on Sept. 24, 2011
Between sixty and seventy-five devotee women, or Vaishnavis, are expected to attend the tenth anniversary of New Vrindaban’s annual Vaishnavi Retreat on Friday September 30th, Saturday October 1st and Sunday October 2nd.
The idea for the retreat came to senior Srila Prabhupada disciple Malati Dasi in 2001, when she was organizing another New Vrindaban festival, the famous Festival of Inspiration, which is held in May every year.
“That year, it had been planned last minute, and I was running around like crazy trying to make sure everything went well,” she recalls. “It was more like the Festival of Desparation for me! There were so many of my Godsisters that were trying to come up to talk to me, and I really wanted to spend time with them, but I couldn’t. I thought, there has to be an alternative to this. There has to be a way to spend more quality time with my Godsisters. So I asked a couple of them, ‘If I put on a retreat, would you consider coming?’”
The response was exceptionally positive, and so that Columbus Day weekend in October, Malati organized the first Vaishnavi Retreat for women of all ages, full of spiritual activities, rejuvenating association, and a wide selection of seminar choices. Since then, it has moved to the first weekend of October, and only two parallel seminars are offered at a time instead of four, to make things more streamlined and simple. But the essential structure is the same.
This year, ladies from the West Coast of America, the Midwest, Canada, Florida, Houston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia will gather to attend a fascinating selection of seminars by senior devotees and experts in their fields.
Srila Prabhupada disciple Sukhavaha Dasi will discuss healthy communication in “Words that Hurt - Words that Heal: What Am I Communicating?” Krishnanandini Dasi of the Grihasta Vision Team will give “Eight tips for a Krishna Conscious Marriage and Family Life.” Guru-Bhakti Dasi, a doctor from Houston, will give advice on “Integrating Krishna Consciousness into your Local Community.” And in a seminar by “Bhaktin” Stella, sister-in-law of the late Tamal Krishna Goswami, attendees will learn how to talk to Christians about Krishna consciousness.
For those who prefer more hands-on workshops, there’s “Fresh is Best,” a raw foods class with Gopa Dasi and Yamuna Dasi, “Ayurvedic Self Message” with Shatendriya Dasi from Brazil, yoga classes with certified instructor Jaya Sita Dasi, and “Keeping Fit to Serve Krishna,” in which Sundari Dasi will give some insight on how to integrate yoga with Krishna consciousness.
Each day, of course, starts off with the traditional temple morning program, with an intriguing twist: rather than the regular Bhagavatam class starting at 8:00am, attendees will be treated to a special hour-and-a-half themed class from 7:45am to 9:15am.
“On Friday, Nidra Dasi will speak on the topic ‘Preaching is Your Essence,” says Malati. “On Saturday, the class will be delivered by many different Prabhupada disciples, who will give their reflections and memories of their beloved guru. Sunday, however, is attendees’ favorite every year. We go up to Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold for a manageable late Mangala arati, starting at 6:00am. Then we have guru-puja, and chant japa together. During all this time, only ladies are allowed in, creating a very sisterly atmosphere.”
Finally, there is an interactive Bhagavatam class, in which all the Prabhupada disciples, and, if time permits, the other ladies too, each speak a few words.
“In the past two years, there were Vaishnavis who were passing away—Braja Priya last year, and Rasajna the year before that,” Malati says. “So they joined in over the speakerphone. It was a very heartfelt experience.”
After the morning class every day, there will be breakfast and yoga, followed by seminars until 6:30pm, with an hour-and-a-half lunch break in between.
Activities also continue on into the evening, with a dramatic narration of Krishna book on Friday, and campfire bhajans on Saturday. On Sunday, the retreat will wrap up early, with a “closing circle” from 12:15pm to 2:00pm, followed by a traditional Sunday Feast.
“Unlike the larger Festival of Inspiration classes, the seminars at the Vaishnavi Retreat are small, with as few as twelve people in a class,” says Malati. “So they’re more interactive, and individuals feel that they can participate more comfortably. The Retreat also gives devotees who may not have otherwise taught a seminar an opportunity to try it in a non-judgemental environment, and discover their abilities. For instance one year I asked a Godsister of mine who did wonderful
Deity worship service to teach a seminar on it, and she was terrified at the idea. But she did it, it was a hit, and now she does presentations at the Festival of Inspiration.”
Another major part of the Vaishnavi Retreat experience is prasadam. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served every day, made with the best, healthy ingredients. And they’re mouth-watering!
Every breakfast includes homemade granola and yoghurt, fresh fruit, hot tea and orange juice, as well as a dish of the day such as Upma and coconut chutney, kichari with peppers and pickles, or—on Sunday—biscuits and gravy, scrambled tofu, and oven-baked seasoned potatoes.
Dinner is a simple but tasty affair, with soups, bread, and cookies, while lunches boast extravagant themed menus. On Friday, it’s American-style with Bhima burgers, home-made French fries, macaroni salad, frosted cupcakes and strawberry lemonade. On Saturday, there’s an Italian Menu with lasagna, Mediterranean-style braised veggies, mint lemonade, and a special halava with hazelnuts and organic bittersweet chocolate chips. And on Sunday, it’s a good old-fashioned Hare Krishna feast with pushpana rice, samosas, puris, sweet rice, gulabjamuns, and mango lemonade.
As is evident from the menu, the Vaishnavi Retreat is all about hospitality, which is also reflected in the on-site accommodation at the New Vrindaban guest lodge and lakeside cabins, and the care for families of the women attending.
“Every year a few husbands come along, to watch the children so their wife can attend,” Malati says. “We try to arrange a special class every afternoon for them, and to have some activities for the children too. Some of our classes are suitable for the older girls, such as the cooking and Ayurvedic massage classes, as well as the closing circle. We try to include young Vaishnavis whenever possible—we want them to feel like they’re part of the family.”
And the Retreat really does create a family. With a “For Women, By Women” theme, it creates comraderie, sistership, and an empathic, nurturing atmosphere in which attendees feel cared for and understood.
“Often, devotees who come will have emotional baggage, but they feel safe to let it out in the environment of the Retreat,” Malati says. “Nobody’s judgemental, and everybody’s there for each other in a very loving way. So it gives devotees an opportunity to come to terms with things that they’ve been holding in for years, to reconnect with Krishna consciousness, reconnect with old friends, and make new friends.”
In the future, Malati hopes that devotees will use the structure of the Vaishnavi Retreat to organize similar events in their own areas. She also hopes that young women will begin to participate more in the organization of the New Vrindaban event, and eventually take up the reins.
“I’m sixty-six now, so I perceive things in a different way from how a twenty- or twenty-five-year-old does,” she says. “I try to think of that as much as possible when organizing the Retreat, but ideally I would really like to see young people taking up the mantle in the future.”
To register for this year’s Vaishnavi Retreat, and to find a full list of presenters and activities, please visit http://vaishnaviretreat.org. Registration costs $161, although Malati says she doesn’t want that to deter those who can’t afford it.
“I put this event on for the ladies of ISKCON, not for profit,” Malati says. “So my policy is, please just come and make whatever contribution you can. We’re very accommodating—please take advantage of this service that we’re offering.”