Vol 7: Chapter 8: The Will of the People

| June 30 – July 17, 2006 |


Though I relished every minute of my pilgrimage to Jagannatha Puri, I was worried about the Polish tour. With Jayatam dasa and me in Puri, all the responsibility for organizing the tour was on Nandini dasi. Nandini is certainly capable, but taking care of the whole tour is a lot for one person.

This year we had bigger plans than ever. We had chosen “A Summer of Yoga” as the tour’s theme. Jayatam and Nandini had both taken intensive teacher-training courses in yoga during the year in order to give lessons at the festivals. The Polish media had picked up on the theme, and the main national radio in Poland, Program One, was talking about the festivals every day. Gazeta Wyborcza, the country’s biggest newspaper, was also advertising the festivals in its daily “Summer Recreation” section.

Just before I left for Puri, Nandini had been busy arranging visas for 250 Russian and Ukrainian devotees, mobilizing 25 tons of equipment kept in storage through the winter, arranging a base in a school on the Baltic coast, and signing contracts for 42 festivals.

But during our stay in Puri neither Jayatam nor I had any contact with her. Our cell phones didn’t work, most likely because connections were jammed from the one million other pilgrims using the town’s strained telecommunications system.

As soon as we arrived at the airport in Madras for a flight back to Europe, my cell phone started ringing with text messages stored during the previous week. The first one I opened read, “Urgent. Contact me immediately. Fierce opposition. Already one festival canceled. Nandini.”

I called Nandini immediately, but because it was late at night in Poland, she didn’t answer. I couldn’t sit still during the flight back to Europe.

“What sort of problems do you think we’re facing?” I asked Jayatam.

“I won’t speculate,” he said, “but I was expecting trouble this year because the new government is extremely conservative.”

Later in the flight I was startled to find an article in the International Herald Tribune entitled “Stung by EU judgment, Poland has a rebuttal.”

“Two weeks ago,” it began, “the representatives of the European people [European Parliament] sitting in Strasbourg passed a resolution that expressed general alarm at the increase of racial hatred and xenophobia in Europe, mentioning several countries that have had violent racial or religious incidents, but expressing a particular concern for Poland.”

Immediately upon arriving at Frankfurt, I called Nandini again. This time she answered and quickly updated me.

“The Catholic Church is closely aligned with the new government,” she began, “and it is taking every advantage to assert itself. We have attracted attention with the unprecedented media publicity advertising our festivals.

“There is now a parallel campaign called ‘Summer Against the Cults.’ In all the media, people are being warned about cults taking advantage of the summer season to spread their propaganda.

“For the past few weeks the priest in the main church in Kolobrzeg, the biggest city on our tour, has been vilifying us in his Sunday sermons. It’s all he talks about. The result is that the city has revoked permission for the choice spot near the beach that it had allocated for our festival in two weeks.

“The priest in Siemysl, where we have our base, is also stirring up sentiment against us. He tells his Sunday congregation to watch their children carefully while we are in town. He’s posting daily warnings about us on a public notice board just outside the church. The mood in the village is tense. There’s more, but I’ll wait until you arrive to tell you everything.”

I mulled over the situation on the flight from Frankfurt to Warsaw. “When I was in Puri,” I thought, “I prayed to Lord Jagannatha for the blessing that I might always distribute His mercy to those less fortunate than I, but such mercy may not always be appreciated by those for whom it is intended. Therefore a preacher has to be tolerant.”

At our tour meeting the next afternoon, I spoke to Nandini about the canceled festival in Kolobrzeg.

“The Indian Ambassador to Poland is supposed to be the guest of honor at that festival,” I said. “It will be a big embarrassment for the Polish government if we have to tell the ambassador that the event has been canceled because of religious discrimination.” “I’m aware of that,” Nandini said, “and I plan to discuss it in my meeting with the mayor of Kolobrzeg at the end of the week.”

I looked at all the devotees present. “None of us should be discouraged,” I said. “The opposition we’re facing is nothing new. We’ve had opposition every year.”

“But they’re particularly aggressive this year,” said Jayatam, “especially after the recent elections. Our security manager, Raksana dasa, is getting threatening text messages on his cell phone every day warning us not to do any festivals this year.”

“Let’s wait and see the reaction of the people,” I said. “When we go on Harinama tomorrow, we’ll be able to judge the situation.”

The next day the others and I headed for the beach in Pobierowo to advertise that night’s festival. As I thought about the concern of the European Parliament about xenophobia in Poland and the bad publicity from the “Summer Against the Cults” campaign, I was apprehensive, to say the least.

As we stepped out of the bus, I looked around. “Maybe the people won’t even accept our invitations,” I thought.

But the effect of doing festivals for 17 years along the coast was not going to disappear so quickly. As soon as we walked onto the beach the will of the people was manifest, despite the government’s opposition.

“A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood of ideas in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

[John F. Kennedy]

The moment our colorful procession of 100 devotees stepped onto the sand, the onlookers grabbed their children, but not in fear. They were pushing the children forward to take photos with us. The devotee women took off the silk garlands I had bought on my trip to Puri and put them around the necks of the kids.

It created a sensation. Everyone wanted to put on a silk flower garland and take a photo with us. But with so many people crowding around us for photos, we were moving down the beach at a snail’s pace.

I turned to Amrtananda dasa. “It’s great,” I said, “but how will the festival ever get advertised at this rate?”

Amrtananda laughed. “I don’t think you could get better publicity than this,” he said.

As we chanted along the beach, people waved and smiled. And for the first time, many people called out “Hare Krsna!” or “Hare Hare!”

I shook my head. “Things are certainly changing,” I said softly, “and for the better.”

As we neared a family of sunbathers, a girl of about seven sat up straight when she heard the kirtan. Immediately I saw she was blind. As the Harinama party proceeded she turned her head slightly. She began to smile, and as we got closer she reached into a bag and fumbled to find something. Then she ran forward with a big smile and gave me a one-zloty coin.

“Hare Krsna,” I whispered in her ear.

Another hundred meters down the beach we met the day’s only opposition. A woman came up to the kirtan party and started complaining loudly that we were disturbing (of all things) the wildlife in the area. She pointed to the seagulls that had been scared away by the sound of the Harinama.

“You’re disturbing the poor animals, birds, and fish with your loud racket!” she screamed, attracting a lot of attention from the sunbathers.

Suddenly a young seal poked its head out of the sea just a few meters from us. It slowly swam to the shore and lumbered on to the sand, stopping just two meters from the chanting party. It cocked its head and sat there listening to the kirtan. The people were laughing, and the woman had a look of shock on her face.

“It must be seal that followed us in the water along the beach last year,” I said to the devotees. “Let’s see if it follows us again.” Sure enough, as we started chanting down the beach the seal jumped back in the water and swam alongside us. Every time we’d stop it would lift its head to watch us.

That evening our festival site was inundated with people. A local schoolteacher came with 50 little girls to the fashion booth, where we dress visitors in saris.

“There’s a wedding in town in one hour,” the teacher said, “and my class has been invited. All the girls want to wear saris from the Hare Krsna festival.”

We had to call in reserves to help dress the girls in time for the event.

At the same time, devotees in the gopi-dot tent almost fainted when a camp counselor appeared with 320 young girls who wanted their faces decorated. It took the entire evening to complete the task.

As soon as the stage program started, people flocked towards the front to get seats. They sat mesmerized as the dancers from Bali performed the Ramayana in their beautiful traditional costumes.

The next day we went on Harinama on the same beach to announce the evening’s performance. The weather was perfect. It had not rained in weeks. In fact, devotees told me they had not seen a cloud in the sky for a month. It was an unusually hot summer, with temperatures in the high 30s.

The situation was ironic, however, because local authorities had banned swimming in the Baltic Sea. They feared the difference between the soaring temperatures and the cold water would be too much of a shock for people. As we chanted along the beach people lay sunbathing, but with no way to get relief from the heat.

I was also feeling the heat. In order to advertise our programs we spend four hours a day chanting in the sun along the beaches. With six festivals a week, it comes to 24 hours of Harinama, and it can be exhausting.

“I’m already tired,” I thought, “and it’s only the first week of the tour. We have seven more weeks to go.”

Then I noticed a number of people on the beach reading Srila Prabhupada’s books, which they had bought at the festival the night before. I couldn’t think of a greater reward for all the austerities, and I felt a surge of renewed energy.

On the way to the festival that evening, I was talking with a devotee. “The Harinama parties are really powerful,” I said. “They awaken people’s appreciation for Krsna consciousness.”

“But unfortunately,” he said, “many thousands of them don’t come to the festivals.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “The Harinamas are festivals in themselves. People get so much benefit just seeing them.”

“Trivikrama Swami told me a story recently,” I continued.

“One time he went to see Srila Prabhupada after a Harinama.

“ ‘Did the people like the Harinama this afternoon?’ Srila Prabhupada asked.

“ ‘Yes, Srila Prabhupada,’ he said. ‘Many people enjoyed it.’ “ ‘That’s good’ Srila Prabhupada said. ‘Even if they just appreciate in their minds, they will make spiritual advancement.’ ” Two days later our festival moved to Revel. During that program, a woman walked around the festival criticizing devotees. Then she came up to me.

“Hey, everyone!” she shouted. “Just look! A wolf in sheep’s clothing! He calls himself a holy man, but his intentions are evil!”

To my surprise, the police quickly arrested her for disorderly conduct and later fined her 800 zlotys.

The next day, Nandini met the mayor of Kolobrzeg. He knew that our festival had been canceled, but he had not been involved in the matter. Nandini pressed him to override the decision and give us back the choice spot by the beach.

“That, I cannot do,” the mayor said, “but because the Indian Ambassador is coming, I will give you another venue – the square in the center of town. It’s full of tourists all summer long.”

His secretary gasped. “Mr. Mayor,” she said, “You’re a brave man to give them that square. Remember, there are elections this fall.”

A week later we began a three-day festival in the square. The weather was beautiful, and thousands flocked to the site. In addition to our normal program, a group of dancers from Rajasthan, organized by the Indian embassy, enchanted the crowd.

My Australian Godbrother Kurma das also pleased the crowd with his cooking demonstrations in one of our tents. And Jayatam’s yoga tent was packed with young and old for the entire festival.

On the last day, we held an Indian wedding. Subuddhi Raya das and his bride, Radha Katha dasi, took their vows before a thousand people. The crowd on the broad square was so large that no one could move.

After the wedding the Indian Ambassador and the mayor spoke from the stage. I was in the sound tent relishing every minute, as the ambassador praised our efforts to share the culture of India with the people of Poland. As I looked over the huge audience, I marveled at how, despite the carefully orchestrated opposition, our festivals were bigger and more successful than ever.

And as if to put the icing on the cake, the Lord sent a message of assurance in a phone call from Pracarananda dasa, who is in charge of our movement’s relations with the government.

“Maharaja,” he said, “you may be interested to know that the Ministry of Internal Affairs has just released a report on the cults in Poland. It’s a comprehensive study of each and every group the government considers dangerous. To my amazement, we’re not listed. In fact, we’re not even mentioned once. Things are changing. Of course it’s not the end of our problems with the opposition, but it’s a big step in the right direction.”

I was so elated by the news that I walked around the festival site in a state of euphoria. And the cherry was put on the icing when a devotee who had been in the Questions and Answers tent came up to me.

“Maharaja,” he said, “a teacher from a local high school came to the tent. She really appreciated the ambassador’s praise of our festival, and you’ll be stunned by what she said.”

“Please tell me,” I answered.

“She told me that the Hare Krsna Movement is just what the youth of Poland need,” he said, “and that we should join forces with the government to fight the cults.”

Once again, the truth of Srila Prabhupada’s words came to my mind:

“We have no business creating enemies, but the process is such that non-devotees will always be inimical toward us. Nevertheless, as stated in the sastras, a devotee should be both tolerant and merciful. Devotees engaged in preaching should be prepared to be accused by ignorant persons, and yet they must be very merciful to the fallen conditioned souls. If one can execute his duty in the disciplic succession of Narada Muni, his service will surely be recognized. We must sincerely serve the Lord and not be deterred by so-called enemies.”

[Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.5.39, purport]