December 18, 2003 – January 30, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami
Early last December, I was at the airport in Warsaw, checking in for a flight, when I heard someone call out, “Hari Bol!” I looked up and saw that it was a stewardess passing by with a flight crew. I was busy at the ticket counter, so I just smiled back. I was on my way to London, where I would catch a connecting flight to an Islamic country. An hour later as I entered the plane, I saw the same stewardess, and she greeted me again with a cheerful “Hari Bol!”
“Hari Bol!” I answered. I looked at her badge and saw that she was the chief purser.
After we were airborne she came by and sat on the armrest of the seat directly across the aisle from me. A few passengers raised their eye-brows, but she was not disturbed. “I can afford it,” she said. “I’ve been with the company for twenty years. I’m retiring next month.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
Her face became more serious. “You know,” she said, “I was married to a Hare Krsna devotee when I was young.”
My own eyebrows went up. “Oh really?” I said.
“Yes,” she answered, “but he’d left the movement by the time we met. He was a disciple of the founder, Swami Prabhupada. He referred to his departure as blooping.”
“Yes,” I said, “that’s the sound an object makes when it falls into the ocean. When a devotee leaves the movement and falls back into the ocean of material existence, we call it blooping.”
“Well he certainly struggled with his decision to leave,” she said. “He didn’t actually tell me that he had been a devotee until late into our marriage. For years I saw him wrestle with conflicting interests. On the one hand he had a deep interest in spiritual things, but on the other he had an uncontrollable urge to enjoy the material.
“One night we got drunk, and on an impulse he took me to your center outside of London, the place George Harrison bought you. I don’t remember much, but when he started to cry in front of the altar, we were asked to leave. It’s the only time I ever visited one of your temples.
“As time went on, my husband succumbed to his material passions and started to take drugs. In a desperate move to help him, I got the principal book of your faith, the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, from a friend. My husband had spoken of it many times. I must have read that book ten times cover to cover, hoping to learn what had once satisfied the soul of my husband.
“As I learned the Gita I began sharing my understanding with him, wanting to revive his faith. I even memorized certain verses and would repeat them when he was really down and out. As his drug addiction deepened and he began stealing to maintain it, I often searched feverishly through the Gita, looking for passages or words of advice that would turn him away from his decadence.
“But it was of no avail. After some time the combination of drugs, internal conflicts, and pressures of life caused him to go mad, totally mad. I had to commit him to a mental hospital. He has never recovered and is still there to this day.”
She had been speaking with emotion, and several other passengers were listening in. They looked as amazed as I must have.
“It was a painful loss for me,” she continued, “and I never remarried.”
Then she put her hand on my shoulder. “But do you know how I survived that and many other trials in my life?” she asked.
“How?” I asked, almost on behalf of the other passengers listening in.
“The philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita,” she said with a relieved smile. “I still read the Gita every day. It’s in my carry-on luggage up front. If it weren’t for that book, I’d probably be in the same madhouse as my former husband.”
“I’ll be retiring soon and plan to buy a little house in Wales,” she continued. “And you know how I’ll spend much of my time?”
“No, Ma’am,” I said. “How?” “Reading the Bhagavad-gita,” she replied.
Suddenly the flight ran into turbulence and the “fasten seatbelt” light came on. The stewardess nodded a little to confirm her last statement, and got up to go. As she was leaving, I called out to her. “Ma’am,” I said, “can I have the address of the mental hospital? I’d like to try and help your former husband.”
She shook her head. “No,” she said, “I can’t do that.”
“Please,” I said. “It’s important to me. He’s my spiritual brother.” “I’m sorry” she replied, and she turned to walk down the aisle. “I wouldn’t want to open that chapter of my life again.”
When the plane landed and the passengers began to disembark she was standing at the door, smiling politely as we filed out. I stopped and gently tried to encourage her to tell me where her previous husband was, but she wouldn’t give in.
“Move on!” a man shouted behind me.
I thanked the stewardess for sharing her story with me, but I walked out of the plane with mixed emotions. I was elated to have met someone who had found such shelter in the teachings of Bhagavad-gita, but distraught to hear how another, a Godbrother, in fact, had failed miserably to do the same.
In a men’s room in Heathrow Airport, I changed from my devotional clothes into something more Western and waited to board my connecting flight. I felt a bit uncomfortable, as I had to remove my neck beads and Brahmin thread and replace it all with a New York Yankees baseball cap.
I was on my way to one of the more conservative Islamic states, and in order to understand the country more, I had bought a book on Shariah, the Islamic law that governs strict Muslim societies. As the flight took off and I started reading, some of the laws raised my eyebrows again, more than once.
Shariah states that a murderer must be killed in the same way that he murdered but can be set free if the bereaved family agrees to take some money instead of having the murderer killed.
A thief must have his hand cut off, and if he steals again, he will lose the other hand plus a foot.
A man may keep four wives but cannot keep two sisters as wives. Women must be fully covered at all times except in the privacy of their homes.
I began to realize the strictness of the country I was entering, and as we were landing, I pushed my Nrsimha salagram deeper into my bag, hoping that if I was searched, the customs officials wouldn’t find Him.
It didn’t work. After clearing immigration, I approached customs control and was stopped by two women in burkas, the full black dress worn by Muslim women with even the eyes covered by a black veil. The women asked me to step to one side. Then two men in starched white robes came over and asked me to put all my belongings onto a table. As I laid my saffron cloth out they looked surprised, but when I put my Srimad Bhagavatam on the table their eyes opened even wider.
“What is this?” the man asked in broken English.
“A storybook,” I replied.
“What is in the shoulder bag?” he asked.
“Not much” I replied, pretending I didn’t know he wanted to see it.
“Put it on the table,” he said.
I had no choice, and after a few moments they were inspecting my japa beads, and to my horror, my Nrsimha salagram.
“My Lord,” I prayed silently, “please forgive me.”
One of the customs officials started to smell the salagram. “What is it?” he asked.
I was so distraught I couldn’t reply.
“What is it?” he repeated impatiently.
“What does it look like?” I said, not wanting to further my grief by having to refer to the salagram in some mundane way, and in front of the Lord Himself.
“It looks like a stone,” he said.
“So?” I replied.
And he put Him back in the bag.
They seemed eager to inspect the rest of my belongings, but suddenly another official came up. “Are you a soldier?” he asked me.
I saw my way out of the predicament. “Yes, sir” I replied with confidence thinking back on my days as a marine. “Lance Corporal Tibbitts. First Infrantry Battalion, United States Marine Corps. My company is on duty in this region.”
“Fine,” he replied. Then he turned to the other men. “Let him go,” he said.
As I walked out of the airport, loudspeakers from nearby mosques reminded the faithful that it was time to bow toward Mecca, and a number of men spread their rugs on the ground to pray. I even saw several cars stop and men get out on the sidewalk to bow.
My contact picked me up, and we drove to the place where I would be staying. As in other strict Islamic states, I noticed the streets were clean and everything seemed orderly. Bars, discotheques, and nightclubs were conspicuous by their absence, and men and women did not mix freely. It was easy to distinguish the two: the men wore bright starched white robes, and a number of women wore dark black burkas, covering them from head to toe.
“Put your baseball cap back on,” my host said as we pulled up to his house.
“It’s only a few meters to the front door,” I said, a little surprised.
“It only takes one complaint here,” he said soberly.
Programs were held in the evening in different houses, quietly, behind closed doors that blocked any noise. I was told that programs were not forbidden but any excess would not be tolerated.
During my visit, I favored lecturing more than kirtan. I had plenty to say because I had plenty of time to study. Confined to my room and not able to wander outside freely, I managed to read Teachings of Lord Caitanya from cover to cover in seven days.
I wasn’t used to being inside all day, though, and at one point I became restless, almost desperate. “I’d like to go home,” I said out loud to myself one morning.
But then I looked in the mirror and scolded myself. “Home?” I asked. “A home? You’re in the renounced order. You should be ashamed of yourself!” Then I imposed a small punishment on myself for my momentary lack of sannyasa dharma. “Tomorrow,” I vowed, “I will fast all day.”
The day after my fast, my host came and said that we were going to drive out of town for a program with workers from India. “Laborers from abroad?” I thought. “Sounds like it will be a real simple program.”
As we drove through the countryside, I noticed many date trees lining the road. My host turned to me. “Shariah states that you can receive a huge fine for indiscriminately cutting down a date tree,” he said.
“Really?” I replied.
“Yes,” he said, “and God forbid if you hit a camel with your car. They are a protected species here. And if you do hit a camel, you’ll get instant karma. They are so top-heavy, with their long spindly legs and heavy bodies, that they immediately come through the windshield. Many people have died in that way.”
“That’s interesting,” I said.
My host turned to me with a puzzled look. “Interesting?” he said. “Not interesting in the sense of entertaining,” I said, “but in a curious way.”
His misunderstanding of my comment only added to the frustration I was feeling from living in isolation, and I was feeling the rigors of my self-imposed fast the day before. “I’d sure like to be in Vrindavan right now,” I said to myself.
We pulled up to an old ware-house. “I’ll make this real quick,” I thought.
I pulled my Yankee baseball cap squarely over my forehead, adjusted my belt, jumped out of the car, and walked quickly towards the entrance before any of the locals would notice me, as was the usual procedure.
As I entered the reception office, I was surprised to hear a wonderful Bengali kirtan tape over the sound system. “Sounds from the spiritual sky,” I said to myself. “It’s almost like being in Mayapura.” I closed my eyes and paused for a moment to take in the auspicious sound.
My host took my arm. “Let’s move into the main room,” he said. Reluctantly, I tore myself away from my brief moment in the spiritual world.
But what a wonderful surprise was waiting for me! As I opened the door, I was stunned to see a group of 40 Bengali men, many in dhoti and kurta, playing mrdangas and kartalas while chanting the holy names and dancing in ecstasy. It wasn’t a tape I had heard after all. It was a live kirtan.
A devotee was singing and the others responded:
“Gaurangera duti pada, jar dhana sampada, se jane bhakati-rasa-sar.”
It was Savarana- Sri-Gaura-Mahima (The Glories of Sri Gauranga), a song from Narottam das Thakur’s Prarthana: “Anyone who has accepted the two lotus feet of Lord Caitanya can understand the true essence of devotional service.”
“Gaurangera madhura-lila,” the lead singer sang loudly, “jar karne prabesila, hrdoya mirmala bhelo tar.”
And again came a chorus of voices in their mother tongue:
“Anyone who has accepted the two lotus feet of Lord Caitanya can understand the true essence of devotional service.”
With their arms upwards and their eyes to the sky they sang:
“Je gaurangera nama loy tara hoy premodoy, tare mui jai bolihari.”
“One who simply takes the holy name of Gaurasundara, Sri Krsna Caitanya, will immediately develop love of God. To such a person I say, ‘Bravo! Very nice! Excellent!'”
The men were dancing gracefully, and their faces and movements were full of feeling. They were so absorbed in kirtan rasa that they didn’t notice I’d come in.
Suddenly they saw me, and they all dove in front of me, offering obeisances. I stood there embarrassed, feeling unworthy of the attention of men who displayed such feeling for Lord Caitanya.
One of them handed me a drum and I started to sing slowly,
“Sri-krsna-caitanya prabhu doya koro mor, toma bine ke doyalu jagat-somsare.”
“My dear Lord Sri Krsna Caitanya Mahaprabhu, please be merciful to me, because who can be more merciful than Your Lordship within these three worlds?”
Oblivious to where we were, we dove again and again into the nectar of chanting the holy names for over an hour. Though we were strangers, the joy of the kirtan made us one spiritual family, and we chanted and danced with abandon, as if we had known each other for years.
After bringing the kirtan to a close, I asked them to suggest a subject for my talk. A small chorus of men spoke up. “Speak about Gauranga Mahaprabhu,” they said almost in unison.
So I told about the pastime of Lord Caitanya’s taking sannyasa. When I got to the part about the barber cutting Mahaprabhu’s beautiful long black hair, several of the men had tears in their eyes.
After an hour, I concluded, and because it was getting late I stood up, but they immediately put a mrdanga in my hands. “More kirtan!” they said. “More kirtan!”
“Who has come to enliven whom?” I thought. “These men are very merciful to me.”
Again we had kirtan and then relished a traditional Bengali feast, complete with Lord Caitanya’s favorite preparation, a leafy vegetable called sak. At the end, I was inundated with Bengali sweets.
In the three hours I spent with those men I learned an important lesson. In their association I became oblivious to the discomforts of being in a foreign land and felt perfectly at home, in a spiritual atmosphere. I realized that although my preferred places of residence, the holy lands of Vrindavan and Mayapura, were far away in India, they are in fact manifested wherever devotees are chanting the Lord’s holy names. It was a valuable lesson and one I pray I will not forget.
“When Krishna descended on the earth, He appeared in Vrindavan. Although I am presently living in America, my residence is in Vrindavan, because I am always thinking of Krishna. Although I may be in a New York apartment, my consciousness is there, and this is as good as living there.” [Srila Prabhupada, Path of Perfection, Page 128]