June 2-12, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami
Our spring tour has been gaining momentum as we travel from town to town in southern Poland. As a result of well-organized publicity we have even had to turn people away at the door at some programs because the halls quickly filled to capacity. It is a bittersweet experience: sweet to see the overwhelming interest in Krsna consciousness, but bitter to see souls turned away after they have waited millions of lifetimes to come to Krsna.
Despite the growing interest, I continue to notice some apathy toward our movement among the general mass of people when we go on our chanting parties. One can easily feel the mood of the public by being on the street. Fewer people take interest in our kirtan parties than previous years, and it is not uncommon to get cold stares and even rude remarks.
I have preached in Poland since 1989, and I have seen the changes in the country firsthand, so I can tell that the present coldness toward us comes from the so-called material progress. Although material progress brings facility and comforts, it is a double-edged sword, also bringing immorality and degradation, mostly because of an increase in meat eating, intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling. A preacher is not surprised though: being versed in sastra, he’s prepared for the advance of Kali Yuga.
tvam nah sandarsito dhatra dustaram nistitirsatam kalim sattva-haram pumsam karna-dhara ivarnavam
“We think that we have met Your Goodness by the will of providence, just so that we may accept you as captain of the ship for those who desire to cross the difficult ocean of Kali, which deteriorates all the good qualities of a human being.” [Srimad Bhagavatam 1.1.22]
We decided to decrease our security on the spring tour this year because the hall programs would be much smaller than before, allowing us to give more attention to our audiences. But seeing the animosity of people toward us on the street, we have felt obliged to take measures to protect ourselves in some places.
The local congregation leader in Walbrzych, Trisama prabhu, organized a police escort for our two-hour Harinam through the streets. Four policemen walked along with us, and we even had a patrol car with lights flashing in front of us. As we started Harinam that day, the officer in charge smiled and motioned that we should chant down the middle of the street. People waved at us, and shop owners came out to see the fun. Many good-hearted people enjoyed the “parade,” and we got a large crowd at our program that evening.
Nevertheless times have changed, and I often find myself reflecting on the gradual loss of piety among the Polish people and the resentment toward us among some of them. Relief comes, however, at those moments when I see people’s lives touched by Krsna’s mercy through our efforts to preach. Seeing transformations in people lives is the only reward a preacher hopes for.
An example is a relatively new devotee who lives in Walbrzych. After the guests had left our program, I asked him whether he had invited his parents. He replied that his mother and father were divorced but he had invited his father, who lived nearby. His father, however, was inimical toward Krsna consciousness and had vehemently refused. Thus the boy was amazed when halfway through the program he saw his father sitting in the audience.
After the program, his father came up to him. “Son,” he said, “please forgive any misunderstandings I had about this movement. I enjoyed the program immensely. You have my support for what you are doing.”
“What about your mother?” I asked.
“Oh my mother has no problems with my being a devotee,” he said laughing.
“My mother is very conservative,” he continued, “but she accompanied a close friend, on the friend’s request, to the Warsaw temple last year for a Sunday feast. My mother was so impressed with the program and the blissful nature of the devotees that she prayed to ‘the God on the altar’ to please make her son a Hare Krsna devotee. At that time I was heavily involved in drugs and criminal activities.
“Three months later I met devotees and joined the movement, and I gave up all my bad habits. At that time, my mother told me of her fervent prayer. She is so grateful to ‘the God on the altar’ that she thanks Him every day in her morning and evening prayers.”
As our tour went on, I was especially looking forward to our program in Kielce, a moderate-sized town of 100,000 people nestled in a beautiful forested region of Poland. In 1993 we had a small but successful festival there, and I remembered the people as especially pious.
Our congregation members there were eager to have us return, and in recent weeks, they had gone out of their way to put up hundreds of posters. I considered hiring a security firm, but I remembered the warmth of the people, and when I heard of the growing interest in the festival within our congregation, I decided against it.
My decision would prove to be a mistake, however, and almost cost us dearly, for Kali-yuga has firmly taken root in Kielce since my visit in 1993.
I had my first hint of trouble as we drove through the center of town. I saw that many of our posters had been ripped down. This has always been a sure sign of antagonism. When we arrived at the hall two hours before the program, 10 devotees from the congregation were waiting for us. Their faces were anxious.
“Srila Gurudeva,” one of them said, “two young men from a right- wing political party just came here and told the director of the hall to cancel our program or be prepared for the worst. They told him we are a dangerous sect and they will stop our festival one way or another. We had to convince the director that we are not a cult. He was obviously afraid of the threats, but he tentatively agreed to let the festival go on.”
“I suspected something was amiss,” I said, “when I saw all the posters in town ripped up.”
“Yes,” a devotee replied, “and yesterday the same youths were grabbing invitations from the hands of the devotees on the street. When they threatened violence, the devotees had to stop.”
“How many are they?” I asked.
“For now we’ve only seen two,” came the reply.
I paused for a moment. “It’s just two local men,” I thought, “so we can go out on Harinam.”
Before each festival, we have a powerful one-hour kirtan to add a last touch of publicity, but on this day the preparations�setting up the stage and decorating the hall�were late, so Bhakta Dominique, the main organizer of our spring tour, asked that most devotees stay behind to help. Thus our little Harinam party of six devotees went blithely out onto the streets and into the jaws of the lion. We had only been chanting 10 minutes when we were attacked from behind by several men in their early twenties. I was leading the kirtan party down the street, so I did not notice the scuffle at the back. But then I heard Narottam das’s voice above the kirtan. “Let go!” he was shouting.
I reeled around and saw that one of the attackers had wrested the microphone and small amplifier from Narottam. Then the man head- butted Narottam’s face, but Narottam was undeterred and grabbed back the microphone and amplifier. The kirtan came to a stop, and we confronted the men.
As soon as I saw their faces I remembered the attack on our Harinam party in Sarajevo, Bosnia, some years ago. As in Sarajevo, the men’s eyes were full of hate and their lips were trembling from anger. They stood with clenched fists, ready to attack us at any moment. I also noted that they all wore the same gray-colored t-shirts with an insignia and writing in small print. As I reached for my canister of tear gas, I saw from the corner of my eye a number of other youths surrounding us.
By a quirk of fate there were no Polish devotees on the Harinam. For a few moments our attackers were put off-guard in the heated exchange of words because we were speaking in a foreign language. But just when they motioned to their friends to come forward, Sri Prahald spoke up in broken Polish. “Don’t use force,” he said. “Tell us what you want.”
One man put his face close to Sri Prahlad. “All right,” he growled in Polish, “I’m advising you to get out of here immediately.”
We had only seconds to decide what to do. “Let’s have kirtan,” said one devotee, undeterred by their threats.
But as Sri Prahlad and I looked at each other, we conveyed the same thought without speaking a word: “Remember Sarajevo.” I won’t go so far as to say our exchange was telepathy. Let us simply say it was the result of a camaraderie developed after years of preaching together. It wasn’t the first time we had faced such a situation.
In Sarajevo we had initially repulsed an attack by three Muslim men on our kirtan party. Devotees had fought back and smashed one of the attackers through the plate-glass window of a store. But then instead of retreating in the face of a superior aggressor (“Discretion is the better part of valor”) we stood defiantly and chanted Nrsimha prayers. Thirty men then ruthlessly attacked us with pistols and knives. The rest is history.
Sri Prahlad and I nodded our unspoken agreement. “Okay,” I said, “we’re pulling out.”
We put away our instruments (but not my tear gas) and started walking slowly in the direction of the hall. But I became suspicious when I saw one of the men walking just in front of us, off to the side, while speaking on his cell phone. He was glancing back at us from time to time.
“We’re walking into a trap,” I thought.
Sri Prahlad took out his cell phone and called Dominique to tell him we needed someone who could speak Polish.
After walking a few more steps, I saw a group of skinheads coming down the street from the other direction. I could see that the man in front of us and the skinheads were speaking on the phone together. The skinheads began rubbing their knuckles and looked around to see if there were any police in sight. I also looked around. There were none to be seen.
Suddenly I remembered my Nrsimha mantra. “Why haven’t I chanted it yet?” I thought. At that moment I remembered Uttara, the mother of Maharaja Pariksit, and how she called out for Lord Krsna when she saw a nuclear weapon coming toward her:
pahi pahi maha-yogin
nanyam tvad abhayam pasye
yatra mrtyuh parasparam
“Uttara said: O Lord of lords, Lord of the universe! You are the greatest of mystics. Please protect me, for there is no one else who can save me from the clutches of death in this world of duality.”
[Srimad Bhagavatam 1.8.9]
In a fraction of a second another thought raced through my mind. “Here is the difference between a pure devotee and me,” I thought. “She remembers the Lord at every moment, and I forget Him at the slightest hint of danger.”
And so I chanted the mantra for the first of many times that day.
Just then Dominique came around the corner and asked what the trouble was. Sri Prahlad pointed out the man in front of us, and Dominique courageously approached him. Because Dominique was dressed in ordinary clothes and carried an air of authority, the man with the cell phone seemed a little taken aback. Apparently it caused him to call off the imminent attack of the skinheads. Our Harinam party quickly turned the corner and walked a few meters more to the safety of the hall.
“That was a close one,” I said to Sri Prahlad.
“Too close,” came his reply.
Dominique soon returned, and we discussed the situation. The main problem was that earlier in the day these men had told the director of the hall that they would return to disrupt our festival. Obviously, next time they would come with their friends and sympathizers.
I asked Dominique who they were, and he told me they were part of a Christian-based political party with radical views. They believed that Poland was only for Poles and the only religion in Poland should be Christianity. In recent years, the party has attracted many young men, who propagate and deliver their message with force. In areas where they are strong they do not tolerate public demonstrations contrary to their ideology.
Apparently Kielce is their party headquarters, and the local people rarely, if ever, hold outdoor public functions out of fear of them. More than once they had attacked such programs, resulting in bloody fighting and chaos.
“I suspect they were the ones behind the attack on our festival program in Tomaszow a few years ago,” Dominique said.
I looked at my watch. The program was to begin in one hour.
Considering that we had no security whatsoever, I proposed that we cancel the event. It wasn’t worth the risk of injury to our devotees or guests. We would be far outnumbered. Dominique thought for a moment and suggested we notify the police of the situation. I reminded him how unreliable the police had been in Tomaszow. Dominique then suggested we hire a reliable security firm to protect us.
I thought for a moment. “It sounds reasonable,” I said, “but I want 15 security men here in 30 minutes, or we cancel.”
Dominique went into action. It was easy to inform the police, but finding 15 professional security men in a town the size of Kielce in a few minutes would be almost impossible. Generally, security firms want at ateast three days’ notice. Dominique called seven companies, but they either were closed by that hour or didn’t have the manpower available.
Time was of the essence. People, eager as always for our show, were already arriving, and the hall was filling up. I knew that it would be an easy job for the thugs. All they had to do was show up as they did in Tomaszow with baseball bats, smash a few people and cars for three or four minutes, and then run for it. I looked at Dominique. “You’ve got five minutes more,” I said.
He called the last security firm in the phone book and explained our problem. The man in charge said he could be at the hall in 20 minutes with 15 men. But we’d have to “pay a heavy fee.”
Dominique looked at me. “I’ve got a firm,” he said.
“How much will it cost?” I asked.
“Twelve hundred dollars,” he said.
My eyebrows went up. “Twelve hundred dollars!” I gasped.
“But the show will go on,” Dominique said, “and that’s what’s important. I’ll raise the money from the congregation. Don’t worry.”
I paused and thought for a moment. Many people had already come, and we had a reputable security firm to protect us. “Okay,” I said, “let’s go for it. But I want all of our children out of here now. Put them in that van and take them with some of the mothers to a safe apartment. We’ll pick them up after the show tonight.”
I didn’t want to take any chances. I knew how determined a group of fanatics can be.
We waited anxiously for the security firm to show up, and we locked all but one of the three entrances to the hall. Now that we were determined to go on, devotees busied themselves with last-minute preparations, but all eyes were turned toward the street where the men would come from.
As the hour approached, one fearless devotee stayed out on the sidewalk in front of the hall, distributing invitations. I saw a group of men surround him ready to fight, just as the first of the security vans arrived. By Krsna’s grace two policemen on street duty saw the potential trouble and broke up the situation. The devotee quickly retreated into the hall.
The men on the security team were all huge and mean looking, with enormous muscles. They gathered and took quick instructions from the head of the security firm. He was a well-dressed man, and I breathed easier when I learned that he was in charge of the anti-terrorist force in the region. The men all took strategic positions around the hall. Three of the biggest stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the entrance. Some of the guests who arrived at that time laughed at the display of power. They were unaware of the situation and probably thought it was part of the act.
When 10 of the troublemakers assembled on the other side of the street looking toward us, I saw the security men fidget a little�not from any fear, I thought, but bracing themselves for a fight.
A devotee sensed my concern. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They’re used to it. This town is called The City of Scissors.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“This is the stronghold of that right-wing political party,” he said.
“Their youth organization is infamous for fighting with scissors. It’s their trademark, and they’re not afraid to use them, but these security men have dealt with them before.”
I walked into the hall and onto the stage. I was surprised to see a full house. Of course, considering that all our previous programs had had full houses, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Still, the trouble brewing had made me think that attendance at the program would be sparse, but the people knew nothing of the potential danger.
For added safety, we had the front entrance to the hall locked and secured. If there was to be a fight between our opposition and security, the guests didn’t have to know about it.
In the meantime, Sri Prahlad had a quick meeting with as many devotees as he could muster and showed them a small stairwell leading up to a metal platform above the stage. “If trouble comes,” he told them, “all the women should immediately climb up there.”
We then started our opening act, a bhajan, but I could hear tension in the voices of the devotees. I noticed that unlike other festival bhajans, where the devotees’ eyes were serenely closed, all the devotees had their eyes wide open, looking at the audience.
After the bhajan, Keli Cancala dasi came on to perform an Odissi dance. As she began, I took the opportunity to slip out the back door to see what the situation was outside.
I was not surprised to find a number of the political youths facing off with the security men. Although the security outnumbered (and outsized) them, they were unfazed and determined to break up our festival. One of the security men motioned for me to get back in the hall. Stepping back slowly, I watched several of the youths try to force open the locked entrances.
At that moment Dominique came out. One particularly tough- looking youth, apparently their leader, recognized him from the previous encounter on the street. He pulled an invitation out of his pocket. “I demand that you let me in,” he said.
“No way,” Dominique said, and he motioned to the security men to remove them. The youths conferred with each other for a moment and then left, obviously with another plan in mind. As they left, one of them stopped in front of Dominique, who stood there fearlessly. The youth slid his hand across his own throat in a threatening gesture.
“We know who you are,” he said, “and we will get you. We’ll be back soon, and this time nothing will stop us.”
Suddenly Narottam appeared from behind and said I had to come quickly, as it was time for my lecture.
“My lecture?” I thought. “How will I lecture in this frame of mind?”
As I came back in the hall, the director approached Dominique and said he had to unlock all the entrances. “Rules and regulations say they have to be open at all times,” he said. “I just can’t leave them locked any longer. There are too many people here.”
The fact that all the entrances were now open made me nervous. I had seen how those youths had tried to force open the same doors to get in, even in the presence of the security team.
As a precaution, I stopped by the dressing room on my way to the stage. I took my CS gas from my bag and carefully placed it in my kurta pocket. Then I grabbed a wooden axe handle and hid it under my chaddar. I kept my running shoes on.
I walked onto the stage and sat down on the seat provided. As I adjusted myself, I wondered if any spiritual master in the past had ever ascended such a holy seat armed with weapons at the ready.
As the translator and I adjusted our microphones, I saw a security man take his position near the stage, just two meters away from me. As he sat down, his eyes scanned the crowd and the three open entrances.
Despite all these precautions, I knew that only the Lord could protect us from the imminent danger. I closed my eyes and joined my palms, and I slowly recited a prayer, as I usually do before beginning my lecture.
But this time, instead of calling on the mercy of the acaryas, I called on the mercy of Lord Nrsimhadeva:
durgesv atavy-aji-mukhadisu prabhuh
payan nrsimho ‘sura-yuthaparih
vimuncato yasya mahatta-hasam
diso vinedur nyapatams ca garbhah
“May Lord Nrsimhadeva, who appeared as the enemy of Hiranyakasipu, protect us in all directions. His loud laughing vibrated in all directions and caused the pregnant wives of the asuras to have miscarriages. May that Lord be kind enough to protect us in difficult places like the forest and battlefront.”
[Srimad Bhagavatam 6.8.14]
Then I prayed silently to Srila Prabhupada to give me the ability to focus on my lecture so that the people who had come would have the same opportunity to understand the philosophy as those who had come to our previous festivals.
The audience of 150 people listened respectfully as I began my lecture. I explained the importance of the human form of life in being able to understand spiritual knowledge.
I slowly developed my talk to explain that we are not these bodies and how the soul transmigrates to another body at death. But as I continued, I began losing my concentration, remembering the threat of the angry young man to come back with his comrades. At one point my focus went from the lecture to the open entrances. It was only with great effort that I forced my mind back and continued speaking.
Several times, as my translator was repeating what I had said, I had to bring my mind back to my lecture. “Stay fixed,” I would tell myself. “This may be the only time these people ever get to hear the absolute truth.”
When I finally came to the end of my talk, I felt I had not done my duty well, but as I stood up, there was thunderous applause from the audience.
After our theater group performed, Sri Prahlada led the audience in a session of meditation on the Hare Krsna mantra. But he also appeared apprehensive. Instead of closing his eyes, as he usually does in the session, he kept them wide open.
The program was coming to an end. On the suggestion of the security men, we had kept our acts short so we could finish the festival before dark. They told us that the youths would most likely return under the cover of darkness. And because we had upstaged them, they would be doubly angry and eager for revenge.
As we sat down for the last kirtan on stage, I looked at my watch and saw I had only 10 minutes before the designated time to finish. Then suddenly Dominique appeared and told me that prasadam was late and I’d have to chant for at least half an hour.
I started kirtan slowly, but the people could not contain their enthusiasm, and I had to pick up the pace. Soon they were clapping wildly and chanting loudly along with us. Some even got up and danced in the aisles. A number of children came right to the front and began dancing blissfully back and forth.
Within a few minutes the hall became Vaikuntha, the spiritual world. I marveled at the mercy of the Lord: while danger swirled around us like an ominous whirlpool, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu was busy delivering these people by the sweetness of His holy names.
sarvatara bhajatam jananam
tratum samarthah kila sadu varta
bhaktan abhaktan api gaura candras
tatra krsnamrta nama danaih
“The news broadcast by the saints is that all the avatars of the Lord are indeed capable of delivering Their devoted followers who worship Them. However, Sri Gauracandra delivered both devotees and non-devotees alike with His gifts of Sri Krsna’s ambrosial names.” [Srila Sarvabhauma Battacarya, Susloka Satakam, text 42]
Devotees and guests dove and surfaced in the nectar of the holy names, and for a few moments even I myself forgot the danger at hand. But when the kirtan ended, I remembered the advice of our security. I thanked the people for coming and asked them to move quickly to the entrance hall, where prasadam was being served.
As the guests took prasadam, the devotees quickly packed our gear and put it in the vans. Within minutes we were ready to go.
The security team seemed on red alert as the evening sky became darker. Several times they pointed to their watches, indicating we should finish quickly. Although there was a relaxed and joyful mood among the guests, the security team was anxious to move them on. Word came that there was an unusually large assembly of unruly men gathering on the city square a hundred meters away. “You must all leave now,” the chief of security said to us.
Most of the guests had left by that time, and I asked the devotees to quickly clear the hall. Dominique sent a van with three security men in it to pick up the children and women at the apartment, and when they arrived, all of us jumped into our four vans and started to pull out. Darkness was descending.
The security team escorted us in their cars to the city limits. When we reached the road to Warsaw they turned back. We were then on our own. But at that moment, I realized that in fact we had never been alone not even for a second. The all-merciful Lord had been with us the entire time.
Otherwise, how had we escaped certain injury and defeat and tasted the sweetness of victory and success?
yatra yogesvarah krsno
yatra partho dhanur dharah
tatra srir vijayo bhutir
dhruva nitir matir mama
“Wherever there is Krsna, the master of all mystics, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power, and morality. That is my opinion.”
[Bhagavad Gita 18.78]