Diary of a Traveling Preacher
The day after our successful but tense festival in Brzezny, I woke up early and took a walk alone in a nearby forest. The peace and quiet of the forest were in direct contrast to the life I had been living for the previous five months on our festival tour. The strain of constant opposition from the church and government authorities, violent attacks on our festivals, and the physical exertion required to push on for so many months had left me exhausted. Of course, it was a most welcome exhaustion, as every ounce of my energy had been used in the service of guru and Gauranga. Still, for the first time on the tour I looked at my pocket calendar to see how many days were left. When I saw that only one week remained, my mind drifted momentarily to Vrindavan and the many holy places there that I longed to see - hopefully even more intensely than ever before, because of the purification that comes from preaching. I thought to myself that I wished I were more advanced and could stay on the front lines indefinitely, as I saw Srila Prabhupada do when he was with us. For eleven years he traveled incessantly, circling the globe twelve times, preaching the glories of the Lord. But he also spent a "lifetime in preparation," as his biography states, a good portion of that time in Vrindavan, where he chanted the holy names, wrote his purports on Srimad-Bhagavatam, and imbibed the mood of our previous acaryas.
I have also seen that the success of the preaching of Godbrothers like Sivarama Maharaja and Bhakti Bhrnga Govinda Swami has been in direct proportion to the time they spend in bhajan, hearing and chanting the glories of the Lord. I considered that going to Vrindavan was the natural step to take after the tour was over, not simply to recuperate my strength, but to purify my heart and deepen my realizations of the glories of the Lord for future preaching.
A sudden cold breeze followed by many falling leaves further indicated that our festival tour would soon come to a close and woke me from my daydream in the forest. I hurried back to the base to plan the last remaining festivals. When I arrived devotees had already finished breakfast and Nandini and Radha Sakhi Vrnda approached me to report about possible towns where we could hold our final programs. As we sat down to discuss the options, however, it soon became clear that the struggles we'd had for months would continue to the very end.
Nandini said, "Guru Maharaja, we're not having any success arranging festivals. Everywhere we go, mayors and their town councils have been forewarned not to cooperate with us. In many cases they are fearful to even meet with us. Obviously, something is going on behind the scenes. After the last festival in Brzezny, it appears that someone has organized a campaign to prevent us from having any more festivals in this region."
It was clear that, for the time being, we had to change our strategy. We met with our festival council and spent the entire day discussing how to continue our preaching for the remaining seven days. Finally we decided to go to the nearest town, Piotrkow Trybunalski, and approach the owner of the hypermarche there to ask if we could hold a festival in the parking lot of his shopping complex. A similar festival in Belchatow two weeks earlier had been our most successful program of the autumn tour to date.
But the city council of Piotrkow Trybunalski was one of those that had most recently refused us permission to put on a festival. In fact, the council wouldn't even consider giving us permission to hold a simple harinam procession through the town. There was even an article in the town newspaper in which the local priest was quoted as saying that if anyone in Piotrkow Trybunalski attended one of our festivals in the region and happened to touch Raju, our padayatra ox, they would immediately go to hell!
Our strategy for trying to do a festival at the hypermarche of Piotrkow Trybunalski was that it was private property and therefore not under the jurisdiction of the town council. The only problem was that we wouldn't be able to advertise by distributing invitations on harinam. But we decided that if the owner of the hypermarche agreed to the festival, we would send devotees out individually on the streets to hand out invitations. It seemed unlikely that the city council would forbid that.
As soon as we approached the owner of the hypermarche, he immediately agreed to the proposal. He said he had heard how successful our festival had been at the hypermarche in Belchatow, and then - with a smile on his face - he related how it had simultaneously increased business in the shopping complex. He said we should make it a three-day event and that we could distribute invitations at all the entrances to the shopping center. I was elated, remembering how hard it had been to get permission to distribute books at shopping malls during the years I did book distribution in France.
Knowing that it was going to be the last festival of our tour, devotees worked around the clock, distributing invitations at the hypermarche, on the city streets, at apartment blocks, and at red lights at intersections. The city officials quickly got wind of the festival, and the owner of the hypermarche received many threats, but he didn't back down.
While preparing for the festival, I noticed that all the devotees looked as exhausted as I was, but everyone continued to work hard, wanting to finish the tour on a high note. In five days we distributed close to 50,000 invitations, and on the morning of the festival we drove to the parking lot of the hypermarche in great expectation. But as the day wore on, our hopes for a successful event were dampened by our foremost enemy: rain. Just two hours before we were to begin, huge dark clouds appeared in the sky above, and just as the festival opened they poured down torrents of rain. Nevertheless, although it showered off and on throughout the festival, several hundred people came and we considered the first day a relative success. Little did we know that it would be the last festival of the year.
When we arrived back at our base, several devotees who had stayed back to clean the kitchen ran up and told us about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in America. The viciousness of the attack and extent of the destruction stunned the devotees. Along with the rest of the world, we watched the news reports on CNN in the hotel lounge that night, and the next morning I gave an impromptu class about how we should understand the tragedy.
I began by explaining that devotees are not callous in the face of such suffering and that our condolences went out to the dead, the injured, and their families. I also predicted that the attack in the heart of America would have many ramifications, including a protracted war on terrorism and a likely recession. But, I said, we should not be shocked by such events. Devotees of the Lord are always equipoised, being familiar with Krsna's teaching in Bhagavad-gita that this material world is first and foremost duhkhalayam asasvatam, "a temporary place full of misery." For a devotee, the material world is always in a state of tragedy, but he remains nevertheless always equipoised:
yam hi na vyathayanty ete purusam purusarsabha
sama dukha sukham dhiram so mrtatvaya kalpate
"O best among men (Arjuna), the person who is not disturbed by happiness and distress and is steady in both is certainly eligible for liberation." (Bhagavad-gita 2.15)
I told the devotees that although they were not forbidden to follow the progression of events after the terrorist attack in America, which would surely dominate the news for weeks or even months to come, they should not become preoccupied with it. Their main meditation, as always, should be their devotional service. I especially requested them not to allow the news to become the only talk of the tour during the remaining few days. I didn't want to see them huddling in little groups discussing terrorism and watching the news on television every five minutes. The terrorist attack was a catastrophic event that would surely effect major changes in the world, but the sankirtan movement of Lord Caitanya was no less significant, in an auspicious way. Whereas catastrophes take lives in great numbers, the chanting of the holy names of the Lord saves lives in unlimited numbers. It is the panacea for all problems.
I was just concluding my remarks by saying that we were fortunate to have yet another chance to share the chanting of the holy name with people during the remaining two days of festivals when Nandini came in distraught and announced that, in sympathy with the people of America, the President of Poland had declared that the next two days would be official days of mourning in Poland - and that all public events of any nature were canceled. The room became quiet as all the devotees realized that our five-month tour had unceremoniously come to a sudden end.
Three days later, after cleaning and packing our entire five tons of festival paraphernalia, we had a final festival just for the devotees, honoring their services during the past months. After some emotional farewells, everyone left in various buses to return to their respective homes and temples. As I got into my van to go, my driver, Radhe Syama, looked at me and said, "Guru Maharaja, you've been so busy that you haven't told me where you're going! What direction should I start driving in?"
I paused for a moment and then replied, "I suppose you can begin heading east toward Vrindavan."
Laughing, he said, "OK. I guess that means first of all heading north toward Warsaw."
As we drove off, I was caught between the pain of realizing that the tour was actually over and the ecstasy of going to the holy dhama. Trying to focus on Vrindavan, I closed my eyes and thought of what I would say to Srila Prabhupada when I got there. Each year upon arriving in Vrindavan, I first go to his samadhi and report to him the results of my year's preaching efforts. I decided I would simply repeat his own words when he learned that the land at Juhu Beach was won after a great struggle: "Srila Prabhupada," I would say, "it was a good fight."
It was a good fight, Srila Prabhupada, and for the most part we were victorious. In five months, literally hundreds of thousands of people attended our festivals. All of them heard the holy names, many took books, and many more enjoyed prasadam. And by the causeless mercy of Lord Caitanya, even our staunch opponents benefited by "unfavorably" uttering Lord Krsna's holy names! We offer all the results to your lotus feet and pray for more such service in the years to come. The recent tragic events in America will soon give rise to many such preaching opportunities, and as devotees of the Lord we must be prepared to meet the great challenges that lie ahead in this regard. Now, more than ever, people are aware of the temporary and miserable nature of this world. It is up us, your followers, Srila Prabhupada, to enlighten them about the actual solutions to such problems:
"...[By the devotees'] broadcasting the holy name and fame of the Supreme Lord, the polluted atmosphere of the world will change, and as a result of propagating transcendental literatures like Srimad-Bhagavatam, people will become sane in their transactions." [ SB. 1.5.11 purport ]