January 19 – 28, 2008
By Indradyumna Swami
The devotees on our tour were tired from seven weeks of festivals throughout Australia and New Zealand, but they looked forward to the final two programs, to be held in Hong Kong.
But we almost didn’t make it. The day before our departure from Auckland, our Russian and Ukrainian devotees had not yet been granted visas for Hong Kong. That night I called Chandrasekhar das, one of the leaders in the temple there.
“It’s 9 PM,” I said. “We’re due to fly out in nine hours. Have the visas come through?”
“Not yet,” he said, “and the situation doesn’t look good. We’ve been trying to contact the immigration office all week, but it’s impossible to get through. Our lawyer is trying to reach them through special channels. I’ll call you if something happens.”
I understood Chandrasekhar’s anxiety. He and a team of local devotees had been organizing the festival for six months. At great cost they had rented an auditorium with 1,000 seats for two evenings at a prestigious university in downtown Hong Kong. Never before had the small yatra attempted such a bold preaching program. A number of special dignitaries, including the Consul General of India would be attending.
“We have to start making alternative plans now,” I said to Santi Parayana das after the call with Chandrasekhar. “Our visas to New Zealand are finished tomorrow morning. Either we fly to Hong Kong tomorrow or back to Europe. Call our travel agent at her home and see if our flights can be redirected to London.”
I told the rest of the devotees to go to bed.
Hours passed. I fell asleep. At 2:30 am my cell phone rang. I grabbed it.
“The visas have been granted!” said Chandrasekhar excitedly. “It’s a miracle.”
“Wow!” I said, instantly awake. “How did it happen?”
“Somehow our lawyer got through to an immigration official in Hong Kong,” he replied. “It was after hours and the official just happened to be in his office. She impressed upon him the importance of the event. He replied he would need time to think about it. She called him back three times in an hour and kept repeating the urgency of the situation. Finally he agreed. They’ll have someone waiting for you with the visas when you get off the plane.”
“That’s as close as they come,” I replied. “Three and a half hours before departure.”
I ran into the room where the men were sleeping.
“Everybody up!” I said loudly as I turned on the light.
The men slowly opened their eyes and sat up.
“Where are we going?” said Gaura Hari das, rubbing his eyes. “London or Hong Kong?”
“Hong Kong,” I said with a smile. “And we’re out of here in 45 minutes.”
We made it to the airport with no time to spare. As we were on several different flights, I gave the devotees final instructions on how to fill out immigration cards when they arrived.
One girl spoke up. “Guru Maharaja,” she said, “is the Hong Kong harbor still full of those boats they call junks, the ones with the big sails?”
“Maybe there’s a few for the tourists,” I laughed. “But Hong Kong is a modern city. It’s one of the business capitals of the world.”
I had also had had a romantic idea of Hong Kong before visiting the city last year, but on my arrival I found an ultra-modern, efficient, and surprisingly clean city. China had ceded Hong Kong to the British after the Opium Wars in the late 19th century, and got it back in 1997. Although much of the old Chinese culture disappeared under British rule, many aspects of it are still present, and as my troupe of devotees soon discovered, there remains a blend of old and new even today.
The day after our arrival we split up into two Harinama groups to advertise the festivals. One hundred and twenty devotees from various places joined us. I took out one party and my Godbrother Bhakti Bringa Govinda Maharaja, who was also visiting, took out the other.
As my group chanted and danced blissfully down the crowded streets, we stopped to chant in front of a large convenience store. Our devotees were shocked when they read the signs advertising the products inside:
“On special today: Dried gizzards, snakehead soup, and Chinese caterpillar fungus.”
The streets were crowded, and it was hard to move along, but people kindly accepted our invitations. After several hours I saw very few on the ground.
“It’s a hopeful sign,” I thought.
That evening Govinda Maharaja led a long bhajan in the small temple. Many of the Chinese devotees had never experienced such a blissful kirtan before, and they chanted and danced with great pleasure. As the kirtan continued, I went to speak to Chandrasekhar in his office.
“It’s an ambitious plan to try and fill a thousand seats two nights in a row,” I said.
“I’m hoping we can do it,” Chandrasekhar replied. “Nowadays a number of people in Hong Kong are expressing an interest in Indian culture. Since 2004, over 30 schools and colleges have visited our temple. And yoga studios are springing up all around the city.”
The next day we took a large Harinama to Sai Kung, a town just outside Hong Kong. Much less commercial than Hong Kong itself, it represented the normal Chinese culture outside the cities. But whereas people in Hong Kong showed some interest in our chanting party, people in Sai Kung busied themselves with their work and hardly seemed to notice us.
“It would have been wiser to continue chanting in Hong Kong,” I thought.
As we were about to finish, we passed an old Chinese temple.
“Can foreigners go inside?” I asked a local Chinese devotee.
“Let’s see,” he replied.
With five or six devotees following us, we entered the temple.
“How old is it?” I asked quietly.
The devotees looked at some inscriptions on the wall. “It’s 140 years old,” someone whispered.
The temple was dimly lit, and I had to squint to see the altar. Finally I could make out a deity of a tall, bearded man with long hair.
“Who is that?” I asked a devotee.
“Guan Gong,” he replied, “He’s a famous warrior who defended this area from outside warlords, centuries ago.”
There was an abundance of incense burning on the altar. “Do they worship him?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” the devotee replied. “People come here to pray to him for protection. They believe that some special persons attain divinity after they die and have supernatural powers.”
I glanced around the temple and saw old wall hangings, bells, and articles for worship. The walls were thick with black soot from 140 years of incense smoke.
“Look over here,” the devotee continued. “People take these two wooden pieces, the size of your fists, and throw them in front of him. If the pieces both land with the smooth side up, it means he agrees to answer a question.
“You ask a question and then pull a wooden stick from this pile of numbered sticks. You check the number on your stick and then go over there, where you see a pile of old parchments. You take the parchment with the corresponding number on it and read the answer to your question. Do you want to try?”
“No thank you,” I replied respectfully.
We walked out of the temple. “Maharaja,” said a devotee, “there is nothing that corresponds to this type of worship in Vedic Culture, is there?”
“Actually,” I replied, “there is for a certain class of men. This is akin to worship of the ancestors. Krishna says in Bhagavad-Gita:
yanti deva vrata devan
pitrn yanti pitr vratah
bhutani yanti bhutejya
yanti mad yajino’pi mam
‘Those who worship the demigods will take birth among the demigods; those who worship the ancestors go to the ancestors; those who worship ghosts and spirits will take birth among such beings; and those who worship Me will live with Me.'”
[Bhagavad Gita, 9.25]
Just outside the temple, we passed a large furnace where a priest was offering different articles made of paper into the fire.
“What in the world is he doing?” I asked a local devotee.
“People believe you can send things to your ancestors this way,” he replied.
“For example, if you want to send them a car, you offer a paper car into the fire with certain prayers.”
“Let’s get back to the pure chanting of the holy names,” I said. “I can hear the kirtan party just around the corner.”
The next day we continued advertising the festivals with a big Harinama along a boardwalk near the port. Devotees got tired after some time, but I was determined to keep them out as long as possible.
“I’ll be happy if we can fill just half the hall each night,” I thought.
While chanting down the street we were again reminded of local tastes in food. As we passed a big restaurant we saw a large array of live seafood swimming in huge aquariums outside the restaurant. There were octopuses, eels, water snakes, huge crabs, and a bizarre assortment of sea fish I had never seen before.
Customers would stop and indicate to an employee which creature they wanted.
The employee would reach in and catch the aquatic and quickly take it back to the kitchen. A half hour later it would be on the customer’s table ready to eat.
When a large family of 12 people chose a fish almost as big as I am, I told the kirtan leader to quickly move on.
I turned to Gaura Hari. “It’s Lord Caitanya’s mercy,” I said. “Even people with habits like those can become devotees.”
I quoted a famous verse from Srimad Bhagavatam:
kirata hunandhra pulinda pulkasa
abhira sumbha yavanah khasadayah
ye’nye ca papa yad apasrayasrayah
sudhyanti tasmai prabhavisnave namah
“Kirata, Huna, Andhra, Pulinda, Pulkasa, Abhira, Sumbha, Yavana, members of the Khasa races and even others addicted to sinful acts can be purified by taking shelter of the devotees of the Lord, due to His being the supreme power. I beg to offer my respectful obeisances unto Him.”
[Srimad Bhagavatam 2.4.18 ]
“Maharaja,” said Gaura Hari, “‘Khasa’ refers to the Chinese. But ‘ye ‘nye ca papa’ means ‘others addicted to sinful acts.’ That would include Westerners such as us, wouldn’t it? Think of what they serve in the restaurants in America.”
I felt humbled. “Yes,” I replied, “you’re correct. We were also addicted to sinful activity before coming to Krsna consciousness. We’re not better than they are, just more fortunate, that’s all. We have already come to Krishna Consciousness.”
The next morning, our festival group and a number of local devotees went to the auditorium to begin setting up the stage. When we walked in we were stunned. One thousand seats cascaded gracefully down towards an immense stage, which was complete with every imaginable lighting, curtain, and facility needed for a professional show.
“This dwarfs the Melbourne City Hall we performed in,” said a devotee.
I couldn’t help staring at the impressive stage. “Our show deserves such a setting,” I said. “We’re presenting the highest culture. With such a facility, people will be able to appreciate our presentation much more. But let’s hope we get enough people. This place will look empty even if 500 people show up.”
“Maharaja,” said a devotee, “Chandrasekhar said ticket sales have been going well the last couple of days as a result of the Harinams.”
The devotees were dressed and ready two hours before the show. Everyone was excited. It would be a fitting end to our two months of preaching. Spontaneously I called a meeting with all of them.
“I’ll be leaving the morning after the last program,” I began. “I just wanted to thank all of you for the wonderful service you’ve performed during the last two months. I’m sure all of us will cherish memories of this tour for the rest of our lives.”
“We worked hard spreading the message of Lord Caitanya,” I continued. “Sometimes it was like drinking hot sugar-cane juice: so hot it burned the lips, but so sweet we couldn’t stop.”
“And we had so many nice morning programs,” said a devotee. “We really enjoyed chanting our rounds together and discussing Srimad Bhagavatam.”
“And great prasadam,” added another.
Then there was a moment of silence as everyone realized the tour was almost over.
Suddenly the devotees looked sad. “The only consolation,” I said, “is that we’ll all be together again in a few months for the summer festival tour in Poland.”
A big cheer went up.
“Now let’s get ready to go on stage,” I said enthusiastically. “The show starts in a few minutes.”
The moment we had been waiting for all week was at hand. I decided to take a peek through the giant curtain on the stage and see how many people had come. I went before the curtain, paused for a moment, and pulled it slightly back.
What a jolt! The hall was almost full. Row after row of Chinese people were sitting, waiting patiently for the show to begin. In the front row I saw a number of dignitaries, including the Consul General of India, the Vice Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a number of professors, and several prominent Hong Kong businessmen.
For a moment I felt a tinge of nervousness. “We’ll be performing in front of a number of distinguished guests and a crowd of 900 people,” I thought.
Then I laughed. “We’ve performed in front of hundreds of thousands of people through the years,” I thought. “And they almost always appreciate the show. Why should this program be any different? In fact, with a hall like this it can only be better.”
And better it was. The program that night was flawless, and the audience loved every minute of it. The VIPs seemed to applaud the loudest.
The next day the hall was just as full and the festival even better. It was the last show on the tour, and the devotees gave it everything they had. Early the next morning Chandrasekhar drove me to the airport.
“So how did you like the festivals?” he asked.
“A perfect ending to a wonderful tour,” I replied.
“What’s next?” he asked.
“I’m going to Bali, Indonesia,” I replied. “The devotees there have invited me to come and preach for a week.”
“Oh, that’s very nice,” he said. “It’s a tropical island. Do you plan to take a break as well?”
I reflected for a moment.
“Next life,” I said with a laugh. “For now, I’m too happy preaching in the association of so many loving devotees of the Lord.”
As I boarded the plane, I thought of something Srila Prabhupada had written:
“Try to remember Krsna always by following the principles as you know them; namely rising early, taking bath, cleansing, attending aratika, reading scriptures at least one hour or two hours daily, chanting sixteen rounds on beads of Hare Krsna mantra, going for street sankirtana, offering all your foodstuffs to Krsna, like that. In this way very quickly you will make progress in Krsna Consciousness and become very, very happy in your life.”
[Srila Prabhupada, letter to Susan Beckam September 29, 1972]