UNCERTAINTY FUELS CONCERN
M a y 1 3 – 2 3 , 2 0 0 1
AS WE WERE PREPARING FOR THIS YEAR’S SPRING FESTIVALS, I found a major Polish newspaper in the reception room of our building containing an article expressing America’s concern about the growing discrimination against religious minorities in Europe.
Under the headline, “Anti-cult Law in France: Washington Concerned,” the article said, “Leading American official Michael Parmly expressed his concern Tuesday to a U.S. Senate hearing about a French bill which would threaten freedom of religion in France. ‘We are worried by the language, which is dangerously ambiguous and could be used against justifiable religious associations.’ More widely, Mr. Parmly worried about a growing religious discrimination in Western Europe and questioned ‘practices targeting religious sects’ in Austria and Belgium as well as France which could spread in other European countries—most notably in Eastern Europe.”
Knowing the devotees were already nervous about the recent publicity against our movement in the Polish media, I tried to keep the newspaper article from them, but somehow word of the article spread and I found devotees discussing the matter in small groups. In a morning class, therefore, I discussed the subject openly. This controversy is neither new nor unhealthy. I mentioned that there was no opposition in Våndävana until Lord Kåñëa made His descent there five thousand years ago. When He appeared, demoniac personalities such as Pütanä, Aghäsura, and Tåëävarta also came. As the Lord’s appearance was the catalyst that caused demoniac persons to oppose Him, so the discrimination we are experiencing in Poland should be taken as a sign that our preaching is successful. After all, we are presenting Kåñëa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in myriad ways throughout the country. His holy names, prasädam, Vedic scriptures, and temples are becoming distributed everywhere in Poland.
Still, it is never pleasant to deal with discrimination. Word seems to be out along Poland’s borders that immigration officials should make it difficult for foreign members of our movement to enter the country. Of the seventy Russian devotees who have attempted to come for the tour, more than thirty were initially turned back. After being refused entry, they had to travel long distances to another border crossing to try again. If any received three refusal stamps in their passports, entry into Poland was beyond consideration. Subuddhi Räya from Ekaterinburg, who is directing our new theater group, was refused entry three times. As a result he had to get a new passport. The problem was complicated by the fact that it takes three months to get a Russian passport. However, by Kåñëa’s mercy we made a contact in the Passport Office who, for a price, arranged a new passport for Subuddhi Räya within twenty-four hours. Because it was such an exceptional arrangement, it required thirty-two signatures of authorization from Federal Security Service officials.
We also encountered problems getting entry for three Indian ladies and one Indian man from South Africa who had come to perform Kathak dance at our festivals. When they arrived at the Warsaw airport, they were questioned and the man was sent back to South Africa. Immigration officers found his dance costumes in his suitcase and accused him of coming to Poland to perform. When Nandiné and Rädhä Sakhé Våndä protested, they were told the real reason the dancer was turned back was that “the man had dark skin and was a Hindu.”
Midweek I announced that on Saturday we would hold our first harinäma party to begin advertising the festivals. I immediately sensed that due to the negative publicity, devotees were apprehensive about going out on saìkértana. Sure enough, when Saturday rolled around I found that only a few devotees had signed up for the kértana party. In class that morning I told devotees they should have courage, and cited Bhakti Tértha Swami’s Spiritual Warrior saying that devotees are fearless, knowing they can always depend on the Lord. I also quoted Confucius: “To see what is right and not do it is want of courage.”
I also told the devotees that Çréla Prabhupäda had said that most people are innocent and that whenever we come to town with our beautiful chanting parties, all their misgivings disappear. I laughed and said that they should be as brave as the Gurkhas. A devotee raised his hand and asked, “What’s a Gurkha?” I explained that they are members of the kçatriya class in Nepal who form regiments in the British Army and are renowned for their bravery in battle. I told the true story how during the Falklands War in 1982, a British commander approached a Gurkha unit and asked for volunteers to be transported by plane and jump from 3000m behind enemy lines. When only eighty percent of the men raised their hands, the commander was surprised and said, “I thought you men were brave warriors!”
One of the Gurkhas put up his hand and said, “Sir, some of us don’t think we could survive a fall of 3000m.”
The commander was stunned. He replied, “I don’t mean jump in the literal sense. You will use parachutes to jump from the aircraft!”
Upon hearing that, all the Gurkhas volunteered.
Despite the hesitancy to go on saìkértana, when word got around that Tribhuvaneçvara Prabhu, one of our leading kértana singers, had agreed to come, the bus was full by the time we left. I was looking forward to a blissful day of saìkértana when a few kilometers down the road I saw a sign that made me nervous: “Lublin, 200km.”
Lublin is the undeclared seat of Catholic religious fervor in Poland. Several years ago we were invited to participate in a Festival of India in Swidnik, a town just 10km from Lublin. Each year the Swidnik Office of Cultural Affairs organizes a festival centered around the theme of a particular country. The year before we came they had a Japanese festival. At a loss as to how to present India’s culture, they had contacted us and asked for our participation. After meeting us and realizing how much we had to offer, they more or less gave us full control of the four-day festival. They even asked us to organize the reception for the festival’s special guest, the Indian Ambassador, at the mayor’s office. That evening we received the ambassador and many city officials with a small program of Indian dance and delicious prasädam. The mayor took pride in posing for photos with us and the Indian Ambassador.
Confident that one of the best preaching opportunities ever was ahead for us during the next few days, we went out on harinäma the morning of the first festival. Then disaster struck. The leader of the local anti-cult group met us on the street and became enraged. Ranting, she promptly went to the local priest, who went to the mayor’s office and demanded that the entire festival be canceled because of our presence. The mayor was incredulous. “Close down the entire festival? We’ve been advertising for four months and we’re expecting fifty thousand people.”
“Close the festival, or lose your job,” the priest insisted. The mayor ordered the festival closed.
We were setting up our stage and tents in the main park in town when the order came through from the police. We were also told that we had forty-five minutes to leave town. We called Cultural Affairs, but they were as shocked as we were. A large contingent of policemen stood 100m from our half-prepared festival program, awaiting orders to move us out if we didn’t agree to go. I sent a message to the police chief that we had no intention of moving, and if they wanted us to go they’d have to personally remove us. The devotees continued setting up the festival. Seeing our determination, the police backed off. Later, the police chief told a Swidnik citizen that although he had had orders from the mayor to physically remove us, he didn’t follow them because he didn’t agree with the injunction. He liked us, because he saw that we were “peaceful people.”
That afternoon, I went with a group of devotees to appeal the mayor’s decision. He wouldn’t hear of changing his order. He now saw us as a “dangerous cult” that had somehow infiltrated his town, and for the safety of his citizens he wanted us out immediately. As we were discussing the situation with him, however, word of the cancellation spread throughout the town and several hundred citizens began a demonstration outside the Town Hall. A number of them had met devotees during the two days we had been there and had a different opinion as to who we were. They liked us and liked what we had to present: the ancient spiritual culture of India.
The angry crowd began chanting, “We want the festival! We want the festival!” At one point, the mayor got up and went to his window to investigate the commotion. When he returned to his desk he relented: we could at least hold a one-day festival. Hearing the crowd’s protest, I thought of Lord Caitanya and His followers challenging the Kazi when he ordered the chanting of Hare Kåñëa to stop. The Lord and His devotees had made what Çréla Prabhupäda called “the first act of civil disobedience” by holding a loud kértana outside the Kazi’s residence.
When the devotees told the Swidnik crowd the good news, a huge roar of approval went up. That night, more than four thousand people attended the festival. At one point, a local member of the Polish parliamentary opposition party jumped onto the stage and told the crowd the full story of how the local priest had ordered the mayor to cancel the entire event because “Hare Kåñëas are dangerous.” He told the crowd that we had now been granted permission to hold the festival for only one night. At that, thousands of people began chanting, “Hare Kåñëa! Hare Kåñëa! Hare Kåñëa!” When the politician asked everyone to again march on the Town Hall, the crowd turned and marched in that direction, continuing to chant, “Hare Kåñëa! Hare Kåñëa!”
When the crowd arrived at the Town Hall (which happened to be across from the park), the State Governor was just leaving the building. He had been called to Swidnik to make a final decision on the festival and to bid farewell to the Indian Ambassador. Newspaper reporters and TV film crews were everywhere—it was a hot story. The crowd blocked the Governor’s path to his car and demanded an explanation as to why the festival had been canceled. He replied that it was for “technical reasons.” When he said that, the crowd booed and began chanting, “We want the festival! We want the festival!” When the police arrived to restore order, there was a brief moment of silence as the Governor walked to his car.
Just then, a seven-year-old girl spoke up, touching the hearts of everyone and captivating the attention of all those watching on the national television news. In a soft, concerned voice she said, “Mr. Governor, is there going to be a festival?” The Governor looked at her for a moment, then without speaking got into his car, which sped away with a police escort.
The festival continued late into the night, but the next morning we were told in no uncertain terms that we had to leave. By the Governor’s decree we were not allowed to hold the festival for the second day. I decided that “discretion was the better part of valor,” and we started packing our things to go. By the time we were ready to leave, a thousand sympathetic citizens had gathered to see us off. Some were crying because of the scandal and vowed to impeach the mayor. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, three days of festival had been canceled; on the other hand the whole country was reading and watching reports of the injustice.
Weeks later I went to India to discuss the issue with Indian politicians. We were in the process of gathering support for a formal protest to the Polish government when we received an invitation from the Polish Ambassador in Delhi to meet him. At the meeting he asked us to stop our campaign, offering to send a favorable report about our movement to Warsaw. At one point he looked at me and said, “Mahäräja, politics means to cool things down, not heat them up.” Figuring we had taken the whole thing far enough, we decided to stop our campaign. In retrospect, the whole affair was probably one of the biggest preaching opportunities for our movement in Poland. Now seeing the sign for Lublin on the way to harinäma made me apprehensive.
As our bus entered Tomaszow Mazowiecka, the first town of our spring tour, a silence fell over the devotees. Two days earlier we had sent a group of men to put up hundreds of colorful posters all over town. As we drove through the streets we saw that each and every poster had been covered by large white strips of paper. In drippy, black and red ink, the white strips read, “Attention—Sect! Festival officially canceled!” I called officials at the Town Hall, and they said that they had not canceled the program. In fact, they were looking forward to it. They suggested that the posters had probably been defaced by the Catholic Church.
When our bus pulled up to the curb, the devotees did not move. I had to order them out onto the street. Passersby were already looking at us suspiciously. To add insult to injury, when the first devotee got out of the bus he tripped on his dhoti and dropped his mådäìga on the street. It bounced a few times on the pavement, making a loud noise. Other devotees got out speaking loudly in Russian, Serb, and Croat, which drew even more attention.
Sensing the awkwardness of the moment, I asked Tribhuvaneçvara to start the kértana. An expert musician with a melodious voice, his kértana quickly melted the hearts of the devotees and, lo and behold, many of the passersby. The small crowd looking at us with suspicion were overtaken by a larger crowd of inquisitive and smiling people. A few minutes later we were dancing and singing down the street with great happiness. Devotees felt the power of the holy name and many of the townspeople were pleasantly surprised with the blissful scene. As the holy name permeated each and every shop and office, people stuck their heads out of doors and windows, smiling and waving. Almost everyone accepted our colorful invitations. I watched a number of people fold them carefully and place them in their pockets. I did not see invitations littering the ground.
Three hours later, after distributing five thousand invitations, the devotees again assembled at the bus. The town had been inundated with the holy name. Thousands of people had heard the chanting, and a good number of them would come to the festival. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless, and the only weapon we used was the holy name’s sweetness. The chanting had given the devotees the faith that whatever obstacles lay ahead of us over the next three months would be overcome by the holy name’s mercy.
aàhaù saàharad akhilaà sakåd
udayäd eva sakala-lokasya
taraëir iva timira-jaladhià
jayati jagan-maìgalaà harer näma
“As the rising sun immediately dissipates all the world’s darkness, which is deep like an ocean, so the holy name of the Lord, if chanted once without offenses, can dissipate all the reactions of a living being’s sinful life. All glories to that holy name of the Lord, which is auspicious for the entire world!”
—Padyävalé, quoting Çré Lakñmédhara]