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He Went From Biology to Bhakti

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In 1971, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada -- the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, the evangelical mission of the Hare Krishna religion -- visited Moscow. Although he could neither practice nor preach his religion openly, he nevertheless managed to plant the seeds of the Hare Krishna faith in what was then the Soviet Union.
More than three decades later, Hare Krishnas -- whose religion is a branch of Hinduism that conforms to the teachings of Krishna -- now practice their faith openly in Russia. Ironically for a pacifist religion, the Krishna's temple is set among military installations near Begovaya metro station. With as many as 100,000 adherents in Russia, the order has charity missions in 20 Russian cities, where it provides hot vegetarian food to hungry people, regardless of creed or religious belief.
Moscow native Vadim Tunayev, whose Krishna name is Bhakti Vijnana Goswami, has since 1992 been head of the Russian chapter of ISKCON -- now an officially registered religious organization that operates two schools in Moscow. He first became attracted to Krishnaism in 1980, when he was a postgraduate student in molecular biology at Moscow State University. A friend -- also a Hare Krishna -- introduced him to the faith, thus bringing his scientific career to a halt and beginning his spiritual one.
He spoke with The Moscow Times last week.


Q:How did the Hare Krishna religion come to Russia?
A: Hare Krishna first came to Russia in 1971, when the founder of our movement [Prabhupada] came to Moscow for a short, four-day visit ... and converted, so to speak, one Russian to this faith. So, from this one Russian the whole movement began -- because at that time it was strictly prohibited. When he came, he was not necessarily in disguise, but he certainly was not allowed to fully manifest his mission, so to speak, because at the time the government was strictly atheistic.

Q:Has Russia been generally receptive to Krishnaism?
A: Yes. I have been all over the world, and I have seen that Russian people are, on average, more receptive. ... Culturally, Russian people are something between Western people and Eastern people, because they are more emotional than Western people. Western people tend to be more cold and more rational. Russian people are not so rational. And our [Hare Krishna's] outlook and religion is a philosophical one, but it's also an emotional one. It's a religion of bhakti, and bhakti means love, emotional love toward God. And our rituals are supposed to involve some spiritual or emotional feelings, and in this sense we're not only addressing the intellectual needs of the people, but also the emotional needs, and this is one of the reasons why Russian people are more receptive than Western people -- because they're more emotional.

Another reason is that the society is, you know, upside down, more or less. For the last few years, a great many Russians have suffered because of the lack of ideals and the lack of ideology. Also, strict atheistic rule [during the Soviet era] made people more receptive and more likely to search for God. It's human psychology: The forbidden fruit is always sweeter and more attractive. And, of course, another reason is that the Russian people love India. For some reason, this love for India is in the blood of Russian people.

Q:Have you encountered any problems because of your beliefs?
A: Oh yes. In 1971, when the first Russian Hare Krishna appeared in Russia, the movement was for some time expanding underground. Then, in the early 1980s, the government declared war on the Hare Krishnas, to such an extent that the magazine Communist published an article that identified the three main threats to Soviet rule as pop music, Coca-Cola and Hare Krishnas.

Q:Why Hare Krishnas in particular?
A: I have always wondered why. Probably because they saw how receptive people are [to Hare Krishna] and how even people who have nothing to do with the religion can be converted to it. I was one of those who encountered some problems during that period, and I was really wondering why because I knew who the Hare Krishnas were. I knew that they were just a bunch of harmless people. The Hare Krishnas back then were maybe 100 strong, and I knew that we weren't really dangerous, but at the same time I saw how seriously the government took us. Maybe they thought there was a potential for this kind of religion in Russia -- and I think they were right.

Q:Have you faced problems recently?
A: Recently, we haven't had any particular problems, especially from the government. I don't think it would be fair to complain. We enjoy full rights here, and many different people have differing opinions about us, and the Russian Orthodox Church has a particular opinion about us that they don't hesitate to make known. Still, as for our situation here, it's one more or less of acceptance.

Q:What sorts of charitable works are the Hare Krishnas involved in?
A: We are very active. We have a mission called Hare Krishna Food for Life which is active all over the world, and in Russia since 1988. That year, even before any temples were built, we were recognized by the government, and just after that a terrible earthquake hit Armenia. The first thing we did was supply food relief to the victims. Then, of course, there was the war in Abkhazia ... where we fed people for five years, supplying millions and millions of plates of hot vegetarian food. We were the first nongovernmental charitable organization to go into Chechnya, in March 1995. We stayed for 18 months, until the Chechen rebels took Grozny, at which time one of our volunteers was killed. Today, we have branches of Food for Life in many cities.

Q:How did you become involved with the religion?
A: To make a long story short, I got interested in Krishna in 1980, when I was a postgraduate student. I was studying molecular biology, the nature of life, and basically became convinced that life is not an accidental thing, that it's something that cannot be produced by chance. It was obvious. It's too complicated to be a product of chance. And that was the beginning of my philosophical quest. I started reading philosophy and some religion, although at the time they were very difficult to obtain. I had a friend to had become a Hare Krishna, however, and he introduced me to the religion. I studied it for some time, and finally had to accept defeat. All of my arguments were defeated by my friend's theological ones. Because I am a more or less an honest man, I had to admit this -- and it was the end of my scientific career and the beginning of my spiritual one.

Q:What is the Krishna response to the hostage-taking at "Nord Ost"?
A: We are mourning for the victims of the Nord Ost tragedy. On such occasions, people often turn to God, asking why such a thing has happened. May He give us the wisdom to understand the root cause, and to uproot it. We see that, in the modern world, so much violence is performed in the name of religion. The "Nord Ost" tragedy is just another example of this pseudo-religious rhetoric, a vicious crime committed under some religious pretext. If we want peace, we must understand that it starts in our own heart. If we really want peace, we should not delude ourselves that it will come through war and vengeance. Hatred bears only hatred, and evil brings about only evil.

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