Volume 7 – Chapter 16 | A Lion Among Men
I boarded a flight from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk with my secretary, Uttama-sloka das. We tried to get comfortable, but it wasn’t easy. The seats were small and close together. Although the plane had been renovated, it was still a vintage model, dating back at least 20 years. But it was midnight and we were exhausted, so we eventually fell asleep on the five-hour flight to Siberia.
Half an hour before landing the cabin lights came on. I woke up and noticed a man across the aisle staring at me. Finally he stood up and came over. “I’m just curious,” he said. “Why you are going Krasnoyarsk? Not many foreign tourists go there.”
Before I could answer, he started speaking again. “I’m sure you’re aware of Siberia’s dismal history,” he said. “Stalin built many forced-labor camps there in the 1930s and sent tens of thousands of political dissidents to their death. And the future isn’t much brighter.”
He looked around nervously, and his eyebrows went up. “Siberia is fast becoming the nuclear wasteland of the world,” he said. “Foreign countries have paid the Russian government billions of dollars to dump their high-level radioactive waste around Krasnoyarsk. But the people of Siberia never see the money. It all ends up in Moscow. There’s only one thing the people get.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“Cancer!” he said loudly. The person in the seat in front of me turned around. “They dump the nuclear waste into gigantic holes near two towns on either side of Krasnoyarsk. It’s no coincidence that the region has one of the highest incidences of cancer in the world.”
“Why do people live there?” I said.
“They pay big salaries to keep people in Krasnoyarsk,” he said. “People will do anything for money.”
He paused. “Even die for it,” he said.
“Gosh!” I exclaimed. “And why are you going there?”
“I’m a doctor,” he said. “My organization is helping to finance a cancer clinic in Krasnoyarsk. I’m going to oversee the project.” He went back to his seat.
“One of the highest incidences of cancer in the world,” I said to myself. “Anyway, that’s all the more reason to go there and preach. Life is such that even though people are suffering they still have to be reminded that this material world is a temporary place full of misery and the only alternative is spiritual life.”
It certainly had been an uncomfortable flight, and what’s more, after we landed we ended up waiting in our seats 45 minutes for buses, but no one said anything. People in Russia are tough. They are used to austerities, and I rarely hear them complain. The captain shut off the power, and we sat waiting in the dark, stuffy cabin.
“If this were Europe or America,” I thought, “you’d hear people shouting, but here they just tolerate it all.”
And who would listen anyway? There are no complaint boxes in the airports, no forms to fill out and send to the authorities.
We finally left the plane and walked out into the chilly autumn air. “Russians are indeed tough,” I thought, “but Siberian Russians are the toughest because they live in Siberia, where the bitter-cold winters are infamous.”
I shook my head. “Can you imagine?” I thought. “Living in one of the coldest places of the inhabited world.”
Outside the terminal we were met by a large group of husky men in leather coats asking if we needed a taxi. “It’s like a scene from the 1930s,” I said to Uttama-sloka. “Look at those old wooden buildings. The bright lights of Moscow seem far away.”
On the way to our apartment, I again saw Russian resilience. As we were coming to an intersection, a streetcar plowed into a small car. The driver stepped out of her vehicle, blood gushing from a cut on her head. She reached into her purse and calmly pulled out a scarf, which she put to the wound. Her passenger, a man in his 50s, stood next to the car in shock. What amazed me most was that people drove by without slowing down.
“It’s unbelievable,” I thought. “In most other places people would offer to help or see what happened. Here they just drive on.”
“Can’t we stop?” I asked my driver.
“The police will arrive soon,” he replied calmly as we sped on. I turned to my disciple Guru Vrata dasa.
“What do you have planned for my four-day visit?” I asked.
“Morning and evening classes,” he said. “During the day you can rest. But your Gypsy friends have asked if you could visit their village tomorrow afternoon. It’s been two years since you were last there.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Definitely. Let’s go. I’d like to see how they’re progressing.”
I paused for a moment. “They really have made progress in Krsna consciousness, haven’t they?” I said.
“Ummi,” said Guru Vrata, “Well, you’ll have to be the judge.”
The next afternoon we started out for the Gypsy village.
“You know,” I said to Uttama-sloka as we drove, “I’ve written several diary chapters about the Gypsies. Maybe I can get enough material from this visit for another one.”
“I suppose I should tell you now,” Guru Vrata interrupted. “Practically all the Gypsies you met last time are dead or in jail. As you may remember, most of them deal drugs.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “I remember there were a few who seemed genuinely interested in Krsna consciousness.”
“They’re the ones coming today,” Guru Vrata said.
A half hour later we entered the Gypsy village. As we drove through, I was reminded of my previous visits. Children stopped playing to stare at us. Women hanging laundry glanced at us and quickly looked away. In contrast, a group of men playing cards on a porch looked up and studied us intently as we drove by.
I noticed several wooden stands on street corners. “What are they selling?” I asked Uttama-sloka.
“Drugs,” he said.
“Don’t the police stop them?” I said. “This is a country within a country,” he said. “The police have no authority here.”
“That makes the Gypsies the toughest of the tough Siberian Russians,” I said.
“Excuse me?” Uttama-sloka said.
“Oh, nothing,” I said.
Our car pulled up to the house where we would have our program.
“Whose house is this?” I asked Guru Vrata as we got out of the car.
“Alexander’s,” he said, “your aspiring disciple and one of the leaders in the Gypsy community.
“Huh?” I said. “My aspiring disciple?”
“Yes,” he said. “After you visited two years ago, several Gypsy men asked me if they could become your aspiring disciples. I saw they were serious about Krsna consciousness, so I agreed.”
As we entered the house we were greeted by some of the temple devotees from Krasnoyarsk who had come to help set up the program. Then Alexander entered and paid full obeisances.
“Welcome to my home, Guru Maharaja,” he said, his wife at his side.
The house was just as I remembered it, neat and tidy with Krsna-conscious pictures everywhere. Alexander took me to a room upstairs to meet his friends. As I sat down a tall man approached and fell down flat in front of me, tears in his eyes. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “please forgive me. I’m a wicked man, but I want to change.”
“His name is Victor,” said Alexander. “He was just released from prison.”
“How long were you in prison?” I asked.
“Three and a half years,” said Victor. “I was sentenced to five years, but I was released early for good behavior. Because I was injured when the police arrested me, I wasn’t able to work in prison, so I just chanted 16 rounds a day. I was also reading Srila Prabhupada’s books and preaching to the other prisoners.
“It was so hellish in there, Guru Maharaja. Sometimes we were 40 men in a 30-square-meter cell. There were often fights between the prisoners. But one prisoner was a leader in the Siberian mafia. I made him into a devotee, and he always protected me.
“The prison authorities appreciated my behavior and my positive influence on the other prisoners so much that they had me preach Krsna consciousness regularly on the closed-circuit prison television. In some ways I think they were sad to see me go.”
The others laughed.
“But the problem is,” he continued, “that I was more Krsna conscious in jail than out. I’m not chanting 16 rounds a day any more. What should I do?”
“Just see the entire material world as a jail,” I said, “with four great walls: birth, disease, old age, and death. It’s the same as an ordinary prison: everyone suffers here, and it’s hard to get out.”
Victor listened intently.
“Chanting the holy names is the only way to get freedom from material existence,” I continued. “If you’re serious about getting out, you’ll chant.”
“Thank you, Guru Maharaja,” he said. “I promise to chant 16 rounds a day.”
“Are you married?” I asked him.
A hush came over the room. Guru Vrata leaned over. “His wife is still in prison,” he said. “There’s a code among Gypsy women that they take part of the blame for their husband’s crimes even if they are innocent. In this way, their husband’s time in prison is reduced.”
“I see,” I said.
I quickly changed the subject. “And where is that handsome Gypsy man who was here last time? The one with the light-colored eyes?”
Again the room became silent.
Guru Vrata leaned over a second time. “He was severely wounded in a knife fight last month,” he said. “They took him to the hospital, but when the doctors saw he was a Gypsy, they ignored him and left him to die. But then one of the doctors saw his neck beads and asked if he was a devotee of Krsna. Apparently the doctor likes devotees, so he operated on him and saved his life.”
“Is he out of the hospital?” I said.
“As soon as the operation was over the police arrested him for previous offenses,” Guru Vrata said. “He’s now in a prison hospital.”
“Whew!” I said. “There’s no happy ending this time.”
“This Gypsy over here is chanting 10 rounds a day,” said Guru Vrata. “Oh really?” I said.
“But he’s illiterate,” Guru Vrata said, “and the other Gypsy men tell him he’s wasting his time because he can’t read our books. They say he’ll never understand Krsna consciousness.”
“Not true!” I said, almost shouting. “He can hear about Krsna and learn everything that way. And the Lord will also enlighten him from within the heart.”
“And,” Guru Vrata said, “you’ll be pleased to know that Alexander has been chanting 16 rounds a day for several years.”
“That’s really wonderful,” I said.
“Before coming to Krsna consciousness he was also a powerful drug dealer,” Guru Vrata said. “He committed many crimes we won’t mention. But now, as a result of chanting Hare Krsna, he’s become very soft and gentle. He maintains an honest living by selling cars. He’s also strictly following the regulative principles. And what’s more, he preaches Krsna consciousness in the Gypsy community. As you can imagine, it’s not an easy thing. But many Gypsies are now coming to him for spiritual guidance.”
A silence fell over the room. I looked around and turned to Guru Vrata. “So?” I said.
“So, he would like to become your initiated disciple,” Guru Vrata said.
I was taken by surprise. I thought about my decision to cut back on initiations, but at the same time I realized it would be a great step forward for Alexander – and the Gypsy community.
“Yes,” I said firmly, “I will initiate him.”
The devotees burst into applause.
“But” I said, “I have one request: that the Gypsy men in the village give their approval.”
During prasadam Uttama-sloka turned to me. “Why do you have to get the approval of the local men?” he said. “You’re Alexander’s spiritual master. You don’t have to ask anyone for permission to initiate him.”
“True,” I said, “but if the men in the village approve, it will make his initiation more bona fide in the eyes of the community. In that way other Gypsies may become serious about Krsna consciousness.”
For the next few days I gave lectures at the temple. Hundreds of devotees from all over Siberia attended. I noted in particular how serious they were about Krsna consciousness. They asked many questions, but the main question on my own mind was whether the Gypsy men would authorize Alexander’s initiation.
Meanwhile, nine other candidates came forward with recommendations for initiation from their temple presidents. As they were all wonderful devotees, I could hardly decline. The days passed, but on the morning of the initiation we still had no answer from the Gypsy village.
Then, as we were preparing to leave the apartment for the initiation ceremony at the temple, Uttama-sloka’s phone rang. A big smile came over his face. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “Alexander said no one in the Gypsy community objects. Permission is granted.”
My eyes welled up with tears, maybe because I was grateful to the Gypsy men or just plain happy for Alexander. Or perhaps because I was appreciating the unfathomable grace of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu in distributing His mercy equally to everyone in this dark and dangerous age of Kali.
On the way to the temple I told Guru Vrata the name I wanted to give Alexander so I could be sure no one else in the temple had received that name. “It’s Dina Bandhu das,” I said. “It’s a name of Krsna meaning friend of the fallen.”
Guru Vrata gulped. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “if I could make a humble suggestion, Gypsies are sensitive to the fact that people see them as fallen. They won’t appreciate that name. They’re a proud people.” “
What name would you put forward?” I said.
“You’ll have to decide,” Guru Vrata said. I thought for a moment.
“I’ll give him a noble name. This will make the Gypsies proud that one of their own is a devotee of Krsna.”
I quickly looked through a little book I keep with names for disciples.
I was looking forward to the moment Alexander would be initiated. It would be the fruit of many visits to the Gypsy village, so I purposely gave a short lecture. When the disciples started to come forward and take their vows, my heart was pounding. One by one, I gave them their new names: Kriya Sakti dasi, Dana Gati dasi, Gita Vilasi dasi, Sri Gauri, and more.
Alexander was the last. After bowing down he kneeled in front of me. It felt like a historic moment. I was thinking that possibly he was the first full-blooded Gypsy to take initiation in ISKCON.
After he recited his vows I handed him his beads with a smile and with great emotion. “From this day forward,” I said, “your name shall be Purusa Simha das. It means servant of the supreme enjoyer in the form of a transcendental lion. Lord Nrsimha always protects His devotees. So be fearless – a lion among men – and preach the glories of the holy names in your Gypsy clan.”
I looked out over the audience and saw several Gypsy men nodding their heads and smiling from ear to ear.
“Now that Lord Gaura has descended to this world, the waves of the holy names of Lord Krsna are suddenly flooding this planet, and the hearts of the sinful conditioned souls, which were as hard as thunderbolts, have now become as soft as butter. Let me take shelter of that Lord Gaura.”
[Srila Prabodananda Saraswati, Caitanya-candramrita, verse 110]