From left to right - Balaram Hari das (president of George Washington Raaja Yoga Club, Vrinda devi dasi, Sankirtan Yagna Das and Jahnavi devi dasi
Festival of India (FOI), the transcendental roadshow that has been putting on spiritual fairs across the USA and Canada every summer since 1979, is coming to college campuses in Washington D.C. and Virginia this spring.
FOI’s familiar red, yellow, blue and green tents will brighten up The Quad at Washington D.C.’s American University on April 12th; Hornblake Plaza at the University of Maryland, College Park on May 2nd and 3rd; and Kogan Plaza at George Washington University on May 6th.
The festival will also come to the Quad at the University of Maryland, Baltimore on May 7th; the Johnson Center Plaza at George Mason University on May 9th; and Virgnia Commonwealth University on May 10th.
Five thousand students are expected to attend each day and learn about the Vedic culture of ancient India.
“College kids find Festival of India so much fun, because there are so many exciting activities going on,” says Jahnavi Dasi, who will help arrange the event for Festival of India director Madhuha Das along with other devotees from the ISKCON temple in Potomac, Maryland.
In one tent, students will be entertained with classical devotional dance, dramas on the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, and interactive kirtans. In another, they’ll experience mantra meditation while chanting on beads. They will also be able to learn from exhibits about vegetarianism, the life of ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada, and the eternal nature of the soul.
“In one tent, girls will have fun trying on a sari, bangles, and bindi dots,” Jahnavi says. “In another, people will get to watch live cooking demonstrations. They’ll also be able to browse the Vedic fashions in the outdoor shopping tent, watch movies in the Vedic theater, and learn yoga in the yoga demonstration tent.”
Students will also be able to peruse and purchase Srila Prabhupada’s books. And they’ll get to tuck into a sumptuous vegetarian feast including yellow basmati rice with cashews, curd and pea subji in tomato sauce, and pineapple halava.
While Festival of India is most well-known for integrating with Rathayatra events around the country, its appearances at universities have become steadily more popular and have had a major impact on campus life.
Festival of India first came to the University of Maryland in 1981, igniting years of college outreach and inspiring many students to become Krishna devotees.
But it didn’t return until recently.
In 2009, Jahnavi’s mother Karunamayi Dasi, a veteran of the Potomac temple, met Festival of India’s Madhuha Das and shared her memories of the 1981 festival. She talked about what a positive effect it had had and implored him to return again.
Madhuha responded that he would bring Festival of India back to the University of Maryland if the D.C. devotees made the required reservations and arrangements.
Immediately, Jahnavi pitched the idea to University of Maryland officials. She explained how Festival of India would contribute to the campus community, appeal to a wide audience and bring opportunities for cultural and social exchange.
The University agreed, and ISKCON Potomac devotees acquired the relevant permits and began inviting Festival of India every spring semester in April/May, and every fall semester in September/October.
This year’s event will be the University of Maryland’s eighth Festival of India. As each year has gone by, other universities in the area have come on board too.
And the effect of Festival of India on them is magical.
For a start, the festival is excellent advertising for the Bhakti Yoga and Bhagavad-gita clubs that D.C. devotees have established in all six universities that FOI will be coming to this spring.
Students on their way to class often stop at Festival of India, drawn by the sights, sounds and smells, and taste prasadam, join in a kirtan or look through a book by Srila Prabhupada. Then, upon learning that there are free vegetarian dinners, Bhagavad-gita classes, kirtan, and cooking classes every week at their university, they join their local Bhakti Yoga club.
“Big advertising campaigns help companies with marketing their products,” says college preacher Sankirtan Yajna Das. “We’ve noticed that Festival of India is our best advertisement for our weekly clubs, due to the dramatic increase we have observed in students attending our weekly Bhagavad-Gita classes on campus.”
“In the beginning, we used to just have twenty-five students coming to our weekly programs,” adds Vrinda Dasi, who helps arrange the Bhagavad-gita club at the University of Maryland, College Park. “But ever since we’ve invited Festival of India, we have been having 450 sincere students each week.”
Personal stories abound which illustrate Festival of India’s impact. One young man took a copy of the cookbook The Higher Taste while attending a Festival. When he returned the next semester, he had become a vegetarian.
Engineering major Joe Mattriciani, art major Ingrid Berberry, and pre-med student Jake Lee all began chanting sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna maha mantra daily and following the four regulative principals of Krishna consciousness.
And student Danielle Lella, who recently graduated with her degree in environmental science, took initiation in Gaudiya Vaishnavism after attending Festival of India and received the name Rasika Manjari Dasi.
Festival of India has even had an impact on university faculty. After appreciating the event and encouraging devotees to hold it every semester, University of Maryland, Baltimore professor Dr. Larry Wilt visited the holy place of Varanasi in India and became a vegetarian. He was also delighted to learn that the Baltimore ISKCON temple was just a couple of miles from the campus. Today, the UMBC shuttle bus takes students to the temple for free.
“Festival of India really apeals to college kids,” says Jahnavi. “They are at that age when they are most inquisitive about life and are learning. They are more open-minded at this age. Once they taste Krishna consciousness, they appreciate it very much.”
Jahnavi encourages other temples around North America to invite Festival of India to their location too—all they have to do is start a Krishna conscious club at their local college campus.
Meanwhile, with six Bhakti Yoga clubs in their area already, Washington D.C. devotees plan to expand the program, bringing the University of D.C. and Howard University on board in the coming fall semester.
“We’re just increasing more and more,” Jahnavi says. “It’s so fun!”