By Indradyumna Swami
We were chanting down the main street in Ustronie Morskie on the Polish Baltic Sea coast and I was keeping an eye out for a friend I’d met there 15 years ago. He was a homeless man in his 70s who sold small items that he found in the county dump. He usually set up shop under a tree on the sidewalk. Despite his disheveled appearance, he somehow managed to sell enough to have money to eat and keep warm through the cold Polish winters. Our very first encounter took place when our kirtan party was weaving its way through a crowd and I saw him waving to us from a distance. When we got closer, he ran up and gave me a big bear hug.
“I just love you people,” he said. “You bring such joy and happiness to our town. I came to your festival last year. Maybe you don’t remember, but your security team asked me to leave. I must have looked like trouble with my dirty clothes and all. But you told them to let me in. You took me to the restaurant, sat me down and ordered me a full meal. But what I appreciated most was your talk that evening.”
From that point on, our friendship grew. Each summer we’d meet at the same place when our kirtan party chanted through town advertising our festivals. He’d always run up and give me that same bear hug while locals and tourists looked on with disbelief: a homeless man hugging a monk in saffron robes. In the evening, he’d show up at the festival with a large bunch of wild flowers he’d picked from the fields nearby.
Even though he was poor and barely scraping together a living he never asked me for anything. But I always made sure to take him to the restaurant tent, and I told the cooks to serve him whatever he wanted. And every year without fail, when it came time for my lecture, I would see him sitting in the back of the crowd waiting for me to start. He was noticeable even from a distance because there was never anyone around him, probably because he rarely bathed. He listened intently throughout my lecture, his eyes sparkling. At the end, he would always run through the audience and hand me the bouquet of flowers he’d picked and then dance in the kirtan with great joy.
One time he said to me, “You talk about how this world is a place of suffering. I know that better than anyone. That’s why I’m an alcoholic. The drink is the only thing that stops the pain. But when you come to town all my sadness goes away, at least for a few hours. I am so grateful for those hours. They mean the world to me.”
Today we were back in Ustronie Morskie after the two long years of the pandemic. But when we came close to the tree he was usually under, I could see that someone else was busy selling jewelry there. I broke away from the kirtan party.
“Sir,” I said to the jewelry seller, “there used to be a homeless man who sold things here each summer. Do you know where he is? He’s an old friend of mine.”
“You mean the drunkard?” the man asked. “The old man with the scruffy white beard?”
“Yes,” I replied, “that’s him.”
When the man shook his head, I knew something was wrong.
“I didn’t know he had any friends,” he said. “I’m sorry to say that your friend died of Covid last year. They found his body in a shed just off the beach, and nobody was sure of his name. He was buried in an unmarked grave outside of town.”
I felt stunned. “Ok,” was all I managed. I turned and walked to a bench. Then I closed my eyes and prayed to Lord Caitanya to be merciful to him, remembering how the old man had loved the Lord’s samkirtan movement. I felt so distressed that I couldn’t immediately go back to the kirtan party. I followed from a distance and prayed for my friend again and again.
When I caught up with the kirtan, a devotee asked me if I was alright.
“Not really,” I replied. “I just lost an old friend.”
“Oh,” he said. “A devotee?”
“Yes, a devotee,” I replied. “He was a devotee of Lord Caitanya.”
“What service did he do?” the devotee asked.
“He appreciated devotees, respected prasadam, liked to hear Krsna conscious lectures and dance in kirtan,” I said. “And he gave a nice donation to our festival every year.”
“Oh wow! How much did he give you?”
“A bouquet of wild flowers,” I replied.
“That’s not much, Maharaja,” the devotee said, looking puzzled.
“Maybe not,” I said. “But they meant the world to me.”
“From the time that Sri Gauranga Mahaprabhu, the sacred form of love for Krsna gave out His gifts of love, the sinner, the ascetic, the drunkard, the dacoit, the rogue and the thief, all very grateful to Him, completely abandoned their duties, families and sense enjoyment as if they were deadly poison and then very intoxicated, loudly sang the names of Krsna until they sank exhausted into the ocean of Krsna prema.”
(Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, Text 49)