Diary of a Traveling Preacher
The final festival of our spring tour in Konskie was the best of all. After Lodz we had planned to move north to our summer base but at the last minute decided to do one more town, just 45 minutes away. Although close, it was in another province of Poland and was different to any other town in the area. Konskie is situated at the base of the southern mountains and the people there are often referred to as mountain folk. Simple in their ways and rooted in tradition, they are often made fun of by Poles in other regions.
The first day we went on samkirtan to advertise our festival in Konskie people stared at us in disbelief. As we chanted through the streets some people shut their doors and pulled the curtains across their windows as we passed by. But after the second time around town we broke the ice and people began smiling and accepting our invitations to the upcoming festival.
The festival site itself was in a small park in the center of town. I was confident that we'd get a good crowd and sure enough by the time the festival opened there were thousands of curious people swarming into the park. There was a reserved mood in the beginning, as the simple people gawked at the exotic festival paraphernalia of exhibits, tents and devotees, but after a lively bhajan by the devotees on stage they relaxed and started to enjoy themselves.
A few minutes into the festival, Vara-nayaka directed my attention to the security group we had hired for the festival. I was a bit surprised seeing them; instead of the tough young men in black uniforms we had been using, these gentlemen were all in their mid-forties, dressed in light blue uniforms with ties. Most had pot bellies and sported handlebar moustaches. I said to Vara-nayaka, "Those are our security men?" They looked more like the Keystone Cops out of a 1930's movie!
But his reply made sense. He said, "We were obliged to hire a security group from this area. One condition in the contract with the town council here was that we employ these men because they the know the mentality and language of the local people."
During the two days of the festival over 7000 people attended. Although the devotees had endured many austerities during the spring tour, they seemed to forget about them during the relaxed and festive atmosphere in Konskie. As Shakespeare wrote, "All's well that ends well."
Immediately after the attack in Tomaszow, I was apprehensive if the devotees, many of whom are young and new to Krsna consciousness, could persevere. But they did, and in looking back I can see that the single most important factor in their determination to go on was the support of a worldwide community of Vaisnavas. Almost daily we received either a letter of encouragement or a donation towards our security. We regularly announced whatever help had come to the assembled devotees. It often reminded me of "mail call" when I was in the military. Every day we'd stand at attention and our platoon leader, holding a pile of letters, would call out the names of the soldiers who had received mail. Upon hearing his name, a soldier would call out loudly, "Sir! Yes, Sir!" and run forward to receive his letter. It meant a lot to get a message from home, and even the toughest men's eyes would well up with tears on the day when they didn't receive a letter.
In a similar fashion we daily read letters that came in from devotees around the world to Lord Caitnaya's soldiers on the tour. At "mail call" they would listen with fixed attention, sometimes nodding when the writer stressed the importance of preaching and often bowing their heads when glorified. It was the show of support from devotees around the world that kept these men and women going, despite the constant threat of aggression. I offer my respects to all the Vaisnavas who encouraged these devotees from afar. By their mercy I have finally come to realize a verse I had been repeating for years, simply out of habit:
tadera carana sebi bhakta sane bas
janame janame hoy ei abhilas
"This is my desire, that birth after birth I may live with those devotees who serve the lotus feet of the Six Goswamis." [Narottama dasa Thakur - Nama Samkirtan 7]
One letter in particular, which arrived the day we left our base, amazed us all. It was from the head priest of the Sri Rangam temple in south India. He is a descendent from the family in which Gopal Batta Goswami and Prabodhananda Sarasvati took birth. Although it was directed to me, I took it that those glorious saints were sending their abhay mudras (blessings of fearlessness) to all the members of the tour:
"Namaskaram! The holy "Diary of a Traveling Preacher" distributed by you is very great. It makes us to pray always for the author, when we read the thrilling experiences and the Himalayan difficulties he is facing with the 'anti-cult' groups.
Lord Shri Krishna will always be with him for his determination. I sincerely pray to the Divine Couple of Srirangam to give him enough strength, courage and everything he needs to fulfil his ambition.
As our trucks, buses and cars started north towards the Baltic Sea coast for the summer tour, I sensed that the devotees faith and dependence on the Lord had deepened significantly because of the events of the spring tour. That was evident in the mood of devotion in which they chanted the Nrsimha Prayers as we drove off: They were chanting from the heart, with feeling. I was reminded of Queen Kunti's supplication to the Lord:
vipadah santu tah sasvat
tatra tatra jagad-guro
bhavato darsanam yat syad
"I wish that all those calamities would happen again and again so that we could see You again and again, for seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths." [ SB 1.8.25 ]
Towards the end of the day, as we approached our summer base in Swierzno, 30km from the seaside, I called Nandini dasi and inquired about the mood in Trzebiatow, where we would be holding our ninth annual summer program in two days. Nandini simply laughed and said. "They're waiting for you."
"Waiting for us?" I said.
"Yes" she replied, "They all know what happened in Tomaszow. Word of the attack on our festival spread throughout the country. They seem eager to receive us here."
"Eager to receive us?" I thought. "That probably means they'll send a representative from the town council to the festival." What I never expected was the "homecoming" that we received from those kind people the next day we visited their town.
The following morning, after setting up our base in Swierzno we went on harinam in Trzebiatow to advertise the festival. To the amazement of all the devotees, as we drove into town we passed under a bright orange and green banner proudly advertising the upcoming, "Festival of India." As we descended from the bus in the center of town several office windows opened and we all heard one lady call out to her co-workers, "They're here!"
As we started chanting down the street, children suddenly began appearing from everywhere, running towards us from all directions, calling out, "Hare Krsna! Hare Krsna!" Young girls joined the ladies part of the harinam and quickly and easily took up the synchronized dance steps they had learned in the festivals during the past nine years. At one point they even took over and led a dance step that the devotee ladies had forgotten years ago!
Young boys grabbed karatalas from the brahmacaris hands and twisting the karatala strings around their fingers like veterans played in perfect tempo with the kirtan. I saw one new brahmacari hand a group of boys an invitation with the maha mantra written on it, as an encouragement for them to chant with us. The boys just laughed and without looking at the card loudly chanted the entire maha mantra in unison, much to the amazement of that brahmacari.
As we wound our way down the streets shop owners and their customers came out of shops to greet us as we passed by. Waving and smiling they shouted out "Bravo!" Bravo!" On one street, every single shop had a little cluster of people cheering us on. From the apartments above the shops, windows opened up and parents and kids smiled at us as we went by. As we paused at one apartment a lady threw flowers down upon us.
At one intersection I nodded to an old man sitting and drinking beer at an outside cafe. In acknowledgement he stood up and tipped his hat to me in respect. At one point we took a detour into a complex of apartments. There was a lawn in the middle of four buildings set like a square and we stopped there and had a rousing kirtan. The holy names echoing off all the buildings created a tumultuous noise. I thought to myself that it might be too loud, but its effect drew even more kids out of the apartment blocks. Soon we had 60 children dancing in a circle with us all holding hands and singing Hare Krsna. Each and every one of them knew the maha mantra. One girl came running up to the kirtan party and called out, "Where is Syamalaki? Where is Sri Radhkia?" - two matajis who led the ladies dancing on harinama in previous years.
Absorbed in the blissful scene I jumped when a chorus of young voices just behind me called out, "Maharaja! Welcome back!" I turned around and saw a group of seven 8-year-old girls - all smiles - with their hands behind their backs. One by one they came forward and gave me presents in old cardboard boxes with used ribbon around them. One box contained Mickey Mouse, another Goofey, and in another I found Pluto. I also received two lions, one rabbit with a carrot, and a black dog that barked when squeezed. Then the girls jumped into the kirtan and began dancing. One devotee offered to take the toys from me and dispose of them, and was a bit taken aback when I responded by saying I was going to keep them.
"What are you going to do with them?" he said.
"I'll put them on the dashboard of my van," I replied. "Srila Prabhupada once said that a gift from a Vaisnava is a very special thing. It is an expression of love."
"Vaisnavas?" he said with an astonished look, "They're just karmi kids!"
"They're not karmis any more," I replied with a smile, "For one who chants the holy names even one time becomes qualified for liberation":
sakrd uccaritam yena
harir ity aksara-dvayam
moksaya gamanam prati
"A person who chants the holy name of the Lord, consisting of the two syllables ha-ri, even once, guarantees his path to liberation." [Skanda Purana]
By the time we took our kirtan party back into the center of town we had an army of kids with us. I was a little nervous for their safety, as we were going down narrow pathways and crossing intersections, so I asked two devotees to monitor them as we went on. Enlivened by the response to our kirtan, devotees chanted with great enthusiasm. At one point, when we stopped to chant on a street corner, I crossed to the other side to watch the amazing scene from a distance. A group of drivers, waiting at the red light at the intersection, honked the horns of their cars in appreciation of the kirtan. Then when the light turned green they didn't move, but simply sat enjoying the blissful scene.
People continued shouting and waving from their windows and the kids in the kirtan party, chanting and dancing so jubilantly, seemed intoxicated with the holy names. I sat down on a bench with some older people who were clapping in appreciation of the kirtan. Watching the devotees chanting and the people of Trzebiatow reciprocating in so many ways I thought to myself, "You boys and girls have merited this "homecoming". You're fighting the real war against the material energy and the forces of Kali-yuga. You've born insult and injury to spread the message of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu and you deserve every gesture of affection from these people. Just see! Not only devotees from around the world have shown you support - but the ordinary folk of Trzebiatow are treating you like hometown heros. I take the dust of your lotus feet upon my head. All glories to your services!"
"Let renunciation be multiplied millions of times! Let millions of virtues, beginning with peacefulness, sense control, tolerance and friendliness be multiplied millions of times! Let there be millions of meditations on the words 'tat tvam asi'! Let there be devotion to Lord Visnu multiplied millions of times! All this taken together does not equal even one millionth part of the multitude of perfect transcendental qualities possessed by the great souls who find transcendental bliss in the splendor of the toenails of the dear devotees of Sriman Caitanyacandra." [Srila Prabodhananda Sarasvati - Sri Caitanya-candramrta, verse 26]