As the USA now has the highest number of Coronavirus cases in the world above Italy and China, 22 states – half the country – have issued “shelter-in-place” or “stay-at-home” orders to try to “flatten the curve” of the virus. The orders require most people, apart from essential personnel, to work from home and only go out for groceries, medicine, or to take a walk for exercise, during which they are recommended to maintain a distance of at least six feet from each other. Schools are online, all non-essential businesses are closed, and grocery stores only allow a limited number of people in to shop at a time, causing long lines outside.
This unprecedented environment has also created an unprecedented state of affairs for ISKCON, with all events cancelled, and temples across North America closed to the public, as well as to devotees except temple residents and some rare essential personnel.
Faced with a reduced number of devotees to carry out services, no funds from the hundi (public donation box), and a lack of in-person association, it is undoubtedly a very challenging time. Yet temple leaders are tackling the challenges head on, creating innovative ways to continue services and reach out to the community, helping affected members, finding the silver lining, and taking solace from a deep philosophical tradition.
We spoke to four temple managers across North America to see how they were handling the changes caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic.
According to Caitanyananda Das, who is assisting ISKCON Brooklyn Temple President Hansarupa Das, no one in their New York congregation has reported symptoms of the Coronavirus as of now.
Although the temple is closed and no one is allowed in except for a few essential volunteers, Deity worship at ISKCON Brooklyn has not been too adversely affected. “Thankfully, we have nearly twenty devotees living in the temple, who are covering the evening and weekend services previously done by devotees coming from outside,” Caitanyananda says. “It worked out for us, because we had already pared down our deity worship to the lowest number of people possible after the transition from the previous management.”
The temple’s Govinda’s lunch program is continuing as a takeout only service on Monday to Friday from 12 to 3:30pm, which will prove invaluable for many devotees and essential workers. Book distributors are doing curbside delivery of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Meanwhile all programs have shifted online, so that devotees socially isolated in their homes can watch them as they happen via Facebook Live on the ISKCON New York Facebook page. These include the morning Bhagavatam class at 7:30am, the Sunday Feast class at 6:30pm on Sundays, and the Lotus Room, an outreach program in which temple resident Hari Vilasa Das gives various lectures and presentations on Krishna consciousness, at 7:00pm on Tuesdays.
In addition, renowned kirtaniyas Acyuta Gopi, Ananta Govinda Das and their families are broadcasting live kirtans from their living rooms at home, on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays from 7pm until 10 or 11, helping to lift spirits in this difficult time.
Via email newsletters, the temple is also offering resources for families and children to continue practicing Krishna consciousness at home, such as stories, videos and guides.
“We’re asking families to share pictures and videos whenever they can of what they’re doing at home, so that we can share it with the greater community to keep everyone inspired,” Caitanyananda says.
Other New York Temples are also busy offering resources for association and inspiration. The Bhakti Center in Manhattan is offering a long list of online courses, Zoom and Skype classes for a broader audience, such as “Intro to Bhakti” with Champakalata, and “Urban Devi” with Rukmini Walker. And ISKCON Towaco in New Jersey has been broadcasting live Zoom sangas every night from 8 to 9pm, featuring well-known speakers like Jayadvaita Swami, Hari Parshad Das, and Radhika Ramana Das.
Of course, there are some very real concerns – Brooklyn temple leaders are still awaiting instructions from City authorities as to whether New York Rathayatra, usually held in June, will be canceled. And with a loss of regular in-person donations, they’re hoping devotees will come through online and help the temple keep operating.
But overall, there’s still a sense of hope and finding the silver lining. “This is a really good opportunity for introspection, reviving lapsing spiritual practice, and reaching out to your friends and neighbors virtually,” Caitanyananda says. “Let’s take advantage of all the online resources, and use all the spare time we have now to focus on our spiritual lives. So that when we do come out of this, we will be stronger and more enthuasiastic to pick up where we left off.”
Watch live ISKCON New York classes and presentations: https://www.facebook.com/iskconnyc/
Take online classes at http://bhakticenter.org/
In the New Raman Reti community in Alachua, Florida, one devotee tested positive for the Coronavirus, but has been in self-isolation since returning to the U.S. from international travel. Fortunately, they are recuperating quickly and will continue to isolate for thirty days as per their doctor’s instructions. Their extended family is also under isolation, and has issued a statement to the community providing all information about the case. Many in the community commended the family’s transparency and responsible precautionary measures.
“They put out the statement so that the whole community could be knowledgeable about the case, because to me this is a key factor in helping to contain the spread of the virus,” says temple president Mukhya Dasi. “This virus isn’t like having a scarlet letter on you so to speak — it’s just about informing each other so that we can take our own precautions and keep our family safe. It spreads because people don’t know people have it, so that is something I’m trying to put the word out about. It might be helpful for other temples to know that aspect.”
Meanwhile, the ISKCON Alachua temple has been closed. The Deities of Sri Sri Radha Shyamasundara, Sri Sri Krishna Balaram and Sri Sri Gaura Nitai will continue to receive aratis and offerings, with only the scheduled pujari coming to perform their service and leaving immediately afterwards.
In place of live kirtans, there will be a CD of Srila Prabhupada singing throughout the day. Devotees have been asked not to visit the temple or grounds. To keep the community more connected to the temple, scheduled speakers will continue to give classes, which will be broadcast online along with deity darshan every day at the ISKCON Alachua Temple Live Youtube channel.
In addition, Prana Govinda Das will give a four-day online Rama Katha seminar for Rama Navami, which will run from April 1st to April 5th at 6pm to 7pm every evening. New episodes of a pre-programmed three-hour radio show will be broadcast at https://alachuatemple.com/radio/ every week, hosted by Sudharma Dasi and featuring Srimad Bhagavatam and Krishna Book readings, bhajans, Prabhupada classes and more.
Because grocery shopping can be an ordeal during the Coronavirus pandemic, the Alachua temple has created a team that will shop for devotees who are senior citizens, disabled or have health conditions, and deliver groceries to their home.
“You just call the temple office, and we put you in touch with the shoppers,” says temple president Mukhya Dasi.
In nearby Gainesville, the Krishna Lunch program has stopped its public serve-out but began offering pick-up and delivery options locally on Monday March 30th, with the same menu and price. Orders can be placed on KrishnaLunch.com, GRUBHUB, or UberEats, and 16oz. bottles of the famous Krishna Lunch salad dressing will also be available for purchase.
Mukhya says the temple is “digging into savings” and “no one knows how it’s going to play out.” But, she adds, “When you’re a devotee, you never really feel totally alone. Because you’re so conscious of the presence of Krishna and Lord Chaitanya, and you can go online and get meaningful association easily. So in some ways, I feel it’s less scary and difficult for devotees.”
Watch Alachua temple programs live here: https://www.youtube.com/user/alachuatemple
Listen to the pre-programmed radio show here: https://alachuatemple.com/radio/
Meanwhile, over in Canada, the border with the U.S. is closed, and most of the same closures and precautions are underway.
Like the U.S. centers, ISKCON Toronto’s temple has been closed to all except for resident devotees and one or two essential personnel who commute; Govinda’s restaurant is also closed until further notice.
“There are about a dozen devotees who live in the temple, gather for the morning program and evening Krishna book reading, and do all the services,” says GBC Bhaktimarga Swami, who is one of the self-isolated residents. “Fortunately, all the aratis and offerings are going on as usual. There’s a mood of cooperation.”
There will be some cutbacks – flowers for the Deities, which are usually shipped from overseas, will have to cease. “We’ve practically accepted that,” Bhaktimarga Swami says. “As long as you do everything in the mood of bhakti, or devotion, Krishna will be pleased. He understands.”
Like other temples, ISKCON Toronto is using livestreaming and the Internet to not only connect with its congregation, but reach more people than even before. Bhaktimarga Swami’s Facebook Live talk two Sundays ago, entitled “Go Inside: Find Your True Self During Isolation” was viewed by thousands.
The Swami says the pandemic is pushing devotees to reach out in ways they didn’t before, and sees it as an opportunity to go deeper into study and reflection.
But while simple service in the quiet Toronto temple is “actually bliss in many ways” for him, he expresses concern for others. “My anxiety is about other people, especially families who are uncertain about their future, and are not sure how long this is all going to go on for,” he says.
Pointing out that ISKCON is an educational society, he says temples should advise their congregants to take all precautions and be very hygenic; and as the famous “Walking Monk,” he adds that walking a little every day for exercise is healthy too.
“It’s also important for us to reach out and stay connected to each other via technology,” he says. “Amdist Corona, it’s time for Karuna – compassion. Let’s all try to value each other a little bit more.”
Watch live ISKCON Toronto classes at https://www.facebook.com/ISKCON-Toronto-The-Hare-Krishna-Centre-174452304502/
Returning to the U.S. – this time to the West Coast and California, one of the first states to implement a shelter-in-place order – we visit Vaisesika Das in Mountainview, near Silicon Valley.
From the very beginning, ISKCON Silicon Valley has taken the Coronavirus extremely seriously, stopping everyone from coming to the temple except those with vital services even before the order arrived.
Once it did, the temple was closed to all public and devotees with the exception of just three residents, who handle daily programs and a decreased deity worship routine according to ISKCON Deity Worship Ministry COVID-19 guidelines.
With all devotees remaining in their homes, ISKCON Silicon Valley have launched one of the most advanced and innovative efforts in the country to bring their community together.
With programs broadcast from different homes, using Zoom Video Conferencing devotees can not only watch but also participate live. Every evening, there’s a class from 7 to 8:30pm; on Saturday mornings, there’s a japa circle and Bhagavatam class; and on Sundays, there are bhajans along with the regular Sunday Feast class.
“During kirtans, there can be 100 people on the Zoom call,” Vaisesika explains. “Let’s say I’m leading kirtan – I sing, and one other devotee goes off mute, playing harmonium and repeating. It’s slightly off, because of the time delay, but it’s ecstatic and fun. You can scroll across the Zoom panel and see a hundred devotees in their own environments, dancing, singing, and smiling. Then during the classes, we have discussions and people can ask questions. It gives us a sense of togetherness.”
Vaisesika also gives corporate talks for major companies, which were previously in person but are now online, on topics like “Fearlessness through Awareness.” The twice weekly talks draw several hundred employees, some of whom stay on for a japa meditation session afterwards, and are so popular that Vaisesika is starting to get requests from companies in other countries to speak to their staff as they work from home too.
Meanwhile the long-running “Youth Jam” for ISV’s large community of some 150 children and youth has also gone online, with Vaisesika teaching verses from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Caitanya-caritamrita and Sri Isopanisad, and the youth giving five-minute classes on verses they pick themselves.
Viewers for all these programs can range from 250 live, to thousands around the world who watch them afterwards on Facebook.
Young Shreyan worships his deities during the shelter-in-place order in Silicon Valley, California
Ever innovative, ISKCON Silicon Valley devotees are also now creating new places online where people can donate to the temple – reminding us all that those of who are able to should continue to support our local temples financially, so that we still have them when all this is over.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Vaisesika says. “We’re just taking it one day at a time and trying to hold everything together just like everybody else in the world.”
But like the other temple leaders, he he also sees COVID-19 as “a great opportunity to improve ourselves individually and collectively.”
“I’ve been telling the devotees at ISV that this is like Chaturmasya,” he says. “Traditionally, during the four months of the rainy season, sages and students would put down everything else, stop their travels, sit down in their ashrams, and go deep into study and bhajan. And Srila Prabhupada writes in Light of the Bhagavata that they didn’t know how much advancement they made until the Chaturmasya was over, and they went back out into the world. Then they’d realize how much they had grown.”
So in this time of uncertainty, he tells us, let’s go deep into our hearing and chanting, developing our personal relationship with our deities, learning skills we didn’t have time for before, connecting deeply with each other, and cooperating to help others.
And then, when we step out into the light, perhaps we can start to create a better world.
Watch Vaisesika Dasa’s corporate talks here: https://www.facebook.com/vaisesikadasa108/
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