Chapter 17: The Last Festival

The Last Festival

Volume 6, Chapter 17

| A U G U S T   1 1 – 2 5 , 2 0 0 5 |

By the time I returned to Poland after my short visit to Ukraine, the devotees had broken down Krsna’s Village of Peace at Woodstock and returned to our summer base on the Baltic coast.

They greeted me with a small reception, and I spoke about our plans for the next two weeks. This would be the final leg of our fes- tival tour. The devotees had been holding festivals almost every day since May, and they were tired, but when I mentioned that the sea- son was drawing to a close, many of them had tears in their eyes.

For all of us here, the festivals are our life and soul. Though we had experienced many obstacles in the past months, endured many austerities, and bore witness to the sufferings of many people, the pleasure of giving Krsna consciousness to others far outweighed any inconvenience we had undergone.

As in every other year, hundreds of thousands of people had at- tended our festivals. I thought about the magnitude of what we had done, and I did not know how to repay the devotees. Then I remembered the dream about Srila Prabhupada I had had in Ukraine, and I shared it with the devotees. They listened spellbound.

“What we accomplished this year was a team effort,” I said. “Therefore the embrace that Srila Prabhupada gave me in the dream is meant to be shared with all of you.”

Though rainstorms were predicted, the weather remained per- fect throughout the next two weeks, so we lengthened the hours of Harinama, causing the attendance at the festivals to increase.

Each summer we hold our final event in the town of Pobierowo. As we were setting up the grounds there, the mayor came by on her bicycle and spoke with Jayatam dasa.

“When people heard that your last festival would be here,” she said, “many extended their vacation an extra three days. Our office has been flooded with inquiries about the program. You can expect a very big crowd.”

I heard about her prediction, and I decided to make it come true, so I took the Harinam party out to the beach early that day. Even in the morning it was so crowded that our group of 110 devotees had difficulty maneuvering through the people lying on the sand.

At one point I noticed a man following us, and after some time I went and spoke with him.

“Are you enjoying the chanting?” I asked him.

“Very much,” he said. “I’ve been hearing about your festival for years, but my wife and I could never get enough money together to come up to the coast to see it, but last week I convinced 18 of my neighbors to pool their resources with ours so we could all come.”

He motioned with his head toward some people sitting in the sand nearby. I looked over at them, and they smiled and waved.

“I was so excited I couldn’t wait for the festival this afternoon,” he continued, “so I decided to join you people singing here on the beach. Many of the townspeople say it’s as good as the festival it- self.”

An hour later, I noticed another man following us. And I wasn’t the only one. A number of young people on the beach were pointing at him excitedly. I took the liberty of approaching him, and he introduced himself.

“I’m the bass player in a famous rock band in Poland,” he said. “When your group passed by on the beach, I was impressed with the man singing and playing the accordion. He’s one of the best musi- cians I’ve ever heard. What’s his name?”

“Sri Prahlada das,” I replied.

I could not hold back a smile. “But he’s not for hire,” I added.

As we moved along, people kept stopping us, asking if they could take a photo with us. Posing for photos with people was a daily affair for us on the beaches, and as they snapped away, we smiled and waved, happy that our colorful procession would be re- membered back home after vacation was over.

A little further down the beach I was startled by an unexpected sight. A seal, lying in the sand, jumped up and lumbered into the water. I had never seen a seal in the Baltic Sea before in all the years we had been doing Harinam there.

“The locals say he’s been here all summer,” said a devotee. “They think he must have wandered in from the North Sea.”

I thought that was the end of it and continued the Harinam party, keeping close to the shore, but then I noticed the seal swim- ming alongside us. I thought he would pull away after a few mo- ments, so I called out to the devotees, “Look at that!”

The devotees laughed and raised their eyebrows, and the seal kept swimming beside us in the water. Every once in a while he would let out a loud bark.

Soon the crowds noticed this and people started following us. As we kept chanting and dancing down the beach, the seal contin- ued to swim along, perking its head up every few meters to look at us. The crowd following us became larger and larger.

When we reached the end of the beach we turned around to go back, and sure enough, the seal turned and followed us. Finally, a young woman entered the water and started swimming, and the seal turned and followed her, a few meters behind. That was the last we saw of him.

“It’s like you mentioned the other day, Guru Maharaja,” said a devotee. “The beach is no place for brahmacaris.”

On the way back to the festival site a devotee stopped in a cam- era store to have her film developed.

A few minutes later she came running up to me. “Maharaja,” she said, “the store owner was really happy to meet me. He even shook my hand. He said that practically every roll of film he’s devel- oped in the last few days has pictures of us with people standing next to our kirtan party on the beach.”

I entered our festival grounds with mixed feelings. I had no doubt it would be a big festival, as the mayor had said, but it would be the last of the year. The hours were passing, and soon the tumul- tuous roar of the holy names would come to an end.

As I approached the stage, two young girls, about nine years old, came running up to me.

“Do you remember me?” said one, almost out of breath. “Well, no,” I said. “I can’t say that do. I’m so sorry.”

“I was at the festival last year,” she said, “and the year before, and the year before that. I live in this town, and I wait all summer for the festival to come. This is my friend, Agnieska. It’s her first time.”

Agnieska smiled. “I was supposed to go to Italy today with my grandparents on vacation,” she said, “but I told my Mom I’d rather stay back and come to the festival.”

“Really?” I said. “You stayed back for the festival instead of go- ing to Italy?”

“Yep,” she replied, “and I’m really glad I did ‘cause I heard there’s going to be a wedding today.”

“Yes,” I said, “there will be a wedding.”

“Can we be in the wedding?” the girls said in unison. “Please!


Their enthusiasm made me smile. “Sure,” I said, “as a matter of fact, we were just looking for two little girls to escort the bride through the crowd onto the stage and to bring the rings out when the couple exchange their vows. So you’ll have to run over to the fashion booth and get dressed in saris real quick.”

In half a moment they were there.

A short while later, people started pouring into the festival. Be- fore we even started, the tents were filled with the curious, while the restaurant was filled with the hungry, and the seats in front of the stage with those eager for entertainment. It was just like all the other festivals of the summer … except that it would be the last.

I tried to forget that the end of the season was near and kept walking toward the stage to tell the devotees to start the opening bhajan. The hundreds of seats in front of the stage were already full, and there was still 20 minutes to show time.

As I got closer, Nandini dasi came up to me.

“Srila Gurudeva,” she said, “something wonderful just hap- pened.”

“What was that?” I said.

“As I was driving to the festival an hour ago,” she said, “ a des- perate-looking young man ran up to the window of the car and begged me to stop. ‘My girlfriend is about to commit suicide,’ he said. ‘Please take me to her.’

“I asked him where she was, and he said, ‘The train station.’

“I said I would take him and we drove off. I was not in devotee dress because I had been doing legal work in some offices. As we drove along he told me how grateful he was.

“In order to take his mind off the stressful situation, I asked him what his interests in life were. ‘The Festival of India,’ he said. ‘I visit their website regularly. What these people do is simply incredible. I came to meet them personally, but my girlfriend just had an argu- ment with her mother and wants to do something really stupid.’

“I tried to change the subject again, and I asked him if he was a student. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I’m studying philosophy at the university in Krakow. But it’s all very boring compared to the philosophy I read on the Festival of India website. The Hare Krishnas understand the bigger picture of life: karma, reincarnation, the material world, and the spiritual world. And they have a really pure lifestyle.’

“I was amazed. Then he told me, ‘Actually, I’d like to become a volunteer and help them spread their message.’ He paused and stud- ied me curiously for a moment. Then he turned his head to look in the back seat and saw the samosas I was bringing to the restaurant. He looked at me with his eyes opened wide. ‘Are you a member of the festival group?’ he said.

“I smiled and told him I was.

“’Wow!’ he said. ‘This is incredible! I got to meet one of you personally. Now I can see that you really do care for people. After I deal with my girlfriend, I’ll come straight back to the festival. Can you help me become a volunteer?’

“I told him I could, and with that he jumped out of the car, just as we came up to the train station. I’m waiting for him to come back to show him how he can become a volunteer.”

After speaking with Nandini, I continued towards the stage. As I walked along, I noticed we had the biggest crowd of the summer. But rather than make me happy, it only gave me more pain as I thought about the end of the season.

Soon the stage program started. An hour later when Tribuvanes- vara dasa, our master of ceremonies, announced the wedding, the shops and restaurant quickly emptied and people hurried forward to watch.

I started toward the stage. “They won’t understand if I look sad,” I thought, so I forced myself to smile. Then I walked onto the stage with my translator and welcomed the huge crowd.

“We’re honored that so many of you have come to participate in this traditional Indian wedding,” I said, my voice bellowing out over the sound system. “We’re pleased to share this very colorful and joyful occasion with all of you.

“Our bride and groom, Kunja-kishori dasi and Dayal Nitai dasa, are from St. Petersburg, Russia. They’re part of our interna- tional group of devotees who have been putting on this festival for 16 years on the Baltic coast.”

I suddenly felt overcome with emotion and had to stop. I took a few deep breaths and continued.

“It has been Kunja-kishori’s and Dayal Nitai’s dream for several years to be married at our festival. I’m sure they will appreciate that so many of you have come to encourage them.”

I paused for a moment. “But I must mention one thing,” I said.

The crowd became silent as the tone of my voice changed.

“The bride is blind,” I said slowly. “She won’t be able to see any- thing that takes place on the stage today.”

Many people looked startled.

“But she told me that she’s never felt her blindness a handicap,” I said. “She perceives the world fully through hearing. If anything, she told me, her blindness is a mixed blessing, as it has brought her closer to God.

“I told her how many of you have come to her wedding today, and she is thrilled. My request is that you help her enjoy this auspi- cious occasion in a way she can understand: by loudly applauding the special moments of her wedding.”

Many people nodded their heads.

Then we began. First Dayal Nitai walked to the stage from the back of the festival through the crowd, accompanied by his friends, all chanting Hare Krishna and playing musical instruments. The crowd looked pleased as he walked up onto the stage.

But they were really waiting for Kunja-kishori. Soon she ap- peared, walking slowly on the same path with her girlfriends and the two little girls in their new saris. The entire audience stood up and gave her a round of thunderous applause.

She came onto the stage and circumambulated her husband seven times with the help of a friend. Then she stood before the crowd to another round of loud applause. “Bravo! Bravo!” yelled a man.

When Dayal Nitai lifted Kunja-kishori’s veil, revealing her love- ly face, the crowd burst into applause again and continued for a long time. When the couple exchanged garlands, the crowd applauded even louder.

When, on behalf of her father, I gave her away to the groom, the crowd applauded yet again and roared with approval.

And so it went at every stage of the wedding. I couldn’t remember ever having participated in a public presentation of Krsna consciousness where the crowd participated so eagerly. At the end of the wedding, Dayal Nitai helped Kunja-kishori down the stairs and off the stage, where they were met by hundreds of people, all applauding.

As I stood on the stage watching it all happen, I remembered Srila Prabhupada’s words:

“India will conquer the world by this Krsna culture. Rest assured.” [Pandal lecture, Mumbai March 31, 1971]

Then once again I remembered that the festival season was com- ing to a close, and my joy at seeing so many people appreciating Krsna consciousness faded into sadness. I went behind the stage curtain and sat alone for a few minutes, trying to regain my composure.

After I came down from the stage, I met Nandini and Jayatam. I could see by the looks on their faces that they were feeling the same emotions as I. Just at that moment, a well-dressed older couple ap- proached us.

“That was a beautiful wedding,” the man said, “as is everything else you are presenting here.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“One of your members told me you’ve been doing this festival for 16 years,” he continued.” Is that true?”

“Well we started simply,” I said, “but yes, this is the 16th year.” He looked at me for a moment and then put his hand out. As

I shook it he said, “May your festivals go on until the end of time and one day more!”

I was so touched I couldn’t reply.

As he and his wife left I turned to Jayatam and Nandini. “That’s the only reward we want for our service,” I said. “Whatever difficul- ties we’ve undergone this summer, that one handshake makes it all worthwhile.”

The next couple of hours went quickly. Before I began the final kirtan on stage I opened my heart to the thousand people standing in front of me.

“Ladies and gentleman” I began, “this is a very emotional moment for all of us here at the Festival of India. This next perfor- mance, the singing of Hare Krishna, will be the last of the season.

“We have enjoyed sharing with you and others, this wonderful spiritual culture of India. It has much to offer the world. We live in troubled times, but this Krsna consciousness movement is teaching the best way to live in this world, while preparing us to return home, to the spiritual kingdom.”

The crowd was listening to every word. I didn’t have to convince them of much. The festival itself had already done that.

“We look forward to seeing you again at another one of our festivals,” I continued. “God willing, we’ll be back again next year. The following kirtan is dedicated to all of you. Without your enthu- siastic participation this festival wouldn’t be the great event that it is.”

When I stopped they applauded, just as they had so done many times throughout the program.

“They’re appreciating Krsna consciousness,” I thought, “by the mercy of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu.”

I paused for a few seconds before beginning the last kirtan. As I looked out at the sea of people, I prayed to the Lord that I might envision that moment when I leave my body. It was everything I had worked for in life.

Then fighting back tears, I began the final kirtan. I took shelter of the holy names knowing that deep feelings of separation would soon overcome the other devotees and me when the program fin- ished. What would life be without the festivals, which bring joy to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people?

saiveyam bhuvi dhanya gauda nagari velapi saivam

so’yam sri purusottamo madhupates tany eva namani tu

no kutrapi niriksyate hari premotsavas tadrso

ha caitanya krpa nidhana tava kim viksye punar vaibhavan

 The fortunate town of Navadvipa remains. The seashore re- mains. The city of Jagannatha Puri remains. The holy names of Lord Krsna remain. But alas, alas! Nowhere do I see the same kind of festival of pure love for Lord Hari that I saw before. O Lord Caitanya, O ocean of mercy, will I ever see Your tran- scendental glory again?

[Srila Prabodhananda Saraswati, Sri Caitanya Candramrta, text 140]