Diary of a Traveling Monk
Volume 15, Chapter 8
September 3, 2019
I nodded off to sleep on the way to one of our last summer festivals along the Baltic Sea coast in Poland. I woke just as Guru Kripa dasa was parking behind our large Ratha Yatra chariot at the festival site.
“I’m so tired I don’t even know what town we’re in,” I said, laughing.
“The name of the town isn’t so important,” said Guru Kripa. “What’s significant is that this is our forty-sixth festival of the summer!”
“Forty-six festivals, one after another,” I thought. “And with Woodstock in the middle. No wonder I’m exhausted.”
But there was no time to dwell on the tiredness of my body. Hundreds of excited people were already taking their seats on the benches in front of our stage. The restaurant was packed with guests ordering prasadam. Numerous tents depicting various aspects of the Krsna conscious lifestyle were overflowing.
“If it wasn’t for Nandini dasi,” I said to Guru Kripa, “none of this would be happening today.”
“How’s that?” he asked.
I told him how some high-placed people on the political right convinced the local mayor and the city council to cancel our festival on the grounds that we make too much noise. They requested Nandini to come to their weekly meeting so that they could officially inform her and cancel the contract. Despondent, but eager to argue our case, she drove to the town hall on the day of the meeting. In the parking lot, she happened to see the previous mayor who had been in power for many years and was an old friend of hers. She asked for his advice on how to handle the situation.
“My advice?” he said. “I’m going in with you!”
The previous mayor was a powerful orator and he spoke in our defense for thirty minutes in front of the city council. Nandini didn’t say a word, and neither did the city councilors who sat looking thoroughly chastened. When he finished, he picked up the contract and waved it in the air.
“It still stands,” he said. “Are we all in agreement?”
The city councilors nodded.
As he and Nandini were leaving the room, he said over his shoulder, “And what’s more, you should all come to the festival. It’s one of the most prestigious events we hold in our town each year. It’s an honor to host this event.”
There were no further complications with the festival; everything had been running smoothly since then. Today, although it rained for half an hour at one point during the Ramayana play, no one left the benches; instead, a forest of umbrellas—big ones, small ones, colorful ones, patterned ones—popped up and the people stayed where they were. Then the rain stopped, the sun peeked out from behind the departing clouds, and the umbrellas came down. No one missed even a moment of the drama!
The actors, though, couldn’t take shelter under umbrellas. Despite the rain on the stage, they kept up their performance, and they had been performing for two months straight whether it was windy or rainy or hot. They were real troopers!
As the play ended my cell phone buzzed to signal a text message. It was from a godbrother I had never met who had been watching the theater live-view. His comments were not at all complimentary: he complained that we were using modern dance and ballet, that the music was not traditional and that we had left out significant parts of the Ramayana. He concluded that Srila Prabhupada would never approve of our presentation. I thought about writing back to say how innovation is necessary in presenting Krsna consciousness as time goes on, but I didn’t want to get into a protracted argument. I didn’t have much energy left after the exertion of the summer, and I preferred to use what little time remained to push on the last few days of the tour. Yet, I did want to defend the devotees who had sacrificed so much during the summer. So I quickly texted back a famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. But one who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms and great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I got up to walk around the festival. I mistakenly bumped into an older man.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Please excuse me.”
“No need to excuse yourself,” he said. “It gives me a chance to finally speak to you.”
“Oh, you wanted to speak to me?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “I was 54 when I first came across your festival. I’m 84 now. I can attest to the fact that you’ve been holding this festival for 30 years.”
“You don’t look 84!” I said.
“Of course not,” he said. “I took to heart what you said in the first lecture I heard you give. I gave up eating meat, fish and eggs. I started practicing yoga and I read the Bhagavad Gita every day. And I sing the song too!”
“You mean the Hare Krsna song?” I asked.
“Is there any other song worth singing?” he replied with a grin.
“No, no. You’re right,” I said, secretly wishing I had the same conviction he seemed to possess.
“We have to sing it because someday we’ll die,” he continued. “In the fourth lecture I heard you give, you said that we can’t take anything with us when we die, except our love of God. And you said God is present in His name.”
“Yes, I do say that,” I said. “Where do you plan to go when you die?” I instantly felt sorry, thinking it might be an inappropriate question to ask someone I had just met.
“With him.” He pointed to the actor who had played Lord Ramacandra and who was posing for photos with guests. “But up there!” He pointed to the sky. “Being with Krsna would be ok too!” he added.
The hair on my arms stood up as I watched him walk away.
“We know that old man,” a teenage girl said. She was standing nearby with her friend, both of them wearing saris. “We see him here every year. Sometimes during the theater performance, he cries.”
“I see,” I said, feeling overwhelmed. Fortunately, the other girl changed the subject.
“We just picked out our favorite saris in the fashion booth. They said we could keep them. We plan to wear them to school this coming semester.”
“Really?” I said. “Can you do that?”
“Yes,” she said. “If we wear saris to school, all the other girls will start wearing them. And if all the girls in our school start wearing them, then girls in other schools will also start wearing them. We plan to start a new fashion in Poland.”
“That sounds like a bit of a challenge,” I said.
“Not really,” said the first girl. “We’re beautiful and so are the saris. Just wait and see.”
“Sure, I’ll wait and see,” I said with a smile.
I decided to check out the book tent, but I had only gone 20 meters when a man came up to me and placed a Bhagavad Gita in my hand.
“Can you sign this for my wife?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Should I include your name too?”
“Don’t bother,” he said. “I’m not interested. Every year my wife drags me to this event and before we leave, she asks me to buy her a Bhagavad Gita. I always refuse and we argue about it for the rest of our vacation. So, I finally agreed to buy it for her. Hopefully I’ll get some peace now and be able to enjoy my vacation.”
“Well, you made the right choice,” I said, handing the book back to him. “Finding peace of mind and real happiness are two of the themes in the Bhagavad Gita.”
Just outside the book tent, another man approached me.
“I heard you talk in another town this summer,” he said. “I bought a Bhagavad Gita afterwards. I’ve been reading it for two weeks. As a result I’ve made a firm resolution.”
“Interesting,” I said. “What resolution are you thinking of making?”
He stood up a little straighter and his voice took on a slightly official tone. “I am going to put it in my will that all generations of my family who come after me will be obliged to read this book before they reach 20 years of age. I already mentioned it to my lawyer.”
A teenage girl came up to the man with a Bhagavad Gita in her hands.
“Papa, I want my own copy! And I want the man to sign it.”
Her father hesitated. They were not well-dressed, so perhaps they couldn’t afford it.
“Papa!” she insisted. “Today is the celebration of the ascension, when the Virgin Mary goes back to heaven. My name is Maria. It only makes sense that you buy the book for me today. Ave Maria!”
Her father still seemed to hesitate.
“Look,” I said, “because this is such a special day, a holy day, I’m just going to give you this book, Maria. It’s yours now. You just take it.”
Hearing this, she burst into tears, and then her father started crying too. I felt my own eyes well up with tears of appreciation for the mercy of Lord Caitanya in making Krsna consciousness so accessible to people.
One of the more popular theaters, a drama we call “The Bhagavatam,” was starting on the stage, so I turned back to the benches. The play centers on Maharaja Pariksit’s deliverance, and its theme is the art of dying. In the last scene, one of the performers comes down off the stage and presents the First Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam to someone in the audience. As the devotee descended the stairs, I motioned to her to give the book to one middle-aged woman who had sat mesmerized throughout the entire performance. The lady was overwhelmed by the gift and started crying.
“This festival is a real tear-jerker tonight,” I thought.
The woman with the book came over to me. “I saw you directed that actor to me,” she said.
“Well, yes I did…” I said.
“But how did you know?” Tears were streaming down her face. “How did you know?”
“How did I know what?” I asked.
“Today is my 40th birthday,” she said. “I am all alone. My family – my husband and children – have all passed away. I woke up this morning asking God to give me a sign that He is still here for me. I prayed for Him to give me the knowledge I need to not give in to depression and to go forward in life. Then this afternoon I got an invitation to your festival, and in the theater, I found so much comfort and hope. And then you directed the actor to give me this book!”
She paused. “How did you know?” she asked softly.
“The Lord is in everyone’s heart and He alone knows our deepest desires,” I said. “I am happy I could act as His instrument.”
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” she said. “This has been a life-changing experience for me.”
“For me too,” I said.
As she walked away, I thought about the recipients of Lord Caitanya’s mercy I had encountered that night. “No doubt these are the modern-day pastimes of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu,” I pondered. “He seems to always send the right people at the right time. I am so blessed to be witnessing this.”
Then I remembered a song I used to sing every day as I went out to distribute books in the 1970s and 80s. It seemed to perfectly illustrate that woman’s search for meaning in her life:
There is a light coming down from the face
Of the beautiful Lord
Far beyond outer space
So radiant and bright
Shining perfectly clear
Descending in glory
Removing all fear
Once in the night I did wander in pain
Praying for sunrise to see Him again
Then from great height
Came a vision of grace
Your causeless mercy
From a transcendent place
There is a light coming down from the face
Of the beautiful Lord far beyond outer space
Oh grant me my sight
Let me stand in the rain
Of your rainbow of love
The eternal refrain
Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya!
[“There is a Light,” by Jeffery Armstrong and Michael Cassidy]
After the final kirtan of the night, there was an older woman waiting for me at the bottom of the stage steps.
“Do you remember me?” she said.
“Yes, of course!” I said. “You were the mayor in this town 15 years ago. You fought off all the opposition so we could have our festivals here.”
“Yes,” she replied with a smile. “You had many enemies back then.”
“We certainly did,” I said. “But you stood up for us. And we always won.”
“Yes,” she said, with a touch of nostalgia. “It was a good fight.”
Again, tears came to my eyes. “I’m such a cry-baby tonight,” I thought. Aloud I said, “Thank you for coming this evening! You still remember us.”
“How could I forget you?” she said. She held up one of her hands. “You gave me this ring one day after we defeated a particularly difficult opponent. You told me it was worn by your God who gives protection. And it seems it has worked. All my friends have passed away, but I am standing.”
“Jaya Nrsimhadeva,” I said under my breath.
“We are here only because you safeguarded our mission,” I told her.
“I hope to see you again next year,” she said as we parted ways.
“It’s been an extraordinary festival,” I said to Guru Kripa, as we got in the van.
He smiled and replied, “You say that after every festival, Gurudeva. In fact, you’ve said it 46 times this summer so far.”
“That’s true,” I admitted. “These are golden days. I don’t know how we’re going to survive after our last festival three days from now. How will we all bear separation from these magical events? Where else can one see the causeless mercy of Lord Caitanya continuously day after day after day?”
We both fell silent and remained so for the one-hour drive back to our base.
“The fortunate town of Navadvipa remains on the earth. The seashore remains. The city of Jagannatha Puri remains. The holy names of Lord Krsna remain. Alas! Alas! I do not see anywhere the same kind of festival of pure love for Lord Hari. O Lord Caitanya, O ocean of mercy, will I ever see Your transcendental glory again?”
[Srila Prabhodananda Sarasvati, Caitanya Candramrita, Chapter 12 – Verse 140]