September 1 – 15, 2003
By Indradyumna Swami
Soon after the last festival in our four-month tour of Poland, Sri Prahlad and I flew to Rome to meet with some devotees about planning festivals in other parts of Europe.
On the flight down, I sat behind an elderly couple from America on their way to Rome to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They were hard of hearing, and they reminisced loudly about their wedding in 1953 and their honeymoon in Rome.
Their story was full of dancing in the bars and cafes, of fine wine, gourmet food, and visits to the historical sites of the city.
“Remember the Pantheon?” the woman said. “And all those architectural wonders?”
“Yes, of course,” her husband replied. “The only thing we missed was the Coliseum. This time it’s a must.”
“O yes,” she said. “All my life I’ve wanted to see the Coliseum.” “All your life you’ve wanted to see the Coliseum?” I thought. “Surely life is meant for more than seeing relics of the past. You’re old now. You should be more concerned about your future, about life after death.”
Then I thought about my own future. “Be careful,” I told myself, “and don’t get pulled into the charm of ancient Rome while you’re here.” After we landed, Sri Prahlad and I were picked up by several devotees. As we drove through the city, I didn’t allow my eyes to be drawn to the many ancient buildings. “No sentiment for me in Rome.” I reminded myself.
As we approached our temple in the old quarter of the city, the driver spoke to me. “Maharaja,” he said, “were you here when Srila Prabhupada visited Rome in the 1970s?”
I had to think for a moment. Time takes its toll on one’s memory. “Well yes,” I said. “Actually, I was in Rome with Srila Prabhupada in 1974.”
A few blurry images came to mind: Srila Prabhupada taking his noonday massage on the veranda in the first Rome temple, his servant asking Dhananjaya, the temple president, why Prabhupada’s prasadam was late.
“Nearby is the famous Coliseum,” the driver said as we passed several buses unloading tourists with cameras and video recorders. “I heard that Srila Prabhupada once visited there.”
His comment triggered my memory. “Yes he did,” I said, as my mind flooded with visions of that morning when I went with Srila Prabhupada on his walk. I remembered the tourists gawking at the mammoth 2,000year-old structure and Srila Prabhupada enlightening us about the temporary nature of the material world:
“These buildings were constructed by highly intellectual men” he said, “but they enjoyed, say, for a hundred years. That’s all. Then their bodies changed. These Romans�they constructed big buildings just to enjoy, but they had to leave it by nature’s force and accept another body.”
Srila Prabhupada was instilling a spirit of detachment in us while we were in the prime of youth. How fortunate I am to have had his association! As I struggled to see the Coliseum through the buildings, feelings of love for my spiritual master welled up in my heart.
Suddenly I laughed to myself. “Remember,” I thought, “you’re not going to feel any sentiment for the relics of ancient Rome.”
But there was no harm. Instead of reminding me of an ordinary love affair, the Coliseum had awakened feelings of a more Krsna-conscious nature. yuvatinam yatha yuni yunam ca yuvatau yatha mano �bhiramate tadvan mano me ramatam tvayi “Just as the minds of young girls take pleasure in young boys, and young boys take pleasure in young girls, kindly allow my mind to take pleasure in You alone.” [Nectar of Devotion, Chapter 7, Further Considerations of Devotional Principles]
We arrived at the temple in the late afternoon. The building is nestled in a picturesque part of Rome and serves as a restaurant and preaching center. The streets packed with tourists awakened memories of sankirtan processions I’d taken out in Rome as far back as 1973. I began to long for the nectar of chanting in such an ideal environment again, so I asked the local devotees if there was any take out a chanting party.
“Yes, of course!” answered several devotees at once.
“Whenever you want,” the temple president added.
That evening, I gave a Bhagavad-gita class in a packed temple room. Afterwards, I talked about a few memories of Srila Prabhupada’s visit to Rome in 1974. Then I asked for questions. A boy who had been sitting in front, smiling the whole time, spoke up. “Did you ever touch Srila Prabhupada’s lotus feet?” he asked.
“Well yes, once,” I replied shyly, “when we performed guru puja in Paris on his arrival in 1973.”
“Only once?” The boy asked.
“Yes, just once,” I replied, a little curious as to his prodding. “Actually, you were more fortunate than you remember,” he said as he handed me a photograph.
The lights were low in the room and the photograph was in black and white, so for a few moments I couldn’t see it clearly. But when my eyes adjusted, I saw myself kneeling down, respectfully helping Srila Prabhupada on with his shoes, as he stood majestically before me with his cane.
“It was after his lecture here in Rome, in 1974,” the boy said. “A few months back, I was walking down the street in my devotee clothes, and a gentleman came up to me. He said that years ago he took many photographs when Srila Prabhupada gave a public lecture in Rome, and he asked if I would be interested in seeing them. He invited me to his studio, and when I went there he gave me several photos.”
My heart pounded as I looked in amazement at a most precious moment in service to my spiritual master. Somehow, my receiving the photograph just now, 29 years later, made it even more precious. I touched the photograph to my head and thanked the Lord for this wonderful gift.
“O handsome, fragrant tamala desire tree blooming in Vrndavana forest and embraced by the madhavi vine of the goddess ruling this forest, O tree, the shade of whose glory protects the world from a host of burning sufferings, what wonderful fruits do people find at your feet!” [Rupa Goswami, Utkalika Vallari, verse 66]
The next evening, after our meeting, the devotees gathered in front of the temple, and with Sri Prahlad singing and playing an accordion, we started dancing down the narrow streets of the old city. Locals and tourists alike waved and smiled as our blissful kirtan party passed one famous tourist site after another.
We stopped at the Pantheon, one of the oldest buildings in Rome, and soon a large crowd gathered. After a short while Sri Prahlad turned to me. “Why don’t you speak?” he said.
He finished the kirtan and handed me the microphone. With the help of a translator, I gave a 20-minute talk about Krsna consciousness. Speaking impromptu on the street is one of my favorite services. It is a challenge I love�speaking out against the status quo of sinful activity and decadence in this age of Kali and convincing an audience that Krsna consciousness is the positive alternative, all in a few minutes.
As the devotees started chanting again, I dropped back to rest awhile, watching them disappear around a turn in the road. Suddenly, an elderly man ran up to me and grabbed my arm, talking excitedly.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t speak Italian.”
“I visit the temple sometimes,” he said, switching to English. “Is there going to be a festival?”
“Well, yes,” I replied. “Tomorrow is a special day: Radhastami.” “That’s great!” he said. “I was at the one the Swami did in 1974. He spoke so convincingly about the suffering of this world and how there is a spiritual world where there are no problems. He even said that you can dance with God there.”
“You were at Swami’s lecture too,” he continued. “You put the master’s shoes on after his talk.”
I was amazed. “You remember that?” I asked.
“I remember everything about the program,” he said.
“Swami never spoke to me personally,” he continued, “but the things he said in his talk made a lasting impression on me. And despite all the honor he was getting, I saw he was aloof from it. He was there just for us.”
“When I heard he passed away a few years later,” he continued, “it was like losing a friend. Do you know what I mean?”
I could well understand his feeling of loss. “Yes, I do,” I replied. “But in many ways, he’s still here. It may be hard to understand, but if you come and join the chanting party for a little while, I think you’ll feel his presence.”
He hesitated for a moment, then agreed.
“And if you come back to the temple,” I said, “I’ll tell you more about Swami.”
“Okay,” he said, and his smile came back.
We started down the street toward the kirtan party.
“He lives forever by his divine instruction, and the follower lives with him”
[Srila Prabhupada’s dedication of Srimad Bhagavatam to His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Maharaja]