THE DAY OF RECKONING
M a y 2 7 , 2 0 0 1
I WOKE UP YESTERDAY PREPARED FOR AN EXCITING DAY, but I had no idea that before the next twenty-four hours had passed I would be forced to make two of the most difficult decisions I could have imagined.
As I rose from bed, my mind was racing with the final arrangements for our first festival program of the year. I looked out my window as dawn revealed a beautiful, clear sky, one of the most important factors for a successful outdoor event. Since 1997, all our festivals have been outside, and during that time we have been rained out only four or five times. It must be that the demigods are eager to see the Lord’s holy name broadcast loudly throughout this part of Poland.
Çréla Prabhupäda has stated that there is an intimate connection between mankind, demigods, and the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The demigods are the Lord’s agents, and if the Lord requests, they can make conditions favorable for the devotees’ service on earth. Further inspection of the bright spring morning revealed that even Väyu (the god of air) was bestowing his blessings upon us by holding back his gusty forces so that our many tents would not have to battle the wind.
When I went downstairs, devotees were already busy loading our twenty-four tons of festival paraphernalia into our three large trucks. This included the huge sound system (capable of addressing over 100,000 people), our fifteen large tents with displays on various aspects of Vedic culture, and our large restaurant, equipped to serve quality prasädam to large quantities of people throughout the entire five-hour program.
There was an air of excitement as our 140 devotees concluded their duties before boarding the three buses to the festival site. Last-minute touches were being made on the twenty exquisitely beautiful large puppets for our new theater production, Kåñëa in Våndävana. Devotees were busy rehearsing bhajanas for the stage show. Our lady performers from South Africa were assembling ankle bells and dance outfits for their premiere performance with us.
Everyone was again looking forward to a season of fifty consecutive festivals. This an intense service (a festival practically every day for three months), but it’s like drinking hot sugar juice—it’s so hot it burns the lips but so sweet you can’t stop drinking it. What in this world can compare with the happiness of seeing thousands of conditioned souls at practically each and every festival enchanted by the spiritual atmosphere of Kåñëa’s Village of Peace and the variety of spiritual entertainment presented there?
akasmäd evävirbhavati bhagavän näma
laharé paritänäm päpair api purubhir
eñaà tanu bhåtam aho vraja prayaà håd
api nava nityatam abhün nåëäà loke
yasminn avatarati gauro mama gatiù
“Now that Lord Gaura has descended to this world, the waves of the holy names of Lord Kåñëa are suddenly flooding this planet, and the hearts of the sinful conditioned souls, which are as hard as thunderbolts, have become as soft as butter. Let me take shelter of that Lord Gaura.”
By 9:00 A.M. our caravan of assorted trucks, buses, and cars was rumbling down the road to the festival site in Tomaszow, 35km away. We planned a short harinäma before setting up at the site, so when we arrived in town we stopped the buses and alighted to perform a mahä-harinäma. We were more than a hundred devotees strong, and the combined effect of our enthusiastic street chanting on the occasion of our first festival would be most auspicious. In Vedic culture one would often consider the auspicious and inauspicious moments to begin an important event, but the chanting of the Lord’s holy name makes any moment—even in the sinful age of Kali—all-auspicious. As we danced and chanted through the streets, people once again graciously accepted our invitations by the thousands and promised to attend our festival. I was feeling the greatest happiness at the possibility of sharing with the people the wonderful world of Kåñëa consciousness.
However, not all was well. After many years of being on the streets chanting the holy name, one learns to become attentive to signs of inauspiciousness. It appeared that a number of people in Tomaszow were particularly disturbed by our chanting. It is not everyone who appreciates the chanting of the Lord’s holy name.
sthäne håñékeça tava prakértyä
jagat prahåñyaty anurajyate ca
rakñäàsi bhétäni diço dravanti
sarve namasyanti ca siddha-saìghäù
“Arjuna said: O master of the senses, the world becomes joyful upon hearing Your name, and thus everyone becomes attached to You. Although the perfected beings offer You their respectful homage, the demons are afraid, and they flee here and there. All this is rightly done.”
As we chanted through the town’s streets, a few antagonistic young men shouted obscenities. Others simply stood still as we passed, their angry eyes riveted on our kértana party. On top of that, I noticed that all the posters we had put up the night before (to cover those defaced earlier in the week) were again covered with bright stickers. The stickers read, “Attention! Sect! Festival canceled!” It seemed that a concerted effort was being made to stop our festival, and I sensed that the angry young men we encountered were somehow connected.
After the harinäma, we proceeded to the festival site and worked hard for the next five hours setting up our spiritual village. Our semi-trailer truck, once unloaded, folds out into a professional stage, complete with a set of thirty-six bright lights. Our tents include displays on vegetarianism, reincarnation, Vedic art, spiritual science, and even a tent exhibiting spiritual fashions where young girls and ladies may choose a sari to wear for the duration of the festival. With the help of our ladies, the entire 250 saris are usually adorning festival participants only two hours into the festival. Others patiently wait in line for them to be returned so that they can have a turn at wearing them.
Because this was our first festival of the year, the setup went slowly, as we carefully pieced together a replica of the spiritual world. The festival was scheduled to begin at 5:00 P.M., but by 4:00 P.M. there were already several hundred guests milling through our shops and eating in our restaurant. We officially opened the festival with a kértana and short introduction, which included a message of appreciation to all the mothers present (it was Mother’s Day). Then our South African Indian dancers bedazzled the crowd with a spectacular Kathak dance. As it was their first performance for us, I stood among the crowd to watch. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some of the same angry young men I had seen when we were on saìkértana. One doesn’t easily forget a face full of envy and hate. As I studied them, I noticed that they weren’t at all interested in the entertainment but seemed to be checking things out and making calculations. I called our security boys over and asked them to keep an eye on what appeared to be unwanted guests.
The stage performances went smoothly one after another. People seemed to love our new puppet show, which was especially designed for children. Subuddhi Räya and his troupe put together this excellent, one-hour drama, and it touched the hearts of all the children present—and because the children were enjoying themselves, the hearts of their parents.
Several times I walked around the festival site visiting booths. One area was so crowded I could hardly move. The local police later told Nandiné that they estimated attendance at more than four thousand people. Everywhere people could be seen wearing bindis and beautiful gopé dots, painted on their faces by our ladies at the gopé dot booth. Many people approached me to sign their copies of Bhagavad-gétä and the other books they were purchasing in our bookshops.
Later, I gave a lecture. I remarked that the festival atmosphere was special, and many people smiled and nodded their heads in agreement. When I pointed out that thousands of people were enjoying themselves despite the fact that we served no alcohol at the site, everyone laughed.
As evening fell, many of the families began to go home and the festival crowd changed to young people eager to hear our reggae band, Village of Peace. The band is well known, partly because the devotees in it play to 300,000 kids at Woodstock every summer. By the time night fell, the band was halfway through its repertoire. The kids were loving it. Çré Prahläda and the musicians were in top form. Hundreds of youngsters were chanting and dancing, and many of us were thinking it was one of the band’s best concerts ever.
Then just as they were beginning their last song, chaos erupted. I was standing beside the sound tent when I saw a large canister sail over the heads of the audience and land in the middle of the crowd standing in front of the stage. It exploded when it hit the ground, releasing a cloud of pepper gas. The kids started gagging. Within seconds, a group of twenty young men dressed in black, with big boots, and wearing bandannas over their faces, attacked the crowd. Swinging baseball bats, iron bars, and chains, they began to beat devotees and guests indiscriminately. The first person hit was a 12-year-old girl, who fell to the ground, her head bleeding.
Before our security could respond, the neo-Nazi skinheads had injured several people. Premharinäma däsa, one of my disciples from Bosnia, was among the first to go down. He sustained a heavy blow to the forehead. Ekanätha däsa was struck with a baseball bat in the face, and when he fell, the skinheads pummeled him into the ground. Guests were falling left and right as the skinheads, screaming Right-wing slogans, viciously beat them. Vaikuëöhapati, Rakñana, and Çré Bhäñya, three members of our security force, descended on the attackers with a fury. Vara-nayaka Prabhu and a number of guests fought the skinheads with chairs and tables. In the midst of it all, male devotees were screaming to our mätäjés to run to the bus parked nearby. Outside the melee, people called the police on cell phones. As more people joined the fight, the skinheads retreated only to reassemble and attack again. One of them jumped into our gift shop, where Mother Taralakñi smashed him with a chair. Then as suddenly as they appeared, they dispersed.
There was blood everywhere. Five devotees were injured, as well as a number of guests. Ten minutes later an ambulance arrived and took the most seriously injured to the hospital. A long twenty minutes later the police finally arrived. They had only been two blocks away, but somehow did not arrive in time to help the situation. Similarly, they were not interested in making a report on the attack, and informed us that they couldn’t offer us any protection for the rest of the night as they had “only three men on duty” in the entire town. We realized, of course, that the police were connected with the attackers. We even suspected that the local Church might be involved. All day people had been telling us that the local priests had been calling them, warning them not to attend the festival.
To my surprise, people continued to mill around the festival site after the attack. They were angry that such a peaceful event had been so brutally disrupted. I heard people discussing religious intolerance and discrimination, a common enough topic in Poland. I appreciated their support, but I was nervous that so many people had remained behind. What if the skinheads returned to finish the job? Vara-näyaka, who was himself slightly injured in the fight, ordered all the trucks, cars, tents, and paraphernalia to be brought into the center of the field so we could protect everything more efficiently.
After some deliberation, we decided to dismantle the festival and pack up. It was too risky to remain, as our security force was not prepared to deal with so many well-armed men. It had taken the help of our guests to repulse the attackers. For the same reason, we decided to cancel the second day of the festival. This was the first of the two difficult decisions I had to make.
Nandiné and Rädhä Sakhé Våndä went to the hospital to check on the injured devotees. Their wounds required stitches, but fortunately none of their injuries were serious. We sent the other ladies back to our base in the bus, with all the men staying behind to protect the crew who were dismantling the festival. Several carloads of skinheads arrived two hours later, but we made a show of force and they retreated. We arrived back at our base at 4:00 A.M.
Later in the morning, our management team met to discuss strategies for dealing with such attacks. We decided to prepare a report for the media, as our opposition could easily turn the issue to their favor by saying that our presence provoked the incident. Most importantly, we concluded that our security would be unable to deal with such a scene again. We decided to employ a professional security group to protect our festivals from now on. We can pay for a security team’s service for the next two weeks, but our budget will not accommodate the estimated $25,000 it will cost to provide security for the devotees and guests for the next forty-nine festivals and Woodstock in August. We’ll have to find the funds somewhere. Should we fail, we realized that we would have to cancel the rest of the three-month tour.
This conclusion brought me to the second difficult decision: to turn to you, the readers of this diary, to help us. My intention in writing this diary has always been to raise preaching awareness, not to solicit funds. Now determined enemies are close to stopping one of ISKCON’s most successful preaching programs. The devotees here are bearing insult and injury to spread the chanting of the holy name, but I am not prepared to allow them to take foolish risks.
My request to all my readers at this moment of crisis is to send a donation so that these festivals may continue. I’m begging your mercy, so that our festival program may continue to give mercy.