The Lebanese Bhakti Community after a kirtan at the center.
The famous Cedars of Lebanon have been prized for thousands of years for their resiliency and strength. Most famously, they were used in the building of ancient houses of worship (temples). Today, the modern republic of Lebanon, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea and Syria, is home to nearly four million people, including a pioneering devotee family who moved there in 2010. Like the Cedars of Lebanon, their service to Krishna has shown great resilience and strength through many difficult circumstances.
Prema Dhana Das, Lebanese by birth, moved back to his homeland after living in Canada for several years to help with a family business. His wife, Tulasi Bhava Devi Dasi, born and raised in Montreal, joined him in the adventure. Both became devotees while in Canada and attended the ISKCON Temple in Montreal.
“After arriving in Lebanon, by a ‘Krishna miracle,’ we met another devotee originally from Ukraine who was married to a Lebanese man, and we started having small kirtan programs together in our homes,” said Tulasi Bhava. Nearby, there was even a small Hindu Temple with altars to many deities and demigods, which they would sometimes visit to perform kirtan. One of the Indian worshippers soon joined them for kirtan regularly. Eventually, a Lebanese local became interested and introduced them to the Beirut yoga scene. “Through this connection, we slowly started having kirtans at various yoga events and even participated in Lebanon’s first-ever yoga festival in 2015,” said Prema Dhana. “It was from this yoga festival that we decided to start calling ourselves “Bhakti Beirut” and began our social media presence with Facebook.”
Around this time, they shifted their focus toward the growing yoga scene, having weekly programs at various locations or at home. Their daughter Karuna was born in 2013 and from infancy, would be with them for all their kirtans.
In 2016, Prema Dhana traveled to Mayapur, where he met with Govinda Swami, the GBC of Lebanon at that time. He invited Maharaj to Lebanon, and in September of that year, Govinda Swami arrived with a team of kirtaniyas. “We arranged various kirtan programs for him, and although the number of guests was certainly nothing compared to the crowds he was used to chanting for in other places, he appreciated the sincerity of the Lebanese people,” said Tulasi Bhava. Govinda Swami continued visiting Beirut twice a year. In 2018, he gave the devotee couple two instructions: open a center and organize a kirtan festival. With his generous support and kind blessings, they did both. In October 2018, Lebanon had its first even kirtan festival with about thirty attendees, and simultaneously, they opened a small center near Beirut.
“Where we had been a bit like traveling kirtan nomads before, now we had our own space. We started with a few yoga classes and weekly kirtan and Bhagavad Gita discussions. Our community was small, perhaps 5 -10 people usually, but we kept going,” said Prema Dhana.
Soon, a devotee from France visited them and connected the couple with the BBT, who wanted to start translating Prabhupada’s books into Arabic. “We didn’t have any professionals in our community or even scholarly Arabic-speaking devotees, but we made a small team of two people, including a Lebanese devotee, Mohini Radha devi dasi, and translation work began,” said Tulasi Bhava. So far, the Bhagavad Gita and four other small books have been published and are currently being distributed around the world. Their latest project – and biggest one so far – is the translation of one of Prabhupada’s most monumental works, the Srimad Bhagavatam.
In October 2019, political tensions were on the rise throughout the country. Frustrated with the government in power since the 1990s and the crumbling economy, citizens staged huge protests, and people called for a revolution. It was a relatively peaceful movement and was gaining incredible strength and momentum until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Lebanon, as it did most of the world. For a country that was already in economic straits, things went from bad to worse. Like many devotee communities, the couple shifted their Gita discussions and kirtans online. 2020 also brought their second child.
Adding to the difficulties in the country, August 2020 was the infamous Beirut Blast, a devastating explosion in the port of Beirut caused by the ignition of a large quantity of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely, resulting in widespread destruction, over 200 deaths, thousands of injuries, and significant damage to the city.
“A devotee godbrother from Dubai, Harinaam Ananda Prabhu, called us up to offer us support and asked if we were doing any prasadam distribution – if so, he was ready to help,” said Prema Dhana, “And from that, we began ‘Food for Life Beirut.’ ” Although it was a small-scale operation, residents appreciated the extra help. “We felt a bit like that squirrel who was helping Lord Ram to build the bridge by tossing in pebbles,” said Tulasi Bhava.
By 2021, they slowly started having programs at the center again, and Govinda Swami returned a year later. The combination of political unrest and the pandemic shifted the attendees at community events, but new people appeared, and the small group became a sweet devotional family. “We’re thinking that it’s probably a combination of steady kirtans, philosophy, and the super bhakti injections by Maharaj and his crew,” said Prema Dhana.
One of the highlights from Govinda Swami’s last trip was a kirtan and hiking program up in the famous Lebanese cedars. “When we first came to Lebanon, we had dreamed about having kirtan programs in these special forests – forests that are so deeply connected to the Lebanese people. So when it actually happened, it was magical for us,” said Tulasi Bhava.
On the family front, the devotee couple is trying their best to raise their two daughters in Krishna Consciousness. “The lack of association makes it challenging, but we try to include them in our outreach activities and connect them to other devotees online,” said Tulasi Bhava, “In the past couple of years, Karuna, now age nine, has also been able to help us by leading kirtan regularly in our center.” Karuna is also well known to the Wisdom of the Sages podcast community. She’s a regular on their daily Zoom calls and often called upon by the hosts to cite slokas to the amazement of the many newer spiritual seekers who tune in. “Little Karuna simultaneously embodies girlhood innocence and the spiritual focus of a sage. Our podcast wouldn’t be the same without her daily presence,” said Kaustubha Das, co-host of the successful podcast, which is downloaded by 8-10,000 people daily. Host Raghunatha Das added, “The entire family is an inspiration, and Karuna is some magical being picking up where she left off from a previous life!”
“Things are still tough for us – financial instability, economic uncertainties, shortages of basic necessities of water and electricity,” reflected Prema Dhana, “but we simultaneously feel very blessed to have this opportunity to serve.”
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