August 21 – September 7, 2007
By Indradyumna Swami
After a series of programs in the Republic of Ireland, I drove north with several other devotees to Belfast. On the way I turned to Praghosa das, the local GBC representative, and congratulated him on the Ratha-yatra we had held the previous day in Dublin.
“I was amazed how the crowds lined the streets to watch the cart pass by,” I said. “And so many people came for the festival in the park afterwards.”
“The Irish are pious,” Praghosa replied, “and we were lucky to have good weather. It was Dublin at its best. There’s a saying:
“Leprechauns, castles, good luck and laughter,
“Lullabies, dreams and love ever after,
“Poems and songs with pipes and drums.
“A thousand welcomes in Ireland.”
“But we’ll see the opposite in Northern Ireland,” he continued. “It’s only a two-hour drive, but the difference between the north and south is like day and night.”
“I know a little of the history,” I said, “but for the most part I’m ignorant.”
“It’s a complex political and social issue,” he said. “It goes back more than 700 years when the British first invaded Ireland. They had control for centuries, but in 1921 they ceded sovereignty to 26 counties in the southern part of the island while retaining 16 counties in the northern part. Officially, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but although the British have ruled there for hundreds of years, the Irish still consider it their property.
“The difference is even more pronounced because the British are primarily Protestant and the Irish, Catholic. There has been a bitter struggle going on for centuries. Since the early ’70s, thousands of lives have been lost.
“However, six months ago a deal was agreed on between Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and the Democratic Unionist Party, the leading Protestant group, to forge a power-sharing administration.
“The most amazing thing is that for the past 25 years we’ve had a temple in Belfast, and the preaching is very good there because everyone has been affected by the conflict.”
“How do the people perceive us?” I asked.
“We don’t take sides so they’re basically neutral towards us,” Praghosa replied. “On one occasion as I was leaving our Govinda’s restaurant I was confronted by a group of men. When they asked about my religious affiliation, I explained I was a Hare Krishna monk. They were puzzled. They looked at each other, and then one man said to me, ‘Are you a Protestant Hare Krishna or a Catholic Hare Krishna?’
“The wrong answer could have meant a beating, so I thought carefully for a moment before explaining I was a Hare Krishna Hare Krishna. They just scratched their heads and walked away.
“But it hasn’t always been that easy. In the temple devotees are warned to stay away from the windows because they are often broken by people throwing stones and shouting political slogans. Once, someone shot an arrow through the window into the wall. At that time one of our devotees had connections with the IRA and had a meeting with the local leaders. For some time the violence stopped, but then started up again.”
“The IRA?” I asked. “What do you mean he had connections with the IRA?”
“He used to be with the group before joining us,” Praghosa replied. “He was once arrested by the British Army and spent two years in prison.”
As our discussion continued, we entered Belfast. The first thing that caught my attention was the many murals painted on walls. I looked closely as we sped past one which read, “Brits beware. Danger zone. RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] killers out.”
“Obviously this is a Catholic area,” Praghosa said. “You can see the Irish flag flying just about everywhere here.”
As we continued driving I saw a huge wall running directly through a poor area and away into the distance. Praghosa explained that many such structures, known as Peace Lines, which can be up to one kilometer long and are about six meters high, had been erected during the past thirty years to keep the warring factions apart.
“Protestants are on one side and Catholics on the other,” he said. “Without the walls keeping them apart, they’d kill each other. The truce hasn’t diminished the hatred that’s been here for decades.”
As we turned a corner another mural appeared: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children,” and nearby: “Prepared for Peace – Ready for War.”
“It’s amazing that devotees have been preaching in this environment for so long,” I said.
“They adjusted,” said Praghosa. “They adopt the accent of the neighborhood in which they’re distributing books: a British accent in Protestant areas, an Irish accent in Catholic areas. And they’re protected by the Lord. Janananda das came here in 1975 with a small group of devotees. They set up a book table in a park and sat down to have a kirtan. Ten minutes later a crowd formed and started throwing stones at them. They jumped up and ran away, leaving everything behind.
“When Janananda came back to Belfast the next year they had kirtan in front of Woolworth’s. Because many people stopped and listened they decided to come back the next day. But when they arrived, Woolworth’s was no longer there. It had been destroyed by a bomb overnight, an almost daily event in that era.”
As we drove further into town more murals appeared.
“We’re entering a Protestant area now,” Praghosa said.
Looking ahead I saw a mural of several men, obviously killed in a confrontation. “Lest we forget,” it read.
About 20 meters further another mural read: “Red Hand Commandos. It’s not for glory or riches we fight, but for our people.”
When we stopped at a red light, a huge mural loomed just off to the right. “Welcome to the Loyalist Heartland of Ulster,” it read. “No surrender.”
“What really makes devotees determined to preach in Belfast is they feel they have the solution to the problems,” Praghosa said.
“And what is that?” I asked.
“That essentially we’re all part of one spiritual family, the family of God,” he replied. “The concept of friend and enemy is an illusion. The sectarian violence is due to a bodily concept of life: I’m either Irish or English. But we’re not these temporary bodies or any of the designations we give them.
“For real peace to come to this land people have to stop seeing the differences and understand what they have in common. In the spiritual world there are no Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Muslims, or Jews. Everyone simply identifies himself as a devotee of the Lord.”
We rounded a corner and stopped in front of a large old building. I noticed an inscription on the building next door: Orange Hall – 1690.
“The Orange Hall is where the Protestants have met for centuries,” Praghosa said. “Years ago we couldn’t have driven near this place. This was the killing fields of Belfast. Much blood was spilled on this street. But recently the Indian community bought this building next door to the Orange Hall.
“The Indians?” I said. “They bought into the neighborhood?”
“In recent years,” said Praghosh, “foreign nationals have flooded into Britain. Ironically, it has helped the situation here immensely.”
“How is that?” I asked.
“Most of the foreigners think the differences that separate the two communities aren’t really life-or-death issues,” he said. “It’s rubbing off a little on the local population. For so many years they’ve been isolated. So times are changing and devotees are taking advantage to preach the message of Lord Caitanya with even more enthusiasm than before. Our Ratha-yatra cart will be pulled down this street today and afterwards we’ll have a big festival adjacent to the Orange Hall.”
Ten minutes later we arrived at the starting point of the parade. I was surprised to see only 10 or 15 devotees present making the final preparations.
“There are only a handful of devotees here,” I said to Praghosa.
“Despite the relative receptivity of the people,” he said, “not many devotees want to live in what seems like a war zone.”
Ten more devotees arrived late, and by the time we started pulling the cart down a side road and on to the main street it started to rain. I was shocked to see only a few people on the road.
“Where is everyone?” I asked Praghosa.
“It’s Sunday,” he said, “the only day the city officials would give us. And it’s raining. But there will be more weekend shoppers on the streets as we get closer to the city center.”
Twenty minutes later and 400 meters down the street, more people were out and about.
“This is the center,” Praghosa said.
I was surprised. It looked more like a town than a major city, and it appeared to be set in the ’60s or ’70s. I noticed many “To Let” signs on stores, offices, and apartments.
“Because of the history, the city hasn’t developed like other European cities,” said Praghosa, “but that may change if the power-sharing arrangement holds.”
But it wasn’t only the buildings that appeared unusual, it was also the people. Unlike Dublin, where crowds gathered on the sidewalks to smile and wave as we passed by, people were hardly taking notice. They appeared suspicious and wary. Some stared at us with no emotion.
Praghosa turned to me. “They’ve been through a lot,” he said.
I turned my attention to the chanting and dancing, hoping like all the devotees present that the Ratha-yatra parade might capture the attention of someone’s heart.
As our colorful procession made its way through the dismal atmosphere, a few people began to react. Some stopped to talk to devotees who were handing out invitations to the hall program. At one point I stepped out of the parade myself and walked along the sidewalk. After five minutes a young man in his twenties came up to me.
“What’s this all about?” he said curiously.
“It’s one of the oldest spiritual festivals in the world,” I replied.
“More wars have been fought over religion in this world than anything else,” he said. “A good example is right here in Belfast.”
“That’s true,” I replied. “But the misuse of something doesn’t mean the original thing is wrong. Real religion is about love of God, not politics and sectarian violence.”
He thought for a moment then nodded his head. “There’s some truth in that,” he said.
“Come to our program at the end of the parade,” I said. “It’s near the Orange Hall on – ”
“Everyone in Belfast knows where the Orange Hall is,” he said, cutting me off.
“It starts at 5:00 pm,” I called out as he walked away.
I didn’t think I’d see the young man again, but that afternoon, as I was about to go on stage for my lecture, I was surprised to see him walk into the hall and take a seat. He was literally the only guest, because everyone else in the audience was either a devotee or a congregation member.
As I began speaking I focused my attention on our guest. It’s a technique I sometimes use in public speaking. Because audiences are often diversified with those who have little interest, those who are merely curious, and genuine seekers of the truth, I tend to look for a single seeker and direct my talk towards him or her.
“It’s only one person,” I thought, “but maybe I can plant a seed of Krishna consciousness in his heart which will later mature into pure devotion.”
As I spoke the knowledge I’d repeated at countless programs through the years, I could see the young man was interested. He sat riveted to his seat, much like I had been the first time I heard Krishna-conscious philosophy. I kept the lecture basic. I could see some devotees and congregational members getting restless with the simplicity of the talk. Just as I’d spoken it a hundred times, they’d heard it a hundred times, but on that occasion I felt the most important person there was our guest.
I went through all the basic philosophy and even explained something about Lord Jagannath and Deity worship, all the while carefully observing his reaction. As I brought the talk to a conclusion after one hour, I could see him nodding his head in approval at my final points.
When I had finished, I stood up as the crowd applauded. The young man also stood for a brief moment, and then looking at his watch began to make his way through the crowd to the exit. I wanted to speak to him, but he was obviously in a hurry.
But just as he was about to leave he turned and smiled, giving me a thumbs-up. It wasn’t a big thing – a simple smile and a hand gesture – but it was enough to give me faith that if the new administration is successful and devotees continue in their determination to share the message of Krishna consciousness with the people of Belfast, we could help in bringing lasting peace and happiness to Northern Ireland.
svasty astu visvasya khalah prasidatam
dhyayantu bhutani sivam mitho dhiya
manas ca bhadram bhajatad adhoksaje
avesyatam no matir apy ahaituki
“May there be good fortune throughout the universe, and may all envious persons be pacified. May all living entities become calm by practicing bhakti-yoga, for by accepting devotional service they will think of each other’s welfare. Therefore let us all engage in the service of the supreme transcendence, Lord Sri Krishna, and always remain absorbed in thought of Him.”
[ Srimad Bhagavatam 5.18.9 ]