The weekend of May 29th to 30th saw over 3,000 devotees converge upon rural New Raman Reti in Alachua, Florida—the largest ISKCON community in North America—to bear witness to a truly rare event in today’s ISKCON: the installation of full-size deities of Sri Sri Krishna Balarama.
Many leading disciples of ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada, including Radhanatha Swami, Indradyumna Swami, Lokanatha Swami, Devamrita Swami, B.B. Madhava Swami, Varsana Swami, and Deena Bandhu Dasa also arrived to see the forms of God and His eternal elder brother join New Raman Reti’s already presiding deities of Radha-Shyamasundara and Gaura-Nitai.
All contributed with their enlivening kirtan and bhajan singing, while Radhanatha Swami, Lokanatha Swami and Deena Bandhu Dasa also inspired with morning classes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday describing Krishna and Balarama’s pastimes and the importance of Deity worship in their own unique styles.
Head priest Gaura Keshava Dasa, meanwhile, flew in from Maui, Hawaii to coordinate and perform the many elaborate Vedic ceremonies required to install Deity forms of the Lord.
As well as learning from ISKCON priests, Gaura Keshava has also studied deity worship under Sampat Kumar Bhattacharya—who installed the deities at ISKCON Hyderabad for Srila Prabhupada in 1976—and Damodara Maharaja, head pujari at Sri Chaitanya’s birthplace during Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s time. He has also served as a priest at many ISKCON centers and installed deities at temples in five different continents, including the form of his guru Srila Prabhupada at his samadhi mandir (mausoleum) in Vrindavana, Krishna’s birthplace; and the first four of Radha-Madhava’s eight gopi servants at ISKCON’s headquarters in Mayapur, West Bengal.
“I felt so honored and happy to be requested to install Krishna Balarama in New Raman Reti,” he says. “Of course, since there were so many qualified and senior devotees present, and since the theme of the installation festival was one of engaging as many devotees as possible, my role mainly involved co-ordinating and assisting the devotees performing the various ceremonies.”
The proceedings began on Saturday morning, as priests took permission from Srila Prabhupada, the previous line of saints, and the assembled Vaisnavas to perform the installation, then chanted mantras and performed rituals to invoke auspiciousness and remove obstacles.
Next, devotees carried a murti form of Srila Prabhupada in a short procession from the temple to the Yajnasala tent, where most of the rituals would take place.
Finally, at 2:45pm, came the moment everyone had been waiting for. Sri Sri Krishna Balarama were carried from the room where they had been kept for years in a procession to the Yajnasala that saw hundreds of devotees crowd around for a thrilling first glimpse.
Carrying Krishna out for the first time
Several fascinating ceremonies followed: first, Jaladhivasa, in which small forms of Krishna Balarama were submerged in water, and a reflection of the large deites in a mirror were also submerged. Special fire and bathing ceremonies, designed to remove any deficiencies in the carving of the deities, followed.
Next, oblations were offered to destroy the material elements in the Deities’ bodies and to recreate their spiritual bodies, followed by Prana Pratistha, or calling the Lord to personally reside and interact with the devotees through the medium of the Deity.
However it was the next day, at 11:30am, that devotees had one of their most exhilarating experiences of the whole festival. As per tradition, Krishna and Balarama’s eyes had up till then been covered with a blindfold—but now, as second generation kirtaniyas headed by Visvambhar of The Mayapuris belted out “Jai! Jai! Krishna Balarama…” with thunderous drum beats and soaring harmonies; and as the crowd surged forward, bathed in dramatic red and gold light as the sun shone through the colorful tent canopy, priests revealed the Deities eyes for the first time in a ceremony called Netronmilanam Subha Drsti. Devotees roared out the names of God, the kirtan grew in intensity, and everyone drank in the beauty of their Lordships’ lotus petal-shaped eyes, marveling at their detail: Krishna with his golden eyebrows and blue eyes, and Balarama with his hazel tones.
“It was a stunning moment,” says Alachua resident and festival entertainment organizer Gaura Shakti Dasa. “What struck me was the revelation of these deities’ unique personalities—they just looked so childish and young compared to the Krishna Balarama in Vrindavana, India that I knew so well.”
With the deities’ eyes open, “first darshan” was then held, in which priests presented auspicious items before them such as Srila Prabhupada, the sacred Tulasi plant, a cow and her calf, and the assembled devotees.
Krishna and Balarama were then bathed with various auspicious liquids in the Maha-Abhisekha, a grand five-hour affair. Huge lines of devotees formed around the property, with those who had sponsored conchshells for bathing jumping to the front and everyone else following, getting the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bathe the large forms of Krishna Balarama (At future festivals, devotees will only bathe the small forms, or chota Krishna Balarama).
Next, the Deities were carried in a procession to the temple, where they were dressed and decorated. More and more devotees crowded into the temple room, creating a sea of eager faces and filling it to bursting point. The anticipation for what was to come began to build.
Finally, at 7:30pm, curtains swung open to reveal Krishna Balarama on their altar, fully outfitted and decorated, for the first time. The crowd went wild. An exhultant kirtan ensued, led in turn by many senior Alachua vaishnavas including Bhadra Dasa, Laksmi Nrsimha Dasa, and Keshava Dasa, all joyfully celebrating the culmination of their spiritual dream.
Meanwhile, the altar saw another first for the New Raman Reti community, as three priests— Ritadvija Swami, who signed the purchase agreement for the 127-acre farm back in 1977, BBT artist Puskara Dasa, and Back to Godhead magazine editor Nagaraja Dasa—offered three simultaneous aratis to Gaura Nitai, Radha Shyamasundara, and Krishna Balarama respectively.
“It struck me several times that this installation festival was especially auspicious,” comments head priest Gaura Keshava Dasa. “On Saturday, directly following the last oblation of the main Fire Ceremony, there was a big gust of wind and it immediately began to rain incessantly—a very auspicious sign. On Sunday, the sky had been very dark and overcast all day. But as soon as I began to offer the deities their first lamp right after opening their eyes, the sun suddenly blazed out very brightly. This can clearly be seen in the photos taken at that time. It was as if the Sun god, Surya Narayana himself, had come for the first darshan of their Lordships.”
The festival was also made a special event by the level of cooperation and service amongst the devotees.
“For me several moments stood out,” Gaura Keshava says. “Firstly, the beginning ceremonies where so many devotees stepped forward to vow to help as assistant priests. Secondly, the care and devotion with which the Yajnasala (fire altars) and Snana Mandapa (bathing place) were constructed. Thirdly, the enthusiasm of the devotees taking part in the fire ceremonies, pot procession, pranapratistha, abhisekam, arati and kirtan. All in all the amount and quality of participation was the highlight of this festival for me.”
Such participation was also evident in the facilities catering to the many needs of such a large crowd. Delicious free prasadam was served for breakfast, lunch and dinner on both days, while an array of paid dishes was available for rumbling bellies in between mealtimes.
As with all New Raman Reti festivals, stalls were also set up to browse and buy from; although in keeping with the mood of the event, they were more educational than commercial: Lecture series from various sannyasis were on offer, as well as Bhakti Vikasa Swami’s three volume book series on Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s life and teachings. Many ISKCON projects were also represented, including Krishna.com, ISKCON News, ISKCON Prison Ministry, and Benediction Moon, an organization that subsidizes book distribution efforts.
But best of all, both days of the festival were packed with varied entertainment acts. On Saturday, devotional rock group the Murari Band and second generation devotee magician Dattatreya both ascended the stage, as did popular kirtan groups The Mayapuris and Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits.
“But the biggest highlight for me was when they invited traveling preacher Indradyumna Swami on,” says entertainment organizer Gaura Shakti. “The kirtan singers before him sang beautiful, enlivening tunes with fancy drum beats. In contrast, when Indradyumna Swami ascended the stage, he sang only a simple tune backed by a simple beat—but the whole tent was rocking. As he sang the rain began to pour down, and with not many places to go, more and more people crowded into the tent and went wild, letting the Holy Name take over. It was an amazing experience.”
On Sunday, a surprise street theater performance at1pm saw actors dressed as Krishna and Balarama appear on the lawn in front of the temple with their cowherd friends, as if they had just wandered upon New Raman Reti while tending their cows. “I think we’ll stay here—I have the feeling we’ll be very welcome,” they announced, before playing with their friends and killing the demon Pralambhasura, as a fascinated crowd gathered around, braving the hot sun to watch the fun.
Street theater in the field
Back on the stage, students from the local Bhaktivedanta Academy kindergarten and grade school sang and performed a puppet show. Vinata Vedam-Mai, an Indian professional dancer and PhD microbiology researcher at the University of Florida, performed classical Bharat Natyam. And Indian classical singer Jaya Radha Krishnan offered up songs of Krishna and his pastimes. But it was the one-and-a-half hour entertainment grand finale, by Anapayini and her Bhakti-Kalalayam traditional dance troupe, that most moved audiences.
“It was beautiful—they danced with so much love, backed by live singers and musicians,” says Gaura Shakti. “Deities of Lord Jagannath were brought into the tent, and they performed the dance to Him, incorporating an offering of flowers to him as part of the dance. And once again, it was raining, so people crowded into the tent to watch. In fact, it was raining so hard that the power cut off several times mid-show; but the dancers were such consummate professionals that they kept their cool and continued on to deliver an extraordinary performance.”
Meanwhile, devotional singing continued throughout the entire festival from a special stage in the Yajnasala tent. “We had 27 straight hours of bhajans,” says temple president Mukhya Dasi. “To hear them, and to see all the devotees dancing together in front of Krishna Balarama, filled me with happiness. It was so sweet.”
Head priest Gaura Keshava feels that the future of New Raman Reti will be a bright one.
“The mood of Krishna Balarama is Sakhya Rasa, which is a friendly mood conducive to cooperation,” he says. “This was certainly present in the actions and attitudes of all the devotees during the functions. And just as Krishna and Balarama had to cooperate together and with the other cowherd boys to do the different duties of Nanda Maharaja’s rural community in Vraja, let us pray that this mood of friendly cooperation will continue to permeate the ISKCON Alachua community.”
Mukhya Dasi agrees. “This is not a culmination but a beginning,” she says. “Now all of our Deities—who have always been the heart of New Raman Reti—are home. And I hope that Balarama will bless us with the spiritual strength to continue giving Krishna consciousness to more and more people.”
Here some inspiring words by Deena Bandhu Dasa, in his Sunday morning class, seem apt: “In the 1970s, ISKCON devotees at the original Raman Reti in Vrindavana, India, had been having various problems in their community and projects. But when they installed deities of Krishna and Balarama, Srila Prabhupada told them, “Now that Balarama is here, everything will be all right.”
“Similarly,” Deena Bandhu said, “Now that Balarama is here in New Raman Reti, everything will be alright.”
Final kirtan crowd
The first unveiling of the fully dressed deities