At least in the Western World, the night of December 31st is a time for celebration and a chance to start again, a time to release unwanted old habits and to passionately pledge new resolutions that, to be honest, you probably won’t stick with past January. It’s a time of family and friends, of bells and fireworks ringing in the New Year, of hugs and kisses and felicitations all around, and too often also of bleary-eyed, drunken nights on the town followed by a head-splitting first day of the year.
But the celebration this December 31st at the ISKCON temple in Alachua, Florida—serving one of the world’s biggest Hare Krishna communities—traded such inebriation for spirituality, while holding on to the traditional friendly gathering and family spirit of New Year’s Eve.
“Devotees are also in the mood to celebrate and to be with family and friends on New Year’s Eve—it’s conditioned into every American,” says temple president Mukhya Dasi. “So we just Krishna-ized the event, and provided a clean, spiritual place for our congregation to gather. For us, doing some service for Krishna, and praying for continued service in the coming twelve months, is the ideal way to ring in the New Year.”
Following Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mandate for service in the modern age—chanting the holy names of God—devotees kicked off the celebration at 6:30pm with an arati ceremony and chanting by some of Alachua’s best bhajan singers.
Next, Vaishnava priest Krishna Svarupa invited all to circumambulate and offer grains into a sacrificial fire, in a ritual that symbolized releasing the negative and inviting in the prosperous and auspicious for the new year.
With second-generation ISKCON devotee Gaura-Shakti Dasa taking over the schedule at 9pm, the crowd of over 100 devotees gathered in a group japa meditation. As they sat together in the temple room and chanted 108 repetitions of the Hare Krishna mantra in unison, a powerful feeling of peace and deep spirituality pervaded the atmosphere.
As more bhajan songs followed the japa, devotees approached Radha-Shyamasundara’s altar to write their prayers or New Year’s resolutions on index cards and place them in a box. Later, they would be offered at the feet of Radhe-Shyam.
“Some make a prayer for the protection or spiritual advancement of their family, while others make New Year’s resolutions to increase their own devotional service,” says Mukhya.
She jokes, “And remember, as they’re being offered to the deities, you have to really follow them!”
Throughout the evening, various gifts were laid at Radha-Shyamasundara’s feet, while from 10pm, a light prasadam snack of hot pakoras and tomato chutney was served. The deities were presented with a special offering of sweets and cakes, while the chanting continued. More and more devotees flooded in to spend quality time with their spiritual family.
Finally, as the clock ticked towards 12:00am, Gaura Shakti took the mic, leading hundreds of voices in a countdown to the new year: “Ten, nine, eight, seven”¦” As they reached “one!” a sea of arms reached for the sky, and the voices roared as one: “Haribol!” (Chant the name of Lord Hari!)
Then it was time for Hare Krishna devotees to “party” as they do, singing the names of the Lord and dancing with vigorous enthusiasm.
Taking short breaks from the chanting, some lined up to offer candles to Radha-Shyamasundara and to receive a helmet blessed by Lord Krishna’s feet upon their heads. As the kirtan came to an end, the sweets and cake that had been offered to the Lord where passed out, and devotees finished the evening with a sacred snack, tired yet grinning from ear to ear.
“It was a perfect way to ring in what will be a truly exciting new year for Alachua residents,” Mukhya says. “In just the first half of 2010, we will be completing construction of a new deity kitchen, and installing the long-awaited new forms of Krishna Balarama for worship.”
Other ISKCON centers also celebrated the New Year Krishna-style. In Washington D.C. devotees immersed themselves in chanting, holding a 12-hour kirtan festival from 4.30pm on December 31st straight through to the 4:30am Mangala arati service the next day.
Farther afield in Ludhiana, India, congregational devotees packed into the temple hall to see the beautifully dressed deities of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra and to enjoy melodious kirtan. Enthusiastic chanting and dancing continued all the way from 6:30pm until midnight, when the first arati of the New Year was offered.
Meanwhile at ISKCON’s Juhu Beach temple, Mumbai, over 900 people attended a New Year’s event devotees had organized to provide the general public with a spiritual solution to partying. The program, covered by a nominal fee to discourage rowdy crowds, began at 8pm with games based on spiritual concepts including “Rare Human Birth,” “Picture Perfect,” “Archanam” and “Soul Matters.”
Audiences were kept absorbed with variety entertainment based around the theme of “Going back to Goloka Vrindavan,” followed by a quiz on the Bhagavad-gita As It Is and an inspiring lecture by a senior Vaishnava.
After tucking into a mouth-watering feast, the crowd danced into the New Year as local devotee group The Go-Pals rolled out foot-tapping melodies. And as with all ISKCON New Year’s celebrations, this one ended with chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra, as devotees and guests alike circumambulated the temple complex in a Harinam procession.
And so for devotees and friends of Krishna, 2010 looks like another joyful, hangover-free year serving the Lord.
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