Writings

Retreat at Lake Baikal

Dear devotees and friends,

Please accept my best wishes. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.

I am in Irkutsk right now, and tomorrow morning (the 25th) I’ll fly to Moscow and then to Vilnius for the annual Baltics Summer Festival. Fortunately Niranjana Maharaja will be there, and it will be the first time I’ve seen him in two years, so I’m looking forward to it very much.

Since I last wrote a few days ago we have been on a retreat at Lake Baikal in Siberia. It’s one of the biggest lakes in the world and is very amazing, and every year the devotees go there for a few days to relax and have Krishna conscious programmes together. I haven’t been before, but this year I went and it was very nice. There were about 160 devotees, and every day we had harinama, and two evenings we had cultural programmes, as we did in West Siberia some weeks before.

We’ve included a map among the photos, which shows where this all took place. We drove from Irkutsk to the north east, and then turned off to meet the lake near the large Lake Olkhon.

Our West Siberian team of devotees including Bala Krishna prabhu, Krishna Kanaya prabhu, his wife Srimati, Mayapur Lila, Gaurangi, Devaki, Katia, Sasha and various others from Novosibirsk came and put on the programmes and they were very successful amongst the holiday makers. Adi Kesava prabhu from Irkutsk, who came with us on the West Siberian tour, worked tirelessly to make it all a success, and led some amazing kirtana.

The mood of the crowds was a lot more laid back than when we did the programmes earlier. They hadn’t paid anything, and they were basically just lounging around the beach when we would come with harinama and then do the stage programme. Some would come and go, but about a hundred every evening took it a little seriously, so all in all it was a great success.

One of the days we went out to Ogoi Island, where there’s a Buddhist stupa, built in 2005. The local people are Boryetti, and are actually part of the Mongolian nation, and they are mainly Buddhist. Previously there were following a shaman tradition of worship of nature spirits and so on, but perhaps 200 or 300 years ago preachers came from Mongolia and converted the people in the southern areas to Buddhism, although those in the northern areas remain following shamanism.

We took a boat ride for an hour to reach Ogoi Island, and as we passed through what is called Maloye More, or “The Small Sea,” I began to appreciate the extent of Baikal more. It is about the sixth biggest lake in the world in terms of surface area, but in terms of depth and volume of water it is by far the biggest. From one end to the other it’s 650
kilometres, and it holds 20% of the fresh water of the world. If it were emptied it would take all the water from the so-called “Great Lakes” of USA and Canada to fill it, as it’s the deepest lake in the world, in some places more than 1.6 kilometres deep. As I mentioned, the part we were on is called “The Small Sea” as it’s enclosed by Olkhon Island, a 70 kilometre long island which separates it from the main Baikal, which is called “The Siberian Sea”. In most places the water is crystal clear and you can see many meters down into it, and it’s surely one of the wonders of the world.

We arrived at the island and found that there were already a few boatloads of tourists there, visiting the stupa, so we just carried on and climbed the hill with beautiful kirtana led by Adi Kesava prabhu, and with our unstoppable Siberian girls dancing all the way. To the amazement of all the tourists we continued with the kirtana, circumambulating the stupa again and again with kirtana and graceful dancing. Everyone loved it, except for the one  Buddhist monk who was there, collecting money from the tourists, who really became angry with us.

After some time we sat down under some trees and talked about Lord Buddha and his mission – how he came to stop the rampant animal slaughter that was going on in the name of the Vedic tradition. Around 2600 years ago in India
the temples were effectively great slaughterhouses, with herds of animals being brought in throughout the day and mercilessly killed and people buying the flesh as so-called prasadam. People were so degraded because of this meat eating that they were unable to understand the Vedic philosophy, so Buddha came and preached nonviolence as the highest religious principle. Somehow it took hold and swept through India, and then under Emperor Ashoka it spread through Asia.

Buddha taught Sunyavada, which literally means “knowledge of nothing”, the idea being that this world is illusion and doesn’t even exist, and that when one becomes enlightened one will realize that nothing exists at all. We don’t exist, this world doesn’t exist, Buddha never existed, and Buddhism itself and the effort a person might make to practise it also doesn’t exist! Srila Prabhupada preached strongly against these types of ideas, and therefore we pray to him every day:

namaste sarasvate deve
gaura-vani-pracarine
nirvisesa-sunyavadi-
pascyata-desa-tarine

“Our respectful obeisances are unto you, O spiritual master, servant of Sarasvati Gosvami. You are kindly preaching the message of Lord Caitanya and delivering the Western countries, which are filled with impersonalism and voidism.”

We talked about how, by Lord Krishna’s arrangement, in about 807 Shankaracarya then came after Buddha to re-establish the Vedic tradition, although with a philosophy that was very close to Buddha’s – Mayavada. Whereas Buddhism teaches that this world is unreal and nothing exists, Mayavada teaches that Brahman exists, their slogan being “Brahma satyam, jagan mithya” – Brahman is truth, but this world is false.” Sankaracarya was so powerful in his preaching that he drove Buddhism almost completely out of India, so when we go there now it is very rare to find any Buddhists or Buddhists temples.

After Sankaracarya came the leaders of the four main sampradayas, who one after the other established Vaisnavism more and more strongly until Lord Caitanya appeared. First, in 1017 or thereabouts, Ramanujacarya of the Sri
Sampradaya appeared and taught a Vaisnava philosophy called visistadvaita, which is sometimes translated to mean “concrete monism” in the sense that it teaches that everything is God, and therefore is one, but it is one as a piece of concrete is one. A piece of concrete is one, but if you cut it you see there is sand in it, there are rocks in it of different sizes, and there may even be steel in it. So even though it is one, it is also not one at the same time. There is a resemblance between this philosophy and Lord Caitanya’s acintya bheda-abheda philosophy of simultaneous oneness and difference, except that Ramanuja is teaching that everything, including us, is also God, whereas Lord Caitanya taught that there is Krishna and His energy.

Anyway, Ramanujacarya was successful to quite some extent in defeating Mayavada, and then after him, in about 1238, came Madhavacarya of our Brahma Sampradaya, who taught suddha-dvaita philosophy, which basically teaches
that there is no oneness, but rather there are two – the Lord and us. Therefore it is called suddha-dvaita, or pure duality. Following him was Sri Nimbarka of the Kumara Sampradaya, whose philosophy is that jiva and the Supreme Lord are simultaneously different and non-different (dvaita-advaita) which is also similar to Lord Caitanya’s philosophy, but not the same. Then after him came Visnu Svami of the Rudra Sampradaya, who preached suddhadvaita, that although the Absolute Reality or Truth is one (advaita) yet Divinity and humanity are eternally different.

Then after that Lord Caitanya appeared, in 1486, and established acintya bheda-abheda, which is the ultimate expression of reality. He appears in the same line as Madhavacarya, the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya Sampradaya.

So we spent some happy time together on the island, and as we were leaving we decided to speak to the Buddhist monk who was doing a type of sankirtana by chasing after the tourists and collecting money from them. We also decided to give him a donation. Unfortunately though he was in a very surly mood and rudely told us in Russian “don’t come near me!” so we didn’t approach him, and rather kept the lakshmi to be used in Krishna’s service.

The stupa is just a monument, and one cannot enter it. Inside have been placed various Buddhist texts and mementos, along with other things including, strangely enough, some bombs from the First World War and a few other material items of some historical significance.

Then we returned to our place and had our second cultural programme for the people on the beach.

On the way back on the boat we had a long discussion with Bala Krishna prabhu, a disciple of Indradyumna Maharaja, about the importance of taste in devotional service, as distinct from simply practising according to rules and regulations. If there were no taste, but we were simply doing everything we do because of the rules, and just because it was right to do those things, and there was no taste coming from it at all, we would not be able to continue for long. The mind and the senses demand taste, and if we practice Krishna consciousness nicely then taste comes, in a natural way,
and we become inspired to continue and get more taste. That taste is not necessarily to do with raganuga sadhana, or some high level practice of devotional service, but just from the natural contact with Krishna which comes when we serve Him in different ways.

It was a very nice discussion, and perhaps we will publish it in the near future.

So now I’m flying to Lithuania for the summer festival there. I will let you know what happens shortly.

Hoping this meets you well.

Your servant,

Bhakti Caitanya Swami

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