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 #1112. Uneasy friends

I mean Russians. Yesterday I argued that they are the only country in the world that dared to challenge current demoniac model of development and reject rights and liberties that everyone else takes as universal. They seem to be going back on democracy, feminism, homosexuality and everything else that is supposed to grow according to the prevalent world view.

The situation isn’t so black and white, of course, within Russia there’s a very wide range of opinions on each and every issue. Women equality, for example, was in many ways greater in the Soviet Union than in the rest of the world and they are not going to curb women’s rights to education and careers, yet at the same time they manage to keep them “in their place”, never as truly equal to men.

Maybe I’m indulging in wishful thinking but their moral standards regarding women’s behavior are also much higher than in the west, even though the right to divorce has never been in question there even in communist times.

Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that my opinion of Russia is close to the reality. What should we do about it? What should be our reaction as devotees?

It’s a tough question, it takes us into “enemy of my enemy must be my friend” territory. It would be a very uneasy alliance at best and the west has a lot of bitter experience with nurturing groups like Taleban or now ISIL just because it was expedient at the time.

There’s also the fact that we, as ISKCON, are children of liberal democracy ourselves, we don’t do very well in dictatorships or tightly controlled societies, Russia itself being a prime example. We need people to have certain liberties and freedoms or otherwise they would never take up our lifestyle in big numbers.

We talk about varṇāśrama and kings and demonize democracy but every time we run into a an actual leader who takes responsibility for well-being of his citizens we face serious restrictions on our movements. We can’t proselytize, can’t preach in the open, sometimes can’t collect donations, can’t challenge the society in any way.

Maybe we should remember that saṇkīrtana movement started with civil disobedience and a show of force in front of Kazi’s house in Navadvīpa. We ARE revolutionaries at our core.

Even Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī started a rebellion against social norms of his time, going along with “varṇāśrama” as it exists in Kali yuga never did us any good, we always make enemies there.

We need freedom, rights, and liberties to survive. We need state’s protection from inevitable prosecution. This was the message delivered to Gorbachev in the late eighties and it worked wonders in Russia.

So, can we support modern day Russians in their drive to build a new model for society? On the surface of it – yes, surely.

When they talk about curbing spread of homosexuality, we should support them. What else can we say?

However, Russians, afaik, are traditionally big on abortions, we obviously can’t support that.

They are also avowed meat eaters, vegetarianism and veganism are as alien to their culture as free and fair elections. Speaking of elections, my impression is that they accept them as necessary evil, they just want to get a ruler they would put a trust in, doesn’t really matter how. In the west it’s the process that’s important, the elections, in Russia it’s the result. Putin is a “good” leader already so there’s no need to vote anymore.

We should also support their proposed role for women – as subservient to their husbands, and we should support procreation as their primary responsibility. This whole pro-Russian argument started with demographics, remember?

The choice is very simple – either we bind women to marriage and make them bear as many children as they can, or we let them shackle up with anyone they like and stay for only as long as it pleases them, as they do in the west now.

Theoretically, the second choice is a demoniac one and should be rejected but practically it’s a matter of never dying debate even within ISKCON. Unlike in India, divorce is a big part of our life and there are lots of devotees arguing for it. Our main difference from materialistic westerners lies in reasoning, not the outcome. We advocate abandoning our spouses for allegedly hindering our spiritual progress but, tbh, we apply this argument only when sex turns bad, never when we are in love. There’s a certain whiff of hypocrisy there.

We don’t practice what we preach in this regard, our support here would look shallow. I also think that fertility rates among the devotees are lower than in the rest of the society and we expand only by attracting new people, not by procreation. If we were a country we would face the same demographic problems as everyone else, and we would be “solving” them by immigration, which leads to dilution of our standards as we have no choice but to accommodate newcomers.

Historically, we still can’t accept sex life as compatible with devotional service. We need to put so many restrictions around it and then spend so many hours on seminars trying to answer simple questions that don’t even come to mind of anyone outside ISKCON. I’m not saying I know the answers, I’m just pointing out that this is the area where we, as a society, still feel very uncomfortable.

Maybe we aren’t as mature as Russian policy makers yet. They have decided to sacrifice their country’s reputation and turn themselves into pariahs on the world stage but they think it is all worth it. We, otoh, still dither on the issue, still neither here nor there, even if our actual obstacles are completely different.

Maybe we are not meant to be a “society” at all. We come together to practice Kṛṣṇa consciousness, to spend remaining years of our lives in preparation for return to the spiritual world, we don’t plan on staying here. We don’t need to become “sustainable”, it’s a material concept, we need to become Kṛṣṇa conscious and leave as soon as possible, we can’t care less what happens after us. We take people and send them up to Kṛṣṇa, we don’t try to keep them here living comfortable lives.

What about varṇāśrama then? Hmm, what about it? We don’t need it, building it is not our goal, it’s only a tool. If we can find a way to keep people chanting 24/7 we would immediately start preaching against following their varṇāśrama duties – abandon all varieties of dharma and all that.

And then there’s a question of co-existing with Russian Orthodox church. They are not our friends, to put it mildly. They want us gone, forbidden, banished without a trace, and they have pretty solid reasons for it, too. We don’t accept their reasons, of course, and demand our liberties and rights, but from the church’s pov we are indeed a nuisance.

Orthodox church plays a big role in forming this new Russian identity. Even Russian atheists don’t deny church’s role in shaping the Russian psyche and setting morals and rules of conduct. Church is an integral part of Russian history, it’s what has defined Russians for a thousand years. Believe it or not but it sets the norms of social behavior.

Church sees it as their social mission, as their obligation to society, and they rightfully think that this mission’s success depends on widespread adoption. They, like Kṛṣṇa taught in Bhagavad Gīta, want the society to become resolute and single-minded. In their eyes they see us and all the other sects and movements as making the society bahu-śākhā, having various branches, which makes people avyavasāyinām.

Prabhupāda translated it as “those who are not in Kṛṣṇa consciousness” but literally it means the opposite of vyavasāya-ātmikā from the same verse – not having determination. In Russian context it might very well mean “those who are not on the same page”, so they don’t want us there.

All said and done, I think we should express support for the kind of ideas Russians are trying to promote but we should keep in mind that their potential success would still be very limited from Kṛṣṇa consciousness perspective. We should admit to ourselves that as soon as they purify people enough to accept our message we will snatch them from under their noses and turn them into dhoti wearing renunciates. We kind of accept their goals but our goal is higher and they might not like us for exploiting their success to our own ends.

Well, maybe we should finally learn to be humble and extremely grateful so that even Russians see us as their well-wishers and not as enemies. I don’t think we are up to it yet and I would not even dream of demanding this attitude from our Russian devotees but I think that it still should be our ideal response to the situation.

Vanity thought #1032. Wonderful wildlings

After waxing lyrical over new Russian offense on the world’s stage I should not forget the devotees there, too. I don’t know how much they contributed to Putin’s new agenda (which isn’t totally new, but still), probably not a lot. Indirectly, however, the impact of distributing so many books must manifest itself one way or another.

Millions of books were distributed there in the past twenty years, millions of people listened to devotees presenting them and many of them opened the books to see what the big deal is for themselves. Many have become devotees, probably more than in any other part of the world, but we can’t expect too much from general Kali Yuga population there.

What I’m personally sure of is that anyone who read even one paragraph in our books will register awe and respect for Śrila Prabhupāda’s presentation and his absolute, selfless honesty. We ourselves can’t live up to his standards even after many years of practicing so we shouldn’t be disappointed when regular people put their books away and never open them again, but nothing can erase the memory of Absolute Truth from their hearts.

Their eyes have been opened, they have seen it, they felt it, they can’t do anything about it at the moment but next time someone comes along they are going to judge their presentation against their faint memory of what Absolute Truth feels like. They might not even acknowledge it consciously but these things don’t need rational explanation, you just feel what is right and what is wrong, and I would argue that even brief acquaintance with our books can set people straight for the rest of their lives.

Maybe I give Russians too much credit and their traditionalism can be attributed to something else, maybe old Communist values, maybe Orthodox church, but if my little illusion helps me see Kṛṣṇa consciousness in people where no one else notices any, it’s an illusion for a good cause, because that Kṛṣṇa consciousness is always there anyway, it’s their constitutional position.

We don’t usually believe that everyone we meet is a devotee and we act according to this belief, we see people as separated from Kṛṣṇa and their hearts as full of lust, but that’s not the vision of paramahaṃsas. We can’t imitate it but we should be aware of the possibility and if something helps us to see ordinary people this way I don’t see why we should object.

I’m trying to justify attributing all good features of contemporary Russian character to Śrila Prabhupāda’s books. Being called naive for this is not an important consideration here. Better be naive and follow paramahaṃsas than to be wise and follow your own whims.

Anyway, stories of book distribution in Russia are like an ocean of transcendental bliss. If Lord Śeṣa ever gets tired of glorifying the Lord and spares a few mouths for glorifying Lord’s devotees, He will never cover transcendental saṅkīrtana pastimes of Russian devotees.

Just recently I heard that once they stopped an airplane there. They bribed a guard, drove up on the tarmac, got out of the van, and offered daṇḍavats in front of the taxiing plane. Pilots were in shock and stopped, devotees got on board and explained the situation to the captain – spiritually liberating books were absolutely needed in some remote town in Siberia and it’s such an important matter than nothing can wait.

Beat that.

We can say that in the post 9/11 world they can’t pull anything like that again but the point is not the rules of the material society, it’s the degree of faith and enthusiasm of the devotees. When we really see the importance of our message nothing can stop us. We just have to believe in our mission ourselves.

Or think of some other important things in life. Animals don’t kill each other when they are at the waterhole. Soldiers used to avoid shooting enemies who came for water, too. We stop everything for women giving birth, we stop everything when a child is in danger – some things we value so much that our usual life needs to stop. Our books are just like that, only more important.

I don’t know if it’s possible to maintain this sense of urgency throughout one’s whole life. Some Russian devotees still do, even after everything that happened to Russian yātrā. Well, on the scale of New Vṛndāvana nothing bad happened there but at one point their entire BBT, the heart of our movement, just got up and split – their best, most mature devotees, the ones who went through lengthy jail sentences for printing books in Soviet times.

If some outlier devotee murders someone we all know it’s just an isolated case. When one guru falls we all know it’s his personal problem, when the core of the society splits right in the middle it’s a question of validity of our entire existence. And yet some devotees there remained steadfast in their dedication and their sense of urgency in saving conditioned souls never went away. If necessary, they might still stop the plane even now.

Even if they can’t, there are plenty of new devotees with same kind of faith and enthusiasm. What we do is really really important, more important than anything else in this world, certainly more important than airport security.

After all, who provides security in this world better than Kṛṣṇa? If we use an airplane in His service there’s no better protection, so security considerations is also a matter of faith and perspective. If we listen to the guards, police, air marshals etc they’ll tell us how important their mission is. If our faith is not strong enough we will believe them rather than Śrila Prabhupada, it’s as simple as that.

If we stay strong and loyal to our books and our ācāryas, nothing can stop us. There’s absolutely no door that can hold devotee on his mission to serve the Lord, especially a mission as important as saṇkīrtana.

Once there was a devotee there distributing books somewhere in Siberia and he got in trouble with a local policeman. It as a small place, one policeman for the whole village, no transport out, no trains, just snow and trees for hundreds of miles in every direction.

So, the devotee was locked up and interrogated as if he was an enemy of the state. Perhaps the policeman wanted to play Gulag there. Devotee, however, managed to sneak away, except there was nowhere to run – he couldn’t return to his hotel room and nothing else was open. So he spend the entire night outside in the woods, just behind the treeline, dressed only in kurta and pants, in freezing Siberian cold. How he did not freeze to death is a mystery, he said he just chanted all night long, that’s all.

Early in the morning, when everyone was still asleep, he sneaked back in, gathered his things, and hitchhiked out of that place. No demons can kill our devotees when they go on a saṇkīrtana mission, nothing can stop us, that has been decisively proven time and time again, all we need is our personal faith.

My point today is that there are some truly transcendental souls living in Russia, souls unseen anywhere else in the world, and because Russia is perceived as highly demoniac, very hostile to Kṛṣṇa consciousness place, I say that all good that is there is due to our devotees’ preaching.

I wish I had just a small particle of their determination, I won’t need anything else