Surendra Singh, an engineer and ISKCON devotee, has distributed Bhagavad-gita As It Is, celebrated Janmastami (Lord Krishna’s appearance day), and practiced Krishna consciousness with fellow scientific expedition team members at the Indian Antarctic research station “Maitri.”
Antarctica, the Earth’s southernmost continent, is home to the the South Pole. It is the world’s coldest, driest and windiest continent, and 98% of it is covered with ice. Only scientists and supporting staff live there year round.
Back in November 2016, for ISKCON’s 50th anniversary, Kesihanta Das and Trivikrama Das from the US were the first ISKCON devotees to hold kirtan in Antarctica. They also offered arati to Srila Prabhupada’s murti and distributed Prabhupada’s books in Antarctica for the first time, placing the Bhagavad-gita As It Is in several Antarctic research stations.
Surendra Singh is now the first ISKCON devotee to practice Krishna consciousness on a long-term basis and share it with other residents in Antarctica. A congregation member of the ISKCON center in Sikar, Rajasthan since 2016, he serves under the guidance of the center’s director Lalit Govinda Das, and took shelter from the late Bhakti Charu Swami three years ago. In Sikar, he started an online Bhagavad-gita class for a local girls’ school, and organized an online Janmastami program amongst other outreach efforts.
Surendra has been working for the Indian Antarctic Programme, which conducts scientific expeditions to the Antarctic, since 2016. The Programme is run by the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), under the Government of India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences.
Surendra’s first two Antarctic Expeditions, from November 2016 to December 2017, and from November 2018 to December 2019, were at the Bharati research station. During his current and third expedition, which is running from November 2020 until January 2022, he has set up a new atmospheric sciences laboratory at Maitri research station, and is doing various scientific experiments.
Surendra and Gajendra outside Indian Research base Maitri Station
“Lalit Govinda Prabhu instructed me to take Bhagavad-gita As It Is with me for distributing in Antarctica, so I took it along with Teachings of Queen Kunti,” Surendra explains. “Initially, I was too shy to even talk about Krishna consciousness to my fellow members, because 90 percent are non-vegetarians.”
“One morning, I was chanting my japa, when one of my vegetarian friends came into my living room. Seeing me fully absorbed in chanting the Holy Names, while looking at a picture of Sri Sri Radha-Gopinatha, at first he thought I was sick, or had the winter effect.”
The winter effect, or the winter-over syndrome, is suffered by individuals who “winter-over” throughout the Antarctic winter, during which there is polar night with full darkness for about three months. The lack of sunlight, lack of change in routine, harsh weather, and isolation can cause irritability, depression, insomnia, stomach problems, and skin rashes. People miss their families deeply and there is minimal facility for Internet and phone conversations. Meanwhile, for vegetarians, diet is especially challenging because there are no fresh fruits or vegetables.
After observing Surendra for some time, however, his friend realized that he wasn’t suffering from winter-over syndrome, but that his spiritual practices were in fact helping him with the challenges of Antarctic life. The friend noticed that Surendra was reading Bhagavad-gita every day, did not argue with fellow members during the winter nights, spread a good mood, and seemed to be happy and recharged for the day simply by chanting the Holy Names.
“Finally he asked me about chanting and Krishna consciousness,” Surendra says, “Which led to him chanting 16 rounds daily and reading Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is.”
A third expedition team member joined them, and Surendra says the little group have since been rising at 4:00am and chanting japa daily; offering fresh water and soaked almonds to a picture of Sri Sri Radha Gopinatha; and reading Bhagavad-gita and Chaitanya Charitamrita from 8 to 10pm every night before going to sleep. Surendra has also been observing Ekadashi fasting in Antarctica, despite the lack of fresh fruit and veg.
In addition, on Janmastami day this past August, Surendra celebrated Janmastami at Maitri Research base for the first time, with guidance from Lalit Govinda Das. Out of the 21 people at the base, 11 participated, including the scientific/technical officer, medical officer-doctor, nurse, station engineer, polar vehicle mechanic, and generator mechanic.
Surendra led the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra from 11pm to 12:00am, while everyone sang and danced. He also read out a lecture which Lalit Govinda had sent him, and explained to the team members about ISKCON and Srila Prabhupada. (They were familiar with Bhagavad-gita, but had never seen or read Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is before.)
“Everybody felt refreshed the next morning and thanked me,” Surendra says. He gives all credit to Srila Prabhupada, Bhakti Charu Swami, and Lalit Govinda Das.
“I don’t even understand how it happened, and how a person like me who doesn’t know how to lead a kirtan can sing for one whole hour,” he says.
Next, Surendra aims to give a presentation at the base on Krishna consciousness, chanting, and how to manage one’s thought processes while wintering in Antarctica.
“I feel blessed,” he says. “I am a fallen soul, and am just trying to become an instrument to serve my guru’s wishes.”
After the current expedition, Surendra plans to engage himself in scientific projects back home in India, with no immediate plans to return to Antarctica. He feels that spending so much time during the expedition reading Bhagavad-gita and Chaitanya Charitamrita has increased his philosophical knowledge, and equipped him to better share Krishna consciousness back home.
May 15, 2022
Sunanda Das, Temple of the Vedic Planetarium