Diary of a Traveling Preacher
The day after our festival in Koluski, Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda approached the town secretary in Brzezny, just seven kilometers away, with a proposal to do a festival there. He was delighted with the idea. To avoid any surprises later on, the girls warned him that we had faced a lot of opposition in the area and that several of our festivals had even been canceled. He just laughed and said such acts of intolerance would never happen in Brzezny, so they had nothing to worry about. He even signed a contract with them, authorizing the festival to take place the next day.
On the way back to the base, Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda received a call on their cell phone from the police in Koluski demanding that they come immediately to an emergency town council meeting. They arrived just as the meeting started. As they walked in, members of the town council screamed insults at them. After things quieted down, the mayor said the council wanted compensation for the damage we had done to the city park during our festival. When the two girls asked them to specify the damage, one council member made up a story about injured trees and shrubs, destroyed flower gardens, and broken fences. Though the whole story was an obvious lie, they demanded $3,000 for compensation.
Ignoring the false accusations, Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda simply began preaching Krsna conscious philosophy. They explained how our movement is part of an ancient spiritual tradition and elaborated on how our beliefs and practices are beneficial for modern society. After stressing that we had not come to Koluski to proselytize the citizens or make money but rather to share a very wonderful culture, they concluded by saying that the city council had no right to extort money from us by falsely accusing us of damaging city property.
When the girls finished, there was a brief moment of silence. Then a council member stood up and shouted that despite their eloquent words we were a dangerous cult and our very presence had discredited the town. At that point the mayor, who had been listening carefully to their presentation in silence, stood up and instructed everyone but Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda to leave the room. Astonished, all the council members, one by one, got up and walked out - the last one slamming the door behind him.
The girls sat there for a few tense moments, waiting for the mayor to speak. During their first conversation with him, before our festival in Koluski earlier in the week, he himself had harshly accused them of being part of a dangerous cult and collaborating with the devil. Now he spoke softly:
"What you said was the truth. I cannot ignore what you said. You should also know that I came to your festival the other day and saw for myself that you are not bad people. Your program was well organized and peaceful. The citizens enjoyed the cultural presentation you made. Although I don't share your ideology, I'm ready to respect you. And I apologize for the way I spoke to you the first time we met."
Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda couldn't believe their ears. Here was a man who had insulted them in his office a few days earlier and was now humbly apologizing.
He continued, "Tell me more about your philosophy. I am especially interested in the chanting. I saw how it affected the townspeople. They became so happy."
While the entire town council cooled their heels outside the room, Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda began explaining the glories of chanting Hare Krsna. The mayor listened carefully. Finally, after a whole hour, he rose and went over to the door to let the council members in. But just before he did so, he turned to the girls and said, "I know you're planning a festival tomorrow in Brzezny. Don't expect it to be easy. Be prepared for the worst. The mayor called me just before you arrived here and said he will be canceling the event."
Then as he turned the door handle he said to them, "Why do you take so many risks? What is your motivation?"
He answered the question himself: "I know. Because you want to help people."
When the door opened the council members barged in like a swarm of maddened hornets. Thirty minutes later they found us guilty of damaging the park and fined our festival $3,000. Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda knew there was no chance we would get out of it. As a council member brought them a paper to sign, with terms of payment for the fine, the mayor spoke up and said to the members of the council, "I'll take care of this. You're all excused."
At that, the council members all rose and left the room, satisfied with their victory. When the door closed behind them the mayor said, "I can't dismiss the fine altogether. The town council is very powerful, and there are higher-ups who are behind it. But I'll reduce it to $1,000. You can pay over time. I'm sorry."
Just after leaving the Kuluski city hall, the two devotees got an urgent call from the town secretary in Brzezny. He sounded a lot less confident than he had that morning, when they had discussed doing a festival in his town. He anxiously said, "You must come immediately. Our mayor wants to speak to you. It's very urgent."
Recalling the warning by Koluski's mayor, Nandini thought carefully before replying. She knew it wouldn't be easy for the mayor to cancel the festival, because the town secretary had signed an official contract authorizing the event. She thought to herself, "If we meet with him, he may confiscate the contract and say it never existed. But if we tell him we're far from Brzezny and can only come to see him in three days, by which time the event will be over, there's not much he can do."
She politely replied to the town secretary that they were too far away and it was impossible to come that day, but they would surely visit the mayor after the festival was over. There was silence at the other end of the line ... and then the town secretary hung up. Her strategy had worked.
Meanwhile, I was in Brzezny with Sri Prahlad as he headed up a huge harinam party of fifty devotees, chanting and dancing throughout the city center. People were friendly and responded nicely to the kirtan. Some of them wrapped coins in little plastic bags and threw them to us from their windows. One bag even hit me on the head, raising a little bump. I just grimaced and, smiling through the pain, waved to the lady who had thrown the money.
As we came close to one apartment block, some of the kids who were following us dropped out of the kirtan party and started back in the opposite direction. Wary, I asked one of the Polish devotees to find out why they were leaving. A couple of the children told him that Lucas, the head of the local hooligans, hung out around the corner and they were all afraid of him. Sure enough, just as we came around the corner, there was Lucas, standing at the doorway of an apartment building, drinking beer. When the rest of the kids saw him they scattered in all directions.
Hoping to defuse any potential problems at our festival, I approached Lucas to talk a little. As I came closer I noticed his right hand was wrapped in bandages, more than likely the result of a recent disagreement with someone. Hoping he would be open to a gesture of friendship, I put out my right hand to shake his. As he studied me carefully his buddies came out of the nearby shadows and stood behind him. They all had the same stonelike expression as they stood there, waiting for their cue from Lucas. After a few moments Lucas smiled and put out his bandaged hand to shake mine. As we shook hands, I felt moisture, and afterwards I saw blood on my hand from his bandages. Seeing my surprise, Lucas said coolly, "Teraz laczy nas wiez krwi." ["Now we're blood brothers."]
"My pleasure" I said. After a moment's search for the proper words to start a conversation, I said,
"Lucas, it's nice to meet you."
"Forget the pleasantries," he said. "You guys are welcome in this town. In fact, my boys and I plan to come to your event. With us there, you won't have anything to worry about. We're happy you brought some life to this dull town."
With that his smile disappeared and, turning around, he said to his boys, "Hare Krishnas are OK. Let them do their thing here." Then they all walked away.
The next day the weather was perfect. The town secretary had given us a little park to set up our festival, right by a small lake. My only anxiety was that the site was almost two kilometers from the town. Nevertheless, most of the townspeople made the long hike out to the festival grounds, and by evening the site was so packed that no one could move left or right. At one point, our security team came to me and pointed out a group of boys standing on the perimeter of the festival. Looking closely, I saw that it was Lucas and his friends. When Lucas saw me he winked, confirming his promise that with them there we had nothing to worry about.
"Who are they?" our security man said.
"It's OK." I said. "Consider them extra security. As long as they're around, we've got nothing to worry about."
Earlier during the festival I had noticed two old ladies, probably in their 80's, who I had seen at the previous festival in Koluski. I was surprised to see them again and asked if they were enjoying themselves. "O Yes! Yes!" they replied. "We love everything here."
After the festival we were driving back to our base when I saw the two old ladies walking home to Koluski in the dark. We stopped and asked if they wanted a ride home. "Oh, no! No!" they chirped together. "It's not far. We'll make it back OK."
"No" I said. "It's seven kilometers to Koluski. Let us take you."
With that they got in and we drove them home. When they got out one of them said, "We'll be back tomorrow. We haven't had so much fun in years."
The second day of the festival it rained hard, and only a few souls braved the bad weather. The weather cleared on the third and final day, and quite a large crowd turned out. Several people told me they had invited their relatives from distant towns. And we also had an unexpected visit by a VIP guest - the mayor. He appeared briefly with his wife and walked around the festival grounds. Pleasantly surprised, he had a smile on his face, but before we could approach him he left.
I met a teenage girl named Monika, from Lusk, where we had put on our first program of this tour. She had come to thank Ram Bhadra Prabhu for convincing her mother about the merits of being a vegetarian. For years she had wanted to give up eating meat, but her mother forbade her. When Monika had heard that the Hare Krishnas were coming to Lusk, she had asked her mother to come to the festival. Earlier Monika had heard from friends that the Hare Krishnas were vegetarians, and she had hoped the devotees could convince her mother to allow her to become one as well. As soon as they had arrived, both mother and daughter had been swept up in the ecstasy of the festival. Monika had put on a sari, and both of them had had gopi dots painted on their faces. During kirtan Monika had danced in bliss, while her mother had appreciated the scene from the audience. Afterwards they had gone for a bite to eat at our restaurant, and that was it - Monika's mother had fallen in love with prasadam. Monika had seen it as the perfect moment, and grabbed the first devotee who walked by.
"Tell my mother why it's bad to kill animals and why we should be vegetarian!" she had said to Ram Bhadra Prabhu.
As he had begun explaining the value of a vegetarian diet, Monika's mother had listened carefully and been convinced. At once she had gone to the book tent and bought a cookbook. Now, at the conclusion of our festival in Brzezny, Monika told me that after reading the cookbook her mother had become vegetarian and was even talking about "offering the food to Krishna"!
As darkness settled in, Sri Prahlad began the final bhajan onstage. I sat next to him surveying the crowd, since dusk is always a likely time for problems at the festival. Seeing a group of boys at the perimeter, I was relieved, thinking it was Lucas and his friends. But when I looked closer I saw that it was a different group - all drunk and rowdy. I got up slowly, walked off the stage, and went up to a group of young people. "Do any of you know Lucas?" I asked.
One boy replied, "Of course, everyone knows Lucas."
"Do you know where he is at the moment?" I asked.
"He's not here tonight," said the boy. "He got beat up this afternoon at the football match by a gang from out of town."
Pointing at the group of drunken boys I had seen from the stage, he continued, "That's them over there."
"Thanks," I replied, and I immediately went over to the closest security boy and warned him of potential trouble.
By that time Sri Prahlad's sweet kirtan had many people chanting and dancing before the stage. Most of them were children, who went round and round in a circle, holding hands with the devotees, as their parents enjoyed watching them from the benches before the stage and clapped in time. By now Sri Prahlad had also noticed the drunken boys and had directed my attention to a few of them moving onto the festival grounds. Then very conscientiously, as I have seen him do many times when danger threatens, he focused on the kirtan of the holy names.
jivana anitya janaha sar tahe nana vidha vipada bhar namasraya kori jatane
tumi thakaha apana kaje
"You should understand this essential fact: life is temporary and filled with various kinds of dangers. Therefore carefully take shelter of the holy names, remaining always a humble servant of the Lord." (Bhaktivinoda Thakura - Arunodaya-kirtana, Gitavali)
As the drunken boys moved toward the stage, the crowd noticed them. Some parents, fearing violence, quickly grabbed their children and left the festival. Others, caught between the ecstasy of the kirtan and the uncertainly of the moment, hesitated, not knowing what to do. As our security boys braced for trouble, I prayed to Lord Nrsimhadeva, feeling the situation was once again serious enough to ask Him to intervene.
At that moment the leader of the boys approached Dwarkanath dasa, our security man guarding the left side of the stage, and exchanged strong words with him. Although most of the dancing children were oblivious to the danger, the eyes of the rest of the guests were riveted on Dwarkanath and the boy. Suddenly the boy threw a punch at Dwarkanath, but missed. Dwarkanath, a big man, pushed him backwards and he fell to the ground.
Although a big fight seemed certain, most people couldn't pull themselves away from the festival because of the kirtan. The holy names saturated the entire festival grounds, somehow giving a sense of calm and security, despite the imminent danger. As the boy and his friends took off their shirts, baring their chests to fight, Dwarkanath displayed his courage and intelligence. Taking the leader by the arm, he challenged him to fight alone with him in the tent closest to the stage, which our actors used to change costumes. As they closed the sides and prepared to exchange blows inside, Vara-nayaka Prabhu, thinking quickly and hoping to defuse the situation, ran into the tent.
"Why do you have so much anger?" Vara-nayaka asked the boy.
Calming down for a moment, the boy replied, "My girlfriend left me the other day."
Vara-nayaka said, "Is that why you hate the whole world?"
"Yes!" he replied.
"Do you think hurting others will solve your problems?" Vara-nayaka said with a smile.
The boy paused and said, "Well no . . . I guess not."
"That's right," said Vara-nayaka. "You won't solve your problems by fighting." Putting out his hand he said, "So lets be friends, OK?"
The boy hesitated for a moment and then put out his hand, accepting Vara-nayaka's words and agreeing to call the fight off. He also shook hands with Dwarkanath and, swallowing his pride, walked out of the tent with him. It was the last thing anyone expected to see, but it defused the tension in the crowd immediately.
Relaxing again, parents turned to watch their children dance and twirl in the ecstasy of the kirtan, which hadn't missed a beat and was still going strong. Others went back to their tables to finish their prasadam or browse through the displays and shops.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I returned to play mrdunga on the stage. Once again, it seemed to me, the Lord had intervened to protect His great festival of the holy names. With such mercy becoming an almost daily occurrence on the tour, our faith in the Lord increases with each rising and setting of the sun.
naktan carendra-mada-khandana vira-simha
sri narasimha paripalaya mam ca bhaktam
"My Lord! You are the auspicious lion that dispersed the grief of Prahlada Maharaja. O You who tear everything apart in an intoxicating mood! You are the Lord of the ferocious predators of the dark night. Your lotus feet are surrounded by all divine and pious personalities, beginning with Lord Indra. O Nrsimha! Please protect us too, for we are also trying to become Your devotees." [ Sri Nrsimha Astakam - verse 7 ]