Vanity thought #1789. Devotion cuts through everything

There’s a story going around the Internet which I have seen two-three times already. Instead of simply sharing it I’d rather retell it in my own words. I might get a few details wrong here and there but talking about pastimes of the Lord and His devotees is incomparably sweeter than simply hitting a share button. There are also no share buttons for wordpress – people are supposed to write their own stuff here and produce original content, and this is another example how reality controls our consciousness, pretty much like physical structure of our temple affected how we organized sankirtana, too, as I discussed a couple of weeks ago.

There was an old woman living in Azerbaijan, one of ex-USSR countries to the northeast from Turkey. She bought Bhagavad Gita somewhere, became Krishna’s devotee, and went to the temple address printed in the book. On that day there was some program specifically for new bhaktas and devotee conducting it told them to wait a little before they start. When he returned he was amazed to see this woman preaching Krishna conscious philosophy to everyone else and she was so enthusiastic about it that he didn’t even think of interrupting her.

Later on she decided to sell her apartment and move into the temple. By modern standards this would be considered crazy and irresponsible and our modern day ISKCON is not equipped to accept this kind of sacrifices, but maybe it was the time of Krishna conscious revolution in Russia or maybe it was okay by the standards of that society. Devotees built a separate room for her so that she would always have a place to stay, a kind of bhajan kutir.

She was a rather eccentric person and didn’t fit in many norms of devotional behavior. After a while people considered her slightly crazy and possibly even a sahajiya. She got Radha Krishna dolls somewhere and she worshiped them as her personal deities and when she talked to others she would often start with “Gopal told me that…” She was tolerated as a local curiosity, though.

Then one day she watched a documentary about an ancient temple of Lord Narasimha somewhere in India. It’s believed to be located on the spot where the Lord appeared and there are ruins of the original column from which He emerged. There’s a self-manifested deity of Narasimha inside a cave but there’s no regular worship because the temple is located deep in the jungle still full of tigers and there’s a point where one has to wade through water up to chest high to get to see the deity.

This lack of care inspired this mataji to go and restore the worship to its rightful glory. Never mind that she was seventy four years old already, even older than Prabhupada. Devotees thought it was a crazy idea and tried to talk her out of it but who can counteract “Gopal told” me arguments?

First they told her that no one knows where the temple is and promised that one devotee she knows who lives in Vrindavana would investigate and get back to her. That devotee also had no idea where this temple is located but just as he was about to reply he saw the documentary maker visiting Krishna Balaram Mandir and he had no choice but to ask. That way he got the exact location and instructions how to get there.

Next hurdle was that mataji didn’t speak English, never been to India, and so she should go to Vrindavana and meet this devotee first. The idea was that wonderfully sweet atmosphere of the Holy Dham would distract her and she wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

So she arrived in New Delhi airport, the devotee met her and told her there were going to Vrindavana for a few days but she was adamant that she should go straight to Lord Narasimha. She demanded that he got her a ticket right away and gave her the address. It was up to him if he’d go along or not, but she was going. Of course he had to follow.

After a flight and a long taxi ride they arrived in the village and found a pujari’s house. He was seventy years old himself and his age was the main reason he could go and do puja only once a week. His son was translating. He explained the problems – the jungle, the tigers, lack of any kind of facilities, and the fact that women are not allowed to do puja. The mataji replied that Krishna wants to restore the worship and she spoke with such conviction and enthusiasm that no translation was necessary. Pujari’s eyes grew twice their size as if he was a blind man seeing the world for the first time. He had no choice but to agree.

Next day he took her to the temple and she saw an old abandoned cottage near cave’s entrance, it was leaning to one side so much that it was impossible to use a door there but mataji exclaimed that this is the accommodation prepared for her and that it’s all she needs. Amazed pujari got inspired to come and do puja daily, too.

Soon everybody from the village came to see this lady and they thought of her as a living saint. She set up all her deities there and people brought food and everything she needed. She became as much a place of pilgrimage as the temple itself. Eventually even the state governor heard of her and went to see for himself what was going on. He was so impressed that he ordered a proper road built there with all the amenities for pilgrims.

In this way the worship of this self-manifest deity was restored through efforts of an old “crazy” woman who couldn’t speak even English, let alone Hindi or the local dialect. She didn’t care about anything but following desires of the Lord and all the insurmountable obstacles on her path fell away in the face of her determination to serve.

She had a plastic chair in her cottage, which was also renovated, and she used this chair as “asana” for her deity of Krishna. She’d put the deity there and do her puja every day. One morning people came to see her as usual and she was standing on her knees in front of the deity, firmly clasping Lord’s feet and there was Bhagavad Gita tucked under her left arm. “Mata, Mata,” they called her but she didn’t respond – she left her body already.

Her name was Pada Sevanam – literally service to the Lord’s feet! Our spiritual names matter, there’s no doubt about that.

Her guru was HG Rohini Suta Prabhu, a famous book distributor from Germany who later got vilified for marrying his own disciple. This stuff simply doesn’t matter. Whichever way you look at it, he either brought this mataji back to Krishna or Krishna chosen him as her guru, but what really matters is that it worked and we shouldn’t listen to “ISKCON gurus are fake” crowd. We are in the safe hands and we all have the potential do amazing service to the Lord if we stopped seeing ourselves as limited by material conditions.

I’ll leave with pictures accompanying the story, I don’t think they are disrespectful at all:






Vanity thought #1788. VC – Wave Good Bye

Link: “Mystic Universe: An Introduction to Vedic Cosmology”.

Next chapter in the book is called “Remnants of Wave Theory”, but before I move on I have another idea related to yesterday’s post and I want to put it down to paper while it’s still fresh. The discussion was about instant rather than constant speed of light and the illusion of one body moving through space rather than the soul taking succession of new bodies. The illusion of movement gave rise to the illusion of space, and I mean our 3D, physical space, and then building entire modern science on this illusory perception.

But “science works, b*tches!” – in immortal words of Richard Dawkins. Okay, but it works in the same way Fun Fiction works, too. Fan Fiction is literature produced by fans of comic books or movies. Fans love their characters and stories and the world their fictional heroes live and they can’t get enough of it so they don’t wait for official releases of new comics or movie sequels but rather create their own stories filling the gaps or taking characters on new adventures. These new stories go through a peer review process and if they pass, that is they don’t break the rules of the original “universe” and don’t deviate from character roles, they are declared “canonical”. They become a part of the “canon” even if they are not included into the officially released narrative.

The original stories that fans come to love are real, they satisfy fans desires, and Fan Fiction satisfies their desires just the same. Some of it is not up to scratch but some of it really works, so good Fan Fiction is as real as the original. The only difference is that with fiction we know that it’s just a story from the start but with science we don’t, though children believing in Santa Claus are an example that not all story telling is taken as an illusion. There was just nobody around to tell Ancient Greeks that their idea of space was illusory and if there were these people were not taken seriously. And now, two thousand years on, we continue to treat this scientific fan fiction as real, but so do people who go to Comic-Con dressed up as Star Wars characters.

Our science based civilization is pretty old but it’s by no means the only civilization built on distinct worldviews. In fact, science started to matter to people only in a last couple of hundred years because before that they relied on their faith in Christ as the reason for their prosperity. Over in Asia there were huge empires that lasted for hundreds of years and they relied on their faith in different Gods, from Allah to Viṣṇu to Śiva to Kali to Buddha. They didn’t know our science and they were very prosperous and they naturally thought that it was because they figured out how the world works and how to get God’s favors.

Now we think they were stupid and we are the ones who know the real secret, and we call it science. We also think that scientific progress will be linear and defy the rule that everything that comes up must come down and all empires eventually crumble. Sure, those other empires crumbled – because they didn’t know the secret but we do and so we are immune. Well, western civilization is already crumbling. Science needs freedom and democracy to prosper, we’ve been told, but democracy had lost its shine in many parts of the world already and as the world looks at the rise of Trump or Brexit it really starts to think that Chinese or Putin models are superior. Russians just negotiated a peace deal in Syria without inviting Americans, and China, Russia, and Pakistan recently had a negotiation over Afghanistan to curb influence of India there and no one missed Americans at that meeting either. Some say that the world as we know it already over, we just don’t realize it yet.

So, modern science is like Fan Fiction – started from an illusion, created more of it, and it works for the purpose. It doesn’t work for self-realization nor for approaching God just like we don’t expect Star Wars to be useful for our jobs.

Back to the book. This is a section on problems in modern science but the chapter starts without accusing science of anything in particular. Before quantum theory people thought light was a wave, like a wave generated by a stone dropped in a pond, and as a wave it propagated in all directions equally. With quantum theory it was confirmed that this model of propagation is incorrect and photons do not arrive at all equidistant locations simultaneously. Okay, sounds believable, but the next sentence needs more information, I think.

The author says that there’s an order in the arrival of photons which quantum theory cannot predict. Maybe so but I have never heard of this problem before and I don’t know how to google it either. Then the book seamlessly switches to a description of a slit experiment. Ah, I know about those, I think, but slit experiments usually demonstrate that light, ie photons, can behave both like waves and like particles. This aspect is completely ignored in the book and something else steals all the focus instead. When light passes through slits, as a wave, I might add, it creates a pattern of interference – one wave breaks into many – and when these new mini-waves reach the screen they leave a pattern of lighter and darker bands, as I would expect many converging waves would. It’s not the kind of slit experiment I was expecting but okay, let’s move on because this is where it gets interesting.

Bright and dark bands show luminosity of light in that location. The number of slits corresponds to measurement procedure and the pattern of bands corresponds to outcome of that procedure, and the point is that if we change the number of slits we change the pattern of bands, too, even though the original light stays the same. The real point is that the outcome of observation depends on the method of observation, not only on the observed object itself.

The author says that there’s much debate whether we should consider slits as part of the measuring instrument, like he does here, or part of the measured system. He then gives a link to another book on the subject where he discusses it at length and I’m not going to follow that link for now, I have enough books on my plate as it is.

The rest of the chapter discusses implications of this crucial point – what we see is not what IS but depends on HOW we look at it, too, and this time it’s demonstrated scientifically, not just from observation of human interactions. Unfortunately, it has to be continued on another day.

Vanity thought #1787. VC – fast as lightning

Link: “Mystic Universe: An Introduction to Vedic Cosmology”.

The next chapter in the book deals with the speed of light. It’s one of the most daring challenges the author throws to science. It sounds convincing but it also calls for accompanying math in support of it. I don’t know anyone who has time and the ability to provide “proofs”.

“Proofs” were central to the story of Ramanujan, a brilliant Indian mathematician who became a Fellow of Royal Society of London. His mathematical theories were revolutionary, they worked in practice, but Ramanujan was seen as too lazy to provide “proofs” and when he did they weren’t very impressive. The thing was that theories were manifested to him by his worshipable deity while “proofs” he had to supply on his own, hence a mismatch in quality.

Anyway, the chapter starts with a brief history of the problem. When Newton postulated his law of gravity it was thought that it works on distant objects instantaneously but later experiments proved that it was not the case. The cause of gravity manifested its effect with a delay. The solution was that the cause travels as some sort of a particle and so it takes time for it to reach its destination and create the effect. In modern science these traveling particles are called bosons – photons and such.

Then came the discovery of the constant speed of light which doesn’t depend on whether the observer travels towards the cause or not. This is a little bit of a gray area. I myself got very interested in this about ten years ago and pondered all sorts of paradoxes derived from this – how things become shorter or longer, how time runs faster or slower, how twins age differently and many more. I thought I got it but there was always some new twist that made no sense to me no matter how much I knew about this already. In the end I just gave up and now, ten years later, I can’t force myself to relive through that nightmare again.

With this experience being a chip on my shoulder I’m hesitant to endorse book’s presentation of this problem. I’m pretty sure if it was shown to actual physicists someone would find something to object, casting the accusation that the author doesn’t know special relativity and physics in general. I’m not going to get in between because, in my experience, both parties would accuse me of being stupid just to relieve themselves. When someone doesn’t want to answer his accusers directly I’m not going to be a messenger either. It would make me into everybody’s enemy.

In any case, the way the book states the problem is novel. In quantum theory photons do not travel through space in a traditional sense but rather hop from one fixed position to another with no stages in between. I want to drift away here for a bit because this is important.

Being conditioned souls we are unaware that we are accepting new bodies every moment of our lives. We agree that our bodies change from youth to adulthood to old age and as devotees we accept that after death of one body we will take another, and we theoretically accept that we take a new body every second, too, but we do not realize this practically.

When I pace up and down the room, chanting my rounds, I believe that it’s the same body that does the walking and travels through space. Everybody does. Based on this illusion we form our idea of three dimensional space where our bodies and all other objects can move around. Each point in this space can be connected to any other point by a straight line and, while traveling along this line, objects pass through the infinite number of locations, infinite number of points on the line.

From segments of such lines we can make triangles and squares and then we can create coordinate systems and move these shapes freely around, transform them, rotate them, skew them and so on. We still think that it’s the same object that we can manipulate in any way we want and this forms the basis of all our science – objects have properties and these properties can change their values. In geometry the properties could be locations and sizes, in Newtonian physics we can add momentum and speed, in electrodynamics we can change objects’ charge, and in relativity we can change objects mass, too.

This is all plain wrong from the perspective of Vedic science. It’s not the same body that moves through space, it’s a succession of new bodies, each slightly different and each with its own set of sensations. We watch these bodies like we watch a movie, which is also a succession of still images, and then we mistakenly interpret it as movement and from this interpretation we create a model of space. This space is illusory, there’s a new body with a new set of sensory values, there’s not traveling, no distance between things – it’s all in our minds.

There’s also a science of changing these bodies and the role our consciousness, time, and karma plays in all this but it’s not a subject for today.

So, quantum theory finally got this part right – there’s no smooth movement, photons hop from one position to another and there’s a fixed number of hops between the source and the observer. If the observer starts hopping towards the photon there will be less hops to be made before they meet, and how does the photon know the observer is approaching? Why would it slow down? How can the number of hops become smaller? What’s going on here? The book states that this is a problem that science doesn’t acknowledge yet. Maybe it is, but what comes next is the most interesting proposition here.

The light does not take any time to travel at all. Information is passed through space (which is an illusory concept, as explained above) instantaneously but what takes time is for the recipient to absorb this information and change his state, or rather his body, to a new one where this information appears as already absorbed.

This solution is simple and elegant and I think it’s brilliant. The rest of the chapter gives examples how this principle already works in everyday life. A teacher’s lesson, for example, is absorbed at different speed by different students depending on their background knowledge and the speed with which words reach their ears, ie speed of light, is irrelevant. What matters is how long it would take for a student to change from his current body to a body where the lesson has been learned, and this works across the whole universe.

There’s no point in measuring distance to stars and planets anymore, it doesn’t exist because light does not take any time to travel at all, and so our 3D model of space becomes redundant. What effect this explanation would have on modern science? Which formulas need to be adjusted? Is it even possible? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to these questions or has the ability and time to figure out the answers. It takes time for us to change from a state where these answers are unknown to a state where they trivial, and that state might not be in our karma at all.

Vanity thought #1786. VC – Dope Doppler

Link: “Mystic Universe: An Introduction to Vedic Cosmology”.

It’s time to resume digesting this book, last post was from the end of October, two and a half months ago. At first I thought that it would be easy but now I realize that a decent post on that book might take twice the time – first to understand what it is talking about and then process it internally to form a presentable opinion. Some chapters are too esoteric but the one I have to resume from poses complicated science questions.

It’s about using Doppler effect to determine distance to stars and galaxies and measure the rate of the expansion of the universe. It comes after a chapter on using star luminosity to estimate distances and uses largely the same argument – it’s all relative, science makes assumptions first and then compares other data to the assumed standard to fill out the rest. If the luminosity of their “standard candle” star is wrong then all measurements comparing other stars to it should go into the bin, too. With Doppler effect it’s a bit more complicated but no less compelling in the end. To get to the end of the chapter, however, is hard.

I remember reading it for the first time and it made total sense, I moved on without any questions. On rereading, however, I realized that either the author is wrong or I’m totally confused about Doppler. Internet isn’t very helpful either.

Everybody learns about Dopper effect in school. The author uses the example of an ambulance but it’s best observed with trains, in my experience – because they are so much faster than ambulances moving through city traffic and because they emit sound of a constant tone unlike “wee-woo” of police and emergency vehicles. The best case is when the train blows its horn but it’s already loud enough to hear the increase in pitch as the train approaches and decrease when it goes away.

The book explains it in terms of moving objects velocity which affects the speed of sound but now I’m not so sure about that. When the book jumps to using Doppler effect to distances between us and stars it says that speed of light is constant therefore it’s not affected by the speed of stars and Doppler effect shows expansion of space instead. Say what?

What does “space expansion” mean? Do miles get longer or are there more miles between objects? If miles get longer then so should be kilometers, feet and everything else. How would it look any different?

Doppler effect with sound doesn’t affect speed of sound either, it’s still 300 m/s in air just like light is always 300 km/s in vacuum. Yes, sound can propagate faster or slower but that’s not what happens with Doppler.

Doppler effect doesn’t tell us the speed of light or sound either, it shows that distance between two crests of a wave increases or decreases – that’s what change in pitch or red or blue spectrum shifts are. With sound and objects moving close to its speed it takes significantly longer for sound to travel to our ears if the object moves away but with light the difference is negligible because our speeds are incomparably slower. Still, police uses Doppler radars to measure speeds of cars because it’s not the speed of radio waves that is affected but the difference between crests of the same wave. Radio is a radio but long waves are longer than 1 km – too long to catch speeding cars. Police radars use much shorter waves, less than 10 cm.

In light of the above the book’s objection seems invalid but that is only a first impression. I have to admit I don’t understand much of it at all. I’ve also learned that the formula for calculating Doppler shift in astronomy is different because it has to account for constant speed of light. The book is probably right and I’m wrong.

Never mind this little confusion, it’s the rest of the chapter that is rock solid and should be remembered.

When applying this method scientists assume that stars don’t transmit Doppler shift themselves and attribute it to expansion of the universe. They have a theory to explain this expansion, ie Big Bang, but we might just as well ask for a theory where stars would transmit Doppler shift and no expansion would be necessary.

Historically, the theory of expansion was sounded first, the observation was then interpreted on the basis of this theory, and then they declared that this interpretation confirmed it.

However, in science data always underdetermines a theory, that is data can be interpreted in several valid ways, and therefore it’s impossible to determine which theory is correct on the basis of data itself. If there was a theory explaining Doppler shifted transmission from stars themselves it would have explained all the data just as well. We don’t have that theory and don’t even try for it because we believe that stars and laws which govern their transmissions are uniform everywhere in the universe. We assume that stars behave just like objects in our lab experiments and their red light, for example, is caused by the same chemical reactions as red light produced in our labs.

Without the assumption of uniform universe all our theories about stars and distances between us would be useless. We can’t even contemplate the world where this assumption doesn’t hold. Obviously, it does not hold in Sāṅkhya but scientists got problems even without us telling them so.

The principle of underdetermination means that scientists have to pursue all plausible and internally consistent theories at the same time until they find data that doesn’t fit and eliminate those theories one after another. This doesn’t happen in real life, alternatives are rarely pursued with the same vigor and when new data comes in which doesn’t conform to a theory nothing gets eliminated but the theory gets patched instead to account for anomalies.

Patched here means adding new assumptions, quite arbitrarily, simply because they would explain it better. In case of Doppler shifts new data shows not just expansion but accelerated expansion and accelerated expansion is impossible according to general relativity. What was the patch? Introduction of “dark energy”? How big is the input of this dark energy to expansion? 68% – over two thirds, but it keeps general relativity correct. I mean as long as you are content with the fact that some new and undeveloped theory accounts for two thirds of the time when general relativity is wrong. How new is this theory? Well, they gave Nobel Prize for discovery of acceleration only in 2011, basically five years ago. There’s no theory as such yet.

Are they going to admit that general relativity does not comply with experimental data and therefore should be abandoned? Nope, they are not even going to modify any time soon.

Science knows everything, right?

Vanity thought #1785. Pioneering value

This whole series of posts about pioneering came out backwards. At first I wanted to write something about a conversation on the value of these memories but then realized that retelling the memories themselves would be useful, too, so that’s what I have been doing for over a week now.

Once a had a chance to talk to one of ISKCON’s traveling sannyasis and initiating gurus. It was a little weird because I was sitting next to him while his disciples came in and offered full obeisances. It was some sort of a spiritual fair where ISKCON got a booth so I thought it would be okay if I don’t offer obeisances on seeing a sannyasi for the first time during the day, which is the rule best followed inside temples or dhamas, I think.

Because it was a fair I remembered Kirtiraja’s story of Moscow International Book Fair of 1979, which I covered here in one of the previous posts. I showed up there on a weekday, which was slow, and so there were only few devotees there, hardly any visitors, and there was no prasadam. The plan was to bring prasadam for distribution on weekend.

One story led to another and pretty soon I told maharaja everything I ever heard of those days, though sometimes he’d say “Oh, yes, this was told by Bhakti Vaibhava Svami” so I didn’t repeat that which he already knew. I genuinely thought he’d be impressed but all he said afterwards was “That was pioneering days, now our mission is different”. This has struck me.

At first I tried to argue: “But there are no official ISKCON temples in China, isn’t preaching there pioneering, too? – I’ve been going there for thirty years,” maharaja replied. Okay, what about this country and that? “Been going there for twenty years.” Okay, but China is such a large country, how many places have you visited? “About a hundred.” It was impenetrable so I had to think about this back at home.

Is there a value in these memories when tasks and goals of our society have changed? I’m not sure we are doing very well with nurturing existing devotees but that is also beside the point – what is the current value of our old preaching efforts?

I realize that people reading this blog might be bored to death with stories about Russia and sankirtana devotees they’ve never met and whose names I didn’t disclose on purpose. It’s not something I think about day and night either. Should I just let it go and concentrate on our current lives instead, talk about something relevant to people of this day and age?

I don’t think I will ever abandon my memories, or even memories I received from other people and which I cherish as if they were my own. There are two ways I justify this attachment.

One is that these pastimes are as transcendental as those of Lord Caitanya and His associates, and later of their followers. Someone might find it somewhat blasphemous but that’s how Lord Caitanya’s mercy has been manifested before my eyes and so to me it feels even more transcendental than pastimes from several hundred years ago I can’t easily relate to.

Anything related to spreading Lord Caitanya’s mission and attracting people to Krishna is legitimately transcendental. I didn’t see much of it this way when I lived through it myself but appreciation has been growing gradually over the years. It might be the case of me romanticizing my past but I think it’s a wrong way to look at it.

When we romanticize the past we assume that there’s past as it really happened and past as it has been reconstructed. What “really happened”, however, does not exist as objective reality. We are still talking about personal perceptions, either as they are remembered or recalled by others and stored as memories. When we access them now we decode meanings that exist either in these memories or existed at the time of the events themselves and this process is subjective, too, and the perceptions we recreate now are as real as any other. It’s these current perceptions that carry value to us which we want to share, not the events themselves.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what “real past” was, what matters is whether we are able to see it as transcendental now and whether we can share these realizations in the present, whether we can make them inspirational. The ability to inspire others depends not only on us but on their reception, too. If we are making stuff up and others clearly see that we are exaggerating than we can’t expect them to be inspired, so memories need to have firm foundation in actual events. It’s complex theory of how much you can get away with and you can spot it in some storytelling about Krishna or some other well known events. I swear my stories are all true, however.

Another way I see value in these “pioneering memories” is because they make an excellent object for meditation and, all said and done, I don’t mind being reborn in the same position of service to sankirtana again. I hope next time I’ll appreciate it even more.

It’s a pet theory of mine – do we really expect to become closer to Lord Caitanya after death? What about our gurus and all the acaryas between us? Are we going to become closer to the Lord than them? Isn’t our position in hierarchy of Lord Caitanya’s army permanently fixed? If these were just temporary roles of no significance then positions could be changed but does anyone see Srila Prabhupada’s position as temporary, for example? I hope not.

In retrospect, I see those days as the best service of my life, I haven’t done even remotely close to that since. How can it ever lose value then? It’s unthinkable to me. Maharaja that made me think about all this is busy spreading Krishna consciousness despite his advanced age but I’m not as lucky or as pure. He is like Uddhava who was with Krishna until the very end and I’m like.. Wait, this comparison is inappropriate. What I wanted to say is that there were plenty of devotees who had only a few moments of service to the Lord, both in Krishna and in Caitanya lila, and recollecting these moments for the rest of their lives is a perfect meditation. We are even taught that such meditation in separation is more intense than when being in Lord’s presence. Which is another argument why recalling these memories might feel sweeter than living through them in real time.

As I was typing this my blood test came in – all clear, I’ll have another round of chemo soon and on that my treatment should be over. I expect full recovery, that is recovery from chemo and all related side effects, to be complete by March. Whether I’ll have my old energy levels back or not I don’t know. I’ve been out of it for so long I don’t envision my new healthy life yet.

Vanity thought #1784. Pioneering problems

Last time I wrote about success of Moscow Second International Book Fair in 1979 and the impact it had on the number of devotees there. Before the fair western devotees held private programs with less than a dozen people attending, the visit after the fair, I think in 1980 or 1981 was completely different.

In Moscow there must have been a hundred people crammed into apartments and at one point devotees even spilled out in the street – in dhotis and with tilakas on their foreheads. They had foot washing ceremonies and āratis like a fully fledged ISKCON temple. Never mind that to put a tilaka on they first spit in their palms and blew conch shells from the wrong end – the transformation of Moscow yatra was astonishing.

On the second leg, in Latvian capital Riga, devotees were even less apprehensive about state authorities and they organized a public program in a local auditorium. KGB couldn’t tolerate this brassiness anymore and swooped in, aided by dozens of uniform police. Kīrtirāja and Harikeśa Svāmī were not arrested, luckily, but were deported. Ananta Śānti, however, was the one who suffered the most as they kept him in prisons or psychiatric hospitals ever since.

The story goes that Soviet leader at the time, Brezhnev, had a personal traditional healer who knew the devotees and put a word on their behalf while the KGB boss wanted to arrest and try the western preachers. A short while later Brezhnev died and by 1983 this KGB boss became the supreme leader himself. That’s when the repression of Hare Kṛṣṇas started in earnest. Communities were broken, devotees were put on trials or sent to psychiatric hospitals and the age of horror began.

During this time neither Kīrtirāja nor anyone else could obtain a visa into Soviet Union and everything seemed to be lost but then Gorbachev came onto the scene and Soviet Union suddenly became open to public pressure and that’s when Kīrtirāja organized a committee to help Soviet Hare Kṛṣṇas. Devotees all over the world helped in any way they could, here’s a video recorded by Australians with Śrī Prahlāda singing a song addressed personally to Gorbachev:

There was a whole record of songs like this and Śrī Prahlāda, a child at the time, personally delivered a letter to the Soviet Embassy in Australia.

The whole protest movement was organized by Kīrtirāja, however. He was the one collecting all the information and publishing booklets and articles in the media with details of devotee persecution. Horrible things happened to Soviet devotees at the time. Some were kept in prisons, which aren’t exactly the best places for sādhana. Others were deemed mentally ill and treated with drugs meant to completely suppress one’s consciousness and the will to live, like a chemotherapy for the mind. One woman had a child while in jail who was taken away from her by the state and died in infancy from the lack of care. Entire books have been written about this, I can’t do justice to history in this one post.

Then came the famous Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik in 1986. Kīrtirāja got himself a journalist accreditation to attend and set up a protest camp right outside Gorbachev’s hotel. Every morning Gorbachev had to pass by it and read the placards and signs held by devotees there.

On the last day of the summit Kīrtirāja went to Gorbachev’s press conference hoping to give him a copy of Bhagavad Gītā but the security didn’t let him anywhere near the Soviet leader. Then he spotted Gorbachev’s personal interpreted sitting in the audience, the man was in all TV broadcasts and Kīrtirāja immediately recognized him and decided to approach him instead.

“I have a very nice book here,” he said, “would you like to pass it to your boss as a gift?” The man had one short look at it and said “He already has a copy.” Puzzled, Kīrtirāja offered the book to the man himself. “I already have a copy, too,” he replied. “How’s that possible?”

Turned out that on the way to Iceland Gorbachev and his posse stopped in Denmark and saw a stack of our books in the Soviet Embassy there, so they all helped themselves. The program of placing books in every possible Soviet outposts bore its fruits. For years Kīrtirāja gave free books to embassies, consulates, trade or culture missions, and what do you know – one day Gorbachev himself got a book there.

That was not the end of the campaign, however. There were still over two years before Soviets changed their policy and once the political will was there everything happened very fast. Some devotees were in prisons and only two weeks later they were on a plane to India for the first ever pilgrimage there.

There was a scuffle over how many devotees would be allowed to go and who exactly should be on the list, with list A and list B prepared in case someone couldn’t make it. In the end, however, everyone on either list was allowed to leave.

Kīrtirāja, who couldn’t set a foot in USSR himself, was waiting for them in Calcutta. He took the devotees to Purī, hen to Māyāpura, then to Vṛndāvana. There were 89 people in the party, iirc, and Kīrtirāja was their main interlocutor, arranging their traveling, lodging, prasādam, taking them to temples, parikramās and tours, helping with shopping and negotiations and what not.

The whole pilgrimage lasted two months and Kīrtirāja was physically exhausted. Devotees were leaving from New Delhi and their luggage weighed four and a half tons of Kṛṣṇa conscious stuff – deities, paraphernalia, clothes, incense – everything they needed for starting dozens and dozens new temples back home.

When Kīrtirāja finally bid the final good bye, gave final hugs, and saw the plane take off, he was passing by airport’s Baskin Robbins, went inside, and simply collapsed on the chair there. He had not energy left and that was the moment when he not just thought to himself but had a realization that his service was done, finished, over.

He stayed as a GBC for a while and went to Russia many times since but it just wasn’t the same. Someone else had to take over and it was a completely different stage of Hare Kṛṣṇa revolution.

The pioneering days were truly over.

Vanity thought #1783. Pioneering success

Yesterday I wrote about Kīrtirāja’s Prabhu efforts to penetrate behind the Iron Curtain and place our books into the hands of Russian (Soviet) people. One event that was truly seminal in nature in this regard was Moscow book fair of 1979 and it deserves its own mention.

First Moscow International Book Fair was held in 1977 and Gopāla Kṛṣṇa Gosvāmī went there on behalf of Indian BBT. It was the first time for everyone and so no one had a clear idea how to extract most benefits out of it. I mean even the potential buyers didn’t know how it would all work. In retrospective it could be said that all Gopāla Kṛṣṇa (not Svāmī yet) got was a certificate of participation, which he presented to Śrīla Prabhupāda, but the real benefit was in laying preparation for the next visit. That’s where Kīrtirāja came in.

Second fair was in 1979 and he was representing Indian BBT again so as not to look like spreading American propaganda. He also knew the rules and how to use them to full advantage. One such rule was that publishers couldn’t sell books at the fair but the workaround was that they could take orders so Kīrtirāja had BBT supply him with order forms with prices printed in roubles. During the fair he would collect the money and BBT filled this orders later, totally legally. Hundreds of books were sent into USSR that way.

Another rule was that there had to be an official interpreter but Kīrtirāja protested that our books contain so many technical terms that an ordinary interpreter wouldn’t be able to translate them correctly. He persuaded the organizers that his own interpreter, Ananta Śānti, was already perfect and their official interpreter can take a break. It worked.

Ananta Śānti brought half a dozen devotees to help him and it’s them who did most of the talking. They were preaching there non-stop even if they hadn’t read the books themselves yet.

Another rule was set by Kīrtirāja himself and it was that their booth should always have prasādam to distribute. He told the devotees to prepare “simply wonderfuls” and they rolled them day and night in shifts. Somehow they rolled them into small balls the size of M&Ms, they would wake up before sunrise, roll the sweets, and bring them to the fair with their hands covered in blisters.

Kīrtirāja’s rule was that there was only one ball per person and when they run out of sweets and new trays weren’t in yet he’d collect crumbs on small pieces of paper and people would eat them with a great deal of respect. To fully appreciate the kind of impact it had consider this – by Kīrtirāja’s own calculations they had distributed 26,000 thousand sweetballs. Twenty six thousand, roughly four-five thousand per day. Can you imagine what king of buzz was going on around their booth?

It certainly attracted organizers attention – so many people and instead of one official interpreter there were half a dozen Russian speakers. To smooth things out Kīrtirāja gave the boss a gift of Bhagavad Gītā. At that time they only had English books and this Bhagavad Gītā came from a special pack Kīrtirāja brought with him which will feature in the story a little bit later.

Another rule was that all the books presented at the fair had to be either taken back out of the country of given to some official Soviet charity. None of the devotees knew of any charity that would take a set of English books so it was a kind of a problem – Kīrtirāja didn’t want to go back, well, full-handed. Towards the end of the fair, however, a shy but inquisitive woman showed up, asking about this and that but never stating her purpose. Turned out she was a representative for Lenin’s Library, which was like a Library of Congress for the Soviet Union. They certainly had the means to purchase the books but she wanted to get them for free as charity.

Once Kīrtirāja realized what was going on he thought that it was a perfect charity placement of all – in the biggest library of the entire Soviet Union and they quickly organized the official transfer. There was only a small matter of that pack of Bhagavad Gītās, originally there were twelve there but now there were eleven, and Kīrtirāja was not in the mood to take them back either. They were specifically meant for distribution among the devotees, translation etc.

He and Ananta Śānti came up with a plan.

On the day of leaving they went to the airport together with Bhagavad Gītās packed in a separate bag. Ananta Śānti took a strategic position in a cafeteria right outside customs and Kīrtirāja went to the farthest custom officer and tried to make himself noticeable.

He had custom’s declaration with a set of BBT books and so he had to produce his charity paperwork and explain everything that happened. His customs form also had twelve Gītās on it but there were only eleven left so Kīrtirāja had to plea with customs agent that it was a gift to the fair organizer, there was nothing sinister about it etc etc. It worked.

As soon as Kīrtirāja passed the customs and got his stamp he quickly ran around the row of customs booths towards the end of it that was next to the cafeteria and begged the guard there to let him out because he was so thirsty and his papers were already in order and he loved Russian tea and that worked to.

When he entered the cafeteria he left his book bag at the table and went to get his drink. Ananta Śānti picked it up and hurried outside, just like in spy novels. Kīrtirāja waited until Ananta Śānti was in the taxi and taxi left the airport and returned to the custom agent who checked him in only a few minutes ago. “You again!” he exclaimed, and Kīrtirāja gave him the same excise about tea and the officer couldn’t be bothered to go and check with the guard on the other end whether Kīrtirāja had his bag when he was going out for tea or not. Everything worked perfectly.

That fair marked exponential growth in Soviet community. Before that visiting devotees had programs with less than ten people attending but after the fair, on their next visit, they were already hundreds, but that is a story for another day.

Vanity thought #1782. Pioneering days

I once watched a long video of Kīrtirāja Prabhu telling stories of the time when they tried to open up the Soviet Union. I’ve never heard these stories before, nor did I have any idea of the extent to which he was involved. I’m not going to retell them all, the video was several hours long, but a short recap is in order anyway.

In 1973 Śrīla Prabhupāda visited Moscow and met with a young man who later got initiated and who became the first Russian devotee. It’s so easy for to say “Russia” nowadays and it’s hard to remember that modern day Russia had something like half the population of Soviet Union and that many Hare Kṛṣṇa communities sprang up in places like Armenia or Latvia. To reduce them all to Russia now would be unfair to history.

There was no stable channel of communication between western devotees and that Ananta Śānti but devotees from Europe would often fly to India via Moscow and meet him at the airport. Better idea was to arrange a marriage with a female devotee who would then be able to live in or at least and visit USSR freely. One of the French devotees accepted the service, got the blessings of Śrīla Prabhupāda, but the marriage didn’t work out and only a couple years later she wanted out.

Meantime, Śrīla Prabhupāda initiated a Hungarian devotee in Germany in 1974 and that devotee learned Russian at school like any Hungarian of his generation would. He translated Easy Journey to Other Planets into Russian, and also into Polish, I think, and then BBT published it in the US. That’s where Kīrtirāja started his service in promoting Hare Kṛṣṇas in Soviet Union. I think his family has Russian roots or something but he had a natural interest and affinity for all things Russian. He couldn’t speak the language well but didn’t need an interpreter for simple tourist talk either. So he went to LA where BBT offices were.

LA has a huge port, of course, and plenty of Russian cargo ships docked there. At first Kīrtirāja tried to approach Russian, sorry Soviet, sailors while they were on leave but Soviets were prepared – they let them out in groups of three with one older guy chaperoning two younger ones. There was no way those older dudes would be duped into looking at American books, it was not going to happen.

Kīrtirāja then found another way in – he would approach the ship and ask for a tour, feigning a genuine interest in Soviet shipbuilding. After a short consultation with authorities he would be usually let in and taken around by a guide. Kīrtirāja had his coat pockets stuffed with that Easy Journey and he would leave copies in hidden places, behind TVs or radar screens, or he would take a book from a bookshelf, flip over few pages, try to read something aloud, and then would put it back in with an Easy Journey tacked behind it. Someone would eventually find our books, he thought, maybe a week or maybe a month later, but the books will find their readers. And then he got caught and kicked out of the ship.

If he found cargo crates getting loaded on Soviet ships he’s sneak in and stuff the books under plastic wraps, but that wasn’t very effective, obviously.

He became a member of some US-Soviet friendship society and that gave him access to visiting Russian dignitaries who went to the States on official trips. That way he could even give them prasādam but talking about straight Kṛṣṇa consciousness was still off limits.

Then he moved to London and eventually Sweden. From Europe it was easier to visit Russia as a tourist and he could even go on camping trips there but that was done by other devotees. He still continued his “book distribution” program, though. In Sweden he’d hunt Soviet cargo trucks, overtake them on highways, turn emergency lights on and wave them down to stop. Drivers were very scared that they did something wrong and stopped. Kīrtirāja then would approach them and start in his broken Russian: “Have you watched a documentary about Indian yogis?” Drivers could not believe what was happening but by the time they figured out there was no danger they were happy to receive a small gift of a book.

Meanwhile, other books got smuggled in and properly translated into Russian and then BBT published a compact Bhagavad Gītā As It Is. They were printing them in Germany, I think, and Kīrtirāja arranged for an extra run of “primer” or what it was called, but the result was that he had thousands printed copies of Introduction where Prabhupāda presented the essence of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. From the days in the US Kīrtirāja got a list of Soviet organization from some Soviet dissident and he thought it would be a good idea to mass mail this Introduction in ordinary envelopes.

It was a big operation with devotees in several countries buying different colors and sizes of envelopes, putting the Intro in, and then sending them to Soviet addresses from different post offices in different cities. The idea was that even if KGB found some of these subversive letters they wouldn’t be able to find all of them, coming from different countries and all different from one another. It’s hard to say how effective this campaign was but they did get some replies asking for more. KGB couldn’t stop it all.

How they smuggled copies of Gītā and other books for translation is another story but I don’t think Kīrtirāja was a part of it. Devotees went on a camping trip through Russia and put dozens and dozens of books all around the van in plain sight – in glove compartments, under the seats, in the back, everywhere they could think of. Custom’s agent was curious about that but it wasn’t illegal to bring books for personal reading. When in Moscow devotees swapped these books for those bought in Russia and exited from a different location altogether. Their customs declaration only had “63 religious books” with no list of titles so to the officer on the exit it looked all legitimate. Otherwise their car was practically taken apart and they even dismantled the fuel tank. I can’t even imagine how devotees felt through this ordeal.

Hmm, this is getting longer than expected and so I should leave the rest for tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1781. Tribute to devotion

My previous post was actually typed up before New Year but with holidays sapping away my energy and time I was able to publish it only yesterday. I think I’ll say a few words before I continue.

Cancer visibly affects the extent of my prāṇa, which manifests in how far my interests in the world go. The effect was prominent when I started the treatment and it was heavy and when I physically felt that I had to grow up into my normal persona. For weeks my consciousness was confined to hospital bed and then I was driven home and the city seemed alien. Roads, grass, buildings, other cars, neighborhood, people, too – I had to indict all these things back into my consciousness and arrange them in some sort of order.

As I recovered my prāṇa extended itself, too, but one thing is clear – my overall universe has shrunk and it will never recover. There will be no mountain climbing or sky diving or traveling to far out places. At this point I realize that I won’t ever visit any new shopping malls in the city, nor will I ever go and see newly completed tallest building here. I don’t even want any of that.

I don’t know what will happen if I fully recover, I can’t see myself restarting a career, for example. I just don’t have that much interest in the world. I can’t even fully resume my usual blogging because it requires energy, time, and dedication. Donald Trump is seventy and he wants to be a president. I feel like I’m ninety compared to him.

It’s not that my senses have become weaker, if they did I haven’t noticed, but my prāṇa, my interest it the world, the extent to which I want to express myself here and sense objects I want to consume has diminished greatly. At this point I can see how one’s prāṇa might start withdrawing from outsides of one’s own body, losing control and awareness of limbs and senses, and it’s not that you become any less alive, it’s just that you are withdrawing from the world and kind of curious what will happen next.

In any case, next week I’ll have new tests and it will be clear whether I’m on the path to full recovery or cancer got a winning hand.

Back to the topic.

There were two devotees in our saṅkīrtana ashram who were out of this world and functioned on devotion alone. One was a disciple of a guru I couldn’t understand at the time. There was nothing wrong with him but I just couldn’t understand what other people saw in him. This guru wasn’t very inspirational, he wasn’t good looking, he wasn’t charismatic, he was a bad singer. So what if he said all the right things – everybody else said them, too, and so I couldn’t understand why people devoted their lives to him no matter how I tried. It took me years to get over this offensive attitude and now I think I can look past all that and see people’s devotion only.

This book distributor was very austere looking, which wasn’t generally attractive at all, and he was objectively a bad speaker. I don’t think he ever produced a long, complicated sentence, usually taking a break after every few words to think what to say next. How could he ever sell books was a mystery, but he did and he still does. The key was devotion to the orders of his guru, nothing else worked for him.

He was a kind of disciplinarian in the saṅkīrtana ashram. You would never see him leaning against the wall after a Sunday feast, for example. He always finished fast, never talked about anything, and when he got up everybody felt that they should stop their sense enjoyment, too. It worked for everybody – we felt glad that somebody straightened us up and he felt that his attitude towards sense enjoyment was validated – there’s no time for this in our lives, we should think only about saṅkīrtana.

I don’t know how people reacted to him on the streets. His pitch was very simple, he could read their minds and say what they needed to hear, but the main point was that he was absolutely convinced that he had to sell them books on the order of his guru. He wasn’t doing it for fun and he wasn’t promising the Moon, he just had this air of supreme importance of the mission that he carried. People could sense that urgency below small talk and usual sales pitch and they had no power to say no.

If you asked him why and how he was selling so many books for so many years he would say that it was the order of his guru and that’s what Prabhupada wanted and that was that. He had no other considerations in his life. Later he got sannyāsa, too.

Another devotee, our absolute best, was similar in his dedication but he was a very different person otherwise. They plucked him out of a math department of a big university and there was some nerdy look about him. Like Harinama Nanda I talked about in the previous post, you’d never notice him in a group photo but if you get to look at him closely you’d notice that he was not only shy and naturally humble but also very beautiful. He had beautiful eyes with long eyelashes, perfect skin, nicely rounded cheeks and do on. He also didn’t have any macho air about him like many others in our ashram.

I can’t say that he was austere, he never seemed to be making any conscious efforts for it and never forced anyone around him to cut on their sense enjoyment either. What we consider as austerity came naturally to him and he was actually very happy about it. For most of us, when it’s time to finish the feast and go read some books, we know that it’s not what our bodies want to do but for him the very thought of it was inspirational.

He distributed tons of books and so he had to have a helper team and there was a stiff competition to get a place on that team so devotees who served with him were similarly excited and enthusiastic and didn’t need anyone to whip them up to keep with their sādhana and this created an atmosphere very conducive to ecstatic service and no one ever left disappointed.

People often asked him how he distributed books but he never had solid answers, save for one, which he rarely shared. One should always, always pray to the lotus feet of his guru in his heart. By the mercy of the guru one can get mercy of Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityānanda and together they will make the books look very attractive and inner voice in people’s hearts impossible to resist. They also will take control of you body and mind and they will put right words on your tongue or direct your feet to go in the right places.

As a saṅkīrtana devotee you have only one job to do – pray to your guru. Your mind, your eyes, your mouth, your feet – forget about trying to control them, leave this to your guru. When your prayers are sincere then, by his mercy, the Lord will become the owner of your prāṇa and the Lord will take care of everything. You are not this body, you are a tiny spirit soul, and lotus feet of your guru is your only treasure.

That devotee was the embodiment of this principle. That was the only secret, and somehow or other no one else could come even close to his level of samādhi in this regard.

Vanity thought #1780. From personalities to transcendence

Yesterday I talked about various personalities in our old sankirtana department. There were many devotees there, it’s impossible to describe every successful book distributor but there were remarkable in that their personality traits were distilled and I think that’s what made them relatively better distributors than others. This is only half of the story, though, so I’ll continue.

In those days the best in the world were Navina Nirada and Harinama Nanda and they were used as a point of reference in our sankirtana ashram. We shared stories about them but never had them visiting us personally until a couple of years later.

Navina Nirada was young, tall, handsome, and Swiss. It was a lethal combination and the word “charisma” doesn’t even begin to describe the effect he had on people. He was like a celebrity and everyone who saw him fought for the opportunity to do something for him and get noticed. If he said people needed to buy books they couldn’t refuse. Of course he said lots of other words as well but that was just a small talk around the real connection he established by simply paying attention to people.

Three kinds of attractive traits I mentioned yesterday were basically of the same type – something given to us by karma and something that would work in any circumstances, not limited to sankirtana. In that sense you looked at these devotees or at Navina Nirada in particular and your mind would tell you that if you had his looks you could distribute thousands of books, too, try to do it in your wretched and unattractive body.

Personality wise, Harinama Nanda was the opposite. He was smaller, somewhat hunched from carrying heavy books clutched to his chest for many years, and you would generally not notice his presence in the crowd. Navina Nirada was a natural center piece of any group photograph and Harinama Nanda was that forgettable face in the back row.

I’m exaggerating the contrast, of course. Navina Nirada also happened to embody “sankirtana is the soul of ISKCON” we adopted in our temple. It was he who taught us that every devotee in the temple was a sankirtana devotee, they just served in a different capacity.

We had one kitchen devotee who was handicapped. He didn’t just have a limp, he had to drag his leg like no person I’ve ever seen in my life. Walking for him was a big challenge and he had his share of mental problems, too, but when it was decided that book distributors need to eat bread to keep their stamina and not get hungry half an hour after a meal he too this task personally and started baking bread program in the temple, eventually getting a professional oven and everything.

And yet every time he had a chance he would load a traveling bag full of books and drag it out even as he could barely walk himself. This could fill one’s heart with pity but it was the moment when he had the happiest face in the world because finally he had a chance to bathe in the ocean of sankirtana. He didn’t distribute much but that time was his and his alone, between him and Lord Caitanya and everyone saw that it was REAL. Navina Nirada and his sankirtana seminars were one of the main sources where he received this attitude, so it’s not just looks, far from it.

Harinama Nanda was/is not the man of this world. Whatever body he got is irrelevant, his consciousness was never here and people could sense it right away. Turns out I don’t remember many actual sankirtana stories about him but the strength of his dedication is still vivid for me. It gave him a real mystic power of controlling other people. One story I do remember (probably wrong) was that he was standing outside and hunching over books in his car, putting dust jackets on them or something, when he sensed someone passing by. He straightened up, turned around, and told that man that he needs to buy these books right now because it’s more important than life or death, and the man obliged without a question.

Harinama Nanda was the one who revealed to us that “I don’t have money” is not an acceptable excuse to avoid buying books. Everybody has some money, they just don’t want to give it to us. The way to overcome this is to convey to the people the importance of donating money for knowledge about God, and the only way to impart this realization is to fully understand it yourself. It’s not even a matter of belief – because people might think “you believe this but I don’t”, but a matter of realized knowledge.

Srimad Bhagavatam verses spoken by a pure devotee reveal the Superme Personality of Godhead and so words uttered by a pure book distributor reveal the spiritual beauty of our books. It’s not a game, it’s not an empty promise. People could see God in Prabhupada’s instructions and people can see God in the presentation of a book distributor. The power is there, we only have to become perfect conduits.

When people see this spiritual light engulfing their souls they will give you everything they have for these books, it’s not an exaggeration. The key, however, is to remember that you are not in control of this process, Lord Caitanya is.

Just recently I read another sankritana story on Dandavats. A devotee was going door to door and met a nice gentleman, a Christian with appreciation for others devotion to God, too. When it was clear that the man wanted the books the question of price came up and suddenly the man’s face lit up. “You know,” he said, “I was driving today and for some unknown reason I felt compelled to stop by the ATM and withdraw some cash. I never keep cash in the house and I had no idea what it was until I met you but now I know!”

Perhaps the bigger lesson here is that we are only participants in Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana pastimes, we do not cause them, they already weaved into the history of the universe. We just have to beg to be placed in the right place at the right time, to be given the opportunity to be engaged in this service, which, incidentally, is the meaning of our Hare Krishna mantra.