A Sadhu at Red Square

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One visit behind the iron curtain that changed the course of history.

Moscow, USSR, the early morning of June 21, 1971. The first rays of the sun brightly illuminate the ruby stars on the towers of the Kremlin, the ancient citadel of Russian tsars. Its medieval red brick walls cast long shadows on the cobblestone pavement below. Vast, plain Red Square, the heart of Soviet Moscow, still empty, will soon fill up with visitors and tourists. At dawn there are only a few lonely passers-by. And some street cleaners, mostly older women, sweep the ground with their brooms. Small flocks of grey and motley pigeons, typical residents of Soviet cities, are swiftly taking wing. A water truck is lavishly flooding the pavement to keep down the city dust. The morning freshness is in the air. The big city is waking up.

The central object of Red Square is Lenin's Mausoleum, the sacred shrine of the communist leader. The sanctuary resembles the Babylonian pyramid, the ziggurat. On great holidays, such as the days commemorating the October Socialist Revolution, WW2 Victory Day, and May Day, mass parades are organized in front of the memorial. On those occasions, Red Square shakes from the march of the numerous columns of Soviet laborers, the countless regiments of the Soviet Army, and the rumbles of military heavy equipment such as tanks, howitzers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The leaders of the USSR have welcomed them all from the rostrum of the Mausoleum. Stalin, Khrushchev, and others often stood here. On this June day in 1971, inquisitive tourists in a long queue will wait here to see the embalmed body of the great Lenin.

Red Square is still quiet. The chimes of the Spasskaya Tower strike five times, 5:00 a.m. Along the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, decorated with flowerbeds of yellow and red tulips and filled with marble tombstones covering the graves of eminent Bolsheviks, three young honor guards, coming from the direction of the Spasskaya Gate, march toward the Mausoleum. Wearing dress uniform, with rifles on their shoulders, they make their way in 210 steps (as is done every hour), exactly in 2 minutes 35 seconds. The three boys replace the current honor guards and stop in front of the Mausoleum's entrance, where, sprung to attention, the young cadets with ruddy faces stand motionless and speechless. This is the number one post of the country, the most honorable place and their fulfilled dream.

For these military cadets, this day should pass as usual, a daily routine service, but not this time. A sleepy glance from one of them remarks the movement of some bright spots at a distance. He can't turn his head to look carefully, but his mouth opens in amazement. From beside the State Historical Museum, three strangely dressed people are approaching. One is dressed in bright peach-colored clothes, while the other two are wearing white swaying robes. When the group comes close to him, he sees an elderly Indian flanked by two young men. The Indian gentleman looks aristocratic – short, with golden skin, long earlobes, and a shaved head. The radiance he emanates makes him look like Buddha. He walks a wide step, gracefully throwing his bamboo cane forward. The group stops in front of the Mausoleum, and one of them takes several pictures. These three look too bright for the gray Soviet everyday life, too unusual, like aliens who have landed at Red Square. Before they continue walking, the elderly Indian looks at the boy, and his face lights up with a broad, bright smile. The boy watches them, following them with his eyes until they disappear from his vision.

A Short Visit with Profound Results

The Indian monk was His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual leader of the Hare Krishna movement. After strenuous efforts he had obtained a five-day tourist visa and arrived in the USSR, accompanied by two of his American students – Syamasundara Dasa and Aravinda Dasa. His official purpose was to meet with a Soviet Indologist of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Professor G. G. Kotovsky. But his real purpose was to preach the teachings of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the Soviet Union.

Srila Prabhupada sincerely believed that Krishna's teachings are universal, designed for all lands and capable of solving all the problems of modern society. He also believed that chanting of the holy names of Krishna would spread everywhere in the world. As such, he arrived in the most atheistic country of the world to prove Lord Chaitanya's prophecy that the holy names of Krishna would spread to every town and village.

During his five-day stay in Moscow, Prabhupada was able to meet with Professor Kotovsky and discuss with him the basics of the Vedic understanding of the nature of life, the social structure of society, and many other topics.

He also met two young men. One of them, Anatoli Pinyaev, became his first and only Russian disciple – Ananta Santi Dasa. He would play a key role in the revolutionary spreading of the mission of Krishna consciousness in the Soviet Union.

On the last day of his stay in Moscow, Prabhupada wrote a letter to his disciple Tamal Krishna Dasa:

But more astonishing is the story of Karttikeya Dasa. During the late 1990s he worked for the personal security service of the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin. He often accompanied the president during trips and attended various official events. Once, while on duty, he went to Yeltsin's private office in the Kremlin, and to his surprise he found a copy of Bhagavad-gita As It Is on the president's desk. The book lay open. On its pages were many penciled notes made by the president's hand. Obviously, President Yeltsin was studying the book deeply.

The Sentry's Eternal Fortune

Returning to our sentries on the Red Square: The one Srila Prabhupada smiled at was so impressed by the unexpected encounter that he began searching everywhere for information about the unusual trio. He made inquiries, looked through newspapers, asked his colleagues and friends, but all in vain. Nobody knew anything about an Indian yogi visiting Moscow. Several times he encountered Srila Prabhupada in his dreams. But to his disappointment, he never managed to uncover his identity.

Twenty-seven years passed. The cadet later became a military officer who served and later retired from the army. He lived with his family in a small town in the south of Ukraine. One day in December 1998, a devotee named Venupani Dasa was distributing Srila Prabhupada's books door to door in that town, and he rang the doorbell of the former cadet.

Seeing Srila Prabhupada's photograph on the cover of one of the books, he exclaimed, "I know this man! I saw him many years ago, on Red Square! Who is he? A guru, a real yogi, a saint? I know nothing about him. Tell me, please!"

The man was very happy, as if he had met an old friend. He invited Venupani to come in, and Venupani told him about Srila Prabhupada and introduced him to the Hare Krishna movement, the devotees, the temples, and the philosophy of bhakti. They spent several hours in profound conversation.

At the end, the man bought all the books Venupani had brought and told him, "I want every one of my relatives to have a copy of these books. They all know how often I remembered this Indian yogi, and no one believed me at that time. He appeared so unexpectedly, like a genie fleeing out of a bottle, and just as quickly he disappeared. But now I have all the evidences. And, of course, I'll study his books myself."

The shastras state that even one eleventh of a second (lava-matra) with a saintly person may change a person's destiny:

'sadhu-sanga', 'sadhu-sanga'—sarva-shastre kaya
lava-matra sadhu-sange sarva-siddhi haya

"The verdict of all revealed scriptures is that by even a moment's association with a pure devotee, one can attain all success." (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 22.54) This moment is even faster than the blink of an eye. Because of their purity, great saints can affect the heart of an ordinary person and awaken a strong aspiration to search for spiritual truths. This resembles the contraction of an infectious disease – by coming in contact with its carrier, you may get sick and show the same symptoms. Similarly, devotion to God can be transmitted as a "transcendental infection" received from a saint. This is called the causeless mercy of the Supreme Lord. In this way He manifests His sweet will upon ordinary people through His pure devotees. If you happen to meet such a pure devotee in your life, then you are considered to be very fortunate. Your life will never be the same, as happened with a former cadet who met a real sadhu, Srila Prabhupada, on Red Square in Moscow.

Prabhupada: "Now the time is favorable. The Russians are ordering our books. And there is a prediction – the Russians will be first-class theists." (Conversation, April 2, 1977, Bombay)

About the Author: 

Kashishvara Dasa

Kashishvara Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Indradyumna Swami. He joined ISKCON in 1990 and for many years has been serving the sankirtana movement in post-Soviet countries. He lives in New York City, where he is developing a local community of Russian devotees.

This article comes from the author's upcoming memoir about the history of book distribution in the former Soviet Union. Interested readers may visit his Facebook page: Kashishvar Ids.