Bringing Krishna Culture Festivals to a City Near You

Submitted by madhuha on Wed, 02/18/2009 - 15:43
Tour Diary

From By Madhava Smullen, February 8, 2009

When you think of Hare Krishnas, you may think of music, singing, dancing, sumptuous vegetarian feasts, and bright colors. It seems that for Krishna devotees, every day is a festival. And that’s barely an exaggeration. There are over forty major and minor festivals on the Vaishnava calendar honoring every saint and sacred event imaginable, and that’s not counting the Sunday Feasts put on every week for the public. But even that’s not enough – festivals are also one of our main methods of outreach, with devotees traveling cross-country to share their spiritual food, music and philosophy with others. So wherever you are, and whatever time of year it is, if you feel like attending a Hare Krishna festival – you’re likely to find one close to your location soon.

Festival of India

One of ISKCON’s most established traveling programs in the US, Festival of India, is making this even more likely by meeting requests from ISKCON temples around the country for festivals that are smaller and more affordable that its usual full roadshow. The Mini Hare Krishna Festival, available since the beginning of 2009, offers local ISKCON outreach a roster of flexible options including multimedia exhibit “Changing Bodies/Journey of the Soul,” and seven tents with banners such as “Books on Yoga and Meditation,” “Free Feast,” “Govinda’s Gift Shop,” and “Please Chant Hare Krishna.”

“Festivals are not the right kind of outreach for all ISKCON centers,” says Festival of India organizer Madhuha Dasa. “They require a lot of time, money, manpower and organization. “But the results – increased attendance at Sunday Feasts, more customers at Govinda's restaurants, general raised awareness of ISKCON in your area – are wonderful.”

Madhuha knows plenty about the results of a traveling festival program – he has spent much of the past thirty years on the road with Festival of India.

“It all started when I was passing through New York on my way to an ISKCON mission in Africa,” Madhuha explains. “I bumped into FOI’s founders Devi Deva, Charu and Vaibhavi, who were putting on their very first festival, joined the team, and that was it.”

Festival of India had been initiated earlier that year when Devi Deva noticed that the equipment required to put on festivals – tents, exhibits, stage, sound system and a storage facility for it all – was too expensive for most ISKCON temples to afford. Instead, why not send one set of equipment and a team of devotees trained to use it to as many cities as possible? He joined forces with Caru Dasa and his wife the artist Vaibhavi Dasi, and together they set to work designing and building exhibits.

But soon after their first festival, Devi Deva left the program and went on to run ISKCON’s charity Food For Life in Philadelphia. Caru and Vaibhavi continued to manage the tour until 1982, but then moved to Utah were Charu started KHQN Krishna Radio, and Vaibhavi designed the famous Spanish Fork temple. For Madhuha, destiny was waiting. It had seemed as if his joining Festival of India was only a chance encounter – but it was obvious that all along, Krishna had planned the festival tour to be his life.

It’s a rewarding one, but not easy. To ensure an economical schedule, Madhuha has to contact ISKCON Centers across North America in August to plan the next summer’s festivals. “I have to try and get everyone a date they’re happy with, and get permits from city authorities that match up with those dates, all by March 1st,” Madhuha says. “Every year it seems like a miracle, but somehow, it happens.”

The excitement of the festival tour brings Madhuha plenty of helpers every year, but the austerity of traveling for four months straight ensures a big turnover. Still, there’s a solid crew. Second generation ISKCON devotees Govinda and Isvara Puri both traveled with FOI between the ages of 12 and 25, and now continue to help at New York Rathayatra every year; Phani Bhusan Dasa, with his skits, preaching and practical help, has been a key figure since 1992; Jagannatha Puri Dhama Dasa and Premanjana Dasa have both been a part of the crew for several years; and newcomer Krishna Balarama, who studied live sound reinforcement in college, is in charge of the sound system and looks set to stay for the long haul.

Then, of course, there’s the ISKCON Youth. In the 1990s, boarding school teacher Ritadvija Swami began following FOI with two passenger vans and 28 teenage boys. By 2003, ISKCON Youth Ministry volunteer Manu Dasa had acquired Garuda 2, a 45-foot full-size deluxe coach. And today, fifty-five youth travel alongside Festival of India, helping to set up and take down the tents and performing in front of audiences.

“The Youth Ministry has made a great impact on the festivals,” Madhuha enthuses. “There are other professional dance and theater troupes out there, but the Ministry’s stage performances are so much more powerful. They are inspiring, full of feeling, and have introduced crowds of thousands to the deep and rich Vedic Culture of India as Srila Prabhupada has given it to us.”

Some have denounced Festival of India as an outdated method of outreach, but Madhuha says the facts speak for themselves. “People everywhere want to have a good time, and when they see our bright colorful tents, giant Rathayatra chariots, dancing, singing and feasting, they want to be part of it,” he explains. “At the Washington DC festival for instance, as Manu and the Youth Ministry sing on stage, they are often joined by several thousand people, mostly non-devotees and all chanting and dancing in ecstacy.”

It may sound overly simple to some, he says, but FOI’s only mission is to attract people’s attention and then get them to chant Hare Krishna and read at least one of Srila Prabhupada’s books. “Last year I met someone at our book booth in San Francisco who had received a Bhagavad-gita at our festival there five years ago and became a vegetarian after reading it,” he says. “They thanked me and purchased another Gita to give to one of their friends. The book obviously made a tremendous impact on that person, and now their spiritual life has begun. That’s good enough for me.”

Madhuha admits that the festival’s overall impact could be improved, but says he’s upgrading as fast as necessary funds come in. In 2008, the new multimedia mobile exhibit The Changing Bodies/Journey of The Soul was added with the help of Ambarisa Ford. “It’s built around the existing reincarnation exhibit Changing Bodies, and enhances its impact using modern technology such as LED lights, show-control computer system, rear projection, and digital sound and video equipment,” Madhuha says. “8,000 people went through it in 2008, and many purchased Bhagavad-gitas when they emerged.”

Madhuha’s future goals are simple: He wants to ensure that Festival of India stays alive and continues to expand long after he is gone, a mission the program’s new mini festivals will go some way to achieving. Festival of India shows no signs of slowing down in 2009 – you can catch the show this winter in Florida, with summer festivals running all the way from late May to December.

ISKCON Los Angeles Rathayatra Outreach

ISKCON Los Angeles has also contributed its resources to special events and smaller ISKCON centers over the years. Every year, traveling festival organizer Ratnabhusana Dasa and his crew of half a dozen devotees head out to LA’s Kingdom Day, San Diego’s Earth Day, and Boise, Idaho’s Liberty Day parades with a Rathayatra cart and a colorful collection of tents and booths.

In Boise, a small city where the temple is run by one devotee and his family, the Liberty Day parade is a huge opportunity for outreach. Sacred prasadam food is served, the public ooh and aah at the Rathayatra cart, and many visit the little temple after the parade.

It’s a major contrast to San Diego’s Earth Day, an environmentally-themed parade that’s one of the biggest in the US. Last year two hundred devotees participated, pulling LA’s Rathayatra cart from one end of Balboa Park to the other, and showering onlookers with flower petals.

Afterwards, devotees set up shop in Balboa Park for the Earth Fair, which draws 60,000 visitors. Devotees transferred the local temple’s entire gift store to a huge tent in the park, offering everything from neckbeads to saris to face-painting. But most popular by far was the prasadam booth, with three lines serving vegan food, pizza, and traditional Indian fare. ISKCON’s presence at the event is so popular that the San Diego Union has featured the devotees and their Ratha yatra cart on its front page for three years running.

In LA, Hare Krishnas were also very popular at the recent Kingdom Day parade in honor of Martin Luther King, which draws crowds of several hundred thousand. “People love our food , the colorful Rathayatra cart, and especially the chanting,” says Los Angeles temple president Svavasa Dasa. “They’re always coming out onto the street to dance with us. One year we even had a surprise visit from the mayor of LA, who happened to be right in front of us in his convertible. When the parade got stuck at one junction and stopped for a while, he hopped out of the car and started dancing with the devotees.”

ISKCON Los Angeles even received a second place trophy for most colorful presentation, and were featured on live television.

“Here in LA we thrive on festivals,” Svavasa says. “As well as the traveling festival program, we have about 18 major festivals a year at the temple. Festivals are our way to develop congregation members and the perfect marketing tool to introduce Krishna consciousness to westerners. They give people a taste of everything – the culture, the sounds, the tastes, the colors, association, books, and the philosophy. It’s a whole menu of sense perception.”

LA’s traveling festival program is set to expand soon, with three new fullsize Rathayatra carts on the way. “It’s an incredible feat of engineering from Ratnabhushana,” Svavasa says. “They’ll all fold up to fit into a 53-foot trailer. Only one of them has been built so far, and already devotees are requesting them for festivals. There are definitely some exciting years ahead.”

Burning Man

Some devotees are using the same basic Hare Krishna festival template to plug into more alternative events. Held just east of Reno, Nevada, in the Black Rock desert, Burning Man grew from a local West Coast event into a huge international phenomenon, drawing 55,000 people from all over the world. And while other similar events such as the Rainbow Gathering attract a more hippie crowd, Burning Man is different. Its mostly young and partly middle-aged audience tend to be more on the successful, career-oriented side – Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were regulars in its early days – and make an effort to express themselves and step outside the borders of contemporary society.

“It’s more than just a big party,” says Chris Ficci, an ISKCON devotee who has participated in Burning Man’s Krishna Camp several times. “It’s an expression of alternative values through politics, the environment, creativity, culture, and spirituality. People there are progressively minded and trying to change the world, trying to change the way people think.”

But what is Burning Man? Organizers have said, “Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.” Chris Ficci’s explanation, “a connection of contemporary counterculture, people getting together and testing the boundaries of human expression,” seems as close as you’ll get.

Physically, Burning Man comprises of hundreds of themed camps, some small scale, some larger scale with six or seven big tents. “Some are pretty far out,” Chris says. “They have all kinds of amazing art exhibits. And Entheon Village, one of the groups we worked with this year, had a psycedhelic spirituality theme, with different workshops – some of them involved music, and we did a lot of kirtan for them.”

This year, a wide range of ISKCON devotees from the West Coast and across the US attended Burning Man – the event is becoming particularly popular with the younger devotee community. “There are already many spiritual groups there,” says Chris. “But we bring our own spiritual energy to it. We try to create a strong Krishna conscious presence by doing lots of kirtan, and distributing lots of prasadam and books.”

According to Chris, people at Burning Man are very forward-looking, and are trying to change the way we live in many ways. Their belief is that we need to shift our values away from consumption and exploitation of the environment, and towards more harmony and connection with the earth we live on. And with physical proof that we have taken this planet to its breaking point everywhere, many have been motivated to think outside the box – to return to a simpler connection to the planet and to spirituality.

“A new counterculture is arising,” Chris says. “Many different environmental movements are active, interest in eastern spirituality, yoga, and meditation is very commonplace, and people have a lot of hope in our new president. The Hare Krishnas were a big part of the original counterculture in the 1960s, and we have a chance to be a part of this one too.”

Burning Man, he explains, is the key event of this counterculture. It’s important for devotees to establish a visible presence there, for people to be able to see and speak with them. And as the next generation of devotees try to define where to take the Hare Krishna Movement in the future, it’s important to connect with forward-looking people at and beyond Burning Man.

“We’re always taking steps to increase the visibility of Krishna Camp,” Chris says. “We’re in the process of buying a portable kitchen and hope to have a 24-hour kitchen set up for next year’s event, so that people can come in at any time and take prasadam. And in the future, we hope to have a larger scale camp, complete with workshops and multimedia events.”

Whatever the location or style, festivals will obviously remain ISKCON’s premier method of outreach. “Festivals are a sure way to attract people with a favorable Krishna conscious experience,” Madhuha says. “Give them Kirtan, prasadam, and at least one of Srila Prabhupada’s books. Perfect, what else do you need?”

“As Srila Prabhupada said in an August, 1973 letter: ‘So this festival program is very very important and it is especially effective for the mass of people. So go on making festivals and make everyone in America Krishna conscious.’”

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