Our Happy Summer Days
August 17, 2015
After a month of harinams and festivals and a mammoth three-day Woodstock festival, our tour devotees were exhausted. When I mentioned during a meeting that we had seventeen more festivals to go, I saw many devotees catch their breath and roll their eyes upward. “It’s our duty,” I said. “We can’t give up, we can’t give in. We’ve inherited a tradition that goes back five hundred years. Many great devotees have served selflessly for this very moment that we are living: when the holy names of Lord Krishna are being broadcast all over the world. We have to push on for this next month. So much can be achieved.”
There was a loud roar of approval. I felt proud of the devotees. They understood the responsibility we had and the mercy we could deliver. They were ready to push on despite their fatigue.
Krsna’s Village of Peace had been an astounding success at the Woodstock Festival in July, and whatever follows a large memorable event is usually anti-climactic, but not so with our festival tour. The smaller festivals afterwards along the Baltic Sea coast were no less remarkable.
While advertising our first post-Woodstock festival with a melodious and colorful harinam, I was stopped by a middle-aged couple just before we got to the beach. “We don’t want to take your valuable time,” the man said, “but we just wanted to thank you for bringing your festival back to our town this year.”
“It really is the highlight of our summer,” his wife added.
“You all look a bit tired,” the man said. “Must be because of your hard work at Woodstock.”
“How did you know we were at Woodstock?” I asked. They looked like middle-class people, not the kind who would go to Woodstock or even be interested in it.
“Your big chariot was on the evening news,” the man said. “It looked like hundreds of you were singing and dancing alongside it.”
“Really?” I said. “I didn’t know.” I felt so happy I almost started laughing.
When we reached the sand, we all stopped to take off our shoes. A few meters away, I heard a father and his young daughter talking as they looked at one of our festival posters.
“Daddy,” the girl said, “what is reincarnation?”
I saw the man look again at the poster. I knew there was no mention of reincarnation on it. “Tell me, Daddy,” the girl said again, “what is reincarnation?”
“Well,” he mumbled, “ummm… you see… uh… Let’s go get some ice cream, shall we, darling?” He took her hand, and they started walking away. She looked back at us. “Daddy,” she said, “what is karma?”
As they disappeared into the throng of beachgoers, a woman rushed toward us.
“Are you going to sing?” she asked.
“Yes, we are,” I said.
“Oh, wonderful!” she said. “Do you sell CDs of your singing on the beach?”
“Well, not exactly of our singing on the beach, but we have CDs of our singing in our centers.”
“No,” she said. “I am looking for a CD of your singing on the beach.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I have been hearing you sing on this beach every summer since I was a little girl,” she said. “It has always been a memorable part of my summer vacation. Now I have my own children and they also enjoy it. We want a CD of your singing on the beach so we can remember our happy summer days all year.”
Soon we were chanting and dancing down the beach while a number of devotees passed out invitations. Twenty minutes into the kirtan, three older couples approached us.
“Can we help distribute the invitations?” a man said.
“Well, sure,” I said. “Why not?”
A devotee pulled a large stack of invitations out of her bag, and the couples began giving them out with big smiles. One of the women walked beside me for a few minutes, and as she handed an invitation to a young mother and her children, she turned to me. “It would be sad if people didn’t get the opportunity to see your fine show,” she said. “We’ve seen it every summer for the last three years.”
A little further along the beach, a young man selling popcorn started making fun of our singing. He chanted the Hare Krsna mantra going between falsetto and low tones to make people laugh. I tried to move him along, but it was obvious he was enjoying the attention he got mimicking us. He followed us for an hour and a half, chanting Krsna’s name a thousand times, albeit in jest. At one point he even began dancing. Because he was in front of the kirtan party people thought he was one of us and asked him where and what time the festival was. I decided to stop trying to intervene because he began speaking respectfully. “The festival is just off the beach over there,” he said. “It starts at 5:30 pm. Be on time. You don’t want to miss it.”
I smiled and remembered a verse by Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya:
sankirtanarambha krte pi gaure
dhavanti jiva sravane gunani
asuddha cittah kim u suddha cittah
srutva pramattah khalu te nanartuh
“When the Golden Lord’s congregational chanting of the holy names had only just begun, the transcendental qualities of the name cleansed the ears of the living entities. Thus, astonishingly, those of impure mentality became pure in mind, and as they continued to hear, became intoxicated and began to dance.” (Susloka-Satakam, Text 32)
During our two-hour harinam, we covered the whole beach and gave out over seven thousand invitations. Towards the end of the kirtan, a rough-looking young man rushed in front of the kirtan party.
“Shut up!” he screamed. “Shut up! Just shut up and get off this beach!” He shouted at us again and again, his speech peppered with obscenities. When he took a swing at one of the boys playing mridanga, our security men jumped on him. After a short tussle, he was pinned to the ground, his face in the sand. I could see he was going to have a big black eye soon.
“Let me up!” he screamed. A crowd had gathered to watch the harinam, and some of the people shook their heads as if telling us not to let him up. One of the security men held him still for another minute or two until he calmed down.
“OK,” he said. “Hare Krishna. Now let me up.”
The security man holding him loosened his grip. “No!” I called out to him. “Not just yet!”
“Hare Krishna!” the boy yelled. “Hare Krishna! Krishna Krishna Hare Hare! Please let me go!”
The security man looked at me. “Not yet,” I said with a smile.
“Hare Krishna!” he screamed. “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! And Hare Rama too!” Then he looked at me. “Please,” he said softly.
“OK,” I said. “Let him go.” He got up, brushed off the sand and walked away.
“Why did you wait so long to let him get up?” one of our boys asked.
I smiled. “It says in sastra:
eka hari name yata papa hare
kono paper sadhya nai tato papa kare
“‘One recitation of the Hare Krsna mantra is so powerful that unlimited sinful reactions in the heart are immediately removed.’ That was the most important moment of that boy’s life because he was chanting. I thought we should let him chant as much as he could.”
By the time we returned to the festival site it was almost time for the program to begin. The crowd got larger and larger, and I saw a woman who had been the mayor of the town many years ago. She was a good friend of ours.
“So nice to see you again,” I said.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she said.
“You still remember us after all these years?”
“How could I forget you?” she said. “My daughter and I often wear the beautiful saris you gave us. And this year we’ve brought my new grandchild to your festival for his first time. Just imagine! Three generations of followers. I guess it’s a tradition in our family now.”
After speaking to her for some time I wandered over to one of my favorite spots at the festival: the book tent. I was surprised to see a furious argument going on between a mother and her teenage daughter.
“Just buy the book for me, Mom!” screamed the girl. “Buy me a Bhagavad Gita!”
“But it’s not the Bible!” her mother shouted back.
“Mom, I don’t understand you,” the girl said, shaking her head. “I’ve been an atheist most of my life, and now finally after speaking to the Hare Krishnas I think there may actually be a God. I thought you’d be happy about that. How can you deny me the chance to read their book where they say God explains himself? Do you want me to continue being an atheist?”
The mother took a deep breath. “We’ll take one Bhagavad Gita, please,” she said to the devotee at the book table.
Another woman walked over to the book table. “I would like to purchase the Srimad Bhagavatam,” she said.
I turned to her. “Maybe you’d like to start with the Bhagavad Gita?” I said. “The Bhagavatam is more advanced.”
“No,” she replied. “It’s not for me. It’s for my son. I bought him a Bhagavad Gita twenty five years ago at your festival. He’s read it at least fifty times and he wants to move on to something deeper now. He even has a website where he teaches Bhagavad Gita As It Is.”
“Really?” I said.
“Oh yes,” she replied. “It’s very popular. He says it’s because he never says anything different than the author, Swami Prabhupada.”
“My thanks to him and to you,” I said.
Passing by the gift shop I saw a woman coming out clutching a CD to her chest.
“I am so grateful to him,” she said to me.
“To who?” I asked.
“To Mr. Das,” she replied. “I can’t say his whole name.”
She held up a CD by Bada Haridas Das. “I bought another one of his CDs last year at your festival. When my father passed away later that year the CD gave me some solace. It was the most difficult period in my life. I played that heavenly music day and night, and that man’s soft voice gave me the comfort I needed. And today I was so happy to find a second CD by him.”
A short while later I gave my talk from the stage. For me it’s the highlight of every festival because it is where I can share the wisdom of Krishna consciousness. The large crowd listened attentively, even while sitting in the summer heat. When I finished, a man was waiting for me as I came down from the stage.
“Great talk,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. “Whatever I know, I learned from my spiritual teacher.”
“My family and I have attended a number of your festivals over the years,” he said. “They’re special because all the entertainment has a message behind it. Most events these days have little meaning. Just today the hairs on my body stood on end several times during the singing at the beginning of the event.”
At the outdoor restaurant across the way, I suddenly saw the man who had had the tussle with our security men at the beach. He was sitting at a table eating a large plate of samosas and talking to a devotee. His eye was beginning to look badly bruised.
The devotee waved for me to come over. “Maharaja,” he said, “I’d like you meet Krzysztof. He’s had a hard life but he says things are changing now that he’s met us. He really likes the chanting.”
I smiled and pointed at the black eye. “That’s quite a shiner you’ve got there, Krzysztof.”
“Yeah,” he said with a little smile. “I got into some trouble earlier in the day.” As I walked away, he winked at me with his black eye.
The rest of the festival went on like this: one surprise after another. Actually, though, in one sense it’s not at all surprising: Our festivals are part of Lord Caitanya’s sankirtan movement and His business is turning sinners into saints. I again remembered the prophetic words of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya who envisioned the mercy of Lord Caitanya spreading all over the world:
“Out of His spontaneous compassion He restored all people back to consciousness, and through the means of His holy names enabled them to pass beyond the impassable ocean of the age of Kali, the age of quarrel. Thus news of the names of Krsna was told from person to person.”
[ Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka Satakam, text 46 ]