"Caucasian prisoners" Excerpts from Ananta Acharyi das’s book
When Mayuradhvaj was tried, his mother stopped chanting japa. Upon finding out about this, Mayuradhvaj understood his old mother – she was mad at Krishna. He tried to explain to her what Krishna’s plan in all this was, that he would preach in prison, and his acceptance of Krishna had not decreased, but had rather increased. He wrote to her in detail about his spiritual observations and adventures in prison.
Finding himself in prison, Mayuradhvaj understood that he must preach, otherwise he could easily fall into maya. He noticed that not everybody around him were bad people. There were educated people who even had good qualities. Mayuradhvaj decided to preach to those who became interested in accepting Krishna and started to practice morning sadhana.
In prison one is totally exposed. Since he told people that he got up early in the morning, he couldn’t not get up, and he couldn’t not behave as he said he would. Every word counted here, and the governing law is that he who says something and goes back on his word gets no mercy. But spiritual discipline truly helped Mayuradhvaj: when somebody is not thinking of material pleasures and doesn’t try to satisfy himself, he is not uncomfortable and feels good.
Mayuradhvaj noticed that if something touched the prisoners in his stories, they listened with pleasure. There was no rush. He felt that if he gave the people love and care, this was very important to them. You can learn the Bhagavad-Gita by heart, but if you don’t speak lovingly, you won’t reach your audience.
So Mayuradhvaj understood that Krishna had provided for him an opportunity to preach and learn about people.
When Mayuradhvaj was taken to prison, the administration decided to scare him.
“We will put you in a cell with a murderer and see how you feel.”
The murderer didn’t look much like a murderer, although he was quite strong.
“What are you in for?” he asked Mayuradhvaj.
“For accepting Krishna.”
“What!? Krishna!” The man jumped up in the air.
Excitedly, the prisoner “Bullet”, in whose cell Yamaraj had been in a year ago, and whom Yamaraj had taught to chant mantras, hugged Mayuradhvaj. He was so excited and took so well to this new prisoner that he started banging on the cell door and asking for fruit to give to his new cell-mate.
Bullet started asking about Krishna, and they sang, and one could tell that Bullet was pleased and that he liked Krishna and his devotees.
Soon Bullet and Mayuradhvaj were transferred to a camp. Here, Bullet could ask for his parents for vegetable ragout. He taught them:
“The pot must be clean. You don’t need to add onions or garlic. And don’t taste it either, we’re going to offer it to our Lord. There is a saint in the cell with me. Then we will eat it and feel the presence of God.”
Mayuradhvaj began to wonder if one could offer food thus prepared to Krishna. And he offered it, inspiring Bullet.
“I am sure that there is a God.”
Sometime later, Mayuradhvaj and Ambarisha were transferred to a different camp in Tsulinkidz. Here, Mayuradhvaj met his younger brother, who was in prison for criminal activity. His brother tried to argue with and contradict Mayuradhvaj, as he could not understand and not believe in the religion of his brother and the other devotees.
“Psh! We’ll see if you don’t eat meat after they put you behind bars!”
Now he was put behind bars with other devotees and could see what they ate. Meat wasn’t given to the prisoners of course, but their food was fried. And even if they cooked without meat, they still didn’t cook cleanly, and Mayuradhvaj and Ambarisha could not offer this to Krishna. And on the floor where the prisoners worked, Mayuradhvaj and Ambarisha dug up beats, washed them, and ate them.
Mayuradhvaj’s brother, seeing how hard he was trying, tried to help them get vegetables. When the weekends came and the inmates’ relatives brought them food, they tried to help out the vegetarians. Vegetables were obtained in the kitchen, and the devotees managed to prepare prasadam right in their cell. When Janmastami, the day of Krishna’s appearance, came around, Mayuradhvaj prepared food for Lord Krishna all day, and gave it out to the whole cell block at night.
Summer was ending, and the prisoners were taken out to the tea plantations increasingly often. An escort with automatic rifles and dogs escorted the inmates to the tea fields. The walked for a whole hour and everybody liked this since compared to trips through the yard of the prison this road seemed like an interesting trip. They marched in a file, and the guards commanded, “SING!”
And Ambarisha sang the Hare Krishna mantra, and the whole file sang along. Ambarisha changed the melody but didn’t change the words. The marchers knew that this was the song for which the singer was thrown behind bars. So for them, this was a song of freedom, and the closer they got to the plantation, the more satisfaction the singing gave them.
Ambarisha and Mayuradhvaj were exempted from picking tea, and they made beads for their japa-mala out of the branches of the tea plants. But this did not last long, and in a month Ambarisha was taken away to the north. The prison overseer summoned Mayuradhvaj and told him, “Your friend has been sent off to the white bears, and if you continue in this fashion we will break your ribs.”
Mayuradhvaj was mad that he has been separated from Ambarisha, and darkly said, “We’ll see who breaks whose ribs.”
The overseer was surprised, but chose not to punish this outburst.
Mayuradhvaj got up early and said his mantras outside. Every day, in any weather he would keep this up. The overseer would come to work every day and see Mayuradhvaj.
“So you’re praying?”
“What else is there to do but pray?” answered Mayuradhvaj. A year later Mayuradhvaj was given amnesty, and he was sent to the Far East for “chemistry.” (1) The overseer announced to the inmates:
“You scum. This is the best man among you… and among us.”
He hugged Mayuradhvaj.
“Go, son. All the best to you.” Apparently, he had been informed of Mayuradhvaj’s sermons and prasadam preparations. The overseer was shocked by and worriedly escorted this young man. Mayuradhvaj went to the Habarov.
The special transport reached the Far East in half a month, when at the time such a journey usually took half a year. In one transport, there were twelve people, and if not for the stories about Krishna, this would have been torture. Somehow, Ambarisha was in the same transport. They couldn’t talk, but they knew that nearby sat a devotee of Krishna, chanting His Holy Name, and this gave them joy and strength.
Finally, Mayuradhvaj and his companions reached their destination.
“Do they really put people in prison for that?” asked his new neighbors when they found out what he was in prison for. Wages were high at the construction site – 500 rubles. All this money was spent on prasadam. To prepare it and treat his friends to it became Mayuradhvaj’s hobby. Several times he didn’t even go to work. Nobody scolded him for this, as everybody accepted that this man’s main task was to prepare vegetarian food for Krishna.
But his diet of beets in the Caucasian prison camp and the winter chills on the shore of the Amur River had weakened him, and Mayuradhvaj ended up in a hospital with tuberculosis. This served as a reason for his early release.
“He’s a good man,” concluded the general who was examining his petition to be released.
“But the KGB…” worried the overseer of “chemistry.”
“What about the KGB? He’ll break some other law and be brought back.”
Even before his arrest, colonel Zakeryan told one of the Armenian devotees directly, “We will start to catch and kill you.” He liked to express himself floridly and liked to make toasts and told him, looking in his eyes, “And you will have to appeal to Krishna.”
“We will do just that,” answered the devotee.
When four Armenian devotees were arrested, Sarvabhavan and Sachisuta, who remained free, decided to become more active, like what “young guards” did in similar situations when their comrades were captured by the Gestapo. They began to distribute books in areas where they were sure the government would find out that there were man more devotees of Krishna spreading books out there and that the arrest of four would not stop the spread of Krishna Consciousness.
Sachisuta was a very humble and unnoticeable devotee, and he was from Yerevan and lived in a private apartment, so the police did not know where he lived. His enthusiasm was so great that in a month he sold 1000 books.
Once he was arrested thrice in one day. He was interrogated, his books were confiscated, and he was released. His friends, people whom he loved so much, were imprisoned. These were devotees of Krishna, and he could not forget them. “Absolute Truth,” thought Sachisuta. “It is omnipotent, and Krishna will do everything, and all I must do is speak of all this. After all, everybody has an eternal soul. Everybody thirsts for that free, joyful acceptance.” He remembered the Gita, where it was said that every cow, elephant, dog, dog-eater, or learned Brahman had an eternal soul. The whole world consists of brothers, children of one God. Everybody radiates like ten thousand suns. He spoke without stopping, breaking into his listener’s heart. And when people listened with their breath held, Sachisuta loved them, so his voice cracked and shook, and he saw in them another wonderful, eternal, and joyous soul, and he could not see that this was his neighbor.
When he was detained, he could not be angry at the police, and so he apologized and promised not to distribute books anymore.
“You promised!” he was told when he was detained again.
Soon it became impossible for him to go outside in Yerevan, as the police immediately recognized him. He would get on the bus and go off to Echmiadzin. But even there he was detained. Finally, returning from such a trip, he got to the room he was renting on the edge of Yerevan. He wanted to bathe himself, prepare and revere his prasadam, wash his clothes, read several poems of the Bhagavad-Gita, and go to bed, but he was expected. Several police officers were searching his apartment. The frightened hostess was answering all of the officers’ questions.
“Whose statue is this?” asked the policeman, picking up a plaster sculpture of Madonna. This statue was given to Sachisuta by Yuri, who thought that he was preparing these statues for church. When Sachisuta told Yuri about Krishna, he liked it very much, and asked for a book in exchange for a statue. Sachisuta gave Madonna to the hostess just before Christmas. The hostess, like many old ladies in Yerevan, believed in God and sometimes went to church.
Now this statue was being held by the police officer. Finding out whose present it was, he hit Sachisuta in the head with Madonna. Then he hit him again.
“Have you gone insane!?” asked Sachisuta.
The officer hit him again.
Sarvabhavan recognized one of the people living in his apartment. Once they had met in the city. This man, named Edward, surveyed him in the city, and they even struck up a conversation.
“We’ll meet again,” said Edward by way of good-bye.
Soon everything was overturned in the apartment. Edward good-naturedly asked him, “What do you need out of all of this?” Sarvabhavan took a clay drum.
He was put in a car and driven off.
There was a pause in the police department, and Sarvabhavan started to sing Hare Krishna, accompanying himself with the drum. The officers on duty smiled and started clapping in time with him. This was the Myasnikyanskoye division of the police.
The interrogation began. In the room there were six men.
“Where are your books printed?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.”
“How do you not know? You know! Where do you get these books? You have to get them from somewhere! Where from?”
“I get the books and I distribute them.” He was beaten all day. They took turns so that they wouldn’t get tired and have to rest. The officer who was somewhere around fifty years old tried the hardest. He stomped on Sarvabhavan with the heels of his boots.
The next day, they continued to beat him. They beat him in the stomach and about the head from morning to evening. In the evening, Edward walked up.
“You’re from the Committee,” (2) said Sarvabhavan to him. “I can tell. Why do just sit down and don’t get involved? They could kill me.”
“They won’t kill you,” said Edward. “This is the Soviet police. Don’t you know the Soviet police? This isn’t their first similar case. It happens, you know.”
He was being sarcastic.
“I told you that we’ll meet again, and here we are.”
The weather turned cold, and in the corner of the room lay an electric plate that was warming up.
“I don’t think they’d do that,” thought Sarvabhavan. The officer picked up the pate, and Sarvabhavan pressed himself against the wall. The pushed his knees up against the wall, and started bringing the plate closer and closer to his face.
“A kebab! We’ll make a kebab out of a believer in Hare Krishna!” said another, also sarcastic officer.
“They like kebabs in Armenia,” added another, and Sarvabhavan couldn’t take the pain anymore and yelled, “Hari-i-i bol!”
They took the plate away, and one eye went blind.
He was returned to his cell. After dinner, a guard came in and asked if he had eaten the meat.
don’t eat meat.”
They guard, swearing at him, hit him twice, in the neck and in the head.
“You idiot! You’re in prison for nothing! Give Krishna up and everything will be alright!”
Sarvabhavan starved for three days, after which one of the inmates gave him apples. Sarvabhavan, having eaten the apples, felt pain in his bladder and asked to go to the bathroom. There he found that he was bleeding. The guard also saw the blood and said, “You’re not the first and you won’t be the last.”
After the trial, Sarvabhavan was taken out of isolation to a prison camp. His food was black bread and salt. When he ate, he quickly felt full, but later he became hungry again. He took a piece of bread out of the dining hall to eat at night. In his cell, he took the bread out and put a piece on his nightstand.
“Where did you get that bread?” asked a guard.
my bread. I got it from the dining hall.”
”Aren’t we presumptuous? Didn’t they tell you that you can’t take bread out of the dining hall?” The guard threw the bread away and threatened to throw him in the dungeon.
Walking past the electrified fence, Sarvabhavan stopped. He wanted to grab the electric wire and end it all. He had no strength, and no will to live.
Suddenly, he was told, “Go, somebody has come to visit you.” Two devotees, Haridas Thakur and Nityanan-daram had come to visit him. They told him that he had been initiated and gave him his name – Sarvabhavan.
In Yajna devi dasi’s Moscow apartment, it was getting crowded.
They had to rescue the devotees that were still in prisons and asylums. Hope of registration of the ISKCON in Russia had appeared. A trip to India to the place where Krishna had appeared no longer seemed to be a dream. Somebody had gotten in touch with correspondents. New devotees and guests kept coming to the apartment. Holy names were sung and books were distributed.
Harry Lee, the correspondent of the Washington Post, had prasadam sitting with all the devotees on the floor, and said, “They don’t understand that you are their saviors!”
On Gaura-purnima, the birthday of Lord Chaitanya, a full house of devotees was assembled. A friendly, loud kirtan seemed to be melting the walls. Suddenly the glass in the window shattered.
“What is it?”
“What do you mean by what? The KGB!”
But this evoked a sharp sensation rather than fear.
In Yerevan mataji Damayanti donated her apartment in a similar way to the local ashram. She spent all of her savings on the publishing of scriptures. Her son was growing up, and in Vedic tradition he could be tested to see if he had inclinations toward brahmanhood. A knife, money, and the “Sri Isopanishad” were placed before him. The boy took the book. The preaching activated, spread, became more successful, bringing with it a certain level of satisfaction. Understanding of the Krishna consciousness deepened, and the more energy and time she put into it, the happier and fuller her life became. Damayanti called Moscow and asked for Atmananda. She cried over the phone, unable to speak. Finally, she said, “Sachisuta died in prison.”
Everybody was lost, silent, and the women began to cry. For a long time, they did not know what to do. Atmananda called Harry Lee and began to speak with uncharacteristic anger.
“On this day, when I am calling you, the last political prisoner died in a Soviet prison. He was a Vaishnava. Now this whole system, which killed a Vaishnava, will crumble, and the Soviet Union will crumble. Yes, yes. He died in the Orenburg prison, or more specifically, as we say, Sachisuta Prabhu left his body, a pure devotee of Krishna… Yes, yes. Karma to the Russians, karma to the Armenians… No, no karma is a law, a natural law, God’s law.”
Vrindavan remained in prison, and it was known that he was on the verge of death. They had to rescue him. Sanyasa and Kamalamala were in prison. They were getting shots. Yamaraj felt that he had to go to Moscow to help out. And though he did not feel physically fit, he felt himself to be decisive enough to be useful. And so Yamaraj also turned up in Moscow.
The devotees were being released. The government registered the Moscow yatra as a legal religious organization. The next step was the departure of the pilgrims for India. The devotees made friends with the man in charge of religious affairs, gave him books, prasadam, surprised him with philosophy which turned out to be no less than the moral code of the builders of communism, no less logical and strong than communist dogma, and like Christianity, it was built on the idea of a single god. Yevgeniy Vasilievich Chernetsov was amazed. Atmananda jokingly called him “bhakta Chernetsov.” And he really did help the devotees prepare all of the necessary paperwork and get all the proper authorization to leave for India.
In the heat of all these worries, Zurab, a Georgian artist, turned up in the apartment. He sat in prison and lay in a prison hospital with Sachisuta. He sometimes conversed with Sachisuta and was shocked by his death, and so upon his release he chose to find people of the same faith and tell them the story.
At the hospital, they were fed meat or meat broth. Sachisuta asked them to bring him potatoes.
He was answered, “Eat the meat.”
“According to the shastras,” interjected Atmananda, “in a situation where one is threatened by death by starvation, one may break the laws and eat meat to save one’s life, but Sachisuta did not choose to use this opportunity, as he chose to remain with the guru and Krishna.”
Sachisuta left his body, while the body, sitting in the lotus position with prayer beads in hand in front of the spiritual teacher’s photo, was left on the prison bed. Three days earlier, the head doctor evacuated the other patients from that particular tent. But when the nurse saw the seated, dead body of Sachisuta, she was scared and called everybody, all the nurses and doctors, into the tent containing the corpse of the devotee, and several patients, including Zurab, entered as well.
“A page of the Gita was opened. And he who at the end of his life leaves his body remember only Me will immediately reach My nature,” quoted Atmananda.
In the spring of 1989, a group of Soviet Vaishnavas turned in their passports to be registered at the Sheremetyevo airport. For a long time, there was no reaction, and the women were worried.
“No, no. They won’t let us out, the will never let us out.”
“We must chant the mantras,” said one of the many. “Otherwise the KGB will not let us out.”
Nonetheless, boarding started.
Eight hours later, the Bengal Bay was visible underneath. Then, they could see the squares of the neighborhoods of Calcutta.
“Look, the Ganges!”
The plane landed. At night, the bus full of Soviet devotees of Krishna drove up to the gates of the Mayapur complex. The devotees lay on the sacred land of the Navadvipa, where there are fresh breezes, where for one day and one night they clean like ashvamedha-Yajna, where there are swans and bees, where there are beautiful flowers, where there are grapes, wonderful gardens and palaces, where the waves crash onto golden shores, where Lord Gaura meditates on the Holy Navadvipa, where everywhere there is mercy…
In the morning, the eldest of the Soviet devotees met with their spiritual teacher in his apartments. Other disciples of Prabhupada surrounded the Soviet Vaishnavas with their attention, teaching them, and giving them tours. They were driven through many sacred places in India, like Vrindavan and Ayodhya. They visited Bombay and Delhi. They met President Rajiv Gandhi. Everywhere, they received a hero’s welcome. These people, who went to prison for Krishna in a country far to the north and had now come here to India. On stone walls, many hammer and sickle designs were gratified. This surprised many people more than Yuri Gagarin’s flight.
Having visited the sacred dhams, they returned to Moscow, bringing with them the dust of the heavenly Vrindavan, the eternal residence of Sri Krishna.
1 – work on a factory for production of chemicals or production which involves use of dangerous chemical compounds. Within two years of work in such conditions prisoners usually permanently damage their health.
2 -- Komitet Gosudarstvenoi Bezopasnosti (KGB), in contrast to the United States government, which assigns the functions of domestic counterintelligence and foreign intelligence to separate agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), respectively, the Soviet system combined these functions in a single organization. This practice grew out of the ideology of Soviet governance, which made little distinction between external and domestic political threats, claiming that the latter were always foreign inspired.