Chapter 23: Nerves of Steel


July 16-24, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami

When we woke up on the morning of Monday July 12, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Devotees ran outside just to have a look. For weeks on end, we had struggled with the rain, wind, and cold. One by one, devotees had come down with colds and flu, and at one point I had even thought of canceling the rest of the summer tour.

The blue skies and the first warm breezes of summer made us feel as if a huge weight had been lifted from our spirits, and after our morning program we eagerly prepared for Harinam and the festival that afternoon in Pobierowo. But as we often experience on our festival tours, a golden opportunity was nearly ruined by a potential setback.

I was buckling my seat belt when Nandini dasi came up to the car. She is calm and collected even in the most trying of times, but I can tell when she’s facing a threatening challenge by a slight squint in her eyes.

“The villagers want to throw us out of the school,” she said without emotion. “It’s the first time we are using this school as a base, and the villagers are suspicious. Vicious rumors are circulating. They want us out in 24 hours.”

I was stunned. “Even if we could leave, which we won’t,” I said, “there’s no way that 220 devotees and 48 tons of equipment can be moved out of here in 24 hours, and that with no place to go. Why the sudden drama?”

Although only 15 minutes into the situation, Nandini had already done her homework. “The regional bishop sent a letter to the local priest, who read it at Sunday mass yesterday,” she said. “It was the usual rhetoric, warning the villagers about us being a dangerous cult. They’re afraid we’ll kidnap their children.”

“We have a contract with the school, don’t we?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “but they could probably get someone in position to annul it. And they appear to be working fast. The regional chief of police is on his way here to investigate us. People say he is tough and uncompromising- and hates cults.”

I thought it was time for a bit of humor. “Great!” I said. “We’re not a cult.”

I thought about something I had once read in the Globe and Mail:

“After all, what’s a cult? It just means not enough people to make a minority.”

No sooner had I spoken than a police car pulled into the driveway. The windows were tinted, and we couldn’t see inside. Suddenly a large man in uniform stepped out, sporting a big mustache and an even bigger scowl.

I was caught off guard, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed. Should we hold a quick tour committee meeting and confront him all together? Or should I speak to him with just one or two committee members?

Nandini stepped forward. “I’ll handle this,” she said.

She approached him with a smile and held out her hand in greeting.

“Officer,” she said, “we’re happy that you’ve come. There are a number of misunderstandings circulating around town, and I’d I like to speak to you about them.”

The police officer was taken aback by Nandini’s direct approach and openness, and he nodded his head in agreement.

“We’ll discuss it in the school office,” Nandini said. “Please come this way.”

There was nothing more the rest of us could do, so we left for Harinam.

“Srila Gurudeva,” a devotee said, “do you think we should have stayed back and done something to help?”

“Chanting Hare Krsna will be the biggest help we can offer,” I said.

“The universe becomes joyful by the sankirtan glorifying You and becomes attracted to You. The raksasas, asuras, danavas, pisacas and others, however, becoming fearful, flee to the different directions.”
[Srila Visvanath Cakravarti Thakura, Sarartha Varsini commentary on Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11, verse 36, purport]

Three hours later I received a call from Nandini. “Everything is okay,” she said. “I anticipated the questions the police chief would ask, so I first showed him all our official papers. He immediately understood that we are registered with the government and that all foreign devotees on the tour have valid visas. I also showed him many letters of appreciation about our festivals from different mayors around the country.”

“It didn’t take much to convince him,” she continued. “He was actually a kindhearted man, and he was interested in yoga. At one point he even started telling me about how difficult his own life is. We discussed a little philosophy, and then he left. He said not to worry. He knew the people who wanted to throw us out of town and said he had the power to keep them quiet.”

It wasn’t the first time-or the last time-that Nandini’s ability to deal with those in a position of authority saved the day. The next incident was only hours away.

The Harinam in Pobierowo that morning was especially blissful.

We chanted and danced through the town and gave out thousands of invitations.

At one point we stopped near a market area and I asked Sri Prahlada to give a little talk. As he was inviting the people to the festival, a well-dressed man sitting on a bench called me over.

“I’ve been observing you people for years,” he said in English. “I’d like to be part of what you’re doing.

Not in a religious sense, mind you. I’m Catholic. But I see there’s so much culture behind what you’re doing. Can I join in somehow, or contribute in any way to your making people so happy?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied. “Come to the festival this afternoon, and we’ll speak some more.”

We got one of the biggest crowds of the season that afternoon. I felt completely satisfied. The late afternoon sunshine accented the beautiful colors of the stage and the tents. I watched almost a thousand people walk into the festival, and I felt proud to be part of a wonderful spiritual heritage that was slowly but surely capturing the hearts of the people of Poland. Then, just before the stage show started, I saw the mayor of Pobierowo walk in. She is an old friend of ours, and my joy knew no bounds.

“I’m so happy you are back,” she said to me. “Tourists have been coming to the town office for the last two weeks asking when your festival would come.”

I called Radha Sakhi Vrnda dasi over to show the mayor around our festival site. The mayor looked pleased with all the new tents and attractions we had. I saw her again later that evening, laughing during the stage production of Krsna’s Vrndavan lila.

Everything was going smoothly. There was an air of auspiciousness everywhere, and I relaxed for the first time in weeks.

Suddenly an official red-colored car sped onto the festival grounds from the main road, and a fireman ran out. I had Nandini go quickly to speak to him. He seemed anxious during their talk, but after a few minutes he calmed down and then to my surprise sat down on one of the benches in front of the stage to watch the Ramayana theater.

“Apparently some envious man called the fire department and said that our festival presented a serious fire hazard,” Nandini told me. “The caller said we were cooking outdoors on the field and there was no fire exit for the thousands of people attending the event. He also said we had no fire extinguishers.”

“Of course the fire chief saw that we aren’t cooking in the open,” she continued, “and I also showed him our fire extinguishers. Then he relaxed. ‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘I wanted to come to your festival, but I had to work today. Now I have a perfect excuse to stay for a while and enjoy the show.'”

An hour later, a police car approached the festival. Someone had complained that devotees were caught stealing in one of the shops in town.

“That’s simply not true,” we told the police. “There is no evidence of this.” They were somewhat convinced and went away.

I started to think that someone was doing his best to interrupt our festival.

Sure enough my suspicion came true. Just as darkness fell, I was saying my final goodbye onstage to the big crowd in front of me when I saw two police cars, lights flashing, enter the festival grounds. I didn’t want the audience to notice, so I kept on speaking, hoping the festival would end on a high note.

But after 10 minutes I could see something serious was going on, so I ended my talk, and people started leaving.

I ran to where the police cars were to find Nandini speaking to the police. She turned to me and quickly briefed me on what had happened.

“Our devotees have been going into a small grocery store near the festival grounds throughout the day,” she said, “but each time they would enter, the owner, a man in his 40s, would scream at them to get out. If they hesitated he would accuse them of stealing and threaten to call the police.”

I immediately understood who had called the firemen and the police.

“When Taralaksi dasi walked into the store an hour ago,” Nandini said, “the owner screamed at her, jumped over the counter, caught her by the hair, and dragged her out onto the street. He was screaming and yelling and telling all the passersby that he had caught a thief. Taralaksi was visibly shaken and distraught, and she came running back here to the festival grounds.”

Jayatam Jayasila das, Nandini’s husband, continued: “When Nandini heard the story and saw the condition of Taralaksi she called for Raksana das, our security man. I grabbed my video camera, and we all marched over to the store. We entered the store with Nandini in the lead. As soon as the owner saw us, he hid himself, but his two sons came out and started screaming at us with abusive language.

“At one point they threatened to call the police. Nandini stood there with her phone in her hand. ‘Don’t bother,’ she said. ‘We’ll call the police ourselves.’ At that moment the owner appeared, angrily waving a stun gun. We all moved back, but Nandini held her ground, standing in front of the man and calmly calling the police. When the three men became more even more belligerent, we all walked out of the store.

“They followed behind us, and as we stood on the pavement, one of the sons spit in the face of Raksana das. Raksana stood firm. Then they threatened Nandini, but she also stood firm. They were screaming over and over that we were thieves and had stolen from their shop. Nandini asked if I’d recorded everything on camera, and I said yes. Then we decided we should leave.”

As Jayatam finished, a policeman came forward. I looked around and felt disturbed when I saw a large crowd gathering to see what was happening. “This is exactly what I didn’t want,” I thought.

“We’ve spoken to the owner of the store,” the policeman said, “and he insists that you people were stealing. We’ve got two stories here, and therefore we’ll have to do an investigation. You’ll all have to come down to the police station.”

The crowd was getting bigger. “Oh no,” I thought. “This will look very bad.”

“You have to understand,” the policeman said. “We don’t know you very well.”

Suddenly a voice came from the crowd, hidden in the darkness: “I’ll vouch for them.”

The policeman turned to look, and suddenly to everyone’s surprise the mayor stepped forward. The crowd gasped. All the policemen stood up straight, in respect.

“These Hare Krsnas are good people,” the mayor said. “I’ve know them for years. They would never do the things this man has accused them of. I’m proud to have them in our town, and you should also be proud.”

She looked sternly at the policemen, and they shuffled a little at her strong words.

“The owner of that store has caused many problems through the years,” the mayor continued. “Just recently he broke the jaw of a man he didn’t like. He has assaulted other citizens of this town as well. No one is bringing him to justice. Now he has dared to drag one of our Hare Krsna friends by the hair. You have to do something.”

“Well there is not much we can do,” replied the officer, “unless someone presses charges and makes a case against him.”

“I will protect the citizens of my town,” said the mayor, “and I will see that he gets justice for what he’s done to my friends here today. I will personally file charges against him.”

The mayor had spoken. The impromptu trial on the field was over, and the policemen nodded their heads in respect to the mayor. Then they got in their cars and drove away.

Nandini was smiling at the mayor’s protection of the devotees.

Jayatam turned to me, smiling. “My wife has a lot of resolve,” he said.

“And nerves of steel,” I added.

“Sometimes jealous persons criticize the Krsna consciousness movement because it engages equally both boys and girls in distributing love of Godhead. Not knowing that boys and girls in countries like Europe and America mix very freely, these fools and rascals criticize the boys and girls in Krsna consciousness for intermingling. But these rascals should consider that one cannot suddenly change a community’s social customs. However, since both the boys and the girls are being trained to become preachers, those girls are not ordinary girls but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krsna consciousness. Therefore, to engage both boys and girls in fully transcendental activities is a policy intended to spread the Krsna consciousness movement.”
[Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi- lila 7.31-32 purport]