Chapter 19: Counting my Blessings


Jun 13-16, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami

After leaving Kielce, where we successfully defended our festival against right-wing extremists, we arrived back in Warsaw at midnight. I fell asleep by 1:00 a.m., but woke up at 4:00 because of a terrible nightmare, where I dreamt skinheads broke through the barrier of security men and beat up the devotees. I sat up on my bed, wide awake, unable to forget the drama of the previous day.

I thought about a lecture I had recently heard by Srila Prabhupada where he mentioned that in days of yore people often dreamt about the Lord because of their constant engagement in His service and meditation upon His lotus feet:

“In the evening, in the village, everyone would assemble in a place to hear messages from Mahabharata and Ramayana. They would discuss while coming home and would go to bed thinking that memory. So they’d sleep and dream Ramayana and Mahabharata.”
[Srila Prabhupada lecture, May 31, 1972, Los Angeles]

My mind kept turning. “I also regularly hear the messages of Godhead and discuss them with my friends,” I thought. “Why then do I dream of skinheads and hooligans? Obviously, it is due to their intense association.”

“I spend most of my time in such association, day after day, year after year,” I thought. “What will happen if I remember such people at the moment of death, when all the events of one’s life pass before one, just like a movie?”

Before getting up to shower, I prayed to the Lord that in my final hour, He Himself would incarnate in my mind as the dominant force and personality.

vayur anilam amrtam
athedam bhasmantam sariram
om krato smara krtam smara
krato smara krtam smara

“Let this temporary body be burnt to ashes, and let the air of life be merged with the totality of air. Now, O my Lord, please remember all my sacrifices, and because You are the ultimate beneficiary, please remember all that I have done for You.”
[Sri Isopanisad, Mantra 17]

After breakfast I asked Sri Prahlada if he would like to take a japa walk with me in a park.

“That’s unusual for you,” he said, “to take a walk in a park.”

“I need to get away to someplace in the mode of goodness, just for an hour or so,” I said.

“All right,” he said, “lets go.”

We drove to a nearby park, and we walked around softly chanting on our beads and appreciating the lush greenery and beautiful flowers. I remembered the old saying, “God created the country, and man created the city.”

For a moment I felt as if I wanted to stay there, but I knew I couldn’t, and we left after half an hour. But it was enough simply to have had a glimpse of the saner side of life, and it confirmed the need to preach in the madness of the concrete jungles.

We returned to our apartment. Radhe Shyama das had already packed our van, and we were ready to go. As I got into the car, my cell phone rang. It was Bhakta Dominique. “The program tonight is in Bialystok,” he said. “It’s a four-hour drive. When we arrive, we’ll set up the hall and you can do Harinam with the rest of the devotees.”

“Fine,” I replied. “We’re looking forward to it.”

“But there’s something I must tell you,” he continued. “Bialystok has a reputation for being another one of those tough towns like Kielce.”

“Here we go again,” I said under my breath.

“What’s that?” Dominique asked.

“Oh nothing,” I said. “Just counting my blessings.”

“Be careful during Harinam in Bialystok,” Dominique said. “There’s a major football match at five PM and a heavy-metal concert in the evening. There’ll be plenty of people walking around looking for trouble.”

“Trouble’s becoming my middle name,” I said.

“What?” asked Dominique.

“Oh just joking,” I said. “Something from my American past.”

We drove off, and I took a map out of the glove compartment. I turned to Govinda Prema, a Polish devotee. “Where’s Bialystok?” I asked.

He looked up. “We’re going to Bialystok?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “that’s where the festival is tonight.”

“It’s in the northeast, on the border with Russia,” he said. “People are a bit backward up there, from another era.”

His eyes opened wide. “Some of them practice black magic,” he said.

“Come on,” I said. “You’re kidding me. It’s the 21st century.”

His look became serious. “I’m not kidding at all,” he said.

Then I remembered how Srila Prabhupada had confirmed that such things do exist in some places, even in modern times.

“Such witches are called khecari, which means they can fly in the sky. This black art of witchcraft is still practiced by some women in the remote northwestern side of India. They can transfer themselves from one place to another on the branch of an uprooted tree. Putana knew this witchcraft, and therefore she is described in the Bhagavatam as khecari.” [Krsna Book, “Putana Killed”]

“Great!” I said. “Rightwing extremists and skinheads one day and witches the next. Do the security firms up north know how to deal with witches who ride on broomsticks and perform black magic?”

As a precaution, I took my japa beads and began softly chanting the Holy Names of the Lord.

sarvany etani bhagavan
nama rupanukirtanat
prayantu sanksayam sadyo
ye nah sreyah pratipakah

“May the glorification of the transcendental name, form, qualities and paraphernalia of the Supreme Personality of Godhead protect us from the influence of bad planets, meteors, envious human beings, serpents, scorpions, and animals like tigers and wolves. May it protect us from ghosts and the material elements like earth, water, fire and air, and may it also protect us from lightning and our past sins. We are always afraid of these hindrances to our auspicious life. Therefore, may they all be completely destroyed by the chanting of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra.” [Srimad Bhagavatam 6.8.29]

As we drove northeast, the countryside turned from green fields to thick forests with lakes and streams. I noticed many old wooden houses dating from the previous century, and as we got closer to Bialystok, I was surprised to see farmers plowing their land with horses and old-style plows.

“Govinda Prema was right,” I thought. “It’s as if time had stood still here.”

But the real surprise came just a few kilometers outside of Bialystok. We passed many roadside stands selling rustic brooms made from the branches and twigs of trees. I had never seen anything like it in all my world travels. It was right out of Grimm’s Fairytales.

“Look at that!” I said to Sri Prahlad.

“What about it?” he said, unimpressed. “Those types of brooms are practical for outdoor use.”

“And for flying in the sky?” I asked.

No one answered, so I left it at that.

We entered the town and searched for the center square. Ominous black clouds were descending over the city. It looked as if it might rain at any moment.

At the square we were met by several congregational devotees. “Srila Gurudeva,” said one, “the police just told us that rival groups of fans are in town for the football match, so we can’t roam about the streets with the kirtan party. We have to stand in one place where the police can watch us.”

“We’ll never distribute all our invitations like that,” I said. “It’s three p.m. now. The match doesn’t start until five. I think we can go out for an hour without any difficulty.”

I saw a few of the local congregation members disappear down the street.

“Okay, Prabhus,” I said, “let’s everybody get ready for Harinam.”

They responded slowly. It wasn’t because they knew the risks of Harinam that day in Bialystok. Not everyone was aware of that. It was because they were still spooked by the incident on Harinama the previous day, when the political extremists stopped us and later tried to stop our festival. The devotees were still jittery.

“All right,” I said, “We’re going out for an hour to advertise the festival. Everybody move forward. Let’s go!”

Our fearful and reluctant kirtan party moved out, looking more like a funeral procession than a blissful assembly proclaiming the glories of God. Devotees had trouble even looking at the people.

I was jittery too. I knew the problems we could face, and I hadn’t had much sleep the night before.

Suddenly Narottam das shouted, “Hari Bol!”

I wheeled around. I thought we were being attacked again. But he was simply expressing his joy, as the kirtan party picked up speed�and a little enthusiasm.

After 100 meters, the kirtan started becoming blissful. Sri Prahlada, true to form and focused as always on the holy names, was building up a melodious and powerful kirtan. Gaura Hari das, catching his mood, was playing a rhythmic mrdanga beat that permeated the street. With kartalas chiming in time, devotees were soon caught up in the ecstasy of the holy names. Gradually their apprehensions disappeared, and they began chanting loudly and dancing blissfully.

The sun, as if on cue, broke through the clouds, flooding the town with light. The sunshine bounced off the colorfully dressed devotees, making them sparkle with blue, red, and yellow, like vaidurya jewels.

The devotees had overcome their anxiety, fear, and lamentation. They were chanting from their hearts, and the people on the street became enlivened. Everyone seemed to be smiling. Many waved, and a number of kids passing by on their way to the football match gave a thumbs-up to our joyful band. The tempo of the kirtan increased even more, and the joy of the devotees spilled out into the streets. The whole atmosphere changed.

What a contrast to the events of the previous day, to the nightmare that still lingered in my mind, to my dark expectations for Bialystok! I stepped back for a moment in amazement. “Where are the witches?” I thought. “And where are the tough boys looking for a fight? Where are the backward people who live in the past?”

All of them seemed transformed, at least for the moment, by the mercy of the holy names.

The festival that night was the biggest and best we had ever had inside a public hall. People from all walks of life came, young and old. Even rival football fans forsook their match to come with us and chant and dance.

yatredyante katha mrstas
trsnayah prasamo yatah
nirvairam yatra bhutesu
nodvego yatra kascana

“Whenever pure topics of the transcendental world are discussed, the members of the audience forget all kinds of material hankerings, at least for the time being. Not only that, but they are no longer envious of one another, nor do they suffer from anxiety or fear.”
[Srimad Bhagavatam 4.30.35]