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Krishna Scenes in Bulgaria

My traveler’s guide said that Sofia, set on an elevated plateau, is the highest European capital. It looked high. During all the mild mornings of mid-July the top of the mountain range south of the city seemed close to the waning moon. Our Hare Krishna temple is a house at the foot of one of the mountains.

On three sides of the temple, men were constructing large buildings—indicative of the fast development Bulgaria has its sights set on, with plans to join the European Union this January. Still, in a field behind our house a traditional farmer grazed sheep. The bells around their necks made music when they walked. The shepherd, carrying a folding stool, sat down when his flock stopped.

Bulgarian culture has begun to encounter Chaitanya Vaishnavism and the chanting of names of God: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Devotees in Sophia and elsewhere in Bulgaria ask God to engage them in His loving service and purify their material desires. Some devotees are young and run small businesses and start families, but they renounce intoxicants, meat-eating, gambling, and nonreproductive sex. In contrast, Sofia has casinos big and small, its billboards use sexual provocation, and its Orthodox Christianity approves of animal slaughter.

Regardless of what financial benefits Bulgarians will see in this life, working to enjoy one’s profits entangles one in material life. But, Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita, a steadily devoted soul attains peace by offering the results of all activities to Him. Thus Bulgarians will benefit most from their work by gradually learning to develop Krishna consciousness.

Bulgarians in Belgium

All the Bulgarians devotees I met before visiting their country last summer have served at a Hare Krishna community in rural Belgium. I was there teaching students at Bhaktivedanta College how to improve their essays. Mahendra Dasa (Mladen Balabanov) joined the staff of the college in 2005 and taught philosophy and world religions. His parents are a teacher and a scholar. He is thirty-five. As a boy he studied piano, and nowadays he skillfully plays devotional instruments and often leads the congregational chanting of Hare Krishna.

“During the Communist period in Bulgaria,” he said, “drugs were not available, and I was not interested in them anyway. I did not smoke or drink.”

During the mid-1990s he took charge of the Sofia Hare Krishna center. Then he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and later studied information systems and management at the London School of Economics.

“I always hoped to use what I learned directly in Krishna’s service,” he said.

His wife, Sangita Dasi, encouraged him to join the Bhaktivedanta College staff instead of doing business. (She works as a set designer for Hollywood film companies that shoot in Bulgaria.) Last summer he became a part-time graduate student at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. Now, besides teaching and doing administrative work at the college, he is doing a postgraduate study of management in the field of organizational justice.

A Talk About the Body

When the school year at Bhaktivedanta College ended last June, Mahendra and I headed to Bulgaria. On a Friday night in Sofia I spoke (Mahendra translating) to fifteen guests about a new perspective on the body: Lord Krishna says that desire, hatred, happiness, and distress are interactions of the senses and the elements that make up the body. This viewpoint resembles a psychologist’s, but Krishna adds that the body has an indestructible knower, the soul, who makes the body work. Therefore a person is transcendental to the senses, body, and mind. And one becomes well situated and happy by tolerating the urges of the senses and checking desire and anger.

I was told that some Bulgarians follow a religion founded by Peter Dunov in Bulgaria in the early 1900s, which combines the idea of reincarnation with vegetarianism and Christian beliefs. But most people in Bulgaria know just this life. They know they are situated somewhere between birth and death. Throughout Bulgaria people post obituaries on the front doors of their houses and even on public trees to mark anniversaries of deaths in the family.

To the Sea Coast

Making lots of gradual curves through central Bulgaria’s mountain range, we drove east to Mahendra’s parents’ house to pick up his fourteen-year-old stepson, Tine. En route we ate banitsa, a warm pastry filled with cheese, which Bulgarians like to start the day with. (In Sofia we tasted tarator, chilled yogurt soup made with cucumber, walnuts, and dill. One bacterium used to make yogurt is called Lactobacillus bulgaricus because it thrives on Bulgarian land.)

Continuing east, we reached the Black Sea coast and headed south to the village where we stayed. Our hosts, male twins named Deyan and Sasho and their parents, grow tomatoes and cucumbers in a huge greenhouse (or “glasshouse” as it is known in Europe). The twins now live near the greenhouse and practice Krishna consciousness there, so we stayed in their former rooms on the top floor of the family’s house. Breezes cooled us all day, and the balcony provided a view of roofs and gardens of a traditional neighborhood. Cocks crowed at dawn, but being early birds ourselves, we were already up chanting Hare Krishna on our beads.

Three devotees from the Sofia temple were also house guests, and they were busy distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books in the area. The cover photo of one book shows Radha-Krishna wearing clothes with horizontal bands of color: white, green, and red—the colors of the Bulgarian flag. I guessed that the Bulgarian devotees who translated the book may have chosen the colors for that reason.

The twins take care of three cows. And the fresh milk is drunk and made into curd and rice pudding (“sweet rice”). Out on a short walk near the greenhouse I came to a spacious grove of walnut trees, another natural opulence of rural life in Bulgaria.

Every day before sunrise we drove to a beach. We would chant Hare Krishna on our beads for an hour and a half and then swim. Afterward we met the twins, to sing and talk about Srila Prabhupada and Krishna before eating the breakfast Sasho cooked.

Winding down at a beach one weekend was a party with techno music. This prompted me to tell Mahendra that Shakespeare wrote about a character “that converses more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning.” In other words, the early morning is auspicious and meant for the spiritual development of the brain. Krishna says, “What is night for all beings is the time of awakening for the self-realized.” We devotees see the sun rise on time and feel the regular seasonal temperatures and know that the master, Krishna, is there, and we want to be His eternal servant. That is our actual position.

Helping the Bulgarians

His Holiness A. C. Bhaktivaibhava Swami, ISKCON’s governing body commissioner for the country, hopes that Krishna consciousness will keep spreading in Bulgaria. He told me by e-mail that he wished for any help in the form of supplies and support.

“There is a great potential for spiritual life among the citizens of Bulgaria,” he wrote. “Our Rathayatra festival and other programs are well attended and appreciated by government officials. We could do much more to benefit Bulgarians, but our resources are extremely limited. So our members can only make a humble attempt to spread the Hare Krishna mantra to every town and village.”

Lord Chaitanya predicted five hundred years ago that Krishna’s names will become known and chanted worldwide. Now the devotees are presenting Krishna’s names and message to the Bulgarian populace. In the coastal area, in three weeks, 350 books were distributed by Tulasi Dasa, Purusha-acutya Dasa, and Pandava-bandhu Dasa (a law-school graduate). Tulasi Dasa hopes that Bulgaria’s economic growth will enable more people to own and read Srila Prabhupada’s books. Then the seeds and sprouts of Krishna consciousness in Bulgaria will certainly grow and flourish.