This year ISKCON proudly celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of its Nama-hatta project, which sees to the spiritual development of congregational devotees.
References to the goal and spirit of Nama-hatta can be traced back to the time of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the fifteenth century saint revered by Vaishnavas as God, or Krishna, Himself. The Lord’s famous order to His pioneering associates Sri Nityananda Prabhu and Sri Haridas Thakura is recorded in the ancient book Chaitanya Bhagavata:
“O hear Me, hear Me Nityananda! Hear Me Haridasa! Simply disseminate My order everywhere. Go from house to house and beg [the residents as follows]: ‘Speak about Krishna, worship Krishna and teach [others] about Krishna.’ ”
Just a few hundred years after Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the great Vaishnava saint Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura continued his mission. “I am singing news of the greatest happiness!” he said in his book Vaisnava-siddhanta-mala, referring to his Nama-hatta work. “At the place known as Surabhi Kunja in Sri Navadvipa, the Marketplace of the Holy Name has now been opened and Lord Nityananda Himself is the Proprietor."
Today, Sri Chaitanya’s mission to inundate the world with Krishna’s name has been re-introduced—by His mercy and by the mercy of his devotee, ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada—in the form of ISKCON Mayapur’s Nama-hatta program, run by devotees there under the guidance and inspiration of His Holiness Jayapataka Swami.
The First Nama-hatta Group
ISKCON’s Nama-hatta program officially began in September 1979, when a group of enthusiastic villagers living near ISKCON’s headquarters in Mayapur, West Bengal filled in their application form and officially became the first registered Nama-hatta Sanga.
Earlier that year, Jayapataka Swami had held a meeting with devotees about introducing the Nama-hatta program originally outlined by Bhaktivinode Thakura in his Godruma Kalpatavi. The small book was unknown to most devotees, as it had not yet been translated from its original Bengali text.
I had been serving as the New Bhakta (Devotee) Director for about one year, and when invited to attend the meeting I showed interest in becoming involved, getting a glimpse of the program’s large potential.
The Nama-hatta activities started on a very small scale with only a handful of devotees and with very little facilities. The only rooms available at that time were located in the basement of ISKCON Mayapur’s Chakra Building. I chose two—one for my office and the other for my residence. We had no budget for the Nama-hatta program, and no source of income.
Initially, the program was separate from the Mayapur temple management and was mainly financed by Jayapataka Swami. In those early days, and until I continued to serve in Mayapur up until 1986, we had no computers, no cell phones, no cameras, and no vehicles other than a couple of bicycles.
As the program expanded we required more and more space, which was gradually made available in the basement of the Chakra Building. The number of preachers joining the Nama-hatta Department also gradually increased.
Still, the Nama-hatta office remained located in the basement of the long building for many years, hidden and less known to the general public.
In its initial stages of development, the Nama-hatta program could not be so easily understood or appreciated by many devotees, because it involved mostly devotees living outside our temple. It was somewhat of a struggle to get general temple devotees or administration to accept the program.
When we decided to hold the first Nama-hatta Sammelan in the year 1980, something that became a yearly affair attracting thousands of Nama-hatta devotees, the Mayapur administration had a little difficulty relating to the event because it was organized independently from other temple programs.
It was a little strange to find myself, as the Regional Director of Nama-hatta, inviting the Mayapur Temple President to our function—at the temple. But gradually, by Lord Chaitanya’s mercy and that of the devotees, the program became more integrated and accepted by more and more devotees.
To bring the Nama-hatta members closer together and to enthuse them in their outreach work, as well as to increase the number of new Nama-hatta Sangas, the Nama-hatta office organized a yearly Sammelan.
It was a big event, drawing Nama-hatta groups from remote villages, mainly of West Bengal and Orissa. They would all converge on Sri Mayapur, each bringing their colourful Nama-hatta banners which proudly displayed the name of their village and district. Various awards and prizes such as mrdanga drums, karatala cymbals, books, and Deity worship paraphernalia were given as incentives to those Nama-hatta Sangas showing the best performances in their spiritual practices and outreach efforts.
Two of the earlier pioneers in the Nama-hatta program were Gauranga Prema Swami, who now heads up the Mayapur Nama-hatta Department, and Gaura Chandra Dasa, who is presently the most senior Nama-hatta preacher, assisting Gauranga Prema Swami.
Originally from the District of Balasore in Orissa, Gaura Chandra was barely sixteen when he arrived in Sri Mayapur to join as a full-time devotee—and soon after, as a full time preacher under the Nama-hatta Department.
Both these devotees have now been connected with the program for close to thirty years and remain the main inspirational leaders. Other pioneers from West Bengal included Svetadwipa Dasa, Braja Raja Dasa, and Koladwipa Dasa, along with many other preachers.
One of the most enthusiastic devotees involved in the Nama-hatta program was “Dadu.” In 1979, when I was still the New Devotee Director in Sri Mayapur, an old man with long matted hair appeared in my office one day. He was around eighty years old, and had been living in a cave for many years somewhere in Assam.
Somehow, by the mercy of some travelling preachers, he had received a copy of Back to Godhead, ISKCON’s official magazine. Soon after reading it, he came to Sri Mayapur with the idea of joining as a full-time devotee. We didn’t really know what to make of him, because he was already quite old and all our new devotees were rather young. He must have been wearing his matted hair for decades, because when undone, it touched the floor.
For the first night at the temple he decided to sleep on the floor in the hallway of the Chakra Building. The next day, we had more serious discussions with him about how it may be somewhat difficult for him to become a full-time devotee at his age. Seeing his strong determination, however, we told him that he had to cut off his long, matted hair.
He immediately proceeded to the Ganga close by and shaved off his long hair, thus joining as a full time devotee. Soon after, he joined the Nama-hatta outreach program. He would attend functions in local villages and very enthusiastically stand on the stage, encouraging everyone to chant the holy names of Krishna.
In the beginning, the Nama-hatta devotees had to manage with but few facilities. The devotees would travel by public transport (bus, train, boat, bullock cart, and walking) to different parts of West Bengal, Orissa, and Assam. As soon as we started to register Nama-hatta Sangas, more and more village people came to know about the program and often would show up at the Nama-hatta office to register their local Sanga.
The registration procedure was very simple. The registration fee was nominal and the regulations to follow were also kept at a minimum. At least five people of the same village were needed to register as a Nama-hatta Sanga.
To qualify as a registered Nama-hatta Sanga they agreed to meet once a week in their village and to sing Krishna’s names, as well as hear from sacred texts. Members were encouraged to chant a few rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra on their japa beads, and to visit Mayapur whenever possible.
It was a very simple program. Whenever possible, we would also visit their village. For me, it was very inspiring to see so many people take to the practice of devotional service. Within the first few years, we had registered over one thousand Nama-hatta Sangas.
One of the attractive and innovative methods introduced by Jayapataka Swami to connect more people to the Nama-hatta was the Samskara Patra, an official Nama-hatta “Oath Card” whereby one would pledge to chant at least one round of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra every day. Dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of enthusiastic temple visitors would line up after each program and would promise to chant at least one round. Some people would keep this card with them for years and years, proudly showing it to our preachers when coming to the temple, still remembering the day when they received their Samskara Patra.
Touring North Bengal
Every year an annual tour was organized in various parts of North Bengal at which time Jayapataka Swami would travel with his own special German-made bus and entourage of devotees. The bus had a built-in bed so that he could stay comfortably; good facilities were not present in many of the locations they traveled to. The bus also enabled Jayapataka Swami to work on his computer, which he carried during his preaching tours.
This annual North Bengal tour helped to make many devotees and thus boosted the outreach activities of Nama-hatta considerably. It was during these tours that large pandal (tent) programs would be organized, attracting thousands of curious onlookers.
To arrange these tours required quite a bit of planning, most of which was done by our Bengali preachers travelling ahead to make the arrangements. As the Nama-hatta members became more familiar with these tours, they themselves made all the arrangements for staying and for prasadam. At times up to fifty devotees or more would be travelling with Jayapataka Swami.
Outreach with His Holiness Jayapataka Swami
From the very inception of the Nama-hatta program until its present state of development, Jayapataka Swami continually underwent many great austerities to establish and promote the outreach. I remember how sometimes he would arrive from overseas and have to dash to Howrah station to catch a night train to some remote village where programs had already been scheduled. He would then make his way to the local pandal, sometimes using his own small flashlight because no one had thought to provide a proper lamp or lantern. In those early days, the arrangements in the villages were quite simple and humble. Nevertheless, His Holiness was always ready to accept any inconvenience for preaching to the local eager listeners in their native Bengali language.
The Nama-hatta program has developed very widely. Today it has its own ministry, the ISKCON Congregational Development Ministry, headed by global minister Jayapataka Swami and secretary Kaunteya Dasa.
In addition, the grand Nama-hatta Bhavan building in Mayapur accommodates the thousands of members who visit every year, and also serves as the headquarters for coordinating the department’s many activities.