On the morning of June 10th we landed at Yakutsk airport and were met by Arjuna Vallabha prabhu, the leader of the community here, and Bhaktin Tanya, one of the local devotees. Tanya drove us in to her brother’s flat, where we were going to stay, and we settled in. The devotees here are not so active in preaching Krishna consciousness – they don’t do harinamas or appear in public in Vaisnava dress – so the general population are not used to devotees dressed in dhotis and kurtas at all. As we moved around a little here and there, many people were staring in astonishment.
The devotees explained that this is one of the coldest inhabited places in the world. The lowest recorded temperature here was minus 67 degrees centigrade, and one questions whether it is really fit for human habitation. Everything was completely flat and quite windswept, but the hearts of the devotees were very warm, and we soon started preparing for the evening programme.
Arjuna Vallabha prabhu and his wife, Ananda Vallabhi, have been preaching here for 10 years, and have built up a network of about 12-15 active devotees, and a larger number of Friends of Krishna. There is one Indian family living there who have become very wealthy dealing in diamonds from the region, and they have established an Indian Cultural Center in the local university. Arjuna Vallabha is very expert in dealing with the local authorities and other officials, and has managed to get free use of the facilities there any time he wants, and for more than 18 months he’s held a Saturday afternoon programme in the Centre, which is attended by up to 30 people.
We began at 6pm, and about 35 or 40 people came. They were mainly friends of the devotees, so they all had a nice interest in Krishna consciousness, and in spiritual life in general, so the class was very well received, and we could have gone on talking for hours. We gave an introductory class, based on Bhagavad-gita 2.20:
na jayate mriyate va kadacin
nayam bhutva bhavita va na bhuyah
ajo nityah sasvato ‘yam purano
na hanyate hanyamane sarire
“For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.”
I gave the class with a slant on meditation and fixing the mind on the spiritual platform, in this way becoming free from anxiety and the stresses and strains of modern day life. At the end there were quite a number of questions, and the people were even vying with each other to see who would be able to ask the next question. At the end we showed my George Harrison multimedia show. I asked the people if they had heard of George, and one lady said in perfect English “of course we have!”
I noticed that about half of the people in the programme were Oriental, and Arjuna Vallabha told me that traditionally this had been an area of the Saha people, who look very similar to Mongolians.
The next day we went a local museum and saw displays of the history of the region, which is actually one fifth of the entire area of Russian, although there are only about a million people living there. The Sahas were living there quite peacefully for centuries, worshipping nature spirits, when in 1632 the Russians arrived and proceeded to take over and sideline the local people completely. Now about half of the region’s population is Saha and half white Russian.
In the museum there was even the skeleton of a mammoth.
Interestingly enough, Bhaktin Tanya went to the Phillipines last year and became Miss Asia Pacific 2003. It seems that many different types of people come to Krishna consciousness!
On the 11th evening we had a programme in Arjuna Vallabha’s flat, a typical one roomed Soviet style apartment, and the more active devotees from the community attended. We talked about the importance of practicing sadhana bhakti and being committed to the process, rather than taking it casually or in a merely social way. The devotees asked many questions about typical household problems. One boy in particular is married to a woman who is quite opposed to Krishna consciousness, and in this way he finds it very difficult to practice. I referred to Srimad Bhagavatam 7.11.29, which talks about the duties of a chaste wife:
apramatta sucih snigdha
patim tv apatitam bhajet
“A chaste woman should not be greedy, but satisfied in all circumstances. She must be very expert in handling household affairs and should be fully conversant with religious principles. She should speak pleasingly and truthfully and should be very careful and always clean and pure. Thus a chaste woman should engage with affection in the service of a husband who is not fallen.”
In his purport Srila Prabhupada says: “Anyone who is a devotee is sinless. One who is not a devotee, however, is the most fallen and condemned. It is recommended, therefore, that a chaste wife not associate with a fallen husband. A fallen husband is one who is addicted to the four principles of sinful activity-namely illicit sex, meat-eating, gambling and intoxication. Sp
ecifically, if one is not a soul surrendered to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, he is understood to be contaminated. Thus a chaste woman is advised not to agree to serve such a husband. It is not that a chaste woman should be like a slave while her husband is naradhama, the lowest of men. Although the duties of a woman are different from those of a man, a chaste woman is not meant to serve a fallen husband. If her husband is fallen, it is recommended that she give up his association. Giving up the association of her husband does not mean, however, that a woman should marry again and thus indulge in prostitution. If a chaste woman unfortunately marries a husband who is fallen, she should live separately from him. Similarly, a husband can separate himself from a woman who is not chaste according to the description of the sastra.”
In this way I encouraged him to try to save the family from breaking up if possible, although if it became too much of a strain on his Krishna consciousness then he might have to take some more drastic action.
The 12th morning was clear but cold. It was only 8 degrees, and there was a strong, biting wind blowing. We went to the airport and Sri Gaura Hari prabhu and I took a 5 hour flight from Yakuskt to Ulan Ide. Ulan Ude is the capital of the Boryetti Republic. The Boryettis are another Mongolian type of race that became absorbed in the Russian empire as history unfolded itself, and the population is also about 50/50, although everyone speaks Russian and they are all typically materialistic.
Laksmi Narayana prabhu has established a nice temple here in what used to be a kindergarten, and whenever we come we have very nice kirtanas with the local devotees, who love chanting and dancing. In the mornings we read from Srimad Bhagavatam 1st Canto, Chapter 11, which describes the entrance of Lord Krishna into Dvaraka when He returned after the great Battle of Kuruksetra. We began with Verse 2:
sa uccakase dhavalodaro daro
yathabja-khande kala-hamsa utsvanah
“The white and fat-boweled conchshell, being gripped by the hand of Lord Krsna and sounded by Him, appeared to be reddened by the touch of His transcendental lips. It seemed that a white swan was playing in the stems of red lotus flowers.”
We discussed how, when one makes contact with Lord Krishna and becomes a devotee, one becomes “Krishnaized” by one’s contact with Him. In this way one becomes beautified, and one’s whole existence becomes more blissful and auspicious. But not only that, when Krishna is served by the loving devotees, He becomes more glorious Himself. We referred to Srila Prabhupada’s purport to Bhagavad-gita 9.29, where he says: “When a diamond is set in a golden ring, it looks very nice. The gold is glorified, and at the same time the diamond is glorified. The Lord and the living entity eternally glitter, and when a living entity becomes inclined to the service of the Supreme Lord he looks like gold. The Lord is a diamond, and so this combination is very nice.”
On Sunday the 13th we held another initiation ceremony outside in the temple grounds. As we began the wind blew strongly and a little rain fell and it seemed that maybe Lord Krishna didn’t want our sacrifice to go on outside. However as we began the programme the weather cleared, and 9 devotees received first initiation, and 2 received second.
One day we visited a local museum park displaying remnants of the previous Boryetti Buddhist culture. In it we found rocks with inscriptions carved in Sanskrit on them.
Every evening we had nice kirtana in front of the Sri Sri Nitai Gaua Hari, the presiding Deities of Ulan Ude, and then on June 15th Sri Gaura Hari, Laksmi Narayana and I took an overnight train to Chitar, which is 700 kms further east.
We arrived on the morning of the 16th and went to stay in a local guest house, as the devotees do not have very good facility yet in Chitar. That evening at 6pm we all gathered in a theatre named “The Theatre of the Puppets” and had a programme together with about 140 local devotees. As we talked about how Krishna appreciates the efforts the devotees make, we referred to Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura’s commentary on the Damodara lila, and how Mother Yasoda made a special effort to serve Krishna by tying Him up, and how He then reciprocated with her unlimitedly. There our acarya makes the point in his beautiful purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 10.10.18, which describes the struggle Krishna’s mother had to tie him up:
“‘As you cannot bind Krishna with all the ropes in the house, then it must be concluded that it is His good fortune that it should not be. Listen Yasoda, give up this attempt.’ Though the village women advised in this way, Yasoda was determined ‘Even if evening comes and I tie together all the ropes in the whole village, I must find out just once the extent of my son’s waist’. Yasoda wanted to teach a lesson to her son. In her persistence, she would not give up the attempt to bind the Lord. In the competition between Krishna and His devotee, the devotee’s determination always prevails. Thus, seeing His mother’s fatigue, Lord Krishna gave up His own persistence, became merciful and allowed Himself to be tied.
“Krishna’s mercy, which reigns as the king of all His potencies and illuminates all others, melts the heart of the Lord and turns it into butter. The appearance of Krishna’s mercy made His satya sankalpa sakti (potency of transcendental determination) and vibuti sakti (opulent potency) immediately disappear. The distance of two fingers was filled with the devotee’s effort and hard work and the Lord’s causeless mercy. The bhakti nistha (firm faith of the devotee) seen in the devotee’s tireless efforts to serve and worship the Lord, and the sva nistha (the steady quality in the Lord) which brings forth His mercy upon seeing the devotee’s effort and fatigue caused Krishna to be bound. In the absence of these two, the rope will always remain two fingers too short. But when bhakti nistha and sva nistha are present, the Lord can be bound. In this pastime, Krishna showed Yasoda and the whole world that only love can bind the Supreme Lord.”
In this way Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura explains one of the most important points in Krishna consciousness. We have to make our best effort to please Krishna, and not be too easily disappointed if there is some struggle in doing that, and if we endeavour in this way Krishna will be especially merciful to us.
At the end of the programme we distributed prasadam to all the devotees, in the form of two gigantic “torts”, or rich Russian cakes. Everyone came forward and took some tort very sedately until right at the end, when I took two pieces and pushed them into the mouths of the devotees who had been helping cut the cakes and put them on plates. Suddenly dozens of the devotees came running forward to have some cake pushed into their mouths by me, which I did to the best of my ability, although quite a few of them got cake all over their chins and even up their noses!
The next day was Thursday the 17th, and we gathered at 10am at another hall in the centre of the city at 10am for a programme with the more serious devotees. Despite it being a working day, about 70 or 80 devotees came , and we had another nice programme with them, culminating in a blissful Guru Puja kirtana to Srila Prabhupada. So many of the Russian devotees are ready to just put aside their work responsibilities to participate in programmes.
That afternoon we flew back across Lake Baikal to the west, to Irkutsk. When we landed we went to a programme in a nearby city named Angarsk. At least 100 devotees greeted us there, and we focused our programme on Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Sri Gadadhara Pandita of the Panca Tattva, who both disappeared on this day many years ago. At the end we had another roaring kirtana.
So now it is the morning of June 18th, and Sri Gaura Hari prabhu and I are on a flight from Irkutsk to Moscow. The flight is 5 hours and 40 minutes, and took off at 8 in the morning. However we will be gaining time as we fly, and will land in Moscow at 8.40am. Then we will part our ways for the time being and I will fly at 11.45 to St Petersburg, on the northwestern boundary of Russia. Sri Gaura Hari is not my disciple, but he has rendered invaluable service helping me move around the country and keep my things together despite constantly being on the move – what to speak of doing very nice translating for me. May Lord Krishna bless him.