“Vamshi Madhava Prabhu is seriously injured. He was in the backyard of his home in Kherson when a sniper shot nearby hit him,” says his friend Radha Raman.
“His wife messaged us – how can I save him! She has nowhere to take him as there isn’t a working ambulance service currently, nearby. The Russians are using ambulance cars, to go around unnoticed, to plant bombs.”
Kherson is one of the Ukrainian cities that Russian forces are focusing their military might on.
Radha Raman and Vamshi Madhava are devotees of the Hindu God Krishna, since the early 1990s.
Thousands of Ukrainian Hindus, members of ISKCON, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, are keeping track of each other’s well-being via online group chats as many of their temples had to be closed, after Russia invaded.
Vamshi Madhava’s recovery is in their prayers to a God from whom they are drawing fortitude as intense street-to-street battles continue and desperate residents flee for shelter.
Biggest ISKON Temple in Europe Providing Shelter to Those Who Have No Place To Go
“50 percent of devotees of the temple at Kyiv have left for western Ukraine to keep safe. The deities have been moved to a safer place and the temple has been closed. Everybody is hiding underground and curfew is enforced. A few devotees who have nowhere else to go to are still taking shelter at the temple in Kyiv,” says Radha Raman, referring to New Navadvipa temple in Kyiv.
It is the biggest ISKCON temple in Europe with the largest congregation among Ukraine’s 54 Krishna temples.
A vibrant place, it attracts hundreds of worshippers daily – its attendance is higher on weekends, when many of Kyiv’s Indian students join for prayers and prasad.
But with Russian advance towards Kyiv, the ground floor has been ply-wooded by priests to keep the building safe.
Sitting next to the Krishna altar at his country home, speaking in Ukrainian, Radha Raman tells us that staring in 1989, his family has been part of the rise of ISKCON in Ukraine and he witnessed the Navadvipa temple being built.
“I lived close to the temple in Kyiv but these days I am 30 km away in a rural place. There is a huge forest behind us, but I hear airplanes, weapons blasts of the fight going on a few kilometres away. Friends tell me that there are a lot of weapons and tank battles. A big bridge was destroyed and they were able to damage the Russian army,” he says.
'Krishnaism' in Ukraine
There are upwards of 50,000 devotees in Ukraine, with thriving temples and teaching centres making it a popular place for followers from various former Soviet republics, including Russia, which is believed to have more than 2,00,000 members.
Inspired by Krishnaism, ISKCON was founded in 1966 in New York City by an Indian monk, Swami Prabhupada, who later gathered more followers during his travels to Europe and Soviet Union.
Even though the Soviets legalised it as a religion in 1988, it was suppressed by a suspicious KGB in the 1980s. It flourished after democracy arrived in the former Soviet republics. Popularly referred to as the Hare Krishna movement internationally, it was formalised in Ukraine in 1990.
One of its successful programs is Food for Life, which continues to serve food even as the country battles Russia.
Krishna Tattva Das is Manager of the Donetsk ISKCON temple and leads the Food for Life program in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, where surveys have claimed Hindus to be 0.6 percent of the population.
“We feed elderly and invalids. We have a small kitchen where devotees make bread, porridge, and soup, five days a week to feed 200-300 people daily. It is vegetarian prasadam but it’s not culturally Indian – it’s not samosas. There are 90-100 devotees in Alchevsk, 100 in the neighbouring Luhansk, 200 in Donetsk,” says Das.
People await food as ominous aerial attack sirens blare and war creates further scarcity and uncertainty. “The war is still 30 km away from our city. We are not involved politically, but if bombs were to fall here, how will we save our temple,” asks Das.
'Krishna is With Us': Devotees Take Up Arms to Defend Ukraine
The war has stalled prasadam distributions in other parts where fierce battles are on, including Kyiv and regions bordering Belarus.
“Our national leader of Food for Life, Kamala Kanti Prabhu, lives in a small village close to Chernobyl, near the border with Belarus and Russia. There is a massive attack from that side. Villagers are seeing Russian tanks in their fields and streets. Bridges are destroyed. We will try to restore Food for Life when situation allows,” says Radha Raman, whose fellow devotees are showing tenacious resistance to slow down the Russian advance.
“One friend is fighting at the sea shore area in Mariupol. He has destroyed lots of aggressors. Another friend is in the intelligence unit. I know devotees who have volunteered to take up weapons and are serving in territory-defence units in Kyiv,” he says.
In these adverse times, Ukrainians who have adopted the Hindu faith are deriving courage from symbolism – blue and yellow horizontal bands of their national flag are also the colours of their deity – yellow clothes on their blue bodied Krishna.
Raising three fingers of his hand, Radha Raman takes it further, referring to the Ukrainian coat of arms which is a blue shield with a gold trident, “Krishna is with us because we have a trishool in the Ukrainian flag. It is the power of Ukraine.”
He seeks strength from his practice. “Mantras are a powerful weapon. Mantras give more focus to our bullets. Krishna helps us understand karma and perform the duty of attacking the aggressor to protect our people,” Radha Raman says pointing to the altar beside him.
Hindus of Ukraine do find solace in their bhakti, but they also feel vulnerable in these desperate times. “It is hard to focus and be dedicated in prayer. I worship the deities and listen to lectures of my guru, but I have a wife and family. I am a grihasa. The war is very close to my house. I am not a sanyasi so it’s hard to be renounced and not worry for my family,” he says.
War Divides Devotees, Ukrainian Immigrants Send Help
Considered to be a centre of Vedic learning for devotees, Ukraine regularly hosts retreats for ISKCON members from all over the world, especially from former Soviet republics.
Even though India’s Vrindavan is their most holy pilgrimage, and everyone I spoke with had visited the land of their God’s birth, they also travel and mingle at several international fairs.
United in faith, the war has them facing a divide of perception, “Devotees from Belarus and Russia say we need to invade to save you from your fascist regime. Big propaganda is spreading outside Ukraine. Devotees believe what Putin is saying. It is very hard to see this division among devotees,” says Achintya Swarup of Kremenchuk, a central Ukrainian city, who became a Hindu in 1992.
Ukraine – the word means ‘border lands’ in Russian. Putin uses the logic that historically Ukraine has always been Russia’s border land. Even though Ukrainians feel otherwise, the people of these two lands have friends and family across the borders.
Thousands of miles away in California’s Silicon Valley, which has a large Russian-speaking community, immigrants from various diverse Soviet republics stand united to send help to war ravaged Ukraine.
Mountain View-based Victoria Krivtsova, who goes by her Hindu name Vrnda-Sevika Dasi, helped with translations. She is organising aid for her homeland: “We are holding kirtans, bhajans, Bhagawat Gitam sessions, to arrange for resources. Members are already sending funds. We are praying hard for peace.”
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets @SsavitaPatel.)
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