December 23, 2001- January 18,2002
By Indradyumna Swami
After the orphanage visit, UttamaSloka and I flew to Moscow. It was the first time in weeks we’d been afforded the luxury of flying. Although a Russian airline like Aeroflot is my least favorite, still, I welcomed the change from the rigors of driving and train transport across the vast Siberian expanse and through the Urals. Traveling in Siberia had completely exhausted me. It wasn’t simply the mode of transportation, but the living in different apartments almost every night, the irregular eating, and having practically no regular sleep. My health felt like it was at a dangerously low level. I could tell because I felt my vision blurring, my knees giving in when I climbed stairs, and I found myself forgetting even simple things. My body was warning me to slow down.
On the flight to Moscow I began seriously considering my godbrother atmarama Prabhu’s invitation to visit the Sydney temple. He had recently offered to pay for my flight as well as to donate toward the Polish festival tour. He repeatedly mentioned Australia’s hot summer. As I settled into my seat for the flight to Moscow, I asked UttamaSloka how my Russian disciples would feel if I took time to briefly visit Australia. I didn’t hear his answer; I suddenly fell asleep. I woke up three hours later as our plane began its descent into Moscow. UttamaSloka was shaking me. I had practically been unconscious. As I came to, he repeated what must have been his answer to my question hours ago, “Your disciples will be disappointed if you shorten your Russian tour, but they will certainly understand.”
When we arrived at a disciple’s apartment in Moscow, I called atmarama and accepted his invitation. As I had to wait two days for the flight to Australia, I decided to go to Riga, Latvia, to spend time with the devotees there. Latvia was in the midst of the severest winter in memory, and when I arrived at the airport, the devotees apologized for the austere conditions. I asked how cold it was, and they replied, “Minus 5°C.”
To their amazement I replied, “Oh, that’s warm.” I still remembered the chilling minus 47°C I had endured for weeks in Siberia. In fact, when we left the airport and walked outside, I took off my jacket and wore only my heavy sweater on the way to the car.
After many years of litigation, the Latvian devotees have finally gained ownership of their temple building, which is situated on one of Riga’s main streets. The five-story building is over one hundred years old, but still in good shape. Its prominent downtown location adds to its value and to the stature of the temple restaurant inside the building. The Sunday feast is well attended. The devotees have managed to maintain a Food-for-Life program in Riga for nine years. Hundreds of plates of prasadam are served daily from a temple kitchen at street level.
Because I would be in Riga for only two days, the devotees kept me busy giving classes, holding kîrtanas, and meeting individually with my disciples. I struggled through every minute, as my health continued to deteriorate. I began to seriously consider taking a break for a month or two— certainly before the Polish festival tour. I will be fifty-three in May, and Canakya Pandita’s aphorism about aging is becoming more apparent to me: “A horse becomes old by remaining tied up, a woman ages by lack of attention from her husband, a garment becomes old by being left in the sun, and a man becomes old by constant travel.” (NîtiΩastra, Chapter 4, text 7)
But I had miles to go before I could experience peace, solitude, or rest. On December 26, I boarded a flight for Moscow, where I caught a fifteen-hour flight to Tokyo. I had requested the travel agent to arrange a day’s stopover in Tokyo before continuing south to Sydney. I wanted to break my journey to ease the travel, but also because I was curious to see Japan. It is one of the few countries I haven’t visited in my years as a traveling preacher.
Visiting the many parts of God’s creation is one of the ways in which a sannyasî gains detachment from the world and inspiration to go back to the spiritual sky. Wherever a sannyasî goes in the temporary material world, he sees nothing to compare with the beauty of the spiritual world he has discovered in the Vedic scriptures. Prabhupada writes, “It is the duty of a mendicant to experience all varieties of God’s creation by traveling alone through all forests, hills, towns, villages, etc., to gain faith in God and strength of mind as well as to enlighten the inhabitants with the message of God.” (Bhag. 1.6.13, purport)
I had assumed Tokyo would be warm. I wasn’t prepared for the chilly winter weather. I had not brought warm clothes with me, and during my thirty-six-hour layover (during which the Japanese devotees kindly showed me their temple, restaurant, and some of the country’s sites), I came down with bronchitis. Of course, the illness was the cumulative effect of months of intense service under austere conditions, and by the time I reached Sydney two days later, even the summer warmth couldn’t check the illness. Nevertheless, although the bronchitis got worse, I gave my best to preaching during my ten-day visit to Australia and New Zealand and tried not to let on how sick I was. After several days in Sydney, I traveled north to the Gold Coast, Australia’s summer resort area, and participated in a wonderful evening Rathayatra festival in Byron Bay in New South Wales. Over 45,000 people witnessed the chariot festival that had many dancing in kîrtana with us until the stroke of midnight, when we all welcomed in the new year with Krsna’s holy names.
The next day, as I lay ill in bed at the New Govardhana farm, I decided that Mother Nature was giving me a clear signal: it was time to rest. I decided not to return to the Russian winter and instead booked a ticket to Durban, South Africa. The devotees there keep a room for me in the temple—a habit left over from 1987 when I was the temple president. I knew it would be midsummer there, and I thought I could recuperate completely before the scheduled preaching tour to America with Srî Prahlada in March and April.
To confirm my decision, a young boy walked up to me on my way to the temple and said, “You don’t look well, Maharaja. My daddy says you’re traveling too much. He says it’s not good. He says more rest and a good swim would fix you up.”
“Okay,” I replied, and I remembered the swimming pool near the Durban temple.
On January 7 I flew from Sydney to Johannesburg. It was a long flight,
during which I sat next to a businessman from New Zealand. An hour into the flight, he asked me who I was and what I was doing. He had heard something about the Krishna consciousness movement and wanted to know more. I told him I was a traveling monk on my way to South Africa for rest and recuperation. I mentioned a few of the ordeals of traveling I had experienced over the past few months. He wasn’t impressed. He actually told me I shouldn’t complain. He showed me a book he was reading about the eighteenth-century British navigator, Captain James Cook, called Farther Than Any Man. Traveling in Captain Cook’s day was much more difficult and austere than I could imagine. He handed me the book and suggested I read the first chapter.
Captain Cook was both a professional sailor and an adventurer, but his life at sea was no pleasure cruise. The wooden sailing ships in those days could hardly be called comfortable or safe. The upper decks were full of huge masts and ropes, leaving little space to walk. Below, the crew slept in dingy, rat-infested, foul-smelling holds. Sailors slept in hammocks two meters long and strung just 350 centimeters apart. At sea they faced storms, lightning, freezing temperatures, fire, and the danger of amputations from snapped ropes or sudden death from crashing masts. The ships’ toilets— “seats of ease” as they were known—were made of planks extended over either side of the bow. A hole was cut into the planks and the edges sanded. A man did his business precariously, dangling over an open ocean. When the weather was calm (which was rare), there was no problem, but when the sea was violent, answering nature’s call became difficult, if not extremely dangerous. A popular saying of the time was, “Those who go to sea for pleasure would go to hell for pastime.” If one chose to travel from Australia to South Africa (as I was doing), his company would be much more unpleasant than my friend the businessman, who had comfortably fallen asleep as I read the first chapter of his book. Sailors in those days were poor, foulmouthed, and prone to disease. They knew that most of them would die at sea, so they drank as if there were no tomorrow. Earnings were often squandered gambling or on drink, and fights were common because of the heavy drinking and close living quarters. Fights tended to be bloody and fatal, as sailors were in the habit of arming themselves at all times with a sharp knife.
Most sailors in the Royal Navy in those days were the dregs of society, physically abducted by press gangs and thrown onboard ships against their will. Most didn’t know how to swim and were prone to seasickness. The long duration of voyages meant ships were deliberately overmanned at the start to compensate for the many deaths. Hundreds of men died of typhus or scurvy on every voyage.
When I reached the end of the first chapter, I’d had enough. I put the book aside and counted my blessings to be traveling in the twenty-first century. I wasn’t ready to give up my idea of a short break for a month, but I doubt I’ll ever complain again about the trans-Siberian railroad. I didn’t have to deal with typhus, scurvy, or drunken sailors wielding knives!
I landed in South Africa on January 8. After resting for a few days, I did a little preaching to keep in form, including an interview with a local newspaper. The subject was genetic engineering through cloning. Scientists wanted to raise cloned pigs so that their organs could be used for human transplants. I told the reporter that such procedures were demonic and that the severe karmic reactions for such animal experiments far outweighed any so-called medical benefits. I quoted Prahlada Maharaja in SrîmadBhagavatam explaining how the solution a materialist proposes for a particular problem is often worse than the problem itself:
yasmāt priyāpriya-viyoga-saṁyoga-janma-śokāgninā sakala-yoniṣu dahyamānaḥ
duḥkhauṣadham tad api duḥkham atad-dhiyāham bhūman bhramāmi vada me tava dāsya-yogam
“O great one, O Supreme Lord, because of combination with pleasing and displeasing circumstances and because of separation from them, one is placed in a most regrettable position, within heavenly or hellish planets, as if burning in a fire of lamentation. Although there are many remedies by which to get out of miserable life, any such remedies in the material world are more miserable than the miseries themselves. Therefore I think that the only remedy is to engage in Your service. Kindly instruct me in such service.” (Bhag. 7.9.17)
The next day my name and picture appeared on the second page of the newspaper with an article condemning cloning.
After a week in Durban, I decided to begin a light exercise program to build up my strength. Remembering the young boy’s words, I decided to visit the nearby swimming pool. The next morning, as I dove into the clear water and raced back and forth in the lanes, I remembered my days as a swimmer in high school. Memories of racing competitions surfaced. My father and mother would often sit in the bleachers, cheering me on. Then I thought, “Of what use are such memories, now faded with time? Where are all the family members who used to encourage me? Most are dead and gone. Now I’m alone in a pool, exercising simply to stay alive.”
plavānāṁ srotaso yathā
“Many planks and sticks, unable to stay together, are carried away by the force of a river’s waves. Similarly, although we are intimately related with friends and family members, we are unable to stay together because of our varied past deeds and the waves of time.” (Bhag. 10.5.25)
Pushing aside thoughts of times gone by, I began reciting the Sanskrit Slokas I had been learning over the past few weeks. With each stroke in the water, I repeated a line from a verse and tried to remember the meaning. After swimming a kilometer, (I surprised myself that I had that much endurance), I sat catching my breath on the side of the pool. An elderly Indian man, who had just finished his own exercise in the pool, came alongside me and said, “Aren’t you the swami whose interview about cloning pigs appeared in the newspaper yesterday?”
“Yes, sir, that was me.”
“I appreciated your comments. Cloning is tampering with the laws of nature given by God. No good can come from it. But Swami, I have another question for you.”
“Yes, of course,” I said, adjusting my goggles for my next set of laps.
“You’re a sannyasî. What business do you have in a pool like this? Sannyasîs should be studying scripture or traveling to enlighten others.”
“It’s a long story,” I said as I jumped back into the pool. “Come to the temple for the program tonight and we can discuss it.”
I smiled to myself as I raced to the other end of the pool. It seemed I was subject to criticism whether I traveled or rested. That reminded me of a story Srila Prabhupada told of a man and his son’s journey on a horse. Once a man and his son were traveling to visit relatives in a nearby village. The man was riding the horse and the son was walking alongside. As they passed through one village, a man said, “Just see, that man is riding the horse and his son has to walk.” Hearing this criticism, the man got off the horse and let his son ride. When they passed through the next village, a man said, “Just look, the boy is riding the horse and his father has to walk.” So the man jumped on the horse along with his son and they rode together toward the next village. As they entered the town, they heard a man exclaim, “Just consider how cruel that man and his son are. They are both riding the poor horse!” Finally, the man and the boy got off the horse and walked alongside it into their relatives’ village. As soon as they arrived at their destination, however, their relatives greeted them with, “How foolish you both are not to ride the horse.”
That night the Indian gentleman came to the temple and asked for me. I was surprised when he came into my room. I asked him to sit down, and after a half hour of discussion, he again raised his question about a sannyasî’s traveling and recreation. Suddenly an idea came to me. I reached into my drawer and pulled out my passport. I handed it to him. The eighty-eight pages (I have had supplementary pages added three times) were full of immigration stamps from all over the world. His eyes lit up.
“You do travel a lot,” he exclaimed.
“Yes,” I replied, “and now on the Lord’s advice, I’m taking a short break.”
“On the advice of the Lord?” he asked, puzzled.
“Yes, on the advice of the Lord even a yogî is allowed recreation from time to time.” Picking up the Bhagavad-gîta I read to him from the sixth chapter: “He who is regulated in his habits of eating, sleeping, recreation and work can mitigate all material pains by practicing the yoga system.” (Bg. 6.17)
As he stood up, he smiled and said, “We’ll meet at the pool tomorrow, Swami. Thank you very much.”