A couple of weeks ago Srila Prabhupada’s only Russian disciple passed away. Actually, he wasn’t the only Russian disciple, he was the only disciple from the former Soviet Union, a place that now contributes probably half of Hare Krishna following worldwide. I’ve seen they claim to hold world’s largest kirtans with over a ten thousand devotees participating.
And it all started with just one man preaching all alone.
He was initiated shortly after Prabhupada’s famous visit in 1971 and ten years later Soviet KGB was so afraid of growing Hare Krishna movement that they started putting devotees in jails. Practically speaking, during that decade Western devotees visited the country on a visible preaching mission only once, at a book fair, which was a major boost in spreading awareness but once they were gone it was again all on Ananta Shanti’s shoulders alone.
Unlike Srila Prabhupada he wasn’t born in Bengal, he didn’t read any of the shastras, he didn’t see any devotees, he didn’t know anything about Vedic way of life, he didn’t have association of someone like Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and his prominent disciples, and he didn’t have access to multiple Gaudiya publications.
All he had was a few hours in Srila Prabhupada’s company and the enthusiasm of devotees he converted himself. There were no Russian books in those days either.
He was a perfect example that all we need is a seed of devotion and from that seed everything can grow automatically without any extraneous help.
Eventually he was put away as a mentally ill patient and administered heavy mind altering drugs for some six years.
Then his life changed again.
I don’t know what happened but he drifted away from ISCKON and came to visit only on major festivals. When many Russian devotees left for Gaudiya Math he was seen coming to GM temples, too, and GM sannyasi can be seen at Ananta Shanti’s funeral service at the ISCKON temple.
His life story can teach us so many lessons and also leave so much room for speculation.
Was he “broken” in a mental hospital? What does it mean to be “broken” for a devotee? Did his mind gave in? Did he renounce his faith? Would that be qualified as a falldown?
Was he supposed to withstand torture like Haridas Thakur? Aren’t we expecting a bit too much from our material bodies?
At some point in his life he was given sannyasa but then he got married, how was that met in a insular Russian community? How did it look to the larger ISKCON when sannyasis started falling down left and right? How do we look at such things now?
And what of his interest in Gaudiya Math? Throughout all our history we’ve been practically ex-communicating devotees who have left Srila Prabhupada’s shelter. Should this be changed in light of posthumous glory we award to Ananta Shanti?
Personally, I think we need to learn to care about such external things in a mature way. Even if they have affected his spiritual standing we can write if off as differences between liberated devotees, like rivalry between gopis, for example, or general antipathy towards Akrura among devotees in Vrindavana.
Even Krishna’s eternal associates occasionally get mixed up in activities that are not universally appreciated. Or think of Kamsa’s mother Padmavati who kept blaming and finding fault with Krishna and Vrajavasis even when she was living in Krishna’s own Dvaraka.
If we see some devotee misbehaving we should learn how to treat them properly. We are not on the spiritual platform yet, we can’t bring spiritual differences into our mundane lives, that would be offensive, ie we can’t say the same things about Akrura with our material tongues that gopis did in their fully spiritual bodies.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t be complacent and liberal in our association, too. If our only goal was liberation it would have been okay but if we want to develop real devotion in the line of Rupa Goswami then we should be very strict in who to follow and who to keep company with. We shouldn’t be hanging out with modern day Padmavati, for example.
Vrindavan is a big place and we should seek blessing of each and every resident there but not if it comes at the expense of our acceptance by gopis and their servants. We can’t be servants of everyone, we can’t tell our guru that he can wait as we have somebody else’s orders to follow.
Ananta Shanti, in the meantime, was a truly great soul and a great devotee and talking about details of his incarnation should be done very carefully, I have not idea how to do that safely myself, but we can’t accept every twist of his life as fully spiritual either. We certainly should not imitate his pastimes or use his example as an excuse for ourselves.