Chapter 2: Down in the Pits

December 1 – 30, 2008

By Indradyumna Swami

Our festival programs continued in the Sydney area with great success. I had come with twenty-eight devotees from various countries, and many of them were staying in rooms at the Sydney temple. Devotees from other parts of Australia were also staying there for the Christmas Marathon. They would go out every day, distributing books and prasada or chanting on harinama.

Every room in the building was occupied, and the morning programs were especially sweet. Devotees chanted, danced, and listened to class, preparing themselves for a day on the street.

One morning as I looked around during japa, I realized that I was two or even three times the age of everyone else. When the kirtan and dancing started, a young man grabbed my arm. “Come on, Maharaja!” he shouted.

“Not possible!” I shouted over the sound of the kirtan, pointing to my knees. I mouthed the word “finished.” He let go and went back to the kirtan, whirling and jumping up and down.

“Those days are over,” I thought, “but by the Lord’s mercy I can still go out on harinama.”

As we readied our harinama van after prasada, I turned to a local devotee. “How’s the book distribution in downtown Sydney?” I asked.

“It’s really crowded this week,” he said, “and very passion-ate. Everyone’s hurrying to buy presents before Christmas. The main shopping area on Pitt Street is the toughest. I think the heat makes people irritable. It’s hard to get them to stop.”

“Pitt Street,” I muttered. “Down in the pits.” I smiled at my little joke.

“What did you say, Maharaja?” the devotee asked.

“Oh nothing,” I said. “It’s just something we say in America.” Shortly before noon, our harinama van arrived near the Pitt Street Mall. The street was packed with shoppers, and we would have hardly any room to maneuver. As we stepped out of the van onto the concrete, we were hit with an inner-city heat blast.

Drivers started honking their horns. “Move it, boys!” I shouted. “We’re blocking traffic!”

We began chanting down a side street leading to the outdoor mall when suddenly five tough-looking young men moved in close to the women devotees and began making jokes and rude remarks. I looked at Gaura Hari dasa, who was playing mrdanga next to me.

“Best to ignore them,” he said. “They’ll go away.”

The boys stayed with us for a whole block, but just as I was about to step forward and say something, they disappeared into a bar.

As we rounded a corner onto Pitt Street, I saw a sign in a menswear store: “Santa — define what’s good.” It was a play on the words of a song about Santa Claus: “He’s knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.”

“Gee,” I thought, “the spirit of Christmas gets more mundane every year.”

That very morning I had read a prediction by a leading retail trade body: during the holidays, more people would be shopping online in Australia than going to church.

But this spirit was not limited to the West. I thought about the Diwali festival in New Delhi this year, when devotees celebrate the return of Lord Ramacandra to Ayodhya. More people were out shopping and lighting firecrackers than going to the temple.

As our party merged into the dense crowd, Sri Prahlada dasa stepped up the beat of the kirtana. At first, the people were so absorbed in shopping that no one noticed us, but after a few minutes, people began to smile and a few even waved.

After thirty minutes the devotees were exhausted. It was just too hot. So we went to sing under the shade of a tree in the middle of the mall. A small crowd broke away from shopping to watch us chant, many of them accepting invitations to our festival the next day.

Then I saw a policeman heading our way through the throng. “Oh no,” I thought. “He probably got a complaint from one of the shopkeepers and he’s going to stop us.” But as he pushed his way toward us, people started booing and shouting at him:

“Leave them alone!”

“Let them sing!”

“It’s Christmas!”

“Give them a break!”

The crowd began booing again, and the policeman merged back into the shopping frenzy.

Our kirtan party soon left the shade of the tree and began moving around the mall. “It’s quite passionate down here,” I thought, recalling the words of the sankirtana devotee. Then I looked down the street and saw devotees distributing books. Across the street some devotees were selling prasada from a table, and a little farther down, others were collecting donations for the temple’s food-distribution program. It seemed we were everywhere.

I smiled. “Lord Caitanya’s mercy,” I said to myself. Suddenly a storm blew in. We ran under the awning of a bank and tried to make the chanting heard over the downpour. As the rain got heavier, a number of people took shelter beneath an overhang on a flight of steps near us. After a few moments many of them began clapping their hands in time with the kirtana.

Suddenly a uniformed security man rushed out of the bank. “This is private property!” he shouted. “You have no right to be here! Move on! Now!”

The kirtan stopped. Then a well-dressed woman came out of the bank, wearing a badge that said “manager.”

“Let them stay,” she told the security man. “They’re no threat to the bank. As long as they are orderly, let them sing. They’re bringing Christmas cheer.”

The bystanders applauded, and the kirtan struck up again. A roving television crew, recording holiday events around the city, came by and filmed the kirtana.

When the rain stopped, the crowds came back and we joined them, meandering through the wide mall. A shoeshine man reached into his pocket and pulled out a two-dollar coin, which he handed to Gaura Hari. “We need you guys down here,” he said. “Hope this helps.”

We remained on harinama for about three hours, and in the van on the way back to the temple the devotees slept.

“They’re exhausted from the heat,” I thought. “I hope all their hard work brings a good crowd to the festival.”

The next day, in a nearby suburb, we held our festival. When we opened the doors, a large crowd came in, quickly filling the five hundred seats. I winked at Sri Prahlada. “Looks like the Pitt Street kirtana paid off,” I said.

The program went smoothly, with the audience applauding every act. At the end of the show as people milled around speaking to devotees and buying books, I saw an elderly man looking at me. I went up to him and introduced myself.

“Lovely program,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said. “What part did you like the best?” “The singing,” he said. “And it’s odd that I would say that.”

He smiled.

“Why’s that?” I said.

“In the early 1970s I owned a high-end furniture shop in the Pitt Street Mall,” he said. “You people used to come and sing for hours in front of my store. I would get so upset. Sometimes I’d call the police, and they’d chase you away. I even filed an official complaint with City Hall. Your singing parties finally stopped, and then I used to see the boys and girls selling books around town.

“But I never forgot the singing. I had a recurring dream at least half a dozen times a year, where you’d all be singing your song in front of my store. Sometimes I’d wake up singing the song myself.

“Eventually I retired, but I still had that dream. After many years I found the courage to approach one of your boys distributing books, and I asked about the song. I bought a Bhagavad-gita. I found it fascinating. I went through it in a few days.

“And yesterday I was shopping for Christmas presents when suddenly I saw your group chanting. I was stunned. And you know what happened?”

“What?” I replied.

“Tears came to my eyes,” he said, pausing for a moment. “And when you all passed by I took an invitation to the festival from a young girl.”

“And you came,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I wanted to hear more of the singing. It’s had such an effect on me. I must have had that dream a hundred times.”

He took my hand. “And I hope to have it again and again,” he said and squeezed my hand tightly. “I’m really grateful I saw all of you yesterday. It was just like old times.”

He began to walk away, but after a few steps he turned around. “Oh,” he said, “there’s one more thing.”

“What’s that?” I said.

He smiled. “Please,” he said, “don’t ever stop singing downtown.”

On the way back to the temple I taught the devotees a beautiful song I’d recently learned. It captured the mood of our kirtana on Pitt Street and the happiness we’d experienced in sharing the nectar of the holy names:

aju gora nagara kirtane

sajiya calaye priya parikara sane

“Surrounded by His dear devotees, Lord Gaura performs sankirtana in the city.”

angera su-besa bhala sobhe

nace nana bhangite bhubana-mana mohe

“His well-dressed form is glorious. Dancing in many graceful ways, He charms the hearts of everyone in the world.”

prema barisaye anibara

bahaye ananda nadi nadiya majhara

“He continuously showers the bliss of ecstatic spiritual love. He makes a river of spiritual bliss flow in Nadiya.”

deba-gana misa-i manuse

braise kusuma kata manera harise

“The demigods stay amongst the human beings. Their hearts are joyful. How many monsoons of flowers do they shower?”

nagariya loka saba dhaya

manera manase goracandra guna gaya

“The people run to greet Him. With all their hearts they sing Lord Gaura’s glories.”

mudhegana suni simha-nada

ha-iya birasa mana ganaye pramada

“Some bewildered people, their hearts withered by fear, think the tumultuous kirtan is a host of lions roaring.”

lakhe lakhe dipa jwale bhala

upama ki abani gagana kare alo

“Millions and millions of glistening lamps shine. With what shall I compare the light that fills the ground and sky?”

narahari kahite ki jane

matila jagata ke-u dhairaja na mane

“What shall Narahari say? He does not know. The whole world has become wild with bliss. No one is peaceful at heart.”

[Kamoda-raga, Song 24, by Narahari das. Translated by Kusakrata Dasa]