From an original report by Abhiram Das
Today, Ramaraya Das leads parties of twenty-five or more devotees in chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra at Union Square Park in Manhattan, New York City, every day without fail. Hitting the streets from their very own Harinama Ashram, they chant and dance enthusiastically, spinning about in their traditional dhotis and saris, passing out books by ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada and drawing passersby to join in the fun.
But things weren’t always so easy for Ramaraya.
After serving with the late Aindra Das as one of his key kirtaniyas at the 24 Hour Kirtan in Vrindavana Dhama, India for decades, Ramaraya recently moved to New York. There, he was inspired to carry on singing the Holy Names of God with the same dedication that had been instilled in him in Aindra’s program.
In his mid-fifties, Ramaraya started his effort with only a few devotees, no financial support and no place to stay. He spent the first freezing winter months performing kirtan daily in the New York City subways, encouraged by the Manhattan workers who would spontaneously join in.
Some devotees, inspired by his commitment, joined him. But eighteen months later, he still had only four dedicated men, and no fixed residence.
That was when Prabhupada disciple Abhiram Das came across the lonely kirtan team, sitting in the heart of New York, and became so inspired by their effort that he, too, joined.
With a long history of establishing temples and other facilities such as the Mayapur Vrindavan Trust’s Guesthouse and Bhaktivedanta Ashram in Vrindavana, India, Abhiram rented a basement for the small group and began living and chanting with them.
Over the summer of 2013, the team grew to seven full-time brahmacharis (celibate monks), and moved into what Abhiram calls “slightly improved facilities.”
“The ‘improved’ facilities meant that now seven men could pack into a 500-square-foot apartment and at least have regular Prasad [sanctified vegetarian food] and spiritual morning programs,” he says.
Abhiram led the morning programs, cooked kichari for the team and sent them out with Ramaraya. With his enlarged, invigorated support team, he now chanted for six hours daily.
More devotees living in the New York area began to lend their support, with members of the public also beginning to regularly sit in on the kirtan. Some joined full time, like former rap group frontman Bhakta Lee, who replaced his dreadlocks with a dhoti and tilak, and quickly learned to play traditional Vaishnava instruments like mridanga and kartals.
Then in May of this year, seemingly out of the blue, offers were made to assist in finding a proper ashram, and the Harinama party moved into the property where they currently reside: a recently renovated four-storey residential ashram with a cook and a small temple room, thirty minutes by subway from their daily spot at Union Square.
“The New York City Harinama Ashram is now growing so fast!” Abhiram says. “Nearly every corner of the new facility is filled to capacity. There are eighteen full-time devotees, plus several constantly visiting devotees. On Saturday June 22nd alone, the party distributed 250 large books by Srila Prabhupada. And although the average is still only one third of that amount, the team is determined to become a major factor in book distribution by gradually building their skills. So now, in addition to broadcasting the Holy Name, book distribution is also growing.”
Team members remember their early struggles fondly. “Daily they were just begging the Lord to help them get by, each day, so they could keep chanting his Holy Names,” says Abhiram.
According to Abhiram, some of the young devotees who are currently resident at the Ashram say they never want to leave their exciting mission despite the challenges of living in New York City.
“We constantly pray that Srila Prabhupada and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu will be pleased by our efforts, and we invite all devotees to consider a mass return to the streets, where ISKCON met with so much success in the past,” he says. “Srila Prabhupada’s system is as relevant and practical as it was in the so-called ‘olden days’! New Yorkers love to see us, and we meet with only gentle smiles and often clapping and dancing by the passers-by.”
For more information about the New York City Harinama Ashram, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.[ harinama ] [ kirtana ] [ new-york-city ]