July 1–4, 2009
By Indradyumna Swami
After seven months of preaching and fundraising around the world, I came back to Poland for our twentieth annual summer festival tour. Twenty-three artistic performers from India and more than three hundred devotees from fourteen countries had already assembled at our base on the Baltic Sea coast. Everyone was busy organizing the twenty-eight tons of equipment and rehearsing a new five-hour stage show.
As I drove north to the coast with several other devotees, my heart was pounding in anticipation: if the previous two decades are any indication, our festivals this summer should bring close to 750 thousand people into contact with Krsna.
“No doubt, these are the modern-day pastimes of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu,” I thought. “They are part of His prediction five hundred years ago that His name would be heard in every town and village.”
Just as prophetic are the words of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, an intimate associate of Lord Caitanya:
yad avadhi hari nama pradur asit prithivyam tad avadhi khalu loka vaisnavah sarvatas te tilaka vimala mala nama yuk-tah pavitrah hari hari kali madhye evam evam babahuva
From the moment that the holy names of Krsna became manifest on the earth, Vaisnavas began appearing everywhere. Wearing tilaka and neck beads and equipped with the mahamantra, they were present in the very midst of the darkest of ages, purifying the atmosphere by chanting “Hari! Hari!” So indeed it came to pass.
[Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, text 62 ]
I felt unqualified but at the same time privileged to be part of Lord Caitanya’s movement. I smiled as I remembered Srila Prabhupada joking that just as Lord Rama conquered Ravana and his hordes of raksasas with monkeys and bears, so Srila Prabhupada was conquering the world with his young disciples.
As we were driving, one of my godbrothers phoned me to wish us well on the festival program and ask if the preaching was going smoothly.
“Preaching never goes smoothly,” I said, “at least not big-time preaching. It attracts the impious as well as the pious. Before Krsna appeared in Vrindavan there were no demons there. So we have to expect opposition. Srila Prabhupada said, ‘If there is no opposition, it means there is no preaching.’ But in these situations we always see how the Lord intervenes to help His devotees.”
Just two weeks earlier we had run into problems getting visas for thirty devotees from nearby Belarus. Last year the European Union had placed restrictions on Belarus because of its allegedly corrupt policies. Included was a ban on visas for all Belarus citizens.
But Nandini dasi had encouraged our devotees to apply anyway. When they were refused she called the Polish Embassy in Minsk and pleaded with the official there.
“We’re a cultural event,” she said. “We have nothing to do with politics.”
She went on to explain the nature of our festival, giving many reasons the visas should be granted.
“It is European law,” the official said firmly. “There will be no exceptions.”
“Then we’ll just have to pray,” Nandini said.
Nandini called me and said she had done everything she could. Miraculously, three days later all the Belarus devotees were granted visas.
A similar thing happened when we tried to get visas for our Russian devotees, but that time it was a tiny little devotee who saved the day.
On May 29, Nandini went into labor, starting the birth of her first child. As she and her husband, Jayatam das, left the house for the hospital, she took her cell phone in case an important call would come. As they were driving to the hospital, the cell phone rang. It was the Polish Consulate-General in Moscow.
“Hello, ma’am,” the voice said. “I have your application for forty-seven visas on my desk. You’ve asked that I grant these visas by tomorrow.”
“Yes, please,” Nandini said as she groaned in labor.
“It’s simply not possible,” he said. “It will take six weeks or more to process these visas.”
“Sir,” Nandini said, “we have our first festival in four weeks. It’s our twentieth year. All engagements have been booked.”
The man paused. “I’ll think it over,” he said, “and I’ll call you back later today.”
“That won’t work,” Nandini said.
“What did you say?” said the man.
“It won’t work!” she shouted. “I’m giving birth to a baby!” There was a moment of silence. “Oh, I’m so sorry to have called you now,” the man said. “Just do what you have to do.
We’ll issue the visas this afternoon.”
The next day Jayatam called to tell me his son was born.
“What did you name him?” I asked.
“Alexander,” said Jayatam, “as in Alexander the Great.” I could hear the smile of a proud father in his voice.
“He’s Alexander the Little,” I said, “but he’s already done great service for Lord Caitanya.”
Four weeks after Alexander’s appearance, I arrived at our base to be greeted by a large number of devotees. Just as the weary traveler feels rejuvenated to be with his friends and family again, I felt refreshed in the company of so many loving devotees.
The next day after a short harinama, we held our first festival. “It’s unbelievable,” I said to Jayatam and Nandini. “It’s early in the season and there aren’t that many vacationers, yet our festival is crowded.”
“There aren’t so many people on holiday because of the recession,” said Jayatam. “People just don’t have money for vacations. Plus there was severe flooding in the south of the country in June, and many people have had to cancel their time off to deal with the damage.”
“But how do you explain why our festival is filled to capacity?” I said.
“It’s like this,” said Nandini. “All year people write to me about the festivals. One man said he plans his vacation around our event. He said he wouldn’t miss it for anything. I guess a lot of people feel that way.”
Our next festival was just as successful, with the Indian dance group Sankya especially popular. After I watched their dazzling performance, I turned to Nandini. “This is the best group we’ve ever had,” I said. “All fifteen of them are truly professional. How did you manage to get them?”
“Jayatam and I went to India to find some talent for this year’s festivals,” Nandini said. “In Mumbai we met the founder of Sankya, Vaibhav Arekar. He told us that for the past several years the group had been touring India, trying to revive people’s fading interest in the performing arts of Vedic culture. But sadly, fewer and fewer people were coming. He started thinking that people overseas might be more interested but had no way to pursue the idea.”
“Then, by Krsna’s arrangement, we met,” she continued. “I told him we could offer the airfares but nothing more. I encouraged him by saying that often five thousand people come to our events every day. He thought for a moment and agreed. They are happy here.”
Several days later we began advertising our festival in Kolobrzeg, one of the larger towns along the coast. As our large and colorful harinama party descended on the beach, a man stood up and started waving his arms. “It’s the guru!” he shouted. “The guru and his disciples have come back with the festival!”
Hundreds of people looked at me. I was embarrassed and felt like disappearing into the middle of the party, but I had a second thought. “He’s being respectful,” I told myself. “He’s appreciative. For Srila Prabhupada I have to accept the respect.” I waved, and many people waved back. “Don’t take any credit,” I told myself. “You’re just a little monkey in the army of the Lord.”
As we chanted and danced along the beach, handing out invitations, we stopped once in a while so people could come forward and take photos. On one occasion, a group of twenty schoolchildren began chanting and dancing with us.
A woman rushed forward and began talking loudly to a devotee over the sound of the kirtana. “I’m their teacher,” she said. “I’ve never seen them so happy. What is this amazing song you’re singing? Please write it down for me.”
The devotee wrote the mahamantra on a piece of paper, and I could see the teacher memorizing it as Tribuvanesvara das gave a short talk inviting everyone to the festival. As we started to leave I received a phone call from Jayatam and sat on the beach for a few minutes to talk with him.
When I stood up I saw the teacher repeating the mahamantra to all the students as they sat on the beach. “Now everyone,” she said, “repeat after me: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna…”
As I walked quickly to catch up with the kirtana party a woman approached me and started speaking in Polish.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t speak Polish, only English.” “The information on your invitation is incorrect,” she said in perfect English.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“You say this is the twentieth anniversary of your festivals,” she said. “It’s not. You’ve only been doing them for nineteen years.”
“How do you know?” I said.
She smiled. “Because I’ve been coming every year,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say.
“The first one was in 1990,” she continued. “It was very small and was held in a hall in Gdansk. I was young and my mother took me there. Ever since then, I’ve been to your festival every summer.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “We’ll make the correction.”
I called Jayatam and asked about what the woman had said.
“It’s the twentieth,” he said. “There was a program in 1989.
We consider it the humble beginning.”
The next day, crowds poured into our festival on the beachfront of Kolobrzeg. “This is one of the best spots along the coast,” I said to Jayatam.
“Yes,” he replied, “but we fight for it every year. Nandini and I don’t want to disturb you, so we don’t tell you everything, but this is a conservative town, and we have a lot of opposition here. Not everyone appreciates us.”
“Actually,” said Nandini, “it’s only because we have a few friends in high positions that we could get this spot. Behind the scenes there are a number of people trying their best to stop us.”
“Just now I came from the city health department” she continued. “When the department officials visited our restaurant at the festival this morning, they said they would not give us permission to sell food. I pointed out that we had met all the criteria, but the woman in charge said there was no way they would agree. When I said that we had all our papers in order she reluctantly said I could bring them to her office.
“When I arrived a little late she began screaming at me. I just put up with it and tried to be nice. When she asked why I was late, I told her I was nursing a four-week-old baby. She was speechless. She looked at me compassionately and said, ‘You’re organizing such a big event while nursing a small baby?’
“She paused for a moment and seemed to have a change of heart. ‘Please forgive me,’ she said. ‘You have our permission to go on with your restaurant.’ With that she handed back the papers.”
I laughed. “Alexander the Little at work again,” I said.
“That’s how you trained us, Guru Maharaja,” said Nandini.
“You always say the personal touch is the most important.” “It’s true,” I said, “and your story is proof. Abraham Lincoln said, ‘I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.’”
As I walked around the festival site with Nandini, a little girl about seven years old came and stood in front of me, her hands behind her back. As her mother caught up, the little girl handed me a long-stemmed red rose and flashed a big smile. “Thank you,” she said in accented English.
“Thanks for what?” I asked her mother.
“My daughter and I came to your festival here last year,” the mother said. “You may not remember, but when you came off the stage at the end you gave her your large flower garland. She has never forgotten that act of kindness. She talked about you all year.
“Last week she had a dream about you and asked me to check if the festival was coming to town this summer. On our way here she asked me to stop and buy a red rose for you. For a single act of love, you remain an important part of her life.” Nandini and I continued walking around the festival site, looking for improvements that could be made. As we pushed ourselves into each crowded tent, I made notes on my clip-board. “The success is overwhelming,” I said to Nandini.
“Yes,” she said, “but… how do you say in English… ‘One man’s food is another man’s poison’? Have you noticed there are people here who seem intent on just taking pictures? They don’t appear to be interested in any of the activities.”
“Now that you mention it,” I said, “I’ve noticed several men and women with unpleasant looks on their faces walking around taking photos.”
“We have to keep vigilant in our success,” she said. “True,” I said. “There’s a French proverb: The enemy never sleeps.”
That evening I gave a short lecture so we could finish the festival with a long kirtana. People were mesmerized as all the devotees left their various festival duties and came onstage. My heart was completely satisfied as we drove to our base, a large school an hour away. I went to bed at 2:00 a.m.
The next day was Monday, a free day for the devotees, when they can sleep in and recover from their intense service.
At 8:00 a.m. I awoke with a start as a devotee burst into my room. “Gurudeva!” he said with alarm. “There are thirty policemen armed with guns and dogs surrounding the school! They want everyone in the gym! Now!”
I immediately phoned Jayatam. “What’s happening?” I said. “Apparently someone told the police we’re dealing in narcotics,” he said. “They’ve come to search and check the identity of all the devotees. They’ve surrounded the school so no one can leave.”
I hung up the telephone and jumped out of my sleeping bag. “So the French proverb comes true,” I said as I ran into the shower.
I was getting dressed when there was a loud knock on the door. Before I could say anything, a frowning policeman barged in with a dog, Jayatam trailing just behind.
“Passport!” barked the policeman.
I quickly handed him my passport. He checked it carefully and handed it back.
“Where are the drugs?” he said.
“You won’t find drugs here or in any part of the school,” I said calmly.
“We’ll see,” he said as he commanded the dog to sniff through my belongings. The animal paused once or twice, probably confused by the exotic aromas from my deity equipment, but found nothing. The policeman seemed disappointed and stormed out of the room.
“Better stay here,” Jayatam said. “No need to come to the gym. They’re going to search all the rooms now and go through every devotee’s belongings. They came here first because somehow they knew you were the leader.”
I looked out the window and saw a number of policemen with guns guarding several entrances to the property. One stood directly outside my window. When our eyes met, he motioned to another policeman that I was there.
I walked to the other side of the room and phoned Nandini, who was staying off the property in a rented house to take care of Alexander.
I spoke softly. “The police have surrounded the building,” I said. “They’re all armed.”
“It’s serious,” she said. “Someone is trying hard to stop us at the very beginning of the festival season.”
The police continued their search and passport inspections, and several devotees were interrogated, but six hours later they left with no evidence. The person in charge of the team apologized to Jayatam.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We had our orders and were doing our duty. It appears someone wanted to incriminate you. We appreciate your cooperation.”
I called Nandini and Jayatam to my room. “It’s to be expected,” I said. “We just have to tolerate it. But as long as we don’t make any mistakes, our opposition can’t stop us. Twenty years of festival programs have established us in this country. And people appreciate us for the most part. But let us be on the alert against those who don’t, so our sacred service to the mission of Lord Caitanya is not disturbed and people can enjoy our festivals.”
Srila Prabhupada writes:
When one is engaged in devotional service, he is often surrounded by envious people, and often many enemies come to try to defeat him or stop him… The atheists are always prepared to harass a devotee; therefore Caitanya Mahaprabhu suggested that one be very tolerant of these people. Nonetheless, one has to continue chanting the Hare Krsna mantra and preaching the chanting of this mantra because such preaching and chanting constitute the perfection of life. One should chant and preach about the urgency of making this life perfect in all respects.
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.24.67, purport]