New Australian Communications Director Puts Caring First
ISKCON Australia’s brand new Communications Director, Bhakta Dasa, has a refreshing take on his just-assigned post.
“I see it as more than just dealing with media issues,” he says. “I would like ISKCON to communicate with, connect with, and care for the general public. I see us being an organization where, truly, as Srila Prabhupada wanted, the whole world can live.”
Bhakta Dasa, who once ran a large farming community, launched the successful restaurant Gopal’s Vegetarian in Melbourne with chef Kurma Dasa, and established small meditation and outreach centers around Australia with his wife Bhakti Dasi, has had over thirty years of experience in connecting with the public.
He was asked to become ISKCON Melbourne’s public relations officer when the city hosted the Parliament of World Religions in 2010. And at ISKCON Australia’s Zonal Council Meeting in Sydney this May, he was asked to become the country’s Communications Director.
He promptly replied that he would love to.
“It’s a great opportunity, I’m honored that the ISKCON Australia leaders think I can do it, and I’m looking forward to the challenge,” he says.
In seeing genuine care and concern for others as the best means of PR for ISKCON, Bhakta Dasa will be improving upon a blueprint that has already worked for ISKCON Australia for many years.
Bhakta Das at an inter-faith function celebrated at the Victorian Parliament House
After a spell of public disapproval in the 1980s, the society turned its reputation around drastically with the magical step of prasadam distribution. Today, after decades of catering for rock festivals around the country, and providing low cost meals for students and the unemployed through its charity restaurant chain Crossways for decades, ISKCON is perhaps more beloved in Australia than in any other Western country.
“People come up to us all the time and say, ‘If it wasn’t for the Hare Krishnas’ cheap, nutritious meals, I wouldn’t have been able to make it through university,’” Bhakta Dasa says.
As well as great food, devotees have put themselves in good esteem with the public by offering an alternative spiritual philosophy in a positive, supportive way, encouraging people to do well in their lives.
The next step, Bhakta Dasa says, is to take a role of leadership in hot-button issues, such as Interfaith.
“Interfaith is a major growing concern in Australia right now,” he explains. “People want to learn more about other faith traditions. So within every municipality, they form little Interfaith groups—there are now thirty-nine in Melbourne alone. They interchange, attend each other’s places of worship, and hold regular programs.”
At each of these events, Bhakta Dasa and other ISKCON devotees present Srila Prabhupada’s books and discuss their philosophy, sometimes drawing newcomers to Krishna consciousness.
The events are of course also another chance to distribute prasadam, sanctified vegetarian food.
“Every interfaith group wants to cater for its programs,” says Bhakta. “And Hare Krishna food is the best they can get—it’s familiar to them from our restaurants, it’s Halal, it’s Kosher…. It covers the requirements of all the different religious faiths.”
ISKCON also distributes prasadam to underprivileged people through outreach programs organized by various Interfaith groups, including the famous Father Bob Maguire’s Open Family.
Bhakta Das at the International Muslim Peace Initiative conference with other inter-faith representatives and members of the Australian government
Another area Bhakta Dasa feels is very important in ISKCON Australia’s public relations is working with the expanding Hindu community—a recent census noted that Hinduism is the fastest growing religion in the country.
“There’s been a lot of controversy in ISKCON about whether or not we are ‘Hindus,’” Bhakta says. “But we’ve found that most of the Dharmic faiths have a problem with the term anyway. We just have to be smart and use it when it fits, as Srila Prabhupada did. And ultimately, it comes down to: do we want a movement that moves? Do we want a house in which the whole world can live? Or do we want to be a boutique religion with just a few select members?”
Clearly, ISKCON Australia has chosen to be a “moving movement,” embracing its increase in “Hindu”—as in Indian-born—members, whom Bhakta says are “the most dedicated devotees I’ve ever seen.”
In Melbourne alone, there are fifteen different Bhakti-Vriksha groups, or congregational meets, consisting mostly of Indian devotees.
Following a new program established by Bhakta Dasa, these groups not only study together, but are also asked to bring one Caucasian work colleague, fellow student or neighbor to a Krishna conscious program specifically designed for the Western audience.
“It’s all about friendship—making friends with people in the community,” says Bhakta. “And that’s an important role for us to develop.”
Working closely with the Hindu community has opened many doors for ISKCON Australia, and for Bhakta Dasa’s communications work.
For example, as a representative of the Hindu community, Bhakta has been accepted onto the board of the prestigious Health and Care Chaplaincy Council of Victoria. He now serves as the Hindu chaplain for the prominent Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.
There, he visits at least five patients a week, reading the Bhagavad-gita to them, and bringing them prasadam.
“I minister to both members of the Hindu community and of the broader community, who are all extremely appreciative,” says Bhakta Dasa. “I also get the opportunity to visit other hospitals, and to supply copies of the Bhagavad-gita throughout the hospital system. In addition, the Health and Care Chaplaincy Council provides us with funding to hold pastoral care courses.”
Bhakta Dasa is glad to have the chance to help and teach people in this way.
“As the new Communications Director, I will be traveling all over Australia, motivating devotees and encouraging them to take up this more friendly, caring attitude of ISKCON,” he says. “I look forward to this great opportunity to serve my guru and Srila Prabhupada.”