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.”