At 8:45pm on May 1st, the doors of Rutgers Student Center opened, and over six hundred students poured into the Center’s large multipurpose hall. Their excitement was palpable through the hum of conversation.
The Sacred Sounds experience was about to begin.
Sacred Sounds has come a long way since its inception. Its story starts with Rutgers’ Bhakti Club, launched in 2007 by pharmacy major Aksh Sharma and nursing major Sneha Mali—themselves raised in the path of Bhakti, an ancient tradition of love and devotion.
Aksh and Sneha wanted to offer fellow students a positive and deep experience of spirituality during their impactful college years. So they began to hold weekly meetings every Thursday evening on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Between ten and fifteen students attended the first meeting. As word spread, more and more came for the kirtans, practically applicable Gita discussions, vegetarian cooking workshops and yoga classes.
By 2009, with close to seventy people in attendance, the Bhakti Club organizers began to brainstorm how they could reach an even larger audience at Rutgers.
The result was Sacred Sounds. Launched in fall 2009, it has been held twice a year since, during the spring and fall semesters. While the first event was held at Douglass Campus Center and drew just 150 people, Sacred Sounds has since had to be moved to the much larger current venue to account for the four times increase in attendance.
“We started it to spread Bhakti and the Hare Krishna maha-mantra to as many students as we could,” says current Bhakti Club President Anuj Sharma, brother of Aksh.
Everything about Sacred Sounds is designed to give students the full Bhakti experience. At this spring’s May 1st event, attendees entered the hall to soft kirtan music, and took their seats on the floor in front of the stage. Several professors and faculty members also entered and took seats, including psychology professor Dr. Ogilvie and genetics professor Dr. Navin Sinha.
Vishvambhar of the Mayapuris gets the crowd jumping to the Maha-mantra
MC Anuj Sharma took to the stage first, hyping the crowd up before introducing renowned spiritual teacher Radhanath Swami. The audience burst into applause as kirtan musician Gaura Vani, as well as The Mayapuris members Visvambhar, Balaram Tirtha, Krishna Kishor, Dhanya-Gaurangi, and Vrinda Devi all followed.
After an invocation, the musicians launched into Bhaja Govinda, a bhajan with a funky groove and rap sections by Balaram Tirtha.
“Midway through the song, Kishor got up and led the students in a little one-two ‘Swami’ step,” says Anuj. “Then the musicians went a little faster, and launched into the Maha-mantra. That’s when the students went crazy. Everyone started dancing ecstatically.”
After working up a sweat for twenty minutes, everyone took their seats again, and Gaura Vani delivered an English song he had written. With the chorus “I’m only a zero without your one in front,” it illustrated how we are nothing unless we add the “one” of the Divine.
The second part of the evening then began, as Anuj gave his audience some background on Radhanath Swami before inviting him to the stage. As described in his book The Journey Home, the Swami grew up in a Jewish family in Chicago, Illinois, but left on a journey of prayer, hitch-hiking through Europe to the Middle East, and then to India. There he stayed with yogis in Himalayan caves, met many teachers of different spiritual paths, and finally found his guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Today, Radhanath Swami teaches Bhakti around the world and has founded several philanthropic projects in India, including Bhaktivedanta Hospital, Bhaktivedanta Hospice, and the Midday Meal program, which feeds over 1 million needy children every day.
Speaking to the Rutgers students for around forty minutes, the Swami told the story of Sindhutai Sapkal, an elderly woman he had met who runs many orphanages around India and has nurtured over 1,050 orphans.
The Rutgers crowd goes wild as confetti is shot from canons
A village woman, she had been married at only ten years old to a 32-year-old man. When she was nine months pregnant, he beat her senseless and abandoned her, leaving her for dead.
When she recovered, Sapkal was deeply depressed. Just as she was about to commit suicide, however, she spotted an orphan and took him under her wing. She had found her calling in life.
She began an orphanage, and gradually opened many more, becoming a world-famous philanthropist. Her former husband, now eighty and having lost everything he had, came to her for shelter, and with no resentment she took him in as her ‘oldest child.’
We have many choices in life, Radhanath Swami explained. But the best way to positively affect society is to use our lives to give love to others, find love within and transform ourselves, and ultimately love God.
Wrapping up his talk, Radhanath Swami then led the audience in an ancient tradition of expressing love for God and each other—kirtan. This time, the students danced even more vigorously than before, bellowing out the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and overflowing with exhilaration as canons fired bursts of confetti into the air.
As they filed out of the hall, they received free goody bags with thank you cards and wrist bands. They also had a chance to speak to Radhanath Swami about how he came to the path of Bhakti, and to ask him many questions.
The event concluded with students sitting on the floor in the lounge next door, tucking into a delicious feast of sanctified vegetarian food including Rajma, rice, parathas, samosas, chutney, and rasmalai sweets.
It wasn’t until midnight that the crowd, floating blissfully on a cloud of Bhakti, left for their homes and dorms.
Interviewed for a video of the event, one student said, “I want there to be a Sacred Sounds program every week!”
Rutgers students tuck into a delicious meal of sanctified vegetarian food
“Others said, ‘This is the best night of my life!’ or ‘This is the highlight of my college experience,’” Anuj recalls. “Students have told me that this is exactly what they needed at this point in their life.”
Some students who attend Sacred Sounds want to go deeper into Bhakti and make it a personal practice—so they join Rutger’s Bhakti Club.
Others may never attend a Sacred Sounds event again.
“But the experience plants a seed of love, of what spirituality is really all about, that they’ll take away with them,” Anuj says. “A lot of college students see the politics and scandals in religion, and become very skeptical of it. They think they’re agnostic or they become atheist. But at Sacred Sounds the vibes are so nice. Everyone is just very cooperative and loving to each other.”
In the future, Sacred Sounds could expand to other universities across the US and the world. Many other institutions have already reached out to its founders asking for mentoring on how to implement the model.
In the meantime, Anuj and Aksh are graduating from Rutgers this year, while Sneha already graduated two years ago. But the Bhakti Club continues to train new students who they believe will bring Sacred Sounds on into the future.
“Rutgers is very blessed,” Anuj says. “The students there are very receptive to spirituality.”