Chapter 11: Woodstock: A New Direction

August 1 – 3, 2008
By Indradyumna Swami

As always, we arrived in Kostrzyn a week before the Woodstock Festival. When I went to look at the enormous field where the event would take place, I was surprised to see that the main stage had already been set up. Hours later our boys arrived and began putting up our large village, including a 60-meter tent and our trademark 3,600-liter, one-ton cooking pot.

It would take five days to assemble the half-acre village. As soon as the boys had put up the big prasadam tent, another group unloaded two tons each of rice, sugar, oil, butter, semolina, and dhal. Nearby they offloaded six thousand liters of oil and 120 thousand papadams.

“It’s going to be a huge yajna,” I thought.

A young couple passed by wearing backpacks. “Early birds,” I said with a wink to Amritananda das.

On the boy’s backpack was scribbled, “Punk’s Not Dead.” He sported a Mohawk haircut dyed blue, yellow, and green. The girl’s hair was purple, and she wore a T-shirt with huge letters saying, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.”

“That’s not the message the organizers are sending out this year,” said Amritananda, “Woodstock has moved on.”

It was true. This year Jurek Owsiak, the inspiration behind Woodstock and the main organizer of the event, had decided to put up two large circus tents on the grounds. He had invited a number of renowned personalities to speak to the young people about achieving positive goals.

Included in the list were Professor Leszek Balcerowicz, an economist who had served as Poland’s finance minister for a number of years; Wieslaw Ochman, a well-known opera singer; and Kamil Durczok, a respected anchor from Polish network news.

We had followed suit and decided to make cultural exchange the focus of Krishna’s Village of Peace this year. We decreased the number of devotee rock bands to play on our own stage and were scheduling devotees to speak about spiritual science, Ayurvedic medicine, devotional yoga, and solutions to environmental problems.

When the Indian Ambassador to Poland, His Excellency Chandra Mohan Bhandari, heard about the new direction Woodstock was taking, he asked if we could arrange a meeting with him and Jurek. At the meeting the ambassador, eager to promote India’s culture among the youth of Poland, suggested that this year’s festival emphasize the theme of Indian culture.

The ambassador offered to help by bringing several prominent entertainers and Ayurvedic physicians along with displays of Indian handicraft to the festival. Jurek agreed and suggested a title, Mala Indie, or Little India. The ambassador decided to spend the entire three days of Woodstock participating in the Village of Peace, and we booked a hotel room for him and his family.

Woodstock was being billed as Europe’s largest open-air music event with 52 rock bands plus Warsaw’s Philharmonic Orchestra to add a touch of culture. The Woodstock field soon filled to capacity with an ocean of tents and more than 300 thousand young people.

The day before Woodstock began, we opened the Village of Peace. As always, kids flooded onto our site, eager for everything we had to offer. A large tent erected especially for kirtan was packed as Bhakti Bringa Govinda Maharaja charmed the audience with his kirtans and got hundreds to chant and dance along with him into the wee hours. The tons of foodstuffs we had stockpiled soon turned into thousands of plates of delicious prasadam, much appreciated by the crowds. As always, Krishna’s Village of Peace became the place to eat.

The next day, the Woodstock Festival officially opened. Our large Ratha-yatra chariot began moving along the main thoroughfare of the festival, accompanied by hundreds of devotees and tumultuous chanting of the holy names.

At the same time, Jurek held a media conference near the main stage. His theme of using Woodstock to enlighten the kids about the higher values of life struck a chord with the media. Representatives of every prominent television station, radio station, and newspaper came, and they were intrigued by the presence of the Indian Ambassador and the iconic Professor Balcerowicz, who is credited with having established a robust economy in the 1990’s after decades of communism.

After an hour of questions and answers, Jurek glorified us during his closing words: “I have been trying to impress upon all of you for years that the Hare Krishna Movement is not a cult but an ancient spiritual tradition with much to offer Polish society. The presence of the Indian Ambassador in their village this year obviously confirms this. Please acknowledge this in your reports.”

At the opening ceremony on the main stage before a crowd of 150 thousand kids, Jurek invited everyone to enjoy the music and attend the numerous seminars in the circus tents. While touching on the theme of Little India, he called the ambassador and me to the front of the stage. The crowd cheered, and we waved back.

That evening our Ratha-yatra parade was featured on Poland’s main television news channel. The whole country saw the Lord’s smiling face and His enthusiastic devotees loudly chanting His holy names.

The next day, as the kids poured into our village to take prasadam, visit our tents and exhibits, and join in our kirtans and seminars, I took out our second Ratha-yatra parade. The huge cart rumbled down the road, towering high over people’s heads on the crowded street, and many joined us in pulling on the ropes. Not long after we began, a large group of Christians came from the opposite direction, pulling a large boat made of cloth on a float displaying the words “Noah’s Ark.” They were also singing and dancing, and some kids left us to join them pulling the float.

“They were singing last year,” a devotee said, “but they’ve added the boat, an idea they got from us.”

I noted a touch of pride in his voice. “That’s true,” I said, “but we can learn from them as well. They’ve been successfully preaching in this country for almost 15 hundred years. We arrived only 30 years ago and are struggling to maintain a few small temples.”

When we returned to our village several hours later, we saw long lines of people waiting to get prasadam. On our stage Nandini was translating the ambassador’s lecture about self-realization to a crowd of 400. I went in to listen and was pleasantly surprised to hear that his philosophy was in line with our understanding of Bhagavad-gita. “The goal of life is not material enjoyment,” he concluded, “but bhakti, or the awakening of our love for God, Sri Krishna Bhagavan.” Respecting his position as the ambassador, many people listened attentively.

When I walked over to the book tent, it was so packed I could barely walk in. “I just sold several books to an interesting person,” said Radha Caran das. “He came with a long list of titles, but somehow I could sense he wasn’t so interested, and when I asked why he was buying so many books, he said, ‘They’re not for me. They’re for my cousin. He’s a priest in a local village. He’s interested in your understanding of God, but he’s afraid to come here and buy the books himself.’ ”

Then I headed to the astrology tent, where Prahlad Nrsimha das was concluding a seminar. Several hundred kids were listening carefully. When he finished he came over to speak to me.

“You see the gentleman over there?” he said, pointing to a man reading Bhagavad-gita. “He’s come for the past two days and has been asking many interesting questions. But he always sits in front, off to the side. I noticed he never turns around to look at the rest of the audience. I asked him why. He blushed and said he’s the local priest. He’s fascinated by our philosophy and wants to learn more. He’s been coming in normal clothes and keeping a low profile so his congregation won’t notice.”

As I left the tent I remembered a passage from the writings of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur:

“The dharma preached by Caitanya Mahaprabhu is universal and not exclusive … The principle of kirtan as the future church of the world invites all classes of men, without distinction of caste or clan, to the highest cultivation of the spirit. This church, it appears, will spread worldwide and replace all sectarian churches, which exclude outsiders from the precincts of the mosque, church, or temple.”

[Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu: His Life and Precepts, pages 68-69]

At the questions-and-answers tent I was surprised to see the ambassador and Nandini. He was answering questions about karma, reincarnation, and vegetarianism. “Not your typical modern-day statesman,” I said to Amritananda.

Passing by our stage, I saw Bhakti Marg Swami encouraging the devotees he had trained for his drama about Bhagavad-gita. After the play the kids gave him and the other devotees a big round of applause.

That night in our kirtan tent, BB Govinda Maharaja and I kept more than 100 kids chanting Hare Krishna and dancing until 2:00 am. When we finished, many of them hurried to the food tent, where devotees were still distributing prasadam. Rasikendra das, the devotee in charge of cooking, was smiling. “We’ll easily surpass 120 thousand plates this year,” he told me.

On the final day of Woodstock, all 500 of our devotees rose as early as possible to begin their duties. By noon I was taking the Ratha-yatra cart through the site for one last parade. Many kids joined our ranks and chanted alongside us, and the ambassador also joined us for an hour, pulling on the ropes and chanting along with everyone else. After the parade many kids came back and sat in our clean field, taking shelter from the loud music on the main stage some distance away.

As I walked around our site, I noticed a few priests in their black robes preaching to some kids eating prasadam. A devotee came up to me. “Maharaja,” he said, “should we ask the priests to leave?”

“Why?” I said. “They’re not saying anything different from us. If they criticize us, you can politely ask them to leave, but otherwise they are welcome.”

I also noticed many families from local towns. During the first few years of Woodstock the local people stayed away from the festival out of fear, but because it had now taken a cultural direction they seemed to feel more comfortable. I smiled seeing many of them wearing Woodstock T-shirts they’d purchased in stands around the site. Some even had their hair temporarily dyed different colors to match the mood.

As I sat watching thousands of people wander through our village, a girl wearing a sari and tilaka came up to me and offered obeisances.

“Hare Krishna,” she said. “My name is Ania. I’m 13 years old.”

“Hare Krishna,” I said. “Did you come with the devotees on one of the buses from Ukraine or Croatia?”

“No,” she said. “I live here in Kostrzyn. I’ve been coming to Krishna’s Village of Peace every year since I was nine years old. I wait all year for you to come. Throughout the year I read your books and chant Hare Krishna. My Mom encourages me. She’s Catholic, but she says you are worshiping the same God and I can become a Hare Krishna if I want.”

“That’s very nice,” I said.

She paused for a moment. “Actually,” she said, “I came to ask you a special question.”

“Feel free to ask anything you like,” I said.

She hesitated. “Would you please be my spiritual master and accept me as your disciple?” she said. “In the books it says many times that a devotee should learn about Krishna from a spiritual master.”

“But there’s a whole process …,” I began and then stopped. “How do you know me?”

Her face lit up. “I listen to your lectures every time you are here,” she said. “And I sing Hare Krishna with you well into the night throughout Woodstock. I know you very well.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “Please,” she continued. “I’m lost in this world. I want to go back to Krishna.”

“Well, first you have to …,” I started to say but again stopped.

“I’ve been praying to God every day for an entire year that you would accept me as your disciple,” she said. “Even on Sundays in church. And I follow all the rules.”

I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I’ll happily accept you as an aspiring disciple.”

That night at the final kirtan on our stage, with the ambassador present, BB Govinda Maharaja led what I considered one of the best kirtans of his life. All the young people who had become attracted to Krishna consciousness during Woodstock danced with us for hours. At one point I looked into the huge crowd and saw Ania standing with palms joined, tears streaming down her face as she chanted along with us.

We continued chanting long after the music on Woodstock’s main stage had finished. Late that night, as the kids finally started to go to sleep, all one could hear across the huge field was the chanting of Krishna’s holy names.

When we finally finished the kirtan, I sat for a moment watching as everyone slowly left our village. “I wish it could be like this all the time,” I thought, “so many hundreds of thousands of people getting so much mercy.”

As I walked back to my van with a group of devotees, a woman reporter came up to me. “I know you’re very tired,” she said, “but may I ask you one or two questions?”

“Of course,” I said.

“I’ve been watching all of you since the first day,” she said. “You’re working so hard. But why do you do all of this? It’s such a big operation – so many tents, so many programs, and so much food. And most of it’s free. You can’t be making much money.”

I smiled. “We just want to share our good fortune with others,” I said.

She hesitated before copying that into her notebook. “But there must be other reasons,” she said.

I looked back at the field where the great yajna had taken place. “Actually,” I said, “there is another reason.”

I paused, waiting for the right words to come. “We’re hoping to attract the attention of the Lord,” I said, “praying that one day we can serve Him again in the spiritual world.”

“You mean, like angels?” she said.

“Something like angels,” I said. The devotees smiled.

jaya subha lila mrta rasa lila
maya bhavad ali parijana palim
anugananayam aham apiyayam
iti bhava pasa vrta matir asam
api racayeyam phalatu mameyam natha

“O all-auspicious Krishna! May You be victorious! You perform all kinds of sweet pastimes. Let my name also be there when You count Sri Radha’s associates. This is my prayer. Although I am covered by material consciousness I can still aspire for this. O Lord, may my prayer be fulfilled.”

[Visvanath Cakravarti Thakur: Sri Nikunja Keli Virudavali, verse 67]