August 2014

August 8, 2014: A Thousand Lectures on the Absolute Truth

It was a week after the Sadhu Sanga Retreat in North Carolina last May, and Indradyumna Swami was in Los Angeles waiting to board a flight to London and then on to Warsaw, when an older gentleman walked up to him. He looked at the Swami’s sannyasa robes. “You must be a Hare Krishna,” he said with a strong Polish accent.

“Well yes,” Maharaja replied, “I am.”

“Where are you going?” he said.

“Actually,” Maharaja said, “I’m off to Poland.”

“Is it your first trip there?” he asked.

“Well, no … ”

“Hare Krsna is a famous religion in my county,” he said, interrupting Maharaja with a smile.

“Oh really?” the Swami said, feigning ignorance.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “They have wonderful festivals.” Then he walked back to his place in line.

“Well now,” Maharaja thought, “if that’s not one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me… It’s the result of pushing on our festival program along the Baltic Sea Coast for the last twenty years.”

At the airport in Warsaw the next day, the woman behind the immigration window looked up at Indradyumna Swami with a big smile. “O Guru,” she said. “Festival of India. Welcome.”

“They almost never smile,” Maharaja thought. “And to be addressed as Guru, well, that’s something really rare.”

“Officer,” Maharaja said as she stamped his passport, “have you been to one of our festivals?”

“Four,” she replied. Then her face took on an official expression. “You may proceed now.”

“Two auspicious omens,” he thought as he walked down to the baggage carousel. “First the man at the airport in Los Angeles and now the immigration officer. It’s got to mean a good start for our twentieth-anniversary summer tour.”

Indradyumna Swami reached his apartment in Warsaw an hour later. He started to repack his bags but fell asleep and didn’t wake up till the next morning, just in time to rush back to the airport and catch a flight up north to the Baltic Sea Coast. A disciple drove him to the site of their first festival, where the devotees were putting the finishing touches on the exhibits. And just an hour later he was on stage delivering a talk to seven hundred people. As he walked down off the stage Indradyumna Swami stopped a devotee passing by. “I feel so satisfied,” Maharaj said. “And you know, I don’t think I could count the number of times I have given that talk over the last twenty years.”

“Oh I could,” he said with a smile. “A thousand times.”

“A thousand times?” Maharaja said. “How do you get that?”

“Well,” he said, “we do about fifty festivals each summer. Multiply that by twenty years and you get a thousand lectures on the absolute truth.” He started to chuckle. “Hey, you know what?” he said. “That would make a great title for one of your diary chapters—A Thousand Lectures on the Absolute Truth.”

The next day Indradyumna Swami woke up exhausted. “Twenty years of festivals has taken its toll on me,” he said to a devotee as he struggled to crawl out of his sleeping bag. “I’m sixty-five now.”

“My dad’s the same age as you Maharaja,” he said. “The other day he told me that the sixties are the youth of old age.”

“That helps a little,” Maharaja said.

The Swami’s heart was beating in anticipation as the vans and buses pulled away from the base that morning, taking the devotees on harinam to advertise the next festival. As they drove along Maharaja remembered the words of his godsister Sitala Dasi. Some months earlier he had reminisced about the first time he went on harinam. It was in 1971, just after he had moved into the temple in Detroit. After a few hours of singing on the streets and selling Back to Godhead magazines, the devotees were all in a van driving back to the temple. Sitala turned to him. “So,” she said, “how did you like your first day on harinam?”

“I could do this for the rest of my life,” Maharaja replied.

And indeed he has. Indradyumna Swami feels indebted to his spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, who encouraged his disciples to share Krsna consciousness with the whole world through the chanting of the holy names. He could never give it up.

The great devotee Prahlada Maharaja once spoke the following words: “My dear Lord, O Supreme Personality of Godhead, because of my association with material desires, one after another, I was gradually falling into a blind well full of snakes, following the general populace. But Your servant Narada Muni kindly accepted me as his disciple and instructed me how to achieve this transcendental position. Therefore my first duty is to serve him. How could I leave his service?” [ SB 7.9.28 ]

Upon reaching the town the devotees all jumped out of the buses and vans. The sun had just dissipated a chilly fog, and devotees were taking off their sweaters and coats when a man walked up to them. “Welcome to our town!” he said. “Everyone knows that whenever you people come with your mantra the clouds run away and the sun shines.”

“Just see!” he said looking up at the sky as the last bit of fog disappeared and the sun shone brightly.

Within moments the devotees had crossed through the town and descended on the beach, which had quickly filled up with people as soon as the sun came out. As they were taking off their shoes to walk barefoot in the sand a young man in his late twenties approached Indradyumna Swami.

“The priest was talking about you people in his sermon last Sunday,” he began.

“Oh no,” Maharaja thought. “Here it comes. And just when everything was going so well.”

“He told us you were coming soon,” he said.

The Swami braced himself for some harsh words.

“He told us not to be afraid of you,” the young man continued. “He said that that you worship the same God as we do, but you call him by a different name: Krishna. He encouraged us to attend your festival and learn more about your religion. He said we should each try to be as good a follower of Christ, as you people are of Krishna.”

Indradyumna Swami was dumbstruck hearing these words after decades of harassment and abuse from the local priests. After a few seconds he managed to speak. “Yes,” he said, “please come. And offer your priest my deepest respect and admiration.”

“I never imagined it would come to this point,” the Swami thought, “at least not in my lifetime.”

He remembered Nelson Mandela’s words in 1996 at the Festival for the Children of the Rainbow Nation in Durban. Maharaja was standing next to him when a reporter asked him about his long struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa. “It always seems impossible,” Mandela said, “until it’s done.”

His thoughts came back to the present. “Of course,” Maharaja thought, “we still have a long way to go in establishing Krsna consciousness in this country, but now we’ve got our foot in the door.”

As the devotees started chanting and dancing down the beach giving out invitations, Indradyumna Swami noticed a mother grabbing her young daughter and pulling her to her side. “Don’t be afraid, darling,” the mother said. “They won’t kidnap you. They’re just collecting money for the poor people in India.” Her words brought a smile to the Swami’s face.

Then he noticed a group of devotee women sitting in the sand some distance away. Maharaja called another devotee over. “Please go and tell those matajis not to sit down now,” I said. “We have a lot of invitations to pass out. Tell them to help with the distribution.”

The devotee ran over to the women. After a minute he returned. “Maharaja,” he said chuckling. “They’re not devotees. They won the saris in the dance competition at the festival last night. They’re proudly wearing them around town and on the beach.”

The hours went by as the devotees chanted and danced among the throngs of people on the beach. Often they would stop, and when a crowd gathered the Swami would give a short lecture and invite people to the festival that evening. One time, the devotees started down the beach with an especially loud and enthusiastic kirtan while people followed and danced alongside them. Suddenly a woman came running up to Indradyumna Swami. “Please stop!” she said. “My baby is asleep. It’s her afternoon nap. If she wakes up she’ll be very upset.”

“Maharaja,” said a devotee smiling, “we can’t stop the kirtan for one baby. Anyway, if the baby wakes up hearing the holy names she’ll get mercy.”

“And the people will think ill of us,” Maharaja replied. “Stop the kirtan!” he yelled.

Most of the devotees had not seen the woman and were surprised that Maharaja ordered the blissful kirtan to stop.

“Keep walking!” he shouted.

The devotees walked in total silence for a good twenty meters. “OK!” Maharaja shouted. “Kirtan!” The devotees began chanting enthusiastically.

Then Maharaja heard a man talking to his wife. “These people have etiquette,” he said. “They are ladies and gentleman. They took care not to wake up the child. Take one of their invitations, dear. We’re going to their festival.”

The devotee who had objected to stopping the kirtan also heard the man. The Swami winked at him.

After all the invitations had been passed out, Indradyumna Swami took the kirtan through town on the way to the festival site. As the devotees stopped at a red light, a taxi drove by. The driver put his head out the window and shouted out the name of one of Srila Prabhupada’s books.

“Yes!” he yelled. “Teachings of Queen Kunti! Yes!”

That evening thousands of people passed through the festival site. Again the Swami found himself on stage sharing the truths of the Bhagavad Gita. When he saw that people were not catching a point, he would illustrate it with an anecdote. When they caught the point and their faces lit up, he felt as if he’d achieved a great victory.

As Indradyumna Swami walked around the festival grounds that evening, a woman came up to him. “Good evening,” she said. “Are you the wise man everyone is talking about?”

“No,” he said. “I’m his servant.” I put a Bhagavad Gita in her hand. “Here is one of the books he wrote,” he continued. “You will get great satisfaction from reading it.” She bought the book.

A young man standing nearby spoke up. “Is that the Bhagavad Gita?” he said.

“Yes, it is,” he replied.

“I want one too,” he said.

“Wow!” Maharaja thought. “This is my lucky day… No, it’s not just a lucky day. It’s often like this out here on the preaching field. Every sankirtan devotee experiences these special moments.”

“Last year,” the young man continued, “I went to Woodstock and met you people there. I went to the Questions and Answers tent and listened attentively. Suddenly I had all the answers to the questions of life that I had been asking. It was as if a light had been turned on. Seriously. I wanted to buy the book that the speaker was quoting from, the Bhagavad Gita, but I had no money. I have been waiting all year to buy the Bhagavad Gita. I was so surprised to find you people in town today. In fact I just walked into this festival by chance.”

“Nothing happens by chance,” the Swami said, “especially in spiritual life.” Maharaja picked up a Bhagavad Gita from a table nearby and handed it to him. He smiled as he gave a generous donation.

A couple of hours later Indradyumna Swami was heading to the stage for the final kirtan when Nandini Dasi came up to him. “Srila Gurudeva,” she said, “do you remember Rewal, the town where they canceled our festival many years ago when the priest objected to it? They actually asked us to leave town.”

“Yes,” Maharaja said, “of course I remember. The incident is seared in my memory.”

“Of course, years later they welcomed us back,” Nandini said, “but I thought you would appreciate the letter I received from the present Mayor of Rewal.”

She handed him the letter:

“Respected Agnieszka,

“Remembering our longing for lifetime cooperation in organizing the Festival of India in Rewal and surrounding towns, it is our pleasure to inform you that we will allow you to use all the locations you requested for this year’s events free of charge. Your festival is one of the most attractive and popular events of the year in our city, actually on the entire Baltic Sea coast. Each year it attracts thousands of local people and tourists hankering for the exotic and cultural experience you present so well. We are confident that this year our cooperation will be smooth and harmonious, as it has been for several decades.

“If you have any specific needs we will be happy to attend to them. Please just contact us at city hall.

“With Respects,

“The Mayor of Rewal”

“How happy Srila Prabhupada would be to hear this message,” Indradyumna Swami thought. “But in fact he must know. This event could not have gone on for so many years without his blessings.”

The kirtan that evening was wonderful. Maharaja noticed many people he had seen on the beach that afternoon chanting and dancing with the devotees. When the music stopped and the lights went down he started walking back to his van. Just as the Swami was about to open the door a family of four came up to him. The wife and two daughters were dressed in beautiful saris they had won during the competition at the last kirtan. “Please can you sign our Bhagavad Gita,” the man said. “We’d be very grateful.”

“Sure,” Maharaja said.

“Is this your first Hare Krsna festival?” Maharaja asked as he started to sign the book.

“Yes,” the man replied. “It’s our first time.”

“What part of the festival did you enjoy the most?” he continued.

“Actually, we just arrived ten minutes ago,” the man said with a smile. “But the atmosphere here was so overwhelming, so gracious and loving, that we went straight to the book store as it was closing to buy this book to understand more about you people. We were able to join in the dancing for three minutes. We loved every second. My daughters memorized the whole song and can’t stop singing it.”

“Do you have a card?” the man continued. “We’d like to keep in touch. My wife and I feel we’re on to something deeply spiritual and satisfying.”

Maharaja handed him his card. “Another good sign,” he thought. “It’s going to be a great summer just like all the others we have spent chanting and dancing along this coast for the past twenty years.”

That night as Indradyumna Swami rolled out his sleeping bag, he thought about his reply to Sitala Dasi after his first harinam. “What to speak of this lifetime,” he thought as he drifted off to sleep, “I could go on distributing the nectar of the Holy Names forever if that would please my spiritual master, my eternal friend and guide.”

“O swan gliding in the lakes of the Vraja-vasis’ love, I wish that I may wander everywhere always chanting and drinking the nectar of Your names. Those most sweet names arise from the ocean of Gokula and spread the glories of Your infinitely varied dress and ways of acting. As I wander, behaving like a madman, may I distribute joy to everyone in all the worlds.”

[Narada Muni, Brhat Bhagavatamrta 1.7.143 ]