Left: This column has been erected in BC 113 by Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador to India. Heliodorus recognized Vasudeva, or Krishna, as the “God of gods.”
Diary of a Traveling Preacher - Volume 9, Chapter 17 - September 8 - 13, 2008
By Indradyumna Swami
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The chilly weather of eastern Siberia proved too much for me. When I returned to Warsaw I fell ill for six days with the flu. I had to cancel most of my preaching tour of Hungary, managing to visit for only three days. On the last day, Radhastami, I had a relapse and was laid low again.
The next day I flew to the Greek city of Thessaloniki with Uttama-sloka das and several other devotees. Tara das and his wife, Radha Sakhi Vrnda dasi, had recently opened a preaching center there and had invited us to present two programs.
As we drove to the center from the airport, Tara started telling me about the city. “Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece,” he said, “with almost one million people. It was founded in 315 BC by the King of Macedonia, who named it after his wife, a half-sister of Alexander the Great.
“Look over there,” he said as we passed the port area. “There’s the statue of Alexander.”
I saw a huge statue of the legendary warrior looming over the tourists as they walked down a wide boardwalk alongside the port.
“We asked the city officials whether we could have a sit-down kirtan at the port while you’re here,” Tara continued, “but they declined because there’s an international convention taking place this week.”
“How would a small kirtan disturb the convention?” I asked.
“They’re not giving permission for any official events,” he said, “because the communists and anarchists would take advantage to demonstrate and get attention.”
“Greece is part of the European Union,” I said. “Are communists and anarchists still here?”
“Oh yes,” he replied, “and sometimes they’re very vocal.”
As we drove through the main part of the city I remarked on the beauty of the buildings, and Tara told me something of the city’s past.
“Thessaloniki has a rich and diversified history,” he said. “It’s been part of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. For hundreds of years, it’s been Greece’s second major industrial, commercial, and political center. And it’s one of the most important places for the Greek Orthodox Church.”
He pointed to a group of priests with long, gray beards, dressed in black robes walking into a church.
“Several hours from here is Mount Athos, or the Holy Mountain,” he continued. “It’s home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries. It’s a self-governed monastic state, under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.”
“Twenty monasteries?” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “and it’s accessible only by boat. Only males are allowed entrance into Mount Athos, which is called the Garden of the Virgin by monks. Even female animals are removed from the area. More than 2,500 monks live there.
“The church is very influential in Greece, and there is a law that prohibits proselytizing by other religions. Our movement has been officially closed down twice during the past 30 years. Foreign devotees have been blacklisted, and once our stock of books was confiscated. That’s why my wife and I opened a hatha yoga center, where we teach yoga and vegetarian cooking, gradually introducing people to Krsna consciousness. We don’t dress in devotional clothing on the streets.”
Just at that moment we arrived at the center, and as I stepped out of the car all eyes were upon me.
“Looks like the first time people here are seeing someone in devotional attire,” I said.
Tara smiled. “Correct,” he said.
As we walked up the steps to the center he continued. “When the Muslims recently wanted to build a mosque in Athens,” he said, “they were denied permission. So we try to keep a low profile here. Of course, Athens is more cosmopolitan, and devotees preach more openly there. We’ll go out tonight around 9:00 PM so you can get a feel for the city.”
“Isn’t that a little late?” I said.
“For the Greeks it’s the most important part of the day,” he said. “It’s when they go strolling through the streets or sit and talk in the outdoor cafes. Bear in mind the temperature outside at the moment is almost 38 centigrade, and it’s very humid.”
That evening we went for a walk. I was amazed at the number of people in the streets. But the people were more amazed to see me. Their seemingly cold stares made me feel uncomfortable.
“What are they thinking?” I asked Tara.
“Nothing,” he said. “They have no preconceptions. They’ve just never seen anyone like you before.”
“At least one or two could smile,” I said.
“Let’s see their reaction when we do our inaugural Harinam here tomorrow night,” he said. “Although the city officials wouldn’t give us permission to sit and chant at the port, I don’t think they’ll mind a small walking kirtan through the streets of the city.”
Gaura Hari das and his wife, Balesvari dasi, had come from England to join us for a few days. The next day after dinner, they prepared the paraphernalia for Harinam. Tribuvanesvara dasa, who had come from Poland, readied his accordion. At 9:00 PM we walked onto the main street with six other devotees and began chanting.
Within minutes everyone on the street had stopped and was staring at us, no longer with cool detachment but rather with big smiles. As we chanted and danced through the streets, people and waved and called out to us from the cafes. I couldn’t believe it.
I turned to Tara. “It’s like the difference between day and night,” I said. “As soon as we started kirtan the whole atmosphere changed. People love the Harinam.”
Tara laughed. “Don’t put it beyond them,” he said. “After all, a Greek was one of the first Western Krsna devotees.”
“You mean in the 1970s?” I said.
“No,” he replied as our kirtan party stopped on a corner and started to draw a large, curious crowd, “I mean in the second century BC.”
“Huh?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador to India, erected a large pillar in central India in the second century before the birth of Jesus, with an inscription that says he was a devotee of Vishnu, or Krsna. We’re working on a new pamphlet for our center, and we’ve included the quote.”
He pulled a draft of the invitation out of his bag and handed it to me. It read: “This Garuda column of Vasudeva, the God of gods, was erected here by Heliodorus, a worshiper of Vishnu, the son of Dion, and an inhabitant of Taxila, who came as a Greek ambassador from the great King Antialkidas to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the savior, then reigning prosperously in the fourteenth year of his kingship.”
Tara smiled. “If he was a devotee from Greece, there must have been more,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “If we knew the whole story, scholars might include Vedic culture along with the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman histories of Thessaloniki.”
As we weaved our way through the streets and lanes, the holy names of Krsna reverberated off the building and walls of the ancient city. People everywhere continued waving, and a few even joined us in dancing. After a while we arrived at a square where hundreds of young people were lounging around on a grassy area.
“Ask them if we can sit on a portion of the grass,” I said to Tara. As soon as he asked, about 20 kids respectfully rose and moved aside.
We sat chanting for half an hour, and then, as we had planned, Keli-cancala dasi from Hungary performed an Odissi dance in the square. As the tape of her music began to play, a large crowd gathered. When she finished, hundreds of people applauded.
I was feeling exhausted from the heat, which still lingered in the evening, so I stood up and walked a short distance to the front of a store, where cool air was gushing from the air conditioning inside. As I stood watching the blissful kirtan, a nicely dressed, elderly man approached me. He had an Oriental appearance and penetrating blue eyes. I had noticed him following our Harinam for several hours.
He came and stood right in front me, carefully studying my face. His long, gray hair moved slightly in the breeze as he stood with fixed attention. I felt a little uncomfortable but decided to be patient.
Finally he spoke. “You are a man of extraordinary strength and stamina, especially for your age of 59 years,” he said. “If it were not for your constant travels, you would be in perfect health.”
“What?” I said. “How do you know that I’m 59 years old and that I travel a lot?”
“I can read faces,” he replied softly, still staring at me intently. “But your unlimited reserve of energy is not your own. It comes from your master. And he gets his from above.”
I was stunned.
“You have many followers, and you will have more,” he said. “But always remember the reason they’ve come: to hear from you what your master taught you.”
I could only nod my head in agreement.
He moved back slightly and looked me up and down. “Your liver is not in good condition,” he said, “and you have a bad bug.”
“No, sir,” I said. “I just had a bad flu. It’s over now.”
“It’s not over,” he said, “and because of it your mission here will be only partially successful.”
He turned and walked away.
As I stood there trying to fathom what had just happened, a girl and her boyfriend came up to me. “We love your singing,” the boy said in English. “Are you Buddhists?”
“No,” I said. “We’re from the Hare Krsna movement. We have a small center here. Here’s an invitation. We’re having a program tomorrow night.”
“We thought you were Buddhists because you were talking to the Chinese man,” the girl said. “He’s a well-known doctor in town. He practices Chinese medicine. He’s been living here for 30 years.”
“He can see if you have a disease by studying your face,” said the boy.
“He can tell your future,” said the boy, “but you can’t ask him. He’ll tell you only if he feels it’s necessary.”
“A lot of my parents’ friends have been cured by him,” said the girl.
“Well, he did say some amazing things,” I said, “but he was wrong about a flu bug. I just recovered from that. Anyway, try to make it to our program tomorrow. I’ll be giving a talk on reincarnation.”
“Wow!” said the girl. “That sounds great. We’ll be there for sure.”
That night we got back to the center at 1:00 AM and I fell asleep immediately. The next morning when I awoke, I quickly realized I had a fever along with aches and pains all over my body.
I looked at Tara, who was waking up nearby. “Oh no,” I said. “My flu’s back, for the third time.” I thought of the prediction of the Chinese man, and I rolled over and pulled up the covers.
Later that morning, at my suggestion, the devotees moved me to a nearby hotel so they wouldn’t catch the flu. Then they went on Harinam. Throughout the day I would look out the window and see them chanting blissfully. In the evening they held the program in the center without me.
“It was a nice program,” said Tara when he came to visit me, “but it wasn’t the same without you.”
The whole next day I lay in bed with a high fever. But I was determined to go to the second and final program at the center that evening. At 6:00 PM I called Tara and told him to come pick me up.
“Are you sure, Maharaja?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, covering my head with a wet cloth. “I’m feeling much better.” When I arrived at the center, I put on a big smile to convince everyone I was all right and proceeded to give a lecture. While speaking I forgot about my illness and afterwards chanted and danced along with everyone else As the guests were departing, Radha Sakhi Vrnda came up to me. “Guru Maharaja,” she said, “you shouldn’t have done the program when you are so sick.”
“I didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” I said. “Greece is such an exciting field for preaching.”
“Still,” she said, “you shouldn’t have pushed yourself.”
“The Chinese fortune teller said our programs would be partially successful, not altogether unsuccessful,” I said with a chuckle. “So I had to attend at least one.”
“Well, thank you for coming,” she said. “No one visits this place, although you can see there is so much interest among the people.”
As I was leaving, a woman came up to me. “Did your spiritual master ever come to Greece?” she asked.
I stopped to think for a moment. “No,” I said, “not that I know of.”
“That’s too bad,” she said. “I think even a brief visit would have done a lot for this country.”
Early the next morning Uttama-sloka and I caught a taxi to the airport. “Are you from a spiritual movement?” the taxi driver asked me in broken English as we drove.
“Yes, we are,” I replied, “the Hare Krsna movement.”
“How do like Thessaloniki?” he asked.
“It’s a very beautiful city,” I replied.
“Yes,” he said, “and people here are very open-brained. They like other cultures.”
“You mean open-minded,” I said with a smile. “But yes, you are right. We were very well received here.”
“I can see you are a spiritual man,” he continued. “Can you teach me how to be peaceful? All day and half the night I’m in this taxi. So much stress and anxiety.”
“Yes,” I said. “I can teach you a song that will bring you peace and happiness wherever you go. It’s composed of different names of God in Sanskrit.”
“I’m ready,” he said.
“Repeat after me,” I said, and I taught him the Hare Krsna mantra word by word: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna . . .”
“I like it,” he said when we finished.
When we arrived at the airport he stopped the taxi at the curb. As we opened the door and got out, he went behind the car and took our bags from the trunk. After handing them to us he got back in the taxi.
“Excuse me, sir,” I called out. “How much will that be?”
“You can’t put a price on peace,” he said with a smile and then began singing the Hare Krsna mantra as he drove away.
That night, I came across the following conversation with Srila Prabhupada:
Woman: In which country of Europe has the Hare Krsna movement been the most powerful or successful?
Woman: What about Greece?
Prabhupada: I never went to Greece.
Satsvarupa: You said you went to the [Athens] airport and they were chanting.
Woman: I would think they would be in danger in Athens. There’s no way that this movement could be very successful in Athens or in Greece.
Prabhupada: Yes, when I was going to Nairobi from London I got down in transit, on the hall. Some young men, as soon as they saw me, they began to chant, Hare Krsna.
O’Grady: No, really? In Greece, this was, in Athens?
Prabhupada: Athens, yes.
[Room conversation with Irish poet Desmond O’Grady, May 1974]
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