CALENDARS HAVE OFTEN been a topic of perplexity, sometimes a matter of debate, or even a cause for pitched battles. What is the correct day on which to celebrate Easter? In the second century this question formed a dividing line between disputing factions of the Christian Church.
ISKCON has till now taken its calendar from a Vaisnava almanac published in Mayapur, West Bengal. Devotees simply translated the calendar from Bengali into English and used it.
But this past year ISKCON's Governing Body, at its annual meeting, decided that ISKCON should follow a new standard, more precisely in tune with the Vedic standard.
The Vedic calendar is lunar. That is, it uses as its main unit a month that lasts one full cycle of the phases of the moon—from new moon to new moon, or from full moon to full moon.
The lunar phases influence various aspects of our world, including ocean tides, plant growth, and human physiological and psychological changes. The cycle of lunar phases takes 29.5 days.
In contrast, a solar month lasts 30.4 days (the time it takes the sun to travel through one sign of the zodiac). Modern months, of course, don't directly correlate with any astronomical events but are merely arbitrary groups of days.
The Lunar Month
In the calendar used by the Hare Krsna devotees, the month begins the day after the moon becomes full. As the moon wanes, the days of the month are numbered "first," "second," "third," and so on, until the fifteenth day, when the moon is completely dark. This is the day of the new moon. These fifteen days of the waning moon are called the "dark fortnight."
Now the moon starts waxing, and again, as the moon grows, the days are numbered "first," "second," "third," and so on. On the fifteenth day the moon is full again. These fifteen days of the waxing moon are called the "bright fortnight." The full moon marks the end of the month.
The eleventh day after the full moon and the eleventh day after the new moon are called Ekadasi. Hare Krsna devotees observe these as special days for increased remembrance of Krsna.
The Lunar Year
Twelve lunar months make a lunar year. Since a lunar month lasts 29.5 days, a lunar year lasts 12 times that long, or 354 days.
But the solar year (the time it takes for the sun to complete one full orbit) lasts 11 days longer—roughly 365.25 days. So by the solar calendar (like the ordinary one found in a date book), the lunar year will begin 11 days earlier every year.
The seasons change in pace with the movements of the sun. The lunar calendar, therefore, is out of synch with the changing of the seasons.
To synchronize the lunar and solar years, the Vedic system therefore adds an extra month about every third year. This keeps the calendar and seasons in tune.
When the various tithis, or days of observance, occur depends partly on how the moon's movements mesh with the rising and setting of the sun.
Since the time of sunrise varies from place to place on earth, so should the days on which various observances fall.
The ISKCON Calendar Till Now
ISKCON devotees all over the world have followed a calendar published by a society of devotees in Mayapur, West Bengal. This has made for simplicity—if Krsna's birthday, for example, fell on August 13, devotees worldwide would observe it on that date.
But this has not made for precision. The calendar for Mayapur takes into account what is seen in the sky from Mayapur. But what happens in the sky in other parts of the world is different. So outside the Mayapur area the Mayapur calendar is out of phase with observed astronomical reality.
The New ISKCON Calendar
This year, therefore, ISKCON's governing body decided on a new standard.
The local ISKCON centers, they said, should mark festival days by what's going on in the heavens, not by the dates on the civil calendar.
So in choosing between simplicity and precision, the GBC opted for precision.
Figuring It Out
A calendar is easy to read but tough to figure out. In old days, sages used to do it with lengthy and mysterious calculations.
Now ISKCON uses a computer, specifically an IBM 386 clone in Sweden. Devotees did extensive research in India on what goes into making a calendar, then wrote the software. The program writes a separate calendar for every ISKCON center in the world. Even for Mayapura, the calendar is more accurate than the one published in West Bengal.
What to Do with All This?
If you'd like to observe the various Hare Krsna festivals, you can get a copy of the local calendar from the Hare Krsna center nearest you.
If there's no center reasonably close but you want to follow the festival dates precisely, you can write to ISKCON's calendar department in Sweden and have a calendar especially calculated for you.
Send the name of the town and the year for which you want the calendar calculated, along with US$8.00 (make the check out to "Magnus Anderson"), to:
Alternatively, in Back to Godhead we publish the festival dates the computer has figured out for Mayapur. So you can simply follow the Mayapur calendar, as Srila Prabhupada did when he was with us.
This is ISKCON's first year with its new calendar. In the long run, let's see whether precision or simplicity prevails.
In every issue of Back to Godhead we'll tell of upcoming festivals, with a few words of explanation. And in this issue, we publish the main festivals for January and February.