In the 1980s, devotees of Krsna in Israel were surprised to find
many Arabs eager to learn about Krsna consciousness.
THOUGH I'D BEEN SPREADING Krsna consciousness in Israel for several years, I'd rarely set foot in an Arab village. Now, in white devotee robes, I stood in the center of Rama, a small Arab village nestled neatly in the foothills of the Upper Galilee. Wheeling a cart of Srila Prabhupada's books, I entered a store, and the owner advised, "You should visit Salach."
Following the store owner's directions, I climbed a long, steep mountain road. Nearing the top, gasping for breath, I looked up to see a young man smiling at me from his doorway. He seemed overjoyed. He introduced himself as Salach and invited me into his living room.
As I gathered myself, Salach pressed the play button on an old tape recorder. I could only smile dumbly as strains of Srila Prabhupada's singing filled the room. Then he related to me a recent dream he'd had, wherein Prabhupada was sitting in an abandoned house in Rama, and the residents were coming and worshiping him with flowers.
At First, Resistance
For many years devotees had presented Krsna consciousness to Israel's Jewish population, most of whom are non-religious. While many of these secular Jews were curious about Krsna consciousness and treated the devotees respectfully, the devotee's attempts to spread Krsna consciousness usually met with resistance and hostility. Devotees had to distribute books undercover, and only rarely would someone be interested to take a full set. As for religious Jews, devotees soon found it best to keep as much distance from them as possible. Once, while devotees were chanting on a street in Jerusalem in the early 1980s, some religious Jews attacked and beat them, stopping only when police intervened.
Try the Arabs?
Devotees considered Arab villages dangerous and generally didn't visit them. But through the years there were indications of the potential for giving these people Krsna consciousness. Our hari-namas (public chanting sessions) were always ecstatic, and sometimes nuns from local convents would join us. My wife, Maha-Laksmi Dasi, relates an experience:
We had just printed a five-book set, and we were distributing it in Nazareth. We parked the car in the Muslim section. Almost no one was in the street, but I took the set in my arms and stepped out of the car. A car came by, and the driver asked, "What are these books?" I showed him pictures. I said that the books are not only beautiful but they explain that the most important thing in life is … "to love God," he said. And he took the whole set.
Salach is a member of the Druze, a group considered an unorthodox sect of Islam. My encounter with him marked the beginning of an extraordinary relationship between the Druze and Krsna's devotees, a relationship especially characterized by the Druze's fascination with Srila Prabhupada's books. All sectors of their society quickly became eager to read the books. Santasya Dasi describes a typical day for a devotee in a Druze village:
The shop manager was very curious about reincarnation and took a set. Then someone entered and asked what the books were about. And on the spot he asked if he could also order a set. When I told him he could have the books now, he replied, "Then I'm fortunate!"
We went back to the car to load sets and proceeded to the school. We took a bus because the school was on top of a mountain. The bus driver found the set interesting. On entering the school, he showed us the principal's room. A meeting was in progress, but they invited us in and were really captivated by the books. The principal took two sets, one for himself and one for the school. His secretary took another. Then the bus driver entered and saw everyone writing checks, so he insisted on a set for himself.
Although unbeknown to the devotees at first, Druze philosophy and culture provided a favorable framework for the Druze's receptivity to Vedic literature. Druze roots are firmly situated in the Vedic tradition. Their histories are cyclical and date back hundreds of millions of years, with descriptions of incarnations of God in a human form appearing at regular intervals. This corresponds to Vedic literature and contrasts the traditions of Mideast religions. The term Druze is a misnomer, given by the Muslims, similar to the Muslim creation of the name Hindu. Druze refer to themselves as muwahidoon, "the one, eternal religion," or in Vedic terminology, Sanatana-dharma.
A major tenet of Druze faith is the transmigration of the soul. Many of them claim to remember past lives. Once, after Nagapatni Dasi presented Krsna consciousness and a set of books to an elderly Druze sheik, he declared, "You don't love Krsna like I love Krsna." He went on to relate his memory of a previous life in the Himalayas. Late in 1990, when we were living in the predominantly Druze village of Osafia, Maha-Laksmi was in great anxiety, with a two-month-old baby and Sadaam Hussein threatening to bomb Israel. Ola, a seventeen-year-old Druze girl, consoled her. "Don't worry," Ola said. "We leave this body, and we go to another one."
Attracted to the Books
Kamal Jumbalat, a modern Druze political, intellectual, and spiritual leader assassinated in Lebanon, had profound admiration for Indian culture. He visited India several times and was a strict vegetarian. His writings extol Krsna, the Bhagavad-gita, and the Ramayana. Jumbalat's picture hangs on the walls of almost all Druze homes.
Another portrait found in most Druze households is that of Sheik Tarif Amin. Until his death a few years ago, Sheik Amin was the world religious leader for all Druze. He met with devotees on many occasions and always expressed great appreciation for Vedic culture and Srila Prabhupada's books. At one meeting the Sheik said he wanted the Druze people and the Hare Krsna movement to work together as one race. Considering that the Druze are known for being insulated and secretive, this is an extraordinary statement.
Salman Falach, Druze minister of education in Israel, bought full sets of books for all Druze schools and libraries. Many of these institutions bought more sets. For his personal library, Salman acquired all of Srila Prabhupada's books in English. After seeing the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Mr. Falach said, "I think that after reading these books I will discover that our religion is coming from them."
Month after month, the Druze placed hundreds of sets of books in their homes. Many Druze concluded that Srila Prabhupada's books are part of their own scriptures. They read the books with devotion and sincerity.
Once, while struggling in the hot, dusty streets of Bukatha, a Druze village in the Golan Heights, I met the elderly wife of a sheik at the door of her home. We could hardly communicate, because she spoke no Hebrew or English and I spoke no Arabic. Still, she was attracted to the Arabic Gita and took a copy. As I thanked her and started to leave, the venerable sheik returned. He smiled at me but appeared doubtful about his wife's decision to buy the book. After encouraging them both to read the Gita, I departed.
About half an hour later I passed the back window of the sheik's house on my way to a different part of Bukatha. I faintly heard an old man reciting an invocation verse of the Gita in broken language:
sthapitam yena bhu-tale
svayam rupah kada mahyam
I couldn't resist peeking in the window. The sheik sat with his eyes intently gazing at the pages of the Gita, and his wife sat across from him, transfixed on the sound of the mantras. A shudder ran through my body, and I moved on.
About two hours later I was returning to the car for lunch, and as I passed the window I heard, from the Introduction, kamais tais tair hrta-jnanah prapadyante 'nya-devatah … in choppy Druze Sanskrit. Stunned, I looked in the window. The couple was in the same position, studying the Bhagavad-gita together. More than an hour later I again walked past the old couple's home, and their positions were unchanged. The man had reached the first verse and was reading the translation about Dhrtarastra, Sanjaya, and Kuruksetra.
Often, when speaking with Druze, devotees would begin to refer to a verse from Bhagavad-gita, and the Druze would complete the verse and explain its context and meaning. Once, during a public program in Rama, after Jayadvaita Swami had given a talk on the basic philosophy of Krsna consciousness, a young Druze, displaying his detailed knowledge of the First Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, asked "Why did Bhisma fight with Krsna if Krsna is his worshipful Lord?"
Srila Prabhupada's books sparked many villages to invite devotees to give presentations to their community. The people of Beit Jann, a village located above Rama on the same mountain range, invited us to address their high school. About fifty people, ages eight to forty, attended. During kirtana they chanted and clapped ecstatically, and then they enthusiastically accepted prasadam. The conversation was so lively and captivating that the school guard had to ring the bell many times to bring the meeting to a close.
Afterwards, Druze surrounded devotees in the parking lot, excitedly inquiring about Krsna conscious philosophy. A thirteen-year-old boy holding a soccer ball approached Maha-Laksmi. He had written down some questions. Through a translator, he asked about the process by which the soul carries conceptions from one body to another, and then he asked how God could be present everywhere if He is also a localized person.
We were regularly amazed at the depth and genuineness of the Druze in their appreciation of Krsna consciousness. Not only were they reading the books, but they were applying the teachings and were eager for the association of devotees.
God has distributed various holy names because people vary in their desires. "Krsna" and the names describing God's pastimes and personal relationships are His most intimate holy names, and the Druze were attracted to chanting them.
Once, going door-to-door I met a school manager who had received a set of books and japa (chanting) beads a year earlier. He said that whenever he feels anxiety he chants the Hare Krsna maha-mantra on the beads and feels immediate relief. On another occasion, in the village of Daliyat el Carmel, a Druze farmer opened the door. Though he had never met a devotee, he was happy to see me. He became excited and told me he and his family chanted Hare Krsna every day. Then he sang a familiar Hare Krsna tune. Somehow they had obtained the books and adopted the principles of Krsna consciousness.
Late in 1989, shortly after we'd moved to Rama, during a program at our temple I asked some guests what they knew about Krsna consciousness. Rezek, a simple construction worker living at the top of the village, matter-of-factly and very humbly said that he read Srila Prabhupada's books every day, followed the four regulative principles, and chanted eight to sixteen rounds of japa daily. Then I remembered having distributed a set to Rezek the previous winter. I hadn't been in touch with him since, but through the books and other aspiring Druze devotees in his village, he had adopted the process of bhakti-yoga. I began to imagine how many others like Rezek there might be in Druze villages.
We were constantly impressed by the cultural dignity of the Druze. They were unfailingly hospitable, respectful, and chaste. A long black or dark blue dress, covered with a white apron reaching almost to the feet, is the basic attire of the religious Druze woman. A white cloth covers her head, and a long diaphanous white veil is used to cover the mouth. One day Sheikha, our neighbor in Rama, who has more than twenty grandchildren, was playing with our new baby, Sita. Maha-Laksmi took a photograph. This was a mistake, because Sheikha did not have her head covered. It would be a great embarrassment for her to be photographed with her head uncovered, though she was an elderly woman. Maha-Laksmi promised to tear up the photo. If a Druze man knocked on our door and Maha-Laksmi answered, he would take three steps back, as is their etiquette.
During my father's visit from the United States, he took a stroll in Osafia, a Druze village where we lived in late 1990. Ferro Kais, a professor at Haifa University, noticed Jules and insisted that he come into his home, where he fed him sumptuously and established a warm relationship. Jules commented that after many years he wouldn't develop as close a relationship with his nearest neighbors in the comfortable apartment complex where he resides in suburban Philadelphia.
We found that all Arab groups highly value hospitality and traditional customs. Once, a young Christian man living at the top of Pekiin invited Maha-Laksmi and me into his home. Lying on the couch was a dying old man. We discussed spiritual topics with the two men and were impressed with the way the family cared for their elderly member. They did not try to hide him. Old age and death were accepted as inevitable aspects of life in this world. In such a culture, the ultimate importance of spiritual life was apparent.
Among the Muslims
Mainstream, and even extreme, Muslims were also receptive to Krsna consciousness, and devotees frequently visited their villages. Practically all schools and libraries in the Muslim villages of Israel took sets of Prabhupada's books, as did many of the intellectuals, who accepted the literature as an authentic and scholarly presentation of an honorable culture. Most Muslims accepted the commonalty of basic ideas, such as the greatness of God as the supreme controller, and the spiritual equality of all beings.
In a report to the World Sankirtana Newsletter, Maha-Laksmi, born an Israeli Jew, shared some experiences in Uhm El Fahm, a devoutly religious, and sometimes politically agitated, village in northern Israel:
I think they were really shocked, as Jewish, Israeli feet just don't step in their village, and what to speak of our Indian dress. We were referred to some offices, where we met a nice man who said he would definitely take the books if they were in English. He had a version of the Bhagavad-gita at home and said that in his opinion the Vedas are superior to the Koran. The next person we met was interested in the Mahabharata.
Then we were referred to the manager of the high school, Mr. Jamil Mahajna. We went to his house, and his wife invited us in. He was resting, being weak from the Ramadan fast. He was excited to meet us, and we began a long conversation, or more precisely he preached to us very strongly about Islam. We didn't argue with him but stressed that the common goal of all bona fide religions is love of God. Eventually he decided to place the books in his house, but his wife protested, "Haram!" ["Abominable!"] She said that they would be ostracized from the village, because the books were against the Koran. Somehow he held his ground, and the visit ended with us all having a Hare Krsnakirtana.
The people of Kabul, a Muslim village in the heart of the Galilee, asked the devotees to do a program for their village. Village leaders reserved a large room in the high school, and it was filled with leading spiritual and intellectual members of the community, including many teachers and a few sheiks with their distinctive headdresses. The crowd appreciated the kirtana, as many of them were accustomed to chant the ninety-nine names of God in the Arabic language on a string of beads they carry with them, much as devotees of Krsna chant on japa beads. They showed keen interest in the Vedic literature, and in topics such as yoga, mystic powers, the regulative principles of spiritual life, and God as the center of all endeavor.
Because of their piety, many Muslims realized that Krsna consciousness is transcendental to mundane politics and nationality. Practically every Muslim we encountered was inherently pious, though some had fallen into materialism.
Once, in a mostly Arabic industrial section of Haifa, I entered the garage of a Muslim car mechanic. He was attracted to the godly nature of the books, but when he saw the pictures, he objected, "We do not worship form."
I noticed on a wall all sorts of forms women from magazines. I pointed to them and said, "You are worshiping so many forms."
He became embarrassed and said he wanted to read Prabhupada's books.
Staunchly religious Muslims also took an interest in Krsna consciousness. One evening in the Muslim village of Sakhnin, a devout Muslim school teacher invited me into his home. Dressed in a long gray robe, he listened while I explained the philosophy of Bhagavad-gita. Then he gave an extensive explanation of the Koran. I told him Prabhupada said that Muslim means to be completely honest by submitting oneself to Allah. The teacher was enlivened by the conversation and resolved to study the Gita.
One morning some devotees presented books to teachers in a school in the Muslim village of Judeida. A religious teacher examined the Arabic Gita and protested, "I have something against this book!" The devotees thought, "Oh no, now he'll say its against the Koran." But his only objection was that the Arabic book didn't have the Sanskrit like the Hebrew books he'd bought a few months before. He had been reading them and trying to learn Sanskrit.
Devotees came across many Islamic sects, including the Sufis, Charcese, Aloines, Bedouins, and Achmadiyas, each unique and exciting. In Kababir, the Achmadiya section of Haifa, I approached the head sheik just after he'd conducted a service in the mosque. In his flowing black silken robes and elegant turban, he observed me in my dhoti and kurta. As I drew near, he melodiously chanted a verse from Bhagavad-gita (4.7):
yada yada hi dharmasya
glanir bhavati bharata
tadatmanam srjamy aham
(Translation: "Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion at that time I descend Myself.") The sheik, Mohammed Hamid, had been sent from India, the land where Achmed had appeared and the home of the Achmadiyas, to conduct a mission in Haifa. On his bookshelf were many Sanskrit books and other books of Indian philosophy, including an original Arabic printing, from 1972, of Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
In May 1989, Isvara Krsna Dasa, Paramguru Dasa, and I visited Bedouin villages in the Negev, some of which were simply the huts and tents of a few scattered families who had settled for the time in the same general area of the desert. We visited several families in their dwellings, requiring us to drive away from anything that could be called a road, or even a path, and into the expanse of the rough, sandy terrain of the northern Negev. Each Bedouin family was surprised to receive such visitors, but they all graciously welcomed us into their homes and gladly discussed spiritual topics.
Millions of Aloines populate Syria, though in Israel they inhabit only one village, Ajar, located in the Golan Heights on the Lebanese border. After passing through a military blockade, I entered Ajar and visited homes. Though they prefer to keep it secret, the Aloines believe in reincarnation, and almost everyone I met took a copy of Coming Back (a book about reincarnation), and many took an Arabic Gita.
Materially, the devotees who visited these villages were Jewish, and either Israeli or American. Many people could hardly believe we would approach such places. Once I was struggling up a steep hill with my book cart in the Muslim village of Tamra. A police car patrolling the village stopped, and the officers inside looked at me in disbelief. Both officers were Jewish. They asked for my identification. After checking everything to their satisfaction, they asked what I was doing there. I showed them the books and explained my mission. They told me I should leave. It wasn't a command, and I wasn't breaking any law, but they were worried and said I'd surely be killed if I stayed. Though I appreciated their concern, I explained that I routinely came to these villages and did this. They were shocked. They wished me good luck and drove away.
Toward evening of the same day, I was on one of Tamra's small side streets, trying to find a school principal, when a man in his thirties with a huge bloody knife walked toward me. He was a butcher, as was evident from his bloodied white smock. He wasn't too friendly and asked what I was doing in the village. For a moment I became aware that I was standing alone in the village of Tamra, two inches away from a suspicious Muslim butcher holding a sharp knife dripping with blood. Though this sort of thing had practically become an everyday affair, I realized that a wrong word, expression, or tone of voice could make me headlines in tomorrow's paper. I carefully gave him the name of the administrator I was trying to find, and the butcher gave me directions.
This was also during the peak of the Intifada uprising, and the book Satanic Verses, written by an Indian Muslim and considered blasphemous by orthodox Muslims, was rousing the anger of the Muslim world, especially toward things Indian. And opposition to Western influence was rising. Still, despite these material odds, Jewish devotees from Israel and America entered Muslim villages, presented Vedic literature, and developed meaningful relationships. For us, this was clear evidence that Krsna consciousness and Lord Caitanya's sankirtana movement are beyond any material considerations.
Dhira Govinda Dasa is the author of Krsna, Israel and the Druze. He lives in Alachua, Florida, where he works as a clinical social worker for the state and serves on the board of directors for the ISKCON community. He has received a fellowship from Florida State University to pursue a Ph.D. in social work.