Diary of a Traveling Preacher – Volume 10, Chapter 7 – June 1, 2009
By Indradyumna Swami
In early June, I arrived in St. Petersburg, one of the last stops on my Russian preaching tour. St. Petersburg is rich in history and culture. It was founded by Czar Peter I in 1703, and was the capital of the Russian Empire for more than 200 years.
It is one of my favorite places in the former Soviet Union, and our movement has a strong presence there. The devotees do regular harinama and book distribution, and they hold a well-publicized Ratha-yatra each year. Because of setbacks in the 1980s, the devotees lost a beautiful temple, but they meet each week in a hall near the center of the city and hope to some day buy a property of their own.
As we drove through the city on the way to a program, I couldn’t help marveling at the architecture and at the serenity of the parks and waterways. But I knew that much of the beauty I was seeing was reconstruction. During World War II, St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, was blockaded by German forces for nine hundred days. More than a million people died, mainly from starvation and aerial bombardments. There are a great many memorials honoring the soldiers and citizens who died protecting the city. For me, these memorials are reminders of the urgent need to spread Krsna consciousness, as history tends to repeat itself.
Many of my first disciples in Russia are from St. Petersburg, and each time I visit I ask about their welfare. It had been many years since my last visit, and I was going through the list with Uttama-sloka das and the devotee in charge of the yatra, Acyutatma das, when I came upon the name of Krsna-jivani dasi.
“I haven’t heard from Krsna-jivani in six years,” I said to Acyutatma. “She was my secretary in Russia in the early 1990s. She and her mother, Dhara dasi, are both my disciples, and in 2003 I took them to India for our parikrama in Kartika. At that time Krsna-jivani could barely walk because she had caught a disease the previous year. Where is she now?”
“Sometimes her mother comes to the programs,” said Acyutatma, “but we never see Krsna-jivani. She and her mother share a flat, but Krsna-jivani can’t walk now so she never goes out. Sometimes devotees visit her, but mostly she lives a reclusive life. They’re quite poor, living on a small government pension.”
Just at that moment we arrived at the hall. A large group of devotees were having kirtana to receive us. I waved as I got out of the car and was surprised to see Dhara approaching.
“Welcome back to St. Petersburg, Guru Maharaja,” she said as she handed me a bouquet of flowers and an envelope.
“Dhara!” I said. “We were just talking about you.”
I handed the gifts to Uttama-sloka.
“How are you?” I asked
“Well,” she said, “I’m quite old now. Eighty-three, to be exact.”
“And how is Krsna-jivani?” I asked. “It’s been so long since I’ve heard from her.”
Dhara’s expression became serious. “She’s fifty-four now,” Dhara said, “and she hasn’t left our flat in six years.”
I was taken aback. “Six years?” I said.
Dhara nodded, her eyes welling with tears. “Yes,” she said, “six years, and she can’t walk at all now.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, and I motioned to Uttama-sloka to note the address of the flat.
“We will visit you tomorrow afternoon,” I said.
Dhara’s face brightened. “Thank you so much,” she said.
The program in the hall was wonderful. More than five hundred devotees listened to the lecture and then danced enthusiastically in the kirtana. I was happy to be back, but heading to our apartment that evening, all I could think of was Dhara and Krsna-jivani.
“It must be very difficult for them,” I thought. “They are poor, one of them is old and the other crippled, and they are confined to a small apartment. My Lord!”
Just then I remembered the envelope. “Uttama-sloka,” I said, “Would you please translate the letter from Dhara and Krsna-jivani.”
He opened the envelope. “Guru Maharaja!” he exclaimed. “There are several thousand dollars in here!”
“How’s that possible?” I said. “They have almost no money.”
Uttama-sloka shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “You’ll have to ask them tomorrow.”
The next afternoon, we were getting ready to visit Dhara and Krsna-jivani. “Take that jar of honey,” I said to Uttama-sloka, “and some of those sweet balls the devotees gave me yesterday. There’s also a carton of milk in the fridge and some yogurt. And take that pen-and-pencil set I got yesterday. Pack it all nicely.”
On the drive to their apartment I prepared myself for a sobering experience. The first shock came when we pulled up in front of the building.
“Look at this place,” said Mahavan das. “It’s so rundown.”
“Now look, guys,” I said, “I want you to be real positive when we’re in there. Don’t get caught up in their dejection. We’re here to cheer them up.”
“Yes, Guru Maharaja,” said Mahavan.
The elevator was broken so we walked up the five flights of dirty, smelly stairs and graffiti-covered walls. As we arrived at the door, I braced myself and knocked. Dhara answered with a somber look on her face.
“Come in,” she said.
We took off our shoes and stood in the dimly lit hallway. “Where is Krsna-jivani?” I whispered.
“Come with me,” Dhara said.
As we turned the corner into the one-room apartment, our eyes adjusted to the soft light from the window filtering through a white curtain. The room was sparsely decorated with only a few pieces of furniture, but it was immaculately clean. A large vase of flowers, looking opulent in the simple surroundings, stood to the side of a small altar that held only pictures of the Lord. Finally, my eyes came to rest on a lone figure sitting on the floor absorbed in chanting the holy names.
“Krsna-jivani?” I said softly. “Is that you?”
Krsna-jivani turned her face upward then opened her eyes and smiled radiantly. For a moment I was taken aback. It was not what I had expected. She seemed composed, sitting peacefully in a simple sari without make-up or jewelry. Her hair was cut short.
“She can’t pay obeisances,” Dhara said. “Her legs.”
“Mother, it’s okay,” said Krsna-jivani, cheerfully deflecting Dhara’s concern.
She joined her palms and bowed her head as she offered me her obeisances.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your condition,” I began.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about, Guru Maharaja,” she said with the same radiant smile. “I’m fine.”
“But I can see that you’re severely disabled,” I said.
“It’s not a problem,” she said. “It gives me more time to chant.”
“Well,” I said, looking for the right words to continue the conversation, “how do you keep yourself engaged?”
“I chant,” she said.
“I mean after you’ve finish your sixteen rounds, what do you do?”
“Continue chanting,” she said.
“She chants day and night,” Dhara said. “She sleeps only two or three hours a night. If she’s not chanting, she’s reading Srila Prabhupada’s books or those of Sivarama Swami.”
“I see,” I said. I was struck to think how she had turned misfortune into fortune.
Krsna-jivani blushed a little. “Mother,” she said, “please don’t say any more.”
“He’s our gurudeva,” Dhara said, “and he’s entitled to know what you’re doing.”
Krsna-jivani bowed her head in agreement.
“She’s very austere,” Dhara said. “She only eats every two days or so, and then not much more than a bowl of porridge.”
My eyebrows went up.
“She’s always been like that,” Dhara continued. “When she was a little girl, I’d offer her and her sister cookies. Her sister would grab them, but Krsna-jivani? She just wanted porridge, and with no sugar. Often she’d just eat dry oats or buckwheat. My little girl!”
“She didn’t want any toys,” Dhara continued, “and she wouldn’t wear anything but cast-offs. When she was three years old she started singing songs in words we couldn’t understand. One day a language professor from a local university visited us and was stunned to hear her singing. ‘She’s reciting Sanskrit verses!’ he exclaimed.
“She’s always woken early, well before dawn, and taken cold baths. And she still takes cold baths, even in winter. Whenever she’s sick she fills the bathtub with freezing water and lies there for hours at a time.
“She was an unusual girl. She never associated with boys, and she chose her friends carefully. When she grew up she went to three universities simultaneously and graduated with three different degrees: medicine, Spanish, and English.
“She never married, and as a qualified doctor she practiced medicine for fourteen years. In 1991 she was out walking and met a devotee distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books. She wanted to buy one but had no money. She came home, took some money and went back to buy the books, but the boy had gone. She went out three days in a row looking for him, but couldn’t find him.
“One day her brother got some of Srila Prabhupada’s books from a friend. He brought them home, and she grabbed the books and immediately began reading. The next morning she started chanting sixteen rounds a day. A week later she moved out of our apartment and joined the temple, all the while continuing her work.
“Six months later you came to St. Petersburg, and she took initiation. In
1993 she gave up her medical career and became your secretary in Russia, translating your letters to your Russian disciples.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “I never knew these things about Krsna-jivani’s life before she became a devotee.”
“She doesn’t like to talk about herself,” Dhara said. “And who would she talk to anyway? She has just been sitting here and chanting twenty hours a day, going on six years now. It’s something we’d all like to do one day, but I worry about her. Her legs were bad when you took us to India, you know, and the situation got much, much worse after we returned.”
I looked at Krsna-jivani. “I’m proud of her,” I said. “A lesser devotee might have used such a reversal to lament and sink into ignorance. It’s turned out to be a mixed blessing. She uses her time wisely, chanting the holy names. One time Srila Prabhupada visited a sick disciple in a hospital in Bombay. The young lady had a tropical disease and sat in bed chanting all day. When Srila Prabhupada arrived, she apologized and said that she couldn’t do any service and was just chanting. Srila Prabhupada said, ‘Actually, the goal is to chant continuously. It’s the best glorification of the Lord. But because you Western boys and girls are so restless, I have to create many services for you.'”
I pulled out the envelope with their donation inside. I thought about how they must have scrimped and saved the money, ruble by ruble, over many years, so I wanted to give it back.
When Dhara saw the envelope she seemed alarmed and looked at me as if to say, “You’re not going to give that back are you? It’s our devotional service to you.”
I slid the envelope back into my pocket. In my mind I vowed to spend the donation on some special preaching project.
It was getting late, and I had another program to go to. “I have to leave now,” I said with sadness, “but I’ve been inspired by my visit here. Nothing pleases the spiritual master more than seeing his disciples making tangible advancement in Krsna consciousness. Krsna-jivani, you are setting a wonderful example for all of us. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“You are already doing everything for me,” she said. “Please just bless me so I can chant the holy names purely. That’s all I want.”
As we started to go, her hand was already back in her beadbag, her eyes were closed, and she was softly chanting the holy names with concentration. Just as I was about to walk out the door, she held up a folded sheet of paper.
“Gurudeva,” said, “this letter is for you.”
We stepped out of the apartment and into the stairwell and found ourselves back in the other world. As we made our way cautiously down the dark staircase, Uttama-sloka turned to me. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “I don’t know many devotees who could do what she’s doing. Where does she get the determination?”
I thought for a moment. “Well,” I said, “In the Bhagavad-gita Krsna reveals how an unsuccessful yogi takes birth again. Then He says:
“‘tatra tam buddhi samyogam labhate paurva-dehikam yatate ca tato bhuyah samsiddhau kuru-nandana
“‘On taking such a birth, he revives the divine consciousness of his previous life, and he again tries to make further progress in order to achieve complete success, O son of Kuru.’
“Her determination must be coming from a past birth and a strong desire to go back home, back to Godhead in this lifetime.”
As we got into the car, Mahavan turned to me. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “do you think she’ll make it?”
“She’s got a good chance,” I said.
As we drove away I unfolded the letter she gave me, glanced through it, and decided to read it aloud.
“Boys,” I said, “listen and take note. This is the sincerity needed to attain the supreme goal of life.” I began to read:
“‘My dear spiritual master,
“‘Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada. All glories to you.
“‘I am happy in Krsna consciousness. With each rising and setting of the sun, I come closer to the goal of my life. I constantly thank Krsna for allowing me to meet with Srila Prabhupada’s books and my eternal spiritual master in this life. And most important, at this last stage of my life, He has removed all unnecessary things and given me all facilities to fully engage in chanting His holy names. I pray that this time I’ll not lose the chance to make my life completely successful.
“‘Your eternal servant,
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