By Anthony Dematteo
In its number of smiles and amount of outward joy, Saturday afternoon’s Festival of the Chariots rivals any annual celebration in the Oldest City.
“My life is surrounded by God,” said Ganga Sheth, as hundreds of the young woman’s fellow members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness sang and danced in Plaza de Constitucion. “Everyone has their own way of loving God. We chant. We dance. We eat food.”
The festival led what event organizers estimated was a crowd of more than 300 Hare Krishna followers down Cathedral Place, then Cordova Street, as the faithful danced on either side of a chariot bright with yellows, reds and blues.
The chariot carried those representing three of the faith’s deities — Jagannagha, Baladera and Subhadra, said Phani BhusanDasa, who travels the country participating in the movement.
He said the public perception of Hare Krishna — the name Westerners commonly use for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness — largely differs from reality.
“The general public is probably a little agog,” BhusanDasa said. “It is about love and devotion to a person known by limitless names.
“How compatible it is with everyone’s soul. We have everyone of all types, from all over.”
In front of Bank of America, before the festival march turned onto Cordova Street, Samba Zaldivar and 9-year-old daughter, Anjali, knelt and placed their foreheads on the concrete sidewalk as the chariot passed.
Nearby, 15-year-old St. Augustine resident Barbara Alexander walked beside the celebration, looking serious in observation.
“I believe God is the inner light inside all of us,” Alexander said. “I think this is very colorful, beautiful and pretty cool.”
The following of the Hindu deity Krishna began as many as 400 years before the birth of Christ. The Hare Krishna faith later formed, and, in the 20th century, spread outside India, growing most prominently in late 1960s San Francisco.
Many of Saturday’s faithful were from Alachua County, where Sheth said the largest North American Hare Krishna population is located.
Nitai Prana, a 21-year-old from Alachua, pulled back on chariot ropes held by marchers throughout the precession, which he said St. Augustine has hosted for four years.
“It’s a lifestyle,” said Prana, who towed the chariot from Alachua. “It’s something I look forward to when I wake. It gives my life meaning.
“Without God, without Krishna - there is nothing. It’s like love.”
Govinda McCreedy looked on as her 8-year-old daughter Radhe offered smiles and literature to passersby.
“It makes me happy,” Radhe said.
Govinda McCreedy, a math teacher at an Alachua charter school, said children in the faith — in general — share her daughter’s joy.
“These kids are so happy,” she said. “I can see the difference. We are vegetarians. We don’t drink or smoke. That is part of their early lives.”
The faith, said Swami Trivikrama Sannyasi, is not all about austerity.
“Instead of getting attached to material things, we get attached to spiritual things,” he said. “But you can have a happy life. Make a family. Build a business — but put God in the center.”
In the faith, a Swami takes a vow of celibacy and makes spirituality life’s sole mission.
Blayre Nyitray, a 17-year-old college student, alternately sipped bottled water and danced in a blue wrap skirt on Cordova Street.
“It’s just — we’re ecstatically dancing,” she said, not quite able to stop moving to the rhythm of the traditional Kirtan chant. “I try to see Krishna in everything.”
Nearby, 14-year-old Rati Dalchandi checked her long, black hair in the reflection of the bank window, laughing with friends as the group headed back for the plaza.
There, people sang and played instruments. Others offered free fresh fruit kabobs and books.
As the sound of Kirtan grew, the crowd around the chariot jumped like teammates circling a batter after a game-winning home run.
“I think it’s really beautiful and invigorating and uplifting,” St. Augustine resident Beth Levine said from the shade of a tree.
In the shadow of the gazebo, Nitai Priya said much of the faith and the festival is about God’s beauty.
“It’s to glorify God, and for other people, even if they make fun of it, they get benefits because that’s how merciful God is,” she said.
Priya is a member of an Alachua temple she said has about 800 members — all, she said, seeking the beauty and grace of God.
“We are all children of God,” Priya said as a child got her face painted among music and smiles on the plaza lawn. “His personality is absolute and all attractive.
“What you see here is temporary. God is permanent; and we are trying to be more like he is.”