It’s 8.30 in the morning on June 10th. Sri Gaura Hari prabhu and I are flying from Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia to Yakutsk, which is near the eastern coast of Russia. It’s less than 1000 kms from the coast, and maybe 400 kms south of the Arctic Circle. If you have a detailed map of the world you may be able to find it there. We’re flying over snow capped mountains as we head towards this obscure town, which is known for its diamond and gold mining. But there’s also a small community of devotees there, headed by Arjuna Vallabha prabhu, a disciple of Prabha Vishnu Maharaja, and Maharaja has asked me to visit and see if I can give them some association.
No disciple of Srila Prabhupada has ever been here, other than Maharaja, who only stopped here once for a couple of hours while in transit on a flight 12 years ago. In fact over the last 10 years perhaps 6 or 7 devotees from places outside of Yakutsk have been here. But despite that Arjuna Vallabha and his team are trying to spread Srila Prabhupada’s message to the population of about 250,000.
When I wrote last we were on a train going from Tomsk to Novokuznetsk, in West Siberia. Sri Gaura Hari and I were accompanied by Carudesna prabhu, the Regional Secretary for the northern part of West Siberia, and Svarupa Damodara prabhu, my disciple from Novosibirsk. We slept through the night on the train, and around 11 the next morning we arrived at our destination.
Novokuznetsk is a smaller city, based on the iron smelting industry. In fact the name of the town means “the new iron smelting worker”, literally. Despite the rather unusual connotations, there is a very nice community of devotees here, headed by Krishna Kunda prabhu, a disciple of Prabha Vishnu Maharaja. We went from the station to the house of Bhakta Nikolai and his wife Bhaktin Galina, two very sincere devotees living in the suburbs of the town. Their house is actually a 3 storey villa, and we held programmes there morning and evening till the 28th, attended generally by about 30-40 devotees. Even though they were working days the devotees took the trouble to take time off their jobs and come for a 2 hour morning programme at 9am.
In the evenings I continued the seminar “Lessons from the Pastimes of Lord Caitanya”. We again discussed Ramacandra Puri and Isvara Puri from the 8th Chapter of the Antya Lila of Caitanya-caritamrta. Srila Krishnadas Kaviraja Goswami states:
mahad-anugraha-nigrahera ‘saksi’ dui-jane
ei dui-dvare sikhaila jaga-jane
“Isvara Puri received the blessing of Madhavendra Puri, whereas Ramacandra Puri received a rebuke from him. Therefore these two persons, Isvara Puri and Ramacandra Puri, are examples of the objects of a great personality’s benediction and punishment. Madhavendra Puri instructed the entire world by presenting these two examples.” (Caitanya-caritamrta Antya Lila 8.32)
We explained how Isvara Puri was such a dedicated and humble disciple of Madhavendra Puri that he would even clean up his guru’s stool and urine when Madhavendra Puri was in the final days of his life in this world. While doing this Isvara Puri would chant Hare Krishna very happily, and in this way he pleased Madhavendra Puri, who blessed him that he would become a great devotee and lover of Krishna.
However Ramacandra Puri was not so Krishna conscious. He was also a disciple of Madhavendra Puri, and in those last days he came to see his spiritual master. At that time Madhavendra Puri was absorbed in a deep mood of separation from Krishna, and was lamenting as if he had wasted his life. He was chanting:
ayi dina-dayardra natha he
dayita bhramyati kim karomy aham
“O My Lord! O most merciful master! O master of Mathura! When shall I see You again? Because of My not seeing You, My agitated heart has become unsteady. O most beloved one, what shall I do now?” (Caitanya-caritamrta Antya Lila 8.34)
Unfortunately Ramacandra Puri mistook his spiritual master’s prayers to be sentimental grievings, and he took it upon himself to try to “serve” his guru by giving him some “good advice”. So he told Madhavendra Puri “If you are in full transcendental bliss, you should now remember only Brahman. Why are you crying?” Madhavendra Puri rebuked him strongly, saying: “Get out, you sinful rascal! O my Lord Krsna, I could not reach You, nor could I reach Your abode, Mathura. I am dying in my unhappiness, and now this rascal has come to give me more pain. Don’t show your face to me! Go anywhere else you like. If I die seeing your face, I shall not achieve the destination of my life. I am dying without achieving the shelter of Krsna, and therefore I am greatly unhappy. Now this condemned foolish rascal has come to instruct me about Brahman.”
On the evening of the 27th some of the devotees put on a drama of the pastime of the deliverance of Jagai and Madhai. As with so many devotee plays it was full of humour, along with the deep transcendental message. Jagai and Madhai were played in truly authentic style by two of the local boys, and it seemed they might be more of a danger to each other than to Lord Nityananda! They fought wildly and poured wine all over themselves before they finally got the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
On the 28th Mayapura Candra prabhu from Novosibirsk kindly drove us all the way to our next stop, Barnaul, a city in the southern part of West Siberia. The leader here is Visnu Tattva prabhu, and like Carudesna he is one of the most dynamic devotees in Russia. He is a householder with a wife and child, but despite this he is fully engaged in preaching work, heading up his community of perhaps 350 devotees, which he has developed since coming here in 1997.
He has preaching programmes every day of the week. One night a week all the community’s 10 Nama Hattas have their weekly programmes. Another night he meets with all the leaders of the Nama Hattas, and has a programme to guide and inspire them. Every Wednesday the whole community gets together for a 3 hour maha kirtana together, and every Saturday afternoon they all go on harinama. Then on Sunday they have a big festival together, and the other nights of the week are completely full also. No wonder the whole devotee community is completely dedicated to him, and feel fully sheltered by him.
And all of this without any temple or any property of any sort.
We met in the evenings in a rented hall and held our programmes. Sunday the 30th was Pandava Nirjala Ekadasi, so some devotees gathered in the flat we were staying in and chanted japa with us, and then we went to the Sunday programme. There were at least 300 devotees there, the majority of whom were dry fasting as we were. I also fasted completely, although over the last few years I have been doubting the necessity of doing this, as Srila Prabhupada never did it, nor did he even refer to such practice. I wrote to Giriraja Maharaja, my sannyasa guru and the devotee I regard as being best versed in Srila Prabhupada’s instructions on anything, and asked him what his experience with Srila Prabhupada was. He replied:
“Regarding Nirjala Ekadasi, you know we did not observe it as such during Srila Prabhupada’s presence. If we happened to break Ekadasi, he would advise us to fast the next day (or the day after). Many of Srila Prabhupada’s followers now are in the mood to return to Srila Prabhupada’s more simple mood of Krishna consciousness as we practiced it when he was here. Srila Prabhupada never set the example for us to observe Nirjala Ekadasi. Further, when the Nectar of Devotion first came out, Mother Yamuna asked Srila Prabhupada if we should ‘remain fasting throughout the night and continuously chant the glories of the Lord,’ as stated in Nectar of Devotion. Srila Prabhupada replied, ‘No. We have too much service.’ In conclusion, I would say it could be left to the individuals to decide. Personally, I will be in LA for the Prabhupada Festival, and I shall give more importance to glorifying Srila Prabhupada and associating with his devotees than to fasting. And in general, I share your concern about devotees’ placing more emphasis on externals than on the essence.”
Anyway, we did the whole fast, and it was beneficial I suppose, as I chanted lots of rounds. Svarupa Damodara chanted 72, and Sri Gaura Hari 70.
While in Barnaul we gave first initiation to seven devotees, and second to one. After that we went on harinama. One thing about the Barnaul yatra, and some of the other Siberian yatras, is that the ladies are some of the best dancers in the world. It’s quite amazing.
On the 31st we drove from Barnaul to Novosibirsk, as Sri Gaura hari prabhu and I were to take a train to Krasnoyarsk, in East Siberia. As Rukmininatha was driving us he went straight through a police check point without stopping in his big Land Cruiser, and the police gave chase in their little Lada. We had to stop for them, but fortunately Arjuna das, my policeman disciple from Novosibirsk, who is actually a Major in the force, and was in uniform that day, jumped out and spoke to them very strongly. He told them not worry, as we were driving a little fast as we had a General with us who was on urgent business. They immediately became frightened, saluted, and got back in their car and drove back to the check point!
As Arjuna climbed back into our vehicle he realized he didn’t have any socks on!
We took the overnight train to Krasnoyarsk and arrived there on the 31st morning. The devotees there, led by Guru Vrata prabhu, a disciple of Indradyumna Maharaja, have just bought a new building which they are renovating and converting for use as a temple. It’s a typical 3 storey “Novo Russky” house, (New Russian) as built by successful businessmen all over the country, and has nice facility for the temple devotees.
Every morning and evening we had programmes in the old temple, a kindergarten the devotees have been renting from the City Council for the last 11 or 12 years. On the Friday the 3rd of June we went to Acinsk, a nearby city wear Vaisnava Carana, a disciple of mine for many years, and the main cameraman for my video productions, lives with his wife. We had a programme at 3 in the afternoon in a rented hall, and about 40 devotees attended. At the end we had a wild kirtana, the most ecstatic of the whole tour so far, and I succeeded in partially losing my voice and hurting my left leg by jumping too much, along with my old friend Vidyanidhi prabhu, one of the senior devotees in East Siberia.
The next day, Saturday the 4th, we had a festival with the congregation in Krasnoyarsk to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my visiting Krasnoyarsk. About 300-400 devotees attended, and again we had a nice kirtana, and at the end distributed a huge tort (amazing Russian cake).
Early on the morning of the 5th, Sri Gaura Hari prabhu and I flew to Irkutsk. It was Sunday, so we had a big programme in a hall in the afternoon, attended by about 400 devotees. Everyone was chanting and dancing very nicely, and at the end we distributed another huge tort.
Every morning we were reading from the 6th Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam, Chapter 16, where King Citraketu offers his prayers to the Supreme Lord. He
kama-dhiyas tvayi racita
na parama rohanti yatha karambha-bijani
guna-ganato ‘sya dvandva-jalani
“O Supreme Lord, if persons obsessed with material desires for sense gratification through material opulence worship You, who are the source of all knowledge and are transcendental to material qualities, they are not subject to material rebirth, just as sterilized or fried seeds do not produce plants. Living entities are subjected to the repetition of birth and death because they are conditioned by material nature, but since You are transcendental, one who is inclined to associate with You in transcendence escapes the conditions of material nature.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 6.16.39)
We discussed examples of devotees who were materially attached, but despite that they managed to come to the level of pure devotional service. Dhruva Maharaja was very attached to getting a kingdom bigger than his father’s, and Kubja was lusty, but still, by the mercy of Lord Krishna and His devotees they managed to become purified and become pure devotees. There is hope for almost anyone in Krishna consciousness.
The yatra in East Siberia is led by Laksmi Narayana prabhu, a very strong manager, and one of the most effective preachers in Russia. He does a 5 day introductory lecture programme in halls titled “Timeless Culture”, and these are attended by up to 400 people. Gradually he introduces Krishna conscious philosophy and brings people into spiritual life in a very scientific way, and 1000’s of people have become devotees through his preaching.
On Tuesday the 6th we went to Baikal for a little relaxation. Baikal is one of the biggest lakes in the world, and is actually one of the wonders of the material nature. It’s 640 kms long, 80 kms wide, and up to 1600 metres deep, containing 20% of the world’s fresh water. And fresh the water is. I tried paddling for a few minutes, but it was so cold it was intolerable, although it was absolutely crystal clear. If it wasn’t that the water was so extremely cold it would certainly be one of the most heavenly places on the planet. We sat in the sun and chanted there for 2 hours, and I marveled at the genius of Krishna.
Now the plane has landed in Yakutsk. The weather is fine, but only 18 degrees, although the local devotees told us it was quite warm. All the buildings here are built on stilts as the ground is always in a state of permafrost, and if they contact the ground for any time they become affected and eventually collapse. Even now, more or less in midsummer, the ground 1 metre beneath the surface is permanently frozen, so it’s very difficult to grow much. The materialistic people are so enthusiastic for sense gratification that they have settled even in such a remote place as this, but the devotees are also here. There are about 12 active devotees here, and a small community of friends. Tonight we’ll be doing a public hall programme with them.
We’ll let you know how it goes shortly.