Diary of a Traveling Monk
“These Are All Krsna’s Arrangements”
January 31, 2020
I was on my morning walk on the beach in Durban, South Africa, last week when my cell phone rang.
“Hey, Maharaja. This is Craig! Craig from high school!”
“Wow, Craig! I can’t even remember the last time we were in touch! How are you doing?”
“Just fine,” he replied. “I heard through the grapevine that you’re recovering from a big surgery and I just wanted to call and wish you well.”
“Thanks a lot, Craig. That’s very kind of you,” I said. “Hey, I’m curious. How did you get my number?”
“I met a few of your students here in California,” he said. “And I follow you on Facebook too. You’ve done well for yourself!”
“Well, thanks,” I said.
“Remember way back in 1969? I predicted who your guru would be. And it all came true!” he said.
“That’s true, you did predict it,” I said. We both laughed.
“Well, get better, my friend,” he said. “And let’s keep in closer touch.”
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s do that.”
Craig had reminded me of a defining moment in my life. Overwhelmed with emotion, I sat down on a bench. I looked out at the ocean and, wondering at the mysterious ways of the Lord, I thought back to that moment.
On leave from the United States Marine Corps for a month in July 1969, I was living with six of my friends in a rented house in my hometown of Kentfield, California. One evening the phone rang.
“Hey, Steve,” one of the guys called out, “get the phone, will you?”
“Man, I’m watching the Beverly Hillbillies,” Steve yelled back. “No way I’m getting up!”
“I’ll get it,” said Jonny in a resigned voice. He put his beer down and dragged himself off the sofa and into the kitchen. “The darn phone rings all day long, and it’s never for me.”
Sure enough: “It’s for you Brian,” he called to me.
“Who is it?”
“Dunno, I didn’t ask,” Jonny said. “But the guy sounds official.”
“Thanks, man,” I said, taking the receiver from him. Into the phone I said,
“Hello, this is Brian. Can I help you?”
“Is this Lance Corporal Tibbitts?” said a commanding voice. I immediately realized it was a Marine Corps official.
“Sir, yes sir! It’s me.”
“The captain of the local duty station is requesting that you come to see him at zero-eight-hundred tomorrow morning,” he said.
“What’s it about?” I asked.
“That’s classified, soldier.”
“Sure. Ok,” I said. “I’ll be there.”
The next morning, I arrived in full uniform at the Marine Corps center on Madison Ave in San Rafael at 8 am. I knew where it was because I had signed up for the Corps there three years earlier. The captain was a serious-looking man in his 60s; he directed me to a chair in front of his imposing desk.
“Lance Corporal Tibbitts, thank you for coming in,” he said. “I have the report of your meeting with the naval doctors last week in Oakland.”
“Yes, sir,” I said nervously.
“Son,” he said, “on the advice of those physicians, we’re discharging you from the Corps, effective immediately. An honorable discharge.”
I felt my stomach drop. “But why?” I blurted out. “I thought I was on my way to Vietnam!”
“Well, according to the report, you joined the Corps with eight of your high school friends. Correct?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “All guys from my high school football team.”
“And when your unit shipped out to Vietnam, you were ordered to stay back for advanced weaponry training. Yes?”
“Yes, sir. Underwater demolition.”
“And then you served stateside for some time?”
“And while you were stateside, your platoon came under heavy artillery and rocket fire during the Tet Offensive. And all your friends were killed. Correct?”
“Yes, sir,” I said in a quiet voice.
“The doctors have determined that that’s had a major effect on you,” the captain said. “We don’t deem you fit for combat.”
“But I’m over it,” I said in a bigger voice. “I’m ready to go.”
“Not according to what I have here in front of me,” he said, tapping the pages on his desk. “Your father’s deceased?”
“Yes, sir. Last year.”
“It says here he was on the aircraft carrier USS Cabot in WWII in the South Pacific. Says that he was injured and that he received a purple heart.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, surprised. “He saw action there. It was his dying wish that I join the armed forces.”
“Has your mother remarried?” the captain asked.
“Are you helping her out financially?”
“Yes sir, I am.”
“Son, we’ve taken all that into consideration. Your discharge papers will be mailed to you within a week.”
“That will be all, soldier.”
“But I’m not a soldier anymore,” I said, standing up.
“You gave a few good years to your country,” he said. “You can be proud of that.”
When I got back to the house, I shared the news with my friends. They all jumped up and down for joy, but I was despondent.
“Come on, man!” Steve said. “Be happy! You know how many guys wish they could get out of going to the war in Vietnam?”
“You know my story, Steve,” I said. “Harvey, Jerry, Paul, and all the others died in combat while I was stateside. They’re gone and I’m still here. I don’t feel good about that.”
The mood in the room changed suddenly. Craig, the most spiritual of my friends, spoke up.
“Everyone has their karma, Brian,” he said. “Try not to feel guilty. Karma is a law of nature. What you do, good or bad, comes back to you. It wasn’t your time to die then, and it isn’t your time now either.”
“Whatever,” I said.
I walked down to the corner church and sat awkwardly in the pews with folded hands.
“I can’t remember ever having come into a church,” I said out loud. I wasn’t sure who to talk to, so I directed my words toward the cross on the altar. “My parents weren’t religious, and I guess neither am I. But what can I say God? I’m struggling with a few issues and, honestly, I don’t know who to turn to. If you’re there, if you’re real, can you give me a sign? Some direction?”
It was quiet in the church. I sat a few minutes and when nothing happened, I stood up and left, grabbing one of the free bibles at the entrance on the way out.
I wandered into a local alternative bookstore. Browsing through the section on eastern philosophy, I picked out a book I thought might help. It was called The Tibetan Book of The Dead.
I stopped in a park on the way back to the house and read the first few chapters. I was confronted with an idea totally foreign to me: the theory of reincarnation, the idea that there is life after death.
“It helps a little if you believe in reincarnation, I guess,” I thought. “If it’s true, it means the guys are probably doing OK somewhere else.”
When I finally got back to the house, Craig was sitting on a couch waiting for me. He could see I was upset even without me saying a word. Craig was like a big brother to me. Tall, freckled and with a full head of red hair, he stood out in a crowd. He had done well in school until the drug culture hit and he had started missing classes. Intelligent and inquisitive by nature, he had recently started showing an interest in Indian philosophy.
“Hey Brian, Billy saw you go into the church,” he said. “How about we sit and have a talk? How are you?”
“I just don’t know where to turn from here,” I confessed.
“I think you should look to the East,” he said. “Like India. The Beatles went there. They stayed in an ashram for a few weeks. Look, yesterday I was in San Francisco, in the Haight Ashbury, visiting some friends. Someone gave me an invitation to a big event that’s happening tomorrow in Golden Gate Park.”
“Yeah, what kind of event?”
“It’s a big parade with a gigantic chariot from India,” he said. “A spiritual gathering. People dress up like in India. They’re gonna sing songs and burn incense. Stuff like that. It’s the talk of Haight Ashbury. All the hippies in San Francisco are going.”
“What’s it all about?” I asked.
“I’m not completely sure,” Craig said. “But there’s going to be a vegetarian feast at the end, so I’m going. You wanna come with me? It’s free!”
“I guess so,” I said. “I don’t really feel like going to a big celebration, but I guess I’ll go if you’re going”.
“Hey, but it’s not just a celebration,” Craig said. “Maybe you can find the answers you’re looking for.”
“Yeah, sure. OK,” I said. “Where shall I meet you?”
“I’ll meet you at the event,” Craig replied. “Just drive over Golden Gate Bridge and take the second exit into the park. We can meet at noon next to the big chariot.”
The next morning, I got up late and rushed through the traffic towards Golden Gate Bridge, which was an hour from where we lived. There a long line of stationary cars backed up for at least half a mile at the tollgate.
“Reports are just coming in of a bad accident on Golden Gate Bridge,” the newsreader announced on the radio. “The California Highway Patrol says to expect a delay of several hours.”
I gave up after two hours. “Must be my karma,” I thought, remembering Craig’s explanation for unfortunate reversals.
The next day Craig came bursting into the kitchen where I was having breakfast.
“Hey Brian,” he said. “What happened, man? I looked for you everywhere at the parade yesterday.”
“Sorry,” I said “there was an accident on the bridge. I waited for hours and just gave up.”
“Man, you really missed out,” Craig said. “It was far out! There were literally thousands of people. The chariot was huge! We all pulled it through the park on ropes for three miles down to the beach. Then we had a feast of rice pudding, fruit salad, and sugar balls. The food was so delicious! But you know what impressed me the most?”
“What?” I said.
“The guru,” he said. “He’s the spiritual teacher of the people who organized the event. He’s from India. He rode on the chariot with statues of their gods. His speech in the Family Dog Auditorium was super cool. He began by telling us he was going to sing a song by an Indian holy man who lived 450 years ago. Then he explained the song. It was something about an incarnation of God who lived 500 hundred years ago. At the end, he encouraged us to sing, dance and eat the food.”
“Wow. Sorry I missed it,” I said.
“Yes, but listen to this,” Craig said. “I was thinking of you as he spoke. Everything he said seemed to resonate with who you are. I mean, he was talking about finding the answers to the questions of life. And how we’re struggling in this world but that there’s a spiritual way out. Stuff like that. And when he said his practice includes singing and dancing, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s Brian when he’s doing good.’ Because you like to sing and dance. And you know what?”
“I’m convinced he’s your guru. I mean seriously, man. One day you’re gonna be his student!”
“No way, Craig,” I said. “I’m not even looking for a guru.”
“I get it,” he said. “But if you ever do want a guru, he will be your guru. Believe me. I’m gonna write down his name for you.”
Tearing off a piece of newspaper that was lying on the couch, he wrote down each letter of the guru’s name and handed it to me. “They call him Srila Prabhupada,” he said.
I took the scrap of paper and crammed it into a pocket in my jeans. That night before going to sleep I emptied out my pockets onto my bed and found the piece of paper. I stuffed it into the cover of my Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band record album by the Beatles.
For a few weeks, I mused over Craig’s advice that I look to the East for the answer as to why my friends died in the war and I didn’t. My discharge from the Marine Corps, though honorable, also weighed heavily on my mind. I finally decided to leave the house I was living in with my friends, leave California, and leave the United States altogether.
“For now, I’ll go to Europe and experience different countries and different cultures. I’ll meet all kinds of people. Maybe I’ll find some answers to my questions,” I thought.
In September 1969, I boarded a flight for Europe with a friend. We visited England, Denmark, France, Germany and Greece. We were still unfulfilled, so we went on to Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon. I started thinking of going on further to India when unforeseen circumstances forced me to return to the USA. Upon my return, I got married and, with my wife started to follow Craig’s advice in earnest by attending lectures of various yogis and spiritual teachers who themselves had traveled from India with their teachings.
Then, as fate would have it, in December 1970, my wife and I chanced upon a small group of men who seemed to be monks. They were dressed in flowing saffron robes and were singing and dancing on the main lawn of the campus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where I was working as a gardener. A large group of 200 or so students had gathered around them. When the singing stopped, one of the monks stepped forward to speak.
“Thank you, boys and girls,” he said in a clear and joyful voice. “This chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra is a transcendental sound vibration coming down from the spiritual world.”
The students started drifting away. After a few minutes there were only a few remaining. But I stood dumbfounded by the whole experience, captivated by the young monk’s presence and by the atmosphere they had created. The young monk came over to me.
“My name is Visnujana Swami,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Brian,” I said. “Tell me more about what you’re doing. Tell me about Krsna.”
“First let tell you first about my guru,” he said. “One can only understand Krsna by the mercy of the spiritual master.”
“Who is your guru?” I asked.
“His name is Srila Prabhupada,” he replied.
The name was familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. It rang a bell and awakened a deep emotion I couldn’t understand.
We sat and the swami spoke about Srila Prabhupada for well over an hour. When he finished, he asked me, “So what do you think?”
“Can he be my spiritual master too? Can I be his disciple like you?” I asked.
It wasn’t long before I was. My wife and I moved into the nearby Hare Krsna temple and, within a year, I was an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace Srila AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, affectionately known to his disciples and followers as Srila Prabhupada.
I had long forgotten the short exchange I had had with my friend Craig after he saw Srila Prabhupada at the chariot festival in San Francisco. But ten years after joining the movement, I went to visit my mother in California where I went through some of my old possessions which I had left with her when I went to Europe. When I picked up my Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band record album a tiny yellow piece of newspaper fell out from the cover. Picking it up, I saw Srila Prabhupada’s name scribbled in Craig’s handwriting on it. Suddenly, everything came back to me and I broke into tears.
I marveled at how the Lord orchestrates for His devotees to come to Krsna consciousness and at how He had arranged for me to meet and take shelter of my eternal spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada. I could only conclude that such arrangements are not of this world.
Srila Prabhupada has said the same:
“Today is the disappearance day of my Guru Maharaja. I was born in a different family, my Guru Maharaja was born in a different family. Who knew that I would come to his protection? Who knew that I would go to America? Who knew that you American boys would come to me? These are all Krsna’s arrangements. We cannot understand how things are taking place.”
[Srila Prabhupada lecture on the disappearance of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Maharaja, Los Angeles, December 9, 1968]
“Fortune in Misfortune”
January 23, 2020
My dear spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada,
Please accept my most humble obeisances. All glories to you!
This letter was originally written as a private offering to you, but these days my life is an open book. Because I act as your representative in all that I do, I want to open my heart and share with you the realizations I have gained while dealing with two of life’s greatest challenges: old age and disease. In making this private offering public, I also hope to instruct my own disciples, your spiritual grandchildren, who I’ve taken under my wing on your command.
When I was younger, I would preach with strong conviction about the “perception of the evil of birth, death, old age and disease” that Lord Krsna describes in Bhagavad Gita (13.9). However, I must admit that I had little realization of those unpleasant features of material existence. Only now, when I myself am old and diseased, do I realize the stark reality of those miseries. There’s a saying: “The hardest lessons are the ones best learned.”
Albert Einstein wrote about the value of personal experience in learning. “I never teach my students,” he famously said. “I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
Because I know without a doubt that you watch over and protect me, I am sure that you are aware that the most dreaded disease, cancer, has attacked me not once or twice, but now a third time. We say, “third time lucky,” but it was certainly not luck that the silent killer raised its ugly head again. It can only be the result of my previous sins or the sins of others I have willingly taken upon my head. But I want you to know, Srila Prabhupada, that I have accepted all the pain, anxiety and the discomfort I’ve experienced as the Lord’s causeless mercy upon me. It was Queen Kunti who gave all vaisnavas the proper understanding of misfortune:
vipadah santu tah sasvat
tatra tatra jagad-guro
bhavato darsanam yat syad
“I wish that all those calamities would happen again and again so that we could see You again and again, for seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths.” [Srimad Bhagavatam 1.8.25]
Though my suffering has been minimal compared to that endured by Queen Kunti, it is unsettling (to say the very least) to be on death’s doorstep. After my five-hour surgical operation and several days in the intensive care unit, my doctor said, “Swami, you’ve clearly used up your nine lives. Keep your fingers crossed from now on, just in case.”
But I don’t have to cross my fingers, Srila Prabhupada, because I’m confident of your protection and the Lord’s too. You once wrote to me that you always felt your spiritual master was watching over and protecting you. I feel the same. Yesterday, in a moment of despair due to complications arising from my surgery, I prayed to you for a sign that you’re still there. I hoped you would appear to me in a dream as you have in the past. Of course, in 1968 you wrote in a letter to Rayarama dasa that “dreams are nonsense.” Nevertheless, your disciple Hayagriva dasa once reminisced:
“I remember Swamiji telling me that although most dreams are simply functions of the mind, dreams of the spiritual master are of spiritual significance.” [Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita, Volume 2]
Srila Prabhupada, last night my prayers were answered, and I dreamt of you again! You were visiting a devotee community somewhere in Europe, but the facilities were not adequate. As devotees were discussing how to improve things I went to your room and cleaned and arranged everything very nicely. In the late evening, I found you walking in a nearby garden and I brought you to your room and helped you settle into bed. I sang a bhajan as you drifted off to sleep and stayed up all night sitting in a chair next to you in case you woke up and needed anything. As the sun rose the next morning, you opened your eyes and seeing me sitting there you smiled and said softly, “Thank you very much.”
I take that dream seriously, Srila Prabhupada. You once wrote to my godbrother Sudama dasa, who was trying to start a temple in Tokyo: “Actually, I was thinking of you from London, and by the grace of Krsna my anxiety was televisioned to you in your dream.” [Letter, January 8, 1970]
Srila Prabhupada, last night’s dream has given me even greater inspiration to overcome the difficulties I am presently encountering in regaining my health and returning to the preaching field as your soldier in the war with maya. The preaching field is where my heart is. It is where I belong. You indicated the same in your letter to Sudama:
“So Krsna is very kind upon us, and His kindness will be more exhibited the more we expand this Krsna Consciousness Movement. Take it as a fact, there is no question of doubting this statement, the whole world is in need of Krsna Consciousness. Krsna inspired my Guru Maharaja, and He inspired me, and I am trying to inspire you all because Krsna wants it.”
Srila Prabhupada, I’m grateful for all the challenges that have come with my ill health for the realizations I’ve gained far exceed the pain and discomfort I’ve endured. In your books, you often speak of the frailties of material existence and how there is no shelter in this world save and except Krsna. You write that we must tolerate the miseries of this world, while not being deterred in our services. Lord Brahma says the same in the famous verse:
tat te ’nukampam su-samiksamano
bhunjana evatma-krtam vipakam
hrd-vag-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te
jiveta yo mukti-pade sa daya-bhak
“My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances with his heart, words and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.” [Srimad Bhagavatam 10.14.8]
In your purport to this verse, you quote Srila Sridhara Swami who states that by just remaining alive and following the rules and regulations of Krsna consciousness, one becomes eligible to go back to Godhead.
It is certainly my good fortune to be alive. The doctors caught my cancer before it could spread to other parts of my body. At 70 years of age I’m in the twilight of my life. The writing is on the wall. But for the most part the inscriptions are positive. Now, each day I awake and thank Krsna for another day of service to you. Each time I pick up my japa beads I savor the holy names like never before. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph of your books now acts as a divine elixir relieving me of the struggle of material existence and giving me more hope that I will achieve the ultimate goal in this very life. Now every moment is like gold.
So, let these calamities come again and again for by seeing them I have come closer to you. And by coming nearer to you, I have come closer to Krsna and to the privilege of assisting you one day in your eternal service to Him in the spiritual world, far beyond the dualities of birth and death.
In closing, let me quote you, for your words are the choicest in illuminating everything in this world and the next:
“This material world is certified by the Lord in the Bhagavad-gita as a dangerous place full of calamities. The duty of the sane person, therefore, is to be undisturbed by worldly calamities, which are sure to happen in all circumstances. Suffering all sorts of unavoidable misfortunes, one should make progress in spiritual realization because that is the mission of human life. If someone is lucky enough to get in contact with the Lord by devotional service, it is all gain. Contact with the Lord by any one of the nine devotional services is always a forward step on the path going back to Godhead.” [Purport, Srimad Bhagavatam 1.8.25]
Forever your servant,
“These Golden Days”
September 3, 2019
I nodded off to sleep on the way to one of our last summer festivals along the Baltic Sea coast in Poland. I woke just as Guru Kripa dasa was parking behind our large Ratha Yatra chariot at the festival site.
“I’m so tired I don’t even know what town we’re in,” I said, laughing.
“The name of the town isn’t so important,” said Guru Kripa. “What’s significant is that this is our forty-sixth festival of the summer!”
“Forty-six festivals, one after another,” I thought. “And with Woodstock in the middle. No wonder I’m exhausted.”
But there was no time to dwell on the tiredness of my body. Hundreds of excited people were already taking their seats on the benches in front of our stage. The restaurant was packed with guests ordering prasadam. Numerous tents depicting various aspects of the Krsna conscious lifestyle were overflowing.
“If it wasn’t for Nandini dasi,” I said to Guru Kripa, “none of this would be happening today.”
“How’s that?” he asked.
I told him how some high-placed people on the political right convinced the local mayor and the city council to cancel our festival on the grounds that we make too much noise. They requested Nandini to come to their weekly meeting so that they could officially inform her and cancel the contract. Despondent, but eager to argue our case, she drove to the town hall on the day of the meeting. In the parking lot, she happened to see the previous mayor who had been in power for many years and was an old friend of hers. She asked for his advice on how to handle the situation.
“My advice?” he said. “I’m going in with you!”
The previous mayor was a powerful orator and he spoke in our defense for thirty minutes in front of the city council. Nandini didn’t say a word, and neither did the city councilors who sat looking thoroughly chastened. When he finished, he picked up the contract and waved it in the air.
“It still stands,” he said. “Are we all in agreement?”
The city councilors nodded.
As he and Nandini were leaving the room, he said over his shoulder, “And what’s more, you should all come to the festival. It’s one of the most prestigious events we hold in our town each year. It’s an honor to host this event.”
There were no further complications with the festival; everything had been running smoothly since then. Today, although it rained for half an hour at one point during the Ramayana play, no one left the benches; instead, a forest of umbrellas—big ones, small ones, colorful ones, patterned ones—popped up and the people stayed where they were. Then the rain stopped, the sun peeked out from behind the departing clouds, and the umbrellas came down. No one missed even a moment of the drama!
The actors, though, couldn’t take shelter under umbrellas. Despite the rain on the stage, they kept up their performance, and they had been performing for two months straight whether it was windy or rainy or hot. They were real troopers!
As the play ended my cell phone buzzed to signal a text message. It was from a godbrother I had never met who had been watching the theater live-view. His comments were not at all complimentary: he complained that we were using modern dance and ballet, that the music was not traditional and that we had left out significant parts of the Ramayana. He concluded that Srila Prabhupada would never approve of our presentation. I thought about writing back to say how innovation is necessary in presenting Krsna consciousness as time goes on, but I didn’t want to get into a protracted argument. I didn’t have much energy left after the exertion of the summer, and I preferred to use what little time remained to push on the last few days of the tour. Yet, I did want to defend the devotees who had sacrificed so much during the summer. So I quickly texted back a famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. But one who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms and great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I got up to walk around the festival. I mistakenly bumped into an older man.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Please excuse me.”
“No need to excuse yourself,” he said. “It gives me a chance to finally speak to you.”
“Oh, you wanted to speak to me?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “I was 54 when I first came across your festival. I’m 84 now. I can attest to the fact that you’ve been holding this festival for 30 years.”
“You don’t look 84!” I said.
“Of course not,” he said. “I took to heart what you said in the first lecture I heard you give. I gave up eating meat, fish and eggs. I started practicing yoga and I read the Bhagavad Gita every day. And I sing the song too!”
“You mean the Hare Krsna song?” I asked.
“Is there any other song worth singing?” he replied with a grin.
“No, no. You’re right,” I said, secretly wishing I had the same conviction he seemed to possess.
“We have to sing it because someday we’ll die,” he continued. “In the fourth lecture I heard you give, you said that we can’t take anything with us when we die, except our love of God. And you said God is present in His name.”
“Yes, I do say that,” I said. “Where do you plan to go when you die?” I instantly felt sorry, thinking it might be an inappropriate question to ask someone I had just met.
“With him.” He pointed to the actor who had played Lord Ramacandra and who was posing for photos with guests. “But up there!” He pointed to the sky. “Being with Krsna would be ok too!” he added.
The hair on my arms stood up as I watched him walk away.
“We know that old man,” a teenage girl said. She was standing nearby with her friend, both of them wearing saris. “We see him here every year. Sometimes during the theater performance, he cries.”
“I see,” I said, feeling overwhelmed. Fortunately, the other girl changed the subject.
“We just picked out our favorite saris in the fashion booth. They said we could keep them. We plan to wear them to school this coming semester.”
“Really?” I said. “Can you do that?”
“Yes,” she said. “If we wear saris to school, all the other girls will start wearing them. And if all the girls in our school start wearing them, then girls in other schools will also start wearing them. We plan to start a new fashion in Poland.”
“That sounds like a bit of a challenge,” I said.
“Not really,” said the first girl. “We’re beautiful and so are the saris. Just wait and see.”
“Sure, I’ll wait and see,” I said with a smile.
I decided to check out the book tent, but I had only gone 20 meters when a man came up to me and placed a Bhagavad Gita in my hand.
“Can you sign this for my wife?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Should I include your name too?”
“Don’t bother,” he said. “I’m not interested. Every year my wife drags me to this event and before we leave, she asks me to buy her a Bhagavad Gita. I always refuse and we argue about it for the rest of our vacation. So, I finally agreed to buy it for her. Hopefully I’ll get some peace now and be able to enjoy my vacation.”
“Well, you made the right choice,” I said, handing the book back to him. “Finding peace of mind and real happiness are two of the themes in the Bhagavad Gita.”
Just outside the book tent, another man approached me.
“I heard you talk in another town this summer,” he said. “I bought a Bhagavad Gita afterwards. I’ve been reading it for two weeks. As a result I’ve made a firm resolution.”
“Interesting,” I said. “What resolution are you thinking of making?”
He stood up a little straighter and his voice took on a slightly official tone. “I am going to put it in my will that all generations of my family who come after me will be obliged to read this book before they reach 20 years of age. I already mentioned it to my lawyer.”
A teenage girl came up to the man with a Bhagavad Gita in her hands.
“Papa, I want my own copy! And I want the man to sign it.”
Her father hesitated. They were not well-dressed, so perhaps they couldn’t afford it.
“Papa!” she insisted. “Today is the celebration of the ascension, when the Virgin Mary goes back to heaven. My name is Maria. It only makes sense that you buy the book for me today. Ave Maria!”
Her father still seemed to hesitate.
“Look,” I said, “because this is such a special day, a holy day, I’m just going to give you this book, Maria. It’s yours now. You just take it.”
Hearing this, she burst into tears, and then her father started crying too. I felt my own eyes well up with tears of appreciation for the mercy of Lord Caitanya in making Krsna consciousness so accessible to people.
One of the more popular theaters, a drama we call “The Bhagavatam,” was starting on the stage, so I turned back to the benches. The play centers on Maharaja Pariksit’s deliverance, and its theme is the art of dying. In the last scene, one of the performers comes down off the stage and presents the First Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam to someone in the audience. As the devotee descended the stairs, I motioned to her to give the book to one middle-aged woman who had sat mesmerized throughout the entire performance. The lady was overwhelmed by the gift and started crying.
“This festival is a real tear-jerker tonight,” I thought.
The woman with the book came over to me. “I saw you directed that actor to me,” she said.
“Well, yes I did…” I said.
“But how did you know?” Tears were streaming down her face. “How did you know?”
“How did I know what?” I asked.
“Today is my 40th birthday,” she said. “I am all alone. My family – my husband and children – have all passed away. I woke up this morning asking God to give me a sign that He is still here for me. I prayed for Him to give me the knowledge I need to not give in to depression and to go forward in life. Then this afternoon I got an invitation to your festival, and in the theater, I found so much comfort and hope. And then you directed the actor to give me this book!”
She paused. “How did you know?” she asked softly.
“The Lord is in everyone’s heart and He alone knows our deepest desires,” I said. “I am happy I could act as His instrument.”
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” she said. “This has been a life-changing experience for me.”
“For me too,” I said.
As she walked away, I thought about the recipients of Lord Caitanya’s mercy I had encountered that night. “No doubt these are the modern-day pastimes of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu,” I pondered. “He seems to always send the right people at the right time. I am so blessed to be witnessing this.”
Then I remembered a song I used to sing every day as I went out to distribute books in the 1970s and 80s. It seemed to perfectly illustrate that woman’s search for meaning in her life:
There is a light coming down from the face
Of the beautiful Lord
Far beyond outer space
So radiant and bright
Shining perfectly clear
Descending in glory
Removing all fear
Once in the night I did wander in pain
Praying for sunrise to see Him again
Then from great height
Came a vision of grace
Your causeless mercy
From a transcendent place
There is a light coming down from the face
Of the beautiful Lord far beyond outer space
Oh grant me my sight
Let me stand in the rain
Of your rainbow of love
The eternal refrain
Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya!
[“There is a Light,” by Jeffery Armstrong and Michael Cassidy]
After the final kirtan of the night, there was an older woman waiting for me at the bottom of the stage steps.
“Do you remember me?” she said.
“Yes, of course!” I said. “You were the mayor in this town 15 years ago. You fought off all the opposition so we could have our festivals here.”
“Yes,” she replied with a smile. “You had many enemies back then.”
“We certainly did,” I said. “But you stood up for us. And we always won.”
“Yes,” she said, with a touch of nostalgia. “It was a good fight.”
Again, tears came to my eyes. “I’m such a cry-baby tonight,” I thought. Aloud I said, “Thank you for coming this evening! You still remember us.”
“How could I forget you?” she said. She held up one of her hands. “You gave me this ring one day after we defeated a particularly difficult opponent. You told me it was worn by your God who gives protection. And it seems it has worked. All my friends have passed away, but I am standing.”
“Jaya Nrsimhadeva,” I said under my breath.
“We are here only because you safeguarded our mission,” I told her.
“I hope to see you again next year,” she said as we parted ways.
“It’s been an extraordinary festival,” I said to Guru Kripa, as we got in the van.
He smiled and replied, “You say that after every festival, Gurudeva. In fact, you’ve said it 46 times this summer so far.”
“That’s true,” I admitted. “These are golden days. I don’t know how we’re going to survive after our last festival three days from now. How will we all bear separation from these magical events? Where else can one see the causeless mercy of Lord Caitanya continuously day after day after day?”
We both fell silent and remained so for the one-hour drive back to our base.
“The fortunate town of Navadvipa remains on the earth. The seashore remains. The city of Jagannatha Puri remains. The holy names of Lord Krsna remain. Alas! Alas! I do not see anywhere the same kind of festival of pure love for Lord Hari. O Lord Caitanya, O ocean of mercy, will I ever see Your transcendental glory again?”
[Srila Prabhodananda Sarasvati, Caitanya Candramrita, Chapter 12 – Verse 140]
“The Most Appropriate Plan”
August 24, 2019
Dearest Srila Prabhupada, Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to you!
This year marks the 123rd anniversary of your appearance in this world. Somehow, by the causeless mercy of the Supreme Lord, I am connected to you through initiation as one of your spiritual sons. This can never be disputed in the chronicles of time because on December 10, 1971, you wrote the following to my temple president:
“I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated November 22, 1971, along with beads and letters from several devotees at Detroit temple. I am very glad to accept these students as my duly initiated disciples and their names shall be as follows:
Brian Tibbitts / Indradyumna Das
Ilene Tibbitts / Krpamayi Dasi
Heidi Paeva / Hrisakti Dasi
“These are all very nice boys and girls and I have very much appreciated their attitudes of devotion and surrender as displayed in their letters to me. I have replied them under separate cover. Their beads, duly chanted [upon] by me, are sent under separate post.
“I hope this meets you in good health and cheerful mood,
“Your ever well wisher,
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami”.
Srila Prabhupada, I consider December 10, 1971, the day you wrote to accept me as your disciple, to be my actual birthday, for it was on that day that I began my spiritual life in earnest. In a lecture in Vrindavan, you quoted a verse that corroborates this perspective:
janame janame sabe pita mata paya
krsna guru nahi mile baja hari ei
“Under ordinary circumstances one’s own father and mother are worshipable, but in every species one gets a father and mother. Far rarer is to get guru and Krsna. The spiritual master can bestow prema-bhakti to those who have attained his mercy; therefore he is the topmost father, mother and friend of everyone.”
[Srila Prabhupada lecture, September 9, 1975, Vrindavan. Verse quoted from Prema Vivarta, by Jagadananda Pandit]
Coincidentally, in that initiation letter you expressed your desire for Krsna conscious festivals to be held far and wide, a statement that planted a seed in my heart:
“I am pleased by your festival plan for the colleges all over the state. Actually, this roving sankirtan and college program is the most appropriate plan for spreading Krishna Consciousness and preaching. I have just received intimation from Rupanuga of a very large festival he is planning for Central Park. His conjecture is very nice and I want that many such festivals should be held in every city.”
You then gave a hint as to how to organize such festivals:
“I have one suggestion. Make a tent in that backyard garden to accommodate many guests and provide profuse prasadam to all.”
As the years went by, I often meditated on those instructions and worked on developing and expanding the idea of holding large outdoor festivals to “accommodate many guests” and “provide profuse prasadam to all.”
Srila Prabhupada, you will be very pleased to know that this year we distributed over 160,000 plates of delicious prasadam from our Food for Peace tent at the Polish Woodstock festival. That was as “profuse” as we could manage at this moment in history! I want to continue expanding on your desire to hold such festivals in as many cities as possible and I am confident I can do it, for inherent in the spiritual master’s instruction is the secret to success. You once said:
“I took that order of my spiritual master very seriously. But I did not think that I’ll have to do such and such thing. I was at that time a householder. But this is the arrangement of Krsna. If we strictly try to serve the spiritual master’s order, then Krsna will give us all facilities. That is the secret.”
[Purport on the CD entitled “Prayers to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati”]
I am very happy doing this service for you, Srila Prabhupada, along with a dedicated team of disciples, friends and well-wishers. I cannot think of anything else I’d rather do. To be frank, I feel I am already back home in the spiritual world by doing this service. I was elated to read a comment recently by Srila Baladeva Vidyabhusana which confirmed my sentiment: he writes that the pastimes of Lord Caitanya are especially appreciable in the material world because of the dark backdrop of material existence which doesn’t exist in the spiritual world. He gives the example that when a diamond sits on a black cloth, its brilliance is more pronounced.
My dear lord and master! Though I know our goal is to go back home, back to Godhead, I am hesitant to ask for your blessings to go there when I have not adequately fulfilled your desire in this world for a “roving sankirtan party and festivals to be held in every city.” You clearly describe such outreach programs as “the most appropriate plan for spreading Krishna Consciousness and preaching.” Of course, all the programs you introduced are “most appropriate” for the people of this age. I feel so fortunate that on the day of my spiritual birth you gave a hint as to which one I could take up. I stand ready and willing to execute your plans for many births to come.
This sentiment is one I have imbibed from you, Srila Prabhupada, for you are the foremost of all preachers in this world. Just this morning I came across a purport in the Fourth Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam in which I felt you were speaking directly to me:
“After being initiated and receiving the orders of the spiritual master, the disciple should unhesitatingly think about the instructions or orders of the spiritual master and should not allow himself to be disturbed by anything else. This is also the verdict of Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakur, who, while explaining a verse of Bhagavad-gita, points out that the order of the spiritual master is the life substance of the disciple. The disciple should not consider whether he is going back home, back to Godhead; his first business should be to execute the order of his spiritual master. Thus a disciple should always meditate on the order of the spiritual master, and that is perfectional meditation. Not only should he meditate upon that order, but he should find out the means by which he can perfectly worship and execute it.”
[Srimad Bhagavatam, 4.24.15 purport]
Surely it will take many lifetimes to implement “such festivals in every city,” especially now in the age of Kali. But whatever challenges there are, whatever austerities are involved and whatever inconveniences I might suffer, these are a small price to pay for the precious and incomparable gifts you have bestowed upon me in this lifetime. Each morning upon waking and each night before resting, I slowly repeat the following verse which serves to remind me of all you have bestowed upon me:
nama-srestham manum api saci-putram atra svarupam
rupam tasya grajam uru-purim mathurim gosthavatim
radha-kundam giri-varam aho radhika-madhavasam
prapto yasya prathita-krpaya sri-gurum tam nato’ smi
“I bow down to the beautiful lotus feet of my spiritual master, by whose causeless mercy I have obtained the supreme holy name, the divine mantra, the service of the son of Sacimata, the association of Srila Svarupa Damodara, Rupa Goswami and his older brother Sanatana Goswami, the supreme abode of Mathura, the blissful abode of Vrindavan, the divine Radha Kunda and Govardhan Hill and the desire within my heart for the loving service of Sri Radhika and Madhava in Vrindavan.”
[Srila Raghunatha Dasa Goswami, Sri Mukta Carita]
Srila Prabhupada, my prayer is that the very same verse will be on my lips when I close my eyes for the last time in this life, and that it will manifest again within my heart of hearts when I open my eyes for the first time in my next life—wherever that may be in our good Lord’s creation.
My dear spiritual master! Please never leave me! May I always remain by your side, birth after birth, as your traverse the fourteen worlds, flooding them with the ecstasy of Krsna consciousness. Like your own spiritual master, you are an ocean of compassion. In glorification of him you once said:
“Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura came into this world to execute the mission of Caitanya Mahaprabhu. So he executed it and when it was required, he left this place and went to another place to do the same business.”
[Lecture on the appearance day of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, February 8, 1977]
Srila Prabhupada, I am prepared to join you wherever you go in service to your spiritual master! But should you return to Goloka while I remain here, I am confident that you will not forget me. My connection to you is through the service you wrote about in my initiation letter: to hold large events in the “central parks” of as many cities as there are on the face of the earth. When that great task is done—and done well—I will look up to the sky and say, “Your order has been fulfilled, my dear master. Pray tell me, what is your next command?” Perhaps at that time, you will appear, and taking me by the hand, lead me on to Sri Vrindavan Dhama in the spiritual sky. You wrote in a letter to a godbrother of mine:
“My dear Brahmananda, regarding your request for your deliverance from the clutches of Maya, please rest assured of being delivered. So far as I am concerned in relationship with my disciples who are so kindly cooperating with me in the matter of my rendering service to my spiritual master, for them I am always ready to come back from Goloka Vrindavan if they are not delivered along with me. So don’t be worried about the clutches of Maya. Be fixed up in your determination and go on serving the Supreme Lord, Krishna, with determination as you are already doing.”
[Srila Prabhupada letter to Brahmananda, November 15, 1969]
The older I get, Srila Prabhupada, the more I feel your personal presence in my life. When I was younger, it was merely a point of philosophy that the departed spiritual preceptor continues guiding the disciple. Now in my old age, as I accept more and more responsibilities on your behalf, that philosophical point has matured into the blissful realization that you are guiding me at every step. You confirmed this many years ago. One of my godbrothers wrote to you:
“My dear Srila Prabhupada, please accept my humble obeisances at your divine lotus feet. We fervently pray that Your Divine Grace continues to remain in this world because we need your personal guidance. Even when Lord Krsna disappeared, Arjuna lost all strength temporarily.”
“I shall remain your personal guide, physically present or not physically, as I am getting personal guidance from my Guru Maharaja.”
[ Letter to a disciple, Vrindavan, July 14, 1977]
O savior of the fallen souls, let me put aside these noble sentiments for now so that the tears of joy they bring forth from my eyes do not disturb my service to you. A letter has just arrived on my desk with an invitation to do a festival in Ukraine. This is “a conjecture,” as you put it in my initiation letter, that will certainly prove “very nice.” I pray to always maintain the same “attitude of devotion and surrender as displayed” in my original letter to you, so that I may develop all the good qualities necessary to fulfill your every order.
samadi satka prada vaibhavabhyam
subhakta dana vrata diksitabhyam
ramadhavanghri sthira bhaktidabhyam
namo namah sri guru padukabhyam
“I offer obeisances to the two shoes of my guru, which are initiated in the vow of giving beautiful devotional realizations to the disciple, which bestow fixed devotion unto the feet of the husband of Laksmidevi and which bestow all good qualities unto the disciple.”
[Guru-paduka stotram, verse 7]
In the dust of your lotus feet,
“A Sure Sign Of Success”
August 13, 2019
They say that time flies by when you are doing something you enjoy. And conversely it moves slowly when you are busy with something you don’t like. I can say with all honesty, that this summer seems to have passed by in a moment’s time. Now, in the twilight of my years, more than ever before, I relish every moment in Krsna consciousness. I am grateful for what I have; all of it being a gift from my ever well-wisher, my eternal spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada. One verse from sastra, which I repeat many times each day, epitomizes the good fortune I feel:
nama srestam manum api saci putram atra svarupam
rupam tasya grajam uru purim mathurim gosthavatim
radha kunda giri varam aho radhika madhava sam
prapto yasya pratita krpaya sri gurum tam nato’ smi
“ I bow down to the beautiful lotus feet of my spiritual master, by whose causeless mercy I have obtained the supreme holy name, the divine mantra, the service of the son of Sacimata, the association of Srila Svarupa Damodara, Rupa Goswami and his older brother Sanatan Goswami, the supreme abode of Mathura, the blissful abode of Vrindavan, the divine Radha Kunda and Govardhan Hill and the desire within my heart for the loving service of Sri Radhika and Madhava in Vrindavan.”
[ Srila Raghunatha Dasa Goswami, Sri Mukta Carita ]
Raghunatha Dasa Goswami mentions “the loving service of Sri Radhika and Madhava in Vrindavan.” I have not attained that yet, but I am hopeful one day I will. And just how to attain that most precious of all goals has been made clear to me by another one of our acaryas:
yatha yatha gaura padaravinde
vindeta bhaktim krta punya rasih
tatha tathotsarpati hrdy akasmad
“To the degree that we surrender to Lord Caitanya’s service, to that degree we acquire qualification for service to Radharani’s lotus feet in Vraja.”
[ Sri Caitanya Candramrta, chapter 8, text 88, by Srila Prabodhananda Sarasvati ]
With surrender to Mahaprabhu’s service in mind I gave everything I had to the first half of our summer festival tour along the Baltic Sea coast in Poland. As anyone who has been on the tour during the last 30 years knows, it is not for the faint-hearted. With a major festival, entertaining close to 3,000 people every day for two months, one is pushed to the very limit of his or her mental and physical abilities. But for those who contribute, the rewards are great. Not great in any monetary term, but great in seeing so many people awakened to Krsna conscious and the satisfaction and bliss that brings:
For those who give their living breath
Upon their lips the Holy Name
In praise of He who came
To them a store of bliss in known
And hidden worlds to them are shown
[ ‘Hidden Worlds’ from Nature’s Secret, by Michael Cassidy]
On the tour I see that miracle every day. It’s possible in Krsna consciousness, in the movement of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu:
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
[ Albert Einstein ]
In Miedzyzdroje, where we held our first festival after returning from the Polish Woodstock festival halfway through the summer, I marveled how Krsna consciousness touches so many people’s hearts.
As I was signing a Bhagavad Gita for a woman after my talk from the stage, she confided in me:
“I was very much against any form of yoga before meeting you people. My local pastor told us it is the ‘work of the devil.’ When my son started to attend yoga lessons, I forbade him to continue. But after coming here today and observing you people and hearing the talk you gave, I changed my mind. In fact, I just called my son and gave him permission to attend the yoga classes. It’s his birthday tomorrow and I will give him this book as a present.”
Another man approached later asking if I remembered him. I apologized saying I didn’t.
“You must remember,” he said. “It was 15 years ago on this very spot. After your talk I gave you a ship in a bottle. I had made it myself. I worked on it for two years. I was so impressed with what you shared. You kindly gave me a Bhagavad Gita. I must admit I didn’t read it at first. In fact, it was on the bookshelf for 14 years. Last year I had a heart attack. The doctors said I probably wouldn’t survive. I was terrified. I asked my friends to bring that book to the hospital and they read it to me day and night. Hearing the philosophy I conquered my fear. Somehow, I survived. But I haven’t stopped reading the Bhagavad Gita. I know death will come someday and I want to be prepared.”
A few minutes later our tour manager, Nandini dasi, came up to me.
“Gurudeva,” she said, “I am meeting so many people today who are expressing their appreciation for our festival.”
“Me too,” I said.
“I just came from the parking lot,” she continued. “After entering I realized I didn’t have any money to put in the parking meter. I must have looked frustrated, as a lady approached me and asked if I was alright. When I told her my dilemma she said, “Don’t worry I’ll pay for your parking. I just came from your festival. The young people in your movement are living such a pure life and setting the highest example for their generation. We should all support you!”
As we stood appreciating the people’s reception of our festival our Ramayana theater began on stage. It has been one of our ‘mainstays’ as we upgrade it into something more spectacular each year.
This year one of the main characters, the evil-minded Ravana, is played by Sundara Caitanya das. To perform the role more effectively Sundara Caitanya worked out in a gym much of the year and he looks like a modern day Hercules. With his large tattooed covered frame and bulging muscles along with his frightening dress his appearance is quite overwhelming. He has become a good actor as well, making him a very scary and formidable demon.
As we watched the theater I could see the audience was becoming deeply engaged as happens in any good theater production. But I wasn’t prepared for the reaction of one man, who upon seeing Ravana kidnap Sita, jump up and rush the stage furiously screaming, “Let her go! Let her go! You filthy man! Have you no decency?”
The man’s wife and a male friend quickly leapt up and chased after him. He was still yelling when they got to him in front of the stage and calmed him down. Coming to his senses he realized his overreaction and sheepishly returned back to the bench they were sitting on. He appeared a gentleman who simply got too involved in the drama. The reaction in the crowd was mixed. Some were laughing at him, while others seemed to understand. I thought to myself, “This is a really good theater!”
At that moment Nandini’s cell phone rang.
“We’ve got a problem Gurudeva,” she said, “One of our devotees just got caught shoplifting.”
“Shoplifting?” I said. “Are they sure it was a devotee?”
“Yes,” I know the owners of the store.“ replied Nandini “We make purchases there every time we come to town. They know me well.”
“Well, go and take care of this immediately.” I said.
An hour later Nandini called me.
“The store owners were shocked,” she said, “They told me, ‘We’ve known your movement for 20 years. You uphold the highest standards and morals. We never expected anything like this.”
“I told them it certainly doesn’t represent us and I apologized profusely. They said they were obliged to call the police, but I asked if it would be enough if we just sent the devotee boy home and they agreed. He’s already on the train back home.”
We were both a little despondent at this misrepresentation of our tour group when Krsna sent two souls to cheer us up. The festival was just finishing when a couple approached us with a Bhagavad Gita in hand.
“Can you please sign our book?” the lady said.
“Sure,” I replied.
As I took the Bhagavad Gita from her hand I asked, “Did you enjoy the festival today?”
“Actually, we arrived one minute ago,” she replied, “Just in time to buy the book.”’
“Oh, I’m sorry you missed the event.” I said.
“It’s Ok,” she said. “I’ve been attending your event every year since I was a child. 20 years to be exact,” she said.
“Wow!” I said.
“I came this year simply to buy the Bhagavad Gita,” she continued. “Sorry it’s taken so long, but I’ve been thinking about what you say in your lectures and have concluded it’s time to get serious and study your philosophy. I’ve seen how it’s changed the lives of so many people I know.”
As Nandini and I joined the devotees walking to our cars and buses to return back to our base I said, “There’s a Sanskrit saying: phalena pariciyate, which means “Judge a thing by its result.” The fact that so many people are inspired to read Srila Prabhupada’s books as a result of our cultural presentation of Krsna consciousness is a sure sign of success. I pray His Divine Grace is looking favorably upon us.”
“Now in your temple you are distributing so many books and this is very, very encouraging to me. It is the perfect form of preaching. Follow the line laid down by Prahlada Maharaja and try to take everyone back home, back to Godhead. And this is done by distributing our literature. I am so much pleased upon each and every one of you for helping me this way to push on this great movement.”
[ Srila Prabhupada letter to disciple December 3, 1972 ]
”Bonds of Brotherhood”
July 27, 2109
During the month of June I visited ISKCON’s temple in Skopje, Northern Macedonia. Macedonia is a small, land-locked country in Southeastern Europe with a population of just 2.7 million people. I had been invited to speak and hold kirtan at the country’s International Yoga Day Festival.
While we were waiting at a red light on the way to the festival, a horse-drawn wooden cart driven by a teenage boy and holding a family of gypsies pulled up alongside our car. I grabbed my camera, wanting to capture the juxtaposition between the old and the new at the intersection. The gypsy boy was obviously intimidated by the camera; he jumped off the cart and came running towards me, his fist raised.
“Please don’t take offense,” I said to him. “I greatly respect your people.”
He lowered his fist. “Really?”
“Yes,” I replied. “One time I was attacked by some hooligans and your gypsy brothers stepped in to defend me. They literally saved my life.”
“I see,” he said. “Well, ok then.” He returned to his cart and they went on their way.
“Did some gypsies really save your life?” my driver, Prema-vilas dasa, asked me as the light turned green.
“Yes,” I said. “In France in the 1970s a motorcycle gang of 10 men attacked my sankirtan party. Seven of us were camped by a river near the city of Marseille and early one morning they came at us with baseball bats and iron chains. We had no chance. But a group of gypsy men who we had befriended and who were camping nearby came to our rescue with big sticks and a ferocious presence I hadn’t seen before or since. We all became close friends in the ensuing days. When it came time for us to move on, the leader of the gypsies declared I was one of their brethren; he cut his arm with a knife and indicated I should do the same. I was young and somewhat naive and I followed his order. We placed our wounds together to exchange our blood; this is the tradition in the gypsy community for sealing the bonds of brotherhood. Whenever I share this story with gypsy communities, no matter in which country I meet them, they take me as one of their own.”
“Wow!” said Prema-vilas.
“I actually have several gypsy disciples around the world,” I added. “And they’re some of my best disciples.”
“We have a large community of gypsies here in Skopje,” said Prema-vilas. “But we’re wary of them. They beg at the red lights and some of them steal.”
“Every ethnic group contains people with bad habits,” I said. “But ultimately everyone is a spirit soul, part and parcel of Krsna. Have you ever tried sharing Krsna consciousness with the local gypsy community?”
“No way!” His response was vehement.
“Then,” I said, “now is the time to reach out to them.” I quoted a famous verse from the Srimad Bhagavatam:
abhira-sumbha yavanah khasadayah
ye ‘nye ca papa yad-apasrayasrayah
sudhyanti tasmai prabhavisnave namah
“Kirata, Huna, Andhra, Pulinda, Pulkasa, Abhira, Sumbha, Yavana, members of the Khasa races and even others addicted to sinful acts can be purified by taking shelter of the devotees of the Lord, due to His being the supreme power. I beg to offer my respectful obeisances unto Him.”
[ Srimad Bhagavatam 2.8.14 ]
“Bear in mind,” I said, “that this verse includes you and me amongst the fallen races!”
Prema-vilas looked thoughtful. “How would we go about reaching out to the gypsies of Macedonia?”
“We’ll go straight to the top,” I said. “We need to find out who the leaders are in the gypsy community. We’ll start by visiting one of them and offering our services.”
“What kind of services?” said Prema-vilas.
“We can offer to help their community by giving them food, if they need it,” I said. “Or we can open a vegetarian restaurant. We can start a small yoga studio where we can eventually introduce kirtan and Bhagavad Gita classes. We can have regular harinam parties through their area. And we can make friends with them.”
“You really think that will work?” he said.
“It works everywhere else in the world without exception,” I said. “Besides, chanting Hare Krsna is the chosen dharma for the age of Kali. It must work! Do some research and get back to me. I’d be happy to visit one of their leaders while I am here. I’ll show him the brotherhood scar on my arm.”
The next morning Prema-vilas called me.
“Maharaja, he said, “I did some research and found out that the most influential leader of Macedonia’s gypsy community is a man named Mr. Shaban Saliu. He is the leader of a political party representing the gypsies. Because they form a large base of voters, his position is very strong in the country.”
“Call him up immediately,” I said. “Tell him a leader from our movement would like to meet him to offer our help to his people.”
Ten minutes later Prema-vilas called back.
“Mr. Saliu said he’d be very happy to meet you,” he said, sounding shocked.
“Great,” I said. “When?”
“Right now,” Prema-vilas said. “He’s invited you to his home.”
“Wow! Fantastic!” I said. “Gather a few devotees and we’ll leave in an hour.”
Half an hour later Prema-vilas called me back.
“I can only find 4 devotees who want to go,” he said. “The others are a little hesitant. Aside from a large market we occasionally visit there, we’ve never really ventured into the gypsy community even though it’s just outside the city.”
“Four devotees will be ok,” I said. “Try to find a garland we can take and a few sweets and a Bhagavad Gita too.
The devotees were quiet and fidgety as we drove into the gypsy community. People stared at us.
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “Lord Nityananda preached in such situations and he was always successful!”
Standing next to the gate at the address we’d been given was a nicely dressed gentleman. I got out of the car and he stepped forward and shook my hand with a wide smile on his face.
“Welcome to our community,” he said. “I’m Shaban Saliu. You can just call me Shaban.”
“I am honored to meet you Shaban,” I said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
“Please come into my home,” he said. He took my hand and led me into his house. “We need to go upstairs. I hope you’re ok with a few stairs.”
Nothing could have prepared me for Shaban’s staircase. Beautiful paintings of Radha and Krsna lined the wall all the way up. In the living room there were even more paintings of Krsna: Krsna playing His flute, Krsna dancing with the gopis and Krsna frolicking in the Vrindavan forest.
“So, you are part of a spiritual tradition?” he asked me, gesturing towards a couch.
“Yes,” I replied, my eyes wandering over the paintings. “Our movement is one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the world. It’s based on an authentic scripture called the Bhagavad Gita which was spoken by Lord Krsna in India 5,000 years ago. I believe we can help your community in many ways. For stress and anxiety, we can teach yoga and meditation. We also sing a spiritual song composed of various names of God that quickly purifies the heart and awakens love for the Lord. It’s called the Hare Krsna mantra. We can also distribute blessed food to the people in your community who need it. Some of our volunteers can also work with the youth to reduce crime and violence.”
“What can I say?” Shaban said. “I am completely at your service. I will offer you all my political contacts. There is no city in this country where I don’t have connections. If you can open a preschool or can work in primary education, you are free to share your lifestyle and wisdom with our children. I am familiar with your singing, with your song. In 1988 I saw people like you singing every Saturday on a street corner in Skopje. It went on for many years. There were three boys and three girls. Some were playing drums and others small cymbals.”
“Yes, it all comes from India,” I said.
“Ah, mystical India,” he said, closing his eyes. “I went to India and spent a couple of weeks there. I was fascinated by the country. I felt as if my roots were there. I actually felt it was my home.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes! he said. “In fact, I did some research. I have a PhD in law, so I was given some facility and you know what I discovered? I discovered that my people, the Romani gypsies, originally come from India. I encountered one scholar at a university who wrote a book entitled The Lost Children of India. He described in detail how my people migrated to Europe in the eleventh century from the northern part of India in search of a better livelihood and to escape rising Muslim attacks. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests the Romani used to dwell in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Sindh and Rajasthan of present-day India. Some scholars say we used to be a part of the present Dalit community, which is a minority still existing in India.”
“I am aware of all this,” I said. A distinguished-looking woman entered the lounge.
“This is my wife, Mirdita,” Shaban said. “She just completed her Master’s degree in Journalism.”
“I am honored to meet you,” I said, shaking her hand. “You can call me Maharaja.”
“Maharaja,” she said, “is this your first time here in our community?”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “We have come to serve your people. Your husband and I have just been discussing that we have a bond of brotherhood because both of our traditions come from India. Plus, my life was saved by your people one time and I became blood brothers with the leader of that group of gypsies. I want to help in whatever way I can.”
She said, “Perhaps you can start with a workshop in our community to present what the Hare Krishna faith is. Most gypsies here are Muslim, but I believe they would be interested in your teachings.”
I glanced over at the devotees who had come with me; their mouths were virtually hanging open.
“We could invite Romani people from all over Macedonia,” Shaban said. “You can give a talk, Maharaja, and sing your special song. It will turn our Romani community around. I think some of them will find their way through your teachings. I am very impressed with your culture. Let’s work together as a team and put something together on a high level.”
“Thank you, Shaban,” I said. “I have this gift for you.” I handed him a copy of the Bhagavad Gita.
“I have heard about this book,” he said. “I see there is even the original Sanskrit text here. The roots of our language come from Sanskrit, you know. Now, tell me: who is Krsna? I know he is blue and I know I have always been attracted to him. You can see the paintings of Krsna I brought back from my visit to India. I have some paintings of his friends too. I think one friend is named Siva. Others are Ganesh and Saraswati. Am I correct?”
I nodded and explained to Shaban who Krsna is and the difference between him and the demigods he mentioned.
After discussing for more than an hour I concluded saying, “Let’s keep in close touch.”
“Yes, of course,” Shaban said with a smile. “And Maharaja, I would like to invite you to my son’s wedding in a month’s time. Around 800 guests will be coming, including many distinguished members of Macedonian society. The leader of the opposition party will also be there. I would like you to give the opening address at the wedding. Maybe you could speak for 30 minutes and sing your song as well. What do you think?”
“I would be honored, Shaban,” I replied, overwhelmed.
As he escorted us down the stairs I glanced again at the paintings.
I thought to myself, “My Lord, who can understand your plans? You are the supreme mystic!”
“Let’s talk later about making a Hare Krsna base here in our Romani community,” Shaban said when we reached the car. “Let’s not just talk words; let’s do something tangible. It can be connected to the culture we share. It can remind gypsies of their origins and can facilitate the deeds of your community as well. Let’s construct a building or monument that will stand for a hundred or two hundred years. Something glorious to represent our combined cultures. This day of our meeting should go down in history in the collective memories of our people.”
He took both my hands and said warmly, “You are so wonderfully dressed! Before you go, let’s walk through the streets of our community so you can meet my people. We can take a few photos as well to remember this momentous day.”
He taught me a few phrases in gypsy language as we walked. When I greeted people with those words they smiled broadly. Everyone knew Shaban and showed him respect. Because I was with him, they were very respectful to me as well. An hour later, when we finally parted ways, Shaban took my hand one last time.
“There is something called destiny,” he said. “Today destiny has brought us together. And in one month’s time destiny will bring us together again.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Destiny is in the hands of the Lord. How he brings us together to serve him is beyond our understanding.”
“I was born in a different family, my Guru Maharaja was born in a different family. Who knew that I will come to his protection? Who knew that I would come in America? Who knew that you American boys will come to me? These are all Kṛṣṇa’s arrangement. We cannot understand how things are taking place.”
[Srila Prabhupada lecture on Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s Disappearance Day, Los Angeles, December 9, 1968].
“Summer of Love”
July 22, 2019
During my teenage years, I was living in San Francisco during 1967’s “Summer of Love” when hippies were trying to establish the brotherhood of mankind without any positive lifestyle alternative or anyone to guide them. History shows that the young people of my generation fell hopelessly short of the goal of universal peace and love, for true love and peace can only be experienced on the spiritual platform.
The summer of 2019 is momentous, for it is a milestone in the devotees’ distribution of spiritual love: this year marks the thirtieth annual summer festival tour along Poland’s Baltic Sea coast. As my flight landed in Poland, I realized that I was the only original member of the tour that started three decades ago. In fact, several of this year’s participants are the teenage children of the devotees who were part of the inaugural festival tours during the early 90s. I thought how fortunate those teenagers were to be spending their summer vacation chanting, dancing and sharing Krsna consciousness with others, just as their parents had.
I had just flown in from Macedonia wearing non-devotee dress, but as soon as I landed, I changed into my devotional attire. Many devotees feel more comfortable in Western dress, but I still favor the traditional dhoti, kurta and shaved head. As I changed, I remembered a story my godbrother Bhavananda das had shared with me. He told me that when he first joined the movement in Los Angeles in 1969, he didn’t immediately shave his head. Srila Prabhupada noticed but didn’t say anything; he was away on the morning Bhavananda finally did shave his head clean. When Srila Prabhupada arrived back in Los Angeles the next day, Bhavananda gave him a garland and paid his obeisances. When he stood up Srila Prabhupada looked at him, rubbed his head with his hand and said with a big smile “Thank you very much!”
Although Srila Prabhupada preferred his disciples to dress in traditional clothing, he was not against them wearing Western dress. However, he made several conditions about this in a letter to Brahmananda das:
“The next point is that you should dress just like perfect American gentlemen, but the sikha and tilak must be very prominent. Coat, pants, necktie and everything – brahmacari and grhasthas, they can put on because you are not Sannyasi. In the temple, you can dress as brahmacari, but in order not to become ridiculous in the eyes of others, outside you can dress just like a very nice perfect aristocratic American. So there is no objection. But we must have always our tilak and sikha and there is no compromise for this purpose.”
[Srila Prabhupada letter to Brahmananda, October 6, 1968]
In other words, Srila Prabhupada expressed his desire that we retain the important symbols of our tradition—the sikha and tilak marking.
Guru Kripa das was waiting for me in a van outside the terminal.
“Welcome home!” he greeted me.
“Thank-you,” I said. “Actually, you’re right. This is my home, because home is where the heart is. I have been waiting for this moment all year!”
The 300 tour devotees had already set up the first festival of the summer in the nearby town of Pobierowo. The festival was in progress when we arrived. Driving in, I was overwhelmed with emotion at seeing hundreds of people walking through the festival grounds enjoying various activities in our numerous colorful tents. Some guests were immersed in the cooking demonstration, others were listening attentively to a seminar called “The Art of Happiness”, and still others were reading information in the exhibits on reincarnation and vegetarianism. Several young girls were in line to get gopi-dot face paint. The restaurant was jam-packed with customers. And to my greatest satisfaction, the book tent was full of people browsing through Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Guru Kripa looked at his watch and said, “Your stage lecture is in 10 minutes. We have to hurry!”
“This seems to happen every year,” I said with a laugh. “I arrive at the first festival just in time to lecture!”
Within minutes I was waiting in the stage wings as Krsna Karsani dasi, our Master of Ceremonies, was introducing me. I gathered my thoughts; it had been a year since I had given my usual introductory lecture on Krsna consciousness to a summer crowd.
“It’s a simple talk, but it must contain all the basic tenants of our philosophy,” I thought. “It must be presented in an informal, interesting and captivating way.”
The stage manager gave me a thumbs-up sign.
“You’re on,” he said.
I walked onto the stage to a crowd of several hundred people. “This is a most serious responsibility,” I thought as I faced them. “It may be the one and only chance these people get to hear the unique message of Krsna consciousness as it has been handed down through millennia. My presentation has the potential to awaken people’s interest or not.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I began, “it is such a pleasure to be here today. I’ve stood before the people of Poland sharing the wisdom of Bhagavad-Gita for 30 years now. Please allow me to share with all of you today its message while our actors are preparing for the next theater performance.”
I ended my talk by offering to sign any Bhagavad Gitas people purchased, and to write them a dedication. I wasn’t prepared for the reaction to this offer. I saw people running towards the book tent and by the time I descended the stage there was already a line of people jostling to have me sign their books.
“It’s my second one,” a lady said as she handed me a Bhagavad Gita.
“Where’s your first one?” I asked.
“Oh, I bought it some years ago at your festival in Rewal,” she said. “To tell you the truth I wasn’t really interested. It was my husband who insisted we get it. When we got home, we put it on the bookshelf and basically just forgot about it. Then nine months ago my husband passed away from cancer. I was devasted. I was ready to take my own life. Then I remembered the book we’d bought together at your festival. I remembered you saying in your lecture that the book could prepare one for death. So I went to our library and searched for the book until I found it. That night I sat down and read it until I fell asleep at 2:00 am. When I woke in the chair later that morning I just kept reading. That book, the Bhagavad Gita, gave me the solace I needed. It explained everything so clearly. Especially how the soul is eternal. I was so grateful.”
“I’m happy that it helped you,” I said.
“But that’s not all,” she said. “Three months ago my only daughter was getting married. I was so attached to her that I was envious of her fiancé. I knew it wasn’t right, so I picked up the Bhagavad Gita and went through it again. It helped me deal with that issue too by teaching me that a wise person sees everyone equally and treats them as God’s children.
“The day before the wedding I was frantically going from shop to shop looking for an appropriate wedding present for them. I was in a big store looking at kitchen equipment when it suddenly dawned on me that the very best thing I could give them was the Bhagavad Gita! All I bought in that shop was some wrapping paper and ribbon, and the next day I proudly gave them the Bhagavad Gita with a note about how dear it was to me. That night I was a little despondent because I felt like I’d lost a friend—I mean the Bhagavad Gita. I turned my attention to planning my vacation to Pobierowo, and I saw your summer festival advertised on the town’s website! I jumped for joy knowing I could get another copy of the book. Now that I have it, I’m confident I can face any challenge that comes my way. And I can also share its knowledge with others. Thank-you. From the bottom of my heart, thank-you.”
Her eyes welled up with tears, and so did mine. It felt good to be home again with the people I had come to love. As the festival ended, I watched people walking away with Bhagavad Gitas under their arms.
“This will be the summer of love my generation hoped for so many years ago,” I thought.
“Out of Lord Caitanya’s spontaneous compassion He restored all people back to their original consciousness and through the means of His holy names, He enabled them to pass beyond the impassable ocean of the age of quarrel. Thus through the golden moons of Lord Hari and the Vaisnavas the news of the names of Krsna was told from person to person.”
[Susloka-Satakam, text 46, by Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya]
“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]
“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]
“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 ]