Diary of a Traveling Monk
“May Mother Ganges Bless You Today”
February 26, 2019
Ever since becoming a devotee of Lord Krishna in 1970, I have been fascinated with the Kumbha Mela festival. This year I decided to join millions of other pilgrims in the journey to the Ardha Kumbha Mela where, from January 15th to March 4th, ISKCON devotees were to follow in Srila Prabhupada’s footsteps by bringing his books, the Holy Names and prasadam to the festival.
Kumbha Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world. Estimates anticipated that 120 million pilgrims—nearly double the population of England and France combined—would visit the Mela over seven weeks. The Mela takes place four times within a twelve-year period on the banks of four of India’s most holy rivers: the Godavari River in Nashik, the Shipra River in Ujjain, the Ganges River in Haridwar and the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati Rivers in Prayagraj (formerly known as Prayaga ).
This year’s Mela was to be held at the confluence site at Prayagraj. The point of convergence is called “Triveni Sangam.” Bathing in any of the sacred rivers has a purifying effect, but it is said that the purification is increased a hundred times at the sangam and a thousand times at the sangam during Kumbha Mela.
Srila Prabhupada writes:
“Bathing during the month of Magha at the Magha-Mela [Kumbha Mela] still takes place. This is a very old Mela (assembly), dating from time immemorial. It is said that ever since the Lord in the form of Mohini took a bucket of nectar and kept it at Prayaga, holy men have gathered there every year and observed the Magha-Mela. Every twelfth year there is a Kumbha-Mela, a great festival, and all the holy men from all over India assemble there. Bathing at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna, near the fort at Allahabad (Prayaga), is mentioned in the revealed scriptures:
“maghe masi gamisyanti ganga yamuna sangamam
gavam sata sahasrasya samyag dattam ca yat phalam
prayage magha mase vai try aham snatasya tat phalam
“If one goes to Prayaga and bathes at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna in the month of Magha, he attains the result of giving hundreds and thousands of cows in charity. Simply by bathing for three days there, he attains the results of such a pious activity.”
[ Caitanya Caritamrita, Madhya 18.145 ]
I had a special desire to attend Kumbha Mela this year as the main bathing day, February 4th, was on Mauni Amavasya, which creates a special tithi that appears only once every 200 years. However, my main motivation to go was to meet with the holy men Srila Prabhupada describes in his above purport, and to share with them the glories of Lord Caitanya and His movement of chanting the holy names which He inaugurated just over 500 years ago. My experience in India is that most people are aware of the 10 primary incarnations of the Lord—the das avatars such as Lord Ramacandra, Varaha, Kurma, Matsya and so on. But very few are aware of the avatar of this age, Lord Caitanya, whose appearance is predicted in ancient scriptures like Srimad Bhagavatam:
krsna varnam tvisakrsnam
yajnaih sankirtana prayair
yajanti hi su medhasah
“In the Age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the names of Krsna. Although His complexion is not blackish, He is Krsna Himself. He is accompanied by His associates, servants, weapons and confidential companions.”
[ Srimad Bhagavatam 11.5.32 ]
The origin of Kumbha Mela is mentioned in the Vedic scriptures. It is stated that in bygone ages, the demigods and demons assembled together to churn the ocean of milk to produce the nectar of immortality. Mandara Mountain was used as a churning rod, and Vasuki, the king of serpents, became the rope for churning. The demigods took Vasuki’s tail and the demons his head, and they churned the milk ocean for one thousand celestial years. Among many other amazing things, a pot of immortal nectar was produced. The demigods were fearful that the demons would take advantage of it, so they stole the pot and hid it in the four places on Earth where the Mela is held. During the act of hiding, a drop of immortal nectar spilled from the pot at each of the four places. Kumbha Mela is held at the time when, according to astrological calculations, the immortal nectar is most readily available to those who bathe in the sacred rivers.
Approaching the festival site, we pulled over at a small hill that provided a panoramic view of the Mela. The magnitude of the site testified to the pilgrims’ enthusiasm to be liberated from the material world through contact with the nectar of immortality. Witnessing the vast landscape of tents, I was fascinated by the thought that so many people were coming simply for spiritual purposes.
“At the Kumbha-Mela, millions of people come to take bath in the Ganges because they are interested in how to become spiritually liberated from this material world. They travel thousands of miles to take bath in the Ganges at the holy place of Prayaga.”
[ Room conversation with Pusta Krsna das ]
From our vantage point on the hill, I could see thousands upon thousands of people pouring into the Mela. These people were prepared to travel long distances and tolerate many discomforts, including sleeping in austere conditions in very cold weather. Some arrived on overcrowded trains. Others came by bus, car and even ox carts. While the rich and famous flew into Prayagraj on chartered flights, the multitudes came on foot carrying all their necessities—food and a couple changes of clothes—in bundles on their heads. But whether rich or poor, everyone had the same agenda: to bathe in the sangam at the auspicious moment and attain passage back to the spiritual world. I could hear many people glorifying the Ganges with cries of “Ganga Ma ki jaya! All glories to Mother Ganges!”
Sastra supports their glorification:
nimna ganam yatha ganga
devanam acyuto yatha
vaisnavanam yatha sambhuh
purananam idam tatha
“Just as the Ganga is the greatest of all rivers, Lord Acyuta the supreme among deities and Lord Sambhu [Siva] the greatest of Vaisnavas, so Srimad-Bhagavatam is the greatest of all Puranas.”
[ Srimad Bhagavatam 12.13.16 ]
I knew that as Westerners, we would be a tiny minority at the Mela, but we were not the first foreigners to take part by any means. A seventh-century diary written by Hiuen Tsiang from China mentions Kumbha Mela. He writes that he witnessed half a million people gather on the banks of the Ganges at Prayagraj to observe a celebration for 75 days. He even mentions that a king was present with his ministers, scholars, philosophers and sages, and that he gave away huge amounts of gold, silver and jewels to acquire pious credit and assure himself a place in heaven.
The current rulers of India, likewise, were taking part in the Mela by facilitating many of the logistical details. The government had been working on the services and accommodations for an entire year, and the statistics were mind-boggling. Over 6,000 religious and cultural organizations had been allotted land, including our International Society for Krsna Consciousness. The Mela site sprawled over 32 square miles, an area equivalent to a large town. There were 4,200 premium tents, 300 kilometers of roads, 122,000 toilets, 20,000 dustbins, 10,000 policemen and 30,000 military personnel. They had provided row upon row of simple tents for free accommodation. There were lost-and-found centers dotted throughout the Mela, intended mainly for helping people find their lost family members and friends. In 2013, thousands of people—mostly women and children—went missing in the huge crowds. The entire cost of this year’s Kumbha Mela was estimated at 400 million dollars.
There were many ashrams and camps distributing free food throughout the Mela, including our ISKCON camp. Overall, 5,384 metric tons of rice, 7,834 tons of wheat, 3,174 tons of sugar and 767 kiloliters of kerosene were allocated to the food distribution centers. 160 dispensers of clean drinking water were available throughout the Mela.
A 100-bed hospital and ten smaller hospitals staffed by 200 doctors and 1,500 health professionals were set up throughout the event. 80 practitioners of Ayurveda were also available. There were elaborate plans for waste management too. Every one of the 122,000 toilets were geo-tagged to help tackle any problems. Talk about organization!
Meeting India’s Spiritual Leader
It is generally very difficult to meet famous spiritual personalities in India due to strict security policies, but luck was on my side. My good friend Pundrik Goswami of the Radha Raman temple in Vrindavan invited me to stay with him at a camp where many of the principal spiritual dignitaries would be staying. It was called, Guru Karishni Camp, and was run by Swami Sharanandaji Maharaja, a prominent figure in Vrindavan. I considered this to be a golden opportunity to network with these personalities, most of whom would be unlikely to visit our ISKCON camp at the Mela or ISKCON temples elsewhere in India.
Once I arrived at the camp, Pundrik Goswami lost no time introducing me to the spiritual leaders present. His introduction followed a standard format: he would begin by glorifying Srila Prabhupada and explaining how he took Krsna consciousness to the West and how ISKCON has become a worldwide spiritual organization. Then he would introduce me and share some of the results of my service in different parts of the world. His introduction acted as an endorsement whereby India’s spiritual leaders gained confidence and respect for my humble self and, through me, Srila Prabhupada’s movement.
Over several days I had enlightening talks with numerous personalities. These included:
· Sri Ravi Shankar, the head of the Art of Living Foundation: I shared with him the work of ISKCON in communist countries like Russia and China. I told him of how Srila Prabhupada went to Russia in the 1970s and of the success of our movement there since that time. He was so touched that he gave me a beautiful silk chaddar as a gift.
· Swami Chidananda of Parmarth Niketan from Rishikesh: he wasn’t staying at the Guru Karishni Camp, but like many other sadhus, he visited to associate with prominent spiritual leaders. We had lunch together on two occasions. After I spoke to him about the glories of Srila Prabhupada, he offered to help renovate holy places in Vrindavan. He was especially eager to give money towards cleaning Radha Kunda so that pilgrims could drink the water from it, as well as establishing a large evening arotika on the banks of that sacred lake.
· Keshav Prasad Maurya, the deputy chief minister of UP: he had some misconceptions about our movement which I was happy to resolve to his full satisfaction.
· Swami Avdeshanand, the leader of one million Naga Babas and head of the Juna Akhada: Naga Babas (translated literally as “naked yogis”) are worshipers of Lord Siva. With their ash-covered bodies and matted dreadlocks, even their physique resembles his. They take vows of celibacy, renounce societal norms and live in the Himalayas. Swami Avdeshanand is such a respected leader that he is given the honor of being the first person to bathe at Kumbha Mela. After our talk he took my hand and said, “Your movement is creating a spiritual revolution all over the world!”
· Sri Rajendra Das Ji Maharaja, a well-known sadhu with a big ashram in Vrindavan: moved by Srila Prabhupada’s voyage to the USA and his introduction of Krsna consciousness in almost every country of the world, he invited me to visit him for lunch in Vrindavan.
· Lokesh Muni, leader of the Jains in India: this was the third time I have met him over the last few years. He invited me to spend time with him at his headquarters in Rajasthan.
Lost At The Mela
Going anywhere outside the Guru Karishni Camp was a challenge because there was a veritable flood of humanity outside its confines: an estimated 64 million people were descending upon the Mela to bathe on February 4th, the most auspicious bathing day.
I woke up early that morning which was an austerity in itself. It was mid-winter and it was cold in the tent where I was staying. I bathed quickly in an improvised bathroom which was without hot water, and then went out into the cold foggy morning.
“How in the world are 64 million people going to bathe along the river bank?” I wondered. And then a doubt entered my mind. “Will I actually be able to bathe in the river myself?”
The previous night I had searched the internet for all the information I could find on the three sacred rivers, the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati. A recent BBC article described the Ganges as the world’s sixth most polluted river. It said that 3,000 million liters of untreated sewage are pumped into the river every day; the figure didn’t include the industrial waste poured into the Ganges as it descends from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. By the time it reaches Prayagraj, a town that also contributes untreated sewage to its waters, the Ganges, the article said, becomes a sewer.
The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, claimed that cleansing the Ganges was nothing less than a mission from God.
“Ma Ganga has called me,” he told the crowd at his victory celebration some years ago when he was swept to power in a landslide victory. “She has decided some responsibilities for me. Ma Ganga is screaming for help; she is saying ‘I hope one of my sons gets me out of this filth’. It is possible it has been decided by God for me to serve Ma Ganga.”
He pledged serious money to his Clean Ganga Mission – more than $3 billion dollars.
This was sobering and disturbing information. I turned away from Google to the Srimad Bhagavatam and the purports of my spiritual master for guidance. My doubts were resolved when I read this:
yat pada sevabhirucis tapasvinam
asesa janmopacitam malamdhiyah
aadyah ksinotyanvaham edhati sati
yatha padangustha vinihsrta sarit
“By the inclination to serve the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, suffering humanity can immediately cleanse the dirt which has accumulated in their minds during innumerable births. Like the Ganges water, which emanates from the toes of the lotus feet of the Lord, such a process immediately cleanses the mind, and thus spiritual or Krsna consciousness gradually increases.”
[ Srimad Bhagavatam, 4.21.31 ]
In his purport, Srila Prabhupada writes:
“In India, one can actually see that a person who takes a bath in the Ganges waters daily is almost free from all kinds of diseases. A very respectable brahmana in Calcutta never took a doctor’s medicine. Even though he sometimes felt sick, he would not accept medicine from the physician but would simply drink Ganges water, and he was always cured within a very short time. The glories of Ganges water are known to Indians and to ourselves also. The river Ganges flows by Calcutta. Sometimes within the water there are many stools and other dirty things which are washed away from neighboring mills and factories, but still thousands of men take baths in the Ganges water, and they are very healthy as well as spiritually inclined. That is the effect of Ganges water. The Ganges is glorified because it emanates from the toes of the lotus feet of the Lord. Similarly, if one takes to the service of the lotus feet of the Lord, or takes to Krsna consciousness, he is immediately cleansed of the many dirty things which have accumulated in his innumerable births.”
Elsewhere, Rupa Goswami writes that the Ganges is always pure, regardless of its seeming pollution:
drstaih svabhava janitair vapusas ca dosair
na prakrtatvam iha bhakta janasya pasyet
gangambhasam na khalu budbuda phena pankair
brahma dravatvam apagacchati nira dharmaih
“Being situated in his original Krishna conscious position, a pure devotee does not identify with the body. Such a devotee should not be seen from a materialistic point of view. Indeed, one should overlook a devotee’s having a body born in a low family, a body with a bad complexion, a deformed body, or a diseased or infirm body. According to ordinary vision, such imperfections may seem prominent in the body of a pure devotee, but despite such seeming defects, the body of a pure devotee cannot be polluted. It is exactly like the waters of the Ganges, which sometimes during the rainy season are full of bubbles, foam and mud. The Ganges waters do not become polluted. Those who are advanced in spiritual understanding will bathe in the Ganges without considering the condition of the water.”
[ Nectar of Instruction, Text 6 ]
Reading these instructions, I decided to follow the advice of my spiritual master and the Srimad Bhagavatam. I remembered a key verse:
yasya deve para bhaktir
yatha deve tatha gurau
tasyaite kathita hy arthah
“Only unto one who has unflinching devotion to the Lord and to the spiritual master does transcendental knowledge become automatically revealed.”
[ Svetasvatara Upanisad 6.23 ]
“I’m going,” I said to myself out loud, with full conviction. “Whatever it takes, I will bathe at the Triveni Sangam at the auspicious time.”
The arrangements to travel to the sangam were made by Pundrik Goswami.
“Maharaja,” he said to me, “you’ll come with me and the spiritual leaders in a van, and your assistants, Narottam das, Vikram and Kartamashi das, can go in another. It will take us around four hours to reach the sangam.”
“That’s a long time,” I said. “How far away is it?”
“It’s 12 kilometers from here,” Goswami said.
“So we’ll be traveling at a rate of three kilometers an hour?” I asked.
“Well, remember there are 64 million people vying for that little space at the sangam,” he said. “The police say that since midnight last night 32 million people have bathed. But we’ll make it. We have a police escort.”
I sat on the floor of the van, relinquishing the seats to six elderly sadhus who were joining us on the journey. Wanting to focus on the purpose of our journey, I read aloud the following verse from Caitanya Caritamrta:
mahattvam gangayah satatam idam abhati nitaram
yad esa sri visnos carana kamalotpatti subhaga
dvitiya sri laksmir iva sura narair arcya carana
bhavani bhartur ya sirasi vibhavaty adbhuta guna
“The greatness of mother Ganges always brilliantly exists. She is the most fortunate because she emanated from the lotus feet of Sri Visnu, the Personality of Godhead. She is a second goddess of fortune, and therefore she is always worshiped both by demigods and by humanity. Endowed with all wonderful qualities, she flourishes on the head of Lord Siva.”
[ Caitanya Caritamrita, Adi Lila 16.41 ]
When the sadhus heard me chanting the Sanskrit glorifying Mother Ganges, they all smiled broadly.
“May Mother Ganges bless you today!” one said, placing his hand upon my hand.
Our van crawled through the dense crowds. Seeing the sadhus inside, people folded their hands in respect, and some touched the van and then touched their heads. When they saw me crouched on the floor of the van, many smiled and called out, “Hare Krsna!”
“You Western vaisnavas are keeping our spiritual culture alive,” one of the sadhus said to me.
We finally arrived at the river confluence hours later. The bank seethed as people tried to move towards the water while others tried to move back after bathing.
“Alright! We’re here!” Pundrik Goswami called. “Everybody out!”
I hesitated. “Out where?” I thought. There was not an inch of free ground.
I quickly changed into a small red gamcha (thin cotton waist towel) and slung a small towel around my neck. Kicking off my sandals, I grabbed my cell phone and placed it in a small plastic bag. “Just in case!” I thought. Finally, I tucked my bag containing my passport and money safely under the seat. For a moment I contemplated taking a sweater because it was so cold outside.
“No,” I decided. “I’ll just take the bare minimum. The river is only meters away and we’ll be back in a flash!”
Without warning, the sliding door I was leaning on opened and I fell out of the van and onto the ground.
“I’m going to get trampled!” I thought. The crowd surged over me and around me. I pushed myself upwards to gasp for air; all I could see was waves of people for kilometers in every direction. When I finally managed to steady myself on my feet, I saw I was 20 meters behind the sadhus. They were intrepidly pushing their way towards the water, the policemen guarding them on all sides. The crowd was squeezing me and it was hard to breathe.
“Wait for me!” I yelled, trying to recover the distance between us. My cries merged into the tumultuous noise created by the pilgrims as they strained forward to bathe in the nectar of immortality.
I managed to rejoin the sadhus just a few meters from the Triveni Sangam where the Ganges flows alongside the Yamuna and the mystical Saraswati River joins them from beneath the ground. We were also joined by Vikram and Kartamashi, who was trying to take photos in the midst of it all. His face was ashen.
“I thought I was going to be crushed to death!” he blurted out.
The roar of the crowd at the sangam was deafening as thousands of people simultaneously achieved their goal of bathing. Cries of “Ganga Ma ki jaya! All glories to Mother Ganges!” reverberated everywhere.
Far away in the river, separated from the throng, I saw a small group of four sadhus standing motionless in the water, their hands folded in prayer. Their long, matted hair was tied up in topknots on their heads. Though thin, they were not emaciated; in fact, they were effulgent, almost glowing. Seeing their gravity and obvious devotion, the hair on my arms stood up for a moment.
“That’s the mood I’m seeking,” I thought. I remembered a verse that encapsulated my aspirations:
tvayi me ‘nanya-visaya
matir madhu-pate ‘sakrt
ratim udvahatad addha
“O Lord of Madhu, as the Ganges forever flows to the sea without hindrance, let my attraction be constantly drawn unto You without being diverted to anyone else.”
[ Srimad Bhagavatam 1.8.42, “Prayers by Queen Kunti” ]
As if hearing the verse I had just remembered, the sadhus I was with sat down together to do puja, their attention single-pointed on the sacred sangam, oblivious to anyone else.
“Here and now?” I thought. I watched in disbelief as they took out all sorts of paraphernalia and, in a peaceful reverie, began offering arotik to the three rivers. Hundreds of people directly behind us were straining to see the sadhus do their puja, while the build-up of people further back caused the line to bulge. People fell to the ground because of the weight of the crowd behind them.
I heard Vikram calling, “Maharaja! Maharaja!” Over to my right, the intense pressure of the crowd was pulling him away. Then he simply disappeared into the mass of people.
Suddenly the crowd surged forward with such force that all of us were thrown into the river. I clutched my phone in the plastic bag as I fell into the cold water. I swam up to the surface, gasping for air. There was transcendental chaos everywhere as people splashed each other in great joy. The glorification of Mother Ganges reached a frantic pitch: “Ganga Ma ki jaya! Ganga Ma ki Jaya! Ganga Ma ki jaya!”
Surrendering to the moment and remembering the four effulgent sadhus, I stood with my hands folded and prayed to Mother Ganges for loving devotion to the Supreme Lord. Then, following the prescribed method for bathing, I dunked three times into the cold water. When I came up the last time, one blissful sadhu jumped on me and we both tumbled back into the water. Coming up, he again pulled me under, this time going deeper into the water. We splashed each other in great fun, and more sadhus joined our little melee.
“Maharaja,” I heard a voice shout. I saw Vikram swimming towards me. “I finally found you!” he said. “Our group is back on the bank of the river and is preparing to leave. You must come now.”
As I prepared to get out of the water I saw Kartamashi on the bank taking photos. I raised my arms in bliss, and he took a last photo before being pushed from behind. He and his camera just escaped falling into the river.
I glanced back to catch a last glimpse of the four sadhus. They were nowhere to be seen.
“How is that possible?” I wondered. “There’s no way they could have moved through all the people bathing in the sangam back to the bank. It’s very peculiar.” I remembered something I had read a few days before:
“Prabhupada said that although a number of the saints and sadhus present [at Kumbha Mela] were inauthentic, many were perfect yogis, some of them three and four hundred years old. These yogis, from remote parts of India, would come out for the Mela and then return to seclusion. ‘I have personally seen,’ he said, ‘that they take bath in the Ganges and come up in the seven sacred rivers! They go down in the Ganges and come up in the Godavari River. Then they go down and come up in the Krsna River, and go down, like that. The devotees, therefore, should respect everyone who attended the Mela.’”
[Srila Prabhupada lilamrta, Volume 4, Every Town and Village]
It took me a good half an hour to make it back to the van. Somehow we had acquired a number of additional sadhus for the ride back to the camp, so I offered to ride in the smaller car with Narottam, Vikram and Kartamashi. Always concerned about my welfare, Pundrik Goswami reluctantly agreed. I started to push through the crowd away from the van when I realized I had forgotten my bag with my passport in it.
“I left my bag under the seat,” I called to Goswami. “I’ll get it when we’re back.”
“Sure, Maharaja,” he called. He held the bag up so I could see it. “I’ve got it.”
Confident that the smaller car was nearby, I made my way inch by inch to where I had seen it parked some distance away. But to my astonishment, it was gone. I made my way as quickly as I could back to where the van was parked, only to find it had left as well.
I stood there, momentarily bewildered. I was alone in a crowd of 64 million people, dressed only in a small wet gamcha with a damp towel around my neck. I had no dhoti, no kurta, no shoes, and, perhaps most alarmingly, no jacket to protect me from the cold. I had no clear idea where I was. All I knew was that the camp I was staying in was in Sector 7, and that that was 12 kilometers away. 12 kilometers through a mass of humanity pressing its way along the 300 kilometers of roads crisscrossing the Mela site. I had no map, and there were no signs giving directions in Hindi, much less English. I glanced at my watch. It was 4 p.m. and sunset was imminent.
Then I remembered I had my phone clutched in my hand. I unwrapped it from its plastic-bag covering and turned it on. To my dismay I saw there was no service available, and my battery had only 3 % left in it. I hurriedly turned it off.
“How in the world do people know where they’re going?” I wondered. Then, laughing to myself, I thought, “I’m probably the only person in this crowd of 64 million people who doesn’t know where he’s going!”
Knowing for sure that the direction to proceed was not behind me, I started walking forwards through the thick crowds surging towards the river. An hour later, I made it to a crossroads, turned left and began walking down a dirt road with a myriad of shops and ashrams on either side. Each ashram was festooned with colorful banners advertising the resident guru and his teachings. Speakers blared music from inside. As it was now getting dark, bright lights illuminated the temporary city built on the sandy banks of the Ganges.
People gawked at me curiously, and I understood why. I was the only white person to be seen, and I was practically naked. Several times I was approached by Naga-Babas who, thinking me to be one of them, pulled me into their tents and offered me a chillum of hashish to smoke! Each time I declined they seemed perplexed.
I knew I needed to get directions, but to my dismay I couldn’t find a single person who spoke English. There were many different languages being spoken around me because there were pilgrims from every part of India, but not one of those pilgrims was speaking English. There were policemen on every street corner, but they too could make no sense of what I was saying. On a couple of occasions, they literally pushed me away, apparently thinking me to be insane.
A real blow came when I heard a young Indian man say to his friend, “Isn’t that Indradyumna Swami?” But before I could say anything, his friend pulled him away saying, “Come on! Are you crazy? That’s not Indradyumna Swami!” They disappeared back into the crowd before I could confirm my identity and ask their help.
Every now and then I would turn my phone on to see if I was in range. Each time I wasn’t, and each time the battery drained a little more.
By 8:00 pm it was quite cold. From time to time when I got too cold to continue, I slipped into an ashram where a program was going on and sat amongst the crowd for warmth. On one occasion, while sitting in a chair and watching a bhajan on stage, I was approached by one of the ashram leaders.
“Are you in need of anything?” he asked.
“Yes!” I replied enthusiastically, surprised and relieved that I had found someone who spoke English. “I am lost in the Mela and trying to find my way back to my camp. It’s in Sector 7. Can you help me to get there? I have been wandering around for four hours now. Is it far away?”
“Yes, it is,” he said. “It’s about 12 kilometers away at the far end of the Mela site. At the moment you are 50 meters from the bathing spot at the sangam.”
My jaw dropped. I had walked in a big circle, coming back to the exact place I had started. The ashram leader could see my disappointment.
“Why don’t you rest here for a while?” he said. “I’ll get you a blanket.”
“Thank you,” I said. Once I was wrapped in the blanket, I succumbed to my exhaustion and started to drift off to sleep in the chair. I awoke with a start when my entire body began to itch. The blanket was full of fleas and they were ruthlessly biting me. I threw the blanket to the side and quickly left the ashram, determined to reach my destination.
I started out in a different direction. Two hours later, around 10 p.m., I realized that I couldn’t keep going unless I had something to eat. I had learned the hard way not to eat food that I wasn’t 100% sure of in India, but this was an emergency. I joined a line of pilgrims waiting to be served prasadam at one of the food kitchens. It took 45 minutes for me to reach the front of the line. I was given a leaf plate and 2 leaf cups, and was served kichari, a subji, two warm chapatis and a cup of tea. Some smiling pilgrims waved at me to join them as they ate their meal in a circle on the ground. Several times I heard the word “Angreji” which means “English person”. They were kind and sympathetic to me, probably because of my paltry attire.
Hungry, cold and tired I devoured the prasadam. “This is some of the tastiest prasadam I ever had!” I thought, laughing to myself. Once I finished, I thanked the pilgrims and continued on my way with renewed vigor.
I began wondering what Pundrik Goswami, Narottam, Vikram and Kartamashi were thinking.
“Surely, they realized quite quickly that I had been left behind,” I thought. “They must be frustrated and worried, being unable to contact me or find me. But actually, I’m fine,” I realized. “There’s no real danger and it’s only a matter of time until I get back to the camp, whether it’s today or tomorrow. And I am meeting so many nice people! Krsna played a little trick on me just so I can see how the mass of people experience Kumbha Mela. He’s also teaching me how to fully depend on Him. Wonderful!”
Just then I felt a rock whiz past my ear. Then another and another. Looking back I saw a group of children laughing at me.
“Pagal baba! Pagal baba! Pagal baba!” they yelled. I knew the what the phrase meant: “Crazy sadhu!”
I walked quickly away but they followed me and continued throwing stones.
“I can’t blame them,” I thought. “I must look pretty crazy—a barefoot white guy with a dishelved sikha wandering around half naked.” Then one of the rocks hit my elbow causing me to yell out in pain. A policeman saw what was happening and yelled at the group of children to leave me alone. Then he came over and spoke to me in Hindi.
“No Hindi,” I said. “English.” I got down on my hands and knees and wrote “Sector 7” in big letters in the sand.
“There,” I said, pointing. “I need to go there.”
He looked puzzled and took me by the arm to an ashram just a few meters away. He sat me down on a mat and disappeared. Ten minutes later he came back with a man who offered me a hot cup of tea. I gladly accepted it and then both of them went on their ways. I curled up on the mat and fell asleep. When I jolted awake, I checked my watch; I’d slept for 10 minutes. I got up and continued on my way, first checking to make sure the group of children was not around.
At 11:30 p.m. I checked my cell phone again. I was in range! But I was alarmed to see there was only 1 % battery power left.
“I have enough power for one phone call,” I thought. “If the person doesn’t answer, I won’t be seeing any of my friends tonight.”
I choose to call Narottam. He picked up immediately.
“Hello! Hello! Gurudeva, is that you? Hello?” Narottam sounded both excited and worried.
“Yes, it’s me!” I said.
“Good Lord! We’ve been so worried. What happened? Where are you? I’ve been out looking for you for hours!”
“I’m not sure where I am,” I said. “I’ve been walking around in circles since we were separated. But I’m fine. Just a little cold and tired. Can you find a car and come to collect me?”
“It’s almost impossible to find a car at this hour, but I’ll try,” he said. “The main thing is that we need to figure out where you are.” He was silent for a moment, thinking. “OK, here’s an idea. Take a photo of where you are and send it to me on WhatsApp. I’ll go to a police station and ask for their help in finding your location.”
“Brilliant idea!” I said. And without even saying goodbye I hung up and quickly took a picture of the scene in front of me. I sent the photo on WhatsApp and my phone immediately died.
It took Narottam just 30 minutes to find me. It turned out that his search had led him quite close to where I was, and the nearby police kiosk was quickly able to identify the junction where I was waiting. When he finally arrived, I jumped into the car and sat as close as I could to the heat coming out of the vents on the dashboard. Just as the car was pulling away there was a loud bang and it stopped in its tracks.
“What was that?” Narottam asked.
“The driver dropped his transmission,” I said with a wry smile.
“What does that mean?”
“Basically, it means we aren’t going anywhere in this car,” I said, getting out.
“Now what?” Narottam asked.
“Lots of walking!” I said. “Let’s go!”
“Where are we going?” he said.
“Sector 7 of course!” I replied.
With Narottam at my side, we were in a much better position to make it back to our camp, simply because he speaks Hindi. He asked people for the directions to Sector 7 and after a short time he had a good idea how to get there.
“How long will it take to walk there?” I asked.
“Through this crowd,” he replied, “Maybe 2 or 3 more hours.”
I looked at my watch. It was 12 p.m. For the first time that day I became a bit despondent.
And then a taxi came around the corner.
“Narottam, stop that taxi!” I yelled. He literally jumped in front of the taxi, surprising the driver, who screamed at him in Hindi.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said he’s not working now. No way.”
“Yes, he is,” I said. “Give me 1000 rupees.”
I opened the back door of the taxi and jumped in. The taxi driver looked shocked.
“Out!” he screamed in Hindi.
“Bhai sabh, brother!” I said. “This is for your trouble.”
He smiled when he saw the money. “No problem!” he said in English.
At 1 a.m. we pulled into our camp. Everyone was fast asleep, but I saw the light was still on in Pundrik Goswami’s room. I knew he would be worried about me. His eyes opened wide when he saw me standing there barefoot in my red gamcha, the cold wet towel still around my neck.
“Maharaja, I am so sorry!” he said.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” I said with a big smile. “Tonight, I experienced Kumbha Mela first hand, much like Hiuen Tsiang from China probably did in the 7th century. But whereas he walked amongst half a million people for 75 days, I walked amongst 64 million people for 9 hours. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life!”
We left the Mela around noon that day. When we drove out of our camp, I was surprised to see the streets were mostly deserted.
“Where is everyone?” I asked Narottam.
“Many of the people you saw yesterday came just to bathe in the sangam,” he said. “The majority were leaving on foot late last night when I was looking for you. More people will come again for other important bathing days in the next few weeks. Did you enjoy your visit, Gurudeva?”
“It was most satisfying,” I replied. “I feel as though the sadhu’s benediction upon me has come to pass, for I indeed feel as though Mother Ganges has blessed me. I was able to bathe in the Triveni Sangam in the association of advanced souls at the most auspicious moment to occur in 200 years. I spent time with the masses and, most importantly, I was able to share Krsna consciousness with a number of important spiritual leaders of the country. I feel very fortunate to have visited this sacred place on such an auspicious occasion.”
“There are several places in India. One of them is this Naimisaranya and another very important place is called Prayaga, generally known as Allahabad. But the original name is Prayaga. That is considered to be one of the most sacred places in India. Still every year there is a fair called Magha-Mela. Magha means during the month of January, February, a fair takes place in which all the sages, saintly persons, come from all over parts of India. They gather and take their bath at the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna. That is a very nice place. If you visit India, you should see all these nice places.”
[ Srila Prabhupada lecture, Srimad Bhagavatam 1.2.6. London, August 26, 1971 ]
“Their Joyful Smiles”
May 8, 2019
I had spent most of the last five months in Vrindavan, with only a few side trips here and there. But at the beginning of May, I was leaving. Despite the approach of Vrindavan’s oppressive summer weather, I felt I could have stayed longer. It was with much regret and intense feelings of separation that I headed towards the New Delhi airport to fly away from the holy dhama.
Vrindavan grows on you if you stay long enough. Even a short visit to a holy place can have miraculous effects. In the Skanda Purana it is stated:
“For a person who has lived in Dvarka for six months, for one month, or even for one fortnight, there is awaiting elevation to the Vaikuntha-lokas and all the profits of sarupya-mukti, which is the privilege of having the same four-handed bodily features as Narayana.”
[Nectar of Devotion, Chapter 7]
But Srila Prabhupada once said, “Vrindavan is for inspiration.” I have always taken that to mean that we come to Vrindavan for purification and to become attached to our beloved Lord Sri Krishna. But after some time, we are meant to leave and share our good fortune with people who know nothing about Krsna and His transcendental abode. I held this instruction in my mind as I forced myself to leave.
But by the time I reached the airport I was already in another mood, ready to preach Krsna consciousness. From the very beginning of my career as a devotee, I felt as much satisfaction preaching on city streets in the West as I felt roaming the forests of Vrindavan in search of holy places. Both moods are interdependent. By sharing Krsna consciousness in the West we get the qualification to visit Vrindavan and by residing in Vrindavan we gain the purity and spiritual strength to share Krsna consciousness with others. Srila Prabodhananda Saraswati puts it nicely:
yatha yatha gaura padaravinde
vindeta bhaktim krta punya rasih
tatha tathotsarpati hrdy akasmat
radha padambhoja sudhambu rasih
“To the degree that we surrender to Lord Caitanya’s service, to that degree we gain qualification for service to Radharani’s lotus feet in Vraja.”
[Caitanya-candramrta, verse 88]
I travelled from New Delhi to Poland where my belongings are stored. I rested there for a day and the next morning headed to the Warsaw airport to catch a flight to Moscow for my annual month-long tour of Russia. There I encountered a very unaccommodating immigration officer.
“Your passport,” she barked. There was another uniformed lady sitting beside her watching her every move. I concluded I was being dealt with by a new immigration trainee.
“Where is your boarding pass?” she snapped. Her superior slightly smiled in approval.
“It’s here, Ma’am,” I said, handing it through the hole in the window.
“Don’t you know to give it at the same time?” she growled, as if I was the dumbest man on earth.
“Yes, of course, next time I will,” I said. I wondered whether being sharp and rude to departing passengers was part of the job.
As she checked my documents, I remembered the time I went through immigration at JFK airport in New York with Srila Prabhupada. The customs officer was very rough with him. He wanted to see what was in the small white briefcase Srila Prabhupada was carrying, but Srila Prabhupada was having difficulty opening it.
The officer was impatient. “I told you to open it!” he shouted at Srila Prabhupada.
Outraged, I stepped forward, my hand balled in a fist. “If you speak like that one more time to my spiritual master, I’ll break your face!”
These days that would be enough to get arrested. At the time, the customs officer just looked shocked and stepped back a pace.
“I thought you Hare Krsnas were peace lovers!” he said sarcastically.
I stood my ground defiantly. As if to appease me, he said, “Alright, young man, then you open it.”
I pulled the bag over and fiddled with the lock for a moment and suddenly it popped open. I stood mesmerized by the personal effects of my spiritual master: his passport, a gold pen, a small ball of tilak, a tube of ayurvedic medicine, a pair of kartalas and other transcendental items.
The voice of the customs official broke my awe. “Those things are for me to inspect, young man, not you.”
I passed the bag to him and after a quick search, he moved us on.
As we walked on the tarmac towards the plane, Srila Prabhupada spoke. “Due to their association with the modes of material nature people develop many bad qualities. But when one has the good fortune to associate with devotees of the Lord one develops all the good qualities of the demigods.”
“Your passport!” The grumpy Polish immigration official was waving my documents at me from behind the glass.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, as she pushed it through the window.
Her superior smiled at her, as if to acknowledge the good job she was doing. Then she turned her attention to another trainee on her left.
The demeanor of my immigration official instantly changed. With a big smile, she whispered through the window, “I love your talks at the Festival of India. I go to Rewal each summer. I have a Bhagavad Gita.”
I smiled back but before I could reply her superior, perhaps sensing something was off, gave her a cold stare. She immediately became stone-faced again.
“That will be all,” she said, indicating I should move on.
“Thank you, Krsna,” I thought, “for sharing with me the wonderful fruits of Your samkirtan movement.”
Passing through immigration and customs was a breeze in Moscow. In the terminal I was greeted by 60 very happy devotees, all of whom were smiling from ear to ear. Approaching them I was struck by a strange feeling.
“What is it about these devotees?” I thought to myself. Then I realized. “It’s their smiles! The very same smile I saw on the face of the immigration official back in Warsaw. Anyone who has experienced Krsna’s mercy has that same joyful smile.”
I remembered a portion of a lecture I had recently heard by Srila Prabhupada.
“The Supreme Lord is joyful. Just like if you mix with a joyful society or joyful person, then automatically you become joyful. There is no necessity of becoming joyful separately. That association will make you joyful. This is Krsna consciousness. Simply by association. That rejoice is by association with the Supreme.”
[Bhagavad Gita class, Los Angeles, December 1968]
As I walked into the assembly of blissful devotees I was inundated with countless bouquets of flowers and beautiful flower garlands of all descriptions. I had to hand bouquets to devotees nearby as more arrived in my arms.
Walking towards the car park, I took garlands off and offered them to unsuspecting passersby. It takes a little courage, of course, to walk up to a complete stranger and place a garland of flowers around their neck. But I always find it to be what my godsister Yamuna dasi referred to as one of those “magic moments” in Krsna consciousness. Sure enough, most people broke into a broad smile that resembled the devotees’ own smiles and accepted the garland. Some even asked if they could take a photo with me.
The carpark elevator was crowded with people: five devotees and at least twenty other people. With so many strangers packed together, the atmosphere was tense. And the elevator was stuffy and smelly; the only relief came from the three extremely fragrant garlands I was still wearing, one of which almost touched the floor. I could feel the stares of the other elevator passengers, though I wasn’t sure whether they were staring because of the garlands or my sannyasa cloth, or both. I turned to my secretary who was squashed up next to me.
“Mahavan,” I said, “I am going to make an announcement here. You translate it loud and clear for these people.”
Mahavan looked at me in disbelief. “But Gurudeva…” he said.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said in a loud voice, “I have these beautiful fragrant garlands that my students have kindly given me. They were first offered to God and so they bring auspiciousness to anyone who wears them.”
Everyone, including Mahavan, looked frozen.
“Go on!” I said to him. “Translate it with a smile. I’ve done this a thousand times.”
And it was true. Back in the 1970s I used to ride the underground metro in Paris for hours on end. Dressed in a dhoti and kurta, with full tilak and a garland worn the previous day by Sri Sri Radha Paris-Isvara, I would jump into a metro car and make announcements loudly in French.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Good day to all the fine people of Paris. I am a monk from America and I have just come back from India. I have with me these books written by my spiritual master to share with everyone the wisdom of ancient India. This knowledge can solve all problems and make the world a better place. As I pass by, please take one and give a generous donation.”
I must have said that mantra 100,000 times and sold 10,000 books. Sometimes I met opposition, but generally people were intrigued by my dress, my smile and my boldness and so they took books.
I nudged Mahavan. “Come on,” I encouraged him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began in Russian.
“Louder!” I said to him.
“My spiritual teacher has been given these beautiful, fragrant garlands,” he said a little louder.
When he finished, the elevator was silent. People fidgeted a little and a few glanced nervously around. Time stood still.
Then a lady in her 50s said, “Well, I’d love to have the pink one if I may.”
The atmosphere relaxed and people started gazing openly at the garlands. I put the pink, white and blue one around her neck.
“I so feel honored,” she said breathlessly.
“My pleasure,” I said.
As if to head off any others interested in the remaining garlands another woman said, “I would love to have the yellow one!”
By now everyone, without exception, was smiling. I again remembered Srila Prabhupada’s words: “If you mix with a joyful society or joyful person, then automatically you become joyful.”
As the elevator approached the top floor of the carpark, an elderly man in the corner who was dressed in old black clothes spoke up in a quiet voice.
“May I have the last one, sir, the long one?”
“Of course,” I said, as I placed the garland around his neck. He smiled watching it swing around his ankles.
The pleasant mood broke as soon as the elevator doors opened. Everyone rushed out, focusing on finding their cars. Only the old man moved slowly, choosing his steps carefully and keeping his balance with his cane.
“Sir, is someone picking you up?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he replied. “There’s no one. I am alone.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“Oh, don’t be sorry,” he said. “I have a car and your act of kindness has made my day. I am wearing a wreath of flowers blessed by God! What greater fortune could there be?”
He walked out into the parking lot. It was a curious sight: an old man with disheveled clothes taking deliberate steps into the dim light wearing a garland down to his ankles with a glowing smile upon his face.
“Govinda is the original Personality of Godhead with a flute in His hands. He is very blissful, always smiling. By His smiling He offers you blessings. And by seeing His smiling you remain everlastingly smiling. It is so nice.”
[Srila Prabhupada lecture, Montreal, July 4, 1968]
“The Mood of the Day”
May 13, 2019
Aeroflot flight SU 1492 took off from Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow at 18:02 on May 6th. It reported a malfunction 28 minutes into the flight. The captain requested and was given permission by airport control to return to the airport and make an emergency landing. Unfortunately, the plane burst into flames upon landing and 41 passengers lost their lives. A person on the ground who observed the crash said it was a miracle that 33 of the passengers and 4 of the crew members survived. The news spread quickly via social media and was accompanied by horrifying videos of the ill-fated landing.
We are all both terrified of and fascinated by death, particularly when it happens in unusual ways. But the likelihood of dying in a plane crash is so slim it’s almost pointless to quantify. According to authorities, the probability of a plane going down is around one in 5.4 million. Other reports place the odds closer to one in 11 million.
“There’s one dangerous part of the airplane trip and that’s the drive to the airport,” said John Cox, a retired US airline captain and aviation accident investigator.
Of course, these statistics do nothing to diminish the sorrow of the families who lost their loved ones in the Sheremetyevo airport crash. The day it happened I overheard one devotee callously refer to the event as karma. While that may be true, that does not diminish the Vaisnavas’ sympathy for those afflicted. In a purport in Bhagavad Gita, Srila Prabhupada glorifies Arjuna’s soft-hearted nature when lamenting the impending demise of soldiers on the battlefield:
“As far as his soldiers were concerned, he was sympathetic from the beginning, but he felt compassion even for the soldiers of the opposite party foreseeing their imminent death. This overwhelmed a kind devotee like Arjuna. Such symptoms in Arjuna were not due to weakness but his softheartedness, a characteristic of a pure devotee of the Lord.”
[Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1, verse 28, purport]
If anything, such tragedies serve to remind us about the temporary nature of this world and the need to be more serious about our spiritual lives.
ahany ahani bhutani
sesah sthavaram icchanti
kim ascaryam atah param
“Every day, hundreds and millions of living entities go to the kingdom of death. Still, those who are remaining aspire for a permanent situation. What could be more wonderful than this?”
[Mahabharata, Vana-parva 313.116]
These thoughts were on my mind and certainly on the minds of the 12 devotees in my party too as we drove to the Sochi Airport to catch our 3-hour flight to Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. When we arrived at the airport it was obvious to me that we were not the only ones with the plane crash on our minds. The atmosphere was quieter and more somber than normal. There wasn’t the usual boisterous noise and excitement emitted by people travelling on vacation or business. There appeared to be an atmosphere composed in equal parts of sobriety and anxiety.
In such situations, I often find people are inclined to be more spiritual. They think more about God and care more for each other. As we walked towards the check-in area, I noticed people were staring at me in my sannyasi cloth as usual, but their stares seemed more compassionate and understanding. At one point a burley well-dressed man approached me with his arms outstretched; he smiled and embraced me. Then he took out his phone and politely asked if he could take a selfie with me. Afterwards, he shook my hand in firm appreciation. Several people walking by nodded and smiled, as if agreeing with his attitude.
“That never happens,” Mahavan das said.
“It’s the mood of the day,” I said. “People are affected by the tragedy in Moscow and are expressing their emotions.”
While many people seemed sympathetic, though, I saw the lady at the check-in counter roll her eyes when she saw our party of devotees. We were all dressed in vaisnava clothes and our luggage carts were overflowing with bags. The check-in lady motioned to another woman to come and help her. Neither of them looked very happy with the prospect of dealing with all our luggage and the variety of foreign passports we piled on the counter.
Vrajamrita dasi, the organizer of our 3-week Russia tour, came forward. There was a tense exchange of words between her and the check-in ladies.
“This is not going to be easy,” I said to Mahavan.
Sure enough, as soon as we started placing bags on the carousel one of the women refused to accept them.
“Most are three or four kilos overweight,” she said decisively.
“That’s not a lot,” said Vrajamrita. “And some of our bags are far under the weight limit. Put them on the scales and see. Considering that, you can let all our luggage through.”
“Absolutely not!” said the lady firmly.
“It means we’ll have to take things from some bags and put them into others,” Vrajamrita said. “But the end result will the same.”
The lady shrugged, indicating our luggage wasn’t her problem.
When the devotees started unpacking, the intensity of the situation increased as the long line of passengers behind us became restless.
A woman in uniform came to the front of the line where devotees were mired in repacking. It was obvious from her demeanor that she was the superintendent authority of the airline.
“What is going on here?” she asked.
Vrajamrita politely and calmly explained the situation. The superintendent glanced at the devotees. “You don’t deserve this treatment,” she said. “You need not worry. It’s only a few extra kilos. Put all the bags on the carousel. We’ll just check them through.”
Vrajamrita looked surprised. “This never happens with this airline,” she said.
“It’s the mood of the day,” I said.
People appeared unusually nervous as we boarded our flight. I was upgraded to Business Class and as the flight took off, I chanted softly on my japa beads. The roar of the engine got louder and I started chanting a little louder too. After 20 minutes the man in the seat in front of me turned around and said rudely, “Stop the mumbling! You’re disturbing all of us!”
“Hey! Leave him alone,” the man in the aisle next to me said. “Can’t you see he’s praying?”
Then the man in the seat behind piped up, “Yes, he’s praying. That’s a good thing. Perhaps that’s what all of us should be doing now!”
As the roar of the plane’s engines died down I was inclined to chant softer, but since people seemed pleased by my japa and perceived it as prayer, I just kept going. A few times during the flight passengers looked over at me and smiled.
“It’s unusual,” I thought to myself. “But it’s the mood of the day.”
After our flight landed in Moscow, I stood up to take my bags out of the luggage compartment. One of the gentlemen who had defended me stepped forward and said, “Let me help you, sir.”
When we parted ways at the plane exit, he said, “You keep well.”
“You too,” I replied.
No doubt our well-wishes were a product of the heightened awareness of human fragility brought on by the horrific crash of flight SU 1492. As terrible as such tragedies are, they serve to bring out sympathy and empathy for each other and an urgency to take shelter of the Lord.
Exiting the airport, I reflected on the tragedy and the reactions of the people I had encountered in my travels. Determined to transcend the miseries of this world and desiring the same for all of them, I prayed:
vivrta vividha badhe bhranti vegad agadhe
balavati bhava pure majjato me vidure
asarana gana bandho ha krpa kaumudindo
sakrd akrta vilambam dehi hastavalambam
“I am drowning in the painful, fathomless whirlpool of repeated birth and death. O Lord, O friend of the shelterless, O effulgent moon of mercy, please, just this one time, quickly extend Your hand to save me!”
[Srila Rupa Goswami, Padyavali, text 61]