First Vaishnavi Sanga Retreat Held In Vidarbha
(more photos: https://goo.gl/ZVJiM7)
By Jayabhadra devi dasi
THEME: EMPOWERING THE VAISHNAVIS
While in Jagannatha and Mayapur yatras in December 2018, I prayed to Lord Jagannatha, “O Lord, I am not doing any service these days. My spiritual master, Lokanath Maharaja, wants me to work hard preaching for the ISKCON Girls’ Forum (IGF), but I am not making much effort. Please guide me O Lord!” Then I thought of arranging a retreat for young women somewhere in the Vidarbha region to share our views and inspire us for the IGF preaching. When I mentioned this to ISKCON Amravati temple president Anantasesa dasa he exclaimed, “So you are organizing Vidarbha Vaishnavi Sanga!’’ That’s how I got the name for the retreat.
Vidarbha is the eastern region of Maharashtra, comprising the Nagpur and Amravati divisions. I selected Kaundanyapur dhama for the event because during Dwarpa Yuga it was the capital of Vidarbha Kingdom and the birthplace of Rukmini Maharani. Kaundanyapur has an ISKCON temple on a hilltop with Giriraj and Rukmini Dwarkanath deities and Akrur dasa, a disciple of Lokanath Maharaja, as temple president. We set the retreat for January 26 (a public holiday) and 27 and spread the news through WhatsApp, Facebook, and e-mails. Bhakta Manish Gawande, who handles the media services for ISKCON Amravati, prepared the poster for VVS, giving it an attractive professional appearance.
Twenty-five girls attended the programme, thirteen from Nagpur, five from Dhamangaon, three from Akola, and four from Amravati. We kept the fees to Rs 300, with the five girls from Dhamangaon being sponsored by Gaurangi Shakti devi dasi (a disciple of Radhanath Maharaja) and Dr Payal mataji. There were four speakers scheduled for the retreat: Archana Bhakti devi dasi (BE. MTech), Dr Payal (MBBS. MD), Gaurangi Shakti (MBBS. MD), and myself.
We arrived at Kaundanyapur on the evening of January 25 and completed the registration process by wearing wrist belts with the inscription VVS – 2019, thus catching the mood of the yatra. A few girls were late and came running to the registration counter saying, “Please tie our belts also.” All of them took selfies of the belts and kept them as their profile pictures, thus inspiring others for the retreat. Then came darsana of Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra, and Sri Sri Rukmini Dwarkanath and Govardhanath, followed by an introduction in the temple, light dinner prasadam, and then rest.
January 26, 2019 – Republic of India Day
Almost all the girls rose by 3:30am. The previous night I reiterated what Lokanath Maharaja says, “When you go for yatra, you have to come out of your comfort zone and do a little austerity.” We attended mangala arati and after Tulsi puja all of us joined the chanting session with Maharaja through the Zoom application. It was a wonderful experience for all and for some girls it was a highly inspiring first darsana of Maharaja. Everyone experienced an improvement in chanting. As Maharaja would say chant, they would chant in a loud voice, thus awakening anyone from a sleeping mood. The japa talk was wonderful – they said it was as if Maharaja was talking to all of us. Then we attended darsana arati and Guru puja followed by Akrura’s Bhagavatam class.
After breakfast prasadam we started as per our schedule. In the first session, “Govardhana as the Lord Krishna Himself,” we recited slokas glorifying Govardhanath. The girls recited the slokas with me and continued while circumambulating Giriraja. We also provided hard copies of slokas and prayers so they can recite at home. Following the day’s sessions, we collectively honoured prasadam where the girls served, thus learning how they should serve devotees, after which came a karatala class by Adishakti devi dasi, the coordinator of IGF classes at Nagpur, and then everyone rested.
January 27, 2019 – Retreat’s final day
The day before we had discussed the topic “Importance of the Morning Programme,” and as an immediate effect the girls again attended mangala arati. They were eagerly awaiting the chanting with Lokanath Maharaja, and as he said “Kaundanyapur vasis are chanting,” all of them shouted “haribol,” and as Maharaja said, “Rukmini Maharani, ki jai,” they all repeated “jai.” After the japa talk everyone shared their realizations, one girl saying, “Mataji, Maharaja was glad to see us all chanting together.” I said, “Yes, Maharaja always wants us to come together to chant and preach.”
After darsana arati we gathered together and marched for darsana of the local temples while performing sankirtan. We first visited the Ambadevi temple loudly singing the holy names and asked Her to bless us so that we could all have darsana of Sri Sri Rukmini Dwarkanath. In the previous day’s Bhagavatam class Akrura had said, “We should pray to Ambadevi, milade dwarkanath ambe, tere guna hambhi gayenge.” Then we performed sankirtan in the temple courtyard and called everyone around to join us. Two elderly men sitting close by whispered, “Who says only village girls worship the Lord? Look at these girls from the cities dancing and singing the holy names.” As we were walking and performing sankirtan on the streets, the residents were coming out and saying Hare Krishna to us. When asked where we had come from, one of us said, “We have come from afar just for darsana of Rukmini Maharani’s birthplace.” They were astonished to hear this. I said, “You all are from the birthplace of Rukmini Maharani, please say jai Rukmini maiya,” and they happily complied.
Fortunately, when we reached the Vitthala-Rukmini temple arati was in progress. After arati I asked for the microphone and started singing, “Vitthala, Vitthala, Vitthala, jai jai Rama Krishna Hari,” and the glories of Saint Tukaram and Srila Prabhupada. All the girls started dancing and following me, surprising everyone gathered around us. Then we had darsana of the River Vardayani. When we had completed parikrama and returned to our ISKCON temple, Akrura said, “You all performed wonderful sankirtan in the Vitthala temple and uplifted the name of ISKCON.” While I was wondering how he knew this, he added, “The sound from that temple carries across Kaundanyapur.” The Lord had inspired us for sankirtan, which the girls confirmed saying, “Sankirtan is very important for preaching and now we will have our kirtan team,” to which one mataji replied, “Yes, practice a bit and all of you can sing in kirtan mela.”
After breakfast prasadam we had a poster presentation with the topic “Empowering the Vaishnavis.” We made four groups and each group presented their ideas on how to improve preaching. We noted the suggestions with the intention to implement them as soon as possible. Finally, I thanked everyone for their participation. All the girls and speakers were then gifted a small Srila Prabhupada book, a keychain and a photograph of Rukmini Maharani.
The girls shared their realizations, some of which are as follows:
1. Such retreats should be held regularly.
2. We will come again and as Maharaja said in his japa talk, “each one, teach one,” we will make it “each one, catch one” and bring our friends also.
3. Thank-you for calling us for the camp.
4. Residential camps give us time to absorb the vibrations of the dhama.
5. As the days passed, we became very close to each other.
6. Thank-you for putting this fire of IGF preaching in our hearts; we will go back and help in IGF preaching.
Akrura dasa and mataji were enthusiastic when I suggested the project and provided wonderful prasadam and accommodation for all of us. They also presented each one of us with a New Year calendar, which was like getting a degree for having completed the retreat. Thanking each other and asking for forgiveness, with heavy hearts we then departed for our respective cities. The retreat was simply an attempt to please Guru and Gauranga.