In New York City, Hare Krsna youth meet the
Festival of India's greatest challenge.
ON SATURDAY, June 12, the Festival of India the touring spiritual pageant that graces more than a dozen North American cities each summer, often in conjunction with Hare Krsna parades launches its twenty-first season in New York City's Washington Square Park, where Hare Krsna first took root in the West.
For veteran festival director Madhuha Dasa and his youthful crew, New York presents a unique challenge. "To set up and take down over a two-to-four-day period, like we do in other cities, we'd have to hire armed guards round the clock," says Madhuha. "So for twenty-four hours we go nonstop, midnight to midnight."
A little before midnight, at the Brooklyn temple, president Ramabhadra Dasa and his wife, Satya Dasi, energize the crew with pizza and ice cream. The members are in their late teens and early twenties and often come from far away, even overseas, to help. Many are gurukulis (alumni of first-generation-ISKCON schools) and four of those Govinda, Janani, Isvara Puri, and Ramacandra are also crew alumni, who wouldn't miss this festival for the world.
"Last call!" honks Madhuha from the leased Ryder tractor that pulls the festival's forty-foot trailer. In 1982, Madhuha bought the then twelve-year-old trailer at a million miles and has since hauled it more than twenty times the distance round the equator. Ten people pile into the cab, another fifteen pack the donated white van following behind. The traffic into Manhattan bumps and grinds the same as at midday, only madder. When the trailer swings wide to turn, the van runs interference, provoking major honking and cursing. "Hare Krsna!" laughs the crew, hoping the New Yorkers will cool off at the festival.
Nine miles and nearly an hour later, the festival vehicles roll down Fifth Avenue and up to the park. Beneath a massive stone arch, police barricades block the entrance. A few years ago, rising violence and vandalism in the park compelled the NYPD to impose a curfew. Madhuha and crew jump out to remove the barricades, but within a minute, three squad cars converge to stop the invasion.
After checking Madhuha's permits, the men in blue have a question: "Our job is to enforce the curfew. How do we tell you guys from the werewolves?"
"Say 'Hare Krsna,' " says Madhuha. "If he's one of us, he'll answer, 'Hari bol!'"
Once inside, everyone springs into action. While Madhuha dashes about with a diagram of what goes where, the crew veterans and alumni lead the rest in a frenzy of tasks: Clear the park of broken bottles, drug refuse, and other debris; erect twenty-six tents with large signs and banners; install nine panel-exhibits with a dozen-plus photos each; assemble a fourteen-hundred-pound diorama and a 576-square-foot stage and sound system all by sunrise.
A beer bottle has shattered against a tree, where Govinda and Janani the husband-wife team on the crew are tying down a tent. Two drunks streak past, one chasing the other with a tent pipe. The clubs and bars have let out, flooding the park with predators. Big, burly Syama Narayana recovers the pipe, and the police show the man to his cage.
As the hours tick by, the greater challenge is fatigue. Before the marathon, the combined intensity of New York and the approaching festival made it impossible to sleep. Even rested, the work is very heavy. Yet the crew vets are moving their teams in perfect sync, and Madhuha, twice their age, is working harder than anyone. By dawn, all the tents and exhibits are up a new record and Atadhvaja Swami has arrived with an ashram of young male reinforcements. Only the stage and sound system remain to be assembled. Tired but inspired, the alumni take the subway back to the temple to chant Hare Krsna, get ready for the parade, and maybe catch a few winks.
Philosophy on Display
As the sky lightens, four men carry eighteen 250-pound wooden platforms near the arch to make up the stage. The team leader is Phani-bhusana Dasa, the only middle-ager besides Madhuha on the crew. Sinewy and spontaneous, Phani serves as the festival's drama director.
"Our tractor-trailer is a nuts-and-bolts sample of Krsna's universal form," enthuses Phani, "which we're continually unpacking to present the Lord's message: 'Please come home, back to Godhead.' "
As Phani knows, nothing quite drives that message home like drama. After working all night and morning, he'll join the performers onstage this afternoon, with a strength and flair that only God can give.
As the curfew ends, the homeless drift in to bathe in the park's fountain. Walkers, joggers, and roller-bladers follow. And though they like to play New Yorkers who've "seen it all," they can't help rubbernecking at what has arisen in the park. Some break ranks, drawn to the panoply of spiritual exhibits, especially the fourteen-foot CHANGING BODIES diorama. After gaping at the humanesque figures showing the soul's incarnations over a lifetime, they read the caption: "As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change." (Lord Krsna in Bhagavad-gita, 2.13) And then they want to read more.
"All these exhibits are passive preachers, encouraging people to read Srila Prabhupada's books," says Madhuha, referring to the treasury of spiritual literature left by the Hare Krsna movement's founder-spiritual master. He points to a walker with a Gitaunder her arm. "And when they read, they're on their way home."
Dark clouds rumble in across the Hudson. The weather is always the wild card on festival day. (Nineteen ninety-eight's saw the wildest yet, so let's continue with that scenario.) For two weeks New York has been awash with rain. "To clean the city for the festival," some devotees have said. But a storm now could ruin everything.
Suddenly the sky opens and the rain comes down in torrents. For three hours the rain pummels the asphalt around the festival. With poles in hand, the crew go from tent to tent, pushing the water off sagging canopies. Because the site slopes gently toward the fountain, the whole area begins to fill up like a swimming pool. Two inches, four inches, six inches then over the bases of the exhibits standing inside the tents. Thank God there's no wind.
Meanwhile, five miles up Fifth Avenue the storm has drenched Krsna's chariots-in-waiting and now promises to cancel the parade. But Krsna can cancel the rain, say the devotees, who are dancing and chanting their hearts out amid the downpour.
The police say their mopeds are now too wet to escort the parade. Ramabhadra ponders an alternative festival at the temple. Looking at the hundreds of determined devotees, Isvara Puri thinks a "no-go" may set off a stampede.
"Those metal chariots will fry you guys," say the police, pointing to the lightning strafing the skyscrapers.
"No problem," says Govinda, rapping a huge rubber chariot wheel. "If you let us roll, Puri here will hustle us down the Avenue in record time, guaranteed."
"Not unless it stops raining. You fellas were supposed to roll at noon. It's five minutes past. If it doesn't stop by 12:30, party's over."
Back at the park, the rain has mercifully slowed to a drip. As the festival crew knocks the last puddles off the tent canopies, whirlpools gurgle around the site as park maintenance men clear clogged drains with big brooms. Madhuha and Vibhu take the tarp off the sound system and start testing the new mikes. If anyone comes down the Avenue, they'll be ready.
The Chariots Roll
Uptown, the drip-dry sky reaches the chariots just in time.
"Okay, move!" holler the cops. "Fast!"
"Jaya Jagannatha!" thunder the devotees, now five hundred strong. "Glory to Krsna, the Lord of the universe!"
From His chariot, Krsna presides as a hugely smiling Deity, His large saucer eyes flying down the Avenue, inviting its corporate idols to forsake their Y2Karma and join His jolly juggernaut. Behind Him follow the chariots of Subhadra and Balarama sibling sides of the Godhead with similarly festive faces who've left the temple today to party with saints and sinners alike and re-invite everyone to return home to the spiritual world.
So lovingly do the devotees accept the invitation that they make one of their own: "Ride in Rathayatra (The Parade of the Chariots) and we'll pull you home!" And so they grapple the thick ropes, sound cymbals and drums, and leap and spin and sing Jagannatha's praises to the sky. Especially the youth.
Before Subhadra's chariot, America's Gauravani and India's Nandu lead dozens of gurukulis in some of the parade's hottest singing and dancing. Chanting Hare Krsna, Ramacandra looks as if he's about to leap clear of his body.
"We're born into Hare Krsna families," he says, "but for many of us, Rathayatra and the Festival of India is where we actually join the Hare Krsna movement."
Indeed. Throughout the challenges facing the movement since the passing of Srila Prabhupada, the North American festival has continued as a kind of standard-bearer of Prabhupada's magnanimous mood and style. The youth know that, because they experience it. And so year after year, they travel to the festival, just as their parents would travel to see Prabhupada and experience the sublimest Krsna consciousness.
Nearing the park, Puri and Satya patrol the parade's margins, keeping the wheels rolling at a steady pace. When Jagannatha's chariot starts to slow down, Satya points to a half-dozen drummers charging a Watusi-dancing swami. Puri walks over and motions them along, gesturing toward the police and the sky. But now the sun bursts forth drying clothes and bodies and highlighting the swell of celebrants topping five thousand.
As the first wave passes through the arch, a man in blue shakes his head. "Only the Krsnas could pull off a parade this large, this loud, and this peaceful."
And in a smooth two hours.
Inside, Madhuha ushers the deities onstage, along with a likeness of Srila Prabhupada. The stage is rocking, as bandleader Vaiyasaki Dasa has a thousand people on their feet dancing and singing Hare Krsna. As Madhuha steps offstage, queries follow him wherever he goes: Got more propane for our pizza booth? Got a spare generator? Spare a crewman? Spare a Band-Aid?
"That's my job," smiles Madhuha. "Troubleshooting." His friends don't call him "Mud" for nothing.
Above the World Trade Center's twin towers, the clouds part again, bathing the festival in fresh sunlight. The crowd swells to ten thousand, many of them moving through the New York temple's free-feast line. The temple's shops and book tables are also hopping, as visitors flock, piqued by the walk-through exhibits. "Did you see that picture of the man with the cow's head chopping off the head of the cow with the man's head? And those horrible war scenes in the background? My God, do you suppose …?" The karmic connection between slaughter and war.
Everywhere they lift their tired eyes, Madhuha and crew smile to see people wander through the festival and come a little closer to knowing Krsna. In 1966, with a handful of devotees, Prabhupada began chanting Hare Krsna publicly in this very park.
"If Prabhupada were still walking among us today," says Madhuha, "I think he'd be right here, bringing Krsna to the people, and changing their lives."
Through devotees like Madhuha, it is very clear that he is.
It's 4:00 P.M. Onstage, Phani is doing a one-man pantomime. It's hilarious, it's enlightening, it's Phani. Off-stage, Madhuha is starting to think about takedown. Crewmen have been slipping away to rest; the alumni are scattered about, catching up with old friends. In two-and-a-half hours, the police will say, "Time's up," and in two hours more, the sun will be down. The crew will need a lot of help to beat the wolves.
At 6:00 it starts to drizzle. Madhuha asks Todd and Tracy twin crewmen in their twenties to back the tractor-trailer to within fifty feet of the stage. As crew and alumni return to work, people start to stream out of the park. At 6:30 the police tell Madhuha to pack it up. The exit stream turns to a torrent until Sridhara Swami leaps onstage, grabs a mike, and sounds the alarm for service. "Devotional service! Takedown devotional service! And how! And now! Yo! Yo! Hari bol!"
A Record Takedown
All heaven breaks loose as Madhuha and crew try to supervise everyone coming forward. Hundreds of eyes, hands, and legs moving in all directions. Only the Lord knows what's going on. At the truck, Todd and Tracy become the bottom of an acre-wide funnel. The sound system comes first, then the nine exhibit panels, down in a breakneck twenty-two minutes. From a hundred yards out, a kaleidoscope of floating tents follows, shifting dizzily toward the truck. Unzipping straps, stacking pipes, the twins are focused but call for more hands to help the packing. When the last piece is in, Todd checks his watch. One hour and forty-two minutes. Incredible. And no one hurt. A miracle.
And none too soon in the dampening dusk. As Satya and helpers finish policing the park, Madhuha honks the horn, and more pile in the vehicles than came. Crew and alumni have done a great job and had the time of their lives. The Saturday-night traffic makes the ride back much slower but now sweeter because of the festival. As tongues and ears sing and hear Krsna's wonderful names, minds and hearts fill with spiritual bliss. Friendships deepen in loving exchanges the intimacy of devotional service. And at midnight, more pizza and ice cream. "O Krsna, You're too much!"
In front of the Brooklyn temple, Madhuha and Phani linger in the Ryder cab. As rain washes the windshield, their talk is reflective. They wish they had this much help at all the festivals; they wish they had the means to buy labor-saving equipment and to upgrade the exhibits to world-class; they wish the festivals could go year round; and they wish they could give the youth a future running them. But they're more than grateful for all the service Lord Krsna has given. And as for their wishes, dear reader, perhaps they are for you and I to ponder. I can wish no better meditation for anyone.
Suresvara Dasa lives with his wife and daughter in Sandy Ridge, North Carolina, home to the Festival of India.