Vol 7: Chapter 11: Modern-Day Pastimes

| July 27 – August 1, 2006 |


Devotees worked day and night for a week to get Krsna’s Village of Peace up and running in time for the Woodstock Festival. In the evenings, people from the nearby town of Kostrzyn would drive out to the site and sit on the grass watching devotees set up the tents. Whenever a piece of framework for the large tent was raised or a lamppost installed, they would clap and cheer.

“The first year we came, the townspeople stayed away from our village out of fear,” said Jayatam das one evening. “The second year they came out of curiosity. But this year they seem to be coming because they really like us.”

At that moment a group of young priests walked by without acknowledging us.

“I wish that were true for everyone,” I said.

Two days before the festival began, I went with Jayatam and Nandini dasi to the main stage to meet the organizer, Jurek Owsiak. I hadn’t seen Jurek since last year’s festival, so I asked Jayatam if he was in good health.

“He’s fine,” Jayatam replied. “He was concerned about getting enough security, but it’s been resolved. Good weather is predicted, so he’s in good spirits. But there is one thing that’s bothering him. It comes up every year.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A certain Christian group,” he said. “Every year they come with a heavy proselytizing mood, creating an atmosphere of animosity. Although he welcomes everyone, he’s thinking to refuse them this year.”

As we came around the back of the big stage we ran into Jurek. Immediately, he and I hugged each other. “Maharaja,” he said, “we’ve built this event up together for the past 11 years. It’s been a success every year because of our cooperation. Leaders of the Christian group that was antagonistic the last few years visited me this morning. You’ll be pleased to know that this year they’ve agreed to work with us in a spirit of reconciliation. I’m leaving it to both of you.”

My eyebrows went up. “Really?” I said, “Last year they were openly critical of you and us.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but this year they want to share their message of love.”

“I hope it happens,” I said.

On the way back to our village, Jayatam updated me on the activities planned for our village at Woodstock.

“In our tents we’ll have yoga classes, bhajans, questions-and-answers, face painting, astrology, books and various exhibits. In the big tent we’ll have a stage program continuously for 15 hours a day. And we’ll be distributing prasadam non-stop, 24 hours a day, for 3 days from the food distribution tent. On top of that, Harinama samkirtan will be going out daily.”

“And six Ratha-yatras!” Nandini piped up. “What?” I said. “Six Rathayatras? Really?”

“You weren’t at the meeting last night, Guru Maharaja,” Nandini said. “We decided to put more energy into taking our message to the kids with Ratha-yatra. We’ll have the parade twice a day through the main areas of Woodstock.”

Black Summer Crush, a rock band from America, arrived that night. I had met the band’s leader, a devotee named Bhakta Scott, during a visit to the Laguna Beach temple in April. When I sent a CD by the band to Jurek, he asked that they play on the main stage at Woodstock and gave them prime time.

The other band members were also favorable to Krsna consciousness, but when we took them to their Spartan quarters in one of the schools we were renting, they balked. Nandini decided to find a hotel for them, even though it was late at night. But as she called around it became apparent that because of Woodstock, all hotel facilities had been booked months in advance. On her last try, by Krsna’s grace, she found something more than adequate.

She called a hotel 120 kilometers away. “Sorry,” said the woman at the hotel, “all the rooms have been booked for months. Wait! I recognize your voice. You phoned me two years ago looking for a spring base for the members of your Festival of India. Do you remember?”

“Let me think,” said Nandini. “Yes, I do remember now.” Nandini laughed. “At that time you also said there was no room,” she said.

“But we had such a nice discussion about life,” the woman replied. “Many things you said have helped me since then. And I’d like to help you now. I own a special facility for conferences and banquets that I rent only to VIPs. The last people to rent it were a group of politicians from Germany three months ago. I would be more than happy to rent several rooms for your band.”

“Where is it?” said Nandini.

“Fifteen minutes’ drive from Woodstock,” the woman said. We opened our village early the next morning, a day before the festival – a tradition we have maintained for years. Within minutes, long lines of young people formed in front of our food-distribution tent. I joined the servers, and the first person who came forward greeted me with a smile. “I’ve been waiting a whole year for this meal,” he said.

Later in the morning 100 devotees gathered in front of our huge Ratha-yatra cart on the field. I gave a short talk about the meaning of Ratha-yatra and brought out 20,000 colorful invitations for devotees to distribute. As we pulled the cart along the main road of the festival grounds, many young people joined the parade, chanting and dancing with us. I noticed that very few of our invitations ended up on the ground. I made a mental note: “It means many people will come to our village over the next three days.”

Sure enough, that evening our village was packed as the kids enjoyed prasadam along with our stage show and the activities in our tents.

The next day was the first official day of Woodstock. Out of curiosity, I sent Nandini and Jayatam to the hill where our village had been situated last year. Two circus tents stood on the spot, and a number of well-known writers, poets, and entertainers were scheduled to speak during the festival.

When Jayatam and Nandini arrived a film crew was interviewing one of the speakers. Jayatam and Nandini immediately recognized the woman conducting the interview as a reporter for Channel One, the main television station in Poland. For the first time, Jurek was allowing national television to film Woodstock.

Jayatam and Nandini waited patiently and when the inter-view was finished, they stepped forward and introduced themselves. After a few minutes of discussion, the woman accepted their invitation to visit our village below.

As Jayatam and Nandini walked back down the hill, Jayatam called to me. When he came up to me, he whispered that national television was coming to film the food distribution. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Within minutes the television crew was filming the distribution and interviewing the kids.

“I come to Woodstock for three things,” said a boy with a Mohawk haircut into the camera. “Music, beer, and Hare Krsna food.”

The woman interviewed one of our cooks, Krsna Sambandha dasa. The woman kept the camera rolling as he methodically listed the amount of bhoga we were cooking. “Four tons of rice,” he said, “two tons of semolina, two tons of sugar, two tons of frozen vegetables, and two tons of dhal.”

“And it’s all offered to God, to Krsna,” he concluded with a smile.

After filming, the reporter accepted prasadam. She looked around at our colorful village, buzzing with activity. “There’s so much to write about here,” she said to her cameraman.

That night the story was on prime-time evening news, with an audience of millions.

Jayatam told me about the newscast. “You know,” he said, “Jurek moved us down here to avoid publicity, but in the end we got more publicity than we could ever have imagined.”

“You and Nandini get the credit for that one,” I said with a smile. “You went up the hill and found the television crew. There’s a saying: If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad will go to the mountain.”

Jayatam looked puzzled. “Mountain? Muhammed?” he said.

I laughed. “I’ll explain after the festival,” I said.

That night Black Summer Crush played on the main stage to a crowd of 150,000. They enthralled the kids with their unique style of rock ‘n’ roll and then thrilled the audience by chanting Hare Krsna as their last song. As Bhakta Scott’s wife, Carmen, led the kirtan, many in the audience stood transfixed by the transcendental sound vibration.

On the second and last day of Woodstock, we took our Ratha-yatra cart out early for the first parade of the day. As we started pulling it down the crowded road, suddenly another camera crew appeared, and after panning the large crowd chanting and dancing, started filming the arati being offering to the Jagannatha Deities on the cart.

“Who are they?” I shouted to a Polish devotee.

“Channel Two,” he shouted back, “the second biggest station in Poland!”

I looked up at the cart and saw a mountain of fruit on the platform near the Deities.  “Haribol!” I shouted to the pujaris. “Start throwing the fruit to the crowd!”

“But the arotika is going on,” one called back.

“It doesn’t matter!” I yelled. “National television is filming!” They all stood staring at me, looking puzzled.

I ran to the cart, jumped up on one of the big wheels, pulled myself over the railing, and grabbed some fruit. I turned around and began throwing apples, bananas, and oranges to the crowd. The people roared with pleasure and raised their arms to catch the fruit as it sailed through the air. Some people made fantastic catches. Others, less coordinated, fumbled with the fruit as it fell. One boy, in his eagerness to catch a banana flying by, put up both hands and the banana exploded into mush all over him.

A number of kids were simultaneously chanting and dancing . . . and eating fruit.

That evening the blissful scene was aired on Channel Two news. The loud chanting of Krsna’s holy names resounded in the background.

Later that day Rasikendra dasa, our head cook, assured me that we would distribute more plates of prasadam than last year. “We’ll do more than 115,000 plates this year,” he said, exhausted but blissful.

As I passed the Question-and-Answer tent in the afternoon, Trisama das, the devotee who was speaking at the time, came out-side briefly to talk with me.

“The quality of the kids at Woodstock is better than ever,” he said. “The Yoga tent has been packed since the day it opened. These kids are eager for Krsna consciousness like never before.”

Late in the afternoon the Ratha-yatra parade pulled out for its sixth and final procession. The majestic cart with its canopy of red, yellow, and white billowing in the soft breeze seemed to be sailing through an ocean of people.

It seemed to me that this Ratha-yatra was even more blissful than the one I had seen in the holy dham of Jagannatha Puri because now Lord Jagannatha was giving His blessings to these Western boys and girls who are so conditioned by material life.

“Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura points out that just as a lamp does not seem to shine as brightly in sunlight as it does in the shade, or as a diamond does not seem as brilliant on a silver platter as it does on a plate of blue glass, the Lord’s pastimes as Govinda do not seem as amazing in the transcendental abode of Vaikuntha as they do within the material realm of Maya. Lord Krsna comes to the earth and within the darkness of material existence these brilliant, liberated pastimes give unlimited ecstasy to the surrendered devotees of the Lord.”

[Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.14.37, purport]

As we chanted down the road for the last time through the thousands of kids, many called out to us:

“Hare Krsna!”

“Great food!”

“We love your village!”

At one point I stopped the cart and took the microphone.

I started leading the kirtan, quickly building it up to a peak.

Suddenly a young man in a drunken stupor came stumbling into the kirtan. He was a fearful sight with his disheveled hair and his body covered with dirt. His clothes were torn, one arm was in a cast, and a knife was tucked into his waist. He stood before me, mumbling incoherently with a wild look in his eyes.

My first reaction was one of fear and then shock. Then I calmed down. “Let’s see the power of the holy names,” I thought.

I took the young man’s hand and began to dance with him. His half-closed eyes opened in astonishment as we danced together in front of Jagannatha, Lord of the Universe. Seeing us, the devotees became more enthusiastic and the pace of the kirtan increased. Suddenly my new friend and I were dancing wildly. A big smile appeared on his face as he tried his best to utter the words of the mahamantra.

Because of his drunken state, he was soon exhausted. I started chanting, “Nitai Gaura Hari Bol!”

Suddenly the young man opened his arms, rushed forward, and hugged me. Then as the devotees wildly applauded, he kissed me on the cheek, grabbed the microphone, and began singing in a sweet voice: “Nitai! Nitai! Nitai!”

Then he grabbed a ceremonial broom hanging in front of the chariot and began to sweep the road in front of Lord Jagannatha. Taking it as a sign from the Lord, I signaled to the devotees to start pulling the ropes and we started down the road again, our friend sweeping the road all the way. We were all mesmerized, witnessing the modern-day pastimes of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.

Suddenly, as we rounded a corner I was surprised to see a group of some 400 Christians led by several priests, chanting, dancing, and waving flags down a road that would intersect ours 50 meters ahead.

“What should we do?” I thought. “Turn around and avoid a confrontation or slow down and let them go ahead of us?”

The other devotees looked at me for a sign. I smiled. “The moment of reconciliation,” I said to myself. I motioned to proceed forward.

Within minutes the two chanting parties converged. Moving together down the broad avenue packed with festival-goers we continued chanting our praises of God. The mood was amicable and respectful. As we walked along together I exchanged several smiles with the priests. Many of the young people walking by noticed the friendly interaction and gave the thumbs up. After 15 minutes, the Christian group branched off on another side road.

It was such a change from the past that I wished Jurek and many more could have seen it.

I suppose the Lord did, however, because that night an article appeared in the Gazeta Wyborcza, the biggest newspaper in Poland. It was headlined, “Hare Krsna and Jesus – Tolerance at the Woodstock Festival.”

The last paragraph summed up the encounter:

“On Wednesday, Lord Krsna’s chariot was being pulled down the main avenue of Woodstock by his devotees, when it met a parade of Christians. ‘Hare Krsna!’ sang one group as the two approached. ‘Lord Jesus!’ called out the other. When they met, two happy dancers – one a Catholic priest and the other a devotee of Krsna – came forward. To the amazement of all present they stood face to face smiling and swinging to the rhythm of their own melodies. It lasted 20 minutes, though we hoped it would last forever.”

As we chanted on our way back to the festival site and the remaining hours of Woodstock, I remembered Jurek’s words of assurance just before the festival began: “They’ve agreed to work with us in a spirit of reconciliation. I’m leaving it to both of you.” Whether it was the cowherd boy Lord Krsna or the young shepherd Jesus Christ, it appeared the great Woodstock Festival had been purified of all animosity and both groups were now free to peacefully share their message of love.

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb; and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

[Holy Bible, Isaiah 11.6]