Diary of a Traveling Monk
He Was A Great Saintly Person
February 8, 2014
In December of 1970, Srila Prabhupada spent fourteen days in Surat, India, with twenty-five of his Western disciples. Five years earlier, he had traveled to the west on the order of his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, to spread Krsna Consciousness. ISCKON was still a fledgling movement when he returned to India, but he had a strong desire to preach there.
The India of the 1970s was a place in which spiritual culture was in rapid decline. At the behest of its political leaders, it was following the path of capitalism forged by Western powers. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, once said: “We have achieved political freedom but our revolution is not yet complete and is still in progress, for political freedom without the assurance of the right to live and to pursue happiness, which economic progress alone can bring, can never satisfy a people.”
Srila Prabhupada wanted to remind the people of India that the country’s real glory was in it’s spiritual culture; this alone could give the lasting satisfaction and happiness we all desire. The Srimad Bhagavatam is clear on this fact:
sa vai pumsam paro dharmo
yato bhaktir adhoksaje
“The supreme occupation for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.”
Srila Prabhupada’s approach to resolving India’s spiritual dilemma was very interesting: he returned with his Western disciples to show his countrymen how Vedic culture was capturing the imagination of the entire world. He proudly called his Western disciples, “dancing white elephants.” A white elephant is revered in India and is seen as a sign of royalty.
Nothing could have prepared Srila Prabhupada and his disciples for the reception the people of Surat gave them. The people of Gujarat are famous for being Krsna’s devotees, but their enthusiasm in welcoming Prabhupada was unprecedented: the whole city closed down, throngs of people headed by the mayor greeted the party at the railway station, thousands attended the lectures and kirtans that Srila Prabhupada gave during his visit, and hundreds of people followed the devotees’ daily harinams. During those famous kirtans, shop owners would offer devotees various goods and wares, and people would garland them, anoint them with sandalwood paste and shower them with flower petals.
For eight of their days in Surat, Srila Prabhupada and his disciples stayed at the home of Mr. Bhagubhai Jariwala, a wealthy and pious businessman. Each morning Srila Prabhupada would take a morning walk through the neighborhood, and would then give a lecture on the first floor of Mr. Jariwala’s house. Neighbors would often attend.
Forty-four years after Srila Prabhupada’s visit, I found myself in Surat with forty devotees while on a seven-week festival tour of the main cities in Gujarat. I asked the local devotees about Srila Prabhupada pastimes there and they surprised me by saying that our first program would be in a hall that Srila Prabhupada had himself held a program. That night thousands of people came to our four-hour show which included classical Indian dance, theater, martial arts, puppet shows and a big kirtan. I gave my lecture on Bhagavad Gita that night from the very spot in which Srila Prabhupada had spoken. I distinctly felt his presence and empowerment.
The next day the local devotees offered to take our group to Mr. Jariwala’s house. It turned out the house was a small four-story apartment building; the windows and doors were all heavily bolted with locks and chains. Standing in front of the building, I noticed many people coming out of their homes, curious to see so many foreigners in their neighborhood.
I tried to envision Srila Prabhupada at this heavily barricaded place.
“Do you think they would let us go inside?” I asked the devotee who had brought us.
“Not very likely,” he said. “Mr. Jariwala passed away years ago. His grandson sold the building to a man that the locals say is a drug dealer; they say he stores all his contraband in the house. You can see he has made it into a small fortress.”
“We should still try,” I said.
One of the neighbors came forward. “The problem is that no one has ever seen the new owner. Apparently he lives a few streets away, but no one will dare go to see him personally.”
“I’ll go,” said a tall, stout teenager. “I don’t believe the rumors anyway.”
“We’d appreciate that,” I said. “It would mean a lot to our devotees to have the chance to see where our spiritual master stayed while he was here.”
More and more neighbors gathered, and more people started speaking up.
“I saw your spiritual master,” said one man. “I was seven years old when he came and stayed in our neighborhood. I used to see him going for a walk in the morning with his disciples. All of the local children would follow him; he was always talking about Lord Krsna. He made such an impression on us. We would watch him as he paced back and forth on the balcony up there. He would often wave to us, and we felt privileged because we understood he was a great saintly person.”
“When he came back to the house he would lecture from the Srimad Bhagavatam,” said another man. “I remember how he used to effortlessly quote so many verses from the scriptures. I too was just a boy at the time, but I didn’t miss a single class.”
“Then every day after the class, he would send his disciples to sing harinam around the neighborhood for one hour,” said an older man. “Everyone loved it, and huge crowds would join them. I was twenty years old at the time. Once I approached him and asked how he knew so much about Krsna. He smiled and gave me a copy of Bhagavad-Gita. In fact, he even signed it. I still have it and I read it ever day.”
“I remember my parents preparing fruit and sweets for him and his disciples,” a woman said. “They would take everything on silver plates to Swamiji and his disciples in the evenings. I remember my mother polishing the silver plates every afternoon. She told me: ‘Everything has to be perfect for the guru.’”
“Nobody knew of the Hare Krsna Movement before he came,” another woman said. “We were mesmerized when he suddenly arrived with his white-skinned disciples. His disciples were very serious about their devotional activities. Some of us became more serious about our own devotion to Lord Krsna as a result of seeing their sincerity. In fact, after all these years people in this neighborhood still talk about his visit.”
“My parents used to talk about his visit, but I never met him,” another man said. “Are you his disciple?”
“Well, yes I am,” I said.
The people looked impressed.
“You are very fortunate,” one of them said.
“Yes, I am,” I replied, trying to contain a wave of emotion that overcame me.
“Are you going to sing like your friends did when they were here all those years ago?” asked one of the children. “That would be wonderful!”
“Yes, we are going to sing,” I replied. “But I was hoping to be able to get inside the building to ..”
I didn’t complete my sentence because I saw the people become suddenly anxious. The crowd parted and a large man, obviously the owner of the house, walked towards me. He was dressed like a perfect gentleman; he didn’t look like a drug dealer to me, but from the corner of my eye I saw some of the children run into their homes and close the doors.
“I understand you want to go inside my house,” the man said in a deep voice. I couldn’t tell whether what he said was a challenge or a simple inquiry.
“Sir, my spiritual master, Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, stayed in your home with his disciples when he visited Surat forty-four years ago. We would be most honored if we could see the rooms he stayed in.”
He broke into a big smile. All my apprehensions melted away.
“You are most welcome to visit my house,” he said. “I would be honored. I have heard of your spiritual teacher. He was a great saintly person. Great sinners need the mercy of saints.” He winked at the crowd, obviously aware of the rumors circulating about him.
“Follow me,” he said, as he led us across the street. He unlocked several padlocks and beckoned us. “I will show you where he gave his classes.”
We passed row after row of large open burlap sacks full of various textiles. On the first floor, he led us into an airy and empty room.
“This is where the classes happened,” he said. “He would sit there against that wall on a cushion and his students and people from the neighborhood would sit around the room.”
He led us into another room. “And this was his bedroom,” he said. He pointed to a corner of the room. “His bed was just over there.”
“You seem to know a lot about his visit, sir,” I said.
“He is well known in this neighborhood,” he said.
“Can we have kirtan in memory of our teacher?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “Sing as long as you want.”
Closing my eyes I began chanting Srila Prabhupada’s pranam mantra. When I opened my eyes I saw deep loving emotion on the devotees’ faces as they responded. I started chanting Hare Krsna and the devotees raised their arms and swayed back and forth. The owner the house also raised his arms and began chanting and dancing along with us. The local people broke out in big smiles seeing him.
“That looks like the end of the rumors,” I thought, laughing to myself. I concluded the kirtan with the premadvani prayers, and the locals and the owner of the house joined the devotees as they bowed their heads to the ground.
“We were all perfect strangers one hour ago,” I thought to myself. “Srila Prabhupada, your potency continues to purify the world.” Aloud I said, “Now we must follow in our master’s footsteps and take the chanting to the streets.”
We thanked the owner of the house, and as he put the big locks back on the door he smiled at us. “You are welcome back anytime,” he said.
“We will return,” I said. “Your home is a holy place.”
As we gathered our instruments for harinam, one of the local men who had been in the kirtan came up to me.
“I want to caution you that a lot of Muslim families now live in this area,” he said. “In fact, most of the vendors in the market across the street are Muslims. Gujarat has a history of Muslim-Hindu tension.”
I decided to assess the situation before beginning the harinam. I walked thirty meters to the corner and surveyed the large open-air market; there were hundreds of people shopping at stalls selling a seemingly endless variety of goods: fruits, vegetables, textiles, furniture. One tall bearded Muslim man in the midst of the throng made eye contact with me, and held my gaze. He was surrounded by ten or fifteen other similarly looking men.
“Wait here,” I said to the devotees. Taking a couple of male devotees with me, I crossed the street and walked toward the Muslim men.
“Salaam-alaikum,” I said extending my hand to the man.
“Wa alaykumu s-salam,” he replied. He took my hand and broke into a big smile.
“We are devotees of Lord Krsna from Western countries,” I said. “We are here to honor our spiritual teacher who stayed in a building across the street many years ago.”
“It is the duty of the spiritual practitioner to honor he who shows the path to Allah,” said the man. “As you honor your teacher, we honor Mohamed. Praise be upon him.”
He was so friendly and open that I decided to take another step. “We would like to celebrate the glory of God by singing His names throughout the market place.
We would like to know if you or anyone else would object to us doing this.”
Some unfavorable looks crossed the faces of some of the men. A few of them began whispering to each other. But the tall man, who obviously was prominent among them, shook his head.
“Nobody will object. Allahu Akbar – God is great. You may sing His names in this market.” Some of the men looked surprised, but he continued. “We have no differences here in our neighborhood between Muslim and Hindus. But just case, I will send my two brothers to accompany you. Should any trouble arise from any Muslim in the market they will take care of it.”
He gestured for two men to step forward. “This is Abdul Qawi and Ahmed. Ahmed is the karate champion of Gujarat.”
I shook both of their hands. “Gentleman,” I said, “let’s proceed.”
As the devotees chanted and danced in ecstasy through the market, I thought of how Srila Prabhupada had sent his disciples out to chant on the very same street so many years ago. A number of fruit vendors offered us bananas, apples and grapes. People smiled and waved at us as we passed, and when we stopped people rushed forward to dance with us. But I also noticed Abdul Qawi and Ahmed exchanging strong words with a group of young Muslim men. When Ahmed saw me watching he smiled and waved as if to say, “We have it under control.” A huge crowd gathered, and I saw Hindus, Muslims and Farsis all with big smiles on their faces.
We chanted and danced for several hours and then got back in our vans to return to the temple.
“Can’t we chant longer?” one of the devotees asked me.
“No we can’t,” I replied. “Abdul Qawi and Ahmed have to go to work.”
The devotee looked back at me with a blank face. “Who?”
“I’ll explain later,” I said with a smile. “Besides, all of you have to rest up for the festival tonight.”
“Victory! Victory! Victory! I behold something wonderful! All the inauspiciousness of the living entities is destroyed. No one is going to hell.
Yamaraja has no more work to do and the effects of Kali-yuga have ceased to exist. This is because all over the world an increasing number of Lord Visnu’s devotees are singing His names while dancing and playing musical instruments.”
[Divya-prabandha, Tiruvaymoli 5.2.1 by Nammalvar, one of the twelve great Vaisnava saints from South India. He appeared in 3102 BC.]
A Thousand Lectures on the Absolute Truth
August 8, 2014
It was a week after the Sadhu Sanga Retreat in North Carolina last May, and I was in Los Angeles waiting to board a flight to London and then on to Warsaw, when an older gentleman walked up to me. He looked at my sannyasa robes. “You must be a Hare Krishna,” he said with a strong Polish accent.
“Well yes,” I replied, “I am.”
“Where are you going?” he said.
“Actually,” I said, “I’m off to Poland.”
“Is it your first trip there?” he asked.
“Well, no … ”
“Hare Krsna is a famous religion in my county,” he said, interrupting me with a smile.
“Oh really?” I said feigning ignorance.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “They have wonderful festivals.” Then he walked back to his place in line.
“Well now,” I thought, “if that’s not one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me… It’s the result of pushing on our festival program along the Baltic Sea Coast for the last twenty years.”
At the airport in Warsaw the next day, the woman behind the immigration window looked up at me with a big smile. “O Guru,” she said. “Festival of India. Welcome.”
“They almost never smile,” I thought. “And to be addressed as Guru, well, that’s something really rare.”
“Officer,” I said as she stamped my passport, “have you been to one of our festivals?”
“Four” she replied. Then her face took on an official expression. “You may proceed now.”
“Two auspicious omens,” I thought as I walked down to the baggage carousel. “First the man at the airport in Los Angeles and now the immigration officer. It’s got to mean a good start for our twentieth-anniversary summer tour.”
I reached my apartment in Warsaw an hour later. I started to repack my bags but fell asleep and didn’t wake up till the next morning, just in time to rush back to the airport and catch a flight up north to the Baltic Sea Coast. A disciple drove me to the site of our first festival, where the devotees were putting the finishing touches on the exhibits. And just an hour later I was on stage delivering a talk to seven hundred people. As I walked down off the stage I stopped a devotee passing by. “I feel so satisfied,” I said. “And you know, I don’t think I could count the number of times I have given that talk over the last twenty years.”
“Oh I could,” he said with a smile. “A thousand times.”
“A thousand times?” I said. “How do you get that?”
“Well,” he said, “we do about fifty festivals each summer. Multiply that by twenty years and you get a thousand lectures on the absolute truth.” He started to chuckle. “Hey, you know what?” he said. “That would make a great title for one of your diary chapters—A Thousand Lectures on the Absolute Truth.”
The next day I woke up exhausted. “Twenty years of festivals has taken its toll on me,” I said to a devotee as I struggled to crawl out of my sleeping bag. “I’m sixty-five now.”
“My dad’s the same age as you Maharaja,” he said. “The other day he told me that the sixties are the youth of old age.”
“That helps a little,” I said.
My heart was beating in anticipation as the vans and buses pulled away from the base that morning, taking the devotees on harinam to advertise the next festival. As we drove along I remembered the words of my godsister Sitala Dasi. Some months earlier we had reminisced about the first time I went on harinam. It was in 1971, just after I had moved into the temple in Detroit. After a few hours of singing on the streets and selling Back to Godhead magazines, we were all in a van driving back to the temple. Sitala turned to me. “So,” she said, “how did you like your first day on harinam?”
“I could do this for the rest of my life,” I replied.
And indeed I have. I am indebted to my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, who encouraged his disciples to share Krsna consciousness with the whole world through the chanting of the holy names. I could never give it up.
The great devotee Prahlada Maharaja once spoke the following words: “My dear Lord, O Supreme Personality of Godhead, because of my association with material desires, one after another, I was gradually falling into a blind well full of snakes, following the general populace. But Your servant Narada Muni kindly accepted me as his disciple and instructed me how to achieve this transcendental position. Therefore my first duty is to serve him. How could I leave his service?” [ SB 7.9.28 ]
Upon reaching the town we all jumped out of the buses and vans. The sun had just dissipated a chilly fog, and devotees were taking off their sweaters and coats when a man walked up to us. “Welcome to our town!” he said. “Everyone knows that whenever you people come with your mantra the clouds run away and the sun shines.”
“Just see!” he said looking up at the sky as the last bit of fog disappeared and the sun shone brightly.
Within moments we had crossed through the town and descended on the beach, which had quickly filled up with people as soon as the sun came out. As we were taking off our shoes to walk barefoot in the sand a young man in his late twenties approached me.
“The priest was talking about you people in his sermon last Sunday,” he began.
“Oh no,” I thought. “Here it comes. And just when everything was going so well.”
“He told us you were coming soon,” he said.
I braced myself for some harsh words.
“He told us not to be afraid of you,” the young man continued. “He said that that you worship the same God as we do, but you call him by a different name: Krishna. He encouraged us to attend your festival and learn more about your religion. He said we should each try to be as good a follower of Christ, as you people are of Krishna.”
I was dumbstruck hearing these words after decades of harassment and abuse from the local priests. After a few seconds I managed to speak. “Yes,” I said, “please come. And offer your priest my deepest respect and admiration.”
“I never imagined it would come to this point,” I thought, “at least not in my lifetime.”
I remembered Nelson Mandela’s words in 1996 at our Festival for the Children of the Rainbow Nation in Durban. I was standing next to him when a reporter asked him about his long struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa. “It always seems impossible,” Mandela said, “until it’s done.”
My thoughts came back to the present. “Of course,” I thought, “we still have a long way to go in establishing Krsna consciousness in this country, but now we’ve got our foot in the door.”
As we started chanting and dancing down the beach giving out invitations, I noticed a mother grabbing her young daughter and pulling her to her side. “Don’t be afraid, darling,” the mother said. “They won’t kidnap you. They’re just collecting money for the poor people in India.” Her words brought a smile to my face.
Then I noticed a group of devotee women sitting in the sand some distance away. I called another devotee over. “Please go and tell those matajis not to sit down now,” I said. “We have a lot of invitations to pass out. Tell them to help with the distribution.”
The devotee ran over to the women. After a minute he returned. “Maharaja,” he said chuckling. “They’re not devotees. They won the saris in the dance competition at the festival last night. They’re proudly wearing them around town and on the beach.”
The hours went by as we chanted and danced among the throngs of people on the beach. Often we would stop, and when a crowd gathered I would give a short lecture and invite people to the festival that evening. One time, we started down the beach with an especially loud and enthusiastic kirtan while people followed and danced alongside us. Suddenly a woman came running up to me. “Please stop!” she said. “My baby is asleep. It’s her afternoon nap. If she wakes up she’ll be very upset.”
“Maharaja,” said a devotee smiling, “we can’t stop the kirtan for one baby. Anyway, if the baby wakes up hearing the holy names she’ll get mercy.”
“And the people will think ill of us,” I replied. “Stop the kirtan!” I yelled.
Most of the devotees had not seen the woman and were surprised that I ordered the blissful kirtan to stop.
“Keep walking!” I shouted.
We walked in total silence for a good twenty meters. “OK!” I shouted. “Kirtan!” The devotees began chanting enthusiastically.
Then I heard a man talking to his wife. “These people have etiquette,” he said. “They are ladies and gentleman. They took care not to wake up the child. Take one of their invitations, dear. We’re going to their festival.”
The devotee who had objected to stopping the kirtan also heard the man. I winked at him.
After all the invitations had been passed out, I took the kirtan through town on the way to the festival site. As we stopped at a red light, a taxi drove by. The driver put his head out the window and shouted out the name of one of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
“Yes!” he yelled. “Teachings of Queen Kunti! Yes!”
That evening thousands of people passed through our festival site. Again I found myself on stage sharing the truths of the Bhagavad Gita. When I saw that people were not catching a point, I would illustrate it with an anecdote. When they caught the point and their faces lit up, I felt as if I’d achieved a great victory.
As I walked around the festival grounds that evening, a woman came up to me. “Good evening,” she said. “Are you the wise man everyone is talking about?”
“No,” I said. “I’m his servant.” I put a Bhagavad Gita in her hand. “Here is one of the books he wrote,” I continued. “You will get great satisfaction from reading it.” She bought the book.
A young man standing nearby spoke up. “Is that the Bhagavad Gita?” he said.
“Yes, it is,” I replied.
“I want one too,” he said.
“Wow!” I thought. “This is my lucky day… No, it’s not just a lucky day. It’s often like this out here on the preaching field. Every sankirtan devotee experiences these special moments.”
“Last year,” the young man continued, “I went to Woodstock and met you people there. I went to the Questions and Answers tent and listened attentively. Suddenly I had all the answers to the questions of life that I had been asking. It was as if a light had been turned on. Seriously. I wanted to buy the book that the speaker was quoting from, the Bhagavad Gita, but I had no money. I have been waiting all year to buy the Bhagavad Gita. I was so surprised to find you people in town today. In fact I just walked into this festival by chance.”
“Nothing happens by chance,” I said, “especially in spiritual life.” I picked up a Bhagavad Gita from a table nearby and handed to him. He smiled as he gave a generous donation.
A couple of hours later I was heading to the stage for the final kirtan when Nandini Dasi came up to me. “Srila Gurudeva,” she said, “do you remember Rewal, the town where they canceled our festival many years ago when the priest objected to it? They actually asked us to leave town.”
“Yes,” I said, “of course I remember. The incident is seared in my memory.”
“Of course, years later they welcomed us back,” Nandini said, “but I thought you would appreciate the letter I received from the present Mayor of Rewal.”
She handed me the letter:
“Remembering our longing for lifetime cooperation in organizing the Festival of India in Rewal and surrounding towns, it is our pleasure to inform you that we will allow you to use all the locations you requested for this year’s events free of charge. Your festival is one of the most attractive and popular events of the year in our city, actually on the entire Baltic Sea coast. Each year it attracts thousands of local people and tourists hankering for the exotic and cultural experience you present so well. We are confident that this year our cooperation will be smooth and harmonious, as it has been for several decades.
“If you have any specific needs we will be happy to attend to them. Please just contact us at city hall.
“The Mayor of Rewal”
“How happy Srila Prabhupada would be to hear this message,” I thought. “But in fact he must know. This event could not have gone on for so many years without his blessings.”
The kirtan that evening was wonderful. I noticed many people I had seen on the beach that afternoon chanting and dancing with us. When the music stopped and the lights went down I started walking back to my van. Just as I was about to open the door a family of four came up to me. The wife and two daughters were dressed in beautiful saris they had won during the competition at the last kirtan. “Please can you sign our Bhagavad Gita,” the man said. “We’d be very grateful.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Is this your first Hare Krsna festival?” I asked as I started to sign the book.
“Yes,” the man replied. “It’s our first time.”
“What part of the festival did you enjoy the most?” I continued.
“Actually, we just arrived ten minutes ago,” the man said with a smile. “But the atmosphere here was so overwhelming, so gracious and loving, that we went straight to the book store as it was closing to buy this book to understand more about you people. We were able to join in the dancing for three minutes. We loved every second. My daughters memorized the whole song and can’t stop singing it.”
“Do you have a card?” the man continued. “We’d like to keep in touch. My wife and I feel we’re on to something deeply spiritual and satisfying.”
I handed him my card. “Another good sign,” I thought. “It’s going to be a great summer just like all the others we have spent chanting and dancing along this coast for the past twenty years.”
That night as I rolled out my sleeping bag, I thought about my reply to Sitala Dasi after my first harinam. “What to speak of this lifetime,” I thought as I drifted off to sleep, “I could go on distributing the nectar of the Holy Names forever if that would please my spiritual master, my eternal friend and guide.”
“O swan gliding in the lakes of the Vraja-vasis’ love, I wish that I may wander everywhere always chanting and drinking the nectar of Your names. Those most sweet names arise from the ocean of Gokula and spread the glories of Your infinitely varied dress and ways of acting. As I wander, behaving like a madman, may I distribute joy to everyone in all the worlds.”
[Narada Muni, Brhat Bhagavatamrta 1.7.143 ]
Forever Your Servant
August 18, 2014
Dear Srila Prabhupada,
Please accept my most humble obeisances in the dust of your lotus feet.
Once again, I stand before you on the annual occasion of your auspicious Vyasa Puja, the celebration of your appearance in this world. I take this opportunity each year to reflect on the great mercy you have bestowed upon me in the form of service to your mission. I am very happy to be a small part of your great legacy in fulfilling Lord Caitanya’s prophecy that His holy names would be heard in every town and village on this planet. I can report that beyond a doubt this is happening here in Poland, due in part to the festival program we have been maintaining for over 20 years.
The preaching you started nearly 50 years ago continues to grow and expand despite the rapid advancement of Kali Yuga portrayed in ominous headlines and photos of the world’s daily newspapers. This alone is proof of the blessings you received from your own guru maharaja, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur. Once, when some of your sannyasi godbrothers complained to your spiritual master that he was giving you – a householder at the time – too much attention, he shot back, “Don’t complain. In the end he will do everything!” And indeed it has come to pass.
No one can contest your achievements in establishing Krsna consciousness around the world: your books, the farms you began, the gurukula system you introduced, the scientific approach you established for preaching Krsna consciousness—the list goes on and on. But no less amazing in my eyes was your ability to deliver me. Before meeting you I fully embraced all the dreadful activities that characterize this horrible age. Once my father chastised me saying, “Son, you’re a misfit! There’s no place for you in society. I shudder to think what will become of you!” Srila Prabhupada, what he said was true; there was no place for me in material life. But by taking shelter of your lotus feet I was elevated to the topmost transcendental position of being your humble servant, a destination for which even the demigods surely aspire.
yatha kancanatam yati
kamsyam rasa vidhanatah
tatha diksa vidhanena
dvijatvam jayate nrnam
“As bell metal is turned to gold when mixed with mercury in an alchemical process, so one who is properly trained and initiated by a bona fide spiritual master immediately becomes a brahmana.”
[Sanatana Goswami, Hari-bhakti-vilasa 2.12]
I have a long way to go before I attain perfection, but by serving you I am confident I can attain the supreme destination. The seeds of such service were sown in my heart when you accepted me as your disciple in a letter to my temple president on December 10, 1971. In that letter you mentioned the specific service that I would eventually take up as my life and soul. You wrote:
“I am very glad to accept these students as my duly initiated disciples and their names shall be as follows; Brian Tibbitts: Indradyumna Das, Ilene Tibbitts: Krpamayi Dasi and Heidi Paeva: Hrisakti Dasi. These are all very nice boys and girls and I have very much appreciated their attitudes of devotion and surrender as displayed in their letters to me. … I very much approve of your enclosed brochure, and I am pleased by your festival plan for colleges all over the state. I have received intimation from Rupanuga of a very large festival he is planning for Central Park. His conjecture is very nice and I want that many such festivals should be held in every town and city. I am always thankful to Krishna that I have somehow got so many wonderful boys like yourself to assist me in this way.”
It is through the festival programs I help organize, Srila Prabhupada, that I have established my deepest link with you. My constant prayer is that these festivals will please you as they bring hundreds of thousands of people into contact with Krsna consciousness each year. By such service I hope to achieve the goal of pure devotional service to the Lord. Srila Prabhodananda Saraswati made it very clear that the awakening of pure love of God is entwined with service to the samkirtan movement:
yatha yatha gaura-padaravinde
vindeta bhaktim krta punya rasih
tatha tathotsarpati hrdy akasmat
“To the degree that we surrender to Lord Caitanya’s service, to that degree we gain qualification for the service to Radharani’s lotus feet in Vraja.”
(Caitanya-candramrta, verse 88)
Each year, the meaning of this verse becomes clearer to me, for whenever I work hard to spread Krsna consciousness a strong desire to visit Vrindavan awakens within my heart. Conversely, after spending time in the dhama an equally strong desire appears in my heart to spread the glories of the holy names far and wide. I am confident that one day I will become qualified to understand and serve the innermost desires of your heart. I must only remain loyal to you and continue to endeavor to share my good fortune with others.
param gopyam api snigdhe
sisye vacyam iti srutih
tac chruyatam maha bhaga
“The Vedas say that to a loyal disciple one may speak the confidential secret. Therefore, O most fortunate one, now please hear the glories of Goloka.”
[Brhad Bhagavatamrta, Part 2, Chapter 1, text 6]
Srila Prabhupada, I am very happy in my service to you. I harbor no doubts, misgivings or illusions about my position as your servant. I would do anything for you. If you ordered me to go to hell and preach, I’d jump on the first train spiraling down to that lake of fire, happily chanting the holy names all the while. If you instructed me to preach in heaven, I’d arrive in that celestial abode with no other interest than to serve your order. This is because I’ve already seen heaven and hell in my many years of service to you in this world, and I’ve concluded there is no shelter other than your lotus feet.
Some time ago I had a dream in which you were sitting with a number of my senior godbrothers including Tamal Krsna Goswami, Giriraj Swami, Radhanath Swami, Vaisesika Prabhu and others. I was observing the scene from some distance away. At one point you smiled and said to them, “So all of you are going back to Godhead.” I was dumbstruck by your mercy, while at the same time wishing I could be as fortunate as them.
Suddenly Giriraj Swami noticed me and, being the dear friend that he is, he pointed me out to you. “Srila Prabhupada,” he said, “Indradyumna Swami is sitting over there. Can he come too?” You turned and looked at me and with a smile said, “Yes, he’s a nice boy. He can also come.”
Of course it was only a dream. However, you once said that although dreams are illusions, “dreams of the spiritual master are very nice.” Srila Prabhupada, I’ve never known your words to be untrue. It is one of the reasons that I have full faith in you and that my desire to assist your mission in this world becomes stronger day by day. You once wrote to me that you felt your spiritual master was always “watching over and protecting you.” Please also watch over and protect me as I assist you with your service in this world. Then at a suitable time, when you see fit, please grant me eternal service to you in the transcendental abode.
Forever your servant,
Inspiring the Inspired
October 12, 2014
Our team of 300 devotees was exhausted. We had already done 24 festivals along the Baltic Sea coast plus a “Krsna’s Village of Peace” festival at Woodstock, and now we were faced with the blissful but daunting prospect of doing 24 more over the second half of the summer. But everyone took courage, knowing that the results of our efforts would far outweigh any austerities we encountered. The devotees needed some pepping up, I thought, so I shared with them something that has been one of my favorite sources of inspiration over the years. It was a letter Srila Prabhupada wrote to my godbrother Prabhavisnu das in 1973:
“I can understand that it is not an easy matter to travel extensively over long periods of time without proper food, rest, and sometimes it must be very cold there also, and still, because you are getting so much enjoyment, spiritual enjoyment, from it, it seems like play to you. That is advanced stage of spiritual life, never attained by even the greatest yogis and so-called jnanis. But let any man see our devotees working so hard for Krishna, then let anyone say that they are not better than any millions of so-called yogis and transcendentalists; that is my challenge! Because you are rightly understanding through your personal realization this philosophy of Krishna Consciousness, therefore in such a short time you have surpassed all the stages of yoga processes to come to the highest point of surrendering to Krishna. That I can very much appreciate; thank you very much for helping me in this way.”
[January 3, 1973]
I was hoping we could all share this inspiration with the festivalgoers, but ironically, it was they who became the source of inspiration while we became the receivers.
It began on the day of our first festival back on the Baltic Sea coast, when we turned our harinam around near the end of the beach. A woman called out to us: “Hey! Why are you turning back? There are more families further on down the beach. Why won’t you give them a chance to hear you sing and watch you dance? And how will they get an invitation to your festival?”
“Well thank you ma’am,” I thought. “Now wasn’t that just what we needed to hear to get us started again!” We turned back and continued down the beach.
After chanting on the beach, we made our way into town to the main street, crowded with tourists and locals. I was following behind the kirtan party when I felt a man behind me put his arm around my neck in a choke hold. All I could see were the tattoos on his sweaty arm.
“So you’re the festival guru, is it?” he said in broken English.
“Festival guru?” I said, squirming to get free.
“That’s right,” the man said. “We all know you. You’ve been coming for years.”
“You’re choking me,” I said. “I can’t breathe.”
He loosened his grip a bit. “Sorry ’bout that,” he said. “I just wanted to make it clear to my men that I’m the one protecting you this time.”
“Protecting me?” I said, feeling a bit nervous.
“That’s right,” he replied. “This is a bad town. Lots of muggings, robberies—even rape and murder. But I got your back, buddy.”
“Got my back?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said. “And I earned it.” He finally let me out of the headlock.
“See them guys over there?” he said.
I looked over at two men. One had a swollen eye and the other had blood running from his nose. It didn’t help me relax.
“Uh, yeah,” I said with a hard gulp.
“I fought with them,” he said. “I fought for the right to be your bodyguard the next few days.”
“Well, uh, that’s very nice of you,” I said.
“I’m the UFC champion for Europe,” he said, smiling.
“You mean you’re a cage fighter?” I asked. Now I was curious.
“That’s right,” he said. “Two years in a row. Nobody takes me down.”
“Is there some reason you are giving me this honor?” I asked. I was beginning to breathe easy.
“You people bring a peaceful atmosphere to the town,” he said. “Some color. Somehappiness. Me and my boys appreciate it. Changes the mood of the place, you know? And we always eat at your restaurant. Damn good food even if it’s vegetarian.”
“So you’ll come tonight?” I said.
“Tonight?” he said. “I’m by your side for the next 72 hours.”
“All right then,” I said. “Let’s catch up with the singing party.”
That evening, with the UFC champion by my side, I walked around the festival site checking whether everything was going smoothly. In the restaurant I saw a woman standing next to the glass counter where the take-outs were for sale. “This is a samosa,” she said to her friends. “And that is alu-patra. It’s made from potato and delicious spices. Over there is a sweet called burfi, made from milk. I recommend you try them all.”
“You seem to know our food very well,” I said to her, as her friends began buying.
“Yes, of course I do,” she replied. “I have come to least one of your events each summer since 1996. You might say I am addicted to your food. I also used to enjoy talking to one of your members while I ate. I don’t see him here this time.”
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Hari Caran,” she said.
I hesitated. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but he passed away two years ago.”
Tears came to her eyes and began rolling down her face. She seemed unable to say anything more. She took up the prasadam she had bought and walked out of the tent.
As we were about to leave, a young woman in her early twenties walked into the restaurant carrying a large bundle of red roses. She was dressed in brightly colored traditional Polish clothes, even a head scarf. She looked poor, and I noticed her open money purse was empty.
“Anyone for a rose?” she said. “Only five zloty.”
When no one showed even the slightest interest, she stood silently gazing at the prasadam behind the glass counter.
“She must be hungry,” I thought.
“Excuse me,” I said with a smile. “If you’re hungry, you can have all you want for asingle rose.”
Her eyes opened wide and her eyebrows went up. Her head tilted slightly. “Really?” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “As much as you want.”
She gave me a rose and began choosing her meal. She walked outside with a big smile on her face and sat down at one of the restaurant tables. The stage show had just begun, and I saw that she became absorbed in watching it as she ate. After an hour I sent her a fruit drink from the restaurant.
Later in the evening, she came up to me on her way out of the festival site. “Sir,” she said, “I came here to make money, but I feel like I’ve discovered something much more valuable. Thank you for noticing me and showing me some kindness.”
As I continued on my way I walked past a nearby tent, where a cooking demonstration was concluding. “That’s it, honey,” I heard an older woman say to her husband. “From this day on we are vegetarian. Not even fish or eggs.”
I wanted to see how the festival site looked from a distance, so I went outside the gate, where I noticed a live-butterfly exhibition next door. The woman selling tickets called me over.
“Why don’t you come in?” she said. I hesitated, but she smiled. “They’re God’s creatures too.”
“OK,” I said. “But only for two minutes.”
She brought me to the front of the line and ushered me inside. “Hey,” said a man in line, his eyebrows furrowed, his mouth bent in a frown. “There’s a line here, you know. And why doesn’t he have to pay like the rest of us?”
“When you do some good for the world like these people,” said the ticket seller, “then I’ll let you in free.”
Colorful and beautiful as the butterflies were, I was eager to return to the festival. As I entered the grounds, a middle-aged woman came up to me.
“I met you ten years ago to the day,” she said. “It was at a festival just like this, but somewhat smaller. When I showed an interest in the philosophy, you spent an hour speaking to me and convinced me to start chanting Hare Krsna on beads. You encouraged me by saying it was enough to chant one or two times around the beads each day. But I soon became attracted to the chanting and for the last 10 years I have been chanting 25 times around the beads each day. You also explained to me the importance of following the four rules. Since that day I have followed them strictly.
“You gave me a Bhagavad-gita. I have read it many times and memorized over 100 verses. I share the wisdom I have learned with whomever I meet, and as a result, a number of people in my town are also chanting and reading Bhagavad-gita. Some of us meet regularly and chant together. Except for those people, I don’t associate much with others. My dream is to go to Vrindavan before I die.
“In the Bhagavad-gita Krsna says that to be successful on this path one has to accept a spiritual teacher. For the past 10 years I have thought of you in this way, and today I want to ask if you will accept me as your disciple. I have many friends who will vouch for me.”
“It’s not possible,” said a young male devotee standing nearby. “The GBC have established a rigid procedure to test the aspiring candidate. And you have to take what’s called the bhakti sastri course, and then a test…”
“Be quiet,” I interrupted, and turned back to the woman. “Have your friends contact me. And you please write to me every four weeks for the next six months. I’ll check with our leadership and see if I can give you initiation some time this year.”
It was time for me to give my talk on the main stage. As I talked about the basics of Krsna consciousness, I saw many people listening attentively. A number of them nodded their heads in approval whenever I made a significant point. Then I thought about last Kartika, when I prayed with all my heart to Sri Sri Radha Govinda, the presiding deities in Jaipur, begging Them to empower my words so that I could convince others about Krsna consciousness. When I saw the audience’s response, I remembered Sri Sri Radha Govinda again and felt Their presence.
After my talk, there was a line of people waiting for me to sign the books they had bought. The first man in the line handed me his Bhagavad-gita.
“I want to make it very clear,” he said, “that I don’t accept a single thing you said during your 45-minute talk.”
I stopped signing and looked up. “Well, OK,” I said. “But then why are you buying this book?”
“Because you presented the subject so well,” he said, “that I’m afraid you’ll convince those who are skeptical of God’s existence that He actually exists and that scientific arguments to the contrary are not valid.”
“Are you a scientist?” I asked.
“Yes, I am,” he replied, “and a well-known one too. I plan to study this book cover-to- cover to learn all your arguments.”
“Fine,” I said. “Maybe in the process you’ll become convinced of the existence of God.”
“That will never happen,” he said, but he gave me a smile as he walked off holding the book tightly under his arm.
Next in line was a family: grandparents, parents, and children. “We just want you to know how much we appreciate your festivals,” said the grandfather. He pointed to the young woman in the family. “This is my daughter Kinga, and these are her two children. She was 10 when we first met you all. Now she is 24. We have enough money to fly anywhere in the world for our vacations, but she insists we come here to the Baltic Sea Coast each summer to be part of your event. Last year we all became vegetarian, and now we read the Bhagavad-gita together every evening. We are in touch with devotees on the internet.”
Another woman handed me a photo album along with her Bhagavad-gita. The album contained photos of our festivals from every summer of the past 15 years. Next to each photo was the invitation we distributed that particular summer.
“We keep track of our happiness,” the lady said with a smile.
As the festival closed that evening, I felt a sense of deep satisfaction, knowing that thousands of people from all walks of life—young children, elderly couples, UFC champions, flower girls, and atheists—had had the chance to experience the wonderful world of Krsna consciousness. I began to wonder if I hadn’t even received more inspiration than I had given.
“If things continue like this,” I thought, “one day the whole world will be inundated by love of God. It’s not impossible. The saints have predicted it”:
“In every home throughout the world there is a tumult of hari-samkirtan. On every body are tears, hairs standing erect, and other symptoms of ecstasy. In every heart is the most exalted and sweet spiritual path that leads far away from the path of the four Vedas. All this has appeared now that Lord Gaura has descended to this world.”
[Srila Prabhodananda Sarasvati, Sri Caitanya-candramrta, text 114]
Our Happy Summer Days
August 17, 2015
After a month of harinams and festivals and a mammoth three-day Woodstock festival, our tour devotees were exhausted. When I mentioned during a meeting that we had seventeen more festivals to go, I saw many devotees catch their breath and roll their eyes upward. “It’s our duty,” I said. “We can’t give up, we can’t give in. We’ve inherited a tradition that goes back five hundred years. Many great devotees have served selflessly for this very moment that we are living: when the holy names of Lord Krishna are being broadcast all over the world. We have to push on for this next month. So much can be achieved.”
There was a loud roar of approval. I felt proud of the devotees. They understood the responsibility we had and the mercy we could deliver. They were ready to push on despite their fatigue.
Krsna’s Village of Peace had been an astounding success at the Woodstock Festival in July, and whatever follows a large memorable event is usually anti-climactic, but not so with our festival tour. The smaller festivals afterwards along the Baltic Sea coast were no less remarkable.
While advertising our first post-Woodstock festival with a melodious and colorful harinam, I was stopped by a middle-aged couple just before we got to the beach. “We don’t want to take your valuable time,” the man said, “but we just wanted to thank you for bringing your festival back to our town this year.”
“It really is the highlight of our summer,” his wife added.
“You all look a bit tired,” the man said. “Must be because of your hard work at Woodstock.”
“How did you know we were at Woodstock?” I asked. They looked like middle-class people, not the kind who would go to Woodstock or even be interested in it.
“Your big chariot was on the evening news,” the man said. “It looked like hundreds of you were singing and dancing alongside it.”
“Really?” I said. “I didn’t know.” I felt so happy I almost started laughing.
When we reached the sand, we all stopped to take off our shoes. A few meters away, I heard a father and his young daughter talking as they looked at one of our festival posters.
“Daddy,” the girl said, “what is reincarnation?”
I saw the man look again at the poster. I knew there was no mention of reincarnation on it. “Tell me, Daddy,” the girl said again, “what is reincarnation?”
“Well,” he mumbled, “ummm… you see… uh… Let’s go get some ice cream, shall we, darling?” He took her hand, and they started walking away. She looked back at us. “Daddy,” she said, “what is karma?”
As they disappeared into the throng of beachgoers, a woman rushed toward us.
“Are you going to sing?” she asked.
“Yes, we are,” I said.
“Oh, wonderful!” she said. “Do you sell CDs of your singing on the beach?”
“Well, not exactly of our singing on the beach, but we have CDs of our singing in our centers.”
“No,” she said. “I am looking for a CD of your singing on the beach.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I have been hearing you sing on this beach every summer since I was a little girl,” she said. “It has always been a memorable part of my summer vacation. Now I have my own children and they also enjoy it. We want a CD of your singing on the beach so we can remember our happy summer days all year.”
Soon we were chanting and dancing down the beach while a number of devotees passed out invitations. Twenty minutes into the kirtan, three older couples approached us.
“Can we help distribute the invitations?” a man said.
“Well, sure,” I said. “Why not?”
A devotee pulled a large stack of invitations out of her bag, and the couples began giving them out with big smiles. One of the women walked beside me for a few minutes, and as she handed an invitation to a young mother and her children, she turned to me. “It would be sad if people didn’t get the opportunity to see your fine show,” she said. “We’ve seen it every summer for the last three years.”
A little further along the beach, a young man selling popcorn started making fun of our singing. He chanted the Hare Krsna mantra going between falsetto and low tones to make people laugh. I tried to move him along, but it was obvious he was enjoying the attention he got mimicking us. He followed us for an hour and a half, chanting Krsna’s name a thousand times, albeit in jest. At one point he even began dancing. Because he was in front of the kirtan party people thought he was one of us and asked him where and what time the festival was. I decided to stop trying to intervene because he began speaking respectfully. “The festival is just off the beach over there,” he said. “It starts at 5:30 pm. Be on time. You don’t want to miss it.”
I smiled and remembered a verse by Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya:
sankirtanarambha krte pi gaure
dhavanti jiva sravane gunani
asuddha cittah kim u suddha cittah
srutva pramattah khalu te nanartuh
“When the Golden Lord’s congregational chanting of the holy names had only just begun, the transcendental qualities of the name cleansed the ears of the living entities. Thus, astonishingly, those of impure mentality became pure in mind, and as they continued to hear, became intoxicated and began to dance.” (Susloka-Satakam, Text 32)
During our two-hour harinam, we covered the whole beach and gave out over seven thousand invitations. Towards the end of the kirtan, a rough-looking young man rushed in front of the kirtan party.
“Shut up!” he screamed. “Shut up! Just shut up and get off this beach!” He shouted at us again and again, his speech peppered with obscenities. When he took a swing at one of the boys playing mridanga, our security men jumped on him. After a short tussle, he was pinned to the ground, his face in the sand. I could see he was going to have a big black eye soon.
“Let me up!” he screamed. A crowd had gathered to watch the harinam, and some of the people shook their heads as if telling us not to let him up. One of the security men held him still for another minute or two until he calmed down.
“OK,” he said. “Hare Krishna. Now let me up.”
The security man holding him loosened his grip. “No!” I called out to him. “Not just yet!”
“Hare Krishna!” the boy yelled. “Hare Krishna! Krishna Krishna Hare Hare! Please let me go!”
The security man looked at me. “Not yet,” I said with a smile.
“Hare Krishna!” he screamed. “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! And Hare Rama too!” Then he looked at me. “Please,” he said softly.
“OK,” I said. “Let him go.” He got up, brushed off the sand and walked away.
“Why did you wait so long to let him get up?” one of our boys asked.
I smiled. “It says in sastra:
eka hari name yata papa hare
kono paper sadhya nai tato papa kare
“‘One recitation of the Hare Krsna mantra is so powerful that unlimited sinful reactions in the heart are immediately removed.’ That was the most important moment of that boy’s life because he was chanting. I thought we should let him chant as much as he could.”
By the time we returned to the festival site it was almost time for the program to begin. The crowd got larger and larger, and I saw a woman who had been the mayor of the town many years ago. She was a good friend of ours.
“So nice to see you again,” I said.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she said.
“You still remember us after all these years?”
“How could I forget you?” she said. “My daughter and I often wear the beautiful saris you gave us. And this year we’ve brought my new grandchild to your festival for his first time. Just imagine! Three generations of followers. I guess it’s a tradition in our family now.”
After speaking to her for some time I wandered over to one of my favorite spots at the festival: the book tent. I was surprised to see a furious argument going on between a mother and her teenage daughter.
“Just buy the book for me, Mom!” screamed the girl. “Buy me a Bhagavad Gita!”
“But it’s not the Bible!” her mother shouted back.
“Mom, I don’t understand you,” the girl said, shaking her head. “I’ve been an atheist most of my life, and now finally after speaking to the Hare Krishnas I think there may actually be a God. I thought you’d be happy about that. How can you deny me the chance to read their book where they say God explains himself? Do you want me to continue being an atheist?”
The mother took a deep breath. “We’ll take one Bhagavad Gita, please,” she said to the devotee at the book table.
Another woman walked over to the book table. “I would like to purchase the Srimad Bhagavatam,” she said.
I turned to her. “Maybe you’d like to start with the Bhagavad Gita?” I said. “The Bhagavatam is more advanced.”
“No,” she replied. “It’s not for me. It’s for my son. I bought him a Bhagavad Gita twenty five years ago at your festival. He’s read it at least fifty times and he wants to move on to something deeper now. He even has a website where he teaches Bhagavad Gita As It Is.”
“Really?” I said.
“Oh yes,” she replied. “It’s very popular. He says it’s because he never says anything different than the author, Swami Prabhupada.”
“My thanks to him and to you,” I said.
Passing by the gift shop I saw a woman coming out clutching a CD to her chest.
“I am so grateful to him,” she said to me.
“To who?” I asked.
“To Mr. Das,” she replied. “I can’t say his whole name.”
She held up a CD by Bada Haridas Das. “I bought another one of his CDs last year at your festival. When my father passed away later that year the CD gave me some solace. It was the most difficult period in my life. I played that heavenly music day and night, and that man’s soft voice gave me the comfort I needed. And today I was so happy to find a second CD by him.”
A short while later I gave my talk from the stage. For me it’s the highlight of every festival because it is where I can share the wisdom of Krishna consciousness. The large crowd listened attentively, even while sitting in the summer heat. When I finished, a man was waiting for me as I came down from the stage.
“Great talk,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. “Whatever I know, I learned from my spiritual teacher.”
“My family and I have attended a number of your festivals over the years,” he said. “They’re special because all the entertainment has a message behind it. Most events these days have little meaning. Just today the hairs on my body stood on end several times during the singing at the beginning of the event.”
At the outdoor restaurant across the way, I suddenly saw the man who had had the tussle with our security men at the beach. He was sitting at a table eating a large plate of samosas and talking to a devotee. His eye was beginning to look badly bruised.
The devotee waved for me to come over. “Maharaja,” he said, “I’d like you meet Krzysztof. He’s had a hard life but he says things are changing now that he’s met us. He really likes the chanting.”
I smiled and pointed at the black eye. “That’s quite a shiner you’ve got there, Krzysztof.”
“Yeah,” he said with a little smile. “I got into some trouble earlier in the day.” As I walked away, he winked at me with his black eye.
The rest of the festival went on like this: one surprise after another. Actually, though, in one sense it’s not at all surprising: Our festivals are part of Lord Caitanya’s sankirtan movement and His business is turning sinners into saints. I again remembered the prophetic words of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya who envisioned the mercy of Lord Caitanya spreading all over the world:
“Out of His spontaneous compassion He restored all people back to consciousness, and through the means of His holy names enabled them to pass beyond the impassable ocean of the age of Kali, the age of quarrel. Thus news of the names of Krsna was told from person to person.”
[ Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka Satakam, text 46 ]
Touching the Feet of the Gods
September 23, 2015
Time passes quickly when you are doing something you love, and since the devotees love spreading Krsna consciousness, the summer flew by. Our schedule was intense—a festival every day—but the reward of seeing people smile and dance with us was enough to keep us going. And we got this reward every day.
One evening during harinam on the beach before the evening festival, an elderly woman came up to me. “I just love the way you people sing,” she said. “I can’t wait for the festival tonight.” We stood watching the devotees as they danced. The woman smiled a little smile. “I have a big desire in my heart,” she said. “I wish that all the people on this beach would jump up and start singing and dancing with you. Do you ever feel like that?”
“All the time,” I said.
“I have been watching you for many years,” she said. “I once read a book that explained that you are singing the names of God. Your singing is like a spiritual first-aid kit. People get cured of their awful ways.”
Farther on the beach another woman came running toward us. “It’s you!” she said, out of breath. “The Hare Krsnas! I found you!” She bent over to catch her breath, and then looked up with a smile. “No, actually you found me.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I was trying to decide where to go on vacation this summer,” she said, still out of breath, “but my co-workers told me not to go overseas. They said the weather in Poland was supposed be good this summer and that I should just come to the Baltic Sea coast. They said if I was lucky I might even run into the Hare Krsnas and be invited to your festival. Many of them have been to your festivals and they just raved about it. Are you having a festival here?”
“We sure are,” I said, handing her an invitation.
“Will there be samosas?” she asked.
“Oh? You already know about samosas?”
“Well, I’ve never actually had one,” she said. “But they are one of the things my friends told me about. They said I had to try one if I found you, and they asked me to bring some back to the office.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “We’ll have plenty of samosas. We make six hundred for every festival. We have a restaurant tent, and you’ll find them there.”
On our way back to the festival site we passed through the town. A man called out to me from a restaurant, “Hey Guru! Come here! I want to talk to you!”
I took the chance and walked over to the restaurant. The man took my hand and shook it vigorously. “Thank you,” he said. “My wife here said that if you shake hands with a guru you get lots of blessings. Thank you so much!”
“Um… no problem,” I said. “We’re having a festival this evening. Please come if you can. You’ll get lots of blessings there too.”
I was jogging to catch up with the harinama party when a woman rushed out of a store and ran up to me. “Stop!” she shouted. “Can you just stop for a minute! I want an answer from you, and I want it now. Why do you people only sing in this part of town? Why only here, huh?”
“This part of town?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“Oh don’t act like you don’t know,” she said, looking me in the eye, her clenched hands pushing on her hips. “Years ago you used to come and sing in the other part of town where my store is. We used to look forward to it all summer. Don’t you care about us on the other side of town anymore?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Answer me!” she demanded. “Why should the people in this part of town be the only ones who get to hear your singing?”
“Well,” I began, “we came here to chant because…”
“Look,” she said, cutting me off, “if you don’t turn around right now and come to my part of town, I’m going to tell all my friends and neighbors not to go to your festival.”
I called out to the kirtan party and waved for them to come back.
“You lead the way,” I said to her. We chanted behind her as she led us to her part of town, and we stayed for an hour, chanting and dancing. She waved to us from the doorway of her store as we left. “See you tonight!” she shouted with a huge smile.
Our detour had made us late for prasada. The devotees ate a hurried meal and began preparing for the festival. Half an hour or so before the festival was to begin, I saw a man, a woman and their young daughter sitting in the front row of benches.
I walked up to them. “It will be a little while before things get going,” I said.
“That’s OK,” the man said. “We could use a little break. We just drove up from Warsaw. Our daughter was adamant that we come.”
“Oh, I see,” I said. “So is this your first time with us?”
“No, no,” the woman replied. “We were at another one of your festivals earlier in the summer. But when we got home our seven-year-old daughter couldn’t stop talking about it. She loved everything: the singing, the dancing, the puppet shows, the make-up tent, the food. Everything. And day and night she insisted on wearing the sari she had won at the dance competition.”
“She was pestering us constantly to come back,” the man said. “She just wouldn’t stop. It was driving us crazy. So in the end I asked my boss for another week’s vacation. Fortunately he understood the situation. He had been to one of your festivals himself, so he agreed. I had to take money from my pension fund to pay for the trip.”
“So here we are,” the woman said with a laugh. “And we’ll be at every one of your events over the next week.”
Forty five minutes later as Bada Haridas began the first bhajan on the stage, a woman walked up to me. “I just wanted to thank you for all you’re doing,” she said. “I know you have very high principles.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You must have read some of our books then.”
“No, not yet,” she replied. “I was speaking with my neighbor about you last summer. Her son had become interested in your movement and was thinking of joining. My neighbor was concerned and went to our local priest for advice, but the priest told her not to worry. He said her son probably wouldn’t stay long because your principles are so high and your discipline is so strict. Then he said that if her son did decide to stay it would be all the better for him.”
Hungry from the day’s activities, I decided to go to our restaurant. Inside the tent, a young teenage girl carrying a plate of prasada came up to me. “I’ve always wanted to thank you for how you changed my life,” she said.
“Five years ago I came with my parents to your festival. I put on a sari in the fashion tent, and when I came out you were standing there. You said I looked like an angel. I was just a child then, but I was touched by your words, and I decided I should actually become like an angel. I started going to church more, and every night I prayed to God.
“Then last year I found a Bhagavad-gita in our house. My parents had bought it at your festival. I started reading it and found many instructions about how I could become the angel you saw in me. I even became a vegetarian and I started learning English so that if I ever met you again I could thank you and learn more about your way of life.”
“I… I hardly know what to say,” I replied. “I am so moved by your story. Let’s sit and talk for a while.”
We had been talking for about twenty minutes when a young man interrupted us. “Are you the leader here?” he asked. “Someone told me you’re in charge of the show.”
“Yes,” I said. “I do help manage things.”
“I have a question about the big chariot that you have parked in the middle of the field out there. Man, that thing is gigantic! One of your people told me that it gets pulled through the streets with long ropes on special days.”
“Yes, it does,” I said.
“Well, my question is this: Where do you keep the slaves who pull it?”
“Uh… Did you say ‘slaves’?” I asked.
“Yeah. I figure it must take between fifty and a hundred slaves to pull that massive cart down the street. Do you keep them locked up somewhere?”
I had to try hard to keep from laughing. “Actually we don’t use slaves,” I said. “We pull the chariot ourselves. It’s said that by pulling that chariot one makes spiritual advancement. Everyone is eager to pull the ropes.”
“So there aren’t any slaves?” he said.
“Nope,” I said. “No slaves.” He shook his head and wandered off into the theater tent to wait with the others for the show to start.
As he left, another man came up to me. “Can you sign this Bhagavad-gita?” he asked. “I just bought it.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’ve been attending your festivals each summer for fifteen years,” he said as I began writing. “But this time something just clicked, and I decided it was high time that I bought a book and went deeper into your philosophy.
Sorry it took me so long.”
I smiled. “Better late than never,” I said and handed the book back to him.
Then I saw a man dressed in a suit, wearing old-fashioned glasses and carrying a small briefcase. He looked like an old professor, and I could see that he wanted to talk to me. I excused myself from the young woman I had been talking to, and stood up to receive him.
“May I have a brief word with you?” he asked.
“Of course, sir,” I said. “I am at your service.”
“It’s only a quick question,” he said. “I just want to know when you will begin your lecture.”
I looked at my watch. “In about thirty-five minutes,” I said, “when the theater is over.”
“Very good,” he said. He turned to leave, but I called after him.
“Excuse me sir,” I said. “Is this your first time with us?”
“Oh no,” he said. “I have been attending your event for many years, as far back as I can remember. It’s been going on for twenty-eight years now, hasn’t it?”
A smile broke out on my face. “You have a great memory, sir,” I said. “Yes, it’s been exactly twenty-eight years.”
“Each time, though, I only come for one hour,” he said. “I come just to hear you speak. I write your words of wisdom down and try to imbibe them in my life throughout the year.” He opened his briefcase and showed me a notepad and pen. “I have become a much better person through the years and have gotten closer to the goal of life.”
“What do you mean when you say ‘the goal of life’?” I asked
“You know very well what that means,” he said with a smile.
When I was giving my talk from the stage that evening, I saw him on the last bench furiously writing. At the end of the lecture, I made my way over to where he had been sitting, but he had gone.
As I walked back toward my van, I saw a woman carrying an especially large plate of samosas. It was the woman I had met on the beach whose co-workers had told her to visit our festival. “Hey!” I called out. “I see you got your samosas!”
She turned toward me. “I can’t thank you enough!” she shouted back. “I love your festival! And my friends were right. These samosas are fantastic!”
“Everything about this festival is auspicious,” I thought. “I feel so fortunate to be an instrument in the hands of the Lord, delivering His message in such an attractive way.”
The last kirtan of the evening went on for about an hour. Everybody was dancing—children, parents, everybody. Afterwards, a middle-aged man came up to me, his eyes welling with tears, a gentle smile on his face. He stopped for a minute and took a deep breath. “Hearing you people sing,” he said, “is like touching the feet of the gods.”
“The people had fallen into the sinful life of this age of quarrel, being overwhelmed by grief and delusion, disturbed by anxiety to acquire money for family and relatives. Considering the situation, the Golden Lord took birth in order to protect them. Being very merciful, He made manifest His delightful form as the giver of His holy names.”
[Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, text 4]
The Singing Janitor
February 21, 2016
Whenever I come to Mumbai I stay at the home of my disciple Narottam Dasa Thakur Das and his wife Manjari Devi Dasi. Today, Narottam had come with me to the hospital for my PET scan, a checkup for any recurrence of the cancerous skin cells I had had surgically removed last year.
“I’m doubly nervous,” I said to Narottam as we sat in the waiting room. “What if the cancer comes back? I’ll have to go through another operation and all the rest.”
“We’re all praying for you,” said Narottam.
“And I’m nervous about the scan,” I said.
“Why?” asked Narottam. “Scans don’t hurt.”
“I know,” I said. “But it gives me the creeps when they lay me out on the table and roll me into that machine. It’s as if they were feeding me into the mouth of some big monster.”
I looked across the room and saw a janitor pushing a broom across the floor. “And just look at that guy over there,” I said. “He’s talking loudly to himself and laughing at his own jokes. It’s annoying, and it makes everything worse.”
“Maybe he’s a little crazy,” said Narottam.
“He’s not crazy,” said the man next to us. “I come here often and always see him. He’s just eccentric.”
The janitor strode past us, his thinnish frame dressed in a khaki-colored uniform, his brown eyes darting here and there. He was pushing his broom in wild motions, seemingly unaware of the patients in the room. I could see that others were disturbed by him too.
“Now he’s singing to himself,” I said to Narottam. “And off key at that.”
The man next to us laughed. “He keeps the place pretty clean, though,” he said. “And he means well.”
The receptionist behind the desk called out to the sweeper. “Mahesh! Deliver this package to Doctor Agarwal. He’s in room sixteen on the fourth floor.”
Mahesh’s broom made a loud clattering sound as he dropped it on the floor and hurried over to the desk. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said. “Right away, Ma’am.” His voice was high-pitched and reedy. As he walked toward the elevator he read out the address on the parcel in a loud voice. “Doctor Agarwal, room sixteen, fourth floor. Wow! A big package of stuff for the doctor!”
As the elevator doors closed, obscuring his grinning face, I breathed a sigh of relief. “Eccentric is an understatement,” I said to Narottam. “Anyway, it’s quiet at last.”
But just ten minutes later the elevator door opened and he was back. “Done!” he shouted. He hurried to pick up his broom and began sweeping again in the same big strokes, all the while singing in his shrill voice. The noise was oppressive, but I managed to doze off for a few minutes till I heard my name being called over the loudspeaker. I walked into the examination room, where I saw several nurses and, to my surprise, Mahesh busily organizing items in a medical cabinet. “Oh no,” I thought. “What’s he doing here?”
“Mahesh,” said one of the nurses over her shoulder, “could you kindly take this bag to Doctor Reynolds in room 404.” Mahesh didn’t say a word as he danced across the room to collect the bag. He opened the door with a theatrical flourish and disappeared down the hallway.
“While we are preparing the solution for your scan,” the nurse said to me, “please put on this hospital gown and then come and sit in this chair.” I went into another room to put on the gown, then came back.
“Ouch!” The nurse was sticking a needle into a vein on my wrist. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Mahesh had come back into the room. Suddenly, my chair began to slip under the pressure of my weight and knocked against the table where the nurse had all her equipment. A glass bottle teetered on the edge, and as she reached out to grab it, she accidentally yanked the needle out of my wrist.
“Mahesh!” she called, “Quick! Help!”
Mahesh dashed across the room, caught the bottle and put it back on the table. The nurse picked up the syringe, which was now in my lap. “Mahesh,” she said, “could you please hold this gentleman’s chair while I inject him.”
“Yes,” he said. He gripped the chair with both hands, a serious look on his face.
“Ouch!” The nurse found another vein. Mahesh leaned over and, to my surprise, began to speak in fluent English. “Sir,” he said, “this is a most auspicious day for me. Somehow by dint of my past pious activities, I have the good fortune to serve a sadhu. Such opportunities are rare.”
Then he quoted a verse from the Padma Purana:
visnor aradhanam param
tasmat parataram devi
“My dear goddess, of all types of worship, the worship of Lord Vishnu is the best, and even better than the worship of Lord Vishnu is the worship of His devotee, the Vaisnava.”
“What?” I said. “How do you know that verse?”
“I study sastra,” he replied softly, still gripping the chair.
“You’re a devotee of Krsna?” I asked.
“One day,” he said. “One day I hope to become a devotee of the Lord.”
“Are you from a family of Vaisnavas?”
“No,” he said. “I am an orphan. The devotees of the Lord are my family.”
Then he quoted a verse from the Bhagavad Gita:
kathayantas ca mam nityam
tusyanti ca ramanti ca
“The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are surrendered to Me, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss enlightening one another and conversing about Me.”
I suddenly realized that I had been so busy criticizing him that I hadn’t noticed his peaceful face and his moist, sparkling eyes.
“Sir,” Mahesh said, smiling slightly, “when I saw you in the reception room earlier, I knew in my heart that the Lord had sent you to give hope to all the unlucky people suffering in this place. Your presence alone brings joy.”
The nurse’s voice brought me back to the present. “The injection is done,” she said. “Please go to the next room to wait for your scan.”
“Sure,” I said. “But first let me ask Mahesh if –––” I turned back to him, but he had gone.
“Where did he go?” I asked the nurse.
“To sweep, probably,” she replied without looking up.
As I waited in the adjoining room, I felt a wave of guilt wash over me. “I misjudged that man,” I thought. “I was ridiculing him in my mind, but he is more of a devotee than I am. I’ve committed a serious offense. I’ll have to beg him to forgive me.”
Suddenly a sign flashed my name. It was my turn for the PET scan. A nurse welcomed me and helped me lie down on the scanning machine. “Stretch your arms over your head,” she said. “You need to lie completely still for a full ten minutes.” Although I had been nervous about the monster, I relaxed and slowly drifted off to sleep. I woke up when I felt someone touch my feet. I heard a voice singing softly: “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
I opened my eyes. It was Mahesh. “Mahesh,” I whispered, “I need to talk to you.”
But again he vanished as quickly as he had appeared. The scan ended and the sense of shame came over me again. “I’m just an offender,” I thought as I changed into my clothes. I followed the exit signs until I came to the reception room, now twice as crowded as before. I was signing some papers at the reception desk when I heard the high-pitched voice of Mahesh singing. I looked up and saw him dancing across the back of the room pushing his broom.
I rushed across the room. “Mahesh! Mahesh!” I called out. “I need to speak to you!” But before I could reach him, he had disappeared through a glass door. As he danced down the hallway to another part of the hospital, I fell on my knees and prayed for forgiveness:
vancha-kalpa-tarubhyas ca krpa-sindhubhya eva ca
patitanam pavanebhyo vaisnavebhyo namo namah
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto all the Vaisnava devotees of the Lord. They are just like desire trees who can fulfill the desires of everyone, and they are full of compassion for the fallen conditioned souls” [Sri Vaisnava-pranati].
As I stood up, I suddenly remembered that I was in a crowded waiting room. Everyone was staring at me.
“Let them stare,” I thought. “At the worst they’ll think I’m crazy; at the least they’ll think I’m eccentric. But I’ll know I am paying my respects to the wonderful Vaisnava I unexpectedly met today.”
Srila Prabhupada has written:
“Your complaint is that you have met two of my young disciples in California and they appeared to you as having ‘a very negative outlook towards the people they meet.’ Of course, I do not know the case, what are the circumstances, but kindly forgive my beloved disciples for any un-kindness or indiscretions on their part. After all, to give up one’s life completely for serving the Lord is not so easy thing. And maya, or the illusory material energy, she tries especially hard to try to get back and entrap those who have left her service to become devotees. So sometimes in the neophyte stage of devotional service, in order to withstand the attack of maya and remain strong under all conditions of temptation, young or inexperienced devotees will adopt an attitude against those things or persons possibly harmful, threatening to their tender devotional creeper. To come to that platform of understanding things as they are, that is not a very common thing, and therefore such persons who attain to it, they are described as ‘great souls.’”
[Srila Prabhupada letter to Lynne Ludwig, April 30, 1973]
The Light of the Soul
March 4, 2016
“Welcome home!” Mahavan dasa, a Russian disciple, greeted me as I came out of New Delhi’s slick new airport terminal, tired after my flight from Bangalore. Mahavan is my secretary when I travel in India. A brahmachari in his thirties, he wears saffron, shaves his head, and stuffs his bag with the latest gadgets—cell phones, iPads, ear buds, chargers.
“We’re not home yet,” I said. “I wish we were, but Vrindavan is still a good three hours away.”
“Well, let’s get there quickly,” he said. “The car is just over here.”
We began working our way through the crowd of people that were going into and coming out of the terminal when Mahavan suddenly pointed to an elderly man in soiled burgundy-colored robes in the midst of the throng. “Gurudeva,” Mahavan said, “look at that man. It looks like he’s asking people for help. I think he’s a beggar.”
“He’s not a beggar,” I said. “He’s a Buddhist monk from Tibet. It’s part of his tradition to approach others for alms. It helps the monks develop humility.”
“But he doesn’t have a begging bowl,” Mahavan said, “and he looks desperate.”
No one was giving the man anything. As we watched, a teenage boy shoved him aside. The monk covered his face with his hands and sat down on a bench. A moment later, an affluent-looking couple walked past, and he got up and approached them, but they too ignored him, and when he persisted the man shouted at him. The monk looked flustered. He sat back down on the bench and stared straight ahead, as if in contemplation. Despite his bedraggled condition, he appeared effulgent.
I was shocked at the way people were treating him. I felt it was my duty to help him, so I started to walk toward the bench when he noticed me and jumped up to hurry over and grab hold of my sleeve. “Please let me stay with you for a while,” he said in English. “I need the shelter of spiritual people.”
“Sure,” I said. “Why don’t we sit down?”
“Do you have the time?” he asked softly.
“For someone like you I have all the time in the world,” I said. We walked toward the bench he had been sitting on. He continued to hold onto my sleeve.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. “Can I get something for you to eat?”
“Thank you, no,” he replied. “I am not hungry.”
“Have you lost your way?” I asked. “Maybe I can help you get to your next destination.”
“Just a minute,” he said. He straightened his back and closed his eyes, assuming a meditative pose. As he slowly inhaled and exhaled, he became calm, serene, and composed.
“How in the world did he manage to find such peace right after being mistreated?” I wondered. The minutes passed, and I felt a wave of tranquility come over me as well. Finally he opened his eyes. He didn’t look directly at me, but stared into the distance as he told me his story.
“My name is Tsering Lama,” he said. “I come from the Sera Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet. I have lived there since I was five years old.”
“Wow!” I said. “How old are you now?”
“I am seventy years old.”
“And what service do you do in the monastery?” I asked.
“I study the scriptures,” he said. “Since my childhood I have studied the teachings of Master Lama Tsongkhapa who lived in the fourteenth century. He was the founder of the Gelug-pa School which I belong to, and a highly respected teacher of the Buddhist scriptures. My main service is to debate with others about the scriptures. It is an integral part of our tradition.”
“I am honored to meet such a learned scholar,” I said. “And I am sorry to see how people are treating you today.”
He shook his head, as if to suggest the mistreatment was of no concern or perhaps to dismiss my praise. “It has been my lifelong dream to visit Bodh Gaya,” he said. “It is the place where Buddha attained enlightenment. That holy site is here in India in the state of Bihar. Several months ago I said goodbye to my beloved disciples and set out on foot alone for Bodh Gaya.”
I wondered how many hundreds or even thousands of disciples such a man could have.
“When I arrived here in Delhi,” he continued, “two men invited me to spend the night at their home. I was exhausted from months of traveling, so I accepted their invitation. That night they fed me and gave me some tea to drink. The next thing I knew I was waking up on the sidewalk in a Delhi slum. It seems that the tea they gave me was laced with some drug that caused me to fall unconscious. I discovered that they had stolen everything I possessed: my clothes, my passport, my money, of course, and even my sacred chanting beads. I had been saving that money since my childhood for this pilgrimage, and suddenly it seemed impossible that I would make it to Bodh Gaya.
“Now I have nothing. I have been here at the airport for three days begging for money to complete my journey. Nobody has given me a single rupee, most likely because I look so dirty and disheveled.”
I took his hand. “I will help you,” I said.
“No, no,” he said. “I will not take money from a holy man like you.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “I am not holy yet. I’m trying, but I’m just a beginner, really. I have a long way to go. Believe me, you can safely accept some money from me.”
“What you say in humility is not true,” he said soberly. “I studied your face. I can see your true self through your eyes.”
“You can see me through my eyes?” I asked.
“Yes” he replied. “I have learned this from our Tibetan masters.” He looked straight into my eyes with a steady stare. Feeling uncomfortable, I looked away, but he caught my chin with his hand and turned my head toward him so he could study my face. His small hand had a powerful grip.
I also looked at his face. His dark brown eyes peered out from slanted eyelids that curved upward at the outer corners, reminding me of Tibetan art. He had a small flattish nose, and his thin lips, though fixed in a determined line, seemed to be slightly, almost imperceptibly, smiling. He obviously had not shaved for some days, and his golden skin bore a few small scars. He seemed to glow with a radiance that I could feel more than see, and the softly pungent fragrance of Tibetan incense still hovered about his stained, travel-weary clothes. Though his head barely came up to my nose, I had the feeling that I was standing in front of someone large and powerful, someone who could knock me over with the flick of a finger.
After some minutes he spoke. “You have served your master well in this life.”
“Well, I have done some service,” I said. “Like I said, I’m trying, but…”
“You have spread his glories through the written word, through discourses, and through festivals that you hold in distant lands.”
“Distant lands?” I thought. “How could a Tibetan monk know about the festivals in Poland?”
“But your service was interrupted last year by disease,” he said.
“Well, yes. I had a bout with cancer and…”
“In March,” he said.
I caught my breath. “Yes,” I said. “Yes. You are exactly right. It was in March of last year.”
“And there is more disease to come,” he said.
“Oh really?” I said. I could hear the disappointment in my own voice.
“But don’t worry,” he said. “I will help you.”
He got off the bench and sat down on the ground in a full yoga asana. He closed his eyes once more and quickly seemed to be transported to another plane. After a few minutes his eyebrows furrowed in the intensity of his meditation and his lips moved as he chanted mantras in the Tibetan language.
People stopped to stare at the unusual sight: a sannyasi sitting on a bench and a Buddhist monk meditating on the ground next to him. They looked at me as if asking for an explanation, but I had none. I could only sit silently while he offered prayers on my behalf.
Twenty minutes later he opened his eyes and turned to me. “I have removed the obstacles,” he said. “You will live a long life in service to your master.”
“Well, gosh,” I said. “Thanks so much.” I got up and helped him back onto the bench.
“Compassion is central to the teachings of Buddha,” he said.
“I know that,” I said. “But why are you being so kind to a stranger like me?”
“We are not strangers,” he said. “I am returning a favor you offered me several lifetimes ago.”
I felt the hair on my arms stand up.
“You mean… Are you saying we were together in a previous…?”
“Some things are better left unsaid,” he replied. “And I must go. I must try to fulfill my dream.”
“Wait,” I said. “Wait a minute. I want to help you.”
“No,” he said. “As I already told you, I would not accept money from you. You are using it to help people less fortunate than yourself.”
“But wait,” I said. “How do you know how I use money? We’ve only just met.”
“As I told you,” he said, “the eyes show the light of the soul.”
He turned and started walking away toward the terminal.
“No!” I said running after him. “I won’t let you be mistreated by those people again. Please take this donation. It’s enough to get you to Bodh Gaya and back to Tibet by train.” I pushed some bills into his hand.
He looked at the money for a long time. When he looked up his eyes were moist.
“I will accept your kindness,” he said slowly. “And I will not forget you.”
He started walking away again, but then stopped and turned back.
“We won’t meet again in this lifetime,” he said. “But I will leave you a special gift in the monastery in Lhasa. When you arrive, mention my name. The monks will direct you.” He took a small piece of paper from the sleeve of his robe and wrote down the address of the monastery. I felt goose bumps erupt on my body.
“Please make sure you go there,” he said. “What I am leaving for you will be a great asset in service to your master.”
“Do you mean money?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” he said. “Nothing like that. It is something more wonderful than anything money could ever buy. You will not be disappointed.” With that he disappeared into the crowded metro station.
I turned to Mahavan. “What just happened? Was that a dream?”
“No,” he said, looking as astounded as I felt. “I saw it with my own eyes. Will you actually go to Lhasa?”
“Yes, of course I will,” I replied. “I’ve always wanted to go to Tibet. And now I have the best reason ever: to increase my service to my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada.”
“Can I go with you?” Mahavan said.
“You must come,” I said, “just to remind me that I’m not dreaming when we discover what the monk has left us. And to confirm that service to a great soul never goes in vain.”
“One can attain the path of liberation from material bondage only by rendering service to highly advanced spiritual personalities. These personalities are impersonalists and devotees. Whether one wants to merge into the Lord’s existence or wants to associate with the Personality of Godhead, one should render service to the mahatmas. For those who are not interested in such activities, who associate with people fond of women and sex, the path to hell is wide open. The mahatmas are equipoised. They do not see any difference between one living entity and another. They are very peaceful and are fully engaged in devotional service. They are devoid of anger, and they work for the benefit of everyone. They do not behave in any abominable way. Such people are known as mahatmas.”
[ Srimad Bhagavatam 5.5.2 ]
I Could Do This Forever
I settled into the science classroom in the school that would once again be our base for our summer festival tour. The walls were crowded with test tubes, microscopes and colored bottles filled with liquid. Guru Kripa das laughed out loud as he looked around the room.
“Gurudeva, you’ve stayed in this room for three months every summer for last fifteen years. That means you’ve lived in this science lab for a total of four years! Have you ever noticed the monkey brain in the jar of formaldehyde?”
“Well, yes I have,” I said. “But I try not to look. Srila Prabhupada once said that sometimes a preacher lives in a palace and sometimes in a simple hut. But he never mentioned a science lab!”
The next morning we held a meeting with the 250 devotees who had joined us for the summer tour. There were many new faces; a number of the veterans from previous tours had not returned this year, either because they had to work, were recently married or had other responsibilities. Scanning the crowd, I suddenly realized I was the only devotee present who had been on the first Polish tour twenty six years ago.
I welcomed the devotees and gave a talk requesting them to give everything to Lord Caitanya’s sankirtan movement for the next three months. The tour, I explained, is a unique kind of festival within Srila Prabhupada’s movement. Temple festivals provide devotees with the opportunity to enjoy kirtan, katha and prasadam, but our festival program is specifically for non-devotees. Our job is to work in the background in order to give them the chance to experience the kirtan, classes and prasadam that we enjoy. It means a lot of self-sacrifice on the part of the team, but the reward is seeing others happily experiencing Krsna consciousness for the first time.
“Our festival is part of the sankirtan movement,” I concluded, “and thus it is part of the modern day pastimes of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. His movement did not conclude when He left this planet. He Himself predicted that the holy names of Krishna would one day be heard in every town and village of the world. That being the case, we should look for present day miracles happening in our midst. This will help us to remain inspired during our three-month sacrifice.”
“Do you mean miracles like seeing our guests walking on water?” one devotee asked.
“Not miracles like that,” I replied with a smile. “Just look for a change of heart in people when they come to our festival. That’s the real miracle. To have a genuine spiritual experience is no ordinary thing in the age of Kali!”
The devotees didn’t have to wait long to see such changes of heart. The next day, within minutes of our harinam party entering the crowded beach to advertise our first festival, a gentleman began enthusiastically taking photos of us. That he was taking photos wasn’t unusual in and of itself; what was unusual was that he didn’t stop. He continued following us for forty five minutes, shooting frame after frame of the brightly dressed matajis, the mrdanga players and the synchronized devotee dancers. Finally I walked over to him.
“Sir, why so many photos?” I asked.
“My daughter recently started practicing your faith,” he said, still shooting away. “She has been trying to explain it to me. I wasn’t very understanding of her choice and so she was becoming quite upset with me. When I saw you all – so many people who are obviously from different countries and backgrounds – singing and dancing happily in unison down the street I was convinced there could be nothing wrong with your movement after all. So I am taking all these photos to send to her to show my approval.” He shook my hand and waved as we continued on.
A few minutes further down the beach, a lady jumped up from her towel and came over to me.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” she said. “We are so happy to see you! Each year when you people come to town it means summer has finally arrived!”
That evening the crowds flooded into our festival grounds. I watched, spellbound; even after twenty six years, the sight still amazed me.
As I watched some festival goers settled down to enjoy the continuous stage show, while others milled around the restaurant, the shops, the book stalls, the yoga classes, the face painting, and the many other attractions.
“These are the most precious moments of my life,” I thought, as I began my customary walk around the festival site, Guru Kripa and Mathuranath by my side. “So much endeavor goes into collecting for and planning these events, but when I see so many hundreds and thousands people enjoying Krsna consciousness I feel full satisfaction.”
As I was walking, I noticed a woman in her twenties with a sad look on her face standing at the perimeter of the festival. She was holding a big basket of flowers.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I’ve been trying to sell these roses for nine hours,” she said. “I’m hungry and tired and I’ve only sold two. My boss is going to kill me. And while I’m feeling bad, all the people at your festival are having a great time. I just wish I could come in, but I can’t. I really depend on this job, and I can’t afford not to sell the flowers.”
“How much do they cost?” I asked.
“They’re two zlotys each,” she said.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” I said. “I’ll buy the whole basket if you promise to come to the festival and stay until the very end.”
There was a long pause. She regarded me with wide-eyed amazement.
“Really?” she said at last. “You’re not joking?”
“Not at all,” I replied. “I can ask someone to take you to the fashion booth where you can put on a sari for the evening. Then you can have your face painted with beautiful flowers and you can go to the restaurant and eat for free. And then you can just sit in the front row and watch the show.”
Her eyes filled with tears as I pulled out 100 zlotys, took all the flowers, and handed them to Mathuranath.
“The pujaris were looking for some nice flowers for the deities this afternoon. We can give these roses to them.”
One of the lady devotees took the flower girl towards the stalls. Guru Kripa turned to me.
“Gurudeva,” he said, “this festival is free, but you just paid that girl to come. It’s so unusual.”
“There’s a saying in Sanskrit,” I said. ‘Phalena pariciyate’. It means ‘judge something by the result.’ Let’s see how she’s doing at the end of the festival.”
I continued my walk around the festival site. On the stage, our new theatrical performance “Vrindavan” was in full swing, the audience mesmerized by the performance of the thirty two actors. Meanwhile, all sixteen tents that bordered the festival area were full of people soaking up the various aspects of Vedic culture on display. In the book tent, people were browsing through Srila Prabhupada’s books and asking the devotees behind the counter questions. I saw an elderly woman concluding her purchase of Bhagavad-Gita at the cash register.
“It’s a wonderful book,” I said to her.
“Oh yes, I know,” she said. “I’ve read this edition several times. I come to your festival every year and purchase four or five copies.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, I am 85 years old and lots of my friends are beginning to pass away,” she said. “When each one does, I give a Bhagavad-Gita to their relatives so they can understand what death actually is and that the soul is reborn.”
“Now that’s a little miracle,” I thought to myself. “An old woman who has never lived in a temple or been formally trained in Krsna conscious is sharing the wisdom of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-Gita with others!”
It was time for me to head to the stage to give my lecture.
“How many times have I given this talk?” I asked Guru Kripa.
“At least 108 times,” he said.
“More like at least 1008 times, if not double that,” I said.
With Gita in hand I walked onto the stage and went straight to the front, my translator Mondakini dasi by my side. As a young boy I was always shy about speaking in public, but I’ve never experienced fear when delivering a lecture on Krsna consciousness. The reason is simple: the philosophy is perfect and complete. For a person who studies it and lives it, the philosophy is attractive because it provides a logical explanation of spiritual life and a positive alternative for solving all problems by returning to the spiritual world.
At the end of the lecture, I descended the stairs to find a small group of people with Bhagavad-Gitas in their hands, waiting for me to sign them.
The first to approach me was a sixteen-year-old girl who said that it was the eighth summer festival she had attended.
“Since my first festival I have had a special attraction to your food. I also love your theatre shows. I’ve watched all the shows you’ve ever produced; my favorite is the one about Lord Rama. As I was sitting listening to your lecture today, it dawned on me that it’s about time I started studying your philosophy, so I ran over to the book tent and bought this Bhagavad-Gita.” She blushed and looked at the ground. “Sorry it has taken me eight years to come to this point.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” I said. “That’s how the process works.”
Next two girls approached me with a Bhagavad-Gita.
“It’s for our parents,” one of them said. “Our family is going through a difficult time. We were listening to your lecture and realized that your philosophy solves so many problems, so we’re hoping the wisdom in this book can guide our family to happier times.”
“I’m sure it will,” I said.
I signed ten Bhagavad Gitas, and as I was finishing two boys ran up to me.
“When’s your talk?” one of them said, gasping for air.
“Well, actually, I already spoke,” I said. “It was about an hour ago.”
“Oh no!” he said. He turned to the other boy. “You were eating your dessert too slowly. I told you we’d be late!”
“How old are you boys?” I asked.
“I’m twelve”, said the taller boy, “and my brother is ten.”
“And you came to hear my lecture?” I asked.
“Yes!” said the older boy. “We’ve come to your festival for the last three years and our favorite part is your talk. So much knowledge.”
“Yep,” said his younger brother. “As you always say, ‘Out of 8,400,000 species of life, the human form of life is the most important.’”
I shook my head in amazement. “Yes, I do say that.”
“Every lecture,” the older boy said, and they both laughed.
“But there’s always something new for us to think about too,” said the younger one. “We’re very grateful to you.”
“Why don’t we go and talk in the restaurant?” I suggested. “Because you guys missed the talk you can have whatever you want to eat.”
Their eyes lit up. “Great idea!”
Walking to the restaurant beside the boys, I marveled at how Srila Prabhupada’s movement appeals to people of all ages. “Even to very young philosophers,” I thought.
Outside the book tent I saw the flower girl emerging with a big smile on her face and one of Srila Prabhupada’s books under her arm.
“So there’s the result!” I said aloud.
“What did you say?” asked the younger brother.
I gave a huge smile. “I said I could do this forever!”
siddhim kurusva prabhu gaura candra
samuj jvalam te pada padma sevam
karomi nityam hari kirtanam ca
Back in Town
August 26, 2016
For years we have taken pride in doing our summer festival in Kolobrzeg, one of the biggest and most popular tourist destinations along the Baltic Sea coast in Poland. There was a time when we had to fight for permission to hold our programs there, but as the years rolled by, word spread that our event is highly professional, cultural and fun. The city has warmed to us and has even suggested specific dates on which to hold our festival.
Unfortunately, last year we were unable to perform in Kolobrzeg because the city was upgrading the waterfront where our event has taken place over the last twenty seven years. This summer we anticipated a big comeback, only to be disappointed when we learned that the renovated area could no longer support the semi-trailer that unfolds into the large stage on which our show takes place.
Nandini dasi, as determined as ever, met with the mayor of Kolobrzeg to discuss alternative sites for our event.
“As much as we’d like to host you, there is no suitable site where we can hold an outdoor event the size of yours,” the mayor told Nandini.
“What about the area around the lighthouse at the end of the big boardwalk?” Nandini suggested. “Thousands of people gather there every day to see the ships going out to sea. It would be a perfect venue.”
The mayor shook his head.
“We’ve never allowed that spot to be used for an event in the history of the city,” he said. “It has its own ambiance and we don’t want to detract from that. Besides, that site is under the jurisdiction of the captain of the port. He would never agree because it would be a distraction for his job of safely seeing off and receiving ships each day.”
“But Mr. Mayor, our event is not a commercial event. We hold our festival to introduce people to the attractive culture of India and to a positive spiritual message that can benefit their lives.”
“I know, I know,” said the Mayor. “I’ve been to your event many times and I know it’s well-organized; in many ways it’s the main event of the summer here in Kolobrzeg.” He paused for a moment and thought. “OK,” he said at last. “If you can get permission from the captain of the port, the City Council will back you. But bear in mind, he won’t be an easy person to convince.”
The large paved area around the lighthouse was crawling with thousands of tourists when Nandini arrived. “This would be perfect for our event,” she thought. But when she was asking the secretary if she could speak to the captain, he walked out of his office and stopped her speaking before she could even start.
“No! No! No! I will not give permission for you to hold your event on this property. It’s under my jurisdiction and I refuse to even consider it.”
“But how did you know that was what I was going to ask?” Nandini said.
“I heard you were denied permission for your event at the waterfront,” he said. “I was expecting you’d come here, and I have told you my answer. There is no need for further discussion on the matter.”
“Sir,” Nandini said, “We have done our festival in your city every summer for almost three decades. It’s a tradition here. It’s not an ordinary event. It brings color, joy and festivity to the Kolobrzeg, but more importantly it brings a deep spiritual message. And the ambassador for India to Poland, Mr. Ajay Bisaria, has promised to come if you give us permission ….”
“Stop!” the captain said. For several moments he looked out the window at the waves breaking on the rocks. “Alright. I give you permission to hold your festival at the lighthouse. I’ve been to your event many times over the years and if I am honest I have to say that I believe in everything you people stand for. Now go!”
Nandini scurried out of the office as fast as she could and reached for her phone.
“Gurudeva, we got permission for the festival in Kolobrzeg,” she said when I answered the phone. She was obviously on the verge of tears.
“That’s amazing,” I said. “How did you convince them to let us use the waterfront?”
“Not the waterfront,” she said. “They’re letting us use the lighthouse.”
“The lighthouse!” I exclaimed. “Nothing is impossible if Krsna desires it.”
The next day 100 devotees charged out of our base into two large buses to begin advertising the festival.
“Faster!” I told our bus driver.
“Your event is still two days away. Why the hurry?” he asked.
“Every minute counts,” I replied. “Step on it.”
Our colorful harimana party was replete with banners, flags and even balloons; as we began singing and dancing down the beach people took notice. Three children in the water jumped up and down, waving their arms to attract their parents’ attention. “Mom! Dad!” they screamed. “Take an invitation!”
Further down the beach I saw a woman crying.
“She looks distressed,” I said to a devotee. “Can you go and ask her if she’s ok?”
The devotee returned with a smile on her face. “She apologized for causing us worry,” she said. “When we didn’t come last year she didn’t know if we would ever come back. She’s crying out of happiness because the festival’s back in town.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man speaking angrily to a devotee.
“What happened?” I asked.
The devotee said, “This gentleman is angry…”
The man interrupted in a loud voice. “Why didn’t you come last year?” People began to gather around, interested in the apparent conflict.
“Excuse me?” I asked, still not understanding the nature of his dissatisfaction.
“Why didn’t you come last year?” he repeated. “My children wait all year for your festival to come here in the summer. You let them down. They were so upset. You have a responsibility to the public to be consistent.”
A number of people in the crowd nodded their heads in agreement.
“I am so sorry, sir,” I said. I spoke loudly so the crowd could hear. “It was beyond our control; the city was doing work in the site where we usually hold our festival. But in two days we’ll have the festival at the lighthouse.”
The man looked surprised.
“The lighthouse?” he asked in a calmer voice. “The city gave you permission to have your event there?”
“Well, the captain of the port to be specific,” I said.
“Well… That’s very good!” he exclaimed. “My family and I will be there.”
I shook my head in disbelief as the crowd dispersed. “In the old days some people would become angry when we showed up in town. Now they become angry when we don’t come! This is a sure sign that this movement is progressing.”
We stopped to have kirtan in one place, and, as always, a large crowd of sunbathers gathered. Many of them were soon dancing with us.
“Would you like to hear my opinion about this singing and dancing?” a nicely dressed gentleman asked me.
“Of course,” I said. “I’m always interested to hear the public’s opinion of our efforts.”
“My opinion,” he said in a serious voice, “is that this singing and dancing has the potential to unite all the religions of the world.”
As the blissful singing and dancing continued, I watched one lady who had joined the kirtan as soon as we had arrived. She was beaming as she swayed back and forth with her arms around two devotee girls, chanting in a loud voice. Then she entered the circle of devotees and began dancing on her own, her arms stretched towards the sky. She stayed for more than an hour.
“Looks like you really enjoyed that!” I said to her as the kirtan party moved on down the beach.
“Oh yes,” she said. “I really love you people.” Then she winked. “But remember: Jesus is the only way!”
Further down the beach a man came towards me.
“Hare, Krsna and Rama,” he said. “There! I said it! One gets so much benefit from saying those words even once in a lifetime. I read that somewhere. Bye!”
The next moment a woman approached me, a Bhagavad-gita in her hand.
“The girl who sold this to me said you would sign it.”
“Yes, of course I will,” I said.
When I gave it back to her she said, “Finally, something else to read besides the Bible!”
“Oh, but the Bible is also an important scripture,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” she agreed. “But all the questions I have ever had about spirituality were answered this morning in the few pages of this book I’ve read so far.”
We concluded the harinam after four hours and returned to the festival site to prepare for the crowds that would come. On the boardwalk, a man called out to me.
“Indradyumna Swami,” he said, “Do you remember me?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling guilty. “I can’t seem to place your face… “
“You must remember,” he said. “We met on this beach in 1997. We had a very interesting discussion for ten minutes or so. It changed my life in lots of positive ways.”
My guilt subsided a little knowing that the meeting occurred nineteen years ago.
“I bought your Pada Kamalam kirtan tape that day,” he continued. “I still listen to it every day on my way to work. And my children can’t go to sleep without it. I just wanted to thank you for what you’ve done for me and my family.”
“It was just a short talk…” I said.
“But it was enough,” he said. “It was more than enough.”
The festival site was already crowded with people sitting on the benches in front of the main stage.
“The show doesn’t begin for another two hours,” I said incredulously to Guru Kripa das.
“I guess because there was no festival last year they want to make sure they don’t miss anything this year,” he said.
The festival looked especially charming with the lighthouse towering overhead and the beautiful port as a backdrop. More and more people poured through the gates, and I took the opportunity to ask them why they had come.
“I purchased some chanting beads a few years ago at one of your festivals,” a lady told me. “I use to use them as a decoration in my home. But something told me they have a more important purpose, and one day I saw a devotee chanting on them. I have them here with me today so that I can learn how to chant on them.”
“My grandkids have never been to your event,” an elderly man told me when I asked him why he had come. He gestured to the four children by his side. “But I have been many times. I convinced them to come because there’s something for every member of the family at your festivals.’’
Then he lowered his voice. “But if they didn’t show any interest I was going to take them back to their parents for the afternoon. I wouldn’t miss this festival for the world, believe me. Especially because you didn’t come last year!”
It started to rain midway through the program, but the people were prepared: everyone in the audience popped open an umbrella as if on cue.
When it was time for my lecture, I prayed to Srila Prabhupada.
“Srila Prabhupada, I’ve never asked you for anything other than the blessing that when I speak my words will touch people’s hearts. My only prayer all these years has been to be your representative and speak on your behalf. Once again, allow me to be that transcendental medium.”
When I came off the stage forty five minutes later, there was, as always, a small group of people with Bhagavad-gitas to be signed.
“I am genetics scientist,” said the first woman. I saw she was not holding a book, and I flinched expecting a debate about science and religion. I wished I had the scientific jargon to make my presentation more acceptable to her.
“I loved your talk,” she said, and I sighed with relief. “Your approach to science and religion is interesting. Your arguments are much better than the standard ones I hear when speaking to religious people. Where did you get this knowledge?”
“From my spiritual master,” I said proudly.
“Was he a scientist?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “But he was a representative of the greatest scientist.”
“The greatest scientist,” she repeated. “Tell me. Who is that?”
“God,” I said. “The one who made it all.”
“Well that’s debatable,” she said, pulling a Bhagavad-Gita out of her handbag. “But you did convince me enough to buy this book to find out more.” She shook my hand when I gave the book back to her. “It would strengthen your presentation if you had some scientific terminology.’
“I was thinking the same thing,” I said with a smile.
“Srila Gurudeva,” Mathuranath das said as she walked away, “I was listening to your lecture and your arguments against mundane science were awesome.”
“Well, don’t be under any illusion,” I said. “If it wasn’t for Srila Prabhupada I’d still be mowing lawns at the University of Michigan without a clue about science or religion.”
Next in line was a man holding the Gita so tightly that initially I couldn’t take it from his hand to sign.
“Sorry,” he said, relinquishing the book. “All my life I’ve been searching for the knowledge you shared with us this evening. And now that I finally have it in my hand, I am reluctant to give it up even for a minute. It’s unbelievable. I finally have it in my hand!”
“It will just take one minute to sign,” I said.
“OK,” he said. “But make sure you give it back.”
The next person in line was a man with a big handlebar moustache. He stood silently as I signed his Bhagavad-gita.
“What inspired you to buy the book?” I said hoping to initiate a conversation.
“I’m a train conductor,” he replied. “My route takes me all over Europe.”
“That’s an interesting profession,” I said. “It gives you the opportunity to travel and see the world.”
“It gives me reason to inquire about birth and death,” he said without smiling.
“Oh,” I said. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve seen many people give up their lives on the train tracks,” he replied. “Suicides. Each year four or five people jump in front of my train or tie themselves to the tracks. I always feel some guilt when I see them die in that way. I’ve come to accept it over time. But recently it’s caused me to consider whether there is life after death. The things you said about reincarnation made sense to me. I’m buying this book so I can understand more and in doing so alleviate my fear and doubt.”
“It’s easy to understand how Srila Prabhupada was so insistent that his books be widely distributed,” I thought. “They do indeed relieve the suffering of the fallen conditioned souls.”
Next a man in a wheelchair came up to me.
“Where did you get all the knowledge that you wrote in these purports?” he asked.
“I didn’t write them,” I said, chuckling. “My spiritual master wrote them.”
“Oh I see,” he said. “But because you are saying the same thing you are qualified to speak from the stage. Is that the idea?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And if I learn the same teachings and practice them, then I can also share the knowledge with others?”
“Yes,” I said. “Is that your intention?”
“It is,” he replied. “I am bound to this wheelchair and I can’t do much. But your talk inspired me to try and make my life worthwhile by sharing this knowledge with others.”
The last man in line was dressed nicely and had been waiting a considerable amount of time. When I apologized for this, he smiled.
“No problem,” he said. “I wanted to get a dedication in this book I bought, but I also wanted to compliment you on your event. I have been following it for quite some time now and have seen it grow year after year.”
When I handed his book back to him I asked him what his profession was. I was curious because he looked so aristocratic.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he said in a serious way. “And neither would you believe me if I told you who I am. In fact, you would probably faint.”
“You would,” he said. “But know for certain that with my influence many people in this country will hear about your event and will come to appreciate it.”
As he walked away clutching the book tightly under his arm I thought of my spiritual master, and I prayed to him.
“Srila Prabhupada, this is all your mercy. Fifty years ago in 1966, you incorporated your International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and that movement is continuing to produce miracles one after the other. What we witness daily in our humble attempt to serve you here in Poland is just part of a great worldwide phenomenon. We pray for the day when your glories will be compiled into a great journal to be appreciated by the entire world now and for all of eternity.”
“But there are also many other things which Jesus did, so vast a number indeed that if they were all described in detail, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would have to be written.” [ Bible: John 21:25 ]
O Resident of Kailash!
November 7, 2016
My fascination with Tibet began in the 1960s. I was fifteen, and the hippie movement, with its unconventional philosophies and ways of life, had just taken hold in America. I often visited alternative bookstores in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and one day I found The Tibetan Book of the Dead in the Eastern Spirituality section. I read it for years until I found a deeper understanding of spiritual philosophy in Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita As It Is.
Three years ago an opportunity to visit Tibet arose when several devotees invited me to join them on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, the sacred abode of Lord Siva, situated in the remote western part of the country, but our plans ended abruptly when the Chinese government refused our visa applications. My interest in Tibet was reignited last year when I met a Buddhist monk from Tibet in New Delhi. He was traveling to Bodh Gaya, the place of Lord Buddha’s enlightenment in Bihar, India. The monk had encountered many difficulties in his travels, and I did my best to help him. In the short time we were together, a close, almost mystical, bond arose between us, and as we separated he told me he would leave something of great spiritual value for me in his monastery in Tibet. I wondered, of course, what he would leave for me, but I wondered even more how I would ever obtain it. Though I am used to packing my bags on a moment’s notice and traveling to wherever my service takes me, Tibet had never been within my realm.
Then a few months ago, I received a call from the group who had planned the original journey to Tibet. The Chinese government was again issuing visas for Mount Kailash. Would I be interested in going? Oh, would I ever! Thirteen of us were granted visas through an official Tibetan travel agency.
My motivations for visiting Tibet went beyond the fascination I had had as a teenager, and even beyond the desire to obtain the gift from the Tibetan monk. My objective, as a devotee of Lord Krsna, was to obtain the blessings of Lord Siva who resides with his consort, Parvati, atop mount Kailash. In Vaisnava teachings we learn not to approach the Lord directly, but through His pure devotees.
“My dear Partha,” Lord Krsna says to Arjuna in the Adi Purana, “one who claims to be My devotee is not so. Only a person who claims to be the devotee of My devotee is My devotee.”
And of all devotees of Krsna, Lord Siva is considered the best:
nimna-ganam yatha ganga
devanam acyuto yatha
vaisnavanam yatha sambhuh
purananam idam tatha
“Just as the Ganges is the greatest of all rivers, Lord Acyuta the supreme among deities and Lord Shambhu (Siva) the greatest of Vaisnavas, so Srimad-Bhagavatam is the greatest of all Puranas.” [ Srimad Bhagavatam 12.13.16 ]
Mount Kailash, 22,000 feet (6,705 meters) above sea level, is a special and sacred dhama because it is there that Siva meditates deeply on Lord Krishna and meets with great sages like Narada. It was at Mount Kailash that the Ganges descended with great force from the spiritual world to the material world and was caught by Lord Siva in his matted locks.
“The demigods observed Lord Śiva sitting on the summit of Kailāsa Hill with his wife, Bhavānī, for the auspicious development of the three worlds. He was being worshiped by great saintly persons desiring liberation. The demigods offered him their obeisances and prayers with great respect.” [ Srimad Bhagavatam 8.7.20 ]
Kailash is also known as Mount Meru, the center of the universe. Throughout the ages it has been called by various names including Jewel Peak, Lotus Mountain, and Silver Mountain. The city of Kuvera, the treasurer of the demigods, is said to be near Mount Kailash.
Local Buddhists recognize the spiritual significance of the mountain and consider it one of their holiest places of pilgrimage. It is also fervently worshiped by followers of the Bon religion, the religion of Tibet prior to the arrival of Buddhism in the seventh century. Tibetans say that there is an invisible ladder connecting Kailash to heaven, and the rulers of ancient Tibet were said by their citizens to have descended to Kailash from heaven attached to ropes of light.
Because of the mountain’s sanctity in the eyes of several of the world’s great religions, no one has ever attempted to climb it. Reinhold Messner, the famous Austrian mountaineer who has scaled all fourteen of the 8,000-meter mountains of the world, was offered a license to climb Mount Kailash by the Chinese government in the 1980s. “Of course I declined,” he writes. “It would not have been intelligent to do otherwise. One should not trample on gods.”
A Buddhist saint once said: “Only a man entirely free of sin can climb Kailash. And he wouldn’t have to actually scale the sheer walls of ice to do it. He’d just turn himself into a bird and fly to the summit.”
Through the centuries Westerners have been attracted to visit Kailash, not for spiritual reasons though, but out of curiosity. The first recorded Westerner to visit Kailash was an Italian Jesuit Missionary, Ippolito Desideri, in 1715. He wrote:
“Kailash is a mountain of excessive height and great circumference, always enveloped in clouds, covered in snow and ice, and most horrible, barren, steep and cold. The Tibetans walk devoutly around the base of this mountain which takes several days, and they believe this will bring them great indulgences. Owing to the snow on the mountain my eyes became so inflamed that I well nigh lost my sight.”
Following more in the footsteps of the pilgrims and less in those of the curious, our group left Kathmandu, Nepal, on September 15, 2016, and headed for Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Our short flight over the beautiful Himalayan Mountains was meant to take only one hour. Unfortunately, as we were to repeatedly experience in the coming two weeks, we encountered an obstacle. Forty-five minutes into the flight, the captain announced that we were unable to land in Lhasa due to inclement weather and that the flight was being diverted to Chengdu in Southwestern China, two hours away. I knew someone was lying. The weather in Lhasa was fine. I had checked it on the internet just before we took off. Later we learned that the flight had been diverted to Chengdu to pick up more passengers for Lhasa.
The airlines put us up in a hotel in Chengdu for the night and we flew out for Lhasa the next day. The austerities in the detour were bearable, but little known to us there would be serious flow-on effects from the delay. Because of the detour we would begin our pilgrimage later than planned and would have to face bad weather.
Within hours of arriving in Lhasa, 11,450 feet (3,490 meters) above sea level, most of our team began struggling with altitude sickness, also known as mountain sickness. Caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels, it affects climbers, skiers, and travelers. At times, altitude sickness can be life-threatening, causing pulmonary edema or cerebral edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs or brain), both of which require the sufferer to be evacuated to a lower altitude. In most cases, though, symptoms are mild: difficulty sleeping, dizziness, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting.
Altitude sickness was an ongoing problem for us during our stay in Lhasa, one of the highest cities in the world. I had acclimatized myself somewhat by spending twelve days in the mountains of Kashmir before the trip to Tibet. Most of the other members of our team, though, suffered from headaches and dizziness during our first days in Tibet.
While they rested, I decided to take a look around the old city of Lhasa that I had heard about during my youth. It was harder to find than I expected. Much of the city had been rebuilt with endless modern structures like apartment buildings, office buildings, and shopping complexes. The romantic idea of exotic, spiritual Tibet I had formed as a young man seemed nothing more than an insubstantial dream until I rounded a corner and saw thousands of Tibetans in traditional dress walking in pilgrimage around the sacred Jokhang Temple (built starting from 1652 AD), the most important site of pilgrimage in Tibet. Hundreds of Buddhist devotees were bowing down repeatedly while others walked around the temple fingering their wooden prayer beads as they chanted om mani padme hum (I worship He who sits on the divine lotus). I joined the surging crowd circumambulating the temple and then sat among the pilgrims. I immediately became an object of discussion. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone without exception welcomed me and several even came over to congratulate me on my good fortune to be there. When I took out my japa beads to chant, swarms of curious people surrounded me and listened attentively to my chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra.
I had been chanting for a couple of hours when two young women approached me.
“Are you a lama?” one asked.
“Do you mean a priest?” I asked. She nodded. “Well yes, I am trying my best,” I said.
“We are honored to meet you,” said the other woman. “My name is Nima.”
“And I am Zaya,” said the first woman.
“You speak English very well,” I said.
“Yes,” said Nima. “Here in Tibet we learn three languages in school: Chinese, Tibetan, and English.”
“Why is English mandatory?” I asked.
“It’s the international language, of course,” Nima said.
“Ours is a beautiful country,” said Nima. “And the most important thing for Tibetans is our spiritual tradition. That’s why every morning more than fifteen thousand people circumambulate Jokhang Temple.”
“I very much appreciate the pilgrims’ devotion,” I said.
“My grandma tells me that you Western people have very strange habits,” Zaya said, abruptly changing the reflective tone of the conversation.
“Like what?” I asked.
“She said most of you take a bath every day.” They both giggled.
“Well, yes,” I said. “Don’t you do that in Tibet?”
“No!” exclaimed Zaya, looking horrified. “My grandmother bathes once a year. She says if she were to bathe every day, the blessings she received by prostrating herself before the temple three hundred times a day would be washed away.”
“We all bathe during a special festival called Karma Dunba,” said Nima. “Everyone, even Zaya’s grandmother, goes down to a river and takes a full bath. Strict followers wash their clothes just once a year on that day.”
“But times are changing now,” said Nima. “I bathe once a month.”
“And I bathe once a week,” said Zaya. “Some of my friends even bathe every day like you Westerners.”
We needed another day in Lhasa for acclimatization before beginning our journey to Mount Kailash some thirteen hundred kilometers away, so I suggested we visit the famous Potala, formerly the residence of the Dalai Lama. Built at various stages beginning from 1645, it is rich in Tibetan history. The palace was visually stunning, a reminder of the mysterious enchantment of old Tibet, but as we meandered through the amazing structure my mind was elsewhere. I was remembering the Buddhist monk I’d helped in New Delhi and the special gift he had left for me in the Sera monastery in Lhasa.
But where was the Sera monastery? And how would I get there? We only had one afternoon left in Lhasa. I decided to ask the monks who were tending to the shrines in the palace.
“Excuse me,” I said to one. “Can you kindly tell me where I can find the Sera Monastery?”
“Sera means ‘wild rose,’” he said. “It is one of our most important monasteries. You can find it in the northern suburbs of Lhasa.”
“Is it a big building like this palace?” I asked.
“Oh no!” he said proudly. “The monastery consists of thirty six buildings scattered over twenty eight acres of land.”
“Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling despondent. It would be impossible to find the priceless gift in a complex so huge. I resigned myself to following our group around the Potala.
We returned to our hotel late in the evening, and I quickly fell asleep. I dreamed that our group was visiting an old Buddhist monastery. Guests were being given headphones that guided them through various parts of the monastery. Everyone in our group except me was given brown headphones. I was handed a silver set that glowed brightly in the dark. When I put the headset on, I heard the familiar voice of my monk friend.
“I told you we would not meet again in this life,” he said, “but I will speak words regarding the gift I promised you. I cannot give you anything greater than that which your spiritual master has already given you. Be content with his boundless mercy alone, and with it attain the highest perfection.”
I woke suddenly and raced around the room to find paper and pen before I forgot the monk’s words. Part of me wanted to knock on the other devotees’ doors to tell them about the amazing dream, but I also felt shy. Afterwards, it took me hours to fall asleep.
The next morning we were meant to fly to Ngari, a city just one hundred kilometers from Mount Kailash. But we were informed at breakfast that the flight had been canceled. China’s security was on red alert because of North Korea’s recent test-firing of missiles. It was another setback in our pilgrimage. The only other way to reach Mount Kailash was a four-day drive across one thousand three hundred kilometers of mountainous roads.
Our government travel agency provided two SUV cars with drivers, a small truck for our luggage and cooking equipment, and two official guides who were required to be with us every minute of our stay in Tibet. Ultimately, their presence worked to our advantage, because wherever we went we were subjected to security checks.
Upon departing Lhasa, we learned that a storm and cold front were about to descend on western Tibet. We had to get to Mount Kailash as fast as possible. By driving seventeen hours one day and eleven hours the next, we managed to cut the journey in half. The long hours in the car were austere, but gave me time to reflect again on the purpose of our journey to Mount Kailash: to obtain the blessings of Lord Siva that we might become become better devotees of Lord Krsna and His representative, my beloved spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada.
During the drive, I read the Sivastakam, eight prayers glorifying Lord Siva spoken by Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu and recorded in Murari Gupta’s book, Sri Caitanya Carita Mahakavya. I did so to better understand Lord Siva according to our Vaisnava philosophy.
“I perpetually offer obeisances unto you, the lord of the thirty primal devas, who are the original father of created beings, whose character is gracious, upon whose head, which is crested by the sickle moon, the Ganga springs, and who are a festival for the eyes of Gauri, the fair goddess.
“I offer my obeisances to you who resemble a moon of molten gold, who are dressed in garments colored like a group of budding blue lotuses or lustrous rainclouds, who bestow the most desirable boon on your devotees by your delightful dancing, who offer shelter to those who seek to become one with the transcendental effulgence of Godhead, and whose flag bears the image of the bull.
“I offer my obeisances to you who dispel darkness with your three eyes – the moon, the sun, and fire – and thus cause auspiciousness for all the living entities of the universe, and whose potency easily defeats thousands of moons and suns.
“I offer my obeisances to you, whose form is brilliantly illuminated by the jewels of Ananta-deva, the king of snakes, who possess divine potencies and are clothed in a tiger skin, who stand in the midst of a thousand-petaled lotus, and whose two arms are adorned by lustrous bangles.
“I offer my obeisances to you who bestow happiness on your servitors as you pour upon them the liquid nectar flowing from your reddish lotus feet, upon which charming ankle bells ring. Obeisances unto you who are adorned by an abundance of gems. Please endow me today with pure love for Sri Hari.
“O Sri Rama! O Govinda! O Mukunda! O Sauri! O Sri Krsna! O Narayana! O Vasudeva! I offer my obeisances unto you, Sri Siva, who are the monarch ruling over all the bee-like devotees who are mad to drink the nectar of these and other innumerable names of Hari, and who thus destroy all grief.
“I offer my respectful obeisances to you, Sri Siva, who are forever inquired of confidentially by Sri Narada and other great sages, who very easily bestow boons on them, who bestow the happiness of Hari-bhakti on those who seek boons of you, who thereby create auspiciousness and are thus the guru of everyone.
“I offer my obeisances to you who are a festival of auspiciousness for the eyes of Gauri, who are the lord of her life-energy, who bestow rasa and are expert in forever singing songs with eagerness of the pastimes of Govinda.
“A person who lovingly hears with rapt attention this wonderful eightfold prayer to Sri Siva, can quickly gain Sri Hari-prema as well as transcendental knowledge, the realization of that knowledge, and unprecedented devotional potency.”
Sripad Sankaracarya also wrote a well-read Sivastakam, but even more popular are Ravana’s prayers to Lord Siva which he composed while residing at Ravana-tal, a lake near Mount Kailash. The demoniac king, a devotee of Lord Siva, created the lake and performed severe penance and austerities on its banks with the desire to gain the strength to pick up Mount Kailash, along with Siva and Parvati on its summit, and take it back to his abode in Sri Lanka. He was unsuccessful because Lord Siva increased the weight of Kailash so that no human, devata, demon, or snake from the lower planets could ever lift Mount Kailash.
In his Siva Tantra Stotram, Ravana prays:
“When will I be happy, living in a hollow cave near the celestial river Ganga with folded hands on my head all the time, with bad thoughts washed away, uttering the mantra of Lord Siva and devoted to the God (Siva) who has a glorious forehead and trembling eyes.” [ Verse 13 ]
After two days of driving, we approached Ravana-tal and the even more important nearby lake of Manasarovar (Mapham Tso in Tibetan). Every pilgrim first takes darsan of Manasarovar on the way to Mount Kailash. It is famous for three things: its changing colors, its infinite variations of reflection, and its fearsome storms. On the top of Mount Kailash, Lord Siva and Parvati once sat in deep meditation on Lord Krsna for twelve years by the calculation of the demigods. No rain fell in the area during that period, so Lord Siva called Lord Brahma to create a sacred lake where he and his consort could bathe. Lord Brahma created Manasarovar from his mind. After their bath, a self-manifested golden Siva lingam appeared in the center of the lake.
We took darsan of Manasarovar and that same day reached Darchen, a small village just a few kilometers from Mount Kailash situated at an altitude of 15,010 feet (4,575 meters). Darchen serves as the starting point for every pilgrim’s journey around the sacred mountain.
We rested in a simple hotel there for two days to prepare ourselves for the arduous pilgrimage ahead. Despite our best efforts to be in good physical shape and to avoid altitude sickness by acclimatizing ourselves, we all knew that faith in Krsna and His devotee Lord Siva were the most important qualifications for completing the kora (the Tibetan word for “pilgrimage”).
Two days later, at long last, all thirteen of us set out on our kora around Mount Kailash. It was to take us three days. The first day is called the day of purification, the second the day of departure (from one’s illusory self or the false ego), and the third the day of renewal. Many Tibetans do the pilgrimage in a single day. There are also those who do the circuit in prostrations, which takes three weeks.
Most of our gear and kitchen paraphernalia had gone ahead on yaks to meet us where we would stay the first night, a location twenty-two kilometers further up the winding road. We were carrying just basic necessities in our backpacks as we started on the barren moonscape terrain towards Mount Kailash. Eager to get the journey underway after so many days of waiting, everyone started out at a fast pace.
“Slow down, Prabhus!” I called out. “At this height you have to pace yourselves. And remember to drink three liters of water as we walk along today. It’s easy to get dehydrated up here.”
I noticed that Bhakta Alexey, a strong, healthy, and well-built Russian man in his early 30s, was missing. He had come on the trip to help Ananta Vrindavan das film the expedition. I retraced my steps along the path until I found him trailing far behind us. He was barely moving along the road.
Saradiya Rasa dasi came up behind me with our chief guide. “He doesn’t look good,” she said.
“Maybe he’s just exhausted from traveling here,” I said. I turned to the guide. “Do you think he should stay back this morning? Maybe one of the other guides can stay with him.”
“Yes,” he said. “I can take him back to the hotel, and I’ll keep in touch by phone to let you know how he is doing. Your phones should certainly work on the first day of your pilgrimage. If he feels better this afternoon, we can catch up by horse.”
The rest of us proceeded onwards. As the road gradually got steeper I didn’t have to remind the devotees to slow down. The altitude made sure of that. Soon we were walking only ten paces at a time before having to stop and catch our breath. To our left the huge, treeless Barkha plain was dotted with white nomadic tents and herds of sheep and goats. After four hours we arrived at a chaktsel gang, one of four places on the kora where Tibetan pilgrims offer prostrated obeisances to the mountain. At these sites there are images on rocks which are reputedly places where Lord Buddha left his footprints when he magically visited Kailash in the 5th century BC.
From the chaktsel gang we had a clear and direct view of Mount Kailash’s beautiful, awe-inspiring southern face. All the devotees lay down on the ground for a few minutes of rest. Already exhausted by the high altitude I began to wonder if I could carry on, especially when I saw the trail ahead. From where we were, it entered the glacial Lha Chu valley, a flat, rocky wasteland that wound along vast scraggly mountain slopes.
The silence of the party was broken by the ringing of Saradiya Rasa’s cell phone. When she hung up, her face was pale and had a worried look.
“Alexey is in critical condition.” she said. “He has pulmonary edema, the worst-case scenario in high-altitude sickness. Our guide has taken him to the hospital.”
“We need to act quickly,” I said. “Pulmonary edema can be fatal in a matter of hours. The golden rule is to get the patient to a lower altitude as quickly as possible.”
“But that’s the problem,” said Saradiya Rasa . “We’re on the Tibetan plateau and there are no lower altitudes. Our guide says the doctors are trying to stabilize him with oxygen and some medication, but he’s not responding. He is unconscious, his extremities are cold, and he’s shaking like a leaf.”
Everyone was dazed by the news. I stood up quickly.
“OK,” I said. “We’re aborting the pilgrimage. We have to turn around and go back to Darchen to assess Alexey’s situation. Let’s move now.”
“It’s serious, but surely not all of us have to go,” one devotee said. “Maybe one or two of us can go and work with the doctors. We can break into two groups and meet along the trail tomorrow. We don’t all have to break the kora.”
“Forget the kora!” I said loudly. “No kora is as important as a devotee’s life. We need to go back to Darchen as a team. We’ll have kirtan together and pray that Krsna protect Alexey.”
Everyone stood up and we began following our tracks back to Darchen, passing many pilgrims who looked at us quizzically as if to say, “You’re going the wrong way.”
All the way back Saradiya-Rasa was on the phone with our main guide, who suggested that we put Alexey in a car and drive him several hundred kilometers south where the attitude was slightly less.
“It’s not enough!” Saradiya rasa shouted. “He’s in critical condition! We have to get a helicopter in to take him to Kathmandu.”
Even as she said it, I knew it wouldn’t be possible. The only helicopters in Tibet were used by the military. The officials would never give permission for a helicopter to fly in from another country to rescue someone who, for them, was just a tourist. I had read extensively about the region before our journey began, and I knew there were risks attached to the Kailash kora because the place is so remote. Our guide had privately told me that over thirty pilgrims, mostly Indians, had already died on the kora this year, almost all from high-altitude sickness. The situation looked bleak at best.
But by the time we reached Darchen three hours later, Saradiya rasa was making things happen. She had contacted both the Russian Embassy and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing to ask for assistance. She had also contacted a private helicopter service in Kathmandu. She was a miracle worker.
“The Russian Embassy called the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and told them to get into action,” she told me. “The Ministry has called the local Darchen police station and told them they have one hour to get Alexey into an ambulance and start driving him to Kodari, a small village on the border with Nepal, about two hundred kilometers south of here. Once we make it to Nepal, there will be a helicopter from Kathmandu to pick Alexey up and fly him straight to the hospital. It’s a five-hour flight, with one stop for refueling.”
The only ambulance in Darchen was broken down, so Saradiya Rasa quickly arranged a private car. In the meantime, the rest of us visited Alexey in the hospital, which was nothing more than a few rooms with some beds and oxygen canisters. The nurses and doctors all seemed capable, despite the lack of facilities.
Alexey opened his eyes when he heard us enter his room. He spoke a few faint words of greeting.
“Much of the water has receded from his lungs,” his doctor said.
“It could return without warning, though. His condition is very, very serious.”
A few minutes later, the hospital staff helped us move Alexey into the car. Saradiya Rasa and her husband, Sukanta das, were to travel with him as far as the border, and Rasika Mohan das would accompany him all the way to Kathmandu. As they sped off leaving a small cloud of dust in their wake, Nrsimhananda das, Nicolae, Mahavan das and Varsana-rani dasi waved goodbye. Rama Vijaya das stood nearby on his cell phone arranging a bank transfer of thousands of dollars from his account in the United States to pay for the helicopter.
The next morning at 6:15, I received a call from an exhausted Saradiya Rasa. I had been up most of the night chanting and waiting for news.
“The mafia was waiting for us at the border,” she said. “They demanded a fifty-thousand-dollar cash payment to allow Alexey to cross into Nepal. They had weapons with them, but I got out of the car and was arguing with the leader when my phone rang. It was the Russian Embassy following up on our progress. I told them where we were and handed the phone over to the mafia leader. Within moments he and his gang were gone. A representative of the helicopter company was waiting halfway across a rope bridge swinging over a river between Nepal and Tibet. We helped Alexey and Rasika Mohan to the halfway point on the bridge and left them in the care of the man from the helicopter company. They all disappeared into the night. As soon as it was light, the helicopter took off for Kathmandu. The doctor on board called me to say we had gotten Alexey out just in time and with proper medical care he should be OK in a week or so. We’re on our way back now.”
After Saradiya Rasa’s call I collapsed in bed, but a few short hours later I was awoken by Chaturatma das knocking on my door.
“Maharaja, let’s go. Back on the kora. We have to walk fourteen kilometers today.”
The weather was changing for the worse and we didn’t want to lose time, so we rode in jeeps to where we had stopped the day before. After walking for an hour I realized how physically and emotionally exhausted I was from the events of the previous day. I asked one of our guides if he could arrange a horse for me. Bada Haridas and Ram Vijaya also asked for horses. The guide found horses to rent further down the valley for all three of us.
We rode and the others walked at different paces, braving the high altitude. We all chanted and absorbed ourselves in the remarkable beauty of the scenery. The mountains were beyond description. I remembered a quote from the Ramayana:
“There is no mountain range like the Himalayas, for this range contains both Kailash and Manasarovar. As the dew is dried by the morning sun, so our sins are dried when we gain sight of the Himalayas.”
As we moved through the valley a strange sight caught my eye: a flat area a little above the plains was draped with Tibetan flags flying majestically in the wind, and many large vultures were sitting and flying about.
“What is that?” I asked my guide. “A special temple?”
“No,” he replied, “it’s a sky burial site. In our Buddhist tradition we don’t bury or burn the dead. We lay their bodies out in the open for vultures to eat. That might sound repugnant to you, but you Westerners bury your dead in the ground and worms eat the body. Worms or vultures, it’s the same principle. The only difference is that in a sky burial, family members watch the vultures feast on their loved ones while priests chant mantras.”
“Wow!” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “It allows us to confront death and understand the impermanence of earthly life, and it helps us appreciate the importance of searching for the eternal life of the spirit.”
By late afternoon all the devotees reached Diraphuk, our campsite for the night. The yaks, which had carried all our paraphernalia up the day before, were waiting for us. Situated at about 5,000 meters, the site allowed us a view of the soaring, resplendent north face of icy Mount Kailash. I prayed for the eyes to see the spiritual beauty of Kailash, which is described by Srila Prabhupada as a celestial place, quite different from the cold icy granite mountain I was now seeing:
“It appears from these verses that Kailash is situated near the residential quarters of Kuvera. It is also stated here that the forest was full of desire trees. In the Brahma-samhita we learn about the desire tree, which is found in the spiritual world, especially in Krsnaloka, the abode of Lord Krsna. We learn here that by the grace of Krsna such desire trees are also found in Kailash, the residence of Lord Siva. It thus appears that Kailash has a special significance. It is almost like the residence of Lord Krsna.” [ Srimad Bhagavatam 4.6.28, purport ]
It was the closest we would come to the mountain itself.
“Could we walk a bit closer?” I asked the guide. “I would like to take a small stone from the face of the sacred mountain. I want to worship it as tadiya, (something connected to a holy place and the pastimes that take place there).
“Not possible” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “The government no longer allows pilgrims to come closer to the mountain than we are now. They used to issue permits for the “inner kora” along a path that runs close to the mountain, but too many pilgrims were killed by landslides. Plus, the area immediately surrounding Kailash has high velocity winds. Many times pilgrims just disappear from there without a trace.”
Exhausted from the day’s walk, we all settled down for a good night’s rest. But sleep was difficult at such an altitude, and temperatures plunged well below freezing during the night. The accommodations were austere. We slept on wooden beds in huts made of concrete without insulation or heating. The toilet was a hole in the ground outside and a bucket of ice-cold water. There was no facility for bathing.
At 2:00 a.m. I crawled out of my sleeping bag to answer the call of nature. I couldn’t find my flashlight, so I stumbled outside and made my way along by the light of a full moon. I looked up at Mount Kailash and was amazed at the sacred mountain’s beauty in the moonlight. The moon’s rays gave the snow a shimmering luminous effect and made the whole mountain glow silver in the darkness. I stood there dumbfounded as if seeing a mystical vision, unable to take my eyes away from the mountain.
Suddenly, one of the yaks appeared from around the corner of a small building and began to charge at me. Its aggressiveness broke my meditation and I ran for the shelter of our room. I made it inside just in time. So ended our first day of the kora, our day of purification.
We began our second day—the day of departure (from the false ego) — after a breakfast of hot porridge. Nobody ate much, as the fire of digestion is not strong at such altitudes. The second day proved the greatest challenge of the kora. We had to walk (or ride) more than ten kilometers upwards to the highest point of elevation on the kora, a pass called called Drolma-la, at 5,630 meters. It would take approximately seven hours. Before leaving I sat down in a quiet place and meditated on beautiful Mount Kailash. I took out my notebook and read several verses from Srimad Bhagavatam trying again to see the sacred mountain through the eyes of scripture:
“The abode known as Kailash is full of different herbs and vegetables, and it is sanctified by Vedic hymns and mystic yoga practice. Thus the residents of that abode are demigods by birth and have all mystic powers. Besides them there are other human beings, who are known as Kinnaras and Gandharvas and are accompanied by their beautiful wives, who are known as Apsaras, or angels.” [ Srimad Bhagavatam 4.6.9 ]
Again we made our way in small groups at different paces. Clouds moved in at mid-morning and rain began to fall. The storm we had feared was upon us. Several hours later, cold winds picked up and the rain turned into sleet and snow. Everyone, including our guides and horses, moved at an agonizingly slow and painful pace, our faces whipped by little drops of ice and freezing cold droplets of water. Each step took an immense amount of strength, and I could see everyone gasping for oxygen in the rarified atmosphere, except the Tibetan pilgrims, who walked past us, one group after another, at a steady pace, eventually disappearing in the distance.
I was wearing many layers of clothes, but I was chilled to the bone. The protection of my layers was no match for the harsh weather. As I was contemplating the severity of the cold, a jeep with an open cab and several somber-faced policemen inside rumbled down the rough terrain towards us. When it passed by, I gasped at the sight of a dead man lying face up in the back of the cab, his ankles and wrists tied with rope. He was fully clothed for doing the kora and had apparently died while doing it. I glanced over at one of our guides. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “No big deal, it happens every day.” My lamentation about the cold melted away. I was grateful I was still alive.
Because Bada Haridas, Rama Vijaya, and I were on horseback, we moved faster than the others and ended up far ahead of them. After some time, my horse took me so far ahead that I could see no one behind me or ahead of me. I was alone on the mountainous track, which had begun to ascend so steeply that I had to hold on to my horse to keep from sliding off backwards.
Eventually I came to a small plateau. A passing pilgrim told me it was the famous Shiwa-tsal charnel ground, named after a place of cremation at Bodh Gaya in India. Pilgrims undergo a symbolic death at Shiwa-tsal. It is traditional to leave an item of clothing or a bodily part such as hair, teeth or blood to represent the renouncing of life. In fact, what is being renounced is the false ego—the false identification with the material body—in favor of a true spiritual identity. For followers of the Vedic tradition, such renunciation means giving up all temporary bodily designations such as race, nationality, family, name, fame, beauty, and all material attachments and realizing oneself as a pure spirit soul, a servant of God.
It is said those who are close to that goal of self realization immediately leave their bodies while passing through the Shiwa-tsal charnel ground. I left a favorite hat as a sign of renunciation and prayed to Lord Siva to help me realize that I am an eternal servant of Krsna, but I didn’t leave my body. Disappointed, I mounted my horse again and continued up the steep pass. I was encouraged though, when an old sadhu I had never seen before loudly greeted me, “O Kailash-vasi!” (“O Resident of Kailash!”) I took it to mean that although I
had a long way to go in spiritual life, Lord Siva was pleased with my humble prayers at the Shiwa-tsal charnel grounds.
We continued on for another two intense hours— I, my horse, and my guide. At one point, the guide and the horse both stopped abruptly, exhausted from the steep climb.
“White Lama,” my guide said to me after he caught his breath, “If you are fortunate you will see a yeti. Sometimes lamas see them.”
“What is a yeti?” I asked.
“You Westerners call them abominable snowmen. But your people have little faith in such things. Your countrymen live in mundane lands devoid of the mystics, sages, and rsis we have here in our sacred mountains. Nothing out of the ordinary happens in lands where your people dwell.”
I gazed at the mountains.
“Have you ever seen a yeti?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “But my father and uncle have seen them many times, much higher up in the mountains. They are very large. Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, reported seeing large human-like footprints at 22,000 feet as they ascended Mount Everest for the first time. The footprints are several
inches shorter but at least four inches wider than a human’s. Other mountaineers in the Himalayas have photographed such footprints.
“Hundreds of years ago there was an entire village of yetis near here. It is said that during a feast many became intoxicated and practically killed each other off. Only a few families remain, hidden in the vast mountains and valleys of our Himalayas. They live a very long time because of the medicinal herbs that are found in the fertile valleys of these mountains.”
“It’s all very interesting,” I said. “But I have not come here looking for yetis. I’ve come to receive the mercy of Lord Siva, who can help to destroy my false ego and show me the path back home to Vraja.”
“I understand,” said my guide with a smile. “And if you are fortunate you may even see Lord Siva. But if you are even more fortunate, he will see you.”
We finally reached Drolma-la pass which was festooned in prayer flags. My horse had put in hours of strenuous effort. I marveled at his strength and agility on the rough surfaces, which were steep and strewn with boulders. My guide told me that Genghis Khan used the same species of horse (more of a large pony than a horse) to conquer the known world.
Though I had ridden and not walked up the steep path, I was exhausted from the harsh atmosphere, the altitude, and the cold. A posted sign read, “5,630 meters.” Because of the extremely high altitude, pilgrims are warned not stay there longer than ten minutes.
While we rested I reflected on how fortunate I was to have a horse to navigate my way down the precariously steep side of the mountain. But I was in for a big surprise. My guide broke my thoughts.
“You have to get off the horse and walk for five kilometers now,” he said. “The incline down is too steep for the horse to carry you. We will meet you at the bottom of the mountain.”
Standing alone on top of Drolma-la, I wondered whether I could make it down. I could feel my heart beating fast, and I felt nauseated and increasingly disoriented. A snow flurry descended on the pass and the thought crossed my mind that I might die there at Mount Kailash.
A few moments later, Bada Haridas arrived at Drolma-la and relinquished his horse too. We waited for Ram Vijaya, but it got colder and colder and we decided we had better start walking. Picking my way down the steep slope, I was unsure where I was going. The high altitude was finally catching up with me. I fell behind and lost Bada Haridas. No other pilgrim appeared on the trail.
I managed to walk fifty meters farther before resting on a boulder. I thought about lying down for a short sleep, but something inside me resisted the idea. Chaturatma later told me that when he had reached the summit of the pass a few hours after me, he actually did lie down and felt himself drifting off. A passing Tibetan pilgrim shook him violently to wake him. “Don’t do this!” he shouted. “You will never wake up again!”
Navigating my way down the steep ridge, I saw to my right a beautiful turquoise-green lake that I had seen in photos. It was Gauri Kunda, the lake of compassion. The lake is the bathing place of Parvati, Lord Siva’s consort, and the site of numerous pastimes between them. It was here that Parvati performed austerities to win Lord Siva as her husband. Devout followers of the Vedic tradition bathe in the frigid waters to become free from sin. I resisted the temptation. Watching two pilgrims struggle to get down the jagged hill to bathe in the kunda, I reflected on how simple and sublime the path of Krsna Consciousness is compared to other paths, which encourage great austerities and penance. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna says,
pavitram idam uttamam
su-sukham kartum avyayam
“This knowledge is the king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is the purest knowledge, and because it gives direct perception of the self by realization, it is the perfection of religion. It is everlasting, and it is joyfully performed.” [ BG 9.2 ]
What, then, could I say to critics who challenged me and our group for undertaking the austerities and risks of the Kailash kora? I would again quote the Lord in the Bhagavad Gita:
dyutam chalayatam asmi
tejas tejasvinam aham
jayo ’smi vyavasayo ’smi
sattvam sattvavatam aham
“I am also the gambling of cheats, and of the splendid I am the splendor. I am victory, I am adventure, and I am the strength of the strong.” [ BG 10.36 ]
Real adventure is to be found in service to the Lord and His representatives. This is why we were on the kora trying to attain the blessings of Lord Siva. There are, however, easier ways to get his mercy.
At the beautiful and sacred site of Gauri Kunda, I offered full dandavats and took several serious vratas (vows) which I had been planning to take while on the kora. Generally, a Vaisnava does not reveal his vratas, but for the benefit of my disciples I will share one of the vows I took on that day: that for the rest of my life I would not watch, read, or listen to any mundane media: no internet news sites, no newspapers, no magazines, no movies. I imagined the demigods calling out: “Bhisma! Bhisma!” (“How horrible! How horrible! What a horrible vow!”), but I realized that I, as a person in the renounced order of life, should have had the determination to give up mundane news long ago. As Lord Caitanya said to Ragunatha das Goswami:
gramya-katha na sunibe, gramya-varta na kahibe
bhala na khaibe ara bhala na paribe
amani manada hana krsna-nama sada la’be
vraje radha-krsna-seva manase karibe
“Do not talk like people in general or hear what they say. You should not eat very palatable food, nor should you dress very nicely.
“Do not expect honor, but offer all respect to others. Always chant the holy name of Lord Krsna, and within your mind render service to Radha and Krsna in Vrndavana.” [ Caitanya Caritamrta, Antya-lila, chapter 6, verses 236 – 237 ]
One reason for going on pilgrimage to holy places is that in the sanctity of the dhama one gets the inspiration and strength to take courageous steps forward in spiritual life.
Soon after I moved on from Gauri Kunda, I heard the voice of Rama Vijaya behind me. He had been trailing behind me without his horse, but had managed to catch up. He was a welcome sight. The trail was becoming more and more treacherous. Even the Tibetan pilgrims were slipping. Some of them even slid part way down the dangerous slope.
I was struggling with the descent, so Rama Vijaya went in front of me and extended his hand to steady me, but then his bootlace came undone. The slope was so steep that he couldn’t let go of my hand to retie it. Two young Tibetan men made their way toward us and bent down to tie Ram Vijaya’s bootlace. It was typical of the Tibetan people. They were friendly, helpful, and courteous to us without exception. Because I was always in my sannyasi robes they treated me with great respect. Even the poorest pilgrims would offer me money.
After several hours, Bada Haridas, Rama Vijaya, and I finally reached the valley at the bottom of the mountain where our horses were waiting for us. The three of us felt we couldn’t go another step, but our guide told us we still had another ten kilometers to go. We rested half an hour, and then mounted our horses for the final leg of our second day on the kora. We found ourselves in the midst of a terrible storm. Our walking team members caught up with us and we all trudged along shivering through sheets of cold, driving rain.
When we reached our campsite, we found the same rudimentary facilities as those of the previous night. Once our packs were brought off the yaks, I changed into dry clothes and jumped into my sleeping bag to try to warm up. Later that evening as I was dozing off in the freezing cabin, I wondered if the second day on the kora—the day of departure—had had any tangible effect on me. I once again prayed to Lord Siva to help destroy my material attachments and grant me eternal residence in Sri Vrindavan dhama.
We awoke to a sunny morning on the last day of the kora, the day of renewal. “Renewal” means that having gone through so much austerity on the kora, the pilgrim would be purified of sin so that his or her spiritual nature would shine forth. When I looked in the mirror that morning, all I saw was an unclean, bearded, disheveled person. But in my heart I had the feeling I had become purified. That morning I chanted my japa with extra attention and relish.
But the kora was not over by any stretch of the imagination. We still had twelve kilometers to trek until we reached our original starting point, the village of Darchen. The path wound up and down several gorges that run along the Indus River (in ancient times called the Sindu). The gorges were so steep that they were unsuitable for the horses. When we were one hour into the trek that morning, the Tibetan family that had rented the horses to us appeared from nowhere to reclaim them. All that kept us going from that point on was the thought that by evening we could take our first shower in days.
Clouds once again darkened the sky. I looked for a sign that we had achieved the mercy of the Lord’s greatest devotee, that Lord Siva had noticed our endeavor. On a hillside, I saw an interesting formation of rocks that bore distinct impressions.
“What is this?” I asked our guide.
“This is where Siva and his bull Nandi come down to congratulate saintly people on the completion of the kora,” he said. “These marks are the impressions of Nandi’s hooves and Siva’s feet.” As I reached out to touch the impressions, the sky cleared for a moment and the sun burst through, giving the atmosphere a golden hue for just a brief moment. When I finished touching the stones, the clouds covered the sky again.
Perhaps it was just the beauty of material nature shining forth. But maybe, just maybe, it was a sign from above that we had received the mercy of Lord Siva. Certainly, such signs are not unusual in a sacred place that, as my guide had said with such confidence, is inhabited by mystics, sages, and rsis.
Aspiring devotees may also receive and experience such divine mercy. In Bhagavad Gita, Krsna is encouraging non-devotees, not pure devotees, when He says famously:
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” [ BG 18.66 ]
It was late afternoon when we walked out onto the open plain and into the village of Darchen. Our kora was officially finished. We all prostrated ourselves on the ground in the direction of Mount Kailash and paid our final obeisances. I stayed on the ground for a long time, reflecting on the journey and all that I had undergone. It had been an adventure, but having completed the Kailash kora, I would not recommend it as an adventure for most Vaisnava devotees. The risks are too great. But I indeed felt I had become a different person, reborn, purified, and cleansed. While walking the path of the kora, I felt I had also journeyed further along on the path of bhakti.
I got up and took a last glance back at the arduous path we had traversed. Then, without looking back again, I walked forward toward my next service for my spiritual master. But wherever that service takes me, part of my heart will always remain in the mountains and valleys of Mount Kailash. I pray that all the mystics, sages, and rsis who reside there, and, most important, Lord Siva himself, will truly accept me as a Kailash-vasi, a resident of Kailash, that mysterious and sacred abode.
That Special Song
July 18, 2017
I awoke at 3:30 a.m. as the first rays of Eastern Europe’s summer sun peeked through my window. I was confused. Where am I? Nothing in the room seemed familiar. Since my travels take me to a new town and country every few days, this happens often when I first awake. Getting up, I looked outside the window to get my bearings.
“Oh, right,” I said softly, as I watched devotees arriving with their luggage to our base for the summer festival tour. “I’m back on the Baltic Sea coast in Poland.”
Excited to begin, I showered quickly, dressed, and stepped out into the cool morning air. Chanting my japa, I found myself distracted by worries of how this tour would unfold. We were short of funding, several trucks were broken down, the electrical system on our massive stage was malfunctioning, and worst of all, local farmers were predicting a cold, wet summer.
I decided not to waste my time in worry. “Krishna’s the supreme controller,” I reminded myself. “He can fix all these obstacles on a moments notice. He’s done it for us many times before in the last 28 years.”
And it’s a fact. While preaching and spreading the holy names, a devotee can sometimes easily perceive the Lord’s intervention in difficult situations. One such case had already happened! Nandini dasi told me, upon my arrival at our new school base, that we were unable to rent the school we had previously used for many years in another town because they were planning to renovate it. She had looked high and low for another school to meet our needs of accommodation for 300 devotees with kitchen included. Not finding anything suitable and with time running out, she approached a school we had stayed in 13 years ago during another summer tour. However, the price was now astronomical – way beyond our means. Nandini bargained with them for days, finally renting the school for half the original price. The next day all 300 of us moved in.
After the agreement was signed, she discovered the whole town had been rooting for us. A lady told her, “Many years ago, when you people were staying here, you used to sing daily on the streets of our town. Everyone remembers those colorful and joyful processions. We miss them! Promise us you’ll find the time to sing that special song you sing over and over and over in our town again while you’re here.”
Later in the morning we held a meeting for the devotees. I impressed upon them that we have inherited a great responsibility from our previous acarayas. For generations, Vaisnavas in India had been developing and organizing Krishna consciousness in such a way that it would one day spread all over the world.
In the 19th Century, Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur wrote, “When will that day come when the fair-skinned foreigners will come to Sri Mayapur-dhama and join with the Bengali Vaisnavas to chant ‘Jaya Sacinandana, Jaya Sacinandana!’
“Very soon the chanting of Harinam sankirtana will be spread all over the world. Oh, when will that day come when people from America, England, France, Germany and Russia will take up kartalas and mridangas and chant Hare Krishna in their towns?” [ From Sajjana-toshani ]
I impressed upon the devotees that the time had arrived for us to uphold the tradition and to spread it to every town and village. It is simultaneously a grave and joyful responsibility, but we are especially fortunate as our contribution is a particularly attractive one: holding Krishna conscious festivals throughout the summer in the beach towns along the Baltic Sea coast.
The next day we went on harinam to advertise our first festival. Soon we were chanting on the boardwalk in great ecstasy with our drums, cymbals, banners, flags and trumpets. Our beautiful, colorful, joyful and exuberant kirtan party was in stark contrast to the unseasonably cold and wet weather, with gray clouds hanging ominously above us in the sky. Devotees moved systematically through the crowds handing out our informative, beautifully designed invitations. The invitations included a quote from the Indian Ambassador to Poland, encouraging people to visit the festival, which in his words “embodied the spirit of India’s culture.” As we proceeded along suddenly a young boy around 12 years of age ran up to me, his eyes wide open in amazement.
“Indradyuma Swami,” he said excitedly. “Do you remember me?”
I wasn’t sure how to reply. I meet thousands of young men his
age each year, so I couldn’t remember him. But I didn’t want to disappoint him. So I paused for a moment hoping he would refresh my memory.
“I first met you when I was 6 months old,” he continued.
I really didn’t know what to say at that point.
“Here’s a picture of me in my Mom’s arms at your festival 12 years ago.”
I glanced at the picture and sure enough there was a baby in his mother’s arms standing next to me on our festival grounds.
“Very nice.” I said.
Then he pulled out another photo.
“Here I am with you at the festival when I was 5.” he said.
Looking closer I saw that he was indeed older and so was I.
Producing a slew of photos he said, “And here we are together when I was 7, 8, 9 and 10!”
“Well, our association is certainly well documented,” I smiled.
“Yes, you’re my hero,” he said. “I’ve never been to a Hare Krishna Temple and I’ve only read one small book about Krishna. But I want to be just like you when I grow up. And guess what? I stopped eating meat a long time ago and I don’t smoke either. My friends think I’m crazy, but I don’t care.”
“I’m happy I can be an example for you,” I replied. “Will you be coming to the festival tonight?”
“Of course,” he said. “And my Mom’s bringing her camera!”
As the harinam wound it’s way through the town many people smiled and waved. I could only conclude that they knew us from having been to our festival before, just like the young man who’d approached me.
“Our festivals changed the antagonistic opinion people had about us some years ago.” I thought. “There was a time when the Catholic Church was openly saying that we were a dangerous sect. Now they wouldn’t dare say such a thing because so many millions of people have passed through our festival programs and know us well. We average 5,000 people a day, for the months of July and August. Multiply that by 40 festivals a summer for 28 years and it’s an astounding number of people who have come in contact with us in a most positive way.”
Smiling, I thought, “It was the church who bravely brought down Communism in this country, but they couldn’t take us down.” I remembered a verse from Bhagavad Gita:
“Wherever there is Krishna, the master of all mystics, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power, and morality.” [Bhagavad-gita 18.78]
Although spoken 5,000 years ago, the Lord’s words in Bhagavad Gita come alive even in modern times if applied properly. Absolute Truth is relevant for all time – past, present and future.
Hour’s later, tired but fully satisfied, we proceeded to the festival site near the beach. The festival was just beginning and all 300 seats in front of the stage were full. Many other hundreds of people were walking around the festival taking in the various attractions: the restaurant, magic show, puppet show, yoga lessons, face painting, cooking demonstrations, question and answers tent, etc. Everything was first class – looking attractive and professional. The harinam devotees quickly took their positions on stage, in the tents and restaurant. All 300 devotees were actively engaged.
As I walked around surveying the scene, I picked up pieces of paper, old cloth and other oddities and put them in garbage cans. Soon after, the first of our theatrical productions, a revised edition of our previous theater, “Krishna in Vrindavan,” began. Devotees had worked for months on the production and their hard work paid off as the crowd gave a thunderous applause at the end.
When it came time for my lecture, I walked up the steps of the stage reflecting on the fact that I’d given introductory lectures on the summer stage for 28 years. I thought about the challenge of giving an introductory lecture to people who return year after year – trying to keep it interesting and fresh.
As I began my talk I saw 4 young men, likely in their early 20’s, showing no interest in what I was saying. At one point, they began making fun of me, imitating my movements and joking about what I said. It was a distraction, so I did what I often do in such circumstances – I fixed my attention on someone in the audience who was attentive and appeared interested. Occasionally I would glance at the disruptive boys. Seeing their ongoing antics only increased my resolve to present the sublime truths of the Gita using convincing examples, analogies and verses. Then something quite amazing happened. Halfway through my lecture I looked over and saw the boys were listening with rapt attention. I thought it might be part of their antics, but as time went on I saw them nodding their heads in approval of what I was saying. At the end of the talk they applauded along with the rest of the crowd.
“Powerful philosophy,” I thought to myself as I descended the stairs to sign copies of the Bhagavad Gita that I had encouraged people to buy during my talk.
An elderly man was one of those waiting in line for me, a new Bhagavad Gita in his hand. He was also holding a smaller edition of Bhagavad Gita translated and commented on by my godbrother, Ranchor dasa, from England. Simple and easy to read, we give his Polish edition along with Srila Prabhupada’s translation of Bhagavad Gita, encouraging people to read it first, so they will better understand Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita As It Is.
“Could you please sign my books?” he said.
As I began signing the books he said, “I want to thank you for your talk. In all my 80 years I have never heard spiritual knowledge explained so clearly and logically as you did today.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I learned everything from my spiritual teacher who translated and wrote the comments in the larger book you have in your hands. Spiritual life is logical as well.”
Clutching the book tightly he said. “Yes, and I am eagerly looking forward to reading it.”
Noting his distinguished appearance I asked what his profession was.
“I’m retired” was his only reply.
“But what did you do as a profession during your working years?”
“I was a politician” he replied quite reluctantly.
“Oh, what was that like?” I asked hoping to get into a discussion where I could somehow introduce Krishna consciousness.
“You wouldn’t want to know,” he replied. “Let’s not get into that. You people just keep doing what you are doing. You’re capable of making the world a better place. And I mean that.”
As he walked away I saw people in the line talking excitedly.
“Do you know who that man is? ” said the next person who came forward for a signature.
“No, I don’t,” I replied.
He mentioned some name with reverence and was a bit surprised by my lack of response, as I had never heard the name before. Nevertheless, I took great satisfaction that a man of political importance had bought a Bhagavad Gita.
There were around 12 people in line with Bhagavad Gitas in their hands. Sitting down, I signed one after the other, hardly looking up. When the last person came forward, I stood up and looked at him to ask if he was enjoying the show. Suddenly I realized he was one of the boys who had been making fun of me during my talk. Looking at me with his head bent down a little he said softly, “Sorry.”
“No problem,” I said. “Give me your book. I’ll be happy to sign it.” As he was leaving I shook his hand firmly and asked him to come back the next day.
“Sure” he replied. “What time will you be speaking?”
I smiled and replied, “Same time, same place.”
After signing the books, I walked over to sit down on one of the last benches in front of the stage. Very quickly a woman in her early 40’s approached me.
“May I speak to you for a moment?” she said. “I don’t want to take much of your time.”
“Of course,” I said.
“I just wanted to thank you for your talk. It literally saved my life.”
“Saved your life?” I said, thinking that perhaps she was speaking metaphorically.
“Yes,” she said. “Two years ago my only child, my 16 year old son, was killed in a head-on car collision. I was devastated and as a result my relationship with my husband deteriorated quickly. We began quarreling and fighting and eventually separated. Six months ago we divorced. Because I was so distraught I couldn’t focus at work, and several months ago I lost my job. My friends were unable to cope with me, and one by one they abandoned me. I couldn’t make sense of it all. I kept asking, ‘why is all this happening to me?’”
She paused and then said: “There seemed to be no reason to keep living. So I came up here to the coast last week with the intention of ending my life.”
“I’m sorry to hear all this,” I said in sympathy.
“But today I was walking on the boardwalk past your festival at the moment you came on the stage to give your talk. I could sense this was a spiritual event and decided to sit and listen to you, hoping to find some solace in my misery. But besides the solace I also found the answer to my question of why my life was so suddenly turned upside down. Your clear and logical explanation of karma – receiving the results of our past actions – made sense to me. But most important you offered an alternative to my misery. Your explanation of the spiritual world was convincing, and I realized then and there that returning there was the real solution to my problems. So I’m going to go and purchase the Bhagavad Gita now. I just request that I can keep in touch with you.”
Then she paused and concluded: “Thank you for saving my life – and more important – for giving me new life.”
It was a humbling experience, but I silently thanked Srila Prabhupada for saving us all.
In the next moment, the head of our security team rushed up to me exclaiming, “Srila Gurudeva, be on your guard! There’s a big, burley man walking around the festival grounds asking for “the guru.” He has approached several of my men. He’s looking in the tents now. Don’t worry, we’re here if you need us.”
Suddenly ten meters away, a large, muscular man, dressed in shorts and t-shirt called out “Maharaja!” with a big smile and came running toward me. Before security could intervene, he picked me up and swung me around saying, “I’ve missed you so much!”
Putting me down he continued, “Do you remember me? Woodstock, 1997, in Zary, Poland. I lent my truck to you to transport your equipment around the site.”
I remembered. “Yes!” I said, “We spent many hours talking about life during that event.”
“Everyone in my town misses you guys,” he said in a quieter tone. “You know, people still talk about the singing parties you all had in the town market day after day. They were magical!”
“Yes,” I repeated, “Magical.”
“I’m up here on the coast for vacation and I got an invitation to your event on the beach this morning.” He continued. “I was thinking, ‘maybe Maharaja will be there’ and here you are! I’m so happy to see you again.”
“And I’m happy to see you,” I said, taking his hand.
Then he paused and said, “Seriously, Maharaja, when will you and your team come back to Zary and sing that special song in the market place? It would make us all so happy.”
tri bhuvana kamaniye gaura candre vatirne
patita yavana murkhah sarvatha sphotayantah
iha jagati samasta nama sankirtanarta
vayam api ca krtarthah Krishna namasrayad bhoh
“When Lord Gauracandra, the most attractive personality within the three worlds advented in this universe, all the fallen souls began to wave their arms in the air excited by the congregational chanting of the holy names. We also were completely fulfilled because of our taking shelter of those same names of Lord Krishna. O my Lord!”
[ Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam – One Hundred Beautiful Verses Composed In Glorification Of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu – verse 44 ]
I Shall Not Pass This Way Again
July 23, 2017
I am aware that my biological clock is winding down. There is no use denying it. It is real. Not only am I in my late sixties, but I have also survived two deadly bouts of cancer. Left with the possibility of reoccurrence, I savour each moment just like gold. My years of training in Krsna consciousness have prepared me for the arrival of old age and disease, and have enabled me to handle them without lamentation. Moreover, the challenges of old age have acted as a strong impetuous to improve the quality of my chanting – the principle activity in Krsna consciousness – both in my personal sadhana and in the public forum. I am more aware than ever of my good fortune in serving in my spiritual master’s mission, and as a result, I find myself focusing intently on each and every syllable of the maha mantra as I chant my japa. I also give my heart and soul to chanting in city streets throughout the word. There is a sense of urgency that comes with the passing of the decades. The years left to me are likely measured in single digits, not double, and so I wake each morning thanking Srila Prabhupada for the opportunity to represent our august succession of spiritual teachers to the devotees I train and the people I meet.
As we set out to advertise our sixth summer festival program to be held in the city of Miedzyzdroje on Poland’s Baltic Sea coast, I eagerly joined the harinam chanting party. As our festival crew began setting up the stage and tents on the lawn of the main park in town, just meters from the crowded beach, seventy of us walked down the boardwalk toward the sand. On the way, we passed three scruffy tattooed men in black leather jackets getting off their motorcycles. One of them made threatening motions and shouted obscenities at us, and the other two followed us for a short distance, jeering and making fun of us.
“Don’t look at them,” I told the devotees. “Just keep walking.” Nothing and no one should disturb our enthusiasm.
Down on the beach, we began chanting, dancing and handing out colorful invitations. As always, people smiled and waved, happy to see us. It was obvious that many had been to our festivals before.
We passed by a young girl who jumped up and excitedly spoke to her mother. “Mommy, if I speak to them, will they understand me?”
“You’d have to speak Hare Krishna to them,” the mother said.
“You mean like French or German?” the girl asked.
“Exactly,” the mother said seriously. “You’ll have to learn Hare Krishna.”
Our procession wove through the crowded beach, handing out thousands of invitations left and right. Most people accepted them with a smile or a handshake, but when one boy took one his mother shouted at him angrily.
“Give me that!” she yelled. “These are dangerous people!”
“Dangerous?” he said incredulously, holding the invitation out of her reach. “They are cleanly dressed, they’re singing and dancing, they’re smiling and waving at everyone. What exactly is dangerous about them?”
“They just are!” the mother said loudly. “Everyone knows it.”
“But everyone is waving back to them,” the boy said. “And smiling too. And over there some people are buying books from them. Nobody else seems to think they’re dangerous.”
“Just listen to me!” the mother screamed. “Throw that invitation into the sea.”
“Oh, Mom!” the boy exclaimed, shaking his head. His mother turned away. He smiled at me and shoved the invitation into his pocket.
We chanted for an hour down the beach, and then stopped at one particularly crowded area. I gave a short talk to the people who had gathered, explaining why were chanting and a little about the festival. People listened attentively, applauding in places and nodding in approval. I thought to myself about how pious people in ancient India would visit a temple or ashram to listen to Vedic knowledge from a sadhu or priest. But here I was on a public beach in Eastern Europe sharing the exact same Absolute Truth to sunbathers in swim suits, a number of whom were holding beer cans. Yet they were clapping and agreeing with much of what I said! Such is the incredible mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
After I finished my talk, several devotees went through the crowd offering Srila Prabhupada’s books to the audience. I smiled as I watched interested people purchasing the books. The kirtana and philosophy had touched their hearts. I noticed one woman with at least six children hesitate over buying a book but she eventually shook her head, and our party moved on.
But half an hour later, one of her sons found us further down the beach.
“Mom decided she wants the book,” he said breathlessly. “Here’s the money.” He took a Bhagavad-gita. Still trying to catch his breath he said, “Mom said it was too far for just one of us to run the whole way, and we were afraid we’d lose you if we didn’t run, so…”
He gestured down the beach. His brothers and sisters were lined up at 50-meter intervals like a relay team.
“She really wants the book!” he explained. Then he ran and gave the book to his brother, who ran the next 50 meters and gave it to their sister. As she ran to into the crowd, obviously to find the next sibling, the two brothers walked at a leisurely pace back up the beach.
We chanted for several hours, the devotees jumping and twirling amidst people sunbathing, swimming and eating ice-cream. A number of devotees waved colorful flags and banners, and others distributed delicious cookies. Anyone within hearing range was staring at us in wonder. Suddenly, I noticed the three motorcycle gang members – their leather apparel had been removed and they were lounging on the sand in swimsuits.
“Uh oh,” I thought. “Here comes trouble.”
But to my amazement all three of them started dancing with us, while smiling and trying to repeat the mantra as best they could. At first I thought they were mocking us, but it soon became obvious that they were enjoying themselves. The kirtan leader began to bring the kirtan to a close, but I said loudly in his ear, “Keep it going. Don’t stop!”
He looked at me incredulously as if to say, “But I’m exhausted!” He had been leading kirtan for more than two hours.
I shook my head. “Keep it going until I tell you to stop.”
The holy names melted the hard hearts of the men who had been so rude to us earlier. My smile got bigger and bigger as they danced. Finally, they fell back exhausted in the sand, and I motioned to the equally exhausted kirtan leader that he could stop. As we walked away I looked back and one of the gang members smiled and gave me a thumbs up. I remembered one of my favorite verses, written by Sarvabauma Bhattacarya:
“From the time that Sri Gauranga Mahaprabhu, the sacred form of love for Krsna, gave out His gifts of prema, the sinner, the ascetic, the drunkard, the dacoit, the rogue and thief, all became very grateful to Him, completely abandoned sense enjoyment as if it were deadly poison and then very intoxicated, loudly sang the holy names of Krsna, until they sank exhausted into the ocean of Krsna-prema.” [Susloka-Satakam, verse 49]
Back at the festival site, the set-up crew was putting the finishing touches on the stage and tents. Our harinam party hardly had time to honor prasadam before people started filling the seats in front of the stage. I watched the devotees rush to their respective services.
“These devotees are real troopers,” I thought. “They go on harinam for five hours each day and then serve for another five hours at the festival – whether it be doing stage performances, or in the restaurant tent or exhibits. And they do it for two months straight! Their deliverance is assured!”
jalpanti hari namani
caitanya jnana rupatah
bhajanti vaisnavan ye tu
te gacchanti hareh padam
“Those who chant the names of Hari, while learning the knowledge and following the practices taught by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and who worship the Vaisnavas, certainly go to the abode of Sri Hari!” [Susloka-Satakam, verse 80]
Just as I was sitting down to watch the first stage act, a young man rode into the festival on his bicycle. He wove in and out of the crowd and stopped directly in front of me.
“Master! Master!” he cried out. “I’m back! I rode 200 kilometers to get here. You remember me, right?”
“I do,” I said with a smile. “We meet at this same spot in this same town every summer.”
“Yep!” he said. “And you know why I come, right? Because just one evening with you guys keeps me going for the whole year. Seriously. The stage show, the singing, your happy smiling faces – it’s enough to give me the strength to bear all of life’s trials, for I know that the good Lord is with me.”
“That’s wonderful.” I said.
“But don’t forget, Master,” he said with a coy smile, “your special grace upon me each year.”
I had to think for a moment.
“The food!” he exclaimed. “You know I’m a poor man. That’s why I ride my bicycle here. I can’t even afford a bus ticket! You can imagine how hungry I must be!”
Smiling I took him by the hand and walked with him over to the restaurant.
“My friend here has my permission to eat anything and as much as he wants,” I said to the devotee behind the counter.
On the other side of the restaurant tent, I saw a large man with cuts and bruises on his face. I recognized him as another unusual veteran of our festivals.
Coming forward he said, “I’ve been waiting months to talk to you, counting the days down on the calendar until your festival came to town. Life is still difficult for me. I just can’t make ends meet. I’m trying to take your advice to become more serious about spiritual life, but lately things have gotten so bad I can’t think of anything else but my sorrows. You know, they repossessed my house!” He broke down crying.
“Let’s move outside the restaurant,” I said.
“My wife and kids can’t enjoy life,” he said once we were outside. “Everything’s a struggle. The other day I gave up. I tried to hang myself from a tree on the roadside, but a passing motorist stopped and cut the rope!”
“I’m so sorry to hear this,” I said. “Remember what I told you last year?”
“Yes, I remember,” he said softly. “You told me that we are all suffering or enjoying because of our past activities. And that we have to tolerate happiness and sadness, just like we have to tolerate the seasons which come and go.”
“Yes,” I said.”
“You also said that we should use difficult times to take shelter of God. And you said that because my wife is a devout Catholic I should go to church with her and pray to God for guidance.”
“And are you doing that?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said sheepishly.
“Well, if you don’t take my advice what can I do?” I asked. “It’s in your own best interest.”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s about time I get serious and do what you suggest. I promise I’ll start going to church. What’s that prayer again, the one that you gave to me to say?”
I wrote down the Hare Krishna mantra and gave it to him.
“These are names of God,” I said. “It is the most powerful prayer for this age.”
“It’s OK to say them in church?” he asked.
“Why not?” I said. “It’s an appeal to the Lord of all religions.”
As we parted he handed me a wad of Polish money.
“I can’t take this,” I said.
“No, please!” he insisted. “It’s money I make from bare knuckle-fighting on the weekends. That’s where I get all these bruises and scars on my face. I keep aside some of the money for you each year. I beg you, please take it.”
I accepted the money, with the intention of putting it towards the sale of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
It was time to give my lecture. I walked toward the stage, my heart completely satisfied from another day’s work in service to the Lord.
“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
[Stephen Grellet, 1773-1855, Quaker missionary]
The Line up
July 31, 2017
I was in a cheerful mood when I awoke on the last day of the first half of our summer tour. All twenty-four of our festival programs along the Baltic Sea coast in Poland so far had been successful despite the unseasonably bad weather. For the moment, auspiciousness reigned. Nevertheless, I reflected on the unpredictable nature of this world and Srila Prabhupada’s words to a disciple that, ‘anything can happen at any time.’ But after musing that reality, I returned to the joyful fact that we had one last festival that day, before packing up and moving to our next base for the great Woodstock festival. As I readied myself for my service, I remembered a quote that caught my eye the day before:
“Be satisfied and pleased with what thou art,
Act cheerfully and well thy allotted part,
Enjoy the present hour, be thankful for the past,
And neither fear, nor wish, the approaches of the last.”
[Marcus Valerius Martialis: Roman poet, 41 – 102 AD]
Later in the morning I met with all the devotees and thanked them for their unwavering service over the past month. I also reminded them of the challenges we still faced ahead. There was fatigue evident in their bodies, but their resolute determination to go forward shone from their eyes. How I love these devotees!
That morning we headed out on harinama to advertise the festival. The beach at Ustronie Morskie was so crowded that there was hardly room to place one person’s foot, let alone the feet of 75 dancing devotees!
“Move on down to the water!” I called out to the devotees.
But the mass of people extended down to the last inch of sand. We had no choice but to enter the sea and walk with the splashing waves up to our ankles.
“It’s freezing cold!” screamed one of the devotees.
“It’s the Baltic Sea!” I called out. “Not the Pacific Ocean. Just keep forging ahead. You’ll get used to it.”
It must have made for a humorous sight, all of us trudging through the water, trying to balance in the slushy sand while singing and playing musical instruments. But the people were sympathetic. They moved out of the water as we passed by, and even offered words of encouragement. At one point a group of women stood and clapped, and called out, “Bravo! Bravo!”
Suddenly, I saw coming from the opposite direction on the beach, a large group of Christians with guitars, banners and flags singing the glories of Jesus Christ. I was amazed. In all my years of chanting on the beaches of the Baltic Sea I have never seen Christians singing like us. I smiled as they approached us, but a devotee walking next to me expressed his disdain.
“No, no,” I said. “Don’t speak like that. What’s the difference between what we’re doing and what they’re doing? There is no difference. It is all for the glory of the Lord. Besides, there’s a saying: ‘Imitation is the highest form of flattery.’”
I smiled and waved at several nuns who accompanied the singing party, and they smiled and waved back. The devotee walking beside me didn’t seem impressed.
I looked at him and, quoting Albert Schweitzer, I said, “You don’t live in a world all your own. Your brothers are here too.”
When I stopped the kirtan party further down the beach, 20 people spontaneously joined in and began dancing with us. It happens every time. It never ceases to amaze me how people on the Polish beaches dance with us with such abandon. More than anything else I attribute it to the immediately purifying effect of holy names. The holy names are so potent that they transform even the most mundane place into an abode of transcendence.
“The rivers Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, as well as all holy places of pilgrimage appear where the transcendental topics of the infallible Supreme Personality of Godhead are narrated.”
[Srila Rupa Goswami, Padyavali, text 44].
As the kirtan wound down, I noticed a book distributor offering a family a Bhagavad-gita a few meters away. Unfortunately, I could see they weren’t interested, but then one of the children, a girl of about sixteen years old, grabbed the book and held it close to her chest. When the mother tried to take it back from her, the girl started flailing her arms and making all sorts of faces. It was obvious that she wanted the book. After some discussion with her husband, her mother finally bought the book for her.
“What was all that about?” I asked the devotee who sold the book, once we had moved on.
“The parents weren’t interested, but the young girl was,” she said. “She was fascinated by the pictures in the Gita and read several of the verses as I showed them to her parents. I was surprised when she grabbed it from me. Her parents apologised and told me that she was deaf and dumb. But in spite of not being able to hear or speak, something she saw in that short encounter resonated with her and she wasn’t going to give that book up! So her parents gave in and bought it for her.”
I looked back up the beach at the family. The mother and father were swimming, while their daughter sat fully absorbed in reading the Gita on the beach.
After three hours we let the kirtan wind down. I could see the devotees were exhausted, not only from walking in the water on the soft sand, but from the twenty-four previous harinams and the twenty-four previous festivals as well!
When we arrived back at the festival grounds early, Nandini dasi approached me looking relieved.
“Srila Gurudeva, there are already guests here who would like to meet you. They came off the beach, went back to their hotels, got dressed and here they are.” She pointed to a small group of people sitting on the benches in front of the stage.
I hesitated for a moment. “But I’m so tired,” I thought. But then I reminded myself that these people were seeking out the association of devotees, and all my hesitation lifted.
“Ok, give me ten minutes—no rest for the wicked,” I joked.
“Wicked what?” Nandini asked.
“Oh, nothing,” I replied. “I’ll be back in ten.”
I walked to a shady spot away from the tents, and lay down on the grass for ten minutes. I splashed some cold water on my face and went looking for the people who were waiting to talk with me.
“Hi, my name is Kinga,” said a young woman in her early 20s. “I wanted to know if you could sign my Bhagavad-gita? I bought it on the beach today.”
“Sure,” I said. “Is this your first time at our festival?”
“Yes,” she replied. “But I know everything about you.”
“Oh?” I said, a bit surprised. “How do you know everything about us?”
“No, I don’t mean I know everything about all this,” she said, gesturing with her arms around the festival site. “I mean, I know everything about YOU.” And she pointed at me.
I was puzzled. “You know everything about me?”
“Yes,” she said. “Two years ago I was really depressed. Despite professional help I was sinking lower and lower. One night in desperation I did a Google search for the word ‘happiness’. As you can imagine there were so many leads to follow, but I took a chance and clicked one that said ‘Chant Hare Krishna and Be Happy.’ That led me to the Hare Krishna Movement and after half an hour I was absorbed in reading your Facebook page. I stayed up all night reading your posts, looking at your photo albums and watching your videos. I found great solace in your singing of the Hare Krishna song. After some time I couldn’t fall asleep at night without that song.
“I also learned so much about your spiritual teacher, Swami Prabhupada. When I read about all the difficulties he went through to bring the teachings of Krishna to the West, my problems seemed insignificant in comparison. I started chanting Hare Krishna and reading Hare Krishna books online. Gradually my depression went away and now I’m actually happy all of the time. My doctors can’t believe it. And I never miss a single posting you put up on Facebook.
“Anyway, I told my mom I wanted to meet you personally, so we planned our vacation around your event. I’m so eager for it to start. When will you sing?”
“Towards the end of the show,” I said, a little embarrassed as I handed her the signed copy of Bhagavad-gita.
“You don’t know how much you mean to me,” she said. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d probably be dead.”
I was speechless. I just nodded my head and prayed to Srila Prabhupada to be his proper representative.
Next in line was a woman who looked familiar. Her husband stood just behind her.
“I’m so happy to see you again!” she said shaking my hand vigorously. “Do you remember me? Two days ago in another town, Rewal, you gave me your garland after your lecture. And you gave me a Bhagavad-gita too.”
“Oh, yes” I said. “I remember. I always give my garland to someone in the audience along with a Bhagavad-gita after my talk.”
“Well, to be frank,” she said, “I wasn’t interested at all. I hardly listened to your talk. I was waiting for the next act on stage. But I was touched by your kindness so I took the book with me to the beach yesterday. To make a long story short, I couldn’t stop reading it. I read it all day yesterday and today. Everything that’s in it makes so much sense. That’s why I dragged my husband here this evening. He’s a chemical engineer, so I’m sure he’ll understand your philosophy, although the book says that one can only learn these things with the help of a spiritual teacher.”
“You’re learning fast,” I said with a smile, and I signed the copy of the Gita I had given her two days ago.
“We’re going to put this book right next to the Bible in our home,” she said.
“This is quite a line-up!” I thought to myself.
The next lady was stately and well-dressed. She came forward with her daughter and handed me an old and well-worn Bhagavad-gita.
“Welcome to our festival,” I said with a nod.
“Thank you,” said the woman. “We’ve been coming to your festival for 16 years. My daughter was only two at the first one.”
“Yes, we love it,” said the girl. “We have pictures of the festival all over our house. We play your music all the time and read the Bhagavad-gita too. We brought it for you to sign today. We used to come with my grandma, but for the last three years she hasn’t been able to attend because she’s too old.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“No, no, it’s OK”, said the lady. “While we sit and watch the program, we call her and hold my cell phone up to capture the sound of the festival. She’s heard the whole show each year she hasn’t come.”
“My mom and I swap the phone back and forth between us because the show is five hours long, and our arms get tired holding it up,” said the daughter, laughing. “Your singing at the end is my grandma’s favourite part. We’ve recorded a number of your songs. Grandma can’t go to sleep at night without listening to you chant!”
I signed a few more books and then headed toward my van to freshen up and prepare for the festival. As I walked, I reflected on my cheerful thoughts of that morning.
“Everything really is going so well,” I said to myself.
But at that moment a devotee girl raced toward me calling out hysterically, “Gurudeva! Gurudeva! I got a call from my family, and they said that my mother just died! She had a sudden heart attack!”
She collapsed in front of me, and her friends ran forward to comfort her. I remembered Srila Prabhupada’s prophetic words: “Anything can happen at any time.”
At such moments one can only offer words of comfort to the person lamenting. It’s not a time for philosophy.
“I’m sorry I’m crying,” the girl said.
“Just keep crying,” I said. “We all understand. And we’re here for you.”
After ten minutes she said, “Gurudeva, please give me some words of wisdom.”
I quoted from the Bible:
“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to grieve and a time to dance.”
I gently elaborated on the words of Ecclesiastes for some time and the girl gradually calmed down.
“May I share with you my mother’s story?” she asked.
“Yes, please do.” I said.
“Twenty years ago my mother worked in the airport in Ekaterinburg, Russia. One day you arrived on a flight from Moscow and were greeted by a large group of devotees, who gave you a beautiful fragrant flower garland that extended down to your knees. As the devotees were escorting you out of the terminal, my mother, who had never seen devotees before, stood outside her office is awe. Noticing her, you walked over and placed the flower garland around her neck. Then you proceeded on your way with the kirtan party.
“My mother was deeply touched by your gesture. In fact, that garland hung in her office until she retired last year. I remember seeing it each time I visited her office. She’d tell me the story over and over of how you gave it to her. Three years ago, I became interested in Krishna consciousness and started visiting the local temple. As much as she appreciated devotees, she was somehow reluctant for me to get involved. At one point, she even discouraged me from going to the temple too often.
“Then last year you came to Ekaterinburg for our Ratha Yatra. At that time I approached you and asked if I could become your aspiring disciple. You kindly agreed and asked if my mother was favourable to my involvement. I explained how she was a little uneasy about the idea, but I shared with you the story of how you gave her a garland at the airport 20 years ago. Your eyes lit up and you said, ‘I have an idea!’ Then you sat down and wrote my mother the sweetest letter, telling her not to worry because Krishna consciousness is the most desirable life for young people. You promised her that you’d watch out for me and protect me. When you gave me the letter you also took off your large flower garland and asked me to present it to my mother with the letter.
“When I went home that night I first gave my mother the letter. As she read it, tears started flowing down her cheeks. But when she finished and I gave her your garland she broke down sobbing. Everything changed after that. She not only encouraged me in my practice of Krishna consciousness, but she herself became involved! She would come regularly to the temple to help with the cooking and many times she gave money for various temple projects. All the devotees loved her and she loved all of them.
“Then early this morning she had the heart attack. The ambulance came and took her to the hospital. She asked that the devotees come and be by her side. When she left her body a few hours ago many devotees were around her sweetly singing the holy names of Krishna. It was such an auspicious departure. I miss my mother so much!” She began crying again.
“Your mother is going to be fine,” I said. “She has heard the sublime message of how to transcend this world of birth and death, the same message we are striving to give to the people through our festival programs. Know for sure that Krishna will gradually lead her back Home, back to Godhead.”
“Out of His spontaneous compassion Lord Caitanya restored all the people back to consciousness, and through the means of His Holy Name enabled them to pass beyond the impassable ocean of the age of quarrel. Thus by the golden moons of Lord Hari and the Vaisnavas news of the names of Krishna was told from person to person.”
[Sarvabauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, Verse 46]
August 12, 2017
“I hate you people and all you stand for!” shouted the school’s headmaster. “There’s no way I will ever, and I repeat, EVER, rent this school to you during Woodstock.” With that he slammed the door, leaving Nandini dasi standing dumbstruck with no alternate accommodations for most of the 700 devotees coming for the event.
Fifteen minutes later her 4 year-old son, Alex, who was playing with his friends nearby wandered over and casually walked into the headmaster’s office. “I want to tell you something….” he began. The headmaster, startled by the youngster’s bravery, decided to listen to what he had to say.
Years later the headmaster told Nandini, “I never heard a 4 year-old speak so articulately in my life, what to speak of his convincing arguments why you people should have the school!” Back then he had granted permission for us to use the school after Alex convinced him it was the right thing to do.
That was in 2013. Since then the headmaster has welcomed us back every year during Woodstock and has become a great admirer of our movement. As always, he was even there to greet us last week when two of our buses from Ukraine and Moldova arrived at his school two days before for the twenty-third Woodstock festival.
“Trouble’s brewing,” he said warily, as he greeted Nandini.
He didn’t have to explain. Most everyone in the country was aware that the conservative government was not happy with the Woodstock festival and was doing everything it could to try and stop it from taking place.
“Yes, I know,” said Nandini. “Their latest attempt to shut the festival down is to impose so many security restrictions that it will be too expensive to proceed. I heard that the organizers made a desperate public appeal for financial help today.”
“Even if they get the funds,” said the headmaster, “the restrictions are so imposing that it will be impossible for the event to function properly. They plan to do an extensive search of each and every vehicle coming to the event. They say they’re afraid of terrorists. Rumor has it that snipers will cover the event from the nearby hills.”
The next morning I told my driver Guru Kripa das to get our van ready to go down to the Woodstock field where a number of our men had been busy setting up our Krishna’s Village of Peace for two weeks.
“Give me half an hour,” he said. “I have to run to get the special pass and ID papers that the government issued for our van.”
“Wow” it’s really true,” I thought. “This year’s Woodstock festival might be pretty intense.”
One hour later we approached an ominous looking checkpoint on the only road leading into the festival sight. Suddenly six policemen in riot gear appeared from behind a barricade and approached our van—their hands on their guns.
“Driver, stop the van!” shouted one through a megaphone. “Take the keys out of the ignition and step out of the car slowly, with your hands above your head. Everyone else in the van do the same. Now!”
As we stood in the road they patted us down and searched the van.
“Now get back in,” the same officer said.
A little confused by what was going on, we moved slowly back toward the van.
“Move it!” the officer barked. As we drove away, I made eye contact with him and tried to smile. He just glared back. I noted that his badge was number 44. I would warn other devotees who would be coming through to be cautious.
As we drove into the festival site I said to the other men in the car, “They’re definitely going to have to change the motto of this festival from ‘Peace, Love and Rock and Roll.’”
Once we arrived at our village, set upon one-half hector of land, all tension diminished. The men had done a great job in setting up all the colorful tents, including the big one of over 50 meters long.
“We’ve been lucky,” said a new devotee who was helping. “The weatherman has been predicting rain every day, but it hasn’t rained once!”
“It’s not luck” I corrected him, “It’s Krishna’s mercy. In Krsna Book, Queen Kunti says to the Lord, ‘So, my dear Krishna, there is no question of bad luck; we are always in an auspicious position because of Your grace.’ What was true then is also true now if we’re serving Krishna’s mission. Our lives are always auspicious.”
As I walked around the large area set aside for our village I marveled at the fact that we’d set up our village thirteen times on the same field. “It’s become sacred ground,” I mused. “One can feel the atmosphere has changed because of the many hours and days we’ve chanted the holy names at this exact location. Not only us, but the thousands of people who come to Woodstock and chant Hare Krishna with us.”
“Sacred Ground!” I called out enthusiastically, “It’s true!” causing all the devotees working at the site to look up at me curiously.
“Incessantly they discuss the narrations of Sri Krishna’s pastimes with one another and chant the names of Krsna which bestow pure devotion. Overwhelmed with ecstasy they preach the Hare Krishna Mantra throughout the earth to destroy the sins of the age of Kali.”
[ Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, text 76 ]
The next morning we held a meeting with all 700 devotees present. I stressed the historic nature of our presence at Woodstock and how we had to take advantage of the opportunity to reach these young people with the holy names.
“Carpe diem” I began. “That’s a Latin aphorism which means ‘seize the moment.’ Seventy-five years ago this very place where we are sitting was a war zone with mass killings committed by both the allied and axis armies. No one was safe—no man, woman or child. But now Russian, German, and American devotees can come together as brothers and sisters, in a time of peace—free to spread our message. We must do so with a sense of urgency because we all know that history often repeats itself. Let’s chant and dance with a common purpose—giving the one million young people coming to Woodstock a simple and joyful solution to all the upheaval in this world!”
As I closed, the devotees let out a huge roar. Then and there I knew that somehow Krishna would arrange for Woodstock to go on.
The day before the actual Woodstock festival begins, is traditionally “Hare Krishna Day.” Most of the people have arrived at Woodstock by that time and we open our village at 11:00 a.m. Much to the delight of the people, we started early with full prasadam distribution at our Food for Peace tent—despite the complications of getting our prasadam vans through the congested traffic caused by the police security checks. I was amazed to see people literally running toward the massive tent as the news spread that we were selling prasadam for a nominal fee. Moments later we rolled our massive Ratha Yatra cart onto the one and only street running through the grounds, accompanied by a rousing kirtan with 100 devotees. The sacred grounds were becoming even more sanctified!
As the rumbling chariot made it’s way through the throngs of people, I gave a flower garland I was wearing to a girl who was pulling on one of the ropes. She had a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She looked at the garland, and quickly threw away both the beer and the cigarette.
“Doesn’t match,” she said. “Two different worlds.”
“One down, 999,000 to go” I chuckled to myself.
Many of the youth came forward to either pull the chariot, or sing and dance with us. I was initially surprised that so many seemed to know the Hare Krishna Mantra. So I pulled one disheveled boy with a wild mohawk haircut aside and asked him, “How do you know the song?”
“It’s Kali Yuga, man,” he shouted above the roar of the kirtan, “there’s no other way!” With that he jumped back into the kirtan chanting with abandon.
We had printed a special invitation beckoning people to come to our village and everyone seemed to be accepting them. Within two hours all 10,000 we brought with us for that day were distributed. As I was expressing my displeasure to the kirtan leader that we hadn’t brought enough invitations, a young woman overheard us.
“Don’t worry, everyone here knows about Krishna’s Village of Peace” she said. “There was an online survey done last week on the official Woodstock website. One question was: ‘where do you spend most of your money at Woodstock?’
Ninety percent of the people replied, ‘At the Hare Krishna’s, Food for Peace tent!’”
That evening our Mantra Yoga tent swelled with people as Mahatma dasa, Sivarama Swami, BB Govinda Maharaja, Bada Haridas and Madhava prabhu led kirtan, one after another. As we ended the kirtan at 1:00 a.m. and I went outside, I was surprised to see the Questions and Answers tent still full of around 100 people. I expressed my surprise to one of our security men who said, “Yep, I stand here and watch ’em go from the kirtan tent to the Question and Answers tent, and then on to the book tent where most of the time they walk out with either a Bhagavad-Gita, a cookbook, or the Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita.
Before going back to our base, I walked over to our Food for Peace tent.
“How’s it going?” I asked Rasikendra dasa.
“30,000 plates of prasadam today,” he said with a big smile. “And we’ve started cooking for the morning now.”
“What about getting some rest?” I said astonished.
“Too much nectar flowing,” he said as he walked off. Then he turned and added, “Oh yeah, we’re giving maha prasadam to the police at the roadblocks and they’re starting to ease up on us. Now we’re getting all the prasadam vans through pretty quickly. From the four school kitchens to the festival site it takes only thirty minutes. ”
The next day Woodstock’s organizer, Jurek Owsiak, called and asked us to come for the grand opening on the main stage. “Could you bring some of your theater performers in their colorful outfits?” he asked. At 3:00 p.m. we went to the back of the main stage and were met by security men who immediately took us up the stairs to the stage. The main security man said, “After Jurek and a few musicians come on, you’ll be next in line. You can go straight to the front. You’ll be in full view of the crowd of 300,000 people.”
Within moments Jurek went onstage and thanked all the people present for assisting in his charity work to help children’s hospitals. He told them the Woodstock festival was his reciprocation for all their hard work. Then he said loudly that no politics could stop the event and that they were all victorious in face of huge opposition that year. Relaxing his tone, he turned to the devotees and myself and said, “Let us thank Krishna’s Village of Peace for being with us again with their good food and all their entertainment!” As 300,000 people applauded I waved and said softly, “Srila Prabhupada I pray you are watching and that you are pleased.”
With that little mention from Jurek, our village was soon filled to capacity. At any one time there were between 5,000 – 10,000 people in our main tent, in line for prasadam, henna drawings, taking yoga classes, attending seminars, or just walking around our spotlessly clean area.
That night Acyuta Gopi dasi arrived from New York and brought the house down with her late night kirtan in the Mantra Yoga tent.
The next morning, Nandini came running toward me waving a newspaper in the air as I was getting in the van to go down to the festival site.
“Gurudeva! Gurudeva! Look! Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the biggest newspapers in the country has a positive front page article on Woodstock and the cover photo is our Ratha Yatra parade.”
We both stared at awe at the newspaper. “I never imagined we’d get such recognition, especially in the present political climate,” I said.
“It’s due to the service of so many wonderful devotees this year,” she said. “And maybe a little luck.”
“Not luck,” I said with a smile, repeating my words from the day before. “Our lives are auspicious because of Krishna’s grace.”
As our van approached the security check at the Woodstock field thirty minutes later, I could see policemen were checking cars with less scrutiny. When we approached, a policeman just glanced at us and waved us on.
“They must have retired the snipers by now.” I joked to the devotees in the car.
By the time we arrived, prasadam distribution was in full swing.
“I’m going to distribute prasadam for a few minutes before the Ratha Yatra parade begins,” I told the devotees in the van.
As I stepped into the Food for Peace tent and looked out at the eight lines stretching back 80 yards each, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Joining one of the serving teams, I chose to serve the last preparation in line, halavah. It has always been one of the festival-goers favorites. With a serving spoon, I dipped into the pot and took a generous dose, carefully placing it on a young man’s empty plate in from of me.
“You’re not taking rice or vegetables?” I asked curiously.
“No” he said, standing there staring at the plate.
“Please move along!” urged one of the servers as the boy continued staring at the halavah. “There are people waiting.”
“Just one second.” he said with a smile. Then he dipped his finger into the halvah and then into his mouth.
“Ahhhh!” he said pausing for a few more moments. “I’ve been waiting twelve months to relish that taste!”
“A worthy veteran of our festival” I said to him as I eased him forward.
After twenty minutes, I relinquished my spot in the server’s line, thinking, “I should get a picture of the long line.”
Taking out my camera I took a few shots of people nearby and then with a long lens focused further down the line. To my surprise I saw 3 policemen in line.
Pushing my lens as far as it would go, I saw their insignias, ranks and, then to my surprise, badge number 44! It was the policeman who had been so rough with us the first day we entered Woodstock.
I said softly, “Just see how people’s hearts are changed by the association of devotees of the Lord!”
Ten minutes later I was in front of the Ratha Yatra cart as it once again slowly made it’s way down the crowded avenue, pulled by more festival-goers than devotees. After forty-five minutes, the kirtan was again roaring when suddenly a young man, dressed only in dirty jeans and literally covered from head to toe in all kinds of strange tattoos, came running forward, falling right in front of me in prone position, as if offering dandavats. As the Ratha Cart quickly moved forward I asked a few of the men to remove him.
“Gently” I said.
As soon as he was raised off the ground, he came forward and tightly embraced me. From the combination of dirt, grime, and the odor of his body, it was obvious he had not bathed in weeks.
“Take him off!” commanded one of the men to a devotee close to us.
“No,” I said. “It’s OK.”
I continued to lead the kirtan for a minute or two more with him hanging on me until he finally broke free and started walking alongside me, swerving from side to side, obviously under the influence of alcohol, or some drug.
Then twenty minutes later when I stopped to sing in one place he fell prone on the ground again in front of me. This time I could hear him say something. I thought I even heard the words, “Krishna prestaya butale.”
“No, that couldn’t be,” I concluded.
Back on his feet, he once again embraced me tightly, and to the horror of all the devotees, kissed me on the cheek.
Again, security rushed forward.
“It’s OK.” I said. “He’s not dangerous.”
An hour later he was still by my side as I was finishing up and ready to hand the microphone over to another chanter. Suddenly he grabbed the microphone from my hand and started singing the maha mantra intensely with his eyes closed.
“How’s this possible?” I said to myself.
After a few stanzas I took the microphone back. It just looked so strange, even at Woodstock, a man like this with every inch of his visible body covered in ghostly-looking tattoos.
As I passed the microphone over to another devotee I walked a little distance away to catch my breath. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the drunken boy follow me.
“Sorry” he said in English as he embraced me one more time again.
For a moment I was speechless.
“Sorry?” I said almost a question.
“Yes,” he replied with his head down. “I’m your fallen disciple, Bhakta Rafal. Many years ago I lived at the New Santipur Farm in southern Poland. I used to serve you when you visited. In my heart, I chose you as my spiritual master. You don’t recognize me now with all my tattoos,” he said. “Please save me Guru Maharaja!”
“It’s alright Rafal,” I said. “Don’t worry. Join us in all the kirtans today and tomorrow and take lots of prasadam. Try to get your taste back for Krishna consciousness. We’ll speak more later in the day. But right now, let’s get back to the parade.”
,As we walked back he clung tightly to me. In my mind I prayed, “Srila Prabhupada, please save this man.”
Everything went smoothly throughout the day at our village. As evening approached, Rasikendra dasa approached me.
“Srila Gurudeva,” he said, “We’ve cooked almost twenty-six tons of food. I think we’ll do more than 150,000 plates of prasadam before Woodstock is over. We ran out of rice this morning. I went store to store and bought every grain of rice in the town! The store owners are very happy with us!”
“Yes, everything is auspicious by Krishna’s grace, “ I said.
As I hurriedly walked towards the Mantra Yoga tent eager to join in BB Govinda Maharaja’s kirtan, a young man approached me.
“Please sir, can I have five minutes of your time?” he pleaded.
“Well, I’m trying to get to the kirtan tent …” I said impatiently.
“Please,” he said, grabbing my arm.
Sensing his sincerity, I stopped and said calmly, “Sure, what is it?”
“Last year at Woodstock my friend approached you with several questions. You spoke together in English. Not speaking English, I couldn’t understand. But after the Woodstock festival I saw many wonderful changes in my friend, which he attributed to his conversation with you.
“Personally, I went through a very challenging year. At wits end, I turned toward spirituality to deal with the crisis in my life. One day I remembered how you had helped my friend. So you know what I did?”
“No what did you do?” I asked.
I enrolled in a course to learn English so I could talk freely with you at this year’s Woodstock festival. I went to 3 classes a week for most of the year. I even went to London for two weeks to practice my English.”
“Well then,” I said taking his hand, “let’s sit down over there on the grass have a long conversation…”
By the last day of Woodstock all the devotees were exhausted. But that didn’t stop them from doing their services. Each one of them was enlivened to see how much people loved Krishna’s Village of Peace.
As the kirtans started for the final evening in the Mantra Yoga tent, one devotee from Croatia approached me.
“Maharaja can I ask you a question?” he said.
“Sure” I replied.
“This is my first time at Krishna’s Village of Peace at Woodstock,” he began. “I’ve noticed some things here that I haven’t seen in other devotee festivals.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Well, for one thing, in your big tent you have non-devotee bands playing in the evening. Thousands of people come. But I’m wondering how Krishna conscious it is having karmi music playing in the village?”
“It’s not for devotees of course, “ I said. “And we don’t allow any immoral songs or the use of bad words.”
“But …” the boy interjected.
“Let me ask you a question.” I continued. “Where do all the thousands of kids go after the concerts?”
He thought for a moment and replied, “Most of them walk over to the Food for Peace tent to eat prasadam.”
“And then?” I said.
“Well after that a lot end up in the Mantra Yoga tent.”
“And what do they do there?” I asked.
“They chant Hare Krishna and dance wildly for hours.” he said with a smile.
“Yes,” I said. “This is all in line with a verse by Rupa Goswami that Srila Prabhupada used to quote a lot:
yena tena prakarena manah krsna nivesayet
sarve vidhi-nisedha syur etayor eva kinkarah
“A spiritual master should devise means by which people may somehow or other come to Krishna consciousness. All rules and regulations are subordinate to this principle.”
( Bhakti Rasamrta Sindhu 1.2.4 )
“A preacher has to be innovative in spreading the message of Krishna consciousness according to time, place and circumstance without compromising the tradition.” I concluded.
“Well, what about the devotee ladies leading the dance steps down in front of the stage?” he asked. “The whole crowd follows them. I haven’t seen that anywhere.”
“Again, it is something we only do at Woodstock and our festivals along the coast,” I replied. “It helps people to focus, the result being they chant and dance with us for hours on end.
“Srila Prabhupada wanted us to come up with novel ways to spread Krishna consciousness. He once famously said, ‘Tax your brains how to spread this movement.
“His spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati went to great extremes and was very innovative in getting people involved in Krsna consciousness.”
Pulling out my phone, I searched my notes and read to him one of my favorite passages from a book by Bhakti Vikas Swami on the life and teachings of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati:
“His [Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saravati’s] exposition was divided into two sections, spiritual and secular, with items collected from every part of India, and the whole extravaganza covering more than one square mile. The secular division demonstrated miscellaneous departments of human endeavour, medical, educational, agricultural, arts and crafts, cattle and livestock, child welfare, athletics, and amusements. Several provincial governments sent materials to be displayed. Other attractions were performances of athletic feats such as gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, sword and stick play, and jujitsu. There were musical competitions, dramas, film shows, a circus, and in the words of the Harmonist, ‘other varieties of innocent amusements.’ Prizes, medals, and certificates were awarded to deserving exhibitors and performers.
“The spiritual section was even more elaborate. A museum contained figures of Visnu and Krsna, and other religious objects such as memorabilia formerly used by reputed sadhus. A book display featured volumes produced by different religious sects in diverse languages and manuscripts of rare unpublished religious works. There were photos and paintings of eminent sadhus and sundry sacred places. A major draw was a huge relief map of India-occupying over a third of an acre-constructed on the ground with stone, cement, and brick and showing prominent holy places, the locations of all Gaudiya Matha branches, and the routes of Sri Caitanya and Lord Nityananda’s tours. Dioramas in over fifty stalls depicted manifold religious praxes of India, with emphasis on Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings. The practices of pure Vaisnavas, pseudo-Vaisnavas, and other religious sects were illustrated by life-size dolls set against backgrounds of appropriate painted scenes, many representing incidents in the pastimes of Lord Caitanya. Another novelty for numerous visitors was the brilliant illumination of the entire grounds by recently installed electricity.”
[Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava, ‘Theistic Exhibitions’ pgs. 355 – 356 ]
Madhava prabhu’s kirtan that night ushered in the next morning’s sunrise. It was the cherry on top of the cake of the best Woodstock festival in twenty-three years.
I awoke bleary-eyed and exhausted.
“I have to get up!” I coaxed myself. “We have to clean up and break down our whole village today and get back on the Baltic Sea coast in two days for three more weeks of our usual festivals.”
When I arrived around 9:00 a.m. there were already thirty devotees busy taking our village apart. Outside our village, people were streaming out of the festival to catch buses and trains home.
“How do these devotees do it!” I said to myself. “It can only be Gaura shakti, the internal energy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.”
As I walked by the Food for Peace tent, which had mostly been disassembled, a few devotees came up to me.
“Srila Gurudeva,” one of them said, “we found a pot of rice and a pot of halavah that somehow didn’t get distributed. What shall we do with it?”
I thought for a moment and said, “Lets set up a small table on the sidewalk out there and distribute to people who are leaving. Find a nice tablecloth, clean yourselves up, find some plates and spoons, put up a little sign….”
The exhausted devotees looked at me incredulously, bags under their dreary eyes.
“There’s only enough for thirty or forty plates, Srila Gurudeva,” one devotee said. “We distributed 150,000 plates over the last five days. What difference will it make if just a few more people get prasadam?”
“Come a little closer and sit down.” I said, “I’ll tell you a short story.”
“Once there were two men walking on a beach after a huge storm. Thousands upon thousands of small fish had been washed up onto the beach and were flapping helplessly on the sand. As the men walked along one of them reached down and picked up three fish. With a swift motion of his arm he threw them back into the water.
Surprised, his friend stopped and asked, “Why did you do that? There are thousands of fish on the beach. What difference does it make if you throw three of them back into the sea?”
The first man smiled and replied, “It makes a difference to them!”
Hearing the story the devotees jumped up and with renewed enthusiasm gathered the materials to distribute the last drops of mercy to the people of Woodstock.
“ I bow down to Gaura, the beautiful son of Mother Saci, who is worshipped by the chanting of the holy names in the age of Kali, who is the son of Nanda Maharaja come again, who is the extraordinary brilliant ornament of the earth, whose various preaching methods are suitable for people in this world of birth and death, whose consciousness is fixed in meditation on His form of Vrajendra-nandana Krishna and who is worshipped together with His abode of Sri Navadvipa Dhama.”
[Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Sri Saci-sutastakam – 8 Prayers Glorifying the Son of Sri Saci devi, text 7]
He Did His Time
June 2, 2018
I arrived in America on Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day is reserved for remembering the American soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in the wars over the centuries. I had just come from a similar event in Moscow, Russia, where the day is called Victory Day. Every year, the Russian people remember their victory over the Nazis in World War II by holding a military parade in Red Square where thousands of soldiers and endless weapons are paraded to patriotic songs. Displays of nationalistic fever occur throughout the entire country.
I was dressed in my devotional attire when I arrived at Newark airport en route to the Sadhu Sanga Retreat in Boone, N.C. I reflected that the mood in America on Memorial Day was markedly different than it was in Russia on Victory Day. Although there were some official ceremonies in Washington D.C. and others scattered throughout the country, most people seemed bent on enjoying a weekend in the warm spring weather. I heard people speaking of the relief they anticipated from getting away from work, and of the parties and family reunions they would be attending.
A voice from behind me interrupted my thoughts on the divergent nationalistic spirits of America and Russia.
“Hey man, what’s with the dress?”
Experience has taught me to ignore such rudeness, especially when I’m alone. I didn’t even turn around.
“Hey! I’m talking to you! You with the bald head and the ponytail.”
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a group of eight well-dressed young men plus one older man.
“So?” said one of the young men. I gathered he was the one who had been speaking all along.
“I’m a monk,” I said. “I follow a spiritual tradition from India.”
“Frankie,” said one of the young men to my interlocutor, “he must just be one of those Hare Krsnas who sing on the streets in New York.”
“The ones who beg for money,” said another.
“You don’t work?” said the first young man. “Pay some taxes. Do something for your country.”
I considered whether or not to engage with his defiance. Then I said, “I served my country. I was in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam war.”
“So you were in Nam?” he asked. He looked surprised.
“No. I didn’t fight in Nam in the end,” I replied. “But I gave a good couple of years for my country. What about you?”
“Me, well I ….”
“Leave him alone.” The older man spoke up in a thick Italian accent. “He did his time.”
He gestured casually with his head to the corner. “Come over here,” he said to me.
“I appreciate what you did in the military,” he said, once we were standing separate from the group of young men. “You got the right to choose the religion you want.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
“You’re on your way to board your flight?” he said.
“Correct,” I replied. “My flight’s in two hours.”
“Then come with us,” said the man. “There’s an Admirals’ Club lounge just around the corner. You can sit with us there for a while.”
At the club desk, the receptionist asked each of us for our membership cards.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have one.”
“Then you can’t come in,” she said.
The older man spoke up. “What do you mean he can’t come in? This is Memorial Day weekend. He did time in the military. How’s that respecting our soldiers?”
“I was only in for two years,” I said
“You wore the uniform, right?” the older man said. “That’s more than can be said for these lazy boys with me.”
Turning to the receptionist he said, “Let him in.”
“I’m really sorry, sir,” she said, “It’s company policy that I can’t let anyone in without a membership card unless a member pays for the person to enter.”
“100 dollars,” she said. Without missing a beat, he handed her a hundred dollar bill. We were in.
“You want some coffee?” the older man asked me.
“No thank you,” I said.
“Some bagels?” he asked.
“Frankie, run over there and get him some bagels.”
When Frankie jumped up and ran over to the buffet, I got the sense my host was someone important.
“May I ask who are you?” I said. “What do you do?”
The group of young men looked over at the older man, who gave a little smile.
“You don’t wanna know,” he said in his Italian accent.
I thought maybe he was being humble, so I said, “No, I really would like to know.”
“The boss said you don’t wanna know!” said one of the young men a little too loudly.
“Boys, boys,” the older man said. “You go over the there. I want to have a talk with this gentleman.
“Now,” he said, turning to me, “what do I call you?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t introduce myself. You can just call me Swami.”
“Swami?” he said. “That’s your name?”
“It’s my spiritual name.”
“Your Hare Krsna name?” When I nodded he said, “I know the Krsnas. When I was young they used to come to the market in their robes to collect fruits and vegetables. My father took a liking to them and told all the sellers to give them whatever was left over at the end of the day. It went on for years.
“When I was 10 years old, we saw them singing on the streets downtown. Curious, I started walking over but my father grabbed me and said, ‘That’s not for you. You have your family.’ But now we’re here, and I’ve got some questions I need to ask.”
“Sure, go ahead.” I said.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends through the years,” he said. “Some of them good, most of them bad. I wanna know where they went. You know, like reincarnation.”
“You believe in reincarnation?” I was taken aback.
“Yes,” he said. “As a matter of fact I do,”
“OK,” I said. “Well, it all starts by understanding we’re not these bodies. We’re the soul in the body, like a passenger in a car. When the body dies, the soul moves on. Depending on our actions during our life and our desires at the moment of death, we take birth in another body within another family.”
“What about the bad souls?” he asked.
“Well, they take birth in unfortunate circumstances,” I said.
“What kind of unfortunate circumstances?” he said.
“Like in impoverished conditions,” I said. “Or with little or no chance for education. Or they may be subject to disease or traumatic situations throughout life.”
He sat silently as if mulling this over.
“It’s called karma,” I said. “Reaction to our actions. But such reactions can be dissipated by chanting God’s name.”
“You can remove reactions though God’s name? What is His name?”
“One of God’s names is Krishna,” I answered.
“That’s what you people sing outside the subway,” he said. “But why do you all sit on the ground?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Why do you sit on the ground? The ground is so dirty. It forces everyone to look down on you. If you gotta a message you gotta look people straight in the eye. Tell whoever’s in charge that I said that.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Excuse me for a minute,” he said. “I gotta go to the men’s room.”
In his absence, the young men drifted back towards me.
“Frankie here wants to know if you got any proof you were in the military,” said one of the boys. “We just wanna be sure you’re not spoofing the boss.”
“Why would I do that?” I said.
“Just show us some proof.”
“Like what can I show you?” I said.
“A card,” he said.
“A card?” I had to smile, although the young man looked serious. “It was 48 years ago!”
“This isn’t a joke,” he said.
Then I remembered something.
“Hold on,” I said. I opened my computer and searched through my email until I found what I was looking for.
“Look at this. It’s a message from the Marine Corps for my birthday. They get in touch every year on May 20th without fail.”
I read aloud:
“’Hello Swami. We at Marine Corps, USMC Community, would like to wish you a very happy birthday today! Semper Fie!’”
Frankie looked impressed. “What does Semper Fie mean?” he asked.
“It means ‘Faithful to God, country, family and your fighting unit’,” I said.
“Hang on, but you weren’t a monk then. So why do they address you as ‘Swami’?”
“I guess they follow my life,” I said with a smile. “It’s family. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “I know what you mean. We say ‘Omerta’. It means that we are bound by the code of silence and secrecy. A code of honor.”
The hair on my arms stood on end and a chill ran up my spine because I knew that term. It was from the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mob.
Frankie came closer and looked at the email. “It’s the real thing,” he confirmed to the others.
When the boss came back, all the young men except Frankie scuttled away again. While he hovered on the edges of our
conversation, the boss and I talked philosophy for another hour until it was time for me to leave.
“I have to catch my flight,” I said.
“OK,” he said. “Before you go I want to apologize for the way my boys spoke to you.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It happens sometimes.”
“Look, if you ever need help just call me.” He held out a piece of paper.
“ I mean it.” he continued. “If anyone causes you trouble, I’ll help you out.”
“We don’t really work that way,” I said.
“Take it!” said Frankie. “You don’t argue with the boss!” He shook his head in disbelief as I accepted the piece of paper.
“Memorize the number,” the boss said, “and then throw it away.”
“Sure,” I said. “It was nice meeting you.”
“The pleasure was ours,” said the boss
Walking out of the Admirals’ Club, I memorized the number and threw the piece of paper in the trash.
“Wow, that was far out,” I thought.
When I reached my gate, an announcement was made that the flight was delayed half an hour.
I was chanting softly on my beads when I noticed Frankie watching me from 30 meters away. I motioned for him to come over.
“What’s up, Frankie?”
“Boss told me to watch over you until you board your flight, Swami. He’s got your back.”
“A Vaisnava is always a well-wisher to everyone. The Six Gosvamis, for example, are described in this way: dhiradhira janapriyau. They were popular with both the gentle and the ruffians. A Vaisnava must be equal to everyone, regardless of one’s position. Atmavat: a Vaisava should be like Paramatma. Isvara sarva-bhutanam hrd-dese ‘rjuna tisthati. Paramatma does not hate anyone … As the moon never refuses to distribute its pleasing rays even to the home of a candala, a Vaisnava never refuses to act for everyone’s welfare.”
[Srimad Bhagavatam 7.4.32, purport]