Chapter 25: Shoot for the Rhinoceros

August, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami

After the Woodstock festival, we returned to the Baltic coast to resume our summer festivals. But no sooner had we arrived than Maya’s forces dealt us a blow. We had chosen a town near our summer base and had signed the contract with city hall well in advance. Two days before the festival we did Harinam and flooded the town with thousands of invitations. Our colorful posters could be seen everywhere. Tourists were pouring in, and the whole town was buzzing about the upcoming event.

The second day I took the Harinam party out for another day of advertising. We chanted on the beach, occasionally stopping to speak to crowds about our festival the next day. At the end, we were exhausted. I crawled into my van after the Harinam was over.

“You look tired,” said our driver, Radhe Shyama das.

“True,” I said, “but it’s worth it. Many people said they’ll come for the program.”

Then my cell phone rang. It was Nandini dasi.

“Srila Gurudeva,” she said, ” I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the mayor just canceled tomorrow’s festival.”

I gasped. Such things sometimes happen inland, where people are less familiar with us, but rarely on the coast where we have been holding festivals for 15 years.

“How is it possible?” I asked.

“The town secretary told me in confidence that the mayor received a bribe,” Nandini said.

“We have to do something,” I said. “We put our hearts and souls into the preparations for this festival. Last year over 5,000 people came to the same town with even less advertising.”

“I understand, Srila Gurudeva,” Nandini replied. “I’ll do my best.”

I explained the situation to the other devotees in the van. A brahmacari spoke up. “What does she mean she’ll ‘do her best’?” he said.

“I haven’t got a clue,” I replied, “but knowing Nandini, she’s already in action.”

Sure enough, an hour later Nandini’s husband called me. “Srila Gurudeva,” he said, “this is Jayatam. Nandini found the man who gave the bribe to the mayor. She spoke with him for almost an hour. He regrets his action but says nothing can be done. The mayor already has the money.”

“How in the world did she find the man?” I asked.

“After speaking with you, she jumped out of the car with a determined look on her face,” Jayatam said, “and she started walking in the direction of the area where the festival was to be held. There was a housing complex nearby and she stood there for ten minutes looking at the houses.

Then she walked straight up to one house and knocked on the door.

“When a man answered, she said point blank to his face, ‘Do you know anything about the Festival of India being canceled?’

“He was so startled that he started shaking. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s me. I did it. I didn’t want to be disturbed by the noise so I paid the mayor.’

“Nandini scolded him and asked him to take the bribe back, but he said it was too late. She admonished him some more and then stormed off.

I saw the whole thing with my own eyes.”

A passage from the scriptures came to my mind: “These women have never undergone the purificatory rites of the twice-born classes, nor have they lived as brahmacaris in the asrama of a spiritual master, nor have they executed austerities, speculated on the nature of the self, followed the formalities of cleanliness or engaged in pious rituals. Nevertheless, they have firm devotion for Lord Krsna, whose glories are chanted by the exalted hymns of the Vedas and who is the supreme master of all masters of mystic power ….”
[Srimad Bhagavatam 10.23.43-44 ]

As we talked, Nandini was already in another town making emergency preparations for another festival the next day. As I finished speaking to Jayatam she called.

“We have the central park in the next town for a festival tomorrow,” she said. “The mayor there was sympathetic to our problem.”

“That’s pretty quick,” I said, “but it leaves only one day to advertise.”

“It’s enough,” Nandini said. “Word is out, and people are already talking about the event.”

Early the next day our tired band of kirtaneers made a special effort and went out on sankirtan in the next town. When I saw some of them fading after four hours, I announced that we were stopping and going home. I turned to lead the way and after 20 steps looked behind me to make sure everyone was following. No one had moved. “Lets go!” I called out. “We’re going home!”

Again, no one moved.

“Srila Gurudeva,” said a devotee, “there are 2,000 invitations left.”

“Real troopers, these devotees,” I said to myself. We went on for another hour and a half and ended up distributing 7,000 invitations that day.

The efforts of the devotees were rewarded when 4,000 people came that evening, including many from the town where the festival had been canceled. Jayatam had arranged for two buses to wait at the site of the canceled event. The people were disappointed that the mayor there had canceled the festival, but they didn’t mind taking a 15-minute bus ride to the next town. For over an hour the buses ferried people back and forth. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Usually I watch the crowd as it comes into a festival, but that night I watched the tired faces of the devotees as they looked up from their various services at the festival and smiled as people walked in. How proud I was of those devotees! I knew their selfless efforts would be rewarded by the Lord.

ya idam paramam guhyam

mad-bhaktesv abhidhasyati

bhaktim mayi param krtva

mam evaisyaty asamsayah

“For one who explains this supreme secret to the devotees, pure devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me.” [Bhagavad-gita 18.68]

The next morning, as I was taking a little extra rest before the Harinam party left, my phone rang again. I sensed it was Nandini. I hesitated to answer, but I rolled over and pushed the receiving button.

“Srila Gurudeva,” the voice said, “this is Nandini. I have to tell you something.”

“Here we go again,” I muttered, and waited for the next installment of sankirtan drama.

Nandini laughed. “The Indian ambassador to Poland has expressed an interest in visiting our festival,” she said. “His first secretary just called me and asked what day they could come.”

I sat up straight. This was something I had waited years for. In 1997, we were invited to participate in a festival honoring Indian culture in Swidnik, a town in the conservative eastern part of Poland, and the Indian ambassador at that time was also invited. When a local priest found out that the Hare Krsna movement was invited to the festival, he challenged the mayor, who to everyone’s amazement called off the entire event. The Indian ambassador left embarrassed.

Although the media took our side and we received much favorable publicity, it strained our relations with the Indian embassy in Warsaw, and the people there became reluctant to be associated with us.

Nandini went on to say that the new ambassador had heard about our festival from a number of people and was eager to see it. “I hope things go smoothly this time,” the first secretary had said.

“I’ll make sure they do,” I thought. “Such cooperation might even deal a death blow to the anti-cult movements in Poland.”

Nandini asked what town would be the best to invite the ambassador to. I immediately thought of Kolobrzeg, the biggest and most important city along the coast. It was brimming with tourists now, at the height of the summer season.

“Phone city hall in Kolobrzeg,” I told Nandini “and ask for an appointment with the mayor. If he agrees to give us the main entrance to the beach to hold our festival, we’ll invite the Indian ambassador to open the event. It will be prestigious for the city.”

It was a long shot. Although the area would be a beautiful spot with plenty of room for our festival, it was rarely, if ever, given to any group for an event. It was prime territory, on the most prestigious beach in Poland, where the wealthy, educated, and cultured often went. If the city officials agreed to give us that spot, they would be seen as endorsing our event. We had already held a festival in Kolobrzeg in late June, but in a large grass parking lot half a kilometer from the beach.

Nandini thought for a minute. “Srila Gurudeva,” she said, “it will be a miracle if they give us that place.”

“That’s true,” I said, “but let’s shoot for the rhinoceros.”

“What?” asked Nandini. “Shoot a rhinoceros?”

I couldn’t help smiling. “It’s American slang,” I said. “It means try for the impossible.”

“Okay, Gurudeva,” said Nandini, “a rhinoceros it is.”

That afternoon Nandini telephoned. “I called the mayor’s secretary,” she said. “At first he was reluctant, but then he thought about the idea for a few moments and went to speak to the mayor. He came back to the phone and said, ‘The mayor has agreed to see you in two hours.’ He sounded surprised.”

In the evening I was outside with several devotees, waiting for Nandini. Finally I saw her drive up with a big smile on her face, I slapped one of the brahmacaris on the back. “Okay!” I said. “The beachfront’s ours! Let’s get into action!”

“Aren’t you going to speak to Nandini first?” he asked.

“She got the rhino,” I said.

“What?” he said. “She got a rhino? What are talking about, Srila Gurudeva?”

I started to laugh. “You’ll see soon,” I said.

Nandini had convinced the mayor to give us the site for three days, the three biggest days of the summer vacation. They made plans for the mayor and the Indian ambassador to open the festival on the first day. I envisioned thousands of people standing before our stage in the sand, listening to both dignitaries speak favorably about our movement. But my dream almost became a nightmare.

As the date for the festival approached, we began preparations for a bigger and more prestigious festival than we had ever before held on the coast. We started setting things up two days before the event. We put our big stage on the main boardwalk, facing the sea, and set up 20 large tents that spilled out onto the sand.

Setting up the festival in the midst of the huge summer crowds was enough advertising in itself, but I took further advantage of the opportunity by taking the Harinam party out for five hours each day along the one-kilometer beach. The devotees were tired from two months of Harinam and festivals, but they chanted and danced in ecstasy. The weather was sunny and beautiful, and the beach and the boardwalk were packed all day and half the night. In just three days we distributed over 35,000 invitations.

“Don’t you think we’ve given out enough invitations?” a devotee asked.

“We’re not going out chanting just to distribute invitations,” I said. “The chanting party itself is a festival. In my eyes, it’s just as important as the main event. Big, beautiful and well organized chanting parties themselves create faith in the hearts of the people.”

I thought about something Srila Prabhupada had written: “The Krsna consciousness movement has started performing sankirtana-yajna in different places, and it has been experienced that wherever sankirtana- yajna is performed, many thousands of people gather and take part in it. Imperceptible auspiciousness achieved in this connection should be continued all over the world. The members of the Krsna consciousness movement should perform sankirtana-yajnas one after another, so much that all the people of the world will either jokingly or seriously chant Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, and thus they will derive the benefit of cleansing the heart. The holy name of the Lord (harer nama) is so powerful that whether it is chanted jokingly or seriously the effect of vibrating this transcendental sound will be equally distributed.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.24.10, purport)

The Indian ambassador asked us to pick him up at 2 p.m. at the airport in a town 100 kilometers away and drive him to Kolobrzeg, where he would be officially greeted by the mayor. We told him that after his address from our main stage at 6 p.m. we would take him and the mayor on a tour of our festival grounds and then have a banquet in one of the tents. Afterwards, there would be a press conference.

I fell asleep that night feeling good. Everything was going our way: the prestigious site, the dignitaries, the media coverage, the weather …

Then at 2:00 in the morning I was awakened by a loud “Boom! Boom! Boom!” It was thunder, shaking the windows in my room. I jumped up from bed and ran to the window. “Oh no!” I said out loud. “It’s not possible!” Then a flash of bright lightning lit up the dark room and confirmed my worst fears: a huge storm had descended over Kolobrzeg.

I couldn’t fall back asleep. I just sat there chanting as the rain poured down.

At 5:30 a.m. I woke up Jayatam. “Call the weatherman,” I said.

He sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Huh? Wha …?” he said. “Uh, now?”

“As soon as possible.” I said.

Later that morning Jayatam came with the weatherman’s forecast: “Three days of stormy weather. Constant rain and heavy winds with hailstones.”

“Hailstones?” I said. “In the middle of summer?”

“That what the weatherman said,” Jayatam replied. “He even said it’s 100 percent sure.”

I was down at the festival site by 10 a.m.. The rain continued to pour and the offshore winds howled through the festival site. A number of boys from the set-up crew were struggling to tie down the tents, several of which seemed about to blow away. Other than our boys, there was not a single soul in sight, either on the long boardwalk or the beach.

I sat alone on the covered stage and looked out at the dismal scene.

By the afternoon the rain and wind had not abated at all. Ten or fifteen devotees came down to the festival site and sat with me on the big stage, looking out with long faces at the pathetic scene. By 3 p.m. some people appeared along the boardwalk with umbrellas, most likely unable to bear staying inside all day long.

“Perhaps if we have kirtan and beg for the mercy of the Lord, the festival will go on,” I thought.

“Grab the drums and kartalas,” I called out to the boys. “We’re going on Harinam.”

They looked at me in amazement. “They probably think I’m crazy,” I thought.

“Let’s go!” I yelled.

And so we went onto the wet boardwalk in our raincoats�a few devotees struggling with umbrellas in the wind.

“Chant louder!” I told the devotees as we danced down the pavement, while a few boys handed invitations to people, who were astonished to see us chanting in the rain.

After half an hour a devotee came up to me. “Srila Gurudeva,” he said. “Everyone already has an invitation from the previous days. In fact, some have four or five. All the devotees are soaking wet. They’re going to get sick.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s go back.”

At 4:15 p.m. Nandini called me. “The ambassador is in the car with us,” she said. “We just left city hall and are taking him on a tour of the town with the mayor. We’ll arrive at the festival site exactly on time, at 6 p.m.”

“Great,” I muttered with no enthusiasm. I looked at the empty festival site as the rain poured down.

By 4:30 p.m. most of the devotees had arrived and were busy with final preparations for the festival.

At 5 p.m. I was doing a television interview on the stage when suddenly a few rays of bright sunshine broke through the dark clouds, lighting up the entire area. Everyone looked to the skies. Even the cameraman turned his camera upwards and filmed the sun peering through the clouds.

The camera turned back toward me. “What do you make of it?” asked the interviewer. She was obviously as surprised as everyone else.

“It can only be the good Lord.” I replied. “After all, it’s His event.”

“His event?” she asked.

“That’s all for now,” I said. “We’ve got to get ready for the crowds.”

She looked around at the empty festival site. “The crowds?” she said.

“What crowds?”

But sure enough, within 45 minutes, as the sun continued to break through and dissipate the clouds, people poured out from their homes, apartments, tourist bungalows, and tents onto the boardwalk and the beach. A huge crowd began to gather in front of our stage. An equal number began browsing through our tents. As I marveled at the scene, I looked at my watch. It was 5:45. The mayor and the ambassador would arrive in 15 minutes.

We quickly swept the rainwater off the stage, turned our big generator on, and started the lights and sound. Within minutes our Indian dancers were performing onstage. They drew a crowd of more than a thousand. The sun was now fully visible, and most of the clouds had disappeared.

Suddenly I looked toward the boardwalk on my left and saw Nandini and Jayatam 50 meters away, strolling casually toward the festival site with the Indian ambassador, the mayor, and a number of city officials.

The hot sunshine caused the water on the ground to evaporate quickly and rise like steam, creating an almost mystical scene, as the dignitaries walked across the festival grounds and onto the stage.

I stood there dumbfounded. Everything had come together so quickly, and people were streaming onto the festival site.

The huge crowd was silent as the ambassador came to the microphone.

I studied the audience and saw what appeared to be many wealthy and influential people. “They will certainly take the ambassador’s words to heart,” I thought. It was a historic moment in the spreading of Krsna consciousness in Poland.

The ambassador’s voice boomed out across the boardwalk and the beach:

“Ladies and Gentlemen,

“It gives me great pleasure to be amongst you today to inaugurate the Festival of India in your lovely city.

“Polish interest in India dates back to the 15th century, when a number of Polish writers, soldiers, and missionaries started visiting India and fostered the abiding interest of the Polish people in the civilization, philosophy, art, and culture of India.

“In more recent times, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has done tremendous service in the spreading of Indian culture in Poland and other parts of the world. ISKCON has published several great Indian epics, including Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, and Mahabharata into Polish and made these wonderful books available for our Polish friends.

“In addition, the hosting of these Festivals of India for so many years has helped in forming an international network of India-lovers. As you will see over the next few days, most of the artists and performers are from Europe and Africa.

“I will not be exaggerating if I say that the people associated with this festival are the real forces behind the spreading of Indian culture and civilization across Poland. They are the ambassadors of India here. And we are proud of this. Seeing such enthusiasm for spreading Indian culture, without any direct support of the Indian government, gives a feeling that is not easy to express in words. I can only say that it is the privilege of being born an Indian that I can find such great friends of my country here.

“I am really honored for all that they are doing for spreading the culture of my country.

“Thank you.”

During the ambassador’s speech many people nodded in agreement with points he made. When he finished there was a loud, sustained applause.

All I could think was, “All glories to Srila Prabhupada, Krsna’s ambassador from the spiritual world, whose mercy is making all this possible!”

Then the mayor spoke. Afterwards, he and the ambassador left the stage and were escorted around the festival site and eventually into one of the tents for the banquet. At the press conference later that evening, one doubting reporter spoke to the ambassador. “Does this festival actually represent your Indian culture?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” the ambassador replied, “indeed it does, more than I imagined before I came here. In fact, these devotees are doing more to spread Indian’s rich spiritual culture than we at the embassy are doing.”

When he saw the reporter hesitating to write these favorable words, he moved his head in such a way as to oblige him to do so.

As the festival came to an end and the ambassador left the tent for his hotel, I saw him give his card to Nandini. “We’d like to cooperate with you,” he said. “I have a number of proposals. Please come to see me in Warsaw next week.”

Just at that moment I heard the rumbling of clouds in the sky, signaling the return of the storm.

“Let it rain,” I said looking to the skies. “Let it pour.”

Sure enough, just as we ourselves left the festival site, the clouds opened up and it began pouring rain. But to my amazement, by the next morning, it was clear again and for the next two days, thousands of people enjoyed our festival on the sands of the most prestigious beach in Poland.

And what happened to the hailstones the weatherman had predicted, 100 percent sure? They must have melted in the sunshine of Lord Caitanya’s mercy, 100 percent sure.

“We should always be enthusiastic to try for shooting the rhinoceros. That way, if we fail, everyone will say, “Never mind, no one can shoot a rhinoceros anyway,” and if we succeed, then everyone will say, “Just see, what a wonderful thing they have done.” So if you are determined in this way, then you can try for it by begging for the protection of Krishna.” [Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Balavanta dasa, December 22, 1971]