Spreading the sankirtana movement in the Paris subway.
As the train approaches the platform, we begin kirtana. The doors of the train open, and we enter, singing. Passengers look at us with puzzled faces; some think we are musicians asking for money. The doors close. We stop chanting, and with a slightly jocular tone I briefly introduce ourselves in French.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please! This is completely free! Relax and breathe deeply. It’s already 7:30 P.M. Paris is a busy city; chances are you haven’t done your daily yoga session yet. But have no fear, because the metroyoga team is here! We represent the cutting-edge of the yoga scene. There is no need to stretch and hold poses here; we are experts in the field who chant mystical mantras with love. We do this thirty meters underground in the darkness of the subway. Ladies and gentlemen-metroyoga!”
We start kirtana again. While the train moves along, we chant melodiously, following a sweet Indonesian tune or a bluesy melody Gadadhara Priya Dasa plays on his portable harmonium.
Seeing the innocence and originality of our performance, the passengers loosen up. When the doors close after the next stop, we again halt the kirtana and I say, “Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you who have just come aboard, this is your daily free session of metroyoga. The prayer, or mantra, we are chantingin a more or less graceful wayhas the potency to thoroughly redress the economic situation in the entire Euro zone, especially in Greece and in Italy.”
People smirk.I continue, “This chanting connects the soul with God andbelieve it or noteven manages to make a few human beings smile in the subway!”
The concept of metroyoga arose spontaneously one dark and damp Parisian late-afternoon in the winter of 2008. Three of us were chanting on the windy street near the Opera. Practically nobody paid any attention to us as they hurried by. Cold and frustrated, we decided to get warm down in the subway. While underground, we began an impromptu kirtana on the platform. And when a train came by, we spontaneously decided to hop onto it, and we continued chanting inside. Straightaway we noticed how the relational dynamic with people inside the train was very different from when we sing outside on the street; it was more intimate. After that first experience, we decided to keep doing this. We refined it; we gave it a name and a website. It became our daily routine.
An Honorary Vegetarian
As the train moves along, I point to Sara, who is ready with her basket of prasada cookies she baked an hour earlier.
“Along with this chanting,” I exclaim,” comes a free organic vegetarian cookie. Please take one.”
I pick out a young man or a young woman among the commuters and put him or her on the spot.
If it is a woman, I ask her, “Mademoiselle, are you a vegetarian?”
Before she can open her mouth to reply, Gadadhara Priya and I cut her off, clap our hands, and declare loudly in unison, “Ladies and gentlemen, she is a vegetarian! Congratulations!”
We start kirtana again. In spite of the jolting of the train, Sara walks through the isle with Italian elegance, gracefully offering a cookie with a silver spoon to the sitting and standing passengers. We repeatedly marvel at just how many Parisians accept a cookie and eat it on the spot. She also gives them one of our business cards, which has the Hare Krishna mantra on one side and www.metroyoga.fr on the other. The website has photographs and videos of us, a section where people can (and do) leave remarks, and links to various Gaudiya Vaishnava websites. We keep the design of the card simple free of any explicit proselytizing precisely because we want the mood of our presentation to remain discrete, enigmatic, and attractive.
“When we enter the train,” Sara says, “it is like a flood, and they cannot escape. I often think of Srila Prabhupada, who said, ‘Distribute prasada and chant Hare Krishna; for the mass of people this is the only medicine.’”
She adds, “Years ago, when I was a student in Milano, I was also sitting like these people in the metro. I used to watch the passengers around me and wonder, ‘Who are they? Who am I? What happens when we die?’ Now it is so blissful to be in the metro again, but this time knowing the answers to these questions and sharing them with other people.”
When the doors close after the third stop, we again halt the kirtana.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I call out, “for those of you philosophically inclined, please consider that reincarnation is similar to riding on the subway: We are stuck in one train on one line for some time, and then we switch onto another train on another line. Similarly, the soul is in one body for some years, and after death it switches to another body for some more years.”
All the while, Gadadhara Priya, standing next to me, silently mimics my philosophical statements with exaggerated hand and facial gestures, making people laugh. Then, pointing to the young lady we unanimously declared to be a vegetarian a few minutes earlier, I put her on the spot again.
“Mademoiselle,” I ask, “do you also believe in reincarnation?”
Cashing in on the humor of repetition, Gadadhara Priya and I again cut her off before she can open her mouth and exclaim in unison while clapping our hands, “Ladies and gentlemen, this lady also believes in reincarnation! Please give her a round of applause!” People laugh again.
The Joy and the Magic of Chanting
We try to present the chanting of the holy hame, which is the essence of Caitanya Vaishnavism, in a personal, original, and kind way. Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya describes Lord Caitanya as nava-hasya-karam, or He who “makes ever-new jokes that cause much laughter.” We try to embody the same light, friendly spirit. We are not trying to impose orthodoxy; we just want people to get a glimpse of the joy and magic of the sankirtana movement, which, as Lord Caitanya says, “enables us to fully taste the nectar for which we are always anxious.” We try to communicate the message that the yuga-dharma, the religious process for this age, is relevant and easy to perform in any condition. Chanting Hare Krishna is simple; people can even do it in the subway.
We try to be original, too. Srila Prabhupada says in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.8.54, “An acharya who comes for the service of the Lord cannot be expected to conform to a stereotype, for he must find the ways and means by which Krishna consciousness may be spread.” This applies to all of us; we are all small acharyas, or gurus, in our own ways. According to time and circumstance, we should try to make Krishna consciousness culturally relevant and user-friendly. For me, two passages from scripture have relevance to metroyoga:
In Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.14.3, Lord Brahma assures, “Those who, even while remaining situated in their established social positions [emphasis mine], offer all respects to descriptions of Your personality and activities . . . certainly conquer Your Lordship. . . .” And Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 7.128, “Many people inquire whether they have to give up family life to join the Society, but that is not our mission. One can remain comfortably in his residence. We simply request everyone to chant the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
In pursuance of this theme, I do metroyoga dressed in contemporary clothes. By my own example, I want to show people they can just be themselveswithout having to change the way they dressand simply add the chanting of the holy name to their lives. Gadadhara Priya and Sara, on the other hand, prefer traditional Indian attire. Our differing clothing styles make for a pleasant variety which tells onlookers that dress is secondary and anyone can chant Hare Krishna garbed however he or she wants. (Srila Prabhupada once said, “I have not said that you [must] dress like that [in traditional Indian attire]. [If] you like, you do it. . . . We are not concerned with the dress; we are concerned with the advancement of spiritual understanding, that’s all.” [June 1974, Paris]) Although performing music inside the Paris subway is technically illegal, many musicians do it anyway. They ask for money, too. We, on the other hand, make it clear from the beginning that we do not want any payment. On rare occasions, the subway authorities apprehend us. They are generally sympathetic, however, because they know we are the only “musicians” who do not ask for money. When we sporadically meet them, they ask us to stop. We then usually switch to another line, without any further problems. We are grateful to the Paris subway authorities for being kind to the metroyoga team. God bless them.
Serving the Holy Name
As I lightly beat the mrdanga, as Gadadhara Priya hits the keys of his harmonium, and as Mangalavati gently strikes her karatalas, we try to listenour ears wide opento the transcendental vibration of Krishna’s name. Our only shelter in the subway is the sound vibration of the maha-mantra. Bhaktivinoda Thakura sings, “In all the fourteen worlds, there is nothing but the holy name.” (Arunodaya-kirtana) We serve the holy name by earnestly listening to its sound and by providing passengers the opportunity to hear itmaybe for the first time in their journey through samsara, the ongoing cycle of birth and death in the material world. As humbly as we can, we meditate on Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya’s statement: “The Vaishnavas have received the mercy of Gaura [Caitanya Mahaprabhu]. Seeing the unfortunate condition of the fallen souls who are completely bound in the cycle of birth and death, they take compassion on them and distribute the holy names of the Lord.” (Sri Caitanya-sataka 31) We feel deeply fortunate for the opportunity to enable these people’s first step in Krishna consciousness.
Gadadhara Priya recalls, “One day when I was a child, I was riding in the metro with my mother. I asked her, ‘Maman, these people seem nice; why don’t we speak to them?’
“She retorted, ‘Non, Guillaume; we don’t speak to anyone and everyone in the metro.’
“I found the stuffy, non-communicative atmosphere of the subway strange. I thought, ‘These people really look bored. And yet they could be friends with each other. Why can’t we talk to them?’
“Forty-five years later, while doing metroyoga in the same metro line, I remember my thoughts as a child, and I smile.” As the train slows down before reaching our fourth stop, we interrupt the kirtana and I say, before the doors open, “Ladies and gentlemen, you have been wonderful, tolerant, attentive, and patient.”
I really mean it. Then I add, with some loving playfulness, “We all experienced a truly deep moment of yoga together.”
I continue, “This metroyoga team does this every day in the Paris subway, totally free of charge, as a humble attempt to generate a little bit of joy. [Gadadhara Priya interjects, “And love!”] So please, ladies and gentlemen, give us a round of applause to encourage us in our endeavor. Thank you very much.”
Passengers clap every time.
We exit the train, stand on the platform, turn around, and begin kirtana again, facing the passengers. During these few seconds before the doors close, we make eye contact with them. We knowand they knowwe may never see each other again. But the moment is very sweet; they realize that we did not want to exploit them, that we simply wanted to share with them something we consider dear and magical.
The doors close. As the train moves on, we wave goodbye to the passengers through the window. Smiling, many of them wave back. Someone might give us a thumbs’ up. On occasion a tear falls down a woman’s cheek.
Gadadhara Priya says, “The atmosphere inside the train really transforms while we’re in there. Some people smile immediately. As we chant, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu drowns the train with the holy name of Krishna. We witness first-hand how strangers become our friends in only a few short moments. Some applaud, some clap their hands to the beat, and others burst out laughing. They thank us sincerely and wave to us as a sign of appreciation.”
When the train is gone, we huddle on the platform. Mangalavati pulls out a book Caitanya-bhagavata or Bhagavad-gitaand we start reading out loud to each other for a few minutes to remain absorbed in transcendence. When the next train makes its entrance a few minutes later, she puts the book away and we begin kirtana. The doors open, we enter inside, and we repeat the routine, beginning with “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please! This is completely free . . .” We perform these metroyoga sessions all the way until the end of the line, after which we go back on the same line, or switch onto another line. Three hours of metroyoga seem like an instant. We feel so enthused and Krishna conscious afterwards.
Mangalavati says, “I have never seen a harinama party so well received in France. We can easily judge the quality of this program by witnessing the impact these few minutes of kirtana and philosophical exchanges have on the subway passengers. I love to observe how their expressions changefrom skepticism to curiosity, to laughter, and to gratitude at the endhaving been touched by the encounter.”
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu predicted that the chanting of the holy name would spread to every town and village. For this to happen devotees need to behave in such a way that people trust and love them; there is no way around it. People ought to see that Vaishnavas and Vaishnavis are down-to-earth people. They must understand that devotees are just like everyone else, with the exception that they chant Hare Krsna. We hope our metroyoga project is a step in this direction.
Candrasekhara Acharya Dasa (Cyril Wohrer), a disciple of Bhakti Caru Swami, was born in Santa Monica, California, USA. He served as his guru’s executive assistant for five years and has worked with Indradyumna Swami’s festival tours in Poland and Australia. He is currently finishing a Masters in Theology at Oxford University.
Citti Devi Dasi, the photographer for this article, is from Australia. Visit her website at http://www.chittilardi.com/.