In the darkness of COVID-19, with devotees around the world under stay-at-home orders for months on end, virtual programs have brought much needed inspiration and association. One of the stand out bright spots has been the Towaco Zoom Sangas.
Organized by ISKCON of New Jersey’s Towaco temple in the USA, the program has delivered talks by some of the most illustrious speakers in the Hare Krishna Movement eight times a week online, providing the kind of experience that would have been hard to find even before the pandemic began.
Speakers have included Jayadvaita Swami, Sacinandana Swami, Giriraj Swami, Bhakti Charu Swami, Radhanath Swami, Visakha Dasi, Kurma Das, Radhika Ramana Das, and many other senior devotees.
On average, each class has had about 200 connections, with viewers of each connection ranging from an individual, to a couple, to in many cases a family of four or five. Some speakers, however, have drawn up to 1,000 connections – about two to three thousand devotees.
Viewers come mainly from the Northeastern U.S., where ISKCON of New Jersey is, but many others hail from all over the East and West Coasts, as well as some from Europe, India and Australia.
Regular Zoom sangas have been taking place since mid-March, around the time when U.S. lockdowns started, with classes three times a week by Jayadvaita Swami, who is residing at the Towaco temple. Speaking on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8pm US Eastern Time, the Swami has been covering chapters 18 and 19 of the first canto of Srimad Bhagavatam, wherein we learn how the great devotee Pariksit Maharaja responds to a major crisis in his life.
Devotees from all over interact during a Zoom sanga with Devakinandana Das
“During the COVID-19 crisis, it’s a very relevant topic,” says Madana-gopala Das, who serves as communications director for ISKCON of New Jersey and co-organizes the Zoom sangas. “Pariksit Maharaja is cursed that he will die in seven days, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen – will he be safe from the curse or not? How will he respond to it?”
Jayadvaita Swami uses this situation as a jumping off point to discuss topics like how a devotee is fearless, how we are not this body, the impermanence of this world and its miseries, and the importance of our relationship with Krishna. During a time when devotees are seeing even family members and members of their communities affected by Coronavirus, these philosophical points have taken on a new level of tangible relevance.
With viewers benefitting so much from Jayadvaita Swami’s classes three times a week, there was a high demand for even more; devotees asked if there could be talks every single day.
“So we started calling different famous speakers, and scheduling them one by one,” Madana-gopala says. “They were happy to join us.”
Since then, hour-and-a-half talks have been held Monday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 6pm, with a bonus class on Saturday morning at 11am to accommodate speakers in timezones such as Europe where the evening time is not viable.
In his talk, “Every Crisis Bears An Opportunity Within It,” Sacinandana Swami explained that a mango under pressure will give mango juice, while an onion under pressure will give onion juice. In other words, a crisis will reveal whatever “fruit” we have been cultivating; so it’s a good time to assess ourselves and see if our response is reflective of the spiritual growth we hope to have achieved.
Along the same lines, Devakinandana Das of ISKCON Juhu, Mumbai spoke on how Krishna consciousness brings freedom from fear. And in “Bhakti in Times of Crisis: The Protection of the Lord,” Radhika Ramana Das, Director of Utah State University’s Religious Studies Program, covered questions like “What is the nature of the Lord’s protection? What should we do during a crisis? Should we throw up our arms like Draupadi did, or fight like Arjuna? Is action or inaction the proper way to surrender? And what is the role of humanitarian work in the life of a devotee?”
On the other hand Satsvarupa Das Goswami, one of Srila Prabhupada’s earliest disciples and the author of Prabhupada Lilamrita, provided much-needed comic relief by retelling the stories Prabhupada often told of court jester Gopal Ban. The tales, which recounted the many brilliant ways Gopal made a fool of the king and made him laugh, revealed another side of Srila Prabhupada’s multi-faceted nature – his excellent sense of humor.
Satsvarupa Das Goswami speaks about Srila Prabhupada’s humorous stories
Malati Devi and Devamrita Swami also shared their memories of Srila Prabhupada; while former GBC Ravindra Svarupa Das talked about how we should not forget the basics of Krishna consciousness; and well-known kirtan singer and speaker Kripamoya Das discussed how to maintain and increase our enthusiasm.
Meanwhile in “Remembering Srila Prabhupada Through His Photographs,” author and longtime photographer Visakha Devi used Zoom’s screen sharing feature to share some of her treasure-trove of photos from the early days of ISKCON, and explain the stories behind them. By recounting what Srila Prabhupada was saying in a particular photo, what was happening, or why the devotees were laughing, she deepened everyone’s meditations on ISKCON’s Founder-Acharya.
Radhika Ramana Das speaks on Bhakti in Times of Crisis
Anuttama Das, GBC and Global ISKCON Minister of Communications, taught communications skills such as reflective listening and always keeping the needs, interests and concerns of others in mind – which many found useful and took notes about for future use.
One of the most powerful and well-attended talks was that of Krsnanandini Devi, a Prabhupada disciple and longtime member of the Grihasta Vision Team who is now in the final stage of her life after a painful battle with cancer. Krsnanandini spoke about how to develop fearlessness and take shelter of Krishna now, before death comes to us all. Devotees then took half an hour to share their memories and appreciation of her from their hearts.
Other speakers included Prabhupada disciple and founder of the Urban Devi community for women Rukmini Devi Dasi; famous chef and author Kurma Das; ISKCON India leader Gauranga Das, senior devotee and lawyer from California Radha Devi Dasi, and Hari Parshad Das of the GBC Sastric Advisory Council.
“Because most of the devotees tend to specialize in one area of Krishna consciousness, when we view the whole package of all these different speakers, we see that there is so much unity in the diversity of Krishna consciousness,” Madana-gopala says.
Devotees can choose from two ways to see the classes – if they just want to watch them without interaction, they can go to the live parallel Youtube broadcast. If they would like to interact with the speakers and ask questions directly via video chat, however, they can join the Zoom call.
Krsnanandini Devi Dasi speaks on how to develop fearlessness and take shelter of Krishna
At the end of each talk – or throughout during Jayadvaita Swami’s classes – devotees can virtually “raise their hands” by clicking on a button in Zoom, if they would like to ask a question. As the moderator, Madana-gopala then unmutes them so that they can be heard, and their image automatically enlarges on everyone’s screen.
Other Zoom features include the ability to configure one’s screen to show either just the speaker, or the entire crowd; this gives the experience a personal feel, which is particularly important for the speaker.
“You can see everyone’s expressions, and their responsiveness during the talk,” Madana-gopala says. “If someone’s excited, or laughing or smiling, you can see it – so it feels like you’re talking to an audience.”
In addition, at the end of every talk, three to four minutes are set aside where devotees can unmute themselves and everyone can say a quick Haribol or thank you to the speaker, which adds another element of sweetness. “That way the speaker feels appreciated, and the devotees who attended feel that they got the chance to express their appreciation, which makes the whole thing much more personal,” says Madana-gopala.
The Towaco Zoom Sangas have been deeply appreciated and been a major lifeline for devotees during the quarantine. “This daily online sanga has been one of the biggest highlights and saving graces during this pandemic,” wrote one successful businesswoman in New York, who was introduced to Krishna consciousness a year ago. “Thank you all so much. I know I personally can say that I’ve benefitted and learned very much. It’s truly Krishna’s mercy flowing through all of you to us. As someone relatively new to the movement, I have heard from speakers I’ve never heard from or even known of before. This has been such a blessing.”
Speakers have also felt enthused by having the chance to connect with so many devotees, and have signed up for repeat sessions.
After more than two months of service to the devotee community, the future of a seven-night a week online sanga is unclear as June begins and more U.S. states start to reopen. “If attendance starts dropping, it may also be harder to get speakers to come,” Madana-gopala says. So our team, which includes ISKCON of New Jersey temple president Nilamani Das, Vice President Shayamakunda Das, and Bhakti Center co-director Yasoda-dulal Das is assessing what to do. We may have to reduce the number of sessions per week, or, if the enthusiasm remains, we may do it till the end of the year or for however long it lasts.”
For now, the sanga is continuing, with Dvarakadhisa Das and Visakha Dasi speaking about spiritual immunity at 11am on Saturday May 30th, Hari Parsada Das on Understanding Krishna’s Abode in the Material World at 8pm on Saturday, and Ananda Vrindavan Dasi and Vraja Vihari Das speaking on the topic “We Are Not Vishnu” on Sunday at 6pm. Further out, Brahma Tirtha Das of Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers, and Chaturatma Das of Lives of the Vaishnava Saints will both speak, as will Sacinandana Swami on June 20th.
To experience a true treasure of the quarantined ISKCON world live, visit https://www.iskconofnewjersey.org/ every week for the latest schedule of speakers, as well as the next Zoom and Youtube links.
To watch the full collection of classes after they have aired, visit https://www.youtube.com/user/mnb125/videos
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