July 2 – August 8, 2003
By Indradyumna Swami
Mathuranath das and I were the first to arrive on the Woodstock field, two weeks before the great threeday event. Although 52 bands and 500,000 people would soon come here, only a few rabbits now scurried across the large grass field that was once an airfield. The German air force launched its first bombardment of Poland from here at the beginning of World War II.
After the war, the region became part of Poland, and Jewish freedom fighters trained on this field to fight in Palestine (now Israel) in 1946. As I lay on the grass looking up at the sky, I thought how ironic it was that in a few days this field would host the biggest musical event in Europe with the theme “No Violence, No Drugs.”
Jurek Owsiak, the organizer of the massive event, had once again invited us to participate with our Krsna’s Village of Peace, as the village fit well into the theme of his festival. This year, at his insistence, we planned to increase both the size and activities of the village.
It would be no small task. Last year, our main tent was filled with over 10,000 young people a day. When I asked the tent company if we could rent a bigger tent, the man in charge just laughed. “It’s the biggest tent in Europe,” he said, “and nobody but you people can fill it to capacity.”
We decided to build some extra exhibits and a Vedic Temple where 50 people could fit in for kirtan in front of our tour Deities. The Russian devotees had designed and built an impressive structure, with scaffolding as a base and plywood cut in intricate patterns. After being painted, it looked like a real Indian temple. Using the same techniques, they also built a huge Vedic gate, which people would pass through when they came into the village. We also had plans to increase our prasadam distribution from the 90,00 plates of last year, to 100,000 plates. Fifty tons of foodstuffs had already been donated, all free.
It would take a marathon effort to put up such a village, so for a while I just relaxed, taking a rare few moments’ rest from an already intense schedule on the beaches of the Baltic Sea coast up north. Since the beginning of summer, three weeks earlier, we had put on 18 major festivals along the coast.
I thought back on the success of those events. We had introduced tens of thousands of people to Krsna consciousness. Still, I couldn’t focus my mind on any particular festival. My mind was a blur of many Harinams across the sands of crowded beaches, of thousands of people standing before our stage applauding, of many more browsing through our exhibits or enjoying prasadam in our festival restaurant or standing in long lines to get gopi dots painted on their faces.
What made it more difficult to focus was that we had been doing the same thing for 13 years. Sometimes the face of a little girl dressed in a sari dancing before our stage or a man inquiring in the question- and-answer booth came into focus. But was it 1990 or 2003?
We have seen the results brought by so many years of festivals on the coast. We saw them while we chanted down the crowded beaches, carefully moving our Harinam party of 100 devotees along the little spaces in the sand between the people. “Look, Mommy!” a child would yell. “It’s Hare Krsna!” and the parents would send the child forward to get an invitation to the festival.
Many people waved, and many smiled. Only a few were antagonistica sign that we were winning a decade-long battle with anti-cult propaganda in the country. I speculated that the church found it difficult to keep up such abuse year after year, whereas we derived unlimited enthusiasm from our yearly festivals. And, so it seemed, did the people.
satyam eva jayate: “Truth will always prevail”
But for the moment, I was exhausted, and I wondered how I would lead 450 devotees in setting up Krsna’s Village of Peace and staging a great yajna of the holy name for three days. As I fell asleep in the soft grass, I prayed for mercy.
A half hour later I woke up, a dog licking my face. I shouted “Hare Krsna!” and pushed the animal away. Wiping my face with my hand, I sat up and saw an old man on an equally old bicycle beside me.
“Welcome to Zary,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ve been waiting all year for you to come back.”
I was still half asleep. “All year?” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “not only me, but many other residents of Zary. Will there be a wedding at Krsna’s Village of Peace during Woodstock? The last one was two years ago.”
“Yes, there will be,” I replied, rubbing my eyes.
“Well then I’m going to video it,” he said. “I videoed everything in your village last year, and spent the rest of the year traveling all around Poland showing it to my family and friends.”
“Really? I said.
“Yes,” he said, “and whenever I come back to Zary, I visit this field and remember you people. I have lived in Zary all my life. I saw the German bombers take off from this field when I was very young. But the memories of your festivals here are the strongest in my mind. They are so beautiful.”
His words touched me deeply. He was an old man and had no doubt been through many experiences in life. But somehow, the mercy of Lord Caitanya had made the greatest impact of all upon him. “Whatever great efforts will be needed to set up this year’s Woodstock festival,” I thought, “it will be worth all the trouble.”
And just to convince me, if I still had any doubts, a young girl accompanied by several friends, came up as I was speaking to the man. “Hari Bol, Maharaja!” she said enthusiastically. “Thank you for all the postcards you sent me and my friends during the year. We liked the ones from India the best.”
“Oh, you are most welcome,” I said. “What is your name again?” “I’m Paulina” she replied. “And I’m 9 years old.”
“She keeps a picture of you on her bedside dresser,” one of the girls said. “And she talks about you every single day too. And you know what?”
“What?” I asked.
“She has kept her promise to you, to chant six rounds on the beads every day. I saw her.”
Paulina proudly showed me her beadbag, with a little hole in it from where her thumb had rubbed through from chanting.
“Thank you,” I said, looking at Paulina.
“This year we want you to give chanting beads to the rest of us too,” said Paulina’s friend.
“Hari bol!” answered the others in chorus.
But just as I couldn’t distinguish the multitude of festivals we’d done through the years, I couldn’t remember these girls, whom I’d obviously had an exchange of Krsna consciousness with last year. They brought out a photo of me with them at Woodstock, but it didn’t bring back a distinct memory. I’ve stood with thousands of people for photos at our festivals through the years. But the eagerness of these young people for devotional service was proof of our previous contact, and so I sat on the grass with them for over an hour and did my best to encourage them further in Krsna consciousness, telling them pastimes of Krsna.
At the end, the youngest one spoke. “Will you pull the big red chariot again this year at Woodstock?” She said. “My parents want to know. They want to invite my aunt and uncle from Germany if you do.”
The next day, huge trucks rolled onto the field to deliver the big tents for Krsna’s Village of Peace. Smaller trucks came to offload the nylon siding and the heavy metal frames for construction, and a team of 30 men began putting up the large frames. It was a noisy affair, with all the big trucks and machines, and sometimes a huge metal piece would crash to the ground with a loud noise.
But it was all music to my ears. We were building a small replica of Vaikuntha, the spiritual world, on the four acres of land assigned to us by the festival organizers, and we would soon be inviting thousands of conditioned souls inside. And to get into this spiritual world, there would be no special requirements only the causeless mercy of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
And come they did, when we finally opened the village on the first day of the Woodstock festival. They poured onto our festival grounds. My good friend Bhakti Bringa Govinda Maharaja estimated that at one point there were 30,000 people in Krsna’s Village of Peace. I asked him how I could describe the event in writing. “No one can understand,” he replied, “unless they come here to see.”
He was right. How does one convey the satisfaction of seeing 100 thousand people eating prasadam in our village? How does one describe the ecstasy of the book distributors who sold 2,800 books in those three days, or of the performers on our main stage, as thousands of people (sometimes as many as 10,000) loudly applauded their bhajans, dramas, lectures, dances, and bands? How does one recount not one, but three Ratha Yatra parades on three consecutive days, passing among an ocean of tents on the main field, where each and every festivalgoer could not help but see the cart and hear the chanting of the holy names? How can one imagine the daily scene of hundreds of young people in different tents around our village, chanting and dancing to kirtans led by such stalwarts as Sacinandana Maharaja, Kadamba Kanana Maharaja, and Deena Bandhu Prabhu? But even these men could hardly keep up with the demand of the young people for unending kirtans. By the last day, most had lost their voices and had to settle for just speaking, not singing.
That evening, as I walked past the meditation tent, I saw a tumultuous kirtan going on inside. At least 60 people were dancing wildly, loudly chanting the holy names. Curious as to who could be leading such a kirtan, I looked inside and was amazed to see a young woman in a scant bathing suit (and wearing big black boots) playing the harmonium and leading the kirtan. Her friend was playing a small drum, the kind we were selling in our gift shop, and another friend was playing kartalas. There was not even one devotee in the tent, but these three girls, intoxicated by the holy names, were leading a kirtan that had sixty other young people chanting at the top of their lungs. When I returned two hours later, their kirtan was still going strong.
Throughout the entire three days, the four acres of our village pulsated with kirtan, stage programs, long lines of people eager for prasadam, and endless questions and answers about the process of Krsna consciousness. At one point, I noticed a large group of distinguished persons wandering through the village, looking at our exhibits and taking particular interest in our large ratha cart, parked right in the middle of the field.
I asked Radha Sakhi Vrinda to speak with them. After a few moments of conversation, she excitedly waved her hand to me, indicating that I should quickly come over.
I went right over. “Srila Gurudeva,” Radha Sakhi Vrinda said, “I’d like to introduce you to the governor of the state, the chief of police of the state, the head of the fire department of the state, the chief health inspector of the state….” She went on to introduce me to various other dignitaries.
“They came specifically to see Krsna’s Village of Peace,” she continued, “and they like it very much.”
I shook the governor’s hand and thanked him for coming.
“I very much appreciate what you are doing for these young people,” the governor said, “and I can see that the bad things people sometimes say about you are simply not true.”
The others in the group all nodded in agreement. “It’s obvious that your presence here at Woodstock keeps things peaceful,” said the chief of police. “How much food do you plan to distribute?” “A hundred thousand plates,” I replied.
The police chief was speechless.
I could not help smiling. “We have a lot of help from above, ” I added.
“I’ll be taking lunch with Mr. Owsiak in an hour,” the governor said, “and I understand your group is catering for that. Is that right?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “Every day we cater for the organizers and all their support teams of three hundred people. I hope you like the food.”
“I’m sure I will,” said the governor. We shook hands again, and they left.
On my way back to our base that night, I was falling asleep, exhausted by the day’s activities. I laughed to myself, thinking that during Kartika each year, I pass the month in utter peace in Vrindavan, softly chanting the holy names in the company of many saintly persons. Here I was at Woodstock, surrounded by thousands of people engaged in all sorts of illicit activities. For a moment, I hankered for that peaceful atmosphere of Vraja, but I quickly caught myself, remembering that to attain that transcendental abode would require sharing the holy names of the Lord to the fallen souls at Woodstock for many lifetimes to come.
As we drove on, we passed by a group of young people heading into town to shop. When I stopped at a red light, a group of at least fifty of them, three playing guitars, walked past loudly singing Hare Krsna, Hare Krishna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
What was this great miracle Lord Caitanya was enacting at the Woodstock Festival?
And so it went for days. If all the devotees who were present would write down their own experiences, we might well produce a voluminous book. But again, could words ever capture the mood of such an enormous yajna?
Then suddenly, as quickly as it had begun, the Woodstock Festival was over. A couple who had stayed in our village for three days turned toward us as they left. “We never even made it to the main stage,” they said, laughing.
The devotees in our Food For Peace tent stayed up until 6 AM the next morning distributing prasadam to the kids and then, exhausted, they closed the tent and went home. When I went back down to the festival site at 8AM to oversee the breakdown of our village, I was surprised to see a long line of about 400 young people, still in front of the tent. Then I noticed a small opening in the tent, where every so often a ladle of rice would appear and empty into the cup or plate of one of the kids.
I went closer and finally into the tent. To my surprise, an older Polish devotee woman, Surabhi dasi, was slowly giving out prasadam, sometimes nodding off to sleep. “I’ve been up all night,” she smiled.
I was even more surprised when she pointed to 10 large containers of rice, halavah, and papadams that had not been distributed. I opened the tent flaps even wider and began to help her distribute the rest of the mercy. I telephoned for more help, and within an hour, a crew of devotees came, and we continued distributing prasadam until noon. As we cleaned up, I marveled to think that the tent had served prasadam almost continuously for over 60 hours. Just as we were leaving, another devotee arrived. She was taking a tally of all the paraphernalia left at the site. With pen and paper in hand, she casually asked how many plastic plates were left.
“Actually, not a single one,” I said. “We ran out an hour ago and put the last portions of prasadam into the kids’ hands.”
Her eyes opened wide. “That means we distributed exactly 101,000 plates,” she said.
I closed my eyes. “Srila Prabhupada,” I said silently, “please accept that as an offering at your lotus feet.”
I started walking back to my car. Then, to my surprise, the old man on the bicycle came riding up. It almost seemed like part of a script.
“Another great festival!” he said. “Congratulations.” “Thank you,” I replied.
“I hope I’m around when you come back next year,” he said. “You know I’m quite old. If I leave before the next Woodstock, I’ll take my video with me and show the Good Lord what you are all doing down here.”
He went pedaling off slowly, then looked back. “But I’m sure He already knows,” he said.
“I pray that He does,” I replied under my breath.
“In public places I glorify your mercy, which is granted to even low creatures, and which enables me, even though I am lowborn, to live in this forest of Vrindavan the place where Your great devotees, filled with pure love, aspire to take birth even as a blade of grass.”
[Srila Rupa Goswami, Stava Mala, Volume 2, Utkalika vallari, text 66]