on Sept. 10, 2011
Over 1,000 pilgrims visited New Vrindaban this September 3rd, 4th and 5th for a special Labor Day Festival that has been a tradition at the rural ISKCON community for more than a decade.
The crowd that converged in the rolling green hills of West Virginia included ISKCON devotees, members of the Indian community, and spiritual searchers from Toronto, Columbus, Detroit, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., Chicago, and North Carolina.
“Labor Day marks the end of our peak festival season, which has been running since spring,” says Jaya Krishna Dasa, who retired this March from his position as administrative director for Bhaktivedanta College in Radhadesh, Belgium to serve as the New Vrindaban temple president. “It’s also when we invite all the
Janmastami Kalash donors we weren’t able to host during that festival. So it’s a major celebration.”
Making it an even bigger celebration than usual, however, was the fact that this year Radhastami, the appearance day of Lord Krishna’s consort Srimati Radharani, fell on Labor Day weekend.
The festival schedule was the same on both Saturday and Sunday, although Sunday, being Radhastami, included some special features and surprises.
Radhastami morning began, of course, with Mangala arati at 4:30am, after which devotees chanted the Hare Krishna mantra on their japa beads.
“As we do every weekend, we also gave our guests a fifteen-minute introduction to japa, chanted one round with them, and invited them to stay and continue chanting with us,” says Jaya Krishna.
After Guru-puja at 7:30am, devotees greeted the Deities of Sri-Sri Radha-Vrindabanchandra, Gaura-Nitai, Gopal-Nathji, and Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra, who were all dressed in exquisite outfits made entirely out of flowers. Next, both resident sannyasi Varshana Swami and story-teller Sankirtana Dasa enlightened and entertained devotees with descriptions of Srimati Radharani’s endless qualities and pastimes.
Later, after lunch, a fire yajna was performed for visitors’ wellbeing, concluding with the installation of an auspicious, polished gold chakra on the temple’s newly replaced roof. Go-puja, in which some of New Vrindabana’s sixty-five strong herd of cows were worshipped, and Jhulan-Yatra, in which small forms of Radha-Vrindabanchandra were pushed on a swing, followed.
Then came one of New Vrindaban’s stand-out Radhastami traditions—its unique Gaura-Arati celebration.
“Mother Malati, who has been organizing the arati for years, makes it a very personal event that everybody can actively participate in,” says Jaya Krishna. “Everyone gets their own lamp and flower to offer to the Deities. They then get a piece of paper on which they write a personal prayer, wish, or vow to Srimati Radharani, and offer it to her in the big basket of prayers at her lotus feet. I saw one donor sitting down and writing for a whole ten minutes. So it really inspires people to get introspective and try to connect with Radharani.”
Finally each person attending the arati receives a balloon inscribed with one of Radha’s 108 names such as Krishna-Priya (beloved of Lord Krishna), Vrishabhanu-Nandini (daughter of King Vrishabhanu) and Vrindavaneshvari (Queen of Vrindavana). Everyone offers their balloons at the altar, where they are tied, creating a joyful, colorful spectacle.
“The festival then concluded with a delicious feast and our famous Swan Boat festival, as fireworks exploded while the Deities glided around our lake on a decorated boat,” Jaya Krishna says.
The Labor Day weekend is commonly one of New Vrindaban’s strongest weekends in terms of visitors, and this year was no exception. Both the temple’s guest lodge and lakeside cabins were completely sold out, while for several people, including two buses of Russian tourists on a day trip from New York, it was their first time visiting a Hare Krishna temple.
“They loved Srila Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, consistently a popular attraction, and the exotic beauty of the Rose Gardens,” Jaya Krishna says. “All around, it was a great chance to introduce them to Krishna consciousness and ISKCON’s founder.”
Guests also commented positively on their accommodation, especially the recent cabin upgrades, which the community has recently invested substantially in.
“They were very happy to see that New Vrindaban is taking some steps forward, and progressing in our offering,” says Jaya Krishna. “And we will continue to do so. We just started giving the guest lodge a new roof this week, and will be upgrading its rooms too. Eventually, in the next two to three years, we hope to build a new seminar hotel, as we are always consistently sold out for festivals.”
New Vrindaban has also just begun holding Community Vision and Planning meetings, outlining the masterplan for what the community should look like twenty-five years from now, based on Srila Prabhupada’s instructions. Top of the list of priorities is self-sufficiency—the community has already begun breeding cows again after many years so as to expand milk production, and next year will increase the amount of vegetables and flowers they grow.
“Devotees around ISKCON will also be happy to hear that we are beginning to invest in Srila Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, and will be starting the first phase of major restoration work next year,” Jaya Krishna says. “This is an exciting time for us.”