Youth Inspired to Follow Srila Prabhupada at D.C. Retreat
Fifty Hare Krishna youth from around the US were spiritually enlivened beyond expectations at this year’s Pandava Sena retreat entitled Following His Grace, held from July 19th to 24th at the ISKCON temple in Potomac, a suburb of Washington D.C.
Ranging in age from 15 to 30, the youth hailed from New Jersey, New York, Houston, Atlanta, and Alachua, Florida. While not “gurukulis”—alumni of ISKCON’s gurukula boarding schools—they grew up closely connected to the ISKCON community throughout their lives.
Inspired by a group of the same name established in England in 1994, the D.C. branch of Pandava Sena began holding retreats at a different ISKCON center in North America every summer since 2005, to keep youth connected to Krishna consciousness. Each retreat has a different theme—last year’s, in Houston, for instance, was dubbed Watering the Seeds of Bhakti.
“At this year’s event, called ‘Following His Grace,’ we based all our activities around understanding the teachings of ISKCON’s Founder, Srila Prabhupada,” explains 20-year-old Gopinath, who was one of the co-organizers of this year’s event along with five friends. “And we discussed what practical steps we can individually take to fulfill his mission, both within our communities and beyond.”
Setting the scene for this, GBC member Anuttama Dasa and his wife Rukmini Dasi spoke to the assembled youth about Srila Prabhupada’s vision for ISKCON at the retreat’s inauguration, which began with 6:30pm arati at the D.C. temple on Thursday July 19th.
Pot Washing in ISKCON of DC. Sanga Group 3 were on duty.
Youth then set the retreat off to a deeply spiritual start with japa meditation at Great Falls, where the Potomac River flows through the Mather Gorge. Watching the falls and chanting as the sun set, they meditated on how Srila Prabhupada took his morning walks at this spot while in D.C.
The evening ended with Lila Kirtan, slow, melodious call and response chanting of God’s names, with instrumental breaks during which Acharya, a book of Srila Prabhupada quotes describing the qualities of a devotee, was passed around and read. This became a daily and much loved practice at the retreat, with different books read each evening.
Each day of the retreat featured its own theme, and the first day proper, Friday July 20th, was entitled “His Request for Preaching,” focusing on how Hare Krishna youth can come together and spread Prabhupada’s teachings.
As with every morning of the retreat, it began with Greeting of the Deities and Guru Puja, with male and female attendees showing their willingness to take initiative in Prabhupada’s movement by taking turns offering arati and singing. They then listened to a short recorded lecture by Srila Prabhupada on the theme of the day, and conducted a group japa session.
“Next we attended the first seminar of the day, Leading by Example, with special guest Bhakti Rasamrita Swami,” says Gopinath. “In it, he spoke about all the sacrifices Srila Prabhupada made to start ISKCON, and how, as the youth of the future, we should follow his example.”
Devaprastha Dasa, Vice President of Software Development and Publishing Systems at National Geographic, followed with Presenting Ourselves in Modern Society, a seminar about how youth could find the balance between Krishna consciousness and the outside world in their lives.
Group Photo after White Water Rafting.
Finally, in “Practical Preaching,” the youth received a spiritual pep talk from Sankirtana Yajna Dasa, who cooks and distributes 15,000 plates of prasadam at D.C. universities every year. In his talk, Sankirtana encouraged them to also take action in their own communities.
Attendees then broke off into individual “Sanga Groups” to discuss what form this action could take, such as organizing Wednesday night bhajans or monthly Harinamas. The discussion was followed by a series of skits on the comical side of ISKCON life, providing attendees with a healthy chance to laugh at themselves.
On the morning of the retreat’s second day, entitled “Selfless Service,” Bhakti Rasamrita Swami spoke about the importance of a strong service attitude. Retreat attendees then put what they had learned into practice, traveling to Baltimore to clean the ISKCON temple there in preparation for the upcoming Janmastami festivities.
“All fifty of us worked hard for three hours, ripping up old tile, cleaning out the basement, repainting the entire top floor, setting up shelves, cleaning the refrigerator and all the pots in the kitchen, and organizing Deity dresses and paraphernalia,” Gopinath says. “It was a lot of fun.”
Vimal leads Guru Puja at ISKCON of DC.
On Sunday, entitled “Spiritual Journey,” Bhakti Rasamrita Swami held a question and answer session with the youth, picking anonymous questions they had written the night before out of a box, so that no one was too shy to enquire. Questions ranged from the deeply philosophical to the practical, all of which the Swami answered with care and detail.
Bringing a new level of energy to the D.C. Sunday Feast program, the youth led a packed temple room in an enthusiastic kirtan, followed by a surprise flash mob in the parking lot as guests waited in line for the vegetarian feast.
“Suddenly, out of nowhere, three mridanga drummers appeared, followed by a kartal and a harmonium player, then all 45 remaining members of our group, dancing in a choreographed routine and chanting Hare Krishna,” says Gopinath. “The guests’s jaws dropped—they had never seen anything like it before.”
Excited to do more after the kirtan and flash mob, the group then performed a two-hour Harinama—public chanting of Krishna’s names—at the central Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. The night was deliriously exciting for the youth, as they danced with intrigued passers-by, had them repeat the Hare Krishna mantra, distributed stacks of Srila Prabhupada’s books, and even chatted with a Washington Times reporter.
Taking a photo with fans on the way to Dupont Circle for Harinam.
“It was probably the most inspirational night for everyone at the retreat,” says Gopinath. “A lot of us had never distributed books before, and it felt so good to be taking that step forward and trying to spread Krishna consciousness.”
The next day, entitled “Community,” began with “Relationships—Making Them More Sweet Than Sour,” a seminar by Braja Bihari Dasa of ISKCON Resolve. With interactive exercises and relevant quotes from Srila Prabhupada, attendees learned how to build good relationships in Krishna consciousness and bring community together.
The youth then enjoyed three hours of white-water rafting at Harper’s Ferry, the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in nearby West Virginia. Rounding off the evening, they grilled saitan and tofu snacks around a bonfire, caught up with old friends, and deepened new friendships.
“In planning the retreat, we felt that it was important to find a balance between getting actively involved in Krishna consciousness, and building community amongst ourselves by just enjoying a relaxed time together,” says Gopinath.
On Tuesday July 24th, the final day entitled “Following His Grace,” each member of the group took half an hour to sit and reflect upon the retreat and their lives, and write a meaningful letter to Srila Prabhupada which they then read out to his “murti” likeness and to the group.
RAMA spelt out by Nimai during Monday night bonfire.
“It was very powerful and touching,” says organizer Rama Dasa. “Everyone dug really deep. Some were crying as they spoke about how the retreat had helped them appreciate Prabhupada and what he sacrificed for us. They said that even though they had never met him, he had changed their lives.”
Wrapping up the event, the entire group sat in a circle, and each person said something nice about another, until everyone in the room had been appreciated. The five organizers then handed out personalized thank you cards to each attendee.
“After the retreat, many attendees said that they were inspired to go back to their communities and take up some responsibility for Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON,” says Rama.
Meanwhile the youth who attended the retreat plan to start a book club, in which they will read Prabhupada’s books and discuss their realizations bi-weekly. They are doing this because they feel that in order to be good preachers, they need to deeply understand the books themselves.
“I truly believe that these retreats powerfully affect people’s lives,” Gopinath says. “Seeing the change that myself and others have gone through over just five days has inspired me to make sure that next year, attendance goes from 50 up to 75, and then to 100 after that.”