By Indradyumna Swami
On May 15, I flew from Los Angeles to Ukraine for Nrsimhadeva Caturdasi. I felt uplifted to be going back to Eastern Europe and to my responsibilities on the festival tour in Poland, but the 36-hour journey, with connecting flights in Detroit, London, Warsaw, and Kiev, left me reeling.
Indeed, I was not ready for the young man who approached me at Kiev Airport and began preaching to me in broken English about the Second Coming of Christ and the need for redemption. He ended by asking for a donation.
“I don’t have any money on me,” I told him with a smile, “but I will be happy to share my own understanding of God with you.”
As we sat, I told him about the personal nature of Krsna and how we awaken our love for Him by chanting His holy names. He listened attentively, and then he asked if he could give me a donation. “I wanted a donation from you,” he said, handing me some bills, “but somehow I feel inspired to give you one.”
From Kiev I caught a domestic flight to Dnepropetrovsk, where I was met by several devotees. At the local temple, I quickly showered and changed clothes, and then I went to a hall in the city for the first evening of the festival. Jet lag was setting in, and I nodded off on the way, but I soon awoke to the roaring kirtan of a thousand devotees gathered to greet me. During the next three days we chanted and danced in great happiness.
Even so, I missed the company of my Godbrothers. For years I have attended festivals throughout the former Soviet Union, often in the association of thousands of devotees, but it was always with at least two or three Godbrothers like Bhakti Bhringa Govinda Maharaja, Niranjana Maharaja, or Purnacandra Prabhu. I was always glad to be with them, as it takes immense spiritual energy to enliven thousands of devotees for days at a time.
This time, I led most of the kirtans and gave all the classes, and because my own birthday had come, I was the focus of attention. So while speaking or leading kirtan I often kept my eyes closed, something I rarely do. I wanted to envision my own spiritual master, the previous acaryas, and my closest Godbrothers and to remember that by their mercy alone am I able to do anything in Krsna consciousness.
bhratrvat sadrse snigdho
“To respectable persons he [Prahlad Maharaja] acted exactly like a menial servant, to the poor he was like a father, to his equals he was attached like a sympathetic brother, and he considered his teachers, spiritual masters and older Godbrothers to be as good as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” [Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.4.32]
Then I flew to Warsaw. The devotees wanted to greet me with the customary etiquette, but even as they were garlanding me, I was already asking about the preparations for the Festival of India. Half-mindful of the pleasantries, I was wondering how things were progressing for the first festival of the season, in Brodnica, just two days away.
Nandini dasi, however, could not wait to tell me about that day’s filming of a Harinam party for a new movie by Jerzy Stuhr, one of Poland’s best-known movie producers. Stuhr himself plays the lead, a man who joins the Hare Krsna movement after a life of struggle and spiritual searching. The final scene shows him shaved up in a dhoti and kurta chanting with the devotees on the streets of Warsaw.
Nandini told me how Sri Prahlad and a kirtan party had met the film crew in the center of Warsaw that morning. When Stuhr arrived, his make-up and wardrobe team were at a loss as to how to dress him for the scene and asked the devotees to help, so Jayatam das shaved him up in the dressing room and helped him put on a dhoti and kurta as well as tilak and neck beads.
As the kirtan started and the cameras rolled, a crowd gathered, and many of the people recognized Stuhr. As per the script, he went into the crowd, who were amazed to see him chanting and dancing with the devotees, and handed out invitations to the Sunday Feast at the Warsaw temple. The people were thrilled to accept flyers from the hands of one of Poland’s highly visible media personalities.
After the filming, Stuhr joined the devotees and took prasadam. When Jayatam asked if he had met the devotees before, Stuhr said he hadn’t but that he had been aware of them in Poland since his youth. He saw us as people who represent peace, happiness, and goodness in society, and he wanted to say in the movie that by following Vaisnava principles, people can live without hypocrisy and falsehood.
Just then the film’s female lead joined them, still aglow from the blissful kirtan. “The final scene, where the devotees are chanting, is the best part of the movie,” she told Stuhr. “Without them it would be empty.”
The film will be released in September, and it’s expected to be an enormous box-office success, like all of Stuhr’s other works.
Then we set off for our base north of Warsaw, a two-hour drive. Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda briefed me on the Brodnica festival. Opposition to the event was building: Priests in the local schools were warning the children not to attend, and shop owners, fearful of reprisals by the Church, had refused to let devotees put up festival posters in their shop windows.
Jurek Owsiak, the organizer of the annual Polish Woodstock Festival every summer and an ardent supporter of our movement, inadvertently added to the tension in an interview in Poland’s prestigious Politika magazine. Upset with the attitude of the Jesus People at last year’s Woodstock, he said he was not inviting them this year. Then the interviewer asked if the Hare Krsnas would be invited. “Krsna, yes! Jesus, no!” Jurek replied with a smile.
Jurek Owsiak is a devout Catholic. He is highly respected in Poland, and his words carry weight, but his acceptance and tolerance of other religions is not appreciated by some, and the magazine’s use of the quote for the headline to its article attracted attention even in rural Brodnica.
On the other hand, signs that our movement is gradually being accepted in Poland continue to manifest. As we headed north, Radha Sakhi Vrnda received a call from the town secretary of Brodnica. A woman had just stormed into the mayor’s office and demanded an explanation from the mayor himself: Why was a dangerous sect allowed to hold a festival in the very heart of the city?
The mayor showed her our brochure on his desk. The Hare Krsna Movement represents the culture of ancient India, he told her, and added that he was pleased to offer this to the people of Brodnica. Poland will soon be joining the European Union, he said, and it was time for Poles to open up to other cultures and traditions.
The woman was flabbergasted. She turned and left without another word.
It does seem that our struggle to push forward Krsna consciousness in Poland is beginning to bear fruit. And why not? Srila Prabhupada once said that the only thing that can stop this movement is internal difficulty either our own material desires or conflict within. If we are strict with ourselves, always following the regulative principles and chanting our rounds, and if we maintain respectful and friendly relations with the devotees we serve alongside of, our movement will spread.
“Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu wanted to preach the sankirtan movement of love of Krsna throughout the entire world, and therefore during His presence He inspired the sankirtan movement. Specifically, He sent Rupa Gosvami to Vrndavan and Nityananda to Bengal and personally went to south India. In this way He kindly left the task of preaching His cult in the rest of the world to the International Society for Krsna Consciousness. The members of this Society must always remember that if they stick to the regulative principles and preach sincerely according to the instructions of the acaryas, surely they will have the profound blessings of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and their preaching work will be successful everywhere throughout the world.” [Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi 7.171]
There is, however, one stubborn factor that does hinder our festivals and makes them messy affairs: Rain.
It poured buckets as we drove north, becoming heavier with each kilometer. It had been unseasonably cold and wet for two weeks in the regiondefinitely not the weather we wanted, as we rely heavily on a successful first festival. It sets a precedent for staging festivals in nearby towns.
The Mayor of Brodnica is sympathetic to our movement, and he had allotted the town’s center square for the event. “By giving you the best place in town,” he said, “I am sending a message to all the other towns in this region. If you are successful here, you will have no problem getting permission from other places.”
Nonetheless, if it rained, the show would not go on, despite any amount of preparation. As I looked to the skies, I couldn’t help wondering whether the dark clouds could possibly dissipate within 48 hours.
The next day the temperature rose a few degrees and the rain lapsed into a drizzle, but on the morning of the festival I was disappointed to find it was still drizzling. I put on my raincoat, covered my head, and went to the temple. During Srila Prabhupada’s gurupuja, all the devotees chanted and danced in hopes of a successful beginning to the tour. Suddenly, at the height of the kirtan, the clouds parted a little and sunlight came peeking in through the windows. I turned to Gaura Hari das. “It’s a sign from the heavens,” I said. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
By mid-morning, the tent crews were busy setting up the festival. Sri Prahlad and I took a Harinam party around town one more time, distributing what was left from the invitations given out over the previous few days, 20 thousand all in all. Gradually the skies cleared, and by afternoon it was a beautiful day. The crew finished setting up on time, just as the women were putting the final touches of color on the tents. At 4.30 pm., our bhajan band began a soft kirtan on stage as all 120 devotees took their places in the shops, exhibits, restaurants, dressing rooms, and other areas. Now we would wait for our guests.
It was an anxious moment. We had been working hard for six months making arrangements, obtaining licenses, raising funds, and creating new exhibits. There wasn’t any reason to think no one would comethey’d been coming for 13 yearsbut this was the first festival of the year.
The mayor’s words kept running through my mind: “If you are successful here, you will have no problem getting permission from other places.” I waited on the edge of the stage, the very place where I had sat nine months ago, when I watched thousands of people leave the final festival of last season. My heart was racing.
Then they started to arrivenot just one or two at a time but in big groups, pouring onto the festival grounds, smiling and laughing, ready for the show. The crowd soon swelled to more than three thousand, with many gathering in front of the stage. They wanted the music, the dance, the theater, the books and the prasadam.
I jumped down from the stage and began milling through the crowd. I felt at home again, mingling with the people as they experienced the wonderful world of Krsna consciousness. There was no place on earth or in the heavens I would rather have been.
I couldn’t help smiling. “This is only the beginning,” I thought. “There are forty-eight more festivals to come.”
No doubt the sun won’t always be shining, and certainly our opposition have their plans, but with more than nine thousand people coming to the three-day event in Brodnica, we had achieved the auspicious beginning that the mayor and all of us had hoped for.
The Great Festival of the Holy Names had begun in Poland.
akhila bhuvana bandho prema sindho jane smin sakala kapata purne jnana hine prapanne tava carana soroje dehi dasyam prabhu tvam patita tarana nama pradur asit yatas te
“O friend of all the world! O ocean of love! The populace has become full of deceit and bereft of knowledge. O my master! Kindly give them shelter at Your Lotus feet, for the holy name, uplifter of the fallen, has become manifest from You.” [Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya: Sri Gauranga-mahimamrta, Susloka Satakam, Text 21]