With Coronavirus (COVID-19) spreading around the world, ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission has issued a statement to all ISKCON centers advising precautions to avoid further spread of the virus.
Based on recommendations from local officials, many temples in the U.S. have put their Sunday Feasts and other public events on hold at least until early April, and schools are temporarily closing.
Meanwhile in the UK the Hare Krishna Festivals program has cancelled upcoming festivals with the words, “We will adjust and adapt to continue our spiritual mission in whatever ways possible into the future.”
Other temples, including Bhaktivedanta Manor near London (which was closed for Gaura Purnima) are fully open as of now, with activities running as normal.
In Italy, the worst hit country in Europe, however, neither the general public nor devotees can visit the temple because all places of worship – churches, mosques, temples – have been closed down, and everyone has been quarantined in their homes.
As of March 13th, there were 17,660 coronavirus cases in Italy and 1,266 deaths – fortunately, no devotees in Italy have tested positive for the virus.
“Since Tuesday March 10th, Italy has been on lockdown,” says Parabhakti Das, temple president of ISKCON Villa Vrindavana near Florence. “Restaurants, bars, pubs, theaters, and cinemas are all closed, as well as most shops except supermarkets and pharmacies. People have to stay at home, and can only leave to buy food or medicine, or to go to work – although many factories and companies have also closed down for now. If you want to leave your home, you have to sign a declaration explaining why, and carry it with you to show to police if you are stopped. All air travel to and from Italy has also been halted for now.”
According to Parabhakti, the hope is that the restrictions will help stop the spread of the virus and resolve the situation more quickly. The lockdown will be in place until at least April 3rd, at which point restrictions may gradually be removed if the situation improves. If it doesn’t, they may be extended.
Initially, the restrictions only affected the “red zone” in the North of Italy, where the coronavirus’ first cases in the country were found. But as of Tuesday, the whole country is under the same conditions.
The ISKCON temples of Hare Krishna Village in Milan and Prabhupada Desh near Venice were in the original red zone, and stopped all their activities two weeks ago. But now Villa Vrindavana, ISKCON Turin, ISKCON Genova, and the small temple in Rome, have all been closed too.
“Even all the Bhakti Vriksha groups have to stop their activities, because it’s forbidden to gather together with people, even at one’s home,” Parabhakti explains. “So practically now, the only way devotees can communicate with each other in Italy is through telephone or social media.”
The recent Gaura Purnima festival was canceled in all ISKCON Italy temples, as have been all retreats, yoga classes, conferences, interfaith meetings, and Sunday feasts. All temples are closed even for taking darshan of the Deities.
Temple residents are continuing to hold morning programs and take care of the Deities, but this holds its own challenges. With flower shops closed, and no flower production in the gardens so soon after winter, Villa Vrindavan only has a few days of stored flowers before devotees will have to start getting creative, using leaves for the Deities’ garlands.
Meanwhile, the restrictions have halted all book distribution and Harinama, and both Govinda’s restaurants in Italy – one in Villa Vrindavana and one in Milan – are closed.
As a result, temples will see their sources of funding ceased. “We just had an ISKCON Italy National Council meeting by Zoom conference yesterday, and will have another in a couple of weeks, because the economic situation may become very difficult,” Parabhakti says. “Of course, we can still ask for donations via the Internet, but people in general in Italy will also be affected financially by this situation.”
According to Parabhakti, Italian temples will do what they can to help each other; they may even approach ISKCON management on a European or International level. Outside of ISKCON, he says the Italian Government and perhaps even the European Union may take action to help people who have lost income due to the pandemic.
Amidst all these challenges, there is positivity to be found in taking appropriate action, solidarity amongst devotees, and looking for opportunities within the hardship.
Parabhakti has sent a Facebook video message to devotees, advising them not to panic, and to strictly follow the government’s directions to stop the coronavirus spreading.
General recommendations include staying at home, washing your hands frequently with soap for at least twenty seconds, remaining at least one meter (three feet) away from other people, and taking lots of Vitamin C.
Parabhakti also told devotees that the situation could be an opportunity, inviting them to spend their extra free time at home to read, chant, go deeper into their spiritual practices, and stay connected with the temple via online video broadcasts of Deity darshan and morning and afternoon classes.
“Many temples will try to give spiritual support to devotees in this way,” he says. “Also in our temple, we are starting to promote book distribution by post more – asking peole to send a little donation, and we send them a book. We may even be able to send maha-prasadam that way – just to keep things going!”
The future beyond April 3rd is unknown, with the situation changing on a daily basis, and COVID-19 spreading around Europe and the world.
There are some inklings of encouraging news. In the town of Codogno in Lombardy, Northern Italy – known as Italy’s coronavirus ground zero – infections appear to have slowed down.
But in the meantime, Italian devotees are using the pandemic as a chance to come closer to Srila Prabhupada’s instructions on simple living and high thinking. For instance, with all other activities at a standstill, they are working hard on agriculture, with a goal of producing food for the temple residents.
“We are already producing our own milk, and now we are working hard on our 200 acres of land, with the aim of growing vegetables and grains,” Parabhakti says. “If we work on becoming independent from the rest of society, especially in terms of food, that will help us to face situations like this one in the future.”
“We may not be able to understand what Krishna’s plan is right now – but He does have one,” Parabhakti concludes. “At least, people may become a little more conscious about the real goal of life; and that’s one positive aspect to this difficult situation.”
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