Pilgrim’s Diary 10. Japa vs Bhagavatam

We left the pilgrim with police captain about to tell him the story about his faith. This is, of course, interesting, and the pilgrim was very eager to hear it, but I noticed that there is another aspect to this conversation. I first noticed it when I typed the previous installment but now I see clearly – the captain was a total kanishtha adhikari, so let’s start with that.

As a short reminder – the pilgrim found two men who robbed him of his Bible and his Philokalia and they told him that the captain of the prisoner convoy had these books together with the rest of their loot on his cart. The pilgrim went to talk to the captain and it all worked out fine, but it took a long time for the captain to recognize the pilgrim as a sadhu, like a really long time. First, the pilgrim looked like a pilgrim, a man of the road. Secondly, he asked for his missing Bible. Then they walked together for a considerable amount of time, exchanging pleasantries and pilgrim answering basic questions about himself. Then the pilgrim found his Bible, embraced it tightly, and started crying. And only then the captain realized “You must really like it, I gather.” And then he immediately wanted to talk about himself, like every neophyte is sworn to do. The captain just couldn’t contain himself and clearly lacked appreciation for pilgrim’s advancement. This will also be seen later in their conversation, so let’s move on.

The captain took a silver bound Gospel from his chest pocket and said he always keeps it close to his heart. I have never seen silver bound Gospels but in Russia it’s apparently a thing. Why silver and not gold? Maybe it’s a question of price, maybe it’s a question of modesty as almost everybody could afford some silver so it wasn’t a “show off”, just a show of appreciation, or maybe it’s a question of the Bible itself – there is a passage there which compares Lord’s words to purified silver (seven times over in a furnace). Anyway, the captain said he had a problem with alcohol (Russians, right?) and he specifically suffered from going on prolonged benders. I don’t know if it happens to people in the west where they just drink every day and maybe binge themselves on weekends, but it’s an old Russian tradition – to every once in a while disappear from public view for weeks if not months (six weeks for the captain) and spend all this time drinking non-stop, without ever getting sober. After it’s over the person would become a normal and productive citizen again, having occasional drinks socially and everybody would love and respect them until they suddenly disappear again. During these benders they would sell all family silver and often would not even live at home, it’s like they switch their personality off and become someone else. The employers obviously don’t like it and so the captain was demoted to ordinary soldiers barracks and was about to be moved to the disciplinary corps so he was near the bottom.

Army chaplain was collecting some money for something in the barracks and he asked the captain why he looked so sad. Captain told him about his alcoholism and the chaplain told him his brother had the same problem but then his guru gave him the Gospel to read with the firm instruction to read at least a chapter the moment he feels the urge to drink. The brother followed this advice and gave up drinking very fast and had been sober for fifteen years already. The captain objected, saying that he doesn’t believe the Gospel can help where medicine and public pressure failed but the chaplain was insistent and assured the captain that it would work. Next day he, indeed, brought him this very copy Captain was showing to the pilgrim right now, and Captain looked at it, flipped a few pages, tried to read, and said that he didn’t understand neither the meaning, nor the language, not the elaborate Church typography in the book. The chaplain replied that understanding it is not strictly necessary because Gospels’ words have power by themselves. He explained that regardless of whether you understand it or not, the demons get it and it’s the demons who urge your to go get drunk. Nobody asked you, it’s a battle between the Bible and the demons, and the chaplain also gave a sastric quote to support his argument. Captain gave him a donation for the distributed book and locked it away in his chest.

Next time he felt the urge to get wasted he unlocked his chest, looking for money, but found the Gospel first and remembered chaplain’s advice. He gave it a go and read the first chapter, didn’t understand anything, but remembered that it didn’t matter and read the next chapter. It didn’t work either but suddenly an alarm was sounded and he couldn’t go for a drink anyway. He was saved. Next morning he was about to finally go get a drink but decided to try the Gospel again. Read a chapter and decided not to go. Next time he craved a drink he read a chapter again and again it helped. With this experience he really started to believe that reading Gospels works and this faith gave him strength to swear off alcohol forever. Captain then announced to the pilgrim that he hadn’t had a drink in twenty years since.

It was noticed by his superiors, his rank was restored, then he was promoted, got married, got a child, his son grew up and became an officer himself. Ever since he gave drinking he took a vow to read a chapter from the Gospels every day and he hadn’t broken it once. When he was sick or tired he asked his wife or his son to read it for him, and feeling grateful, he also put it in silver binding.

The pilgrim listened to this story and appreciated it like one would appreciate the sweet nectar of Bhagavatam. He shared a similar story, too, about his friend from the old days. They had a guy working at a factory near their village and he was similarly fond of binge drinking. Someone told him to chant 33 Jesus Prayers every time he wanted a drink, one prayer of each year of Jesus’ life, and also in honor of the Trinity. The guy listened, followed, and quit drinking. Even more – in three years he moved to a monastery!

Like every neophyte is sworn to do, Captain asked which method is superior – chanting Jesus Prayer or reading the Gospels. The pilgrim explained that both are equally potent because the Holy Name contains in itself all Gospels’ truths and church fathers declare it the essence of all Gospels, too.

This is why I named this installment Japa vs Bhagavatam – the captain was the follower of his Christian version of Bhagavatam (or maybe Caitanya Caritamrita is a better equivalent here), and the pilgrim was the devotee of the Holy Name, like Haridas Thakur.

At this point they decided it’s time to stop talking and they both engaged in their favorite forms of bhajan. Captain immersed himself in the Gospels and the pilgrim started chanting. This went on until 2 AM and then they went to bed. The pilgrim got up early, as usual, and immediately went for his beloved Philokalia – it was the first time he actually had the chance to read it again. The night before it wouldn’t be appropriate, I guess, after telling the captain about glories of Jesus Prayer he had to chant it, not to read something else.

Pilgrim’s reunion with Philokalia was like greeting a father coming home from foreign travels. He kissed it again and again and eagerly drunk the instructions on its pages. He opened writing of Theoleptos of Philadelphia and one thing struck him immediately – the instruction that one should simultaneously engage his body, mind, and soul in three different things, like during eating body gets the food, ears gets to hear scriptures (it’s a tradition on Mt Athos, where Theoleptos was trained as a brahmachari, to recite sastra while everyone eats), and the mind should chant. The pilgrim remembered previous night discussion and it dawned on him – mind and heart are not one and the same. He didn’t elaborate on this discovery but I see it as the realization that what one does in his mind and what one does in his heart could be two different things, with the goal of dedicating the heart to non-stop chanting while allowing the mind to engage in daily affairs.

I’ve seen these descriptions of Athos monks where they would talk to visitors but if one pays close attention one would notice that they continue praying even while talking, what to speak of walking around doing their daily chores. Srila Prabhupada was also observed doing something similar once, and there is a case of Hemalati Thakurani, I believe, who kept chanting during Bhagavatam discourse and the devotee who criticized her for doing that got severe punishment for his offense. As far as I remember this will come up later in the diary so let’s finish this part of the story first.

In the morning Captain invited the pilgrim for breakfast, gave him a donation, and the pilgrim continued his journey. A mile later, however, he remembered that he promised to pay the guys who robbed him. He thought about it a little bit, considering pros and cons, but in the end Christian thoughts won the argument, the pilgrim turned around, found the prisoners, gave him the donation he just received from the captain, and said a few words about necessity of repentance and prayer. Then he could really walk away, with nothing burdening his consciousness anymore.

PS. It’s not about that Philadelphia where they make cheese and ice cream, it’s the one in modern day Turkey, and this Theoleptos guy was a predecessor acharya for the Christian branch that believed in chanting of the Holy Name. Therefore he is in the picture today.

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