As ISKCON approaches its 50th anniversary in 2016, ISKCON News is increasing its coverage of both the latest plans for the 2016 celebrations, as well as looking back on the early years of ISKCON and how Srila Prabhupada's worldwide society developed. This article is part of a series connecting New Vrindaban, established in 1968 as ISKCON's first farm community, to the grand visions, specific instructions and four visits by Srila Prabhupada. Today, New Vrindaban community members and well-wishers are revitalizing his vision, as expressed in these articles.
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New Vrindaban, August 31st, 1972 – Just as he had three years prior in 1969, Srila Prabhupada arrived at New Vrindaban in a black Lincoln Continental, winding down the country road towards the excited group of waiting devotees.
But this time, the group was much larger, belting out a joyous kirtan, and standing in front of a new converted farmhouse temple. During Prabhupada’s last visit, there had only been the original Vrindaban farm and a few dozen close followers. Now, New Vrindaban had expanded to several farms including this main one, Bahulaban, presided over by Sri-Sri Radha-Vrindabanchandra.
As Srila Prabhupada stepped out of his car, the devotees hit the ground in exhuberant prostration. They pressed around him as he walked in his regal manner across the lawn and sat on a red-velvet vyasasana strewn with garlands and surrounded by a forest of Tulasi plants.
Thanking the devotees for all the hard work they had done to organize the upcoming festival, Prabhupada introduced the concept of the Bhagavat Dharma Discourses he was to hold at New Vrindaban. The event, where he would speak for over a week on the Bhagavatam, was to be one in a series that was already attracting thousands in cities throughout India.
“Just try to hear about Krishna,” he said. “Your life will be successful…. This is called bhagavat-dharma.”
After his talk, Prabhupada rode to an old farmhouse at Madhuban two miles away, where he would stay during his visit. He was clearly pleased to be back at New Vrindaban. “This Vrindaban, that Vrindavan, no difference,” he said.
The festival began the next morning. Over 500 devotees, guests and reporters had flooded in from all over the US for the biggest public event ISKCON had seen so far.
They all had to brave the austere weather and conditions of West Virginia mountain country. With no guesthouse, vans and tents dotted the hillside. During the festival heavy rain fell, chilling campers to the bone and turning Bahulaban into a sea of mud. In the mornings, devotees found their way through the dark to “the Ghat,” a cold, muddy pool next to the cowshed to bathe. Drinking water was hauled from a well. And cooking was done outside on makeshift stoves.
Prabhupada greets Radha Vrindbanchandra in 1972
But devotees faced the hardships with good humor and comraderie, nicknaming Bahulaban “Mudsville” after the local town of Moundsville, and enjoying working with godbrothers and godsisters from all over the country. They were prepared to encounter any austerity for Prabhupada’s association. And Prabhupada himself didn’t mind the lack of facilities (his quarters had no running water). He was just happy to absorb the simple mood of New Vrindaban.
At 7:00am on September 1st – Janmastami Day – he walked the dirt road up “Govardhana Hill” with his entourage to give his first Discourse. The hill overlooked Bahulaban and provided views of densely wooded mountains fading off into the mists at every turn. At the top was the large open-air pavilion devotees had built themselves to accommodate all the visitors.
As a crowd of devotees and guests greeted him with loud kirtan, Prabhupada ascended a stage that stretched across one entire end of the pavilion and sat on his vyasasana. To his right, against a dramatic red backdrop, was a lifesize painting of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. To his left were Deities of Sri Sri Radha Damodara and Lord Jagannath. Flags and streamers hung everywhere.
Prabhupada spoke powerfully about the purifying nature of Krishna conscious sound vibration, the always blissful nature of God, or Bhagavan, and our relationship to Him – Bhagavat-Dharma.
Later, he inaugurated the beautiful new marble-floored temple room at Bahulaban, and presided over a large initiation ceremony at which many candidates from across the country received new names.
In the evening, after arati, came an experience many would still remember decades later. As devotees packed tightly into the temple room, Prabhupada had some of the sannyasis read aloud from Krishna book. After the entire introduction and first chapter on Lord Krishna’s advent, they thought it might be time to stop. But Prabhupada indicated that they should continue.
As they read on for hours, the exhausted devotees, famished from fasting all day and crammed into the sauna-like temple room, struggled to stay attentive to the weighty philosophy of “Prayers by the Demigods for Lord Krishna in the Womb.” Gradually, everyone began nodding off. A comical scene ensued as the dandas of sleepy sannyasis fell, crossing like swords across the aisle and then bobbing up as their owners jerked themselves awake.
Only Srila Prabhupada listened attentively, relishing Krishna’s pastimes. At last, well after midnight, he smiled. “I think you have had enough. Take prasadam. You are a little tired.”
Despite their exhaustion, after arati and the feast at 1:00am, many devotees stayed up through the night to chant their rounds and make sure they didn’t miss mangala arati the next day. For it was a most auspicious event -- Srila Prabhupada’s seventy-sixth appearance day.
Prabhupada giving initiations in New Vrindaban in 1972
The next morning was beautiful and sunny as Prabhupada emerged from his car in front of the pavilion in his saffron robes and fresh, perfectly applied tilak. A sense of purity emanated from him, an otherworldly quality that stood out against the old car, as if he were from another age.
“When Prabhupada looked out of the Volkswagen, which was being driven by Hayagriva, he smiled like I’ve never seen him smile -- except in that picture in the Lilamrita when Brij stood up for the first time and he was just beaming,” recalls Varshana Swami. “As Sally Agarwal described it, that oceanic smile.”
Showers of flowers rained on Prabhupada as he entered the pavilion. Devotees chanted his pranam mantra at the tops of their lungs and hit the ground before him. Some smiled fondly at him; some seemed awestruck. All adored him. But Prabhupada didn’t play to the crowd as he made his way through it. He simply walked quietly to the stage, folded his palms before the Deites, and offered his obesiances to Them.
As he ascended his vyasasana to address the packed audience of devotees, guests, scholars, local politicians and reporters, he expressed that he didn’t want them to think he was receving all this adoration for himself. “It may be misunderstood,” he said. “An outsider may see that “Why a person is being worshipped like God?’ There may be some doubt.”
The name “Vyasa Puja,” he explained, comes from Vyasadeva, the incarnation of Lord Narayan and original author of all Vedic literature. Because the spiritual master passes this knowledge originating from the Lord through disciplic succession without change, he is offered respect once a year on his birthday.
Prabhupada emphasized that just as the viceroy of the king may accept valuable jewels and gifts on behalf of the king, similarly the spiritual master “receives all honor… on behalf of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, not for his person.”
After Prabhupada’s talk, devotees ascended the stage one by one to offer flowers and obeisances and read out literary offerings. With such a crowd, not many got the chance – Silavati Dasi, an authority on Deity worship, was notably the only woman to make an individual offering, personally invited by Srila Prabhupada.
Bharadraja Das then began the Gurvastakam prayers. Hundreds rose to chant and dance, as Prabhupada looked on from his vyasasana and played kartalas.
As the kirtan began to get more lively, Vishnujana Swami took over the lead, playing mridanga right in front of Prabhupada. He sang with feeling, building the kirtan in intensity. In response, Prabhupada closed his eyes and began first to rock his head from side to side, then his whole body, his eyes tightly closed as he crashed his kartals together with more and more force.
Vishnujana’s kirtan reached a crescendo, and at last, as Radhanath Swami recalls, “It appeared that Prabhupada could not contain himself.” Overwhelmed with love for Krishna and the devotees, he took over the lead, calling out the Lord’s names in a strong voice.
The crowd went mad. Devotees rushed the stage, and a thousand arms reached out towards Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada began to cry, chanting through his tears. The devotees were swept up in his rare exhibition of spiritual emotion. A wave of love of Godhead hit them and they cried openly too, crushing the stage with total abandon and roaring out the Holy Names.
“Srila Prabhupada’s chanting was so beautiful, it was almost like the sky opened up, love of God came down and it poured over all of us,” recalls Satyanarayan Das. “I’ve never been to a kirtan like that before in my life and never since… It was a divine experience.”
After the kirtan, as everyone sat stunned, a group of devotees staggered up the hill carrying an enormous birthday cake baked by Gayatri Dasi. Srila Prabhupada took a tiny morsel and nodded his approval, then left to go back to his quarters at Madhuban. The devotees, wide-eyed, looked at each other. It was maha-prasada!
In one surging mass, everyone dove at the cake, all wanting a piece of Prabhupada’s mercy. Some playfully attacked each other for a piece. Others rolled the cake through the crowd as devotees grabbed huge handfuls and stuffed it into their mouths. Some, in bliss, ran down the hill offering cake to astonished guests. “Here, this is Prabhupada’s cake!”
“The cake was completely demolished, within minutes, in a frenzy,” Gokularanjana Das recalls. “In retrospect, it was offensive, but at the time it was like spontaneous devotion.”
Later that evening, Vishnujana performed several selections from the Radha-Damodara Traveling Sankirtan Party’s Transcendental Rock Opera, then launched into another ecstatic kirtan. As darkness fell, the local devotees built a bonfire, and everyone sat around it, watching the flickering flames as they took turns reading about Lord Chaitanya’s pastimes.
The Bhagavat Dharma discourses continued for another week, with Srila Prabhupada carried royally by palanquin to the pavilion and back to the temple every evening, surrounded by an ocean of devotees carrying torches, lanterns, and flashlights and chanting uproariously.
“In each successive Discourse, Prabhupada took the devotees deeper and deeper into the meaning of Srimad-Bhagavatam,” recalls Suhotra Swami. “It was a perfect outline… Every devotee should study these lectures to study the logic of the Bhagavat philosophy, to see how every element of the philosophy is fundamentally connected to all other elements.”
Meanwhile, Prabhupada wrote to his disciples elsewhere in the world expressing his appreciation of the festival. “The Bhagavata Dharma discourses here in New Vrindaban are going on very nicely, and daily several hundred devotees and guests are coming to hear, and it is truly a wonderful time,” he wrote to Radha Damodar Das. And to Brahmananda, he wrote, “Now go on holding [these] Bhagavata Dharma discourses in every city of the world.”
At last, on September 10th, the festival came to an end, and on September 11th, Srila Prabhupada departed, leaving the New Vrindaban devotees feeling satisfied and energized.
“[At the festival we had] the feeling that we were a family and there was Srila Prabhupada, he was our father,” recalls Krishna Kumari Dasi. “We all felt sheltered, we all felt protected. It was like a resurgence of energy and rededication. We all went back to our temples completely refreshed and rejuvenated and ready for whatever austerities we had to perform.”[ new-vrindavana ] [ west-virginia ]