By Urmila Devi Dasi
Two leaders of the Moscow temple project flourished in devotion to Krishna behind the Iron Curtain.
The goal was a nation of atheists. Over three generations—seventy years—the government had an explicit, determined policy to create such a nation. As in the other Soviet Republics, atheistic propaganda permeated education and social life in Armenia. Any slight practice of devotion to God, in any religion, whether public or private, often met with swift, brutal consequences.
One day in an Armenian mountain village, a typically atheistic engineer, a man well respected in his community, sat outside for a smoke. When a truck came to deliver a package, he and his friend the truck driver talked about news from the city. As the driver carried the package to the engineer’s house, the engineer saw an unusual book in the truck: a Russian translation of Sri Ishopanishad. Curious, he picked it up.
He looked at the photo of Srila Prabhupada on the back and thought, “How amazing that there is someone like this living on this planet!”
Then he spontaneously fell on the ground to offer obeisance to the photo.
“What is this book?” he asked the returning driver.
“Oh, someone forced it on me. You want it? I don’t need it.”
The engineer spent the rest of the day absorbed in Prabhupada’s translation of this key Upanishad of the Yajur Veda. In those nineteen verses and commentaries, the engineer found two points he decided to put into practice at once, not only for himself but for his whole family. From that very day, his family, including his six children, became vegans and chanted the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.
Two years later, the engineer, who was to become an initiated disciple named Brahmananda Puri Dasa, was able to meet other devotees of Krishna. He learned they were secretly printing spiritual books, often compiling them by hand or with minimal, poor equipment. He offered the use of his large house and cellar for printing. Using a little money from previous book sales and his own savings, he started procuring printing equipment. Since printing was illegal, getting the equipment was not a matter of an open purchase from a store, but involved great risk and ingenuity. Often he had to barter and finagle even to get paper, generally unavailable at any price.
Eventually, Brahmananda Puri had a full printing press in his cellar. Being the main person responsible for printing forbidden religious books, he was taking the highest risk of all the Soviet devotees. While those producing and selling the books in small quantity were in constant jeopardy of days, months, or a few years of torture and imprisonment in jails and psychiatric hospitals, Brahmananda Puri’s arrest would have most likely resulted in over fifteen years of punishment, and probably eventual execution.
After Communism collapsed in the Soviet countries and printing became legal, Brahmananda Puri printed close to ten million books with very little capital. Today he is one of the key people making the planned Moscow temple a reality. He secures the permits, gets government approval, and moves the process forward.
A Science Student’s Discovery
Far from that Armenian village, an atheistic scientist walked through Moscow’s streets. It was 1977, and he was then a brilliant graduate student, attending chemistry classes at Moscow State University. The idea that life could be connected with religion was the furthest thing from his imagination. But after the Moscow Book Fair, at which devotees “lost” some books and leaflets, one of his friends became a vegetarian. He also noticed his friend becoming unusually secretive. The scientist student, under his friend’s influence, also gave up meat, fish, and eggs, and read the Bhagavad-gita in Russian, although it was a translation other than Srila Prabhupada’s. Soon he discovered the reason behind his friend’s newfound furtive behavior. To avoid arrest he was hiding his chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra.
That scientist, who much later accepted the renounced order and the name Bhakti Vijnana Goswami, felt shocked when reading the Gita. His father and grandfather held high and respected positions as scientists, and all his family were atheists. Yet the Gita affected him as only one other book—the Gospel of John—had done. After reading the Gita, he felt he couldn’t live as he had before. The book presented such a harmonious and beautiful picture of life that it beckoned him to leave an existence he no longer felt satisfying.
He noted, however, that the main difference between reading the Gospel and the Gita was that after the former, he didn’t know how to change or what to change. Now, along with the Gita, his friend had given him the practice of the four regulative principles (no intoxication, no illicit sex, no gambling, no meat, fish, or eggs) and the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Bhakti Vijnana Goswami’s taking up the chanting of Hare Krishna is particularly remarkable given that his friend explained nothing about the meaning or nature of the mantra. He simply said that chanting would be good for him. He didn’t explain who Krishna is. The translation of the Gita he had read used the word Bhagavan (meaning God, full of all opulences) but not Krishna. In any case, as a scientist, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami decided to experiment with the mantra. To his great happiness, it moved him profoundly.
He knew that if he was caught chanting, arrest with torture might follow. So, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami’s first chanting aid was a string of twenty-seven beads instead of the traditional 108, enabling him to hide his japa beads quickly if needed.
When his friend took him to meet other devotees, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami was disappointed. Most were not intellectuals like his associates. He appreciated that they were peaceful people and found much joy from kirtana. He was intrigued and kept chanting, yet did not make a full commitment.
Meeting the KGB
One day as Bhakti Vijnana Goswami walked to the area where he worked on campus, he got a message that his academic advisor wanted to see him. While walking up the stairs to the office, he saw his advisor, usually bold and outgoing, hastily walking the other way, his face as white as paper.
Trembling, with a choked voice, his advisor said, “Someone wants to see you in my office.”
In the office waited a man three times his size. The huge man smiled and then showed his identification—a colonel of the KGB. The student who had remained only remotely connected with the Hare Krishna movement had not expected such an encounter. Now, he felt sure he was in deep and dangerous trouble.
The KGB colonel did not even try to reason with the frightened young man.
“You are an educated man, with a bright future and career in front of you. But somehow you got involved with people who are very dangerous. I hope you know that it is your duty to report to us about them. We are not asking very much. But if you do it, your career will prosper. You’ll be promoted. If you don’t, you may be kicked out of your studies, and you’ll have no future. You may even go to prison, where all these other people will end up.”
He could only reply, “Sir, I cannot give you an answer now.”
The KGB man relented slightly.
“Okay, but you have to come to our place in three days to let me know.”
The young student dabbling in spiritual life felt fearful.
“What will happen?” he thought. “I’ll have no future. I’ll go to prison.”
But then he had quite a different idea.
“How is it that the KGB takes this chanting so seriously as to send a colonel to threaten me just for a little practice of it? It must be something very powerful and important.”
Thus the KGB colonel acted as a type of guru, pushing Bhakti Vijnana Goswami to delve seriously into spiritual life.
Powerful Advice from a Petite Source
His new determination sat side by side in his heart with the fear of the KGB threat. He decided to consult with one of the more intellectual devotees, a petite nineteen-year-old woman named Malini Devi Dasi. He secretly confided in her about the office encounter.
She laughed and said with strong conviction, “They cannot do anything to you. You are an eternal soul.”
Her words struck him like lightening.
“They cannot do anything to the real me,” he realized.
A wave of calm engulfed him, and the fear vanished.
“This tiny woman has transformed my vision,” he concluded.
Later that day he was at his appointment with the KGB, feeling cool and confident.
The secret meeting was in one of the city’s international hotels, all of which were under the government’s close watch. In a small room, the colonel and another man sat, smiling.
“So,” the colonel said lightly, “did you think about my offer?”
“I am not going to work for you, because it is against my principles.”
The colonel jumped from his chair and yelled, “What principles do you stupid fools have besides four regulative? Go home now, but you should know you are finished.”
Bhakti Vijnana Goswami walked calmly out of the room and traveled to the empty apartment a friend had given him in Moscow. He decided all would be fine, somehow or other.
A Fateful Home Festival
His spiritual practices at home became much more serious, and he decided to hold a large festival in his home. The kirtana for the festival was exuberant, even roaring. Bhakti Vijnana Goswami felt good to have hosted such a huge, important celebration. But three days later, half the festival participants were arrested and taken into custody. The officials brought in Bhakti Vijnana Goswami as a witness to the charges against the devotees. Their so-called interrogation of him was, in fact, torture. The officers recounted to him many details of the festival, including what was said by whom, when, and under what circumstances. To create a fearful atmosphere in which hiding anything would be useless, they wanted to give the impression that they were everywhere and knew everything.
After this incident in 1983, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami wound up his activities in Moscow because he was in the last year of that part of his studies. He practically ran from Moscow to his hometown to take shelter of his highly placed father and grandfather. The KGB’s hand reached there relentlessly three days later in the form of a letter demanding an appointment.
Each week they required him to come to a meeting where agents psychologically tortured him. He was materially well situated, and they threatened to dismantle his life. The situation was scary, but inevitably during these sessions the sweet voice of the mantra would come to him. The mantra was unlike the voice of his own mind, and had a powerful effect similar to the courageous words of Malini. So, at each meeting he would start off feeling very fearful, and then the mantra would come and he would become calm to the point of laughing inside. At that same moment, the interrogator, who had previously seemed intense, would suddenly become uneasy and timid.
After four sessions, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami decided simply not to go any more. To his amazement, for the next two years he heard nothing from the KGB. He was teaching others about Krishna, distributing books, and meeting with people to discuss Krishna. He also defended his thesis and got his Ph.D. in molecular biology from the Soviet Academy of Science. Life seemed peaceful.
During this time, an American devotee, Kirtiraja Dasa, had been working to help the Soviet devotees. He wanted Bhakti Vijnana Goswami to translate Prabhupada’s books into Russian because he was the most educated among the devotees. Devotees with little or no formal training in English had done most of the first Russian translations of the scriptures from Prabhupada’s English. Then someone outside Russia who had only a little training in Russian would edit them, using a pre-revolution English-to-Russian dictionary. The results were poor from a literary point of view. For example, Prabhupada’s term “devotional service to the Lord” became “devotional slavery,” and “servants” of God became “slaves.” Even though the books had these types of problems, and were often handmade—pages were missing and the print was hard to decipher—many people took up Krishna consciousness by reading them. But Kirtiraja wanted to bring the Russian books up to a world standard.
If Bhakti Vijnana Goswami stayed in Russia to translate, he would be under an ever-present threat of arrest. To assure that high-quality book translation could continue unhindered, Kirtiraja wanted to get Bhakti Vijnana Goswami to the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust office in Sweden. Through various maneuvers, including having devotees in Sweden fast and protest outside the Russian embassy, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami was allowed to emigrate to Sweden, where he spent eight years translating Prabhupada’s books into Russian. Today he is one of the key spiritual leaders in the former Soviet bloc and is at the helm of the Moscow temple project.
Decades of government-induced atheism in the Soviet bloc simply increased people’s hunger for spiritual life. Now that a consumer culture has been introduced, people have become frustrated on both sides. They know that both communism and capitalism are cheating, because material happiness has not increased. To find lasting and expansive happiness that the soul seeks, one must go to the reservoir of pleasure, the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna. Devotees such as Brahmananda Puri and Bhakti Vijnana Goswami are not content to drink alone from that reservoir. They want to bring the opportunity of loving service to Krishna to all who thirst for full satisfaction. In Oman, frankincense trees grow out of solid rock. Here in Russia, the most beautiful and fragrant plants of love of God were growing out of unyielding iron. Who had planted such seeds?
The Krishna consciousness movement started from Prabhupada’s three-day visit to Moscow, where he initiated one disciple, Ananta Santi Dasa. In that land of scarcity, where a two-hour wait for a little bread or milk was common, people were keen to get for themselves any opulence that others might have.
So, Ananta Shanti would tell whomever he met, “Do you already have a mantra?”
Without knowing what a mantra was, they would say, “No, I don’t have one of those.”
“Oh, all my friends already chant a mantra. Why don’t you do so as well?”
Soon, those he had induced to chant were printing leaflets that explained the chanting from a scientific point of view, also referencing the parapsychology popular in the Soviet Union. At least seventy per cent of the people who read these leaflets started chanting Hare Krishna. The movement started to swell.
Today, a visit to Russia’s annual Hare Krishna festival in September puts one in the midst of the largest crowd of devotees of all ISKCON’s festivals. Throughout the world, the movement is growing the fastest in former Soviet bloc countries, and it is common for entire extended families—grown children, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—to decide together to devote their lives to Lord Krishna. Surely it is fitting for these devotees, who have sacrificed more than most even to do simple acts of devotion, to have a place of worship equal to their dedication.