A December 2011 trip to Cuba by ISKCON guru Bhaktimarga Swami has continued to increase and solidify the budding Krishna conscious congregation there.
ISKCON’s regional secretary for Cuba Ikshvaku Dasa, a native of Cuba who currently works as a school teacher in Miami, Florida, has been visiting the country on his own salary every summer since 1997. And since 2007, the congregation has seen a marked growth.
There are no ISKCON temples in Cuba. But in the capital city of Havana, thirty to forty people attend weekly programs at the home of congregation leader Janardana Dasa.
“Janardana, a disciple of Bhaktimarga Swami, is only twenty-three years old, and has been the congregation leader since he was nineteen,” Ikshvaku explains. “His wife and mother are also devotees, and have been worshiping ISKCON Cuba’s 1-foot tall Gaura Nitai Deities for the past five years. They are the heroes of the country.”
Meanwhile in Matanzas, a city one-and-a-half hour’s drive and about 100 kilometers to the East of Havana, around forty people attend programs run by congregation leader Harikeli Dasi.
Cuba is one of those few countries where ISKCON is still in those exciting, pioneering days. So far, there are only eight initiated devotees—four by Hridayananda Dasa Goswami, and four by Bhaktimarga Swami. And the society has not yet been legalized in the country, although Cuba’s Department of Justice is happy enough with the devotees’ cultural presentation of Krishna consciousness.
Bhaktimarga Swami initiates a new devotee
Bhaktimarga Swami visited this fresh new ground for the third time from December 22nd to December 28th last year; and, like a spiritual Santa Claus, the jovial Swami brought with him the Christmas present of Sri Krishna.
In Cuba, he met up with Ikshvaku Dasa and his wife Yashoda Dasi, who is an inspiration to the Cuban congregation, as it so far lacks many female members.
The trio traveled through Havana and some of the rest of the country, holding a variety of Krishna conscious programs and invigorating the Cuban devotees. Five or six programs with kirtan, prasadam and Bhagavad-gita discussion were held at favorable persons’ homes in Havana, while three were held in the city of Matanzas.
Bhaktimarga Swami leads Nine Devotions Workshop in Havana's Ecology Park
In Havana’s Ecology Park, Bhaktimarga Swami taught the Nine Devotions Workshop to a small, intrigued group. And at the Buena Vista Community Center, he introduced yoga, kirtan, and philosophy to around twenty newcomers.
“The women who were running the center got totally drawn in,” he says. “They loved it so much. Everywhere we go with Krishna consciousness in Cuba, it’s so well received. The people are just naturally Bhakti oriented.”
Meanwhile in a neighborhood in Eastern Havana, devotees participated in the Rastafarian cultural festival “Open Poetry.” Amongst guitarists, a children’s puppet show, and juggling clowns, the devotees chanted Hare Krishna while the locals danced and chanted along.
Colorful people are interested in the Harinama
“We’ve had a good relationship with the Rastafaris since they first invited us four years ago,” says Ikshvaku. “We’ve attended their event three times, and usually the whole neighborhood comes out for it.”
Since Bhaktimarga Swami’s visit, other devotees have made inroads in different ways. Recently Ilavati Dasi, who works in the Cuban government’s cultural department, got a permit to arrange a mantra meditation program at a rehabilitation center in a deprived Havana neighborhood. And in February this year, Vaishnava Dasa and his wife Janaki Dasi of Toronto, Canada, did a string of cooking demonstrations to teach Cuban devotees the art of traditional prasadam cooking—something still completely new to them.
“Everybody that goes there and gives them some attention gets lots of love!” says Bhaktimarga Swami, who is overflowing with praise for the Cuban people. He describes visiting Cuba as “a little like going back through a time machine.”
Cubans discover prasadam
“As a fifties child, it made me somewhat nostalgic,” he says. “It’s a part of the world where life is at a simpler, slower pace, and people aren’t all wired up with their Ipods yet. When you pass someone on the street, they say ‘Ola!’ and acknowledge you with a nod and a smile. They very much value each other’s company, and family is important. They’re a very loving people.”
The Cuban people’s response to Krishna consciousness is also refreshing.
“There’s a lot of apathy in the world today,” Bhaktimarga Swami says. “People are a little desensitized. But in Cuba, people were soaking it all in eagerly, enthusiastically—just like the early devotees did with Srila Prabhupada in New York.”
23 year old Havana Congregation Leader Janardana Dasa at installation of Cuba's Gaura Nitai Deities
ISKCON is poised to really take off in Cuba. Bhaktimarga Swami initiated one devotee, Arjavam Dasa, during his December visit, and six more are aspiring to receive initiation from him during his next annual visit.
Harikeli Dasi, a disciple of Hridayananda Dasa Goswami, is willing to donate her 17th century colonial house in Matanzas as Cuba’s first temple. People in Santiago De Cuba, the island’s Eastern-most city and second most populous with 1.3 million, are showing interest in Krishna consciousness, and devotees are planning to start a congregation there next summer. In the southern Cienfuegos, famous as one of the most beautiful cities in the country, there is already a congregation of devotees, who want to rebuild and donate a house to ISKCON. And in Havana, there is also a long term plan to buy a house to be used as a temple.
All these plans, however, are stunted by lack of funds.
“Salaries in Cuba are very low—most people earn between ten and fifteen US dollars a month,” says Ikshvaku. “So we are relying on the hope that foreign ISKCON members will donate towards our mission.”
Children fascinated by Krishna consciousness
Most urgent are the funds required to repair the Matanzas house and transform it into a beautiful temple and restaurant, which is expected to cost between $35,000 and $45,000.
Some help has already come. Murari Gupta Dasa, a Cuban doctor who lives in Miami, has been a great pillar of ISKCON Cuba’s development. And when Jyoti Svarupa Dasa of Texas heard that Harikeli Dasi, the owner of the Matanzas house, might have to sell it rather than donate it to the devotees because she couldn’t work due to bad health, he committed to give her monthly maintenance money from his own pocket so that she could continue with her plan to donate the house to ISKCON.
“I am very, very grateful to all those who have been helping us—both those I am aware of, and those I am not,” says Ikshvaku.
If enough people join them in stepping up to help, the next few years of ISKCON Cuba’s growth are bound to be very exciting indeed.
To contribute towards the Matanzas temple and other projects in ISKCON Cuba, please contact Ikshvaku Dasa at firstname.lastname@example.org.