Diary of a Traveling Preacher
Kolobrzeg is one of the principle beach resorts along the Baltic Sea coast. It's fine, white sandy beaches and quaint port attract hundreds of thousands of Polish tourists each summer. Many German tourists also come to Kolobrzeg, partly because vacations are cheaper there than in Germany and also because many German families trace their history back to the region. Kolobrzeg was a German city before World War II and was called Kolen. There are many beautitul German buildings from the 19th century in the city and surrounding areas.
I have always had my eye on Kolobrzeg as an ideal place for our festivals because it attracts the upper class people of Poland. Numerous wealthy, famous and important people take their vacations there and the city is the site of many big events during the summer. But it has always been difficult for us to get the cooperation of the city officials for our own festivals. Ten years ago, when we rented indoor halls and had a small programs consisting of bhajans, lectures and short theaters, the Kolobrzeg officials would always give us an obscure hall on the edge of town. Once myself and another devotee were exploring the idea of doing an outdoor festival in Kolobrzeg and went to the boardwalk that ran along the main beach. There we found a beautiful plaza with thousands of people milling about and enjoying the many cafes and restaurants. As we stood appreciating how the plaza, the very heart of Kolobrzeg, would be the perfect place for our Hare Krsna festival, two policemen approached us and asked what we were doing there. When we told them we were thinking about doing our festival program on the plaza, they just laughed. One of the policeman said, "You'll never get permission to do a festival here. Stop dreaming and move on."
In 1995 when we started doing big outdoor festivals along the coast, the authorities in Kolobrzeg gave us a small outdoor amphitheate, far from the beach area and all the tourists. The next year they simply refused to give us any facility at all. Last year they gave us an old abandoned parking lot to hold our festival in.
Each summer, when we would go on harinam to advertise our festivals, we'd pass through that big plaza on the boardwalk and I would think, "This is the place I want." But then I would remember the policeman's words: "Stop dreaming and move on."
This year, however, Krsna had a different plan for Kolobrzeg. While traveling and arranging for the summer festivals on the coast, Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda met the newly elected deputy mayor of the city. He told them that he had been to one of our festivals years ago and appreciated it very much. When he heard our plans for this summer he agreed to give us all the facilities we needed in Kolobrzeg. In fact, he was so inspired by our festival that he agreed to Nandini's proposal that we do the festival on the plaza not only once, but twice in July! When Nandini phoned me from his office and told me the incredible news, I couldn't believe my ears. My dream had finally come true. I took it as a small miracle.
Last week, a gentleman who has recently taken an interest in Krsna consciousness and is reading my diary, wrote to me saying that he's amazed how our festival tour is always full of "miraculous events." He humbly inquired how it was possible, saying that nothing noteworthy has ever happened in his life. I wrote back to him that if he remains faithful to the process of Krsna consciousness, many amazing things will unfold before his eyes, especially if he shares the process with others. I ended my letter by quoting a pious scientist:
"There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." [Albert Einstein]
We held the first of the two festivals in Kolobrzeg on July 1, the beginning of the summer holidays. Early in the morning, as thousands of cars poured into the city for vacation, we were busy setting up our festival on the plaza. Myself and one other devotee were actually on the plaza at 5am, well before anyone else had arrived - even our own festival devotees. We wanted to make sure that nothing went wrong. As we stood there in the dark, protecting our spot, we were startled when we saw two big trucks approach the plaza. The deputy mayor had warned us that beer companies often set up on the plaza at night and sold beer to people in the morning, before being removed by the police. As the trucks came closer we saw them more clearly and laughed at ourselves - they were only garbage trucks, come to collect the bins on the square.
"In the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppos'd a bear!"
[Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream]
By mid-morning, our big stage was up and our 20 colorful tents spread throughout the square and even on to the nearby sand. As thousands of people began arriving on the beach, they were pleasantly surprised by the exotic array of culture and began browsing through the shops, displays and restaurant. The stage program was scheduled for 4pm, and as the harinam party went out to chant and distribute invitations along the 2km beach, I simply couldn't pull myself away from my spot on the plaza. I had waited years for this opportunity and wanted to oversee that everything went smoothly.
Throughout the day people came and inquired about the program. By 4pm the plaza was packed with thousands of people, many having left the beach early to go home and change their clothes for the festival. I still sat riveted watching each and every soul as they came on to the plaza to receive Lord Caitanya's mercy. My bliss knew no bounds when one man, not noticing myself and one another devotee, passed by and seeing the grand festival stopped and said out loud, "So the Hare Krsnas finally made it big time!"
When the opening dance began on stage the crowd surged forward to see the 12 young Indian dancers from South Africa perform. Dressed in colorful outfits they mesmerized the audience with their beautiful performance. They received a long applause as they left the stage. As I walked around the festival grounds making sure that everything was going well, a mother and her teenage daughter came up to me. I felt a little uncomfortable as the young girl was staring at me as if I were a demigod. She said to me, "Maharaja do you remember me?"
I replied, "I'm sorry, no. But I hope you'll understand; I meet so many people every day."
With my reply she became obviously upset and turned to her mother. Her mother said, "This is my daughter, Premanandi. She came to your festival 10 years ago when she was 9 years old and you told her friends and her stories about Krsna. When they asked for spiritual names, you gave my daughter the name Premanandini, a name she has called herself since then. She has been chanting Hare Krsna every day since she met you, and in the past two years has read all the books of your movement. She owes her good fortune to you and was hoping so much your would remember her."
I replied, "After hearing what you have told me, there's no way I can forget her now. Let's go over to the restaurant and talk some more about Krsna."
As the afternoon went on, I kept my eye on the program, knowing that at such big events, with so many people attending, anything can go wrong at anytime. When things go well at our festivals most of our devotees relax, but I often remember Napoleon's words after returning to France from his invasion of Russia. Alone on a dog sled, his army defeated, he said: "From the sublime to the ridiculous in one moment."
A small incident did happen, but by Krsna's mercy nothing came of it. As it was getting dark, I went behind the stage to check on our big generator providing power for our sound system. As I left quickly, my bodyguard, Vaikunthapati dasa, didn't see me go and I was alone checking the controls on the generator when I noticed a big man standing nearby watching me. As I saw that he was smiling I didn't think anything was wrong, but as minutes went by and he didn't move I became uneasy and turned around. No longer smiling but with a grim look on his face, he walked up to me slowly and said in English: "You're American, aren't you?" Becoming suspicious, I stepped back without replying.
He continued, "We know who you are. You're the guru and you've come to steal our children. You're a very bad man and we will kill you."
Stepping back even further, my eyes quickly checked his body for any weapons.
Making a gesture like a rope being tied around his neck, he said, "And when we get you, we'll hang you by the neck until you're dead!"
Unknown to either of us, my servant Druva was only meters away filming the incident from the back of the stage. Seeing what was happening he quickly alerted my bodyguard, while continuing to film the whole incident. When the man suddenly looked around and saw Dhruva filming and my bodyguard coming around the corner, he quickly ran away.
Moments later Vaikunthapati arrived and said, "Who was he, Maharaja?"
I replied, "I'm not sure. But he threatened to kill me."
"What shall we do?" Vaikuntha said.
"What can we do?" I replied. Looking out at the huge crowd I said, "There are many people who love us here and some who hate us. Sometimes it's hard to know who's who. We have to depend on Krsna."
rakhe krsna mare ke - mare krsna rakhe ke
"If Lord Krsna protects a person, who can kill him? And if Krsna desires to kill someone, who can protect him?"
Later that evening when Dhruva replayed the video, the man's threats to me were clearly audible. I told Dhruva to keep the tape as possible evidence. Should the man's words ever prove true, I suppose this diary will come to its natural conclusion; the final chapter an epitaph written by a loving disciple or a well-wishing friend.
Later in the evening, I did the last kirtan on stage with 40 devotees, just before Sri Prahlad and the reggae band came on. It's always my favorite moment of the festival, as at that time the crowd is usually the biggest. I sometimes tell the sound technician to turn the volume up, so the holy names will mercifully penetrate the hearts of all the fortunate souls before the stage. Before we begin I always mention to the children in the audience that I will be giving my flower garland away to the child who dances the nicest during the kirtan. Each time it inspires a large group of children to dance excitedly in front of the stage in competition for the garland. That evening there must have been more than 50 children dancing wildly in the kirtan - some of them even chanting the Hare Krsna mantra. As the kirtan went on, they would look up at me with pleading smiles as if saying, "Give me the garland!" Because the crowd was so large that evening, I kept the kirtan going for 45 minutes. When it finished all the children rushed forward eager to receive the garland.
I had noticed a number of enthusiastic kids, but that evening one 14-year-old boy in particlar caught my attention. He was mentally retarded, apparently having Down Syndrome. Actually I had been watching him the whole festival. He was always in front of the stage enjoying everything, especially the chanting and dancing. Because of his mental illness the other children shied away from him, but his handicap didn't seem to be a deterrent to his enjoying Lord Caitanya's mercy, so I chose him to come on the stage to get the garland. When he first appeared a hush came over the audience, but he was so thrilled he could hardly contain himself. He immediately began waving to the big audience and they spontaneously gave him a huge round of applause. When he started blowing them kisses, the applause increased. As I thanked him publicly for his enthusiasm his chest swelled with pride, and when I gave him the garland he beamed with the biggest smile you could imagine. As he started to leave, I put out my hand to thank him and he gave me a big hug. Looking towards the audience I could see some people crying. Afterwards, many people approached me and thanked me for encouraging the young boy. One man said to me, "I used to think you people were a dangerous sect, but the kindness you showed that retarded boy convinced me otherwise."
Srila Prabhupada, I pray that you will forever engage me in this service of helping you deliver the fallen conditioned souls. I cannot imagine life without these festivals of love and bliss. Should the festivals ever stop my life will cease with them, for life without experiencing and sharing the mercy of Lord Caitanya would not be worth living. Having experienced the association of Lord Caitanya through these festivals, separation from Him would be unbearable.
"The fortunate town of Navadvip remains on the earth. The seashore at Jagannatha Puri remains. The holy names of Lord Krsna remain. But, Alas! Alas! I do not see anywhere the same kind of festival of pure love for Lord Hari as before. O Lord Caitanya, O Ocean of mercy, will I ever see Your transcendental glory again?"
[Srila Prabodhananda Sarasvati - Sri Caitanya-candramrta - Text 140]