Calcutta, India — Monday, May 23rd
In the evening, when I get ready to leave for my trip to Kiev, Srila Gurudeva gives me Srila Guru Maharaj's garland that he is wearing, embraces me affectionately, and asks his chauffeur, Jayadeva Prabhu to drive me to the airport in his air conditioned car.
What can I say? Srila Gurudeva has been so very kind to me, especially this past year that we have been together. As I walk to the door, he says: "Maharaj, you will come back?" I laugh, happily. "I certainly hope so, Gurudeva!" Then, soberly, with folded hands: "With your blessings, Gurudeva."
As the plane lifts up into the sky, I am struck by how clean, how like a normal city Calcutta looks, from just a few hundred feet in the air; the veil of night hides her dirty face well...
Kiev, Ukraine — Tuesday, May 24th
It is a beautiful sunny morning in Kiev. The Aerosvit Boeing 767 glides down from a clear sky onto the runway at the Boryspil airport. The temperature is a mild 21°C (70°F) — a relief after the 40°C (104°F) heat of Calcutta.
I breeze through Customs and Immigration; Swarup Prabhu, Krishna Bhakta Prabhu, and Kanu Prabhu welcome me to the Ukraine, and we drive to the new preaching center (an apartment that Sripad Avadhut Maharaj has rented) just off Garmatnaya Street, about fifteen minutes from the city center. Garmatnaya is Ukrainian for "cannon," so it is an appropriate place to have a preaching center in the war against maya!
The city is so lovely at this time of the year: all the trees lining the streets are in bloom. In the evening we take a pleasant stroll down one of the many boulevards to the Palace of Culture (these community halls have such grand names!) where I give a talk to a small gathering of about twenty-five devotees and guests.
Kiev, Ukraine — Wednesday, May 25th
Taking to the streets
Today, we go on nagar-sankirtan — chanting the maha-mantra in the streets of Kiev. I'm not particularly thrilled, but when in Kiev...
Krishna Bhakta Prabhu, Kanu Prabhu, Swarup Prabhu and I drive to the Verkhny Gorod (Upper Town) — also known as Old Kiev — and park near the famous Saint Sophia's Cathedral.
We start at the Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gate) square, one of the few remaining fortifications built by Prince Yaroslav the Wise in 1017-1024. We walk and chant down to the University [in the name] of Taras Shevchenko (named after the famous poet, "the father of modern Ukrainian literature"). A street vendor selling long peacock feathers watches us curiously, smiles, and spontaneously hands a peacock feather to me.
We turn left, and walk down to the Mandarin Plaza. It is lunch hour, so the streets are full of pedestrians. People stare, gape, and rubberneck. At the corner of the plaza, a young boy stares at me curiously, quizzically, from behind his mother's skirt. I wink at him. He closes one eye slowly, elaborately.
We turn left, and walk towards Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). In the square, a woman with a camera runs up to us, asks permission, and has her friend take her a picture posing with us. We retrace our steps. A busload of schoolchildren at the traffic light press their hands and faces against the windows, crane their necks, and stare down at us in amazement. I smile and wave. They all wave back.
Can you tell that I am having fun?
I know what you're thinking: "Akinchan Maharaj chanting in the streets?! Enjoying it?! Yeah, right. Pull the other one."
But it's true!
Yes, I don't especially like going out. I don't want to save the world. My chanting is not going to purify the environment. But Srila Gurudeva will be pleased to hear that I am going out on nagar-sankirtan. So I go, because I want to try to please him. And surprisingly, I find that I am having fun... Go figure.
Kiev, Ukraine — Thursday, May 26th
On the go
Yesterday I gave another talk three-hour talk at the Palace of Culture, from 6:00–9:00 p.m. Many new questions were asked, and I spent another ninety minutes outside the hall, speaking informally to some of the more curious individuals.
The night before, on Tuesday, I also spent four and a half hours at the hall. Nine hours in two days: I didn't have to work such long hours at my old networking job in Silicon Valley!
At midday, we return to the Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota) square in Old Kiev, and spend a pleasant couple of hours talking to three of the guests who attended the lecture and asked so many questions at the community hall yesterday evening.
When these sincere seekers — Konstantin, Pavel, and Oksana — heard that we were going to travel to Zaporizhzhya (an industrial port on the Dnieper River, east of Kiev and Odessa) this evening, they arranged to meet us here during their lunch hour to hear once more about Srila Gurudeva's beautiful conception of divinity before we left.
At seven-thirty Kanu Prabhu and Krishna Bhakta Prabhu drive Swarup Prabhu and me to the main train station to get the overnight train to Zaporizhzhya. Forty minutes later, Swarup and I begin our nocturnal journey. (Kanu and Krishna Bhakta will drive to Dnipropetrovs'k to meet Avadhut Maharaj, and we will join them on Saturday morning.)
I remember the overnight train ride that I took in the reverse direction sixteen months ago... We stop at Mironovka and Korsun for two minutes apiece, and reach "In the name of Shevchenko" at 11:15 p.m.
Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine — Friday, May 27th
The overnight train from Kiev to Zaporizhzhya reaches Znamyanka at forty minutes after midnight. We continue southeast, stopping briefly at stations with such tongue-twisting names like Oleksandria, Pyatihatki, Verhovceve, Dniprodzerzhynsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Sinelikovo, before clattering into the main train station in Zaporizhzhya at 6:37 a.m.
Gopeshwar Prabhu and his wife Yuteshwari Devi Dasi, Gandharva Devi Dasi, Ishapriya Devi Dasi, and Ishwar Prabhu are on the platform to meet and garland us. I was supposed to be interviewed by TV5 at seven o' clock this morning, but we cancelled that interview yesterday because I did not have had enough time to get from the train station to the studio.
Ishwar Prabhu drives Swarup and me to Sanatan Prabhu's apartment, where we will stay while we are here in Zaporizhzhya, and the rest of the welcome party goes off to their day jobs. They will join us at a downtown park after work this afternoon.
At five o' clock, we meet about ten devotees at the park where they have arranged to go on nagar-sankirtan again. I'm, like, "Guys? Maybe you have mistaken me for Sripad Siddhanti Maharaj or one of the other famous kirtan'eers...?"
It is a warm afternoon, and the park and streets are filled with workers looking forward to enjoying the weekend. For the next two hours we chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra first in the park, then up the main city street for about thirty blocks and down the other side again. I'm perspiring profusely by the time we return to the park.
Do I get to take a break? Um, no. I am bundled into a car and quickly driven to one of those ubiquitous Cultural Palaces. Apparently the tracts and flyers that were handed out during the nagar-sankirtan advertised a lecture in the town hall by a famous itinerant monk whose search for reality has taken him from Africa to India, and now all over the world...
I am surprised at the large gathering: there must be at least eighty people in the audience. I speak about the science of self-realization, about subjective versus objective evolution of consciousness, and about the superiority of the Krishna conception of divinity.
Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine — Saturday, May 28th
Another day, another city
I have been on the go ever since I got here to the Ukraine on Tuesday morning, but then I haven't exactly been a paragon of industry this last year, now have I? It's about time I stopped goofing off, pretending to serve Srila Gurudeva, and actually did some real service.
In the morning we all pile into Sakshi Gopal Prabhu's jalopy, and he drives us about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Zaporizhzhya to Dnipropetrovsk — an industrial city and port on the Dnieper River with a population of 1.2 million — to participate in another Avadhut Maharaj extravaganza.
It's a beautiful sunny day — perfect picnic weather — and the huge fair at the downtown Dnipropetrovsk park is teeming with weekenders. I meet Sripad Avadhut Maharaj for the first time during this Ukrainian tour. He welcomes me, we talk briefly — and then he puts me to work at some of the many exhibitions of his EthnoLife festival within the fair.
There are so many activities to participate in at this cultural event: we have many tables, stalls and booths with art displays, slide shows, book tables, dramatic plays, Indian classical bands and dancers.
Avadhut Maharaj and I lecture and answer questions about Indian culture and Vedic philosophy in the big, colorful tents (pandals). Two TV studios interview me: in the first interview I explain how Ukrainians can benefit from our Indian cultural exhibition, and in the second I give my impressions of the Ukrainian cultural exhibitions and performances at this multi-cultural outdoor fair.
In the evening the big, lighted stage becomes the center of attraction, with an enthusiastic crowd clapping and dancing along to performances of Indian classical music, Indian classical dancing, and a dramatic scene from the great Indian classic, the Ramayana.
At 11:30 p.m. we return to Zaporizhzhya. I fall asleep in the car; it has been a long day. But there is no rest for the weary: tomorrow we return for another fun-filled day in the park with Avadhut Maharaj...
Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine — Sunday, May 29th
Harmony in the park
Early in the morning I again travel by car to Dnipropetrovsk for the second day of the Harmonized Development of Man Festival in Globa Park. Yeah, I know:
I love you, you love me,
We're a happy family...
but it is good PR for the mission here in the Ukraine to showcase Indian Culture and Vedic Philosophy at festivals like this.
After lunch, Avadhut Maharaj and I are invited to the auditorium in the middle of the park for an award of some kind. When we get to the auditorium, I am called up onto the stage and asked to briefly say something about harmony. I quote the Bhagavad Gita:
bhoktaram yajna-tapasam / sarva-loka-mahesvaram
suhrdam sarva-bhutanam / jnatva mam santim rcchati
We will achieve harmony when we understand that everything exists exclusively for Krishna's enjoyment (bhoktaram yajna-tapasam), that Krishna is the Lord of all creation (sarva-loka-mahesvaram), and that Krishna is also our very best friend (suhrdam sarva-bhutanam), because only then will we will be at peace with ourselves and the environment (jnatva mam santim rcchati).
The organizing officials then present Avadhut Maharaj and I with an honorary diploma. Mine says:
This Diploma is
Guru Swami Akinchan
For Active Participation in the
First International Festival of
Harmonized Development of Man
Discover and Change Yourself!
The informal question-and-answer session in the shade of the colorful pandal is a big hit, and although the always-in-demand Avadhut Maharaj is supposed to spell me, I end up fielding questions non-stop for six hours (from 3:00–9:00 p.m!) because he is always too busy.
It is after 10:00 p.m. when the Ramayana play ends. I'm, like, "Can I go home now?" Nooo... we jump up onto the stage and chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra for a while, and then chant up and down the park for another hour.
By the time I get back to Zaporizhzhya, it is 12:30 a.m. I'm dog-tired. I wonder if I should call the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Akinchan)?
Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine — Monday, May 30th
Day of rest
[This space intentionally blank.]
Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine — Tuesday, May 31st
Aleks TV interview
At eight o' clock this morning I appear on the Wake Up With Aleks show — a half-hour TV interview (arranged by Gopeshwar Prabhu and Yuteshwari Devi Dasi) in the modern Aleks TV studio in downtown Zaporizhzhya, for a national Ukrainian TV audience.
The studio set is cheerful and bright, with the backdrop of a big yellow sunflower-sun heralding the morning of a brand new day as it rises through fluffy white clouds framed in a curtained cottage window.
The interviewers, male and female, are pleasant and friendly, and ask questions from a prepared list: What is bhakti-yoga? Is it a religion? How can you avoid religious fanaticism? What is the purpose of human life? How can you control your mind? How can you conquer pride?
This is a live call-in show, so viewers telephone the studio and ask questions like: How can a family with members belonging to different religions live in harmony?
It is a great opportunity for Swarup Prabhu (my interpreter) and me to present our philosophy in general, and to show our national Ukrainian audience that these Hare Krishna guys aren't nearly as weird as they might have been led to believe.
Layout by iMonk — May 31st, 2005.