Diary of a Traveling Preacher
On the flight from New York to London on April 23, my heart was full of mixed feelings. On one hand I was happy because my tour of the temples in America had gone well. A number of devotees had expressed gratitude that I had taken the time and energy to visit there. But I knew it wasn't just me ... it was me and Sri Prahlad. The trip was successful because we did together what we've done for the past 10 years: we shared the entire effort - the classes, the kirtans, and the interactions with all the devotees.
So I was also sad knowing that the trip to America was our last combined effort to enliven and associate with devotees in different parts of the world. In autumn, after this year's Polish tour, Sri Prahlad and Rukmini Priya planned to settle in Australia. Each time I thought of their departure an empty feeling filled my stomach. Sri Prahlad is more than a simple servant or assistant - after many years of service, his friendship is my most valued possession. As I thought of all we'd done in America, the hope of somehow staying together once again entered my mind, as it had a thousand times since he announced his imminent departure:
"Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of joy you must have somebody to divide it with." [ Mark Twain ]
As our flight touched down in London, I turned to Sri Prahald and said that I felt that rather than separate completely, we should try to find a means to serve together which would satisfy his needs as a grhasta and mine as a traveling preacher. Even as I said it, I knew such a proposal was fraught with complications. A householder means just that - owning an immovable house where one serves the Lord with wife and children. A sannyasi means always on the move, with no home and few possessions. Later we spoke for hours . . . but with no solution. As a last resort we decided to visit and seek the advice of my god-brother, Tamal Krsna Maharaja, who lives outside of London. To my amazement, after a long discussion Maharaja suggested a plan that satisfied everyone's needs: Sri Prahlad and Rukmini Priya will live in Mayapur for six months of the year - September through February - where they'll assist Bhakti Vidya Purna Maharaja in his development of a new school for higher education; in March-April, Prahlad and I will travel and preach; and in India's hot and monsoon seasons, May-August, Prahlad and Rukmini Priya will join the Polish Festival tour. We all agreed on the plan, and left feeling indebted to Tamal Krsna Maharaja.
Today a man discovered gold and fame
Another flew the stormy seas;
Another set an unarmed world aflame,
One found the germ of a disease.
But what high fates my path attend . . .
For I - today - I found friend.
[Helen Barker Parker]
After a three-day rest in England, Sri Prahlad and I flew to Dinamorsk in southern Russia to participate in a grand festival honoring the appearance of Lord Nrsimhadeva. More than 2000 devotees from all over Russia attended the celebration, which was highlighted by the visits of Niranjana Maharaja and Prabhavisnu Maharaja. The festival was simply one kirtan after another for three days straight.
On May 7 we flew to Warsaw, Poland, to begin preparations for the spring festival tour. As our plane circled over the city waiting for clearance to land, my thoughts focused on the tour preparations. Although during the past eight months I had traveled far and wide in my preaching, the 2001 tour in Poland had always been the focus of my meditation. Just as a paramour thinks of her lover in a distant place while performing her daily affairs, my mind was always meditating on the unparalleled preaching opportunity ahead of us. Last year more than 750,000 people had walked through the gates of our festival program and participated in one way or another in the variegated spiritual activities. No wonder the Catholic Church in Poland is so worried about our activities and so intent on stopping us. Of course, the honorable thing would be to accept us as brothers in the service of God, but with few exceptions history has shown that religion is often the most dividing factor in human society. As our plane descended on to the runway, I braced myself for the landing - and for the struggle ahead.
When I emerged from Customs, my apprehensions were confirmed. On the way to the car I asked Nandini dasi to give me a briefing on her and Radha Sakhi Vrnda dasi's efforts to organize the festival programs. She replied, "Srila Gurudeva, do you want the good news or the bad news first?"
I replied, "OK, give me the bad news first."
She said: "The anti-cult groups, under the auspices of the Church, are beginning their annual spring media campaign against us. They know we'll soon be starting our spring tour in Loch and will be along the Baltic Sea coast in the summer. A barrage of negative newspaper articles about us are coming out, as well as several horrific television broadcasts, all with false propaganda.
"A booklet warning of the dangers of cults has been distributed to every teacher in every school in the country. We are the main focus. They accuse us of mind control, breaking up families, and a number of criminal activities.
"As a result of the constant barrage of misinformation, a recent survey revealed that 65 percent of the population favor closing down the 'cults' in Poland. We're No. 1 on the list."
"But how can they say we are a cult?" I said. "We've been registered as an official religion in this country since 1991."
Nandini replied with the infamous quote, "If you tell the people a lie for long enough, they'll eventually believe it."
"OK, give me the good news," I said.
Radha Sakhi Vrnda said, "A lot people like us. Wherever we go, we meet people who've been to one or two of our festivals since 1990. They're always willing to help.
"Our preaching is having its effect. In another survey, 52 percent of Polish people say they believe in reincarnation. We feel that all the book distribution, festivals and media programs we've done have surely contributed to that belief.
"Our supporter, the Mayor of Zary (where the annual Woodstock festival is held), has just been added to a group of advisors to the Polish president. Also, the president's personal secretary (who is also the Minister of Home Affairs) spoke at the opening of ISKCON's exhibition on Vedic Culture at the Warsaw Museum.
"Plans for the Woodstock Festival are continuing without any opposition. The main organizer, Jurek Owsiak, told us he is counting on the Hare Krsna Village of Peace being there. He said to tell you he wants our presence to be even bigger and more colorful than last time."
"How's that possible?" I said. "The tent we rented from Germany was bigger than an American football field.
It held 10,000 kids for four days!"
At the temple we went into more details. The office looked like the headquarters of a military operation. There were several devotees pouring over maps, considering when and where we would hold festivals in the area we had chosen for the spring tour, just south of Warsaw. Phones were ringing and faxes were coming in and going out buzzing with all kinds of information: where we would purchase the 22 tons of food we needed for distribution at Woodstock, details of the arrival of 130 devotees from eastern Europe and Russia, details of the rent contract for the three buses we'll be using for the next three months, insurance policies for devotees and guests, security requirements at the festivals, and so on.
I met briefly with our public relations group, ICP, and asked if they had any information as to what steps the anti-cult groups would take.
"The whole art of war consists of guessing at what is on the other side of the hill." [Duke of Wellington]
To my surprise the devotees told me that Actinya dasi had recently gone to a meeting of some of the biggest anti-cult groups in Poland. More than 100 people were present. There were the usual speeches about the dangers of the cults, and several times our movement was mentioned. One speaker warned that the Hare Krsna movement has made inroads in the public schools. To the horror of the audience she told the story of a schoolteacher who mentioned to her students in class that the Hare Krsna movement is actually not a cult, but an ancient spiritual tradition that has been practiced in India for thousands of years. One of her students spoke against her and an argument ensued, during which the teacher defeated the student. When the other students applauded the teacher, the student who had objected walked out in frustration.
As more and more speakers began vilifying the Krsna conscious movement in particular, Actinya dasi gathered her courage and stood up. She boldly declared herself the head of ISKCON Poland's communications office. As soon as she identified herself there was silence and all eyes were upon her. With a captive audience she began defeating one by one the accusations made against our movement. At the end of her presentation, she fielded questions for two hours, the meeting finishing only when the main organizer realized that his objective of scandalizing our movement was unsuccessful.
The next day I gave class in the Warsaw temple. I had just begun my lecture, and was going deeply into the philosophy of acintya beda beda tattva - the inconceivable and simultaneous oneness and difference between God and the living entity, when suddenly a well-dressed woman came into the temple room and sat down at the back unnoticed by the devotees, except for the temple president. He leaned forward and said to me, "She's a well-known reporter from a big newspaper. It's only her second time here."
Seeing it as an opportunity to gain the favor of an important and influential person, I suddenly switched from my topic to the ABCs of "we are not the body." The journalist's eyes lit up as I went point by point through my explanation - but the devotees were completely dumbfounded. Not knowing the reporter was in the temple room, they couldn't make head nor tail of what was going on. I wound up my lecture with a short explanation of the maha mantra and the four regulative principles. The reporter was stunned . . . and so were the devotees! After the class the journalist thanked me for the talk, saying it was one of the most interesting things she had ever heard. She also asked if we had any books for sale.
The next day I left for the base of our spring tour. When I arrived 75 devotees greeted me with a small reception. I thanked them and then spoke on the importance of the work we had ahead of us. I mentioned that in the next three months we would do more than 50 major festivals - not including Woodstock, the biggest of all, at the end. I explained how our opposition was making plans against us, but that we should take courage in that we had the blessings of many great devotees - Narada Muni in particular. That morning I had been reading the Srimad-Bhagavatam Mahatmaya and had concluded that Narada Muni is the "patron saint" of our festival program. Therein it is described that once Narada Muni was traversing the earth planet at the beginning of Kali-yuga when he came upon Bhakti Devi, devotion to the Lord personified. She was lamenting that her two sons, Jnana (knowledge) and Vairagya (renunciation), were lying powerless on the ground because of the evil influence of the age of Kali. Approaching her, Narada offered words of hope and inspiration:
"O beautiful-faced one, there is no other age like Kali-yuga because you will be established in every house as well as in the heart of every person. Hear my vow. If I do not preach your message, subdue all materialistic religions and make devotional festivals predominant then I shall not be considered the servant of Lord Hari." [Narada Muni to Bhakti Devi, Srimad-Bhagavatam Mahatmaya 1.5-6]
I pray that by the grace of Narada Muni our attempts to preach Krsna consciousness through the medium of colorful festivals in the next three months will be successful and that the people of Poland will get a little taste of the spiritual world, where all walking is dancing, all talking is singing . . . and there's a festival every day!