| September 19 – October 5, 2006 |
When I was young, my mother would often speak of her Britannic forebears. “Your grandmother was from Wales,” she told me on many occasions. But what she liked best was the Irish part. “Your grandfather was an Irishman from Cork,” she would say proudly.
When my father would talk of his German roots, she’d pretend not to hear. “Look at the faces of these children,” she would say. “Irish eyes are smiling.”
“Luck of the Irish, boy!” she yelled from the grandstands when I won a high-school swimming race against all odds. Sometimes she’d say the same when I got good grades on my exams.
No wonder, then, that I was always curious about Ireland. Whenever something would come up in the news about the country I would take special interest and read it, and when Saint Patrick’s Day came around each year I would wear something green. And I knew not to mess with the full-blooded Irish boys with names like Sean, Kerry, Neil, and Ryan in school. They were dirty fighters. They kicked below the belt and continued punching even after you’d given up.
My curiosity about Ireland faded with time, and when I became a devotee I learned that we are all eternal spirit souls, part and parcel of Krsna. Nevertheless, when the Irish devotees contacted me early last September and asked me to take part in a traveling festival in Ireland, the curiosity of my youth was revived.
“Will there be a festival in Cork?” I asked.
“No,” said Gaura Hari das. “We’d like to do Dublin and Galway. Tribhuvanatha’s festival programs were always successful in those places.”
My Godbrother, Tribhuvanatha das, who passed away several years ago, was Irish. He was a pioneer in introducing Krsna consciousness in Ireland, and his traveling festival programs made our movement well known there. But the programs were discontinued after his demise.
I thought for a moment. “I’ll come,” I said. “I have heard that Irish people are pious. And it would be an honor to revive the festival program that Tribhuvanatha prabhu began. We’ll dedicate the festivals in his memory.”
And so on September 17, I went to the airport in Warsaw for a flight to Dublin. As I walked through the airport, I decided to buy a few toiletries, so I went into a small shop and waited in line. The line was long, so I picked up a Time magazine and started browsing through it.
Suddenly I heard a man’s voice behind me: “Old wine in new bottles.”
I turned around and saw a well-dressed gentleman.
“I thought you people didn’t read that stuff,” he said.
I quickly put down the magazine. “Uh… Generally we don’t,” I said sheepishly.
Then I saw that he had a magazine in his own hand. He smiled and put it down on top of mine. “I don’t want it either,” he said laughing. “I just picked it up so I could get in line behind you.”
“Really?” I said.
“I just got married a few hours ago,” he said. “My wife and I are going to Spain for our honeymoon.”
“Oh,” I said. “Congratulations.”
“When I saw you walking through the airport, I ran after you,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “You see, we want you to bless our marriage.” The woman behind the cash register looked up.
“I’m a businessman,” he said, “and I travel a lot. I often buy books from you people when I pass through the airports in America. I know what you’re all about.
“Today at the wedding the priest gave a very boring speech. He must have given the same talk hundreds of times. My wife was crying. The whole thing didn’t feel right. We feel if you consecrate our marriage it will be blessed.”
I felt a bit embarrassed. I looked around and saw the cashier smiling. “Isn’t that sweet!” she said with a sigh.
I thought for a moment and then put up my hands. “May Lord Krishna bless you and your wife with a prosperous and spiritually rewarding marriage!” I said.
“Thanks so much,” he said, extending his hand to shake mine.
Then as he turned to go, he wheeled back around and put a $100 bill in my jacket pocket. “That’s for the mission,” he said with a smile.
While on the three-hour flight, I took the 100 dollars out of my pocket and placed it carefully in my handbag. I made a mental note that I would use the money for the festival in Ireland.
I was apprehensive, to say the least. I knew the festivals wouldn’t be anything like our festivals in Poland, which after 17 years are organized and efficient. Despite all good intentions, the Irish program would be piecemeal, thrown together with elements from various places.
Devotees who had free time would join us from England, Ukraine, Russia, and Poland. The festival paraphernalia would come from the remnants of Tribhuvanatha’s old program and from a small festival program in England. Some householders would also lend us a few items. The only sure thing would be the stage show, as I had invited a number of talented devotees who perform at our programs in Poland.
I arrived in Dublin the day before the first festival. My apprehensions seemed justified when I spoke to Tribhuvanesvara das, a Polish devotee who had come to Dublin early to lead Harinamas and advertise the festival on the streets.
“For a few days we had six or seven devotees going out,” he said, “but yesterday there were just three of us. I played accordion and sang, one devotee with a bandaged hand played karatals, and a new boy with long hair wearing Levis handed out invitations.” “That’s definitely not the impression I like to make on Harinama,” I thought. “Everything should be first class.”
“Of course,” I continued thinking, “the holy names are transcendental and always have a purifying effect on those who chant or hear them. But if they are presented in an attractive way, there’s more chance the conditioned souls will take an interest.”
I recalled a letter Srila Prabhupada once wrote to my Godbrother Upendra:
“I shall call you and some other students to assemble there to practice Sankirtana in a systematic way. Of course, chanting Hare Krishna does not require any artificial artistic sense, but still, if the procedure is presented rhythmically, then the people may be attracted more by the transcendental music.”
[Letter, June 1, 1968 ]
The next day we went on Harinama with 15 devotees. Unfortunately it was raining, and we had to shift from one shop awning to another for protection. Some invitations went out, but by the end of the day I was feeling that attendance at the program would be small.
Fortunately, because of the expert management of the local GBC man, Praghosa das, our movement has an excellent reputation in Dublin. Our two vegetarian restaurants are well known, and for weeks in advance, customers had been informed about the upcoming program.
The next night, the hall was packed with over 500 people. It was an old, musty place, used mainly for rock concerts. Hundreds of posters of different bands who had played there were plastered everywhere. The place looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in years. I asked the technicians to keep the hall dark, flooding only the stage with lights.
Although we had not rehearsed our show, it went off well because the performers were experienced and skilled. The crowd loudly applauded the Bharat Natyam dances, enjoyed the bhajans, roared with approval at the martial-arts show, sat in awe at the yoga demonstration, and listened attentively to my lecture at the end. Everyone relished the prasadam, and we sold many books.
As we left the hall that evening I gave a sigh of relief. “But the next town, Galway, won’t be so easy,” I thought. “The last time Tribhuvanath and his festival program visited there was ten years ago.”
The next morning, in pouring rain, we traveled west in a caravan of vehicles to Galway. It was an interesting journey through the lush, green Irish countryside.
“It rains more than not,” said a devotee.
“More than not?” I asked.
“About 275 days a year in Galway,” he said.
As we drove on I noticed row after row of stone fences.
“I don’t see wooden fences,” I said.
“The soil is rocky,” a devotee said, “so for centuries when farmers tilled the land they took the rocks and made boundaries with them. It’s unique in this part of the world.”
After hearing a little Irish history, I couldn’t help but ask a question I’d always had about the country.
“Are there really leprechauns?” I said.
“No Irishman will deny it,” a devotee said with a smile. Then his face became serious. “But you can never borrow money from them,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because they’re always a little short,” he said with a grin. The devotees burst into laughter, and I lost all hope for the existence of Ireland’s fabled creatures.
After five hours we reached Galway, a town of 100,000 people. I was surprised that my tourist book listed it as one of Ireland’s major cities. As we drove along, the sun appeared briefly from behind the clouds, and I marveled at the beauty and quaintness of the town.
The next day the rain lightened into a drizzle, and after a morning program at our base, we drove with our caravan of cars into town and parked near the main street.
As we assembled for the kirtan, I picked up a drum and tried it out. It sounded dead. Then I noticed we only had two pairs of kartalas, and they were small. But the worst came when I saw devotees putting signboards around their necks advertising the festival program.
“Take them off,” I said to the devotees. “We’re not the Salvation Army.”
Soon our little ragtag group began chanting down a pedes-trian street about 300 meters long. Despite the fact that a nice devotee couple lived in Galway and sometimes did kirtan on the same street, it soon became obvious that most people had never seen devotees before.
School had just finished and suddenly the street was full of high-school kids. As we passed a group of older boys, one took a bottle of beer, shook it, and sprayed us all over.
Suddenly I saw another group of young men walking quickly toward us, apparently with the intention of crashing through our ranks. As I stepped forward, a brahmacari caught my arm.
“They can be mean,” he said.
I flashed back to my youth. “Don’t mess with the Irish boys,” came to my mind, and I stepped aside. As they reached us we opened our lines and the boys walked through without incident.
“I wonder what kind of program we’ll have in this town,” I thought.
Some people stopped and stared, but most just walked by as we chanted down the street. We were an unfamiliar sight, and it would take time for people to get used to us. By the end of the Harinama four hours later, people were beginning to smile. We had only just broken the ice.
“Tomorrow will be better,” I said to the devotees as we drove back to our base that afternoon.
The next day I took the devotees out early, before 10:30 AM. Dark, ominous clouds hung in the sky. In the chilly morning air, people walked quickly down the street, somber looks on their faces. But this time, no one took notice as we started our kirtan.
I turned to Tribhuvanesvara, our kirtan leader, and asked him to give it his best. He thought for a moment and changed to an upbeat melody on his accordion. The devotees began chanting and dancing down the street in great pleasure.
The kirtan got stronger by the hour. Around noon, when bright sunshine suddenly appeared from behind the clouds, many people looked up and then smiled at us, as if to attribute the flood of warmth and light to the kirtan of the holy names.
We passed close by a group of shoppers. “What in the world are these people doing?” A woman asked her friend.
“They’re worshiping Krsna, stupid!” her friend replied.
A devotee who was distributing invitations came up to me. “Guess what,” he said. “I overheard a man speaking to his friend over his cell phone. The man said, ‘The Hare Krishna’s are everywhere and they look so happy. I’m thinking to join them. No, seriously, I am.’”
By the time we left at 3:00 PM, exhausted but happy, auspiciousness prevailed. At the end of the day, I had some hope that our program would be successful.
“O King, when the devotees of Lord Krishna dance, their steps crush the inauspiciousness of the earth, their glances destroy the inauspiciousness of the ten directions, and their upraised voices push away the inauspiciousness in the demigods planets.”
[Hari Bhakti Suddhodaya 20.68 ]
The next day we performed Harinama at a local university. Again we tried our best, but although the students looked at us curiously, they didn’t appear interested. I noticed a lot of invitations in the trash cans. Afterward, the Harinama devotees put up posters, but they were quickly covered by other advertisements. As we drove home that evening, I was again apprehensive about attendance at our upcoming event.
“We need another Harinama like yesterday,” I thought as I drifted off to sleep that night. “One’s not enough.”
But any hopes of another were dashed when I woke up the next morning and looked out the window. It was pouring rain.
We arrived early at the festival hall that afternoon. I was pleased to see that it was modern, well equipped, and clean. I counted 600 seats.
“It’s a nice hall, but it will look empty if only a few people come,” I thought.
As the afternoon wore on we waited impatiently for a crew of technicians to arrive and set up the stage, lights, and sound, but no one came. Finally, just three hours before show time, one technician showed up.
“Where is the rest of the crew?” I asked.
“A show?” said the young man. “We thought you were just going to pray.”
Immediately he began preparing the lights on the stage. But he seemed new on the job and unfamiliar with the equipment. From time to time he would run back to the sound desk, fiddle with it and then run back to the lights. Time passed and soon there was only 90 minutes to opening. He became frantic.
“Even I set it all up in time,” he said, “I won’t be able run the lights and the sound simultaneously.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve got several qualified men here who can easily set this all up and run it all as well. Can you use them?”
“I don’t know what the boss will say,” he replied.
“We have no choice,” I said strongly.
“OK,” he said relieved. “Let’s get to work.”
Immediately several of our men, seasoned by years of experience on the Polish tour, jumped into action. In an hour everything was up and running.
Meanwhile the rest of us set up the book table, shops, and prasadam.
Then with 15 minutes until opening, we sat back and waited for the guests.
A trickle of people began arriving at 6:00 PM. As they took their seats, I went behind the stage and told Tribhuvanesvara to start the bhajan. Then I went back to the main entrance and waited. Minutes later a few more people arrived. At 6:30 there were only 30 people in the hall.
“This is what I was afraid would happen,” I said as I turned and walked to the stage.
“Guests or no guests, let’s start the show,” I said to the devotee stage manager.
I went back to the dressing rooms and sat down. An hour passed. The performers went on one after another.
“All of this for so few people,” I said out loud.
“What do you mean?” said Dina Dayal das, just back from his second martial arts performance. “The crowd is getting bigger by the minute.”
I jumped up and rushed out to the front of the stage. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The hall was more than half full, and people were still flowing in.
“There are over 400 people out there,” said a devotee. “They all came a little late, probably because of the bad weather.”
I stood and watched the crowd. They seemed mesmerized by the show.
Toward the end, I came on stage and gave a lecture. Through the bright lights I could see everyone listening attentively, so I took advantage of the opportunity and spoke for over an hour. No one moved.
Then we had a rousing kirtan. Many in the audience jumped up from their seats and danced with us in front of the stage. Afterwards we distributed prasadam. Soon the guests left, many with Srila Prabhupada books under their arms. Fully satisfied, I walked back to the dressing room to gather my things.
“I never imagined so many people would come,” I said shaking my head.
A devotee passed by. “Great show, Maharaja,” he said. “And against all odds. It was such bad weather, and we had so little time for advertising. How’d we do it?”
I smiled. “Luck of the Irish,” I said, “and no doubt, the mercy of the holy names.”
Srila Prabhupada writes:
“I have tested it definitely that melodious vibration of Sankirtana, if performed by serious devotees, can attract people from the very spiritual platform, and it at once makes the spiritual background very smooth, where a spiritual instruction from the Bhagavad-gita can be implemented very nicely. So my first concrete program is to organize such a Sankirtana party.”
[letter to Harikrishnadas Aggarwal, March 3, 1968]