It is the yatra where I have been spending most of my time when visiting Europe, giving association, inspiration and service consistently over the past years. It is also the city which is closest to the Russian border - only around 80 km's. It easily could become the next place of crisis, if the violence would spread to other cities.....
It was wonderful to once again meet all the Kharkov devotees - I was welcomed with joyful and affectionate smiles....
Especially in these times of political unrest and danger for war devotees needed support and encouragement in order not to get too affected by the turbulences of material existence. And naturally not many traveling preachers were bold enough to visit Ukraine this year....
I settled into my bhajan kutir at the old temple and took up my usual program of walking every morning to the temple - a nice ten-minute walk through the quiet and almost rural looking residential area of a suburb of Kharkov. Many fruit trees and wildflowers are flanking the sandy, unsealed road and remind of Vrindavan, especially with the dogs barking in the early morning.....
I attended every day the morning program and took breakfast with the devotees together. On Saturdays I gave the SB class - the main morning program which is attended by around 60 to 80 practicing devotees. Sundays I was invited to give the Sunday feast lecture to meet the entire congregation with around 250 people attending every week.
I met with devotees privately, giving guidance and inspiration for their personal spiritual practice. And we discussed plans for developing the yatra: the Deity department and the brahmacarini ashram.
The idea came up to build a second floor on one of the buildings at the old temple in order to relocate the brahmacarini ashram to this place. We would save the monthly rent and would also be able to accept more matajis to join the ashram. We planned to establish a good kitchen downstairs, for the matajis to make prasadam for distribution - especially good quality sweets.
What a great plan - I was very happy that the leaders were taking an active interest in developing the ashram which I had started on my own initiative a few years ago. We also discussed to introduce a regular bhaktin program going over three months, with classes 4 afternoons a week and practical training in the basic aspects of devotional life: regular sadhana and the cultivation of a genuine service attitude, which are the main two tracks bringing us forward in spiritual life. We would also give the ladies some experience in book distribution, taking care of Tulasi Devi, making nice flower arrangements, some lessons in playing mrdanga, harmonium and kartals, and sewing outfits for the Deities including the art of embroidery. And of course the young ladies would also learn how to cook for the devotees in the big kitchen.
In former days of Vaisnava life in India and Bangladesh women were receiving training in the extended family - from very young age, under the guidance of many ladies living together: sisters, aunties, grand-mothers, cousin sisters, etc. Now we have the same atmosphere in the brahmacarini ashram - the principle of young ladies receiving training and guidance has been preserved.
To manage a brahmacarini ashram is a headache - a burden of love.
Now most temples in the world don't have women's ashrams any longer, even though it was there in every temple in the early days of ISKCON. What would my life be without the four years of brahmacarini life which I had experienced in the ashram in Sydney/Australia....?! I can't even imagine it.
It had formed the very foundation of my spiritual development.....
Due to the political situation HH Niranjana Swami had not been able to conduct his Vyasa Puja celebration this year, which normally takes place in January in Kiev. The devotees usually rent a big compound to accomodate several hundred devotees, but this year all the holiday camps were used to station soldiers of the Ukrainian army.
Maharaja had postponed the festival from one month to another, hoping that the political tension would subside. Now he had scheduled the celebration for the first three days of July, to be held in Magdalinokva - an ISKCON summer camp near Dnepropetrovsk in the Eastern part of Ukraine.
This was a great blessing for me - every year I had been lamenting that I was not able to attend his Vyasa Puja, since I am always in Mayapur during January/February.
So I was excited to be able to attend and see all my godbrothers and godsisters again. Prema Mataji drove me from Kharkov to Magdalinovka, a two hours' journey.
1st of July marked the day of arrival, and in the afternoon Maharaja gave a wonderful lecture. He was giving deep insights into the meaning of being connected to Guru, based on internal dependance on him. He gave the analogy of an electric wire, which has a copper wire and a plastic covering. The plastic covering can be compared to the external connection of simply being initiated, which is useless without the copper wire - the internal dependance. A wonderful analogy....
The following day was the main celebration to commemorate Maharaja's appearance in this world, with HH Bhakti Visrambhava Madhava Maharaja giving the morning lecture, followed by the standard Vyasa Puja ceremony. Devotees invited me to read out my Vyasa Puja homage in glorification of our Guru Maharaja. During the final kirtan Maharaja distributed a piece of cake to each and every devotee taking part in the event - no matter whether he/she was his disciple or not.
Maharaja was offered a huge feast - 108 preparations, cooked with love and devotion. Devotees had stayed up all night to make the arrangements. He was in a sweet and introspective mood, pouring mercy and affection into the hearts of his disciples. In the evening he lead a sweet and deep kirtan.
The next day were initiations - Madhavananda Prabhu's wife Krsna Kunda Mataji received brahmana initiation from Maharaja and thus joined our family. I also finally had the opportunity to receive the gayatri mantra once again - after having taken re-initiation two years ago. We simply had not been able to find the time and opportunity for this on previous meetings in Ukraine and Mayapur.
Every day I was invited to join the VIP prasadam and ate together with Maharaja, Madhavananda Prabhu and Bhakti Visrambha Madhava Maharaja. Of course the main topic of discussion was the political situation in Ukraine. Maharaja had launched a world-wide Fund Raising Appeal in order to relocate devotees from the war zone of Donetsk and Lugansk. At this point there was a faint hope that the Bhakti Sangam Festival could still take place, and devotees had located a suitable venue near Odessa on the Black Sea. The deadline was the 1st of August when the leaders would decide whether or not to have the festival.
I also had the good fortune to receive Maharaja's personal care and attention in the form of a darshan discussing personal questions in regards
to my preaching service and the Institute for Spiritual Culture. He gave guidance and inspiration and encouraged me to spend more time in Germany and Hungary, and to write.
On my return to Kharkov we had planned a Holy Name Retreat for the entire yatra, but because of the political situation we were not able to rent the holiday camp where we had conducted the retreat last year. It was disappointing, nevertheless it increased our eagerness for the next year to come.
As a little compensation we conducted a four-hour seminar at the temple on the topic of the holy name, with practical chanting exercises in japa and kirtan. Since we had scheduled it on a public holiday it was well attended and gave me the inspiration to sometimes offer a seminar in the evenings in order to churn a topic and get to deeper levels of spiritual practice.
On the 11th of July I flew to Stockholm for yet another wonderful event - the Scandinavian Bhakti Sangam Festival.....
Your servant, Devaki dd