This past weekend, New Vrindaban hosted hundreds of devotees for its 24-Plus Kirtan event. It was the first major festival held in over a year since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and devotees traveled from all over North America to be a part of it. Among them was a group of nine Vaishnavis from Krishna House in Gainesville, Florida. Most of them were new devotees who had joined during the pandemic and had never been to New Vrindaban, or for that matter, to any major ISKCON festival.
They flew in late Friday night and were warmly received by New Vrindaban devotees. “We were so hungry from traveling all day, and we were thinking that we would just have to wait for breakfast the next morning. Then, all of a sudden, three boxes of pizza manifested from the back of the car. We were over the moon,” said Ananya Bhakti dd. The pizzas had been home-baked with love by Anuradha dd, one of the festival organizers. Needless to say, they were heartily welcomed.
That was just the beginning of the incredible hospitality that was rolled out for all the devotees who attended the event. The Krishna House ladies were comfortably accommodated in the dormitory of the women’s ashram. “The room was great, but to be honest, we didn’t use it much. There was so much excitement in the air, and so much we wanted to see and do that we didn’t want to sleep!” said Bhaktin Aditi, who stayed up almost all night both days.
The prasadam for the festival was extraordinary, and there was always more than enough for everyone. The devotees serving prasadam were super friendly, and even though there were hundreds of people there, the lines went quickly. They even had a special arrangement for composting. For Krishna House devotees, a major attraction was the maha-prasadam. “Since we don’t have installed deities at our center, it was a rare and extra special treat. I’ll never forget sitting next to the lotus pond eating that burfi and sandesh sandwich,” Ananya Bhakti dd said.
The main thing of course, was the kirtan, which went on continuously from 11:00am on Saturday, June 19 to 11:00pm Sunday the 20th with a powerful line-up of stalwart kirtan leaders like Amala Harinam das and his wife Nadiya Mani dd Kirtan Premi das, Gauramani dd, Thakur das, Saranagati dd, Dhanya dd and Bali das, Kishor Muralidas, Thakur das, NYC Harinam party headed by Rama Raya das, and many others. The air was filled with the sound of the holy names, as if reverberating from all corners of the universe. And the dancing was euphoric! “Several times, I totally lost myself in the dancing,” said Bhaktin Riddhi. “At one point, a bunch of the ladies formed a circle, and we were pulling people into the middle and spinning around. Everyone got swept up in it.” This ecstatic dancing got to be a feature of the festival. “By the end, most of us had blisters on our feet from dancing so hard, but it was totally worth it!” Riddhi added.
As usual, however, the Krishna House devotees were not there just to enjoy the kirtan. They were there to serve. They boldly accepted the service of cleaning ALL the common bathrooms - no small task when hundreds of people were using them 24 hours a day – and they diligently and dutifully performed the prescribed cleaning protocol three times a day to ensure the satisfaction and safety of all devotees. “I never took so many showers in my life - five times a day!” Bhaktin Shibani said, “But I started realizing how cleanliness is next to godliness. I felt really blessed by the service.”
Of course, they would have liked to be in the kirtan all day, but, as Bhaktin Tricia said, “The service definitely made me feel more connected to the deities because I know They are most pleased when you serve the devotees. It also made me feel more connected to the people I was chanting and dancing with - like a big family with so much love between everyone. The open-heartedness of the devotees creates such a warm and welcoming environment, and after having done some menial service for all of Sri Sri Radha-Vrindaban Chandra's guests, it was easier to open my heart to the holy name and to see everyone in relation to Krishna.” In this way, through practical experience, they all discovered that the secret to getting the nectar of kirtan is Vaisnava-seva, humble service to the devotees.
“The incredible thing,” Bhaktin Kaylee said, “is that even though we were doing such a lowly service, we were treated like VIPs – from the complimentary festival T-shirts to the generous gift card for Govinda’s restaurant to the tour of Old Vrindaban personally guided by temple president, Jaya Krsna Prabhu.”
The girls also had a wonderful meeting with Malati Prabhu which ended in a kirtan that continued down the steps of Malati’s cabin and became an ecstatic harinam. “The procession flowed down the Peacock Walk like a river, sweeping up devotees along the way,” Prabhupada Priya dd described, “In the end, it combined with the kirtan in the temple room like a river flowing into the sea, in this case, an ocean of transcendentally blissful chanting.”
First-timers in New Vrindaban were struck by the beauty of the place. “I knew it would be beautiful, but I was surprised by how developed it was, and how it was so expertly done that the development did not take away from the natural spiritual ambience, but actually enhanced it,” Ananya-bhakti dd said. “The atmosphere was perfectly set up for spiritual practices,” Bhaktin Kaylee agreed. “There was a relaxed vibe that I felt supported me in going deeply into my chanting. Even more beautiful than the place,” Kaylee added, “were the people. The New Vrindaban devotees were working so hard behind the scenes that all the visitors could just totally absorb themselves in the kirtan.”
And absorb themselves they did. Many of the devotees spent over 24 hours immersed in chanting the holy names for the pleasure of Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra. Bhaktin Narayani from Krishna House, a former resident of Sridhama Mayapur, said that the atmosphere and the intensity of the kirtan reminded her of the annual Kirtan Mela held in Mayapur during the Gaura Purnima festival. “I think it was that feeling of togetherness, that energy that is created when so many devotees are chanting together, that reminded me of Kirtan Mela. But this was even more special because for over a year, we have been hankering to get together like this, and this was the first time it actually happened. After the long Covid-19 struggle, it was like a victory celebration.”
Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra and all the deities of New Vrindaban reciprocated with the devotees’ enthusiasm by appearing on Sunday morning in a gorgeous flower outfit. Two of the Krishna House Vaishnavis, Kameshi dd and Bhaktin Shibani, stayed up almost all night on Saturday helping the pujaris make it. “I felt so honored to have the opportunity to do this intimate service. I never would have imagined that I would be making Srimati Radharani’s dress!” exclaimed Bhaktin Shibani. Kameshi dd, who had received second initiation a few months earlier and had her first experience of going on the altar this weekend, commented with tears in her eyes, “This festival is like being in the spiritual world, where everyone is totally focused on pleasing Radha and Krishna, doing different services – making dresses, cooking, dancing, and so on – and feeling inexplicably blissful!”
By Sunday evening, the kirtan had risen to another level, and knowing that it would have to end soon, everyone wanted to be there for the grand finale at 9:00pm. But the last 34 hours of continuous kirtan had built up such a tremendous momentum that there was no stopping it. The dancing turned into pure transcendental madness, and the kirtan roared on until 11:00pm. When it finally reached its crescendo, and came to a meditative, prayerful closure, everyone was enveloped in transcendental joy and peace that not only pervaded New Vrindaban but certainly spread throughout the world. This, after all, was one of the objectives of the 24 Plus Kirtan – to elicit the blessings of the Lord for the upliftment of all humanity.
Monday morning came all too soon for the Krishna House Vaishnavis, and it was bittersweet to say good-bye. After helping Anuradha dd pack Ekadasi breakfast and lunch boxes for all those who would travel that day, they offered full obeisances to the dhama and loaded into the cars. As they rolled out over the winding road, they reflected on the highlights of the festival and already started discussing when they might return to New Vrindaban.
(Note: 2022 Summer 24 Hour Kirtan will also take on a different format—starting this time on Friday and ending on Sunday