ISKCON guru and leader Bhaktimarga Swami recounts his adventures as he and other devotees spread Krishna consciousness to the coldest, most remote parts of Canada.
As a leader of a spiritual organization, I felt the guilty weight of not fulfilling my obligations. I looked at a map of Canada, my area of responsibility to the ISKCON society, and imagined yellow pinheads pushed into it in the locations where ISKCON has established itself.
The observation was quite revealing, and a bit unnerving for me. There were huge gaps where people’s spiritual cravings were not being met. I’m not talking about polar bear zones, but areas where there was some human population density. The imaginary yellow dots had been there for twenty years and had not increased in number. I was staring at a problem.
The problem was stagnancy, or perhaps a favorite of polar bears—a big freeze. Personally, I prefer a thawing, flowing movement, rather than the iceberg I was looking at.
“Someone has to put some heat somewhere,” I thought, “And begin the process of a healthy meltdown.”
In 2002, I traveled for one month with a film crew sponsored by Canada’s award-winning NFB (National Film Board), shooting the well-received documentary The Longest Road. For the film, I re-enacted my 1996 cross-country pilgrimage on foot. About midway through the journey with NFB, I spent a weekend in Winnipeg, a city that serves as capital for the Manitoba province and has a population of 650,000. Sitting on a park bench there one morning, I stared at another bitterly cold reality and thought, “Back in the 1970s, we had a center here on Home Street. Now there’s nothing. Let’s get Krishna back on the map here.”
The next day, I was scheduled for a talk at the local Hindu temple. Afterwards, a young man approached me and asked if ISKCON had a center in Winnipeg.
“Well, we would like to have one,” I said. “Can you help?”
“Yes, I can,” he replied confidently.
Soon after this encounter, I heard of a young devotee family that had recently moved to Winnipeg from Los Angeles, while a second family had settled in from Dubai. Sources also told me of Vrinda, a very capable local devotee. I contacted them all, hoping that the great sleeping giant would once again be aroused to wakefulness.
As if in a magical dream, the pieces to the puzzle started to fit together. Vrinda generously stepped forward to offer her home as a gathering place. I arranged a team of celibate monks to support the new place. Things looked promising. The three key ingredients of people, will, and capability gelled into one harmonized effort. It continued to evolve, and today, under Vrinda’s careful guidance, a permanent ISKCON center is located at a charming house at 108 Chestnut Street.
After that magical moment on the park bench in Winnipeg, I persisted in my map-pinning dreams. It had felt good to punch a hole on the map smack in the northern regions of Manitoba, just south of the polar bear capital of the world.
“Where else,” I thought, “Can we poke a hole?”
It takes an eight-hour drive through boreal forest to reach the modest city of Thunder Bay. One of our physicians from Toronto had signed a contract with a hospital there. The move meant a new workplace for him—but it also meant an opportunity to open the city for Krishna Consciousness.
I imagined a new pin-head being pushed into Thunderbay on the map, and lighting up with a clear, ringing sound: “Ping!”
One year later, Krishna conscious meetings began to be held in a sizeable leased building in Brampton, a growing city in the Toronto metropolis.
“Ping!” went another pin-head in my mind, lighting up with a yellow glow. Now there were two right next to each other—one in Toronto and one in Brampton.
The following year—2007—one of our celibate “brahmachari” monks told me he felt a bit constrained with his service, and expressed the need for a change. He wanted a challenge, and I agreed that, with his competent nature, he should have his own project.
“Why not consider your homeland, the east coast?” I said. “Halifax is a vibrant city with so many students and seekers of wisdom, and we have no centers there.”
He jumped for the opportunity. Taking a van loaded with Srila Prabhupada’s books, he and one working partner drove off and started Halifax’s first ISKCON center—in a tent at a campsite.
Immediately, they were an instant hit with the students at Dalhousie University. Today, they have a sizable space on Quinnpool Avenue and are a registered ISKCON center.
“Ping!” I heard another pin-head vibrate with a sweet resonance. In my mind’s eye, I could see polar bears start to dance.
The next development came as a natural consequence. Saranagati—ISKCON’s outstanding rural community in British Columbia—had a gathering place for spiritual activities, but it was not official.
In response to the problem, Gopal Krishna Goswami, who shares my co-ordination work in Canada, simply asked Kulashekar Das—the Quebec artist who had hand-crafted the building—to make it an official ISKCON center. He happily complied.
Next, new congregational followers east of Toronto got inspired by the west-end group in Brampton and secured an industrial unit in Scarborough.
Sandwiched in between these two centers were our downtown core youth members. Over-flowing with enthusiasm, they sought out a loft space that was available near the country’s largest university. As September 2009 came to an end, the papers were signed and a brand new ISKCON center was inaugurated—Urban Edge Yoga studio.
“Ping! Ping! Ping!”
Three more yellow pin-heads. Now there are seven—seven new centers over a seven year period. That means one center a year, and almost double the ISKCON centers Canada had back in 2002.
It’s also interesting to look at the background of the congregation of these seven new centers. Demographically, fifty per cent are indigenously Krishna conscious or of South-east Asian descent, while the other half are people from a variant background—Christian, Jew, Agnostic etc. These two groups are our natural audiences, with each having its’ own distinctive needs.
What it took to make this all happen—dotting the map, or as one might say in yogic language, “opening the chakras,” was a belief in one’s people. Visions need to be shared with those who are to be empowered. As long as you have a good working plan and mature people as your resources, you will have results. A lack of trust fosters a kind of oppression.
Our intention is to keep growing and to keep dreaming, to see the map of Canada light up a glowing yellow and to envision our furry white friends, the polar bears, dancing with gleeful abandon.
Most of all, we are setting out to please our guru, Srila Prabhupada, with our humble attempt at expansion. In his service, we are trying to offer places where people can check their imbalanced lives, and embark on new, wholesome, spiritual ones.