ISKCON Contributes to Bhakti Fest

This year over 3,000 yogis, musicians, and seekers from around the world converged on the Joshua Tree Retreat Center—located in the desert a couple of hours East of Los Angeles—for the festival. And the event was extended to a fourth day, with an incredible eighty-five hours of continuous kirtan concerts.

Radhanath at Bhakti FestFrom September 9th to 12th this year ISKCON devotees pulled their weight by contributing to the performances and infrastructure at Bhakti Fest, a huge new draw for the increasingly popular U.S. kirtan yoga community.

Launched in 2009 by founder of the Center for Spiritual Studies Sridhar Silberfein, the first Bhakti Fest was attended by 2,500 people, and featured a continuous sixty-hour kirtan.

This year over 3,000 yogis, musicians, and seekers from around the world converged on the Joshua Tree Retreat Center—located in the desert a couple of hours East of Los Angeles—for the festival. And the event was extended to a fourth day, with an incredible eighty-five hours of continuous kirtan concerts.

Described as the Woodstock of the kirtan movement, Bhakti Fest features workshops and yoga classes by famous yoga teachers such as Shiva Rea and Saul David Raye, and seminars by spiritual teachers such as Ram Dass and Shyamdas. People of all ages, colors and shapes mill about, visiting the booths of various charities, taking Shiatsu, Reiki, and acupuncture, and purchasing organic food, hemp clothing, vitamins and yoga supplies in the Vendor Village.

But Bhakti Fest’s main draw is, of course, the kirtan. At this year’s event as at last year’s, many popular artists from the kirtan yoga scene headlined, including
 Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Deva Pramal, Dave Stringer, Wah!, and MC Yogi.

ISKCON artists—some breaking into the yoga kirtan world, and some aleady stars in their own right—also performed, including Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits, DASI Karnamrita, The Mayapuris, Prema Hara, and Sura, while ISKCON guru Radhanath Swami was a featured speaker.

Devotees also contributed much to the infrastructure of the event. “Last year, about thirty devotees attended Bhakti Fest,” says Nitai Dasa, who coordinated prasadam distribution at the event. “This year, about one hundred devotees attended altogether.”

Rather than having their own “Krishna Camp” at Bhakti Fest, as they did at the Burning Man or Rainbow festivals, devotees helped organizers put on the greater event. Madhuha Dasa of Festival of India set up the stages and his familiar colorful tents for the performances, while Nitai and his festival crew catered the prasadam for all the staff and VIPS, as well as serving the sanctified food to attendees.

“We served 500 full plates of subji, rice, dahl, salad, and halava per meal, two times a day, to the staff and VIPs,” Nitai says. “Overall we distributed thousands of plates of prasadam. Sridhar, the event’s executive producer, told me that he didn’t want just any vegan or vegetarian food—he really wanted prasadam to be a major presence at his event.”

There was also a booth featuring Radhanath Swami’s autobiography The Journey Home and other books from Mandala publishing, while the Jagannath Deities from ISKCON Los Angeles’ Rathayatra festival—which Bhakti Fest organizer Sridhar attends every year—graced the main stage throughout the event.

On Saturday, Mayapuris singer Visvambhar led “a ripping Harinam” through the festival site, followed by a huge, enthusiastic crowd.

Meanwhile, Radhanath Swami gave three different talks, all well-attended. One of them placed the beginnings of the Gaudiya Vaishnava sankirtan movement into a historical context and highlighted its founder Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu; one was on “The Joy of Ecstasy” along with Shyam Dasa, a Vallabhacharya pandit who has taught Krishna consciousness throughout the yoga scene for many years; and one dealt with overcoming obstacles at a yoga class by Shiva Rea.

The participation of devotees in events like Bhakti Fest has somewhat divided the ISKCON society. Some are critical of them, saying they are overpopulated with impersonalists whose association is dangerous; and that the hodgepodge of kirtan in praise of every demigod blinds the crowd to the special benefit of chanting Lord Krishna’s names.

Nitai, however, feels that Bhakti Fest is nothing but positive. “These ideas are totally inaccurate,” he says. “These people are not misleading the masses or anything—they’re sincere in their practice. What’s more, headliners like Krishna Das and Jai Uttal chanted mostly bona fide Vaishnava devotional songs, praising Lord Krishna and Lord Ramachandra.”

He says that events like Bhakti Fest are a huge doorway for ISKCON to reach people who already appreciate many aspects of Vedic lifestyle and culture. He compares it to Srila Prabhupada’s early days in America in the 1960s, during which he associated with many people who he didn’t always agree with philosophically, or who weren’t at the highest level of spirituality, but who were leaders in the counterculture of the time.

“Srila Prabhupada stayed with and cooked for Dr. Mishra, a hardline mayavadi,” Nitai says. “He spent a lot of time with Allen Ginsberg, who promoted LSD and other drugs. And when the devotees met the Beatles in 1969, they were also all heavily into psychedelics. Nevertheless, George Harrison became a major endorser, even a practioner of Krishna consciousness.”

He adds: “If it was such a danger for devotees to associate with people different from us, we wouldn’t be presenting Krishna consciousness to anyone. We would just sit in our temple and chant all day. But that’s not our philosophy. So it’s just a matter of learning how to interface with people of other beliefs in a careful, balanced way.”

Despite some differing beliefs, however, Nitai says that the leaders and kirtan artists at Bhakti Fest were extremely appreciative of Krishna consciousness and especially of Radhanath Swami.

“Deva Pramal, the main headliner of the whole event, dedicated a song to him,” he recalls. “And at the final kirtan of the event, with all the headlining artists—about seventy people—they chanted the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, and had Radhanath Swami as a featured singer. Also during his set, rapper MC Yogi did a fifteen-minute long maha-mantra performance, with Gaura Vani, Visvambhar, and several other devotees chanting on stage with him.”

Krishna conscious philosophy was just as welcome as Hare Krishna kirtan. When it was time for Radhanath Swami’s talk, the MC announced, ‘If anyone wants to hear a bonafide representative of the Bhakti tradition, they should go listen to Radhanath Swami’s lecture. He’s the real deal.’

Influential kirtaniyas and teachers such as Jai Uttal and Shiva Rea—who have brought thousands of people to appreciate chanting and the Vedic culture—also pointed the crowd in Radhanath Swami’s direction, saying that if they wanted to hear the essence of Bhakti, he was the person to listen to.

Nitai feels that ISKCON is just taking the beginning step into this welcoming world. “We’ve only been doing this for two or three years,” he says. “Within five or ten years, I’m sure we will also see the reciprocation of yogis attending our festivals too.”

Already, the follow up from devotees’ contributions to Bhakti Fest is inspiring. While Radhanath Swami was doing various home programs and bookstore signings in Los Angeles a whole month after this year’s event, a group of people who had heard him speak there came and attended every program he did.

Next year, as well as Bhakti Fest, devotees will attend Wanderlust (an upscale kirtan festival at the Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Tahoe), Beloved (a kirtan yoga festival in Oregon), Omega, and several more.

“There are unlimited opportunities for devotees who are interested to develop our contributions—we could do plays, dance, Ratha Yatras, all sorts of things,” says Nitai. “But our mainstay, as ever, will be kirtan and prasadam.”

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