for ISKCON News on March 19, 2011
In yet another in a spate of deadly earthquakes around the world, a gigantic 9.0 magnitude quake struck 81 miles off the coast of Japan, triggering 33 foot high tsunami waves that caused massive destruction along the country’s coastline.
The Japanese National Police Agency has officially confirmed 5,692 deaths, 2,409 injured, and 9,522 people missing across the country, with the coastal city of Sendai, Miyagi near the epicenter the worst affected.
The cities of Osaka and Tokyo, where ISKCON temples are located, were spared the worst, but still affected. A ten-foot-high tsunami hit Tokyo, and aftershocks are still causing some fear. There were a few fires and damage in the area of the temple, and many traffic jams, with people walking twenty to thirty kilometers to reach their homes.
“The Tokyo shocks were at about 6.0 on the scale,” says ISKCON Tokyo temple president Sanjay Krishna Chandra Dasa, originally from Mumbai, India. “I was riding my bicycle when they came, and started wobbling like a drunkard—at first I didn’t know what was happening. My wife and younger daughter were on the seventh floor of the temple building as the earth shook, and my wife chanted the Narasimha prayers loudly while my daughter was panicked and crying. They both made it safely out onto ground level.”
Tokyo devotees had just moved from their old rented facility into a brand new temple with a Govinda’s restaurant, both of which sustained minor cracks but are otherwise unscathed. The Deities of Nitai-Gaurasundara were displaced during the earthquake, but sustained no damage. No devotees are known to be injured.
“It’s difficult to connect with locals by phone, so we haven’t been able to get in touch with many devotees,” says Sanjay Krishna Chandra. “However, the few we did contact are fine, and we have not heard any bad news. By Krishna’s mercy, it seems that everyone is okay.”
Sanjay says that Tokyo’s schools, offices, transportation, hospitals, fire brigade, and police are all on duty with a significant capacity.
“If you take a stroll outside your place in Tokyo everything looks perfectly normal,” he explains. “Just the speed of life is slower and logistics seem to be affected. So there is a shortage of milk, gasoline etc. Essential services such as electricity, gas, water, and sanitation are not affected.”
Still, most foreign devotees have left Japan as a precaution, and some local devotees have moved to Osaka or further South. Foreign governments are worried about the nuclear accident and some are encouraging evacuation, although the Japanese government is stating that the country is no longer in a state of emergency.
“A few devotees are determined to remain in Tokyo and serve the Deities of Sri Sri Nitai-Gaurasundara,” Sanjay says. “They are also ready to move the Deities, in the unlikely case of an extreme emergency.”
Currently, the devotees who have remained are taking care of around fifty Nepali nationals, who fled from the badly hit city of Sendai, where they had been studying Japanese at the university. The refugees are expected to stay in the temple until they can either be rehabilitated or return to Nepal.
“Purnima Dasi and Shrikanta Dasa, who is ISKCON Japan’s Public Relations person, made rice and mixed vegetables for them, and provided them with water and blankets,” Sanjay says. “The Nepali Ambassador was so happy that he personally called Shrikanta Prabhu and thanked ISKCON for its spontaneous co-operation and help. He even wanted to come to Shrikant Prabhu’s house to express his gratitude.”
ISKCON Tokyo was set to hold a major fund-raiser for its new temple on the auspicious occasion of Rama Navami—April 10th—with an expected attendance of 500 including celebrities. A grand opening for the temple along with an installation ceremony for new Deities of Sri Sri Radha-Govinda was set to follow from April 13th to 17th. Both, however, may now be postponed.
“With most of our core devotees having left Japan, and the nation’s mood quite somber, it would seem inappropriate to hold these festivals now,” says Sanjay Krishna Chandra. “We expect to decide on new dates for them by the end of March, or when the situation returns to normal. In the meantime, we will have a program for those affected by the earthquake—offering prayers, looking at the disaster from a philosophical point of view, fund-raising for its victims, and seeing how as devotees we can serve the affected people. We are also exploring ways to team-up with Food for Life, who are distributing prasadam in affected areas.”
Sanjay feels that a disaster like this can also be seen as an opportunity to show people the path of Bhakti yoga.
“However great a nation may be—the third largest economy in the world, the most organized, the most technically advanced—the fury of nature can devastate it all in a few minutes,” he says. “This should humble the intelligent, and help us understand the supremacy of higher powers and our own insignificance.”
He concludes, “Prayers for help and surrender are natural results of these circumstances. We need to imbibe and cultivate these even at good times. Chanting of the Holy Names of the Lord is so sublime, and such an easy process, that we can take shelter of it in any circumstances.”