«We have just left Almaty, the capitol of Kazakthan. There we participated in the Vyasa Puja festival of my dear godbrother, Bhakti Bringa Govinda ...»
North to Siberia
Volume 3, Chapter 1
January 18, 2001, Barnoul, Siberia.
Today I am traveling by train through the vast desert region of northern Kazaksthan, in
central Asia. I am alone in one compartment and Sri Prahlad and his wife, Rukmini Priya, are
in another. We are heading north towards Russia. Our 34 hour ride will conclude in Barnoul,
deep in the snows of Siberia, where we will have one and a half days of programs with the
local devotees. It will be the beginning of a 4 week tour throughout Russia.
We have just left Almaty, the capitol of Kazakthan. There we participated in the Vyasa Puja festival of my dear godbrother, Bhakti Bringa Govinda Maharaja. Over 200 devotees came from central Asia, Russia and even Europe for the event. When we first arrived in Almaty we drove out to visit Maharaja’s developing farm project, “Sri Vrindavan Dhama”, 45 minutes outside of the city. Maharaja purchased land there 3 years ago. I was amazed at how much he has achieved in such a short time. Sri Vrindavan Dhama has a small but beautiful reconstructed house that serves as a temple, where the main Deity is a very large Govardhana Sila. They also worship a large Nrsimha salagram, that I sent them last year. He is probably the most terrifying Nrsimha sila on earth and Maharaja told me that since He arrived at the farm, our movement has met with little resistance in Kazakhstan.
The property has a very large barn, where they keep about 15 cows and bulls. It also serves as base for their small prasadam and candle making businesses. The property has a lot of land where they grow fruits, vegetables and grains. I also noticed a large lake, renamed “Radha Kunda” by the devotees – along whose banks are many “Dacha’s” or small cottages, used as retreats by the people of Altmay in the summer. Maharaja has purchased a number of them for housing his devotees.
Sri Vrindavan Dhama reminded me a lot of “New Vraja Dhama” in Hungary. The Hungarian farm project manifested over 10 years by the strong desire of Sivarama Swami and is already famous throughout Hungary. Obviously, Govinda Maharaja has started Sri Vrindavan Dhama in the same spirit and no doubt it will eventually achieve the same fame within Kazakhstan. I know, however, how much blood, sweat and tears go into starting and developing such a community. Men, money and capital don’t come easy in this world. But in Krsna consciousness we always have a special incentive; the mercy of Krsna. By His grace alone we can accomplish the great tasks that our spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, has requested of us. Govinda Maharaja has shown his worthiness as a disciple of His Divine Grace, by developing New Vrindavan Dhama practically from dusty fields alone. Srila Prabhupada once said that a project is, “only as good as the man who is heads it up.” We observed Maharaja’s 50th birthday anniversary in a medium sized hall on the outskirts of Almaty. We focused mainly on lectures and kirtans. Some of the kirtans went for as long as 3-4 hours. The devotees also did two excellent dramas of Krsna Lila. I have always noted that devotees from Russia and Central Asia are very talented in music, art and drama. In Bhagavad Gita, Krsna says that He is the “ability in man” and surely the Lord’s grace came through the beautiful dramas we saw at that festival. The dramas were actually taken from Rupa Goswami’s play, “Lalita Madhava”. They were done so well that we all had the good fortune to experience what may have been genuine sentiments of affection for the Lord. I saw many devotees crying.
A snow storm was raging as we left our apartment in Almaty to go to the train station yesterday. We just barely made the train. The devotees had reserved us 1st class compartments; although by ‘western’ standards they would have been rated much less. But they are comfortable and, most important, warm. Rumors have been circulating that in Siberia there is a record cold front of minus 47 degrees. A week ago I was in Sydney, Australia, where the temperatures were around 32 degree ABOVE zero. I find the drastic temperature changes one of the most difficult things about being a traveling preacher.
Generally the body becomes accustomed to the heat of summer or the harshness of winter by gradually going through the temperature changes of Spring and Autumn, respectively. But preaching calls us to places according to need and we have to accept the austerity of facing the heat or cold head on.
As our train proceeds through the barren desert like area of northern Kazakhstan, the scene outside remains the same hour after hour; an endless horizon of snow. The land is flat and the monotonous view is only broken from time to time by a small settlements of old wooden houses. I can’t imagine how people live out here! I see them shuffling from house to house all bundled up in old coats and fur hats. The fur hats are typical of Russia and the countries that used to be part of it’s empire. Full fur coats are also quite common.
Sometimes the train stops at a station and a few people, waiting patiently in the snow and freezing wind, jump on. At that time, a few brave souls get off the train to buy refreshments from the old ladies on the platform. They mainly sell meat and vodka – and what appears to be a flat bread. The old ladies are the poorest of all, as seen by their attire, which sometimes consists of only an old coat and rags around their bodies. Their faces are red from the cold.
Because Kazakhstan borders western China, the Kazakhstan people all have black hair and slanted eyes.
Because we don’t speak any Russian we can’t ask anyone when we will cross the border into Russia. I want to be prepared, because past experience has shown that it can be a real ordeal.
The border guards in the “outpost” crossings can be very difficult. They sometimes like to intimidate foreigners. They demand to see all the things in our bags, and create an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. But we can’t communicate with the lady in charge of our coach, so I place myself on “red alert” and have my bags and identity papers ready at all times. I also sleep with all my cloths on, so that I won’t be embarrassed by the border guards bursting into my compartment in the dead of night and shouting at me in Russian.
There’s not much more to report in a small cabin during 34 hours of riding up through Kazakhstan and into Russia. We finally cross the Russian border 27 hours into the journey.
By some quirk of fate, the knock on my door was surprisingly soft and when I opened it the border guard was a rather shy young woman in military fatigues. She silently took my passport and came back a half hour later with it stamped. She then looked briefly into the cabin and without a word left. It was the easiest entry I’ve ever had into Russia.
We arrived in Barnoul at midnight in the midst of a huge blizzard. About 40 local devotees were having a rousing kirtan on the platform. My heart went out to them – it was 12 degrees below zero outside and the wind was raging! As I jumped off the train, the cold hit me and I zipped my jacket up to the neck. But when I tried to speak to a few devotees on the way to the car, my lips were so cold I couldn’t say the words.
As we drove to a devotee’s apartment, the temple president, Visnu Tattva das, a disciple of Prabhavisnu Swami, told me that the morning program the next day was to begin at 7 am.
That meant only 4 hours of sleep! He had also scheduled a darsan with my disciples (who haven’t seen me in 3 years) for the late morning, then Deity worship and japa, lunch … and a big evening program. Senior devotees rarely visit this isolated area, so devotees are really excited about the evening festival. They have invited many important people from Barnoul.
Devotees from other regions of Siberia are also supposed to be coming, but Visnu Tattva says some may not make it because of the bad weather.
Then our next train leaves for our next destination and deeper into the Siberian winter. I almost fainted when Visnu Tattva told me the journey will take 27 hours!
But I had an interesting dream. I dreamt that I was walking along the Kali Gandhaki river in Nepal, looking for salagram silas with my godbrother, Bimala Prasad das. I often dream that I am either on my way to the Kali Gandhaki river – or along it’s banks. In fact, the dreams are so intense that I can only attribute them to the fact that I have actually traveled in the mountains of Nepal several times in this life.
Or could it be that I was there in a previous life? In a purport in Srimad Bhagavatam (4.29.64) Srila Prabhupada confirms this possibility. He writes, “In dreams we sometimes see things that we have never experienced in the present body. Sometimes in dreams we think that we are flying in the sky, although we have no experience of flying. This means that once in a previous life, either as a demigod or astronaut, we flew in the sky. The impression is there in the stockpile of the mind, and it suddenly expresses itself. It is like fermentation taking place in the depths of water, which sometimes manifests itself in bubbles on the water’s surface.” Two weeks ago I had an unusually spiritual dream. I dreamt that after a long time I was returning to New Mayapura, in France. In the dream I was surprised to see that everything was overgrown and falling apart. But from within the temple I heard a conch shell blowing and sounds indicating the alter curtain was about to open. I rushed in and sat for a few moments before the curtain, eager for darsan of Sri Sri Radha Govinda Madhava. Suddenly, the curtain opened and everything on the alter was shining beautifully like the sun. It was very clean and nicely decorated. My eyes searched for Sri Sri Radha Govinda Madhava and when I saw Them I started crying. The more I looked at Them, the more I wept. When I awoke that morning, I found my pillow wet with tears. I got up from bed and looked in the mirror. My eyes were red from crying. I said to myself in the mirror, “You rascal! Why can’t you cry for Krsna like that in real life!”.
But inside I was happy, knowing that somewhere in my hard, stone like heart, there might even be a little glimmer of love for Sri Sri Radha Govinda Madhava!
Unfortunately, my dreams are not often so transcendental. Because of the unusual places I travel and preach, and because of the anxieties I have from many responsibilities, I often dream of war – or trying to escape from unknown enemies.
After taking bath, myself, Sri Prahlad, Rukmini Priya and Visnu Tattva prabhu left the apartment building to go to the program. When we stepped outside I was shocked! In the few hours we had slept a huge snowstorm had covered everything within site with blankets of snow. Visnu Tattva told me that Siberia has had more snow this winter than in the last 25 years. We are seeing the cold face of Siberia at it’s worst. We struggled to get to our car, and slipping and sliding through the roads of the city in our vehicle, we somehow managed to get to the hall for the morning program. I couldn’t imagine there would be many devotees there, as access through the city was so difficult; but as is typical in Russian ISKCON, when we entered the hall there were over 200 blissful Vaisnavas eager for Krsna katha and kirtan.
As no book was available, I spoke about the importance of devotee association. I based my
class on a verse from Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya Lila 22. 128:
sadhu-sanga, name-kirtan, bhagavata-sravana mathura-vasa, sri-murtira sraddhaya sevana “One should associate with devotees, chant the holy name of the Lord, hear SrimadBhägavatam, reside at Mathura and worship the Deity with faith and veneration.” Rupa Goswami states in Bhakti Rasamrta Sindhu that these processes are so potent that even a small attachment for any one of these five items can arouse devotional ecstasy even in a neophyte.
After class we returned to our apartment, worshipped our Deities, took prasadam, and then I met with a group of disciples. I must say it was quite an intense meeting. Because many of these disciples had not seen me in 2, or even 3 years, they were absorbed each second;
watching my every move – listening to every word. I was tired and had a headache coming on, but I forced myself to ignore these conditions, and sat up straight, attempting to be the proper representative of Srila Prabhupada I should be. By speaking philosophy and quoting appropriate verses from Bhagavad Gita, I inspired the devotees – but as soon as they left, I collapsed in bed for a half hour rest before the evening program.
When we arrived at the hall that evening, there were twice as many devotees as were there in the morning – over 400. They had come from numerous surrounding towns and villages.
There were also many guests. The atmosphere was “electric” in anticipation of class and kirtan. The mood somehow reminded me of Poland 12 years ago, when I first started preaching there.
There were many teenagers in the audience, with a type of innocence about them, which I attributed to the fact that Siberia still remains to this day somewhat isolated from the “mainstream materialism” that is rampant even in Eastern Europe and Western Russia these days. Later in the evening all these young people stood and chanted and danced without abandon. It left me with a sense of nostalgia for the past.
Over 50 devotees participated in a wonderful drama about the appearance of Lord Caitanya.
It was so well done that I imagined it took weeks of preparation. That they had gone to so much trouble and expense for me touched my heart, and when it came time for me to speak to the general devotees and guests, I gave an impassioned lecture about the purpose of life, which I think was well appreciated. After the talk, Sri Prahlad led a wonderful kirtan.
To conclude the evening, the devotees brought a huge cake onto the stage, which I distributed, piece by piece, to over 500 people. The numbers in the hall had swelled, because after our program the hall was to turn into a disco. As our program was finishing many young people started showing up for the disco, standing on the perimeter of our festival, watching in amazement Many were pulled into the kirtan by the devotees and guests and many came forward for a piece of cake.