I arrived in America on Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day is reserved for remembering the American soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in the wars over the centuries. I had just come from a similar event in Moscow, Russia, where the day is called Victory Day. Every year, the Russian people remember their victory over the Nazis in World War II by holding a military parade in Red Square where thousands of soldiers and endless weapons are paraded to patriotic songs. Displays of nationalistic fever occur throughout the entire country.
I was dressed in my devotional attire when I arrived at Newark airport en route to the Sadhu Sanga Retreat in Boone, N.C. I reflected that the mood in America on Memorial Day was markedly different than it was in Russia on Victory Day. Although there were some official ceremonies in Washington D.C. and others scattered throughout the country, most people seemed bent on enjoying a weekend in the warm spring weather. I heard people speaking of the relief they anticipated from getting away from work, and of the parties and family reunions they would be attending.
A voice from behind me interrupted my thoughts on the divergent nationalistic spirits of America and Russia.
“Hey man, what’s with the dress?”
Experience has taught me to ignore such rudeness, especially when I’m alone. I didn’t even turn around.
“Hey! I’m talking to you! You with the bald head and the ponytail.”
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a group of eight well-dressed young men plus one older man.
“So?” said one of the young men. I gathered he was the one who had been speaking all along.
“I’m a monk,” I said. “I follow a spiritual tradition from India.”
“Frankie,” said one of the young men to my interlocutor, “he must just be one of those Hare Krsnas who sing on the streets in New York.”
“The ones who beg for money,” said another.
“You don’t work?” said the first young man. “Pay some taxes. Do something for your country.”
I considered whether or not to engage with his defiance. Then I said, “I served my country. I was in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam war.”
“So you were in Nam?” he asked. He looked surprised.
“No. I didn’t fight in Nam in the end,” I replied. “But I gave a good couple of years for my country. What about you?”
“Me, well I ….”
“Leave him alone.” The older man spoke up in a thick Italian accent. “He did his time.”
He gestured casually with his head to the corner. “Come over here,” he said to me.
“I appreciate what you did in the military,” he said, once we were standing separate from the group of young men. “You got the right to choose the religion you want.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
“You’re on your way to board your flight?” he said.
“Correct,” I replied. “My flight’s in two hours.”
“Then come with us,” said the man. “There’s an Admirals’ Club lounge just around the corner. You can sit with us there for a while.”
At the club desk, the receptionist asked each of us for our membership cards.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have one.”
“Then you can’t come in,” she said.
The older man spoke up. “What do you mean he can’t come in? This is Memorial Day weekend. He did time in the military. How’s that respecting our soldiers?”
“I was only in for two years,” I said.
“You wore the uniform, right?” the older man said. “That’s more than can be said for these lazy boys with me.”
Turning to the receptionist he said, “Let him in.”
“I’m really sorry, sir,” she said, “It’s company policy that I can’t let anyone in without a membership card unless a member pays for the person to enter.”
“100 dollars,” she said. Without missing a beat, he handed her a hundred dollar bill. We were in.
“You want some coffee?” the older man asked me.
“No thank you,” I said.
“Some bagels?” he asked.
“Frankie, run over there and get him some bagels.”
When Frankie jumped up and ran over to the buffet, I got the sense my host was someone important.
“May I ask who are you?” I said. “What do you do?”
The group of young men looked over at the older man, who gave a little smile.
“You don’t wanna know,” he said in his Italian accent.
I thought maybe he was being humble, so I said, “No, I really would like to know.”
“The boss said you don’t wanna know!” said one of the young men a little too loudly.
“Boys, boys,” the older man said. “You go over the there. I want to have a talk with this gentleman.
“Now,” he said, turning to me, “what do I call you?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t introduce myself. You can just call me Swami.”
“Swami?” he said. “That’s your name?”
“It’s my spiritual name.”
“Your Hare Krsna name?” When I nodded he said, “I know the Krsnas. When I was young they used to come to the market in their robes to collect fruits and vegetables. My father took a liking to them and told all the sellers to give them whatever was left over at the end of the day. It went on for years.
“When I was 10 years old, we saw them singing on the streets downtown. Curious, I started walking over but my father grabbed me and said, ‘That’s not for you. You have your family.’ But now we’re here, and I’ve got some questions I need to ask.”
“Sure, go ahead.” I said.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends through the years,” he said. “Some of them good, most of them bad. I wanna know where they went. You know, like reincarnation.”
“You believe in reincarnation?” I was taken aback.
“Yes,” he said. “As a matter of fact I do,”
“OK,” I said. “Well, it all starts by understanding we’re not these bodies. We’re the soul in the body, like a passenger in a car. When the body dies, the soul moves on. Depending on our actions during our life and our desires at the moment of death, we take birth in another body within another family.”
“What about the bad souls?” he asked.
“Well, they take birth in unfortunate circumstances,” I said.
“What kind of unfortunate circumstances?” he said.
“Like in impoverished conditions,” I said. “Or with little or no chance for education. Or they may be subject to disease or traumatic situations throughout life.”
He sat silently as if mulling this over.
“It’s called karma,” I said. “Reaction to our actions. But such reactions can be dissipated by chanting God’s name.”
“You can remove reactions though God’s name? What is His name?”
“One of God’s names is Krishna,” I answered.
“That’s what you people sing outside the subway,” he said. “But why do you all sit on the ground?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Why do you sit on the ground? The ground is so dirty. It forces everyone to look down on you. If you gotta a message you gotta look people straight in the eye. Tell whoever’s in charge that I said that.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Excuse me for a minute,” he said. “I gotta go to the men’s room.”
In his absence, the young men drifted back towards me.
“Frankie here wants to know if you got any proof you were in the military,” said one of the boys. “We just wanna be sure you’re not spoofing the boss.”
“Why would I do that?” I said.
“Just show us some proof.”
“Like what can I show you?” I said.
“A card,” he said.
“A card?” I had to smile, although the young man looked serious. “It was 48 years ago!”
“This isn’t a joke,” he said.
Then I remembered something.
“Hold on,” I said. I opened my computer and searched through my email until I found what I was looking for.
“Look at this. It’s a message from the Marine Corps for my birthday. They get in touch every year on May 20th without fail.”
I read aloud:
“’Hello Swami. We at Marine Corps, USMC Community, would like to wish you a very happy birthday today! Semper Fie!’”
Indradyumna Swami in the US Military
Frankie looked impressed. “What does Semper Fie mean?” he asked.
“It means ‘Faithful to God, country, family and your fighting unit’,” I said.
“Hang on, but you weren’t a monk then. So why do they address you as ‘Swami’?”
“I guess they follow my life,” I said with a smile. “It’s family. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “I know what you mean. We say ‘Omerta’. It means that we are bound by the code of silence and secrecy. A code of honor.”
The hair on my arms stood on end and a chill ran up my spine because I knew that term. It was from the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mob.
Frankie came closer and looked at the email. “It’s the real thing,” he confirmed to the others.
When the boss came back, all the young men except Frankie scuttled away again. While he hovered on the edges of our
conversation, the boss and I talked philosophy for another hour until it was time for me to leave.
“I have to catch my flight,” I said.
“OK,” he said. “Before you go I want to apologize for the way my boys spoke to you.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It happens sometimes.”
“Look, if you ever need help just call me.” He held out a piece of paper.
“ I mean it.” he continued. “If anyone causes you trouble, I’ll help you out.”
“We don’t really work that way,” I said.
“Take it!” said Frankie. “You don’t argue with the boss!” He shook his head in disbelief as I accepted the piece of paper.
“Memorize the number,” the boss said, “and then throw it away.”
“Sure,” I said. “It was nice meeting you.”
“The pleasure was ours,” said the boss
Walking out of the Admirals’ Club, I memorized the number and threw the piece of paper in the trash.
“Wow, that was far out,” I thought.
When I reached my gate, an announcement was made that the flight was delayed half an hour.
I was chanting softly on my beads when I noticed Frankie watching me from 30 meters away. I motioned for him to come over.
“What’s up, Frankie?”
“Boss told me to watch over you until you board your flight, Swami. He’s got your back.”
[ army ] [ day ] [ indradyumna ] [ memorial ] [ swami ] [ veteran ]
“A Vaisnava is always a well-wisher to everyone. The Six Gosvamis, for example, are described in this way: dhiradhira janapriyau. They were popular with both the gentle and the ruffians. A Vaisnava must be equal to everyone, regardless of one’s position. Atmavat: a Vaisava should be like Paramatma. Isvara sarva-bhutanam hrd-dese ‘rjuna tisthati. Paramatma does not hate anyone … As the moon never refuses to distribute its pleasing rays even to the home of a candala, a Vaisnava never refuses to act for everyone’s welfare.” [Srimad Bhagavatam 7.4.32, purport]