March 5 – 27, 2003
By Indradyumna Swami
The war in Iraq began just days after my arrival in America for a two-month preaching tour. As a result, I found a people very receptive to Krsna consciousness. Bhagavad-gita describes four classes of men who turn to God: the curious, those seeking material success, those seeking knowledge, and those in distress. Whether encountering peace activists or advocates of war, I noted an anxious atmosphere pervading America as people grapple with fear, doubt and apprehension about the conflict overseas and the possibility of terrorist retaliation at home.
With America’s initial missile attack on Baghdad, intended to kill Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his closest advisors, the administration raised the homeland terrorist alert from yellow (medium) to orange (high). Consequently, security was increased at all airports, obliging passengers to undergo rigorous checks. All luggage was subject to x-ray and personal searches were conducted on each passenger. This was especially true for myself and Sri Prahlad (who had joined me for the tour), for our devotional attire attracted attention and suspicion. As much as I am an advocate of devotees wearing traditional clothing, I almost capitulated in favor of non-devotional dress after being singled out numerous times for security checks on every flight.
However, an incident involving a security guard in charge of a luggage x-ray machine at Los Angeles Airport kept me true to my values. Arriving from India with Sri Prahlad were two big steel trunks containing beautiful 3ft nimwood Deities of Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda carved at Ekacakra, the appearance site of Lord Nityananda in Bengal. Sri Prahlad had brought the Deities for Yajna Purusa das and his brahmacaris, who oversee the preaching in the Lower East Side of New York. As we put the heavy boxes on to the conveyor belt for x-ray at the check-in for our flight to Seattle, the first stop on our tour, the eyes of the security guard at the screen lit up as he saw the unusual forms inside. I cringed, expecting an interogation. But when he saw myself and Sri Prahlad in our robes with shaved heads, he said, “Oh, it’s Hare Krishna. What’s in the boxes, gentlemen?”
To my surprise, Sri Prahlad calmly answered, “God.”
The guard reflected for a moment, looking back and forth at the images on the screen, then said, “But we’re dealing with two figures here. People say there’s only one God.”
Sri Prahlad replied, “That’s true, but the Lord has many expansions. The second box is His first expansion.”
That proved a little too philosophical for the official, who nevertheless smiled and waved us on without further questioning. Wondering about the source of his trust in us, Sri Prahlad inquired as we passed by, “Do you know about our movement?”
“Yes,” the man replied. “I live in Culver City. You have a temple there. I never went, but I once ate a sweet from there that was cooked in ghee. It was delicious.”
Pausing for a moment, he then said, “Can you tell me, what is ghee?”
By that time other luggage was coming through the x-ray machine and he had to turn his attention to his work. I prayed that the small service he rendered us and his inquisitiveness about ghee would somehow bring him in contact with devotees again, ensuring his gradual progress in spiritual life.
After a three-day visit to the Seattle temple, Sri Prahlad and I were at the airport on our way to board a flight to New York when we came across a booth by the walkway piled high with Srila Prabhupada’s books. A young lady was speaking with some interested people who had stopped to look at the books. We waited until the people left and approached the young lady, who introduced herself as Tapta Kancani dasi, a 25-year-old disciple of Jayapataka Maharaja. She told us that she had moved to Seattle a few years ago, after hearing that people in the Puget Sound area were inclined towards Krsna consciousness. She had rented a small flat and traveled every day at 5am to secure one of the three booths the airport allots to charity organizations in the departure lounge. For years she has dedicated herself to this service, with little time for other activities or a social life. Living on the profits from her book distribution, she thus passes her days happily at the airport. A devotee can be so content simply by sharing Krsna consciousness in this way. As we settled into our seats on the plane, I told Sri Prahlad that I had also experienced so much satisfaction from distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books in the early years of my devotional service, that if required I could easily return to that service full time. Carrying a book-bag over my shoulder and going door to door for the remainder of my life would be a great pleasure.
At a ceremony we attended in our center in New York’s Lower East Side, the beautiful deities of Gaura-Nitai were welcomed by a large congregation from the surrounding area. The event culminated in a harinam of 240 devotees in Times Square. The devotees had secured a permit to chant in an allocated spot in the middle of the square, but when we arrived we found another group occupying the area. We were left with no option but to take the kirtan group on to the streets. Due to the enormous size of the kirtan party and the fact that the police and security personnel throughout the city were nervous with the hightened alert, I seriously doubted we would get away with a harinam. But when Yajna Purusa approached a group of policemen, they agreed to our proposal. As we started moving through the huge crowds on the streets we literally took over the area. Even the bright lights, flashing neon signs, and other attractions of Times Square couldn’t compete with the size of the kirtan party and the sheer enthusiasm of the devotees and the groups of young people dancing with us.
Two days later in Boston on Gaura-purnima day we had a similar experience. Sri Prahlad and myself led a group of 15 devotees on a kirtan party out of the temple and into the city. This time we didn’t have numerous devotees to attract public attention. We didn’t even have an accordian for Sri Prahlad, and the mrdunga I played sounded like an old cardboard box. Nevertheless, we had the most important ingredient: the holy name. And as our little band of devotees chanted through town on that sunny day, people stopped in groups and listened. I was amazed – I thought things like that happened only outside America these days. Even more people stopped when Sri Prahlad gave a short talk and mentioned the war in Iraq, and how Krsna consciousness could bring peace to the world by helping us to realize we are all part of one spiritual family, with God as the father. People took notice, and some businessmen even nodded their heads in approval. It does seem that America is riper than ever for Krsna consciousness.
Back on the West Coast, on the second leg of our journey, I gave a lecture to the devotees at a festival at the Laguna Beach temple. I said that although we are aspiring transcendentalists aloof from the so-called happiness and distress of the material world, we cannot help but be concerned with the recent upsurge of violence at home and abroad. But our interest in these matters should not be of the same nature as common people, who pour over reports from the front with rapt attention, tuning into CNN three to four times a day. Rather, understanding that such conflicts are the result of impious deeds on both sides, we should spend our time taxing our brains (as Srila Prabhupada once said) how to spread Krsna consciouness, knowing that it is in fact the peace formula and of the utmost urgency.
A woman we met later on sankirtan in Laguna, who was on her way to the desert to meditate and fast to stop the war, agreed to come back with us to the temple and chant Hare Krishna at the arati instead. I was happy at the end of the evening to see her feasting for peace in a spiritual context rather than fasting!
Devotees must take advantage of the winds that favor and assist the spreading of the holy names. America should not be renown simply because it is the most powerful and wealthy nation, but because it is where Krsna consciousness took root in the West. The war in Iraq is unfortunate, but it can act as a catalyst to inspire the devotees in America to preach to their countrymen.
“Fortunately, … the Hare Krsna movement has come to America, and many fortunate young men are giving serious attention to this movement, which is creating ideal men of first-class character, men who completely refrain from meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication and gambling. If the American people are serious … they must take to the Krsna consciousness movement and try to create the kind of human society advised in Bhagavad-gita … If they do so, they will be happy, and theirs will be an ideal nation to lead the entire world.”
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.7.12, purport]