August 5, 2023
By Indradyumna Swami
Holding festivals for thousands of people six evenings a week takes its toll. Because I could see some of the devotees’ energy was flagging and because of the unusually cold and rainy weather, I started to consider the option of canceling some of the events on our annual Festival of India tour in Poland.
We had been lucky to have devotee guests arrive from various parts of Europe to bolster our limited manpower. Every day, two or three devotees appeared unexpectedly, suitcases in hand, and offered to assist us for a few days or a week. We needed their help, but having extra people onsite created new problems. The classrooms where devotees slept were already crowded and the newcomers were relegated to sleeping in the corridors. But when I voiced the idea of cancelling some of the festivals, the devotees immediately vetoed the suggestion. As one devotee put it, “I waited all year for this tour and I wouldn’t miss a day for anything!”
I could see their exhaustion, yet their simultaneous enthusiasm came as no surprise to me. After all, our days were spent blissfully doing harinama along the beaches to advertise our evening events. And the evening festivals themselves were unlike anything most of the devotees had ever experienced. They, like me, seemed spellbound seeing thousands of festival-goers experiencing Krsna consciousness every evening in diverse ways: the captivating 5-hour stage show, the restaurant, the question-and-answer tent, the yoga tent, the tent containing exhibits explaining Vedic philosophy, the face painting tent, the gift shop, and the fashion booth where ladies can pick a sari to wear for the evening.
I have always considered the International Society for Krsna Consciousness to be an expansion of the modern-day pastimes of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Who predicted that the chanting of Krsna’s holy names would one day spread to every town and village in the world. If anything surprised me, it was that we fallen souls were carrying on that mission. One time Srila Prabhupada commented humorously: “Just as Lord Ramacandra conquered Sri Lanka with monkeys and bears, so I am conquering the world with my disciples.” I felt that Lord Caitanya was daily submerging us within a tidal wave of mercy that allowed us to taste the nectar of Krsna consciousness. Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, an intimate associate of Lord Caitanya whom I often quote, describes this phenomenon:
satatam janata bhava tapa haram
paramartha parayana loka gatim
nava leha karam jagat tapa haram
pranamami saci suta gaur avaram
“I bow down to Gaura, the beautiful son of Mother Saci, Who is always removing the suffering of material existence for mankind, Who is the goal of life for those persons who are dedicated to their supreme interest, Who inspires materialists to accept new transcendental qualities and become like bees eager to lick up the honey of Krsna-katha, and Who removes the fever of the material world.”
(Sri Saci-sutastakam, verse 4)
And so, every evening, we watched as the festival guests accepted transcendental qualities and became bee-like in tasting the nectar of Krsna consciousness.
At one festival, a woman (a well-known surgeon, I later found out) told me that she had attended one of our festivals in Niechorze four years ago. It had left an indelible impression on her, but she had struggled with many challenges in her life and had lost touch with us. This summer she felt a strong need to find us, but she had no idea how to do so. She typed “Festival Indii in Niechorze” into Google and found our festival prominently advertised on the town’s summer event schedule. She then postponed all upcoming surgeries and drove up to the coast to participate in our festival for two full days.
That same weekend, another lady shared with me her unusual story of how she was inspired to attend our event. She said she had been a staunch atheist her whole life, until a recent traumatic incident impelled her to visit her local church to seek guidance. There she prayed to Mother Mary to give her a sign about how she should proceed. Later that day our kirtan party passed her in the street and she received an invitation to our festival. She said to me emphatically, “So it’s not by chance that I am here. The Holy Spirit directed me here and I am grateful he did!”
One couple I met also had an interesting story about how they came to our festival. They also received an invitation on the street, but they disagreed about whether they should come or not: the wife wanted to, but the husband wasn’t interested. She ended up coming alone, while he walked around town with some friends. Having had a wonderful time, the wife implored her husband the next morning to come to the second day of the festival in the town. He grudgingly agreed. He was so impressed by everything he saw and experienced that he decided to buy a Bhagavad-gita, even though they were on a shoestring budget.
I was signing the book when I heard her say, “Honey, you shouldn’t have bought it. I don’t think we can afford this.”
“I’m sorry, but I must have it,” he replied. “As the monk said in his lecture, spirituality should take priority in our lives.”
Sometimes our guests’ enthusiasm for what we are offering amazes me. One evening as the festival was concluding and I was getting ready to leave, a lady came up to me.
“Please don’t leave yet, sir,” she said. “Can you wait for my husband?”
“Sure,” I said. “Where is he?”
“He’s in the gift shop buying the Bhagavad-gita,” she replied. “We bought one yesterday at the festival but didn’t have a chance to get it signed by you. In your lecture yesterday you offered to sign any books people bought. We had planned to bring our copy today but we left it in our hotel room. My husband is buying another one so you can sign it. We’ll give the other copy to a close friend of ours back home.”
Unfortunately, not everyone is well-off enough to be able to buy our books. At our festival in the prestigious town of Kolobrzeg, I saw a bearded and disheveled homeless man sitting on one of the benches in front of the stage. His few belongings were stuffed into an old rusty shopping cart next to him. Though the benches were packed with people, the area around him was vacant, obviously because of his vagrant appearance. But during my lecture I saw that he was listening attentively. In fact, it seemed to me that he was more absorbed in the talk than anyone else. After my talk I gave him a Bhagavad-gita and we spoke. It turned out he was an intelligent man – a successful lawyer who had fallen on hard times. He was genuinely interested in the Bhagavad-gita. I took him to the restaurant and gave him a free meal. The next day we met again at the festival and continued our conversation on the Bhagavad-gita over lunch. When we parted, he said he would wait for us to return to the town for our second event there, scheduled in August.
“But where will you live until then?” I asked.
“Under that tree,” he said, pointing to a pine tree in the nearby park. “It’s my fate and I accept it. Besides, I’ll have plenty of time to study the Gita.”
“Alright,” I said sympathetically. “See you then.”
As I walked away, he called out, “And if destiny ever favors me again, I’ll invite you home for a delicious lunch!”
“Thank you,” I called back.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, the highlight of each festival for me is giving an introductory lecture from the stage. For me it’s the nucleus of the program. Our guests are often surprised that we include a lecture; after all, a “festival” generally implies singing, dancing, feasting and perhaps a theatrical performance. But a philosophical lecture? So, I always begin by explaining that our festival is unique: it’s the Festival of India, and spiritual philosophy is an integral part of India’s history and culture. Confirming the importance of a lecture at the event, there is always reciprocation from the audience, as seen by the fact that a number of people purchase Bhagavad-gitas right after the lecture. In fact, immediately after my talk, I relish standing in the wings of the stage to peek out and see people stand up and head straight to the book table in the gift shop.
One evening, a couple asked me if they could take a photo with me. They told me how much they appreciated the way the philosophy clearly answers the questions of life. As the man prepared to take the photo of his wife and son standing next to me, he commented to his wife, “If you want a photo with the guru, you have to fold your hands in prayer.” She did, and he took the photo.
That same evening, a large man came forward to shake my hand.
“I am captain of a large merchant ship,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world and learned many things. But today I finally understood that I am not my body; I’m a spirit soul. And I also wanted to say that my boss is the same age as you but he looks much older. I concluded that this is because he doesn’t know about Krsna’s words or how to put them into practice as you do!”
My disciple, Mathuranath dasa, brought one of Poland’s most famous actors, Tomasz Stockinger, to another of our festivals. They have developed a close relationship over the years and Mr. Stockinger, now in his late 60s, has expressed a sincere interest in Bhagavad-gita. After Mathuranath introduced us, I suggested that Mr. Stockinger come on stage to share his realizations on the Gita with the audience. He happily agreed and when he walked on stage an hour later, there was an audible gasp from the crowd. He spoke very nicely for 15 minutes. That evening we sold the most Gitas ever at a festival, no doubt because he, an influential cultural personality in Poland, had shared with the audience his appreciation for the sastra.
At times, even our competition becomes sympathetic to our cause. There was one incident where a beach town allotted us grounds near a large circus which blared loud music. Several devotees had gone over to ask them to turn down the music, but to no avail. One of the devotees reported that there was a grumpy old lady in charge who refused to even speak to them. I offered to go over and negotiate.
“There’s no chance, Maharaja,” one devotee said.
“I have a plan,” I replied.
I got 15 large samosas from the restaurant tent and packed them in a gift box. I took these, plus a beautiful bouquet of flowers, over to the circus. I asked the workers where the lady in charge could be found. They pointed to a small portable office unit. I walked over and knocked.
“Yes?” The voice was loud and sounded annoyed.
I opened the door and stepped into the office with the flower bouquet and samosas hidden behind my back.
“Oh! Not again!” the old lady barked. “I said I didn’t want to talk to any Hare Krsnas!”
“I’m the organizer of our event,” I said. “I just wanted to stop by and ask once again if you could possibly turn down the music for the three days we’re here?”
“Why should I?” she growled.
“Because I brought these flowers for you,” I said. I handed her the bouquet with a smile. “And these pastries too. I think you’ll find they are simply delicious.”
The woman’s eyes filled with tears. “How sweet of you,” she said with a flushed face. “I can’t remember the last time someone gave me such beautiful flowers.”
There was a short pause, and then she said, “Of course we’ll turn the music down. Don’t worry. I hope you have a most lovely event.”
And a most lovely event we had. In fact, the whole past month has been one lovely event after another as we touch people’s hearts in a variety of ways that gradually open them to Krsna consciousness. Certainly, all this is due to the strong desire of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the most merciful of all incarnations of the Lord! He once prayed:
“‘He He Krsna! O ocean of mercy! Protect! Please protect these people. O My great master! They are burning from the great forest fire of birth and death. O ocean of mercy, kindly bestow Your own devotional service unto 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, prayed in such a way.”
(Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-satakam, Verse 63)