Chapter 16: Phoenix of the Baltic Sea

July 16, 2022

By Indradyumna Swami

It had been two-and-a-half years that I had been religiously following COVID restrictions from my base in Vrindavan, India.  I had begun traveling as a monk almost fifty years before the 2020 lockdown began, and I suddenly found myself confined to a small apartment. The situation conflicted with my nature, but I devoted myself to research and lecturing, sometimes studying for ten hours a day.  However, when there opened a window of opportunity to begin traveling and teaching again, I was ready to go.

My top priority was to reestablish the annual festival tour I had been leading along the Baltic Sea coast since 1990. There were many challenges to overcome. During the pandemic, many of the tour’s core group had faced life changes and were no longer able to be a part of the two-month festival tour. The war in Ukraine had created complications and there had also been changes in the Polish government. Local officials who had long supported us and allowed us to hold our festivals in prominent locations in their towns were no longer in office. Some of the new leaders were unaware of or disinterested in our festivals. Finally, many of our funding sources had dried up due to the economic impact of the pandemic on our donors.

It took hard work, some luck and, no doubt, Krsna’s mercy, but we somehow overcame the obstacles. And at the beginning of July, 110 devotees, most of them brand new to the tour, assembled in Poland to witness the Festival of India tour rise like a phoenix on the Baltic Sea coast.

I arrived the day before the first festival and was pleasantly surprised to see all the new faces.  At the same time, though, I was concerned because I knew it took a 250-strong crew to run the tour. That night I dreamt I was back in Vrindavan on parikrama with several devotees, including my good friend Chaturatma Prabhu. I woke with a sense of nostalgia for the holy dhama, but it was soon pacified when I remembered one of my favorite slokas:

yatha yatha gaura padaravinde
vindeta bhaktim krta punya rasih
tatha tathot sarpati hrdya kasmad
radha padambhoja sudhambu rasih

“To the degree that we surrender to Lord Caitanya’s service, to that degree we acquire qualification for service to Radharani’s lotus feet in Vraja.”

(Srila Prabodhananda Saraswati, Sri Caintaya Candramrita, text 88)

The connection between residing in Vrindavan and teaching others about Krsna in the West has always been clear to me. On the one hand, when devotees become purified by living in Vrindavan, they naturally develop a strong urge to share their good fortune with others:

adhuneha maha-bhaga
yathaiva narakan naraḥ
nanogra-yatanan neyat
tan me vyakhyatum arhasi

“O greatly fortunate and opulent Sukadeva Goswami, now kindly tell me how human beings may be saved from having to enter hellish conditions in which they suffer terrible pains.”

(Maharaja Pariksit, Srimad Bhagavatam 6.1.6)

On the other hand, by serving Lord Caitanya’s mission in the West, one develops an affinity for living in the company of the Vrajavasis in Vrindavan:

jihvayam hari nama sadhanam aho dhara-satam netrayoh
sarvange pulakodgamo niravadhi svedas ca vibhrajate
srimad gaura hareh pragalbha madhura bhakti pradatur janaih
seva sri vraja yositam anugata nitya sada siksyate

“On His tongue He worships the names of Sri Hari. Oh, how wonderful! From His eyes shower hundreds of tears. All the hairs of His body instantly stand erect out of ecstasy and He shines with perspiration. In this way, people learn of the eternal service which forever follows in the footsteps of the milkmaids of Vraja from Sri Gaura Hari, the donor of the most exalted and nectarian process of devotional service.”

(Sarvabauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, text 3)

The day of the first festival dawned and I went with all the devotees on harinam samkirtan in the streets of Niechorze to advertise the event.  I had been chanting every summer on the Baltic Sea coast since the inception of our tour 30 years ago, but this time I felt even more joyful and excited, no doubt due to two years of separation from my most treasured service:

“What would not I give to wander
Where my old companions dwell?
Absence makes the heart grow fonder;
Isle of Beauty, fare thee well!”

(Thomas Haynes Bayly, Isle of Beauty, 1844)

I quickly noticed that I was not the only one who had missed the tour. It was obvious by the way people responded that they had missed us too: their eyes lit up upon seeing us, they smiled and waved, they literally grabbed the colorful invitations we were giving out and, eventually when we stopped to chant in one place, they came forward and chanted and danced along with us.  Watching the scene unfold before me, I was overwhelmed and another favorite verse of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya’s came to mind:

yesam kasmin kali yuge
noddharo bahu janmasu
kalua te te sukhe magna
nama gana prasadatah

“In which Kali Yuga can the living being who, having taken many births, not attain deliverance? Now, in the age of Kali those very living beings become submerged in the ocean of happiness by the mercy of congregational chanting of the holy names.”

(Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, text 50)

That evening before the festival began, I kept looking towards the street that led to our site with the large stage and the numerous colorful tents and exhibits. I wondered how many fortunate souls might come that evening.

An hour before the festival began, I noticed a woman standing in the restaurant tent watching the devotees put the finishing touches on the prasadam displays.  When she saw me, she waved as if she recognized me.

“I’ve waited two long years for this day!” she called to me. “Your food is unlike any other in this world. I don’t know how I survived!”

Soon the crowd started arriving and quickly filled up the many benches we provide for our audiences.  There was palpable excitement in the air as everyone waited for the show to begin. And when it finally did, both the audience and the devotees cheered.  We were back in action!

I walked around the festival site while the stage show progressed from one beautiful performance to the next, watching people browse through the different tents and exhibits. In some places, the crowd was so large I couldn’t move. A family in the crowd insisted I take a photo with them.  The people around the family moved back and a stranger snapped the photo with the family’s camera.  Then the family showed me a photo of the living room in their home. On the wall was a large photo of all of them posing with me 15 years ago.

“We’ve been waiting for you to come back for two years. Thank you so much for coming to Niechorze!”

Looking on was a devotee who is part of our setup crew. He showed me a photo which he pulled out of his pocket.

“Maharaja,” he said, “This is me as a baby in my mother’s arms at your festival 25 years ago.  We were guests. My mother told me that you whispered the Hare Krsna mantra into my ear. I think it must be why I’m here serving on the tour today!”

I walked on to the book tent, where an older gentleman asked me to sign two Bhagavad-gitas.

“One is for me,” he said. “I was thinking to buy one years ago when I attended one of your festivals, but I hesitated.  During the pandemic I lamented I hadn’t done so, because I believe it would have helped me through those difficult times.”

“And the other Bhagavad-gita?” I asked.

“It’s for my granddaughter,” he replied. “Only God knows what she’ll go through in her lifetime. She needs to have this book to help her.”

A woman in the book tent approached me. “Can you please write a dedication in this book?” she asked, handing me a Bhagavad-gita. “I have attended at least one of your festivals each summer for 30 years.  When I saw your poster in town, I decided I should finally try and understand the philosophy behind your movement and so I am buying the book you always hold up when you speak on the stage!”

“Better late than never,” I joked, as I took the book and wrote a short dedication inside.

I left the book tent to sit in a quiet area at the side of the festival grounds. One of my all-time favorite things is to watch people’s first reactions as they arrive at the festival and get their first glimpse of Krsna consciousness. I saw the bright eyes, the surprise, the joy, the astonishment!

“This is all the mercy of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu,” I thought. “He is the most merciful incarnation of the Lord.” I remembered a verse in which the Lord himself prayed:

“‘He Krsna!  Oh, ocean of mercy! Protect! Please protect these people. Oh, my great master! They are burning in the great forest fire of birth and death. O ocean of mercy, kindly bestow your own devotional service upon them.’  His mercy upon the living beings having expanded to its zenith, Sri Gaura Hari, who is the only Lord and refuge for the wretched, performed thus with prayerful cries.”

(Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, text 63)

After the audience had been left mesmerized by two beautiful theatrical productions, it was time for me to give my lecture from the stage, a lecture I have given close to a thousand times over the years.  I was sure that some people in the audience had heard it more than once. But I remembered a passage from Srila Prabhupada’s purport to Bhagavad-gita 2.25:

“Repetition of something is necessary in order that we understand the matter thoroughly, without error.”

And sure enough, after I had delivered my talk, a woman was waiting for me by the stage stairs with words of encouragement and appreciation.

“I have been attending your festivals for years. And I have read most of your teacher’s books. I know your philosophy by heart. But I came today specifically to hear your lecture because I needed to be reminded how important all this is. Thank you!”

In my heart, I passed her gratitude on to my own spiritual master. “Srila Prabhupada,” I said softly, “are you watching? Surely you must be, for without your mercy none of this would be happening.”

3,000 people attended the first festival that night. At the end of the five-hour program, I gathered the devotees together.

“This first festival was so auspicious,” I said, “and it is only the beginning of what will surely be our most successful tour in 31 years.  Thank you for joining us and working so hard to make it a success.  The only reward we seek is to see the smiling faces of these people as they experience the wonderful world of Krsna consciousness!”

“When Lord Gauracandra, the most attractive personality within the three worlds, appeared in this universe, all the fallen souls began to wave their arms in the air, excited by the congregational chanting of the Holy Names. We are also completely fulfilled because of our taking shelter of those names of Lord Krsna. Oh, my Lord!”

(Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, text 44)