Six hundred devotees from all over North America may have attended the 15th anniversary of the Festival of Inspiration at New Vrindaban, West Virginia over the May Mother’s Day Weekend.
But every single one this reporter spoke to described it as having an intimate, comfortable family mood.
“We were just like good friends spending quality time with each other in a holy place,” says participant Purnamasi Dasi, who hails from Toronto. “And with so many Prabhupada disciples there, there was this powerful sense that Prabhupada is the spiritual father of all of us, and we were just there to be part of his family.”
Launched in 2000, Festival of Inspiration kicked off the “spiritual retreat holiday” template that is so common throughout ISKCON today, and with its packed roster of seminars on a broad range of topics, it remains one of the most popular and unique.
Deena Bandhu Das leads Govardhana Parikrama
Each day of the three-day festival, from May 8th to 10th, began with the traditional temple morning program including a special hour-and-a-half long Srimad-Bhagavatam class by three distinguished speakers.
Ravindra Svarupa Dasa and Jayadvaita Swami gave scholarly and incisive talks on Friday and Saturday, while Urmila Dasi’s Mother’s Day class connected every stage of a mother’s life to Krishna.
“For example, she said that Krishna nourishes and sustains us, giving us food, water and air even though we don’t recognize He’s there, just like the baby in the mother’s womb,” says participant Haripriya Dasi, a second generation devotee. “It was incredible. It made me realize how every aspect of our lives can be connected to Krishna.”
Each day then continued with four sessions of seminars, each session containing two to three concurrent seminars that partipants could choose from, for a total of sixteen.
Govardhana Parikrama passes Kusum Sarovara
ISKCON Communication Minister Anuttama Dasa’s Appreciating Vaishnavas: The First Step in Devotee Care was one standout.
“At one point he had us all stand up, approach each other with folded hands and express our appreciation for each other’s good qualities,” says Haripriya. “It was life changing.”
Elsewhere Varshana Swami’s “Ox Power, Dharma and the Golden Age” on getting closer to nature and the simple life was all the more inspiring because the New Vrindaban resident lives what he preaches. Jayadvaita Swami’s “Anything Goes: Questions and Answers About Krishna Consciousness” made short work of any doubt or query.
And Deena Bandhu’s Braja Lila seminar took devotees through the holy places of Vrindavana, India – followed by a Friday evening “Govardhana Parikrama” in which he physically led everyone on a tour of recreated holy places from Lord Krishna’s pastimes along with his delightfully told stories.
Kamsa fears Krishna's arrival in Bhaktimarga Swami's play 'Blue Mystic'
Other seminars included “Krishna Yoga: Be Fit to Serve Krishna” by Gauranataraj Dasa; “Improving Vaishnava Relationships” by Kalakantha Dasa; “Gaudiya Vaishnavism: The Perfect Balance of Head and Heart” by Dravida Dasa; “Prabhupada is With Us” by Gurudas, and more.
On Saturday evening, no less than fifty Srila Prabhupada disciples gathered in ISKCON New Vrindaban’s temple room – decorated with strings of balloons for the Festival’s 15th anniversary – to share their memories of their beloved guru.
The guest of honor was Sally Agarwal, the lady who sponsored Srila Prabhupada’s passage to America along with her husband Gopal and took him into her home in Butler, Pennsylvania.
Sweet, heartfelt, loving and effortlessly funny, her talk was described by many as the high point of the Festival. She spoke honestly about how at first she was afraid to have him stay in her house; how he took “about seven baths a day;” and then how she cried when he left because she was afraid for him as he ventured into New York alone.
“But I guess he did alright,” she said, guesturing around at the palacial temple room.
Sally Aggarwal, who hosted Srila Prabhupada in the U.S. speaks with Malati
Other devotees like Malati Dasi, Gurudas, Jayadvaita Swami, Bhaktimarga Swami, Navayogendra Swami, Agnideva Dasa, Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, Sudamani Dasi, Chintamani Dasi, Gopalasyapriya Dasi, Jayasri Dasi and many more all then shared their memories of Prabhupada – commenting on how merciful, forgiving, and personal he was with each devotee; how he understood their hearts and gave them what they needed.
Throughout all these seminars, a Kids’ Camp run by longtime New Vrindaban teacher Lilasuka Dasi and ISKCON New Vrindaban Board member Ananga Manjari Dasi engaged kids aged 4 to 15 so that their parents could freely attend the program.
“With kirtan, storytelling, facepainting, and arts and crafts, they had a great time!” says Festival coordinator Gauranga Prasad Dasa.
Meanwhile three sumptuous prasadam meals a day kept energy levels up and devotees feeling cared for. Served in a giant white tent on New Vrindaban’s bright green lawns, and honored at picnic tables against a backdrop of rolling hills, they were prepared by skilled devotional chefs like Shanka Das, Brihat Kirtan Das, and Radha Dasi.
Happily serving out prasadam
Breakfasts had a choice of Granola with yoghurt and fruit, or kichari or upma with chutney, along with chai. Lunch included koftas, samosas, puris, halava and healthier options like mint rice, cucumber raita, and green bean and brussel sprout subji, along with mango lassi. And dinner featured options like bread, corn soup, lasagna, apple crepes and tea or hot milk.
During the evenings, devotees socialized or attended kirtans with such kirtan legends as Agnideva Dasa, Havi Dasa, and Karanamrita Dasi.
On Sunday morning, after Urmila Dasi’s Mother’s Day themed Bhagavatam class, devotees surprised her with a huge five by three foot Mother’s Day cake for her 60th birthday. Hundreds of devotees chanted “Happy birthday” in unison to the accompaniment of Ekalavya Dasa’s trumpet – just one of the many delightful moments of Festival of Inspiration’s 15th anniversary.
After a short day of seminars, devotees rushed to grab seats in the Community Hall for the festival’s grande finale of spiritual entertainment at 12:30pm. First off, Bhaktimarga Swami’s play “Blue Mystic,” about Lord Krishna’s childhood pastimes killing demons in Vrindavana, gripped the audience. The cast of a dozen actors and puppeteers delivered knockout performances, expressive dance, and giant demons including a moving Aghasura with fearsome glowing red eyes.
Malati Dasi and Urmila Dasi cut the giant Mother's Day cake
Professional New York comic Yadhunath Das with Krishna Das and Bhaktin Megan followed with several pieces. In one skit, cops grilled a criminal in ISKCON vernacular, pushing him to finally admit, “I did it! I was the one who wasn’t sitting properly!” In another, Yadunath recited a poem about someone who is inspired to chant by eating prasadam in the zany poetry style of Dr. Seuss. And in another, he switched tacks to deliver an extremely moving monologue about devotee care that moved many to tears.
Everyone then tucked into a feast that had to be tasted to be believed, with rice, dahl, eggplant subji, matar paneer, puris, kachoris, pineapple chutney, gulabjamuns, mango sweet rice, and strawberry lemonade.
“The prasadam was excellent, the entertainment was first class, and it was just wonderful meeting with all the devotees at Festival of Inspiration,” said Urmila Dasi after attending.
“That’s the beauty of the festival – that you get to meet old friends and make new ones,” added early ISKCON pioneer Gurudas. “It had a wonderfully intimate feeling. Because our spiritual family really is a wonderful family.”[ festival-of-inspiration ] [ new-vrindavana ] [ west-virginia ]