After decades of communism, civil war, and bans on all religion in Albania, ISKCON was finally officially registered in the Southeast European country on May 31st, 2019 for the first time.
Now a small group of devotees are making friends and contacts, distributing Prabhupada’s books and hatching plans for establishing ISKCON centers. In a country long starved for spirituality, the response is enthusiastic, and the future hopeful and exciting.
Prior to 1990, Albania was completely isolated from the international community, and even the Soviet Union. As a result, it became the poorest country in Europe during the first phase of the Cold War.
In 1967, Communist leader and dictator Enver Hoxha initiated spiritual genocide when he banned all manifestations of religion in Albania. Churches, temples and mosques were demolished, closed or at best designated as historic monuments. Clergymen and priests were sent to labor camps or physically disposed of. If the authorities got wind that someone was practicing religious activities, he or she was immediately sentenced to ten years in prison.
Although this cruel communist regime ended between 1991 and 1992, some slight reform was introduced before that in 1990, and this was when devotees first attempted to spread Krishna consciousness in Albania.
A group from the former Yugoslavia – Akrura Das, Navadvipa Das, Daivi Shakti Dasi, and Rasa Sundari Dasi, along with Bhaktivaibhava Swami, then known as Avinas Candra Das – headed to Albanian capital city Tirana. There, they distributed two hundred copies of the brochure Krishna, the Reservoir of Pleasure in Albanian. They also organized a public program, which seventy people attended.
Trilokatma Das signs the founding documents of ISKCON Albania in front of a notary
However, due to decades of supression of religion, most local people, afraid of possible consequences, did not respond positively. While on Harinama, some threw stones at the devotees. Others even dragged them by the sikha. Finding the conditions too unfavorable, devotees left.
The transition from totalitarian socialism to parliamentary democracy was not easy, and only brought more problems for Albania, including economic collapse in 1997 and a civil war. The country remained forgotten, and devotees did not return for a long time.
In 2010 and 2011, a group of devotees from Croatia finally returned to Albania, where they hosted a Harinama tour in the three largest cities, and distributed Atma magazine. In 2014, Sri Isopanisad was the first book to be printed in Albanian.
Still, there was a lack of systematic outreach there. So Bhaktivaibhava Swami requested Trilokatma Das, a Czech devotee and ISKCON’s zonal supervisor for Slovakia, Macedonia, and now Albania, to do the needful.
Trilokatma Das distributes books in Durres in May 2016
The stories of people stoning devotees in Albania gave Trilokatma considerable pause. But, after some time, he decided to accept the challenge.
In May 2016, Trilokatma gathered Croatian sankirtan devotees Vrishabha Das, Nayananda Das and Bhakta Peggy, who were eager to distribute books in the last European country where Krishna consciousness hadn’t been established yet. The group would do sit-down Harinama in capital city Tirana in full devotional dress, with one playing the harmonium, one on kartalas, and the other two distributing Sri Isopanisad.
To their surprise, people were very positive and favorable – they were able to distribute sixty Sri Isopanisads a day. Devotees met with a similar response in other major cities like Elbasan and Durres. They soon distributed all the books they had brought, and collected many contact details from young people, who kept asking if there was an ISKCON center in Albania.
Due to the positive reception, sankirtan devotees returned again in 2017 and 2018, with Sankirtan Das, Suresvara Das, and Daitya Sudhana Das from the Czech Republic distributing a further 800 copies of Sri Isopanisad in October 2018.
(from left to right) Czech book distributors Suresvara Das, Daitya Sudhana Das, and Sankirtan Das in Albania in October 2018
A New Dawn
Trilokatma himself also spent a month in Albania in 2018. Using contacts the book distributors had collected, he organized several home programs and two public events. Gradually, the first group of people seriously interested in Krishna consciousness began to manifest in Albania.
One couple created the Facebook group Mantra Meditation Albania to keep everyone informed about upcoming programs and activities. Several young people got japa malas and began chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. A student from Durres named Sagita, who had received a Sri Isopanisad, volunteered to translate Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers into Albanian. Many were eager to have regular meetings and to learn to cook vegetarian preparations.
Trilokatma again returned to Albania this year, spending February to April 2019 there. During his visit he organized two “Bhakti-yoga picnics” in a Tirana city park, celebrated Gaura Purnima at a local yoga studio, and was invited onto national TV channel Ora News for an interview about Krishna conscious philosophy and his plans for spreading love of God.
Nayananda Das distributes a book to Turkish tourists while Bhakta Peggy and Vrishabha Das do Harinam in May 2016
He also enlisted language expert Professor Ardian Doka, from the University of Tirana, to evaluate Sagita’s translation of Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers. He hopes the book will be published by the North European BBT sometime in late 2019.
Trilokatma continued to train newcomers in Krishna consciousness, helping them study and bringing a few to attend the Nityananda Trayodasi festival in Macedonia to inspire them. He also enlisted the help of lawyers and other influential persons in applying for registration for ISKCON, and engaged five “bhaktas” – the pioneers of ISKCON Albania – in signing the application.
Since his visit, Trilokatma received news from Bhakta Daniel, a new Albanian devotee, that ISKCON was officially registered in Albania on May 31st2019, allowing it to operate as an official non-profit organization.
New devotees and founding members of ISKCON Albania - (left to right) Bhaktin Livia, Bhaktin Besmira, Bhakta Sidrit, and Bhakta Daniel, in April 2019
Trilokatma Das is set to spend another two to three months in Albania starting in July. Then, he hopes to get sponsors and find a Bhakti-Yoga center in Tirana where regular programs can take place. Later, he also hopes to open a Govinda’s vegetarian restaurant.
Other exciting possibilities, while not concrete, are on the horizon. One supporter, a sociologist named Aneta Mehali, has told Trilokatma about an unused hospital that could be donated and turned into an Ayurvedic clinic.
Meanwhile a businessman contact has offered to help devotees establish a farm community in the stunning countryside of Këlcyrë, southern Albania.
“In the long term future, my idea is to build a replica Vedic Village there, similar to the ‘living history’ medieval villages you see throughout Europe,” Trilokatma says. “Visitors could learn to milk cows; make butter, ghee, and puris; have classes in yoga and Ayurveda; and eat at a prasadam restaurant. At the end of their tour they could visit a temple and see brahmanas performing yajnas. We would engage the local people, who are expert in various crafts. It think it could be an interesting project for the Balkan area – even for all of Europe.”
The stunning natural scenery of South Albania, where devotees hope to establish a farm community
The outlook for Krishna consciousness in Albania is very different from what it once was. Trilokatma, who was at first afraid to go there after hearing about the violent and suppressive history, now can’t praise the country and its people enough.
“I’ve fallen in love with Albania,” he says. “The people are very friendly and open. And after years of repression, they are spiritually hungry. They are looking for answers. I feel a similar mood there like the one I experienced in the ‘90s in the Czech Republic after the communist era, when people were crazy after our books and we were distributing 100 books a day. We have a special opportunity now, while they are not yet spoiled by Western consumerism.”
He concludes: “It is so inspiring to be doing such pioneering preaching. Wherever I go in Albania, I can feel that actually, everything is already done. Lord Krishna and Srila Prabhupada have arranged everything, and I’m just a tool in their hands.”[ albania ] [ tirana ]