The Sadhu Sanga Retreat, to be held from May 22nd to 25th, has been completely booked up since last weekend, although offsite accommodation spots are still available.
The retreat will be held at the Art of Living Foundation’s International Meditation Center in the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains in Boone, North Carolina, where there are motel-size rooms with private bathrooms.
Fifteen minutes’ drive away, rooms are still available at three offsite hotels specially booked for the event, although they are also expected to sell out soon.
Launched as recently as 2011 as a small gathering for a few ISKCON gurus and their disciples, the Sadhu Sanga Retreat has quickly become the biggest kirtan festival in ISKCON North America.
The view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the venue's balcony is breathtaking
From just 250 attendees in its first year, 1,600 to 1,700 are expected this May from 41 U.S. states and several countries around the world, including not only ISKCON devotees but also members of the public interested in Bhakti yoga.
The Sadhu Sanga Retreat is designed as a completely immersive kirtan experience, with attendees chanting from morning till night in the company of senior Vaishnavas who have a deep taste for the Holy Name.
Kirtans from 7 to 10:30pm on Friday and 9am to 1pm on Monday will sandwich the main weekend event. The days will begin early with the traditional ISKCON temple morning program including mangala-arati, tulasi puja, and japa meditation.
Attendees will gather for this in the huge main kirtan hall, which Australian artist Krishna Murari Das will transform with cloth hangings and stencils of trees, flowers, cows and Radha and Krishna to create a meditative, spiritual atmosphere. And amidst these, Sri Sri Gaura Nitai and Srila Prabhupada will look out from the stage.
A devotee chants japa on the lawn outside the venue
Meanwhile the line-up of inspirational senior Vaishnavas who will be helping attendees immerse themselves in Krishna’s names is frankly jaw-dropping, and likely hard to find anywhere else.
The Bhagavatam class after japa will be given by Jayadvaita Swami on Saturday, Radhanath Swami on Sunday, and Giriraj Swami on Monday.
After breakfast, consecutive one-hour kirtans will run from 9am to 10:30pm with breaks for lunch and dinner. They will be led by return guests Sacinandana Swami, Indradyumna Swami, Radhanath Swami, Badahari Das, Madhava Das, Prabhupada disciple Mukunda Datta Das, and second generation kirtaniyas Gaura Vani, Ananta Govinda, and Acyuta Gopi.
As if that wasn’t quite enough, they will be joined by retreat first-timers Niranjana Swami, Vaisesika Das, and Sri Prahlad Das, who toured for many years with Indradyumna Swami.
(From left to right) Indradyumna Swami, Radhanath Swami and Sacinandana Swami dance with the devotees.
Other senior devotees not leading the chanting but participating as attendees will include Trivikrama Swami and Kavichandra Swami. Meanwhile Temple of the Vedic Planetarium director Ambarisa Das and priest Jananivasa Das – leaving India for the first time in over thirty years – will stop by on their fundraising tour for the Mayapur temple with Lord Nrsimhadeva’s helmet and Nityananda Prabhu’s shoes.
There’s no doubt that the Sadhu Sanga – or “devotee association” Retreat is truly living up to its name. But of course, the main focus is the kirtan, and as usual it’s expected to deliver there, too.
Every style of kirtan is present at Sadhu Sanga. Each chanter brings their own flavor. The early part of the day often brings melodious, meditative kirtans with seas of devotees closing their eyes and swaying to the Holy Name.
Then there’s the rocking, stomping evening sessions that see devotees jumping, spinning in circles and even crowdsurfing as they roar out to the Lord; and everything in between.
The Sadhu Sanga stage at the 2014 retreat, beautifully decorated by Krishna Murari Das
It’s a rejuvenative experience where anything can happen.
“I remember seeing senior Vaishnavas like Indradyumna Swami, Radhanath Swami, Giriraj Swami, and Sacinandana Swami dancing in circles with all the devotees for the first time in a long while,” says Rama Vijaya Das, who co-organizes the event with Rasika Siromani Dasi, her husband Govinda Charan Das, and other devotees from around the U.S. “And our ecstasy was doubled and tripled just by seeing them dance the way they did.”
In between kirtans, attendees spend quality time with each other against the peaceful backdrop of vivid blue skies and rolling green mountains. And they’re served delicious prasadam meals cooked in the Meditation Center’s 100% pure vegetarian kitchen facility.
This year, due to popular demand, organizers will provide more healthy options, such as granola from devotee company Pure Bliss Organics, Ahimsa dairy products from Pennsylvania’s Gita Nagari farm, chapattis, fruit and at least one vegan option in every meal.
Attendees tuck into delicious and healthy prasadam meals in the sunny dining hall
“One of the reasons why the festival is successful is because we try to improve the quality of experience for the attendees every year,” says Rama Vijaya.
As well as healthy prasadam, this year for the first time the retreat will have special activities for children of three different age groups so that their parents can attend kirtans and Bhagavatam classes. And fees continue to be reduced, with three nights of accommodation, nine prasadam meals, and access to all kirtans and classes offered for a subsidized price of $150 per person onsite, and $175 offsite.
“We also do our best to get sponsorships for devotees who can’t afford the event, to make sure that not a single devotee who wants to attend is left behind,” Rama Vijaya says. “We are very grateful to all the devotees who come, and we encourage them to keep coming in more and more numbers.”
And they do. Most attendees return the following year, and many bring at least one newcomer with them.
Giriraj Swami chants
The reason for this is evident in feedback sent to organizers, with comments like “I never had such a blissful experience,” “My faith increased so much,” and “this was a perfect getaway from the material world of stress and daily grind of problems” flooding in every year.
“The overall experience is that devotees feel very rejuvenated in their spiritual life,” says Rama Vijaya. “Because it’s all about how we can get closer to Krishna’s Holy Names – that’s the spirit of this retreat.”
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Registration for the Sadhu Sanga Retreat with offsite accommodation is still open at http://www.sadhusangaretreat.com/[ north-carolina ] [ sadhu-sanga-retreat ]