In recent years, ISKCON’s next generation—its youth—have begun to take more and more of an active role in Srila Prabhupada’s movement.
We’ve seen the Krishna Culture youth bus tour put on festivals all over North America, Kuli Melas bring youth together and educate them in a variety of skills, and the Pandava Sena youth group hold spiritual retreats annually. We’ve seen youth organize major events such as Toronto Rathayatra, Balarama Jayanti in France, and Festival of the Holy Name in Alachua, Florida.
Now, youth groups are cropping up at every major temple to help the local devotees. One of these is Jiv Jago in Houston, Texas, which took a spiritual road trip this summer to inspire its members.
The group formed in December 2005, when fifteen youth from Houston traveled on pilgrimage to the holy city of Mayapur, West Bengal with ISKCON guru Romapada Swami.
Although none of the youth knew how to sing kirtan or play instruments, the pilgrimage inspired them to learn harmonium and mridanga upon returning to ISKCON Houston. They began leading regular 7pm evening aratis, their energetic kirtans dramatically increased Sunday Feast participation, and they brought a shot of enthusiasm to home programs in the community.
Gelling as a tight-knit group, they became the Houston temple’s army, helping with outreach, organizing festivals and huge clean-ups of the temple, and even making prasadam sack lunches for underprivileged children as part of the city of Houston’s Meals on Wheels program.
Leading kirtan at Toronto Rathayatra
“Most of the devotees at the Houston temple have been consistently serving there for the past 25 to 30 years,” says Jiv Jago member Anish Pillai. “And as they grow older, and it becomes more difficult for them to carry out their service, it’s important that we’re there to support them, and to carry on Prabhupada’s mission into the future.”
To keep themselves inspired in this goal, Jiv Jago attended the Pandava Sena youth retreat Following His Grace, held at ISKCON of Washington D.C. from July 19th to 24th. With senior devotee guest speakers and bonding spiritual experiences, it would encourage them to spread Krishna consciousness in ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada’s footsteps.
(Read about the Pandava Sena retreat here.)
But to add even more to the experience, they decided to drive, rather than fly to the event, visiting ISKCON temples along the way.
Milking cows at Murari Sevaka Farm in Tennessee
“The theme of the tour, like the retreat, was Following His Grace—visiting all the temples that Srila Prabhupada had established,” says Anish.
From July 10th through 31st, the group of sixteen youth, aged between 15 and 24, traveled along the East Coast of the United States. From Houston, they travelled to New Orleans; New Talavana farm, Mississippi; Murari Sevaka farm, Tennessee; Columbus, Ohio; and Gita Nagari farm, Pensylvania.
On the way back down they also visited New Jersey; Brooklyn, New York; Toronto; New Vrindaban farm, West Virginia, Washington D.C; Baltimore; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the Tennessee/North Carolina border; Atlanta; Alachua, Florida; and Pensacola Beach, Florida, before finally returning to Houston.
At the beautiful Murari Sevaka farm in Tennessee, many youth saw cows and experienced life within an ISKCON farm community for the first time. Delighted to get a chance to milk the cows and to feed them, they were left very impressed at the way in which the Murari-Sevaka devotees were able to sustain themselves by living off the land.
At the 350-acre Gita Nagari farm in Pennsylvania, youth celebrated the traditional Snana Yatra festival, in which Lord Jagannath is “taken ill” and must rest and recover.
“The devotees asked us to sing Jaganathastakam outside the window of the room where the Lord was residing,” says Anish. “It was a really sweet experience.”
Cleaning the Pujari Room at ISKCON Baltimore
At the mega Toronto Ratha Yatra festival, where 5,000 people view Lord Jagannath’s chariot parading down busy Yonge Street, the Houston youth led the kirtan in the Toronto Tunnel, a famous centerpiece of the festival.
At the Washington D.C. Pandava Sena Retreat, the group shared outreach ideas with youth from other temples, and attended seminars by senior devotees Bhakti Rasamrita Swami, Anuttama Dasa and Rukmini Dasi, Braja Bihari Dasa, and Devaprastha Dasa. They also helped create a spiritual flash mob, and sang kirtan and distributed Srila Prabhupada’s books at Dupont Circle in the city of D.C.
Meanwhile at the Baltimore ISKCON temple, the youth embarked on a massive day-long cleaning and renovation project.
“We painted the walls, removed floors, set up new shelves, cleaned out mold from refrigerators, and cleaned the basement, pujari room and temple room,” Anish says. “The devotees there, many of whom were elderly and weren’t able to do such heavy work on their own, appreciated it so much. And for us, it was such an internally cleansing experience that we began to think—what if, rather than a typical preaching tour, we organized a youth cleaning tour for all the temples?”
At each and every temple along their way, the Houston youth also attended the morning program, bringing lots of energy to the proceedings, and cleaned all the pots and dishes after meals.
Japa Underground at Mammoth Cave National Park
To relax and bond in between temple stops, they also visited Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, to see the longest known cave system in the world; hiked at Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina; and went on peaceful japa walks at Pensacola Beach in Florida.
Commenting on the trip, Anish says, “Since we’re so far down south in Houston that we don’t get to see much of the U.S., it was amazing to see the extent of the family Prabhupada has created for us. Every ISKCON temple we went to welcomed us with open arms. It was such an enriching and comforting experience to feel part of this huge spiritual family. It helped us appreciate Srila Prabhupada and the gifts he’s given us so much more, and want to take them more seriously.”
In return, devotees at each temple the youth visited where enlivened and moved by the energy and enthusiasm the Houston group brought with them.
“ISKCON is expanding so rapidly,” Anish says. “In light of that, we feel it’s very important for our future to stay connected with and maintain good relationships with devotees from other temples, so that we can inspire, guide and help each other.”
Houston’s Jiv Jago group hope to take a similar trip annually from now on, with a West Coast tour planned for next year.
Meanwhile, back home in Houston, they’re gearing up for a college outreach program at the University of Houston, which many of them attend. They’re also planning a drama for Houston’s Govardhana Puja festival, one of the biggest in North America, and creating an educational exhibit showing all the different holy lakes and temples on the sacred hill.
“Most of us live in apartments right next to the temple, so we’re pretty much always on call,” Anish grins.
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