Thursday, May 7, Alachua, Florida -- I settled down on my narrow bunk, people around me stacked in three tiers like tightly packed stowaways and beginning to snore. It wasn’t a five-star hotel, but it was comfortable enough -- and ISKCON Youth Ministry’s Krishna Culture Festival Tour bus was definitely the way to travel. Soon the hum of the road would send me to sleep, and save for a bit of tossing and turning, I’d stay that way for at least half of our sixteen-hour journey.
Besides, a few nights away from my comfortable, stationary bed at home would be more than worth it. This was my first visit to Festival of Inspiration in New Vrindaban, West Virginia—an ISKCON institution and one of the most popular events of the year.
The first, unofficial festival was held in 2000, when Sudharma Dasi of ISKCON Women’s Ministry suggested extending New Vrindaban’s annual GBC/temple president meetings to include educational seminars and workshops. The next year, ISKCON Communications’ then secretary Citralekha Dasi coined the name Festival of Inspiration, and became involved in running the event along with IC director Anuttama Dasa, Kuladri Dasa and Malati Dasi, who is now the main organizer.
Although the first official festival in 2001 drew less than 200 attendees, nearly 800 participated last year and a similar crowd was expected this year. Along with the excitement of seeing old friends and making new ones, was the prospect of 34 seminars and workshops, as well as two nights of entertainment.
Daydreaming, I dozed off, despite the surround-sound snores.
Friday, May 8, New Vrindaban, West Virginia -- After a dizzying ride up winding mountain roads, we arrived at New Vrindaban around 1:30pm. Local residents waved with a smile, seeming mildly wary at the sight of a huge bus full of youth. The festival runs from Friday morning till Sunday afternoon, so things were already in full swing, with a sizeable crowd — some in traditional dhotis and saris, some in an eclectic mix of western and Indian clothing, the odd hippie type — milling about the large white Main Stage tent. As lunch was being served there between 1:00 and 2:30pm, my fiancée Manjari and I ate, said hi to a few friends, and then went our separate ways, agreeing to meet up later.
I decided to launch straight into the jam-packed seminar schedule. I had already missed session 1 of the day, which included Romapada Swami’s “The Currency of Relationships.” So I scanned the schedule for session 2. With 3 – 4 varied options in each session, choosing is tough, but in the end I headed for Sri Mridanga with Bhima Karma Dasa.
The teacher was a second generation devotee who has been studying this traditional clay drum from Bengali guru Bablu Dasa Mahashoy for ten years, yet amazingly says he still has a lot to learn. He was tall and red-haired, with an open, smiling face and a gentle demeanor, and seemed genuine and likeable. As he spoke about how Gaudiya Vaishnava kirtan (singing and playing instruments) originated from the 15th century saints Shrinivas, Narottam and Shyamananda, his voice choked with emotion and his eyes teared up. He apologized for “getting emotional” and blamed it on not getting enough sleep the night before, but seemed genuinely moved by what was obviously a huge part of his life and meant everything to him. Discussing the legacy that these great saints had left us, and the structure and etiquette of traditional kirtan, he explained that he was on a mission to educate and enrich ISKCON’s kirtan standards. He then taught some basic mridanga mantras, or beats, before almost shyly demonstrating his own formidable skills on the drum.
Aptly, it was an inspiring start to the festival. Of course, if you weren’t interested in mridanga, there were a wide variety of other options. Some had learned The Fine Art of Deity Dressing with Maharha Dasi. Manjari had decided to spend the session catching up with friends and getting free “gopi dots,” a type of traditional face painting, applied by a girl named Mercy who had simply set up under a tree. Others had attended a class on Mehndi, another type of traditional Indian body art often used to decorate brides.
For me, it was back-to-back music classes—myself and Manjari both decided to take The Musical Aspect of Kirtan with Mitrasena Dasa for our next one and a half-hour session. Full of character and quirky humor, Mitrasena is on a similar mission to Bhima Karma—to improve kirtan in ISKCON. His approach, however, is less traditional, and this session was fantastic fun. After discussing musicality and awareness, Mitra organized a multi-instrumental jamming session with his audience. Included in the immersive experience were guitar, harmonium, mridanga, kartals, flute, bass, cello, and his own surprisingly melodious instrument made out of what looked like a piece of a wood and a tin can, the “Mitratar.”
A slightly dubious dinner of confusingly sweet pasta followed, after which devotees attended the arati service in New Vrindaban’s breathtaking temple room. Then it was time for the first night of entertainment on the Main Stage, a famous staple of Festival of Inspiration.
The show began slowly with some cute recitation and dances by local children. Students from Alachua’s Bhakti-Kalalayam Dance Academy were up next, performing traditional Bharat-Natyam. Their spirited and professional routine to a track from As Kindred Spirits new kirtan album Ten Million Moons brought the crowd to life, a vibe which vivacious MC Siki-Mahiti Dasa did his best to retain in between acts.
The comedy stylings of professional improv performer Yadhunatha and his wife Beth, up next, were easily the highlight of the evening. Their first sketch depicted a devotee turning the tables on a telemarketer who has called his temple and selling her a book. The second portrayed a guest visiting a temple and enquiring about Krishna consciousness throughout history—in the modern day, in Shakespearean era England, in the Wild West, in the 1970s, and in the 1990s. Both sketches skewered many ISKCON quirks and flaws—for instance, the modern day devotee responding to a visitor’s asking “Do you think you are the only ones with all the answers?” replied, “No, I am lower than the straw in the street,” whereas the 1970s devotee answered the same question with, “Yes! And all the others are rascals!” Throughout, the crowd were in stitches, proving that today’s ISKCON has the maturity to be able to laugh at itself.
The show also appealed to its audience’s faith—when the Shakespearean devotee called out “Oh Krishna, Krishna! Wherefore art thou?” people laughed, but also applauded, appreciating that this was the right sentiment for a devotee of God.
As Yadunath descended the stage however, things took a downhill turn. Although musicians Ekendra Dasa and Titiksava Karunika were both scheduled to end the evening’s show with a bang, neither showed up, and instead a talented yet down-tempo group delivered an instrumental sent. With no vocals and no audience participation, the energy faded, and the audience quickly left, opting instead to have a wild kirtan in the nearby bhajan mandala.
Saturday, May 9 -- The day began with my biggest regret of the festival—that I was still in bed instead of being at ISKCON film-maker Yadubara’s presentation “Impossible Is A Word In A Fool’s Dictionary.” One of the most well-attended of the event, it began with an exclusive of Yadubara’s latest “Following Srila Prabhupada” film. Dravida Dasa, Devamrita Swami, and Ramesvara Dasa then recalled their successful 1975 endeavor to fulfill Prabhupada’s “impossible” request to create, from scratch, 17 volumes of Chaitanya-Charitamrita in two months.
“The artists would stay up all night painting,” Ramesvara told an enraptured audience. “They knew that if they went to sleep, someone else would finish their canvas, so many just didn’t sleep at all.” When Malati concluded the presentation by reading out a letter from Prabhupada saying that everyone who worked on the project would go back to Krishna, the crowd burst into enthusiastic applause. I can only think that if I hadn’t slept at all, my life might have been richer from attending this presentation.
Regrets aside, however, the day was still a busy one for me. Immediately after a delicious breakfast I headed off to see the festival’s “Mystery Presenter,” whose identity I’d only heard rumors of minutes before. I had no idea what to expect, but when I entered the venue I saw that it was New Vrindaban’s biggest conference hall, and that it was packed to bursting point. Positive now that this was not to be missed, I sat down. Sure enough, the presentation was revealing, educational, entertaining, and extremely moving. And if you’re gritting your teeth by now, sorry! I am under oath not to tell you who the presenter was. All I can say is that hopefully if you attend Festival of Inspiration next year, they will feature another high quality Mystery Man (or Woman).
Manjari, meanwhile, was learning Danda Yoga from the amusingly monikered Yoga Dave. This lesser-known yoga utilizes sticks, which represent one’s spine, and involves floor exercises, standing exercises, and unique breathing techniques. Again, this highlighted the variety on offer at Festival of Inspiration, with attendees standing barefoot on the grass outside for a truly naturistic, grounding experience.
For session 2 of the day, Manjari and I both attended Seeking Spiritual India with Srinandanandana Dasa, known on his many acclaimed books as Stephen Knapp. His colorful slideshow depicted many holy places, with a special focus on the Himalayas, and was accompanied by a commentary full of fascinating facts. Other options during the session included Romapada Swami’s Spiritual Economics and Homeschooling with Aruddha Dasi and her son Radhika Ramana Dasa.
After an excellent lunch—the cooks had really gotten into their stride by now—we attended the first annual Vaishnava Marriage and Family Fest. Hosted by the Grihasta Vision Team, a group dedicated to improving relationships and attitudes towards family life in ISKCON, the event included an option of three seminars: Parenting as Devotional Service, How to Choose the Right Mate, or The 4 Danger Signs of Dysfunctional Relationships. Since we are not parents yet and have already found the right mate, we took the third option, and were glad we did. Husband and wife team and professional marriage counselors Karnamrita and Arcana Siddhi did an insightful and entertaining job of helping us recognize potential problems before they happen.
Other classes during this session included Distribute Srila Prabhupada’s Books While You Sleep —a talent I’d be intrigued to learn—and Europe’s Most Developing Sustainable Eco Village, which Manjari’s dad attended and thoroughly enjoyed. Hosted by Radha Krishna Dasa, the colorful Power Point presentation introduced the audience to Hungary’s Krishna Valley, known as Eco Valley to outsiders. Under the direction of Sivarama Swami, it has been active for 16 years, with 130 – 150 current residents. It is completely “off the grid—”only four buildings have electricity, which is produced through solar panels. The community produce the majority of their food on nine of the several hundred acres they own, using mostly ox power to plow their fields. The project is also an astoundingly successful outreach effort, with over 30,000 tourists visiting every year.
For our final session of the day, Manjari and I decided to continue with part two of The Vaisnava Marriage & Family Fest. Kicking off proceedings, comedian Yadunath made an unexpected appearance with his sketch “Who Wants to be A Grihasta?” Posing as the presenter of a gameshow with his wife Beth as the contestant, he offered up some belly laughs as usual, mixed in with some wise lessons on healthy relationships. To wrap up, a panel of youth discussed their impressions of grihasta (married) life, after which presenters honored a number of couples for their healthy and long-lasting marriages.
Saturday evening’s entertainment proved five-star, more than making up for the shortcomings of the night before. A special treat for the kids (and childish adults) came in the form of Neat-Tie the Clown, who told the entire story of Krishna and Kaliya using only expertly manipulated balloons to create the figures.
Next, renowned ISKCON “rock star” Titiksava Karunika did finally take to the stage with his Nam Rock band, delivering a stomping good, sing-along set. My only complaint was that the audience remained sitting, too self-conscious too dance—and I was too self conscious to be the only one!
The evening—and the entire Festival’s entertainment—ended with a bang, with Bhakti Marg Swami’s incredible play portraying the birth of Krishna, “The Eighth Boy.” The audience sat transfixed as terrifying demons, moving dramatic scenes, and multi-cast choreographed dances stormed the stage. As the final wave of applause faded away, I could feel a distinct sense of satisfaction permeate the tent.
Sunday, May 10 -- On this morning I made sure to wake up early, and was glad I did. Highlighting the fact that it was Mother’s Day, Radhanath Swami’s class focused on what aspiring spiritualists can learn from a mother’s selfless service, with highly inspirational results.
Two more sessions of varied seminars lead to a delicious multi-course feast and emotional goodbyes as everyone said farewell to friends new and old. As I boarded the bus for Alachua, organizer Malati’s words to me rang true.
“People’s lives change at every moment,” she said. “But Festival of Inspiration offers sustainable, positive changes.”
Malati hopes to continue developing the Festival to new levels, explaining that the biggest current problem is a lack of professional facilities for presentations. In the future, she says, Festival organizers hope to build a dedicated auditorium with adjacent conference rooms, although funds are yet to be raised.
Next year will see Festival of Inspiration celebrate its 10th anniversary, and will probably be the biggest event yet. Until then, inspiration-seekers can tide themselves over with New Vrindaban’s 24 Hour Kirtan Festival, held from June 20-21.