Preaching Krsna Consciousness in Communist Kerala
The journey from Delhi to Trivandrum on the Kerala Express train was the most beautiful visual experience of my recent travels in India. I'd half-thought such natural beauty-existed only in wildlife documentaries. Hour after hour of panoramic scenes of lush fields, steep, majestic mountains capped in thick fog, and archaic canals canopied by palm trees whizzed by to elicit "oohs" and "aahs" from this neophyte traveler.
The Trivandrum ISKCON temple, my first destination, was small and empty. Only the pujari (priest) was there to greet me. Everyone else was out on sankirtana, distributing Srila Prabhupada's books and preaching the philosophy of Lord Caitanya. I picked up a drum and sat down before the Deities to chant until lunchtime.
On my way to the temple from the station. I had noticed an alarming phenomenon: huge, brightly-colored icons of Stalin, Marx, Engels, and Lenin littering every available bit of wall space. Everywhere I turned I saw enormous bulletin boards decorated with the Communist hammer and sickle.
"Isn't South India supposed to be the last remaining land of living Vedic culture?" I asked myself. "Isn't the Communist credo diametrically opposed to any form of religion or spiritual culture?" I was eager to discuss these gaping discrepancies with someone who understood Kerala.
Kerala has a Communist government. Boasting the highest literacy rate of any state in the country. Kerala is known not for industry or technology but for its religious and intellectual culture and its crops pepper, cardamom, coffee, tea, peanuts, betel, bananas, and coconuts. Scores of famous and wealthy temples of Krsna dot the map, and there is a long history of Christian missionary activity here. Yet it somehow seemed incongruous to me that Communism, and the commitment to staunch atheism it propounds, could flourish in such a religiously rich society.
I started surveying devotees and non-devotees alike to gain more understanding. Sarvaisvarya dasa, president of ISKCON Trivandrum, had the most insightful perspective: "Most Keralites have an illogical mental complex of intellectualism, religious piety, impersonalism, and Communism. It's a dangerous combination because they can quote any amount of scripture to support their position. Kerala is a poor state, so the Communist ideal which in its original Vedic form is actually good is alluring to them. On the other hand, when we preach Krsna consciousness effectively, with a scientifically satisfying foundation, they love it"
Yet without exception, all of the strangers I asked about this perplexing social atmosphere seemed blindly faithful or uninformed.
"What do you think about this 13th Annual Communist Congress?" I would ask them, taking advantage of the many party meetings held during my visit.
"Oh, yes. Marxism is good. I'm a Marxist" they would invariably reply.
"Do you also believe in God?" I'd pry.
"Oh, yes. I'm a Hindu."
"And what do you know of Marxism?" I'd ask.
Silence. I was not surprised, since I have seen that people often believe in something without knowing much about it.
I could see that faith, sometimes blind, was a constant. The only variable was the object: Krsna or Stalin, Lenin or Christ. It seems that all of us even the staunch atheists are forced to accept someone as our master.
Sarvaisvarya, a young brahmacari (celibate student), is an expert manager and competent leader. The twelve or so devotees of the small Trivandrum temple are working hard to spread Krsna consciousness. They support themselves only by the distribution of Srila Prabhupada's books. They understand the need for a highly systematized and novel approach for attracting the Keralite intelligentsia to Krsna consciousness, which is the only sane alternative to atheistic Communism's ideal of artificial classlessness.
The devotees of ISKCON Trivandrum have fashioned a unique and effective preaching strategy. It's called "Yoga for the Modern Age." Week-long seminars, erudite devotee-scholars elucidating the scriptural conclusions, intensive lectures soundly defeating misinterpretations of the ancient Vedic philosophy, and free prasadam (sanctified food) add up to a successful and persuasive presentation of the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. Held throughout South India, the Yoga for the Modem Age program is a dynamic undertaking, with special appeal to students and the scientifically minded. Affecting the lives of thousands, the program has borne many ripened fruits. "After the courses, the participants can judge for themselves what is guru and what is God," Sarvaisvarya says.
Here are some remarks from participants:
"I am enlightened by the courses, and I now understand that I am not this body but a spirit soul. For acquiring knowledge we have to accept a spiritual master, and the best yoga is obviously bhakti. Krsna is clearly the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and in Kali-yuga (the present age of quarrel], the highest religious activity is nama-sankirtana, the chanting of the holy names of God." C. Gopinatha, Calicut bank manager.
"I request you to conduct this course again and again." P. Baskaran, Government Model High School principal.
"As Christians we appreciate your giving spiritual knowledge in its original form. We hope that you'll conduct courses like this in the future in our town of Alleppey. We want to learn more about the Bhagavad-gita,the Puranas, and so on." P.O. Paul and V.D. Joseph, secretaries, Cooperative Urban Bank of India.
Sarvaisvarya has also masterminded an installment scheme for selling Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is in mass quantities. The results have mushroomed, since many more people, though normally unwilling to spend much money on a handsomely-bound book, can afford the minimal monthly fees. The devotees distribute thousands of pieces of literature monthly. Fifty percent of all profits are reinvested in a bank account used for the publication of more books in the local language, Malayalam.
For the kids, too, there is Krsna conscious learning and excitement. Every year during Vedic holidays the devotees organize schoolwide "rolling trophy" awards for the best artwork depicting various pastimes of Krsna and His devotees. There is also a "Vipra" competition to select the most scripturally learned students. The competition is steep. Questions like "From whom did Ravana acquire the ability to fly (puspaka-vimana-siddhi)?"could stump even senior Vaisnava scholars. And in the "Rasa" competition, children compete for the "Best Dressed" award, their elaborate costumes revealing the grandeur of Vedic history. Participation in these diverse programs keeps everyone remembering Krsna and His pastimes.
Every day, all day long, bright-faced children carrying schoolbooks and lunch boxes visit the ISKCON temple to honor Krsna's prasadam andcaritamrta (bathing water), shouting, "Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare!" at the top of their lungs. With attractive smiles and polite demeanor, they ask for small photos of Krsna with a calendar printed on the back. Thus even they have a chance to distribute Krsna consciousness to their family and friends.
Wherever I walked in Kerala, beaming children ran up to me, greeting me with folded hands and an enthusiastic "Hare Krsna! Namaskaram,Swami!" I was reminded of how Srila Prabhupada said that you could test an entire pot of rice by the condition of a single grain. From the children. I could understand that South India, and especially Kerala, is still a very civilized place, where God consciousness is still revered and spiritual culture could prevail.
I could see that faith, sometimes blind, was a constant. The only variable was the object: Krsna or Stalin, Lenin or Christ. It seems that all of us are forced to accept someone as our master.