Jun 8, 2005
By Indradyumna Swami
Every morning while I was visiting Rostov, Russia we would drive from the apartment where I was staying to the temple, an old house in a poor neighborhood of dirt streets outside the city. The temple didn’t have facilities for more than a handful of devotees, what to speak of guests.
Over 100 devotees would line the road to greet us with kirtan, but one morning I noticed three or four dark-skinned people in ordinary clothes among them.
That morning, when I sat down to give class, I looked for the dark-skinned people, but I did not see them. I asked the devotees where they were.
“They’re Gypsies,” a devotee said. “We don’t let them into the temple.”
I thought of my gypsy friends in Siberia. “Oh, I love gypsies!” I blurted out.
The devotees were stunned.
“What I mean to say,” I said, “is that I have a number of friends who are gypsies and are practicing Krsna consciousness.”
Another devotee spoke up. “here they just steal when they come to the temple,” he said.
The other devotees nodded their heads in agreement.
“I’m aware of their bad habits,” I said, “but I’ve seen how chanting hare Krsna purifies them, just as it did for us.”
“These Gypsies are really rough people,” another devotee said. “We know. They live close by.”
“Even the police won’t enter their village,” said another. “Is that so?” I said.
I wanted to say more about how my gypsy friends in Siberia had changed, but time was short and I was expected to give class.
I asked for a copy of Srimad Bhagavatam, and a devotee handed me the Seventh Canto. When I looked at the verse for the day, I could not help smiling.
tasmat sarvesu bhutesu
dayam kuruta sauhrdam
bhavam asuram unmucya
yaya tusyaty adhoksajau
Therefore, my dear young friends born of demons, please act in such a way that the Supreme lord, who is beyond the conception of material knowledge, will be satisfied. give up your demoniac nature and act without enmity or duality. Show mercy to all living entities by enlightening them in devotional service, thus becoming their well-wishers.”
[Srimad Bhagavatam 7.6.24]
The verse seemed to fit what I wanted to say to the devotees, and even more so when I read the purport to them:
Preaching is the best service to the Lord. The Lord will immediately be extremely satisfied with one who engages in this service of preaching Krsna consciousness … As one performs this service for humanity, without discrimination between friends and enemies, the lord becomes satisfied, and the mission of one’s life is fulfilled.
I didn’t wait a second to begin my lecture. I spoke from the text, the purport, and my heart. In particular, I stressed Srila Prabhupada’s point that a devotee preaches without discrimination. “A devotee sees everyone as a candidate for devotional service to the lord,” I said, “even gypsies.”
I noticed a few devotees squirming as they heard this.
It was time to end the class. “Following Prahlada Maharaja and Srila Prabhupada’s instructions,” I said, “I suggest we take a harinam party through the gypsy village this afternoon.”
The devotees reacted in various ways. Most smiled broadly, some stared in mild shock, while others looked serious, contemplating the possible consequences of my suggestion.
After a few moments of silence, one devotee raised his hand. “Maharaja,” he said, “a small group of devotees were doing harinam in the area and actually went a few yards into the gypsy neighborhood a few days ago, but one man told them they’d better get out. So they left.”
“here’s what I think,” I said. “I propose all one hundred of us go there dressed in colorful dhotis and saris, chanting and dancing, with beautiful flags and banners… and prasadam. We can take hundreds of sweet balls.”
As I continued describing the harinam, I could see their faith increasing, and when I finished, they roared with approval. We set the time for 6 PM, as it was spring, and it stayed light outside until late in the evening.
After the lecture, one of the older devotees came up to me. “I don’t know what your Siberian gypsy friends are like,” he said, “but here they’re not poor. They own opulent homes that stand out in contrast to the simple Russian dwellings in this area.”
“How is that?” I asked.
“They deal heavily in drugs,” he said, “and they rarely get caught. They pay big bribes to government officials. You’ll see only cars like BMW and Mercedes in their neighborhood. The local people are afraid of them and leave them alone. If a gypsy is hurt by a local, a whole group of gypsies will come and take revenge. even their children and old men carry knives.”
“But we’ve never had any problems with them,” he continued, “aside from their stealing our shoes. They actually have a book—I’ve seen it—called A Guide for Thieves. It explains what is available to steal in different parts of the city. The book mentions that the Hare Krsna temple is a great place for stealing shoes. But I don’t think it’s too great a risk to go chanting in their village.”
He started to smile. “you may not remember,” he continued, “but you took devotees on harinam there 10 years ago.”
“I did?” I said.
Yes,” he replied, “but then it was just a few families. Now it’s more like a village, so we should be careful.”
That afternoon I gave another class at the temple. While I spoke, the devotee women were busy making final preparations for the Harinam. They were rolling sweet balls, sewing flags and banners, and decorating their faces with gopi dots.
After class we assembled outside, and I gave the devotees a pep talk.
“If we see it’s dangerous,” I said, “we’ll come back immediately, but I’m confident we have something that will win their hearts over: our singing and dancing. Singing and dancing are an integral part of gypsy culture, and my experience is that whenever we take the kirtan to them, they can’t resist.”
With that we started off down the dirt street leading to the gypsy village, about 250 yards away. We first passed the homes of our Russian neighbors, and many of them came out to see what the loud chanting was all about.
I watched people’s reactions. They looked uninterested, and many would not accept prasadam. At one point I saw a lady speaking strongly to a devotee who was trying to sell her a book. I thought
maybe the devotee was not being tactful, so I called him over. “Is there a problem?” I said between mantras.
“No!” he yelled over the kirtan, “No problem, Maharaja. I told her we’re going to the gypsy village, and she said we were crazy.”
I livened up the beat of the kirtan and changed the melody. The devotees chanted louder and more enthusiastically, and soon all of them were dancing. As we came closer to the gypsy village, the russian houses thinned out, until there was an empty field about 50 yards long. At the end of the field was a row of trees, separating the gypsy village from the rest of the area.
We came to a passage through the trees that led into the village. I broke into an even faster kirtan, and with all the devotees chanting and dancing, we burst through the trees into the gypsy village.
I don’t know who was more surprised, the gypsies or the devotees. The Gypsies were standing around in small groups, sitting on their porches, or working in their gardens. They all froze, with astonished looks on their faces. For a split second I thought I’d made a mistake in coming, but then suddenly gypsy children from all directions started running toward the kirtan party.
The devotees had formed a circle and were chanting facing each other, but within moments about 30 children broke through the circle and started dancing in the middle. The devotees stepped back to give them more room, only to have more gypsy children come in and fill the space.
Gathering more and more children, we continued through the village, raising a little cloud of dust. Doors and windows would fly open, and Gypsy women would look out and wave excitedly. Then they’d disappear and come running out the front door, children in tow, to see the fun.
Teenagers came and started dancing as well, but the boys and girls didn’t mix. They danced in different parts of the kirtan party. I noticed they didn’t even look at each other, so strict are the gypsy customs.
At one point, one of the brahmacaris tried to get my attention. he was pointing towards some gypsy boys dancing on the side. I couldn’t understand what he was saying so I waved him over. “What is it?” I shouted over the roar of the kirtan.
“That Gypsy boy is wearing my shoes!” he replied. I tried hard not to laugh.
But no adults joined the kirtan. I became a little nervous when I saw some of the men looking at us suspiciously. Further down the road I noticed what looked like some village elders talking together in front of a big house. “This must be the home of the village leader,” I thought, so I moved the kirtan party down the road and stopped in front of the house.
Within a minute a large man came out on the porch and stood watching us without showing any emotion. Once again I changed the melody of the kirtan and played the drum even faster, until my arms started aching. The effect was wonderful, as the Gypsies and devotees went wild, dancing all over the street. Many of the gypsies were chanting hare Krsna along with us.
As the kirtan continued, I made eye contact with the gypsy leader several times. As he continued watching us, I brought the kirtan to a peak, causing even some of the men to dance on the side. By that time I was completely exhausted, but I kept going. I wanted to show the gypsy leader the glories of the holy name and how we truly made no discrimination between them and us.
It worked. A minute later, as I glanced towards him, he winked. When I smiled in return, he grinned—a sign of approval that suddenly had all the gypsies in the neighborhood, including the adults, dancing with us.
It was no time to stop, and by the mercy of the lord I got a second wind. I turned around on the street and started the kirtan party back towards the temple, stopping several times as more gypsies joined. At one point I was surrounded by them, and because of the dust, I couldn’t see the devotees.
As we got closer to the exit back to the main road, some of the gypsy teenagers were standing along the side, slapping raised hands with the devotees palm to palm in the popular high-five gesture. A number reached out to me, and I slapped my hand with theirs.
Just as we were about to exit the village, a hand appeared and I raised mine to slap back, but a devotee grabbed my arm and quickly pulled it down. His blunt action hurt my arm, and I gave him an angry look.
“I’m sorry, Maharaja,” he said, “but that was a girl. If the gypsy men saw you slap her hand, we’d all be in big trouble.”
“Thank you!” I yelled as we broke through the trees back onto the main road.
Without decreasing the momentum, I continued the kirtan down the road towards the temple. I looked back and saw all the gypsy children and young adults chanting and dancing alongside of us. The kirtan party was now double what it was when we’d left the temple.
We’d been chanting over an hour and a half. Most of the gypsies had learned the mantra and were chanting with even more enthusiasm than the devotees, who seemed to be fading.
The neighborhood Russians were watching us, some smiling, some scratching their heads, some laughing.
I stopped the kirtan in the middle of the road and spoke to the crowd, while Uttama-sloka dasa translated. As they were mostly children, I tried to keep it simple. “life is temporary and full of misery,” I said, “but whenever you sing this song, you’ll never be sad, you’ll always be happy.”
“Sing more song!” one of the children yelled. “Sing more song!
No stop! No stop!”
So I started the kirtan again.
By the time we came to the temple, the kirtan had been going for over two hours. I could not go on any longer and brought it a close with a big “hari bol!” But the gypsies continued singing the Mahamantra, over and over. I stood waiting for them to finish, but after a few minutes I could see they had no intention of stopping.
I had no choice but to pick up the drum and start chanting again.
Llooking back, what took place that day was one of the best kirtans I have ever had in my life. I don’t know how long we all chanted together—we and our gypsy friends on that dusty road that night but all of us, without discrimination, tasted the nectar of the holy names.
At one point I was down on my knees with the gypsy children all around me. I picked up a little girl, put her on my drum, stood up, and started dancing, and I won their hearts. They surged forward. “We love you!” they shouted. “We love you! We love you!”
So many of them were hugging me and the devotees, that I couldn’t play the drum. Together in unison, as one voice, without any instruments, we kept chanting hare Krsna for another 20 minutes, and then finally, as darkness descended I stopped.
As our voices trailed off and silence prevailed, everyone, young and old, tried to fathom what had taken place. even the russian neighbors stood there amazed.
Then a Gypsy boy stepped forward. “We love you,” he said, “but they won’t let us in the temple.”
It was a tense moment.
“Therefore we brought the temple to you!” I said loudly, smiling.
They all cheered.
“But now it’s late,” I said, “and we all have to sleep. Please go home now. Some day we’ll sing together again.” “Do you promise?” a little girl said.
“I promise,” I replied.
The Gypsies began waving goodbye and shaking the devotees’ hands, and the devotees got into their cars and started home.
The next morning I slept a little later than usual, exhausted from the kirtan, and it was almost 8 AM when we started for the temple. As our car turned onto the dirt road, I was surprised to see gypsies there. Only this time it was a large group, smiling and waving as I drove by.
At the temple, I was again escorted inside and straight onto the vyasasana. As soon as the devotees were seated, I spoke up. “Please invite my friends inside,” I said.
“You mean the gypsies?” a boy said. “I mean my friends,” I replied.
A couple of men looked at each other and one got up and went outside.
I had just started the class when he returned with a group of gypsy women and children. I stopped the class, welcomed them, and asked the devotees to make room for them to sit down. The gypsies themselves made space for what must have been a senior gypsy woman, and with that I picked up the Bhagavatam to begin speaking again.
Then I got an inspiration. I put the book back down and took off the large, fragrant garland that the devotees had put around my neck. I called Uttama-sloka over. “here,” I said. “Please give this garland to that lady.”
Uttama-sloka made his way through the crowded temple room and carefully placed the garland around the neck of the senior gypsy woman. She looked up and burst into tears.
Holding back my own emotions, I picked up the Bhagavatam and began to lecture, keeping to the basics so our new guests might understand. Towards the end, they all stood up, smiled at me, and left.
Ten minutes later, I ended the class and gathered my belongings for my departure to the airport and my flight to Moscow. As I walked out of the temple, I turned to a devotee. “I’m only sorry that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friends,” I said.
“No need to feel sorry,” he said. “They’re all waiting for you on the road.”
As we drove out onto the dirt road, sure enough, there was a large group of gypsies, flowers in hand, waiting to say goodbye.
I asked the driver to slow down. As we passed them they smiled, waved, threw flowers … and sang hare Krsna.
Only this time, I was the one who cried.
sarvavatara bhajatam jananam
tratum samarthah kila sadhu varta
bhaktan abhaktan api gaura candras
tatara krsnamrta nama danaih
The news broadcast by the saints is that avataras 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 Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, verse 44]