RUPA RAGHUNATHA DASA picked me up at the Johannesburg airport in his pickup truck, marked “Hare Krishna Food for Life.” We swung out of the airport and headed straight for Soweto, the African ghetto ten kilometers away.
“The kids are hungry there,” he said. “The main thing in their diet is mealie-meal, a cheap cornmeal preparation.
Every day when they see our truck pull up with prasadam they literally run for their lives to get a share.”
Rupa knows the kids. He lives with them. After going into the ghetto for years to distribute prasadam and work with the people, last year he decided to open a center right in the heart of Soweto. He’s the only white man there.
“I don’t see them as black, and they don’t see me as white,” Rupa said as we neared a town of shacks that spreads twenty miles.
“Just look down the road,” he said.
As my eyes focused on the entrance to the shantytown, five hundred meters away, I saw fifteen or twenty kids chanting the Hare Krsna mantra and dancing, eager for our visit … and prasadam.
“Most kids here are into crime of one form or another by the time they’re ten,” Rupa Raghunatha said. “But the Krsna conscious ones stay out of trouble. They’ve got a kind of camaraderie. When a Zulu boy takes to Krsna consciousness he right away gets his friends into it. The same for the boys from the Sotho and Pedi tribes from the north. Even when they’re from different tribes they get on together pretty well…. Close the window now.”
We drove past garbage dumps and open sewage on the sides of the road. In a moment we came upon the wood and tin huts, smoke rising from coal fires inside. Children played in the streets, some naked, the rest in rags.
“Many parts of Soweto now have decent housing,” Rupa said. “But conditions like this brought on the riots in ’76. I wasn’t here, but I heard it was pretty ugly. A lot of people were killed. People wanted a revolution. They wanted change.” (More recently, Soweto has become the home of the black leader Nelson Mandela.)
We pulled up near a building with a sign that read “Hare Krishna Temple Soweto.”
Within minutes, hundreds of people lined up behind the truck, their hands holding plastic bowls, tin cans, and even paper sacks, waiting for prasadam.
The devotees began scooping out liberal portions of kicchari from big plastic containers.
“After they’ve eaten, we all go chanting through the streets,” Rupa said.
“All of us?”
“Yes, they all come, hundreds of them.”
Mahaprabhu and his wife, Meli, soon showed up. Both native Sowetins, they’d been the first to join Krsna consciousness full time. Their small three-room house was the first temple.
As we dished out prasadam, more Hare Krsna Sowetins arrived: Benny, Jonny, Duo, Happy, David, Sipho, all boys in their teens, their bright faces adorned with the white vertical marks of Vaisnava tilaka.
They were eager to tell of their experiences earlier that morning, when they’d gone out in a group to spread Krsna consciousness.
“Maharaja, we met one family and convinced them to chant Hare Krsna. After a while all the neighbors came too. We’ve brought them along for prasadam and kirtana.“
Soon we were chanting and dancing through the streets of Soweto. As the crowd swelled and the holy name of Krsna went out in all directions, I remembered a verse from the Srimad-Bhagavatam:
svasty astu visvasya khalah prasidatam
dhyayantu bhutani sivam mitho dhiya
manas ca bhadram bhajatad adhoksaje
avesyatam no matir apy ahaituki
“May there be good fortune through-out the universe, and may all envious persons be pacified. May all living entities become calm by practicing bhakti-yoga, for by accepting devotional service they will think of each other’s welfare. Therefore let us all engage in the service of the supreme transcendence, Lord Krsna, and always remain absorbed in thought of Him.”
Indradyumna Swami joined ISKCON in Detroit in 1971. He accepted sannyasa, the renounced order of life, in 1979. Since then he has spread Krsna consciousness in many parts of the world.
Lord Caitanya predicted that Krsna consciousness will spread to every town and village in the world. From issue to issue, Back to Godhead will bring you photographic reports of how it’s spreading. We’ll travel with Krsna conscious preachers and visit places where Krsna consciousness is alive and active. We’ll take photographic journeys to holy places and look into what devotees do to realize Krsna’s presence in their lives. Devotee photographers: We invite you to use your talent to show us Krsna where we haven’t seen Him before. Help make Back to Godhead a showpiece for Krsna conscious photojournalism and sensitive, inspired photographic art.—J.S.