A traveling preacher warms some
hearts after a cool reception in a
cold house in frozen, mid-winter Siberia.
ON DECEMBER 11 last year, we awoke early to prepare for our journey to Krasnoyarsk, 1,000 km farther east in Siberia. Because our train was canceled, Uttamasloka Dasa suggested we drive 350 km north to Novosibirsk and then catch a train to Krasnoyarsk.
"The road through the forest to Novosibirsk is unsafe, and if our car breaks down we'll be in real trouble. It's minus 45° Celsius [-49° F] outside!"
But there was no alternative, and by noon we were driving slowly north on the icy road to Novosibirsk.
Two hours into our journey, our devotee driver began falling asleep and I made him pull over. Switching seats with him, I drove the car most of the rest of the way. We arrived safely in Novosibirsk five hours later, just in time to catch our train to Krasnoyarsk. As we settled in for the fifteen-hour journey through the Siberian countryside, I breathed easy. I prefer trains to cars while traveling in these remote areas.
Not long after leaving Novosibirsk we were passing through dense forest regions, blanketed in thick snowdrifts. Although rich in gold, oil, iron ore, natural gas, Siberia to this day remains mostly undeveloped because of its remote location and harsh climate. The northern area, in particular, with its treeless marshy plains perpetually frozen to great depths, is inaccessible to humans. Most of the rivers here are frozen solid six to nine months of the year. The only souls brave enough to venture beyond the cities are hunters searching for wolves, bears, reindeer, antelopes, and, in the Amur River region near China, leopards and tigers.
Perhaps another reason the region is slow to develop is the stigma attached to it. In the 1930s and '40s the Soviets used it as a place to exile criminals and political dissidents. Siberian prison camps absorbed tens of millions of victims into a forced labor system that mainly worked the salt mines. Many perished. But I have always found that the more extreme regions of the world are better for spreading Krsna consciousness. People are not in illusion about the temporary and miserable nature of this material world and are, therefore, more inclined to hear our philosophy.
When we arrived in Krasnoyarsk we were met at the station by my disciple Guru Vrata Dasa, who is the temple president, and a number of devotees. Because of its isolated location, Krasnoyarsk receives only one or two visiting sannyasis a year, so the devotees were very happy to see us. That evening, they drove me to a hall program where, once again, I found a gathering of more than five hundred enthusiastic congregation members. Among them I spotted a group of ten gypsy men I had met last year when visiting Krasnoyarsk. When they saw me, they folded their hands in pranama and smiled.
I turned to Guru Vrata and asked if we would be having a program for the gypsies while I was in Krasnoyarsk, something we had discussed on my previous visit.
"Yes," He replied, "they've been waiting one year for you."
The program that night was especially nice. Guru Vrata had informed me that many of the congregation were well educated, being teachers, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. So I carefully developed my theme of the glories of the holy name, accentuating it with verses and pastimes, and spoke for over an hour.
After the lecture, every member of the audience came forward in file and offered me a flower or a small donation. I was a little embarrassed by the generous response of so many learned people, and even while receiving their kind offerings I was eager to have kir-tana with them as a gesture of my gratitude. I had to wait almost an hour before everyone had come forward, but then we had a kirtana that had everyone (even the finely dressed ladies and gentlemen) chanting and dancing in ecstasy.
The next morning, Guru Vrata came to my apartment and informed me that the leaders of the gypsy community had agreed that I could visit their village just outside of Krasnoyarsk. Guru Vrata himself was surprised, because no outsiders had ever been invited to the gypsy town. Gypsies are generally fiercely independent and keep to themselves, retaining their customs and traditions in an age when many ethnic groups are blending into society. But the ten men I had met last year have been practicing Krsna consciousness for more than four years and are regularly chanting sixteen rounds, following the regulative principles, and visiting the temple. Last year, when I asked if I could visit their village they replied that the elders of their community would not accept it, but they promised to work on them. It appeared that the elders gave their consent only at the last moment.
It was arranged that we would meet in the house of one of the gypsy men who is practicing Krsna consciousness. No women were allowed, because gypsy tradition has it that women are not included in public functions involving outsiders. So a group of devotee men and I headed out of town in the temple van, and after an hour and a half came to a village consisting mainly of old wooden houses. Gypsy children were playing in the snow, but when they saw our van they all ran away to the safety of their homes and peered out the windows at us.
Finding the house where the program was to be held, we got out of our van and walked to the door through the thick snowdrifts. I had no idea what to expect.
When we knocked on the door, a gypsy devotee opened it and greeted us with, "Haribol!" As we walked in, I was amazed at the devotional atmosphere in the home. Everything was spotlessly clean, and nicely framed pictures of Krsna and Srila Prabhupada were on practically every wall. A large bookcase in the living room contained only Srila Prabhupada's books, and a nice altar with photographs of the disciplic succession and Panca-tattva stood on one side of the room.
I noticed that the gypsy men were a little nervous, and I was soon to discover the reason. They all motioned that I was to go upstairs to a large room where we would have our meeting. I walked up the stairs and into the room, where I found the nine elders of the community. They had come to meet me, one of leaders of the Hare Krsna movement.
The atmosphere was tense. As I entered I smiled and greeted them, with absolutely no response. Rather, they stared at me in disbelief, having never seen a devotee in robes before. A few of them even scowled as they looked me up and down. All were dressed in dark clothes, and because of the chill in the old wooden house, some were still wearing their large fur coats. I noted that several of them had scars on their heads and faces.
As I sat down on a big chair provided for me, the gypsy devotees and the temple devotees sat in front of me. When one of the gypsy devotees gave me a big flower garland, I just smiled nervously at the nine elders, but again got only cold stares.
After a few moments, I began my talk by stating that our two communities were closely related, because both had their origins in India. That I knew that gypsies hailed from India impressed the elders, especially the biggest man among them, who appeared to be their leader. After I had spoken for some time about the similarities in our cultures (we are both God conscious communities and we both love to sing and dance), the leader suddenly stood up and, while pointing at the gypsy men who were practicing Krsna consciousness, challenged me loudly, "Do our people have to give up our culture to practice your religion?"
"No," I calmly replied, "it's not necessary. In the beginning, one simply has to add the chanting of Hare Krsna the names of God to one's life. You don't have to give up anything. By chanting, one naturally gives up all bad habits."
"Gypsies have bad habits?" he retorted, and at that very moment began coughing heavily, unable to control himself.
Praying to Krsna that my guess was right, I said, "Yes, smoking cigarettes is a nasty habit."
At that, everyone started laughing. Even the leader accepted that I had defeated him on that one, and he gave me a small (very small) smile in recognition.
Then one of the elders, who was holding a badly injured hand (I learned later that it was a gunshot wound), challenged, "And our children?"
That's all he said, but the inference was clear: "Are we interested in turning the gypsy children into Hare Krsna devotees?"
I thought for a moment, carefully choosing my words, knowing that the future of the gypsy devotees lay in what I said.
"What is the harm if a child is being taught to love God?" I replied. "Love of God is natural and the most important thing a child can learn. Nowadays, children are losing the sense of God consciousness and developing so many negative traits. If we encourage your children to love God through singing His names, dancing in happiness, and eating pure food offered to Him in love, we are actually doing a service to your community. Gypsies believe in God. It is a part of your tradition."
All eyes were on the elder as everyone waited for him to respond. He sat there for a few moments, contemplating what I had said and looking at the five or six gypsy children sitting on the floor.
A Child Leads
Suddenly, to everyone's surprise, one of the children, a boy about ten years old, looked up at me and said, "God is very great. How can we, who are so small, understand Him?"
I was stunned by his intelligent and thoughtful question, as was everyone.
Looking at the boy, I replied, "Just as you learn an important subject matter from a teacher, you also learn about God from a teacher."
The boy said, "Are you such a teacher? Can you teach us about God?"
Putting aside humility for the need of the hour, I replied slowly, "Yes, by the mercy of my spiritual master, I am."
"Then tell me what the soul is made of," he said, "and tell me what happens to the soul when we die. Then tell me what God is like."
The room became silent. I looked at the gypsy elders and saw them staring at me intently.
I said, "The soul is a spiritual person with a spiritual form. God is the Supreme Person, and His form is also spiritual. As His parts and parcels, as His servants, we all have a loving relationship with Him. At the present moment, we have forgotten that relationship, because we think we are these material bodies and that the goal of life is material enjoyment."
I spoke pure Krsna conscious philosophy for about forty-five minutes. I watched in amazement as everyone, children and adults, listened. The boy's questions had taken the conversation to another dimension, not challenging and threatening but sincere and searching. I could see that the elders were impressed with him and, by Krsna's grace, the philosophy I was presenting.
At the end of my talk, the leader of the gypsies himself began asking deeper questions. He'd heard about karma.
"What is karma, and why is it bad to kill animals?" he asked. And finally, "How does one become free from sinful reactions?"
The last question was the one I had been waiting for, and I began to explain the glories of chanting Hare Krsna how it destroys sinful reactions, uproots our material desires, and awakens our love for God.
Then I took the drum and said boldly, "So now we will all sing and dance."
Everyone's eyes lit up as their faces broke out in smiles.
I thought, "Now that we've broken the ice, here's our chance."
United In The Holy Name
I started chanting slowly, beginning with Srila Prabhupada's pranama-mantra. I was concentrating and focusing on His Divine Grace, praying that the chanting of the holy names would enter the hearts of the gypsy elders and purify them. To my knowledge, no gypsies have yet been initiated in Krsna consciousness. It would be a great victory if the community elders allowed their people to freely practice bhakti-yoga.
When I got to the maha-mantra, I continued chanting slowly so that everyone could follow. I became so immersed in the chanting that I had my eyes closed for a long time, and when I finally opened them, I was surprised to see everyone, including the gypsy leader, chanting Hare Krsna loudly with big smiles showing through their huge mustaches. Everyone was clapping and rocking back and forth. I kept the kirtana going, beating on the mrdanga loudly, for almost an hour. When I finally finished, I looked around and saw that once again the holy names had defeated all arguments and had melted the hearts of a few more conditioned souls.
Just at that moment, devotees started bringing in prasadam. A huge feast had been prepared, so all of us (devotees and gypsies alike) took our seats on the floor, and after saying the prayer to prasadam, proceeded to savor it.
The gypsy leader, however, couldn't sit comfortably on the ground because his body was so large, so he stayed in his chair. Halfway through the meal he spoke up, and as he did everyone respectfully stopped eating.
Looking at me, he said, "Sir, is it all right that I am sitting higher than you? I can't sit on the floor, but I don't want to disrespect you."
"No, please don't worry." I replied. "It's perfectly all right that you are sitting higher than me. I am simply a guest in your village. You are the leader."
When I said that, he looked down, and he didn't say anything for the rest of the meal.
Upon finishing prasadam, I washed my hands and stood up. When the gypsy leader saw me stand, he also stood, and we were spontaneously and simultaneously drawn to each other. As I approached him, I took off my big garland and, to the astonishment of all the gypsies, put it around his neck.
There was a brief moment of silence, and then suddenly he reached out with his big arms and embraced me. As devotees and gypsies applauded, he held me tightly and I embraced him with the same intensity.
Afterwards, he stepped back and announced, "They are welcome in our village at any time."
As I prepared to leave for another program at the temple, the gypsy children started pleading with their fathers to let them come to the temple with me. The men looked at their leader, and when he smiled and nodded, all the children rushed to put on their coats and boots. Within a few moments they were piling into the back of the van with one of the fathers. We had kirtana all the way to temple, happily chanting the holy names of the Lord.
That evening I had seen the mercy of Lord Caitanya unfold before my very eyes. Krsna consciousness had come to stay in that gypsy community. I pray I may always have a part to play in Mahaprabhu's mission of mercy the sankirtana movement of the holy names of the Lord.
"He does not consider whether a person is qualified or not. He does not see who is His own and who is an outsider. He does not consider who should receive and who should not. He does not consider whether it is the proper time. The Lord at once gives that nectar of pure devotional service that is difficult to attain even by hearing the message of the Lord, seeing the deity, offering obeisances, meditating, or following a host of spiritual practices. That Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Gaurahari [Caitanya Mahaprabhu], is my only shelter." Prabodhananda Sarasvati, Caitanya-candramrta 7.75
His Holiness Indradyumna Swami travels around the world teaching Krsna consciousness. In Poland each summer he oversees dozens of festivals. Since 1990 these festivals have introduced Krsna to hundreds of thousands of people.
Adapted from the unpublished Diary of a Traveling Preacher, Volume 3. To receive chapters by e-mail as they come out regularly, write to indradyumna.swami@pamho. net. (Volume 1 is available from the Krishna.com Store.)