On Gopi-Gita

I guess I’m on a streak now – running into “gopi-bhava club”-like challenges at every step. There is a new video out and in there devotees present a long list of arguments why discussion of Gopi Gita and similar topics should not be shunned in our community. There was one particular argument that I can’t wrap my head around. At first I wanted to leave it alone but it stuck in my head somehow, and then there were other arguments, too, and so I decided to make it into a post.

All the participating devotees are highly respectable in our community, known not for sentimentalism but for deep philosophical understanding of the sastra. I don’t know anyone who thinks they are in any way deviant. All are very popular, too, and so I expect many would rise to their defense regardless. Nevertheless, here is a line that puzzles me:

.. if we can discuss Netflix, if we can discuss politics, if we can discuss entertainment, if we can discuss sports, if we can discuss gossip, if we can discuss the faults of others, and so many other things, what’s wrong in discussing in the right mood, context from the right source in “anugatya” – under guidance – the beautiful wonderful commentaries and the wonderful conclusions of krishna’s dealings with his associates…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNpt2U3ZzW0&t=842s

Technically, quoted words themselves don’t call for discussing Gopi Gita and similar topics but in the context of the conversation it’s how it was understood by everybody. Later I’ll talk about “anugatya” as well, but for now let’s look at the logic of this argument, which goes like this – “because we can discuss all kinds of mundane topics there is nothing wrong in discussing Gopi Gita.” How does it make sense? Where does it say that indulgence in mundane topics makes one qualified to discuss rasa-lila? It’s absurd, because the opposite is true – as long as we find interest in discussing mundane things we are disqualified from rasa-katha.

Maybe I misunderstood it? Maybe what the speaker meant was that we can discuss all these things in the light of proper siddhanta, discuss them as connected to Krishna. Like when devotees discussed Matrix twenty years ago or Life of Pi ten years later, or how they discuss abortion, or liberal vs conservative divide, or the role of demoniac forces in ruling the world, or Covid vaccinations… More often than not it descends into chaos and infighting, which should also disqualify us from rasa-katha. Moreover, the inclusion of gossip and faults of others on this list makes me think that it’s not what the speaker had in mind, that he really meant us indulging in discussion of the latest Netflix movies.

Even if he did mean proper, Krishna conscious discussion of these topics – how’s that a qualification for rasa-katha? Rasa lila is incomparable to any of the events of this world, so qualification to discuss one category of things does not automatically mean we are qualified to discuss another category. Either way, the argument is deeply faulty, and the fact that it went unnoticed, unchallenged, and mentioned later on should be a clear warning that something is not right with this discussion.

For fairness sake, I should mention that later on Netflix discussions were also mentioned as the opposite of reading Srila Prabhupada’s descriptions of rasa lila, so it’s not a shared understanding, at least on the surface, before we start thinking about what was actually said.

There were many more pro-gopi-gita arguments presented but I found none of them convincing. Most of them are in the “asked and answered” category – they were presented to Srila Prabhupada during that gopi-bhava club incident and he already rejected them. Just because it’s in CC or KB doesn’t mean it should become the focus of our attention. Just because we sing Jaya Radha Madhava and Tulasi arati song doesn’t mean rasa-katha should become the focus of our attention either. It does not mean we should NOT be discussing rasa lila either, but it should be done properly, on which everyone agrees. It’s the exact meaning of “properly” that is contested.

I would insist on a simple rule – follow Srila Prabhupada. He translated those parts, he commented on them, he mentioned them in his lectures, but 99% of the time he talked about something else. Or did he?

There is a famous anecdote of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati taking his Gaudiya Math followers, at the time when GM was on the up and up, to the first Vraja mandala parikrama, to Radha Kunda, and specifically to that small dividing strip between Radha and Syama Kundas, and there, at the most rasa filled place in the entire universe, he started lecturing on upanishads. Radha Kunda babajis were flabbergasted, needless to say. “Where is rasa katha? How dares he speak on upanishads in this place? They are so… pedestrian by comparison with rasa katha!” Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, however, was unflustered by this criticism. He retorted, instead, that those who do not hear rasa-katha in every verse of upanishads have no ears to hear actual rasa-katha either. “Neophytes, the whole bunch of them,” he dismissed his critics.

Again, for fairness sake, one of the speakers made this argument one of the central points of his talk – we should learn to see rasa lila played out before our very eyes. The night is being presented to us as nescience of Kali yuga, gopis running away from their husbands is presented to us as the necessity to comply with society’s obligations even as we don’t consider ourselves under the jurisdiction of material laws. Krishna’s dance is the dance of a harinama party or a dance of sankirtana devotees as they waltz from one person to another. Gopi’s pride in their attainment of Krishna has been experienced by every sankirtana devotee, too, as well as Krishna’s disappearance and a sense of desolation when we discover we are stripped of all powers to distribute books. It’s all there – in what Srila Prabhupada has already given us and what doesn’t look like conjugal pastimes in any way. And rasa lila shouldn’t look like conjugal engagements either – we all know that already.

So, to many times repeated argument “How else can we discover the real rasa, the real juice, the real siddhanta?” the answer is the same – follow Srila Prabhupada. He somehow managed. Big component of this answer is also that ALL spiritual topics are relishable. It was also contained in Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati retort to his critics – learn to actually relish the seemingly mundane topics, like “you are not your body”.

It’s not enough to repeat it over and over again and it’s not enough to remember it at all times – one should actually live like he is not his body, every moment of his life. Then it becomes relishable. “Not your body” is also only one part of the statement – another part is that there is also “you” and with concept of “I am” comes realization of one’s spiritual identity, which is inseparable from rasa-lila. And if you, in your spiritual form, are not a participant or a facilitator and not connected to it in any obvious way – there is little use in discussing it in your conditioned state either. There must be plenty of other purely spiritual topics which are directly relevant to you and which will resonate with you on a level rasa katha never would. Anyway, the point is that “you” in “you are not your body” points to a genuine spiritual identity, whatever it is, and therefore it’s fully relishable.

I recently saw someone casually dismiss “you are not your body” as the lowest form of preaching but I can’t agree. It might appear so when you don’t mean what you say and people don’t get the actual import of it either, but if it so happens that they get a glimpse of “you are not of this world and Krishna is calling for YOU” reality it’s the best preaching you could possibly do.

The point is that if we set our sights on rasa-katha but do not have proper appreciation for less spiritually exalted topics then it means we have no qualifications to hear rasa-lila.

Another point is that rasa-lila is actually very simple. You read it once and you’ll know all about it. Krishna called, gopis answered, they came, He tested them, they danced, they got proud, He disappeared, they went looking for Him, they found out that He loves Radha the most, but He disappeared on her, too. Add to this a simple idea that love in separation gives a more intense experience and you are all set. What else is there to know? The actual rasa, of course, but it has to be experienced, not discussed by people who don’t have it. Without rasa it becomes a village melodrama. We can hear more details of it, discuss subplots, better understand the characters, but it would still be a village melodrama.

We can say that every melodrama is a reflection of the real rasa-lila in the spiritual world and we can argue that by studying the reflection we can understand the real thing, but it’s not how it works. It works in the opposite direction – by knowing Krishna we can see everything as a reflection, not that by looking at reflections we can see Krishna. It’s not the process as was given to us by our acharyas. They did not tell us to go around learning things, and that one day, by us looking and learning at things of this world Krishna would manifest Himself, too. Recently I heard how one might argue that to better understand gopis we should study women, their traits, their character, their femininity, how they interact with males and with each other, and how they would react if their chosen male has many love interests at the same time, and what is the best way to learn this if not through practice, which is called prakrita-sahajiya in our parlance. The point is that sahajiya starts not with someone dancing with women to spot a reflection of Krishna lila but with the idea that Krishna can be attained by observing objects of this world.

Let me put it another way – illusion is seeing objects of this world as disconnected from Krishna, but to see them connected to Krishna we should see Krishna first – without Him the connection cannot be called a connection. So first we have to see Krishna. How? We have a given method – chanting, sankirtana, service etc. By the mercy of the guru Krishna WILL manifest Himself through these things, and only then, after knowing Krishna to whatever degree He chooses to reveal Himself, we can start seeing that all the other objects of this world are connected to Him, too. We will see Him in everything and everything in Him.

The alternative is to see many different things, try to find their roots, their connections, and these connections will appear as a bunch of strings with one end tied to the objects and the other end hanging loose. We can then create or choose a form that is supposedly ties all the other ends and we can call this form “Krishna”, but it won’t be Him. It will be a “male character who likes to flirt” or something like that – a combination of already known material forms and qualities with zero spiritual significance. Eventually we will get bored with this form and move on to something else. Because our interest in any material forms or their combinations must pass and be replaced.

There are other ways to discuss gopi gita, like appreciating how every line begins with a syllable which is then repeated after the cesura (a pause in Sanskrit meters). In other words, we can learn to appreciate the poetry. I guess it won’t hurt, but it won’t bring Krishna and gopis alive in our consciousness either. We would still be studying it as if it was a melodrama, but this time with a better script. I’m not saying it’s not helpful and should not be appreciated. It should definitely be appreciated, but when gopis themselves appear in our hearts it will be appreciated so much more. Why do they want to repeat these syllables? Does the repetition show their insistence? Does it show their desperation? Maybe it does, but “desperation” as we know it is also a material quality.

This is not exactly true – as we chant Hare Krishna we should definitely have the experience of Krishna not being present and calling for His attention. We know how that feels and we repeat ourselves plenty. Forget first syllable after cesura, we repeat Hare eight times in one mantra, but there is a catch – we must actually mean it. Only then we can begin to understand how gopis felt alone in the forest. And only begin to understand. Their desperation was after the full night of rasa-dance, our desperation is after whatever little we know about Him, which is incomparably small, but at least it’s from the same category.

You see where I’m going with this – we can’t understand rasa-lila before we understand Hare Krishna, it won’t happen. One might object, however – by studying rasa-lila we can add emotion to our japa and we should chant Hare Krishna feelingly, so what’s wrong? “Fake it till you make it”, which is the basic principle behind vaidhi-sadhana. My answer is the same as with following vidhis – it’s not the same thing, not even remotely. This is stated right in the principle itself – “fake”. But it could still be helpful, couldn’t it? It could, and this brings me back to “anugatya” from the original quote – we should follow vidhis given to us by our gurus, otherwise our practice will remain fake forever.

You would need a guru who trains you in rasa-lila, in rasa-katha, who takes responsibility for actually getting you there. Where do you find such a guru? One thing first, however – it wasn’t Srila Prabhupada. His instructions were not to indulge in these topics but concentrate on what the Lord reveals to us instead – preaching, chanting, harinamas etc. If we want some other ways to attain it we should find some other gurus. Thankfully, in this world there is a guru for everyone, and many of them are very respectable vaishnavas, acharyas in their own right, even eternally liberated souls who came here to save us. At least that’s what other people say. But they are not Srila Prabhupada, so use at your own risk. This whole thing with searching for a guru who would teach me what I want is fishy, however. Muhyanti yat surayah, as Bhagavatam says – unless we follow disciplic succession we won’t get anywhere as even the best sages will be bewildered by the Lord. They would look “sagely” to us but what is the value of our own judgment? We can’t tell a liberated soul from a skillful pretender either, but even if we did take shelter of a genuinely liberated person – he is not Prabhupada. For some it might not matter much but I’m writing this for those who would prefer to remain with Srila Prabhupada no matter what.

There is another argument against gopi-bhava talks – the story of dvija patnis from a few chapters earlier. They came to Krishna, they declared their love for Him, He knew they loved Him all alone, too, and yet He still didn’t accept them the way He did with the gopis and He told them to go back and follow their prescribed sadhana. He specifically said – you won’t develop love for Me by hanging around, you will develop it by staying where you are and absorbing your minds in thinking of Me. Sanatana Goswami explains in one purport – it’s because their bodies were dependent on their karma and such bodies have no place in Lord’s presence, they have to be given up first. Gopis bodies were categorically different. What about us? Who should we take our clues from in these two stories? I think the answer is obvious.

We might have the best intentions and the best arguments but our path to Krishna’s heart should be charted by Him and by our gurus, not by ourselves. Personally, I would trust Srila Prabhupada that by avoiding indulgence in rasa-katha we won’t miss anything as long as we stick to chanting, to his books, and to his service. If there is an appearance of anything better outside I would, by default, consider it as a mirage. Tejo-vari … amrisa, as that same Bhagavatam verse says. It is by chanting, preaching etc that real gopis will come to life in the verses of rasa-lila. Gradually, step by step, little by little – however way Krishna decides to reveal them to us.

PS. It took me several days to complete this post and some things skipped my mind in the process. One often cited pro-gopi-bhava argument is that hearing rasa-katha would free the person from lust. Sukadeva Goswami declares it in the last verse of the five chapter description of rasa-lila, SB 10.33.39. In response to this I’d still say – follow Srila Prabhupada. In Krishna Book Srila Prabhupada dedicated two and half paragraphs to a commentary on this verse (KB 33). It’s not forgotten and not ignored, but 99% of the time Srila Prabhupada still talked about something else. In these paragraphs Srila Prabhupada also stresses the necessity to hear it from a proper guru, which means from someone following in Srila Prabhupada’s footsteps, and 99% of the time Srila Prabhupada talked about something else. What Srila Prabhupada didn’t say in these paragraphs is that we should read and re-read these chapters over and over again on our own, or discuss them among each other. Everybody occasionally makes references to rasa-lila but in the video was advocating for something else.

Another argument, from my side, is that rasa-lila is not a external event, but even if it was we process external events by looking at their reflections in our minds and so unless we are liberated and free from lust ourselves we won’t get a proper reflection of rasa-lila in our consciousness, it won’t be a real thing, and so what’s the point of discussing this shadow of the actual pastime? Therefore we are told to hear it from a guru who would create a proper conception of it for us and purify our minds in the process.

Alternatively, I would go with what I described in the post earlier – we should concentrate on our actual spiritual progress and then gradually recognize elements of rasa-lila in our actual spiritual experiences. In other words, we should study rasa-lila by studying ourselves in relation to Krishna. Otherwise all the words of the pastime will be translated by our minds into experiences of the mundane world, which is what the speakers of rasa-katha already do quite a lot by using analogies such as “it’s like…” or “imagine if…” I would say that if we ever use such analogies they should relate to actual spiritual experiences, relate to our actual services, be it preaching or chanting or reading or whatever. Then we would easily see why 99% of the time we would not have a relevant reference, and so let’s leave it at that for now.

This is perhaps my last word on the topic – the amount of rasa katha we can digest should be regulated by our own limitations, not by quotes or examples of others. As we make progress we should realize how limited we are, which means we should realize how we are disqualified from hearing rasa-lila. From this angle, any talk promoting rasa-katha sounds more like self-promotion, though it’s probably not what the speakers in this video thought there were doing.

Real Bhajana Rahasya for Our Age

Just before Radhashtami Bhakti Vikasa Swami gave a series of talks called “There are no gopis in ISKCON”. I didn’t mean these in my previous post, but in the second installment he recalled “gopi bhava club” incident from Hari Sauri’s Transcendental Diary. The end of Prabupada’s argument there was “preaching will stop” and it seems very conclusive, but I don’t think it would work on “gopi-bhava” devotees themselves.

For them preaching is an external activity, external reason for Lord Caitanya’s appearance, while they are interested in the internal reason, which we all accept as being higher. They would also argue that external behavior, ie preaching, is automatically manifested from the internal one. I’m sure you’ve heard it many many times practically everywhere – preaching should come from the heart. If you heart is not pure then it’s not preaching, people can sense it, and it has no value. Aindra argued like that, for example. It’s very common and it’s common sense, too. I don’t think I have an objection to it either.

So how is “preaching will stop” argument is going to stop “gopi-bhava” proponents? They would also say that by preaching we actually mean accumulating money, followers, and temples, not actual preaching. They might also argue that it was super important during ISKCON expansion in Srila Prabhupada’s time so preaching had relatively higher value back then. They would also mention “boil the milk” instruction and another instruction not to open any more temples but only restaurants given to Tamal Krishna Goswami. This makes sense, too – everybody who was ready to surrender themselves had already joined and the rest needed only kirtans and prasadam, but mostly prasadam – because eating is the only activity that never stops.

Does Srila Prabhupada’s “preaching will stop” argument sounds as conclusive now? I hope it still does, but for a different reason – it is not as external as gopi-bhava devotees think. When done properly it is absolutely internal with absolutely no connection to events of this world. It is a pure manifestation of those same internal emotions cherished by gopi-bhava devotees, and it is nothing else. Whatever they mention – experience of Radharani’s love, experience of separation, experience of Lord Caitanya experiencing these things – it’s all there, on the street. You want bhramara-gita – it’s there, nobody can be as mad as a book distributor. You want kapalika yogi talk from CC? It’s there on the streets, too. A book distributor sees all kinds of forms as weirdly connected to Krishna, even the most abominable – because nothing can touch him, no substance of this world is able of polluting him, and so every connection to the Lord, however small, shines forth like a million of Suns.

Of course this level of realization takes years to attain but it won’t come from discussing gopi-bhava, it comes from being out there on the streets and actually learning how Lord Caitanya’s mercy works. For real, not from the books.

In other words, when Srila Prabhupada warned us “preaching will stop” he didn’t mean the external activity of making new devotees but the actual flow of Lord Caitanya’s mercy. Fools think it can be found anywhere else but in sankirtana, and only ignorants think that this mercy doesn’t flow when talking to meat-eaters. They think that unless you talk about gopi-bhava it doesn’t flow, but it does! And it doesn’t appear externally – it’s not in the words, so if you record and transcribe the conversation you won’t see it. Actual gopi-bhava is a lot more subtle than that and it is perceived by the heart even as a person mumbles something about money in his wallet. Only a real “bhavuka” devotee can see how, despite his mumbling and lame excuses, this person is totally on the hook already and his arguments are like gopis’ arguments when they were standing neck deep in cold waters of Yamuna and telling Krishna they don’t want to come out and they don’t want Him to see them naked.

Out in the streets you can actually see and feel how this pastime plays out, and this is how we are expected to realize its meaning and its rasa. But if people think “it’s only external” and think they can extract this rasa by talking – they are only fooling themselves. You would actually have to go out, find a potential gopi in the not so mature stage of development of her prema, show her Krishna, and watch how she struggles being torn between obligations to this world and these mind blowing books that simply can’t be resisted even if they say completely outrageous things on the surface. “On the surface”… – at this point only gopis’ heads were above the surface and their minds were telling them one thing but their hearts, deep within prema filled waters of Yamuna, were saying another. The hearts wanted to come out and the minds were trying to stop it.

Just go out in the streets and actually experience this pastime in real life, and don’t pay attention to people who call this “external”. It isn’t. And Srila Prabhupada was absolutely right – if preaching stops our actual spiritual progress stops, too, and it can’t be revived by reading those CC and SB chapters or tons of other books going into minute details. Even those subtle shades of rasa can be found on the streets, if you are worried about missing out.

Or we can challenge external-internal dichotomy itself. If someone says the pinnacle of siddhanta is separation experienced by Radharani in Vrindavan, or as it was experienced by Lord Caitanya in Gambhira, we can answer that no, there is something higher than that – the same experience as manifested through otherwise most separated parts of the Absolute Truth – specs of His material energy. That would, logically, be the pinnacle of acintya bheda-abheda tattva – the farther you go away from Krishna the closer it feels. Or the more insignificant you become the greater the rasa.

So let the fools deride us for being only external devotees who talk to people about trivial things like they are not the bodies. What do they know? Certainly not the actual rasa.

And, of course, we could be telling people about reincarnation and know nothing about rasa, too – if we think it’s only about getting a donation or about book scores or about **doing** our service – all kinds of external reasons and explanations. We actually have to learn how to find these gopis in the streets, eternally connected to Krishna underneath their external appearances. We can’t theorize or only imagine it either, we actually have to see, and this vision is given by Lord’s mercy. There are ways to attain it but, ultimately, **He** has to give it.

This is not a theory.

Srila Prabhupada’s Disappearance

We almost midway between Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance day of 2020 and of 2021, so what am I talking about? There is a paradox of sorts there – on his disappearance days we make special efforts to remember him and so we come closer, he actually “appears” in our consciousness, while in the middle of the year he kind of “disappears”. But that’s not what this article is about.

What I want to reflect on here is largely an Indian thing, though it manifests among western devotees, too, in somewhat different ways. When I say it’s an “Indian” thing it doesn’t mean all Indians are affected in the same way – there are simply too many Indian devotees to fit under any particular umbrella. I’m talking about a particular slice I see in particular communities and I hope it doesn’t spread to other Indian devotees elsewhere. These affected sangas are significant and non-trivial, and therefore I feel the problem deserves to be addressed.

It’s “Indian” because they see Srila Prabhupada as one of them. Krishna is their God, not Prabhupada’s God. Bhagavatam is their purana, not Prabhupada’s purana. Lord Caitanya is their saint, not Prabhupada’s. Okay, Gaudiya Vaishnavas consider Lord Caitanya to be Krishna Himself, but for most Indians He was only a saint and if Gaydiyas make claims otherwise they accept them as “okay okay, whatever…” Indians are followers of “sanatana dharma”, as they love to proclaim, not followers of Prabhupada.

In other words, Srila Prabhupada is not as essential to them as to western devotees who had no idea of any of those things before Prabhupada came and informed them. Indians put Prabhupada in context of their religion and culture, but for western devotees Prabhupada himself created context from scratch and they put Indian culture into this context created by Prabhupada.

See how their visions are fundamentally different, how they are practically mirrors. It doesn’t matter for the moment which vision is correct and which isn’t, just that they are completely at odds.

Typical reconciliation is that Srila Prabhupada gave us the true, correct, and pure culture while today’s Indians live in some kind of degraded forms of it. Indians can accept this argument, too – no one would argue that onions are bona fide, for example, or that common Indian perceptions of God are not tinged with mayavada. Nevertheless, approaching Prabhupada from these two different angles cannot be reconciled completely and sooner or later the differences will come up to the surface.

Typical example of that is disagreements over some aspects of the siddhanta. For western devotees whatever Srila Prabhupada said is accepted as final truth and everybody else’s opinions to the contrary are rejected, but for Indian devotees allegiance to previous acharyas are never to be dropped. If previous acharyas said something than it must be accommodated, and, if necessary, Prabhupada’s opinion put aside. Note how I said “opinion” – not truth, but only an opinion. Sometimes it can be elevated to “personal realization”, but still not to the level of “truth”.

Srila Prabhupada might have spoken strongly on demigod worship but Indian vernacular doesn’t even have “demigods” in the vocabulary, so Prabhupada’s statements need interpretation. Maybe he didn’t mean it, or maybe he meant it only for westerners, or maybe he meant it only to certain types of demigod worship. At the end of the day, Indians are bound by their karma to respect the worship done by their ancestors and by their acharyas, they can’t give it up just because Srila Prabhupada said something somewhere.

This is understandable, but it’s still not what I meant by “disappearance” in the title. I mean something far more radical – Srila Prabhupada, as he was known to his western disciples, was not a person of Indian origin, not even of Gaydiya Vaishnava origin. His appearance in the west was a total surprise even for Srila Prabhupada himself. He had no idea it would turn this way. He himself couldn’t attribute his success to anything “Indian”, it had full potency by itself. The only connection he could trace was to the orders of his spiritual master. This is what he said again and again – my guru ordered me to print books, I did it, and this is what happened. He didn’t say that his mother taught him how to cook and so everybody loved his prasadam, and that’s how his first ISKCON temple survived. He didn’t claim proficiency in singing or playing mridanga. By Aindra’s standards he wouldn’t be allowed to play karatals on his 24hour kirtan party. Okay, he dedicated Krishna Book to his father, but that was one off. All the other times he gave credit only to following his guru’s order. Not even to his guru as a full personality – only to following one specific order.

The point is that Srila Prabhupada’s success was unique and it had a life of its own. It didn’t depend on anything else and it couldn’t be described in any other terms – it was a substance by itself, a category by itself. I will repeat – I think when Srila Prabhupada arrived in the US he himself had no idea what it would be like, it was a total surprise.

When it came Srila Prabhupada embraced it exactly like that – like it had a potency of its own and it had to be served, not controlled. This “success” dictated how Srila Prabhupada had to to things, not the other way around. I use the word “success” as only a label, it had to be felt to be described, as I said. I think the word “success” conveys the undeniable aspect of it – everybody knows what “success” is, everybody knows how good it feels, and nobody can deny it. But what you or I experienced as “success” is not the same thing as what was experienced by Srila Prabhupada and his followers.

Srila Prabhupada gave some explanations, the root of which is that it was a mercy of Lord Caitanya – based on the statement in CC that preaching can become successful only if Lord Caitanya puts His potency in it. On other occasions he attributed it to the power of the holy name, which he saw as absolute. This is the point where I can finally start talking about disappearance – we don’t see the power of Hare Krishna mantra as absolute anymore. An example – one devotee complained about being overwhelmed by sexual desires and Srila Prabhupada’s answer was to simply chant. In his explanation the power of Hare Krishna would drive away all lust from disciple’s heart. In Prabhupada’s experience he saw that happening all around him – hippies were chanting Hare Krishna and forgetting drugs and girlfriends. He saw it worked. We don’t. We offer all kinds of other solutions instead, like “watch your diet” or “stop watching porn”. No one today would say that simply chanting Hare Krishna mantra will solve your lust problem in a minute but Srila Prabhupada meant it exactly like that – chant loudly and lust will be gone immediately.

This is what has disappeared – the power of the holy name, and I would argue that its disappearance is linked to disappearance of Srila Prabhupada. It worked in his presence, we have many anecdotes documenting how minds and hearts immediately became pure in his presence, it was undeniable. Now the name is still with us but without Prabhupada its power is not manifested to the same degree. What I mean to say is that it’s Srila Prabhupada who has disappeared, not the Hare Krishna mantra.

Hare Krishna mantra is not tied to Srila Prabhupada exclusively, we all know that, but Srila Prabhupada gave it a particular potency. Sooo many devotees felt it directly. The annotation to the first Hare Krishna mantra record spoke about it with absolute clarity as if it was obvious to everyone. It was repeated from devotee to devotee, it was all-pervading understanding back then. Now it’s absent and no one talks that way with any conviction.

For me, however, it’s the preaching aspect of that same potency of Srila Prabhupada that disappeared first. Maybe because I can’t recall any miracles associated with Hare Krishna mantra but I was fortunate enough to see mind blowing preaching in action. It had a life on its own and, listening to many remembrances of that era, I don’t know anyone who did not notice it. They usually say only a few words (“millions of books were distributed”) and move on but actually seeing these millions of books going away to meet their eager readers was something else. At the time it was spoken exactly like this – books were going away on their own. They were not sold, not distributed, not given – they were going away on their own, and the entire purpose of sankirtana, as it was called back then, was to find that sweet spot in space and time where, by Lord Caitanya’s mercy, books would get a life of their own and practically distribute themselves against all odds and against all objections. The power was irresistible.

This is what has become absent and, to me, it indicates disappearance of Srila Prabhupada. Of course books were not the only vehicle of this mercy. One time I clearly felt it was when one of Prabhupada’s early disciples was describing San Francisco Ratha Yatra. Not the first one in 1967 but the one a few years later where Srila Prabhpada started the address with “My dear frustrated youth of America” (not exact words, but that’s how some remember it). To me it was the same kind of potency, the same “rasa”, so to speak, as the one I remember from my own life. It still lives in the hearts of at least some of Prabhupada’s followers, but that particular disciple has left his body already. Others remember it but prefer to talk about something else, like today’s politics. There is a lot to be said about why and how and who but let’s not talk about it now.

This disappearance is “mostly Indian” problem because this aspect of Srila Prabhupada’s success was never known there in the first place. They don’t have reference points for it, except may be construction of Juhu and Mayapur temples, which is not a lot in context of the entire Indian history and gets easily overflown by memories and histories of other events. Those other events are no less significant, like self-manifested deity of Radha Ramana, for example, but they are not “Prabhupada”.

For the past twenty something years Indian devotees distributed many more millions of books, and yet I never hear them speaking of book distribution with the same “rasa”. It’s just absent and book distribution means something else to them. Likewise, TOVP is a massive project, far bigger than Juhu, but TOVP presentations do not carry the same “rasa” for me. They rely on other things to “prove” themselves – like everybody should do seva, or everybody should make donations, or everybody should bathe Srila Prabhupada with sacred waters etc, and because of this conviction one should… When Prabhupada was present the proposition itself, whatever it was, had a power of its own, it was self-evident, not reliant on one’s appreciation of “seva” or “donations” or “sacred rivers”. These are aspects of Indian culture and they were totally absent when Prabhupada came to the west. He didn’t have to rely on them at all – his preaching was self-evident and no one know what “seva” even was.

This is a principal point, actually – people didn’t know what seva was and that it should have been offered – they offered service because Prabhupada was there and they felt they should do something in appreciation. Today it’s “you know that seva is important, and therefore you should go and offer it to Prabhupada.”

That’s why I’m saying that Srila Prabhpada has disappeared even though he is arguably at the most remembered stage in ISKCON’s recent history. His name and his pictures are everywhere, but not the actual memory of his presence.

Many of our senior devotees worry about it, they just express it differently. To me this disappearance is not very important – because Srila Prabhpada is present eternally, it’s only us who moved to a different location and, if we so desire, we can move into the place of his presence again.

What I really wanted to say but wrapped it in the disappearance topic is that Srila Prabhupada’s “success” was an entity of its own and even Srila Prabhupada was its servant, that even he wasn’t in control of it. To me this is the biggest manifestation of Lord Caitanya’s mercy and in decades since I haven’t found any substitutes that come even close. And I really mean “any substitutes” – not even if someone starts chanting three lakhs a day or cry incessantly or go into trance every time they see an image of Lord Jagannatha. I would even say that some big name ISKCON gurus of Indian origin have never seen it, simply because they weren’t there when it was manifested, they were in India, but that is a whole other can of worms.

I remember one of these big gurus wanted to visit the zone where preaching was booming but his request was rejected because “his mood would spoil everything”. Today this sounds ridiculous and great many devotees, each of them great in their own ways, would reject this argument out of hand but I, after deliberating on it for some time, would still argue that it was the right thing to do and that Srila Prabhupada’s preaching mood, his preaching rasa, should have been rightfully protected and that once that protection was withdrawn it simply disappeared – scroll to the top to see an explanation how and why.

Тайный Узбек – Arrival of Lord Caitanya

I was listening to my music on shuffle and suddenly a non-devotional song from many years ago came up. Why was it there? Because it’s non-devotional only in a literal sense, the song is actually very cryptic and no one knows its true meaning, which becomes self-evident to anyone who knows about the mission of Lord Caitanya. I remember I was going to write about it all those years ago but it never happened until now, when I feel the urgent need to put everything else on hold.

The (Russian) title translates as “Secret Uzbek”, which doesn’t sound grammatically correct in both languages but that doesn’t matter because his identity is totally mysterious. From reading fan explanations on the internet I think Secret Uzbek is a code word for “Inner Mongol” – someone from Inner Mongolia, and in that singer’s mythology it could mean any Eastern Messiah coming to liberate the West. The singer is more into Buddhism, Tibetan mysticism etc but he used to sing Hare Krishna on stages and thirty years ago he was as popular in Russia as George Harrison.

Speaking of “Inner Mongols” – there’s a Russian book, mentioned by fans, and in that book “Inner Mongolia” is described not as a geographical place but it is located inside of everyone’s heart as a state of consciousness free from all material designations and in which a person sees his spiritual nature and the opulence of the spiritual world. And it’s not really “inner” because “inner” means something in relationship to “outer” world but they mean something categorically different – not here, not there, not inside or outside of anything. And they use “Mongolia” because it’s a play on words – if it’s “inner” it must be “Mongolia”, and in relation to real Mongolia “Inner Mongolia” is actually “outer” – it’s a region in China surrounding the country of Mongolia.

Anyway, please disregard the visuals, especially in the beginning – I’m not sure who the made the video and the images mostly serve to connect present day reality (some anti-government protests of 2011) to the message of the song itself. Keep in mind that it’s poetry and so you supposed to feel the message, the emotion, the import behind the words, especially when translation is done by a non-poetical person such as myself. I kept Russian lyrics as well.

Мы держались так долго, как только могли,
Но туда и сюда – напрочь забыли пин-код.
И теперь мы скользим, не касаясь земли,
И бьемся в стену, хотя с рождения знали, где вход.

“We held on as long as we could but, this way or that way, we completely forgot PIN to our lives. Now we just slide down with nothing to grab on to and we ram our heads into the wall even if we know where the door is.”

People of my age and older still remember the times of old morals – loyalty, chastity, honesty, modesty etc. It’s hard to stand against times, though, and even as devotees we are forced to accept the new norms where words like “infidelity” do not exist, where taking selfies absorbs most of people’s free time, and it’s perfectly okay to scroll through Instagram feed during a conversation with another person. We still strive for meaningful relationships and we do know how they should work, ie where the door is, but in real life we still do everything just the opposite. It’s the same thing with any other goal as well. We know how to learn things in depth but always study just enough to pass exams or prepare presentations. We know what a proper diet should be but we still indulge in ice creams and snacks. Or we know that we are not supposed to watch TV or movies but… These days every devotional video is put to some carefully chosen Hollywood soundtrack and I wonder how many movies they had to watch to find these tunes. There was a Janmashtami invitation with soundtrack from Call of Duty video game – I “shazamed” it and it was recognized instantly by the app. There’s a new dedication to yesterday’s Prabhupada’s Vyasapuja with movie soundtrack as well. It’s all pervasive now and we know we are not supposed to do any of those things but we still doing them and in this way our lives glide down to hell and we have nothing to hold on to anymore. Especially non-devotees – no dharma left for them whatsoever. Dharma means that which sustains so, in a way, we have to grab onto it to survive so it makes sense.

Second verse:

Но тяжелое время сомнений пришло и ушло,
Рука славы сгорела, и пепел рассыпан, и смесь.
Вылита. И тому, кто тут держит весло,
Сообщите, что Тайный Узбек уже здесь.

“Yet hard times of doubts have come and gone. The hand holding a cup of vanity has burned, its ashes are scattered and the drink is spilled. Please inform the skipper that the Secret Uzbek has already arrived.”

In the US and pretty much the rest of the western world there’s a serious crisis of leadership and it appears that no one is in charge but in Russia “the man holding the rudder” is still the same – Putin. The protests shown in the video were protests against his election, too. In Russian narrative drinking from the cup of vanity is their obsession with all things American. After the break of the Soviet Union they all thought that joining the democratic world will bring them peace, happiness, and prosperity, but after bombing of Yugoslavia, western support for Chechen terrorists, invasion of Iraq, and 2008 economic crisis that dream was shuttered and their leaders realized that a new course was needed. So the singer delivers the message – do not worry, the Secret Uzbek is already here.

If we turn to actual mythology then what I translated as “hand holding a cup” is “hand of glory” used in black magic, there’s a wikipedia page about it – it’s a severed and pickled hand of a hanged murderer. From his fat they made candles and from his hair they made candle wicks, and then inserted these candles between fingers of this “hand of glory”. Using it as a torch during robberies or burglaries was supposed to render people immobile, sleepy, and otherwise unable to resist. When this torch-hand burns out its effects are gone, too, and suddenly robbers are exposed and unable to hide themselves anymore.

See how this meaning is the same meaning I translated first – it’s something illusory used to fool people but eventually you realize you have been cheated. Magic or politics or history – same meaning can be expressed through different words, or same words can be interpreted in different ways to elicit the same understanding.

Skipper, “man holding a paddle” in the song, is probably Charon, the Greek god who takes the souls of newly deceased across the river Styx into the underworld. This meaning also fits if we consider it to refer to Yamaraja – Lord Caitanya’s arrival means Yamaraja’s jurisdiction over the world gets suspended.

Три старухи в подвале, закутанные в тряпье,
Но прядущие драгоценную нить.
Знают, как знает тот, кто пьет, опершись на копье,
И как знают все те, кому нечем и незачем пить.

“Three hags in the basement, wrapped in rags but spinning a golden thread, know it just as the one who drinks leaning on spear knows it and just those who don’t drink or have no mouths know it.”

Three women here represent fate, they are Moiras of Greek mythology and at birth they give each soul his life, determine how long it will last, and the third one would cut it at death. They know Lord Caitanya’s time has come. The man drinking off a spear is Jesus Christ who was given a vinegar soaked sponge on the tip of the spear when he was crucified. He knows Lord Caitanya’s time has come, too. The other two categories are spirits or angels who have no interest in drinking – no interest in sense enjoyment in this world. They also know that Lord Caitanya’s time has come.

Так раструбите на всю бесконечную степь,
Сквозь горящий туман и мутно-зеленую взвесь.
Добывающим соль и ласково сеющим хлеб,
Шепните им, что Тайный Узбек уже здесь.

“So go an announce to every corner of the Earth, go through burning forest fires or poisonous smog. Tell those who mine coal and those who tenderly plant wheat – whisper in their ears that Lord Caitanya is already here”.

Of course the song doesn’t say “Lord Caitanya” but “Secret Uzbek” but His identity is unmistakable to us.

Он не – “за”, он не – “против”, он занят другим, как Басе,
Он не распоряжается ничьей судьбой.
Просто там, где он появляется, все,
Происходит словно само собой.

“He is not pro nor against, He’s concerned with something else, like Bashō. He doesn’t control anyone’s life. It’s just that wherever He appears everything happens automatically.”

Bashō is the greatest Haiku poet and Haiku poetry sees the world in a different way. Lord Caitanya doesn’t take sides, He has no friends or enemies, and He is not here to fix our problems – a point hard even for us to understand because, dyed-in-the-wool materialists as we are, we expect that chanting Hare Krishna will bring us material prosperity of all kinds. Nope, Hare Krishna mantra was not given to us for that and Lord Caitanya has no interest in that either.

However, when the Lord arrives in one’s heart all the problems automatically disappear and everything naturally falls into place and everything becomes glorious. These are the benefits of bhakti mentioned right in the beginning of Nectar of Devotion.

Так передайте всем тем, кто долго был выгнут дугой,
Что нет смысла скрывать больше тупость и жадность и спесь.
И бессмысленно делать вид, что ты кто-то другой,
Когда Тайный Узбек уже здесь.

“So please inform all those who have been twisting themselves into pretzels that there’s no point in hiding their ignorance, greed, and arrogance, that there’s no sense in pretending to be someone else – when Lord Caitanya is here.”

И даже если нам всем запереться в глухую тюрьму,
Сжечь самолеты, расформировать поезда.
Это вовсе не помешает ему,
Перебраться из там-где-он-есть к нам сюда.

“Even if we lock ourselves into the deepest jail. If we burn the airplanes and dismantle railways it won’t stop Him from coming into our hearts”.

Lord Caitanya’s mercy is unconditioned, we can’t hide our faults but we also can’t hide ourselves from receiving it. There’s no place His mercy won’t reach. He comes to even the most fallen.

И повторяю, что это не повод рыдать и кричать,
Все останется точно таким, как все есть.
А те, кто знают в чем дело, знают, и будут молчать,
Потому что Тайный Узбек уже здесь.

“I’ll say it again – this not the reason to scream and cry. Everything will go on as usual, but those who know it will keep silence because Lord Caitanya is already here”.

This is not anti-sankirtana call, as it appears on the surface, but it’s rather a call to stop arguing about irrelevant things like presidents, Muslims, or climate change. We are not here to fix the world, we are here to deliver SOULS, not bodies. Perhaps I need a separate article on the meaning of silence. In short, silence means silence about non-devotional matters. It means that no material sounds escape from one’s tongue. So we are not going to argue about elections and wars and whatever. Let all those things follow their prescribed Kali Yuga course. They deserved their time in history, let them have their moment, and we’ll keep silent about them and immerse ourselves in Krishna consciousness instead.

The song already implored us to preach this message far and wide – it’s not anti-sankirtana. But at the same time we should not disclose the glory of the Holy Name to non-devotees. That’s why earlier qualifications for the receivers were mentioned – those who mine and those who grow grains – those who hold on to their dharma. People are able to appreciate the gift of the yuga dharma only when they have appreciation for dharma in general. This way they can recognize it as the best of all dharmas – they need to know what to compare it to first.

It also doesn’t mean that there are people who should be excluded because of their moral degradation. No, it’s not an obstacle, but it rather means we should appeal to “dharma” side of people’s lives, however small it might be. If it’s gay marriage then we should appeal to their appreciation for loyalty and dedication, for example. There’s at least SOME dharma in everybody’s life. They treasure it and we should treasure it, too, and then we can give them the perfection of that dharma – the Holy Name. And then they are saved and Yamaraja can take a nap for the next ten thousand years.

In other words, we have to learn to see potential devotees in people. It’s easy to say “potential devotee” but we actually have to see their budding appreciation for dharma and only then we add yuga-dharma to that. Not that we see a degraded sinner and tell him to chant Hare Krishna. No, first we have to see dharma in that person, not his sins.

Anyway, I’ve gotten a bit of track. I just seem to be incapable of verbally expressing gratitude for Lord Caitanya’s merciful appearance in our lives. Maybe talking about mythology bumped me off track, can’t be helped now.

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 #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.

Vanity thought #1779. Casting

Yesterday I discussed how physical reality affects our ability to distribute books, to conduct saṅkīrtana. There’s a lot more to this relationship between nature and our lives and our service, too. Eventually I’ll get to a chapter from Mystic Universe which explains importance of physical features of certain places and why scriptures pay so much attention to it. I won’t go into it today, however, but expand on our “old school” saṅkīrtana.

To recapitulate – our temple then was physically structured in such a way as to keep everyone in their perfect spiritual position as servants of the saṅkīrtana mission. There was no fraternizing, there was always physically enforced respect, there was no familiarity to breed contempt, and saṅkīrtana devotees themselves were forced to be no more but servants of their master – their saṅkīrtana leader.

A couple of words here – one would normally expect saṅkīrtana leader to be an inspirational figure, one to give speeches and pep talk, like a football coach or something, but in our case it was different, and that difference proved helpful, too. Incidentally, his name was Yamarāja and it fit him very well – strict, feared, but respected for his fairness, and you’d always want to keep your distance, and Yamarāja is not known as an inspirational speaker either. By delegating philosophy and speaking to gurus, visiting devotees, and Prabhupāda, our saṅkīrtana leader firmly established himself as no more than a servant so no one could really challenge him on anything – he was just doing his job making sure that saṅkīrtana spirit found its full manifestation within his domain. He also never failed at anything we expected him to do. One can put it down to his personal qualities but the arrangement where you must be a servant at all times helps, too – Lord Caitanya’s mercy stops flowing the moment you think you are the boss and no one in the temple at the time could reasonably claim that position, not even the temple president.

Temple president’s position was curious. On one hand he was officially the boss, on the other hand saṅkīrtana department was so big and important and financially profitable that his own service seemed utterly insignificant by comparison. He could not control or direct saṅkīrtana so he naturally saw himself as its servant, too.

All in all, it was a perfect physical and administrative arrangement for facilitating book distribution in every possible way. Is it possible to repeat that? I don’t think so, I think you need to start from scratch – make book distribution your main goal, build a community of like minded people, and then hope that a suitable temple manifests itself. Our current temple was not designed for that purpose and I don’t see how it can be reconfigured. It does what it does well, though.

My main point today was to describe prominent saṅkīrtana personalities of that time. Their names are not important, some are no longer with ISKCON, and I don’t mean it as a comprehensive catalog of book distributors qualities and characters. These were the guys who were at the top, it just happened, and they were all attractive in their own ways but it doesn’t mean that these are the only options and one must always emulate one of them.

I happened to be with the guy who was intellectual. He had dark eyes and his stare would drill into people’s souls while he delivered one unbeatable argument after the other why we are not these bodies, why God is not Indian or Christian, and why everyone needed to buy our books. I’ve never seen anyone successfully challenge him on anything even as many tried. Perhaps people were not yet familiar with Hare Kṛṣṇas, perhaps they didn’t know winning arguments yet, perhaps they didn’t know our history, but whatever they did know he could immediately refute and leave people stumped.

I’ve tried that myself, having heard his presentation so many times, but it didn’t work for me. Why? Looking back I think it’s because I didn’t have firm faith in these arguments myself yet and people sensed it, and maybe because my voice and demeanor didn’t convey that sense of urgency, no could I stare down into people’s eyes without blinking and my mind wondering off somewhere else. There was no single-mindedness in me so “intellectualism” didn’t help.

Another devotee was just a bundle of joy. When he talked about Kṛṣṇa consciousness he could barely contain himself, he was so excited. People couldn’t pass on that kind of happiness and wanted to experience it, too. I don’t remember how he preached, I doubt anyone could – it was his emotional state that attracted people and they forgot anything else. You can’t imitate this kind of excitement, I certainly could and still can’t, and it’s probably impossible to maintain it for a prolonged period of time. Maybe so and maybe later story of this devotee turned very different but he WAS very excited then and it lasted for several years during which he distributed hundreds of thousands of books. So if you have some temporary personality trait that helps – use it to the full advantage while you can. That would be the best possible service for it ever.

One of the top distributors had a similarly attractive personality but of a slightly different kind. He was a kind of man you expect to come to rescue any time something goes wrong. He’d show up to change you tire or pull your car out of mud or catch you when you slip and fall or pull you out of the fire. It’s the kind of man that when you are in trouble and you see him you think “Thank god, now I’m safe.” When he talked to people they could instantly relate to him and trust him in every way and when he told them that they needed to buy his books they obeyed unquestionably. If he said so it must be true.

These three devotees had some personal traits that helped in their book distribution, one had a strong intellect, a broad knowledge base, and quick thinking, another had a contagiously joyous personality, and the third immediately elicited trust. You can’t emulate that, you either have it or not, but then everyone has these qualities to some degree anyway and any saṅkīrtana devotee can utilize them in his preaching. Trust, happiness, and knowledge – these three qualities will always attract people no matter how they are mixed together, hopefully enough to sell them a book.

There were two other devotees who always stood apart from the rest of saṅkīrtana crowd and they deserve their own post, so tomorrow, holiday schedule permitting.