Partha Sarathi Dasa is a Platoon Sergeant serving in Iraq for the American army.
For his mission he carries his gun and his Ugra Nrsirmha Sila in his body armor.
For his mission he carries his gun and his Ugra Nrsirmha Sila in his body armor.
(The following interview was conducted by email. Some excerpts are from an interview by Antony Brennan from ISKCON news.)
BTG: How did you come in contact with Krsna conciousness?
Partha Sarathi Dasa (PSD): I came in contact with the devotees at an early age. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, right up the street from Sri Sri RadhaGovinda Mandir. I would always see the devotees walk· ing around distributing books and flowers. When I was with my father,I would make himgive a donation to them. My parents who are not devotees, told me after I became a devotee, that when I was six, I would cut my hair and yee 'KRSNA! KRSNA!' throughout the house.
In 1991, I became interested in a form of music called Straight Edge, which is punk rock. This type of music promoted vegetarianism, no drugs, no illicit sex, no gambling etc. That is where I first came in contact with a Hare Krsna Band called Shelter. Their music made so much sense, and as I was searching for God, I decided to read the Bhagavad-gita, but instead I joined the US Army.
In the year 1998-1999, I was in Bosnia, and Kosovo. I was picking up some dead children and I gt sick to my stomach, not from the death but from this material world. That day I received a magazine with an interview of 'Shelter', and it re-sparked my interest. As soon as I returned to Germany, I found a temple and joined Srila Prabhupada's movement.
BTG: What was your family's reaction?
PSD: At first my family thought this was a passing ph ase in my life. My father was okay with me becoming a devotee, but my mother was dead against it. But now after being a devotee for ten years, my mom has accepted it. They see how Srila Prabhupada's books have changed my life.
BTG: When did you join the army?
PSD: I joined the army in 1994. My first tour in Iraq was in 2003, and this is my fourth tour here.
BTG: Did you ever feel that you will not be a ble to pursue Krsna consciousness in Iraq?
PSD: No, I never felt that. The only person that can kee p us from practic ing Krsna consciousness is our self. If we are disciplined enough, motivated, and have some faith , Krsna will provide us with the means to be strong in Krsna consciousness. Not th at I am so strong, but I have faith In Srila Prabhupada.
BTG: What are your duties in Iraq?
PSD: I am a Platoon Sergeant, meaning I care for, mentor, and train over 30 soldiers. I am basically what a bhakta leader is: I encourage them and give the guidance to accomplish our missions. I go on missions daily, for 12-16 hours a day.
BTG: What is your day like?
PSD: My day is intense. It usually begins about 2 am when I shower and then perform service for the saligrama-sila. I ch ant from about 3-5.30 am, read until 6 am and then do physical training until 7 am. I then shower and eat the prasada from my seva, which is usually nuts and dried fruit. I listen to a lecture and then I'm off on missions.
When I return from missions, I make my Lords a small meal of dal and capataI read or study the scriptures until 10 pm and then it's time to rest. On some days I teach mantra meditation at night or Bhagavad gita study. Whe n I am not on missions or in meetings, I am usually out delivering prasada cookies I receive from Los Angles, or distributing Srila Prabhupada's books to the soldiers."
BTG: How do you preach to your fellow soldiers or the local people?
PSD: Well, I have a different way of preaching, I don't just go up to them and talk about Krsna, unless I am doing books. But I just try and follow the principles that Srila Prabhupada gave us and give my heart to everyone I meet. I am open about being a Hare Krsna. In the early morning I walk around in my saffron dhoti-kurta with japa bag and they get interested. Most will come and ask what I am doing, then I explain and if they are interested, I give them a book.
The response has been amazing, these soldiers, not just the low ranking but high ranking also have a whole new outlook on Ha re Krsna devotees. I do not preach to Iraqis it is too sensitive. I do not wan t to give the impress ion t hat American soldiers are trying to convert Muslims. Then it will sound like the crusades of the Catholics. So I leave all preaching on the base.
BTG: How do your superiors accept your preaching?
PSD: Preaching has caused no problems for my military superiors. They think it is good. They are favorable. Myoid commander would offer pranams and say Hare Krsna to me. My new supervisor came by because he remembered seeing my saligrama-silas in Kuwait and he wanted to have a darsana (audience) before Them again.
They see my activities as having a positive influence. Whereas others are interested in escaping reality, I am interested in help ing each person develop the good in themselves. There are some who disagree with what I do, but all are respectful.
BTG: Tell us some of your preaching experiences.
PSD: The preaching experience in Iraq has been amazing-so many souls a re hungry for spiritual knowledge . When you are faced with death everyday, you turn to God. Some turn for a quick death, some for protection-everyone turns. Because you are in anxiety: 'Oh I might die today on patrol, a mortar might hit me, an improvised explosive devise (lED) might blow my truck up.' All these material miseries make us have a strong dependence on God . I started to preach because I was lonely. I had no one a round me to talk with about Krsna. "
After beginning to discuss Krsna with others around me, I came to realize the power of the preaching process and the purity of Srila Prabhupada's instructions.
At this moment we have distributed over 1600 books here and over 50,000 pieces of prasada. The beauty of the preaching is that so many souls want to know about spiritual life. The teaching of the Bhagavad-gita can be related to the soldiers' lives.
Krsna is so kind, if we just endeavor to share Him with others, He will reciprocate. In my opinion, He does not want us to keep Him to ourselves He wants us t o give Him to everyone with whom we come in contact. We can do that by sh ar ing Srila Pra bhupada's books with everyone we meet. And in this way we can ass ist Srila Prabhupada in fulfilling his spiritnai master's mission.
BTG: Everybody knows Iraq is not a safe place to be. How do you see that?
PSD: Yes Iraq is a dangerous place, but so is eve rywh e re else in the material world. Either here or in the safety of your home and nation, danger is everywh ere. The real danger is fo rgetting our relation ship with Krsna. This birth as a human is meant for cultivating that relationship, and if on e starts on that path, what is there to fear in the material world?
Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita, "I n this process there is no loss or diminution and even little progress saves one form the greatest danger." For me being in Iraq is helping me develop my relationship with the Supreme Lord, helping me to learn more about serving Him and surrendering to Him.
BTG: Have you ever faced life threatening attack?
PSD: Yes, I have many times been put in these situations. Whether being ambushed, or having massive casualities from an insurgent suicide car bomb, or the bombs on the side of the road-there is always something. Once a rocket hit 50 meters from where I take rest.
BTG: Any amazing experience by which your faith in Krsna became stronger?
PSD: Once Krsna gave me the strength to lead my team through a mass casualty event, where after suicide attacks in the North, we had to treat over 60 men , women, and children. The real material world! Nothing more so be ring then h av ing to put some little child's brain matter back in their head while still trying to focus on speaking krsna katha to the dying child. Some died but I always carry Sri Ugraji (nrsimha-sila) with me and His smile was seen by them before they left their bodies. So powerful is this movement, this process. Krsna is helping me here and showing me how special this life is.
Another time I was on patrol in Iraq, when we came under sniper fire. Insta ntly we took cover. S ince we couldn't move, I thought, "I might as well read the Gita." So I took out my pocket Bhagavad-gita and started to read. Next thing I know I had five soldiers around me all huddled against a wall. They listened intently as I read a verse out loud and then they asked if I had other books with me that they could have. For some reason that day I had some small books in my assault pack. Within seconds they were all grabb ing them and putting the books in their pockets. You could see in their eyes they forgot about the situation for a second and were happy to get this doorway to the spiritual world. The next round of bullets impacted near our position waking us up out of our dr eam. Quickly I gave them orders so we could push through the kill zone.
BTG: As a devotee what difficulties do you face in Iraq?
PSD: The difficulty is that one has little to eat. In the military they put meat in everything-even in salads and cooked vegetables. The military's idea of vegetarian is grilled cheese and French fries, but even that you cannot eat, because the potatoes are cooked into the same oil as meat and the bread is grilled on the same grill as meat. So eating is extremely difficult.
I live in a small room. I sleep on the floor and cook for myself on a single hot plate. I have been eating very plain dal with just turmeric and salt or dried fruits and nuts for the last 13 months. During my first time in Iraq, there was nothing to eat except crackers and peanut butter. The conditions are far from brahminical, the association is not for someone who is trying to develop qualities in the mood of goodness. So with that comes loneliness and having to motivate yourself everyday to give more and more to Krsna. So actually none of these are difficulties; they are blessings from Krsna. So-called difficulties are helping me in my devotional service.
BTG: How many devotees are there in the US Army in Iraq?
PSD: There are about 20 serious devotees, most of whose parents are devotees. We also have 12 bhaktas that are reading and chanting regularly. Our programs are spreading: Now I host a mantra meditation class once a week and on Mondays and Fridays I have a small program of bhajanas and prasadam. We are also distributing cookies on three different base camps thanks to Ratna Bhusana Dasa with an average of 1000 cookies out a week. Recently I reached out to the Indians that work here and am having a weekly program with them as well. Also Bhakta Andrew is giving Gfta classes in Baghdad for about 10 soldiers.
BTG: When did you get initiation?
PSD: In Berlin, Germany in 2005, I got both harinama and brahmana initiation together from His Holiness Kadamba-Kanana Swami. My spiritual master gave me many instructions but the two most important were to develop a relationship with Srila Prabhupada, to read everything I can about Srila Prabhupada, and the other was one word, preach. I have tried to allow these instructions to enter my heart.
BTG: You also organized a Ratha Yatra in Iraq. Please tell us about it.
PSD: On the day of Srila Prabhupada's disappearance, I organized the first Ratha-yatra in Iraq. From the first light, people were waiting for the Lord's darsana. At around 12 noon the Lord made His appearance, much to the pleasure of all assembled. The turn out was not as big as we have hoped, but considering the circumstances, I believe it was a success. About 50- 75 souls-hungry and eager for the Lord's mercy chanted and danced. A simple feast of dal, rice, and cookies filled everyone's stomach. While the procession was not a long distance and everything was very simple, I feel the efforts of all involved and all those that attended were the true offering. Many came away from this Ratha-yatra with a deeper understanding of spiritual life and for a moment, Iraq was transformed into Vaikuntha.
BTG: And how did govardhan puja happen?
PSD: We were blessed with the facility to celebrate Divali/ Govardhana-puja. I was invited by the Indian contract workers to come and give a short class. I had no idea what to expect. I walked into an old airplane hanger and to my surprise there were 150 people waiting, eager for some taste of krsna-katha. While the preparations were not extravagant, the love and thought behind the event brought a tear to my eye. As I chanted Jaya Radha Madhava, I looked around and saw everyone in deep meditation, and when the maha-mantra was sung, I could see the love explode from their hearts. At the end of the class, I gave out over 150 of Srila Prabhupada's books to hungry souls!
BTG: Have you ever been to India?
PSD: No I am too fallen to come to India, too many material desires, so Krsna sent me to Iraq to get some purification. I plan on coming to India for three months to study in the future.
BTG: Thank you very much.
Santipura Natha Dasa has been a devotee for last ten years. He is a professional journalist, with thirteen years of experience. Presently he is working with Chitralekha magazine as a senior reporter.