Dear devotees and friends,
Please accept my best wishes. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
I am now in the Altai Mountains, a 5 hour drive from Barnaul in south-central Siberia. We’re having the annual West Siberian summer festival in a beautiful holiday resort, right next to a major river, so everything is very picturesque and pleasant. The only problem is that the weather is cold and wet, and in many countries you’d think that it’s winter rather than almost midsummer.
I last wrote from Tomsk, at the end of May. We spent a few days there and had our usual preaching programmes, and one interesting thing we did was take part in the annual potato planting ritual. The devotees have acquired some land for developing a semi-rural community, about 15 minutes drive from
the city. It’s a very nice place, with good land, and already a number of devotee families are in the process of building houses there.
Every year in Russia, on the last weekend of May, people go to their farms or dachas and plant the season’s first potatoes, and the devotees were doing that also. They planted about a hectare of potatoes, and asked me to come and take part. I’m really from a city background, and I don’t know if I’ve ever planted anything before in my life, but here I went down the ploughed land, following a devotee who was digging holes for the potatoes, and I placed the seed potatoes in the ground. It was an interesting experience, and the devotees seemed to appreciate it.
There’s a photo of me and Carudesna prabhu, the Regional Secretary, in the photos section, and you’ll see that we’re both wearing karmi clothes, and you might wonder why. The reason is that the Russian Orthodox Church has started a campaign against the devotees living there, and we want to cause as little of a stir as we can whenever we go there. Therefore the devotees never go there in devotional clothes, and they asked me not to also. The blue track suit I’m wearing in the photo is actually my sleeping clothes which I wear every night, but on this day I had them washed especially so I could take part in the potato planting programme.
From Tomsk we moved on to Kemerovo, a city about 2 hours drive away, where ISKCON has been active for many years. There’s a small temple there, but this time the devotees rented a small holiday resort for our programmes, and we met morning and evening for kirtana and class in a beautiful hall in the main building. They have also got some land, further outside the town, for developing a rural type community.
While there we discussed with the main yatra leader, Laghu Hari prabhu, about having a japa retreat in January, in the same holiday resort. It will take place from the Russian Christmas Day, January 7th, till January 9th, and we will invite devotees from all over Siberia to come and take place.
Yes, in Russia they don’t accept December 25th to be Christmas Day. January 7th is the day for them, and it’s a national holiday for everyone, whereas December 25th for them is just another working day.
On June 2nd we drove to Novokuznetsk, which translates as “New Iron Worker”, and industrial town nearby. On the way we stopped in Leninz Kuznetsk at the house of my disciples Vasudeva and Devaki for a morning programme, and then June 3rd was going to be Pandava Nirjala Ekadasi.
The Ekadasi was nice. We had Guru Puja and Srimad Bhagavatam class in the morning, and then Gaura Arati and Bhagavad Gita class in the evening, plus I had to give some darshans, but otherwise we just chanted. Usually I have so many things to do during the day, but this day I had made up my mind to focus on the holy names, and if possible do 64 rounds. Due to the kirtanas and classes I had to give I wasn’t able to reach 64, but still it was nice to focus on the Hare Krishna without major distraction.
One devotee had written to me just before Pandava Nirjala Ekadasi, asking: “What was Srila Prabhupada’s view on Nirjala Ekadasi, as He did not stress it to his disciples. How come we fast Nirjala if Prabhupada never stressed it? Please tell us the benefit of fasting for Nirjala and if it is necessary.”
This question comes up from time to time, and even I had written once to Giriraja Maharaja asking him of his personal experiences with Srila Prabhupada in this regard, and he confirmed that Srila Prabhupada didn’t
observe Pandava Nirjala Ekadasi any differently from how he observed other ekadasis. He said: “‘Example is more important than precept,’ and 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 NOD. Srila
Prabhupada replied, ‘No. We have too much service.'”
I even remember myself when Pandava Nirjala Ekadasi was first practiced in England. It was in about 1979, and we found on that day that some of the devotees were fasting completely, and we were surprised by that. They explained that if one has broken ekadasi during the year then if one follows this ekadasi without eating or drinking, then it makes up for the broken ones.
We have seen in sastra that there are statements to that effect, in some of the so-called “Ekadasi” books, although often it seems that the sastric references quoted there are more on the karma kandiya side, telling of different material benefits that will be there if one follows the different ekadasis. When Srila Prabhupada was present there was no mention of these ideas, and rather it seems that if devotees broke ekadasi when he was present he expected that they observe it properly the next day, dvadasi.
On the other hand Srila Prabhupada did emphasize chanting and hearing more on ekadasi days, so personally I like to take the opportunity once in the year to do so, while at the same time being ready to do what I consider my main service, which is to speak the philosophy and Krishna katha in general. Otherwise as far as I can see it is not important to observe Pandava Nirjala Ekadasi in the way so many devotees do, particularly if other services are minimized for the day.
On June 5th we drove to Barnaul, which is perhaps the most developed of any yatra in West Siberia. There are perhaps 400 practising devotees there and they’re very active. We went on harinama with about 100 devotees on Saturday night, and apparently they do this every Saturday evening. They even have a police escort of about 3 or 4 men on foot, and a couple of cars which block the road when the party crosses it. In Russia sometimes devotees are quite frightened of coming out in public and wearing devotee clothes or openly
doing devotee activities, out of fear of the police and city officials, but in Barnaul ISKCON is accepted as a major religious/social organization, and given a number of important privileges.
On June 8th we drove to Biisk, as small city about 2 hours drive from Barnaul, and we did a programme with the devotees there in their small centre. There were about 35 devotees present, and we had kirtana and talked about Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement.
Then on June 9th I flew from Barnaul, first to Moscow and then to Riga in Latvia, to take part in a festival there with Indradyumna Maharaja. We held Rathayatra in Palanga, the main holiday resort town in neighbouring Lithuania, and observed Maharaja’s Vyasa Puja there.
Unfortunately Maharaja was sick, and was not able to lead any kirtana, but he gave two very nice classes.
I have always admired Maharaja very much, and he is kind enough to take an interest in my life in Krishna consciousness, so I wanted to express this in an offering to him on his Vyasa Puja day. Here is the offering:
Dear Indradyumna Swami Maharaja,
Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
I have been waiting for this occasion for a long time now, and it has finally come – the opportunity to express my gratitude to you for all the help and kindness you have given me over the years, and to also glorify you for your outstanding qualities and qualifications as a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, and as my senior Godbrother.
First of all I want to mention some things about our personal relationship. It began in mid-1973, when you came as the sankirtana leader of the French yatra to the London Rathayatra in July 1973. We were also doing some book distribution around London and the UK and we thought, what will these French devotees be able to do? They won’t be able to deal with the English people as well as we do.
But you and your team proved us completely wrong. You were distributing at least twice as many books as us and showed us another dimension of book distribution.
We met in person one evening in the Bury Place temple in London. I was the treasurer, and was in the process of counting some money, when I felt I needed to use the toilet. I quickly went out and was back within a couple of minutes, to find you standing in the office, looking at the money I had left sitting on the table.
You told me “Bhagavan prabhu (the then GBC of France) would be very angry if you left this laksmi lying around. Anyone could have stolen it.”
Of course it shocked me a little, but I understood that you were right, and took your instruction to heart to be more careful with Krishna’s Laksmi.
So from the beginning of our relationship you gave me guidance, and you’ve continued to do that over the years, directly and indirectly.
I remember when I was Temple President in the Sri Sri Radha Radhanatha temple in Durban, South Africa. One time I was feeling very frustrated with the situation there, and wanting a way to get out of the service. I was
walking around the temple moat chanting and thinking about the challenges I was facing, particularly with one very politically minded devotee, and you just walked up to me and asked if you could become the Temple President!
I immediately took it that you had been directly inspired by Lord Krishna to save me from my predicament, and accepted on the spot. Perhaps you saved my life!
While you were Temple President you developed the book distribution in amazing ways, getting devotees out on the streets every day who I thought would never go out to do books. Such is your potency.
Then at that time you began the Durban Rathayatra, which is one of the most successful Rathayatras outside India. Just see your transcendental vision and foresight!
You have given me many instructions over the years, and recently you’ve been encouraging me strongly to establish a web site with classes of mine on it. I kept getting emails from you about this every few days, and I was trying to get it organized, but it was coming slowly. I felt too embarrassed to tell you that it was “just now coming” and so hesitated to reply each time you wrote.
But the main thing I felt then, as I have felt many times before, is that you actually care for me, and want to help me become some proper type of servant of Srila Prabhupada.
I know many of our Godbrothers, and have nice relationships with many, but that type of personal concern and care is only there from a few, and you are one of them. I want you to know that I appreciate that very much, and I pray that you will continue to keep looking over me and guiding and correcting me forever.
Your qualities are many and are outstanding. Like Prahlada Maharaja you are very dear to Lord Nrsingadeva and He is always protecting you from difficulty and danger in your devotional service. Like Lord Nityananda you understand the mission of Lord Caitanya and are fully dedicated to giving His mercy to the fallen conditioned souls. Like Srila Prabhupada and our previous acaryas you are able to distill the essence of the Vedic scriptures and present the message perfectly for the benefit of the devotees. Like Laksmi devi you are always serving the lotus feet of the Lord with perfect care and attention. Like Srimati Radharani Herself you are willing to do anything for your beloved Krishna, and find no price too high to pay for His pleasure. Like Haridas Thakura you are constantly absorbed in chanting Hare Krishna and giving the holy names to everyone.
Another very merciful thing you have done recently is give me Giriraja. You always have Him with you, and in your heart, and now you have given Him to me. He is here with me witnessing this wonderful occasion directly today, and I’m sure He’s very happy that you are being worshipped and served so fittingly.
There are so many things to say, and not enough time, but today I pray at your lotus feet that you will keep giving your kind association to me, so that one day we can serve, with Giriraja Maharaja, together in Goloka
Your most fallen servant,
Bhakti Caitanya Swami
The Rathayatra was very nice, with about 200 devotees participating from all over the Baltics, including even Estonia. The next morning I drove to Riga airport and then flew back to Barnaul, and drove for 5 hours to where we are now, near a town named Gorno Altaisk, in a beautiful holiday resort.
The only problem is the resort is designed for summer use only (there are holes in the walls of the house I’m staying in), and the weather is wintery right now. This morning it was about 3 degrees, and at the most it is meant to be about 13, and the wind is howling outside and sometimes rain is falling. Today I have a cold so our devotee doctor Sudama Vipra prabhu a disciple of Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja, as ordered me to stay inside, so I won’t be continuing my seminar on the Demons in Krishna’s Vrindavana Pastimes.
However tomorrow I’m hoping to participate. I’ll let you know what happens shortly.
Hoping this meets you well.
Bhakti Caitanya Swami