| September 9 – 12, 2006 |
During the festival in Odessa, one of my aspiring disciples asked to see me. Fifteen-year-old Radha Sakhi dasi was born into the Krsna consciousness movement. When she was a child, I gave her a lot of attention and care, as I do for many children, and while we talked, I could tell that such love had borne fruit. She told me that her mother had recently passed away, a few weeks after suddenly coming down with a lung infection. Radha Sakhi was alone in taking care of her and was with her when she died. Though shaken by her mother’s impending death she bravely collected herself, and put a Tulasi leaf into her mother’s mouth, poured Ganges water on her head, and loudly chanted the Hare Krsna mantra into her ear.
“You did the right thing,” I told Radha Sakhi. “Just as your mother brought you into the world and helped you become Krsna conscious, so you helped your mother to leave in the most auspicious circumstances. Mother and daughter have proved themselves to be the best of family members by serving each other’s deepest interest: to return back to Godhead.”
The day before I left, I initiated 10 people, bringing the number of my disciples close to 2,000. The next morning as I was packing to leave, I had a small seizure. My body stiffened, my neck and arms were full of intense pain, and I couldn’t speak. It lasted only a minute or two but left me exhausted. As I went to lie on my bed I tried to understand why it had happened.
“I am in good health,” I thought.
Then I remembered that the same thing had happened two years ago, just after another initiation. Although Tamala Krsna Maharaja once told me not to attribute bad health solely to the karma of my disciples, I couldn’t ignore Srila Prabhupada’s state-ment in Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers, that a spiritual master takes on the burden of the sinful activities of his disciples.
“Krsna is so powerful that He can immediately take up all the sins of others and immediately make them right. But when a living entity plays the part on behalf of Krsna, he also takes the responsibility for the sinful activities of his devotees. Therefore to become a guru is not an easy task. You see? He has to take all the poisons and absorb them. So sometimes – because he is not Krsna – sometimes there is some trouble”
[Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers, Chapter 6]
I had thought about stopping initiations last year but decided to continue. Now, as I lay on the bed, it became obvious that something had to change. I decided that from now on I would accept disciples only if I knew them well and had long-standing relationships with them. I would be more selective.
Then I got up to take a shower. While lathering I slipped and fell, hitting my head hard on the floor. I was knocked out for a few moments. Then I woke up and stumbled back to the bed.
“That makes my decision even more firm,” I thought.
That afternoon a young man approached me with a letter of recommendation from his temple president asking me to accept the boy as an aspiring disciple. I politely refused. Word spread quickly.
After the festival, I left with my Russian disciple and translator, Uttama-sloka das. Dressed in dhotis, we flew from Odessa to Kiev, where we would catch a plane to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, Uttama-sloka’s native country. It is a small Muslim country on the Caspian Sea bordered by Russia, Iran, Georgia, and Armenia.
At the airport in Kiev I ran into Prabhavisnu Swami, who was on his way to another region in the CIS. “Are you going into a Muslim country dressed like that?” he asked.
I had been in a hurry when I left Odessa, and it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be wiser to travel in conventional clothes.
The trip had been organized months in advance, but because of the outdated communications in Azerbaijan we had not been able to contact the temple or local devotees for weeks.
“It’s like flying into the unknown,” I said to Uttama-sloka. “We don’t even know who’s picking us up,” he said with a half-hearted laugh, “or where we’ll be staying or even if they’ll have prasadam ready.”
“I love it,” I said. “This is sannyasa: completely dependent upon the Lord.”
But the love wasn’t without apprehension. I felt nervous as I mulled over Prabhavisnu Swami’s comment about my clothes. I recalled the last time I visited Azerbaijan two years ago, when an official had demanded a hundred-dollar bribe as I departed.
I turned to Uttama-sloka “Do any tourists ever go to Azerbaijan?” I asked.
I looked around the cabin. I saw only Azerbaijanis, silently staring back at me.
I turned to Uttama-sloka. “There’s a heavy mood in here,” I said.
Toward the end of the flight, as I was nervously arranging my documents for entry, I noticed a large man sitting across the aisle, wearing a black coat and sporting a big mustache. He suddenly turned to me. “Hare Krsna!” he said loudly.
I don’t know who was more startled, I or the other passengers.
“Are they going to wash your feet when you arrive at the temple?” he asked in a booming voice. He was speaking Azerbaijani, and Uttama-sloka translated.
Everyone looked at me, and I wasn’t sure how to reply. Either way would confirm that washing the feet of distinguished guests was part of the tradition I followed. I doubted any of the passengers had ever heard of such a thing. Then the same man came to my rescue.
“It’s not our Islamic custom,” he said, “but nevertheless it is your tradition’s way of honoring guests. And respecting guests is very much part of Islamic culture.”
I took a quick look around and saw a number of people nodding their heads in agreement.
“How do you know about this?” I said.
He laughed. “I used to live next to your temple in Baku,” he said. “Every time a guru would come I would watch the reception from my window. You are good people. You love Allah with a passion.”
I looked around the cabin again. Everyone was smiling at me.
All my misgivings vanished.
When we landed, the other passengers stepped back to let me take my baggage out of the overhead compartment. Some motioned that I should go forward and be the first to leave the plane.
The woman at the immigration desk smiled and asked if I was going to stay at the Hare Krsna temple. When customs officials asked if I had any goods to declare, I replied that I didn’t. One of them smiled. “But do you have any Hare Krsna baklava?” he said, referring to a traditional Middle-Eastern sweet.
“No,” I said. “I’m sorry, I don’t.”
“Make sure you have some on the way out,” he said. “We work both directions, coming and going.”
As I walked toward the exit I looked up and saw a sign: “Welcome to the country where it is a tradition to serve and respect guests.”
I chuckled. “Things have certainly improved since my last visit,” I thought.
When Uttama-sloka and I left the terminal we were greeted by about 50 devotees. As I walked along, the devotees gave me flowers and garlands, which I immediately distributed to the many curious Azerbaijanis watching. Each time I offered some-one a flower I would greet him. “Salaam aleikum,” I would say. “Peace be unto you.”
“Wa aleikum salaam,” they would reply, wishing me the same.
I marveled at being so openly received in a devout Muslim country.
As we drove to the temple, I spoke to my disciple Sahadeva dasa. “Things have changed,” I said.
“Yes and no,” he said. “The government wants to join the European Union, so it is welcoming foreigners and making it easy to come and go. It wants foreign investment and US dollars for its large oil reserves.”
Then he lowered his voice, as if out of habit, “But the government is very corrupt,” he said. “The officials keep most of the money and the people remain poor. I won’t say more.”
I looked out at the city. It appeared much as it did when I first came, in 1992.
“What is the population?” I asked.
“Eight million,” said Sahadeva, “but 20 million Azerbaijanis live next door in Iran.”
“How is that?” I asked.
“Gasoline costs one US cent a liter in Iran and bread is practically free,” he said.
I was happy to be back. Baku is one of my favorite places for preaching. I can never get over the fact that I can preach freely there, in the midst of the Muslim world. All of my 25 disciples in Azerbaijan were born in Muslim families, but no one opposed them when they joined the Hare Krsna movement.
The next morning, Sahadeva told me a bit of recent histo-ry. “Some years ago the government cracked down on the 200 non-Muslim religious movements in the country,” he said. “We thought we were finished. But then it officially registered 20 of them, including us.”
“Why did it do that?” I said.
“The government was primarily concerned about the opposing political parties using religion as a front,” he said. “Many of the groups were merely facades for political opposition. Because we’re a purely spiritual movement with no political intentions, the government had no complaints. But it did place some stiff restrictions on us. After all, it is a Muslim country. It forbade us to preach outside Baku, and we are not allowed to hold public programs. People can only visit our temple. But we got permission to distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books anywhere we want in Baku.”
I smiled. “Lord Caitanya’s secret weapon,” I said.
“People like us and know who we are,” he said.
I got first-hand experience of that as we drove through the city. When we stopped at a red light, two men walked by in front of our car. One man turned to the other. “You see in that car?” he said. “It’s a Hare Krsna guru.”
The next morning I was thinking of visiting the local hospital to follow up on the seizure. But just as I was about to bring up the idea, I overheard two devotees joking about the doctors in Azerbaijan. “When a patient goes to the hospital,” said one, “the doctors have to decide whether to treat the patient or let him live.”
I just kept quiet.
My heart goes out to the devotees in Azerbaijan. They preach in an isolated part of the world and are rarely visited by senior devotees, so I decided to go ahead with the initiations they had planned, although I knew little about some of the candidates. I have always relied on temple presidents to recommend disciples, just as Srila Prabhupada did.
Before the ceremony I asked to meet the candidates. One man in particular caught my attention, as I had stayed at his house when I was in Azerbaijan two years ago. He was originally from Iran, but he took up communism and fled to Azerbaijan when it was a republic in the former Soviet Union. He started a business in Baku and soon became wealthy.
Later he fell away from communism because he saw it failing.
He turned again to Islam and became a devout Muslim.
Then several years ago he met the devotees and was fascinated by the philosophy of Bhagavad-gita. He was impressed by the temple programs but hesitated to fully surrender because of his attachment to wealth. He then went to India, on a pilgrimage to learn more about Krsna consciousness. Overwhelmed by the beauty and transcendental atmosphere of Vrindavan, he decided to become a devotee. I was in Vrindavan at the same time, and one day he approached me and asked to become an aspiring disciple.
That night he prayed to Sri Sri Radha-Syamasundara at our temple and asked Them to take away any impediments to his Krsna consciousness. After he returned to Azerbaijan, his business failed, and he started a smaller one that brought in less money but gave him more free time.
“How do you use that free time?” I asked. I wanted to see how serious he was.
“I use it to chant between 32 and 64 rounds a day,” he said. At the initiation ceremony, I mentioned that his life was simpler than when I first met him. “Allah always gave me what I wanted,” he said, “but Krsna took everything away and left me only the shelter of His lotus feet.”
“I can easily bear the burden of a few more disciples like this,” I thought. I handed him his beads and gave him the name Nilacala-candra das. “Caitanya Mahaprabhu has forbidden, ‘Don’t make many siksas, many disciples.’ But for preaching work we have to accept many disciples – for expanding preaching – even if we suffer. That’s a fact. The spiritual master has to take the responsibility for all the sinful activities of his disciples. Therefore to make many disciples is a risky job unless one is able to assimilate all the sins.”
[Perfect Questions Perfect Answers, Chapter 6]