Jun 11-20, 2003
By Indradyumna Swami
Having seen the power of the media to bless or curse, I closely followed our lawyers’ dealings with the newspaper. We had demanded either an apology or the right to publish an article by the Festival of India presenting our side. The editors were sure we would back down under pressure (and no doubt they wielded more power), but unknown to them, we held the trump card.
vidiksu diksurdhvam adhah samantad
antar bahir bhagavan narasimhah
prahapayal loka-bhayam svanena
“Prahlada Maharaja loudly chanted the holy name of the Lord Nrsimhadeva. May Lord Nrsimhadeva, roaring for His devotee Prahlada Maharaja, protect us from all fear of dangers created by stalwart leaders in all directions through poison, weapons, water, fire, air and so on. May the Lord cover their influence by His own transcendental influence. May Nrsimhadeva protect us in all directions and in all corners, above, below, within and without.” [Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.8.34]
After five days, the newspaper gave in and printed our rebuttal. I was jubilant. We had won without a legal battle, set a precedent for fair coverage of the festival, and pub-lished what the town secretary of Mlawa needed to grant permission for the festival, which she had can-celed because of the earlier report.
With the victory under our belt, we returned to our festival programs with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. We began Harinam in Ostroda, a town of 40,000 people, three days before the festival, with a colorful kirtan party of 60 devotees. We have developed a special style of Harinam, with 20 women in front and 20 in back. Twenty men playing musical instruments form the middle of the Harinam, while both groups of women dance in synchronized patterns.
It makes for a stunning effect, the men wearing chaddars and the ladies in colorful silk saris, gopi dots, and beautiful silk garlands. People stopped to watch the parade go through their town, and when we passed by apartment blocks, many waved from open windows.
The second day of Harinam took place on Pandava Nirjala Ekadasi. Almost 150 tour devotees observed the full Ekadasi, abstaining from all food and drink. I was especially pleased with the Harinam devotees, who chanted and danced in the sweltering heat for hours as they distributed invitations to the festival.
But my heart sank when I saw the place the city had given us. It was a small field in a park in a seedy, low-class part of town not far from the railway station. The grass was uncut and surrounded by a rusty fence. There were many rundown apartment blocks in the area.
I arrived as the set-up crew was putting up the tents, and I had a feeling that the location would scare people away. And I was right. That day only 600 people came. To confirm my suspicions, I asked some of the guests, and they said the area was a dangerous part of town that people avoided. Nevertheless, we went on with our program, and by the mercy of the holy names, we transformed the park into Vaikuntha, at least for a few hours.
Word spread, and on the second day, the crowd swelled to 1,500. A local gypsy clan came out in numbers as well, but it was obvious that many people felt uncomfortable around them. The gypsies could sense it, and they kept to themselves.
Then halfway through the festival, as I was speaking from the stage, a fight broke out at the back of the crowd between the gypsies and some drunken boys. I kept speaking, hoping that people might not notice, but it took some time for our security to break up the fight, and a number of people were disturbed and left.
I was disappointed to see them leave, but I could understand. I also feel anxious sometimes. A devotee may be forced by the nature of his ser-vice to deal with people inclined to low-class behavior, like drinking and fighting, in order to try to deliver them. Nevertheless, by the grace of the Lord, a preacher is protected from the influence of such association.
“The devotees in the Krsna consciousness movement are preaching all over the world in accordance with the order of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. They have to meet many karmis, but by the mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, they are unaffected by material influences. A sincere devotee who engages in the service of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu by preaching His cult all over the world will never be affected by visaya-taranga, material influences.”
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.1.20, purport]
Later, another incident caused me further concern. During the final bhajan, I saw a group of skinheads walking around the park. It’s easy to spot them with their angry faces, tight jeans, bare chests, and big black boots. It was obvious that they were not there for the festivities. I watched as our security people approached them and a discussion took place.
After the bhajan, one of the security men came to me. “These people have come to check out the situation,” he said. “If they see an opportunity for troublemaking, they’ll come back later with their friends.”
“Do you think they’ll return?” I asked.
“I can’t say for sure.” he said.
“They saw we have ten security personnel here. And we have alerted the police.”
At the end of the festival that night, I announced that we would have a vedic wedding the next day.
As in Lipno, we knew a wedding would draw a large crowd despite the unfavourable location and the incident that had happened.
As I was driving to the festival the next day, I called ahead, and I was happy to hear that 2,000 people had already come for the wedding. I relaxed a little. “It seems things are back to normal.” I thought.
But I was soon reminded of the precarious nature of this material world. As we entered Ostroda and passed the train station, I was shocked to see an elite force of police confronting a group of 60 skinheads who were walking towards our festival. The police, in bulletproof vests with helmets and batons, had some of the skinheads on the ground, while others were against a wall with their hands up as the police frisked them, Four officers stood by with dogs on leashes. The skinheads were angry and were shouting obscenities at the police. A few of them were injured and bleeding.
I turned to a Polish devotee in the van. “Were they on the way to our festival?” I asked.
“Maharaja,” he said, “it’s Sunday, and there’s nothing happening in this town today but our festival. They weren’t on their way to a picnic.”
Suddenly, the police stopped all traffic, much of which had slowed down to watch the scene, and ordered the skinheads to start walking in the middle of the road towards the police station. Surrounding the group and armed with dogs on all sides, the police marched them down the road with two vans, lights flashing, in front and in back of the group. A few of the skinheads resisted and were further bloodied by the security forces. It was quite a spectacle. I shuddered to think what would have happened had the police not intervened.
When I arrived at the festival site, it again looked like the spiritual world. Our women had decorated the stage beautifully, and Sri Prahlad was adding the final touches to the yajna sala. The bride and groom, my disciples Dinanath das and Rasamandali dasi, waited patiently nearby. A melodious kirtan was playing, and I walked onto the stage to welcome the people. As I began the wedding, the crowd stood mesmerized by the exotic event.
Throughout the ceremony I noticed the gypsies standing to the side, watching from a distance. I felt sorry for them, and later in the evening, I approached them. I was surprised to find that a few of the teenagers spoke English. I asked them if they had learned it in school.
“We don’t go to school,” one of them said.
It was another surprise. “Why not?” I asked.
The youth motioned to the crowd with his hand but remained silent.
I decided to change the subject. I suggested that the young people walk around and enjoy the exhibits on India, the vegetarian restaurant, and the spiritual fashion booth. When they looked back at me without saying anything, I excused myself to go lead the final kirtan.
Many local children came on stage and sat down to chant with me and the other devotees. I noticed a little gypsy girl standing shyly in front of the stage, and I motioned to her to chant with us. She hesitated for a moment, but then ran up to join us. When I asked her to sit close to me, a number of the children around me moved away. I mildly admonished them, and told them to come back. They hesitated for a few moments then gradually returned, but they kept their distance from the girl, who was visibly hurt by their rejection.
In the crowd, the mood was light and people were enjoying themselves. Many teenagers began dancing in front of the stage, and soon some adults joined in. The children on stage were especially blissful, and at one point, all of them except the gypsy girl stood up to dance. But then, as the kirtan reached a peak, one of the children grabbed the hand of the girl and pulled her into the dance. Her eyes lit up, and she smiled as she began dancing along with the other children.
When gypsies saw their little girl dancing happily with the other children, they all joined into the kirtan in front of the stage. There were a few tense moments, but soon in the ecstasy of the kirtan, people grabbed the gypsies’ hands and everyone danced happily in a circle.
“This is probably the first time in the history of Ostroda that the gypsies have felt welcome,” I thought.
Seeing it all happen before my eyes, I called out the words of Narottam das Thakur loudly through the sound system: “Golokera prema-dhana, hari-nama-sankirtana! All glories to the holy names, which have descended from the spiritual world!”
After an hour, I brought the kirtan and the festival to a close. Once again by the grace of Lord Caitanya and the special protection of Lord Nrsimhadeva, we had put on a successful festival.
People left the park slowly, wanting to savor every moment of the special atmosphere. A few stayed on, asking questions and exchanging addresses with devotees. Finally, they too turned and disappeared into the night. Chances were we wouldn’t come back to Ostroda for many years, if ever, and I would never see these people again. Still, I felt blessed that I could help them take their first step towards Krsna.
For most of them, it would be their only contact with Krsna consciousness in this lifetime, but for all of them, it had been the beginning of their journey home, back to the spiritual world. And for a fortunate few, it could well be the beginning of a deep spiritual awakening. When the very last person had gone, I also turned and left, my mind already thinking about the next town where our festival would melt the hearts of yet another crowd.
“I expect to pass through life but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” [William Penn]