May 24 – 25, 2005
By Indradyumna Swami
Just over a thousand devotees came to the festival in Dniepropetrovsk, a large city in Ukraine. It was a three-day event: a day in glorification of Srila Prabhupada, the appearance day of lord Nrsimhadeva, and my birthday.
It also marked the 18th year of my service as a spiritual master. On the morning of my vyasa-puja celebration, I checked through the list of my disciples. There were over 2,000. Although all of them certainly knew me, I could not possibly remember each and every one. I took a deep breath.
“It’s a heavy service, isn’t it?” I thought. “But it’s the order of my own guru Maharaja.”
I will be the first to admit I am not qualified, but then again, I have faith in Srila Prabhupada’s words: “Along with the instruction of the spiritual master comes the ability to execute it.” visnujana Maharaja shared these words with me shortly after I joined the movement. They come from a letter by Srila Prabhupada, and they have been a guiding light for me ever since.
I have experienced the truth of these words many times, from my first responsibility as a sankirtan leader to becoming an initiated brahmana, a temple president, a regional secretary, and eventually a sannyasi. I know I am unqualified, but the power of devotional service and the mercy of my spiritual master have somehow enabled me to perform these duties. And my ability to somehow or other take on the role of a guru is only further proof of my spiritual master’s causeless mercy.
As I was leaving my room to go to the celebration, I asked to be alone for a moment. I prostrated myself in front of my altar and prayed to Srila Prabhupada that I may never, even for a moment, forget that his mercy is all I am made of. I prayed for the purity, strength, and wisdom to continue guiding my disciples safely to his lotus feet.
The next day I flew to Moscow with my disciple Uttama-sloka das, who would translate for me during my three-week visit to Russia. When we arrived, I was surprised to find only four devotees waiting to greet us, three of them in non-devotional dress.
In previous years there would always be large groups of disciples, often hundreds, waiting to greet me in Moscow. Colorfully dressed in dhotis and saris, singing melodious kirtans, they would surge forward with garlands and bouquets of flowers, each one trying to be the first to greet me. It was never that I personally needed such a reception, but I enjoyed seeing their enthusiasm in Krsna consciousness, proof that they were advancing in devotional service. And I enjoyed reciprocating with their loving sentiments.
I turned to Uttama-sloka. “What happened?” I said. “Where is everyone?”
“It’s a sign of the times Srila Gurudeva,” he said. “Russia—and Moscow in particular—are not the same places they were when you first started coming here. Moscow is a wealthy city now, even by Western standards. There are forty-eight billionaires living in Moscow, compared to forty-three in New york.”
“What are you getting at?” I said as we walked towards the baggage claim, the four disciples trailing nervously behind.
“Well,” he said, “it seems that the opulence of present-day Moscow has bewildered some devotees, and they have compromised or even given up their Krsna consciousness.”
“It’s true,” I thought. “It’s happened elsewhere as well.”
But I also felt responsible for their loss of faith and enthusiasm. “I’ve neglected them,” I thought, “spending so much time away from russia. My focus on the festival tour in Poland has meant fewer visits to russia.”
I looked back at the four devotees. “Ironic, isn’t it?” I thought. “Just yesterday people were glorifying me for my service as guru, and today I’m scolding myself for neglecting my disciples.”
Adding to my anxiety was the fact that my main reason for this trip was to raise funds.
As we left the airport terminal, I turned to Uttama-sloka. “Perhaps it’s time I stop initiating,” I said. “I should focus on the disciples I already have.”
The next day was a free day with no engagements. I worked on answering the 1,074 emails in my in-basket. I began at 7 a.m. and finished at 10 p.m., managing to answer 350 letters. I could have done more, but I wanted to improve on my service as a spiritual master, so I spent more time answering each question in the letters. The next day I woke up early and began packing for my next flight. As I stood there in the early-morning darkness I suddenly realized I had no idea where I was going. I had left the travel arrangements to my Moscow secretary, Jananivasa das, but because of our busy schedules, we had not had a chance to meet or even talk on the phone.
Jananivasa arrived at 6 a.m. and handed me an envelope. “here are the tickets for you and Uttama-sloka,” he said.
I started to laugh. “Thank you,” I said, “but where are we going?”
“First you’re going to Kazan,” he said, “the capital of the republic of Tatarstan. It’s a predominantly Muslim region.”
“Huh?” I said. I stopped laughing and looked up at Jananivasa, but I couldn’t say what was on my mind: How much money would I raise in a Muslim area?
But Jananivasa read my thoughts. “Don’t worry,” he said. “The devotees there are eager have you. They’ve promised to contribute to your Polish Tour.”
“That is really kind of them,” I said. “Lets move then. It’s getting late.”
Traffic was light and we reached Domodedovo airport early. As we sat waiting for the check-in counter to open, I marveled at the opulence of the airport.
It was a marked contrast to the old days, when everyone and everything was poor, gray, and lifeless. It was true what Uttama-sloka had said: Moscow had become an opulent city. The newly renovated Domodedovo airport, though smaller than london’s heathrow airport, was more attractive and had better facilities.
It was bright and shiny, with boutiques offering designer clothes and perfumes. There were facilities for disabled people, modern toilets, and—in stark contrast to the atheistic old days—prayer rooms. People from all parts of russia were browsing through the shops, or eating and drinking in the cafes.
But no one was smiling. In Russia, I have noticed that people often look stern. I turned to Uttama-sloka. “Are they trying to look tough?” I said.
He looked at me soberly. “No,” he said, “they have tough lives.
There’s not much glitter in their lives outside of this airport.”
After checking in we went to security control. We put our bags on the x-ray machine, and a security officer called us to the side. he took us a few meters away to a large machine, at least seven feet tall, and asked me to go inside. I recoiled and stepped back.
“What is it?” I asked Uttama-sloka. he asked the security officer.
“It’s an x-ray machine that scans the entire body,” Uttama-sloka said. “They want to see whether we are carrying any bombs.”
“Bombs?” I asked. “Inside of me?”
“During the last year,” he said, “several planes have been blown up by suicide bombers. They had plastic explosives tied to their bodies, some say surgically implanted under the skin. So the Russian authorities produced this x-ray machine to scan suspicious passengers. The officer wants you to step inside now.”
As I stepped into the machine it started humming, and after 45 seconds the officer asked me to come out. I immediately went over to the computer to see my image. I asked the woman sitting in front of the screen if she had ever discovered a bomb inside someone’s body.
Her face took on a serious look. “Yes, sir,” she said, “more than once.”
As we walked to our gate, I spoke to Uttama-sloka. “I only read of one plane being blown up by terrorists in russia during the year,” I said.
“There were several,” he said, “but the government didn’t publicize it. They wanted to protect the aviation industry from losses. After all, what would happen if people were afraid to fly?”
A few hours later, we landed in Kazan, the capital of the republic of Tatarstan. There was a large group of devotees greeting us at the airport with a big kirtan. The arrival hall was resounding with the holy names, and devotees rushed forward with garlands and flowers. It reminded me of the old days in Moscow.
Uttama-sloka winked at me. “Kazan’s not as opulent as Moscow,” he said.
We walked outside. As I stood by the car, waiting for Uttamasloka and our baggage, I was surrounded by devotees and onlookers alike. There were policemen, businessmen, airport workers, cleaning women, shop owners, passersby, and even a few dogs, all staring at me. I felt self-conscious, so I looked at the sky. “Thank you, lord,” I said softly. “Once again it’s a big reception, but enough’s enough.”
In the car, I asked the temple president about Tatarstan.
“It’s a long history,” he said. “The culture took shape during the Mongol invasions in the 11th century. later the country converted to Islam and stayed that way until it came under the control of russia in the eighteen hundreds. Now it is half Muslim and half russian Orthodox. It produces most of the oil and natural gas used in russia.”
“Kazan is the ancient capital of the Tatars,” he continued. “This year the city is celebrating its founding a thousand years ago. As part of the celebration, the city administration has produced a film about the history of Kazan, and there is a scene of a harinam procession going down the main street.”
“Amazing!” I said.
“Kazan has a million people,” he continued. “There is an ongoing competition as to who can build the most places of worship. You’ll see more mosques and churches in this region than anywhere else in Russia.”
I sat up and looked out at the city. I couldn’t resist a little joke.
“And what percentage of the people are hare Krsna devotees?” I asked.
“We have three hundred and fifty devotees here,” he said.
I sat back in my seat. “I’ll enjoy the preaching here,” I thought. “It will be a little break. No one knows me. I’ll just play the part of a visiting sannyasi. It will be simple, like the old days.”
But the temple president had other plans. “Maharaja,” he said, “there’s one thing I’d like to ask you. you have a number of aspiring disciples here whom I would like to recommend for initiation. Can you hold a fire sacrifice and initiate them tomorrow?”
I sat up straight. “Disciples?” I said. “But I’m thinking of not…”
I stopped speaking and sat back. “hey,” I thought, “remember your prayers to Srila Prabhupada in front of your altar in Ukraine? Was it just a lot of big talk? have you forgotten that taking disciples is a service to your spiritual master? Are you going to refuse his order now? ‘Along with his instructions comes the ability to execute them.’ remember?”
I looked out the window. “Okay,” I thought. “I’ll just have to work harder.
I’ll have to adjust things so I can travel more and give disciples the attention they need. Most important, I’ll have to become more qualified. For that I can only beg for Srila Prabhupada’s mercy.”
“Maharaja?” the temple president said, waking me out of my meditation.
“Yes,” I said, “I’ll initiate those devotees tomorrow afternoon.” “They’ll be so happy,” he said. “They’ve been waiting for years.”
The car turned into the parking lot of an apartment building. There was another big group of devotees having kirtan, and many of the neighbors had gathered to see what was happening.
I got out of the car, and the kirtan leader started chanting, “Jaya gurudeva! Jaya gurudeva! Jaya gurudeva!”
Closing my eyes I prayed for the mercy of my own gurudeva.
[One] should try to cooperate with the lord in his outward activities for correcting the fallen souls. By his order only, one should become a spiritual master and cooperate with the lord. One should not become a spiritual master for one’s personal benefit, for some material gain or as an avenue of business or occupation for earning livelihood. Bona fide spiritual masters who look unto the Supreme lord to cooperate with him are actually qualitatively one with the Lord.
[Srimad Bhagavatam 1.13.48]