Writings

Phoenix Ratha Yatra

Dear devotees and friends,

Please accept my best wishes. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.

I returned to South Africa on Friday the 2nd of July, to take part in the 11th annual Phoenix Rathayatra. The  programme started with an introductory evening that night at the Phoenix temple, and Kadamba Kanana Maharaja and I spoke about the background and history of the festival.

On Saturday morning we started the procession around 11 or so and wound through the streets of Phoenix, previously a large Indian settlement in the apartheid era, and still probably more than 90% Indian. For about three hours Kadamba Kanana Maharaja led roaring kirtana, reminding me of Tribhuvanatha prabhu, an amazing disciple of Srila Prabhupada from England who lead kirtana at Rathayatras at full speed for three or four hours without tiring. These sincere devotees become empowered by Lord Jagannatha to glorify Him and spread His fame.

Most of the time I sat on the chariot doing my usual programme of throwing sweets and fruit of the chariot, and spraying the people with water. Sometimes people who are not watching get hit and hurt, and this Rathayatra was no exception. After I had hit three devotees in their faces with oranges and apples I resolved not to throw more fruit again. It’s too dangerous.

I led the kirtana for the last 45 minutes or so, up the final hill to our New Jagannatha Puri temple and then took part in various preaching programmes around the temple grounds. I was meant to give the main talk from the main stage, so I walked down there a few minutes before to be ready in time. What I saw going on on the stage shocked me. There was a young boy and a young girl in sloppy looking western clothes doing a crazy dance which could only be described as somewhat erotic, wiggling their rear ends around with their backs to the audience in time to a bizarre, low class Bollywood song (any Bollywood song is low class, but this was exceptional).

Suddenly, in the middle of the dance there was a major power failure and the dancers were forced to stop, which was good, but the power didn’t come on again for more than 30 minutes, so I was not able to give my talk.

That evening Kadamba Kanana Maharaja was meant to lead the Gaura arati, but he was not around when the conch blew, so I led. He came in later and led for some time, and then I led again. My singing is not good, and I often
refer to it as screaming, and this evening was no exception. There were seven young devotees on mrdangas, plus a few on African drums, so the sound was quite cacophonous (a big word for loud), and I screamed and screamed until I noticed that my voice was starting to fail a little. This is something I’ve noticed happening as I become a little older.

The next day we had an initiation ceremony in the morning and then continued on with the festival in the afternoon. Kadamba Kanana Maharaja and I led the kirtana for the Gaura arati and afterwards, and again I was screaming like
mad, to the point that my voice was clearly failing more and more.

The following week I did programmes every evening in different places. On Monday I went to Pietermaritzburg to inspect the progress in the construction of our new temple there, and then on Wednesday I went to do a memorial ceremony for Madan Mohana prabhu, a very disciple who passed away a year ago on Janmastami day, which last year happened to also fall on my western birthday, August 14th.

It was a nice week, and everything was basically going fine until we returned to the Sri Sri Radha Radhanatha around 10pm on the Thursday night, July 8th. Rasabihari das was driving, and Arjunacarya and Krishna Kripa were with us in the car as we drove into the temple car park and noticed there was a gathering of several Indian people there, most of whom we did not recognize. Suddenly we saw that some of these unknown people had weapons. Two had sticks and one had a chain!

They were surrounding Asim Krishna prabhu, one of our resident temple devotees, originally from Mauritius, and were pushing him around among them. When he saw us drive in he ran over to our car and told us that one of the men had tried to strangle him, and that they were harassing him and demanding to see Svarupa Damodara prabhu, the Temple President and co-National Secretary.

Suddenly the main man, obviously heavily intoxicated and wearing a South Africa Police pullover, with the SAP insignia on it, came over swearing and cursing and grabbed my door and opened it. I quickly closed it. Arjunacarya
got out to try to pacify the men, who it turned out were from Ladysmith, a town 200 kilometres north of Durban. In the meantime Rasabihari and I drove off to the nearby police station to get help.

We came back about five minutes later with a large team of policemen and tried to get them to arrest the five intruders, but the policemen were totally lackadaisical and didn’t want to really get involved. Finally, after I had screamed at them repeatedly that we were definitely pressing charges of assault against the main drunk man who had attacked Asim Krishna, they arrested the man and took him to the police station. During the course of all these exchanges the main drunk man was threatening us and swearing repeatedly. He even threatened me, “You’d better not come to Ladysmith, or else!” What an exciting conclusion to our evening.

Actually Ladysmith has a very nice devotee community, and these men were a little connected with it. I recalled how, when Krishnadas Swami first visited South Africa he went to Ladysmith and did a hall programme there. Maharaja is a very strong anti-meat eating campaigner, and he was shocked when he asked how many people ate meat. It seemed that many of the people at the programme ate meat, and were quite happy about it, and when Maharaja came back to the temple and we spoke to him the next day he told us the town should be renamed Butchersmith! I think this group of men must have been some of the leaders in the crowd that evening, long ago.

The next day we went down the South Coast to Harideva prabhu’s place in Scottburgh and did a nice evening programme with about 200 of the local business community. Then on Saturday we went to the youth retreat near Margate, where about 80 of our young devotees were taking part in a major team building excercise.

On Sunday July11th I flew to Johannesburg from Durban for the Sunday programme. As I walked around the new Durban airport I noticed a number of groups of people here and there pointing at me and laughing, which is sometimes something we have to tolerate when we’re dressed as devotees. But in South Africa it hardly ever happens, and I couldn’t figure out why today, of all days, so many people should be amused to see me in my sannyasa robes. Then someone spoke to me and explained, “Today’s the day of the World Cup soccer final between Holland and Spain. The Dutch team’s clothes are all orange, and these people think you’re some type of unusual supporter of their team!”

Namacarya prabhu picked me up at the airport and we discussed about the Sunday programme this afternoon. “I don’t think so many people will come,” he said. “It’s the World Cup final and I think many of our regular devotees will be watching it!” I assumed what he said would be correct. However, when we got to the temple I was astonished to see the biggest Sunday crowd I’ve even seen, by far, and we had a very nice programme together, although when I led the final kirtana I noticed again that my voice was quite weak.

On Tuesday Arjunacarya prabhu, who is now my permanent secretary in South Africa, drove us to Mafikeng, about 300 kilometres west of Johannesburg. Jaya Gopala, a disciple of mine from there, an architect by profession, has started a temple there, with two other brahmacari disciples of mine, Jayadeva and Narottama, so I wanted to encourage them and see how they were developing the preaching.

We had a fairly nice programme in the evening, but then I noticed something quite striking. It was mid-winter and the weather was extremely cold, maybe around zero degrees Celsius, and the house which serves as our temple was not insulated at all. In Russia the weather gets much colder. You may remember that in January I was in Kemerovo in Siberia for a japa retreat, and the weather was minus 46, but the thing is that there all the buildings are heavily insulated and centrally heated. In Mafikeng there was no insulation and a tiny little heater that blew cool air around the room, and it was not an easy night.

On Wednesday morning we drove back to Pretoria and stayed with Saksi Gopala prabhu, one of my leading disciples, in his massive new house. Finally we got into some nice warmth!

Then on Thursday night I flew on Egyptair through Cairo to Moscow. They’re a very Arabic airline, but not unpleasant, so everything went fairly well until we reached Cairo. I went to the lounge in the airport to have a shower, only to be told that there are no showers at all in the whole airport, so I had to spend the whole day without a proper shower, although I splashed a little water on the top part of my body in the toilets, until one of the attendants told me not to make a mess.

Finally I arrived in Moscow and got through customs and passport control by 6pm. The devotee who was meant to pick me up was not around when I came through, and we only located each other at 7.30, and reached Dayal Caitanya
and Kamalalocana’s flat about 9.15, so it was quite a dirty day for me. There was a heat wave in Moscow, and the temperature was over 30.

On the 17th I was asked to give the morning class in the main Moscow temple, but just as the kirtana finished a devotee made the announcement that Aindra prabhu had passed away, which was quite overwhelming. Somehow I managed to
give the class, but I was far from my best. He was an amazing soul who I had got to know to some degree with my yearly visits to Sri Vrindavana Dhama. Perhaps I’ve never met anyone with such an attachment for chanting the holy names, and particularly for simply chanting Hare Krishna. I will say more about him in a few days, when I can compose my thoughts more.

That evening I was to fly to Irkutsk in East Siberia for a retreat on the banks of Lake Baikal. I queued up to board the plane, when one of the girls checking people’s boarding cards took exception to a couple who came a little late. The girl screamed at them at the top of her voice, and then another couple came late and she screamed at them also, on and on. This happens sometimes in Russia. We eventually got on the plane, but the air conditioning was not working at all, so the temperature there was about 40 degrees Celsius. The pilot made an announcement (in Russian only) that we were delayed for 20 to 25 minutes, so we sat there, pouring perspiration, as the temperature rose to perhaps 45.

Now I’m in Irkutsk. The retreat will start tomorrow. I’ll let you know what happens there soon.

Hoping this meets you well.

Your servant,

Bhakti Caitanya Swami

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