As I gasped in disbelief, a friend assured me it was true terrorists had our city, Mumbai, under siege. A frenzied neighbor rushed in, screaming that the police had gunned down two terrorists a mere hundred meters from our temple. As sirens blew and panic spread, fear gripped the city. Confusion and uncertainty loomed large on our faces. Meanwhile other terrorists had taken hostages in two premier hotels, also not far from the temple, and the commandoes rushed in. Seventytwo hours later, the drama ended, but nationwide expressions of anger and anguish continued for weeks.
Challenges in Preaching
“If you can’t usher in a political revolution,” a student from a group I was addressing challenged me, “what’s the relevance of Krishna consciousness now?”
I assured my restless audience that our leaders certainly must protect innocent citizens, and we all stand united to combat terrorism. But in the face of current problems, we also need to individually transcend the real problems facing all of us, all the time. Terrorism or no terrorism, the ugly realities of death, old age, disease, and rebirth always stare at us, threatening to prolong our stay in this world. (Bhagavad-gita 13.9)
Spiritual practices transform our consciousness, I tell them, and help us remember the Supreme Lord at the time of death. This ensures that we do not take another birth in this miserable material world, but rather join the Supreme Lord in His abode, for an eternal life of bliss and full knowledge. (Bg. 8.16)
“But the tragedy has consumed my consciousness,” confessed one student. “I can’t chant; I see no hope.”
A Bigger Emergency Than Terrorism
My thoughts went back to the struggle for Indian independence in the 1920s. The nation was up in arms against British terrorism. General Dyer had ordered his soldiers to fire on innocent citizens gathered at a peace rally at Jallianwala, Punjab. Thousands had already died under England’s persecution, and now Indians wanted independence from British rule. Young Abhay Charan (Srila Prabhupada’s birth name), in his first meeting with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Êhakura, his spiritual master, voiced his support for the freedom cause. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had been urging Abhay to spread Lord Caitanya’s spiritual message to the English-speaking world, but Abhay protested. As long as India was a dependent nation, he said, spreading Krishna consciousness would have to wait.
The whole country would have agreed with Abhay, but Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati boldly declared that Krishna consciousness is the real emergency, and it can’t wait for independence. Lack of spiritual awareness is the only problem, and God consciousness is the only solution.
Six decades have passed since Indian independence. The saga of untold human deprivation and abuse now inflicted by Indians upon Indians is a chilling reminder of the terrible times we are living in. Recession, starvation, domestic violence, destruction of the family unit, and child molestation are a few of the rising ills affecting the hapless millions. But as another wave of breaking news hits, families sit glued to their TV sets, convinced that Krishna consciousness can wait.
Srila Prabhupada’s Appeal to Transcend
Srila Prabhupada’s life changed after that first meeting with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, and he dedicated himself to spreading God consciousness to the misdirected civilization. Years later, when England forced India to enter the Second World War, Srila Prabhupada started Back to Godhead magazine. And as bombs dropped in Calcutta, he was busy writing his commentary on the timeless spiritual wisdom of the Bhagavad-gita.
A couple of decades later in New York City, as Srila Prabhupada managed his fledgling ISKCO N, the youth voiced angry protests against America’s participation in the Vietnam War. Srila Prabhupada challenged his young followers: The war will be irrelevant in a few years, he said, but the cruel, untiring laws of material nature will continue to batter and bruise us. During the 1971 India- Pakistan tension, a reporter in India pleaded with Srila Prabhupada to urge General Yayaha Khan of Pakistan to stop the bloody war. But Prabhupada once again exposed the ugly reality of death staring at us always.
“Will you not die if there is no war?” he asked.
A Devotee Fights the Terrorists
Are we then to turn a blind eye to the day-to-day crises of this world?
No. A devotee of Krishna surely does what’s needed to address the fleeting problems of this world, but simultaneously works to free himself from the bondage of repeated birth and death. For example, Mr. Nilesh Ghosalkar, a member of the Mumbai police force, is a devotee who regularly attends programs at our temple. He was on the frontlines fighting the terrorists in one of the hotels and narrowly survived. Society needs fighters like Nilesh to uphold law and order. Their seemingly violent actions are like those of a surgeon who attacks a tumor with a knife to save the patient.
Krishna Consciousness Gives Strength to Transcend Tragedies
Krishna consciousness may not stop aggression by the terrorists, betrayal by loved ones, or devastations by tsunamis. As exemplified by Nilesh, life becomes tolerable and hopeful for a devotee because he discovers a tangible purpose in life: to cultivate a relationship with God and plan the journey to our real home, the spiritual world. As the rain of problems showers without a break, devotees find shelter under the umbrella of their practices in Krishna consciousness. This keeps them sane even as events get more bizarre by the day.
The Holy Name Helps Transcend Tragedies
One shouldn’t think, however, that devotees are escapists. As humble servants of everyone, they play their part in helping others and connecting them with God.
In January 2006, His Holiness Indradyumna Swami, an ISKCON leader and traveling preacher, was in the thick of the action at tsunami-hit areas in Sri Lanka. As aid poured in from around the world, a Lankan army major asked for a special kind of help from Indradyumna Swami and his team.
“Can you address the grief, the trauma that has affected their psyche?” he asked. “That’s more important now.”
Indradyumna Swami rose to the challenge and promptly led his party on harinama saõkirtana, the congregational chanting of the holy names of God. Thousands of villagers joined in with the religious practice for this age drowning their sorrows and rejoicing in the awakening of their natural love of God. The devotees also distributed prasadam, sanctified food offered to Krishna. In a few hours, Indradyumna Swami and his team had become an integral part of the village family. Krishna had united them all on a higher platform. Chanting Hare Krishna thus helps us carry out our individual, national, and humanitarian responsibilities more soberly, happily and effectively. The neighborhood is once again resounding with deafening blasts and shrieks, but of a different kind. India’s cricket team has pulled off a victory in a cliffhanger, and a pompous wedding ceremony has Bollywood music bouncing off the sky. These seem like good reasons to rejoice and forget about terrorism. Never mind the millions dying of AIDS, starvation, drug abuse, road accidents, and a thousand other things. For Indians, Krishna consciousness can wait. Or can it?