THE DAY BEFORE JANMASTAMI, Lord Krsna's Appearance Day.
We've come to the "farm." It's a run-down group of buildings, some with roofs entirely uncovered. Turiya Dasa said the Communists confiscated it forty years ago and put the farmers in jail, although their only crime was that they were prosperous.
The devotees moved in a month ago. They're building a temple room. They greeted us with a kirtana, men and boys bare-chested in the August heat. They expected us to stay in our van, and so we will, although it's crowded and not ready for living in.
A devotee here tells me the Czech people are used to following their leaders and if they have to perform austerities, even going without food, they are practiced at it.
"Why did you come to a place like this for Janmastami," he asks me, "instead of going to a gala festival in a big temple?"
"I like to do something different."
"Well, you've come to the right place. Get ready for simple life."
* * *
They just held a wonderful initiation ceremony outdoors for Bhakta Tomas Kobes (of the Czech BBT, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust). Now he's Tattva-darsi Dasa. I was told not to be demanding about the ingredients for the sacrifice, or yajna, but just to accept whatever they could offer. So they had oil instead of ghee, and no coconut or banana leaves. And we were lucky to have bananas. But there was plenty of bhakti, devotion.
The guests and devotees, about fifty in all, sat on simple cloths. The brass Gaura-Nitai Deities and the altar from the temple room were brought out. Turiya Prabhu translated my lecture, and everyone listened with attention. How sweet they are, these mild, fair-skinned devotees.
I felt satisfied to be home on this farm, in the world of ISKCON. I imagined the sun moving across the planet, and Janmastami festivals occurring at different hours. Surely our festival was noteworthy, although we didn't have ten thousand guests and large Radha-Krsna Deities. Just an outdoor yajna with oil instead of ghee. By the time the yajna was over, it was almost dark, so we brought the Deities inside. We walked down the dusty path into the old house and put Their Lordships on the simple altar. Then we danced with kirtana. Three more hours until midnight.
* * *
I was asked to give a lecture about the appearance of Lord Krsna. Afterwards, I asked for questions, and an elderly lady raised her hand. Since almost all the devotees here speak only Czech, I was surprised when she began to speak in English.
"Satsvarupa Goswami," she said, "could you tell something about Prabhupada, because you knew him very well?"
I started out by remembering Janmastami 1966 in the storefront.
"The room we are in now reminds me of that storefront," I said. "It was about the same size. 1966 was the first year Prabhupada observed Janmastami in America. He asked the devotees to stay all day in the storefront and fast, but his request seemed difficult. Some of us expressed doubt we could do it, so Swamiji said, 'If you get hungry or weak in the afternoon, you can take some fruit from my refrigerator.' When he said that, it gave us some hope, because it seemed almost impossible that a living being could go all day without eating.
"Fasting was one problem, and another was what to do all day. How to control the mind? When Prabhupada stayed with us in the storefront, reading from his Bhagavad-gita manuscript, it was very enjoyable. But whenever he left us alone, our consciousness and conversation dropped way down. We began to complain, 'I don't think I can do this. How does he expect us to stay like this all day? This is like being in prison you can't even leave the temple.'
"Even while Prabhupada was present, one of the disciples, later to be initiated as Janaki Dasi, said, 'Swamiji, I'm sorry but I have to leave. I have to go home and feed my cats.'
"Swamiji said, 'No, do not do it. Stay here and you can take care of them later.'
"Janaki thought about it, but then said, 'I'm sorry. I have to go and take care of them.'
"The rest of us reluctantly surrendered and stayed there the whole day, which slowly turned into afternoon and night. We sat against the wall, drowsy and weak, trying to chant on our new red beads."
When I finished talking about the 1966 Janmastami, one of the brahmacaris raised his hand. He had asked me several technical questions in lectures I had given the previous day. One of his questions was "How did Lord Siva appear as one of the associates of Lord Caitanya?" Another was "Is it true that Lord Krsna was not worshiped before His actual appearance, but that before His appearance He had always been worshiped as thesalagrama-sila?"
When he raised his hand again, I thought, "Oh, here we go again." But the question was "In Czechoslovakia, we do not have Prabhupada's biography except for the one-volume edition. Could you tell us more about what it was like when Prabhupada went to sing in the park in New York City? Did he bring a carpet? Were you there? What was it like?"
That was a nice setup.
I said, "Yes, there was a carpet. We had an old carpet someone had given us. We started out, about ten or twelve devotees along with Prabhupada, and walked to the park. Once we got to the park, we were a little shy. I thought some of my old friends might come around and see me, and I was embarrassed. But when Prabhupada began to sing the names of the previous spiritual masters, and then Hare Krsna, we sat close to him.
"He was like a mother and a father. Just as little children stay close to their parents when afraid, we stayed close to our spiritual parent. We sat with him on the rug, inside his world, which he had created within the 'big' world of Tompkins Square Park."
I told the devotees how the Swami encouraged us to get up and dance in the park. Brahmananda and Acyutananda did it regularly. Once Prabhupada looked at me and gestured that I should dance. At first I wasn't sure he meant me, so I turned around and looked behind me. I looked at him again. Yes, he meant me.
* * *
I am fortunate to be deep in the heart of Janmastami at the Czech farm. It's the same ecstasy available anywhere in ISKCON, and one should not miss out on it. You can find it in a big or a little temple. Simply follow the basic program: fast all day, fully engage in chanting and hearing or cooking or whatever, and then, having fasted and attended a day and night full of classes about Krsna, gather for a last couple of hours of kirtana until midnight. Then open Lord Krsna's gifts, attend the arati, and honor prasadam.
A special feature here is the simplicity and newness. The devotees know only two or three Hare Krsna tunes, and if you try any others they'll have trouble following. They don't yet know the words to most songs. I was speaker and lead singer, and Madhumangala was the only drum player.
At one point I turned to Turiya and asked, "What should we do for the next hour, speak or chant?"
He replied, "It's up to you. Whatever you want."
I continued a kirtana with a medium-slow beat, strong and steady like the 1966 kirtanas, and the devotees stayed with me. We all surrendered to the Hare Krsna mantra.
Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami is the author of more than two dozen books, including a six-volume biography of Srila Prabhupada.