New Vrindaban Festivals Inspire and Build Relationships

FOI Poster

by Madhava Smullen

The Vaishnava tradition is famous for its festivals. And within ISKCON, the New Vrindaban community in West Virginia has become one of the most renowned places to celebrate — both because of its rustic beauty, and because of its unique Krishna-centered events.

As New Vrindaban finds a fresh start and rebuilds itself, festivals have been found to be one of the best ways to inspire and bring together devotees, as well as to develop a mutually appreciative relationship with the local public.

The longest running of these festivals, and the most important to Krishna devotees, is, of course, Janmastami, Lord Krishna’s appearance day. First observed in New Vrindaban in 1970, it’s now celebrated on four different days—August 16th, 17th, 23rd, and 30th this year. And it draws 400 devotees and congregation members on each, with 1,000 flooding in for the main event.

People pack into the large temple room, decorated to the rafters with festoons and balloons, to chant and dance before the three shining golden altars and to hear Krishna’s pastimes all day long. They even go on pilgrimage to an area of the community representing the sacred Govardhana Hill, just as they would in the original Vrindaban.

In the evening, Sri Sri Radha-Vrindaban Chandra are bedecked in outfits made entirely from flowers. And as darkness falls, They are seated on a 15-foot swan boat draped in festive lights, and glide out over the water of New Vrindaban’s “Swan Lake” in graceful figure eights.

From the banks, devotees belt out a tumultuous kirtan, as fireworks burst in the night sky. It’s the kind of atmospheric touch that New Vrindaban brings to all its events.

Many of New Vrindaban’s festivals have unique features. The community’s celebration of Lord Nrsimhadeva’s appearance, for instance, brings with it an increased spiritual depth, because New Vrindaban is home to the only full-size Nrsimha Deity in North America.

Sculpted by resident artist Soma Das and installed in 1986, the ferocious Lord with His deep black skin, sharp teeth and nails and golden mane is seven feet tall in height.

Every year (on May 13th in 2014), local devotees and some from across North America come to worship Him with ecstatic kirtans and abhishekas. For them, there’s something undeniably intimate and sweet about bathing the fearsome Deity, Whom they look to for protection.

Lord Nrsimha Janmastami 2013

Lord Nrsimha Janmastami 2013

On a larger scale, meanwhile, is Festival of Inspiration. “It was started by Anuttama and Rukmini Prabhus in 2000,” says New Vrindaban festival organizer Vrindavan Das. “Then Malati Prabhu ran it for 12 years, before training me up and handing it over to me last year.”

The 14th annual FOI will run from May 9th to 11th over Mother’s Day Weekend this year, and is expected to draw 500 to 600 devotees. Twenty-two seminars and workshops on all aspects of Krishna conscious philosophy, arts and culture will be given by Bhakti Marg Swami, Bhakti Vasudeva Swami, Malati Dasi, Vaisesika Das, Srutakirti Das, Hari Sauri Das, Dravida Das and many more.

Presentations at FOI are diverse, offering a Krishna-ized take on such topics as music, marriage, art and photography, travel, yoga, and holistic health. With several seminars on offer at any given time, attendees hop from classroom to classroom, trying to catch their favorite speakers.

Mornings feature themed classes by senior devotees on Srila Prabhupada’s pastimes or other inspirational topics. And evenings are full of the best spiritual entertainment for every taste – there’s bhajans, rock music, Bharat Natyam dancing, dramas, stand-up comedy and much more.

Lawn Bhajans. FOI 2013

Lawn Bhajans. FOI 2013

“Festival of Inspiration is perfect for devotees — they get wonderful association with peers and senior devotees, high quality presentations, and of course quality prasadam!” says Vrindavan.

Just as beloved by devotees are the appearance and disappearance days of ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada, to be held on August 18th and October 27th this year. On both days, there are two programs – one in the temple, and one at Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold.

Devotees congregate for over three hours in each location to hear about Srila Prabhupada from senior devotees like Malati Dasi, and many who helped build the palace for their beloved guru with their own hands, like Varshana Swami, Gaura Shakti Das, Nityodita Das, and Soma Das.

“Prabhupada spent quite some time here at New Vrindaban,” says Vrindavan Das. “So as they recount their memories you can hear how each devotee has a personal relationship with him and how he touched each of them in an exceptional way. It’s very, very moving to hear them speak.”

New Vrindaban also uses some of its festivals to develop healthy relationships with the local community and to attract young American university students to Krishna consciousness. Chief of these is the relatively new Festival of Colors, introduced in 2012.

Vrindavan, who has a B.A. in Marketing, does a blitz of advertising for the event. He sends press releases to eleven newspapers, appears on local TV and radio stations, and speaks at Religion classes at eight different universities in the tri-state area.

It works. From 1,100 in its first year, 6,000 people are expected to attend Festival of Colors on September 13th this year.

Based on the traditional festival Holi, Festival of Colors connects powerfully with the general public because it introduces Krishna consciousness in such a fun, subtle way.

“The Festival of Colors is basically chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra for seven hours, but in contemporary music styles such as rock, reggae, and hip-hop,” Vrindavan says. “This year Namrock, the Mayapuris, the Gosh Brothers, Srikalogy and Ananda Groove will be playing.”

Every year, thousands of students dance energetically to the music, calling out Krishna’s names in response to the bands. Every hour, there’s an uproarious countdown, and multicolored dyes are hurled into the air, creating a joyous rainbow cloud against the bright blue sky. When they’re hungry, attendees tuck into delicious prasadam or check out Srila Prabhupada’s books.

This year New Vrindaban devotees will also put on a Festival of Colors in Pittsburgh on April 19th, which is expected to draw a further 5,000 students. There are also plans to expand the event to Athens, Columbus, and other cities.

Since its launch, Festival of Colors has vastly improved devotees’ relationship with Moundsville locals. New Vrindaban residents out shopping often get big smiles and comments like, “Oh you’re from the Hare Krishna temple? I’m coming to Festival of Colors this year!”

The festival is so popular that it inspires many to attend another of New Vrindaban’s biggest events. “Students like chanting at Festival of Colors so much that they come back for more,” says Vrindavan. “Last year, forty-four students joined the devotees at the 24-Hour Kirtan.”

All who do are in for a truly out-of-this-world experience. Up to 800 people gather for the kirtan, which runs non-stop from 8am on Saturday until 8am on Sunday. With prasadam provided so that only small breaks are needed, many chanters go for twenty hours and take a four-hour nap when they’re exhausted. A few very dedicated souls stay up all the way through.

The result is a powerful spiritual energy that fills the room and is felt by all. Devotees close their eyes, rock back and forth, and call out to the Lord like babies to their mothers, sometimes mesmerized by gentle melodies, sometimes pounding drums and jumping high into the air. Afterwards, they return home with what Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu called “the looking glass of the heart” cleansed, and an increased clarity and enthusiasm for their path of devotion.

This year will see two 24 Hour Kirtans – one on the summer solstice from June 21st to 22nd, and one kicking off the month of Kartik from October 11th to 12th. A number of kirtan singers known for their heartfelt devotion will lead the chanting, including Bhakti Charu Swami, Gaura Vani, and the Mayapuris.

24 Hour Kirtan 2013

24 Hour Kirtan 2013

This year, October’s 24 Hour Kirtan will be followed for the first time by a brand new festival, “Kartik at New Vrindaban,” a weekend event during which devotees will offer hundreds of candles and absorb themselves in the pastimes of Lord Damodar. For those unable to make it to the original Vrindavan in India for Kartik, the festival at New Vrindaban will be a Godsend.

Another planned new event is the Srila Prabhupada Festival. This will see many senior Prabhupada disciples from around the world visiting New Vrindaban to share their memories of the ISKCON founder in the peaceful, rural atmosphere of one of his favorite communities.

“Every festival at New Vrindaban attracts hundreds of pilgrims to the community,” says Vrindavan Das. “And all participants get an opportunity to experience New Vrindaban’s unique atmosphere, thus cultivating appreciation for the holy dhama.”

“We are very happy to invite you to our upcoming festival, the most ecstatic of all, The Festival of Inspiration,” he beams. “It will be held on May 9th-11th. We look forward to serving you!”


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