If all had gone according to plan, I would have started my ultimate Tasmanian backpacking adventure with an ocean kayaking exercise this weekend. But I decided few weeks ago that I was going to sacrifice this pleasure and spend time instead with the devotees at the Melbourne Hare Krishna Temple who would more or les provide me with the same, perhaps more adventure and memories. I couldn’t have been more right as this weekend, I went on a farm retreat with His Holiness Devamrita Swami and his wonderful disciples.
I started the year 2008 with a similar retreat with the same group and it was good that I was finishing the year with another one. The bus arrived pretty much on time and after a great morning breakfast, everyone boarded with excitement in plenty. It was a packed bus and the entire trip was filled with nice kirtan from the CD. The bus driver had no idea what was going on.
After an hour and half drive, we reached the “Hare Krishna Valley”. Almost everyone was familiar with the place and upon disembarking, people began to move into the different rooms in the cottages outside of the main function room.
When we landed at the site, the day looked pretty gloomy. There were remarks from some devotees that it might rain. Although, we are in dire need of the rain, I was in no mood for it. In the Victorian mountains, it can get pretty windy and cold when it starts to rain. And I hadn’t taken the right warm cloths and bedding for the night. But as you can see from the pic above, by the time we came out of the room, it was all Sun ! And was getting warmer by the minute. The whole experience of being there was like going away from the “colorful” and distracting life of Melbourne city to a place with plenty of silence. It was like going back to the past. So, my rest of the pics will be in the old fashioned 2 colors.
We all assembled at the main room which now had beautiful kirtan going on. It didn’t take that long for the travelers to get into gear and start their active participation in singing. It was just like being back at the temple.
And quietly, His Holiness Devamrita Swami, accompanied by Gopal Vrndesh and Nanda Mandir prabhu entered. Everyone paid their obeisances and accompanied the maharaj in his version of the kirtan. Once this was over and after welcoming one and all to the farm retreat, he began to go through the Srimad Bhagavatam book to choose the right verse for the theme of the day.
Maharaj was going to talk about how everyone was a part of the current world problems. He wanted us to understand our ever increasing and important role in today’s world. He choose 2 events which brought back memories for many – September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre (USA) and the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks. Many of us consider these terrorist attacks and issues caused by someone else and that the general public have got nothing to do with it. However, he said that we muct take the blame ourselves and not just blame a particular group or country or religion. We can humbly include ourselves as a part of the problem by taking the attitude of not having done enough to enlighten the world with spiritual knowledge. He explained very clearly the need for Hare Krishna devotees to set a standard of excellence, a beacon of hope for the world to see and emulate.
We were made to watch a documentary titled – Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero
This documentary series by FRONTLINE and a PBS broadcast looks at the questions raided by the relatives of the victims who lost their lives at the World Trade Centre – “Where was God on Sept. 11? What is the nature of evil? Would the world be better off without religion? Or is religion our last refuge?”. FRONTLINE’s interviews religious leaders and thinkers, writers, and people personally affected by Sept. 11, who confront these questions with courage and candor.
VOICES OF SEPTEMBER 11
The drama of faith and doubt began when the first plane disappeared into the North Tower. Here are testimonies of six people who suffered terrible losses on Sept. 11, and two who survived the destruction of the World Trade Center.
The documentary had videos that covered :
1. THE QUESTION OF GOD
2. THE QUESTION OF EVIL
3. THE QUESTION OF RELIGION
4. EPILOGUE : GROUND ZERO
After Sept 11, people of many faiths, the face of God was altered; the old, comforting images no longer sufficed. How did Sept. 11 affect our notions of what God is and isn’t?
A writer who lost her husband said she could not talk to God the way she used to. With great sadness, she went on to say, ” And so I felt like God was just not present in me the way it had been. I guess all I feel at this point is the profound absence of Dave. And my conversations with God that I used to have, I don’t have anymore. I just can’t bring myself to talk. … I used to talk quietly to myself or to God and say, “Thank you for Dave. Thank you for Aidan. Thank you for my life. God bless everyone. God bless the children.” You know, “Please heal the sick.” You know, the usual blessings. And now I can’t bring myself to speak to Him anymore because I feel so abandoned. I guess deep down inside I know that He still exists and that I have to forgive and move on, but I’m not ready to do that yet.”
A Bangaldeshi parents wished tearfully that both their daughter and son-in-law go to Allah together. He said, “I pray to Allah that if they survive, let them both survive. If they have to die, let them both go to Allah together. What was Allah’s wish? My daughter and her husband both went to Allah together.”
A fireman who lost his son and who broke down many times during the interview could not understand why God didn’t do anything to save his son. “But He had nothing to do with this. There were a lot more people who could have been killed. He was fighting evil that day, like He does every day.”
A New York City police woman who lost her daughter saw her loss in a different way, “I never question why God didn’t intervene. I often ask the question as to why He picked her, but I have come to the conclusion that I felt God knew something that I didn’t know. Maybe He felt that she, even though she was here 23 years, that she was suffering a lot more than I knew about. And I felt that God knew best. I always felt that way when He takes someone — that He knows better than we do”
Then there was a show of anger from a security guard who lost his friends:
“And I had to come down to the beach here to just let loose, and it was brutal. I let loose at God. I fired all of my barrels at Him. It might sound crazy, but I cursed Him. I damned Him. I think God could have just ended this all. That’s why I feel strongly that I’m losing respect for Him. I know there’s a trinity. I believe in the Son, but the Father I’m having a rough time dealing with. I’m really having a rough time. I don’t have any love for God. For the weeks that followed September 11, it was really hatred. I can’t accept this unless I can have an answer as to why it all occurred. … When I come down here, and no question about it, I cry when I come down here, and I’ll talk to my friends. I think my friends can hear me. God knows they are watching over all of us. I feel sometimes that they are helping me along with my life, trying to make me stronger. … It was too barbaric the way the lives were taken. That wasn’t mercy. So I look at Him now as a barbarian, and I probably will, and it’s a sad situation. I think I am a good Christian, but I have a different view and image of Him now and I can’t replace it with the old image. I can’t replace it with the old image”
An Orthodox rabbi and the vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City said,”If God’s ways are mysterious, then don’t tell me about the plan. Live with the mystery. It’s upsetting, it’s scary, it’s painful, it’s deep, it’s rich, and it’s interesting; but no plan. That’s what mystery is. It’s all of those things. You want plan? Then tell me about plan. But if you’re going to tell me about how the plan saved you, you’d better also be able to explain how the plan killed them. And the test of that has nothing to do with saying it in your synagogue or your church. The test of that has to do with going and saying it to the person who just buried someone and look in their eyes and tell them, “God’s plan was to blow your loved one apart.” Look at them and tell them that God’s plan was that their children should go to bed every night for the rest of their lives without a parent. If you can say that, well, at least you’re honest. I don’t worship the same God. But that at least has integrity.
An Episcopal priest in Manhattan who volunteered at Ground Zero in the days after Sept. 11 began to ponder, ” The struggle for me from Sept. 11, from the very beginning of that disaster, was the sense of a disconnect between the sanitary and the triumphalistic nature of worship, and the pristine building as beautiful as that is, and the horror that was taking place blocks away. And after so many services, sanitized services, I realized that I couldn’t talk about what was going on unless I was a part of it, unless I had the dirt on me. I believe that we have to preach the gospel, and if necessary use words. And I didn’t want to preach about something I hadn’t experienced firsthand, because I didn’t believe I had any credibility to truly discuss the depth of what had happened unless I actually saw it. …Prior to Sept. 11, the face of God for me was one that was strong, secure, consistent. A face that, while at times seemed distant, can more or less be counted on to be there. Who kept things in order; the sun would come up, the sun would go down. Who would provide, could be counted on. And after Sept. 11, the face of God was a blank slate for me. God couldn’t be counted on in the way that I thought God could be counted on. That’s what I felt as I stood on Ground Zero. God seemed absent. It was frightening, because the attributes that I had depended upon in the past, when thinking about the face of God, had all been stripped away, and I was left with nothing but that thing we call faith. But faith in what? I wasn’t so sure..”
A professor of Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University said with firmness,” When you see human behavior like this, for me, it just reconfirms my atheism. It doesn’t make me militant about it at all. I’m not proud of it. It’s just a view of the world. It’s just the way I am. I can’t make meaning of the world otherwise. But I certainly couldn’t make meaning of the world through some notion of God after a horror like that. … It just affirms that hopelessness”
A Jewish rabbi and the president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City concluded his understand about the Lord, “But atheism is the greatest cleanser. Atheism may be the most religious posture in a moment in which either most people think they have to believe in something they don’t believe in, or the people that actually believe in that God are doing so much damage. So maybe atheism is the great corrective right now and is actually the most religious response.For me, that there’s something “out there,” and that I’m here, no longer meant anything, because every time I thought there was something “out there,” it turns into inevitably something opposed to me. Something I have to define myself against, whether that’s God, or whether that’s a Christian, or whether that’s a Muslim, or whether that’s a Buddhist. And that’s not my experience. My genuine experience of life is that there is nothing “out there.” This is all there is. And when you see the seamlessness of it all, that’s what I mean by God. Everything is one. Not that there’s some guy hanging out there who has it all together, who we call “One,” but that it is all one.”
Above interview summary content from PBS.ORG link on this topic.
Once the series came to an end, HH Devamrita Swami turned to us and asked us to think about all these statements. And with that we all broke out for a break with many discussing about what they had seen and heard. In the evening, we continued our discussion about why its important for the Hare Krishnas to educate the people about the science of God – giving them laboratory processess that they can utilize and understand. He called it the “Bhakti Lab”. Sri Krishna in the Bhagavd Gita gives all people the perfect process of understanding and loving God. And it has nothing to do with body conscious religion where people identify themselves to a particular faith and religion they are born in. HH wished that people of all faiths would get together to understand Krishna and His teachings and compare them to what they know about God. He said its was nonense that people in general classified you as a sectarian religion the moment you spoke about Krishna.
The day was intense for me. The early morning rise, the 2 hour bus ride, the tasty lunch prasadam, the documentaries on the question of God, the sumptuous dinner prasadam, the discussions and philosophies. A perfect day to get the head to contemplate. And a perfect night to have a good sleep. Comfortable bed, warm night, plenty of Krishna thoughts and surrounded by devotees in the room. Again, PERFECT. At about midnight, I woke up to strange noises all around. It was dark and took a while to figure what the enormous noises were. Devotees snoring. Maybe, I snored too. But who is there to tell. Anyways, I tried to sleep after that but couldn’t.
At 3am, I got up and decided to get ready for Mangal aroti. I had the entire washroom to myself, not to mention the unlimited supply of warm water. With fresh dhotis and kurtas, a beaming tilaka, I trekked up the hill in the darkness, chanting and hoping that I wouldn’t step on any tiger snakes.
I managed to capture in the nick of time, yet another beautiful image:
After the morning prayers, everyone settled to start and finish their 16 rounds of chanting the Hare Krishna Maha mantra. Since I woke up before eveyone and start the rounds early, I finished my rounds earlier than others. This meant I had some time to read my Srimad Bhagavatam. But hardly had I started to read the few verses, I began to fall asleep. I just couldn’t keep those eyes open. I knew if I let myself sleep now, I would have a fine few hours of slumber. But NO!! I must not fall into temptation. So, I decided to wander off to the kitchen to be motivated.
These guys worked left, right and centre for the 2 days we were there. When everyone got a chance to watch exciting documentaries, contemplate on lectures from a senior guru, play soccer and cricket, spent hours socializing, these 2 prabhus along with a few more spent many hours preparing food that we relished in a very hot kitchen.
Koti prabhu ensured that everything “electrically” related were in full functional order. From the microphones to laptops to MP3s to recordings, he had them all up and running in no time.
The sunday morning kirtan was led by Sri Yasoda mataji with her husband (left) on the kartalas, Bishnu prabhu on the Mrndanga and Krishna Amrita with his wife (not in pic) on the kartals. In 2008, I personally felt that I had not listened to such soothing kirtan as what mataji performed. It was just so special and the music is still ringing in my ears. Only if I could sing like that !
On day 2, His Holiness refered to a verse from Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, verse 25
saktah karmany avidvamso
yatha kurvanti bharata
kuryad vidvams tathasaktas
“As the ignorant perform their duties with attachment to results, the learned may similarly act, but without attachment, for the sake of leading people on the right path.”
It was another morning of riveting lecture. He spoke about how we can live a Krishna consciousness life which externally might not seem different to the living of a non-Krishna consciousness person. A devotee can have a car, house, gadgets but if they are all used in connection with increasing the self and the world’s interest in knowledge of God, then one is truly successful and is immediately freed from all the anxieties that a person who buys these things for personal pleasure suffers. He said that “Simple Living, High Thinking” actually means that we do not involve in any activities that do not have Krishna as the centre and as the supreme enjoyer.
We had a long and beautiful prasadam session out in the early morning sun. I always have been a fan of the outdoors and it was great to be in the company of devotees and talk about the last 2 days of lectures. Here we are sitting around Nanda Mandi prabhu whose back you can see. Later in the day, the devotees, who had been intensely practising for 2 weeks, staged a beautiful collection of 2 stories related to Haridas Thakur, one of the most prominet Vaishnava saint and associate of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, 500 years ago.
Haridas Thakur was one of the pioneers of the early Hare Krishna movement. Although he was born a muslim, he took to Vaishnavism with much seriousness and preached the glories of the name of God – Krishna to one and all.
Kripa Sindu who was the “battery” and the “energy pack” for the entire retreat played a very memorable role as the prostitute who aimed to disturb the sanctity of Haridas Thakur but ended up being a staunch devotee herself just by listening to the chanting of the Holy name from the lips of Haridas thakur for 3 continuous days. Kripa Sindu was also the director of the 2 plays and he recieved a good ovation from one and all.
I am not sure if anyone within the Melbourne devotee community could have played the role of an administrator as wonderfully as Chetan prabhu. He carried such weight to the role that in no time the audience accepted him as evil. He set the scene well for the first story by saying, “I am very disturbed about the presence in our village of a character named -well, they call him Haridas, although he is actually a muslim by birth. He does not understand our culture and religion. He is inducting low-class people to overstep their bounds and engage in brahminical activities. And all over people are neglecting their work and join in this annoying chanting of mantras. It is a disturbance to society. Anyway, he is posing as a sadhu, and many innocent people are being deceived. But my friends and I have devised a plan.”
The Muslim Kazi (Magistrate) tells Haridas Thakur, “If you do not change we will cut you in pieces. Either give up your belief or die.”
Haridasa replied firmly, “If my body is hacked to pieces and even if I am killed—still I will keep chanting Hare Krishna.”
The infuriated Kazi ordered Haridasa Thakura publicly whipped to death. He was brutally beaten, dragged through twenty-two markets, and thrown in the Ganges. Absorbed in remembering Lord Hari, he miraculously survived by God’s grace. The Kazi, the brahmanas, and his rivals ran to Haridasa. They gave Haridasa Thakura an enthusiastic welcome and begged forgiveness for their offenses. He forgave them and blessed them with devotion. Haridasa thought the ordeal was fit punishment for his having heard Vaisnava blasphemy from the mouth of the Kazi.
Before lunch I was fortunate enough to have a personal meeting with Devamrita Swami. Thankfully, I recollected all that I had to say. He asked who I was, what work I did, what I thought of the 2 days of lectures. I spoke a little about each of these and finished by saying, “I wish you a very happy new year, thank you so much for coming and I am looking forward to seeing you next year“. At this point, I want to thank profusely Brahma Kunda prabhu and Gopal Vrindesh for organizing this meeting. THANK YOU !
After lunch, I decided that I needed to get some sleep in. I was almost losing my battle against the waking state. When I entered the room, I was surprised to see my fellow devotee room mates already there and sleeping !! But no snoring 🙂 And even if they did, I was so ready for a few hours of dozing off. At about 4pm, Brahma Kunda prabhu, a major player in arranging the retreat gently woke me up. He said it was time to come back to the function room for the evening prayers, lecture and the drive back. Washing my face, thanking Krishna for a good sleep, I walked towards the melodius singing of Sri Yasoda mataji again.
HH Devamrita Swami spoke about how we can see Krishna. He once again stressed the importance of understanding Krishna’s words scientifically. When Krishna said that we can see Him in the Moon, in the taste of water or in man’s abilities, its not poetry but experiments that we should perform and actually all should be involved in before they conclude that there is no God or Krishna.
There was annoucement that we would finish the day and return to Melbourne after an ecstatic Kirtan. And as usual, it was wild !!!
Then with loud chanting of “Hari Bol”, the evening came to an end. Everyone knew it. Devamrita Swami slowly walked back to his car. Everyone watched. Perhaps, everyone wanted another few days. But we all had to get back. Some back to universities. Others had work commitments. While others were back to serving the temple. But in all cases, we were surely motivated and inspired. We would now meet the Monday and the rest of the days with the hope that we give everyone a chance to hear about Krishna. We would ensure that we lead a Krishna Consicous life that others can watch and be inspired to try it out. We would strive for “Simple Living, High Thinking”. For many, this started out in the farm. And for many, there was a new view of the world. They understood that they were in the midst of it all he problems and from now on they would be in the midst of all the soultions as well. And they knew how.