This summer, as they do every year, ISKCON Youth Ministry volunteer Manu Dasa and fifty-five youth will travel across the United States and Canada, performing at and helping set up eight Rathayatras around the country.
But for the past three years, they’ve been upping their game. In 2005, the Krishna Culture Festival Tour began staging their own festivals as well, performing Bharat-Natyam dance, drama, and kirtana to packed-out theaters and universities along their route. “We started out with just three shows, as an experiment to see if we could reach a different audience from the varied, unfocused crowd at Rathayatras,” says Manu. “An audience who would come exclusively to see our exhaustively-rehearsed performances.”
In each town, the youth created an advance buzz for their Krishna Culture performances by placing newspaper ads and selling advance tickets, doubling their shows by 2006. By 2007, they had twenty performance venues. And the audiences came.
“What stands out is that these people aren’t Indians or congregational members,” Manu says. “They’re regular Canadians and Americans, unfamiliar with Krishna consciousness and Indian culture. And they love the show.”
A video of last year’s show at Lakehead University in Thunderbay, Canada, shows audience members receiving plates of prasadam and browsing Prabhupada’s books as they exit the auditorium, before delivering their enthusiastic testimonials: “I see your performance every year.” “This is my third year coming to see you guys.” “Please come back next year!”
“You could argue that the young people just tag along at Rathayatras, which are organized by their parents,” says Manu. “But they have organized these festivals themselves without any involvement from the older generation. And they’re reaching out to an audience who are brand new to Krishna consciousness. It’s inspiring.”
Back in 1993, all this would have seemed like a fantastical dream to a young Manu and his friends as they plotted to drive from LA’s youth reunion to San Francisco Rathayatra. They borrowed an old camper van for the one-week trip, stopping at Yosemite National Park and several temples on the coast.
By 1995, they had added a school bus to their fleet and embarked on a two-week tour, covering 1,500 miles and enlisting senior devotees as bus drivers. “On the third day of the tour, the school bus broke down, and all forty-five of us had to pile into the twenty-two capacity motor-home,” says Manu.
Today, the Krishna Culture Festival tour boasts separate boys’ and girls’ buses kitted out with bunk beds, stops at most of the temples in North America and Canada, and has crossed every state except Maine, which they’ll check off their list this year. “I dug up the map for our 1,500 mile tour in 1995 the other day, and couldn’t help laughing,” Manu says. “Because nowadays, the bus tour lasts two and a half months, and covers 18,000 miles.”
Performing at the Rathayatras and theatre festivals along the way helps fulfill the bus tour motto to inspire youth in Krishna consciousness. “Often kids growing up as devotees think people aren’t going to like them if they present themselves as a Hare Krishna,” says Manu. “But on the tour, regular people see them on stage singing kirtan and playing mrdanga, and they sing along and love it! When our youth hear outsiders telling them they love their music and costumes and culture, it makes them feel valued.”
Visiting temples across the nation also helps bus tour participants feel valued as part of their greater ISKCON family. “When fifty-five of us arrive at a temple and say, cut up tons of vegetables for the feast, we make part of that festival happen,” says Manu. “As an individual on the tour, you get the sense that ‘I helped put on these festivals – I made a difference this summer.’”
With so much focus on Krishna consciousness and service, the youth need to stay spiritually charged. This summer, they’ll take a mantra meditation retreat, spending one of its five days under a vow of silence but for sixty-four rounds of the maha-mantra. Sannyasis such as Jayadvaita Swami and Bhakti Marg Swami also add to the spiritual atmosphere, traveling with the tour and encouraging spiritual discussions around the evening campfires.
Of course, this being a youth tour, it has its fair share of fun and games too. “When ISKCON Youth Ministry interviewed many youth through our magazines Spirit and As It Is in the early days, we found that one of the most popular aspirations they had was to travel and see the world,” says Manu. “The Krishna Culture Festival Tour incorporates that desire into a Krishna Conscious experience. We visit some of the most beautiful nature spots in America. We camp at Yosemite National Park, see the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, hike in the Rocky Mountains, swim in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, explore Carlsbad Caverns, and snorkel in the third largest living coral reef in the world – John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, Florida.”
Wherever they travel, the festival tour youth evoke smiles, wide eyes and healthy curiosity. On a promotional video for last year’s tour, a hip African-American spectator watching the youth chanting on the street remarked, “Well, it’s very different from the robot-man.” He elaborated, “It’s beautiful! I don’t understand the words, but I think it’s very powerful.”
Manu feels that being up front about the fact that they’re Hare Krishnas is a positive approach. “When people see these kids kids with their beautiful stylishly worn saris and fancy South-Indian dhotis, they think, ‘Wow, these are some young, cool-looking Hare Krishnas! No old fuddy-duddies with mismatched socks here.’”
For this new generation of devotees, reliving the early preaching experiences that their parents had, the future is bright and exciting. Asha, a charity organization of Hindu students at Ivy League universities around the country, has taken notice of them, and might be their ticket to some of the USA’s biggest universities, including Princeton, MIT, and Stanford. “The Asha people hold fund-raising events to help children in India go to elementary school,” Manu explains, “And book cultural performers, like us, for them. They do all the promotion, get the theater, fill it up with people, and then give us the stage.”
But a few performances, even at such prestigious universities, isn’t enough for Manu and the other Krishna Culture Festival organizers. Once they’ve built up an impressive portfolio, they plan to make presentations to universities in the hope that they’ll be invited to perform all year around, not just in the summer. “Universities have a sizeable budget for cultural diversity education,” Manu says. “They can easily get grants to bring us to their campus to broaden the cultural horizons of their students. We could then have a year-around festival tour, supported by donations from the universities.”
Youth aged 16-25 who want to be a part of this vision, and travel on the Krishna Culture Festival Tour from June 21 till August 25 this summer, can find application forms at Krishna.com/bustour. You must have either grown up in ISKCON or its congregation, or be a young recently joined devotee who’d like to broaden your experience of the Hare Krishna movement and travel around America with some of its youth. It could change your life.
“I’m always inspired by the transformational experiences that people have on the tour,” Manu says. “I see that they actually get something out of it that inspires them in their Krishna consciousness. And that’s what enlivens me to keep doing it year after year.”
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