Volume-5 Chapter-22: A Lesson from an Old Cleaning Man

By Indradyumna Swami

July 11-15, 2004

Since the beginning of our summer tour it has rained every day, and unseasonably cold weather has prevailed. One couldn’t imagine more unfavorable circumstances for outdoor festivals. Advertising the programs has become a cat-and-mouse game with the weather. Each day we start Harinam under threatening dark clouds and chant until the rain starts. Then we find shelter from the downpour, wait for it to stop, and begin again. This goes on for hours each day, and after many weeks it has become a test of our determination.

It is also a challenge for the thousands of festivalgoers who brave the bad weather to come to our festivals, only to have to dash into our tents many times throughout the programs when it rains.

I find myself praying for good weather, not like a worldly person might in order to enjoy the summer, but in the wish that our festivals may go on and people may receive mercy. Five hundred years ago, the Supreme Lord Himself intervened when the sankirtan movement was threatened by rain:

“Srila Locana dasa Thakura’s Caitanya-mangala also relates that once at the end of the day, when evening clouds assembled overhead and thundered threateningly, all the Vaisnavas were very much afraid. But the Lord took His karatalas in His hands and personally began chanting the Hare Krsna mantra, looking up toward the sky as if to direct the demigods in the higher planets. Thus all the assembled clouds dispersed, and as the sky became clear, with the moon rising, the Lord began dancing very happily with His jubilant and satisfied devotees.” [Caitanya Caritamrta, Adi-lila 17.89, purport]

But there is a silver lining in these dark clouds that have hung over the Baltic Sea coast for most of June and into July: People come to our programs because they have nothing else to do. In fact, the festivals have attracted many who would not ordinarily come. When Radha Sakhi Vrnda went to the town office in Revel to sign a document, she happened to meet the mayor and invited him to the second day of the event, in a field just across from the town hall.

“Actually, I went yesterday,” the mayor said. “I was watching you people from my office window in the morning, and I saw you put up your stage and tents in the bad weather. There must have 20 men braving the wind and rain. They were professional and well organized. I was amazed at how they transformed that old soccer field into a beautiful theme park by evening. So I came incognito and had a wonderful time.”

And then there are those who have come regularly throughout the years. In Niechorze I met a man who came riding into the festival grounds on his bicycle in the pouring rain. He took off his raincoat and smiled at me. “I live 30 kilometers inland,” he said, “and I ride my bicycle to your festivals along the coast every day.”

Ten minutes later, I met a 13-year-old girl having gopi dots painted on her face. “This year my parents did well in business,” she told me, “and they offered to send me on vacation to Italy or France. I told them I wasn’t interested and that I would rather wait here for the Festival of India. I’ve been coming every year since I was eight years old. It’s always the best part of my summer.”

As she was speaking, claps of thunder shook the sky and suddenly it began pouring rain. I ran into the astrology tent for shelter and found Prahlad Nrsimha prabhu talking to a woman doctor. “She’s been coming every summer for three years,” he said.

“She understands the importance of chanting Hare Krsna, and she’s been trying to chant throughout the year, but she thought that chanting meant singing loud and dancing around the room with one’s arms in the air. She says that this is difficult at her office.

She’s happy to learn that she can chant on beads too.”

A couple I saw later that day told me they had met at our festival four years ago and were married six months later. The wife said she saw her then husband-to-be dancing in one of our kirtans. “He must be a spiritual person,” she thought, and later she started a conversation with him. They told me they come back every year to celebrate their first meeting by joining in the kirtan of the holy names.

Then I visited the public restroom near the festival grounds, and I complimented the old cleaning woman. “This is the cleanest public toilet I have ever seen in Poland,” I said. “Thank you very much.”

She was struck. “I’ve been working here 10 years,” she said, “and you’re the first person to ever thank me. But I’m not surprised. You’re good people. I’ve watched your festival from a distance for years now.

Everyone leaves your program smiling.”

“Can you come also?” I said.

She looked surprised. “You’re inviting me?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “to dinner. I’ll come get you at 6 p.m. and we’ll have dinner together in our vegetarian restaurant.”

She looked down. “I’m an old woman,” she said. “No one has ever asked me. You know, I…”

She stopped. Her eyes had welled up with tears.

I took her hand. “I’ll be back at six,” I said.

But at 5:30 p.m., just an hour into the festival program, our big seven-ton generator broke down. The maintenance crew told me that it appeared to have been sabotaged. “It seems someone poured water into the fuel tank,” Niti-laksa das said.

Not everyone appreciates our programs. We have to be always on guard against the envious. So I was 20 minutes late for picking up the old woman. I went with Gaura Hari das and Nandini dasi.

She wasn’t there. An old man was sitting in her chair, bent over preparing a bucket of water to clean the toilets. “She went home,” he told us.

“She wasn’t feeling well.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. I looked at the thin, gray-haired, poorly dressed old man, and I felt sorry for him.

“Do you know the old woman?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” he replied, “she’s my wife. We’ve worked together here for years. Can you imagine that?”

“No,” I said, “I can’t.”

I immediately regretted my answer. I was afraid I had insulted the old man, so I tried to smooth things over. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working here,” I said. “I meant to say I…”

“Don’t worry,” said the old man. “I know it’s not the best work, and it doesn’t pay well, but we get by.”

He paused. “And do you know how?” he asked.

I was afraid I would put my foot in my mouth again, so I didn’t answer.

“By reading the Gita,” he said slowly.

Gaura Hari, Nandini, and I looked at each other in amazement.

“Yes,” he continued, “your Gita makes sense of everything. You can clearly understand the soul by reading the Gita. No other religion has such a concise explanation of the soul, reincarnation, and karma. If a man kills someone and then himself dies soon after, how will he be punished unless he’s born again? Reincarnation explains why some people are born into misery and others into good fortune.”

For a moment I thought I was dreaming. Was the old cleaning man really speaking Vedic philosophy?

“Take the material body,” he continued. “It is only dead matter. How can it be activated unless there is the presence of the soul? That’s why it’s wrong to kill animals. They also have souls. God created beings so they could live, not so they could be killed.”

I was struck by his clear logic.

“A man works all his life,” he continued, “and he gets a pension to live out his remaining days, but the cow gives milk all her life, and then people kill her. It’s wrong. And the whole world is suffering the reaction in the form of wars. Therefore God sends messengers at different times to enlighten us to these truths, but people just don’t listen. What can be done?”

Gaura Hari turned to me. “Sometimes I think you exaggerate in your diaries,” he said, “but I’ll never think that again.”

“You know,” I whispered to him, “that’s the same thing Dharmatma prabhu said after we survived a serious car accident near Jagannath Puri.”

I turned to the old man. “But there is an answer,” I said. “We can have festivals like these to help people understand.”

“Yes,” he said, “you’re right. Go on with your festivals. Let people hear the truth.”

I had to return to the festival to give my stage lecture. “One more thing,” I said. “Can you and your wife be my guests for dinner tomorrow evening at the last night of the festival?”

He looked surprised.

“Please,” I continued. “We’d be honored.”

“All right,” he said, “thank you.”

He stood up and picked up the bucket. “I didn’t know what real religion was until I read the Gita,” he said softly, half to himself, as he disappeared into the toilets.

Srila Prabhupada’s words came to my mind: “Therefore we stress so much in the book distribution. Somehow or other, if the book goes in one hand, he will be benefited … If he reads one sloka, his life will be successful… Therefore we are stressing so much, ‘Please distribute books, distribute books, distribute books.’ ”
[Lecture, January 5, 1974, Los Angeles]