Calcutta, India — Saturday, May 22nd

Big storm brings rain

We had a terrific storm here last night, just after I had gone to bed, at about nine o' clock. This storm was almost as bad as the one I experienced here one year ago, almost to the day.

I was just dozing off when I was awoken by loud peals of thunder, and the violent banging of the shutters on my window. I scrambled out of bed to quickly secure the shutters, and watched in amazement as the forked lightening illuminated the sky every few seconds, or so it seemed.

The storm was accompanied by gale force winds from the south that bent the trees, tossed their branches about wildly, and drove the stinging rain down at a sharp enough angle for some drops of rain to blow in through my bedroom window, which — if you consider that there is a two-foot wide concrete overhang above the window — is quite a feat.

This is the first major storm I have witnessed since arriving here, and it was no doubt just a trial run for the monsoon that introduces the rainy season early next month.

As the storm abated, the air became noticeably cooler, and for the first time, I was able to sleep without the overhead fan being turned on all night.

Calcutta, India — Monday, May 24th


I am five floors above the ground, chanting on my japa mala, on the roof of our living quarters here at the Sree Chaitanya Saraswata Krishnanushilana Sangha in Calcutta.

It is early evening, and I have come up to the roof to get some relief from the interminable heat, to try catch a little more than a wisp of the faint cool breeze that has begun to blow from the east, off the kunda (pond) across the road in front of the ashram.

It's a lot cooler up here. I should bring my mattress up on to the roof, I think, and sleep up here under the stars. Ah! — wouldn't the mosquitoes just love that?

Speaking of stars, you can't see that many in the night sky because we are in the city, and because the atmosphere here is so polluted. Now in the quiet country setting of the Seva Ashram in Soquel, California, when you look up at the sky at night the sky is so deep that you almost lose your balance.

If you stare long enough, you find that quietly, imperceptibly, your perspective changes, and instead of looking up, you're now suspended over infinity — and you have a sudden, inexplicable need to clutch on to something, to keep from falling in...

Indeed, it is impossible to look at the night sky without realizing just how infinitesimal you are. Every time I think:

isvaro 'ham aham bhogi...

"I am the Lord of all I survey, I am the enjoyer," and

...ko 'nyo 'sti sadrso maya

"Who can be greater than me?" — I have only to look above me to put things in their proper perspective (and me in my place)!

Calcutta, India — Thursday, May 27th

Russian rigmarole

I am still waiting for the invitation letter that is a prerequisite for my Russian visa. This whole rigmarole of getting a Russian visa can be quite frustrating. After chronicling the trials and tribulations of getting my visa last year, I have refrained from boring you again with the on/off details this year.

I don't know why it has to always be such a hassle to simply get a visa. Avadhut Maharaj and his team have been working on getting me an invitation letter for over a month. You would think that since tourism is a "government priority" in Russia, the visa process would be a little more streamlined.

Not so. As the Moscow Times reported yesterday, "the current visa regime" is hampering Russia's tourist industry: "The hassle of getting a visa... deters a vast number of foreign visitors. Indeed, the whole time-wasting process of applying for a visa draws attention to one of the country's most repellent features: its ubiquitous bureaucracy... Visa reform would attract 25 percent to 50 percent more tourists."

The unnecessary bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining a visa — the necessity of obtaining an invitation letter, the exorbitant $200 cost, and the "trust us" requirement that you buy a non-refundable airline ticket before applying for a visa — is hardly what anyone would call a tourist-friendly policy.

Anyway, the latest news is that I will get my invitation letter this Saturday. We'll see.

Calcutta, India — Sunday, May 30th

Nirjal ekadasi

Today is ekadasi. Not just any ekadasi, but nirjal-ekadasi: a total fast, even from water. This Pandava nirjal-ekadasi takes place at the hottest time, usually in June, in the high summer season.

Srila Sridhar Maharaj explains the history behind this ekadasi:

"Bhima could not control his hunger: his hunger was like a serious disease. So he approached Vedavyasa and said: 'There are many stories in the shastras in praise of observing ekadasi but it is not possible for me to fast. I can't tolerate hunger, so how can I observe Ekadasi? Please recommend something for me.'

"Srila Vedavyasa then advised: 'You must observe at least one ekadasi in the year, this Pandava nirjal-ekadasi. At this hottest time of the year, you shall not take even one drop of water.' So it was sanctioned like that. Bhima observed only one ekadasi, without a drop of water."

Of course, this concession was made for the Pandava, Bhima — also known by the epithet Vrikodarah, the voracious eater — in the Dvapara Yuga, but some devotees who have not strictly or properly followed ekadasi throughout the year observe this nirjal-ekadasi as a way of atoning for their transgressions.

Generally, though, such strict fasting is not recommended. In The Golden Staircase, Srila Guru Maharaj says:

"It is described in the shastras that in Satya Yuga, as long as a man's bones exist, that is how long he will live. Along with the longevity of the bones, the life will be there. In Treta Yuga life may be maintained by the nervous system. And it is stated that in Kali Yuga one's longevity depends on food.

"In Kali Yuga it is not possible to live without food. The only continuous fast allowed in Kali Yuga is for twenty-four hours: not more than that. Twenty-four hour fasting is the maximum allowed, because without food a man cannot survive."

Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Prabhupad did not advocate unnecessary fasting either. His maxim was: "Take full prasadam, and do full seva." He preached: "Take whatever is necessary for the cause of Krishna, not for your own cause. You are Krishna's: if you grow weak, your service will be hampered, and you will be the loser."

So take full prasadam, and do full service!

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