06 June 1999

With the Dark Lord in a Darkened City

The Times of India, June 6, 1999

With The Dark Lord In A Darkened City

By Siddharth Varadarajan

BELGRADE: Set in a modest house on a quiet street overlooking the Danube - that Yamuna of the Balkans - the Hare Krishna temple is an oasis of meditative calm, a limpid pool in which the traumas of war effortlessly dissolve. Bombs may be falling all around but the bhakts are tranquil, seeing in this madness and destruction only confirmation of the certitudes of karma.

Every evening, before small statues of the Dark Lord, a handful of Yugoslav devotees sway rapturously on a polished parquet floor. There is no electricity but the pujari, a young Serb woman, blows a conch shell triumphantly while a stunning, life-sized statue of Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, founder of the Krishna Consciousness movement, looks down sternly from a sofa.

If Yugoslavia is the Kurukshetra of the New World Order, I thought, what could be more appropriate than Serbian bhakts dancing to the name of Krishna?

Bhakti Grantha Das, the temple's 28-year-old Serb president, says there is a spiritual void in the country. "Many people are atheists and they ask, "If God exists, why does he allow us to be bombed?" But this war has increased our devotion to Krishna." I asked him why war broke out. "When people are sinful," he answered, "they get punishment." So is this war divine retribution? "Of course. So many animals have been killed here," he replied serenely. Seeing that I was not convinced, he added: "A Serb always thinks, "I am a Serb, he is Albanian, hence he is my enemy". And an Albanian feels the same towards Serbs. This is out of ignorance. If we realised we are all part of God, we would resolve our problems." And what about the NATO leaders? Would they be punished for bombing civilians? "Everybody who is doing impious actions - Clinton, Milosevic, you, me - will have to suffer. The Law of Karma is the only law that you cannot cheat," he said.

What would he do if the Yugoslav authorities tried to draft him into the military, I wondered. "The Vedas," he said, "prescribe the four-fold division of society into Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. I have had my Brahmin initiation and Brahmins do not go to war. Their role is to provide spiritual leadership." "On the other hand," he said, "some of our devotees have a Kshatriya nature, and they have gone to war." But surely Milosevic was unlikely to be impressed by this argument? Bhakti Grantha Das conceded that I had a point. "We shall then argue that Brahmins who live in temples are like monks who live in monasteries. And nobody sends monks to the battlefield."

I asked him whether the war would make more Yugoslavs turn to Krishna. "A famous Serbian soothsayer of the previous century had in fact predicted the Hare Krishna movement," he replied. Mitar Tarabich - whose book Kremasko Prorochanstvo, or Kreman's Prophecy, "predicted" Tito, the birth of Yugoslavia, its subsequent collapse, the present war, everything - had also written a cryptic passage about a "small man from the orient"who would come with the "message of truth". Tarabich had added that not everyone would accept this man's word and that his followers would be small in number, although eventually the truth would prevail. "We are convinced that this "small man from the Orient' was Prabhupada," said Bhakti Grantha Das with pride. "And since we are quite a small group, only some 200 in the whole of Yugoslavia, that part of the prediction is also correct."

Bhakti Grantha Das can't wait for the rest of the prophecy to come true. "We would like this war to end so that we can go back to our work of distributing books," he said. "The Swami taught us that only by distributing his books in large numbers can we avert World War III." He quoted a stanza from the Gita about war and hate in flawless but accented Sanskrit. One of the devotees, Aneta, had a beatific look on her face. An Orthodox Church down the road started ringing its bell. "In the Vedas," said Das, "it is written that the ringing of bells satisfies Lord Vishnu. That is why we say that even they are honouring Krishna." Aneta, the beatific one, asked me hesitatingly: "India is punya bhoomi. Do they know about Krishna? Is everyone religious?" I said yes but I was not very convincing. Prasad was served - a Yugoslav savoury of some kind - along with delicious strawberry lassi. I drained my stainless steel tumbler and a devotee ladled some more. The prayers were starting. The pujarin was blowing her shankha. It was time to leave.

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