The Signs of Change

“After twenty-three years,” I continued, “we’ve silenced most of the opposition. Now the people in this country know us well, and many are showing an interest. It’s the result of being consistent for so long.”

Times Have ChangedDiary of a Traveling Monk – Volume 11, Chapter 18 – July 5, 2011

By Indradyumna Swami

We were about to start our first harinama of the summer festival season. The devotees were busy preparing the musical instruments, banners, and flags, when a young Russian devotee walked up to me.

“Maharaja,” he said, “my name is Slavik. I’m twenty years old, and it’s my first time on your tour in Poland. I have to admit I’m a little nervous about going out on harinama because when I was younger I used to read about all the trouble you had here.”

“Times have changed,” I said. I turned and handed a stack of invitations to some devotees.

“After twenty-three years,” I continued, “we’ve silenced most of the opposition. Now the people in this country know us well, and many are showing an interest. It’s the result of being consistent for so long.”

“But they don’t seem interested,” Slavik said as he watched people walking past us.

“They will when we start chanting,” I said. “The holy names quickly purify the atmosphere. Stick with me today, and I’ll show you the signs of change.”

I picked up the microphone and looked over the group of seventy-five devotees. “It’s some distance to the beach,” I said, “so we’ll walk there quickly to save time and start kirtana when we get there.”

We hadn’t gone more than thirty meters when a fruit vendor called out to us. “Hey!” he shouted, “Why aren’t you guys singing and dancing like you always do? Come on! Brighten my day!”

I winked at Slavik. “There’s your first sign,” I said.

Then I turned to Tribuvanesvara dasa. “Begin the kirtana,” I said.

Within seconds the holy names filled the air and people began smiling and waving, as they accepted invitations to our festival that evening. As we passed along the main street, a devotee called out to me. “Maharaja,” he shouted, “Get a load of that store!”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Right there for sale outside a store were beautiful large color prints of Lord Krsna playing His flute. A man was buying one.

“There’s a second sign,” I said to Slavik.

Devotees were excited to be back on harinama and distributing the mercy of the holy names. The kirtana got louder as we neared the wide beach full of holidaymakers. From a distance I could see people getting up from the sand to see what all the noise was about. Just as we stepped onto the beach, a ten-year-old boy came running forward. “Look, Mom!” he yelled. “It’s the Rama Ramas!”

“Well, that’s a first for me,” I said to Slavik. “I’ve heard them say the Hare Krsnas or just the Hares, but I never heard anyone call us the Rama Ramas.”

As we stopped to take off our shoes, a woman called out to us. “Don’t move!” she shouted.

I went to the front of the party to see what was happening. “Please!” she shouted, “All of you, don’t move. Your group is so beautiful, so colorful, so attractive. Just stop for a moment so we can all look at you.”

A few devotees picked up their instruments and flags to start kirtana again. “Stop boys,” I said. “The lady wants to get a good look at Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana party. We can’t refuse her.”

The devotees stood motionless with sweet smiles on their faces as more people gathered to look. I waited a full minute. “OK!” I shouted. “Let’s move on!”

“A sure sign times have changed,” I said to Slavik.

As we chanted along the beach and danced in choreographed steps, fifteen devotees fanned out in a line spreading across the sand and walked alongside the kirtana party, distributing invitations. Glancing back, I could see that practically everyone on the beach held an invitation.

After three hours we had covered eight kilometers of beach. I called out to Kinkari Dasi on the other side of the kirtana party. “How many invitations have we given out?” I shouted.

“About twelve thousand so far,” she shouted back.

“Good work,” I shouted. “Keep moving in unison.”

Suddenly, a large man with tattoos all over his body jumped up from the sand. “Stop!” he screamed. “What is this nonsense? What are you singing about? This is a Christian country! Who is this Krsna anyway?”

Slavik cringed. I motioned to the kirtana party to keep moving. Then a woman shouted back at the man, “You moron!” she yelled. “Haven’t you been to their festival before? The guru always says in his talk that Krsna is another name for God. Just like the sun has different names in different languages, so God has different names in different parts of the world. Now sit down and shut up! And get educated. Go to their festival tonight.”

The man was shocked into silence.

“That was an interesting analogy about the sun,” said Slavik.

“It’s from my stage lecture,” I said.

After a good hour of kirtana I took the devotees to the festival site. The crew was just finishing their five-hour marathon setting up our massive stage and numerous tents.

“It looks like the spiritual world,” said Slavik.

“It is the spiritual world,” I said.

As the kirtana ended, a group of twelve teenagers ran up to us. “We want to know where we can sign up for the parade tomorrow,” said a boy.

“Yes,” said another. “We saw you on the beach and we went to the tourist information center in town to ask if there was going to be another parade tomorrow.”

“I see,” I replied, smiling at Slavik.

“They told us to come and see you and ask if the parade will be every day,” said another.

I smiled. “We’re here for three days,” I said. “We’ll be doing the parade every day. You are welcome to join us.”

“We don’t know how to play the instruments,” a boy said. “But we’d love to wave the flags.”

“Sure,” I said. “No training needed for that. And we’ll teach you the song too. It’s the most important part. Be here at 11:00 a. m. sharp tomorrow.”

“OK,” they replied as they ran off towards town.

“Need more proof than that?” I said to Slavik.

“The more the better,” he said.

After lunch our entire crew of two hundred fifty devotees took their positions onstage or in the tents. Opening time was approaching, and the first guest appeared – with a large cup of frothing beer in his hand. Ten steps away from me he suddenly stopped. “Whoops!” he said. “I can’t bring this in here. It’s a sacred place.”

He did an about-face, walked to the edge of the festival grounds, threw his cup of beer into the bushes, and came back. He sat down in the middle of the benches in front of the stage, waiting for the show to begin.

As I walked around the festival site, a woman came up to me. “Where is the shop selling things from India?” she said.

“Over there,” I said, pointing to the Fashion Tent.

“I’m looking for something specific,” she said. “I’m wondering if I can find it there.”

“Just what is it you’re looking for?” I asked.

“Well, one of your people showed me what you all keep in those little bags around your neck,” she said.

“You mean our chanting beads?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “I want to get one of those small cloth bags in the store.”

“What for?” I said.

“For my rosary beads,” she said, pulling out a beautiful set of reddish beads from her purse. “I want to keep them in one of those bags and chant on them like you do.”

I looked at Slavik. “Now that really is something new,” I said.

My last stop was the Book Tent, where people were already buying Srila Prabhupada’s books, even before the festival had begun.

“Guru Maharaja,” said Caitanya-lila dasi, “could you sign a few books before you go? People remember how you were signing them at last year’s festival.”

Almost immediately a distinguished-looking woman came up and asked me in English to sign her copy of the Bhagavad-gita. I wrote a dedication in the book and signed my name.

“What is your profession?” I asked, handing her the book.

“I’m the head of the Philosophy Department at one of Poland’s largest universities,” she replied. “I was at your festival here last year when you spoke about the Bhagavad-gita in your lecture, but I didn’t have my purse with me, so I couldn’t buy one. I came to the festival early this year hoping to get a copy. I’ve been waiting all year to read this book.”

“I bought one last year,” said a woman standing nearby, “but I didn’t get it signed by you. I’ve been reading it for eight months. Do you think you could write a dedication with your signature on this paper plate for me? When I get home I’ll cut it out and paste it into my Bhagavad-gita.”

A man came up to me. “I’ve watched you singing on the beach every summer for fifteen years,” he said, “ever since I was a small child. I never really had an interest in what you were doing, but somehow the accumulated effect of hearing your song has brought me here. I strolled into this tent an hour ago, saw this Bhagavad-gita and can’t stop reading it. I decided to buy it. Can you sign it for me?”

As I signed the book he picked up The Teachings of Queen Kunti and started leafing through it. “Maybe I’ll buy this book too,” he said. “It looks really interesting.”

I gave him the Bhagavad-gita, and he took my hand. “My soul is trembling,” he said and turned to leave.

Slavik and I started walking out of the tent. “This is the real result of our preaching,” I said, “when people come forward to buy Srila Prabhupada’s books. Prabhupada once wrote in a letter: ‘If he reads one page his life may be turned.’”

The benches were already full, and a large crowd was forming behind them. I was scheduled to lead the first bhajana, but it was with difficulty that Slavik and I made it through the crowd to the stage. At the foot of the stage we met a teenage girl dressed in an unusual sari, with something resembling a bindi dot on her forehead. I could see she wasn’t part of our tour.

I turned to her. “Excuse me,” I said, “is this your first time at our festival?”

“No, not at all,” she said. “I live nearby. I’ve been coming for eleven years, every summer since I was eight.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “Did our festival introduce you to this culture?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “My grandmother practiced yoga all her life. When I was five she began teaching me too. When I was six she sewed this sari for me by hand, made me a bindi, and gave me some bangles. I used to wear the sari every summer as a little girl. One day I was riding my bike and I ran into your festival here. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I always tell Grandma that this is my festival, this is me.”

I was speechless. So was Slavik.

“My parents are a little worried about my involvement,” she continued, “especially because I’m chanting sixteen rounds a day. But Grandma says I can join the festival tour when I’m twenty-one.”

“Did someone here give you beads and show you how to chant?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I’m quite shy. I’ve never spoken to any of you before. I bought the beads in the shop years ago and read how to chant on them in one of the books. I love the books. Besides my school books they’re all I’ve ever read.”

A stagehand called out. “Hurry up, Maharaja,” he said. “You’re on.”

I looked up and saw devotees sitting on the stage waiting for me to begin the bhajana.

“Slavik,” I said, “get this girl’s email address.”

Then I ran backstage, up the stairs, and onto the stage. I could see more than fifteen hundred people on our festival grounds.

After twenty minutes I brought the kirtana to a close and left the stage so the main program could begin. Within moments fifteen members of the dance group Sankhya, whom we’d brought from India, were dazzling the audience. Dina-dayal Das was in the wings waiting to go on with his South Indian martial arts performance, complete with flashing swords and a powerful soundtrack.

As I left the stage a man came running up to me. “Maharaja,” he said, “do you remember me?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t,” I said. “You’ll have to excuse me. I meet so many people every day.”

“I’m from Zary,” he said, “where the Woodstock festival used to take place. I would go to Krsna’s Village of Peace to eat the food and watch the performances.”

“What I liked most,” he continued, “was your singing. Just now my wife and I and our two daughters were walking on the beach on the other side of the forest, and we heard you singing. My wife said, ‘That’s Maharaja,’ and we all came running. We got here just in time to see you finish.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m humbled by your appreciation.”

He gave me a hug and then started to cry. “It’s like seeing an old friend again,” he said.

I hugged him back. “Why don’t you take a walk around the festival site,” I said. “It’s just like the old days in Zary, only a little smaller.”

As Slavik and I continued walking we saw that the Restaurant Tent was packed, there was a long line for yoga classes, and many people were browsing through the various exhibition tents. People were crowding to get into the Questions and Answers Tent.

The pleasant weather added to the charm of the event, and the evening went smoothly as people constantly went to and fro. After my lecture I again signed books in the Book Tent, and at one point enjoyed serving prasada.

Toward the end of the evening the devotees presented our puppet show, Krsna’s Pastimes in Vrindavan. Even from a distance I could see the life-size puppets. The Krsna puppet had recently been redone and was especially beautiful with big lotus eyes, red lips, cute smile, and long black wavy hair. The crowd was cheering as the play began, and many of the children ran to the front of the stage to get a good view.

I came closer to watch the fun as Balarama killed Dvivida Gorilla, who was more than two meters tall. After a minute or two I sensed a woman standing close to me and turned to see it was our old friend the mayor.

“Oh, Madame Mayor,” I said. “What an honor it is you’ve come to our festival.”

“Is it such a surprise?” she said. “I’ve been coming every summer for ten years. All the citizens come as well, and the tourists too.”

She turned around. “Look at the crowd you have this time,” she said. “There must be two thousand people here.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s very satisfying.”

“It’s a tradition in our town,” she said. “But let’s not talk now. Let’s just sit here and watch the show. Old friends don’t always have to talk. They can enjoy just being in each other’s comany.”

Seeing the mayor looking for a seat, the crowd immediately scrambled to give us places to sit. Slavik came with us. Forty minutes went by, and we sat through almost the entire production. At one point she leaned over to me. “Maharaja,” she whispered, “there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for many years.”

“Really?” I whispered back, “What is it?”

“Can you give me a spiritual name?” she said.

“What?” I said.

“I’ve known you people for more than a decade,” she said. “Everything about you is so beautiful. I’ve done everything I can to promote your festival. I even went to court one time to defend it. Do you remember?”

“Yes, I do,” I said. “We wouldn’t be here today if not for you.”

“After all these years I feel like part of the family,” she said. “That’s why I want to have a spiritual name. I will ask my family members and the citizens of the town to call me by that name from now on. I like the name Radhika.”

“How do you know that name?” I said.

“Radhika is Krsna’s girlfriend,” she said. “I’ve been watching your puppet shows for years. But one of your tour members is named Radhika. So maybe you could give me a name connected to Radhika.”

“OK,” I said, “we’ll call you Radha-lila.”

“But there’s something missing at the end,” she said.

“You mean Dasi,” I said. “Your name is Radha-lila Dasi, servant of the pastimes of Radhika.”

Slavik spoke up. “Good name,” he said. “The mayor’s done so much to promote these festivals.”

“I know it’s not exactly like getting baptized,” the mayor said, “but I appreciate it just the same. And who knows? Maybe one day I will get baptized into the faith.”

Just at that moment the puppet show finished and another surge of children headed for the stage as the puppets took their bows. Suddenly, a piercing scream came from the front row of benches. The mayor and I jumped up and ran toward the sound. As we got closer I saw a little girl screaming. “Mommy! Mommy!” she shouted. “I want Krsna! I want Krsna, the blue boy!”

The whole audience was looking at the little girl. “Mommy, please!” she kept screaming. “I want the blue boy! I want Krsna!”

Her mother, looking embarrassed, turned to the onlookers. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve never seen her like this. I don’t know what’s gotten into her.”

An elderly woman spoke up. “Give her Krsna,” she said. “Give her the puppet.”

“Yes,” said another woman. “Give her the blue boy.”

“Yes,” said a man. “Give Him to her.”

I turned to a devotee, “Run and get the Krsna puppet,” I said.

Within moments the puppet was there. The little girl lunged forward and hugged the puppet, who was almost as big as she was. She settled down. “Krsna, I love you,” she said over and over to the puppet. For the rest of the evening no one could separate her from the puppet.

As we walked away I turned to Slavik, “In order to go back home, back to Godhead,” I said, “we must have the same intensity of love for Krsna that that little girl showed for the puppet.”

No sooner had I said that than a loud crash of thunder startled us. Lightning streaked through the sky as the rain started pouring. People ran for shelter in the tents. Slavik and I ran for cover on the stage. But I was surprised to notice a sea of umbrellas covering the benches.

“They don’t want to leave,” said Nitai Das, one of the stagehands. “They’re under their umbrellas, but we’ll have to cancel the final kirtana. The kids will be disappointed. Many of them were waiting for the contest.”

“What contest?” said Slavik.

“The dance contest,” I said. “We invite all the children to dance in front of the stage during the last kirtana. Afterwards we pick the ten best dancers, bring them onstage and give saris to the girls and sweets to the boys. It’s always a big hit.”

“It won’t happen this time,” said Nitai.

“I have an idea,” I said. “I’ll announce that because it’s raining so hard we’ll have to cancel the kirtana. I’ll invite all the children onstage and we’ll give each of them a sari or a sweet. That way they’ll be satisfied. We’ll finish the program like that.”

“That’ll be about a hundred saris and fifty sweets, Maharaja,” said Nitai.

“It’s OK this one time,” I said. “We can’t expect all these kids to dance in the rain. Their parents will be furious.”

I turned to a devotee standing nearby. “Run and get a hundred saris from the Fashion Tent,” I said, “and a bowl of sweets from the restaurant.”

I took the microphone and stepped forward. “Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls,” I said, “may I have your attention. We have enjoyed sharing this wonderful festival with you today, but unfortunately, because of the sudden storm we’ll have to cancel the final part where we sing onstage and the children dance in front. As a concession, all the children can come onstage now for a free sari or sweet.”

A huge number of children headed for the stage, many breaking loose from their parents.

“No, no,” they screamed in the rain. “We want to sing! We want to dance! Please, let us sing.”

I looked at Nitai. “What’s going on?” I said.

“I don’t know, Maharaja,” he said. “None of them are coming onstage.”

“We want to sing,” the children screamed as their numbers increased to over a hundred. “We want to dance.”

“But it’s pouring rain,” I said over the microphone.

“Sing, sing, sing,” the children chanted in unison. “Sing, sing, sing.”

I sat down to play the harmonium and the other members of the bhajana group quickly joined me. As I began the kirtana I turned to Mangala-vati Dasi. “Get this on video,” I said, “or no one will believe it.”

The children chanted and danced along with us. In no time they were soaked, but even through the dimness I could see their joyful, smiling faces. The area in front of the stage soon became muddy, but nothing could stop them. Every once in a while one of them would shout “Hare Krsna,” and after some time they formed a long line that snaked its way in front of the stage and back near the benches. To my amazement, their parents encouraged them.

When I brought the kirtana to a close, the children cheered and their parents applauded. I invited all the kids onstage to receive their saris and sweets. Not long afterward the rain subsided.

That night I stood and watched all the families leaving the festival grounds. And what a sight it was! Many of the parents had Srila Prabhupada’s books tucked under their arms while their sons happily munched on sweet balls and their daughters proudly displayed their elegant saris. Such is the mercy of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who causes the whole world to dance in ecstasy at the sound of His holy names. And we are part of those pastimes. How fortunate we are!

***********************

“He makes a song of the names ‘Hare,’ ‘Krsna’ and ‘Rama,’ and by giving it to the mass of people destroys all obstacles such as sorrow, delusion, greed, and suffering. He grants devotional service to the multitude of devotees who are eager for the shelter of Lord Krsna’s lotus feet. I fall down swiftly to offer my prostrated obeisances to the Lord in His golden form, who holds a string of meditation beads.”

[Srila Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Sastakam, Text 23]

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