Chapter 3: The Duty of a Mendicant

February 16 – March 17, 2007

By Indradyumna Swami

I left India and returned to South Africa to rest for a few days in the Durban temple. Then it was time to head for New York and my annual preaching tour in the United States. I was eager to get moving, and I asked the devotees to drop me off at the airport in Johannesburg three hours early.

“What will you do with the extra time?” a devotee asked as we walked to the terminal.

“Memorize a verse, telephone some friends, maybe read a little and chant,” I said.

“Oh?” he said. “Couldn’t you have done that in the temple?”

I laughed. “Not really,” I said. “Believe it or not, the only time I have to myself is when I’m in an airport. So I like to come a little early and take advantage of it.”

When I arrived at passport control, the woman agent looked at me suspiciously. I assumed she had never seen a Hare Krsna devotee before.

“What was the purpose of your visit?” she said coldly.

“To visit our centers,” I replied with a smile.

Then she got on the phone. Although I couldn’t hear the conversation, it was obvious she was talking about me. When she finished the call, she stamped my passport and handed it back without looking up or saying a word.

I shrugged the incident off and headed towards the boarding area. My flight was still two hours away so I walked down a long, empty corridor and sat alone in a seat at the last gate. It was chilly, so I put on a sweater and laid a chaddar over my dhoti. I pulled out my verse book and put it on the seat next to me and arranged some sandwiches and fruit on the seat on the other side. I then took out my cell-phone and became absorbed in writing text messages.

I must have been texting for half an hour when I heard some laughter and looked up to see five young white men in their late teens approaching me. Before I had a chance to stand up they were directly in front of me.

One of them, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and looking slightly intoxicated, started talking. “You know,” he said, “I always wanted to find a Hare Krsna alone and beat the hell out of him.”

At first I thought he was making a sick joke, but when he began rubbing his knuckles I understood he was serious.

He took a step forward. “First I’m gonna smash in your teeth,” he said.

One of the other boys looked around nervously. “Do it quick before somebody comes, Tony,” he said.

“Shut up, David,” another boy sneered. “Let him take his time.”

I thought I could escape and started to stand up, but one of the boys shoved me back into my seat.

“You ain’t goin’ nowhere,” said Tony. “After your teeth, I’m gonna flatten your nose and then bust up your eyes. You damn Hare Krsnas tick me off.”

His friends encouraged him.

I tried to appear calm. “You won’t get away with this,” I said. “You’re in an airport, in a secure area. You’ll get caught. You’ll go to jail.”

“We’ll see,” said Tony, as he grabbed my sweater and pulled me forward. He cocked his arm to punch me. As I struggled, I saw out of the corner of my eye a policeman some 50 meters away, walking slowly in our direction, unaware that something was afoul.

“Officer!” I yelled. “Officer! Officer!”

“Tony, we gotta go!” said one of the boys.

Tony looked behind himself. When he saw the policeman, he let go of me and stepped back. “Thanks for the directions, sir,” he said loudly. “Guess we got the wrong gate. We better hurry or we’ll miss our flight.”

Then he and his friends moved quickly back down the corridor, joking as they passed the policeman.

“What’s the problem?” the policeman said as he reached me seconds later.

“Those guys were going to beat me up,” I said.

He got on his walkie-talkie and reported the incident.

I looked down the corridor, but I could no longer see the boys.

“Will they get caught?” I asked.

“Of course,” said the policeman. “But they probably won’t be held, unless you want to press charges. That means you’ll have to come with me and fill out papers and probably miss your flight.”

I thought for a moment. “Forget it, sir,” I said. “I’d rather catch my flight.”

He must have seen that I was shaken. “I’ll sit with you for a while,” he said.

He made a second call to security. Then he sat down, and we talked for more than half an hour. It turned out he had met devotees before, while on duty in Johannesburg.

“Once you guys were singing in the city and some hecklers came,” he said. “My men moved them along. I respect your group as God-fearing people, although I’m an Anglican myself.”

As we talked, passengers started filling up the surrounding seats. “Boarding will begin in an hour,” he said. “I have to leave now.”

“Thanks for your help, officer,” I said. “You came just in the nick of time.”

“Somebody up there was looking after you,” he said, motioning his head upwards. “And one more thing. You mentioned that you usually travel alone. I think you should travel with someone. Or at least don’t travel in your robes. They can attract the wrong people.”

“Thanks for the advice,” I said.

I sat reflecting on the incident for some time. When the announcement came that the flight was boarding, I picked up my hand baggage and got in line. “Traveling alone has its risks,” I thought. “But it’s part of sannyasa dharma.”

I recalled one of my favorite purports by Srila Prabhupada:

“It is the duty of a mendicant to experience all varieties of God’s creation by traveling alone through all forests, hills, towns, villages, etc, to gain faith in God and strength of mind as well as to enlighten the inhabitants with the message of God. A sannyasi is duty-bound to take all these risks without fear.” [ Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.6.13 purport ]

But I also considered the policeman’s advice not to wear devotional clothes when traveling alone on international flights.

On the plane, I sat next to a well-dressed businessman. I dozed off only to be woken up an hour and a half later as the cabin crew was serving dinner. I politely refused. As the businessman next to me started his meal, he began asking me questions about Krsna consciousness, eventually telling me how much he liked our movement.

I noticed that the man sitting across the aisle was listening in on our conversation. “That’s nice,” I thought. “Two people are getting the nectar today.”

Later I started to read, but the policeman’s words kept running through my mind: “At least don’t travel in your robes. They can attract the wrong people.”

“I suppose he has a point,” I thought, remembering the agent who stamped my passport as I left South Africa. “At least it would make it easier clearing customs and immigration.”

My mind wandered to a few unpleasant experiences I had had while entering the United States. Then I thought about some non-devotional clothes in my hand luggage. They were a bit old and shabby, but I decided to change into them before landing.

Hours later, as we approached John F. Kennedy Airport, I went into the toilet and changed.

I’ll never forget the surprised look on the businessman’s face when I returned to my seat. “What the heck did you do that for?” he said.

I told him about the incident with the boys in Johannesburg.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You should wear your robes.”

The man across the aisle chuckled a bit. “If you’re not going to wear your robes,” he said, “then dress with a little more style.”

I sat back and laughed to myself. “Seems I can’t please everyone,” I thought.

I remembered a story Srila Prabhupada once told: An old man and a young boy were traveling on a horse together. On the road, they passed through a village.

“Just see how cruel that man and boy are,” a passerby remarked. “Both of them are riding on that poor horse.”

So the old man got off and started walking beside the horse. Soon they came to the next village.

“Just see,” said a passerby. “The strong young boy is riding the horse, and the poor old man has to walk.”

So the boy jumped down, and the old man got back on the horse alone. Then they came to the next village.

“Look at this!” shouted a passerby. “That selfish old man is riding the horse, and the poor boy has to walk.”

So the old man jumped down, and he and the boy both walked alongside the horse. Then they came to the next village.

“Just look at those foolish people!” said a woman. “Instead of riding the horse, they are both walking.”

When we landed in New York, I cleared immigration and customs without incident, and soon caught a connecting flight to Los Angeles.

After a week of preaching programs on the West Coast, I caught a flight to Mexico City for a visit to the temple. Maintaining my new policy, I dressed in non-devotional clothes and had no trouble entering Mexico. But neither did I raise any interest, and so I had no chance to share my good fortune with anyone as I did with the businessman on the flight to New York.

“For one ugly incident,” I thought, “I have sacrificed the nectar of preaching Krsna consciousness in my travels. I’ve had enough. On the way back to Los Angeles I’m going to wear my robes again.”

A week later I boarded a flight to Los Angeles. Immediately Krsna reciprocated with my decision. As I settled into my seat, the man beside me started talking. “Are you a Buddhist?” he said.

“No, sir,” I replied, “I’m a Hare Krsna.”

“A Hare Krsna,” he said. “I thought you guys were extinct.”

I laughed. “No,” I said. “We haven’t become extinct. It’s just that we don’t always wear our robes.”

“Do you mind if I ask a few questions about your faith?” he said.

I could not resist a big smile. “No,” I said, “I don’t mind at all. Fire away.”

With great relish I answered his questions during the entire flight. I was happy to be back in action. But the real confirmation that I’d made the right decision came when I landed in Los Angeles.

I cleared immigration and customs and was walking towards the exit when I was surprised to see a last check point. I assumed it was due to heightened security and stood in one of two lines. I waited patiently as a woman agent on my side checked passports, and a male agent checked passports in the other line just a few meters away.

Suddenly the male agent looked up and saw me. He grinned widely. “Hey!” he said loudly, “It’s a Hare Krsna!”

People in both lines looked at me.

“A Hare Krsna!” he continued. “What a pleasant surprise!”

I smiled shyly as the crowd stared at me.

“I’ll tell you folks,” he said in the same loud voice, “these Hare Krsnas are peace-loving people.”

He took someone’s passport to check, but kept speaking loudly. “These are the guys that sing in the streets with their tambourines and cymbals.”

He looked at the woman agent. “He wouldn’t harm a fly,” he said. “I promise you. One of my best friends was a CBG in the movement [he must have meant GBC] and was a fabulous guy.”

The woman seemed as surprised by his behavior as the rest of us, but she smiled and motioned me forward. She checked my passport quickly. “Okay, sir,” she said, “you can go through.”

All eyes were upon me as I continued forward, turned right and walked past the male agent.

“Come over here,” he said quietly. “You really are a Hare Krsna, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered. “I’m a genuine Hare Krsna.”

“Then repeat the mantra,” he said.

“With pleasure,” I replied. “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”

“That’s it,” he said with another big grin. “You’re in. Welcome back to the United States of America.”

Srila Prabhupada writes:

“Sometimes the Krsna consciousness movement sends its representative sannyasis to foreign countries where the danda and kamandalu are not very much appreciated. We send our preachers in ordinary dress to introduce our books and philosophy. Our only concern is to attract people to Krsna consciousness. We may do this in the dress of sannyasis or in the regular dress of gentlemen. Our only concern is to spread interest in Krsna consciousness.”
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.13.9]