Dear devotees, disciples and friends,
Please accept my blessings. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
I last wrote to you from the Baltics Winter Festival in Kaunas, Lithuania some days ago, and you’ve seen some of the photos from there. I’ve posted some more with this message.
It was a wonderful event, and more so because of the presence of His Holiness BB Govinda Maharaja. One thing I forgot to mention was that on his birthday, Sunday the 12th of January, we gave him a special birthday present. I don’t know if you’re aware, but Govinda Maharaja does not eat at all!!!! He doesn’t eat anything. Nothing. All he takes at the moment is water with maple syrup and some spices mixed into it.
So for his birthday the devotees did some research, and Doyal Govinda, one of the leaders of the Lithuanian yatra found some organic maple syrup, so we gave that to Maharaja as a present.
I must admit though that he did have a tiny mouthful of his birthday cake, after violently pushing it into my mouth!
The festival finished that evening, with a kirtana that was so fired up the devotees became very hot, and to cool them down Govinda Maharaja and ISKCON threw water over them again and again. Finally Maharaja got about a 20 liter bucket of water and threw it over everyone!
We returned to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, that evening, and then the next morning Ananda Caitanya, the Chairman of the Lithuanian National Council, who is my trusty translator, returned to Kaunas to spend a couple of days at the Kaunas temple.
As I mentioned last time, Kaunas was one of the very first places in the former USSR in which Krishna consciousness really took hold. Ananta Shanti had met Srila Prabhupada in Moscow in 1971 and after only one or two day’s association with him became a completely fired up preacher, and gave up everything to travel around the Soviet Uniion preaching to people.
The temple building we have there belongs to ISKCON, and there is a full programme going on on a daily basis. The preaching in Lithuania is being led by His Holiness Bhakti Sharan Shanta Maharaja. He joined in the Communist days and became so inspired that he gave up his family life and joined the temple, even though at that time he was about 40. He was initiated by Harikesa prabhu, but some years ago was reinitiated and given sannyasa by myself, in the company of Niranjana Maharaja, who is co-GBC there with me.
Now Shanta Maharaja is about 70, and chants at least 64 rounds a day and oversees the book distribution in the Baltics and many of the Nama Hattas.
After a couple of days there Ananda Caitanya prabhu and I went to Minsk, in Belarus, the next country to the east of Lithuania. Belarus is still closely connected to Russia, and is not like your typical European country at all. We saw this as we drove over the border, through passport control. Normally I travel in devotee clothes, but today I had to wear western dress, in case someone prejudiced would not allow me to enter the country.
Their mood was fairly mean, as if they didn’t really want people coming into their country. We had to go to the counter and present ourselves and they checked us out and made sure we were the same person as in the photos in our passports. They looked at me for about a minute and then told me “take off your hat.” The temperature was about minus 5, but I had to take off my hat and expose my freshly shaved head, complete with my very big sikha.
I thought we might now be in trouble. Perhaps they would realize I’m a Hare Krishna and not allow me in. but after a minute or so of staring at me, and then looking back at my passport photo, and then back at me, and so on, they let us in.
As we drove out we were stopped by a Customs man. He wanted to see the documents for our vehicle, a large Plymouth van.
“What sort of car is this?” he asked in Russian.
“It’s a Plymouth,” our driver, the Regional Secretary for Belarus, Damodara Pandita told him.
The man had never heard of a Plymouth, and the car didn’t have the name written on it, so he became bewildered. “Oh no,” I thought. “More trouble.”
“What is it?” he asked again.
:It’s a Plymouth!” Damodara Pandita said, raising his voice a bit.
“A what?” the man asked again, getting a little agitated.
Damodara Pandita then shouted the name with a strong Russian accent. “Plee-moot! Plee-moot! Pleeee-moooot!!”
Suddenly it clicked and the man stepped back. “Oh! A Plee-moot!”
He signed our papers and we were away, finally.
Damodara Pandita prabhu’s now famous Plymouth had a defective machine for spraying water on the windscreen, so as we drove through the snow with the other vehicles, the windscreen quickly became dirty and I wondered how he could see anything. But he had a good system for dealing with that problem. We stopped, he picked up a whole lot of snow, threw it over the windscreen and then turned on the wipers. Immediately the window was completely clean.
The devotees in Minsk illegally built a large temple there in the suburbs, and the city authorities wanted to tear it down and would not allow the devotees to register ISKCON, but after many years of serious difficulty, now everything is legalized, and the movement is registered as an official religion in the country.
The devotees in Belarus are very bold, as devotees tend to be all over world, and they take whatever opportunities they can to spread Krishna consciousness. One of the senior men there, Vikshara prabhu, was telling us how, some years ago, when the Belarus President, a staunch Communist at the time, was being installed, somehow the devotees got through the security and did harinama right in front of the installation programme in the middle of the city.
Vikshara told me this as we were having a sauna in his house. Saunas are not something I like much, but in order to be sociable I agreed to go. The temperature was about 80, and I told the devotees how, previously in
Johannesburg, South Africa, we had had a sauna in one of our farm communities, and we would go in at least once a day, and sometimes twice. Once it was 120 degrees, which is hot enough to back a potato, and we were practically fried to a crisp.
Having had to take a few saunas, or banniyas, as they call them in Russian, I have learnt the Russian word for torture. Vikshara asked me in Russian “kak banniya?” (how is the sauna?), and I replied “peetka!” (torture!). He looked at me momentarily, and then laughed.
On the 19th we drove back to Vilnius, and I flew out through Frankfurt to South Africa. I spent two days in Johannesburg and Pretoria doing some programmes, and now I’m in Durban.
On Sunday we had a nice boat festival for the main Durban Deities, Sri Sri Radha Radhanatha, but I’ll explain about that next time I write, after a few days.
Hoping this meets you well.
Your ever well wisher,
Bhakti Caitanya Swami