May 2- June 1, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami
As my flight circled over Warsaw waiting for permission to land, I looked out the window at the city below.
Even from the sky, Warsaw wasn’t attractive. Once one of the more beautiful cities in Europe, it was leveled by relentless bombing by the German air force in World War 2. The rebuilding of the city was done by people who had little appreciation for architecture or design.
Nevertheless, I looked forward to my arrival. Poland has been my prabhu-datta-desh, my assigned preaching field, for 15 years. In effect, I was returning home.
I’d been away for nine months, traveling, preaching, and fundraising for my festival tour in Poland. I’d worked hard and had grown noticeably older. In fact, at 55, I was feeling the rigors of traveling more than ever. In South Africa, a devotee asked me about it. “Aren’t you getting a bit old for those daily Harinams and festivals you have in Poland?” he asked. “You have trouble just walking up the stairs these days.”
“Older, yes,” I replied, “but not as old as all that.”
On the flight out of Johannesburg that day, I smiled when I saw the headlines of a newspaper quoting Nelson Mandela at a large function the day before. “I am enjoying myself so much,” said Mr. Mandela, “that although 85, I feel like a young man of 55.”
After arriving in Warsaw, I immediately caught a local flight to Katowice, in the south. I arrived exhausted, having traveled 21 hours from South Africa. The devotees picked me up and drove me to Bielsko Biala, where we were holding the first festival of our spring tour. I walked into the hall and onto the stage, where I delivered a short lecture and led a one-hour kirtan. I couldn’t have wished for a better homecoming.
This spring we have organized our festival tour differently than in previous years. We have arranged for small halls that accommodate two to three hundred people in towns where we have large congregations. The idea is to allow our congregations to associate more with the devotees and to let people who become interested in Krsna consciousness as a result of the festivals to associate with the congregation. In the summer we will return to the format of outdoor venues with larger crowds.
After the festival in Bielsko Biala, I was driven to an apartment where I fell asleep and woke up 10 hours later. After doing my puja and chanting my rounds that morning, I jumped into a sankirtan van going out to publicize the festival in Katowice that evening. But although I was eager for the kirtan, I found myself unprepared for the situation on the street.
Katowice is an industrial town of 200,000 people. Unfortunately, 30 percent of the population are unemployed, and on an average, those that have work, make less than $100 a month. Such conditions are a breeding ground for poverty and crime, all of which became apparent as we stepped out of the van.
It was a chilly morning, with a light rain falling. The pungent smell of burning coal, used to heat the buildings along the street, immediately filled my nostrils. Ugly gray concrete buildings, symptomatic of the reconstruction of postwar Poland, crowded the scene, and from manholes came the stench of an outdated sewer system. Old cobblestone streets, remnants of a bygone age that had survived the last war, added to the dismal nature of the scene with their blackish-gray color.
People gave us strange looks as we assembled on the street for Harinam. They were unfamiliar with devotees, and some laughed while others heckled our Vaisnava clothes. We drew silent, cold stares from a group of skinheads, ever our arch-rivals, assembled on the corner across the street. Instinctively, I felt my kurta pocket to make sure my canister of tear gas was there.
It wasn’t. I had left it in my closet in Warsaw at the end of last year’s tour. I cursed myself. Though rarely if ever used, the tear gas gives a sense of security when devotees perform Harinam on the unpredictable streets of Kali-yuga cities.
We started Harinam, but few people took notice. As brilliant as the devotees were in their colorful dhotis and saris, the modes of passion and ignorance prevailed on the street. People moved along staring straight ahead, preoccupied with work (or the absence of it), school, and numerous other anxieties.
And we weren’t the only ones vying for their attention. There seemed an unusual number of drunkards panhandling for money to buy cheap drinks available in the seedy bars. If anyone attracted attention it was the street youths, boys and girls heavily tattooed, decorated with dull jewelry protruding from pierced ears, eyebrows, and lips, and dressed in baggy pants and shirts. With nothing to do but hang out, they seemed almost natural in the bizarre spectacle before my eyes.
As I was adjusting the strap on my mrdanga, I came too close to the pedestrian traffic, and a man passing by knocked my shoulder and sent me reeling back a meter or two. He didn’t even look back to say he was sorry.
I felt overwhelmed by the atmosphere. I was wet, uncomfortable, and feeling out of place. I began to wonder whether the devotee in South Africa might not have been right. Was this the proper place for an aging devotee? As the Harinama began building up momentum, I tried to come back to my normal self. After all, I’d been doing street Harinam for years. What had gone wrong?
On the plea of getting something from the van, I went back and sat there awhile. After 15 minutes I figured out my problem. For months I’d been traveling and preaching in different parts of the world, and while doing so I had the received the honor and respect naturally given to one in the renounced order of life: receptions, garlands, words of praise, and soft bedding with silk pillows. Fine food awaited me in every house, and luxury cars drove me to programs where I met the rich, the famous, and even heads of state. It was all in the name of service, but I sensed it had left me somewhat of a pampered prince.
Now mixing again with the miserable downtrodden masses, I felt out of place. The opulence and respect I had received had contributed to a loss of the compassion so necessary for a preacher on the street. “From now on,” I vowed, “I will be more cautious in dealing with opulence and fame.”
A verse entered my thoughts:
“My dear brother mind, the despicable desire for material honor and distinction is compared to a shameless and low-born prostitute who eats dog meat, yet she is flagrantly dancing in my heart. How then, can the pristine love of pure devotion to Sri Krsna ever find a place in my heart? You will simply have to serve the unalloyed devotees of the Lord, who are His intimate associates and stalwart supporters. They alone can drive out this prostitute and enthrone pure love of Godhead within my heart.”
[Srila Ragunatha das Goswami, Manah Siksa, Verse 7]
Looking again towards the street, I closed my eyes and prayed for mercy, reflecting on a poem I often recite when I find myself in difficult situations during preaching:
O Master! If you are merciful to us once again, then even though we are trapped here on the shores of the ocean of death, we will finally behold a change for the better.
Then once again we can blissfully remember the holy name of Krsna, and again have firm faith in your “Vaikuntha message.”
Once again you will make us dance to the pure holy name of Krsna. And you will personally dispel any confusion caused by Maya.
O Srila Prabhupada! You personally suffer to see the suffering of the fallen conditioned souls. On this day of your separation I am utterly despondent.
[Viraha Astaka: “Eight Prayers in Separation From My Spiritual Master” by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Octet 5, verses 5 – 8, December 1958].
I jumped out of the van and headed down the street. This time the familiar smell of burning coal came as a relief, reminding me of many previous blissful days preaching on the streets. When I caught up with the Harinam party, I chanted my favorite sankirtan verse, shrugging off any last hesitancy to preach:
kabe jibe doya, hoibe udoya, nija sukha bhuli sudina hrdoya bhakativinoda, koriya binoya, sri ajna tahala koribe pracar
“When will there be an awakening of compassion for all fallen souls, and when will this Bhaktivinoda, forgetting his own happiness, with a meek heart set out to propagate by humble entreaty the sacred order of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu?” [Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Saranagati, “Kabe Ha’be Bolo,” Verse 8]
Despite my renewed enthusiasm, I didn’t find a significant change in the people’s lack of interest in our Harinam party as we wound our way through the streets. I even wondered whether we’d get a decent crowd that night. It was important for us to have a good crowd, as the festival was an experiment in breaking from our tradition of large outdoor public events. Although we wanted to concentrate on smaller audiences, it would be in vain if no one came.
Though I had effectively dealt with my own doubts earlier in the day, I now became apprehensive about whether our new preaching strategy would work. On the way back I expressed my feelings to Sri Prahlad. He replied that even if a few people came it would be a success. He told me the story of a family in Warsaw who had come in contact with us:
Vara-nayaka prabhu had contacted a reputable lawyer for advice in a legal matter. At their first meeting, Vara-nayaka asked the lawyer whether he knew anything about our Hare Krsna movement. The lawyer smiled and sat back in his chair.
“Well as a matter of fact,” he said, “I do.”
“As you know,” he continued, “it is a tradition in our country that twice a year the local priest visits the houses of the congregation. Just last week our priest visited us to bless our home and ask about our welfare. While we were all sitting together in the living room, he asked my eight- year-old daughter if she liked going to church.
” ‘Oh yes, Father,’ she replied.
” ‘That’s nice,’ the priest said. ‘Do you have a favorite song you like to sing about our Lord in Heaven?’
” ‘Oh yes I do, father,’ she said.
” ‘Please sing it for us,’ said the priest, ‘and let us be blessed.’
“To the surprise of everyone, my daughter stood up on the sofa, put both arms in the air and rocking back and forth with a big smile on her face began singing ‘Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.’
“My wife and I were dumbfounded, and the priest was in a state of shock. He was uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do, so he stood up, excused himself, and left.
“I then turned to my wife. ‘Where in the world did she learn that?’ I asked.
” ‘You remember the Festival of India?’ she said. ‘We went there last summer up on the coast.'” ‘O yes,” I said. ‘Of course. The Festival of India.’ ”
I laughed at the story. “If only the Lord would send such an angel tonight,” I said.
When we arrived at the hall that evening, once again I was unprepared for what I found. But this time, unlike the display of maya on the street, it was the display of Lord Caitanya’s mercy. I arrived 30 minutes before the program, and I was stunned to see all 350 seats taken and the aisles filled up with people as well.
Most surprising was that many of the guests were the same people I had seen on the street. There were businessmen, housewives, children, and students. A number of the tattooed youths were sitting on the floor, quiet and well behaved, waiting for the program to begin. Even a few drunks had managed to get in. Feigning soberness and good behavior, they had somehow taken front row seats. Then as I scanned the audience more carefully, I saw to my amazement three skinheads in the corner, looking somewhat uncomfortable in that prestigious hall.
I made my way with difficulty through the crowd, and when I reached the front I turned around to look at the audience. The atmosphere was electric with excitement, and many were talking about the program to come. I heard the word “Krsna” again and again. As so many times before, I marveled at the great mercy of Lord Caitanya.
lokan samastan kali durga varidher
namna samuttarya svatah samarpitam
sri gaura candrair hari vaisnavanam
namnas ca tattvam kathitam jane jane
“Out of spontaneous compassion He restored all the people back to consciousness, and through the means of His holy name enabled them to pass beyond the impassable ocean of the age of quarrel. Thus by the golden moons of Lord Hari and the Vaisnavas the news of the Names of Krsna was told from person to person.” [Srila Sarvabhauma Battacarya,Susloka-Satakam, Text 46]
Our small group of 15 devotees put on a simple but attractive stage presentation of bhajan, dance, theater, and a lecture. The people loved it. It seemed it was over before it began, and I soon found myself at the book table, signing books.
Suddenly I heard a voice: “Hare Krsna, Srila Gurudeva.” Because of the noisy crowd I couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from. Then a little hand with a bouquet of flowers came up in front of my face. “This is for you.”
I looked down and saw a little girl dressed in a sari with a big smile on her face.
I smiled back. “Well thank you,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Kamila, and I’m nine years old,” the little girl said.
“Don’t you remember me?”
“Well not exactly,” I said. “I meet many children in my travels.
But thank you for the flowers.”
As she was just a child, I wanted to finish the encounter quickly and find a serious adult to preach to.
“We met two years ago,” she continued, “at another of your festivals in this city. I saw you chanting in the rain that day. When my neighbors told me they were going to your festival, I wanted to go too.”
“You saw us chanting in the rain?” I said. I thought about my hesitancy to join the kirtan in the bad weather that morning.
“Yes,” she said, “and that night at the festival, when you saw I was interested, you talked to me and told me stories about Krsna.”
Suddenly I remembered the little girl.
“And I never forgot you,” she said. “I pray to you every morning when I wake up and every night before I go to sleep.”
My eyes suddenly stopped searching the crowd for an older guest, and I looked down at her. “You do? I asked.
“Oh yes,” she said. “I am so thankful to you.”
“You are?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “And as I promised you, I have been chanting three rounds on the japa beads you gave me every day. Srila Gurudeva, this time I would like to ask you for a spiritual name.”
“Are your parents devotees?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “and they’re divorced. I live with my mother.”
“Oh I see,” I said. “Well what will she think if I give you a spiritual name?”
“Why don’t you ask her?” the girl said. “I brought her to the program tonight. She’s just over there. I’ll go get her.”
She ran off and within moments came back with her mother.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” I said as I shook the mother’s hand.
“I am more than pleased to meet you,” the mother said. “You have done so much for my daughter. She loves you very much. The walls of her room are covered with your photos. I must admit that when she came home from your festival two years ago, I was quite upset. She had gone without my permission.”
“But my irritation soon changed into astonishment,” she continued.
“She used to be such a naughty child, so difficult to handle. But after her one meeting with you she changed so much. So how could I complain when she prayed to you every day and chanted on the beads you gave her?
“She was even reading your movement’s books. As an eight year old, she couldn’t understand much, but what she did understand, she shared with her friends at school. One day in religion class, when the priest was speaking unfavorably about other religions, my daughter stood up and challenged him. ‘All religions are good,’ she said, ‘and people have the right to choose the one they want to follow.’ When she told him she was a follower of Hare Krsna, he went speechless.
“She was asked to leave the class for good. And recently I was called before the school administration. They told me that if she continues preaching about Krsna to her schoolmates, she’ll have to leave the school permanently.
“They know she doesn’t eat the meat served in the cafeteria but brings it home and gives it to the family dog. What would they say if they knew she doesn’t even do that anymore? She makes little balls of sweets, offers them to your picture, and then gives them to the dog. I have the fattest dog in the neighborhood.
“But believe me, I’m not upset. I realize that I have a special daughter. She’s taught me so much. Because of her I am now reading the Bhagavad Gita.”
The little girl was standing before us, softly chanting on her beads. “She’s been so anxious to meet you again she can’t sleep at night,” the mother added.
Kamila smiled and looked up at me again. “Srila Gurudeva,” she said, “I’d really like to have a spiritual name, but someone told me I have to chant 16 rounds and be your follower.”
“Children can get spiritual names,” I said, “and I can’t imagine a better follower than you.”
I thought for a moment. “We’ll give you the name Syama-lila dasi,” I said.
She immediately bowed down. When she stood up, she had tears in her eyes. “I’m so grateful,” she said.
I looked at her mother. “And we’re both grateful to you,” I said.
Syama-lila hugged me and said goodbye.
I closed my eyes and thanked the Lord for fulfilling the wish I had shared with Sri Prahlad that day. The Lord had sent a little angel.
I looked to the sky and vowed I would never again hesitate to go out and preach the glories of the Lord� even in the rain.
dasyam te krpaya Natha
dehi dehi mahaprabho
patitanam prema data
syato yace punah punah
“O Mahaprabhu! I beg you again and again. Please be merciful and give me Your service, for You are the bestower of love of Krsna to those fallen into the jaws of the serpent of samsara.”
[Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, Text 10]