Chapter 9: Kirtana Bliss In the Land of Zulus

January 19,2002–February 11,2002

By Indradyumna Swami

Since my arrival in South Africa, my Indian disciple, Lakshminatha dasa, has been inviting me to participate in one of his daily Food-for-Life programs. He has been almost singlehandedly cooking and distributing over 50,000 plates of prasadam a week to the rural areas north of Durban for over five years now. Known as Kwazulu Natal, the region is inhabited by Zulus, the largest of the African tribes in South Africa, many of whom live in abject poverty. Knowing that crime is rampant in the area, and that the presence of white people in the South African townships is not appreciated by those who have suffered under apartheid, I have been hesitant to agree. It is dangerous even for nonwhites. Last month, Lakshminatha’s Food-for-Life van was hijacked at gunpoint in broad daylight. He had stopped to give prasadam to a few young children on the roadside when three men pulled up in a car, jumped out, and aimed an AK–47 at him. They demanded the keys to his van. Lakshminatha got out of the van slowly and stepped aside. The men jumped into the van and sped off—with a quarter ton of prasadam inside. When the police found the van five hours later in a nearby township, it had been stripped of everything—the engine, doors, windows, tires, and the prasadam.

Since then, another group of men tried to hijack Lakshminatha’s new van. He was driving through a township when a gang blocked the road. Several men came forward and demanded the keys. Not seeing any weapons this time, Lakshminatha refused, saying, “I’m feeding your people. Why do you want to stop me?”

One of the men replied, “Where do you get the money to feed us?” “From God.”

The man shot back, “Why doesn’t God take care of me!”

Lakshmikantha screamed, “If you call out to Him, maybe He will. Why don’t you chant Hare Krsna!”

Startled, the man stepped back and said to his friends, “Let him go.” Lakshminatha drove off, but he stopped a few hundred meters away.

Taking the big pots from the back of the van, he called out in a loud voice, “Hare Krsna! Come and get prasadam!” Soon several hundred people had gathered with bowls in their hands to receive the Lord’s mercy.

His boldness and determination have made Hare Krishna a household word among the Zulus. Wherever you drive in the greater Durban area, you can see small Zulu children begging at stoplights. Whenever a devotee drives up, they jump up and down excitedly, calling out, “Hare Krsna! Hare Krsna!” Instead of asking for money, they ask for prasadam. Their enthusiasm is evidence of Lakshminatha’s service.

Srila Prabhupada once pointed out how a child’s enthusiasm could be proof of our preaching success. He was walking along the beach in Mumbai with some of his disciples when a little girl walked by and with folded hands said, “Hare Krsna!” Prabhupada turned to his disciples and said, “You see how successful our movement is?”

Confused, one devotee asked, “Successful? Srila Prabhupada, only one little girl has said Hare Krsna.”

Srila Prabhupada replied, “Yes, if you take just one drop of the ocean and taste it, you can understand what the whole ocean tastes like. Similarly, by this one girl greeting us with Hare Krsna, we can appreciate how far the chanting of the Lord’s name has spread.”

A few days ago, wanting to reciprocate with Lakshminatha’s service, I agreed to accompany him to a Zulu township. The next morning I was napping after the temple program when a police officer knocked on my door. Half asleep, I called out, “Who’s there?”

“Sergeant Singh, Durban Police,” came the official reply.

Still jittery about the day ahead, I jumped up and answered the door, saying, “Oh, Sergeant Singh, thank you for coming. Would you like to come in for a moment?”

“No, Swami,” he replied. “Lakshminatha and the boys are waiting for us at the Food-for-Life kitchen. Let’s go.”

Grabbing my japamala, a shoulder bag, and my da∫∂a, I followed Sergeant Singh to his police car, where he opened the trunk and put my bag inside. Before closing it, he pulled out his service belt holstering a Tanfoglio 9 mm revolver. Taking the gun out of the holster, he checked the chamber to see if it was loaded. He said, “It holds fifteen rounds. But don’t worry, I doubt I’ll have to use it. The Zulus in the townships love Lakshminatha. He’s got carte blanche to go into the African areas where no Indian or white man would dare to go. But resentment against the former apartheid regime runs deep in the townships, and we can’t take any chances. Since he was hijacked a couple of weeks ago, we go with him any time he calls. There are aways oddballs out there—and those who are desperate. They’re mighty poor folk.”

With the lights flashing on top of his police car, the sergeant and I pulled out of the temple complex with Lakshminatha and a few other Indian boys in the van following. Another car with four women devotees followed them. Sergeant Singh smiled and said, “A police car with flashing lights gives an air of importance to a mission, don’t you think?”

“Yes, officer,” I replied, “you’re welcome anytime.”

We drove north out of Durban for an hour, passing sugarcane fields, to Kwa Mashu, the native land of the Zulus. An hour later, we pulled up along a ridge overlooking a beautiful valley. Sergeant Singh said, “A few hundred kilometers north of here, the Boers defeated the Zulus in the Battle of Blood River. That was December 1838. The river was previously called the Ncome River, but so many Zulu warriors were repulsed into the river and killed in that battle that the water turned red. This huge valley once provided the Zulus who lived here all they required for their livelihood. Now many of them have left to live in cities like Durban and Johannesburg. The land lies barren. Those who still live here live in shacks.”

As I surveyed the sloping ridge going into the valley, I saw small dwellings that had been assembled from all sorts of material—pieces of corrugated metal, planks of wood, and sheets of plastic—bound together in various shapes and forms. I couldn’t imagine life inside such shacks.

Sergeant Singh continued, “To many nineteenth-century Europeans,the Zulu epitomized the romantic notion of the ‘noble savage.’ While they may indeed have been noble, they were far from savage. Their warfare was characterized by iron-willed discipline and their society by a sophisticated culture influenced by the environment in which they lived. Even though most Zulus have become westernized, many of them adhere to their traditional customs, rituals, and ceremonies. Just look over there, coming up the path. That’s an isangoma, a traditional healer.”

I looked at the path and saw a stocky woman with a headdress made of hundreds of colored beads.

“She’s the village doctor,” Sergeant Singh explained. “Look closely and you’ll see a dried goat bladder plaited into the beadwork of her headdress. She’s also carrying the traditional wildebeest tail fly whisk. They say isangomas can communicate with the village ancestors. They’re masters of a form of natural medicine using a vast range of herbs, barks, and roots.”

As she walked by our car I smiled at her, but she didn’t seem to notice me.

“They’re often in a kind of trance,” said Sergeant Singh. “Unfortunately, the original Zulu culture still exists only here in the rural areas. In the cities, the Zulus are prone to drinking, fighting, and stealing. In Durban the crime rate among Zulus is escalating out of control, and over half of them have been found to be HIV positive.”

“Good candidates for Lord Caitanya’s mercy,” I said.

Lakshminatha’s van, which was parked behind us, then drew up alongside. Lakshminatha, a smile of anticipation on his face, said, “Let’s do harinama from this spot down into the valley. I’ll drive the van in front of the kîrtana party and Sergeant Singh can follow behind. We’ll distribute prasadam at the bottom.”

I picked up the mrdanga, adjusted the strap, and began to warm up with a few beats. I asked Lakshminatha, “When we get there, how will the people know we’re distributing prasadam?”

“This is not the first time we’ve been here. The sound of your drum will announce everything. Just look what a few beats have done!”

Turning my head, I was startled to see hundreds of Zulu children, most of them poorly clothed, running toward us on the dirt road leading into the valley. They were carrying a variety of bowls, cups, pots, dishes, and even garbage bins. They were running and calling out, “Hare Krsna! Hare Krsna! Hare Krsna!”

I continued to play the drum, and then began to sing Hare Krsna. The three boys that had come in Lakshminatha’s van joined in with karatalas. Within minutes, we were surrounded by dancing children. Sergeant Singh said, “They love the drumbeats. It’s in their blood. Wait till you hear them sing. Zulus have beautiful voices.”

Hearing that, I requested the children through the small sound system to repeat the mahamantra after me as I sang. As they all responded in unison, I was struck with wonder. They really did have beautiful voices! Harmonizing naturally, they sounded like an experienced choral group. I thought to myself, “This is a kîrtana man’s paradise!”

Following Lakshminatha’s lead, we moved down the road into the valley. As he went to his car, Sergeant Singh whispered in my ear, “It’s all very fun, but remember that you’re an uninvited guest in a hostile environment and you’re white. Don’t go off the beaten track and always keep your eyes on me.”

The Zulus in the shacks along the road began to line the road. Most smiled and waved, but I noticed some stern glares among the older youth. I kept looking back at Sergeant Singh, and as I did he would flash the blue lights of his police car.

I kept the kîrtana going strong, playing the drum as hard as I could and chanting loudly. The sound reverberated off the nearby hills, announcing our descent into the valley. Although there may have been some risk going into that shanty town, I was in bliss. The children were responding to the kîrtana like nothing I’d seen. It may have been in their blood, as Sergeant Singh said, but for the time it took us to walk to the bottom of the valley, they were in Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana party becoming purified—dancing and chanting Hare Krishna with delight.

The further along we went, the more children joined us, pouring spontaneously out of the shacks with an ever-expanding assortment of bowls and dishes. Some were so poor that they had only cardboard boxes from which to eat, but every one of them was swept up in the nectar of sankirtana.

The happy mood contrasted with the dirt and filth of the township. Garbage lay everywhere, and an open sewer often crossed the dirt path we were following.

It was also both hot and humid. As the sun beat down on us, I lamented that I hadn’t brought a hat to keep off the sun. Within an hour I was completely exhausted, but it was so much nectar chanting with that huge crowd of children, I couldn’t stop.

Two hours later we reached the bottom of the valley, where hundreds of people were waiting to take prasadam. I kept the kîrtana going though, as the children couldn’t seem to get enough. They continued dancing madly. A few of them even rolled on the ground!

Finally, I brought the kîrtana to a close. The children swarmed around me. They spoke excitedly in Zulu, which I couldn’t understand. Sergeant Singh smiled and said, “They say they want more kîrtana.”

Because I didn’t immediately comply, the children began to chant, “Zulu! Zulu!

Zulu!” I thought, “Oh, I’d better bring them back to the transcendental platform!” I told Lakshminatha to open the van and distribute the prasadam. As he did so, the children stampeded toward the van. Several of the Zulu men stepped forward and commanded the children to form lines and wait their turn. After a few tense moments, things were under control and I jumped inside the van to help distribute the prasadam. Lakshminatha had made a kitchari rich with butter and vegetables. The children began to ask for ever-larger portions, and we served them all. An hour later, a large group of children motioned to me to sit among them on the grass. I climbed out of the van and went over to the children with Sergeant Singh. There were well over one hundred children sitting tightly in a circle. As I sat down, they pressed forward to be near me. When I noticed that most of them suffered from one skin disease or another—ringworm, impetigo, scabies—I moved back a little.

All eyes were upon me. At first they were silent, then one girl in the back said something. The young boy closest to me reached out and ran his index finger down my arm. Holding up his finger he shook his head and laughed. At that, the other children laughed too. Sergeant Singh was also laughing. I asked him what was so funny.

“The little ones have never been this close to a white man before. They thought you painted yourself white,” he said. “It’s a custom among Zulus to sometimes cover themselves with a whitish cream. It’s seen as a sign of beauty.”

Then the boy proudly held up his black arm and pointing to it, chanting, “Zulu! Zulu! Zulu!” Again the other children joined in.

I interrupted their chanting and asked them to be silent for a moment. With Sergeant Singh translating, I told them that we are not our bodies. Our real identities are as the soul inside. The soul is an eternal servant of God. They stared at me with blank faces, and I realized I wasn’t going to get far presenting even the ABCs of Bhagavad-gîta to these young Zulu children. Still, their enthusiasm for kîrtana and prasadam had already proven them worthy of Lord Caitanya’s mercy. I picked up the drum, and even before I started playing it, they were moving their bodies to an expected beat. When several of them called out “Hare Krsna,” the rest quickly followed. Soon we were back in the spiritual world, chanting and dancing without cessation, hundreds of small black bodies jumping and twirling in bliss.

Many of the children’s parents standing on the outside of the circle were also moving to the mrdanga beat and chanting the holy names. Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement is indeed the perfect formula for developing love of God in any part of the world. Nearby, just 150 years ago, the Europeans and Zulus were fighting fierce battles for the land. Now, by Lord Caitanya’s mercy, white men and Zulus were dancing happily together, their combined voices echoing the holy names of God throughout the valley.

After a while, Sergeant Singh caught my eye and indicated that the sun was setting. Although we were having fun, it was too dangerous to remain in the township after dark. I reluctantly finished the kîrtana and got into the police car. A multitude of sad faces looked on as we ascended the hill. “I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a kîrtana so much,” I told the sergeant. “I’ll never forget these kids.”

“They’ll probably never forget you either,” he said. “You’ll always be welcome back, and you won’t need me next time. There’s plenty more work to be done here, Swami. There are ten million Zulus in Kwazulu Natal, and they all have sweet voices!”

“One who is untouched by any piety, who is completely absorbed in irreligion, or who has never received the merciful glance of the devotees or been to any holy place sanctified by them will still ecstatically dance, loudly sing, and even roll about on the ground when he becomes intoxicated by tasting the nectar of the transcendental mellows of pure love of God given by Lord Caitanya. Let me therefore glorify that Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu.” (Caitanyacandramrta, Chapter 1, text 2)