On February 18th, Nityananda Trayodasi, the ISKCON Desire Tree network of websites celebrated seventeen years of serving the Vaishnavas worldwide – and looked forward to new endeavors.
The seed of the ambitious project was planted as far back as 1987, when Vaishnava Seva Das, then a just-joined devotee still in medical school, was taking care of the sound system and media at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai.
“I always felt great pleasure in helping other devotees get Krishna consciousness,” he says. “When there was a class going on, I would record audio cassette tapes, and distribute it to those who weren’t able to attend.”
In 1994, Vaishnava Seva, then a surgeon, had to leave his media engagement to oversee construction of the then brand new Bhaktivedanta Hospital. But the service was still close to his heart, and so he ensured that every room at the hospital had a speaker with two channels where patients and staff could hear Srila Prabhupada’s lectures and kirtan 24 hours a day.
In 1998, because devotees at the hospital were missing the regular classes at Chowpatty temple, Vaishnava Seva began to broadcast the lectures live via phone line, as there was no Internet in India in those days.
Vaishnava Seva Das and his wife Kalindi Dasi greet Radhanath Swami at the ISKCON Desire Tree office
When the one hundred or so families living around Bhaktivedanta Hospital got word, they wanted in – so he connected them all too, via an audio cable network.
Soon, devotees in other parts of Mumbai began to ask if they could also be part of the famous network. On Nityananda Trayodasi in 2002, when Internet in India was still very poor and it took three to five minutes to download a 10MB file, Vaishnava Seva started his first website, iskcondesiretree.com.
“I began uploading Chowpatty lectures, then lectures from other Guru Maharajas and devotee speakers,” he says. “At first, there was a lot of resistance. In those days, there were tape ministries for each guru, and the devotees who ran them would sell tapes and CDs and didn’t want to give them away for free. So I would place bulk orders with them, in order to get permission to host the audio lectures.”
Vaishnava Seva began adding music, images with an inspirational quotes, videos and devotional comics to his website.
As the site grew and grew, he turned his apartment into offices, then purchased the neighboring apartment to expand the workspace.
Staff photo with Bhakti Brihad Bhagavatamrita Swami
Today, ISKCON Desire Tree is a large network of over fifty-five websites, some for ISKCON gurus, some for temples, and some for various different services – all created and maintained by the same team.
That team is now thirty-six devotee employees, working full-time at ISKCON Desire Tree for a salary. Vaishnava Seva Das, working long days as a surgeon at Bhaktivedanta Hospital – often from 8am to 9:30 at night – keeps in constant touch with them in between operations, via webcams and mobile chat. He also develops all new projects before handing them over to the team.
And there are a lot projects to develop. At least 12,000 audio tracks are downloaded from the site daily; its Youtube channel, featuring darshans, lectures and music gets 150,000 to 200,000 views every day. Desire Tree has its own audio recording studio and produces bhajans. It runs and hosts online courses for devotees including Bhakti Sastri, the ISKCON Disciple Course, and e-counseling programs. It also hosts live steaming broadcasts from ISKCON Mumbai’s Chowpatty, Juhu and Mira Road temples.
Its latest project sees ISKCON Desire Tree moving into a whole new arena: television. Vaishnava Seva has created a dedicated video recording studio and on Janmastami 2016 launched Hare Krishna TV, the first 24/7 Hare Krishna television channel. Broadcast on cable networks in India, it aims not for devotees but for the general public and reaches an astonishing 30 million people.
The channel shows live aratis from ISKCON temples five times a day; lectures in Hindi during the day and in English at night; kirtans; festivals; and has produced over 350 episodes of its own vegetarian cooking show. As well as cable, it is also shown on OTT platforms, including many smartphone apps and Youtube.
Staff with Kavi Chandra Swami during their Youtube medal celebrations
Looking to the future, Vaishnava Seva and his team say their main focus will move away from websites and towards television and social media preaching. Already, they are engaging thousands of devotees in their 250 or so Whatsapp groups on different topics.
“Mobile phone traffic is huge, compared to computer traffic,” Vaishnava Seva says. “So we are spending more time on social networks and chat platforms, spreading the glories of the Holy Name.”
It’s all exciting stuff, but help is needed. Despite common misconceptions, ISKCON Desire Tree is not funded by Chowpatty temple, but by Vaishnava Seva Das himself and his wife Kalindi Dasi, who work very hard at Bhaktivedanta Hospital as a surgeon and anesthesiologist respectively and put nine out of ten rupees towards Prabhupada’s mission.
“So as we reach seventeen years, we want to put the message out there and ask if anyone wants to donate,” he says. “We’re not expecting big donations – but so many thousands of devotees are using our sites, that if they simply give $5, $10 or $50 per month, then with their support we can do so many more things.”
As far as he’s concerned, Vaishnava Seva continues to give everything he has to his service. “This life is temporary, and we’re not going to carry anything with us when we leave,” he says. “So while we have whatever physical, mental and financial facility Krishna has given us, we just want to give it back to Krishna. It’s a token of our appreciation and love for what we have received as mercy from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Srila Prabhupada and our gurus.”
To donate, please visit https://donate.iskcondesiretree.com/[ chowpatty ] [ desire ] [ iskcon ] [ tree ]