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Warm Hearts Brave Ice Storm at ISKCON Toronto

By: for ISKCON News on Jan. 31, 2014
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Devotees huddled together in sub-zero temperatures in the Toronto ISKCON temple.

Huddled together in sub-zero temperatures with no power during an ice storm this past holiday season, devotees in Toronto, Canada discovered the joy of simplicity and Krishna conscious association. 

The storm struck in the midst of book distributor Vaisesika Das’s annual “Festival of the Heart,” held from December 19th to 24th at ISKCON Toronto. 

Five years ago, Vaisesika revived distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books in Toronto with his fun and inspirational techniques. Since then, he and his wife Nirkula Dasi have left the warm California weather every Christmas to distribute books in the cold with Toronto devotees. 

This time, they were in for an extra unexpected bout of austerity. At 3:30am on Sunday December 22nd, as temple devotees were getting ready for their early morning mangala-arati services, the power cut out.

The Radha Krishna Deities at the Toronto Temple 

The temple would remain without electricity for the next 57 hours. Over the next few days, 300,000 homes would lose power in the Toronto area. And the ice storm would cause temperatures to fall between -15 and -20 C.

“An ice storm is basically a big freezing rain storm,” says temple council member Radhamohan Das. “As freezing rain falls, it forms coats of ice on tree branches and utility poles. As the ice accumulates, they start to break and fall under the weight of it. 

All this took devotees by surprise -- especially those who, like Radhamohan, lived outside the temple.

One devotee, Mangala arati Dasi, was walking to the temple when a huge tree branch crashed to the pavement just inches in front of her.

Others who still had power at their homes arrived at the temple for the 7:00am arati, only to find the large building rapidly cooling down and dim without electric lighting.

But they also found 10 temple residents and 15 to 20 congregational overnighters having the time of their lives. 

Vaisesika Das leads a kirtan by candle light

“Vaisesika Prabhu was leading the kirtan, and all the devotees were ecstatic!” Radhamohan says.

Besides those who had stayed overnight, 30 to 40 more devotees attended the morning Bhagavatam class and initiation ceremony by Vaisesika Das.

Most devotees were lighthearted as the day went on, sure that the electricity would come back by the evening, when a major Sunday Feast was planned.

But those on the temple council knew that they had to prepare for the worst.

They rushed about trying to purchase as many candles, flashlights, and gas heaters as they could. But with everyone else in the city doing the same, most were sold out. 

The only propane heater they could find was set up in front of the altar to warm the Deities, and the altar was decorated with candles.

“The Deities looked gorgeous,” says Radhamohan. “Usually because of the regular artificial light, you don’t see that aspect. But with the candles, and Their beautiful sparkling jewels, They looked unbelievable.”

As darkness fell, a team headed by Keshava Das switched on dozens of flashlights and hung them in bunches in all the bathrooms, hallways and staircases.

In the temple room, cushions were set on the floor around a large circle of candles, flickering brightly in the darkness. Despite the ice storm, 100 people attended the Sunday program, sitting in the lit circle as Vaisesika led an inspiring kirtan and class.

The Srila Prabhupada Deity at the Toronto ISKCON Temple during the blackout

Using a gas stove, devotees cooked up a simple meal of kichari, halava and fruits. Although it was extremely basic compared to the usual multi-course feast, the love it was prepared with made it a hit.

“We had nothing -- we thought it would be a disaster,” Radhamohan says. “But people loved it. They all shared that it was different, but very sweet." 

As night fell, and they realized that the power was not going to return, some congregational devotees invited temple residents to stay at their apartments, which still had power. But everyone, including Vaisesika and his wife, refused. They all wanted to stay together at the temple.

Luckily, temperatures were not too cold on Sunday night. But they were reported to fall quickly. On Monday, devotees rushed out to buy hot water bottles for everyone to keep in their beds. They also boiled water for bathing and making hot drinks.

As the temperature plummeted to -15 C and colder, over 40 devotees still attended Bhagavatam class every morning, wrapped up warmly in jackets, hats and gloves.

As their smartphones died, devotees had nothing to do but talk with each other and chant kirtan or japa. Groups gathered around every free candle and ghee lamp. Vaisesika affectionately dubbed these “Japa caves.”

“It was like the 1970s, when there were 80 devotees in the Toronto temple living and eating and doing everything together,” says Radhamohan. “Technology isolates people. Without it, we had no choice but to stick together. Life became so simple.”

By Tuesday, apprehension set in as temperatures fell to -25 C, the point at which water pipes begin to burst. Although all generators were sold out in Toronto, a visiting devotee bought two, and managers planned to shut the water off to save the pipes.

“Just then, the power came back on, and there was a big ecstatic yell of jubilation,” Radhamohan says.

It was a bittersweet moment as devotees bade farewell to Vaisesika and Nirkula, half wishing that the power had not returned and that the magical experience could continue.

For his part, Radhamohan fondly remembers the simplicity and closeness of those two-and-a-half days. The experience has taught him to go deeper into his Krishna consciousness, with the realization that material energy can strike at any time.

He also notes that it was a lesson for ISKCON Toronto to be more prepared -- a lesson devotees have embraced by purchasing commercial generators to protect against any future power outages.

“Krishna never gives his devotees a test that they cannot pass,” he says. “We could see how He was always protecting us, and providing all the help we needed.”

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