During the month of June I visited ISKCON’s temple in Skopje, Northern Macedonia. Macedonia is a small, land-locked country in Southeastern Europe with a population of just 2.7 million people. I had been invited to speak and hold kirtan at the country’s International Yoga Day Festival.
While we were waiting at a red light on the way to the festival, a horse-drawn wooden cart driven by a teenage boy and holding a family of gypsies pulled up alongside our car. I grabbed my camera, wanting to capture the juxtaposition between the old and the new at the intersection. The gypsy boy was obviously intimidated by the camera; he jumped off the cart and came running towards me, his fist raised.
“Please don’t take offense,” I said to him. “I greatly respect your people.”
He lowered his fist. “Really?”
“Yes,” I replied. “One time I was attacked by some hooligans and your gypsy brothers stepped in to defend me. They literally saved my life.”
“I see,” he said. “Well, ok then.” He returned to his cart and they went on their way.
“Did some gypsies really save your life?” my driver, Prema-vilas dasa, asked me as the light turned green.
“Yes,” I said. “In France in the 1970s a motorcycle gang of 10 men attacked my sankirtan party. Seven of us were camped by a river near the city of Marseille and early one morning they came at us with baseball bats and iron chains. We had no chance. But a group of gypsy men who we had befriended and who were camping nearby came to our rescue with big sticks and a ferocious presence I hadn’t seen before or since. We all became close friends in the ensuing days. When it came time for us to move on, the leader of the gypsies declared I was one of their brethren; he cut his arm with a knife and indicated I should do the same. I was young and somewhat naive and I followed his order. We placed our wounds together to exchange our blood; this is the tradition in the gypsy community for sealing the bonds of brotherhood. Whenever I share this story with gypsy communities, no matter in which country I meet them, they take me as one of their own.”
“Wow!” said Prema-vilas.
“I actually have several gypsy disciples around the world,” I added. “And they’re some of my best disciples.”
“We have a large community of gypsies here in Skopje,” said Prema-vilas. “But we’re wary of them. They beg at the red lights and some of them steal.”
“Every ethnic group contains people with bad habits,” I said. “But ultimately everyone is a spirit soul, part and parcel of Krsna. Have you ever tried sharing Krsna consciousness with the local gypsy community?”
“No way!” His response was vehement.
“Then,” I said, “now is the time to reach out to them.” I quoted a famous verse from the Srimad Bhagavatam:
abhira-sumbha yavanah khasadayah
ye ‘nye ca papa yad-apasrayasrayah
sudhyanti tasmai prabhavisnave namah
“Kirata, Huna, Andhra, Pulinda, Pulkasa, Abhira, Sumbha, Yavana, members of the Khasa races and even others addicted to sinful acts can be purified by taking shelter of the devotees of the Lord, due to His being the supreme power. I beg to offer my respectful obeisances unto Him.”
[ Srimad Bhagavatam 2.8.14 ]
“Bear in mind,” I said, “that this verse includes you and me amongst the fallen races!”
Prema-vilas looked thoughtful. “How would we go about reaching out to the gypsies of Macedonia?”
“We’ll go straight to the top,” I said. “We need to find out who the leaders are in the gypsy community. We’ll start by visiting one of them and offering our services.”
“What kind of services?” said Prema-vilas.
“We can offer to help their community by giving them food, if they need it,” I said. “Or we can open a vegetarian restaurant. We can start a small yoga studio where we can eventually introduce kirtan and Bhagavad Gita classes. We can have regular harinam parties through their area. And we can make friends with them.”
“You really think that will work?” he said.
“It works everywhere else in the world without exception,” I said. “Besides, chanting Hare Krsna is the chosen dharma for the age of Kali. It must work! Do some research and get back to me. I’d be happy to visit one of their leaders while I am here. I’ll show him the brotherhood scar on my arm.”
The next morning Prema-vilas called me.
“Maharaja, he said, “I did some research and found out that the most influential leader of Macedonia’s gypsy community is a man named Mr. Shaban Saliu. He is the leader of a political party representing the gypsies. Because they form a large base of voters, his position is very strong in the country.”
“Call him up immediately,” I said. “Tell him a leader from our movement would like to meet him to offer our help to his people.”
Ten minutes later Prema-vilas called back.
“Mr. Saliu said he’d be very happy to meet you,” he said, sounding shocked.
“Great,” I said. “When?”
“Right now,” Prema-vilas said. “He’s invited you to his home.”
“Wow! Fantastic!” I said. “Gather a few devotees and we’ll leave in an hour.”
Half an hour later Prema-vilas called me back.
“I can only find 4 devotees who want to go,” he said. “The others are a little hesitant. Aside from a large market we occasionally visit there, we’ve never really ventured into the gypsy community even though it’s just outside the city.”
“Four devotees will be ok,” I said. “Try to find a garland we can take and a few sweets and a Bhagavad Gita too.
The devotees were quiet and fidgety as we drove into the gypsy community. People stared at us.
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “Lord Nityananda preached in such situations and he was always successful!”
Standing next to the gate at the address we’d been given was a nicely dressed gentleman. I got out of the car and he stepped forward and shook my hand with a wide smile on his face.
“Welcome to our community,” he said. “I’m Shaban Saliu. You can just call me Shaban.”
“I am honored to meet you Shaban,” I said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
“Please come into my home,” he said. He took my hand and led me into his house. “We need to go upstairs. I hope you’re ok with a few stairs.”
Nothing could have prepared me for Shaban’s staircase. Beautiful paintings of Radha and Krsna lined the wall all the way up. In the living room there were even more paintings of Krsna: Krsna playing His flute, Krsna dancing with the gopis and Krsna frolicking in the Vrindavan forest.
“So, you are part of a spiritual tradition?” he asked me, gesturing towards a couch.
“Yes,” I replied, my eyes wandering over the paintings. “Our movement is one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the world. It’s based on an authentic scripture called the Bhagavad Gita which was spoken by Lord Krsna in India 5,000 years ago. I believe we can help your community in many ways. For stress and anxiety, we can teach yoga and meditation. We also sing a spiritual song composed of various names of God that quickly purifies the heart and awakens love for the Lord. It’s called the Hare Krsna mantra. We can also distribute blessed food to the people in your community who need it. Some of our volunteers can also work with the youth to reduce crime and violence.”
“What can I say?” Shaban said. “I am completely at your service. I will offer you all my political contacts. There is no city in this country where I don’t have connections. If you can open a preschool or can work in primary education, you are free to share your lifestyle and wisdom with our children. I am familiar with your singing, with your song. In 1988 I saw people like you singing every Saturday on a street corner in Skopje. It went on for many years. There were three boys and three girls. Some were playing drums and others small cymbals.”
“Yes, it all comes from India,” I said.
“Ah, mystical India,” he said, closing his eyes. “I went to India and spent a couple of weeks there. I was fascinated by the country. I felt as if my roots were there. I actually felt it was my home.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes! he said. “In fact, I did some research. I have a PhD in law, so I was given some facility and you know what I discovered? I discovered that my people, the Romani gypsies, originally come from India. I encountered one scholar at a university who wrote a book entitled The Lost Children of India. He described in detail how my people migrated to Europe in the eleventh century from the northern part of India in search of a better livelihood and to escape rising Muslim attacks. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests the Romani used to dwell in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Sindh and Rajasthan of present-day India. Some scholars say we used to be a part of the present Dalit community, which is a minority still existing in India.”
“I am aware of all this,” I said. A distinguished-looking woman entered the lounge.
“This is my wife, Mirdita,” Shaban said. “She just completed her Master’s degree in Journalism.”
“I am honored to meet you,” I said, shaking her hand. “You can call me Maharaja.”
“Maharaja,” she said, “is this your first time here in our community?”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “We have come to serve your people. Your husband and I have just been discussing that we have a bond of brotherhood because both of our traditions come from India. Plus, my life was saved by your people one time and I became blood brothers with the leader of that group of gypsies. I want to help in whatever way I can.”
She said, “Perhaps you can start with a workshop in our community to present what the Hare Krishna faith is. Most gypsies here are Muslim, but I believe they would be interested in your teachings.”
I glanced over at the devotees who had come with me; their mouths were virtually hanging open.
“We could invite Romani people from all over Macedonia,” Shaban said. “You can give a talk, Maharaja, and sing your special song. It will turn our Romani community around. I think some of them will find their way through your teachings. I am very impressed with your culture. Let’s work together as a team and put something together on a high level.”
“Thank you, Shaban,” I said. “I have this gift for you.” I handed him a copy of the Bhagavad Gita.
“I have heard about this book,” he said. “I see there is even the original Sanskrit text here. The roots of our language come from Sanskrit, you know. Now, tell me: who is Krsna? I know he is blue and I know I have always been attracted to him. You can see the paintings of Krsna I brought back from my visit to India. I have some paintings of his friends too. I think one friend is named Siva. Others are Ganesh and Saraswati. Am I correct?”
I nodded and explained to Shaban who Krsna is and the difference between him and the demigods he mentioned.
After discussing for more than an hour I concluded saying, “Let’s keep in close touch.”
“Yes, of course,” Shaban said with a smile. “And Maharaja, I would like to invite you to my son’s wedding in a month’s time. Around 800 guests will be coming, including many distinguished members of Macedonian society. The leader of the opposition party will also be there. I would like you to give the opening address at the wedding. Maybe you could speak for 30 minutes and sing your song as well. What do you think?”
“I would be honored, Shaban,” I replied, overwhelmed.
As he escorted us down the stairs I glanced again at the paintings.
I thought to myself, “My Lord, who can understand your plans? You are the supreme mystic!”
“Let’s talk later about making a Hare Krsna base here in our Romani community,” Shaban said when we reached the car. “Let’s not just talk words; let’s do something tangible. It can be connected to the culture we share. It can remind gypsies of their origins and can facilitate the deeds of your community as well. Let’s construct a building or monument that will stand for a hundred or two hundred years. Something glorious to represent our combined cultures. This day of our meeting should go down in history in the collective memories of our people.”
He took both my hands and said warmly, “You are so wonderfully dressed! Before you go, let’s walk through the streets of our community so you can meet my people. We can take a few photos as well to remember this momentous day.”
He taught me a few phrases in gypsy language as we walked. When I greeted people with those words they smiled broadly. Everyone knew Shaban and showed him respect. Because I was with him, they were very respectful to me as well. An hour later, when we finally parted ways, Shaban took my hand one last time.
“There is something called destiny,” he said. “Today destiny has brought us together. And in one month’s time destiny will bring us together again.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Destiny is in the hands of the Lord. How he brings us together to serve him is beyond our understanding.”
“I was born in a different family, my Guru Maharaja was born in a different family. Who knew that I will come to his protection? Who knew that I would come in America? Who knew that you American boys will come to me? These are all Kṛṣṇa’s arrangement. We cannot understand how things are taking place.” [Srila Prabhupada lecture on Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s Disappearance Day, Los Angeles, December 9, 1968].
Jan 23, 2022
Anandini Tikunov (8th-grade student)
Jan 22, 2022
Sunanda Das, tovp.org