Diary of a Traveling Preacher
On June 12 we packed up our festival program in Gorzow Wielkopolski and headed south, back towards Lodz to begin final preparations for our festival there. Gorzow Wielkopolski had been a picnic for the devotees - we were special guests in the city and the authorities had made all the arrangements for our festival program. Devotees were relaxed and had enjoyed the preaching, but the light mood gradually changed as we drove south.
The attack on our festival in Tomaszow, near Lodz, was still fresh in the minds of the devotees, and word had spread among them that our hired security felt that Lodz was the most dangerous city in Poland. Although the harinamas we had in Lodz before leaving for Gorzow Wielkopolski were well received, the writing was "on the walls" in Lodz. The all-pervading graffiti in the city revealed the hate and frustration of much of the youth there:
"Poland for Poles," "Death to Jews," and "Nazis Rule Here" are favored slogans on the sides of buildings everywhere. Lodz is an industrial town with lots of factories, but many people are out of work. Boredom and frustration give rise to the sentiments of xenophobia (extreme nationalism) that caused the attack on our festival in Tomaszow.
The further south we drove the worse the weather became. Big black clouds hovered overheard as we passed Lodz and neared our base. After looking out the window, one devotee turned to me and said, "Maharaja, some devotees feel we're asking for trouble by doing a festival in Lodz. They say the same people who attacked us in Tomaszow may come back."
I replied, "We shouldn't worry. Devotees are not afraid to defend themselves if necessary." I quoted from a class by Srila Prabhupada in London in July 1973:
". . . Vaisnavas do not simply chant Hare Krnsa. If there is need, they can fight under the guidance of Visnu and become victorious . . . Generally, a Vaisnava is non-violent [however] if Krsna wants we shall be prepared to become violent also."
I then said, "But if there's trouble we won't do the fighting. We're well protected by our hired security team for the entire three-day festival. Don't worry, their very presence will act as a deterrent to anyone who would want to harm us. We must go ahead with the festival. Many interested people are expressing a desire to come. All the major local newspapers have written articles about the festival. If there's anything we should worry about it's those dark clouds above. They're our most formidable enemy right now!"
Not wanting to worry the devotee, I didn't share with him the advice our security firm's manager gave at a recent meeting. He had said, "Despite all the security we're offering you, there remains one way your enemies can stop this festival for good."
"What's that?" I said.
Looking at me intently, he said, "Take you out."
Coming closer, he continued, "You have to take certain precautions from now on. From the attack in Tomaszow it's obvious that some people will go to any extreme to try to stop your festival. Here's a brochure describing different types of bullet-proof vests. You'd be wise to place an order."
Taken aback, I thought to myself, "A bullet-proof vest! What would the sannyasis of yore think of that? They were carrying only a water pot and a staff, and here I'll be wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying a can of CS tear gas and a fighting stick tucked into my dhoti!"
I was going to reply that Krsna protects His devotees, but I realized Krsna expects His devotees to use their intelligence as well. The story of Narada Muni initiating a cobra flashed through my mind. Narada had accepted the cobra as a disciple, and at his initiation ceremony the snake had promised to follow the four regulative principles. But Narada Muni requested one more discipline of him, and said: "Don't bite anyone."
Having heard the snake wouldn't bite anyone any more, all the children started throwing sticks and stones at him as he slithered through town the next day. The snake returned to Narada Muni's asrama that evening and complained about the children taunting him. Narada Muni chastised his unique disciple, saying, "I instructed you not to bite, but I didn't tell you to give up your intelligence! If the children come near you again, simply show your hood like you are going to bite . . . then they'll run away!"
The security team manager continued speaking: "It's your decision, but don't underestimate your enemies."
I pushed the brochure back across the table . . . and he pushed it back.
"We're not playing games here," he said. "Give me your measurements."
When we arrived back at our base near Lodz, a letter was waiting for us from the police in Tomaszow investigating the attack on our festival. They discovered that on the day of our program a van had been rented by a priest in the town of Czestochowa, 50km south of Tomaszow, which had transported 15 tough-looking boys to a parking lot not far from our program. Witnesses had seen the boys hurrying to the festival site near the end of our program, and 20 minutes later running back to the van which then sped off. Further evidence indicates that these boys may have been responsible for the havoc that night. The investigation is continuing and legal action is to be taken at its completion.
The night before the first day of the Lodz festival I tossed and turned in bed unable to sleep. I was in anxiety about the event. I knew it could be a huge festival, if only because we had done more advertising for it than any festival before. We had distributed almost 50,000 invitations, put up more than 1000 posters, and been featured throughout the media. The stage was set. But two things weighed heavily on my mind: the frustrated youth of Lodz and the dark rain clouds that continued to hang over the city.
When I woke up in the morning after a brief sleep, the first thing I did was look out the window. The clouds were darker than the previous day and I could feel the air thick with moisture. I asked a devotee to buy a newspaper, and when it came my worst apprehensions were confirmed - the weather report predicted rain. But my eye caught another concern which hadn't been brought to my attention - not far from our outdoor festival, and at the same time, there was to be a major soccer match, a sure sign of trouble.
I did puja to my Deities, Laksmi-Nrsimhadeva, with all the devotion I could muster, ran through the whole morning program with the devotees, and after prasadam put everyone on to our buses to the festival site. Under ominous clouds we worked for many hours setting everything up, and at 4.30pm opened the festival to a small crowd. After one hour the crowd had grown to only 2000 people. Of course, many yatras would consider such a crowd a big success, but our problem is never getting too few people - it is how to deal with the huge crowds we often get of 10,000 or more. I attributed the "poor" attendance to the possibility of rain, but as time went on the rain held off and things were going smoothly.
The 15 men on the security team, however, appeared somewhat nervous, apparently knowing the nature of the youth in Lodz and the fact that any trouble at the nearby soccer match could easily spill into our festival. But I couldn't see how these men had anything to worry about - each one of them was over 6.5ft tall and built like a fighting machine with huge muscles, fierce eyes and scowls on their faces! All of them were dressed in black and armed with various weapons.
At one point, I approached the man in charge of security and asked if everything was all right. He replied that we didn't have to worry about anything, but that he did want to speak to me about one thing. I agreed and we sat down to talk.
He said, "Maharaja, I don't want my men eating your food any more. During the last festivals your devotees have been giving them all kinds of things to eat from your restaurant."
I said, "Are you worried there may be drugs in the food?"
"No," he replied, "I know your pure standards. The problem is that your food has a special effect on my men. It makes them become like all of you."
"What do you mean?" I said.
"It makes them smile all the time. It makes them soft and loving and compassionate. These men have to be tough to do this job. Your food is turning my lions into lambs! Just look over there."
I glanced over towards our restaurant, and saw two of his men eating samosas while laughing and joking with the devotees in a relaxed manner.
"They were never like that before," he said. "It's the food, the singing, and the whole atmosphere!"
"OK," I consented, "when the festival season is over we'll give them prasadam to take home."
I wandered over to the stage just as Sri Prahlad and the Village of Peace reggae band started to play. Darkness was setting in, but I could still see the security men dressed in black guarding the stage. As Sri Prahlad and the band broke into a number chanting Hare Krsna, I looked closely at the security men and saw the words of their chief come true - they were swaying slightly back and forth chanting the holy names! I left it to the chief to tell them not to sing on the job - for me it was once again confirmation of the power of the holy names to turn hearts of steel into soft butter.
"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!" [Padyavali, Text 16]
After days of worrying about the festival I started to relax, seeing our preaching bear fruit. Then suddenly, without warning, I saw them coming . . . a big gang of youths appeared on the field out of nowhere. I immediately recognized them by their attire - skinheads! Dressed in black boots, tight Levi's and T-shirts, they moved slowly towards the crowd. Their faces manifested the same hate and anger I'd seen on numerous occasions on the street, and at the festival in Tomaszow in particular. The ominous words of the devotee I had spoken to a few days earlier came to mind: "Maharaja, some devotees feel we're asking for trouble by doing a festival in Lodz. They say the same people who attacked us in Tomaszow may come back."
I looked to the left and right and saw our security men move in closer and brace themselves for trouble. The skinheads went slowly through the festival area keeping in a big group, as they always do. As they moved around, people backed away and I even saw some start to leave, fearing violence. I looked again towards the security men who were hastily meeting, obviously planning a strategy if a fight broke out. The situation was tense and my adrenaline was running. I touched my jacket to make sure that my tear gas and fighting stick were still in my pocket - and then it happened.
The skinheads moved quickly into the crowd of young people dancing before the stage and stood there for a moment, as if waiting for a signal. The security men started moving towards them. Sri Prahlad and the band, oblivious to the danger, were singing another song with the maha mantra, chanting the holy names loudly while the drummer played a driving beat that had the kids dancing wildly. I jumped on to the stage, figuring it would be a vantage point if there was a fight. Suddenly, to my amazement I saw a few of the skinheads start to tap their big black boots to the music. Then as our powerful sound system carried the maha mantra far and wide, some of the skinheads stood there as if dazed, then slowly but surely began repeating the words of the mantra. After a few minutes all of them were chanting and swaying back and forth - a little self conscious at first, but as soon as the kids saw them chanting, they grabbed them and pulled them into the kirtan and they started dancing wildly! Eventually they were completely absorbed in the kirtan, chanting Hare Krsna at the top of their lungs and twirling and dancing without abandon. I sat down at the front of the stage in utter astonishment. As I did so, I saw the security men back off to their original position, smiling to themselves.
I said to myself, "What is happening here? How is it that these boys who came here intent on fighting are now laughing and dancing along with the devotees? How has this sudden change of heart come over them?"
I looked at Sri Prahlad, perspiring profusely as he chanted the holy names with deep faith and conviction from the stage and leaping and twirling through the air. I looked at the audience again and saw skinheads, teenagers, children and adults all holding hands dancing in a big circle. The lights from the stage illuminated them and made them appear as a huge firebrand being twirled around.
As the kirtan went on I sat there in amazement. At one point I thought to myself, "My God, this is what it must have been like during the time of Lord Caitanya! The gentle and the ruffians all chanting the holy names together in ecstasy by the unfathomable mercy of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu."
Knowing it to be one of those rare occasions that we experience only once in a great while in Krsna consciousness, I relished every moment. Then suddenly the band stopped and the kirtan was over. The skinheads, still laughing and enjoying themselves, just turned around and started walking out of the festival grounds. In a few minutes they were gone - although you could still hear them from a distance singing Hare Krsna. I immediately thought of the pastime of Srila Haridas Thakur, who at one time lived in a cave with a dangerous snake. People hesitated to come and see him, and so one day the snake (being inspired by the Supersoul within his heart) just slithered away and left. It seemed to me that these hooligans had been directed by the Lord within their hearts to chant Hare Krsna . . . and afterwards He sent them away.
All glories to the holy names! All glories to our most merciful master, Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who is the shelter for the whole cosmic manifestation and the actual protector of His devotees!
"Chanting the Hare Krsna maha mantra, His own holy names which bring auspiciousness to the world, His hand trembling with love as He touches the knotted string about His waist to count the number of names, His face bathed in tears as He comes and goes, eager to see His own form of Lord Jagannatha, and bringing great delight to the eyes of all, may the golden form of Lord Caitanya protect you all!"
[Sri Caitanya-candramrta - Srila Prabodhananda Sarasvati]