Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, ISKCON temples worldwide have been in lockdown, unable to connect with their communities or give spiritual knowledge to newcomers in person, and instead shifting these activities online. Without in-person outreach activities, the last few months have also seen temples struggling to maintain themselves, with centers in Italy, France, and South America asking for financial help via online campaigns.
In the U.S, hope has begun to appear – some temples have started reopening with locally mandated restrictions, while larger temples are getting financial assistance from the government via the PPP, or Paycheck Protection Program, which helps small businesses keep their workforce employed during the Coronavirus crisis.
New Vrindaban, West Virginia – ISKCON’s biggest place of pilgrimage in North America – was one of those faced with many challenges during the crisis.
“Our whole temple is set up to receive guests from around the country, take care of them, enlighten them with Krishna consciousness, and if possible connect them to their local centers,” says president Jaya Krsna Das. “Therefore, we have a much bigger staff than any city temple – about 50 in the winter and 105 in the summer.”
A devotee sanitizes his hands at the entrance to the temple room
Normally, ISKCON New Vrindaban (INV) receives fifty per cent of the income it needs to maintain the massive project from donations, and fifty per cent from Govinda’s restaurant, the Palace Lodge, and Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold. All these were closed during the pandemic, and many big festivals cancelled including Rama Navami, which was to be a donor appreciation event; The Living Name Retreat, which had sold out; two big weddings; and many tourist buses.
As a result, INV lost a large portion of its income and had to lay off many of its staff members, cut maintenance in half for those that stayed on, and reduce part-time workers to two hours a day.
Fortunately, because New Vrindaban had devotee staff on an official salary, they were able to easily apply for unemployment benefits, which were increased during COVID-19. In addition, INV applied for PPP and recently received a substantial amount of funds from the government to cover staff’s paychecks, as well as utilities and mortgage costs for eight weeks. This allowed INV to rehire many devotees – there are now 79 full- and part-time staff on payroll.
With visitors to New Vrindaban still very low, these staff members are engaged in many services they normally don’t have time for during this season, such as maintenance, repairs, cleaning, administration and website development.
Meanwhile the temple, after being completely closed for three weeks in April, reopened with restrictions in early May. INV took extra precautions by closing, despite the fact that churches in West Virginia were designated an essential service and remained open throughout the pandemic.
Guests on the self-guided new Peacock Walk
Nrsimha Chaturdasi, on May 6th, was the first event after the reopening. Adapting West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s mandate that churches must have every second pew empty, ISKCON New Vrindaban leaders allowed eighty-one people into the giant temple room at a time, each standing in a specially marked six by six foot square to ensure proper social distancing. In addition, devotees were asked to put on face masks and disinfect their hands with sanitizer provided in the lobby before entering. Only local devotees could attend, as no one was allowed to stay overnight at the Lodge, eat at Govinda’s restaurant or visit Prabhupada’s Palace.
On May 22nd, however, ISKCON New Vrindaban also reopened the Palace, Lodge, and Govinda’s to visitors including those from out of state, following local government guidelines. (The two-week quarantine previously required for out-of-state guests has been lifted, although there are still no international visitors)
In normal times, over the Memorial Day Weekend, New Vrindaban usually received at least 800 visitors, including nearly 300 overnight guests. This year, however, the festival, from May 23rd to 25th, was restricted to about fifty overnight visitors from various states and another fifty who only stayed during the day.
Over the Weekend and at all events going forward, guests arriving at the New Vrindaban Welcome Center are asked a list of medical questions, such as “Have you or anyone you live with been sick in the last ten days?” and “Do you had a cough, fever, or shortness of breath?” Their temperature is also taken with a contactless thermometer.
Visitors then sanitize their hands and put on masks in the temple lobby before being guided by an usher into the temple room and through a special darshan tour to pay their respects to Lord Jagannath, the six Goswamis, Sri Sri Radha Vrindabanchandra, Lord Nrsimhadeva and Srila Prabhupada before leaving again. Fifty-five guests are allowed in the temple room at a time, standing in six-by-six foot squares.
Guests purchase devotional paraphernalia at the new gift shop, ‘Matchless Gifts’
At Govinda’s restaurant, meanwhile, seating has been reduced to fifty per cent capacity. Visitors enter and leave through separate pathways, and order and pay only at their table to prevent crowd buildup. The buffet has been closed, with food only served a la carte at the table. Waiters and cooks wear masks and gloves, and everything guests touch is disinfected as soon as they leave.
At the Lodge, only rooms with attached bathrooms are available, so that bathrooms are not shared. Only every second room is used, and the rooms receive deep cleaning after every guest departs, with every surface they touch disinfected.
A new gift shop, Matchless Gifts, also opened on the Memorial Day Weekend, selling a wide variety of devotional paraphernalia and clothes. The store allows a limited number of customers at a time according to state rules for small businesses, designates four separate browsing areas to assist social distancing, provides one-time use gloves and recommends contactless payment.
During the Memorial Day weekend, pilgrims were able to attend the standard morning program and japa introduction, visit the cows, and even attend a swan boat festival, all with masks and proper social distancing. Prasadam was served outside, with masks for the servers, and plexiglass in front of the food. Tables were spaced out across the landscape, so that diners could relax and enjoy the delicious prasadam and views without being too close to each other.
Guests could also experience the newly launched ‘Peacock Walk,’ a self-guided trail, to see New Vrindaban’s twenty-five peacocks and read about their habits and why they’re dear to Krishna on informational boards along the way.
Masked and gloved servers dish out delicious prasadam
“The weather was really nice, and you could see guests walking around, enjoying the sun, the landscape and the animals, and giving their kids some freedom after so long under lockdown,” says Jaya Krsna. “All the visitors were very appreciative that they could come, and were very cooperative in following all the steps we had in place.”
So far, no New Vrindaban residents have contracted Coronavirus; with pilgrims now coming from all over, devotees are asked to continue protecting themselves and visitors by following all the same rules that the guests do.
Now that Memorial Day Weekend has been a success, the 24 Hour Kirtan is up next, on June 20th and 21st. Due to COVID-19 rules, the usual more than 500 devotees will not be able to attend. Rather, a limited number of locals and visitors will chant in the temple and yoga shala, with screens showing other chanters around the world singing remotely via the Internet.
Wheeling Rathayatra, which was scheduled for July 11th has been canceled, but New Vrindaban leaders have a plan for that too – they hope to hold it internally on the farm, with only resident devotees, to ensure that social distancing is possible.
Janmastami, Lord Krishna’s appearance day – which lands on August 11th this year – remains the biggest concern for New Vrindaban and all other temples.
“Janmastami is a very important festival both because so many visitors come to our temples, and because it is normally a time where we receive many financial contributions that help us get through the winter,” says Jaya Krsna, who has been discussing such issues on weekly phone calls with other temple presidents of the Eastern U.S. “For now, nobody really knows what the situation will be in August. But our idea is to perhaps hold the festival over several days, so that we can limit visitors on each day.”
With pilgrims and income still at a small fraction of what it used to be, ISKCON New Vrindaban may have to cut back on staff members again when the PPP funding ends in July, if restrictions remain in place. But for now, ISKCON and New Vrindaban residents are being happily maintained.
“Of course, we are hankering to have all our guests back,” Jaya Krsna says. “Our main service is to take care of guests, and to share Krishna consciousness with them. That’s our duty here at ISKCON New Vrindaban. So we are really looking forward to a time, sooner or later, when life become a little bit more normal again. If it doesn’t, we will have to make major adjustments to our whole setup, as we are designed to receive guests in large numbers. We are waiting to see what Krishna’s plan is.”
May 15, 2022
Sunanda Das, Temple of the Vedic Planetarium