Hare Krishna devotees at a procession in Russia. Source: Alexey Malgavko / RIA Novosti
My recent column about a conversation with a Russian Orthodox priest on his views about the Hare Krishna movement drew mixed reactions. While many readers from India seemed to agree with the priest, I received a barrage of hate messages on Facebook calling me all sorts of things from a “KGB agent” to a “jihadi” (!) A good friend pointed out that the fact that I was getting “hate mails from bigots” meant that I was doing something right. Amidst this bombardment, I received a message from a Russian Hare Krishna devotee who has been living in Mumbai for the last 12 years. Without criticising the views of the Orthodox priest, he asked for an opportunity to put his own views and set the record straight.
Taraka Nath Das, born Alexei Mikhailov in the Leningrad Region in 1970, is married to an Indian ISKCON devotee and is happy to live in a country, where a large number of people are vegetarians. “Krishna changed my life,” says the devotee who faced the worst kinds of financial hardships and had several run-ins with the law after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “There wasn’t a banned narcotic substance that I didn’t try and I can’t remember how often I was drunk, although I was not an alcoholic,” he says.
Das says he first got acquainted with the Hare Krishna movement on a cold winter night in St Petersburg in 1995, when he was “freezing and starving” and a believer in a random act of kindness treated him to a warm vegetarian meal. “There was nothing sinister in her act…She could see my suffering and offered to help me.” He says he found his answers in the law of karma and the concept of love for all living beings and devotion to Krishna changed his life. “In 17 years, I haven’t had one drop of alcohol and not eaten any meat or fish,” Das says. “Animals have as much of a right to live as human beings.”
The Russian Krishnaite said he respected the right of the Orthodox priest to have an opinion but felt the young man was misguided. “We have absolutely no political agenda of any kind. Even if we had 100,000 followers in Russia, could we possibly topple a government in a country of 140 million?” Das agreed that there were many followers from Western countries but insisted that these people merely sought salvation from the “vicious cycle of karma.” He said his guru told him about how some Western intelligence agents “penetrated the ranks of the movement,” but added that these were the exception and not the rule.
“Russians, like Indians, strongly resist change and any idea that is considered new,” he said, “and that’s why there is suspicion against the movement.” Das said yoga was looked upon with suspicion a few decades ago in the country but now even stringent followers of the Orthodox faith practice the Indian system of physical and mental wellness. “It’s only matter of time before those who have misplaced fears understand that we’re not on some sort of political mission.”
Das said the movement wasn’t on a conversion mission. “Every religion is right and is just a human quest to be one with the creator…Our belief is that love for the maker calls for the love for all his creations.” He insisted that the basic principles of the movement called for a “few lifestyle changes” and a devotion to God, by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. These changes included refraining from eating meat and fish, alcohol and drugs, illicit sex and gambling. “I know I am a lot healthier now than I was when I was consuming meat and alcohol.”
Although he seemed flexible on many things, Das insisted that the “Bhagawad Gita, As it is” is the only authentic edition of the Hindu holy book. “Krishna narrated the Gita to Arjuna and there’s no dispute about what he said… even the most learned scholars will agree to that.”
Das said the movement was shamed by the sex scandals and other controversies that plagued it in the 1970s and 80s. “We continue to suffer because of all that, but then that doesn’t make our beliefs wrong, just like some rogue priests don’t tarnish the reputation of the Catholic Church.”
The Russian devotee does not fear any kind of persecution of ISKCON followers in Russia. “Our constitution guarantees freedom of religion and this won’t be impinged upon.” He said land issues in an inflated real estate market were the cause of the Moscow community not finding a permanent place for their temple. “We have community centres and temples in several regions in Russia and face no problems there,” he said.
I couldn’t help but feel that I interacted with a man who made peace with himself and seemed to be living a happy and fulfilling life in suburban Mumbai.
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