January 29 – February 13, 2008
By Indradyumna Swami
On the flight from Hong Kong to Bali, I thought about a conversation I had had with my Godbrother B. B. Govinda Maharaja the previous day. We were talking about seeing Srila Prabhupada at the Detroit airport in 1971. It was our first meeting with Srila Prabhupada, and I asked Maharaja if he remembered anything from Srila Prabhupada’s arrival address.
“Yes,” he said smiling. “Srila Prabhupada leaned forward from his chair at one point and said, ‘Please believe me when I say you are not the material body.’ ”
“Incredible,” I said. “That’s exactly what I remember from the lecture.”
As we sped through the air, I reflected on Srila Prabhupada’s words, “Please believe me.” I thought how any preacher in Krsna consciousness is always praying his audience will embrace his message. In that mood, I was overjoyed to read a letter from a disciple while going through my email a few hours later:
“Dear Srila Gurudeva,
“Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
“Thank you so much for bringing your festival tour to Australia.
“My mother was very touched by the lecture you gave at the festival program in Sydney. I was at a family dinner at her house recently, and my brother-in-law asked how devotees view birthdays. I started to tell him how we are not these material bodies, but the soul within.
“Suddenly my mother interrupted. She said, ‘Yes, and when you die it’s just like taking off old clothes and putting on fresh, new ones. The body changes but the soul remains the same.’
“I let my mother continue as she was so enthusiastic. For the next few minutes she quoted many examples straight out of your lecture. For example, how the body is like a car and the soul is the driver. Finally she stood up and when she had everyone’s attention said, ‘So, we can take birth again in the material world or we can go back to the spiritual world which is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss.’
“She paused and then continued, ‘So obviously it’s best if we try to go back to the spiritual world.’
“Everyone sat stunned. I started to clap and then suddenly everyone else began clapping and cheering. Then my mother quietly sat back down.
“Before the program she had little interest in Krsna consciousness. Somehow, as a result of your wonderful presentation, her heart changed.
“Your servant, Vilasa Manjari.”
The jet engines continued to drone as my attention turned to Bali. I had been there once before, 15 years ago. At that time our movement had been suppressed by the local brahmanas, who being mainly demigod worshipers saw our worship of Krsna as a threat. Public Harinamas were banned, and devotees had to meet in secret. The tense situation was eventually resolved when Bhakti Swarupa Damodar Maharaja met the brahminical community and assured them of our desire to work cooperatively.
Though Bali is 6,000 kilometers from present day India, Vedic culture has been there for thousands of years. That fact seems to support Srila Prabhupada’s statement that Vedic culture once existed all over the world:
“At the time of Maharaja Prithu, the world was ruled by one emperor, although there were many subordinate states. Just as there are many united states in various parts of the world, in olden days the entire world was ruled through many states, but there was a supreme emperor who ruled over all subsidiary states.”
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.16.27, purport]
“If I have time,” I thought, “I’ll look for evidence that India’s ancient culture existed in Bali for centuries.”
Eventually the captain announced we were circling Bali and would soon be landing. When I looked out the window I was stunned by the beauty of the island from the air. It looked like a greenish-colored pearl set in a shimmering blue oyster shell. As we came in to land, the lush green tropical scenery seemed to jump out at us.
After clearing immigration and customs, I gathered my bags and was met outside the terminal by a warm tropical breeze and a group of 30 enthusiastic devotees having a rousing kirtan. As we drove to the house where I would be staying, devotees told me that on Bali the temperature varies only a couple of degrees throughout the year, the flowers bloom without cessation, and there are no wild beasts, poisonous snakes or spiders, or cyclones.
“Like heaven on earth,” I said as we entered Kuta, a large town and a popular tourist center.
“Not exactly,” said Padma Locan das pointing towards a huge ornate structure with a long list of names embossed in gold on it.
“What’s that?” I said.
“The names of the 202 people killed in the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist bombing in 2002,” he replied. “Most of them were foreigners.”
We were silent as we passed the memorial.
That afternoon we went for a drive to a different part of the island. While passing through a small village, I asked the driver to stop, so we could explore on foot. As we strolled around a market, I saw many exotic fruits including snakeskin fruit, yellow watermelon, and mangosteen. I also noticed there were many temples.
“There are more than 11,000 temples in Bali,” said Padma Locan.
My idea to connect the present religious life of Bali to the spiritual culture of India came to mind. “Are they very old?” I asked.
“Some of them are several hundred years old,” he replied.
“Not so old,” I said.
“The people here don’t know very much about Krsna,” said Mahamuni dasi. “At almost all the temples in Bali they are worshiping demigods, ancestors, and ghosts.”
“Ghosts?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “They worship the ghosts so they won’t disturb them. Do you see all these little offerings along the paths in front of the houses? They’re called yajna-sesus. They’re for the ghosts.”
I looked and saw offerings of fruits and flowers as well as cigarettes and wine in the leaf cups.
After we returned and rested, we traveled to a program at the Radha-Rasesvara temple in the jungle two hours from Denpasar, the capital. It is one of the four main ISKCON temples on the island.
The devotees were having a big kirtan when we arrived. Having seen the beauty of the island, I then gave the first of a series of lectures on how devotees must remain fixed in Krsna consciousness and not be distracted by the beauty of this world. I said the only real danger I saw on the heavenly isle of Bali was that the idyllic nature of the place, could easily make one forget Krsna. Devotees nodded their heads in agreement.
The next day we took a drive around another part of the island to chant japa. In every village I noticed that in the center of the traffic circles were large dioramas depicting pastimes of the Lord from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In one place I saw Lord Ramacandra engaged in battle with Ravana; in another, Draupadi and her five Pandava husbands. Yudhisthira was featured on the traffic island of a small market town, and Hanuman flying through the air carrying a mountain of herbs for Laksman was the choice of a neighboring village.
I realized that although the dioramas were fairly recent they offered proof that the roots of Vedic culture had existed here for millennia. With this kind of art all over the island, it would be easy to remember God. It seemed that Bali had the best of both worlds.
The jungle thickened along the route we were taking. Once in a while I’d see crystal-clear waterfalls flowing into large pools. Monkeys played on the rocks, colorful birds flew in and out of the trees, and butterflies fluttered around.
On one occasion Mahamuni turned to me. “Would you like to visit a nearby botanical garden, Maharaja?” she said.
“Your whole country is a botanical garden,” I said laughing.
As the countryside drifted by, I noticed many more temples. They were constructed in the open Balinese style, and all had fresh fruit offerings on the altars. Passing over a bridge, on each of the four corners, I saw ferocious carved figures dressed in colorful, fresh cloth.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Minor deities who protect the traveler,” said Padma Locan. “The people take good care of the deities, as you can see, and in turn they believe the deities take good care of them.”
I was impressed that the Balinese recognized the forces of nature as personal, that there were controlling deities behind every aspect of the natural world. However, I felt disappointed that they didn’t seem to understand there was a supreme personality who ultimately controlled everything and to whom everyone owed allegiance. But that was nothing new. The problem was prevalent 5,000 years ago. Krsna says:
sa taya sraddhaya yuktas
labhate ca tatah kaman
mayaiva vihitan hi tan
“Endowed with such a faith, he seeks favors of a particular demigod and obtains his desires. But in actuality these benefits are bestowed by Me alone.”
In the evening we attended a program in the Gauranga temple, close to Kuta.
“There is no need to criticize the people’s worship of demigods,” I said in the lecture. “Although the tourists who come here may see it as uncivilized, actually it is a more advanced understanding than that of modern science, which says everything is happening by chance.
“What we can offer is that if we simply worship Krsna, we please all the demigods, who are His devotees.”
The next day as we walked along a beach chanting our rounds, I sat and considered that if the Vedic culture actually flourished in Bali thousands of years ago, there must be evidence of worship of Krsna, or maybe Visnu, for the worship of demigods and the worship of the Supreme Personality of Godhead have always existed simultaneously in Vedic culture.
I went to Mahamuni. “You mentioned there are thousands of temples on Bali,” I said, “but all I’ve seen is worship of the demigods and ghosts. Is there a temple where Visnu is worshiped?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “Pura Besakih. We call it the Mother Temple. It’s the most sacred place in Bali. Brahma, Visnu, and Siva are worshiped there.”
“Wow!” I said. “That’s what I’ve wanted to hear. Is it also several hundred years old, like the other temples we’ve seen?”
“No,” Mahamuni said. “It’s 17 hundred years old.”
I was speechless. “That’s the proof I need,” I finally said. “It would support the Bhagavatam, which says Vedic culture was once worldwide.”
“It takes some time to get there,” Mahamuni said. “It’s on Mount Agung, a live volcano. But don’t worry. The last time it erupted was in 1964. Many tourists go to see the temple although there are some places they are not allowed. It’s actually a large complex of many temples, like a small version of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.”
“We should go tomorrow,” said Padma Locan. “It’s an auspicious day.”
“There is a festival there every six months,” said Mahamuni. “Many Balinese make the pilgrimage on those days to pray. The people believe that God spared the temple during the eruption. The lava came within meters of the temple complex but caused no damage to any structures. Nearby, entire villages were wiped out. One thousand people perished.”
That evening there was a program in ISKCON’s Sandipani Muni temple in Denpasar. When I arrived, hundreds of devotees were waiting.
“Wherever we have a program, there are so many blissful devotees,” I said to Padma Locan. “How many devotees do we have in Bali?”
“More than 2,000,” he said with a smile.
In the lecture I again discussed how all beauty in this world is temporary and ultimately has to be renounced. But I stressed that real renunciation was engaging everything in God’s service and that the devotees should use the natural opulence of the island to glorify Krsna.
After class a devotee approached me and said, “We dovetail the beauty of our beaches by going on Harinamas there every Saturday and having kirtan for the tourists.”
When he showed me his photographs, I was surprised to see Australian and European tourists chanting Hare Krsna and dancing with the devotees on the beach. I congratulated him for bringing spiritual life to the attention of the sun seekers.
Early the next day we left for Pura Besakih. On the long drive through mountainous terrain covered by jungle on all sides, I marveled that worship at the temple had been continuing for 1,700 years. I could hardly wait to take in the surroundings and the opportunity to find evidence of a Vedic connection in Bali’s past.
Eventually we arrived at a parking area one kilometer from the temple.
“The tradition is to walk the last kilometer,” said Padma Locan. “Walking up the hill provides time to reflect on the greatness of God and how we are His humble servants.”
The climb was steep, and it was hot and humid. I struggled on the last part until we crossed over a little rise. Suddenly the gigantic temple came into view, framed by the beauty of the jungle behind it.
“My God!” I exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
We walked the final 200 meters and after catching our breath continued up a long flight of steps leading to the first assortment of temple structures. The antiquity of the site was overwhelming.
“I feel like I’m in another age,” I said to Padma Locan.
As we were walking we could hear priests making offerings in the temples. Like the other temples I had seen in Bali, they were not closed structures but open-sided and approachable from all angles.
“You won’t find deities here,” said Padma Locan. “It’s different from India. They say the gods come only when they are being worshiped.”
As we walked around the large complex, I was awestruck by the unique architecture. Finally we came to an opening that led into a vast courtyard where I could see many priests offering oblations.
“Tourists can’t go in, only the faithful,” said Padma Locan, “and beyond here, where they worship the demigods, is the temple of Visnu.”
“That’s what I came to see,” I said eagerly. “I’m dressed as a sannyasi. Will they let me through here?”
“We can try,” he said.
I put my hand in my beadbag and started chanting loudly as we entered the compound. Padma Locan put a traditional Balinese hat on my head. As we walked into the large courtyard, several priests looked at me suspiciously. I chanted louder.
Suddenly, halfway across the compound, an elderly priest approached and said something in Balinese to Mahamuni.
“Oh, well,” I thought, “it was a good try.”
Mahamuni turned to me and smiled. “If you want to pass through this complex,” she said, “you must pray to the demigods.”
The priest put out a mat with several items of worship including incense, a candle, fruit, and spices.
“He wants you to offer these to the demigods,” said Mahamuni.
“A strict Vaisnava doesn’t worship demigods,” I thought as I recalled the words of Narottam das Thakur:
“O brother, I say to you, if you want to become a pure devotee of the Supreme Lord do not hanker for benedictions from the demigods.”
[Prema Bhakti Candrika]
“But if I don’t offer some worship,” I thought, “I’ll never make it to the temple of Lord Visnu.”
The priest was becoming uncomfortable with my hesitation. Suddenly I had an idea.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll sit and pray to the demigods.”
By Krsna’s grace I had been reading the 10th canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam and had recently memorized a prayer that seemed perfect for the occasion. I bowed down to the nearest altar and then sat up. I lit the incense, offered it, and prayed:
katyayani maha maye
maha yoginy adhisvari
nanda gopa sutam devi
patim me kuru te namah
“O goddess Katyayani, O great potency of the Lord, O possessor of great mystic power and mighty controller of all, please make the son of Nanda Maharaja my husband. I offer my obeisances unto you.”
The priest was impressed and after giving us some caranamrita, happily sent us on our way to the temple of Visnu.
“What was the object of your prayer?” said Mahamuni.
“I repeated a prayer of the gopis,” I said, “but nothing I’ll achieve in this lifetime.”
We continued walking through the courtyard and then up several flights of steps, finally reaching the top of the hill on which the entire temple complex was situated. From there we had a direct view of Mount Agung.
“It must have been terrifying when the volcano exploded,” I said.
“It’s still very active,” said Padma Locan. “From time to time it belches thick smoke and ash. It’s only a matter of time until it explodes again.”
“Hopefully not today,” I said with a nervous smile.
We turned left, and walking a further 50 meters along a stone path finally came to the temple of Lord Visnu. As we entered I was surprised to find we were the only pilgrims there.
“They worship Siva as supreme here in Pura Besakih,” said Mahamuni, “not Visnu.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t always like that,” I said. “Just look at this magnificent temple, the intricacy of the stone work. At some point Visnu must have been the principal deity here.”
Suddenly from around the back of the temple an elderly man appeared, dressed in white.
“The priest,” whispered Padma Locan.
He offered a bowl of fruit on the altar to Visnu and said some prayers. I waited patiently and when he was finished approached him.
With Mahamuni translating I spoke. “Sir,” I said, “we are devotees of Lord Visnu, or Krsna. We are pleased to see you making an offering to Him with such devotion.”
He humbly bowed his head but didn’t say anything.
“How long have you been a priest at this temple?” I said.
“Since I was a boy,” he replied. “My father was a priest here, and his father and his father . . .”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Eighty-three,” he replied.
“You don’t look that old,” I said.
“A lady who lives in my village is 225 years old,” he said. “She was born in 1783.”
Padma Locan’s eyes opened wide in astonishment.
“In previous generations, many people here lived for well over 200 years,” the priest continued.
“How was it possible?” I asked.
He chuckled. “They worked hard in the fields,” he said. “They drank water from the streams, they ate mainly rice and vegetables, and they visited this temple every day.”
“Visited the temple every day,” I repeated, trying to understand how that was connected to longevity.
He smiled. “They were happy,” he said, “but none of us will live forever. What’s important is where you’ll go when you die.”
“Where do you hope to go when you die?” I asked, eager for the realization of one who had served the Lord his entire life.
He paused for a moment looking at the altar. “With Him, of course,” he said.
The priest fell silent, and just at that moment it started to rain.
“We have to go,” I said. “Your darsan was worth the entire trip here. We’re happy to have seen this ancient temple which stands as evidence that India’s spiritual culture once reached far beyond its present borders and, most important, is still producing men of your caliber, full of faith in God.”
Srila Prabhupada writes:
“In the modern age people are under the impression that during the Vedic period America and many other parts of the world had not been discovered. But that is not a fact. Prithu Maharaja ruled over the world many thousands of years before the so-called prehistoric age and it is clearly mentioned here that in those days not only were all the different parts of the world known, but they were ruled by one king. It is clear that the kings of India once ruled all the world and that their culture was Vedic.”
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.21.12, purport]