Man gets Prabhupada’s books and walks through a war zone to join a temple
By Shyamasundara Dasa
Until age 18 or 19 I was like everyone else in Serbia — occupied with attempts to turn my materialistic dreams into reality: a good job, a big car, a house or an apartment with a beautiful wife and lots of ruddy-cheeked children. All my thoughts were focused on realizing this dream, until one day — and to this day I don’t know why or how — I suddenly got a completely different vision of that dream, the realistic one. Family fights, misunderstandings, deep-rooted selfishness and intolerance.
Now each day seemed senseless, until the idea of committing suicide as a solution to my despair became more and more prominent in my mind. Happiness, joy, satisfaction — for me these were only a dim memory. Aware of the blind alley I was in, I became desperate to find some solution, some shelter.
Totally hopeless and lonely, wandering in darkness, somehow or other I struggled on. I tried to forget all my miseries and problems by absorbing myself in drinking, smoking, sleeping, sports, sex, etc. In other words, I didn’t know how to get out of the deep mud I was in, so I plunged even deeper into it, deep enough to hide from both the mud and myself. I thought, “Let me embrace nothingness, darkness, unconsciousness.”
After finishing high school I had to go into the army, where even deeper realizations of the emptiness of materialistic life were revealed to me. After the army I went to college, but for a whole year I just experienced more emptiness and pointlessness. Then the first sign of hope appeared. A student I met at college started telling me about yoga, particularly Transcendental Meditation. I took up the practice, meditating fifteen minutes twice a day, and found some relief. I thought I had finally found the real thing. In this way two more years passed.
Then, although somewhat satisfied, I began feeling the need for real purification and more concrete answers to life’s questions. I knew about the Hare Krsna movement and had even been attracted by the maha-mantra and Bhagavad-gita As It Is. But my roommate had advised me, “Don’t get too close to that sect,” and so I didn’t look into the Hare Krsnas.
On one occasion I was at a friend’s house in a nearby city searching through his books, looking for something interesting. I remember seeing on these books such words as jing-jang, tantra, Freud, Yogananda, and yoga, until I found the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. An unfamiliar voice within me suddenly said, “This is what you are looking for. This is the real truth. Here you will find all the answers. Take this book and read it, study it. Surrender to it completely, to each and every word in it. Worship each page of it.” But when I opened the book and read the words “Hare Krsna,” my roommate’s advice came to mind and I put it aside, as if it were dangerous.
Later the voice inside me returned when I saw Krsna’s picture for the first time. “Decorate the picture with flowers,” the voice said. “Worship it. Meditate on that person.” Unfortunately, when I found out that the person was Krsna, I again recalled my roommate’s advice and took the voice to be an hallucination.
Still, my resistance was weakening. Apparently by chance I went to a concert featuring a band called Nityananda, a Serbian devotee rock band. The special guest that night was one of the initiating spiritual masters in the Hare Krsna movement, His Holiness Sacinandana Swami. That concert was the turning point for me. After that night I could no longer practice Transcendental Meditation. Instead of the Transcendental Meditation mantra, the Hare Krsna maha-mantra kept playing in my mind involuntarily.
Very soon the maha-mantra became everything in my life, giving me a feeling of satisfaction and inner fullness. I chanted almost constantly while performing my daily duties. All anxiety, heaviness, and misery disappeared from my heart, and I thought that no one in the whole world was more fortunate than I was. In due course all my family members started reading Srila Prabhupada’s books and chanting Hare Krsna, so that my home slowly transformed into the spiritual world. From reading Srila Prabhupada’s books I understood the importance of accepting a bona fide spiritual master and receiving initiation. To accomplish that goal I would have to live in the association of devotees.
But I didn’t know how to meet devotees because at that time I lived in the Bosnian town of Travnik, where there were no Hare Krsna temples. A war was going on, and military forces and barricades surrounded the city. Battles between Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims were blasting in all possible combinations: Serbs against Croatians, Muslims against Serbs, Croatians against Muslims, etc., and to get out of Travnik I had to cross all those fronts. Feeling a little discouraged, I started gathering information on how to get from Travnik to Croatia, specifically to Zagreb or Rijeka, cities that I knew had temples. I did not find any good news. It seemed that in Gornji Vakuf, a town just outside of Travnik, soldiers were shooting at everyone without discrimination, even at United Nations Peace Forces (UNPROFOR) and Red Cross volunteers. I waited about twenty more days, hoping the situation would get better, but it only got worse.
After one more month of studying Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita As It Is, I prayed to Krsna, “My dear Lord Krsna, I beg You to help me get to a temple.” I found great inspiration in verses like mare krsna rakhe ke, rakhe krsna mare ke: “If Krsna wants to kill you, no one can protect you, and if Krsna wants to protect you, no one can kill you.” I decided to put my life in Krsna’s hands and go to Croatia by foot.
Before I started on my journey, a few soldiers told me not to go because in Gornji Vakuf they were killing people — cutting their throats, severing their ears, and plucking out their eyes. But they couldn’t stop me. Feeling Krsna’s protection, on February 11, 1993, at 1:00 PM, with just a few personal belongings, I started on the journey to Croatia through Gornji Vakuf. The whole time I chanted the Hare Krsna maha-mantra on my japa beads.
After about ten hours of walking and chanting, I came to the border of Gornji Vakuf. I was surprised at how easily I had reached that far. It was night, and very dark. From my position about a mile outside the center of the city I heard shooting, explosions, and bullets and shells flying from one side of the city to the other. I decided to take the road that wound around the city.
After about ten minutes of walking, I entered a small village where literally all the houses had been burned down. The remaining walls revealed that the houses had been new, built in a modern style. A little further down the road a haystack was burning, giving off the only light in that part of the village. An eerie silence pervaded everything. I thought, “I don’t know what hell looks like, but it must be something like this.” In the courtyard of one house a cow and her calf were standing, staring at the burning haystack, their eyes filled with tears. I decided to stop there to see if I could do something for the cow and calf.
I stood by the wall of a house illuminated by the burning haystack and loudly shouted, “Is anyone there?” The reply was click, click, and then through the window of another house someone started shooting at me. Bullets whizzed around my legs and head, bouncing off the ground and broken walls. I ran as fast as I could while fiery bullets continued to fly all around me. I kept running for about fifteen minutes without stopping. “Oh my God,” I thought, “am I alive?” I was in a state of shock. I couldn’t tell whether I was alive or dead. I clenched my hand and felt my japa beads. I nervously repeated the maha-mantra. “I’m alive,” I concluded. “Everything’s OK. Let’s keep going.”
Little by little, as I realized what had happened, my faith in Krsna increased more and more, while my old conception of God as some light, some impersonal force, vanished. Because I chanted the maha-mantra the whole time, my distress quickly diminished and my desire to get to the temple rapidly grew. For the next twenty minutes I walked and chanted Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Everything was peaceful as I neared the exit from Gornji Vakuf.
Then suddenly on my left I heard someone shout “Stop!” along with the ominous click, click. I stopped but continued to chant. “Who are you?” the voice demanded. “A spirit soul,” I thought, but after a short pause I said, “A pilgrim, a well-wisher.”
The stranger came out of the shadows, pointing his huge gun at me. He came right up to me and stared in my face, apparently a bit confused by my answer. After finding no weapons on me, not even a pocketknife, the man was even more confused, but he considered me harmless, and therefore he relaxed. But then from the darkness another soldier appeared, shouting and swearing. “On the ground!” he yelled. As I lay on the ground he searched me. Not finding anything, he got mad. I was still chanting. The two soldiers started arguing about what to do with me. The first soldier wanted to take me to their commander, but the second wanted to kill me on the spot. And when the second soldier heard me mumbling something, he really became furious. He aimed his gun at me, preparing to shoot.
For a moment I stopped chanting, but then I remembered reading that it is very auspicious to chant Hare Krsna while dying, so I started chanting again. The second soldier called me ill names and then pulled the trigger. I felt something hit my back, and then I saw the bullet bounce off a stone and fly by the other soldier’s head. The bullet had been deflected by something in my backpack! “What are you doing?” the first soldier shouted. “Are you trying to kill me?!” The other one yelled something back. And again I had to verify whether I was alive or dead. I was still chanting and didn’t feel any pain. “Good sign,” I thought. The soldier who had shot his rifle was now scared and distressed. He was touching me, unable to believe he had missed me from the distance of one foot.
Then a third soldier came, clearly senior to the other two. He took my old identification card from my pocket and said, “Let’s take him to the commander.” In the commander’s office I was interrogated for a long time. They decided to kill me by hanging me from a tree or shooting me because the photo on my identification card didn’t really resemble me. Still, for some reason I remained very calm. My calmness really puzzled them. They asked, “Do you have any money on you?” “Yes,” I replied, “three hundred Swiss francs.” They looked at each other. It seemed strange to them that I was not disturbed at the prospect of their taking all my money. In truth, at that moment money didn’t mean anything to me. I just wanted to get to the temple.
They said, “We can kill you, we can torture you, we can do whatever we want with you!” Again I replied very calmly, “There would be nothing auspicious in that, either for you or for me, so it’s better not to do that.” That completely shocked them, and at that point they threw away their facade of rough soldiers. When they learned of the places I had passed through on my journey, they looked at each other in great amazement. One of them murmured, “He passed through Bistrica, but no one can even get close to that place. Even UNPROFOR and the Red Cross can’t go there, yet he passed through there with his hand in this funny bag while murmuring some Hare Krsna Hare Hare!?”
Then the whole situation changed. They became very friendly and wanted to help me. They gave me a place to stay overnight, and the following day they gave me a ride to the next town, Tomislav-grad. But that wasn’t the end of my adventure.
To get to Croatia I still had to go through three checkpoints with very rigid controls. Even people with all the required documents had a hard time passing through. Then what to speak of me, who had only an expired ID card with a photo that didn’t really resemble me? Still, early the next morning we started. Soon the car was on a road with thick forests on both sides. The road was muddy and winding. I chanted the whole time. One of the two soldiers sitting in front said, “You know, we really don’t know how you’re going to get through this time, but if you do, you’re really lucky.” “Krsna!” I thought. The recent incidents had increased My faith in Him enormously, and I was sure He was listening. “All I can do is chant Your names,” I said to myself, “and if You want, please help me.”
We approached the first checkpoint. Both soldiers pulled out their identification cards and some other documents. When asked about their mission, one of the soldiers said he was the commander of a squad that detected and destroyed mines and that he was on a mission. I chanted in the back seat, trying hard to hear the mantra. The soldier at the checkpoint looked at me without saying anything. “All right, go on!” he finally said. “Is it possible?” I asked myself while my two fellow travelers stared at each other with mouths wide open in wonder. When we came to the second checkpoint we weren’t even stopped: the soldier just waved us through. My companions mouths were wide open again. “The third one is the hardest,” they told me. But what happened was similar to what had occurred at the first checkpoint. The soldiers checked the documents of my fellow travelers and asked them where they were going, where they were coming from, and when they would return. I continued to chant. The soldiers looked at me but didn’t ask me anything. Then we entered Tomislav-grad, a city near Croatia. We were all pleased that everything had gone so smoothly. They let me out and drove off.
I continued happily chanting Hare Krsna on my japa beads. In Tomislav-grad I bought some fruit and offered it to Krsna’s picture on a park bench. I had one hour before my bus to Croatia was to leave. I was just finishing with my simple offering ceremony when two police officers approached me. With my palm I signaled them to hold off asking me any questions until I had finished my ceremony. They stopped and waited. After a few minutes I finished the ceremony and they checked my ID. Finding no proper documentation, they returned me to the third checkpoint.
They rebuked the soldiers at the checkpoint for having let me pass. The soldiers claimed that they’d never seen me before, although after hearing my description of the car I’d been in, they remembered it and all the details about it. But they still couldn’t remember me. Then they received the order to send me back to Travnik, the city where my journey had begun.
Again I very intensely thought of Lord Krsna:
“Krsna,” I asked, “are You really going to return me to Travnik after all that’s happened?” But I surrendered to Krsna’s desire, though not happily, knowing that in any case I couldn’t go against His wishes.
However, this last reversal turned out to be just another test. Meditating on the power of prasadam, I offered some fruit to the soldiers at the third checkpoint. They accepted it and ate with satisfaction.
After a short conversation, they decided to let me go, although they had just received an order to send me back to Travnik. They even stopped a truck and convinced the driver to drive me to Posusje (a city on the border of Bosnia and Croatia), where I had some relatives. That night my relatives arranged for the documents I needed to enter Croatia.
The next day I arrived at the temple in Rijeka.
Finally I met the Deities and devotees, and there was no end to my happiness.
By the mercy of Krsna, guru, and the devotees I am still living in an ISKCON temple, and whenever I recall all these incidents I remember Srila Prabhupada’s immortal statement: “Impossible is a word in a fool’s dictionary.”