Hare Krishna, dear devotees!
Please accept my respectful obeisances.
All glories to Srila Prabhupada!
All glories to Guru Maharaj!
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel with Guru Maharaj through all of East Siberia in May of this year and Guru Maharaj asked me to describe the journey. Below is what was happening during this trip.
Meeting in Irkutsk
I was meant to meet Guru Maharaj in Irkutsk and fly together with him to Ulan-Ude further eastwards. The thing is the direct flight to Ulan-Ude from Moscow was too expensive and Guru Maharaj decided to take another route, a cheaper one but with a stop in Irkutsk.
So there we are in the airport looking forward to meeting Guru Maharaj. There is a little time before his plane lands but suddenly we saw him slowly walking towards us with his japa beads in his right hand. The thing was that the plane landed several minutes before the actual time in the schedule. The other thing was that Guru Maharaj was wearing karmic clothes which was quite unusual for him: he does wear it only when coming into some Muslim country. As he himself later explained us he had to do this because this time when he was getting his visa for traveling in Russia it was not a visa for religious affairs but some sort of cultural visa and devotees who were doing it for Guru Maharaj told him he’d better not wear his sannyas clothes not to provoke any problems with city authorities.
Therefore we did not recognize him immediately in the airport. Guru Maharaj was taken to the local temple at one side of Irkutsk and devotees asked if they could make a feet-bathing ceremony for Guru Maharaj. He agreed saying: “Yes, if they want…” Some time later in another city of East Siberia when devotees asked Guru Maharaj if they could wash his lotus feet he again replied the same and told me that actually if they want to do this they should not ask permission and just do it. The same applied to touching Guru Maharaj’s lotus feet.
An unexpected meeting
Guru Maharaj was given some time for rest and after lunch we started for the airport again for the flight to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatiya. When we went through the registration and Guru Maharaj saluted to the devotees we sat on the chairs and waited for the officials to call us for the boarding. We were sitting there facing each other, Guru Maharaj talking about something when he suddenly looked up and said Haribol. I turned my head and saw a young man, absolutely normal with the only exception that he had a japa bead-bag hanging on his neck with a big badge of Radha and Krishna stuck to it, with tilak on his forehead and sikha hardly hidden under the cap. He smiled and said Hare Krishna. Guru Maharaj asked him what he was doing there and he answered that he was flying from his native city of Novosibirsk to Ulan-Ude for the program with Guru Maharaj. Guru Maharaj said we were going there as well. So we were quite surprised to meet a devotee when we were not expecting it and besides he said he was planning to travel following Guru Maharaj in his travels through East Siberia. And he did that. He was with us in Ulan-Ude, Chita, Irkutsk, Bratsk and Krasnoyarsk and then he further went with Guru Maharaj to Omsk and I believe he is still following Guru Maharaj in his travels around West Siberia.
Shooting the plane and a bit of a mess
While we were still inside the airport building Guru Maharaj took out his photo camera and told me he was going to make some pictures of the plane. I wondered whether he was going to do it to show devotees in other places what Russians are flying by and he smilingly nodded. Getting closer to the plane I tried to go first in order to take two seats somewhere in the back part of it because to sit in the front part would have been too much because the propellers were too noisy in such planes. When I was just about to get inside I found Guru Maharaj was not there. I looked around and saw him with his camera in his hands looking a little embarrassed and two men strictly talking to him. I came up to them and asked what was the matter. They immediately said he should have not shoot the plane and that he must at once delete the pictures. Of course Guru Maharaj looked absolutely foreign and the fact that he was making pictures with his camera drew attention of the pilots and they demanded he should erase the photos. They warned Guru Maharaj he must not do this ever again and left us. When we sat in our seats and the plane took off Guru Maharaj told me that he actually did not even know how to delete photos from the camera, he only knew how to switch it on and shoot.
Between the two cities of Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude lies a lake very beautiful and unique in some points which is called the Baikal Lake. It was the beginning of May but the lake was still covered by a thick layer of ice. One could even walk on it without fear of breaking it through. Guru Maharaj was again shooting with his camera and explained it that devotees in South Africa never saw ice in their whole life and he wanted to show it to them.
Meeting in Ulan-Ude
Less than an hour later we were in Ulan-Ude. Local leaders Vrindavan Candra, Arjuna and Upendra prabhus came to meet Guru Maharaj. We waited a little while the devotees were getting Guru Maharaj’s baggage. Before that, when Guru Maharaj was talking with bhakta Arthur in Irkutsk airport he asked how he was going to travel. The thing was that when Guru Maharaj was traveling by train which was not so unusual for the Siberian region, where sometimes there are no flights or devotees’ communities are very small in number and just cannot afford the flight the train is the basic means of traveling. So Guru Maharaj said that devotees in Ulan-Ude must have bought all four seats in a compartment and since there were only three of us, Guru Maharaj , Subal, Guru Maharaj’s translator and me we had one spare seat which Arthur could take. He of course was delighted to get personal attention and care from Guru Maharaj and happily agreed.
Ulan-Ude devotees’ community consists of new devotees nowadays. Those old and senior devotees which were serving here in the temple in the times of Laxmi Narayana prabhu. Presently every thing has changed : the city authorities took away the temple building (before it was rented for many years). Laxmi Narayana prabhuleft Ulan-Ude first for Irkutsk and then for St.Petersburg. The majority of old devotees were very attached to Laxi Narayana pr. And when he left they also moved to other places. Therefore in Ulan-Ude now there are only few senior devotees left from those times.
Recently devotees bought a house in a remote part of the city and almost finished repairing it but because the place is so far away from the centre devotees find it so difficult to get there. In this way they just rent a club for the Sunday feast programs in the centre of the city and keep their own house reserved for future. Perhaps they will sell it sooner or later.
So the programs with Guru Maharaj were held in the deaf’s club. Guru Maharaj gave 2 classes on Srimad Bhagavatam and 2 classes on Bhagavad-Gita and at the end of the visit devotees organized a public program with all guests, with a drama about a man transforming into a devotee and later Guru Maharaj’s distributed Prasad.
Guru Maharaj also had to meet devotees at darsans. Some came to get blessings, some to ask permission to chant pranama mantra, some came with problems. As we mentioned there is a certain problem nowadays in East Siberia: there are a number of devotees too attached to Laxmi Narayana prabhu who cannot nicely cooperate with the current ISKCON leaders in the places as they consider them not very authoritative and stick to Laxmi Narayana’s ideas. Unfortunately this mood of theirs includes some criticism to ISKCON leaders.
One disciple of Guru Maharaj came to see him and for about an hour Guru Maharaj was trying to have him understand that his ideas were foolish although of course Guru Maharaj avoided using the actual words. We had to stop darsan for it was time for Guru Maharaj to take lunch and he asked the devotee to come and see him next day. When he came next day Guru Maharaj started by saying:”So, where are we?” The disciple felt uneasy and replied: “I was thinking the whole day and night and came to the conclusion I need to leave ISKCON”. Guru Maharaj was surprised by those words but asked him why he had decided like that. “I want to understand everything clear for myself” – was the answer. Guru Maharaj tried a little to tell him it was far from being a good idea but in vain – he already made up his mind. He said he was sorry, bowed down and quickly left. Guru Maharaj sadly smiled and said it was a shame. He was a nice devotee but somehow he had got a portion of poison of that critical mood.
When we were still in Ulan-Ude there it was a big festival day of Great Victory of the Russian people over fascist Germany. It happened 65 years ago. This year the date was big and all over the country came tremendous celebrations with parades, fireworks and so on… Guru Maharaj asked if he should mention in his class what real victory was about and we had to tell him it was not a brilliant idea because Russians are very attached to this phenomenon and are very sensitive and touchy about this feeling of patriotism and that any idea which was opposite could hurt their feelings badly. Therefore Guru Maharaj rejected this idea.
Then came the day we had to move further for Chita. Somehow the flight there was not available and devotees bought the whole compartment of 4 seats for all of us.
A Pious Conductor
An interesting thing happened while we were getting on the train. Matajis got in first in order to clean the compartment for Guru Maharaja’s comfort and probably were a little too enthusiastic about this giving thus a little trouble to the manager of the carriage. So he started being annoyed by the fuss and complained a little while Guru Maharaj was standing on the platform and talking to the devotees. Then one devotee, named Upendra, a disciple of Guru Maharaj from Ulan-Ude came up to the conductor and told him that You know actually this man we are seeing off here is a great saintly person and I humbly ask You to be polite with him. The man immediately changed countenance… As it later turned out he was a religious man himself to a certain degree and seemed to be willing to get some benefit from the possibility to help Guru Maharaj. He quickly went to our compartment where ladies were finishing the cleaning, took a carpet from the floor and shook out the dust from it. Doing it he said: :Yeah, this is my small mite for the holy man. When the train started and we were already inside I decided to visit a toilet. The conductor called me and said, You guys and Your spiritual leader please use the left side toilet, I’ve cleaned it. And when Your leader wants to go there please let me know in advance, I will put a place in order otherwise these people never left the place clean after themselves” I thanked him cordially for such concern about Guru Maharaj and went inside the restroom. There I saw a note stuck to the wall. It was written there: “Dear passengers, I earnestly request You not to pass stool in this place. Thank You” I told Guru Maharaj about this man and he was pleasantly amazed by this. We decided it would be suitable if Guru Maharaj gives him some prasad from his hands but in the morning when we were getting of the train there was another conductor.
Meeting in Chita
While in the train we were chanting japa most of the time and Guru Maharaj was working on his computer. As he explained he was editing his new book about Vrindavan. The thing is he eventually gave the material to some devotee for editing but it appeared she was not too expert in this and when Guru Maharaj was checking her work he noticed that many mistakes and inconsistencies were still there in the text. Therefore he made up his mind to do everything himself. He told he was rereading the writings for the fourth time already and still was finding mistakes in the text. The book, he said, will contain about 250 pages with plenty of illustrations. And most probably the book will be ready by Janmastami
In Chita we came at 6.30 a.m. and were met by a group of local devotees with their leaders Shrivas Thakur prabhu and Sitanath prabhu. From the railway station they took us to the apartment of a devotee named Madhava prabhu, another old devotee, a disciple of Prabhavishnu Swami. There Guru Maharaj settled in one apartment and Subal prabhu and I in the next. The program with the devotees was only meant to be in the evening so Guru Maharaj and we could have sufficient time to finish our rounds and have some rest.
In the evening we went to the program and were a little amused it was going to be held in the club of the blind people. Guru Maharaj was met by an enthusiastic kirtan with about 50 or 60 devotees participating in it and bhaktin Tanya was singing and accompanying herself on harmonium. When Guru Maharaj sat on Vyasasana and started singing Jaya Radha Madhava she began to play the harmonium but while being a little nervous to accompany Guru Maharaja’s singing was playing out of tune. Later she relaxed and played well enough and Guru Maharaj would invite her to the instrument.
Devotees in Chita as well as in Ulan-Ude rent a hall for programs and hope to build or buy a new building for the temple. In the mornings Guru Maharaj was driven to the hall (which by an accident happened to belong to the local society of the blind) and held morning programs there with Srimad Bhagavat classes, kirtans and Prasad distribution.
We also had darsans for the devotees, not many though. At the end the leaders came and asked questions on how to organize life in devotional service for Chita devotees in most proper way. Guru Maharaj shared some ideas and among them was the one that they should organize a regional council together with leaders from Ulan-Ude, Irkutsk and Bratsk. Devotees liked the idea very much since they definitely needed spiritual support from their senior “colleagues” from other cities. Therefore Guru Maharaj invited them to come to the annual Angarsk festival where they could have the first such council meeting.
That day Guru Maharaj and Subal prabhu took a flight to Irkutsk and Arthur and I followed them by train and came there next day. In Irkutsk the program of the visit with Guru Maharaj was probably the most fascinating. We had harinam, which we should admit quite an event for devotees in any city of East Siberia. Krishna Smaranam prabhu, a disciple of Indradyumna Swami is a very nice manager and he together with other devotees organizes everything in a most wonderful way. They got permission from the city administration to have harinam in the central street where there is usually a lot of people walking. We came to the place with Krishna Smaranam driving his jeep BMW and saw many devotees already gathered and waiting for Guru Maharaj and ready to start. Guru Maharaj was given a microphone and he started with Srila Prabhupada pranama.
The weather was shiny although it was still quite chilly. Devotees were dressed in vaishnav clothes with jackets, scarves and caps on. Still there was a group of young devotee girls who were wearing their saris without anything warmer. And they were beautifully dancing through the whole harinam.
At once a big crowd of people gathered around and watched this unusual event. Some stood, some sat and many were taking pictures and video of harinam. Guru Maharaj later said that the response was actually very nice, there were no one to make any evil jokes or laugh at us. Everyone was smiling listening and even singing. The harinam was a success. The only bad thing was that Krishna Smaranam put a number of 20 devotees in the paper for permission and at the harinam we had at least three times as much. That immediately attracted the attention of city officials who sort of guided us there. They approached Krishna Smaranam and for about half an hour they talked to each other. Finally they had us stop half an hour earlier we were planning to finish because there were 60 people coming instead of 20 in the list. That was the compromise we had to go to.
Immediately after the harinam Krishna Smaranam took us to the vegetarian café Govinda which he had recently opened. It was located in the centre of the city and not long after the opening attracted a certain category and number of visitors. Among them were devotees of course, people from the esoteric society “Art of Life”, people from Sri Chinmoy group.
There is a permanent group of devotees who cook prasadam in the café and the food is so nice that when we were served prasadam and Guru Maharaj tasted it he was deeply amazed and said: “The prasadam was world-class”.
Before the actual lunch Krishna Smaranam showed Guru Maharaj around the café, met the devotees serving there. Guru Maharaj was pleased with the high standards of the place. Everything was spotless, so clean and the equipment was brand-new. Then we sat to the table, four of us and took magnificent prasadam. We took some pictures of the place, you will be able to see them at the site.
Krishna Smaranam said the café must have success because devotees here were looking forward to having a place like that in Irkutsk for a long time and besides there are people here who prefer vegetarian food to meat and are also happy there is now a place where they can have proper lunch.
Srimad Bhagavatam Classes
In Irkutsk Guru Maharaj was giving classes on the first canto of Srimad Bhagavatam. He was talking about Vidura, his exemplary behaviour. Guru Maharaj mentioned about two kinds of relationships presented by Vidura: to sons of Pandu and to the sons of Dhritarashtra. One may easily blame Vidura for his partiality for he was always feeling affection for the Pandavas and was always chastising his brother Dhritarashtra and his sons with Duryodhand in the head. However this understanding would be incorrect for Vidura was equal to both sides and manifested his transcendental attitude depending on the state of consciousness. Pandavas he treated with love and guidance always helping them with advice and to Kauravas he reminded about their indecent behaviour and encouraged to find shelter in the Supreme Lord. Thus we can see the real impartiality of Uncle Vidura.
After one of the classes Yogeshvara das, a local stalwart brahmachari asked Guru Maharaj about the phenomenon of so-called DVD-mania. The idea was simple – is it OK that devotees watch karmic films as if trying to find some subtle sense in them which can be used in our preaching of Krishna consciousness. Guru Maharaj replied: “I hate this talk about this. Just imagine how many rounds you can chant, how many books you can read and distribute and how many other useful things you can do in devotional service instead of wasting your time in front of the tv-set. You watch movies and you will definitely destroy your Krishna consciousness. You can be sure of that!”
About the Baikal Lake
As usual part of the program in Irkutsk a trip to the Baikal Lake was planned. I asked Guru Maharaj did he really want to go there since it was definitely VERY cold there and as far as I know Guru Maharaj does not like cold at all. And often just being very humble just does what devotees offer him neglecting his own discomforts. He said what I had expected. “I don’t mind going there if they want me to. Although I have much work to do, so if they hadn’t made any special arrangement I would prefer to stay”. I asked Guru Maharaj what he was usually doing there. The reply was: “Nothing special… I’m just sitting there and chanting my rounds. The sight is beautiful!!” “And what are devotees doing there?” “They are just hanging around”. So that day it was decided that Guru Maharaj would not go to Baikal and rather stay in warmth and work.
On one of the day Deities installation was planned. Krishna Smaranam wanted to place Them in the café and offer to Them all preparations cooked there. Cm gave a class on one of the versed of the 2nd canto of Srimad Bhagavatam which spoke directly about worshiping the Deities. Then the actual ceremony started, the Deities were washed with several substancies and many devotees participated in abhishek. The ceremony followed by a roaring kirtan which lasted about an hour at the end of which Guru Maharaj was asked to name the Deities. He loudly announced that from that day on Their Lordships would be known as Sri Sri Nitay Gaura Sundara. Devotees cried out ecstatically Haribol and Jaya Nitay Gaura Sundara.
In Irkutsk as well as in other cities Guru Maharaj accepted devotees for darsans. There were quite a lot of devotees for about 2 hours every day and just before leaving the devotees from the temple council visited Guru Maharaj and together they discussed several points about preaching, running the community and so on. Guru Maharaj said that all in all he was quite happy with things in Irkutsk and gave them some instructions on how to deal with the devotees who felt a little deserved due to their a bit radical views on how everything should be in our society and who were disappointed with the present leaders. Guru Maharaj told them they should take care about those devotees personally trying to encourage them to cooperate and serve under the shelter of Srila Prabhupada.
After a lunch Krishna Smaranam prabhu took us at the airport where Guru Maharaj and Subal prabhu took a flight to Bratsk and in several hours later that day Arthur and I took a train to Bratsk as well.
So our next stop in this journey was the city of Bratsk in the north direction from Irkutsk. There in Bratsk there is a small community of devotees but still they are very united and what is also very important have their own temple building which they had previously rented and a few years ago purchased for full proprietorship. Some repair works are still going there but on the whole the building is quite fit for big festive days and other programs.
Although devotees in Bratsk do not worship the Deities yet in their temple their standards of worship on the altar are quite nice and every day they have Mangala arati and all other standard programs of ISKCON.
Guru Maharaj live in the house of one devotee and again he was working much on his book about Vrindavan. The first program with the participation of Guru Maharaj was a public program with a big number of guests. Devotees had made a large number of invitation cards and distributed them among the citizens and therefore when Guru Maharaj sat on the Vyasasana to start kirtan and a class he saw the hall with devotees and guests which was almost full. Guru Maharaj lectured on one of the verses of Bhagavad Gita and at the end there were many very thoughtful questions from the guests which showed that they had really been taken by Guru Maharaj’s presentation of Krishna consciousness. And as Guru Maharaj himself told: “I heard that people in Bratsk were very intelligent. Now I see this is true”.
In the morning Guru Maharaj would be taken to the temple where he chanted his japa together with other devotees. Then we would have Guru Puja and kirtan and Srimad Bhagavatam class. And in the evening Guru Maharaj lectured on Bhagavad Gita verses.
At the end of the visit Guru Maharaj thanked everyone for the hospitality and invited devotees to meet again at the short Baikal festival which will take place in the middle of July and Angarsk festival at the end of August.
So we helped Guru Maharaj to pack his baggage and devotees drove us all to the railway station. This time Vraja Mohan prabhu, the president of the yatra was with us in the compartment and bhakta Arthur was going to Krasnoyarsk in another carriage.
In Krasnoyarsk we were met by a group of devotees who quickly took us to the cars and in a few minutes we were driving to the local ISKCON temple. Guru Maharaj got the schedule of his visit and said the program was going to be very nice: Srimad Bhagavatam classed in the mornings, Bhagavad Gita classes in the evenings, lots of darsans for devotees and a Siksa program. In Krasnoyarsk there is a great number of disciples of Guru Maharaj and all of them were looking forward to meeting him again.
Fortunately devotees in charge did not put any meetings for Guru Maharaj on the day he arrived and he had time to take rest after the train journey and be ready for the evening program.
In mornings Guru Maharaj lectured on the verses from the chapter of Srimad Bhagavatam which told an allegoric story about King Puranjana. The texts were speaking about different parts of the human’s body and how they were very important. Eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears – everything was discussed in terms of importance for material life of a conditioned soul like an allegoric character, King Puranjana. However Guru Maharaj was depicting on how those organs of the body were important in the achieving of the goal of human’s life. For example it was said in the text that the mouth was the most important of all other parts of the body. Guru Maharaj though told that it was really so but only for a person who was trying to enjoy in the material world. Devotees though know and Guru Maharaj again reminded that simple truth that for a spiritual man ears were the main and most significant part of the body. Hearing is the first process in devotional service. From hearing starts speaking and then remembering and hearing is the process other processes of devotional service depend on. If your hearing is weak, if you let your mind go here and there then the speaking ability will be lacking greatly and the same applies to the further processes. In this way Guru Maharaj accentuated the importance of hearing and ears as the organ which makes it possible to hear from spiritual persons.
On one of the other days devotees organizes a public program with a nice advertisement. However the program was so indirect that the devotee who led the whole event would hardly ever utter the word Krishna. When I asked the organizer what Guru Maharaj should talk about he answered let him talk about India, about some interesting places there. Of course Guru Maharaj is very direct in his preaching and therefore when he was asked to speak he greeted everyone in the hall with a loud Hare Krishna and since there were a lot of devotees there he got a very loud response. So Guru Maharaj told about some basic ideas about who God is, what His qualities and names are what is the best way to build nice relationships with Him. At the end there was a big kirtan with Guru Maharaj standing a little higher at the stage with musicians playing and singing and after that he distributes Prasad to the guests and devotees.
He thanked the organizers of the program saying it was a very good program.
The other day we held a Siksa program where many devotees were taking siksa levels. Guru Maharaj was giving diplomas with his signature to the devotees and everyone was loudly playing mridangas and karatals and giving their blessings to the devotees to keep with their vows and be enthusiastic to move forward to next steps in their Krishna consciousness. Every now and then the program would be stopped for a break and then various devotees show their performances with singing and playing small dramas. On the whole it was a very warm and friendly program which ended with a big kirtan with a lot of devotees participating.
Instructions to the Temple Council
We also had a meeting with the council where one long lasted problem was discussed. This point of rewriting the possession of the temple building from one devotee who is not in a very good standing in Krishna consciousness to other devotees lasted for nearly three years and now it seemed to be finished. Vishnu-Tattva prabhu, the regional secretary for this region was also participating in the discussions.
There was also another problem which took place in Krasnoyarsk. Gaudiya Math people. Guru Maharaj was quite surprised to know that devotees from Gaudiya Math, especially disciples of Narayana Maharaj were allowed to attend our programs and were quite free to even engage in the temple service. Guru Maharaj said to the yatra leaders that since they had already let that happen was already a problem. However the problem will be much more serious if they would not ask those devotees to attend their own programs in Gaudiya Math and not come to us. He said if those Narayana Maharaja’s disciples want to attend ISKCON programs they should know once and for ever that they should keep their ideas to themselves and not share them with our devotees. They should understand that even once they say a word about their ideas or try to invite someone to their programs that would be it, from that day they cannot come to the temple.
He also added that because some of them were eager to serve in the temple it was nice to encourage and inspire them to be reinitiated in ISCKON Gurus. Guru Maharaj explained that their first initiation was not that serious like ours and more resembled when our children got their childish spiritual names.
4 days in Krasnoyarsk quickly passed by and Guru Maharaj had to go further to the West to Omsk the first city of Western Siberia where his festival tour would start from. Guru Maharaj said they would be going from city to city with cultural programs, dancing, singing and dramas and invited devotees to come and participate.
Local pujaris gave Guru Maharaj a plastic bag full of mangala sweets for him to distribute them in other cities. Guru Maharaj passed them to bhakta Arthur who would accompany Guru Maharaj further on his trip and fly with him to Omsk. At the airport Guru Maharaj thanked everyone for the warm acceptance and off they went.
We hope that next year we will have the opportunity to travel with Guru Maharaj again and get his strong Krishna consciousness association which actually keep us alive in devotional service.
Caitanya Prema das