Like many ISKCON programs today, the University of Southern California’s Bhakti Club drew mainly people with an Indian background who were already familiar with the tennets of Krishna consciousness.
But a new rebranding and a broader vision based on building relationships has seen a flood of Western students who can’t get enough.
Behind the innovative effort is Jaya Chaitanya Das, 30, a former hip-hop producer who is now ISKCON’s top book distributor in the U.S.
At the behest of Los Angeles temple president Svavasa Das, Jaya Chaitanya applied for and received the position of Chaplain for Bhakti Yoga and Meditation at USC, under Dean of Religion Varun Soni.
He then set up a booth at USC’s recent “Club Week,” where about ninety clubs on campus competed for students’ registrations.
Using the rather more chill moniker “JC Das,” Jaya Chaitanya called his group “USC Music Meditation Club.” (“Western students don’t really know what Bhakti means,” he says.) Soon, he began to attract attention. Meeting people face to face and making friends first made a big difference too.
“Out of the ninety clubs there, our table was the most popular – everyone was flocking to check out what we had to offer,” he says. “That day, we collected over 400 emails, and many people took books by Srila Prabhupada as well.”
The first Music Meditation Club – now held every Monday – drew over fifty Western students completely new to Krishna consciousness. The second, despite being on the Labor Day holiday, drew over eighty, packing out the space provided.
Aiming to revolutionize the typical ISKCON presentation, the Club is certainly different from what we’ve come to expect. Jaya Chaitanya begins with a guided breathing meditation soundtracked by soothing nature sounds in which he introduces concepts of compassion and gratitude.
He then explains the philosophy of Bhakti in a very accessible way. “I talk about how our heart is originally in a liquid state, flowing and full of love,” he says. “But because this world is so cold and harsh, our heart becomes cold and hard too. But through the fire of mantra we can melt it and bring it back to its original state.”
Jaya Chaitanya also says that mantra can help us become more aware of our connection with the Greater Whole, and see ourselves as little instruments. And using the words of the boy devotee Prahlad Maharaja, he explains that there is no enemy in this world but our own uncontrolled mind.
Each meeting also includes a kirtan, with Madhuri Pura Das leading the first one. “Students were really into it, chanting ‘Haribol, ‘Nitai Gauranga’ and ‘Hare Krishna,’” says Jaya Chaitanya. “We also passed out mantra cards explaining what the maha-mantra means.”
Rather than kichari or a Sunday Feast type meal, each meeting ends with incredible vegan desserts made by a professional chef, adding a modern touch. Of course, they’re prasadam.
“Afterwards, the students don’t want to leave,” Jaya Chaitanya says. “At the first meeting everything officially finished at 9pm, but they kept wanting to hang out after 9:30. Many said they would bring a friend next time and couldn’t wait to come back. People were volunteering for positions in the club like secretary, treasurer and vice president.”
Youthful Jaya Chaitanya has a finger on the pulse of students’ interests – self-published author and film-maker Koi Fresco, who has 25 million Youtube views, has already spoken to the club, while X Factor star and musician Drew Chadwick participated. Both are interested in and favorable towards Bhakti Yoga. Others, such as Youtube star Kev Jumba and hip-hop artist KRS ONE – who both find inspiration in Prabhupada’s teachings -- will be invited for future events.
Of course, well-known speakers from the Hare Krishna Movement will also visit, with Devamrita Swami and Radhanath Swami signed up for next year. And as soon as next week, Tukaram Das, owner of Ahimsa Cafe, president of Laguna Beach temple, and founder of ISKCON’s Escondido Farm will give a talk on “mindful eating.”
Future meetings will include cooking classes and an introduction to offering food.
But Jaya Chaitanya wants to take “baby steps” with club members, connecting to them as friends and beginning by sharing topics they can already relate to, such as the environment, vegetarianism and interfaith. He also uses panel discussions, which he says are very ‘in’ these days, as opposed to the old-school method of one person giving a ‘lecture.’
“I don’t want the mood of ‘Hey, we’re the teachers and we’re going to tell you how it is,” he says. “I just want to make friends with people and be a service to them. Because they’re going through mid-terms and finals, their parents are putting a lot of pressure on them, they’ve got boyfriend/girlfriend issues – they’re under a lot of stress.”
He gives an example: “Imagine you’re in line to buy a donut, and there’s a very overweight guy in front of you buying like 13 donuts. And you tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, I don’t think you should eat all those.’ He’s going to turn around and be like, ‘Man, who the hell do you think you are to tell me that?’ But if you build a friendship with him and you have that connection, then you can express that. On the other hand, if there’s no connection or friendship, you can’t tell people what to do. You can only truly motivate people when there’s love.”
His approach is clearly appreciated, with many students saying the Music and Meditation Club is exactly what they have been looking for.
“I’m so happy, it was amazing,” one student, clearly giddy, says in a cell phone video filmed just after the last meeting. “I feel like a new person. I loved the mantra, and how we all connected as one, and chanted together, creating positive vibes for all.” She and her friend then chant the Hare Krishna mantra aloud.
With the space already maxed out and a plan to rent out auditoriums for future meetings, it looks like the only way is up for the USC Music Meditation Club.[ california ] [ usc ]