“Sacred Ground”

| August 12, 2017 |

“I hate you people and all you stand for!” shouted the school’s headmaster. “There’s no way I will ever, and I repeat, EVER, rent this school to you during Woodstock.” With that he slammed the door, leaving Nandini dasi standing dumbstruck with no alternate accommodations for most of the 700 devotees coming for the event.

Fifteen minutes later her 4 year-old son, Alex, who was playing with his friends nearby wandered over and casually walked into the headmaster’s office. “I want to tell you something….” he began. The headmaster, startled by the youngster’s bravery, decided to listen to what he had to say.

Years later the headmaster told Nandini, “I never heard a 4 year-old speak so articulately in my life, what to speak of his convincing arguments why you people should have the school!” Back then he had granted permission for us to use the school after Alex convinced him it was the right thing to do.

That was in 2013. Since then the headmaster has welcomed us back every year during Woodstock and has become a great admirer of our movement. As always, he was even there to greet us last week when two of our buses from Ukraine and Moldova arrived at his school two days before for the twenty-third Woodstock festival.

“Trouble’s brewing,” he said warily, as he greeted Nandini.

He didn’t have to explain. Most everyone in the country was aware that the conservative government was not happy with the Woodstock festival and was doing everything it could to try and stop it from taking place.

“Yes, I know,” said Nandini. “Their latest attempt to shut the festival down is to impose so many security restrictions that it will be too expensive to proceed. I heard that the organizers made a desperate public appeal for financial help today.”

“Even if they get the funds,” said the headmaster, “the restrictions are so imposing that it will be impossible for the event to function properly. They plan to do an extensive search of each and every vehicle coming to the event. They say they’re afraid of terrorists. Rumor has it that snipers will cover the event from the nearby hills.”

The next morning I told my driver Guru Kripa das to get our van ready to go down to the Woodstock field where a number of our men had been busy setting up our Krishna’s Village of Peace for two weeks.

“Give me half an hour,” he said. “I have to run to get the special pass and ID papers that the government issued for our van.”

“Wow” it’s really true,” I thought. “This year’s Woodstock festival might be pretty intense.”

One hour later we approached an ominous looking checkpoint on the only road leading into the festival sight. Suddenly six policemen in riot gear appeared from behind a barricade and approached our van—their hands on their guns.

“Driver, stop the van!” shouted one through a megaphone. “Take the keys out of the ignition and step out of the car slowly, with your hands above your head. Everyone else in the van do the same. Now!”

As we stood in the road they patted us down and searched the van.

“Now get back in,” the same officer said.

A little confused by what was going on, we moved slowly back toward the van.

“Move it!” the officer barked. As we drove away, I made eye contact with him and tried to smile. He just glared back. I noted that his badge was number 44. I would warn other devotees who would be coming through to be cautious.

As we drove into the festival site I said to the other men in the car, “They’re definitely going to have to change the motto of this festival from ‘Peace, Love and Rock and Roll.’”

Once we arrived at our village, set upon one-half hector of land, all tension diminished. The men had done a great job in setting up all the colorful tents, including the big one of over 50 meters long.

“We’ve been lucky,” said a new devotee who was helping. “The weatherman has been predicting rain every day, but it hasn’t rained once!”

“It’s not luck” I corrected him, “It’s Krishna’s mercy. In Krsna Book, Queen Kunti says to the Lord, ‘So, my dear Krishna, there is no question of bad luck; we are always in an auspicious position because of Your grace.’ What was true then is also true now if we’re serving Krishna’s mission. Our lives are always auspicious.”

As I walked around the large area set aside for our village I marveled at the fact that we’d set up our village thirteen times on the same field. “It’s become sacred ground,” I mused. “One can feel the atmosphere has changed because of the many hours and days we’ve chanted the holy names at this exact location. Not only us, but the thousands of people who come to Woodstock and chant Hare Krishna with us.”

“Sacred Ground!” I called out enthusiastically, “It’s true!” causing all the devotees working at the site to look up at me curiously.

“Incessantly they discuss the narrations of Sri Krishna’s pastimes with one another and chant the names of Krsna which bestow pure devotion. Overwhelmed with ecstasy they preach the Hare Krishna Mantra throughout the earth to destroy the sins of the age of Kali.”

[ Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Susloka-Satakam, text 76 ]

The next morning we held a meeting with all 700 devotees present. I stressed the historic nature of our presence at Woodstock and how we had to take advantage of the opportunity to reach these young people with the holy names.

“Carpe diem” I began. “That’s a Latin aphorism which means ‘seize the moment.’ Seventy-five years ago this very place where we are sitting was a war zone with mass killings committed by both the allied and axis armies. No one was safe—no man, woman or child. But now Russian, German, and American devotees can come together as brothers and sisters, in a time of peace—free to spread our message. We must do so with a sense of urgency because we all know that history often repeats itself. Let’s chant and dance with a common purpose—giving the one million young people coming to Woodstock a simple and joyful solution to all the upheaval in this world!”

As I closed, the devotees let out a huge roar. Then and there I knew that somehow Krishna would arrange for Woodstock to go on.

The day before the actual Woodstock festival begins, is traditionally “Hare Krishna Day.” Most of the people have arrived at Woodstock by that time and we open our village at 11:00 a.m. Much to the delight of the people, we started early with full prasadam distribution at our Food for Peace tent—despite the complications of getting our prasadam vans through the congested traffic caused by the police security checks. I was amazed to see people literally running toward the massive tent as the news spread that we were selling prasadam for a nominal fee. Moments later we rolled our massive Ratha Yatra cart onto the one and only street running through the grounds, accompanied by a rousing kirtan with 100 devotees. The sacred grounds were becoming even more sanctified!

As the rumbling chariot made it’s way through the throngs of people, I gave a flower garland I was wearing to a girl who was pulling on one of the ropes. She had a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She looked at the garland, and quickly threw away both the beer and the cigarette.

“Doesn’t match,” she said. “Two different worlds.”

“One down, 999,000 to go” I chuckled to myself.

Many of the youth came forward to either pull the chariot, or sing and dance with us. I was initially surprised that so many seemed to know the Hare Krishna Mantra. So I pulled one disheveled boy with a wild mohawk haircut aside and asked him, “How do you know the song?”

“It’s Kali Yuga, man,” he shouted above the roar of the kirtan, “there’s no other way!” With that he jumped back into the kirtan chanting with abandon.

We had printed a special invitation beckoning people to come to our village and everyone seemed to be accepting them. Within two hours all 10,000 we brought with us for that day were distributed. As I was expressing my displeasure to the kirtan leader that we hadn’t brought enough invitations, a young woman overheard us.

“Don’t worry, everyone here knows about Krishna’s Village of Peace” she said. “There was an online survey done last week on the official Woodstock website. One question was: ‘where do you spend most of your money at Woodstock?’

Ninety percent of the people replied, ‘At the Hare Krishna’s, Food for Peace tent!’”

That evening our Mantra Yoga tent swelled with people as Mahatma dasa, Sivarama Swami, BB Govinda Maharaja, Bada Haridas and Madhava prabhu led kirtan, one after another. As we ended the kirtan at 1:00 a.m. and I went outside, I was surprised to see the Questions and Answers tent still full of around 100 people. I expressed my surprise to one of our security men who said, “Yep, I stand here and watch ’em go from the kirtan tent to the Question and Answers tent, and then on to the book tent where most of the time they walk out with either a Bhagavad-Gita, a cookbook, or the Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita.

Before going back to our base, I walked over to our Food for Peace tent.

“How’s it going?” I asked Rasikendra dasa.

“30,000 plates of prasadam today,” he said with a big smile. “And we’ve started cooking for the morning now.”

“What about getting some rest?” I said astonished.

“Too much nectar flowing,” he said as he walked off. Then he turned and added, “Oh yeah, we’re giving maha prasadam to the police at the roadblocks and they’re starting to ease up on us. Now we’re getting all the prasadam vans through pretty quickly. From the four school kitchens to the festival site it takes only thirty minutes. ”

The next day Woodstock’s organizer, Jurek Owsiak, called and asked us to come for the grand opening on the main stage. “Could you bring some of your theater performers in their colorful outfits?” he asked. At 3:00 p.m. we went to the back of the main stage and were met by security men who immediately took us up the stairs to the stage. The main security man said, “After Jurek and a few musicians come on, you’ll be next in line. You can go straight to the front. You’ll be in full view of the crowd of 300,000 people.”

Within moments Jurek went onstage and thanked all the people present for assisting in his charity work to help children’s hospitals. He told them the Woodstock festival was his reciprocation for all their hard work. Then he said loudly that no politics could stop the event and that they were all victorious in face of huge opposition that year. Relaxing his tone, he turned to the devotees and myself and said, “Let us thank Krishna’s Village of Peace for being with us again with their good food and all their entertainment!” As 300,000 people applauded I waved and said softly, “Srila Prabhupada I pray you are watching and that you are pleased.”

With that little mention from Jurek, our village was soon filled to capacity. At any one time there were between 5,000 – 10,000 people in our main tent, in line for prasadam, henna drawings, taking yoga classes, attending seminars, or just walking around our spotlessly clean area.

That night Acyuta Gopi dasi arrived from New York and brought the house down with her late night kirtan in the Mantra Yoga tent.

The next morning, Nandini came running toward me waving a newspaper in the air as I was getting in the van to go down to the festival site.

“Gurudeva! Gurudeva! Look! Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the biggest newspapers in the country has a positive front page article on Woodstock and the cover photo is our Ratha Yatra parade.”

We both stared at awe at the newspaper. “I never imagined we’d get such recognition, especially in the present political climate,” I said.

“It’s due to the service of so many wonderful devotees this year,” she said. “And maybe a little luck.”

“Not luck,” I said with a smile, repeating my words from the day before. “Our lives are auspicious because of Krishna’s grace.”

As our van approached the security check at the Woodstock field thirty minutes later, I could see policemen were checking cars with less scrutiny. When we approached, a policeman just glanced at us and waved us on.

“They must have retired the snipers by now.” I joked to the devotees in the car.

By the time we arrived, prasadam distribution was in full swing.

“I’m going to distribute prasadam for a few minutes before the Ratha Yatra parade begins,” I told the devotees in the van.

As I stepped into the Food for Peace tent and looked out at the eight lines stretching back 80 yards each, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Joining one of the serving teams, I chose to serve the last preparation in line, halavah. It has always been one of the festival-goers favorites. With a serving spoon, I dipped into the pot and took a generous dose, carefully placing it on a young man’s empty plate in from of me.

“You’re not taking rice or vegetables?” I asked curiously.

“No” he said, standing there staring at the plate.

“Please move along!” urged one of the servers as the boy continued staring at the halavah. “There are people waiting.”

“Just one second.” he said with a smile. Then he dipped his finger into the halvah and then into his mouth.

“Ahhhh!” he said pausing for a few more moments. “I’ve been waiting twelve months to relish that taste!”

“A worthy veteran of our festival” I said to him as I eased him forward.

After twenty minutes, I relinquished my spot in the server’s line, thinking, “I should get a picture of the long line.”

Taking out my camera I took a few shots of people nearby and then with a long lens focused further down the line. To my surprise I saw 3 policemen in line.

Pushing my lens as far as it would go, I saw their insignias, ranks and, then to my surprise, badge number 44! It was the policeman who had been so rough with us the first day we entered Woodstock.

I said softly, “Just see how people’s hearts are changed by the association of devotees of the Lord!”

Ten minutes later I was in front of the Ratha Yatra cart as it once again slowly made it’s way down the crowded avenue, pulled by more festival-goers than devotees. After forty-five minutes, the kirtan was again roaring when suddenly a young man, dressed only in dirty jeans and literally covered from head to toe in all kinds of strange tattoos, came running forward, falling right in front of me in prone position, as if offering dandavats. As the Ratha Cart quickly moved forward I asked a few of the men to remove him.

“Gently” I said.

As soon as he was raised off the ground, he came forward and tightly embraced me. From the combination of dirt, grime, and the odor of his body, it was obvious he had not bathed in weeks.

“Take him off!” commanded one of the men to a devotee close to us.

“No,” I said. “It’s OK.”

I continued to lead the kirtan for a minute or two more with him hanging on me until he finally broke free and started walking alongside me, swerving from side to side, obviously under the influence of alcohol, or some drug.

Then twenty minutes later when I stopped to sing in one place he fell prone on the ground again in front of me. This time I could hear him say something. I thought I even heard the words, “Krishna prestaya butale.”

“No, that couldn’t be,” I concluded.

Back on his feet, he once again embraced me tightly, and to the horror of all the devotees, kissed me on the cheek.

Again, security rushed forward.

“It’s OK.” I said. “He’s not dangerous.”

An hour later he was still by my side as I was finishing up and ready to hand the microphone over to another chanter. Suddenly he grabbed the microphone from my hand and started singing the maha mantra intensely with his eyes closed.

“How’s this possible?” I said to myself.

After a few stanzas I took the microphone back. It just looked so strange, even at Woodstock, a man like this with every inch of his visible body covered in ghostly-looking tattoos.

As I passed the microphone over to another devotee I walked a little distance away to catch my breath. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the drunken boy follow me.

“Sorry” he said in English as he embraced me one more time again.

For a moment I was speechless.

“Sorry?” I said almost a question.

“Yes,” he replied with his head down. “I’m your fallen disciple, Bhakta Rafal. Many years ago I lived at the New Santipur Farm in southern Poland. I used to serve you when you visited. In my heart, I chose you as my spiritual master. You don’t recognize me now with all my tattoos,” he said. “Please save me Guru Maharaja!”

“It’s alright Rafal,” I said. “Don’t worry. Join us in all the kirtans today and tomorrow and take lots of prasadam. Try to get your taste back for Krishna consciousness. We’ll speak more later in the day. But right now, let’s get back to the parade.”
,As we walked back he clung tightly to me. In my mind I prayed, “Srila Prabhupada, please save this man.”

Everything went smoothly throughout the day at our village. As evening approached, Rasikendra dasa approached me.

“Srila Gurudeva,” he said, “We’ve cooked almost twenty-six tons of food. I think we’ll do more than 150,000 plates of prasadam before Woodstock is over. We ran out of rice this morning. I went store to store and bought every grain of rice in the town! The store owners are very happy with us!”

“Yes, everything is auspicious by Krishna’s grace, “ I said.

As I hurriedly walked towards the Mantra Yoga tent eager to join in BB Govinda Maharaja’s kirtan, a young man approached me.

“Please sir, can I have five minutes of your time?” he pleaded.

“Well, I’m trying to get to the kirtan tent …” I said impatiently.

“Please,” he said, grabbing my arm.

Sensing his sincerity, I stopped and said calmly, “Sure, what is it?”

“Last year at Woodstock my friend approached you with several questions. You spoke together in English. Not speaking English, I couldn’t understand. But after the Woodstock festival I saw many wonderful changes in my friend, which he attributed to his conversation with you.

“Personally, I went through a very challenging year. At wits end, I turned toward spirituality to deal with the crisis in my life. One day I remembered how you had helped my friend. So you know what I did?”

“No what did you do?” I asked.

I enrolled in a course to learn English so I could talk freely with you at this year’s Woodstock festival. I went to 3 classes a week for most of the year. I even went to London for two weeks to practice my English.”

“Well then,” I said taking his hand, “let’s sit down over there on the grass have a long conversation…”

By the last day of Woodstock all the devotees were exhausted. But that didn’t stop them from doing their services. Each one of them was enlivened to see how much people loved Krishna’s Village of Peace.

As the kirtans started for the final evening in the Mantra Yoga tent, one devotee from Croatia approached me.

“Maharaja can I ask you a question?” he said.

“Sure” I replied.

“This is my first time at Krishna’s Village of Peace at Woodstock,” he began. “I’ve noticed some things here that I haven’t seen in other devotee festivals.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Well, for one thing, in your big tent you have non-devotee bands playing in the evening. Thousands of people come. But I’m wondering how Krishna conscious it is having karmi music playing in the village?”

“It’s not for devotees of course, “ I said. “And we don’t allow any immoral songs or the use of bad words.”

“But …” the boy interjected.

“Let me ask you a question.” I continued. “Where do all the thousands of kids go after the concerts?”

He thought for a moment and replied, “Most of them walk over to the Food for Peace tent to eat prasadam.”

“And then?” I said.

“Well after that a lot end up in the Mantra Yoga tent.”

“And what do they do there?” I asked.

“They chant Hare Krishna and dance wildly for hours.” he said with a smile.

“Yes,” I said. “This is all in line with a verse by Rupa Goswami that Srila Prabhupada used to quote a lot:

yena tena prakarena manah krsna nivesayet
sarve vidhi-nisedha syur etayor eva kinkarah

“A spiritual master should devise means by which people may somehow or other come to Krishna consciousness. All rules and regulations are subordinate to this principle.”

( Bhakti Rasamrta Sindhu 1.2.4 )

“A preacher has to be innovative in spreading the message of Krishna consciousness according to time, place and circumstance without compromising the tradition.” I concluded.

“Well, what about the devotee ladies leading the dance steps down in front of the stage?” he asked. “The whole crowd follows them. I haven’t seen that anywhere.”

“Again, it is something we only do at Woodstock and our festivals along the coast,” I replied. “It helps people to focus, the result being they chant and dance with us for hours on end.

“Srila Prabhupada wanted us to come up with novel ways to spread Krishna consciousness. He once famously said, ‘Tax your brains how to spread this movement.

“His spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati went to great extremes and was very innovative in getting people involved in Krsna consciousness.”

Pulling out my phone, I searched my notes and read to him one of my favorite passages from a book by Bhakti Vikas Swami on the life and teachings of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati:

“His [Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saravati’s] exposition was divided into two sections, spiritual and secular, with items collected from every part of India, and the whole extravaganza covering more than one square mile. The secular division demonstrated miscellaneous departments of human endeavour, medical, educational, agricultural, arts and crafts, cattle and livestock, child welfare, athletics, and amusements. Several provincial governments sent materials to be displayed. Other attractions were performances of athletic feats such as gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, sword and stick play, and jujitsu. There were musical competitions, dramas, film shows, a circus, and in the words of the Harmonist, ‘other varieties of innocent amusements.’ Prizes, medals, and certificates were awarded to deserving exhibitors and performers.

“The spiritual section was even more elaborate. A museum contained figures of Visnu and Krsna, and other religious objects such as memorabilia formerly used by reputed sadhus. A book display featured volumes produced by different religious sects in diverse languages and manuscripts of rare unpublished religious works. There were photos and paintings of eminent sadhus and sundry sacred places. A major draw was a huge relief map of India-occupying over a third of an acre-constructed on the ground with stone, cement, and brick and showing prominent holy places, the locations of all Gaudiya Matha branches, and the routes of Sri Caitanya and Lord Nityananda’s tours. Dioramas in over fifty stalls depicted manifold religious praxes of India, with emphasis on Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings. The practices of pure Vaisnavas, pseudo-Vaisnavas, and other religious sects were illustrated by life-size dolls set against backgrounds of appropriate painted scenes, many representing incidents in the pastimes of Lord Caitanya. Another novelty for numerous visitors was the brilliant illumination of the entire grounds by recently installed electricity.”

[Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava, ‘Theistic Exhibitions’ pgs. 355 – 356 ]

Madhava prabhu’s kirtan that night ushered in the next morning’s sunrise. It was the cherry on top of the cake of the best Woodstock festival in twenty-three years.

I awoke bleary-eyed and exhausted.

“I have to get up!” I coaxed myself. “We have to clean up and break down our whole village today and get back on the Baltic Sea coast in two days for three more weeks of our usual festivals.”

When I arrived around 9:00 a.m. there were already thirty devotees busy taking our village apart. Outside our village, people were streaming out of the festival to catch buses and trains home.

“How do these devotees do it!” I said to myself. “It can only be Gaura shakti, the internal energy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.”

As I walked by the Food for Peace tent, which had mostly been disassembled, a few devotees came up to me.

“Srila Gurudeva,” one of them said, “we found a pot of rice and a pot of halavah that somehow didn’t get distributed. What shall we do with it?”

I thought for a moment and said, “Lets set up a small table on the sidewalk out there and distribute to people who are leaving. Find a nice tablecloth, clean yourselves up, find some plates and spoons, put up a little sign….”

The exhausted devotees looked at me incredulously, bags under their dreary eyes.

“There’s only enough for thirty or forty plates, Srila Gurudeva,” one devotee said. “We distributed 150,000 plates over the last five days. What difference will it make if just a few more people get prasadam?”

“Come a little closer and sit down.” I said, “I’ll tell you a short story.”

“Once there were two men walking on a beach after a huge storm. Thousands upon thousands of small fish had been washed up onto the beach and were flapping helplessly on the sand. As the men walked along one of them reached down and picked up three fish. With a swift motion of his arm he threw them back into the water.

Surprised, his friend stopped and asked, “Why did you do that? There are thousands of fish on the beach. What difference does it make if you throw three of them back into the sea?”

The first man smiled and replied, “It makes a difference to them!”

Hearing the story the devotees jumped up and with renewed enthusiasm gathered the materials to distribute the last drops of mercy to the people of Woodstock.

“ I bow down to Gaura, the beautiful son of Mother Saci, who is worshipped by the chanting of the holy names in the age of Kali, who is the son of Nanda Maharaja come again, who is the extraordinary brilliant ornament of the earth, whose various preaching methods are suitable for people in this world of birth and death, whose consciousness is fixed in meditation on His form of Vrajendra-nandana Krishna and who is worshipped together with His abode of Sri Navadvipa Dhama.”

[Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, Sri Saci-sutastakam – 8 Prayers Glorifying the Son of Sri Saci devi, text 7]