Dear devotees and friends,
Please accept my best wishes. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
I am writing to you from Tomsk, in West Siberia. It’s a university city, and the leader here, Carudesna prabhu, has very effective programmes going on with the students. Therefore the preaching is very nice.
I last wrote about 10 days ago from Abakan, on the way to Kizil, near the border with Mongolia and Kazakhstan.
We travelled there in a car with the leading preacher of the area, Vidyanidhi prabhu, and my translator Subala, and Vidyanidhi was explaining about the area we were going into. His English is about on the same level as
my Russian, and has been for years, and as he explained things to me I was also understanding some of the difficulties of dabbling in a foreign language and not really learning it properly.
As he talked about one particular place he looked me in the eyes with a straight face and told me “there was a big bottle there.” My mind went into a minor spin. “Wow! A big bottle! How big would a bottle have to be that the place it came from would become famous for it? Big enough to walk into?”
But then, seeing my surprise, he asked Subala what the correct word was, and Subala told him “battle, not bottle!” There had apparently been some major military conflict there hundreds of years ago. That in itself was mildly interesting, but the thing that struck me was how difficult it is to learn a foreign language, where all the words have nothing to do with your native language, and where “battle” might as well be “bottle” as far as you were concerned. Why would it make a difference? But for the speakers of that foreign language it makes the difference between someone making sense and speaking nonsense!
I had an evening off the first night, May 19th, and tried to catch up on some reading and chanting, and then on the 20th evening we had a programme in a cultural hall. There were about 100 or so people there, most of them new to Krishna consciousness, so we tried to adapt things to them as much as possible. They seemed to like it, and at the end some of them danced in the kirtana.
The next morning we drove on to Kizil, which is the capital of the Tuva Republic. When the Russian empire spread out eastwards from Moscow about 350 years ago, they annexed whatever civilizations were in their way, and in this part of the world that meant parts of the former Mongolia. What is left of Mongolia on the map is just perhaps half of what it used to be. The rest is now part of Russia.
In the Communist times they gave these areas a semblance of independence by declaring them “Autonomous Republics” and letting them govern themselves to some degree. Of course, if they didn’t do what Moscow told them to do then they were unceremoniously crushed and people more co-operative with the Communist regime were put in charge.
We drove through a beautiful mountain range called the Sayani Mountains, and found to our surprise that even though the outside temperature that day was about 20 degrees C, still the snow was not melting so much. It was quite unusual to be outside in a kurta, feeling pleasantly warm, but completely surrounded by snow.
On the way we stopped for a short break near the place that a person formerly hoping to become the Russian State President died. His name was Lebed, and some years ago he was featured in Time magazine as the likely successor to then-President Yeltsin. However one day in winter he was flying through the Sayani Mts in a helicopter in very rough conditions, and they hit the power pylons running over the mountains, and he died in the crash. There’s a small monument to him at the side of the road there.
He was known to be very hateful towards devotees, and had apparently vowed that if he came to power he would destroy the Hare Krishna movement. Krishna doesn’t like it if people talk like that, and I think it caught up with him after a while.
As we entered the “republic” we were stopped by the local police at their border checkpoint, and they looked at me, dressed in Vaisnava clothes, and asked our driver “is he the guru?” They are Buddhist people and know certain of the Vedic traditions and terms.
Just before Kizil we were met by some of the local devotees, with a traditional Tuva welcome. One of the devotee ladies was dressed in the national dress, and she came forward and offered us each a cup of warm milk – this is apparently a local tradition! Then we were garlanded and taken to our luxury hotel.
As in many places in the former Soviet Union, in Kizil we don’t have a proper centre, so we held our programmes with the local devotees in a small conference hall in the hotel. Unfortunately we had to keep the kirtanas somewhat quiet, but still everything went very nicely. We talked about Lord Caitanya and how He went through the Jarikhanda forest and made the animals devotees, and how we should now try to make people Krishna conscious and continue the parampara line under Srila Prabhupada.
keha yadi tanra mukhe sune krsna-nama
tanra mukhe ana sune tanra mukhe ana
sabe ‘krsna’ ‘hari’ bali’ nace, kande, hase
paramparaya ‘vaisnava’ ha-ila sarva dese
When someone heard the chanting of the holy name from the mouth of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and someone else heard this chanting from that second person, and someone again heard this chanting from the third person, everyone in all countries became a Vaisnava through such disciplic succession. Thus everyone chanted the holy name of Krsna and Hari, and they danced, cried and smiled.
In his purport Srila Prabhupada says: “The transcendental potency of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra is herein explained. First, the holy name is vibrated by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. When someone hears from Him directly, he is purified. When another person hears from that person, he also is purified. In this way the purification process is advanced among pure devotees. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and no one can claim His potency. Nonetheless, if one is a pure devotee, hundreds and thousands of men can be purified by his vibration. This potency is within every living being, provided he chants the Hare Krsna maha-mantra offenselessly and without material motives. When a pure devotee chants
offenselessly, another person will become a Vaisnava, and from him another Vaisnava will emerge. This is the parampara system.” (Caitanya-caritamrita Madhya Lila 17.48-49)
I tried to impress on the devotees the importance of spreading Krishna consciousness, and not just being satisfied with being a small group. Because of the Buddhist background of the majority of people there they have a natural affinity for Vedic culture. One lady just walked up to me and asked me to pray for her daughter, and I was approached by a number of other people for blessings. Some of the hotel staff came to our room and asked for blessings. It was quite an amazing experience. My conclusion was that this is a very ripe place for spreading Krishna consciousness.
Geographically, Kizil is the centre of Asia, and we visited the exact place, just down the road from the hotel. We also visited the main Buddhist temple, which was Quite unimpressive, and then went to Beaver Springs, a part of the local riverbank where water is coming out of the ground in numerous places. Although most of the people are Buddhist, some of them still follow the earlier religious practices of the area, from before the time of Buddha. This culture is called Shamanism, and is arguably more Vedic in nature, focusing on nature spirits and the ancestors and so on. Somehow beavers are sacred in the Shaman culture, and they were previously worshipped at this place.
Subala, Vidyanidhi and I then flew on the 22nd of May back from Kizil to Krasnoyarsk, and we did a programme for the congregation, in a hall, on Saturday afternoon, the 23rd. At the end of it we had a good kirtana, and Subala told me “we haven’t had a kirtana like that here for years.”
That night he and I took the train to Novosibirsk, arriving there in time for the Sunday programme on the 24th. The weather was almost sub-zero when we arrived, but there was a very nice group of young devotees waiting for us at the railway station.
Novosibirsk is the 3rd or 4th largest city in Russia, with a population of more than 2 million, and there is a fairly large devotee community there. There used to be a temple, but the former Temple President rejected ISKCON leadership some years ago, and is now totally separate from Srila Prabhupada’s movement, so the devotees have not had a centre since then.
But now they are renting a building near the centre of the city, so we had our programmes there. On Wednesday May 27th I went with Svarupa Damodara, my West Siberian translator and Vaisnava Prana, a senior disciple of mine there, to Vaisnava Prana’s dacha for a bania, or Russian sauna. A dacha is a Russian summer garden cottage, and they are immensely popular. Practically every family has one, and Vaisnava Prana’s is one of the best.
The bania is right next to a small river, and in between doses of torture (pitka in Russian) in the bania, which was 95 degrees C, we were meant to dive in the river. I tested the water and it was so cold that it was practically sub-zero, so I didn’t bother swimming. However, right at the end Vaisnava Prana was almost insisting I went in, so I did, and came out gasping with cold. Maybe it’s good for the health (?). I don’t know how it could be though.
That night at the centre there was the 21st birthday celebration for Bhaktin Gaurangi, an aspiring disciple of mine who has been a devotee almost all her life. She’s a tower of strength among the your devotees in Novosibirsk, and has got all the girls dancing very beautifully, as is the style in many parts of Russia. By contrast, many of the men seem to more or less just stand there in the kirtana, and just a few of them really get into the dancing. By her enthusiasm and sincerity, Gaurangi has brought a number of young women into Krishna consciousness, and it just shows how important leadership is in spreading the Krishna consciousness movement.
Then on May 28th we drove to Tomsk, where we are now, and we’ve had a couple of programmes in the devotees’ centre there. This afternoon we’ll have a public programme in a hall, and some new people are expected. I’ll let you know how it goes shortly.
Hoping this meets you well.
Bhakti Caitanya Swami