on Nov. 29, 2008
For many years, ISKCON’s Krishna Balarama temple in Vrindavana has invited all the holy town’s Vaishnava Mahants (Ashrama heads) to enjoy a feast during Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance day festival. But this year marks the first that ISKCON invited the Mahants to eat at their own Krishna Balarama property, rather than at the usual Fogla Ashrama location.
“At first we were overwhelmed by the huge number of devotees attending Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance this year and didn’t serve the feast at all,” says long-time Vrindavana resident Dina Bandhu Dasa. “But I insisted that we still do it as soon as we could so as not to disappoint the Mahants and sever our relationship with them.”
Sure enough, the Ashram heads were disappointed at not having been invited. But head Mahant Hari Shankar was appeased when the feast was rescheduled for November 14, the western date of Srila Prabhupada's disappearance. And since the festival was over, devotees said, the feast would be served in a pandal tent on ISKCON’s own property. Surprised yet delighted at this, Hari Shankar promised he would convince all the Mahants to attend the historic first-time event.
“I also asked him if it would be okay for our own devotees to cook the food as opposed to the Brijbasi Brahmin cooks we usually hire,” says Dina Bandhu. “At first he was concerned that some may be dressed in shirt and pants, but when I told him that all the cooks would be devotees dressed in dhotis and kanthi-mala beads, he was pleased.”
On the night prior to the feast, Dina Bandhu carefully coached all the servers in the proper etiquette for serving sadhus (saintly people). “Because of our upbringing, we’re unfamiliar with it, but mostly it’s just common sense hygiene,” he explains. “You first have to serve water, as they will wash their plates and perform the achamana ritual before eating. Then you have to make sure you never touch the plates with the serving spoon or touch the serving bucket to the floor.”
On the day of the event, devotees cleaned their food hall and covered it with a fresh coating of cow dung. They then honored the Mahant’s ceremonial flags by placing them on a raised stage and offering them the prasadam food first, as per custom.
“All the phalahar babas, who eat only fruit, sat on one side with everyone else on the other,” Dina Bandhu says. “More than 120 of Vrindavana’s 170 Mahants showed up -- not everyone could because some were traveling.”
Every Mahant was then given dakshina – a monetary donation signifying respect – as well as a Radha Shyamasundar calendar and Hindi Back to Godhead magazine. All expressed their appreciation of the tasty and properly served food.
“Now that the Mahants have accepted prasadam cooked by our devotees at our ISKCON property, we have been completely accepted by the Sadhu Samaja, Vrindavana’s group of saintly people,” Dina Bandhu says. “That’s a big honor for us – the Mahants have rejected invitations from many affluent temples because they don’t consider them bona fide.”
This new honor comes two years after Hari Shankar fought hard to make ISKCON member Lokanath Swami a Sri Mahant, securing ISKCON an official place in the world-famous Kumbha Mela procession.