Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #1 – The Journey Home on Steroids

January 6th, 2020

For sheer drama and dependence on God, I don’t think any modern pilgrim’s journey can top Radhanath Swami’s trip from Europe to Vṛndāvana over forty years ago, which is memorialized in his popular recount The Journey Home. But if there is anything that even comes close, it is the recent “journey home” by a twenty-four year old from France named Marcel.[1] He not only walked from his birthplace to Vṛndāvana through Turkey and Iran to the border of Pakistan,[2] but, by choice, he did it penniless without ever stepping even once in a vehicle!

 

Upon arriving in Vṛndāvana he was directed to my afternoon class by a devotee that he met. I welcomed the sober and handsome Marcel, along with Marie, his partner of seven years, an attractive and highly educated Catholic, who occasionally joined him during her breaks from the university. After class I invited Marcel to share his story with me.

 

Marcel walked and chanted the mahā-mantra the whole way, mostly through smaller towns and villages. He was overwhelmed by the hospitality he received, especially through Turkey and Iran. He explained the culture to me. When a guest knocks on your door in the Middle East, it is considered that Allah has personally come to your home. He certainly felt received in that mood. Still, there were challenges. A substantial part of the journey through the Middle East was walking in the desert, which meant long treks between towns. He solved that problem by getting a small hand cart to carry food and water for a few days so that he never went hungry or thirsty even once!

 

I heard personally from people in Iran that despite the theocratic rule there, there is still quite a lot of violent street crime but, like most places, the crime rests more or mostly in big cities where the struggle for existence is more pronounced. As a result, he completed his journey danger free, except for one harrowing incident in Sirjan, a small city of history and culture in South Iran. He was confronted there by three ruffians, one who pulled a huge handmade dagger from under his shirt and brandished it in front of Marcel’s face demanding money. It was terrifying, and all Marcel could think of was the strange advice his well-traveled uncle gave him before he left: “If you are ever accosted on your travels, just stare quietly in the person’s eyes with a smile. If you don’t show any fear, you will go beyond the person’s eyes to find his soul. The aggressor will then immediately become confused and disarmed.” He couldn’t think of any other option, so he smiled and looked into the thug’s eyes. To his amazement, the thug just uttered some nonsense and quickly left. Marcel then continued peacefully on his journey.

 

I was impressed by Marcel’s journey of faith, but also humbled because it reminded me of my own duties to cultivate dependence on God as a sannyāsī (renunciate). It is not that I have to walk across Iran penniless, but I do have to consciously cultivate simplicity and detachment. If one doesn’t occasionally challenge one’s comforts to foster dependence, then how will one gain the deep realization that it is Krishna, not oneself, who is the protector and maintainer? And without feeling that, how is it possible to develop deeper feelings of love for Krishna?

 

Sannyāsīs today, by necessity, sometimes serve as institutional and spiritual leaders and, to one degree or another, need to accept the amenities provided to them out of respect and to facilitate their service. I admire those who cultivate dependence by selflessly taking on huge responsibility where they are forced to see Krishna’s hand in sorting out numerous seemingly impossible problems, but still Marcel’s example spoke to me. I need to shed more of what Śrīla Prabhupāda called “our material protective agents” and to learn what doing that teaches us. Sure, the world spins out of our control anyway. Just think of the inevitable struggle of old age and death. But still, if we are not careful to live a simple life and cultivate detachment, we risk obscuring God’s mercy and impeding our devotion. Without cultivating detachment, it also makes it much more difficult to face the imminent reverses in life without bitterness or fear when they do come as God’s mercy.

 

I am speaking from the perspective of sannyāsa, my āśrama, which is meant to prepare one for death by accepting situations beyond one’s control to learn full dependence on God’s mercy. I think, however, embracing difficult situations to learn dependence on God’s mercy is applicable to all on the path of dharma, for doing what is right often entails sacrifice at the expense of material advantage. And I think that is also the answer to my dilemma on how to increase my own dependence on Krishna within my service as a leader of sorts, a position that can at times compromise the life of simplicity that my āśrama calls for. My dharma is to be a sādhu, to vigilantly accept only what is necessary for the service of Krishna and not a farthing more, and then to watch how, by Sri Krishna’s mercy, His full shelter unfolds.

 

Wasn’t Marcel’s journey home inspiring? It seems to pose the following challenge to all of us: What is the best way for each of us to practically loosen our “material protective agents” so we can experience Krishna’s mercy unobscured by our false sense of control? I don’t, however, recommend a trek through Iran as your own journey home.

 

 


[1] The names “Marcel” and “Marie” are pseudonyms for our pilgrims who requested that if I write their story that their real names not be published.

[2] The immigration at Pakistan refused his request at the border to walk through their country penniless, and he was forced to fly to Delhi on his way to Vṛndāvana.

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