for ISKCON News on Sept. 14, 2012
Photos by Radhanatha Jakupko
The mood was one of service and treasured memories, as a fifteen-person crew brought Krishna Camp and Krishna Kitchen back to the Nevada festival Burning Man this year for the first time since inspirational director Nitai Das’s passing.
Nitai left this world at only 31 years old when he was killed in a car crash in Florida on January 31st 2012, along with two other devotees, Yadupati Das and Bhakta Tim Carter.
But he will live on through his innovative outreach programs, which he launched in 2006 with assistant director Rasikananda Das.
Krishna Camp and its Krishna Kitchen grew from attempts by Radhanath Swami to reach Rainbow Gathering festivalgoers in the 1980s, and since Nitai’s involvement they have become a part of many major US festivals.
Burning Man, a week-long festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert celebrating community, art, self-expression and self-reliance, remains one of the biggest, drawing over 50,000 people.
With its own society eschewing commercialism in favor of service and bartering, the event, held in a huge purpose-built ‘city’, seems perfect for devotees to participate in.
Lord Vishnu with Jaya and Vijaya
This year, the Krishna Camp team included Nitai’s wife Mandali Dasi; his uncle Nityodita Das; operations manager Tukarama Das from Laguna Beach; interim director Rasikananda Das; Krishna Kitchen Manager Yudhistira Das from Los Angeles; head cook Puspavan Dasa from Washington DC; and book distributor Advaita Acharya Das from San Antonio, amongst others.
This year, as before, devotees partnered up with one of Burning Man’s major theme camps, a San Francisco-based DJ collective called Opulent Temple, to provide sanctified vegetarian food for them throughout the event.
Krishna Camp at Burning Man 2012 consisted of one twenty-foot wide hexa-yurt tent, which was used as a kitchen, and one 19’ x 30’ dining hall tent.
Made by Western Shelter, the tents—dust- and weather-proof, and used by the US Military during emergencies because of their industrial grade quality—were perfect for an event in the desert.
Setting Burning Man alight with Harinam
Meanwhile the kitchen tent was outfitted with professional cooking equipment including a 30-gallon tilting skillet, a Robot Coupe vegetable chopper, and a Blendtec blender. A 40’ refrigerated semi trailer kept the produce cold.
The Krishna Camp also included a prominent temple space on the Burning Man Esplanade, decorated with beautiful, painted, wood-cut pictures of Lord Vishnu and the heavenly gatekeepers Jaya and Vijaya.
Also delivering their mercy at Burning Man, were two different forms of the ever-popular Lords Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra. Yajna Narayana, the official ‘presideing Deity’ of Burning Man, depicted Jagannath emerging from a primordial sacrificial fire.
Joining Him were probably the world’s first 3D printed Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra Deities, made of a type of extruded plastic called ABS.
Chanting in the desert
Devotees arrived with this elaborate set-up a week before Burning Man’s start date on August 27th, and stayed until the festival’s conclusion on September 3rd.
“Every morning at sunrise, we would go out to the Burning Man temple, a beautiful construction designed by architect David Best that serves as a universal sacred space and a memorial for lost loved ones,” says Rasikananda. “There, we would chant japa, hold a mangal arati ceremony and kirtan, and invite people to come back to Krishna Kitchen to help us chop up vegetables and join us for lunch.”
The devotees would then serve out breakfast to members of the Opulent Temple theme camp, before cooking and serving lunch. After a break during the hottest part of the day, they would prepare and serve dinner until 9:30pm.
“We served 200 people from Opulent Temple a different ethnic cuisine—Mediterannean, Mexican, Caribbean, African, American, and Italian—every day,” says Rasikananda.
Besides this, Krishna Camp member Bhakta Michael from San Antonio would deliver extra prasadam to hungry people all over Black Rock City daily, transporting the meals on his bicycle and having regular inspirational encounters.
The Krishna Kitchen crew taking a rare meal break
One day, when he delivered prasadam to a Burning Man radio station, the staff, who happened to be Middle Eastern, were delighted to receive a couscous prasadam dish from Krishna Camp’s Mediterranean Menu.
But there was also another reason why they were happily surprised to see Michael. “We were just discussing a feel-good piece about someone doing charity work at Burning Man. And here you are!” they said.
Soon after, Bhakta Michael was featured on their show and in a peace-sign-shaped article in the Daily Playa, Burning Man’s newspaper, which is distributed all over Black Rock City.
ISKCON devotees brought their brand of peace to Burning Man not only through prasadam, but through chanting too.
Every evening, seasoned book distributor Advaita Acharya Das would use skills honed on the road to encourage festivalgoers to chant the Hare Krishna mantra.
Singing kirtan with a group of devotees outside their tent, he would call passersby over and ask where they were from. Whatever their answers, he would respond, “Oh, good, you qualify for a sixty-second mantra experience.”
Nitai's wife Mandali carries his photo in procession
Happy to spare sixty seconds, people would approach, whereupon he’d ask them, “Have any of you done meditation before? What about medication?”
Many would answer yes, as Burning Man is notorious for intoxication.
Advaita Acharya would then tell them, “We recommend meditation over medication for two reasons: it doesn’t cost you anything, and the only side effect is happiness.”
Passing out mantra cards, he would then call out the Hare Krishna mantra, and the group of people would respond loudly and enthusiastically. “Everybody’s smiling,” Advaita would say, looking around. “It works!”
He would then have them chant several more times, before telling them, “These cards are your certificates, and you are now certified mantra yogis. Anytime you want to be happy, please chant this Hare Krishna maha mantra.”
Every new ‘mantra yogi’ would then receive a walnut burfi sweet—the late Nitai’s signature dish—thousands of which had been sponsored for Krishna Kitchen by his mother.
Devotees carry Nitai's photo to the Burning Man temple for his memorial
“We also had a box set up outside our tent which read, ‘Free magic books,’ filled with Srila Prabhupada’s books Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Science of Self Realization, Beyond Birth and Death and Sri Isopanisad,” Rasikananda says. “People loved them so much that the box was always empty!”
Many festivalgoers also signed Krishna Camp’s guestbook, eager to stay in touch, while the Opulent Temple organizer Gina encouraged the entire camp to “Thank the devotees of Krishna!”
On the second-to-last day of the festival, the Krishna Camp crew held a special memorial for their beloved Nitai, carrying a Deity of Lord Narasimhadeva and a photo of Nitai in a kirtan procession to the Burning Man temple.
There, all the devotees, including Nitai’s wife Mandali Dasi, his uncle Nityodita Das, and Prabhupada disciple Puspavan Das, spoke, sharing memories of Nitai.
“We then sprinkled multi-colored Holi powders upon the picture of Nitai, each other, and many passersby who joined in, while doing kirtan,” says Rasikananda. “We then served out a feast to everyone. It was a very joyous celebration of Nitai’s life and contribution.”
Throwing Holi powder in celebration of Nitai's colorful life
All in all, Rasikananda feels that this year’s Burning Man was a great success for Krishna Camp, and the perfect way to remember Nitai.
“We all banded together as a family and worked very well together,” he says. “And we all felt Nitai’s presence very strongly—we knew he was there with us, on the other side of the curtain of material vision.”
While it will take some reorganization, the Krishna Camp Crew plan on continuing the project in Nitai’s absence and in his memory. A new website, krishnacamp.com, will be launched within the next month, and will invite people to register and participate in next year’s Burning Man.
Krishna Camp hopes to continue the Holi celebration it introduced at Nitai’s memorial this year, turning it into a Burning Man tradition.
And within the next few years, devotees hope to register their own camp, facilitating them to distribute prasadam to Burning Man’s 50,000 plus population on a much larger scale.
“It’s so nice to spend time with people as they learn to appreciate Krishna consciousness the way we have learned to appreciate it,” says Rasikananda. “As my guru Radhanath Swami said, ‘It’s very important that devotees come to these festivals to share the gifts that we have received from Srila Prabhupada and Lord Krishna, for the upliftment of humanity.’”