Police Arrest Devotees for Chanting Hare Krishna on Oxford Street
It was the Thursday before Christmas, and London’s Oxford Street was brimming over with Christmas shoppers. Twice already that week plainclothes police had arrested devotees chanting Hare Krishna there, but today we were intending to avoid any trouble…
“Come on!” the constable said. “You know as well as I do you’re causing an obstruction. Down to the station; you’re all under arrest! “Obstruction?” we protested. “All around you there’s drug addiction, prostitution, crime, and violence, and you can’t find anything better to do than arrest us for chanting the names of God! What kind of policemen are you?
It was the Thursday before Christmas, and London’s Oxford Street (the longest shopping street in the world) was brimming over with Christmas shoppers. Twice already that week plainclothes police had arrested devotees chanting Hare Krishna there, but today we were intending to avoid any trouble. The five of us took a new route, profusely distributing the holy name to everyone within earshot. As we made our way through Piccadilly Circus (London’s “Times Square”) and then along crowded Regent Street, we brought smiles to many faces and raised eyebrows on many others. Finally we reached Oxford Circus, where we reluctantly stopped chanting and started back along Oxford Street toward the temple.
But all the shops were staying open late, so the street was still filled with pedestrians, though traffic had died down. The rustle of hundreds of footsteps filled the air. With so many materially conditioned souls surrounding us, there we were, chanting quietly to ourselves on our beads, and just holding our karatalas (hand cymbals) and mrdanga drums! It was hard to restrain ourselves from the loud glorification oi the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. In fact, it was impossible! Casting aside any thoughts of our inevitable arrest, we launched into the most ecstatic chant ever! The tall buildings echoed to the sounds of Lord Caitanya’s sarikirtana party while dumbfounded shoppers stood open-mouthed and bus lines of bewildered souls turned their heads to see the source of the transcendental sound vibrations. Single file, we chanted and danced along the clear space at the edge of the pavement, which widened as the crowds thinned out. Tottenham Court Road Tube Station, the end of the gauntlet, loomed up ahead. We were almost there, with no police trouble, when three highly suspicious figures suddenly appeared, blocking our path a few yards ahead.
“All right, lads, yer nicked!” said the young “student,” flashing his police I.D. card with immense relish.
“What! How can you arrest us? We’re not doing anything illegal.”
His two hard-faced confederates, similarly disguised, moved in closer.
“Come on! You know as well as I do you’re causing an obstruction. Down to the station; you’re all under arrest!”
“Obstruction? The pavement’s fifteen feet wide, we’re walking in the gutter, and there’s hardly anybody to ‘obstruct’!” we protested. “All around you there’s drug addiction, prostitution, crime, and violence, and you can’t find anything better to do than arrest us for chanting the names of God! What kind of policemen are you?”
The retort seemed to catch him by surprise, but he quickly regained his composure and barked, “Look lad, you’re under arrest. Anything you say may be used as evidence. Now move!” Then, adding a liberal quantity of unsavory words (quite unbefitting a constable of Her Majesty’s Police Force), he joined his two colleagues in forming a rear guard, and the three of them escorted us toward the police station.
We were thinking of how unfortunate they were. Not only were they obstructing Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana party and harassing devotees, but these were the same policemen who had arrested the chanting party twice earlier that week! What demons! For protection we started chanting the glories of Lord Nrsimhadeva–Krishna’s half-man-half-lion incarnation–very softly at first, and then a little louder. The mrdanga crept in, marking the rhythm, and the karatalas soon followed. With no complaints from our police escort as yet, we chanted louder and louder until the street once more resounded with the holy names. Amazed that they made no objection, we turned and saw that the three policemen were grinning from ear to ear! We were incredulous. Here was the mercy of Lord Caitanya! By repeatedly arresting the chanting party, these previously offensive policemen had become purified by associating with devotees, and now they were taking great pleasure in the chanting of the holy names!
“Now stop or you’ll cause an obstruction,” directed our police guide as we approached a large bus line, which engulfed the pavement. We obediently stopped, considering it our good fortune that we had been allowed to chant at all.
Then something totally unexpected happened. After we had passed the bus line, our captor definitely proved himself to be no ordinary police constable when he ordered, “Okay, start chanting again.”!!
So we did, all the way to the police station, accompaned by the three blissful police constables, who, grinning from ear to ear, made no objection as the ecstatic sankirtana party passed right into the police station, past the main doors, through the hallway, and into the charging room itself!!!
Everyone was thunderstruck. Arrestors and arrested alike couldn’t believe it. Shaven-headed Hare Krishnas chanting their way into the cop shop? With drums and cymbals? It was unthinkable! The sergeant on duty turned a vivid scarlet and exploded in a fit of anger, threatening to “throw the book” at us and charge us with all manner of subversive criminal activities. We apologized profusely, pleading that we didn’t quite realize where we were, and he became somewhat pacified. As we answered philosophical questions from some of the interested constables, the sergeant charged us with obstruction, one by one, and we had to wait as he filled in numerous forms.
“All right, boys, tomorrow morning at ten o’clock you’ll be appearing in the Magistrates Court,” said the sergeant, now quite amiable. And with that he allowed us to go. Feeling very blissful at the way things had turned out, we filed into the hallway and prepared to return to the temple for the evening arati (temple worship) of Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha-London-isvara. (London-isvara means “Krishna, the Lord of London.”) On our way out of the station, we passed a high-ranking plainclothes detective inspector. He paused and turned in our direction. Not knowing what to expect, we were surprised when he glanced over us in an almost fatherly way and said in a concerned voice, “Don’t be discouraged, lads; keep up the good work!”
Next morning in court we pleaded “not guilty” to the charges against us, and the judge deferred our case to February 2. At the time, we were unaware of the significance of the appointed date. Our trial was to be on the appearance day of Lord Nityananda–the incarnation of God who helped spread Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement, and who personifies His mercy.
As is customary on such holy days, the five of us fasted through the morning of Lord Nityananda’s appearance day and chanted His glories. At noon we attended a blissful arati and then broke our fast with a splendid feast. Afterward, we set off for Great Marlborough Street Magistrates Court, confident that Lord Nityananda would protect us. We were accompanied by a new and enthusiastic visitor to the temple, the Reverend Norman Morehouse (second only to the Bishop of Norwich), who came along to observe the court proceedings.
We arrived at the courthouse a few minutes before our appointed time of 2:00 P.M. and waited in the big hallway while the Reverend went through to the public gallery. The plainclothesmen who arrested us soon turned up, now in uniform, and waited with us. (It took a little persuasion before they cautiously took some of the hazelnut cookies we had earlier offered to Lord Nityananda.) At last we were beckoned into the courtroom itself and ushered into the dock. A stir went through the assembly. Shaven heads and saffron robes were the last thing anyone expected to see i
n Magistrates Court on a Tuesday afternoon. The Magistrate (a balding, portly man in his late middle age, sporting a red rose in the lapel of his dark grey suit) surveyed us over the top of his goldrimmed spectacles. After we reaffirmed our plea of “not guilty” to the court clerk, one of the constables, who had been sworn in at the witness box, proceeded to report the alleged conditions of our arrest.
In the constable’s version of the story, the chanting party miraculously grew from the original five members to seven–and later to eight when he described how three devotees “ran off and escaped arrest.” According to his description, it seemed that there were many more people on Oxford Street than we had been aware of. Indeed, we had supposedly forced unlimited numbers of pedestrians into the road and had exposed them to the grave risk of being run over by the almost nonexistent traffic! The judge listened impartially and then, since we had no lawyer to speak on our behalf, he asked us if we would like to comment on the policeman’s evidence. We humbly pointed out that the constable, like everyone else, had imperfect senses, and that he had contradicted himself in assessing the number of devotees on the chanting party. The judge politely suggested the constable had made “a mathematical error.” At this a titter of laughter rippled through the courtroom, while the constable shuffled his feet and looked embarrassed.
The magistrate then asked if we would like to speak in our own defense. Having been previously chosen as spokesman, I stepped forward to be sworn in at the witness box–and was taken aback when the usher asked me to hold a copy of the Bhagavad-gita in my right hand. He handed me a card, and I read out the words: “I swear by almighty Sri Krishna that the evidence I give shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Heartened by smiles from the devotees in the dock, I began to describe the circumstances of our arrest–this time as they actually had happened. The magistrate listened as I went on to say, “We understand that the police have a duty to perform, sir; but we also have a duty. We have been instructed by our spiritual master–indeed, we are instructed by all the principle scriptures of the world–the Koran, the Torah, the Bible, and the Vedas–that we should glorify God by chanting His holy names. Whether you know the Lord by the name of Allah, Jehovah, Rama, Govinda, or Krishna, God is one.”
“Oh, quite so, quite so,” affirmed the magistrate.
Encouraged, I went on: “In the Vedic scriptures, in the Brhan-Naradiya Purana, it is said, harer nama harer nama harer namaiva kevalam—
“In English–but what does it mean in English, please?” he interjected.
“–Kalau nasty eva nasty eva nasty eva gatir anyatha. This was written in the Sanskrit language five thousand years ago. It means, ‘In this age of Kali [the present age of materialism and quarrel] there is no alternative, there is no alternative, there is no alternative for making positive spiritual advancement but the chanting of the holy name, the holy name, the holy name of the Lord.'”
The judge–in fact the whole courtroom–sat there fascinated. I remembered Srila Prabhupada’s introduction to the Srimad-Bhagavatam and began to speak further.
“Although mankind has made great material advancement in so many spheres, we can see that factually there is a fault in the social body at large. People are not happy with their day-to-day activities, and there is an increasing disturbance of drug addiction, prostitution, violence, and crime. The root of the problem is lack of God consciousness. People are unaware of the actual purpose of life.”
Intrigued by this sound philosophy coming from the witness box, the judge relaxed his judicial appearance, sat back, and took a sip of water from his glass.
Even more encouraged, I asked, “Sir, with your permission, I would like to read a short passage that appeared in the London Observer in October 1972. It is an excerpt from an article written by that eminent English historian, Arnold Toynbee.”
Upon hearing the name of such a distinguished personality, the judge smiled slightly, and nodding his head in approval, he asked that I continue.
“‘The cause of it [the world’s malady] is spiritual. We are suffering from having sold our souls to the pursuit of an objective which is both spiritually wrong and practically unobtainable. We have to reconsider our objective and change it. And until we do this, we shall not have peace, either amongst ourselves or within each of us.'”
I continued, “As devotees of the Lord we strictly follow four principles: mercifulness, truthfulness, cleanliness, and austerity. These are the higher qualities of human life, and the absence of these qualities means the degradation of society. So the spreading of spiritual understanding among humanity at large is the highest welfare work. And an essential part of this program is the distribution of literature, and the congregational chanting–in the street–of the holy names of God.”
“Is that all?” inquired the judge.
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“Then you may step down.” Adjusting his spectacles and regarding the devotees, who were once more assembled in the dock, the judge then said in a very firm yet amicable manner, “In legal terms you are guilty of obstruction, although it is of a very minor degree. Taking this into consideration, and seeing your obvious sincerity, I have decided to dismiss the case.”
We smiled jubilantly, thanked the magistrate, and were about to step down, when Kr na prompted me to add, “Sir, we were wondering if you had a court library here, in which case we would like to present a book for addition to the collection.”
“Thank you,” he replied. “I am quite sure we can accommodate it.”
I gave a copy of Srila Prabhupada’s Sri Isopanisad to one of the clerks, who promised to pass it on to the judge. Then we left the courtroom, thanking Lord Nityananda for His mercy.
Outside, our friend Reverend Morehouse greeted us with an ecstatic “Hare Krishna!” Beaming from ear to ear, he took each of us warmly by the hand. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed. “It was wonderful! I am so proud of you all. I must say, though, I was somewhat surprised at the decision of the judge. In the cases before yours he had been quite severe. I’m sure that the Lord must have had a hand in the matter.”
And so were we. Sankirtana is always successful, but it is especially so on Lord Nityananda’s appearance day: even a judge will take a book!
On the way back to the temple, I read one verse in Srila Prabhupada’s Caitanya-caritamrta that summed up our whole wonderful experience:
aparadha ksamaila dubila prema-jale
keba edaibe prabhura prema-mahajale
“Lord Caitanya excused all the offenders, and they merged into the ocean of love of God, for no one can escape the unique loving network of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu” (Cc. Adi-lila, 7.37).
[An article from Back to Godhead Vol.12 No.8 (1977)]