Tivon and Cheyenne are an African American couple in their mid-twenties. She works in a steakhouse, and he’s in marketing. Cybil, in her fifties, is a real estate agent. Jorge is a student. Lauren is a professor of music at Towson University. Maria is retired from her government agency job. Ravi is doing his postdoc in medicine at John Hopkins. Kate is a nurse and a Buddhist. And Henna works on a horse farm.
They’re as diverse a group as possible, but they all have one thing in common: they’re all regular attendees at the recently re-opened Bhakti Lounge in Baltimore.
Lokadhyaksha Das and his wife Vidarbha Suta Dasi, who run the Lounge, are genuinely interested in people. And people are interested in them.
They meet people at the many vegetarian and street festivals where they sell prasadam and books – including D.C. VegFest, Baltimore Vegan SoulFest, LatinoFest, and Columbia Street Festival.
“At VegFest, there was a continuous line of 25 or 30 people throughout the day for our vegan ‘hot dogs’ and samosas,” says Vidarbha-Suta, whose booths also sell Srila Prabhupada’s books. “Many want to know more, so we take their information and send them invitations to our programs.”
At Vegan SoulFest, Vidarbha recalls, while one person was writing down their information, two or three others would appear to do the same. “We told one lady, ‘We have never seen the kind of enthusiasm for spiritual knowledge that we see here in the Baltimore area.’ She replied, ‘It’s the only way we can survive.’”
From these interactions, Lokadhyaksha and Vidarbha have built a pool of 750 people on their page at Meetup.com, a website where people can find weekly gatherings for things they’re interested in.
Newcomers respond positively to Srila Prabhupada’s purports
Originally the gatherings were held in a tiny space – barely more than a shed. Since being restarted in October, however, the Bhakti Lounge’s home has been a handsome, two-storey residential house with a wrap-around porch and comfortable furnishings, located near the ISKCON Baltimore temple in Catonsville, Maryland.
“We wanted to create a really welcoming space where people would feel at home,” Vidarbha says.
Many people who come to the Bhakti Lounge previously purchased either Prabhupada’s books or his biography at Lokadhyaksha and Vidarbha’s booth and asked questions. The Lounge meetings every Sunday are a chance for them to delve deeper.
To guide group members, the couple have come up with a system they call “Sutra to Samadhi.” Taking various sutras often used by Srila Prabhupada – such as “raso vai sah” (Krishna is the reservoir of pleasure); “aham brahmasmi” (I am spirit soul); and “athato brahma jijnasa” (now is the time to enquire about the absolute truth) – they use them as launching pads into sections of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Isopanisad or Bhagavad-gita where Prabhupada discusses them.
This creates dynamic focus points to study Prabhupada’s books through. “It’s really, really exciting,” Vidarbha says. “People are really liking it.”
At each meeting, members also have a kirtan, chant one round of japa together, and then chat while tucking into delicious prasadam.
“It’s so powerful to see the impact reading Prabhupada’s purports has on people,” says Vidarbha. “One lady told us, ‘At first, just the word Krishna made me so uncomfortable. I really fought the idea of a personal God. But it’s just so freaking true that I cannot fight it anymore!’ Another girl said, ‘When I hear all of this, nothing comes to me as a surprise. It all seems so obvious. But then I look outside and realize, ‘Wow, so many people don’t even think about these things!’”
The Bhakti Lounge uses philosophical sutras as launching pads into Prabhupada’s purports
Some people do struggle with different philosophical concepts or statements in Prabhupada’s books. But, Vidarbha says, there’s almost always something that connects with their hearts. And sometimes statements the devotees think will be problematic are not.
“In one passage, Prabhupada compares modern education to a dead body that’s covered with decorations, as they are in Indian funeral processions,” recalls Vidarbha. “But people didn’t seem to think it was too heavy a comparison. They actually resonated with it!”
Next, Bhakti Lounge will release a ‘Sutra to Samadhi’ book, with a different sutra on each page. Decorated with elaborate borders and handpainted sketches, it will be made available to everyone who wants to study at the Bhakti Lounge.
In the future, Lokadhyaksha and Vidarbha-Suta hope to encourage members to start sangas in their own neighborhoods with the people in their circles.
“Already, some of them have attended festivals at our ISKCON Baltimore temple and engaged in distributing books and prasadam,” Lokadhyaksha says. “They’ve also helped cook prasadam at the temple which we then distribute at homeless shelters – that’s something we hope to increase too.”
Vidarbha is convinced that it is Prabhupada’s words that have touched people’s hearts and inspired them to do this service.
“I remember how when we restarted the Bhakti Lounge after a long time, there were tears in people’s eyes,” she says. “It’s amazing for us to see how powerful the knowledge that Prabhupada has given us is.”
Jan 22, 2022
Sunanda Das, tovp.org