By Urmila Devi Dasi
The goal was a nation of atheists. Over three generations—seventy years—the government had an explicit, determined policy to create such a nation. As in the other Soviet Republics, atheistic propaganda permeated education and social life in Armenia. Any slight practice of devotion to God, in any religion, whether public or private, often met with swift, brutal consequences.
One day in an Armenian mountain village, a typically atheistic engineer, a man well respected in his community, sat outside for a smoke. When a truck came to deliver a package, he and his friend the truck driver talked about news from the city. As the driver carried the package to the engineer’s house, the engineer saw an unusual book in the truck: a Russian translation of Sri Ishopanishad. Curious, he picked it up.
He looked at the photo of Srila Prabhupada on the back and thought, “How amazing that there is someone like this living on this planet!”
Then he spontaneously fell on the ground to offer obeisance to the photo.
“What is this book?” he asked the returning driver.
“Oh, someone forced it on me. You want it? I don’t need it.”
The engineer spent the rest of the day absorbed in Prabhupada’s translation of this key Upanishad of the Yajur Veda. In those nineteen verses and commentaries, the engineer found two points he decided to put into practice at once, not only for himself but for his whole family. From that very day, his family, including his six children, became vegans and chanted the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.
Two years later, the engineer, who was to become an initiated disciple named Brahmananda Puri Dasa, was able to meet other devotees of Krishna. He learned they were secretly printing spiritual books, often compiling them by hand or with minimal, poor equipment. He offered the use of his large house and cellar for printing. Using a little money from previous book sales and his own savings, he started procuring printing equipment. Since printing was illegal, getting the equipment was not a matter of an open purchase from a store, but involved great risk and ingenuity. Often he had to barter and finagle even to get paper, generally unavailable at any price.
Eventually, Brahmananda Puri had a full printing press in his cellar. Being the main person responsible for printing forbidden religious books, he was taking the highest risk of all the Soviet devotees. While those producing and selling the books in small quantity were in constant jeopardy of days, months, or a few years of torture and imprisonment in jails and psychiatric hospitals, Brahmananda Puri's arrest would have most likely resulted in over fifteen years of punishment, and probably eventual execution.
After Communism collapsed in the Soviet countries and printing became legal, Brahmananda Puri printed close to ten million books with very little capital. Today he is one of the key people making the planned Moscow temple a reality. He secures the permits, gets government approval, and moves the process forward.
A Science Student's Discovery
Far from that Armenian village, an atheistic scientist walked through Moscow’s streets. It was 1977, and he was then a brilliant graduate student, attending chemistry classes at Moscow State University. The idea that life could be connected with religion was the furthest thing from his imagination. But after the Moscow Book Fair, at which devotees “lost” some books and leaflets, one of his friends became a vegetarian. He also noticed his friend becoming unusually secretive. The scientist student, under his friend’s influence, also gave up meat, fish, and eggs, and read the Bhagavad-gita in Russian, although it was a translation other than Srila Prabhupada’s. Soon he discovered the reason behind his friend’s newfound furtive behavior. To avoid arrest he was hiding his chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra.
That scientist, who much later accepted the renounced order and the name Bhakti Vijnana Goswami, felt shocked when reading the Gita. His father and grandfather held high and respected positions as scientists, and all his family were atheists. Yet the Gita affected him as only one other book—the Gospel of John—had done. After reading the Gita, he felt he couldn't live as he had before. The book presented such a harmonious and beautiful picture of life that it beckoned him to leave an existence he no longer felt satisfying.
He noted, however, that the main difference between reading the Gospel and the Gita was that after the former, he didn’t know how to change or what to change. Now, along with the Gita, his friend had given him the practice of the four regulative principles (no intoxication, no illicit sex, no gambling, no meat, fish, or eggs) and the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Bhakti Vijnana Goswami’s taking up the chanting of Hare Krishna is particularly remarkable given that his friend explained nothing about the meaning or nature of the mantra. He simply said that chanting would be good for him. He didn’t explain who Krishna is. The translation of the Gita he had read used the word Bhagavan (meaning God, full of all opulences) but not Krishna. In any case, as a scientist, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami decided to experiment with the mantra. To his great happiness, it moved him profoundly.
He knew that if he was caught chanting, arrest with torture might follow. So, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami’s first chanting aid was a string of twenty-seven beads instead of the traditional 108, enabling him to hide his japa beads quickly if needed.
When his friend took him to meet other devotees, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami was disappointed. Most were not intellectuals like his associates. He appreciated that they were peaceful people and found much joy from kirtana. He was intrigued and kept chanting, yet did not make a full commitment.
Meeting the KGB
One day as Bhakti Vijnana Goswami walked to the area where he worked on campus, he got a message that his academic advisor wanted to see him. While walking up the stairs to the office, he saw his advisor, usually bold and outgoing, hastily walking the other way, his face as white as paper.
Trembling, with a choked voice, his advisor said, “Someone wants to see you in my office.”
In the office waited a man three times his size. The huge man smiled and then showed his identification—a colonel of the KGB. The student who had remained only remotely connected with the Hare Krishna movement had not expected such an encounter. Now, he felt sure he was in deep and dangerous trouble.
The KGB colonel did not even try to reason with the frightened young man.
“You are an educated man, with a bright future and career in front of you. But somehow you got involved with people who are very dangerous. I hope you know that it is your duty to report to us about them. We are not asking very much. But if you do it, your career will prosper. You'll be promoted. If you don’t, you may be kicked out of your studies, and you'll have no future. You may even go to prison, where all these other people will end up.”
He could only reply, “Sir, I cannot give you an answer now.”
The KGB man relented slightly.
“Okay, but you have to come to our place in three days to let me know.”
The young student dabbling in spiritual life felt fearful.
“What will happen?" he thought. "I'll have no future. I'll go to prison.”
But then he had quite a different idea.
“How is it that the KGB takes this chanting so seriously as to send a colonel to threaten me just for a little practice of it? It must be something very powerful and important.”
Thus the KGB colonel acted as a type of guru, pushing Bhakti Vijnana Goswami to delve seriously into spiritual life.
Powerful Advice from a Petite Source
His new determination sat side by side in his heart with the fear of the KGB threat. He decided to consult with one of the more intellectual devotees, a petite nineteen-year-old woman named Malini Devi Dasi. He secretly confided in her about the office encounter.
She laughed and said with strong conviction, “They cannot do anything to you. You are an eternal soul.”
Her words struck him like lightening.
“They cannot do anything to the real me,” he realized.
A wave of calm engulfed him, and the fear vanished.
“This tiny woman has transformed my vision,” he concluded.
Later that day he was at his appointment with the KGB, feeling cool and confident.
The secret meeting was in one of the city's international hotels, all of which were under the government’s close watch. In a small room, the colonel and another man sat, smiling.
“So,” the colonel said lightly, “did you think about my offer?”
“I am not going to work for you, because it is against my principles.”
The colonel jumped from his chair and yelled, “What principles do you stupid fools have besides four regulative? Go home now, but you should know you are finished.”
Bhakti Vijnana Goswami walked calmly out of the room and traveled to the empty apartment a friend had given him in Moscow. He decided all would be fine, somehow or other.
A Fateful Home Festival
His spiritual practices at home became much more serious, and he decided to hold a large festival in his home. The kirtana for the festival was exuberant, even roaring. Bhakti Vijnana Goswami felt good to have hosted such a huge, important celebration. But three days later, half the festival participants were arrested and taken into custody. The officials brought in Bhakti Vijnana Goswami as a witness to the charges against the devotees. Their so-called interrogation of him was, in fact, torture. The officers recounted to him many details of the festival, including what was said by whom, when, and under what circumstances. To create a fearful atmosphere in which hiding anything would be useless, they wanted to give the impression that they were everywhere and knew everything.
After this incident in 1983, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami wound up his activities in Moscow because he was in the last year of that part of his studies. He practically ran from Moscow to his hometown to take shelter of his highly placed father and grandfather. The KGB’s hand reached there relentlessly three days later in the form of a letter demanding an appointment.
Each week they required him to come to a meeting where agents psychologically tortured him. He was materially well situated, and they threatened to dismantle his life. The situation was scary, but inevitably during these sessions the sweet voice of the mantra would come to him. The mantra was unlike the voice of his own mind, and had a powerful effect similar to the courageous words of Malini. So, at each meeting he would start off feeling very fearful, and then the mantra would come and he would become calm to the point of laughing inside. At that same moment, the interrogator, who had previously seemed intense, would suddenly become uneasy and timid.
After four sessions, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami decided simply not to go any more. To his amazement, for the next two years he heard nothing from the KGB. He was teaching others about Krishna, distributing books, and meeting with people to discuss Krishna. He also defended his thesis and got his Ph.D. in molecular biology from the Soviet Academy of Science. Life seemed peaceful.
During this time, an American devotee, Kirtiraja Dasa, had been working to help the Soviet devotees. He wanted Bhakti Vijnana Goswami to translate Prabhupada’s books into Russian because he was the most educated among the devotees. Devotees with little or no formal training in English had done most of the first Russian translations of the scriptures from Prabhupada’s English. Then someone outside Russia who had only a little training in Russian would edit them, using a pre-revolution English-to-Russian dictionary. The results were poor from a literary point of view. For example, Prabhupada’s term “devotional service to the Lord” became “devotional slavery,” and “servants” of God became “slaves.” Even though the books had these types of problems, and were often handmade—pages were missing and the print was hard to decipher—many people took up Krishna consciousness by reading them. But Kirtiraja wanted to bring the Russian books up to a world standard.
If Bhakti Vijnana Goswami stayed in Russia to translate, he would be under an ever-present threat of arrest. To assure that high-quality book translation could continue unhindered, Kirtiraja wanted to get Bhakti Vijnana Goswami to the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust office in Sweden. Through various maneuvers, including having devotees in Sweden fast and protest outside the Russian embassy, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami was allowed to emigrate to Sweden, where he spent eight years translating Prabhupada’s books into Russian. Today he is one of the key spiritual leaders in the former Soviet bloc and is at the helm of the Moscow temple project.
Decades of government-induced atheism in the Soviet bloc simply increased people’s hunger for spiritual life. Now that a consumer culture has been introduced, people have become frustrated on both sides. They know that both communism and capitalism are cheating, because material happiness has not increased. To find lasting and expansive happiness that the soul seeks, one must go to the reservoir of pleasure, the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna. Devotees such as Brahmananda Puri and Bhakti Vijnana Goswami are not content to drink alone from that reservoir. They want to bring the opportunity of loving service to Krishna to all who thirst for full satisfaction. In Oman, frankincense trees grow out of solid rock. Here in Russia, the most beautiful and fragrant plants of love of God were growing out of unyielding iron. Who had planted such seeds?
The Krishna consciousness movement started from Prabhupada’s three-day visit to Moscow, where he initiated one disciple, Ananta Santi Dasa. In that land of scarcity, where a two-hour wait for a little bread or milk was common, people were keen to get for themselves any opulence that others might have.
So, Ananta Shanti would tell whomever he met, “Do you already have a mantra?”
Without knowing what a mantra was, they would say, “No, I don’t have one of those.”
“Oh, all my friends already chant a mantra. Why don’t you do so as well?”
Soon, those he had induced to chant were printing leaflets that explained the chanting from a scientific point of view, also referencing the parapsychology popular in the Soviet Union. At least seventy per cent of the people who read these leaflets started chanting Hare Krishna. The movement started to swell.
Today, a visit to Russia’s annual Hare Krishna festival in September puts one in the midst of the largest crowd of devotees of all ISKCON’s festivals. Throughout the world, the movement is growing the fastest in former Soviet bloc countries, and it is common for entire extended families—grown children, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—to decide together to devote their lives to Lord Krishna. Surely it is fitting for these devotees, who have sacrificed more than most even to do simple acts of devotion, to have a place of worship equal to their dedication.
by Sarvabhavana Dasa
The following excerpts are from Sarvabhavana Dasa’s book Salted Bread, which focuses on how he and his friend Sachisuta Dasa served Lord Krishna and spread His teachings in the Soviet Union. The book emphasizes Sachisuta’s dedication and subsequent imprisonment. These excerpts, drawn from most of the chapters in Salted Bread, were selected by BTG Associate Editor Urmila Devi Dasi, who edited the book.
I had a very ordinary childhood in Armenia, growing up just like anyone else. My greatest fortune in childhood was to have one very good, close friend I called Sako. We had been vegetarians since fifteen years of age. My fondest dream was to one day take a bath in the sacred Ganges River, visit all the ancient temples, and climb the Himalayan Mountains to meet the great yogis there.
Entering the Spiritual World
My friend Senik took me to the Hare Krishna Yerevan center after I got out of the army. I found that I was also singing and clapping my hands with the devotees. I was thinking that it would never end. The cymbals and drums were so harmonious that I felt as if I were in heaven! Everyone in the room was swaying back and forth like waves in an ocean of bliss. Some devotees kept bringing trays of food and ringing tiny bells; they were offering the food to Krishna. Soon I noticed that the fruits I brought were also offered at the altar, and I looked round me to see if anyone else noticed that those were the fruits I had brought.
I do not know how it happened, but I started to lead the singing. What finally forced me to stop was when the police, the KGB, were trying break the door down. Some devotees were running from one room to another and hiding the books, typewriters, and other items.
After some time, the devotees decided to open the door. Five angry men practically flew in and started to scream orders. They started to search everywhere and anywhere; I did not understand what they were looking for so eagerly.
They started to register everyone’s names and check their documents. After everything cooled down, the devotees started to serve the sanctified food, prasadam, as if nothing had happened just five minutes ago.
“I’m sorry about last night,” a devotee told me the next morning. “Did the KGB write down your name?”
“Yes, they did.”
“So, that means you are already one of us. You are a Hare Krishna devotee!”
“I don't mind,” I said.
All the devotees, including myself, started to laugh softly.
Right Time for Decision, and On the Way to Krishna
As soon as I entered the doorway of my home after my return journey, I found that the KGB had come and searched our house. Soon, Sako and then I moved into the Yeravan center.
My New Lifestyle
Sako encouraged me to distribute books. So, I tried it. The first time in my life I offered a book to a young university student, he took it happily. But the second man read a little bit and then threw it in my face. He told me the Hare Krishnas are crazy and one of his relatives had taken to Krishna consciousness.
He shouted, “And he is a totally crazy man—he is not eating meat, eggs, and fish, not even alcohol! What kind of madness is that? God created everything for us to enjoy, and this stupid guy is saying that he cannot eat with his friends!”
I felt miffed but did not lose my enthusiasm from the first man, and I continued to distribute more.
The only problem I had now was that I did not want the police to disturb my parents, but it was practically impossible because my name and address were already on the blacklist. Two or three months after I moved into the temple, I heard that police were starting to arrest devotees and put them in jail in Russia.
Everyone became tigers—starting to print and distribute even more fliers and books. One day after distribution, all the devotees looked as if they were celebrating something. We quickly went inside and saw the Russian Bhagavad-gita and Coming Back in Armenian.
I asked our leader, Sannyasa Dasa, if I could look at them, but he told me, “They should be used as originals from which to print more. So it is better if we do not touch them and possibly leave any fingerprints on the pages or pictures.”
In a few weeks, Sannyasa brought us the first printed pages of the Gita. After that he taught us how to fold, and we all sat down to fold all the pages in order to make a book. We applied glue to the side of the set of pages, pressed it into the cover, and placed it under some heavy suitcases next to the heater so that it would dry quickly. After it was dried, Sannyasa marked it with a pencil cutting line. He then started to cut the extra papers with a razor blade and metal ruler.
Soon our first handmade book was ready. One devotee wanted to open and read from it, but another grabbed it from his hand and told him that we have to first offer it to guru and Krishna, then only could we see it ourselves. So after placing it on the altar, we started an ecstatic and unusual kirtana. At that time I didn’t realize the full significance of what was going on in that little room on the ninth floor and what a very special sacrifice I was participating in. After many years, I understood that we were actually founding a powerful mission in the U.S.S.R. I did not know at that time that these books would make a revolution and that after only ten to fifteen years there would be hundreds of temples and thousands of Krishna devotees in the Soviet Union just because of these small handmade books.
My First Arrest
Soon, Sannyasa filled a room full of printed pages of Bhagavad-gita, and everybody was busy folding them and turning them into hundreds of bound copies of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. It was ecstatic to see how our first book came out of that room and was sold right across the street. Sannyasa was telling us that we should all learn each step of the operation perfectly so that if one devotee was not there, the others could do his part. He meant that if one devotee got arrested, then the others could carry on. We were trying not to speak too much about this subject, but at the same time, it was impossible to avoid it. Almost every day the police would catch some devotees, beat them up, take all the books, and then free them after hours or days.
No one said it, but everyone was thinking that he or she might be the next one to be arrested.
I was thinking in that way also: “What if they catch me? What am I going to do? What will I tell them?”
When I first started distributing books, I would sometimes be brought to meet people who were re-typing the books with carbon paper to make four copies. They would be doing this in a secret room because in Armenia you could not own a typewriter or a photocopier openly unless you had a special permit, which was not easy to obtain. And they were typing very slowly with one or two fingers.
When I asked them what they were doing, they would say, “So many people asked me if they could borrow this book, but I didn’t want to lend it out because who knows when I would get it back. So, I am making four copies.”
I would say, “Why didn’t you just ask for more?”
Their jaw would drop, and they would say, “There’s more?” as if they never thought that there would be more.
We started to send books to Russia by post. For some time it worked out well, until the KGB found out about it. They made a new rule that a package of more than a certain size and weight was subject to inspection.
Then we started to smuggle books out of Armenia in trucks. We contacted people who brought goods to Armenia and took other materials back to Russia. They knew how to hide our boxes in the front of the truck behind other goods.
One morning after breakfast, I accidentally offered a book to a man on the street who happened to be a KGB agent. He started to ask many more questions, which made me feel that something was fishy, but I did not know what to do.
He took out his police identification and said, “Place your hands behind your back and follow me.”
This was the first time that I was made to walk with my hands behind my back. I had only seen this kind of imposition in the movies, and just a year before I would never have believed that one day I would be treated in that way, too.
I started to chant the maha-mantra in my mind while walking through the police station. I could hear someone screaming. One of the policemen was very fat and ugly; another one was skinny and smiling at me. That is usually the tactic of the police; later on I became very familiar with it. One is beating you up, and another one is gently asking questions.
In Every Town and Village
This type of short arrest became a common event. Many of the devotees had been arrested several times and went through what they had to. In each arrest the KGB confiscated books, which we were spending so much time and effort to make, plus the cash collected from the books. As for the devotees, many were leaving the temple or not coming to the temple, because they did not want to be arrested.
More and more, many devotees came to Armenia from different parts of the U.S.S.R. to get Srila Prabhupada’s books and flyers.
One devotee said, “It would be wise if you Armenian devotees did not go out and distribute books at all. Just print and bind good quality books for us, and we will come here, take them from you, and distribute them for you as well. If they arrest you, then where will we get the books?”
Another devotee said, “Devotees are making photocopies of the Bhagavad-gita and binding and distributing them from home. Some of the devotees do not have the original books, so what they produce is a fifth or sixth photocopy, which is hardly readable. Sometimes the pages are mixed up and one cannot find the right page. But people still buy them from devotees because they thirst for those books.”
Preaching Is the Essence
Sako, who later received the initiated name Sachisuta Dasa, returned from book distribution. He started to glue some books and pack some of the Russian books in a box to be shipped. The atmosphere was peaceful, with some devotees singing a sweet kirtana. Some were talking about Krishna consciousness, and some others were cooking.
Then, all of a sudden someone started to scream, “The KGB is here!”
After the fourth day, it was clear to all of us that the KGB had already taken our leaders to the jail from the police station. Having our leaders in jail was so depressing that sometimes we would not go out for days, only chanting, eating, and sleeping. The only person who was doing some active work was Sachisuta—he was making more and more books ready for distribution and hardly ever talking with us. He was serious, and it was as if he was in a different world. He was often the only one who would clean the floor, do the shopping, wash the pots after cooking, and so on.
My Last Arrest
I had forgotten how many times they had arrested and released me, but at the time of Sannyasa and Kamalamala’s arrest, I thought that because the police were now convinced they had the leaders of our movement in Armenia, they wouldn’t be arresting the rest of us anymore. But I was wrong. The police arrested me and some other devotees many times after that. During this time, we rented another house to store books and important items, and we would go there perhaps once a week.
At about eight o’clock one evening, Sachisuta and I were going to that house, bringing some missing Gita pages to complete the books. At that time I had a strange premonition while riding on the bus. I asked Sachisuta if he had the same feeling. He said that he also felt that there was some danger, but we did not know what to do and which way to go, forward or backward.
Both of us had such strong feelings of danger that we decided to go back without taking any further pages for the books. I do not remember any other incident of Sachisuta's stepping back from any situation, ever.
Once we were arrested, one fat policeman hurt me the most, even stomping on my toes with his boots, giving me excruciating pain.
“So,” he said while hurting me, “now I think you can tell us where your books are printed and where you are storing them.”
“I do not know, sir," I said. "I really do not know. I told you that many times already.”
“Okay, after I prepare a nice seat, then you will tell us everything immediately.”
He waved his hand to the policeman next to him and asked him to bring one beer bottle. Then he came close to me and with his whole strength stepped on the tip of my toes with his big boots.
“O God,” I thought, “this is one of the worst things I have ever experienced.”
Then a policeman came in with a glass bottle in his hand and placed it in the middle of the room.
“So now for the last time I am asking you, and that’s it. Either you will tell me or you are going to sit on this bottle.”
I hung my head and started to chant loudly, “Namaste narasimhaya,” and prayed for help.
Then he came and twisted my hands while another one held my legs, and they pulled me up. The third one came and tried to take off my belt. I had started to jump and shake my whole body so they wouldn’t be able to take my pants off. So then he hit me, probably with his full power, on my belly, and I thought that maybe now I’ll be cut into two pieces. But still I didn’t give up shaking.
I started to kick them and scratch as much as I could. I tore the shirt of the policeman who was holding my hands, which made him even angrier. Somehow, even after so much beating, I got some enormous amount of power and started to move in such a way that they could not take my pants down. I started to scream louder than I had ever screamed in my life, like a tiger, non-stop for a long time. I started to think how loudly Nrisimhadeva screamed when He appeared to kill the demon Hiranyakashipu. As soon as they brought me close to the bottle, I moved fast and it fell on its side. After several times of trying, they finally dropped me down and left the room.
They took me downstairs and locked me up in one of many rooms. Some criminals were in the room, too, and they started to ask me many questions. Some of them had already heard about Krishna, and one had even read the Bhagavad-gita a little bit.
I used to take only a piece of bread and one spoonful of sugar in the morning. The bread was of a very substandard quality. It was black and wet, and if you pressed it hard, water would drip out of it. So, I kept the bread on the window for three or four days until it was dried and crunchy, and then ate it. I learned how to make japa beads out of bread.
One morning, a guard used my beads to strike my face and body until he was exhausted. Those japa beads had been my only possession, for which I had saved so many pieces of bread. Soon we realized that even fifty-four beads were too risky to keep, so we started to make twenty-seven-bead strings. Being smaller, they were easier to hide from antagonistic persons. The difference was just that we had to chant four times in order to make 108, or one round. Sometimes, I even used a nine-bead set, keeping it almost all the time in my hand.
After a while, everyone in the jail knew about Krishna. Some people from the other cells started to ask me and the other devotees questions. Soon, offering food before eating became a tradition in our cell. Everyone in the jail was taking prasadam from the devotees. Even people who were against Krishna consciousness ate something out of our offerings. Many of the inmates told me that they could actually tell the difference between offered and non-offered food.
Who Is Crazy?
One day, we moved into a psychiatric hospital. I could not believe that the person in front of me was the same Sannyasa I knew before. He was so skinny! He moved slowly and slurred his speech. His chin had become sharp, and his eyes sunk in. His beautiful face, which had some beard growth, was very white. About one month before my coming, they started to give devotees daily injections by force of a neuro-psychological drug. Sometimes while he was talking, Sannyasa’s mouth would become dry and his eyes would roll like a drunk man. Sometimes he would sit and look at one spot for a long time without making a movement or saying anything. After a while, he would stand up and shake as if he were cold. Sannyasa is a very strong personality, and no matter what happened and in which condition he was in, he would every day complete chanting his sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra—a determination that surprised me and inspired me with more energy to go on. After some time, they took us back to the jail to wait for trial.
In my new jail, the worst guard was a very rough, sweaty man. He shouted, “Today you will tell me exactly where you were printing your books and who was printing them for you. I know you did not tell it to anyone, but you will tell me today, only me. Do you understand that?”
He took his baton and beat me very severely on my forehead and temples. Then he hit me once with most probably his full energy. The blow sent me flying to the other end of the room, and I fell down with heavy bleeding from my nose and mouth. Then he came close to me and started to kick my back and chest so hard that I lost consciousness and do not remember anything whatsoever after that. I opened my eyes after some time and saw him dragging my body on the floor. He was cursing me and stepping on my stomach and face mercilessly. To protect my face, I turned. As soon as I had turned, he kicked my spine and I went unconscious again. Everything became black. My ears were blocked completely, and only some kind of a strange sound was constantly whistling in my ears. Then he threw me into my cell and closed the door with a curse.
The only lasting misfortune was my chronic spinal pain and eye problem. The lack of vision was a huge change in my life, and I had to get used to my new situation. I would have to go through life half-blind and almost disabled.
The devotees had paid three times the usual bribe at that time to send us a parcel full of wonderful prasadam. One prisoner was breaking up the bread when he found letters secretly hidden in it. They encouraged us to be strong, never forget Krishna, and continue to chant and follow the rules as much as possible in our difficult situation. Tears were running down my cheeks while reading their sincere sentiments, and my hands were shaking.
The Court Decision
After our trial, we were sent to Siberia to a labor camp where I spent the rest of my sentence.
After the registration of ISKCON, many conditions changed in the U.S.S.R. But that registration was not so easy to get. It was the result of countless demonstrations in front of many buildings and in various streets of Moscow. Generally, during these demonstrations there was some conflict with police and many devotees got arrested.
In 1989, for the first time in history, a group of fifty devotees were allowed by the Russian government to go to India for a pilgrimage. Most of them had been tortured by the KGB some months before. A two-month tour was organized. I was fortunate to be part of that historic pilgrimage. Just a year before, I was suffering in a jail, but now we were chanting and dancing with hundreds of devotees from all over the world.
ISKCON's Radha-Govinda Temple in Kolkata was the first real temple we had ever seen. There was a reception waiting for us, and thousands of flowers fell from the balcony on all the Soviet devotees. We slowly came up the stairs and entered the temple.
The moonlike faces of Radha and Govinda were smiling at all of us as if to say, “Finally you are home. There is no KGB here, so please chant and dance as much as you like.”
by Tattvavit Dasa
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.
I thought for many years that from my single-minded attempt to serve Lord Krishna everything else would come. But what finally came was a stark realization: my service mood was incomplete; I was missing something.
It’s difficult to say when I realized this, but it was long after 1977, when Srila Prabhupada passed away. During the trying years following his passing, all his devotees, me included, were seeking solace. And solace was available—in Srila Prabhupada’s books, in his remembrance, in our service, and in chanting the holy names of the Lord. Yet, I found out, when such solace is shared with a friend, its sweetness and strength increase dramatically. That’s what had been missing.
Srila Prabhupada created devotees all over the planet from all economic, emotional, political, intellectual and personality strata. Devotees are inextricably linked, for Srila Prabhupada reunited us with our Father, Sri Krishna, and in so doing made us a family of Godbrothers and Godsisters. We share the home he built for us, and we share the same library, the words of Krishna and His devotees. We share the same moral standards, philosophy, habits, diet, values, and goals, and the same process for reaching them. Automatically, we share a bond with all Vaishnavas. Brothers and sisters by birth often have less in common than we do. (While respectful and friendly toward nondevotees, devotees generally cannot share with them the same friendship as with other devotees, simply because nondevotees base their lives on different principles.)
There are different grades of devotees (Srila Prabhupada warns that there are even some who dress as devotees but are not), and a devotee behaves toward them differently. With some he’ll sincerely offer his respect. With others, he’ll engage in pleasant and enlivening conversation. And with a few, he’ll reveal his mind in confidence and inquire confidentially.
Intimacies in friendship between like-minded Vaishnavas begin when there is mutual trust, as well as mutual respect for and faith in each other’s Krishna consciousness. When, over time, such trust, respect, and faith become firm and unwavering, one has support for the bhakti- lata, one’s climbing plant or creeper of devotion. With this unique and invaluable support, one’s creeper may flourish beyond expectation. And one deeply loves the friend responsible.
It is the intimacy of love between devotees that makes life in the material world bearable. And it is that love and its unusual divine products that make life celestial. One such product is Krishna’s blessing. Addressing some friendly devotees, the Lord said, “I am very much pleased by the friendly relationships among you. All of you are engaged in one occupation—devotional service. I am so pleased with your mutual friendship that I wish you all good fortune. Now you may ask a benediction of Me” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.30.8).
Another product of loving intimacy between devotees is friendly admiration. As explained by Srila Prabhupada, “Everyone should be friendly for the service of the Lord. Everyone should praise another’s service to the Lord and not be proud of his own service. This is the way of Vaishnava thinking, Vaikuntha thinking” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.5.12, purport). In this mood, a devotee will not judge a Vaishnava friend, but appreciate him.
Krishna, our supreme friend, is waiting in our hearts for us to turn to Him, and He is the supreme judge of our response to His friendship. And as Srila Prabhupada says, “If we are following the rules and regulations given by God, then the judgment will be better. And if we are not following the laws, the judgment will not be in favor. This is natural to conclude.” We, as Krishna’s servants, are duty-bound to judge, to discern, that which brings us closer to Him from that which removes us; to discern piety from impiety.
But while one may need to judge oneself, one may be better off resisting the urge to judge another devotee. This is not because devotees are beyond judgment (although Krishna and His unalloyed devotees are); it’s because each devotee who has accepted the supreme goal and the means to attain it will in due time arrive. Such a devotee has a special place in the Lord’s heart. Lord Krishna boldly declares that His devotee “will never perish,” and Krishna promises to “carry what he lacks and preserve what he has” (Bhagavad-gita 9.31, 9.22). Even more, the Lord says, “Whoever renders service to Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him” (9.29). “Who am I,” a devotee thinks, “to judge one who is dear to the Lord?”
Even if a devotee peer falls down—and in this difficult age, falldowns along the spiritual path can easily happen—still one can think, “Given the temptations that that person faced, how much better would I have fared?” And one can be confident that a devotee is never forsaken by the Lord. As Srila Prabhupada explains, “Even though he falls down, a devotee is never to be considered the same as a fallen karmi (fruitive worker). A karmi suffers the result of his own fruitive reactions, whereas a devotee is reformed by chastisement directed by the Lord Himself” (Srimad- Bhagavatam 1.5.19, purport). If the Lord doesn’t leave His friend, why should we? Best to be strict with oneself, following Krishna’s instructions, and patient with others, knowing that they’re in Krishna’s all-competent hands.
And if even a fallen devotee remains in Krishna’s care, what can be said of a devotee who hasn’t fallen? There are riches to be mined in such a person’s company.
“How can I become a better person?” I asked a devotee I’d known for years but only recently become close with. She didn’t answer. I repeated the question a few days later, and a third time a few days after that.
Finally, she was about to answer. I expected her to say, “Become softer, more open; get in touch with your emotions more and express them,” and so forth. Instead she said, “How’s your concentration?”
“Well, when I do my artwork, it’s good—the day passes in a flash.”
“What about when you chant Hare Krishna?”
“Oh, well, I chant sixteen rounds every day, but my concentration is so bad I’ve given up on concentrating.”
“I’m a firm believer in the effects of chanting with concentration,” she said, and proceeded to glorify the holy names of Lord Krishna.
Such is an uncommon friend.
As a child growing up in Tasmania, I was convinced that God wanted me to serve Him. I was raised as an Episcopalian, but between the ages of twelve and fourteen I was sexually molested by four priests. At an age when I was already experiencing unprecedented suffering, these very men who were supposed to uphold spiritual values compounded my suffering by abusing their spiritual office and principles.
Like Holocaust survivors, many victims of child abuse reject God and the spiritual quest. This is especially true when their abusers were supposed to be men of God. In my mid teens I left the Episcopal Church. Later, after a brief look into Krishna consciousness, my comparative religious studies course in college led me to the Orthodox Church. This eastern form of Christianity seemed to hearken back to the early church, to the asceticism of the desert fathers. I embraced their writings, intrigued by their emphasis on celibacy, communion with God, and monastic vegetarianism.
My interest in eastern Christianity led me to look at Islam, with its austere iconoclasm and emphasis on community. Yet some answers were missing in Islam. Who is God? What does He look like? What is His nature?
I also appreciated the meditation of Buddhism, was well as its monastic emphasis on the sangha, or spiritual association. The doctrine of transmigration of the soul was still alien to me, but curiosity impelled me to consider it more and more.
Ever present in my mind was the question “If I fail to get my relationship with God right in this life, am I doomed to hell?” I yearned for a vibrant spiritual community that was missing in the tiny emigre Russian Orthodox Church I worshiped in.
BTG and a Step Forward
Most of this took place after my first contact with Krishna consciousness. In 1977 I bought a copy of Back to Godhead magazine in a health food store. I was at once drawn to Srila Prabhupada. I read about how he had come to the United States with forty rupees and a trunk full of spiritual books. I remembered having heard about the Vedas in comparative religious studies. Back to Godhead was providing answers, supported by the Vedas, about the name, identity, and personality of God. I had long felt that the Christian Trinitarian notion of God was incomplete. Who is the Father really?
I then went to the library and got the First Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. I immediately appreciated Sukadeva Gosvami’s exposition on the Absolute Truth.
And so it was that, at age seventeen, during my final year in high school, I jumped on a plane to visit the Melbourne temple. I was impressed by the beautiful forms of Radha-Vallabha, the enthusiastic brahmacharis, the incredible prasadam. But I still bore the emotional residue of my Christian upbringing, and I ran out of the temple in tears, overwhelmed and uncertain.
Still, my attraction for Krishna grew, as from time to time I came across one of Srila Prabhupada’s books. My appreciation was that of an armchair admirer—it came from the head and not the heart.
That began to change when I met Puri Dasa, who held a Sunday Feast in his tiny flat. His warmth and compassion, and his desire to spread Krishna consciousness, touched me. (He passed away several years later in a car accident while traveling to distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books.)
Drawn to the Monastery
But I still wasn’t quite ready to commit to Krishna consciousness. In 1982, after my mother’s death, I entered an Anglican Benedictine monastery. My life in some ways mirrored brahmachari life—rising at 3.30 A.M., prayer, meditation, study.
I spent over a year there before returning to Tasmania to enter the university, where I met Hare Krishna devotees running a cooking club. I learned there was now a temple in Hobart. I became a regular at the Sunday Feast and enjoyed the classes by the temple president, Brihaspati Dasa. Alas, this temple was to close in 1984, leaving me without devotees.
I gravitated back to the Christian path for the next ten years, until in 1996 my wife and I went to western Australia on vacation. One day we ran into devotees handing out flyers for their Perth center, and along we went. I learned that some devotee families had moved to Tasmania, and so I went and took lunch with them on my return.
Finally, with my own japa beads, I took to regularly chanting the holy name and attending mangala-arati at the seaside home of one family. My Krishna consciousness was finally taking off. I attribute my desire to serve the Lord at this point to the mercy of those devotees, whose love, instruction, wonderful prasadam, and clearly evident love of Prabhupada affected my whole being.
Gradually my chanting and other spiritual practices increased, and I tried more seriously to connect to Srila Prabhupada’s instructions. My desire to share this wonderful knowledge grew, and I took part with other devotees in presenting Krishna conscious programs in public halls and people’s homes. While my wife could not embrace Krishna consciousness at this point, she became a vegetarian and supported me in my spiritual journey.
In 2000 we visited Vrindavana-dhama. I was mesmerized by the living fidelity to the Vedic tradition. I saw babajis (renunciants) embracing trees that Krishna had walked by. At ISKCON’s Krishna-Balarama Mandir, I saw the emotion of hundreds of people at 4:00 A.M. as they waited to see the most beautiful deities in the world. I knew that I had come home—to the house that Prabhupada had built.
I received spiritual initiation at Bhaktivedanta Manor in 2000 and entered a new family of Godbrothers and Godsisters. I met devotees whose serious pursuit of sanctity was self-evident.
After two years of cooking for Radha-Gopinatha at ISKCON Sydney and enjoying that vibrant community, I came home to Tasmania.
Now with a daughter, Lila Tulasi, I see that the next chapter in my Krishna consciousness is unfolding. I aspire to see a community of devotees grow in Tasmania and to re-open the temple that closed twenty years ago.
In London, some years before I took up the practice of Krishna consciousness, I once met a girl when I was feeling lonely on a crowded street I made some excuse to talk to her, and we quickly became friends. Afraid of the disillusionment and pain that often accompanies relationships, we made a pact to stay together for a short time and view some of London’s sights, and then to part company with no plan or foreseeable way to ever meet again.
We had a good time together. We were enlivened by each other’s company, and the lonely, drab day turned out a happy one for us. We climbed St Paul’s Cathedral and viewed the panorama of the city stretching into the misty distance. I felt tempted to embrace her, but I remembered our agreement and checked my lusty desires.
After a few fleeting hours, it was time to part company. I saw her off on the underground train. We held hands and looked into each others eyes. “You are like my brother,” she said with a smile. She turned and boarded the train.
I immediately thought of running down the tracks after the train or jumping on the next one. But I again resisted my surging emotions. I remember wondering if this was the only way to have a spotless exchange with another person. Actually it wasn’t spotless, because there was the pain of separation even after so short a time. I wondered why there couldn’t be close relationships, with nothing to mar their perfection.
And now, almost twenty years later, my wandering mind sometimes churns up a poignant regret. Although such lamentation is certainly unreasonable, it reminds me of the essence of material life. Are we not all hankering for someone to be close to—someone to “possess”—and don’t we all lament losing someone dear to us?
We all want friendship. Nobody likes to be lonely. Sometimes a person may prefer to be alone for a while, but never permanently. We wish to share ourselves with others. This inclination of ours is one of the qualities we have in common with God because we are part of Him. You never see a picture of Krishna alone; He is always with His friends and devotees.
The material world is a perverted reflection of our real home. the spiritual world. As such, every relationship is imperfect only partially mirroring what it could be and what we yearn for. Nevertheless we keep trying. Yet material existence imposes powerful restrictions on developing satisfactory relationships with others. Because we have willfully separated ourselves from Lord Krishna, the reservoir of all loving relationships, we are now suffering from a spiritual psychosis and consequent inability to understand and experience love. Desires push us around the world, and we switch from one partner to the next The small bud of love, however, is unfailingly snapped off before it can unfold, bloom, and produce a fruit.
When we take up Krishna consciousness, we turn once again toward the sweetest loving friend of all, Lord Sri Krishna, and our outlook changes back to what it should be. We cease to be limited by the puny material body in its temporary setting, and our vision expands to eternity. Our life begins to revolve around the Lord, and as soon as we understand Him to be the supreme controller and enjoyer of all that exists, as well as our best friend, we attain relief from the pangs of material miseries. We do not struggle anymore to control every detail of our lives but put ourselves securely under His direction. Our motivation changes from self-centered calculation to a constant desire to please Krishna. Loneliness vanishes as we begin to relish the constant company of the Lord. It is only by developing, in the course of time, such a blissful state of consciousness that one is able to perfectly relate to others without the least trace of friction or flaw.
A self-realized soul can be depended on because he or she is not restricted by selfish desires. In fact a Krishna conscious person. being satisfied, is in a position to perfectly relate with others. A study of Srila Prabhupada’s life will reveal this secret of perfection. Srila Prabhupada did not want anything from anyone, and yet he was always requesting people to do things. His disciples knew that he was asking on Krishna’s behalf, and therefore they did not feel imposed upon or threatened. They felt it was in their own interest to carry out his desires.
Srila Prabhupada was always deeply absorbed in his meditation on and relationship with his guru and Krishna, and so would never become sentimental about temporary things related to the material body. Yet he displayed all kinds of emotion, from soft tender empathy to hard, blazing anger. In fact he exhibited a much wider range of emotions than anyone I have ever met. But he never entangled his disciples in painful emotional knots. Even if they became depressed because he was displeased, that depression became an impetus for them to render more sincere service, which in turn became the source of spiritual inspiration and bliss.
When a disciple wrote to Srila Prabhupada expressing a sense of loss at being separated from him, Srila Prabhupada replied, “The separation you are feeling on account of my physical absence is a good sign. The more you feel such separation, the more you will be situated in Krishna consciousness. Lord Caitanya felt this separation, and His process of approaching Krishna is the feeling of separation.” He also explained that spiritual separation is another feature of meeting. and so his disciples gradually learned to associate with him in more meaningful and lasting ways than just by physical proximity. In short he taught us how to develop perfect spiritual relationships.
Friendship in Krishna consciousness is very different from friendship on the material platform. Srila Prabhupada gave an analogy of airplane pilots. On the ground before take-off, a squadron of pilots may sit closely together for training and briefing sessions. But in the air, each pilot is on his own. Similarly, at the time of death, when we finally lose control of this body, we are externally all alone. But because spiritual relationships are beyond the body, the devotee still has spiritual association. At the time of death, he tries to remember his friend Lord Krishna and chant His holy name.
During his life, a devotee concentrates on internal spiritual growth, while performing external activities conducive to Krishna consciousness. Friendship in Krishna consciousness is a most meaningful opportunity for one’s personal development In fact Krishna conscious relationships in this world serve as a preparation for associating with the Lord and His devotees when we return to the spiritual world, which awaits anyone who seriously follows the process of Krishna consciousness.
Srila Prabhupada explained that because we are by nature social beings, if we don’t find satisfaction in our Krishna conscious relationships, we will certainly look for friendship elsewhere. If we associate with persons with little interest in spiritual life, our own Krishna consciousness will dim. When Lord Caitanya was asked to define what a devotee is, He replied, “A devotee is one who avoids the association of nondevotees.” Attachment to nondevotees and their habits opens the door to material life, whereas attachment to self-realized souls opens the door to spiritual reality. As it is said, “A man is known by the company he keeps.”
If you have little opportunity to associate with devotees, you can try to find potential devotees where you live and induce them to become serious about spiritual life. Of course, it is not easy to do this. Srila Prabhupada, a topmost devotee, went alone to the West where there were no devotees of Krishna. Yet he was able to inspire others to become devotees. But be cause we are nowhere near Srila Prabhupada’s level of spiritual realization, we need spiritual association. Otherwise, we can neither maintain our own Krishna consciousness nor give it to others.
There is an art of spiritual association, and it has been described in the scriptures. If we meet someone less spiritually advanced than ourselves, we should be compassionate and try to inspire that person in Krishna consciousness. If we associate with someone equally advanced, we should befriend him and share our realizations with him. And if we have the opportunity to meet a much more advanced devotee than ourselves, we should respectfully hear from him and serve him.
If we learn the art of properly associating with others, we will find that every relationship becomes a great impetus for our own development of Krishna consciousness and therefore a source of great joy. Persons avowedly inimical to Krishna should be avoided because they will destroy our faith and devotion.
The basic principle of spiritual relationships is one of sharing and giving rather than taking. Often in this world of exploitation, people’s exchanges with one another are just the opposite of ideal spiritual relationships. If a materialist meets someone less materially qualified or fortunate than himself, he feels happy. He thinks, “That’s one less competitor.” If he meets someone equally qualified, he feels threatened, and he will want to challenge that person. And if he meets someone more qualified, he will criticize and denigrate him to try to bring him down. If a materialist’s superior falls from grace, or even dies, a materialist feels glad because of the new opportunity for himself.
In contrast a devotee does not feel pressure from anyone else’s existence or actions, because he is convinced that Krishna is unlimited and that everything in relation to the Lord has unlimited potential. He knows that the wealth of his own spiritual knowledge will increase the more he tries to share it with others. If it is not distributed freely, it will dry up. He knows that his guru and Krishna are pleased if he tries to reach out to those less advanced or less fortunate. If Krishna is pleased, what is there left to achieve?
A devotee likes to work as a humble member of a team. and therefore he is relaxed with his peers and happy to serve Krishna with them. Together they can relish hearing and chanting Lord Krishna’s glories. To advance in Krishna consciousness, one must learn how to associate with devotees and how to hear from the right persons about Krishna. A devotee is delighted to receive an advanced devotee of the Lord. Instead of trying to pull him down, he wishes to see that devotee become even more elevated. He thinks. “How nicely this person is serving Krishna! Let me try to serve Krishna like him.”
In The Nectar of Instruction, Srila Rupa Gosvami discusses six ways in which devotees can relish spiritual relationships. The first two are “giving and receiving charity and gifts.” The next two are “revealing one’s mind to another devotee and inquiring about the confidential service of the Lord.” We should reveal our mind openly to our friends and learn to inquire confidentially about spiritual matters. We should primarily be concerned with each other’s spiritual health because the soul is the real person within the body.
A Krishna conscious person can talk about anything, but the basis of the conversation is always Krishna. Once in England Srila Prabhupada was talking with race-car driver Graham Hill, who didn’t know much about spiritual life. For half an hour they jovially talked about car racing. Then Mr. Hill mentioned that when driving at high speeds, he sometimes felt he was a hair’s breadth away from death. Immediately Srila Prabhupada began speaking about more important matters, related to Mr. Hill’s eternal existence beyond the body. expertly elevating him to a higher level of consciousness. This is the real meaning of friendship—to inspire confidence and friendship in a person by genuine concern and then point him in the right direction.
The last two features of exchange mentioned by Rupa Gosvami are “offering and accepting krishna-prasadam [food offered to Krishna].” Giving and accepting gifts of food have always been symptoms of friendship. In the Vedic culture a person is not enthusiastic to eat alone with his family. He likes to have a guest for lunch. Traditionally, in the absence of a guest a householder would go to the street and request any hungry person to come and share the meal.
My father once told me I would be lucky if I made one or two real friends throughout my life. When I joined ISKCON, I thought, “I’ve got thousands of friends now.” In an ideal spiritual society, one no doubt does have millions of friends, but deep, spiritual friendship requires spiritual maturity. For a lasting friendship, friends must have a common goal, a common object of love. If our friendship is founded on pleasing Krishna without material considerations, there is hope of achieving an absolute and perfect friendship. To the degree that selfishness creeps in, the sanctity of the relationship suffers. Because Krishna is the reservoir of all pleasure. His devotee becomes fully satisfied in His blissful association. In such a position, the devotee can always give to others without motivation or interruption. That is the basis of spiritual friendship.
“So, tell me about yourself. Where are you from?” asked the chief resident in pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh medical center, where I was interviewing for a residency position.
My answer started off something like this, “My parents are from South India, and I was born and brought up here in the U.S.”
Although his question implied that the place one is from has a central role in defining one’s identity, summing up my identity as an Indian-American made me uncomfortable. In fact, defining myself through my Indian and American backgrounds has always been a source of anxiety, which I find is best resolved on the spiritual platform.
Though born and raised in America by loving Indian-born parents, I always felt different from others. Neither school nor home provided me with a satisfying understanding of my identity. I almost blended into American life, only to find my peers exposing my “un-American-ness.” I recall how during a high school basketball game an opponent would call out, “I’ve got the Indian girl!” This label reduced me to a mere physical being, but I felt more than just physically different.
My way of life at home was centered on a Vedic atmosphere that my parents created for me and my brother. I was taught to read from the Bhagavad-gita every morning. I ate only prasadam, and we sang bhajanas as a family every night. But the minute I stepped outside the home, I entered the arena of an opposing culture in which my goal was to be as American as my peers. I wanted to dress and feel American, to feel comfortable in American skin. But was this possible when I knew the creator as a beautiful lotus-eyed boy named Krishna?
When I left home to go to college, I found myself surrounded by American culture. Since I was living in a dorm, I didn’t have a Vedic atmosphere to come home to. Ironically, this situation turned out to be the best formula for my future spiritual development. Outside the realm of my home, which was infused with Vedic culture, I began to investigate whether Krishna consciousness was right for me; did it provide all the answers to questions I had regarding one’s identity and the purpose of life? I liked what Srila Prabhupada had to offer as an answer to these doubts:
The purpose of this Krishna consciousness movement is to awaken man’s original consciousness. At the present moment our consciousness is designated. Someone is thinking, “I am an Englishman,” and another is thinking, “I am an American.” Actually, we do not belong to any of these designations. We are all part and parcel of God; that is our real identity. If everyone simply comes to that consciousness, all the problems of the world will be solved.
—The Science of Self-Realization, p. 72
Srila Prabhupada’s definition of identity, based on the soul’s relationship with God, made me realize that the tension I had been feeling in defining myself was based on the body, a body both Indian and American. Prabhupada suggested that I assume a higher consciousness, one that would enable me to see that I am an eternal spirit soul, beyond bodily designations. Even though caught between two worlds as an Indian-American, I felt that knowing I was part of Krishna, who is beyond nationality or race, could bring me a sense of peace.
Srila Prabhupada provided me with a solution to my struggles with identity, but I was still apprehensive about how I could apply this knowledge to my life. After all, I had chosen medicine as a career path; I was immersing myself in studying the body so that I could treat ailments of the body. How was I to reconcile the tension between my spiritual self and my need to fit into American culture as a part of my future career?
The inspiration for me to embrace Prabhupada’s message came when I learned, from Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita, more about Prabhupada’s life and how ISKCON began. I read how Prabhupada had provided the same answers to many young Americans seeking a higher purpose in life than American culture could offer. Innumerable young Americans wholeheartedly embraced Srila Prabhupada’s vision in the 60’s and 70’s, and they didn’t merely learn about Krishna consciousness—they chose to change their consciousness by nurturing their eternal relationship with Krishna. Vedic ways became their own, ironically mirroring how my identity as an Indian girl was shaped by American bodily preoccupations.
Satyanarayana Dasa, an acquaintance of my family, joined ISKCON in Buffalo, New York, in 1969 as a college student. He explains his initial attraction to the Hare Krishna movement:
It’s what the soul actually means that is the attraction. It means that I am eternal and never die, and that there is a wonderful and exciting spiritual world that I belong to. A self-effulgent and inconceivably beautiful world in which I have the deepest personal relationships that are ever-increasing in joy and happiness, and are enriched by pure, ever-increasing knowledge.
Knowing that the soul is eternal changes one’s perception of oneself and the world. The devotee feels “joy and happiness” in an eternal and coherent world filled with beauty, happiness, and knowledge. For many hippies and others of the 60’s and 70’s, there was no question of discarding Vedic philosophy, which provided the answer to the question “Who am I?” in a way that welcomes all nationalities. Devotees from all backgrounds confirm this universal accessibility of Vedic knowledge. They used their awakened Krishna consciousness to understand their true self.
Many distinguished scholars have appreciated the cultural implications of the Hare Krishna movement and have cited various reasons for its appeal. In Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West, Dr. Larry D. Shinn stated that young Americans joined ISKCON because they wanted “to turn away from materialistic self-gratification.” The philosophy allows one to “solve an identity crisis” by providing “a sense in which I can know who I really am; I am not my body. I am a spirit soul.” Krishna consciousness provides a well-grounded and all-embracing definition of identity.
Dr. Thomas J. Hopkins explained:
The whole orientation toward a personal deity of compassion and concern, and of love, who is not just some kind of absolute, impersonal reality... but a Personal Being of infinite compassion, one who is concerned for those suffering in the world, appeals to something very deep within the human spirit.... It’s that kind of personal quality, it seems to me, that appeals to human beings across all cultural lines.
Hopkins’s analysis applies not only to Americans but also to Indians like my family and me, who have made America their home. Both groups are attracted to the “infinite compassion” and love that the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, provides. Personalism and the concern for human needs are universal concepts and not culture-specific values. Krishna consciousness appeals to the most fundamental human right: the right of the spirit soul to free itself from the shackles of material existence and feel unlimited happiness through love for God. Shinn and Hopkins both argue that the personal aspect of Krishna consciousness is its greatest attraction.
Krishna’s First Instruction
By revealing our true identity, Krishna consciousness gives peace. This principle works today, and it worked for Arjuna five thousand years ago during the battle at Kurukshetra, when Arjuna came to understand his true position as an eternal servant of Lord Krishna. Identifying himself by his relationships with kinsmen and friends, Arjuna was lamenting that he must kill his loved ones to win the battle. He told Krishna, “I do not see how any good can come from killing my own kinsmen in this battle, nor can I, my dear Krishna, desire any subsequent victory, kingdom, or happiness.” (Bhagavad-gita 1.31)
Arjuna then accepted the position of Krishna’s disciple, and Krishna, as the Supreme Guru, instructed him. Krishna told Arjuna that the origin of his anxiety is that he considers his identity in terms of his kinsmen and relatives, rather than as an eternal spirit soul, part of Krishna.
Krishna explained, “That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul.” (Bhagavad-gita 2.17)
This key concept is fundamental in resolving Arjuna’s identity crisis. After understanding himself to be a spirit soul with the body of a kshatriya, he carried out his duty as a warrior in the service of Krishna. Prabhupada refers to understanding the difference between the body and the soul as the “ABC of spiritual understanding,” or the first step in Krishna consciousness.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Universal Movement
The Hare Krishna movement began five hundred years ago in West Bengal, when Lord Krishna himself appeared as his own devotee, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. His movement eased social tensions among members of artificial castes; he taught that all are spirit souls with an eternal relationship with Krishna that’s full of eternal bliss and knowledge. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s prediction that Lord Krishna’s holy name would reach every town and village began to come true when Srila Prabhupada planted the seed of the holy name on American soil. Consequently, thousands of Americans revived their original Krishna consciousness, while many Indians discovered their own culture. ISKCON has offered everyone, whether encased in an American or an Indian body, a beautiful and comforting identity as Krishna’s children.
Living within a materialistic culture, I will always have to struggle to keep my Krishna consciousness intact. Yet many American-bodied devotees, confident and mature in their Krishna conscious identity, have not only integrated into American society but have greatly contributed to its rich diversity. One day, I hope to serve in Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s compassionate mission, which resolves beautifully my tensions. Lord Chaitanya declared:
bharata-bhumite haila manushya-janma yara
janma sarthaka kari’ kara para-upakara
“One who has taken his birth as a human being in the land of India should make his life successful and work for the benefit of all other people.” (Sri Chaitanya-caritamrita, Adi-lila 9.41)
Even though I wasn’t born in India, I’d like to take Lord Chaitanya’s instruction to heart. I’m an Indian-American in touch with Srila Prabhupada’s philosophy, so I feel well equipped with both cultures. That can help me in spiritual life. Prabhupada referred to the partnership of India and America as being perfect because India is the “lame man” and the U.S. the “blind man.” India is lame when compared to the U.S., with its material wealth and technological prowess. But India, with its Vedic heritage, can give Krishna conscious vision to the spiritually blind U.S., which can provide material resources for spreading spiritual realization. I feel fortunate to have both the lame man’s vision and the blind man’s resources within me, helping me fully embrace my Krishna conscious identity.
I know too that if I’m ever worried about anything spiritual or material, I can enter a Radha-Krishna temple, smell the spirituality of the incense and prasadam, hear the melodious music of Krishna kirtana, and feel right at home.
Formerly, Muslims living in the regions of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Persia called the Sindhu (Indus) River “Hindu” and the people living in and beyond the river valley “Hindus.”
From its founding in 1966 the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has been invigorated by the participation of the Indian community, both in India and the West, and by the endorsements of Hindu organizations around the world. Many of ISKCON’s Indian members, some of whom have leading roles in the Krishna consciousness movement, have worshiped Lord Krishna from their childhood and have followed all their lives, as part of their family or cultural traditions, the basic principles followed by all ISKCON members—total abstinence from non-vegetarian foods, and from intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling.
The Indians’ support of ISKCON never fails to impress me and to encourage me in my own practice of Krishna consciousness. In the West especially, people tend to look at ISKCON devotees as something new, strange, and threatening, but the large-scale participation of the Hindu community helps me to remember, and to convince others, that in joining ISKCON I have joined an age-old religious and cultural tradition that currently has hundreds of millions of followers.
I must honestly confess, however, that despite my growing appreciation of Hindu culture, I wince whenever I hear someone refer to Lord Krishna as “a Hindu god,” to the Krishna consciousness movement as “a sect of Hinduism,” or to the Bhagavad-gita, which ISKCON has published in more than thirty languages, as “the Hindu bible.” By convention, or common understanding, it may be OK to call us Hindu, but a closer look shows that the designation is not wholly appropriate.
Neither in the Gita nor in any of India’s Vedic literature will you once find the word hindu. Hindu comes from the Sanskrit sindhu, which means “river,” and which was specifically a name for the river that rises in the Tibetan Himalayas and flows nearly two thousand miles to the Arabian Sea, passing through present-day Jammu, Kashmir, and Pakistan—the river we today call the Indus.
Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON’s founder-acharya, explained that Muslims living in the regions of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Persia, through a singularity of their native pronunciation, called the Sindhu River the Hindu and the people living in and beyond the river valley Hindus. Over the centuries, as Greek, Hun, Tartar, and Mogul armies marched across the Indus to conquer the subcontinent to the south, they brought the name Hindu with them and made it stick. Hindu, Hindustan, Hinduism, Hindi, and even the name India itself, all derive from a term coined by India’s conquerors. Today still, for what little is understood of Indian culture, you might as well broadly define a Hindu as a person living beyond the Indus River, and Hinduism, tautologically, as what Hindus do.
But what do the “people beyond the Indus” do? What were they doing before the repeated conquest of their land, during its occupation, and now after independence? What is that complex body of religion, philosophy, and culture—situated within a crumbling social structure known as the caste system—that we call Hinduism?
Srila Prabhupada answered that India’s actual culture is described in brief in the Bhagavad-gita, where Lord Krishna explains that He has created human society with four natural social classes, or varnas. These are (1) an intellectual class, (2) an administrative class, (3) a mercantile class, and (4) a laborer class. These classes, or occupational divisions, are recognized by the qualifications and activities of the individual, and they are present throughout the world, not just in India.
In addition to social classes there are four spiritual orders, or ashramas, which correspond to stages in each individual’s life. The spiritual orders are (1) student life, (2) married life, (3) retired life, and (4) renounced life. These spiritual orders too are visible to some extent in every human society. The first part of life is for education, after which one gets married and finds a job. Later, at the age of fifty-five or sixty, there is retirement. The renounced order is not so prominent worldwide, although in some religions men and women do renounce married life altogether to become priests, ministers, or nuns.
The entire system of social and spiritual orders is called varnashrama-dharma (dharma meaning, very loosely, duty or religion), and the Vedic literatures prescribe detailed duties for an individual according to his or her position in a particular social and spiritual division. Although this varnashrama-dharma system does indeed constitute a complex body of religion and culture, the aim of all prescribed duties is unified—to serve and please the Supreme Lord. Service to the Supreme is called sanatana-dharma, or the eternal religion. Sanatana-dharma is the common function or duty of every living entity, the thread that unites all world religions, and the essence of the varnashrama system. The Srimad-Bhagavatam ( 1.2.13) states:
"The highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one’s own occupation according to social divisions and spiritual orders of life is to please the Personality of Godhead."
In the Gita also, the Personality of Godhead Himself explains that the purpose of all the Vedic literatures is to know Him. So the Vedic varnashrama system, though superficially complex, is essentially simple. To simplify further, Lord Chaitanya has taught that since in this age the Vedic prescribed duties are nearly impossible to follow in their exact details, the members of all social divisions should instead please the Lord by regularly chanting His holy names and by offering the fruits of their work to Him.
The Indian caste system is a perversion of varnashrama-dharma because caste is decided by birth, not by aptitudes and activities. Caste by birth is not supported by any Vedic text; nor is it a very practical idea. Can a judge’s son automatically be allowed to preside in court? Does the child of every IBM executive have natural business talents? Of course not.
Another important difference between the original varnashrama system and Hinduism that has developed over time is that Hinduism recognizes no ultimate goal or conclusion. Hinduism embraces worship of both the original Personality of Godhead and the subordinate demigods, and recognizes the practice of many yoga disciplines, the performance of an array of austerities, and the execution of assorted rituals—all without ever acknowledging that the original purpose of these varied activities is to bring the widest possible variety of individuals to the transcendental platform of exclusive devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
So is ISKCON a part of Hinduism? Well, yes and no. You decide.
What’s clear, though, is that the word Hinduism is an outsider’s term for what’s going on beyond the Indus. What’s going on there is a misunderstood, misapplied version of the Vedic varnashrama system, a system that ISKCON—with invaluable participation and leadership from the Hindu community—is working to establish everywhere. To establish, in other words, on both sides of the Indus.
Surapriya Devi Dasi
On August 18, 2002, my life took a fateful turn. A persistent leg-pain was diagnosed as being caused by malignant terminal breast cancer that had spread all over my body.
Till then my life had been more or less similar to that of most Indian Hindu housewives. I was born and brought up in Maharashtra, a province in Western India, in a cultured and pious family and had married a respectable school teacher, Bhagavan Malwadkar, who went on to become the principal of his school. Our three sons became well-educated young men, with bright careers in front of them.
Then Lord Krishna entered my life. Two of my sons—Siddhanath and Santosh—met devotees of the ISKCON Youth Forum, Pune, in the middle of 1997. Being inspired by the devotees’ association, they took to the practice of Krishna consciousness enthusiastically. I was somewhat taken aback by their sudden transformation, but after I met Gaursundara Dasa, the devotee who was teaching them about Krishna, I too was attracted by his disarming simplicity and profound wisdom. My husband and I invited him to start a weekly Bhagavad-gita program at our house in Kothrud, one of the main suburbs of Pune, and he agreed. As the weeks passed by, I was drawn more and more toward Krishna consciousness.
In the middle of 2000, my devotee sons decided to renounce their promising careers to join ISKCON full-time to become brahmacharis (celibate students). I was aghast; all the dreams of their glorious future I had cherished since their birth lay shattered. But I continued my devotional practices and gradually came to accept this as the inconceivable sweet will of the Lord. Meanwhile I suffered periods of poor health, but nothing seemed seriously wrong—till the day of that devastating diagnosis.
Within days of the diagnosis I underwent surgery, but it was a lost cause. The cancer was so widespread, doctors told my family members, that treatment could at best delay the inevitable by a few months. Not only was the disease itself very painful, but the treatment brought its own pains, with little chance of success.
As the horrifying reality of my plight sank in, I sensed that the pain, already excruciating, would worsen till death took its final toll. I felt it would be far easier to end my life myself right away than to try to endure the pain in an agonizing wait for an uncertain yet imminent death.
My sons, who had by now become initiated (Siddhnath had become Sankirtanananda Dasa, and Santosh had become Sundaravara Dasa), were alarmed when I revealed my thoughts to them. In gentle yet firm words, they told me that suicide would not solve my problems; rather it would aggravate them. They explained how all suffering comes from our past deeds and cannot be avoided by artificial means. They cautioned me that my trying to escape my destined suffering through suicide would only postpone the suffering to my next life.
Besides that, the reaction to the sinful act of destroying one’s own body by suicide only adds to future suffering. It was better, they told me, to take shelter of Lord Krishna through devotional service, tolerate the suffering, seeing it as His mercy, become purified, and return back home, back to Godhead, never to take birth again in this world of suffering. They reassured me that prayerful remembrance of the Lord would provide me relief from pain even in this life.
I was stunned to hear such profound philosophy from the sons I had nourished with my own breast milk. But soon the truth and wisdom in their words entered my heart, and I became filled with new hope. I resolved to spend the rest of my life cultivating devotional remembrance of Lord Krishna.
The doctors told me I had around seven months left. I started thinking of King Parikshit, who had only seven days to prepare for his death. He had gone to the banks of the Ganges, heard Srimad-Bhagavatam continuously for those seven days, and perfected his life. I decided to follow in his footsteps. I told my husband that I wanted to spend the last days of my life at the ISKCON temple in Pune. The temple president, Radheshyama Dasa, whom I had always revered as a compassionate saintly person, promptly agreed to provide us a room. I was moved by his kindness, as I knew there was an acute space shortage at the temple—forty-three brahmacharis lived in three rooms.
We quickly moved into the temple. As I started visiting the deities daily, hearing the classes and kirtanas, and reading Srila Prabhupada’s books, I discovered something amazing: fixing my consciousness on Krishna protected me from the unbearable pain my body was inflicting upon me.
For a short period, my health seemed to improve, and my husband and I returned home, freeing up some space at the temple. But as soon as I left the temple, my pain became so excruciating that I felt like I was being pierced from within at a thousand places. No amount of painkillers helped, but whenever I returned to the temple, my pain subsided.
I realized again that it was Lord Krishna who was protecting me from my pain, not the medicines. I begged Radheshyama Dasa to please allow me to spend the brief remainder of my life at the temple, and he graciously consented, despite the inconveniences it would invariably cause him and the other devotees there.
Since childhood I had heard about Krishna bhakti, and I knew that devotion was incomplete without initiation from a bona fide spiritual master. I started praying intensely, “Dear Lord Krishna, please give me the shelter of a guru before I leave this body.”
On January 23, 2003, I underwent a major surgery. During the operation, my breath stopped for several minutes. During those traumatic minutes, I realized my identity to be distinct from my body; I could see, from a vantage point above the operation theater, my frail body lying lifeless on the operation table. I saw the doctors and nurses running around, trying frantically to revive me. I don’t know what happened after that, but I woke up to find myself inside my body again.
After that out-of-body experience (OBE) I felt intuitively that Krishna had given me a fresh lease on life just so I could get the shelter of a guru. And, sure enough, on April 4, 2003, His Holiness Radhanatha Swami, the spiritual master of my devotee sons, accepted me as his disciple.
When I look back at my life and the great spiritual transformation that has taken place over the last few months, I feel strongly that cancer has proved to be a blessing for me. Had it not been for this deadly disease, I would never have risen from ritualistic piety to heartfelt devotion; I would simply have grown old, got diseased, died, and continued on aimlessly in the cycle of birth and death. I would never have got the great fortune of living in the Lord’s temple, and I would probably never have sought or received initiation. And certainly I would never have experienced the sweetness of helpless remembrance of Lord Krishna. I feel therefore that the Lord has blessed me by giving me cancer and by simultaneously giving me shelter through His devotees and mission.
Generally when a young son renounces the world to serve God, his parents in particular and people in general are shocked at what they consider to be irresponsibility and escapism. I was no exception to such sentiments. My anguish was, in fact, much greater, because not one, but two, of my sons decided to forsake everything for the Lord’s service. But now on the verge of death, when the futility of all material achievements stands exposed before me and the inestimable value of devotional service is dawning upon me, I realize how wise my sons were in dedicating their life to the service of the Lord in the prime of their youth.
During my sickness, my two devotee sons carefully attended to my needs, arranging for me to come and stay in the temple with them, cooking for me, accompanying me to the hospital, and taking turns in serving me. Whenever I was in pain or distress, they were always there by my side to support and encourage me. They did all a faithful son can be expected to do for his mother.
But over and above caring for my body, they cared for the real me—the soul. They provided me with spiritual knowledge and devotional practices, which saved me from unbearable bodily pain and brought me indescribable inner happiness. I therefore feel that what they have done for me is far more than what an ordinary son can ever do for his mother.
I feel proud that they were so intelligent that they took to devotional service even before I did. It is sometimes said that the child is the father of the man. In my case, the sons have become the spiritual guides of their mother.
Lastly I feel profound gratitude to Srila Prabhupada, his followers, and his mission, ISKCON, for having provided me with the shelter of Lord Krishna’s lotus feet in my last days, when I so desperately needed it. It is only by their grace that for me cancer has been transformed from a curse into a blessing.
* * * * * *
Surapriya Devi Dasi passed away on June 13, 2003, at 3:15 A.M. within the premises of the Sri Sri Radha-Kunjabihari temple, ISKCON, Pune. At that time, a CD player was playing a recording of Sria Prabhupada singing the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and her youngest son, Sundaravara Dasa, was chanting on his beads next to her. Before losing consciousness the previous night, she repeatedly chanted the name of Srila Prabhupada and said that she very distinctly felt his presence in the room, something she had felt dimly on several occasions earlier. A few hours before her departure, her husband told her that his presence next to her would distract her from thinking of Lord Krishna at the time of death and that he would therefore go to a nearby relative’s house for the night. She readily agreed.
During her last days, her relatives said that they saw no fear of death in her; rather they felt a divine peace pervade her being progressively. Even the doctors treating her commented that they had never seen a bone cancer patient so peaceful amid so much pain. (Cancer spread through the bones is known to be extremely painful.) She also requested of her husband that, after her death, he take to the vanaprastha (retired) order of life and dedicate his life to the service of Lord Krishna in ISKCON.
At the time of her initiation, Surapriya Devi Dasi wrote on her initiation form that she would like to preach Krishna consciousness. Devotees were skeptical that she could possibly preach, being in such a precarious physical condition. But she would fervently request every relative who came to see her to start chanting at least one round on beads of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Most of her relatives, being moved by her earnest concern for their spiritual well-being despite being herself on her deathbed, started chanting at once.
Moreover Lord Krishna fulfilled His devotee’s pure desire in a very special way. June 13 and 14 happened to be the dates of a spiritual camp at the Pune temple for over 150 young people from all over India. By arranging for her death on the first day of this camp, Krishna gave all these young people a timely reminder of the harsh reality of death, a reality that modern society tries to hide and ignore. Through her shining example, they also realized the necessity of accepting the saving grace of devotional service. Surapriya Devi Dasi thus preached the glory of devotional service through the way she accepted death. Krishna also glorified Surapriya Devi Dasi for her sincere devotion by arranging to have many devotees chanting to create an auspicious atmosphere at the time of her departure from her body.
He sought enlightenment on an isolated beach through music, meditation, and marijuana, it came to him in a way he'd never expected.
Video of Sarvatma dasa chanting at the 2007 Ukraine kirtan festival.
Having had some mystical experiences as a teenager that convinced me of the existence of God, I left my native country, Argentina, for Salvador, capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, famous for its mysticism and magic. I arrived in the area without plans, money, or acquaintances and moved into a straw hut by the beach a couple of miles from the nearest fishing village and fifty miles from civilization. It was an ideal setting of palm trees, a small lake, a river of crystalline water, and the turquoise Atlantic Ocean, in year-round eighty-degree weather.
I made a new friend there. He was reading the Bible and other books about God, playing music for God, and smoking marijuana to keep in touch with "the subtle world of God consciousness." While I played saxophone and recorder, he would play guitar. We intended to satisfy God with our musical spontaneity.
I read a book by a Japanese doctor who claimed that everyone had inherent healing powers that could be awakened just by practicing austerities like fasting and chanting mantras. Since our eating depended on what God would send, fasting wasn't unknown to us, although God would almost daily send someone with something to eat, or drop some green coconuts to the ground. To try to attain enlightenment, I was already planning to undergo a forty-day fast. So I followed the Japanese doctor's program and, by the grace of God. I developed some healing powers. I could close wounds and heal minor afflictions.
My friend and hut-mate, David (as he wanted people to call him—after the biblical character), made bamboo flutes, which we decided to try selling at the artisans' market in Salvador. For the first time in months, I put on a shirt and sandals. I walked along the beach to the next village (there was no road) and caught a bus into the city.
Although the contrast between the city and the beach was shocking, my mind was peaceful because I was always thinking of finding the way to God. I walked around the market playing a flute. I sold a few and then went to the telephone company to make a long-distance call.
A young woman in a wheelchair waiting for her turn to use the phones attracted my attention. Here was a serious case I might be able to cure. Without hesitation. I went up to her and revealed my intentions.
"By the grace of God," I said, "I have some healing powers that might enable you to walk. I'm not going to touch you or charge you anything, nor is it going to hurt you to try." I waited for her answer, which came in a way I'd never expected.
"You are very kind in trying to help me," she replied, "but you should also consider that I suffer no more pain than what your body gives you. I've been in a wheelchair since birth. I have never walked; nevertheless, I've always gotten where I wanted to go. This is the body God gave me after many past lives of sinful activities; therefore I deserve it. And more important than all this," she added, "is that I, the person, live in this machine we call the body. I need spiritual, not material, help, and in spite of your good intentions, I don't think you are ready to give that yet." After saying this, she smiled and waited for my reaction.
I was dumbfounded. It took me a while to recuperate. Then I said, "What you just said sounds like the absolute truth, which I had not expected to hear from someone in your circumstances."
My experience was that many persons confined to wheelchairs were easily irritated and seemingly resentful of their condition. I asked her not to go away. I wanted to make a call and return to talk at length. She promised to wait. When I returned I pushed the wheelchair outside and asked her where we should go.
"Let's take a taxi to a restaurant," she said.
"OK." I said, thinking, Taxi? I never thought I'd ever ride in one again. I had the same feeling about going to a restaurant.
Once in the taxi she asked me if I was a vegetarian. I replied that where I lived there was no meat, so circumstantially I was. But why?
She explained that killing animals or eating them is sinful and should be avoided by all means. This made sense to me, and I promised her that I would become a total vegetarian. I could see that she was serious about spiritual life, so I asked. "Is there any other prohibition?"
"Yes. No gambling."
"Fine with me." I said. "What else?"
"No illicit sex."
I had given up sex entirely some time before, understanding that it doesn't help in the pursuit of spiritual life. So I had no problems with that either.
"What else?" I asked.
"No intoxication." she replied shyly, knowing from my long hair and beard that I was probably rather involved in this particular area.
"What do you mean by 'No intoxication'?" I asked her quickly.
"No alcohol, drugs, tobacco, coffee, tea ..."
I then admitted to smoking marijuana to keep in constant touch with God, but at the same time I began to doubt this method of God realization.
"Where did you get the philosophy you were speaking back at the phone company?" I asked.
She calmly replied. "From the Hare Krishnas."
I searched my mind for some information about the Hare Krishnas. I told her I'd read long ago in a popular magazine that their diet consisted of lettuce and walnuts and that George Harrison of the Beatles paid all the bills. I also saw them once selling books, incense, and oils at the Buenos Aires subway. She laughed at my poor description.
I then asked. "How do they get in touch with God if they don't smoke marijuana?"
Since I was already chanting some words to help with my healing powers, this made sense to me. I thought. These Hare Krishna people don't look like anyone else, so they easily could have something that no one else has, and why not exactly what I am looking for: the Absolute Truth? What wouldn't I give for that priceless gift!
I asked, "What should I do?"
"Go live with them," she said.
I felt far too ignorant of their philosophy to just walk in and say, "Well, I'm one of you now." So I proposed that we spend a few days together so I could learn the basics of Krishna consciousness. She agreed.
We took a boat across the bay from Salvador to an island where she lived with some friends. For the next few days she taught me the basic philosophy, answered my questions, and gave me a Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead book and a volume of Srimad-Bhagavatam. She showed me japa (chanting) beads and explained many things about the devotees' life. I was fascinated. I bid her farewell and took a boat back across the bay and a bus to the temple.
I met the temple president Hankara dasa, who asked, "How did you get to know about us?" I briefly related my story, and he started explaining different aspects of the philosophy in a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish. I told him I wanted to become a pure devotee. Seated beside him was a young man with long hair (not as long as mine, but long enough to distinguish him from the shaven-headed devotees) who seemed absorbed in chanting on his beads, quite loudly, but also in listening to our conversation. I tried to appear unaffected by this strange sight.
Then came the prasadam (food that's been offered to Krishna). To the girl, prasadam was a magic word. Yet despite her descriptions of celestial, divine, delicious prasadam. I thought it was terrible. But I silently ate every thing on my plate. Later I learned that the cook was new and that the food I'd eaten, except for the bread Hankara had made, was well below standard. Still, the philosophy was so satisfying that nothing was going to discourage me from living with devotees. They let me stay overnight not in the ashram but in the reception room, with no blanket or mat or pillow. My spontaneous attraction to the philosophy made them suspicious, and they were afraid I was just there to steal something or do something crazy.
They woke me for mangala-arati, the ceremony of worshiping the Deities that begins the day. That afternoon a devotee accompanied me to my hut. I wanted to pick up my belongings and tell my hut-mate the good news: finally I'd found the process of awakening the soul from the slumber of material illusion and the torture of mental speculation. But my friend had left
The next day, I rode the night bus to Recife, a city twelve hours north of Salvador, with the president of the Recife temple and a younger devotee. I was going there to join the program for newcomers. At about 9:15 P.M. the younger devotee asked me if I was chanting Hare Krishna. "Well, nobody told me to," I said, "so I guess I'm not ready yet." He laughed, gave me his own beads as a gift and taught me how to chant. By 10:00 P.M., after chanting three rounds, I fell asleep.