Pilgrim’s Diary. Preface

Actual book’s title is “The Way of the Pilgrim” but it doesn’t fully reflect its original Russian name, which is more like “Pilgrim’s confidential notes to his spiritual father”. This wording of the title doesn’t fully reflect the content, though – the name of the “spiritual father” is not given anywhere, for example. By content it’s a diary. However, the word “diary” doesn’t fully reflect the content either – diaries are supposed to give dates of the events but the text remains undated to this day. It’s a journal of personal realizations, but this description doesn’t fully reflect it, too. Quite possible it was written BY the unnamed spiritual father FROM the actual diary. I could make several arguments for this version of how the book came about but there could be arguments against it, too. It’s not so important and I’ll call it “Pilgrim’s Diary”.

The picture is a cover of another translation, search the Amazon if the link above does not satisfy you. Speaking of which, the free translation was done by an Englishm priest who was called French and who lived in Russia.

First time I read this book I gobbled it up and then thought it would be nice to reflect on it from a vaishnava perspective. Hopefully, the time has come, but I don’t know what shape this reflection will take. I think it will be a series of blog posts but I don’t want to go through the book chapter by chapter. I’d rather focus on what I think is relevant to our vaishnava community. I want to avoid dealing with Christian background altogether, it might be important but I think it would be mostly distracting. At one point I thought it would be nice to rewrite the whole thing as a vaishnava’s diary, set in our contemporary world. It won’t be difficult to draw parallels with ISKCON and place it sometime after disappearance of Srila Prabhupada. On the other hand, such a pledge would be too constrictive and it would put unnecessary demands of making this presentation literary coherent, which is not my goal at all, certainly not a this point in time. I also want to keep these posts short. There is zero chance of me maintaining the usual size of articles here and keeping the pace with the book as well. I want to read a bit, find something that resonates, and say something about it. Nevertheless, some “orientation” is in order and what I call “preface” might demand sufficient depth and detail. Hopefully not.

The diary is dated somewhere between 1856 and 1861. The reason is that these two dates were accompanied by significant changes to Russian public life but the book carries no signs of them so it must have been composed somewhere in between.

Preface to the current edition was written by a Russian Orthodox priest who emigrated after Bolshevik revolution and served in places like Serbia and France for the rest of his life. It was written shortly after World War II, too, so it’s not surprising that he emphasizes how Russia or that period was different from Russia of his time. What’s of interest to us is that in the 19th century there was a well established and dependable system of public travel throughout the entire country, which stretches for over ten thousand kilometres, I might remind you. It was before trains and most people traveled on foot with only well off being able to afford horse carriages. Foot traffic, however was high and well accommodated so that religious pilgrims could always find a free place to stay and generous people to donate bread. Usually bread was dried, I don’t think there is a fitting English word for it, so that it would last for weeks and one could take a bite or two to satisfy his hunger. There is a story I read recently in this regard.

One of the fathers of Russian medicine, Botkin, once had a patient who came to him in a really bad condition. He had advanced liver disease, kidney disease, heart disease – the whole nine yards. Botkin said that he would take the case but he could do it only in Odessa, which is a city on the Black Sea shore, thousands kilometres away from anywhere in Russia. He invited the patient to go for treatment there but gave him one condition – don’t travel by horses, walk like everyone else, and eat only dried bread on the way, like everyone else. A few months later this man reached Odessa, Botkin saw him again, but when the man asked when his treatment would start Botkin replied – no need, you are perfectly healthy already, months on the road have healed your liver, kidney, your heart – everything. The point is that it IS a very healthy way to live and it naturally corrects and strengthens the body.

So, the situation in those days was not very different from Caitanya Caritamrita times when everyone walked everywhere, too. Today, however, it’s probably impossible to live like that even in India. Sadhus there learned to travel by trains, which is convenient but nowhere as healthy.

In ISKCON we had the days when devotees could hop from temple to temple using cheap trains and buses, and there were even those who traveled to India overland from Europe. In any temple one could expect a place to sleep and prasadam, so life on the road was reasonably easy, but not anymore. Now one would have to send an email three days in advance, one would have to attach all kinds of recommendations or have some big authorities speak on his behalf. And today travelers are expected to support the temples by leaving generous donations, not the other way around.

This is, perhaps, the first parallel between the diary and our lives today, and let’s leave it at that.

Book’s preface dwells for quite some time on literary side of the text and it’s of no interest to us, except I was thinking about a separate post on this topic, but I don’t want to go into it right now.

I will end with self-evident parallel between vaishnavism and one interesting quote given in the preface, where it was not given proper treatment, in my opinion. I recently rephrased the extended version of it and I’ll paste it here with minor additions. It should give us the taste of what IS important in this book and what we should be looking for there:

“Vaishnavas live in their own countries, but they do so if they were passing travelers. As citizens they participate in public affairs, yet they tolerate local customs as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is the same as their homeland to them, but land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They have children, but they are more concerned with serving their disciples.

They share feasts with each other but they do not partake in any other pleasures of the senses.

They live in their bodies, but they do not live by bodily demands. They pass their days here on earth, but they are citizens of Goloka. They obey the prescribed laws but surpass all laws by their lives.

They love all men but are persecuted by everybody. They are largely unknown and condemned. They are subject to death but restored to spiritual life.

They are poor, yet they make many rich. They themselves lack everything, and yet they overflow in all opulences, too.

They are often dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they look glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet by these very words of blame they are also justified; they are reviled by the society but at the same time look blessed; they are insulted but repay insults with respect; they do good, even ultimate good, and yet are punished as troublemakers; when punished they rejoice even in apparent suffering as if Krishna personally caresses them. They are assailed by the liberals as racist and misogynists, and they are hunted by conservatives for their liberalism, too. Generally, those who hate them are unable to give any actual reason for their hatred.

What the soul is to the body, vaishnavas are to the world, even to the entire universe.”

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