was to be held and walked to the door between the tall snowdrifts. I had no idea what to expect. We knocked on the door. A gypsy devotee opened it, greeting us with a “Haribol!” As we entered, I was amazed at the home’s devotional atmosphere. The house was spotless, and there were nicely framed pictures of Krishna and Srila Prabhupada on practically every wall. There was a large bookcase in the living room that contained only Srila Prabhupada’s books, and on one side of the room, an altar set up with photographs of the disciplic succession and the Pañcatattva.
I noticed that the gypsy men were nervous. I would soon understand why. But they motioned me upstairs to a large room where we would hold our meeting. When I entered the room, I found the community’s nine elders. The atmosphere was tense. I smiled and greeted them, but got no response. Instead, they stared at me in apparent disbelief. They had never seen a devotee in robes before. A few of them even scowled as they looked me up and down. All were dressed in dark clothes. Because there was a chill in the wooden house, some were still wearing their large fur coats. I noted that several of them had scarred faces.
The gypsy devotee beckoned me to a chair, and I sat down, the gypsy devotees and temple devotees before me. When one of the gypsy devotees presented me with a flower garland, I smiled nervously at the nine elders, but again received only a cold stare.
Formalities over, I began to speak, explaining how our two communities were closely related because both had their origins in India. That I knew the gypsies hailed from India impressed the elders, especially the biggest man among them, who appeared to be their leader. After I had spoken for some time about our cultural similarities (we are both God conscious communities and we both love to sing and dance), the leader suddenly arose, pointed at the gypsy men who were practicing Krishna consciousness, and challenged me, “Do our people have to give up our culture to practice your religion?!”
“No,” I replied calmly, “it’s not necessary. In the beginning, one simply has to add chanting the Hare Krishna mantra to one’s life. No one has to give up anything. By chanting God’s holy name, one will give up his bad habits.”
“Gypsies have bad habits?” he retorted. At that moment he began to cough heavily. Praying to Krishna that my guess was right, I said, “Yes, smoking cigarettes is a nasty habit.”
At that, everyone began to laugh. Even the leader accepted that I had defeated him on that one, and he gave me a small (very small) smile.
Then one of the elders, who was holding a badly injured hand (I learned later that he had suffered a gunshot wound), challenged, “And our children?” That’s all he said, but his meaning was clear: Are we interested in turning gypsy children into Hare Krishna devotees?
I thought for a moment, choosing my words carefully. I knew the future of the gypsy devotees lay in what I said. I replied, “What is the harm if a child is being taught to love God? Love of God is natural and is the most important thing a child can learn. Nowadays, children are losing their natural God consciousness and developing negative traits. If we encourage your children to love God through singing His names, dancing in happiness, and eating pure food offered to Him in love, we are actually serving your community. Gypsies believe in God. God consciousness is part of your tradition.”
All eyes turned to the elder. He contemplated what I had said for a few moments while he gazed at the five or six gypsy children sitting on the floor. Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, a boy of about ten years looked up at me and said, “God is great. How can we, who are small, understand Him?” I was stunned by his intelligent and thoughtful question, as was every one. Looking at the boy, I replied, “Just as you learn an important subject matter from a teacher, you also learn about God from a teacher.”
“Are you such a teacher? Can you teach us about God?”
Setting aside humility to answer the hour’s need, I replied, “Yes, by my spiritual master’s mercy, I am.”
“Then tell me what the soul is made of and what happens to it when we die. Then tell me what God is like.”
The room fell silent. I looked at the gypsy elders. They were regarding me intently.
“The soul is a spiritual person with a spiritual form. God is the Supreme Person and His form is also spiritual. As His parts and parcels, His servants, we all have a loving relationship with Him. At the present moment, we have forgotten that relationship, because we think we are these material bodies and that the goal of life is material enjoyment.”
I spoke pure Krishna conscious philosophy for fortyfive minutes. I watched in amazement as everyone, both children and adults, listened. The boy’s questions had taken the conversation to another dimension, away from the challenging and threatening to the sincere and searching. I could see the elders were impressed by him, and by Krsna’s grace, with the philosophy I was presenting.
At the end of my talk, the gypsy leader himself began to ask deeper questions. He’d heard about karma. “What is karma and why is it bad to kill animals?” And finally, “How does one become free from sinful reactions?”
The last question was the one I had been waiting for, and I began to explain the glories of chanting Hare Krsna—how it destroys sinful reactions, uproots material desires, and awakens love of God. Then I took the drum and said boldly, “Now we will all sing and dance.” Everyone’s eyes lit up as they broke out in smiles. I thought, “Now that we’ve broken the ice, here’s our chance.”
I began the chanting slowly, beginning with Prabhupada’s pranamamantra. I focused on His Divine Grace as I sang, praying that the chanting would enter the gypsy elders’ hearts and purify them. To my knowledge, no gypsies had yet been initiated into Krishna consciousness. It would be a great victory if the community elders allowed their people to practice bhaktiyoga freely.
When I finished my prayers to Prabhupada, I began to chant the mahamantra with the same meditative slowness so that everyone could follow. I became so immersed in the chanting that I had my eyes closed for a long time. When I finally opened them I was surprised to see everyone, including the gypsy leader, loudly chanting Hare Krishna with big smiles showing through their huge mustaches. Everyone was clapping and rocking back and forth. I kept the kîrtana going, beating on the mrdanga, for almost an hour. When I finally finished, I looked around and saw that once again the holy names had defeated all logic and reason and had melted the hearts of a few more conditioned souls.
Then the devotees brought in the prasadam. They had prepared a feast, so all of us (devotees and gypsies alike) took our seats on the floor. After reciting the prayer to prasadam, we proceeded to honor it. The gypsy leader couldn’t sit comfortably on the floor because his body was so large, so he remained in his chair. Halfway through the meal he said—and everyone respectfully stopped eating as he spoke—“Sir, is it all right that I am sitting higher than you? I can’t sit on the floor, but I don’t want to disrespect you.”
I replied, “Please don’t worry. It’s perfectly all right that you are sitting higher than me. I am simply a guest in your village. You are the leader.”
When I said that, he looked down and didn’t say anything else for the rest of the meal.
When I finished prasadam I washed my hands and stood up. When the gypsy leader saw me stand, he also stood, and we were spontaneously and simultaneously drawn to one another. As I approached him, I took off my garland and, to the astonishment of all the gypsies, placed it around his neck. There was a moment of silence, then he reached out with his big arms and embraced me. As devotees and gypsies applauded, he held me tightly and I embraced him with the same intensity. Afterwards, he stepped back and announced, “They are welcome in our village at any time.”
As I prepared to leave for another program at the temple, the gypsy children pleaded with their fathers to let them come. The men looked at
their leader, and when he smiled and nodded, the children rushed to put on their coats and boots. Within a few moments they were piling into the back of the van with one of the fathers. We happily chanted the holy names of the Lord all the way to the temple.
I realized later that I had seen Lord Caitanya’s mercy unfold. Krishna consciousness has come to stay in that gypsy community. I pray I may always have a part to play in Mahaprabhu’s mercy mission—the saõkîrtana movement of the Lord’s holy names.
“He does not consider whether a person is qualified or not. He does not see who is His own and who is an outsider. He does not consider who should receive and who should not. He does not consider whether it is the proper time. The Lord at once gives that nectar of pure devotional service, which is difficult to attain even by hearing the Lord’s message, seeing the Deity, offering obeisances, meditating, or following a host of spiritual practices. That Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Gaurahari, is my only shelter.” (Caitanyacandramrta, Chapter 7, text 75