Chapter-15: Difficult Lessons

July 5 – 28, 2005

By Indradyumna Swami

Our spring tour had been a success. We had put on 12 big festivals with a total attendance of over 60,000, so our spirits were high as we began the summer tour in early July along the Baltic Coast. Our ranks had swelled to over 220 devotees, filling to capacity the school we had rented in Siemys’l, a village of 300 people.

The school would be our base for the summer, and the villagers welcomed us with waves and warm smiles, in sharp contrast to their mood last summer. I asked Nandini dasi, about the change.

“Last year,” she said, “just before we came, a member of the town council verbally attacked the headmaster of the school at a meeting. He accused the headmaster of renting the school to a dangerous sect. he convinced the whole council that we should be thrown out of town, but we had a signed contract with the school, and the headmaster liked us, so we were able to stay.

“Throughout the summer the townspeople came  to  know and appreciate us. As a result, I got a number of letters from the headmaster during the winter saying that the whole town would welcome us back this summer. When Jayatam das and I visited the town officials in the winter, we spent four hours in the police station because the officers had many questions about spiritual life and couldn’t stop eating the samosas we had brought.

“The police chief told us that at a recent town council meeting, the man who had blasphemed us the year before tried to do the same thing again, but all the other council members stood up and told him to sit down and shut up.”

On the day of our arrival I held a meeting in the gymnasium with all the devotees.

“It’s going to be a blissful summer,” I began. “We have 40 festivals planned. That’s six festivals a week. We’ll take every Monday off to rest. On that day there won’t be a morning program. you’ll sleep in and come for prasadam later in the morning.”

I could see some surprised looks among the newcomers. A boy raised his hand. “Maharaja,” he said, “why won’t we have a morning program on Mondays?”

“We’ll have a full morning program six days a week,” I said, “but the nature of this service is that you’ll need extra rest one day a week. every day most of us will be doing four or five hours of harinam along the beach, advertising the program, while others will set up the festival. Then we’ll all do the five-hour event and arrive back at the base after midnight. It’s an intense schedule, something like drinking hot sugarcane juice. It’s so hot it burns your lips but so sweet you can’t stop.”

I smiled at the boy. “you’ll soon thank me for that day off,” I said.

The first 10 festivals went well, with an average of 6,000 people at each one. People sat mesmerized watching the stage program, and they also enjoyed the many exhibits and stands depicting vedic culture. We simply couldn’t cook enough prasadam for the restaurant, and for the first time in years we enjoyed good weather. In fact, it became so hot that I started to worry about the devotees’ working so hard. After a few weeks I could see signs they were getting weary, so I cut out one festival and gave them an extra break.

But that extra rest still wasn’t enough for many of the devotees during the events of July 7.

The sun rose early, at 5 AM, that day, and I was chanting my rounds in my room when suddenly a devotee came running in. “rasamayi is on fire!” he screamed.

I bolted out of the room and down a corridor, where I was met by another devotee.

“It’s okay,” she said. “her sari caught fire while she was doing puja. After offering the ghee lamp to the lord, she absent-mindedly put it down too close to herself. When she realized her sari was on fire, she immediately rolled on the ground, smothering the flames like you had taught us at a meeting last week.”

“Tell the pujaris to be more careful,” I said and returned to my chanting.

Her close call became the talk of the tour after the morning program.

Later in the afternoon, as I was preparing to go on harinam, gokularani dasi called me on my cell phone. “Srila gurudeva,” she said, “I have bad news for you. I’m on my way to the hospital. Another woman’s sari caught on fire in the kitchen and she was burned.”

I was already upset about the accident earlier in the morning, and I became angry. “I told the women, no saris in the kitchen!” I said loudly. “It’s too dangerous!”

I started to calm down. “how bad is it?” I said.

“It’s mainly her back,” said gokularani. “We’ve put special burn cream on it, and I’ll send you a report from the emergency room at the hospital.”

“This day is starting off badly,” I said to myself.

The news of the burning quickly spread among the devotees. Many appeared visibly affected as they boarded the buses to go on harinam or to set up the festival. I approached a group of devotees as they came out of the school. “I’ll keep you informed about how she’s doing,” I said, “but this is all the more reason we have to go out and preach. The material world is a dangerous place. People have to be reminded of this in order to become more serious about spiritual life.”

The devotees nodded in agreement and silently moved on.

But another lesson was waiting for us just down the road. As my van and a busload of devotees passed through a town near our base, we got stuck in traffic. On the pavement, just to our right, an elderly man was walking by. Suddenly he twirled around and fell on the ground. As people rushed to help him, I saw his eyes staring wide open without blinking, a sure sign he had left his body.

I looked back toward the bus and saw the expressions on the devotees’ faces. Once more the hard realities of life had hit, and they had become grave.

“Difficult lessons today,” I thought. I remembered a verse from Bhagavad Gita:

duhkhesv anudvigna manah sukhesu vigata sprhah

vita raga bhaya krodhah sthita dhir munir ucyate

One who is not disturbed in mind even amidst the threefold miseries or elated when there is happiness, and who is free from attachment, fear and anger, is called a sage of steady mind.

[Bhagavad-gita 2.56]

I turned to a devotee sitting next to me in the van. “Seeing such things,” I said, “a devotee loses faith in the false promise of material happiness and becomes more determined to go back home, back to godhead.”

“yes, it’s true,” he said softly and closed his eyes in meditation. “Sometimes you don’t have to say much,” I thought, “you just have to say the right thing.” 

mitam ca saram ca vaco hi vagmita iti

Essential truth spoken concisely is true eloquence. [Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi 1.107]

And there was more to come. In retrospect, it appears the lord wanted to impress upon us even more deeply the lessons of the day.

As we continued driving, two kilometers down the road, I saw a small car stalled in the middle of the road, in the lane coming opposite to us. My first reaction was, “Why doesn’t the fool get out of the car and alert the oncoming traffic?”

Just that moment, a speeding car came from behind the vehicle. The driver of the car slammed on the brakes and came to a screeching halt within a meter behind the stalled car.

But the next car wasn’t so lucky. It plowed full force into the back of the second car. We could hear the sound of the crunching metal and breaking glass and worst of all, the screams of the passengers.

The devotees in my van covered their eyes.

“Slow down,” I said to my driver, as we passed the wreckage. I made a quick assessment of the damage. Although the two cars were badly smashed, all the passengers seemed all right. They were still in their seats, conscious, and there was no blood. I looked in our rearview mirror and saw four cars stopping behind us and a number of men rushing to the scene of the accident, one already on his cell phone.

“Keep moving,” I said to the driver. “Shouldn’t we stop and help?” a devotee said.

“There are many people to assist them,” I replied. “ Best if we continue and go on sankirtan.”

An hour later we arrived in the town of our next festival. The crew was setting up the event in a beautiful park near the beach. I could see that the devotees on the buses were still affected by the day’s events, and I pressed them to go out on harinam. I knew chanting Hare Krsna would give them immediate relief from all they’d seen and heard that day.

But even in the midst of our happy kirtan, some of us had to endure yet another lesson.

As we chanted along, I saw a girl about 10 years old playing in the sand 30 meters away. Suddenly she dropped to the ground and didn’t move. her parents rushed towards her and began giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it didn’t appear to be working. She looked lifeless.

Because I didn’t want the devotees to see what was happening and because it would not have been appropriate to pass by, I immediately turned the harinam party around and went back down from where we had come. But I could tell that some devotees had seen what had happened.

We stopped to chant before a large gathering of sunbathers. Many of them smiled at us and held up the invitations to the festival that our distributors had given them. After a minute, a woman devotee approached me.

“Maharaja,” she said, “I saw that poor girl on the beach and the accident and the poor man on the sidewalk. And I heard about the girl who was burned.”

“I understand,” I said.

“I want to go home,” she said.

I paused for a moment. “Do you think it’s different anywhere else in this world?” I said. “The Bhagavatam says, padam padam yad viptatam na tesam: ‘There is danger at every step in this world.’ What you’re seeing today is the very real face of material existence. All too often we ignore these realities and think we can he happy

here. Seeing these things should make you more mature in Krsna consciousness.

“Sankirtan in the safest place in the material world, because one is often reminded of the miseries of material existence while simultaneously seeing the mercy of lord Caitanya in delivering people. Wait until the festival this afternoon and you’ll see the bright side of life: Krsna consciousness.”

“All right,” she said.

I started to follow the kirtan party down the beach when suddenly I felt a terrible pain in my right foot. I lifted my foot and saw a big black wasp struggling in its death throes in the sand. I had stepped on it, and it had stung me.

“It’s probably the only wasp on the entire beach,” I thought, “and I had to step on it.”

I am allergic to bee stings, and I started to sweat. The pain was increasing and was soon shooting up the inner part of my leg. “What a day!” I said out loud.

“It’s one thing to speak about the miseries of material life,” I thought, “but another to realize them.” grimacing with pain, I started hobbling towards the harinam party.

Within a few minutes my foot was starting to swell, so I stepped into the sea. The cold water eased the pain. Several devotees looked back and were surprised to see me standing in the water.

“This has got to be the last lesson of the day,” I said, leaving the water to catch up with the chanting party.

It wasn’t.

As soon as I reached the harinam group, a devotee who had just come from the bus pulled me aside.

“There’s been a terrorist attack in London,” he said. “Three explosions took place in the Underground and one on a bus. Over 40 people are confirmed dead and 700 wounded.

I stood silently, oblivious to my own pain for the moment. “There is talk in the Polish government of canceling all major events,” he continued.

“I hope they don’t do that,” I said. “It would mean the end of our festivals this summer.”

I looked around the beach. It seemed that word of the terrorist attack had already reached many people. I decided it wouldn’t be appropriate to continue singing and dancing, so I turned the kirtan party towards an exit and chanted back to the festival.

By the time we arrived at the site, my own tolerance of material life was being tested. But I had to rally the devotees. We had a festival to put on.

I gathered some of the men. “We’ve seen a lot of material life today,” I said. “It’s a world of duality: heat and cold, black and white, happiness and distress. We’re out here to help people see the reality of material existence and offer them the alternative of Krsna consciousness through these festivals. So let’s get to work.”

Some of the men turned and ran to their services.

Soon thousands of people began streaming into the festival. The benches in front of the main stage quickly filled to capacity as the sweet sound of Krsna’s name began to flow from the bhajan.

Other guests wandered through the exhibits on vegetarianism, reincarnation, karma, and yoga. Some went straight to the restaurant, and the most serious ones sat in the questions-and-answers tent. I smiled as I saw a man leave the book tent with a large pile of our books in his hands.

 

Then I noticed a well-dressed man being escorted onto the stage by our master of ceremonies, Tribuvanesvara das.

Jayatam was standing near me. “Who’s that?” I asked him. “he’s the mayor of the town,” he replied. “he’s going to offi-

cially open the festival. And you know what he told me?” “No, what?” I replied.

“he said the entire beach is empty. It’s still hot and sunny—late afternoon—but the beach is empty. everyone has come to our festival. he said he’s never seen the beach empty on a summer day any time in his whole life.”

I started to feel relief from the hard lessons of the day.

More good news came when I received a call from Gokularani. The girl who had been burned that morning was not in serious condition and would be released from the hospital the next day.

I felt relieved, and I went near the entrance of the festival site to watch people coming into our program. I sat there for a few minutes relishing their looks of amazement and their expressions of wonder as they came in.

Then a group of 10 tough-looking boys entered. They must have been locals, as they weren’t dressed as tourists. For a moment I was taken aback by their rough nature. One of the boys stepped forward and in a show of bravado pointed to the devotees. “Who the hell are these people?” he said with a tone of disgust.

“They’re Hare Krsna’s, you idiot!” said one of the others.” You don’t know the Hare Krsna’s? They’re nice people.”

“Yeah!” said a chorus of four or five more boys. “They’re nice people.”

The first boy sheepishly mixed back into his crowd of friends, and they all went straight to the restaurant.

I wanted more inspiration, so I walked back to the book tent. I passed a lady with a big smile on her face, walking out with a Srimad Bhagavatam under her arm.

The devotee who sold it to her came up to me. “Many years ago she came to one of our festivals and bought the Bhagavad gita,” he said. “From her reading of the book she ascertained that there are two worlds: the material and the spiritual. Recent events in her life made her lose hope of ever being happy in this world, so she came here to find a book that describes the spiritual world in detail. She was so happy when I presented her with the Srimad Bhagavatam.”

“I know how she’s feeling about the material world,” I said. “It’s been a rough day.”

And so it went through the five hours of the festival. At every step, at every turn, I found people appreciating the message we’d brought.

During the final hour, as our new rock band, 18 Days, was playing, a middle aged woman in the crowd turned to me.

 

“It’s  terrible what happened in London  today,  isn’t  it?”  she said.

“yes, Ma’am,” I replied. “It certainly is.”

“This music is much too loud for me,” she said, “but it will attract the young people, and they will become interested in your way of life.”

She paused for a moment. “And if they’re fortunate, “ she continued, “they’ll buy one of your teacher’s books and find an alternative to all these miseries of life.”

She went back to watch the band.

“Amazing!” I thought. “how has a guest at our festival had such deep realization? Then I noticed she had a copy of Srila Prabhupada’s, Teachings of Queen Kunti under her arm, a bookmark inserted halfway through it.

“Of course,” I said softly, “that’s the answer: the mercy of my spiritual master, who is kindly delivering the message of godhead, freeing us all from the ocean of birth and death.”

sankirtanananda rasa svarupah

prema pradanaih khalu suddha cittah

sarve mahantah kila krsna tulyah

samsara lokan paritarayanti

The Vaisnavas are internal forms of the blissful mellows of Sri Caitanya’s sankirtan movement. Because they distribute the gifts of love of god, their consciousness is always purified. They are great souls. Indeed, Lord Krsna empowers them as equal with Himself and they rescue the people from the cycle of birth and death.

[Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, verse 39]