Difficult times often bring out the best in people — especially from the people who are already spiritually-inclined. India’s ancient wisdom gifts our nation with inherent strength, hope, determination and a selfless approach to life that enable us to continue in the face of great evil and strife. Carrying forward that Sanatan Tradition during this grave COVID-19 crisis in India (and elsewhere) is the glorious organisation called the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Here, League of India talks with Shri Radharamn Das, Vice President and Spokesperson ISKCON, ISKCON Kolkata, about the various aspects associated with ISKCON amid the coronavirus crisis.
As the country, especially the marginalized section, continues to struggle with the impact of COVID-19, ISKCON is said to be leading India’s largest ‘Food Relief Program’. Can you please tell our readers all about it?
Shri Das: ISKCON’s founder Acharya His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, one day while looking out of a window, in Mayapur, a village near Calcutta, saw a group of children fighting with stray dogs over scraps of food. From this simple, yet heart-breaking incident Srila Prabhupada ordered his followers to make sure that no person within a radius of ten miles from every ISKCON temples and centres should go hungry.
ISKCON is also the world’s largest food for life program implementer.
ISKCON food for life, Annamrita, Akshay Patra are various programs which are inspired by Srila Prabhupada.
From war-torn zones like Serbia, Chechenya, or Tsunami hit places like Sri Lanka, India or earthquake-affected places like Nepal or Pakistan or during hurricane Katrina, ISKCON devotees have served food everywhere in the world.
In fact, there have been many instances of ISKCON devotees getting killed in war zones while serving food.
Food For Life engages in various sorts of hunger relief, including outreach to the homeless, provision for disadvantaged children throughout India, and provision for victims of natural disasters around the world. ISKCON has served over 6 billion free meals.
Steve Jobs was also one of the benefactors of the ISKCON food relief programme. He recollected in his famous commencement speech at Stanford University where he famously recollected that special time in his life, shortly after he dropped out of Reed College but continued to drop in on classes there, “It wasn’t all romantic,” he told students in the now-iconic speech,
“I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms. I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with. And I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple (ISKCON). I loved it.”
The whole speech is an inspiring and thoughtful reflection, but it was that last bit—about depending upon the Krishna temple for his one good meal a week (and loving it)—that ISKCON devotees especially latched on to.
One of the most influential and admired men in the world once relished sanctified vegetarian food at a Krishna temple, and those meals played a defining role in his journey towards success against all odds. Understandably, Hare Krishna devotees were thrilled to hear him remember it fondly.
ISKCON Kolkata has received the kind support of Indian cricket legend Sourav Ganguly in the aforementioned program. How did the association come about, and what are the mechanism and statistics involved with your association with the sporting great?
Shri Das: Sourav Ganguly family is very much connected with ISKCON. His wife Dona Ganguly and daughter Sana Ganguly performs Odissi dance for the pleasure of Lord Jagannath, Baladev and Subhadra Devi during annual Rathayatra organised by ISKCON Kolkata.
During this ongoing crisis, Sourav Da called us and expressed his willingness to support food for 10,000 people daily here in Kolkata.
Pan India ISKCON has served over 3 crores meals till date during the ongoing COVID19 crisis.
ISKCON with the help of all the volunteers and well-wishers has served 2.43 crore (24 millions) meals across India to the low income families & migrants since the lockdown began.
Thank you for all your support and goodwishes pic.twitter.com/oCtpp8joAG
— Yudhistir Govinda Das (@yudhistirGD) April 27, 2020
TOTAL MEALS SERVED
Treading somewhat on thin political ice, West Bengal – from a distance – does not look like a place *in the recent decades* where the administration/government would be very friendly towards an organisation like ISKCON. Is there any truth in that apprehension? Irrespective, can you share the span and influence of ISKCON Kolkata activities/programs in the glorious state – including, but not limited to, the current COVID-19 crisis?
Shri Das: The state government and the Chief Minister of West Bengal Sushri Mamata Banerjee are very friendly towards ISKCON. She cleared the way for world largest temple at Sridham Mayapur.
For over 50 years ISKCON was dreaming to make a spiritual city at the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu but because of West Bengal land ceiling act, we were not able to do. The Hon’ble Chief Minister personally took the matter in her hand and in record time she cleared all files allowing ISKCON to have 750 acres of land at Mayapur.
Not only that, but she also waived the registration fees’ which could have cost ISKCON several hundred crores.
How much is the interaction between various ISKCON centres – both in India and abroad? Is there a ‘universal annual charter’ kind of a thing that every centre has to follow? How much of that, if it exists, has got affected by COVID-19 and what has been the resulting impact on the ISKCON activities, objectives and goals?
Shri Das: The International spiritual headquarters of ISKCON is situated at Sridham Mayapur in Nadia District of West Bengal and is about 124 km from Kolkata.
Every year before Gour Purnima or Holi, the heads of each ISKCON temple from all over the world and other officials, devotees congregate at Mayapur for our annual meetings.
The progress of each temple and new projects is discussed and offered to Sri Sri Radha Madhav, Pancha-ttava and Narsimhadev: the presiding deities at Sridham Mayapur.
Finally, how did an M. Tech from a foreign university like you got associated with ISKCON? How would you describe your current responsibilities at ISKCON Kolkata? What do you wish to achieve in the journey in the coming decades?
Shri Das: For an Indian to get the seed of Bhakti in Communist Russia and nourishment of that bhakti creeper at Imperial Britain is quite astonishing. Moreover, for one who has spent practically most of his life in the barren land for bhakti where the citadel of Communists in India existed-West Bengal.
In June 1971, the ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada has gone to Moscow on an invitation of a Professor Kotovsky. Religion was considered as a crime in USSR, and you could be thrown in jail for even possessing a religious book. In those three days, Srila Prabhupada met one young Russian boy and preached to him. He gave his personal Bhagavad Gita to that young boy and initiated him. Srila Prabhupada also predicted that in 20 years communism will be finished in USSR. That one spark of Krishna bhakti which ISKCON founder ignited in that young Russian, soon engulfed the USSR. USSR broke in 1991, exactly 20 years since Srila Prabhupada predicted. Today there are millions of Russians who have lost their heart in Vrindavan.
I was fortunate to reach Russia for my higher studies during this Krishna revolution and got the associations of Russian mahatmas.
In the pursuit of my so-called higher studies, I stumbled upon the greatest treasure in Moscow and London: Krishna-the reservoir of all pleasure, the matchless gift.
After I topped my University with a Gold medal (B.Tech, M.Tech), I worked for some time in a multi-national company. I joined ISKCON Chowpatty in 1999. In 2002, I started serving at ISKCON Kolkata. Kolkata is the birthplace of our founder acharya Srila Prabhupada. It is from Kolkata that the seed of this great movement was sown in the heart of young A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami (Abhay Charan Dey) by his spiritual master Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur in 1921.
At ISKCON Kolkata temple we have about 80 Brahmacharis and over half of them are IIT graduates and postgraduates including the toppers.
We have Brahmacharis who are qualified Engineers, Doctors, with double PhD, Chartered accountants, interior designers etc. ISKCON Kolkata also runs the mid-day meal program here in Kolkata, and we feed about 14,000 meals every day to poor school children.
Pan India, through ISKCON FOOD relief foundation we serve hot mid-day meals to 1.2 million (12 lakh) students every day.