ISKCON Chaplain Provides Spiritual Support at London Olympics
ISKCON had a small yet significant presence at the London Olympic Games this year, with ten devotees from various UK temples serving as volunteers, and two playing important staff roles.
Due to his experience as chair of Bhaktivedanta Manor’s Festival Committee—particularly in organizing its huge Janmastami celebrations—Ajay Kumar was accepted on the Organising Committee of the Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, ISKCON London brahmachari monk Sachi Kishore Das served as a Hindu chaplain at the Multi-Faith Centre in the Olympic Athlete’s Village, offering spiritual guidance to athletes, support coaches and volunteers seeking it.
Accepted because of his experience as a multi-faith chaplain at both London’s Imperial University and its School of Oriental and African Studies, Sachi Kishore worked rotating eight-hour shifts with three other Hindu chaplains from different organizations. Also alongside him were many other chaplains representing all the major faiths.
“The amount of chaplains for each religious faith were chosen in proportion to the amount of athletes practicing that faith,” he says. “The Christian group of chaplains, who have been at the Olympics for many years, were the biggest, with one hundred members.”
2012, Sachi Kishore explains, was the first year in which the Olympics organizers, realizing that they needed to address the needs of all athletes, developed a multi-faith chaplaincy.
Chaplains arrived at the 500-acre Olympic Park along with the athletes, two weeks before the Olympic Games began on July 27th, and remained until the Olympics Closing Ceremony on August 12th.
Sachi Kishore Dasa with a Christian Chaplain and a coach from the Indian team
Their base, the Multi-Faith Centre, was ideally located on the second floor of the Village Services Center in the Athlete’s Village, where athletes registered and resided.
Universally recognized as one of the best facilities ever given for chaplaincy at a sports event so far, it consisted of a main reception room and six individual prayer rooms, which chaplains of each faith could decorate as they desired beforehand.
“As a Vaishnava, my focus was on worshipping Krishna, so I equipped the Hindu prayer room with pictures of Krishna, paraphernalia to facilitate worship, and prayer beads to chant the Hare Krishna mantra on,” says Sachi Kishore.
The room also contained information about local temples, prayer mats, and two editions of the ancient Sanskrit text Bhagavad-gita—one by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada, and the other a more modern explanation by his disciple Ranchor Prime.
“Since we were representing Hinduism in general, there were also images and texts related to other branches,” Sachi Kishore says. “But the central text was Bhagavad-gita.”
Ajay Kumar of Bhaktivedanta Manor was accepted onto the Olympic games organizing committee
Chaplains’ shifts began with a group meet, during which they discussed their experiences from the previous day, feedback they had been given, and things they could improve on.
“There was a very cooperative spirit between the chaplains from different faiths,” says Sachi Kishore. “It didn’t feel like we were businesses competing for customers. We helped each other.”
The chaplains then spent the day ready to assist athletes and volunteers in their worship, and provide pastoral care or counseling. Far from any kind of proselytizing, their job was to facilitate the athletes’ own personal prayer or meditation; to create for them a private, peaceful place where they would not be disturbed.
Yoga sessions were also provided by another Hindu chaplain trained in pranayama and asanas. Meanwhile Sachi Kishore held Bhagavad-gita readings and japa sessions, chanting the Hare Krishna mantra with volunteers including ten ISKCON members.
“I facilitated athletes from the Indian, Nepalese, Sri Lankan, and South African teams,” says Sachi Kishore. “But we also saw non-Hindus—a French athlete came to do meditation, while members of the Australian team came to do yoga. It was a diverse group.”
In addition, as a Hindu chaplain, Sachi Kishore attended the welcoming ceremony for the Indian team, during which he got the opportunity to meet and greet many of its members.
Faith Leaders from nine faiths tour Olympic Park
As part of their role at the Olympics, he and the other chaplains also traversed the site, mingling with athletes and staff, and letting them know about the prayer rooms and chaplaincy services that were available.
“There have of course been concerns about religious fanaticism and conversion from the organizers of the Olympics, with respect to religious people freely moving on site,” says Sachi Kishore. “However the chaplains proved themselves to be very responsible and mature in their dealings, and we received very positive feedback from organizers and athletes alike.”
Sachi Kishore especially observed that the Multi-Faith Centre was very much appreciated by the athletes, for whom God played a major role in their lives and sports endeavors.
“For many of them, dedication to a specific sport and discipline is their life,” he says. “They spend hours and hours a day, and years of their lives, to perfect it. And many of them were very much dependent on God for the results of their competition. So I would say that for many of them, their sport itself was an offering to God.”
New to the world of sports chaplaincy, Sachi Kishore found it enlivening and fulfilling to assist people in their worship at such an important event for his country. His experience also helped him realize more deeply how relevant God and spirituality are for people from all walks of life—whether they’re athletes, a businessmen, students, housewives, or soldiers.
The Athlete's Village, where the Multi-Faith Center was located
With his experience at the summer Olympics, Sachi is likely to assist again for several days at the London Paralympics between August 29th and September 9th. There’s also a strong possibility he’ll provide pastoral care at the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
“One of the reasons I’m involved in chaplaincy is that I believe it gives credibility to ISKCON,” he says. “I remember as I was entering the Olympic Park, there was a veritable circus of religious people preaching right outside the entrance, many of whom came across as fanatical and aggressive.
“In contrast, I walked right through them into the complex, and into a prayer room arranged specifically for my purpose, where I’d been given a license to assist athletes. Because of that, people saw me very differently. So it’s an area I’d like to continue to develop.”