Diary of a Traveling Preacher
As we were busy preparing for this year's festivals at our base 200km southeast of Warsaw, I found a major Polish newspaper in the reception of our building containing an article expressing America's concern about the growing discrimination against religious minorities in Europe.
Under the headline, "Anti-cult law in France: Washington concerned," the article said: "Leading American official Michael Parmly expressed his concern Tuesday to a US Senate hearing about a French bill which would threaten freedom of religion in France. 'We are worried by the language, which is dangerously ambiguous and could be used against justifiable religious associations.' More widely, Mr Parmly worried about a growing religious discrimination in western Europe and questioned 'practices targeting religious sects' in Austria and in Belgium, as well as in France, which could spread in other European countries - most notably in eastern Europe."
Knowing the devotees were already nervous about the recent bad publicity against our movement in the Polish media, I tried to keep the newspaper from them, but somehow word of the article spread and I found devotees discussing the matter in small groups here and there. So one morning in class, I discussed the subject and said that such controversy is not new and neither is it unhealthy. I mentioned that there was no opposition in Vrindavan until Lord Krsna made His descent there 5000 years ago. When He appeared, demoniac personalities such as Putana, Agasura and Trinivarta became manifest. As the Lord's appearance was the catalyst which caused demoniac persons to oppose Him, so the discrimination we are experiencing in Poland should be taken as a sign that our preaching is successful. After all, we are presenting Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in a myriad of forms throughout the country. His holy names, prasadam, Vedic scriptures and temples are slowly manifesting throughout the land.
Nevertheless, dealing with such discrimination is not pleasant. Word seems to be out along Poland's borders that immigration officials should make it difficult for foreign members of our movement to enter the country. Of the 70 Russian devotees who have attempted to come for the tour, more than 30 were initially turned back. After being refused entry, they had to travel long distances to another border to try again. If any received three refusal stamps in their passports, entry into Poland was beyond consideration. One of our most important Russian devotees, Subuddhi Raya das, who is directing our new theater group, was refused entry three times, and as a result had to get a new passport. The problem was complicated by the fact that it takes three months to get a Russian passport. However, by Krsna's mercy we made a contact in the passport office, who for a price obtained a passport for Subuddhi Raya in 24 hours. Because it was such an exceptional arrangement, it required 32 signatures of authorization from officials of the KGB, Russia's Secret Service.
We also encountered problems getting entry for three Indian ladies and one Indian man from South Africa who came to perform Kathak dance at our festivals. When they arrived at Warsaw Airport, they were all questioned and the man was sent back to South Africa. Immigration officers found his dance costumes in his suitcase and accused him of coming to Poland to perform. When Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda protested, they were told the real reason the dancer was turned back was that "the man had dark skin and was a Hindu."
In the middle of the week, I announced that on Saturday we would have our first harinama party to begin advertising our festivals. I immediately sensed that due to the negative publicity, devotees were apprehensive about going out on sankirtan. Sure enough, when Saturday rolled around I found only a few devotees had signed up for the kirtan party. In class that morning I told devotees they should have courage, and quoted from Bhakti Tirtha Swami's book, Spiritual Warrior, that a devotee is fearless knowing he can always depend on the Lord. I also quoted Confucius: "To see what is right, and not do it, is want of courage."
Trying to encourage the devotees, I told them that Srila Prabhupada said that most people are innocent, and whenever we come to town with our beautiful chanting party all the misgivings of the people disappear. I laughed and said that they should be as brave as the Gurkhas! One devotee raised his hand and asked what a Gurkha is. I explained that they are the members of the ksatriya class in Nepal, who form regiments in the British Army and are renowned for their bravery in battle. I told the true story how in the Falklands War in 1982, a British commander approached a Gurkha unit and asked for volunteers to be transported by plane and jump from 10,000ft behind enemy lines. When only 80 percent of the men raised their hands, the commander was surprised and said, "I thought you men were brave warriors!"
One of the Gurkhas put up his hand and said, "Sir, some of us don't think we could survive a fall of 10,000ft."
The commander was stunned. He replied, "I don't mean jump in the literal sense. You will use parachutes to jump from the aircraft!"
Upon hearing that all the Gurkhas volunteered.
Despite the hesitancy to go on sankirtan, when word got around that Tribuvanesvara prabhu, one of our leading kirtan singers had agreed to come, the bus was full by the time we left. I was looking forward to a blissful day of sankirtan when, a few kilometers down the road, I saw a sign that made me a little nervous as well: "Lublin 300km."
Lublin is the undeclared seat of Catholic religious fervor in Poland. Several years ago we were invited to participate in a Festival of India in Swidnik, a town just 10km from Lublin. Each year the Swidnik Office of Cultural Affairs organizes a festival centered around the theme of a particular country. The year before we came they had a Japanese festival. At a loss as to how to present the culture of India, they had contacted us and asked for our participation. After meeting us and realizing how much we had to offer, they more or less gave us full control of the four-day festival.
When we arrived in Swidnik they even asked us to organize the reception for the festival's special guest, the Indian Ambassador, at the mayor's office. That evening we received the ambassador and many city officials with a small program of Indian dance and delicious prasadam. The mayor took pride in posing for photos with us and the Indian Ambassador. Confident that one of the best preaching opportunities ever was ahead for us during the next few days, we went out on harinama the morning of the first festival - and then disaster struck!
The leader of the local anti-cult group encountered us on the street and went into a rage. Ranting and raving, she promptly went to the local priest, who went to the mayor's office and demanded the entire festival be canceled because of our presence. The mayor was incredulous, "Close down the entire festival?" he said. "We've been advertising for four months and we're expecting 50,000 people."
"Close the festival, or lose your job," the priest said.
The mayor ordered the festival closed immediately.
We were setting up our stage and tents in the main park in town, when the order came from the police that the entire event was canceled. On top of that, we were told we had 45 minutes to leave town. We immediately called the Office of Cultural Affairs, where they were as shocked as we were. A large contingent of police stood 100 meters from our half-prepared festival program, awaiting orders to move us out if we didn't agree to go. I sent a message to the police chief that we had no intention of moving and if they wanted us to go they'd have to personally remove us. The devotees continued setting up the festival, and seeing our determination the police backed off. Later the police chief told a Swidnik citizen that although he had orders from the mayor to physically remove us, he didn't do so because he didn't agree with the injunction. He liked us, because he saw that we were "peaceful people."
That afternoon, a group of devotees appealed to the mayor to allow the festival to continue, but he wouldn't relent. He now saw us as a "dangerous cult" that had somehow infiltrated his town, and for the safety of the citizens we had to leave immediately. However, as we were discussing, word of the cancellation spread throughout the town and several hundred citizens began demonstrating outside City Hall. A number of them had met devotees during the two days we had been there, and they had a different opinion as to who we were. They liked us and they liked what we had to present: the ancient spiritual culture of India.
The angry crowd began chanting, "We want the festival! We want the festival!" At one point the mayor got up and went to his window to investigate the commotion outside. When he came back to his desk, he relented and said we could do one night's festival, but only one night. Hearing the protests of the crowd outside City Hall, I immediately thought of Lord Caitanya and His followers who challenged the Kazi when he ordered the chanting of Hare Krsna in his city to stop. The Lord and His devotees had made what Srila Prabhupada called the "first act of civil disobedience," by holding a loud kirtan outside the Kazi's residence.
When devotees went outside and told the Swidnik crowd the good news, a huge roar of approval went up.
That night more than 4000 people attended the festival. At one point, a local member of the political opposition jumped on to the stage and told the crowd the full story - how the local priest had ordered the mayor to cancel the entire event because "Hare Krsnas are dangerous." He told the crowd that we had now been granted permission to hold the festival for only one night. At that, thousands of people began chanting, "Hare Krsna! Hare Krsna! Hare Krsna!" When the opposition politician asked everyone to march again on City Hall, suddenly the crowd turned and marched in that direction continuing to chant, "Hare Krsna! Hare Krsna!"
At the moment the crowd arrived at City Hall (which happened to be just across the park), the State governor was leaving the building. He had been called to Swidnik to make a final decision on the festival and bid farewell to the Indian Ambassador. Newspaper reporters and TV film crews were everywhere - it was a hot a story. The crowd blocked the governor's path to his car and demanded an explanation as to why the festival had been canceled. He replied that the festival was being called off for "technical reasons." When he said that the crowd booed and began chanting loudly, "We want the festival! We want the festival!" When the police arrived to restore order, there was a brief moment of silence before the governor entered his car. Just then, a 7-year-old girl spoke up, touching the hearts of everyone and captivating the attention of the nation watching on the national television news. In a soft, concerned voice she said, "Mr Governor, is there going to be a festival?" The governor looked at her for a moment, then without speaking turned around and got into his car, which sped away with a police escort.
The festival continued late into the night, but the next morning we were told in no uncertain terms that we had to leave. By the decree of the governor there wouldn't be a second day of the festival. I decided that "discretion was the better part of valor," and we started packing our things to go. By the time we were ready to leave, a thousand sympathetic citizens had gathered to see us off. Some were crying because of the scandal and vowed to impeach the mayor. I was of mixed feelings - on the one hand three days of the festival had been canceled, but on the other the whole country was reading and watching reports of the injustice.
Weeks later I went to India to discuss the issue with Indian politicians. We were in the process of gathering support for a formal protest to the Polish Government, when we received an invitation from the Polish Ambassador in Delhi to meet him. At the meeting he asked us to stop our campaign, offering to send a favorable report about our movement to Warsaw. At one point he looked at me and said, "Maharaja, politics means to cool things down, not heat them up." Figuring we had taken the whole thing far enough, we decided to stop our campaign. In retrospect, the whole affair was probably one of the biggest preaching opportunities for our movement in Poland. Nevertheless, seeing the sign on the road to harinama that Lublin was nearby made me a little apprehensive.
As our bus entered Tomaszow Mazowiecki, the first town of our spring tour, a silence suddenly came over the devotees. Two days earlier we had sent a group of men to put up hundreds of colorful posters all over town. But as we drove through the streets we saw that each and every poster was covered by large white strips of paper dripping with black and red ink that read:
"Attention - Sect! Festival officially canceled!" I called City Hall, and they said that they had not canceled the program - in fact, they were looking forward to it. They suggested it was probably the Catholic Church which had ordered the posters defaced.
When our bus pulled up to the curb none of the devotees moved, and I had to order everyone off. People on the street were already looking at us suspiciously. To add insult to injury, when the first devotee got out of the bus he tripped on his dhoti and dropped his Balarama mrdunga on the street. It bounced a few times on the pavement making a loud noise. Other devotees got out speaking loudly in Russian, Serb and Croat, which drew even more attention.
Sensing the awkwardness of the moment, I asked Tribuvanesvara to start the kirtan immediately. An expert musician with a melodious voice, his kirtan quickly melted the hearts of the devotees and, lo and behold, many passersby. The small crowd looking at us with suspicion were overtaken by a larger crowd of inquisitive and smiling people. After a few minutes we started down the street, singing and dancing in great happiness. Devotees felt the power of the holy name and many of the townspeople were pleasantly surprised with the blissful scene. As the holy names permeated each and every shop and office, people stuck their heads out of doors and windows, smiling and waving. Everyone was eagerly accepting our colorful invitations. I watched a number of people carefully fold them and put them safely in their pockets. Not one ended up on the ground.
Three hours later, after distributing 5000 invitations, we assembled at the bus. The town had been inundated with the holy names. Many thousands of people had heard the chanting and certainly a good number of them would come to the festival. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless, and the only weapon we used was the sweetness of the holy names. It had given faith to the devotees, that whatever obstacles may lay ahead of us in the next three months will easily be overcome by the mercy of the holy names.
amhah samharad akhilam
sakrd udayad eva sakala lokasya
taranir iva timira jaladhim
jayati jagan mangalam harer nama
"As the rising sun immediately dissipates all the world's darkness, which is deep like an ocean, so the holy name of the Lord, if chanted once without offenses, can dissipate all the reactions of a living being's sinful life. All glories to that holy name of the Lord, which is auspicious for the entire world!"
[Sri Laksmidhara - Padyavali]