May 26 – Jun 1, 2005
By Indradyumna Swami
My three-day visit to Tatarstan went by fast. It is said that if you enjoy what you are doing time passes quickly but if you are bored or annoyed time drags on. And I was doing what I enjoy most: sharing my good fortune with others.
Several months earlier, I had been talking with my son, gaura Sakti dasa, about how the devotees of my generation are starting to pass away. “you’ve lived such a full life,” he said, “even if you were to die today, you would have nothing to lament.”
It is true. Since coming to Krsna consciousness, I have never had to struggle for the necessities of life. In fact, the lord has been more than generous in providing whatever facilities I needed for myself and for spreading his movement.
And spiritually, I cannot begin to fathom the mercy the lord has bestowed upon me—my own spiritual master, the holy names, the association of vaisnavas, and my beloved Deities, who are my constant companions. But a devotee should never think such gifts are meant for him alone. They are meant to be shared with others.
A devotee, after his initiation by the lord or his bona fide representative, takes very seriously chanting of the glories of the lord and traveling all over the world so that others may also hear the glories of the lord … (his) only business is to chant and remember the holy name, fame and pastimes of the lord and, according to personal capacity, to distribute the message for others’ welfare without motive of material gain.
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.6.26 purport]
Ever grateful, I have tried my best to fulfil that order of Srila Prabhupada by taking his mercy worldwide.
While I was checking through airport security for my next flight, an immigration officer looked at my passport. It had 314 entry and departure stamps plus visas for 18 countries. he laughed. “Is this a travel Bible?” he asked.
No one would deny that traveling all over the world is exciting, but the thrill of adventure is sometimes offset by the austerities involved. My onward journey was testament to that.
The Kazan airport has a unique system: passengers must pass first through a full security control before checking their bags. When Uttama-sloka dasa and I arrived at the check-in counter, an agent took our tickets and quickly handed us our boarding passes. She then indicated to the other passengers to step forward.
As the passengers surged towards the front, I turned to Uttamasloka. “hey!” I said, “Tell her she didn’t check our baggage.”
Uttama-sloka pushed his way to the desk again, asked the question, and was quickly squeezed back out.
“She said to carry our bags onto the plane,” he said.
“What?” I said. “Carry all our luggage onto the plane? how is that possible?”
The problem was that I had a lot of luggage. When I travel through Russia, I always bring some essentials that I may not ordinarily take elsewhere: a good sleeping bag, a foam mat to sleep on, a pillow, my own eating utensils, medicine, and clothes for both warm and cold weather. It’s a big country spanning many time zones.
Uttama-sloka and I must have been quite a sight as we dragged our luggage to the boarding gate. We arrived just before the boarding call was made. As there was no seat assignment, all the passengers were grouped in front of the door, anxiously hoping to be the first to board the bus taking them to the plane. Piles of luggage were everywhere.
“What next?” I thought. “how in the world will all of us—and this luggage—fit on the plane?”
One minute later the door opened, without an announcement, and there was a mad rush to the bus. Uttama-sloka and I were the last ones. When the bus arrived at the plane, there was another chaotic dash. We were the last ones out.
As we walked toward the plane, I was shocked to see its condition. It was an old propeller plane, like something one might see at an aviation museum. A woman was standing on an old wooden ladder, propped up against the front of the plane, washing the windows with a bucket of soapy water and a rag.
We entered the plane, and a flight attendant greeted us. “Where are you flying to?” she asked.
“Huh?” said Uttama-sloka.”Uh…ekathrinburg.” he looked at me with a surprised expression.
“What kind of question is that?” I said. “Does she need to ask where are we’re flying to?”
“I sense things are a little unorganized here,” he said, “and perhaps passengers sometimes board the wrong flights.”
We were lucky, as we found two seats together, near the middle of the plane. But there was no place for our luggage. The baggage compartments were already full, so we put some of our luggage on the floor next to us and kept the greater part on our laps.
The hostesses didn’t check whether the passengers were wearing seat belts, and no safety announcements were made. Quite the contrary: Fifteen minutes into the flight, a hostess appeared in the aisle and screamed out an announcement: “This flight will be very shaky!” She didn’t say anything else or give any pertinent instructions.
I turned to Uttama-sloka. “In America they wouldn’t let this plane off the ground,” I said.
Then the co-pilot, a man appearing to be in his forties, came down the aisle on his way to the restroom. I told Uttama-sloka to ask him how old the plane was.
I saw the man laugh at the question.
“He told me the plane was made before he was born,” Uttamasloka said.
The three-hour flight was indeed shaky, as the hostess had predicted. Considering that, and how old the plane was, I was a little nervous. And thirsty too, probably from the effort of dragging our bags around, but no water or juice was served. My tolerance was tested even more by the bags surrounding me and on my lap, which didn’t allow me to move for the entire flight. I knew we had landed when the wheels of the plane touched ground with a screeching noise and the plane skidded to a halt.
“That’s one flight I’ll never take again,” I said to Uttama-sloka.
But thinking back, I would have gladly taken the same plane to our next destination, had I known about the train we were to take two days later after a brief visit with the devotees in ekaterinburg.
It was a cold, drizzly morning as we boarded the train to Ufa. “how long is the ride?” I asked Uttama-sloka, as we carried our luggage to our compartment.
“Twenty-three hours,” he said. “Twenty-three hours!” I exclaimed.
I had assumed it would be at most a three-hour journey. Being so engaged in preaching, I hadn’t asked Uttama-sloka about the details of the journey.
“Yes,” he said, “it’s long, but not by Russian standards. A number of your disciples took two-, three-, or even four-day train rides to come to your vyasa Puja celebration in Ukraine last month.”
We entered our compartment, and he flicked on the light switch. “But I’m not sure they rode on trains like this one,” he said, his eyes wide open.
I looked around at what would be my home for the next day and night. “looks like this train outdates the old plane we took the other day,” I said.
The rug was filthy. The window was so dirty you could barely see outside. The vinyl seats were torn and the small folding table coming out from the wall probably hadn’t been cleaned in the last fifty years. There were small pieces of old, dried-up sausage sticking out of the cracks in it.
I pulled out the mattress under my seat, to make room for my luggage, and it was covered with rat droppings. I recoiled. I sat down on my seat, not wanting to move left or right.
“My, my,” I thought, “What don’t I go through for the people of Russia!” But I quickly realized my foolishness and calmed down. “And my spiritual master?” I thought, “how much more didn’t he go through to deliver me and the people of the Western world!”
I remembered when a disciple asked Srila Prabhupada about his first year preaching alone in New york. “you couldn’t imagine what I went through,” Srila Prabhupada replied.
“For my spiritual master,” I whispered to myself, “for my spiritual master, I should at least tolerate a day and night on this awful train.”
Krishna soon tested the sincerity of my words. Although it was spring and the weather was quickly warming up, all the windows in the train were bolted shut, a measure taken in winter. It soon became unbearably stuffy.
“Please open the window,” I said to Uttama-sloka.
He fidgeted with the window for a while, finally using great force to open it. But the cool air of the evening soon turned to icy cold as we passed though a mountainous region.
“Close the window,” I said hours later, in the dead of night, still sitting motionless in the same spot.
Uttama-sloka struggled with the window for half an hour and finally gave up. “It’s not possible, Srila Gurudeva,” he said. “It’s stuck.”
A few hours later, as we slowly passed through marshland, mosquitoes took advantage of the open window to visit us inside. With no mosquito repellent, we were at their mercy, of which they showed none. Well, such is the life a traveling preacher.
But all my austerities were soon to be rewarded.
The long train ride finally came to an end. As we pulled into Ufa, I saw a large group of smiling devotees on the platform, waiting to greet us. When they saw us through the window, ten of them ran onto our coach and crowded outside our compartment in the hallway. We handed them our luggage and within moments were off the train.
We arrived at the apartment where we’d be staying. Not having slept much the previous night and still disoriented from the shaky flight two days earlier, I immediately took out my sleeping mat.
But just as I lay down, Uttama-sloka came into the room. “Srila gurudeva,” he said, “there’s a difference in time here, and we’re late for your evening lecture.”
I forced open my heavy eyelids. “Can I shower first?” was all I could say.
Twenty minutes later we were off to the hall.
“How many devotees do you have in the yatra here?” I asked my devotee driver.
“About three hundred,” he replied. “That’s nice,” I said.
“We could make more,” he said, “but this is a Muslim area and we’re not allowed to preach openly. We can’t have harinam or public programs.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“And we don’t get many visits from senior devotees,” he said looking over at me. “The last sannyasi to visit here came over a year ago. The devotees are so grateful that you’ve come.”
He paused. “I hope it wasn’t too much trouble for you to come,” he said.
“Trouble?” I said. “Uh… no trouble… no trouble at all.”
I paused. “Well,” I said, “actually there was some trouble. you see, there was this shaky plane and then this awful train. Our compartment was full of rat stool and …”
The car turned a corner and a large group of devotees on the sidewalk exploded into a kirtan, chanting and dancing wildly. As we got closer, I could see several devotees crying. My driver raised his voice to speak over the sound of the kirtan. “I told you,” he shouted. “Preachers rarely come. Ufa’s the end of the world.”
We stopped, and as I got out of the car I was met by a torrent of flowers, bouquets, money, fruit, and other gifts. The kirtan party escorted me into the building, up some stairs, to the entrance of a large hall. The kirtan stopped for a moment as devotees took off their shoes.
When I entered the hall, I was surprised to see hundreds more devotees. They all fell silent when they saw me. For a moment no one moved. Then the kirtan started again, as suddenly as it had stopped, and I was escorted to a vyasasana at the front of the hall.
As the kirtan picked up speed, the devotees became more and more blissful. Sitting on the vyasasana I looked over the audience. There seemed to be people from all walks of life, and I even noticed a few men wearing the small round caps of the Muslims.
When the kirtan ended I folded my hands and said the Premadvani prayers over the public address system, glorifying our guru parampara and Krsna. As the audience rose from bowing on the ground and took their seats, I felt a surge of inspiration to reciprocate with their warm reception and loving sentiments.
The fatigue of my travels suddenly vanished, and the impres sions of my recent austerities faded into oblivion. I felt invigorated and enlivened in the association of so many wonderful devotees serving lord Caitanya in that far-distant place. As I prepared to make my opening statement, I closed my eyes for a moment and thought about my favorite of all the letters of Srila Prabhupada. It was written to a close friend of mine and often serves as a reminder of the joy a devotee feels, despite any inconvenience, in sharing his good fortune with others.
My dear Prabhavisnu,
Please accept my blessings. I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated January 1, 1973, and I am very glad to hear from you the wonderful news of travelling party in England … I can understand that it is not an easy mat ter to travel extensively over long periods of time without proper food, rest, and sometimes it must be very cold there also. [But] still, because you are getting so much enjoyment, spiritual enjoyment, from it, it seems like play to you. That is advanced stage of spiritual life, never attained by even the greatest yogis and so-called jnanis. But let any man see our devotees working so hard for Krishna, then let anyone say that they are not better than any millions of so-called yogis and transcendentalists. That is my challenge! Because you are rightly understanding through your personal realization this philosophy of Krishna Consciousness, therefore in such a short time you have surpassed all the stages of yoga processes to come to the highest point of surrendering to Krishna. That I can very much appreciate, thank you very much for helping me in this way.
Hoping this meets you and the other men of your party in the best of health and spirits.
Your ever well-wisher,
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami