Diary of a Traveling Preacher
I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, after an exhausting 33-hour journey from India. After a few hours' rest, the devotees whisked me away to a Sunday Feast program in a large auditorium near the temple. Somehow I delivered a lecture to the mainly Indian audience, emphasizing that they should not give up their original Vedic philosophy for Western culture. The devotees presented a nice play afterwards, but halfway through I was so tired that I fell asleep, so the devotees took me back to the temple.
Certainly such marathon schedules take their toll on my health. Chanakya Pandit says:
"Constant travel brings old age upon a man, a horse becomes old by being tied up, lack of attention from her husband brings old age upon a woman, and garments become old by being left in the sun." [Niti Sastra, Chapter 4, Text 12]
No doubt, thirty-one years of traveling and preaching have made an indelible mark on my body. But the rewards of preaching far outweigh any damage to this mortal frame! In 1973, Srila Prabhupada wrote a letter to my god-brother, Prabhavisnu Maharaja, which has been my constant companion for many years. It is the Magna Carta of my service to the Lord!
My dear Prabhavisnu,
Please accept my blessings. I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated January 1, 1973, and I am very glad to hear from you about your wonderful traveling party in England.
Simply go on in this way, stopping in every village and city of England and Scotland and remaining without anxiety for destination and comfortable situations. Always rely on the mercy of Krishna for your plan, and go on preaching His message and selling His books wherever there is interest.
I can understand that it is not an easy matter to travel extensively over long periods of time without proper food and rest, and sometimes it must be very cold there also! But still, because you are getting so much enjoyment, spiritual enjoyment, from it, it seems like play to you. That is advanced stage of spiritual life, never attained by even the greatest yogis and so-called jyanis!. Let any man see our devotees working so hard for Krishna and say that they are not better than millions of so-called yogis and transcendentalists. That is my challenge! Because you are rightly understanding through your personal realization this philosophy of Krishna consciousness, in such a short time you have surpassed all the stages of yoga processes to come to the highest point of surrendering to Krishna.
That I can very much appreciate, thank you very much for helping me in this way.
Your ever well-wisher,
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
I always enjoy visiting the Cape Town temple. It falls into the category of a small temple by ISKCON standards, but under the direction of Sikhi Mahiti das, a disciple of Giriraja Swami, the twenty-one devotees living here produce very big preaching results. In the Christmas Marathon they came second in worldwide book distribution. They run a successful Bhakti Yoga Club at the University of Cape Town, regularly participate in city festivals with prasadam distribution, kirtans and plays, and have weekly chanting parties on the streets. The temple is situated in a nice neighborhood near the university. Because the main emphasis is on preaching, the temple has an upbeat atmosphere about it.
My main purpose in coming to South Africa is to raise funds for my festival program in Poland. Because I have been preaching in South Africa since 1984, I have friends and well-wishers willing to support my preaching, even though it is in another country. The day after I arrived, a close friend, Bipen Prag, came to take me to visit my Cape Town donors. But just as we were about to leave, Sikhi Mahiti asked me if I would give a lecture to students of the Bhakti Yoga Club at the university. Unable to resist, I told Bipen to reschedule any appointments we had, and headed to the university.
When we arrived there were more than 300 students waiting for us. As the school year has just begun here, it was only the third meeting of the club.
The devotee who organizes it, Nanda Kumara das, suggested I speak about how I became a devotee. His idea was to gradually introduce Krsna consciousness to the students over several weeks. However, when I sat down in front of the students, who appeared eager to hear my talk, I couldn't resist giving them straight Krsna consciousness, so I spoke on Bhagavad-gita and our general way of life. Speaking in such forums is one of my favorite services in Krsna consciousness.
As I started my talk, most of the students, who were all sitting on the floor, moved in closer. As time went by, I noticed many were transfixed on hearing the timeless wisdom of Bhagavad-gita. How it must have differed from the knowledge they hear daily from their professors. I remember before I joined the Krsna conscious movement, I attended a lecture by a senior devotee at Ohio State University. As I sat directly in front of him, I was mesmerized by his presentation. Halfway through his talk he noticed that my mouth had dropped open, so he paused for a moment and said, "Is everything all right?"
Coming out of my little trance, I collected myself and replied, "Yes! Yes, I'm OK. Please keep speaking!"
My talk was supposed to last only 20 minutes, but after an hour not a single student had left the room. When I asked for questions many hands went up excitedly, and we continued for another half an hour. Then we had a nice kirtan. The students chanted cautiously at first, experimenting with the chanting, but after some time the blissful effect of the maha mantra touched their hearts and they surrendered to chanting with enthusiasm.
I often reflect that if there is anything that has convinced me of the process of Krsna consciousness, it is the chanting of the holy names. Chanted properly, the holy names have the ability to transport the chanter immediately to the transcendental platform. How rare it is to find happiness in this world - but how quickly we taste it in the chanting! Our only problem, as Lord Caitanya states, is that despite the magical effects of the chanting, we have little attraction for it. Watching the students chant refreshed my conviction of the power of the holy names:
"O Supreme Personality of Godhead, when someone desires to chant Your holy name, sins tremble in fear, the glory of material illusion faints unconscious, Yamaraja's scribe Citragupta becomes happy and gazes at the chanter's toenails with awe and reverence, and Lord Brahma prepares madhu-parka to worship him. O Lord, what more can we say than this?" [Padyavali, Introduction, Text 20]
After prasadam, as the students left for their classes a number of them approached me and thanked me for the lecture and kirtan. To my surprise, one girl said that the program was "a turning point in her life." A few students expressed an interest to know more and asked how to get to the local temple.
I was in bliss.
By then it was already late afternoon and there were just a few hours left to collect. Bipen and I jumped in the car and headed straight for our first appointment. As we drove through the streets, I meditated on the beauty of the city and the surrounding hills and plains.
The Cape of Good Hope was the name given to the southern tip of Africa by Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias when his ship tried to negotiate the treacherous waters off the coast in 1488. The area is infamous for its stormy weather, which made sailing around the cape in the days of wooden vessels extremely risky. The first settlement of what later became Cape Town was founded by the Dutch East India Company in 1652. Since then Cape Town has grown into one of the most beautiful and prosperous cities in South Africa.
However, there has been a major recession in the country for the past few years which has resulted in 48 percent of the population being unemployed.
As a result, crime is rampant. I had personal experience of this last year when I was collecting in the Cape Town industrial area. Just as I drove into the parking lot of a small factory, a car raced out of the lot, paused for a moment next to my car and then roared away. When I went into the office, I was shocked to see all the employees either tied up on the floor or with their hands up against the wall. They all had their eyes closed and most of the women were crying.
I had walked straight into the aftermath of a robbery. The car that sped out as I drove in was full of a gang who had just stolen a large sum of money from the office. When the boss of the factory saw me, he put his hands down and then commented that I was lucky to be alive. He said he had pushed the button to alert the Rapid Response Unit, and the thieves could have easily mistaken my car for the police and shot me as they passed by.
As Bipen and I proceeded through the same industrial area, I noticed that at least 50 percent of the factories had shut down since last year. I began to wonder if I'd come to the right place to collect, but Krsna's grace was with us and we were thankful for what we received by the end of the day.
For the next two days we continued going factory to factory, office to office, and door to door, soliciting donations for a Festival of India program in a foreign country. Sometimes people would ask why they should help the people of Poland when they themselves have so many problems in South Africa? I welcomed such questions, as they gave me a chance to preach.
My simple answer was always that regardless of our nationality we are all part of one spiritual family and dependent on each other for spiritual welfare.
On February 28 I left for Port Elizabeth, further up the coast, and was joined by my old friend Purusottam Krsna das. Purusottam Krsna also took me to visit prospective donors. Unfortunately, due to the recession we encountered similar problems to those I had in Cape Town. But whatever disappointments we met in collecting were made up by the happiness we experienced preaching to the people we encountered. In fact, I met so many interested people and spent so much time with them, that for all practical purposes I was doing door-to-door preaching, and collecting became a side issue.
In one office I met a gentleman named Paul Robinson. A business executive in a suit and tie, he surprised me when he said that he firmly believed he was "not the body but the soul inside the body." When I asked him how he had come to such a realization, he replied that when his father died recently and he was carrying the body to his car, he realized that he was carrying a lifeless frame and that his father was no longer present. Paul was unhappy as a result of his father's death, and wanted to strengthen his mind in order to tolerate the suffering. A friend had told him about yoga, which he described as a process to control the mind and senses. Having no idea how to practice yoga, Paul went through the local phone directory looking for a yoga club or organization that could help him. He came across a group of Tamil Indian priests who practice the art of Kavady, or walking on fire - literally walking on red-hot coals. To my astonishment, Paul described how he had spent months learning to do this and had just completed his first "fire walk" the day before. He proudly stated that he had walked on 20 meters of red-hot coals without a single burn on his feet.
When he asked what I thought about his accomplishment, I smiled and told him that there are easier and more effective means of yoga to control the mind and deal with stress. He seemed surprised, and asked what I was referring to. I proceeded to explain the glories of chanting Hare Krsna. We talked for some time, and when he realized the practicality of chanting over fire-walking I could see he was a little disappointed that he had gone to such efforts to learn the art! He promised to try chanting Hare Krsna, and I assured him that he would be pleased with the results.
In another place I met a well-to-do lady named Heather. She was the managing director of a large company, and upon learning I was a monk practicing an Eastern religion agreed to see me at her home. That evening as we sat in her living room, she told me that her 38-year-old son was dying of cancer and she was struggling to understand why such a thing was happening. She admitted that her own religion was unable to answer her questions, and she was looking for knowledge in other spiritual traditions. I spent a couple of hours with her discussing karma, reincarnation, death and the soul. At the end, she said she was peaceful and able to deal with the crisis as a result of the knowledge she had heard. As Purusottam Krsna and I left, she took my hand and said that God sent us at the right time.
As we drove away, I reflected that although my purpose in coming to South Africa was to collect, Krsna had other things in store for me as well. Surely from the perspective of the university students, Paul and Heather, my unsolicited visit had been a welcome surprise that had meant much in their lives. How wonderful it is to have this knowledge and be part of Krsna's plan to share it with others.
svasty astu vicvasya khalau prasidatam
dhyayantu bhutani sivam mitho dhiya
manas ca bhadram bhajatad adhoksaje
avesyatam no matir apy ahaitiki
"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 Krsna, and always remain absorbed in thought of Him." [SB 5.18.9]