Priceless in Seattle: Free Prasadam Cafe Says “It’s Fun to Give”
A Seattle eatery that’s celebrating its 10th anniversary this year serves sanctified pure vegetarian food with a difference.
It’s completely free.
My Sweet Lord, located ten minutes’ walk from the University of Washington in an area populated with student residences, vegan restaurants and arthouse theaters, is a haven for students, drifters, and the homeless youth of Seattle.
It all came about when out-of-the-box preacher Hari-Vilasa Dasa, who had been holding weekly programs at a rented room in the University Heights Community Center for many years, decided to look for a more permanent spot in the area.
“In 2002, we found a small, functioning restaurant that had gone out of business,” he recalls. “It wasn’t a posh place, but the rent was cheap and the storefront-like style reminded us of Matchless Gifts, the first center Srila Prabhupada opened in New York. So we set up a separate non-profit corporation—Northwest Share—to run it, moved in and put up a sign. It read: ‘My Sweet Lord: Seattle’s First Free Vegetarian Café. Chant Hare Krishna and Be Happy.’”
A memorial to George Harrison
There’s nothing fancy about My Sweet Lord, named after George Harrison’s post-Beatles hit featuring ISKCON devotees chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. But in many ways, that’s it’s strength. The simple menu, of rice, dahl, subji, salad, herbal chai, and the occasional more elaborate treat, along with the buffet-style service counter and visible food preparation area, creates a homey, ‘Mom’s kitchen’ atmosphere.
Between twenty and sixty people sit at the honey-colored wooden tables, amongst paintings of Lord Krishna and Srila Prabhupada, pictures of George Harrison and Sanskrit inscriptions, every Tuesday to Saturday, from 6:30pm to 9:30pm. The healthy, nutritious food they tuck into is brought directly from the Seattle ISKCON temple three days a week, while on the other two it is cooked and offered to Lord Krishna on site at the café.
Staff work in the cafe's kitchen
As well as food, there’s kirtan and discussion on the Bhagavad-gita every Thursday evening, for those who are interested.
And some are very interested. After attending classes, six people have become serious about Krishna consciousness and supporting ISKCON’s efforts, and two of these have gone as far as receiving initiation from an ISKCON guru. In fact, the three staff members who volunteer their services for free at My Sweet Lord—Bhaktas Bud, Don, and Richard—are all ‘customers’ who got so much from the project that they wanted to give their time and effort to support it.
Hari-Vilasa is quick to point out, however, that proselytizing couldn’t be further from My Sweet Lord’s goal.
The cafe draws 20 to 60 people every evening
“We want to prove the goodness of humanity, and show the value of cooperative living,” he says. “And we want to carry out social welfare activies that benefit society, while still being spiritual rather than mundane—we serve only prasadam. Our mottos are, ‘It’s more fun to give than to take,’ and ‘Sharing, not hoarding, creates prosperity.’”
The latter isn’t just a catchphrase—it’s true. While you might wonder how a free café could sustain itself, Hari-Vilasa doesn’t worry about that. My Sweet Lord inspires donations from idealistic people, who walk in off the street and exclaim, “I can’t belive this is free! I’ve always wanted to do something like this. And you’ve actually done it!”
Some of these people work at Boeing, Microsoft, and other major companies in the area, which match their employees’ donations by giving grants to bona fide charities. With their contributions, My Sweet Lord easily sustains itself.
Visitors line up eagerly for prasadam
Another of Hari-Vilasa’s goals for the project was to create a friendly image of ISKCON that is socially integrated, and doing widely respected welfare work that people can appreciate. This broad appreciation creates goodwill towards ISKCON and, he feels, has a long-term affect that opens many doors.
“Because they saw us as integrated into the community and doing something good for the people, the City of Seattle gave us two grants,” says Hari-Vilasa. “One, for $15,000, to put on a Rathayatra Festival, and the other, for $7,500, to put on the Festival of Sharing, an outside Festival of India-type cultural event.”
Of course, all this isn’t to say that Hari-Vilasa isn’t interested in giving the other gifts, besides prasadam, that Krishna consciousness has to offer.
This year, he hopes to open a 24-hour live-in spiritual training center for youth in the area who eat at My Sweet Lord and show a serious interest in the devotional path.
Visitors enjoy prasadam in the homey atmosphere
“While the traditional ISKCON practice of using a temple as a training spot worked fine, in my opinion it’s not as effective as having a dedicated facility, with expert staff who know how to help a person from day one until they’re a mature devotee,” he says. “I think that’s what’s needed to bring up a new generation of young American devotees.”
In the meantime, My Sweet Lord will continue dishing out free, delicious food with no strings attached.
“What I love about the project is that there’s no material motive,” Hari-Vilasa says. “It’s just about sharing prasadam out of the goodness of our hearts, and doing good to others. And there’s no feeling of lack—only prosperity. There’s no, ‘Oh, this chapati cost us 20 cents, we have to sell it for 50 cents, otherwise we won’t be able to pay the rent.’ That kind of thinking is not part of the equation at My Sweet Lord.”
Tucking into a hot, nutritious dinner