Chapter 13: Giving and Receiving Gifts

August 8 – 25, 2006
By Indradyumna Swami

During the final phase of our summer tour, more and more people were coming, as many as 6,000 on some days. The mayor of a beach town told us that just before summer his secretary had been inundated with calls asking whether our festival was coming. By the time we were due, there wasn’t a single room to rent in town.

“The hotels are all saying that people are here for your event,” said the mayor. “Even I myself had to open my house to a family who had come for your festival but couldn’t find a place to stay.”

But as always, our success was the envy of our opposition, who stepped up their campaign to discredit us. The local priest in the town where we stayed continued his daily postings on the town bulletin board, sometimes going beyond the ridiculous: “Attention, citizens! The Hare Krsna cult is now growing rice in the football field to feed the guru.”

But serious measures were being taken against us as well. A newly formed National Committee for Protection from Cults was distributing tens of thousands of pamphlets along the coast telling people how to guard against cults and where to find help if needed. “If we don’t fight the cults in Poland,” said the head of the committee in a media statement, “we will have a real Armageddon.”

“I thought we were no longer classified us a cult,” I said to Jayatam das.

“That’s true,” he said, “but the damage has been done, and the image will remain for many years. Besides, the Church considers us as dangerous as ever.”

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, who had initiated a “Summer against Cults” campaign, sent a comprehensive report to every police station in the country asking them (and the military!) to monitor all groups perceived as cults, including us.

“Mainly us,” Jayatam said.

As a result, the police chief in the town where we were based showed up at one of our festivals. “I’m here on business,” he replied curtly when Nandini dasi greeted him, “and I have nothing to discuss with you.”

He spent an hour walking around the festival site and then, apparently for want of anything else to do, sat on a bench among the large crowd watching the stage show. When the crowd cheered loudly at the end of the Balinese dance performance, he looked surprised. When the master of ceremonies, Tribuvanesvara das, called all children on to the stage to sing with him, more than 60 responded. As they began singing and dancing to a rhyme about Krsna – giggling and laughing all the while – I saw the police chief’s heart melt. The coup de grace came at the end of the Ramayana play. As the actors bowed, the crowd clapped wildly. When a few people near the police chief rose for a standing ovation, he stood with them clapping his hands loudly and yelling, “Bravo! Bravo!”

“That’s a relief,” I said softly. “If there’s any police chief we’d like on our side, it’s the local one.”

But winning a battle is not the end of a war, so I kept my eyes open for the opposition’s next move. I didn’t have to wait long.

The next evening, at our festival in Kolobrzeg, I was giving my lecture when Trisama das came up front and made a sign that I should finish immediately. It was unusual, but I heeded his call and wrapped up my lecture. As I sat down to begin the final kirtan, he came on stage and walked up to me. “Maharaja,” he whispered, “there are credible rumors that a large gang of skinheads are coming in a few minutes to break up the festival. Police are on their way, but security says we should stop the festival immediately.”

Though my mind was racing, I stood up and calmly bid our guests goodbye. As I stood watching them leave, Jayatam came running up to me and grabbed my arm. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “you have to get into your van immediately.”

Surrounded by several security men, he escorted me to my van, opened the door, and put me inside.

“What about all the other devotees?” I said.

“We’re not telling them what’s happening,” Jayatam said. “We don’t want them to panic. We’re rounding them up and getting them into the buses as quickly as possible.”

I burst out of the van. “What?” I said angrily. “Don’t expect me to sit in there while the devotees are still on the field.”

In 10 minutes we had everyone in the buses and on their way.

Our eight security men were soon joined by two vans of policemen, preparing for a fight. “We’ve never had a threat like this on the summer tour” I said to Jayatam. “It’s always very peaceful. What’s going on?”

“Probably someone sent them,” he said.

“Who?” I asked.

He just looked at me. There was need to reply. We both had the same suspicion. “Yeah,” I muttered. “They must want all that rice in the football field.”

I scanned the edges of the festival site, looking for trouble. “It’s like war,” said Jayatam.

“Yes,” I said shaking my head, “but I never thought here on the Baltic.”

When we arrived back at the base we waited anxiously for a call from Raksana dasa, the head of devotee security. Eventually he phoned Jayatam.

“The skinheads didn’t come,” Jayatam told me. “They must have seen that our security and police were too much for them.”

“Did the devotees figure out what happened?” I said.

“Some,” he replied.

“Keep it quiet,” I said. “Devotees are happy on this tour. I haven’t told them about the bad publicity we’re getting.”

“What do we do now?” Jayatam said.

“Keep preaching,” I said. “There are more people who love this festival than oppose it.”

Jayatam nodded his head.

As I retired to my room I realized how much these threats were taking their toll on me. I was becoming overanxious. Even little problems began disturbing me. In particular, a bus driver we’d hired was getting on my nerves. Antoni was a short, pudgy, elderly man, with a red nose (probably from drinking), always in a cranky mood. He would shout at devotees for the slightest things.

“He drives way too slow,” I said one day to Jayatam while we were following the bus. “It’s dangerous. Look at the line of cars behind us.”

“Not only that,” Jayatam added, “but he often gets lost. And the devotees complain that he smokes in the bus.”

I was astounded. “I’m going to tell him a thing or two when we arrive,” I said.

At our destination I quickly got out of the car and walked towards the bus. “Where’s the driver?” I asked a devotee.

“He just stormed off,” came the answer. “He had an argument with a devotee, and he walked away cursing. The problem is that he has the keys to the storage bays in the bus. We can’t get the instruments.”

“That’s the last straw!” I said. As we sat waiting for him to return, I became increasingly angry. After half an hour Antoni appeared. While the devotees removed the instruments, I prepared to chastise him.

“He’s such a nonsense,” I thought. “No brains.”

I walked up to Antoni. “I want to speak with you,” I said firmly. He looked surprised. “Oh,” he said, “I wanted to talk to you, too.”

“Okay,” I thought, “let him speak first. I’ll get more on him that way.”

“First of all,” he said, “I don’t like the theater performance you do at your festivals, nor do I like the dances of those people from Bali.”

“Keeping talking,” I thought. “You’ll soon be out of a job.”

“I don’t like your food either,” he continued, making a face. “And I can’t stand it when all the little kids get on the stage.”

“That’s enough!” I thought. “Now is the time to chew him out.”

“Now listen here . . .” I said raising my voice.

But before I could say anything more he interrupted me. “But there’s one thing that I really love,” he said. “It’s when you sing on the stage at the end of the festival. Something happens to me when I hear you sing that beautiful song about Krsna.”

I was speechless.

“You know,” he went on, “I’m an old man with a very bad nature, but as you say in your lectures, I have a deeper spiritual nature.”

He pulled a battered card out of his pocket. “I’m always praying to Mary to help me,” he said.

I saw a picture of the Virgin Mary on one side of the card and two prayers in Polish on the other.

“I pray every morning and every night,” he said softly, looking at the card.
“I’ve had it since I was a boy. My mother gave it to me. It’s the most precious thing I own.”

He carefully put the card away. “You’ll be singing again tonight won’t you?” he said. “The other night someone else sang. It wasn’t the same.”

“Well, uh, it’s not me,” I said. “It’s the nature of the song. Believe me.”

He laughed. “You’ll never convince me of that,” he said. “Anyway, what did you want to tell me?”

“Uh .. Oh, nothing,” I said. “I mean, it can wait.”

As I walked back to my van to get ready for Harinama, I felt like a fool. “Such a pious man,” I thought, “and I saw no good in him.”

On the road back to the base, I was silent. At one point Amritananda das turned to me. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “is everything okay?”

“It is now,” I replied. “I just figured out who actually is the opposition.”

Amritananda laughed. “The church or the government?” he asked.

“Neither,” I said. “It’s the impurities in my heart. One time Srila Prabhupada said he had a plan to take over the world in 18 days. When a disciple asked about the plan, Srila Prabhupada said, ‘But you boys and girls aren’t ready yet.’ Now I understand what he meant.”

The festivals continued without any major incidents. One day Nandini dasi received a call from the woman in charge of the Miss World Pageant, which was going to take place in one month in Warsaw.

“I was at your festival the other day on the Baltic Coast,” she began. “It was wonderful. This year we want to open the pageant in Warsaw with an Indian flare. We’d like you to open the show with some of your singing, dancing, and theater. It will be broadcast throughout the world.”

“Most of our devotees are foreigners,” Nandini said, “and their visas will run out before your pageant begins. But I’ll see what we can do.”

One evening I asked Amritananda to invite Antoni to sit on the stage with us for the last kirtan. When Amritananda returned he was laughing.

“He said he wouldn’t come up on the stage in a million years. He’s nervous around crowds. That’s why he stays in his bus for most of the festival. He comes out only when you start to sing, and even then he’s way at the back of the crowd where there’s no lighting.”

Finally, the last festival of the season arrived. It was a day of mixed emotions for all the devotees. On the one hand, all 230 of us were tired. We had done 46 festivals, with hardly a break. But on the other hand, we couldn’t imagine life without the excitement of spreading Lord Caitanya’s mercy. All the devotees felt purified and uplifted by so much service. I heard that even Antoni had had a change of heart. He was now polite to the devotees and would help them whenever needed. Each night he continued his ritual of sitting at the back of the crowd, almost in darkness, watching the final kirtan on stage.

As I was sitting in my van, resting before the final kirtan, Amritananda came up to me. “Antoni asked me to give this to you,” he said. “He’s too shy to approach you personally. He said it’s a surprise.”

Amritananda handed me the old picture of the Virgin Mary.

“Huh?” I said. “It’s his most precious possession.”

Amritananda smiled. “Yes,” he said, “that’s exactly why he’s giving it to you.”

I looked at the picture for a long time.

When the moment for the final kirtan arrived I walked onto the stage in front of a huge crowd. Deep in thought about Antoni, I was at a loss what to say. After a few moments of silence, I began: “Ladies and gentleman, as you all know this is the final performance of the night. It’s also the final moment of our festival season.”

I paused for a few seconds. “And now,” I continued, “I’d like to dedicate this final kirtan to a very dear friend who means a lot to me. He taught me to see good in others. He taught me humility. And he gave me faith that God’s holy names can purify everyone’s heart.”

I paused again. “It’s our bus driver, Antoni,” I said.

The crowd burst into applause.

I took the picture of the Virgin Mary out of my pocket and held it up. “And he gave me the best gift I have ever received,” I said, “a gift from his heart.”

I looked out over the crowd. “Antoni,” I said, “if you’re out there, this kirtan’s for you.”

As devotees joined me on the stage I began the kirtan. Within 15 minutes we were all chanting and dancing blissfully. A big group of children were dancing in the front of the stage.

I was chanting with my eyes closed. When I opened them, I saw Antoni coming through the back of the crowd towards the stage. He took a seat in the front row and sat with his eyes closed, listening intently. In a few moments tears were rolling down his cheeks.

“My Dear Lord,” I said softly, “just see the power of Your holy names.”

After 45 minutes I brought the kirtan to a close. As I stood to say the final goodbye of the night – and the season – I saw Antoni still sitting in the front row, his head bowed.

“Ladies and gentleman, before we all part, I’d like you to welcome to the stage the person who gave me that special gift tonight: Antoni.”

The people applauded, and Antoni looked up. For a few moments he fidgeted nervously, then looked at me and smiled. He stood up slowly and started walking to the stage. The closer he came, the louder the applause became. As he walked onto the stage we hugged each other.

But this time, I was the one with the surprise. I reached behind me, picked up a gift-wrapped box, and handed it to him. “Today,” I said into the microphone, “I bought a gift for my favorite bus driver.”

The audience laughed, and Antoni opened the present. His eyes got big when he saw the CD player inside. Along with it was a CD of all the bhajans we had performed throughout the tour. His eyes filled with tears again as he turned and kissed me on each cheek.

“Ladies and gentleman,” I said, “what a fitting way to end our festival tour. We bid you farewell. May we meet again next summer, at this festival of love.”

I struggled to hold back my own tears.

“If the opulence or knowledge of many millions of universes were clustered together, they would hardly equal a small fragment of the glory of Krsna’s holy name. Krsna’s holy name is my life. It is the goal of my life. It is the means I will employ to attain the goal of my life.”

[Srila Rupa Goswami, Padyavali, Text 23]