By Acarya dasa, Ritudeep dasa, Damodarleela dasa, and Radhavallabha dasa
(respective padayatra leaders)
Just as the AIP reached Mahuva, a large town on the Arabian Sea coast in the Bhavnagar District of Gujarat, the Indian Government announced a three-week lockdown to inhibit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in the community. Initially, as people became aware that we are travelling all over India they were reluctant to provide us with anywhere to stay. The residents saw Bhakta Michael, who is a Russian devotee, and were scared because they knew the coronavirus originated overseas. Michael joined us from the Navadvipa-mandala parikrama, has walked in padayatra for many kilometres and is a valued padayatri, but because he is a foreigner people thought we must be infected. We were worried, as our options for accommodation were rapidly disappearing. But the Lord takes care of His devotees. I called ISKCON Bhavnagar temple president Venugayak dasa and he called the area District Superintendent of Police, who happens to be a devotee. The DSP explained the situation to the residents and finally we were allowed to stay in the shade of a factory. It is just a shade, with no walls to keep the wind at bay. We are now twenty-five devotees staying under the shade with the oxen. We padayatris are always walking and preaching, so it’s painful having to stay in one place. Our oxen also were in tears, as they can’t serve Their Lordships and their routine is changed.
Until a few days ago the factory was operating and generating a dreadful odour. I was wondering how we could stay here, but the Lord arranged. The factory was ordered to close and then things were a little better. Every day we have our morning programme as usual, then chanting, Bhagavatam class, prasadam, personal reading, kitchen seva, and kirtan in the evening for two hours as our spiritual master, Lokanath Maharaja, instructed: ISKCON’s contribution to eradicate the virus.
The Lord only knows how long the lockdown will last. We may fall short of resources, although local people are helping us with grains and rice. We have just two gas cylinders, so we are cooking over an open fire. One devotee telephoned to ask of our whereabouts. When he heard the wind blowing, he said, “Prabhu, where are you?” I told him, “We are staying in a shade.” He was shocked. I said, “Don’t worry. Their Lordships are with us and as it is an airborne disease, even if the virus comes the wind will take it away.” We are dressing Sri Sri Nitai-Gaurasundar daily and serving Them nicely and there is a house nearby where we get Tulasi and flowers for Them. They are our only shelter.
A padayatri has to be tolerant and humble and then can overcome any difficulty. Bhakta Michael is also adjusting like a tapasvi and there is no need to worry about him. Thus, we are spending the days performing our devotional services. As we are some distance from the town centre it’s a fairly safe place. All the rest is in Their Lordships’ hands. Marobhi rakhobhi jo iccha tomar. Amravati devotee Meghashyam dasa, a doctor by profession, has told us the precautions we need to take to avoid falling ill, and Gurudev gave us a schedule and guidelines to help us through the lockdown and make the best of a bad bargain.
Despite the challenging situation, we enthusiastically celebrated Ram Navami on April 2. Dhiranayak Dasa, our pujari dressed Sri Sri Nitai Gaurasundar as Lord and Laxman.
Coronavirus a boon in disguise
Uttar Pradesh Padayatra
The padayatris are staying in an apartment parking lot in a village about 30km from Lucknow. By the mercy of Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai it is a beautiful place, a combination of water and accommodation and greenery. The coronavirus has not touched this area; I think people hardly know about it here. The village is remote and the people are cooperative. They daily attend mangala-arati and evening sankirtan. All the services of Their Lordships are going on very nicely and we are holding our regular morning programme. There are seven of us padayatris, each one chanting an increasing number of rounds, reading Srila Prabhupada’s books and listening to lectures.
I called AIP leader Acarya dasa to ask about his management during the lockdown. He said, “Padayatris have to be strong enough to face any calamity. We have to be tolerant. This is the time the Lord is testing our faith in Him. We should not worry, just take His shelter.” His words inspired me; I was also there in the All-India Padayatra for seven years. By the Lord’s grace we are not facing any problem. The villagers are providing help in the form of vegetables, rice and grains. We are performing kirtan daily and following the instructions given by Lokanath Maharaja for saving the world from the virus. This public health crisis has actually given us time to be introspective and become more spiritually enlightened.
Ram mandir a shelter from disease
Andhra Pradesh Padayatra
An old Ram mandir in a village near Ahobilam is providing us with a place to stay after the government instructed the population to stay at home. There are just five of us, the rest having gone to their hometowns. The local people are helping with grains and vegetables, although the accommodation is sparse and there is no washroom facility. We are simply waiting and praying to the Lord to help us. We are serving the deities, chanting extra rounds, reading books and performing kirtan in the evening.
Lockdown spurs a hasty return
Our padayatra was recently in Sawantwadi, a large town on Maharashtra’s tropical Konkan coast between Mumbai and Goa. We had just moved on from there when we were stopped by the police and told of the coronavirus lockdown. I called Sawantwadi ISKCON centre leader Vasusresta dasa who said, “Yes, please come back. We always wanted padayatris to stay with us and give us their association.” We were again welcomed by the devotees and are now staying here through the emergency. Our Sri Sri Nitai-Gaurasundar are in the temple altar and are getting served nicely. There are nine of us padayatris with our oxen. One day we were performing kirtan in Sawantwadi and the police van came and they started shouting at us: “Where have you all come from? You did not inform us. The lockdown is here and all temples are closed. Stop or we will take action.” Since then we have performed kirtan quietly at our morning programme. We are chanting extra rounds – one of our padayatris is chanting ninety rounds – and reading Srila Prabhupada’s books. Haribol.