Members of ISKCON Canada’s Toronto and Brampton communities have purchased a country resort which they hope will be an innovative tool for congregational development, a retirement home for senior devotees, and the first “for profit” Vaishnava retreat in North America.
For many years, the retreat had remained little more than a dream. But in 2007, ISKCON leader Bhaktimarga Swami’s father, Mr John Vis Senior, passed away and left his son a $50,000 inheritance. Eager to support the efforts of his fellow Vaishnavas, the Canadian-born Swami deposited the entire sum into a bank account and issued a challenge: “If you find a place within six months, you can use this money for your down-payment. If not, I will take it back!”
The Toronto and Brampton ISKCON communities immediately sprang into action, combining forces to create a proactive committee. This included PR officer Praharana Dasi, whose daughter, Krishna Keli, found the perfect property after an extensive internet search – a resort located in Muskoka / Haliburton, an area in Northern Ontario famous for its natural beauty. Another member of the committee, chartered accountant Radhika Ramana Dasa, took advantage of the faltering economy, and using his impressive negotiating skills over a period of five months, snapped up the property for the best price available.
To pick a name for the retreat, the committee held a contest for Toronto and Brampton devotees, selecting six names from a list of hundreds. They then wrote these onto pieces of paper, folded them up, and nominated Praharana to pick one. She chose “Varsana,” the birthplace of Krishna’s consort Radharani. No one thought it was a coincidence that the day happened to be Radhastami, Radharani’s birthday.
Visiting the resort for the first time, Praharana Dasi, on-site manager Keshava Dasa, and the other committee members were impressed by the natural beauty of the place. “The area is mainly pine and deciduous forest, dotted with lakes and rivers,” Praharana says. “And there’s abundant wildlife, including the famous Canadian loons, deer, moose, beavers and bears. Varsana sits on Pickerel Lake, which is fed by a river running out of Algonquin Park, a provincial park one fourth the size of Belgium. And behind the property, we own a further 200 acres of forest.”
Despite the remote feel, Varsana is only two and a half hours drive from Toronto, and the nearby towns of Burk’s Falls and Huntsville provide all regular amenities and good medical facilities.
The retreat itself consists of 23 complete townhouse-style units – 12 one bedroom, 8 two bedroom, and 3 large Viceroy homes. ISKCON Toronto will purchase one large house for its donors, youth, visiting guests and temple devotees, but the rest will be sold to families or individual devotees. Only ISKCON devotees are eligible to purchase, and to ensure a safe community, they must be known to the organizers or have good references from an ISKCON authority. “Most devotees will use the units as a weekend spiritual getaway or summer retreat but some, particularly retired devotees, will choose to live there,” Praharana says. “There are no ashram facilities at present.”
Two other buildings fill out the property: First there’s the main lodge, with eleven large suites and attached bathrooms, which will be run like a hotel. It’s fully kitted out with an indoor pool, two restaurants, commercial kitchen and laundry, and even a games room.
Then there’s the conference center, a two-story Canadian-style log building with a view of the lake, built by the previous owner at a cost of about one million dollars. This will serve as Varsana’s temple, conference center, and yoga facility. “It will include a nice altar for devotees to worship their home deities on – a permanent deity installation will be discussed when enough devotees permanently serve and live at the retreat,” says Praharana. “There will of course be a regular morning program at the temple for residents, but weekends and special festivals will be the most lively.”
The first “For Profit” ISKCON retreat in North America, Varasana will be open to visitors looking for a vegetarian/ alcohol-free holiday where they can have fun with their families and experience a spiritual retreat atmosphere. Special weekend packages include “Learn how to cook veggie,” “Yoga retreat,” and “Veggie canoe trips.” Since the area is also famous for winter sports, the resort will operate throughout the year, offering activities such as cross-country skiing and skating on the lake’s surface.
“It’s an innovative way to introduce many people to Krishna consciousness, support ISKCON Toronto and ISKCON Brampton, and of course to expand the project,” Praharana says. “The amenities here are first class, and many people will be happy to pay the going rates to take advantage of them. Our challenge will be to provide the best service and management possible.”
Other programs at Varsana will be focused on devotees, including japa retreats, workshops, grihasta retreas, youth events, and children’s summer camps.
In the future, Varsana organizers plan to build a care center with nursing home level facilities including palliative care. Retired devotees will also be able to choose to live in their own units at the retreat. “Our society has an ageing population, and retiring in a spiritual environment is so essential for devotees,” says Praharana. “Here, we will cultivate an environment of respect and caring for our older devotees.”
Varsana organizers also aim for the community to eventually be self-sufficient. Plans include building a greenhouse for year-round fruit and vegetable produce, purchase of a small local farm for grain production, and using solar panels or wind turbines to produce their own electricity. The community already has unlimited clean water, a major requirement for self sufficiency.
Praharana expects Varsana to raise the profile of ISKCON in Canada. “It’s a unique outreach project and introduces a new concept; a spiritual retreat for our urban devotees close to both Toronto and Ottawa,” she says. “It will enliven devotees, give them a chance to serve in outreach and allow their families to associate in a beautiful spiritually-surcharged place on a regular basis. It will give our congregations much more than a weekly Sunday feast program.”
Organizers invite other ISKCON communities, particularly Ottowa and Montreal, to participate in the project. Fully furnished units are available for purchase at Varsana now, with ownership of the property transferring to ISKCON on May 7.