On Tuesday 11 September 2001, devotees from England, Holland and the US waited at Heathrow Airport, London, with great anticipation and happiness for the arrival of His Divine Grace Srila Bhakti Ballabh Tirtha Maharaj and his entourage of devotees, who were due to arrive from Moscow just after 12 noon that day. The plane landed only slightly later than scheduled and, after smoothly passing through the baggage claim and customs, Maharaj and his travel party came into the arrivals lounge, to be greeted joyfully by his diksa and siksa disciples. A convoy of several cars made the 2 hour journey from northwest London to the home in south London where Maharaj and the devotees were to stay. Everyone was light-hearted and in a happy mood. Conversation was non-stop until they arrived at their destination sometime after 3 PM.
That mood was to change quickly, however. As Maharaj and the other devotees were unpacking and settling in, there was a phone call from one of the Dutch devotees who was staying at another house nearby. "Have you seen the news?" he asked. He informed us of the tragedy in the US that had occurred while we were on the road coming back from Heathrow. The devotees turned on the news and all watched with shock as World Trade Center collapsed to the ground. As we had been waiting at the airport for Maharaj, who could have imagined that such a thing would happen only a few moments later? We then realized that had Maharaj's plane been delayed only slightly later than it had been, He would not be sitting here with us, as all flights into or out from London were now canceled. An American devotee, who had also just arrived from the US earlier that same morning, would not even have had the opportunity to be with Maharaj at all had she come only a couple of hours later, as all flights into and out from the US were now also grounded. It seemed most remarkable to all present that, somehow or other, we were now sitting in the presence of the sadhu at this particular time and place.
Maharaj, upon being told the news, remarked, "Human beings are more ferocious than the so-called beasts. Animals at least kill others in order to survive, but humans will kill over politics." Many devotees speculated on what would be the global reaction to these events. Maharaj commented, "While governments certainly have a responsibility to stop the evil-doers, if, in doing so, they themselves become involved in harming innocent living beings, then they will also have to face the ramifications of their own actions."
A suddha bhakta always has sama-darsana, equal vision to all. As such, we never see the suddha bhakta troubled by worldly affairs. In watching Maharaj's gentle behavior, the devotees could see first-hand how the acarya never sees a difference between friend and foe. While our own personal views of the world may be clouded with false concepts of "us" and "them", such thoughts never enter the mind and heart of the suddha bhakta, who sees all living creatures as part and parcel of his Most Beloved Supreme Lord.
The Guru is always extremely sensitive and loving towards his disciples. Thus, Maharaj could sense the mood of anxiety that was prevalent among the assembled devotees and guests. At the program that evening, Maharaj spoke about the nature of the world. "This material world is a forest fire, davagni," he explained. "It is never a safe place, but we become complacent here, simply imagining ourselves to be safe." He said that such incidents as those that had occurred that day may remind us of our precarious position but, in actuality, while living in this world, we are always in such a precarious position at every moment. Maharaj related the pastimes of Supreme Lord Sri Krishna in the 19th chapter of the Tenth Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam, wherein the cows and cowherd boys of Vraja became trapped in a blazing fire in the Munja Forest. As the flames of the forest fire threatened to engulf them, they appealed to Sri Krishna to rescue them. Krishna requested them to close their eyes. Once they closed their eyes, He opened His mouth and swallowed the fire. Our only refuge in this scorching fire of material existence is Supreme Lord Nandanandana Sri Krishna . We are deluded to think that we are ever safe without Him. Simply by trusting Him, as demonstrated by the cowherd boys' shutting their eyes to imminent danger, His devotees are rescued from the relentless flames of the mundane world.
Maharaj then quoted the Mahabharata, wherein Yamaraj asked Yudhistira Maharaj many questions, of which the final four were of utmost importance:
ka ca varta kimascaryam
kasca modate kaha panthaha
kathayitva jalam piba
(Mahabharata, Vana-parva 313.114)
The main questions Maharaj addressed that evening were the first two of these four: "What is the news of the world?" and "What is the greatest wonder?" The answers that Yudhistira gave to Lord Yamaraj are relevant to all times and circumstances, unlike our common concerns with transient "news" that changes from day to day. Yudhistira's answer with regards to the news of the world acurately describes the actual position of the living entity within the material universe. His answer with regards to the greatest wonder expresses the marvel of man's denial of the temporary nature of material existence. Srila Bhakti Ballabh Tirtha Maharaj explains this most instructive section of the Mahabharata in great detail in the chapter "Answers for All Time" in the new book A Taste of Transcendence (see below).
Maharaj continued to utilize the tone of the mood of the devotees to convey a special message to them throughout the rest of that week. One class was dedicated to emphasizing the importance of our human birth and how we should never take it for granted. "In this cycle of 84 lakhs of species of births, there is no guarantee that we will come back as a human being." He gave examples of his own eye-witness accounts of reincarnation. These anecdotes and topics covered in this lecture also appear in A Taste of Transcendence in the chapter entitled "The Welfare of the Living Being".
In another class, Srila Bhakti Ballabh Tirtha Maharaj discussed the foolish tendency of human beings to put off devotional practice until late in life. Again he reminded all that every moment is precious and that we should seize every opportunity to cultivate bhakti, and that it is unwise to think that we can make plans for our lives by delaying our bhajana in such a way.
Another day, Maharaj explained how the actual sadhu has no fear, for he knows that everything happens as per the sanction of the Supreme Lord. "Those whom the Lord protects cannot be killed and those whom the Lord kills cannot be saved. With firm faith, the sadhu understands all things to be the Sweet Will of the Supreme Lord, and that everything Krishna does is for the ultimate good of all living beings. There can be no fear in one who surrenders to the Supreme Lord. The sadhu is always calm and serene."
Later that week, Maharaj described the intensity with which we should perform bhajana, quoting the words of Vamsi das Babaji, who instructed us to "Weep!" for Krishna. The most divine character of Vamsi das Babaji and the true meaining of bhakti are very elaborately described by Srila Bhakti Ballabh Tirtha Maharaj in A Taste of Transcendence in the chapter entitled "What is Bhakti?". In that chapter, some wonderful and unique metaphors are utilized to guide us to an understanding of the purport of the lecture.
On Saturday 15 September, Maharaj led a wonderful nagarsankirtana through the winding streets of the North Laines of Brighton, a quaint city on the seaside in south England. A program was then held at the Friends Meeting Hall, near the sea. After delivering a beautiful lecture which gave the devotees a glimpse into the sweet nature and pastimes of Nandanandana Sri Krishna, Maharaj, playing the kasar and loudly chanting "Jaya Dao! Jaya Dao!", led a lengthy and unforgettably uproarious Narasimha kirtana, which left everyone utterly breathless.
Emotions were extremely high, as we were unsure of how long we would be so fortunate as to have Maharaj's personal presence in Europe. Every day, there was talk that the tour, which was originally scheduled to include England, Holland, Slovenia, Austria, France, Germany and Switzerland, was to be curtailed due to the increased risk of war. Many felt that the dependability of flights back to India (or anywhere) would become increasingly unpredictable should full scale war break out. Also, some of the household devotees in Maharaj's entourage lived in Kashmir and Punjab, near the already volatile Pakistani border. Maharaj was most concerned for both the physical and emotional well-being of their families. It could not be ignored, also, that within hours of the US disaster, GOKUL had received dozens of emails and phone calls from devotees throughout India, begging Maharaj to return home. Many of these included other senior sannyasis at Sri Chaitanya Gaudiya Math. Maharaj had to take all things into consideration to come to a decision about continuing the tour. At no moment did Maharaj ever express any concern for his own safety or his own personal preference. His only thought was what was in the best interest of his disciples. It was inevitable that some devotees would be very disappointed, regardless of which decision would be made. But, to put his disciples in harm's way was something Maharaj would not permit and this issue seemed to be his primary concern.
Maharaj and a large party of devotees left London for Holland on Tuesday 18 September, where devotees from Germany and France now also came to have darsana, as it seemed nearly certain that Maharaj would return to India very soon. These last classes in Lekkerkerk were intimate and touching. In the final class, the ultimate message was "saranagati"--the path of surrender to the Supreme Lord. "You cannot get Krishna by your own efforts," Maharaj said. "He is revealed within your heart, proportionate to your surrender to Him. In order to surrender to Him, you must engage only in those activities that will remind you of Him and desist from all activities that do not. When you surrender to the Lotus Feet of the Supreme Lord, there is never any cause for fear of any kind. The boundless taste of the sweetness of Sri Krishna is to be found within that boundless surrender." This was the summation of all the lessons the European devotees had heard throughout that most intense week.
Maharaj and his entourage left for Delhi on Thursday morning, 20 September 2001, from Amsterdam Schipol Airport. It was impossible for the devotees to check their tears. The message of the previous week had hit home: we cannot take anything for granted. We cannot take for granted the time that we have been given in this precious human birth, nor the extraordinary time that we have been granted to have the invaluable association of the suddha bhakta. Therefore, we must seize every moment given to us to serve Guru-Vaishnava-Bhagavan, leaving nothing to chance.
Although the European devotees are certainly sad that they did not have the personal association of His Divine Grace Srila Bhakti Ballabh Tirtha Maharaja for the full time originally planned, they can take solace in the words from a lecture delivered by Srila Bhakti Ballabh Tirtha Maharaj in the US in 1999 (see The Qualities of a Sadhu). In that lecture, Maharaj said, "You can associate with the sadhu from here even if the sadhu is in India. India is so many thousands of miles away from the USA. But even from the USA, you can associate with the sadhu in India. The sadhu is thinking about the service of his object of worship: Radha-Govinda-Mahaprabhu. If you follow that thought, even from a great distance, then you are associating with the sadhu." From these words, we in the West can be assured that the Guru is with the sincere devotee at every step, regardless of how far away he might appear to be on the physical plane.