Please accept my best wishes. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
It has been 4 weeks since I last wrote to you all, and a lot has happened in that time.
After I was in Lenasia I went to the Drakensberg Mountains between Johannesburg and Durban for a Japa Retreat with Giriraja Maharaja, who had not visited South Africa for 4 years, and Arcana Siddhi mataji from USA. It was quite an amazing experience, and I took lots of notes so I could duplicate the programme myself as I travel around.
The whole experience was very intense. One day we took a vow of silence and chanted 64 rounds which was really wonderful. Everyone had to maintain silence the whole day, and I did most of the time, except for when I was worshiping my Govardhana sila and taking prasadam. It was a little difficult doing these things without speaking, as the devotees who were helping me got mixed up when I silently asked for different things, and therefore we decided to speak at those times.
The 64 rounds went very well, and were quite a profound experience. I usually try to do 64 rounds every Pandava Nirjala Ekadasi, although I usually have to give classes and meet devotees for some of the time, and
therefore only get up to 40 or 50 rounds for the day. But with the vow of silence there was practically nothing to stop us, and by the late afternoon and early evening we had completed our quota.
From there I returned to Durban for a programme in the Umkomaas farming area with Bhakta Pat and his wife Bhaktin Reshmee.
Things were a little disturbed in Durban at the time due to the upcoming visit of a devotee named Narayana Maharaja from one branch of the Gaudiya Matha. His followers are famous for doing their very best to take devotees away from ISKCON and bring them to him, and the leaders in Durban were very concerned about that, and naturally I felt I should stay there through his visit to help in whatever way I could. At the same time I had committed to the Baltics winter festival over the new year in Lithuania, and then a japa retreat in Kemerovo, Siberia, after that.
Srila Prabhupada wanted that his followers stay within ISKCON. I recalled reading a Vyasa Puja offering to Srila Prabhupada by Mukunda Maharaja some years ago, in which he described an incident that occurred when Srila Prabhupada had become gravely ill in 1967 and decided to return to India. Some of the devotees felt he might not return, and innocently asked Maharaja to ask Srila Prabhupada what should they do if he left his body. Should they get one of his Godbrothers to come to take over their spiritual education?
Maharaja wrote in his offering to Srila Prabhupada: “Suddenly I found myself alone in the room with you. When you die, I queried, who would take over the movement, your work, our training and education? I think that the notion of becoming a spiritual orphan had crossed my mind. Your answer did not come forth quickly. After what seemed several minutes of silence, you almost distractedly uttered the name of one of your Godbrothers. Because you didn’t look decisive, I expected you to say more. I would have gladly accepted any recommendation, but you didn’t seem satisfied with your answer. So I waited. Time seemed to stretch almost to eternity. You looked off in the distance. Finally you said, ‘Actually, it is an insult to the spiritual master.’ If I could have manifested anima-siddhi at that point I would have instantly shrunk into the carpet. Another long silence. And you were looking wistful, this time, apparently miles away from the house we were in, from Stinson Beach, from America, from our planet. I knew I had committed some kind of offense, but I didn’t know what it was. I had absolutely no intention of insulting you, but I had done it anyway, and I knew that ignorance would be no excuse. I had done something wrong, and I was going pay for it. What was a spiritual master, anyway? I was going to have to find out the hard way. I was preparing for the worst, a rebuke, a stern lesson, an explanation of why my seemingly innocent question had taken on the contours of an offense. Then you closed your eyes. I waited and watched and waited.”
Maharaja then continued: “Your next response was completely unexpected and astonishing. Though you didn’t open your eyes, change your expression, or say a word, a shallow stream of tears appeared below each of your lotus eyes. You sat perfectly still. Slowly you wiped away the tears, which had gathered into little puddles covering both cheeks. Then you gasped, ‘My spiritual master-‘ More was coming. But again you were quiet, as if to regain composure. This time you seemed to be crying, ‘He was no ordinary spiritual master.’ After another long pause, you said in a choked voice, ‘He saved me.'”
I had not experienced so much the phenomenon of Narayana Maharaja’s followers trying to take ISKCON members away, but already they had started some time before. A few younger devotees were spoken to very strongly by his followers and some left Srila Prabhupada’s movement, including one family who had been in ISKCON for about 25 years. What a strange situation! I’m sure Srila Prabhupada would have been extremely upset about it, to say the least.
However our devotees seemed to have organized nice programmes in and around Durban during that time, so eventually I flew out on December 29th for Moscow, and then to Lithuania on the 31st.
I arrived in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, in the afternoon, to find the temperature was around minus 20 centigrade. Very cold. The festival was held in Kaunas, one of the first cities in the former Soviet Union to have a devotee community, and was attended by about 300 devotees. As usual we used the facilities of the main Catholic cathedral of the city – a beautiful hall and nice hotel facility – and everything went smoothly. We had been hoping that Niranjana Maharaja would come, but due to his health condition he couldn’t, and we also hoped Dina Bandhu prabhu from Vrindavana could come, but he couldn’t because of new visa restrictions in India. However it still went very nicely and the devotees seemed very happy.
I flew out at 6 in the morning on the 4th in bitterly cold weather, with 20 degree temperatures and biting winds, and flew out that night to Novosibirsk in Siberia. When I landed there I saw the temperature was minus 31. Amazing!
We had a special programme on the 5th evening in the Novosibirsk preaching centre, and then on the 6th morning drove off to Kemerovo for the japa retreat. As I mentioned above I had taken notes during the retreat in South Africa, and had all the recordings of the classes, so I tried to duplicate the whole programme in Siberia, except I would have to give the classes given by both Giriraja Maharaja and Mother Arcana Siddhi.
I must admit it was quite demanding, but the devotees seemed to appreciate it. As I travel around these days I always stress japa to the devotees, and usually every day chant japa with them in the mornings wherever I am. It’s one of the most essential and nectarean parts of Krishna consciousness.
On the 8th it was our 64 round day, and when I walked into the temple room in the holiday resort we were using I noticed the temperature was noticeably colder than it had been on the 6th and 7th. I asked my translator and assistant, Svarupa Damodara prabhu, why this had happened. Had they turned the heating down? What was going on?
He told me that the temperature outside had dropped, and now was minus 46 degrees, almost a record even for this part of Siberia. Anyway we carried on, and many of the nearly 200 devotees participating in the retreat chanted 64 rounds for the first time. Some of them had not been fixed in chanting 16 rounds till this time, but they all resolved to now maintain at least 16 on a daily basis.
One of the highlights of the retreat was something called Apurvatam, which means ever fresh. In this we get the devotees to close their eyes and then repeat the different words of the Hare Krishna mantra in a deep meditative way, and a number of them had very wonderful experiences doing this.
Then on the 10th we returned for the Sunday programme in Novosibirsk. The bus taking about 50 devotees back to Novosibirsk from Kemerovo broke down for about an hour on the road, and the devotees went into a nearby hotel to escape the deadly cold. While there they did Apurvatam, and relished the experience!
Then on the 11th morning I flew back to Moscow, and today, the 12th, I am flying back to Johannesburg. I’ll be there till the end of the month, when I’ll go to the GBC meetings in Mayapur.
I’ll write again in a few weeks.
I have put some photos up also. Please have a look at them.
Hoping this meets you well.
Bhakti Caitanya Swami