By Indradyumna Swami
The road leading to the old orphanage on the hill was icy, so it took us several attempts to get our van to the top. We’d get halfway, and then the wheels would begin to spin on the ice and we’d slide backwards. As we struggled, I could see little faces peering out of the orphanage windows, anxious for us to make it. Deprived by destiny of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, these children were hankering for Christmas cheer. When we finally succeeded in maneuvering beyond the icy patches, the faces lit up, then suddenly disappeared. It wasn’t difficult to imagine where the children had gone. I envisioned them running from their rooms and down the stairs to greet us.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been to this house in Chelyabinsk, which has served as an orphanage since the Communist era. I came here last year during my last visit to the Ural Mountains region in central Russia. As I got out of the van, I could see that the house hadn’t been much improved. In fact, it had deteriorated. The eaves hung over the side, the paint was peeling, several windows were broken, and in general, the creaky wooden building was badly in need of repair.
But there had been some improvement. As a result of the kîrtana we’d held last year, the stories I’d told, and the wonderful feast we’d distributed, many of the children had taken a serious interest in devotional service. It hadn’t taken much to convince them of the happiness of Krishna consciousness. Srila Prabhupada once said that when a spark lands on wet grass it’s extinguished, when it lands on damp grass it smolders, but when it lands on dry grass it immediately ignites. Similarly, when Krishna consciousness is presented to sinful materialists, nothing usually happens, when it’s presented to the pious, they tend to become curious, but when it’s presented to those seeking real relief from life’s miseries, it ignites a fire of devotion to the Lord.
A few days after my last visit, several of the orphan teenage boys had begun chanting Hare Krishna on beads. They gradually worked their way up to sixteen rounds a day. Their newfound enthusiasm was infectious, and soon other children became interested in chanting. Because the orphans were poor and couldn’t afford beads, they had ingeniously carved them from the branches of trees on the property. Before long, most of the fifty children were waking early in the morning to chant. In the evenings they were assembling to read Bhagavad-gîta, the older boys trying their best to explain the philosophical concepts to the younger ones. The more talented children began drawing and painting Krsna’s pastimes, and within a few weeks every room in the orphanage boasted several “windows to the spiritual world.” Devotees from the area continued their weekly visits, bringing prasadam and holding kîrtana with the children. Those devotees soon became the children’s heroes.
The authorities didn’t seem to mind until some of the children refused to eat meat, feigning illness or lack of appetite. The authorities didn’t appreciate Krishna consciousness in the same way the children appreciated it. It’s true they had agreed that devotees could visit and teach the orphans devotional practices, but when they saw how spontaneously attracted to Krishna consciousness the children had become, and how each of them had embraced devotional service, they put a stop to the practices. They forbade the children to chant Hare Krsna, read Prabhupada’s books, or decorate the orphanage with devotional drawings and paintings. They couldn’t forbid the devotees’ visits, however, because the devotees provided the children’s main meal of the week. But the authorities stopped everything else—or so they thought.
In fact, Krishna consciousness had given the children such soothing relief from their bleak existence that nothing could hold them back. They began going to sleep early so they could wake up before dawn and chant softly on their beads without waking the authorities. They also met in their rooms or on the playground and secretly shared stories about Krsna. When three of the boys reached legal age and “graduated” from the orphanage, they went straight to the local temple and joined. Orphans who found a place in foster homes (a step up from the orphanage) continued their Krishna conscious practices and began interesting their new stepbrothers and stepsisters in devotional service.
A spiritual revolution was taking place in Chelyabinsk, with the orphanage at its center. Rumor had it that the head of the orphanage was about to clamp down on all devotional activity—but then she mysteriously lost her job. When I heard this news, I suspected Krishna was taking a direct hand in the orphans’ lives, and I saw the work of the Supersoul in everyone’s heart when the new director turned out to be favorable to the devotees’ visits and concern for the children. When she heard I was coming to Chelyabinsk, she asked the devotees to invite me to the orphanage to meet the children, most of whom had no memory of my previous visit because many were new orphans who had replaced the graduates and those who had gone to foster homes.
When I entered the room where the children were assembled, the head of the orphanage introduced me as a Hare Krishna monk from America. Most of the children had never met a foreigner, and as I stood tall before them with my shaved head, saffron robes, and tridanda, they stared at me in wonder. Then one of their teachers ordered them to stand and sing a song for me. As they rose I couldn’t help but feel pity for them. Their clothes were hand-me-downs, and a number of children had no socks or shoelaces. Some of the little girls had shaved heads because of lice, and when I saw the dark circles under the children’s eyes due to the rigors of orphanage life, the whole scene reminded me of old black-and-white pictures of the distressed children during World War II. The woman at the piano cued them, and as she began to play, the children mechanically sang a song about Christmas. But with no Christmas presents or families with whom to share, the children simply sang the blues.
Then the director asked a nine-year-old girl to come forward and recite a poem. UttamaSloka translated it for me: “And life is full of happiness at the time of the holiday season, when we meet and share the joys of life with all our friends and loved ones . . . ” Suddenly she stopped and her eyes welled with tears. “But it’s not actually like that,” she said, and covering her face with her hands, she ran crying back to her seat.
For a few moments no one said or did anything. Then I stood up and said, “Okay, children, we don’t want this to be an unhappy holiday! Everyone come sit down here on the floor with me!”
The children hesitated, unused to such informality. “It’s okay,” the director encouraged, and all the children ran forward and sat close to me.
“We’ll make sure you have a nice holiday—at least today,” I said to the little girl who had tried to recite the poem. After telling the children a few of Krsna’s pastimes, which had them wide-eyed and opened-mouthed, I grabbed a Mrdanga and added, “And now our holiday will really begin!”
I asked them if they knew the Hare Krishna song, but only three children raised their hands—the ones who were still in the orphanage from the previous year. We were beginning anew. I recited the mantra several times so they could learn it. Then I started the kîrtana. At first the children seemed too shy to chant, but when they noticed last year’s veterans chanting enthusiastically, it caught on, and soon all fifty children were chanting at the top of their lungs. When one of them stood up spontaneously to dance, the rest followed, and soon we were all dancing around the room. The children were desperate to enjoy the holiday season, so they gave the kîrtana all they had. In so doing everyone was swept away in bliss. I had the children take turns dancing in the middle of our circle, and even the orphanage teachers were amazed at their feats of twisting, turning, and leaping. There was no containing them, and I began to wonder if I had the energy to keep up. After an hour I brought the kîrtana to a close, and as I sat on the floor all the children crowded around me. One boy said, “That was a real party, sir!”
Just then several devotees brought in a multilayered cake. The children’s eyes lit up and they all ran for plates. I served big pieces to everyone, and then served them again when they returned for seconds. I told a few more of Krsna’s pastimes as the children, satisfied by kîrtana and prasadam, listened intently.
Finally as I stood up to go, the children pushed one of the older boys forward with a question: “Can we write to you?”
“Yes, of course, and I’ll write back.” There was a stampede for pencils and paper—they wanted to write their first letter immediately!
“What do we call you?” one boy asked.
“Just call me Maharaja.”
“What does it mean?”
“Something like ‘big father,’” I said, and all the children clapped.
As we got into our van and started back down the icy road with fifty or so heartfelt letters tucked into my bag, I again saw all the faces peering from behind the windowpanes, but this time each was smiling. I laughed and wondered how soon it would be before they’d all be carving japa beads and putting pictures of Krishna on the walls. It didn’t look like there’d be any impediment this time. The Hare Krishna revolution in Chelyabinsk would continue in earnest.
kar∫anandikaladhvanir vahatu me jihvamarupraõga∫e Ωrîcaitanya dayanidhe tava lasallîlasudhasvardhunî
“O my merciful Lord Caitanya, may the nectarean Ganges waters of Your transcendental activities flow on the surface of my desert-like tongue. Beautifying these waters are the lotus flowers of singing, dancing, and loud chanting of Krsna’s holy name, which are the pleasure abodes of unalloyed devotees. These devotees are compared to swans, ducks, and bees. The river’s flowing produces a melodious sound that gladdens their ears.” (Cc. adi 2.2)