Dairy of a Traveling Monk
Volume 15, Chapter 2
May 7, 2019
“Their Joyful Smiles”
I had spent most of the last five months in Vrindavan, with only a few side trips here and there. But at the beginning of May, I was leaving. Despite the approach of Vrindavan’s oppressive summer weather, I felt I could have stayed longer. It was with much regret and intense feelings of separation that I headed towards the New Delhi airport to fly away from the holy dhama.
Vrindavan grows on you if you stay long enough. Even a short visit to a holy place can have miraculous effects. In the Skanda Purana it is stated:
“For a person who has lived in Dvarka for six months, for one month, or even for one fortnight, there is awaiting elevation to the Vaikuntha-lokas and all the profits of sarupya-mukti, which is the privilege of having the same four-handed bodily features as Narayana.”[Nectar of Devotion, Chapter 7]
But Srila Prabhupada once said, “Vrindavan is for inspiration.” I have always taken that to mean that we come to Vrindavan for purification and to become attached to our beloved Lord Sri Krishna. But after some time, we are meant to leave and share our good fortune with people who know nothing about Krsna and His transcendental abode. I held this instruction in my mind as I forced myself to leave.
But by the time I reached the airport I was already in another mood, ready to preach Krsna consciousness. From the very beginning of my career as a devotee, I felt as much satisfaction preaching on city streets in the West as I felt roaming the forests of Vrindavan in search of holy places. Both moods are interdependent. By sharing Krsna consciousness in the West we get the qualification to visit Vrindavan and by residing in Vrindavan we gain the purity and spiritual strength to share Krsna consciousness with others. Srila Prabodhananda Saraswati puts it nicely:
yatha yatha gaura padaravinde
vindeta bhaktim krta punya rasih
tatha tathotsarpati hrdy akasmat
radha padambhoja sudhambu rasih
“To the degree that we surrender to Lord Caitanya’s service, to that degree we gain qualification for service to Radharani’s lotus feet in Vraja.”[Caitanya-candramrta, verse 88]
I travelled from New Delhi to Poland where my belongings are stored. I rested there for a day and the next morning headed to the Warsaw airport to catch a flight to Moscow for my annual month-long tour of Russia. There I encountered a very unaccommodating immigration officer.
“Your passport,” she barked. There was another uniformed lady sitting beside her watching her every move. I concluded I was being dealt with by a new immigration trainee.
“Where is your boarding pass?” she snapped. Her superior slightly smiled in approval.
“It’s here, Ma’am,” I said, handing it through the hole in the window.
“Don’t you know to give it at the same time?” she growled, as if I was the dumbest man on earth.
“Yes, of course, next time I will,” I said. I wondered whether being sharp and rude to departing passengers was part of the job.
As she checked my documents, I remembered the time I went through immigration at JFK airport in New York with Srila Prabhupada. The customs officer was very rough with him. He wanted to see what was in the small white briefcase Srila Prabhupada was carrying, but Srila Prabhupada was having difficulty opening it.
The officer was impatient. “I told you to open it!” he shouted at Srila Prabhupada.
Outraged, I stepped forward, my hand balled in a fist. “If you speak like that one more time to my spiritual master, I’ll break your face!”
These days that would be enough to get arrested. At the time, the customs officer just looked shocked and stepped back a pace.
“I thought you Hare Krsnas were peace lovers!” he said sarcastically.
I stood my ground defiantly. As if to appease me, he said, “Alright, young man, then you open it.”
I pulled the bag over and fiddled with the lock for a moment and suddenly it popped open. I stood mesmerized by the personal effects of my spiritual master: his passport, a gold pen, a small ball of tilak, a tube of ayurvedic medicine, a pair of kartalas and other transcendental items.
The voice of the customs official broke my awe. “Those things are for me to inspect, young man, not you.”
I passed the bag to him and after a quick search, he moved us on.
As we walked on the tarmac towards the plane, Srila Prabhupada spoke. “Due to their association with the modes of material nature people develop many bad qualities. But when one has the good fortune to associate with devotees of the Lord one develops all the good qualities of the demigods.”
“Your passport!” The grumpy Polish immigration official was waving my documents at me from behind the glass.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, as she pushed it through the window.
Her superior smiled at her, as if to acknowledge the good job she was doing. Then she turned her attention to another trainee on her left.
The demeanor of my immigration official instantly changed. With a big smile, she whispered through the window, “I love your talks at the Festival of India. I go to Rewal each summer. I have a Bhagavad Gita.”
I smiled back but before I could reply her superior, perhaps sensing something was off, gave her a cold stare. She immediately became stone-faced again.
“That will be all,” she said, indicating I should move on.
“Thank you, Krsna,” I thought, “for sharing with me the wonderful fruits of Your samkirtan movement.”
Passing through immigration and customs was a breeze in Moscow. In the terminal I was greeted by 60 very happy devotees, all of whom were smiling from ear to ear. Approaching them I was struck by a strange feeling.
“What is it about these devotees?” I thought to myself. Then I realized. “It’s their smiles! The very same smile I saw on the face of the immigration official back in Warsaw. Anyone who has experienced Krsna’s mercy has that same joyful smile.”
I remembered a portion of a lecture I had recently heard by Srila Prabhupada.
“The Supreme Lord is joyful. Just like if you mix with a joyful society or joyful person, then automatically you become joyful. There is no necessity of becoming joyful separately. That association will make you joyful. This is Krsna consciousness. Simply by association. That rejoice is by association with the Supreme.”[Bhagavad Gita class, Los Angeles, December 1968]
As I walked into the assembly of blissful devotees I was inundated with countless bouquets of flowers and beautiful flower garlands of all descriptions. I had to hand bouquets to devotees nearby as more arrived in my arms.
Walking towards the car park, I took garlands off and offered them to unsuspecting passersby. It takes a little courage, of course, to walk up to a complete stranger and place a garland of flowers around their neck. But I always find it to be what my godsister Yamuna dasi referred to as one of those “magic moments” in Krsna consciousness. Sure enough, most people broke into a broad smile that resembled the devotees’ own smiles and accepted the garland. Some even asked if they could take a photo with me.
The carpark elevator was crowded with people: five devotees and at least twenty other people. With so many strangers packed together, the atmosphere was tense. And the elevator was stuffy and smelly; the only relief came from the three extremely fragrant garlands I was still wearing, one of which almost touched the floor. I could feel the stares of the other elevator passengers, though I wasn’t sure whether they were staring because of the garlands or my sannyasa cloth, or both. I turned to my secretary who was squashed up next to me.
“Mahavan,” I said, “I am going to make an announcement here. You translate it loud and clear for these people.”
Mahavan looked at me in disbelief. “But Gurudeva…” he said.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said in a loud voice, “I have these beautiful fragrant garlands that my students have kindly given me. They were first offered to God and so they bring auspiciousness to anyone who wears them.”
Everyone, including Mahavan, looked frozen.
“Go on!” I said to him. “Translate it with a smile. I’ve done this a thousand times.”
And it was true. Back in the 1970s I used to ride the underground metro in Paris for hours on end. Dressed in a dhoti and kurta, with full tilak and a garland worn the previous day by Sri Sri Radha Paris-Isvara, I would jump into a metro car and make announcements loudly in French.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Good day to all the fine people of Paris. I am a monk from America and I have just come back from India. I have with me these books written by my spiritual master to share with everyone the wisdom of ancient India. This knowledge can solve all problems and make the world a better place. As I pass by, please take one and give a generous donation.”
I must have said that mantra 100,000 times and sold 10,000 books. Sometimes I met opposition, but generally people were intrigued by my dress, my smile and my boldness and so they took books.
I nudged Mahavan. “Come on,” I encouraged him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began in Russian.
“Louder!” I said to him.
“My spiritual teacher has been given these beautiful, fragrant garlands,” he said a little louder.
When he finished, the elevator was silent. People fidgeted a little and a few glanced nervously around. Time stood still.
Then a lady in her 50s said, “Well, I’d love to have the pink one if I may.”
The atmosphere relaxed and people started gazing openly at the garlands. I put the pink, white and blue one around her neck.
“I so feel honored,” she said breathlessly.
“My pleasure,” I said.
As if to head off any others interested in the remaining garlands another woman said, “I would love to have the yellow one!”
By now everyone, without exception, was smiling. I again remembered Srila Prabhupada’s words: “If you mix with a joyful society or joyful person, then automatically you become joyful.”
As the elevator approached the top floor of the carpark, an elderly man in the corner who was dressed in old black clothes spoke up in a quiet voice.
“May I have the last one, sir, the long one?”
“Of course,” I said, as I placed the garland around his neck. He smiled watching it swing around his ankles.
The pleasant mood broke as soon as the elevator doors opened. Everyone rushed out, focusing on finding their cars. Only the old man moved slowly, choosing his steps carefully and keeping his balance with his cane.
“Sir, is someone picking you up?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he replied. “There’s no one. I am alone.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“Oh, don’t be sorry,” he said. “I have a car and your act of kindness has made my day. I am wearing a wreath of flowers blessed by God! What greater fortune could there be?”
He walked out into the parking lot. It was a curious sight: an old man with disheveled clothes taking deliberate steps into the dim light wearing a garland down to his ankles with a glowing smile upon his face.
“Govinda is the original Personality of Godhead with a flute in His hands. He is very blissful, always smiling. By His smiling, He offers you blessings. And by seeing His smiling you remain everlastingly smiling. It is so nice.”[Srila Prabhupada lecture, Montreal, July 4, 1968]