At a festival in Poland,
the Lord's holy names soothe
souls to quell a threat.
Each summer, His Holiness Indradyumna Swami heads up a group of devotees who put on dozens of Hare Krsna festivals throughout Poland. Here he reports on two of this year's early festivals, revealing the challenges, the dangers, and the victories.
ON MAY 27, AS WE CHANTED through the streets of Thomaszow, a few antagonistic young men shouted obscenities at us. Others simply stood still as we passed by, their angry vision riveted on our kirtana party. On top of that, I noticed that all the posters we had put up the night before (to cover those defaced earlier in the week) were again covered by a bright sticker: "Attention! Sect! Festival canceled!" It seemed a concerted effort was being made to stop our festival, and I sensed that the angry young men we encountered in the town were somehow connected with it.
As darkness descended on the festival that evening, the band was halfway through its repertoire. The kids loved it. Sri Prahlada and the musicians were in full form. Hundreds of youngsters were chanting and dancing, and many of us were thinking it was one of the band's best concerts ever. But just as they were starting their last song, suddenly chaos enveloped the scene.
I was standing beside the sound tent when I saw a big canister sail over the heads of the audience and land in the middle of the crowd in front of the stage. When it hit the ground, it exploded, spraying a huge cloud of pepper gas. All the kids started gagging. Within seconds, twenty young men dressed in black with big boots, and bandanas covering their faces, emerged from the darkness and attacked the crowd. Swinging baseball bats, iron bars, and chains, they beat devotees and guests indiscriminately. The first person they hit was a twelve-year-old girl. She fell to the ground, bleeding from her head.
Before our security could respond, the neo-Nazi skinheads had injured many people as they swung their weapons in all directions. Premaharinama Dasa, one of my disciples from Bosnia, was also one of the first to go down, with a heavy blow to his forehead. Blood gushed from the wound. Ekanatha Dasa was hit with a baseball bat in the face, and when he fell the skinheads kept beating him as he lay on the ground.
Guests were falling left and right as the skinheads, screaming right-wing political slogans, hit their victims with vicious blows. Vaikunthapati, Raksana, and Sri Bhasya, three members of our security force, descended on the attackers with a fury. Along with Vara-nayaka Dasa, a number of guests also fought the skinheads with chairs and tables. In the midst of it all, male devotees were screaming to the women to run to the bus parked nearby.
Outside the melee, people called the police on their cell phones. As more people joined the fight, the skinheads retreated, only to reassemble and attack again. One of them jumped into our gift shop, where Taralaksi Dasi smashed him with a chair. Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, they were all gone, having escaped into the darkness.
Along with the five injured devotees, some injured guests were lying on the ground. There was blood everywhere. Ten minutes later an ambulance arrived and took the most seriously injured to the hospital. A long twenty minutes later the police finally arrived although they had been only two blocks away. Strangely enough, they were not interested in making a report on the attack and said they couldn't offer us any protection for the rest of the night. They said they had only three men on duty in the entire town. We felt there might have been a connection between the police and the attackers. We even suspected that the local Church might be involved. All day long people were telling us that local priests had been calling to warn them not to come to the festival.
To my surprise, many people stayed and milled around the festival site after the attack. They were angry that such a peaceful event had been so brutally disrupted. People were talking about religious intolerance and discrimination, a common subject at this time in Poland. But I was nervous that so many people remained. I was afraid the skinheads would return to finish off what they'd started. Vara-nayaka, himself injured in the fight, ordered that all the trucks, cars, tents, and paraphernalia be brought into the center of the field so we could protect them more easily.
After deliberating for some time, we decided to dismantle the festival and pack everything up. It was too risky to stay; our security force was not prepared to deal with so many well-armed men. We had needed help from our guests to repulse the attackers. We decided to cancel the second day of the festival.
Nandini Dasi and Radha Sakhi Vrnda Dasi went to the hospital to check on the injured devotees. Their wounds required many stitches, but fortunately none of their injuries were serious.
We sent all the other women back to our base in the bus, while all the men stayed behind to protect the crew who were breaking down the festival site. Several carloads of skinheads arrived two hours later, but we made a show of force, and they retreated. We all arrived back at our base at 4:00 A.M.
A Dangerous City
About two weeks later, on June 12 we packed up after a successful festival in Gorzow Wielkopolski and headed south, back towards Lodz, to begin final preparations for our festival there. Gorzow Wielkopolski had been a picnic for the devotees. We were special guests in the city, and the authorities had made all the arrangements for our festival. Devotees were relaxed and had enjoyed the preaching, but the light mood gradually changed as we drove south.
The attack on our festival in Tomaszow, near Lodz, was still fresh in the devotees' minds, and word had spread among them that our professional security team (hired after the Tomaszow incident) felt that Lodz was the most dangerous city in Poland. Although we were well received when we chanted on the streets in Lodz before leaving for Gorzow Wielkopolski, the writing was literally on the walls in Lodz. The all-pervading graffiti in the city revealed the hate and frustration of many of the youth there: "Poland for Poles," "Death to Jews," and "Nazis Rule Here" are favored slogans on the sides of buildings everywhere. Lodz is an industrial town with lots of factories, but many people are out of work. Boredom and frustration give rise to the sentiments of xenophobia (extreme nationalism) that caused the attack on our festival in Tomaszow.
The further south we drove the worse the weather became. Big black clouds hovered overhead as we passed Lodz and neared our base.
After looking out the window, one devotee turned to me and said, "Maharaja, some devotees feel we're asking for trouble by doing a festival in Lodz. They say the same people who attacked us in Tomaszow may come back."
"We shouldn't worry," I replied. "Devotees are not afraid to defend themselves if necessary."
I quoted from a class by Srila Prabhupada in London in July 1973: "Vaisnavas do not simply chant Hare Krsna. If there is need, they can fight under the guidance of Visnu and become victorious. … Generally, a Vaisnava is nonviolent, [however] if Krsna wants we shall be prepared to become violent also."
"But if there's trouble," I said, "we won't do the fighting. We're well protected by our hired security team for the entire three-day festival. Don't worry, their very presence will act as a deterrent to anyone who would want to harm us. We must go ahead with the festival. Many interested people are expressing a desire to come. All the major local newspapers have written articles about the festival. If there's anything we should worry about it's those dark clouds above. They're our most formidable enemy right now."
Not wanting to worry the devotee, I didn't share with him the advice our security firm's manager had given me at a recent meeting.
"Despite all the security we're offering you," he had said, "there's still one way your enemies can stop this festival for good."
"What's that?" I asked.
Looking at me intently, he said, "Take you out."
Coming closer, he continued, "You have to take certain precautions from now on. From the attack in Tomaszow it's obvious that some people will go to any extreme to try to stop your festival. Here's a brochure describing different types of bulletproof vests. You'd be wise to place an order."
Taken aback, I thought, "A bullet-proof vest! What would the sannyasis of yore think of that? They were carrying only a water pot and a staff, and here I'll be wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying a can of CS tear gas and a fighting stick tucked into my dhoti!"
I was going to reply that Krsna protects His devotees, but I realized that Krsna expects His devotees to use their intelligence as well.
"It's your decision," the security team manager continued, "but don't underestimate your enemies."
I pushed the brochure back across the table … and he pushed it back.
"We're not playing games here," he said. "Give me your measurements."
Clouds And Skinheads
When we arrived back at our base near Lodz, a letter was waiting for us from the police in Tomaszow investigating the attack on our festival. They discovered that on the day of our program a van had been rented by a priest in the town of Czestochowa, fifty kilometers south of Tomaszow, which had transported fifteen tough-looking young men to a parking lot not far from our program. Witnesses had seen the young men hurrying to the festival site near the end of our program, and twenty minutes later running back to the van and speeding off. Further evidence indicates that these young men may have been responsible for the havoc that night. The investigation is continuing, and legal action is to be taken at its completion.
The night before the first day of the Lodz festival, I tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep. I was worried. I knew it could be a huge festival, if only because we had done more advertising for it than any festival before. We had distributed almost 50,000 invitations, put up more than 1,000 posters, and had been featured throughout the media. But two things weighed heavily on my mind: the frustrated youth of Lodz and the dark rain clouds that hung over the city.
When I woke up in the morning after a brief sleep, the first thing I did was look out the window. The clouds were darker than on the previous day, and I could feel the air thick with moisture. I asked a devotee to buy a newspaper, and when it came, my worst apprehensions were confirmed the weather report predicted rain. But my eye caught another concern, which hadn't been brought to my attention: Not far from our outdoor festival, and at the same time, there was to be a major soccer match, a sure sign of trouble.
I worshiped my deities, Laksmi-Nrsimhadeva, with all the devotion I could muster, ran through the whole morning program with the devotees, and after prasadam put everyone onto our buses to the festival site. Under ominous clouds, we worked for many hours setting everything up. At 4:30 P.M. we opened the festival to a small crowd. After an hour, the crowd had grown to only 2,000 people. We often get 10,000 or more, and I attributed the relatively poor attendance to the possibility of rain. But as time passed, the rain held off and things were going smoothly.
The fifteen men on the security team, however, appeared somewhat nervous, apparently knowing the nature of the youth in Lodz and the fact that any trouble at the nearby soccer match could easily spill into our festival. But I couldn't see how these men had anything to worry about; each one of them was over six and a half feet tall and built like a fighting machine, with huge muscles, fierce eyes, and scowls on their faces. They were dressed in black and armed with various weapons.
Hold The Prasadam
At one point, I approached the man in charge of security and asked if everything was all right. He replied that we didn't have to worry but he did want to speak to me about one thing. I agreed and we sat down to talk.
"Maharaja," he said, "I don't want my men eating your food anymore. During the last festivals your devotees have been giving them all kinds of things to eat from your restaurant."
"Are you worried there may be drugs in the food?" I asked.
"No," he replied, "I know your pure standards. The problem is that your food has a special effect on my men. It makes them become like all of you."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"It makes them smile all the time. It makes them soft and loving and compassionate. These men have to be tough to do this job. Your food is turning my lions into lambs! Just look over there."
I glanced over toward our restaurant and saw two of his men eating samosas while laughing and joking with the devotees in a relaxed manner.
"They were never like that before," he said. "It's the food, the singing, and the whole atmosphere!"
"OK," I consented, "when the festival season is over, we'll give them prasadam to take home."
I wandered over to the stage just as Sri Prahlada and the Village of Peace reggae band started to play. Darkness was setting in, but I could still see the security men dressed in black guarding the stage. As Sri Prahlada and the band broke into a number chanting Hare Krsna, I looked closely at the security men and saw the words of their chief come true: They were swaying slightly back and forth, chanting the holy names. I left it to the chief to tell them not to sing on the job. For me it was once again confirmation of the power of the holy names to turn hearts of steel into soft butter.
After days of worrying about the festival, I started to relax, seeing our preaching bear fruit.
Then I saw them coming. A big gang of young men appeared on the field. I recognized them by their attire skinheads. Dressed in black boots, tight Levi's, and T-shirts, they moved slowly toward the crowd. Their faces showed the same hate and anger I'd seen on numerous occasions on the street, and at the festival in Tomaszow in particular. The ominous words of the devotee I had spoken to a few days earlier came to mind: "Maharaja, some devotees feel we're asking for trouble by doing a festival in Lodz. They say the same people who attacked us in Tomaszow may come back."
I looked to the left and right and saw our security men move in closer and brace themselves for trouble. The skinheads went slowly through the festival area, keeping in a big group, as they always do. As they moved around, people backed away. Some started to leave, fearing violence. I looked again toward the security men, who were meeting hastily, obviously planning a strategy if a fight broke out. The situation was tense, and my adrenaline was running. I touched my jacket to make sure my tear gas and fighting stick were still in my pocket.
The skinheads moved quickly into the crowd of young people dancing before the stage and stood there for a moment, as if waiting for a signal. The security men started moving toward them. Sri Prahlada and the band, oblivious of the danger, were singing another song with the maha-mantra, chanting the holy names loudly while the drummer played a driving beat that had the kids dancing wildly. I jumped onto the stage, figuring it would be a vantage point if there was a fight.
Suddenly, to my amazement I saw a few of the skinheads start to tap their big black boots to the music. Then, as our powerful sound system carried the maha-mantra far and wide, some of the skinheads stood as if dazed, then slowly began repeating the words of the mantra. After a few minutes, all of them were chanting and swaying back and forth a little self-conscious at first, but as soon as the kids saw them chanting, they grabbed them and pulled them into the kirtana, and they started dancing wildly. Eventually they were completely absorbed in the kirtana, chanting Hare Krsna at the top of their lungs and twirling and dancing with abandon. I sat down at the front of the stage in utter astonishment. The security men backed off to their original position, smiling to themselves.
"What's happening here?" I won-dered. "How is it that these young men who came here intent on fighting are now laughing and dancing along with the devotees? How has this sudden change of heart come over them?"
I looked at Sri Prahlada, perspiring profusely as he chanted the holy names with deep faith and conviction from the stage, leaping and twirling through the air. I looked at the audience again and saw skinheads, teenagers, children, and adults all holding hands, dancing in a big circle. Lit by the stage lights, they looked like a huge firebrand being twirled around.
As the kirtana went on, I sat there in amazement.
"This is what it must have been like during the time of Lord Caitanya," I thought. "The gentle and the ruffians chanting the holy names together in ecstasy by the unfathomable mercy of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu."
Knowing it to be one of those rare occasions we witness only once in a great while in Krsna consciousness, I relished the moment.
Then suddenly the band stopped and the kirtana was over. The skinheads, laughing and enjoying themselves, turned around and walked out of the festival grounds. In a few minutes they were gone although you could still hear them from a distance, singing Hare Krsna.
Indradyumna Swami, a senior disciple of Srila Prabhupada, accepted sannyasa, the renounced order of life, in 1979. Readers interested in receiving chapters of Diary of a Traveling Preacherby email as they come out can write to email@example.com.
Adapted from the unpublished Diary of a Traveling Preacher, Volume 3, Chapters 36 and 40. (Volumes 1 and 2 are available from the Hare Krsna Bazaar. http://www.krishna.com)