Diary of a Traveling Preacher
Since beginning our festival tour in May, we have done 44 major festivals. The
Woodstock Festival in particular required a marathon effort on the part of the devotees, and, as a result, when it finished, devotees were completely exausted. I lay on the floor of my room for 3 days straight, rising only to shower, chant my rounds and take prasadam. Finally our management team met to decide if we were able to do another month long festival tour. Our finances were limited, but I called several well-wishing godbrothers who promised to contribute the necessary funds to keep the festival going. I asked Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda to find a facility somewhere in the country that could accomadate us on a tight budget. They inquired for days and finally came to me with a single proposal. Anxious to get the festival rolling again I said, "So what part of the country will get Mahaprabhu's mercy next?"
Nandini hesitated a little and said, "Guru Maharaja, you may be a little surprised with our proposal, but it's really the only place we can afford at this moment. It's a tourist bungalow, which is offering a very good deal to accomadate our 120 devotees."
Handing me a map, she pointed to the proposed place and my eyes opened wide as I saw that the town she proposed, Salejow, was only 50 kilometers from Tomaszow, the town where we had been attacked during our spring festival tour!
I said, "Nandini, are you proposing we go back to the very same area where we experienced so much opposition?"
She replied, "And so much success, as well. The opposition to our movement there is in direct proportion to the success of our many festivals. Don't you remember how many nice programs we had there? And really, that tourist bungalow is the only place we can afford now. We have to return to that area."
I thought for several minutes and finally said "OK, let's go. As the Japanese say: 'Unless you enter the tiger's den, you cannot take the cubs.'"
The next day we had istagothi with all the tour devotees. After our victory at Woodstock and a good rest, they were in high spirits. All of them were eager to begin the festival tour again. They had been waiting for days for me to make a decision about another tour and word had spread that the possibilities looked good. As I entered the room one devotee called out, "Sri Krsna Samkirtan yajna ki jaya!" and all the devotees cheered. Coming before the assembly of devotees I said, "Prabhus, it appears that we can do another tour. Several godbrothers such as Praghosa prabhu and Dharmatma prabhu are sending donations so we can continue."
Another huge roar went up from the devotees.
"But the budget will be tight and as a result we're restricted where we can go."
Not paying much attention to such details, the devotees were just smiling and conversing with each other about the reality of another festival tour. I continued, "Practically speaking we've found only one single hotel in the entire country that we can afford."
Then I paused for moment to get everyone's full attention and said, "And that hotel is in the Loch area, where we had our spring tour. It's only 50 kilometers from Tomaszow, where we were attacked by the skinheads." A hush came over the devotees and everyone became silent. You could hear a pin drop. No one moved and no one spoke.
"I know it's a tough area and dangerous." I continued, "But it's the only choice we've got. We won't take any unnecessary risks and we'll have a security team with us, just as we did after the attack in Tomaszow. Remember, most of the programs we did in that area were very successful.
I'd like to see a show of hands of who is prepared to come with us".
Premaharinam dasa, a large pink scar just above his right eye from the fight in Tomaszow, was the first to raise his hand. He'd been through worse situations, having lost many friends in the war in Bosnia 5 years ago. Our troubles in Tomaszow were like kids' stuff for him. Seeing his hand go up, others slowly began raising their hands as well. But not all hands went up. By the time we departed for Salejow two days later, our ranks had depleted. Some devotees left, saying they were tired, others said they had services in their temples, and some had to get ready for school. More than likely, most of them knew the risks involved in going back to Loch. And who could blame them? "A war regarded as inevitable or even probable, and therefore much prepared for, has a very good chance of eventually being fought."
On Monday, August 20th, our trucks and buses arrived at the tourist bungalow in Salejow. Large and spacious, the bungalow was situated in a small forest, with a lake nearby. With summer temperatures reaching 40 degrees centigrade, the devotees looked forward to swimming in the lake in their spare time. But Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda had no time for such luxury, and immediately went out the next day to begin organizing festivals.
As expected, they immediately came up against stiff resistance. That very morning the deputy mayor of Piotrkow, just 10 ten kilometers from our base, said to them, "We're not interested in your religion. Poland is a Catholic country and we want to keep it that way. You are not welcome in our town."
In Oroczno, when the secretary of the mayor saw them coming towards the town office, she locked the door and wouldn't allow them to enter.
In Radomsko, the city council said they could apply for permission to hold the festival in the spring of 2007.
Undaunted, they kept going and finally, just as the day was coming to an end, they received permission to hold a festival two days later in Lask, a small industrial town of 15,000 people.
I was elated when I received their phone call but realized we only had one day to advertise the event. I also reminded them that we required a good security team to protect us, so there wouldn't be a repeat of the attack in Tomaszow.
Confident that such security could be arranged quickly, Nandini began calling different security companies early the next morning. But much to her surprise, upon learning that we wanted security for our festival programs, each and every company refused to help us, saying the risks were too high. The owner of one company said to her, "Give me one month to find 50 men. Then and only then will I agree to guard your event."
The next morning I ran the devotees through a quick morning program and we left our base early for harinam in Lask. We arrived there at 10:30 AM, only to find the streets practically empty.
I asked a local man, "Where is everyone?"
Looking around slowly he said "Well, over there, Piotri the grocer, just opened his shop and down the street Marek the barber has got a couple of customers. And the bakery should be open by 11:00. Things don't move very quickly around here, especially in the summertime."
I thought to myself, "How in the world are we going to advertise for the festival here tomorrow afternoon?"
Gradually, as the day wore on, people began appearing as we again and again chanted up and down the only shopping street in town. At lunch time, we walked over to some apartment blocks and soon had hundreds of kids following us throughout the complex. Desparate to distribute the invitations, I gathered all the children I could find and gave them instructions to go to every nook and cranny in town to give the invitations out. Smiling and laughing, they ran off in little groups, not knowing that their newfound enthusiasm amounted to ajata sukriti, unknowing devotional service, and a possible future birth in Lord Caitanya's samkirtan party.
nehabhikrama naso sti
pratyavayo na vidyate
sv alpam apy asya dharmasya
trayate mahato bhayat
"In this endeavour there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear." [ Bhagavad gita 2.40 ]
By the time we finished harinam that evening, we had given out 7,000 invitations in a town of 15,000 people. This time I felt confident many people would come.
Early the next day as we set up the festival in a small park in Lask, I met with our own security boys. I told them that there wasn't a security company within 200 kilometers that wanted the job of protecting us and that it was now their full responsibility. They all smiled slightly, looking at each other in great satisfaction. If there was anyone who wanted to avenge the attack in Tomaszow, it was these boys. But I cautioned them that they must carry themselves as perfect gentlemen and only react in a worst case scenerio. I told them the story of how martial art students in ancient China were trained to be ready for action at any moment. At night while they were sleeping their teacher would approach their bed with a bamboo cane. Raising the cane silently above their heads, he would bring it down swiftly upon a student. The students were so well trained that just by hearing the noise of the bamboo cane swishing through the air in their sleep, they would wake up and roll over in time to avoid the blow. I told our security men, that in the same way they had to be prepared for action at the festival at any moment. Later that afternoon I saw them meeting, preparing a strategy for the festival and then sparring together to keep in shape.
As the hour for the festival approached, the same local gentleman I had spoken to the previous day walked by. Smiling, he said, "You can expect a big crowd. The whole town is talking about your festival. You know, in a small town like this word travels fast!"
Sure enough, by 4:30 PM, a half-hour before the festival was to begin, thousands of people started streaming into the park. By 5 o'clock there wasn't room to move and it remained that way until 10 o'clock at night. Afterwards one old lady came up to speak to me. Her head covered in a scarf, she said, "You're the guru, aren't you?"
Surprised that she even knew the word "guru," I replied, "Well, yes I am."
"Well young man (I'm 52!) I want you to know that this was the best festival we've ever had in this town. I've lived here for 81 years and I've never seen a festival gather so many of the townspeople. Congradulations!"
The next day we advertised our 2nd festival in Pabianice, a town close to Loch. While we were doing the festival in Lask the previous day, Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda had managed to convince the town secretary in Pabianice to give us permission for a festival there in two days' time. As our harinam party chanted down the streets the invitations flowed out on Pabianice's busy streets. A number of people called out, "Hare Krsna!" and a few stopped to talk with us, saying how much they had enjoyed our programs on the coast this summer. I had the feeling that, like Lask, it was also going to be a good program.
However, at one point as we chanted past an big ornate building in the center of town, I noticed a number of people on one floor looking out the windows with quite angry faces. I asked Gaurangi dasi what the building was and she replied it was the town office. Inquiring further from a local student, I learned the angry people were members of the city council. With that news I became a little apprehensive.
My apprehensions were confirmed early next morning, just as we were preparing to go to Pabianice to set up the festival. Radha Sakhi Vrnda approached me in the parking lot at our base and said, "Guru Maharaja, something extremely terrible has happened."
The words "extremely terrible" sent chills up my spine, causing me to think that a devotee had met with a bad accident. I braced myself for the worst.
"What is it?" I said. "Has there been a car accident?"
'No" she replied, "The mayor of Pabianice has cancelled the festival."
When she saw that I was more relieved than dismayed, she said, "Did you hear what I said?"
"Yes, I heard you. It's certainly bad news" I said, "But the words 'extremely terrible' carry a much stronger meaning. Next time choose your words and present them more carefully. When Hanuman came back from Sri Lanka to inform Lord Ramacandra about Sita he phrased his words carefully so as not to cause Ram undue anxiety. Instead of saying, "Sita had been found" he simply said, "Found has been Sita!" The first phrase would have caused Ram anxiety, because Sita's name would have been mentioned first, leaving Ram a few anxious seconds to ponder Her fate. But by saying, 'Found has been Sita' Ram immediately knew Sita was still living and that there was hope."
But then as the fate of our doomed festival sank it, I became angry. We had distributed 6,000 invitations and our posters were all over town. I told Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda to immediately drive to Pabianice and speak with the city authorities. When they arrived, there was a town council meeting going on which they were invited to address. But no matter what arguments they presented in favor of the festival going on, the town council would not change their decision. As far as they were concerned we were in town, "to kidnap children, deal drugs and convert people to Hinduism." Only two members of the council were favorable and later informed Nandini that the order to stop the festival had not actually come from the Mayor, but from the priest of the local church. Adding insult to injury, the priest further ordered the mayor to fire the lady in charge of cultural affairs, who had initially agreed to host the festival. By that afternoon she had lost her job, a post she had held for 8 years.
Not wasting time, Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda quickly drove to another town to try and arrange a festival for the very next day. Arriving in Belchatow, a town of 70,000 people, they went straight to the office of the man in charge of cultural affairs. As they waited outside his office they prayed to Krsna that we could hold a festival there over the weekend. After a short wait they were politely invited into the office and with high hopes and smiles greeted the man in charge. But they were completely unprepared for his reaction. As they stepped into his office he looked up from his desk and seeing them screamed:
"O My God! Not you people! Don't tell me you've come to do a festival in our town! We were hoping you'd never set foot here!"
Having moved back a few steps by the force of his words, they stood against the wall waiting for him to finish his tirade of accusations.
He continued, "Then this summer I went to the sea coast for vacation. One evening I was in Kolobrzeg, walking down the street with my daughter, and what did I see? You people singing and dancing, advertising your silly Festival of India! I swore I wouldn't go."
Then calming down, he paused for a moment and continued, his voice much softer than before, "But later that evening I saw the whole town, thousands of people, heading in the direction of your festival. I tried walking the other way, but I became irresistibly drawn to turn around and follow the crowd. I overheard several people say how it would be the 4th or 5th time they attended your event over the years."
To the amazement of Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda he continued glorifying the festival. "Upon arriving" he said, "my first impression was how well organized and professional your festival was. You even had your own source of electricity a huge generator. And the stage show! What entertainment you provided the people! And how happy they all were, singing and dancing. And the food .. "
Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda had slowly came forward and seated themselves before his desk. Finally finishing his praise of the festival, there was silence as everyone sat quietly. Finally Nandini spoke up cautiously, "So does all this mean that we can we have a festival here in Belchatow?" "Yes! Yes! of course" he said. "It would be our great pleasure to host you." When they inquired where to hold the festival, he made an interesting proposal that they had never considered before. He suggested the parking lot of the grand hypermarche outside of town. When they got back to me with the idea, I initially hesitated. I thought, "Put our festival up in the midst of thousands of cars?"
But after careful consideration, we decided to go ahead and experiment with the idea. We approached the owner of the huge shopping complex, who himself liked the idea. But later that day when he called the local newspaper to ask them to advertise the event, schedualed for the very next day, they just laughed at him saying that it would take 3 weeks of advertising to encourage even 400 people to come to any event in that town. The owner called us back and said if we wanted we could go ahead with the festival, but we shouldn't be disappointed if no one came. Nandini looked at him intently and said, "We won't be disappointed. Either will you."
In two short days we had experienced defeat and victory causing my mind to whirl at the turn of events. But now the pressure was on again to advertise a festival once again for the next day. That evening I assembled all the devotees and 110 of us went on a maha harinam party through the apartment blocks of the town. We stayed out until 10 PM at night chanting and dancing in great ecstacy in the dark around and around the apartment complexes, announcing the upcoming festival.
The next morning as the tent crew put up our stage and tents in the huge parking lot of the hypermarche, a group of us chanted in the local market and the apartment blocks again. In the two harinams we somehow managed to distribute 14,000 invitations. And then we waited at the huge shopping complex 1 kilometer outside of town.
I was nervous as the time of the festival came closer, wondering if we'd made a mistake in doing our festival in a gigantic parking lot, so far out of town. And then minutes before the festival was to begin, I looked and saw in the distance huge crowds of people and long lines of cars heading in our direction. The director of the hypermarche came out, and seeing the huge flow of people and cars coming to his shopping mall said, "I never would have believed it. What have you people done?"
I replied, "We sang the holy names of Krsna."
"I know that," he said. "I saw you singing around the apartment blocks. But my question is, what did you do to get all these people to come here?"
I repeated, "We sang the holy names of Krsna."
He looked at me incredulously and said, "And you think that's what inspired all these people to come here?"
"Essentially, yes," I concluded.
The police report said that over 8,000 people came for the two day event. The warm, late summer temperatures and festive mood kept people at the festival each night until well after 10 PM. The 2nd day of the festival was Radhasthami and Tribuvanesvara prabhu, as master of ceremonies, spoke briefly to the crowd about Her divine personality. Then to the surprise of all the devotees, he asked the crowd to sing the Polish song of birthday congradulations to Srimate Radharani. We all watched in amazement as 500 people chanted with great feeling "birthday" greetings to Lord Krsna's eternal consort.
A lot of mercy was flowing that day and no one wanted to leave at the end of the festival. As I said goodbye to everyone the crowd roared in Polish, "We want more! We want more! We want more!" The police had to move through the crowd convincing people to go home. Sitting on the empty stage I watched the people slowly leave the parking lot, until the last one was gone at 11:00 PM.
Two days later I returned with Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda to thank the owner of the hypermarche. He was so pleased with the festival that he offered to put us in touch with other shopping complexes around the country. As we walked out his office door he said, "My parking lot will never be the same again. People are already referring to it as "the parking lot where the great festival took place! "
"The splendid path of pure devotional service, which bewildered the great sages of the past, which material intelligence has no power to enter, which Sukadeva Goswami was not able to understand, and which merciful Lord Krsna never revealed even to His closest friend, is the place where the dear devotees of Lord Gaura happily enjoy pastimes." [ Srila Prabodhananda Sarawati - Sri Caitanya-candramrta Text 18 ]
Early the next day, Monday morning, we asked all the devotees if they wanted to take a break or keep doing the festivals. They said they were tired, but no one wanted to stop. Appreciating their enthusiasm, I said that festivals, one after another, were like drinking hot sugar juice; which is so hot that it burns the lips, but it too sweet to stop drinking.
So that day, Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda approached the town secretary of yet another nearby town, Koluski, with a proposal to do our festival there. Having been to the festival in nearby Loch in the spring, she was delighted with the idea and said, "Why only two days? We should have your festival in our town for 3 days!" Taking 100 posters to put up around town, she called the mayor to inform him, but he wasn't in his office. "Don't worry" she said, "He'll love the idea."
Although devotees were still tired from the big festival in Belchatow, we had a huge harinam through the streets of Koluski. It wasn't a big town but I was confident that one harinam would be enough to inform everyone about the festival the next day. Sure enough it did, including the mayor.
The next morning Radha Sakhi Vrnda again approached me in the parking lot of our tourist bungalow. "Guru Maharaja" she said carefully, remembering Hanuman's words to Rama: "Cancelled is the festival."
"What? Again!" I said.
"Yes. The mayor of Koluski cancelled the festival and doesn't agree to even meet us to discuss the matter."
"But we've advertised and the whole town will be coming" I said. "We have no time to inform them the event is cancelled. You have to go and try and meet him."
Once again, in an attempt to save a festival, they jumped into their car and rushed off to Koluski. I ordered all the devotees to proceed to Koluski with our trucks, buses and cars and we waited just outside the city in a long caravan for a call from Nandini, in the hopes that she and Radha Sakhi Vrnda could change the mayor's mind.
When they arrived at the city hall in Koluski the town secretary was devasted. She said to the girls, "Our mayor is so closed-minded! He refuses to discuss the matter with any of us. I don't see how you're going to get a chance to meet him."
Determined as ever, Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda went and sat down on the bench outside his office, telling the secretary that only the police could remove them. The secretary got on the phone and exchanged some serious words with someone they couldn't see, and two minutes later the mayor opened his office door without a word and went back and sat at his desk. Accepting the rather cold invitation to come in, they sat before him. They said, "Why are you not allowing our festival in your town? Have you heard crazy rumours about us, that we deal in weapons or drugs? Is that why you're so afraid of us?"
"No" he said slowly. "There is something more dangerous about you than weapons and drugs. It's your ideology. Ideology has killed more people in this world than weapons. I'm a devout Christian and for me your beliefs are the greatest evil in this world."
Standing up to him Nandini replied, "Your own ideology has caused much suffering in this world. What about the infamous Inquisition?"
Leaning over his desk the Mayor said to her, "I'm proud of the Inquisition, because it rid the world of people like you!"
Realizing what they were up against, but ever more determined to be victorious, Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda got up from their seats to leave. As they walked out of the mayor's office he said to them, "Where the devil can't go, he sends a woman."
Outside his office they appealed to the town secretary. "The mayor has no right to treat us like this" they said.
"Yes, it's true" she said. After making some quick telephone calls she stormed into the mayor's office. Raising her voice, she said to him, "These are lovely people. I've been to their festival in the summer. You can't stop them from having it. You have to abide by the will of the citizens."
At that his phone started ringing and a number of the town secretary's friends began calling, chastising the mayor and demanding the festival continue. With elections coming up soon, he finally bowed to pressure and said to Nandini, "I won't give you permission for your festival, but neither will I stop it. Now leave my office."
We'd been waiting 3 hours in the hot sun in our convoy outside of town and as soon as Nandini called me we started our engines and within 20 minutes rolled into town. It was 2 PM by the time we reached the festival site and the festival was supposed to start in 3 hours. Generally it takes 5 full hours to set the whole festival up, so I met quickly with a crew of 40 men and women and told them they had to do a small miracle and set the festival up in 3 hours. The rest of us went out on harinam to advertise the festival. Much to my amazement when we returned at quarter to 5, the entire festival was up and crowds of people were assembling in front of the stage. A little reserved at first, they warmed up as the program went on and, by the last kirtan, hundreds of people chanted and danced in great happiness.
But just as we were leaving, Caitanya dasa, who helps in the festival shop tent, came and told me that he had overheard a group of boys lamenting that they didn't have time to put their plan into action that evening. But the next day, they discussed amongst themselves, they would throw 10 Molotov cocktails from the bushes next to the festival at 8 PM and escape in different planned routes.
Meeting again with our security team the next day, I alerted them to the danger and told them to have all fire exstinguishers ready and to purchase fire blankets before the festival. However, because we knew exactly what to be ready for, I wasn't very much worried. That night we had extra men secure the area near the bushes, thwarting the plan of the gang of youths.
But more problems came from the mayor of the town. Wanting to extract revenge, he came to the festival with members of the city council and demanded that we pay a fine of $4,000 for holding an illegal event that wasn't sanctioned by city hall. We politely reminded him that although the festival wasn't granted official permission, he himself had said he wouldn't stop it. In essence it was neither sanctioned or not sanctioned and it would be difficult to fine us in a court of law. Backing down, he walked away, but the very next day passed a special law, banning Hare Krsna forever from the town. One may question if we achieved much by winning a battle but possibly losing a war. That question may best be answered by the town secretary who phoned us as we left the town that night.
She said, "Please don't take offense at what happened here. The citizens of our town loved your event. We are waiting for you to return. Most of us are not proud of the actions of our mayor and the upcoming elections may well reverse the law he passed against you."
Early this morning we set off again for yet another festival event. I'm not sure that with the constant changing of events here on the field of preaching, whether we'll meet with victory or defeat. But one thing is for sure. Although it sometimes burns the lips, the sweetness of sri krsna sankirtan is much too sweet to stop drinking.
"If one's heart is set on crossing beyond the ocean of repeated birth and death, if one's mind relishes the sweet nectar of krsna-sankirtan, and if one's heart yearns to swim and sport in the ocean of pure love of Krsna, then one should take shelter of Lord Gauracandra's feet." [ Srila Prabodhananda Saraswati - Sri Caintanya- candramrta Text 93 ]