This year saw the Sadhu Sanga Retreat, the biggest ISKCON kirtan event in North America, continue its remarkable growth while offering up something special for ISKCON’s 50th anniversary.
The retreat is held every year at the Art of Living Foundation’s International Meditation Center in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains in Boone, North Carolina. It immerses participants in the Holy Name from morning till night, with an ever-expanding list of senior Vaishnavas guiding them in developing a deeper taste.
From an attendance of just 400 when it launched in 2011, this year’s event – running May 27th through 30th -- drew an incredible 1,800.
1,800 people raise their arms and chant the Holy Names
As a unique gesture for ISKCON’s 50th anniversary, over 100 disciples of Srila Prabhupada were admitted and accommodated for free – a thank you for renouncing their careers to dedicate most of their lives to his mission.
Meanwhile at the express desire of gurus Indradyumna Swami and Sacinandana Swami, children and youth were also given special attention as the future leaders for the next fifty years of ISKCON.
Attendance of children under twelve increased by over 300 this year, and all were provided parallel activities to engage them during the main program. Children under five had arts and crafts and their own kirtans with chanter Madhava Das to encourage them in developing love for the Holy Name early. Those over five had sports activities, inflatable castles, and guided japa walks in the beautiful trails around the retreat center.
Indradyumna Swami leads an ecstatic kirtan
Heart-warmingly, senior kirtaniyas like Indradyumna Swami and Vaisesika Das also invited many children onto the main stage to chant along with them. “It was so nice to see them encouraging the kids and making them feel like part of the kirtaniya group,” says co-organizer Ram Vijaya Das.
Older youth were also a major presence at Sadhu Sanga this year too, with ISKCON Youth Ministry incorporating it into its Traveling Kirtan Experience bus tour, which teaches the mood and techniques of kirtan as a service.
In addition Rukmini-priya Dasi, 23, from Alachua, Florida, and Braja-vallabhi Dasi, 21, from Australia emceed the entire event, symbolizing ISKCON’s trust in passing responsibilities on to the next generation.
Nadiya Mani leads as the stage is transformed into the Jaladuta ship, taking Prabhupada from Vrindavana to New York City
Continuing the ISKCON 50 theme, the huge stage in the retreat center’s sprawling main hall was expertly decorated by Krishna Murari Das from New Zealand to depict Srila Prabhupada’s journey from Vrindavana, India to New York City. Cardboard cut-outs of Vrindavana’s most famous temples, with atmospheric lighting to create a 3D effect, stood on one side of the stage, with New York City skyscrapers on the other. Meanwhile across the front were ocean waves, turning the stage itself into the Jaladuta steamship Prabhupada rode to deliver his message.
A full temple morning program was held every day for the Jagannath Deities on stage followed by inspirational classes on the Srimad-Bhagavatam from Vaisesika Das on Saturday, Giriraj Swami on Sunday, and Malatai Dasi on Monday.
Hours of ecstatic kirtan would then run from 9am all the way until 11 o’clock at night, with lunch and dinner breaks in between. All the chanters, from different parts of the world, each brought their own flavor.
The devotees are delighted as Agnideva ups the ante
From the US, Badahari Das came with his deeply devotional and meditative kirtans. Indradyumna Swami, and his long-time transcendental sidekick Sri Prahlad Das from Australia, brought an uplifting, festive mood. Second generation devotee Nadiya Mani Dasi from the UK had her own sweet style. Mukunda Datta Das from Vrindavana, India brought classical ragas.
ISKCON kirtan legend and Sadhu Sanga first-timer Agnideva Das from Trinidad would take his kirtans off the stage, crashing his “whompers” together as the thrilled devotees crowded around him and the chanting reached fever pitch.
ISKCON Silicon Valley leader Vaisesika Das sang Vaishnava bhajans, explaining them in between the chanting, to bring the audience deeper into the mood of previous acharyas.
Sadhu Sanga's more than 600 volunteers provide service with a smile
And the one-two punch of Madhava Das and B.B. Govinda Swami – coming all the way from Switzerland and Kazakhstan respectively – concluded every evening with a meditative slow burn that eventually erupted into wild dancing.
Throughout all this, organizers Ram Vijaya, Govinda Charan and his wife Rasika Siromani made sure participants were exceptionally well taken care of, continuing to up their game from previous festivals. They provided onsite accommodation for the majority of the guests, and booked nearby hotels to give discounted rooms to the rest. They arranged for a shuttle service to take people back and forth from offsite hotels every hour.
Meanwhile their kitchen team, led by the head chefs at ISKCON Dallas’ Kalachandji’s Restaurant, provided a variety of international cuisines with vegan, gluten-free and nut-free items at every meal. They even gave devotees with very specific dietary needs kitchen space to cook their own meals. And they had a “premade plate lane” at serve-out to get everyone their meals as quickly as possible.
(left to right) Organizers Govinda Charan, Rasika Siromani and Ram Vijay speak
To share the retreat with the many devotees around the world who were not able to attend, Sadhu Sanga’s organizers provided a live HD telecast on Mayapur.tv with five or six different cameras covering the entire kirtan hall from different angles. At peak times, the telecast was viewed by around 500 devotees, making it one of Mayapur.tv’s most popular.
Of course, a huge crew of over 600 devotees volunteered to achieve all this, cooperating together in loving service. And to thank them, Sadhu Sanga gave each of them free t-shirts designed by Rukmini-priya Dasi and showing the Hare Krishna mantra traveling from India to New York and all over the world.
Specially-designed ISKCON 50 hooded sweatshirts were also distributed to all the attendees. These distilled Srila Prabhupada’s seven purposes for ISKCON into two-word phrases – spiritual education; Krishna consciousness; loving relationships; congregational chanting; temple construction; farm communities; and book distribution – and embedded them into ISKCON’s tilak-lotus logo.
Sadhu Sanga is held in a gorgeous retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina
As usual, participants raved about the retreat. Many devotees felt that the mood of service embodied what they had heard about the spiritual world. Newcomers from yoga groups and other organizations felt touched by the spiritual atmosphere. All promised to return and bring a friend.
“Rama-Vijaya is a sales executive at IBM, and my husband Govinda Charan and I both work full-time at Google,” says co-organizer Rasika Siromani. “So we do the organization of this festival during nights and weekends, and it is a lot of work. But when I see the devotees sitting in the kirtan, meditating, calling out Krishna’s names with so much intensity, I feel like all the effort, all the sleepless nights, is worth it.”[ kirtana ] [ north-carolina ] [ sadhu-sanga-retreat ]