Vol 13: Chapter 1: Lo and Behold

August 1,2012


After almost a year of traveling to temples throughout the world, I came back to Poland in late June for our annual Festival of India tour along the Baltic Seacoast. The 300 tour devotees had already arrived at our base and had been preparing for the two-month adventure.

I was jet-lagged and exhausted after my flight from Los Angeles. Warsaw’s airport terminal was crowded with people returning from vacation, and as I queued at immigration I thought about the quarter-century I had been preaching in Poland.

“It’s Kali-yuga,” I thought, seeing the spirit of enjoyment that prevailed amongst the holiday-makers as they waited for their luggage at the carousel. “The results of preaching are not always obvious. One has to be patient.”

“You’re late,” said a businessman next to me picking up a bag from the carrousel.

“No,” I said, “my flight was on time.”

“I mean you’re late for the festival,” he said. “The Festival of India. Don’t you guys usually start in the third week of June? It’s almost July.”

I broke into a smile.“Yes, you’re right,” I said.“This year we’ve had to start a little later because the school year was extended by a couple of weeks. Our first program is tomorrow.”

“Oh, I see,” he said. “I’ll see you in July in Rewal. My wife and I always plan our vacation around your festival. We visit the festival website quite often. Keep up the good work!”

“Well, that five minutes of patience sure paid off,” I thought, watching him head for the exit.

The next morning I took a flight up north to our base. Amrtananda dasa picked me up at the airport.

“We’re going straight to the first festival from here,” he said. “Will you be up to giving the lecture?”

“I will,” I said. “I look forward to it all year.”

We drove for two hours and as we pulled up at the festival site, I heard the clear, sweet notes of kirtan ring out. The spires of our twenty-five colorful tents depicting various aspects of Vedic culture were clearly visible even from a distance and I walked towards the site in anticipation of seeing the tents filled with happy, curious people. I could feel the excitement in the air. Our show was a grand event with a huge stage, flashing lights and a powerful sound system. Standing at the festival entrance I saw hundreds of beautifully dressed devotees serving prasadam, painting gopi dots on children’s faces and helping festival-goers put on saris for the evening. A woman walked past me and gasped, “Oh my God!” as she got her first glimpse of the spectacle before her.

“Quick, Srila Gurudeva,” the stage manager said, running up to me. “You’re on in less than a minute.” I put my reverie to one side and followed him across the festival site and up the stairs to the stage.

There was a devotee waiting in the wings with a Bhagavad-gita. “It’s the same one you used last summer during your lectures,” he said smiling.

I clasped the book tightly. “Like meeting an old friend,” I said.

I walked onto the stage and looked out at the benches which were filled with hundreds of guests all looking expectantly at me.

“Ladies and gentlemen,’ I began. “For the next twenty minutes I’d like to share with you another very beautiful aspect of India’s ancient culture: her spiritual wisdom.”

Before ending, I invited the people to purchase a Bhagavad-gita at the book tent. “I’ll be walking around the festival site for the next few hours,” I added, “and I’ll be happy to sign any copies you buy.”

The audience applauded. When I descended the stairs I was met at the bottom by a man who had already bought a copy of the Bhagavad-gita. His frown contrasted with the sea of smiles I had seen in front of me a minute before.

“Please,” he said, “could you sign this right now, right away?”

“Sure,” I said, taking the book from his hand. “So, you appreciated the philosophy?”

“Not at all,” he said. “I have no interest whatsoever.”

I stopped writing. “Then why are you buying the book?”

“My wife is fascinated with your festival and particularly with your talk,” he said. “But I’m bored stiff. I want to go home. We made a deal that if I buy her the book then we can leave immediately.”

I couldn’t help but smile as I signed my name.

Then another man came up to me. “You said you’d sign the books, right?” he said.

“I did,” I replied.

“Then please sign here,” he said, pointing to a blank space inside the book’s front cover.

“Are you buying this book to go deeper into spiritual life?” I asked.

“Oh no,” he said. “I’m an atheist. In fact, I regularly debate against the concept of God.”

“Then why in the world are you buying this book?” I asked.

“I can’t defeat the arguments you presented in your talk for the existence of God,” he said, “so I want to study this book and understand them better.”

“Great,” I said and handed him my card. “Here’s my email address. Maybe we can debate online.”

He smiled. “That’s a great idea,” he said.

The next morning I congratulated the devotees on the success of the first festival. “But let’s not rest on our laurels,” I said, quoting the ancient Greek saying. “We have forty-seven more to go!”

A large group of us left after a hearty breakfast to perform harinama on the beach near the town where we would hold the second festival. The invitations went out quickly.

“Can you give me six?” asked a woman.

“No need for six,” I said. “They’re not tickets. They’re invitations. The program is free.”

A woman sitting on the sand nearby spoke up. “But don’t think it’s something cheap because it’s free,” she said. “I’ve attended seven of their festivals. Everything is very nice and professional. I have only one complaint.”

“Uh oh,” I thought. “Here it comes. She’s going to talk the other woman out of going.”

I forced myself to smile. “Really?” I said. “What is it?”

“Why does the festival have to start in the evening?” she said. “Why not early morning? What better things do we have to do? Tell me.”

“It’s a good idea. We’ll consider that,” I said. The harinama party was disappearing into the distance. “I have to catch up with my friends now, but please do come tomorrow.”

“Definitely,” said the woman. “I’m always an hour early.”

True to her word, the next afternoon the woman was sitting alone in the front row of the benches an hour before the show began. Soon, though, the grounds began filling up, and fifteen minutes before show time there wasn’t an empty seat. The stage program began, and I noticed a disheveled man holding a bouquet of flowers looking for a seat. Eventually he sat down on the ground in front of the stage. The people sitting near him moved away. I thought about asking our security team to escort him out; he looked harmless, though, so I decided to let him stay. But during my lecture, hestarted yelling something. When I didn’t take any notice, he yelled again, and then again until the security team pulled him to one side.

After my talk I left the stage and started down the stairs where a woman and her pre-teen daughter were waiting for me. “Do you remember me?” the girl said.

“I’m sorry, I don’t,” I replied. “I meet so many people every day.”

“Well, I remember you,” she said. “I’ve been coming to the festival each summer since I was four years old. I’m ten now. Last year you gave me a sari and some bangles. After the festival you sat with me and my friends and explained that God is a young boy who plays a flute and herds cows. Every night before going to bed I pray to Him to let me join Him and His friends herding the cows.

“You do?” I said.

“Yes, she does,” said her mother.

“My mother bought the Bhagavad-gita for me today,” she continued. Her eyes shone with excitement. “Can you please sign it?”

“Of course,” I said, “but will you be able to understand it?”

“Not now,” she said, “but Mom will put it away for me until I am older.”

Later that evening when I was walking around the festival site the unkempt man came out of the prasadam tent and handed me the bouquet. “These are for you,” he said.

It was obvious he had not bathed in weeks and the smell of liquor wafted around him. I saw that his hands were encrusted with dirt and covered with sores.

“That’s very kind of you, but I must move on.” I said as I continued on my way.

“Wait!” he called out.

I turned back.

“Please,” he said. “It was my best friend’s dying wish that I give the flowers to you. That’s what I was trying to say during your talk. We lived over there.” He pointed to a small bridge over a nearby river. “We lived underneath the bridge. My friend looked forward to your festival each year. You may not remember us, but you gave us free food each time we came. You’d take us behind the tent over there and bring us big plates of food. But what my friend liked most was your lecture. Two years ago he asked you for a book and you gave him the big one for free.”

“Was it the Bhagavad-gita?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But he never let me read it. He said I wouldn’t understand it. A couple of months ago his liver gave out; too much liquor. But he was peaceful when he died. A few minutes before he passed away he gave me the few zlotys he had and told me to buy flowers for you when the festival came to town this summer.”

I took the flowers and held them close to my chest. “Thank you,” I said.

“I listened to your talk tonight,” he said. “I was surprised that I actually understood quite a lot of it. I have my friend’s book and I’m going to start reading it.”

“I wish you all the best,” I called out as I watched him walk back to his home under the bridge.

The Ramayana theater, one the most popular items of our show, was just beginning when I noticed a dark rain cloud in the distance in an otherwise clear blue sky. The cloud reached us within minutes and showered rain on the festival site. At first the audience seemed unsure what to do, but as the rain got stronger everyone jumped up and began running for the shelter of the tents.

“It will only last a minute,” Rajesvari-seva dasi, our Master of Ceremonies, called out over the loudspeakers. “In Vedic culture it’s considered very auspicious when it rains and shines at the same time! It’s called a divya-snana, a divine shower.”

To my amazement most of the audience members returned to their seats and sat in the rain, obviously convinced that it was something special. The shower passed and the play continued.

On my way backstage to check on the next performance, an elderly man approached me and asked if I was still signing books.

“Do it quickly,” he said. “I don’t want my wife to see. She doesn’t want me to read this book because she’s afraid I’ll leave home and join you in your travels around the world. She doesn’t like it when I listen to your classes on the internet.”

I chuckled. “I see,” I said quickly signing the book and handing it back to him. He put it in his bag, looked around to make sure his wife wasn’t nearby, and sauntered away nonchalantly.

As I passed by the rows of benches in front of the stage I overheard a woman calming her frightened child. “Don’t be upset, darling,” she said. “It’s just Krsna killing the Putana witch. You know, we’ve read that story in the Krsna book we bought at the festival last year.”

I shook my head. “Couldn’t ask for a more obvious sign that we’ve been at it for over twenty years,” I thought.

Moments later a woman approached me with a Bhagavad-gita in her hand. “I saw you signing books,” she said, “but I didn’t want to bother you with mine.”

“No,” I said. “It’s not a bother. I’d be happy to sign it.”

“In your lecture,” she said, “you spoke about the duality of material existence, how there is a combination of happiness and distress in everyone’s life. But I would have to disagree.”

“And what is your disagreement?” I asked.

“There is no duality in my life,” she said. “I only know suffering. And I’ve become desperate to the point where I’m thinking about taking my life. But your talk today gave me hope that there is a positive alternative, as you called it. I will spend the next few weeks seriously studying this book.”

“My spiritual teacher would be very happy to hear that,” I said.

Then I went with a few devotees to distribute some leftover invitations on a nearby street. Near the entrance to the festival grounds there was a gypsy girl of about ten years old playing an accordion. There was a hat at her feet that had five or ten zlotys in it. She was looking longingly at our festival.

When she reached the end of the song, I asked her whether she would like to go to the festival.

“Yes, so much,” she said. “But I have to …” Her voice trailed off.

“What time do you finish working?” I said. “Do you work through the evening?”

She nodded.

“Are your parents nearby?” I asked.

“My father is there,” she said pointing towards a side street where a man played another accordion with a hat at his feet.

I crossed the street and started talking to him. “How much does your daughter earn per evening with her street performance?” I asked after a while.

I saw him hesitate. “About fifty zlotys a day,” he said.

“If I give you the fifty zlotys will you allow her to come to our festival for the rest of the evening? You can see how much fun the children are having. I’ll introduce you to one of the ladies who will look after her.

We’ll bring her back here when the festival is over.”

He looked surprised. “But she has a sister, and if she goes her sister will want to go as well.”

“No problem,” I said with a smile. “They can both come. I’ll give you 100 zlotys.”

“OK,” he said. “I thank you.”

I introduced the girls and their father to one of the devotees. She took the girls by the hand and walked with them towards the festival site.

As we continued to walk, a devotee turned to me. “Is it right to give those people money?” he said. “You don’t know what they’ll do with it. They may use it for sinful activities.”

“Possibly,” I said. “But the benefit those young girls will get by chanting, dancing and taking prasadam is incalculable.”

The devotee was insistent. “But you’ll get the bad karma if they use the money the wrong way.”

I stopped and turned to face him. “That’s not a problem. I’ll take the karma and you take the blessing that comes from engaging them in Lord Caitanya’s service. Do we have a deal?”

He was silent.

I was approached by yet another woman with a Bhagavad-gita as soon as we entered the festival grounds.

“I didn’t catch much of what you said in your talk,” she said, “but it was enough to realize your philosophy and way of life are special. I’m curious, so I bought the book. I’m just doubtful that I will be able to understand it.”

“Why not?” I said.

“Because I’m a waitress in a bar,” she said. “I’m engaged in many bad things.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m confident you will still be able to understand this philosophy,” I said.

“If you say so,” she said, taking the book from my hand. “I’m off to work now. I’ll begin reading it tomorrow.”

“Maharaja, do you really think a woman like that can understand the Gita?” one of the devotees asked me. “I mean she lives a pretty low life.”

“It’s possible,” I replied. “Not long ago both of us lived sinful lives like her, but now we understand the Gita. Isn’t that right?”

He nodded.

It was time for the final kirtan, the highlight of every festival. Devotees chant and dance together in great happiness and engage festival-goers in the yuga-dharma of chanting the holy names. The cultural entertainment that comes before the kirtan—the theater, the puppet shows, the bharata-natyam dancing, the martial arts display—is just to give people faith to chant Hare Krsna with us. And many do. That night was no exception: the kirtan went on for forty-five minutes and more than seventy-five children and some of their parents danced with us. Just before the kirtan ended I happened to glance towards the shadows in the back. The homeless man was there, dancing in jubilation.

When the kirtan finished and the applause died down I left the stage to say goodbye to the people as they left the grounds. I was met at the bottom of the stairs by one final man holding out a Bhagavad-gita for me to sign.

“I can’t believe I’m standing here,” he said, handing the Bhagavad-gita to me.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“I’ve seen you people at Woodstock for many years,” he said, “but unlike my friends, I never once visited your village there, not even to eat. I had zero interest in anything you were doing. I thought you were all crazy. “Then two days ago I got a ticket for speeding near here. I felt the officer was wrong so I decided to contest the ticket. I was given an appointment for this afternoon at the police station, directly across the street from your festival.

“Lo and behold, when I’m driving up I see you people here. ‘No way am I going to that event,’ I said to myself.

“When I entered the police station, there was a long line of people and an officer told me to sit down and wait. I was right next to the window and could hear your event loud and clear. Just as I settled in my seat, you started your lecture from the stage. It seemed as if you were only ten feet away. I had no choice but to listen as you gradually developed your talk, touching on many aspects of your philosophy.

“The line of people in front of me hardly budged and I had to sit there and listen to your whole speech. And you know what? The more you spoke, the more interested I became. In fact, I was very impressed. By the end you had me completely convinced.

“When the police officer finally called me, I filed my complaint and then walked straight over here to your book tent. I immediately bought a hardcover Bhagavad-gita. I plan to start reading it on the beach tomorrow.”

“Now that’s a great story,” I said. I handed him the book and my card. “Let’s keep in touch.”

In front of the stage I saw small groups of devotees and guests speaking together. It seemed no one wanted to leave, including the father of the gypsy girls who walked up to me with his daughters in tow.

“Don’t they look beautiful?” he said. The girls grinned, radiant in their saris, bangles and gopi dots. “They had such a good time. I’m so grateful to you.”

“It’s my duty,” I said.

“It’s more than that. It is kindness,” he said. “I wish I could give you something in return, but we are so poor.”

“The gratitude we receive from people like you makes everything we do worthwhile,” I said. “We’ve received so much appreciation lately that I’m convinced one day the whole world will dance alongside us in ecstasy. And why not? It’s foretold in scripture.”


“Victory! Victory! Victory! I behold something wonderful: all the inauspiciousness of the living entities is destroyed, no one is going to hell, Yamaraja has no more work to do and the effects of Kali-yuga have ceased to exist. This is because all over the world an increasing number of Lord Visnu’s devotees are singing His names while dancing and playing musical instruments.”

[ Nammalvar, ( 3102 BC ) Divya-prabandha, Tiruvaymoli 5.2.1 ]