By Indradyumna Swami
After two months of preaching and fundraising in the United States, I was ready for a break, so when Swarup Damodar dasa, president of the Durban temple in South Africa, asked me to come in April for Ratha-yatra, I jumped at the chance.
After checking in for my flight at the Atlanta Airport, I was walking to the boarding gate when I passed a group of young marines. “Hey, pretty boy!” one called out. “Where you off to?”
I turned toward him. “Pretty boy?” I said.
“Yeah, sweetheart,” he said. “I mean the dress. It’s just awesome.” The other marines broke out laughing.
I walked over to where they were sitting. “These are my robes, soldier,” I said. “I’m a monk.”
Another marine laughed. “A monk?” he said. “In a pink sheet?”
“Is this is how they train you boys?” I shot back. “You’re part of an elite fighting force, serving one of the greatest countries in the world.”
“Huh!” sneered a marine. “What do you know about serving your country?” he said with a thick southern accent.
I glared at him. “First Battalion,” I said, “Alpha Company, Platoon 2066. I graduated from Camp Pendleton on March 16, 1969.”
“Really?” one of them said. “Did you fight in ‘Nam?”
“No,” I said. “I was sick when my unit shipped out. All the boys in my platoon were wiped out in an ambush their first week in combat. I received further training stateside and became an instructor.”
The boy who first called out to me was about to say something when another marine stopped him. “Leave him alone, Mark,” he said. “He did his time.”
The others nodded in agreement.
I turned to Mark. “This is what you’re fighting for, leatherneck,” I said.
“Democracy means to have a choice. We can choose our leaders, our ideals, and our religion. I choose Krsna consciousness.”
“My cousin is a Hare Krsna,” said one of the boys. “I know a little bit about your beliefs. One of the first guys in your religion was a soldier. He fought on a huge battlefield.”
I smiled. “Arjuna,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s his name,” said the boy.
I sat down. “I have a student who’s a Marine and has served two tours in Iraq,” I said.
“We’re off to Afghanistan next month,” said one of the boys as they gathered around me.
“What’s your student’s name?” said another.
“Captain Anthony Alexander,” I said. “He’s a commanding officer with three hundred men under him in Communications Company, First Marine Division.”
“What’s he like?” said one of the marines.
“Like Arjuna,” I said.
The boy put his hand up in a high-five gesture, which I met with my own hand. I looked at my watch. “Sorry boys,” I said, “but I gotta go.”
“Hey,” said one of them, “stay a little longer,”
“My flight leaves in twenty minutes,” I said as I got up. “Keep your heads down over there.”
As I walked away, Mark ran up and put out his hand. “Sorry, sir,” he said. “I was disrespectful.”
I shook his hand tightly. “No problem, soldier,” I said. “Semper Fi!”
The Marine who knew about Arjuna waved. “Hare Krsna, sir!” he called out.
Sixteen hours later, I arrived in Johannesburg and caught a connecting flight to Durban, where I was met by a small group of devotees. “How are the preparations for Ratha-yatra going?” I asked Swarup Damodar.
“Very good,” he said. “Thanks for coming.”
“I needed the break,” I said, but I knew I would not get much of a break during the festival.
As we walked out of the airport, I noticed a lot of advertising for the upcoming Soccer World Cup.
“Looks like South Africa’s gone all out for the Cup,” I said. “Is everything ready?”
“Pretty much,” said Swarup. “Of course, there’s always the issue of crime. South Africa has a very high rate of murder, rape, and assault. There’s a lot more here than in most countries.”
“Will that affect the decision of foreigners to come for the Cup?” I said.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “This year they’re expecting sixteen million tourists. Statistics show that most crime happens among South Africans. If tourists are targeted, it’s usually just petty theft.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “many of our devotees have experienced some type of crime or another – burglary, carjacking, theft, or the like. One family had a very close call just two days ago.”
“What was that about?” I said.
“A sophisticated, well-coordinated gang of criminals posing as policemen pulled a devotee over on his way home from work,” Swarup began. “They were brandishing high-caliber firearms. They said he was being investigated for fraud and they needed to search his home. They handcuffed him, put him in their vehicle and drove him to his home.
“When they got there, other criminals, also posing as police officers, were waiting outside. They took him into his house and quickly tied up his mother, his sister, and her six-month-old baby. Then they began ransacking the house looking for cash, jewelry, and firearms. When they found nothing they threatened to kill the whole family if they didn’t say where they kept their valuables.
“The devotee man said they didn’t store valuables in the house and pleaded for their lives. The crooks pointed their guns at the family and put a plastic bag over the baby’s head. Meanwhile, the leader continued searching the rooms when he came across the family altar with pictures of Srila Prabhupada, Krsna, and Lord Caitanya.
“He shouted to the others, ‘Don’t harm them. They’re Hare Krsna devotees. They feed our people in the townships. They give our children food. Put down your weapons.’
“One of the gang took the plastic bag off the baby’s head and slapped his back to get him breathing again. The leader then ordered the others to leave, and he said, ‘Put back whatever you’ve taken.’
“On their way out the gang dumped a few watches, several appliances, and assorted coins on the floor. As the leader stepped through the front door, he turned and said, ‘Sorry. We didn’t know who you were.’ Moments later they sped away in their cars.
“Our Food for Life program has been distributing prasada in the impoverished areas around Durban for more than twenty years. It’s much appreciated by the poor Africans. What do you think, Maharaja?”
I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “Srila Prabhupada had the perfect vision when he started prasada distribution in the early 1970s. He called it Lord Caitanya’s secret weapon.”
“Actually,” Swarup said, “the Food for Life team was hoping you’d go out with them while you’re here.”
“It’d be an honor and a pleasure,” I said.
“You’ll have a police escort,” he said.
“Is that necessary? I said. “I thought the Africans liked us.”
“Most of them do,” he said, “but there is always the criminal element. And they may not always be as accommodating as those who tried to rob that devotee’s house. Two of our congregation members were murdered in similar burglaries.”
Three days later as the Food for Life team loaded big pots of freshly cooked prasada into a van, a police constable picked me up in his squad car. Minutes later we all took off to pass out prasadam in rural Kwazulu-Natal, home to almost nine million Zulus.
“Thanks for coming along,” I said to the constable.
“Paul’s my name,” he said, putting out his hand. “It’s a pleasure.”
He looked at the large Canon EOS camera hanging around my neck. “You’ll need me,” he said, “if only for that fancy camera you’re carrying.”
“Yes,” I said. “It does stick out a bit.” I squirmed a little.
“Don’t you worry,” Paul said.
I looked him over. I could see I had nothing to fear. He was a tall black African in his forties, and he looked as strong as an ox. Hanging from his belt were a handgun, two cans of mace, and a pair of handcuffs. On the panel behind his head rested a shotgun, locked and loaded.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the little armory. “Do you ever use that stuff?” I said.
“All the time,” he said without taking his eyes off the road.
My eyes turned to a wide, six-inch scar on his forearm. “Where did you get that?” I said.
Paul smiled. “All in a day’s work,” he said.
An hour later, we turned off the highway onto a winding road into the Valley of a Thousand Hills, and another half hour later we came to a picturesque but rundown village.
“There’s a lot of criminal activity out here,” Paul said. “They’ll use an AK 47 assault rifle to rob a store for a few packs of cigarettes.”
Just then his police radio starting crackling. Paul listened carefully and shook his head. “There’s a robbery taking place at this very moment,” he said, “just three hundred meters ahead.”
I felt my throat tighten. “Are we going there?” I said.
“No,” he said calmly. “We never go in alone. There has to be at least three of us in a squad car. Even then we have to assess the situation. If they have superior firepower, which they often do, we hold off.”
A hundred meters before the scene of the crime, we drove up to a small group of houses. There were just a few people milling around. As soon as we stopped, a devotee jumped out of the van and picked up a megaphone. “Prasada!” Prasada! Prasada!” he called out.
Suddenly people began pouring out of the houses, even running from the other end of the village. Children were running along the street with cups, bowls, plates, and even pots.
The kids smiled and laughed as they pushed and shoved their way into a long line waiting for the distribution to start. Then the devotees piled out of the van with drums and karatalas and began a kirtana. All the Zulu children started dancing and singing along.
My eyes opened wide. “They even know the words!” I said.
Paul was looking over the crowd and the surrounding area to see if there was trouble. He turned to me. “And why not?” he replied. “You people were passing out this food and singing this song to their parents when they themselves were youngsters.”
Pandemonium broke out as the devotees started distributing the stew of rice, beans, and vegetables. I saw a number of children get their bowls filled and then immediately return to the back of the line. I smiled as I watched them eat all the way up to the front and then present their empty bowls for more. Some came three or four times.
Paul kept his eye on the crowd and his hand on his gun. “This is an especially bad area,” he said. “A few months ago I chased a criminal into the bush in the next village. He suddenly jumped out just two meters in front of me and fired off four rounds at point-blank range.”
“What happened? I said.
Paul chuckled. “He missed,” he said.
Then his face became serious. “But it wasn’t luck,” he said. “It was the Lord above watching over me.”
“So you’re a religious man,” I said.
Paul smiled. “Yes sir, I am,” he said. “Every time I go into action, I look up at the sky and say to the Lord, ‘Cover me.’”
“That’s very nice, constable,” I said.
“It’s the only explanation for why I’m still here today,” he said. “I know that for a fact.”
A group of young men started walking toward me. “Watch your camera,” Paul said looking over the valley. “We do what we can out here, but these people are very poor, so crime is always on the rise. Not many folks take the risk to come here and help them like you do.
“Nowadays it’s gotten so bad the villagers take justice into their own hands. When they catch a thief or a drug runner, they tie him to a telephone pole and beat him to death. Then they place all his weapons around him on the ground. Nobody dares take those weapons.”
“Tell me,” I said, “when you’re out here, do you always get your man? Do they ever get away?”
“Sometimes they get away in the bush,” he said, motioning toward the thick foliage surrounding the village. “When that happens we call in the dog squad. The criminals are terrified of our dogs, so they try to shoot the animals from where they’re hiding. That’s when we go in and arrest them. But it doesn’t always work.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Last week I was heading into the bush to get a man when suddenly I bumped into a beehive,” he said. “Within moments the bees were all around me and stung me from head to toe. The guy got away, and I spent a few days in the hospital.”
Two hours later the devotees packed the empty prasada containers into the van and jumped in with their musical instruments. Only when everyone was inside did Paul indicate that we could get back in the squad car. Soon we were winding our way down the hill to the main highway.
“They love you folks out here,” Paul said. “I heard you’ve given out three thousand plates of food every day for many years. One day it will all pay off.”
“It already has,” I said, thinking of the gang who had spared the devotee family.
“Anytime you guys need my service just give me a call,” Paul said as we turned onto the highway. “I’m always happy to do my part.”
“Thank you, constable,” I said.
An hour later, as we neared the temple, Paul turned to me. “Sir,” he said, “do you mind if I ask, what is the meaning of that song you all sing out there? You know, the Hare Krsna one?”
I thought for a moment. “It means ‘Cover me,’” I said.
Paul smiled from ear to ear.
That evening I remembered something Nelson Mandela had said when he spoke at a large Food For Life gathering many years ago:
“Another important building block for new democracy is the love and good will we show to each other. That is the spirit of masakhane, of bringing one another together. It is also the spirit of today’s festival organized by Hare Krsna Food for Life.”