December 2008

December 1 – 30: DOWN IN THE PITS  

Their festival programs continued in the Sydney area with great success. Indradyumna Swami Maharaja had come with twenty-eight devotees from various countries, and many of them were staying in rooms at the Sydney temple. Devotees from other parts of Australia were also staying there for the Christmas Marathon. They would go out every day, distributing books and prasada or chanting on harinama.

Every room in the building was occupied, and the morning programs were especially sweet. Devotees chanted, danced, and listened to class, preparing themselves for a day on the street.

One morning as Indradyumna Swami looked around during japa, he realized that he was two or even three times the age of everyone else. When the kirtan and dancing started, a young man grabbed his arm. “Come on, Maharaja!” he shouted.

“Not possible!” the Swami shouted over the sound of the kirtan, pointing to his knees. Maharaja mouthed the word “finished.” He let go and went back to the kirtan, whirling and jumping up and down.

“Those days are over,” the Swami thought, “but by the Lord’s mercy I can still go out on harinama.”

As they readied our harinama van after prasada, Indradyumna Swami turned to a local devotee. “How’s the book distribution in downtown Sydney?” Maharaja asked.

“It’s really crowded this week,” he said, “and very passionate. Everyone’s hurrying to buy presents before Christmas. The main shopping area on Pitt Street is the toughest. I think the heat makes people irritable. It’s hard to get them to stop.”

“Pitt Street,” the Swami muttered. “Down in the pits.” Maharaja smiled at his little joke.

“What did you say, Maharaja?” the devotee asked.

“Oh nothing,” Indradyumna Swami Maharaja said. “It’s just something we say in America.” Shortly before noon, their harinama van arrived near the Pitt Street Mall. The street was packed with shoppers, and they would have hardly any room to maneuver. As they stepped out of the van onto the concrete, they were hit with an inner-city heat blast.

Drivers started honking their horns. “Move it, boys!” Maharaja shouted. “We’re blocking traffic!”

They began chanting down a side street leading to the outdoor mall when suddenly five tough-looking young men moved in close to the women devotees and began making jokes and rude remarks. Indradyumna Swami looked at Gaura Hari dasa, who was playing mrdanga next to him.

“Best to ignore them,” he said. “They’ll go away.”

The boys stayed with them for a whole block, but just as Maharaja was about to step forward and say something, they disappeared into a bar.


 As they rounded a corner onto Pitt Street, Indradyumna Swami Maharaja saw a sign in a menswear store: “Santa — define what’s good.” It was a play on the words of a song about Santa Claus: “He’s knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.”

“Gee,” the Swami thought, “the spirit of Christmas gets more mundane every year.”

That very morning Indradyumna Swami had read a prediction by a leading retail trade body: during the holidays, more people would be shopping online in Australia than going to church.

But this spirit was not limited to the West. The Swami thought about the Diwali festival in New Delhi this year, when devotees celebrate the return of Lord Ramacandra to Ayodhya. More people were out shopping and lighting firecrackers than going to the temple.

As their party merged into the dense crowd, Sri Prahlada dasa stepped up the beat of the kirtana. At first, the people were so absorbed in shopping that no one noticed them, but after a few minutes, people began to smile and a few even waved.

After thirty minutes the devotees were exhausted. It was just too hot. So they went to sing under the shade of a tree in the middle of the mall. A small crowd broke away from shopping to watch them chant, many of them accepting invitations to their festival the next day.

Then Indradyumna Swami saw a policeman heading our way through the throng. “Oh no,” the Swami thought. “He probably got a complaint from one of the shopkeepers and he’s going to stop us.” But as he pushed his way toward us, people started booing and shouting at him:

“Leave them alone!”

“Let them sing!”

“It’s Christmas!”

“Give them a break!”

The crowd began booing again, and the policeman merged back into the shopping frenzy.

Their kirtan party soon left the shade of the tree and began moving around the mall. “It’s quite passionate down here,” Maharaja thought, recalling the words of the sankirtana devotee. Then he looked down the street and saw devotees distributing books. Across the street some devotees were selling prasada from a table, and a little farther down, others were collecting donations for the temple’s food-distribution program. It seemed they were everywhere.

Indradyumna Swami smiled. “Lord Caitanya’s mercy,” he said to himself. Suddenly a storm blew in. They ran under the awning of a bank and tried to make the chanting heard over the downpour. As the rain got heavier, a number of people took shelter beneath an overhang on a flight of steps near them. After a few moments many of them began clapping their hands in time with the kirtana.

Suddenly a uniformed security man rushed out of the bank. “This is private property!” he shouted. “You have no right to be here! Move on! Now!”

The kirtan stopped. Then a well-dressed woman came out of the bank, wearing a badge that said “manager.”

“Let them stay,” she told the security man. “They’re no threat to the bank. As long as they are orderly, let them sing. They’re bringing Christmas cheer.”

The bystanders applauded, and the kirtan struck up again. A roving television crew, recording holiday events around the city, came by and filmed the kirtana.

When the rain stopped, the crowds came back and they joined them, meandering through the wide mall. A shoeshine man reached into his pocket and pulled out a two-dollar coin, which he handed to Gaura Hari. “We need you guys down here,” he said. “Hope this helps.”

They remained on harinama for about three hours, and in the van on the way back to the temple the devotees slept.

“They’re exhausted from the heat,” Indradyumna Swami thought. “I hope all their hard work brings a good crowd to the festival.”

The next day, in a nearby suburb, they held their festival. When they opened the doors, a large crowd came in, quickly filling the five hundred seats. Maharaja winked at Sri Prahlada. “Looks like the Pitt Street kirtana paid off,” the Swami said.

The program went smoothly, with the audience applauding every act. At the end of the show as people milled around speaking to devotees and buying books, Indradyumna Swami Maharaja saw an elderly man looking at him. The Swami went up to him and introduced himself.

“Lovely program,” he said.

“Thank you,” Maharaja said. “What part did you like the best?” “The singing,” he said. “And it’s odd that I would say that.”

He smiled.

“Why’s that?” the Swami said.

“In the early 1970s I owned a high-end furniture shop in the Pitt Street Mall,” he said. “You people used to come and sing for hours in front of my store. I would get so upset. Sometimes I’d call the police, and they’d chase you away. I even filed an official complaint with City Hall. Your singing parties finally stopped, and then I used to see the boys and girls selling books around town.“

“But I never forgot the singing. I had a recurring dream at least half a dozen times a year, where you’d all be singing your song in front of my store. Sometimes I’d wake up singing the song myself.

“Eventually I retired, but I still had that dream. After many years I found the courage to approach one of your boys distributing books, and I asked about the song. I bought a Bhagavad-gita. I found it fascinating. I went through it in a few days.

“And yesterday I was shopping for Christmas presents when suddenly I saw your group chanting. I was stunned. And you know what happened?”

“What?” Indradyumna Swami replied.

“Tears came to my eyes,” he said, pausing for a moment. “And when you all passed by I took an invitation to the festival from a young girl.”

“And you came,” the Swami said.

“Yes,” he said. “I wanted to hear more of the singing. It’s had such an effect on me. I must have had that dream a hundred times.”

He took Maharaja’s hand. “And I hope to have it again and again,” he said and squeezed Maharaja’s hand tightly. “I’m really grateful I saw all of you yesterday. It was just like old times.”

He began to walk away, but after a few steps he turned around. “Oh,” he said, “there’s one more thing.”

“What’s that?” Indradyumna Swami said.

He smiled. “Please,” he said, “don’t ever stop singing downtown.”

On the way back to the temple the Swami taught the devotees a beautiful song he’d recently learned. It captured the mood of their kirtana on Pitt Street and the happiness they’d experienced in sharing the nectar of the holy names:

aju gora nagara kirtane

sajiya calaye priya parikara sane

“Surrounded by His dear devotees, Lord Gaura performs sankirtana in the city.”

angera su-besa bhala sobhe

nace nana bhangite bhubana-mana mohe

“His well-dressed form is glorious. Dancing in many graceful ways, He charms the hearts of everyone in the world.”

prema barisaye anibara

bahaye ananda nadi nadiya majhara

“He continuously showers the bliss of ecstatic spiritual love. He makes a river of spiritual bliss flow in Nadiya.”

deba-gana misa-i manuse

braise kusuma kata manera harise

“The demigods stay amongst the human beings. Their hearts are joyful. How many monsoons of flowers do they shower?”

nagariya loka saba dhaya

manera manase goracandra guna gaya

“The people run to greet Him. With all their hearts they sing Lord Gaura’s glories.”

mudhegana suni simha-nada

ha-iya birasa mana ganaye pramada

“Some bewildered people, their hearts withered by fear, think the tumultuous kirtan is a host of lions roaring.”

lakhe lakhe dipa jwale bhala

upama ki abani gagana kare alo

“Millions and millions of glistening lamps shine. With what shall I compare the light that fills the ground and sky?”

narahari kahite ki jane

matila jagata ke-u dhairaja na mane

“What shall Narahari say? He does not know. The whole world has become wild with bliss. No one is peaceful at heart.”
[Kamoda-raga, Song 24, by Narahari das. Translated by Kusakrata Dasa]