We landed in Moscow and Sri Gaura Hari prabhu and I parted company. I then checked in for my flight to St Petersburg, which was to leave at 11.40. As I was sitting in the departure lounge in Sheremetyevo Airport a very extraordinary thing happened – suddenly a middle aged man dropped dead right in the middle of the waiting area. A woman who may have been his wife became emotionally overwhelmed, but the rest of the people just carried on like it was business as usual. It just goes to show how the material world works.
I landed in St Petersburg at about 1pm, and was greeted by Sesa prabhu, the Temple President, and my disciples Bala Gopala and Ter Kadamba. We went back to Ter Kadamba’s flat and I was finally able to relax a little after weeks of relentless action on the road. Even though it’s always ecstatic, still it takes its toll as one slowly but surely gets a little older. The leg injury I sustained in Acinsk on the 10th was periodically playing up, and was causing me some concern. It had never done this before.
On the morning of Saturday the 19th we went to a cafe owned by Krishna Kirtana das, one of the senior members of the St Petersburg yatra. Unfortunately St Petersburg has not had an actual temple since Harikesa left several years ago, and it is always a struggle for the local devotees to have programmes and associate together. Twice a week there are morning programmes in Krishna Kirtana’s cafi, and then there’s a Sunday programme in a rented hall.
This morning at the cafe there were about 80 or more devotees packed into the small space, and we had a wonderful time together, first of all with Guru Puja for Srila Prabhupada, and then a Srimad Bhagavatam class. We started the class at about 8.30, but by the time we had finished it was 11. the Russian devotees often have an avid interest in understanding the philosophy of Krishna consciousness from all different angles, and this morning was no exception.
The next day we went to the Sunday programme in a big rented hall, and I gave class on Bhagavad-gita 7.16:
catur-vidha bhajante mam
janah sukrtino ‘rjuna
arto jijnasur artharthi
jnani ca bharatarsabha
“O best among the Bharatas, four kinds of pious men begin to render devotional service unto Me-the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.”
We discussed how people come to Krishna consciousness from all different types of backgrounds, and for all different types of reasons. I mentioned how once in Sri Sri Radha Radhanatha temple in Durban during the Sunday programme we had a drama, which was not announced to the guests. Suddenly the actors emerged unannounced and started the play, towards the end of the Sunday class. Two devotees dressed as policemen came running in from the front foyer and started grabbing members of the audience and dramatically asking them “did you see the thieves? Did you see the crooks?” As this was going on we noticed that two suspicious looking young men we had never seen before suddenly leapt up and ran out of the temple room!
The St Petersburg devotees were suitably amused by this story.
On the 20th we drove about 300 kms to a town named Pskov. The roads were typically Russian – which means horribly rough – and the driver, Bhakta Constantine was a typically dynamic Russian driver. We weaved in and out of the traffic, overtaking in the most impossible places, bumping and bouncing through the countryside, until we arrived about 4 hours later. 300 kms in 4 hours is pretty good going in Russia.
As I stepped out of the car in the miserable, cold Pskov weather, my left leg suddenly went again, this time quite badly. I was reduced to barely hobbling along, dragging it behind me, but still we managed to do some programmes. On the Tuesday we had an initiation ceremony in a rented church hall. Bhaktin Natasha from Pskov became Govinda Nandini devi dasi, and Bhaktin Sonia from St Petersburg became Sri Radhika dasi.
We drove back that night, and the next evening did a programme in a hall in St Petersburg, which was attended by about 120 devotees or so. Sesa prabhu told me that in July they would be doing Rathayatra in St Petersburg, for the first time since about 1997. When they hold major Vaisnava festivals like Janmastami about 400 devotees come from the St Petersburg area, but for the Rathayatra Sesa was expecting hundreds more to come from different parts of the country. Let us pray that the St Petersburg yatra, which used to be the biggest and most successful in Russia, can return to its previous glory.
On Friday the 25th I flew to Vilnius in nearby Lithuania, a separate country just to the west of Moscow. Every year the devotees there organize a week long Padayatra festival, and I make it a point to attend. It is not exactly like a traditional Padayatra, where the devotees walk from town to town having harinama, but here they take a large bus, plus some cars and drive between the towns, and in this way we visit two major towns every day. This year there were about 75 devotees booked for the tour, including about 11 from neighbouring Latvia.
The Padayatra began on Saturday the 26th with a Rathayatra in the second city of Lithuania, named Kaunas. With about 150 devotees we took a small chariot with Their Lordships Jagannatha, Baladeva and Lady Subhadra on it from the temple, down to the nearby city centre, and took them down the main street, which is a big walking street. The townspeople responded nicely, and when I gave talks I felt inspired to tell them what the real background of Rathayatra is – that Lord Krishna left Vrindavana, throwing the inhabitants into a bottomless ocean of separation, but then met with them again in Kuruksetra, many years later.
At the end of their meeting in Kuruksetra Srimati Radharani and the gopis appealed to the Lord to return again to the forest of Vrindavana, but Krishna transcendentally procrastinated and said He would shortly return, after killing a few more demons. However the gopis would not accept this, so they put Krishna, Balarama and Subhadra on Their chariot, tied ropes to it, and then pulled Them back the 350 kilometres to Sri Vrindavana Dhama.
As we described this dear pastime of the Lord with His most intimate devotees, many of the local people listened attentively and seemed to appreciate that God can have such close relationships with His pure devotees.
Srila Prabhupada described this in lecture at Rathayatra in London many years ago: “So this Ratha-yatra festival is still observed in Jagannath Puri in India. And five hundred years ago Lord Caitanya participated in this festival, and He was in the mode of separation as if Radharani was taking back Krsna to Vrndavana. So this Ratha-yatra festival is a feeling festival for the Vaisnavas. Lord Caitanya taught us how to feel separation of God. Lord Caitanya never taught us that He had seen God, but He felt the separation of God very severely. Similarly, His next disciples, the Sad-Gosvamis, they also prosecuted their devotional service by separational feelings. So this Ratha-yatra festival is very nice, feelings festival for the Vaisnava. And anyone who is participating in this festival, he’ll gradually develop his dormant love for Krsna.”
I then drove with my old friend Ananda Caitanya prabhu to the next stop, the beach cities of Klaipeda and Palanga. We stayed in a nice holiday resort near the beach front, and for the next two days we drove out every morning and did harinama for two hours in one city. Then we would come back for lunch and go out to another city for more harinama. It was truly a wonderful programme, and I’m sure Srila Prabhupada is very pleased with it.
On Tuesday the 29th we drove to another resort further inland, and continued the harinama programme in exactly the same way. Every morning we would read from one of my favourite parts of Srimad Bhagavatam, the Fourth Chapter of the Ninth Canto, Ambarisa Maharaja Offended by Durvasa Muni”, from verse 62, where Durvasa Muni approaches the Lord to get forgiveness, to verse 69, where the Lord tells him to approach Maharaja Ambarisa, rather than try to get forgiveness from Him. The verses read:
Durvasa Muni appealed: “O my Lord, O supreme controller, without knowledge of Your unlimited prowess I have offended Your most dear devotee. Very kindly save me from the reaction of this offense. You can do everything, for even if a person is fit for going to hell, You can deliver him simply by awakening within his heart the holy name of Your Lordship.
But then the Supreme Personality of Godhead said to him: “I am completely under the control of My devotees. Indeed, I am not at all independent. Because My devotees are completely devoid of material desires, I sit only within the cores of their hearts. What to speak of My devotee, even those who are devotees of My devotee are very dear to Me. O best of the brahmanas, without saintly persons for whom I am the only destination, I do not desire to enjoy My transcendental bliss and My supreme opulences. Since pure devotees give up their homes, wives, children, relatives, riches and even their lives simply to serve Me, without any desire for material improvement in this life or in the next, how can I give up such devotees at any time? My devotees, who are always satisfied to be engaged in My loving service, are not interested even in the four principles of liberation [salokya, sarupya, samipya and sarsti], although these are automatically achieved by their service. What then is to be said of such perishable happiness as elevation to the higher planetary systems? The pure devotee is always within the core of My heart, and I am always in the heart of the pure devotee. My devotees do not know anything else but Me, and I do not know anyone else but them.
Having revealed His heartfelt feelings for His devotees to Durvasa, the Lord then instructed him: “O brahmana, let Me now advise you for your own protection. Please hear from Me. By offending Maharaja Ambarisa, you have acted with self-envy. Therefore you should go to him immediately, without a moment’s delay. One’s so-called prowess, when employed against the devotee, certainly harms he who employs it. Thus it is the subject, not the object, who is harmed.”
I have found that this subject of devotee relationships, and the importance of appreciating devotees is one of the topics that devotees are most interested in. Actually in many ways it is the essence of our Krishna consciousness, and the state of our devotee relationships in many ways reflects how our relationship with Krishna is developing.
After 6 intense days on the road I took a flight to Moscow and 6 in the morning, and waited in the airport there for my flight to Samara, where I was going to participate in the Grushinsky festival with HH Bhakti Brnga Govinda Maharaja. Manjari, Kamala Locana and Bhaktin Elbe kindly came all the way out to the airport and brought me prasadam to see me through morning, and then at about 2.30 in the afternoon I flew out again, arriving at the festival site around 6 in the evening.
In Russian “grusha” means “pear”, as in the fruit, and “Grushinsky festival” means “The Festival of Pears”. However, despite that, there are definitely more drunk people there than pears, and in fact I didn’t see one pear the whole time I was there.
Actually it is a folk music festival on the banks of the Volga River, and every year it attracts about 300,000 people from all over Russia. Govinda Maharaja and the Volga devotees, led by Krishnacandra prabhu, have been given an area of about 3 or 4 acres right by the entrance to the festival, and there they have preaching programmes from the Friday through to the Sunday night.
This year about 800 devotees came from different parts of Russia to take part. On the Friday evening Govinda Maharaja began kirtana at about 9.30 in the evening, beginning slow, and then gradually bringing the tempo up over a period of 30 minutes without changing the tune until the kirtana is roaring, and the crowd, a mixture of about 50% devotees and 50% nondevotees (many of who were really drunk) were dancing like mad.
Previously I mentioned how nicely the female devotees in some parts of Russia dance in kirtana, and at Grushinsky was undoubtedly the nicest display I’ve seen of this. There was a main group of about 8 or 10 girls dancing on the main stage, next to the kirtaniyas, who were all sitting, and they kept dancing very beautifully for the whole period of the kirtana, which lasted till 2.30 in the morning,
Actually it would have gone on longer, but unfortunately rain came at about 1.30am, and it became more and more difficult to continue the amplified kirtana. The 10 by 4 metre stage was covered with canvas which was not entirely waterproof, and around 1.45 I felt a drop of water on my head. This was followed be a second drop, and shortly there were steady streams coming down at different places over the stage, including onto the sound equipment. Around 2 one of the sets of speakers, having fizzed and sputtered for some time, cut out completely, and 15 minutes later the other set started giving in, so we were forced to stop shortly afterwards.
Saturday evening was the main time. There were hundreds of nondevotees around, many in various states of drunken disarray, and Govinda Maharaja began kirtana at about 11.30 in the evening. By 1.30 it was roaring, and from about 2am Maharaja continued with one beautiful Brijbasi tune all the way through till 4.30 in the morning, when the police came and advised us to stop, as there were some gangs nearby who were fighting, and they were afraid they would attack our camp.
On Sunday the weather was beautiful, and we had the final kirtana till about 1.30 in the morning. One of the interesting things about the kirtana is that all the musicians are expert professionals from Kazakhstan, as well as being wonderful devotees. From time to time they would break into instrumental solos on guitar, saxophone and flute, and it was really quite incredible. During those solos Govinda Maharaja would shout to the ladies off the stage “Radhe! Radhe!’ and then to the men “Syama! Syama!”, and in this way it would go back and forth between the groups. It was amazing.
So now I’m in Milan, on the way back to South Africa. This weekend we’re having Rathayatra in Phoenix, in Durban, and I have to take part. I’ll let you know what happens there shortly.
Hoping this meets you well.
Bhakti Caitanya Swami