Sadhu Sanga Retreat of 2014 – A Report
By Lavanya Sivakumar
During the last Memorial Day Weekend, a spiritual hurricane of international proportions washed Boone, North Carolina with transcendental waves of ecstasy, flooding its rooms and halls with spiritual sound and waterlogging its residents in pools of Vaishnava association. In its wake, this transcendental storm, left thousands of souls stranded in the material world, bereft and yearning for a repeat of those wonderful three days of flash flooding, straight from the spiritual sky.
Welcome to the experience of one of the largest kirtan retreats held in North America this year: the Sadhu Sanga Kirtan Retreat.
Boone is a beautiful small town, nestled in the folds of the picturesque Appalachian mountains. Home to a small population of only about 18,000, it is known for its beautiful trails and visually breathtaking scenery. But this Memorial Day weekend, Boone became home to about 1600 Vaishnavas and Vaishnavis, who poured in with eager anticipation, to attend the well and long anticipated Sadhu Sanga Retreat 2014.
This retreat, now entering into its third year, has built its reputation, as a place of serious contemplation and surrender to the process of Sankirtan. From a small group of kirtan enthusiasts it has grown into a huge gathering of kirtan lovers, both Vaishnavas and beyond, all loyal and committed to attending this wonderful event annually.
Why would anyone want to attend a retreat so far away and then go back again and again you ask? It’s all in the mantra. The Hare Krishna Maha Mantra, attracts the mind, cools the senses and fills the heart with love of the Supreme. Just chanting out loud on our own, gives us a chance to taste the holy names and enjoy the relief and calm it brings, but doing so under expert guidance, can bring about amazing results.
Singing with advanced devotees helps us call out to the Lord with sincere faith and desire and that, in turn, changes us from deep within the core of our heart, transforming our abstract faith into something more physical and tangible. As every part of your body is engaged in the chanting, something miraculous happens. For that short span of time, everything around us faded away. All that we can hear are the voices of the singers and the enthusiastic response of the audience. As the longing of the crowd and the thumping of their feet rise to a crescendo, each kirtan brings about a rhythmic trance and the crowd just melts into the mood, called out to the Lord with all their energy and enthusiasm.
The brainchild of His Holiness Indradyumna Swami, this retreat is organised by a very small and dedicated group of devotees that are an amazing example of both Vaishnava etiquette and excellent teamwork. Working around the year, they plan, organize and oversee every part of this mammoth event and amazingly, no small detail is left unnoticed.
Special needs of the sannyasis, small children needing warm milk for their bedtime, morning pickup for mangal arti for the elders, nothing is too small or unimportant. At any time of the day, you can see them ready and eager to serve, even though it is 4:45 in the morning and they have had only around 3 to 4 hours of sleep for the past 3 days, even after a back-breaking 10 hour kitchen run, they are still smiling and composed, ready to get back into service at the shortest notice.
Watching them run on sheer spiritual energy, one can see for oneself, how devotional service is self energizing and self satisfying. They were satisfied with just the joy of service. For example, even after being called repeatedly to be felicitated, most of the cooks never turned up. They were just too busy doing their service. What a wonderful team of Vaishnavas!
Spanning about four days over the Memorial Day Weekend, this retreat specializes in the congregational chanting of the holy names. For almost three full days, under the auspicious tutelage and guidance of heart moving kirtaneers like His Holiness BB Govinda Maharaja and Madhava Prabhu the holy names melted like sugar on the tongue and we were all part of a spiritual journey, searching for the flavors of the holy names.
The day starts with Mangala Arati at 5 am, followed by Japa and Guru Puja and then a Bhagavatam class by one of the many wonderful sannyasis that are attending the event, followed by a sumptuous breakfast prasadam. Then its on to hours and hours of sheer bliss, as one after another, expert kirtaniyas come to shower us with their mercy, teaching us their personal tips to get more out of the chanting and to find ways to develop a taste for the sweet holy names.
For example, Bada Haridas Prabhu’s lilting voice would lead to the melodious kirtan of BB Govinda Maharaj. Then came the enchanting tunes of Gaura Vani, which would then lead on to the energetic, vibrating kirtans of Achyta Gopi and Ananta Govinda Prabhu. Then Sacinandana Maharaj would come and teach us to sing once again, with freshness and a new vigor, while Madhava Prabhu would remind us first, that this is medicine for the soul, then show us the deeper nectar, concluding with the realisation that the medicine IS the nectar : Harer nama harer nama harer namaiva kevalam…
Each new singer, brings to the table, a new set of skills and realizations, along with their own personal mood and flavor and in no time, lunch is over and now it is time for dinner, the day is almost at end,….or so you think. But it only gets better.
Post dinner the ‘special kirtans of the day’ starts. The first two days we had the opportunity to drown in the ecstatic kirtans of His Holiness Radhanath Swami Maharaja, who took great pleasure in driving us all crazy with joy and delight. On the last evening we were thrilled to hear that it was His Holiness Indradyumna Swami Maharaj himself, who surprised us with a wonderful almost a hour and a half long, foot stomping, hip swaying, mind blowing kirtan, in his special European style. To say that the crowds went wild would be an understatement.
These are experts at spreading love of God and to see them in action doing what they were born to do, was like watching Leonardo Da Vinci painting one of his masterpieces. Sheer poetry in motion. They brought a little of the spiritual world down to us and we were allowed a glimpse into the wonders of the spiritual realm, where every word is a song and every step is a dance.
Many times along the beautifully scenic path leading to the Kirtan hall one would find two or more swamis, busy in conversation. For us devotees it was like a visit to the FIFA finals. So many stars or should I say Moons, of Srila Prabhupada, all in one location. One’s eyes, legs and mouth, competed with one’s mind to observe, associate and offer obeisances at the feet of these pure souls that were so generously sharing their mercy with us all. And the most wonderful of that association however came during the morning lectures when they shared their insights and realizations and taught us the proper way to engage ourselves in singing the holy names. They made themselves so easily available to us all and even with their busy tight schedules, they found the time to help us through our personal journeys.
Along with the experience of kirtan, we were also encouraged to serve the Vaishnavas in other wonderful ways. Many different branches of service were represented by booths that lined the corridors of the kirtan building. There were booths representing Go Raksha, like, the Gita Nagari farm stall, selling wonderful Ahimsa products, there were booths carrying the writings and kirtan offerings of the various swamis, booths for spiritual books, for grihasta support, for the Temple of Vedic Planetarium and even our very own Sankirtan Book stall from ISV offering Srimad Bhagavatam sets at a very appealing price with signed copies from the visiting Swamijis as a special extra something, for supporting the upcoming Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur Centennial.
Many people from different walks of life, find themselves drawn to the chanting of the holy names. A western lady new to Krsna consciousness told me how she felt so happy listening to the kirtans that she had repeatedly driven down from a nearby city to attend this retreat. Jokingly she confided in me that she was wondering if she might actually be a ‘Hare Krishna’ at heart after all, for how else was she to explain this joy she was experiencing in the presence of the holy names.
Kirtans, Sadhu Sanga and Maha Prasada. These are the three pillars of a great Vaishnava Retreat and all three were strongly present here in their full glory. While the association of Sadhus was the cherry on the cake, the icing was the easy proximity to wonderful senior vaishnavas and vaishnavis. They were everywhere, always smiling, generously available for interaction and spiritual conversation. As for the cake itself: prasada, that too was first class, it was the glue that held everything together. Even with the overflowing crowds the kitchen rarely ran out of food. The spread was lavish and wholesome and there was always at least a few items from the feast, available for latecomers to honor. Not to mention that all the meals were sponsored by groups of generous donors and were therefore free for the guests. The rooms, which were the only thing the devotees were asked to pay for, were clean and well lit, with ample ventilation and great views.
With this kind of hospitality it is difficult to go back home.
How can I even start to describe the wonderful bliss that washed over us and stayed, sticking to our consciousness for days after. Nobody wanted to leave and even as we were flying out, the kirtans kept echoing in our minds. For days later we found ourselves humming the tunes and suddenly bursting out in sudden waves of song to our family and associates utter amusement and surprise.
It was obvious to all who encountered us, we had experienced something very special and soul satisfying. Isn’t that what a holiday should be about? So next Memorial Day Weekend, pack your bags and hop into a car, flight, bus or any combination of the above and head out to the Sadhu Sanga Retreat 2015 to experience a life changing four days of Sadhu Sanga and Kirtan. Look forward to feel the power of the Holy Name and rejuvenate your taste for the chanting of the Maha Mantra!
For details of location and registration, check out the website www.SadhuSangaRetreat.com after the month of Kartik!