I Shall Not Pass This Way Again
July 23, 2017
I am aware that my biological clock is winding down. There is no use denying it. It is real. Not only am I in my late sixties, but I have also survived two deadly bouts of cancer. Left with the possibility of reoccurrence, I savour each moment just like gold. My years of training in Krsna consciousness have prepared me for the arrival of old age and disease, and have enabled me to handle them without lamentation. Moreover, the challenges of old age have acted as a strong impetuous to improve the quality of my chanting – the principle activity in Krsna consciousness – both in my personal sadhana and in the public forum. I am more aware than ever of my good fortune in serving in my spiritual master’s mission, and as a result, I find myself focusing intently on each and every syllable of the maha mantra as I chant my japa. I also give my heart and soul to chanting in city streets throughout the word. There is a sense of urgency that comes with the passing of the decades. The years left to me are likely measured in single digits, not double, and so I wake each morning thanking Srila Prabhupada for the opportunity to represent our august succession of spiritual teachers to the devotees I train and the people I meet.
As we set out to advertise our sixth summer festival program to be held in the city of Miedzyzdroje on Poland’s Baltic Sea coast, I eagerly joined the harinam chanting party. As our festival crew began setting up the stage and tents on the lawn of the main park in town, just meters from the crowded beach, seventy of us walked down the boardwalk toward the sand. On the way, we passed three scruffy tattooed men in black leather jackets getting off their motorcycles. One of them made threatening motions and shouted obscenities at us, and the other two followed us for a short distance, jeering and making fun of us.
“Don’t look at them,” I told the devotees. “Just keep walking.” Nothing and no one should disturb our enthusiasm.
Down on the beach, we began chanting, dancing and handing out colorful invitations. As always, people smiled and waved, happy to see us. It was obvious that many had been to our festivals before.
We passed by a young girl who jumped up and excitedly spoke to her mother. “Mommy, if I speak to them, will they understand me?”
“You’d have to speak Hare Krishna to them,” the mother said.
“You mean like French or German?” the girl asked.
“Exactly,” the mother said seriously. “You’ll have to learn Hare Krishna.”
Our procession wove through the crowded beach, handing out thousands of invitations left and right. Most people accepted them with a smile or a handshake, but when one boy took one his mother shouted at him angrily.
“Give me that!” she yelled. “These are dangerous people!”
“Dangerous?” he said incredulously, holding the invitation out of her reach. “They are cleanly dressed, they’re singing and dancing, they’re smiling and waving at everyone. What exactly is dangerous about them?”
“They just are!” the mother said loudly. “Everyone knows it.”
“But everyone is waving back to them,” the boy said. “And smiling too. And over there some people are buying books from them. Nobody else seems to think they’re dangerous.”
“Just listen to me!” the mother screamed. “Throw that invitation into the sea.”
“Oh, Mom!” the boy exclaimed, shaking his head. His mother turned away. He smiled at me and shoved the invitation into his pocket.
We chanted for an hour down the beach, and then stopped at one particularly crowded area. I gave a short talk to the people who had gathered, explaining why were chanting and a little about the festival. People listened attentively, applauding in places and nodding in approval. I thought to myself about how pious people in ancient India would visit a temple or ashram to listen to Vedic knowledge from a sadhu or priest. But here I was on a public beach in Eastern Europe sharing the exact same Absolute Truth to sunbathers in swim suits, a number of whom were holding beer cans. Yet they were clapping and agreeing with much of what I said! Such is the incredible mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
After I finished my talk, several devotees went through the crowd offering Srila Prabhupada’s books to the audience. I smiled as I watched interested people purchasing the books. The kirtana and philosophy had touched their hearts. I noticed one woman with at least six children hesitate over buying a book but she eventually shook her head, and our party moved on.
But half an hour later, one of her sons found us further down the beach.
“Mom decided she wants the book,” he said breathlessly. “Here’s the money.” He took a Bhagavad-gita. Still trying to catch his breath he said, “Mom said it was too far for just one of us to run the whole way, and we were afraid we’d lose you if we didn’t run, so…”
He gestured down the beach. His brothers and sisters were lined up at 50-meter intervals like a relay team.
“She really wants the book!” he explained. Then he ran and gave the book to his brother, who ran the next 50 meters and gave it to their sister. As she ran to into the crowd, obviously to find the next sibling, the two brothers walked at a leisurely pace back up the beach.
We chanted for several hours, the devotees jumping and twirling amidst people sunbathing, swimming and eating ice-cream. A number of devotees waved colorful flags and banners, and others distributed delicious cookies. Anyone within hearing range was staring at us in wonder. Suddenly, I noticed the three motorcycle gang members – their leather apparel had been removed and they were lounging on the sand in swimsuits.
“Uh oh,” I thought. “Here comes trouble.”
But to my amazement all three of them started dancing with us, while smiling and trying to repeat the mantra as best they could. At first I thought they were mocking us, but it soon became obvious that they were enjoying themselves. The kirtan leader began to bring the kirtan to a close, but I said loudly in his ear, “Keep it going. Don’t stop!”
He looked at me incredulously as if to say, “But I’m exhausted!” He had been leading kirtan for more than two hours.
I shook my head. “Keep it going until I tell you to stop.”
The holy names melted the hard hearts of the men who had been so rude to us earlier. My smile got bigger and bigger as they danced. Finally, they fell back exhausted in the sand, and I motioned to the equally exhausted kirtan leader that he could stop. As we walked away I looked back and one of the gang members smiled and gave me a thumbs up. I remembered one of my favorite verses, written by Sarvabauma Bhattacarya:
“From the time that Sri Gauranga Mahaprabhu, the sacred form of love for Krsna, gave out His gifts of prema, the sinner, the ascetic, the drunkard, the dacoit, the rogue and thief, all became very grateful to Him, completely abandoned sense enjoyment as if it were deadly poison and then very intoxicated, loudly sang the holy names of Krsna, until they sank exhausted into the ocean of Krsna-prema.” [Susloka-Satakam, verse 49]
Back at the festival site, the set-up crew was putting the finishing touches on the stage and tents. Our harinam party hardly had time to honor prasadam before people started filling the seats in front of the stage. I watched the devotees rush to their respective services.
“These devotees are real troopers,” I thought. “They go on harinam for five hours each day and then serve for another five hours at the festival – whether it be doing stage performances, or in the restaurant tent or exhibits. And they do it for two months straight! Their deliverance is assured!”
jalpanti hari namani
caitanya jnana rupatah
bhajanti vaisnavan ye tu
te gacchanti hareh padam
“Those who chant the names of Hari, while learning the knowledge and following the practices taught by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and who worship the Vaisnavas, certainly go to the abode of Sri Hari!” [Susloka-Satakam, verse 80]
Just as I was sitting down to watch the first stage act, a young man rode into the festival on his bicycle. He wove in and out of the crowd and stopped directly in front of me.
“Master! Master!” he cried out. “I’m back! I rode 200 kilometers to get here. You remember me, right?”
“I do,” I said with a smile. “We meet at this same spot in this same town every summer.”
“Yep!” he said. “And you know why I come, right? Because just one evening with you guys keeps me going for the whole year. Seriously. The stage show, the singing, your happy smiling faces – it’s enough to give me the strength to bear all of life’s trials, for I know that the good Lord is with me.”
“That’s wonderful.” I said.
“But don’t forget, Master,” he said with a coy smile, “your special grace upon me each year.”
I had to think for a moment.
“The food!” he exclaimed. “You know I’m a poor man. That’s why I ride my bicycle here. I can’t even afford a bus ticket! You can imagine how hungry I must be!”
Smiling I took him by the hand and walked with him over to the restaurant.
“My friend here has my permission to eat anything and as much as he wants,” I said to the devotee behind the counter.
On the other side of the restaurant tent, I saw a large man with cuts and bruises on his face. I recognized him as another unusual veteran of our festivals.
Coming forward he said, “I’ve been waiting months to talk to you, counting the days down on the calendar until your festival came to town. Life is still difficult for me. I just can’t make ends meet. I’m trying to take your advice to become more serious about spiritual life, but lately things have gotten so bad I can’t think of anything else but my sorrows. You know, they repossessed my house!” He broke down crying.
“Let’s move outside the restaurant,” I said.
“My wife and kids can’t enjoy life,” he said once we were outside. “Everything’s a struggle. The other day I gave up. I tried to hang myself from a tree on the roadside, but a passing motorist stopped and cut the rope!”
“I’m so sorry to hear this,” I said. “Remember what I told you last year?”
“Yes, I remember,” he said softly. “You told me that we are all suffering or enjoying because of our past activities. And that we have to tolerate happiness and sadness, just like we have to tolerate the seasons which come and go.”
“Yes,” I said.”
“You also said that we should use difficult times to take shelter of God. And you said that because my wife is a devout Catholic I should go to church with her and pray to God for guidance.”
“And are you doing that?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said sheepishly.
“Well, if you don’t take my advice what can I do?” I asked. “It’s in your own best interest.”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s about time I get serious and do what you suggest. I promise I’ll start going to church. What’s that prayer again, the one that you gave to me to say?”
I wrote down the Hare Krishna mantra and gave it to him.
“These are names of God,” I said. “It is the most powerful prayer for this age.”
“It’s OK to say them in church?” he asked.
“Why not?” I said. “It’s an appeal to the Lord of all religions.”
As we parted he handed me a wad of Polish money.
“I can’t take this,” I said.
“No, please!” he insisted. “It’s money I make from bare knuckle-fighting on the weekends. That’s where I get all these bruises and scars on my face. I keep aside some of the money for you each year. I beg you, please take it.”
I accepted the money, with the intention of putting it towards the sale of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
It was time to give my lecture. I walked toward the stage, my heart completely satisfied from another day’s work in service to the Lord.
“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
[Stephen Grellet, 1773-1855, Quaker missionary]