POLISH CAMPAIGN GETS UNDER WAY
A p r i l 2 3 – M a y 1 2 , 2 0 0 1
ON THE FLIGHT FROM NEW YORK TO LONDON on April 23, I had mixed feelings. I was happy, because my tour of American temples had gone well and a number of devotees had expressed gratitude that I had taken the time and energy to visit them. But I knew it wasn’t just me—it was me and Çré Prahläda. The trip was successful because we did together what we’ve done for the past ten years: we shared the entire effort—the classes, kértanas, and interactions with the devotees. Therefore I was sad because I knew that the trip to America was our last combined effort to enliven and associate with devotees in different parts of the world. In autumn, after this year’s Polish tour, Çré Prahläda and Rukmiëé Priya plan to settle in Australia. Each time I think of their departure, I feel an emptiness in the pit of my stomach. Çré Prahläda is more than a simple servant or assistant; after many years of service, his friendship is my most valued possession. As I thought of all we’d done in America, the hope of somehow staying together once again entered my mind, as it had a thousand times since he announced his imminent departure, because “grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of joy you must have somebody to divide it with.” (Mark Twain)
As our flight touched down in London, I turned to Çré Prahläda and suggested that rather than separate completely, we should try to find a means to serve together which would satisfy his needs as a gåhastha and mine as a traveling preacher. Even as I said it I knew such a proposal was fraught with complications. A householder means just that—owning an immovable house where one serves the Lord with wife and children. A sannyäsé means being always on the move, with no home and few possessions. Later we spoke for hours, but with no solution. As a last resort, we decided to seek the advice of Tamäla Kåñëa Mahäräja, who was in Cambridge at the time. To my amazement, Mahäräja suggested a plan that satisfied everyone’s needs: Çré Prahläda and Rukmiëé Priya will live in Mäyäpura for six months of the year, September through February, where they’ll assist Bhakti Vidyä Pürëa Mahäräja in his development of a new school for higher education, in March-April Çré Prahläda and I will travel and preach, and in India’s hot and monsoon seasons (May-August), Çré Prahläda and Rukmiëé Priya will join the Polish festival tour. We all agreed on the plan and left feeling indebted to Tamäla Kåñëa Mahäräja.
Today a man discovered gold and fame
Another flew the stormy seas;
Another set an unarmed world aflame,
One found the germ of a disease.
But what high fates my path attend . . .
For I—today—I found a friend.
—Helen Barker Parker
After a three-day rest in England, Çré Prahläda and I flew to Divnomorsk in southern Russia to participate in a grand festival honoring the appearance of Lord Nåsiàhadeva. More than two thousand devotees from all over Russia attended the celebration, which was highlighted by the visits of Niraïjana Mahäräja and Prabhaviñëu Swami. The festival was simply one kértana after another for three days straight.
On May 7 we flew to Warsaw to prepare for the spring festival tour. As our plane circled the city waiting for clearance to land, my thoughts focused on the campaign. Although during the past eight months I had traveled far and wide in my preaching, the 2001 tour in Poland had always been the focus of my meditation. Just as a paramour thinks of her lover in a distant place while performing her daily affairs, my mind was always meditating on the unparalleled preaching opportunity ahead. Last year more than 750,000 people had walked through the gates of our festival program and participated in one way or another in spiritual activities. No wonder the Catholic Church in Poland is so worried about our activities and so intent on stopping us. Of course, the honorable thing would be to accept us as brothers in God’s service, but with few exceptions history has shown that religion is often the most dividing factor in human society. As our plane descended on to the runway, I braced myself both for the landing and the struggle ahead.
When I emerged from customs, my apprehensions were confirmed. I Nandiné and Rädhä Sakhé Våndä met me, and on the way to the car I asked Nandiné to give me a briefing on the efforts to organize the festival programs. She replied, “Çréla Gurudeva, do you want the good news or the bad news first?”
“OK, give me the bad news first.”
“The anti-cult groups, under the auspices of the Church, are beginning their annual spring media campaign against us. They know we’ll soon be starting our spring tour in Lodz and will be along the Baltic Sea coast in the summer. A barrage of negative newspaper articles about us are coming out, as well as several horrific television broadcasts, all filled with false propaganda.
“A booklet warning of the dangers of cults has been distributed to every teacher in every school in the country. We are the main focus. They accuse us of mind control, breaking families, and a number of criminal activities.
“As a result of the constant barrage of misinformation, a recent survey revealed that sixty-five percent of the population favor closing down the ‘cults’ in Poland. We’re number one on the list.”
“But how can they say we are a cult? We’ve been registered as an official religion in this country since 1991.”
Nandiné replied with the infamous quote, “If you tell the people a lie for long enough, they’ll eventually believe it.”
“OK, now give me the good news.”
Rädhä Sakhé Våndä said: “A lot people like us. Wherever we go, we meet people who’ve been to one or two of our festivals since 1990. They’re always willing to help.
“Our preaching is having its effect. In another survey, fifty-two percent of Polish people say they believe in reincarnation. We feel that all the book distribution, festivals, and media programs we’ve done have contributed to that belief.
“Our supporter, the Mayor of Zary, has just been added to a group of advisors to the Polish President. The President’s personal secretary (also Poland’s Minister of Home Affairs) spoke at the opening of ISKCON’s exhibition on Vedic Culture at the Warsaw Museum.
“Plans for the Woodstock Festival are continuing without opposition. Jurek Owsiak (the primary organizer) told us he is counting on the Hare Kåñëa Village of Peace being there. He said to tell you he wants our presence to be even bigger and more colorful than last time.”
“How is that possible?” I said. “The tent we rented from Germany was bigger than an American football field. It held ten thousand kids for four days!”
We discussed further details when we arrived at the temple. The office looked like the headquarters of a military operation. There were several devotees poring over maps, considering when and where we would hold festivals in the area we had chosen for the spring tour. Phones were ringing and faxes were coming in and going out. The room buzzed with information about where we would purchase the twenty-two tons of food we needed for distribution at Woodstock, details of the arrival of 130 devotees from Eastern Europe and Russia, details of the rent contract for the three buses we’ll be using for the next three months, insurance policies for devotees and guests, security requirements at the festivals, and so on.
I met briefly with our public relations group, ICP, and asked if they had any information as to what steps the anti-cult groups would take. (The Duke of Wellington said, “The whole art of war consists of guessing at what is on the other side of the hill.”)
To my surprise, the devotees told me that ICP’s Acintya däsé had recently gone to a meeting of some of the biggest anti-cult groups in Poland. More than one hundred people were present. There were the usual speeches about the dangers of cults, and our movement was mentioned several times. One speaker warned that the Hare Kåñëa movement has made inroads into the public schools. To the audience’s horror, she told the story of a schoolteacher who mentioned to her students in class that the Hare Kåñëa movement is actually not a cult but an ancient spiritual tradition that has been practiced in India for thousands of years. One of her students spoke against her and an argument ensued during which the teacher defeated the student. When the other students applauded the teacher, the student who had objected walked out in frustration.
As more speakers vilified the Kåñëa consciousness movement in particular, Acintya gathered her courage, stood up, and boldly identified herself as a devotee. Immediately there was silence, and all eyes were upon her. With such a captive audience, she defeated each of the accusations that had been made against ISKCON. At the end of her presentation she fielded questions for two hours, the meeting finishing only when the main organizer realized that his objective of scandalizing our movement had been unsuccessful.
I gave class at the Warsaw temple the following morning. I had just begun my lecture and was going deeply into the philosophy of acintya-bhedäbheda-tattva, the inconceivable and simultaneous oneness and difference between God and the living entity, when a well-dressed woman entered the temple room and sat down at the back, unnoticed by all the devotees except the temple president, Kaçi Miçra Prabhu. He leaned forward and said to me, “She’s a well-known reporter from a big newspaper. It’s only her second time here.”
Seeing it as an opportunity to gain the favor of an important and influential person, I switched from my topic to the ABCs of “we are not the body.” The journalist’s eyes lit up as I went point by point through my explanation. The devotees were confused. Not knowing that the reporter was present, they couldn’t understand why I had suddenly switched topics. I wound up my lecture with a short explanation of the mahä-mantra and the four regulative principles. The reporter was as stunned as the devotees. After the class, she journalist thanked me for the talk, saying it was one of the most interesting things she had ever heard. She also asked if we had any books for sale.
The next day I left for our spring tour base, 150km southwest of Warsaw. When I arrived, seventy-five devotees greeted me with a small reception. I thanked them, then spoke on the importance of the work we had ahead of us. I mentioned that in the next three months we would do fifty major festivals, not including Woodstock, the biggest of all, at the end. I explained how our opposition was making plans against us, but that we should take courage. After all, we had the blessings of many great devotees and Närada Muni in particular. That morning I had been reading the Çrémad-Bhägavatam Mahätmya and had concluded that Närada Muni is the patron saint of our festival program. The Mahätmya describes that once Närada Muni was traversing the earth at the beginning of Kali-yuga when he came upon Bhakti Devé, devotion to the Lord personified. She was lamenting that her two sons, Jïäna (knowledge) and Vairägya (renunciation) were lying powerless on the ground because of the evil influence of the age of Kali. Approaching her, Närada offered words of hope and inspiration:
O beautiful-faced one, there is no other age like Kali-yuga, because you will be established in every house as well as in the heart of every person. Hear my vow. If I do not preach your message, subdue all materialistic religions, and make devotional festivals predominant, then I shall not be considered the servant of Lord Hari.
—Çrémad-Bhägavatam Mahätmya 1.5-6
I pray that by Närada Muni’s grace our attempts to preach Kåñëa consciousness through the medium of colorful festivals in the next three months will be successful and that the people of Poland will get a little taste of the spiritual world, where all walking is dancing, all talking song, and there’s a festival every day!