June 20, New Vrindaban, West Virginia – This weekend sees devotees and guests from all over North America and the world pour into ISKCON’s New Vrindaban community for the third annual 24 Hour Kirtan Festival, a celebration of India’s ancient practice of call and response chanting.
The event is modeled after the original 24 Hour Kirtan in Vrindaban, India. First launched in 1975, the program faded away three years later, but was revived in 1986 by Srila Prabhupada disciple Aindra Dasa. Since then, devotees at ISKCON’s Krishna Balaram Mandir have chanted God’s names non-stop—24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
As a fan of this program Ananta-Govinda Dasa, the drummer for up-and-coming kirtan band As Kindred Spirits, wanted to recreate the experience in America. Kirtan was an important part of all ISKCON festivals—but why not make one where kirtan was the festival?
He joined forces with Gopal Dasa of the original Vrindaban 24-hour Kirtan, As Kindred Spirits lead singer Gaura Vani, and residents of ISKCON’s West Virginia rural community—aptly named New Vrindaban—and in 2007, the first 24 Hour Kirtan Festival was held. With 400 attendees, it was a thrilling experience, despite a lack of lead singers and less than ideal scheduling.
The event was refined in 2008, when it drew a crowd of six hundred, and things continue to get bigger and better, with 800 expected this year. An increasing number of these are, surprisingly, from outside the ISKCON community. There are members of the yoga community, meditators, friends of devotees, and even complete newbees, all drawn by the uniqueness of a 24 hour festival that’s nothing but chanting.
But what is it all really about? “Kirtan is about transformation—taking a material situation and transforming it into a divine one,” says Gaura Vani, whose Mantralogy event company is behind the festival and also backed January’s presidential inauguration kirtan, Chant 4 Change. “The founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Shri Chaitanya, said that the heart is like a looking glass—it shows you who you are, who God is, and what your connection is. But with our hearts covered by lifetimes of material experiences, we need kirtan to polish the looking glass so that we can see things as they are. Kirtan reestablishes our connection with the divine, and ultimately realigns us with our final destination, the divine world.”
All in all, the event will feature 20 to 30 lead singers, including Agnideva Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada and one of the original kirtan masters since the 1970s. joining him will be Radhanatha Swami, ISKCON Toronto's Ajamila Dasa, and renowned kirtan artist Keshavacarya Dasa.
Gurukulis, or second generation devotees, will also make up a major part of the spiritual talent. Well known singers Madhava Dasa from Switzerland, Visvambhar Dasa from Florida, and As Kindred Spirits members Ananta Govinda, Acyuta Gopi, and Gaura Vani will join their senior counterparts. One could go so far as saying that New Vrindaban’s 24 Hour Kirtan is a festival driven by the second generation.
“Gurukulis have a reputation for loving kirtan because we’ve been listening well to our parents!” laughs Gaura Vani. “As we were growing up, they always talked about how the ultimate expression of a devotional heart is chanting the holy names, and how the purpose of all of our teachings and principles is to create an atmosphere where we can chant constantly. So with all of our faults, the one thing the younger generation has got right is our love for chanting.”
Each singer at 24 Hour Kirtan gets a trim slot of up to one hour’s time; but all 800 attendees will try to stay up as long as humanly possible. “Most of us stay up for twenty hours and take a four hour nap when we hit the wall,” Gaura Vani says. “And yes, a few very dedicated souls do manage to make it all the way through.”
Prasadam, or sacred food, is taken in shifts to ensure that the chanting never stops. At a very affordable $30 for all meals, food is the only cost to the event.
Attendees arrived on Friday night, and will immerse themselves in 24 hours of chanting from 8am on Saturday June 20 until 8am on Sunday June 21. And for some festival participants, including Radhanatha Swami, Agnideva, and As Kindred Spirits, even that won’t be enough! Mere hours later, at 6pm on Sunday evening, they’ll be appearing at Three Rivers Kirtan Festival in Schenley Plaza, Pittsburgh, for more.
It’s a move that Gaura Vani can only explain by quoting the great Maharastrian poet Tukarama: “The name of Govinda has become an addiction for me. I cannot relinquish it.”
Gaura Vani believes that the whole world is gradually becoming gripped by this addiction, fueled in no small part by gatherings like the 24 Hour Kirtan Festival. “Transcendental sound can’t be contained,” he says. “It just shoots out throughout the universe, changing everything in its path.”
When this reporter wonders aloud what effect that might have, Gaura Vani’s succinct reply encapsulates the goal of chanting: “More chanting!”
To listen to hours of music from the 24 Hour Kirtan Festival’s first two years, visit here.[ 24-hour-kirtan ] [ kirtana ]