The recently formed ISKCON Tribal Care Initiative, headed by GBC Bhakti Purusottama Swami and chief coordinator Sridham Govinda Das, is reaching out to the numerous tribal communities located in forests and remote areas of East and Northeast India.
The Initiative is currently focusing on the Munda and Sauntala tribes of the state of Orissa, the Karbi and Dimasar tribes of Assam, the Riang and Tripuri tribes of Tripura, the Mizo tribes of Mizoram, and the Naga tribes of Nagaland.
It is also visiting tribal people in the states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and Meghalaya, with a long term goal to provide them not only spiritual, but also emotional, health and educational care.
Throughout the year, groups of devotees who live in these states visit their local tribal communities. And once a year, all the tribal people are invited for a special convention at ISKCON’s headquarters in Mayapur, West Bengal during the Rama Navami festival.
In addition, Bhakti Purusottama Swami tours with a group of devotees once a year, putting on big programs at various tribal communities.
Devotees from America, Russia, Brazil, Australia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan participated in the most recent tour from December 2nd to 16th, which ventured into the forests and villages of Assam and Tripura. There, they held daily harinamas with evening stage programs and prasadam distribution, and also distributed hundreds of books every day.
“In each place, political leaders like members of the state government also attended our program,” says Bhakti Purusottama Swami. “In Tripura, the state governor attended and praised our endeavor.”
During the tour, devotees also opened a Jagannath temple for a tribal community in Assam, and a Bhaktivedanta school for one in Tripura.
“The last program we put on was in a very remote place in Tripura,” says Nitya Kishora Dasi from Brazil, who participated in the tour. “We got accommodation in a school building and there were 25 small boys from 5 to 8 years old there. When we said ‘Hare Krishna!’ they would all immediately raise their arms and shout ‘Hare Krishna!’ back. And unless you said, “Okay, you can put your arms down now,’ they would just keep them up like that.”
Nitya Kishora and Bhakti Purusottama Swami describe the tribals as shy and simple people who love kirtan, prasadam and the visiting Western devotees. They’re very artistic, sharing their own music and tribal dances with devotees as well as their own Hare Krishna tunes, and they speak a variety of tribal languages rather than Bengali or Hindi.
“Preaching has been going on for some years at these places, so some are devotees while others are not yet,” says Nitya Kishora. “Either way, they are the best chanters of the Holy Name that I have ever seen. They sing very sweetly and loudly with so much devotion. They can chant for hours. They always wear tilaka, dhotis and saris, and they often go out to teach other tribes about Krishna’s names and Srila Prabhupada’s teachings.”
The tribal peoples’ way of life is also very well suited to Krishna consciousness. “Whenever I come, they receive me with flowers which they collect from the forest,” says Bhakti Purusottama Swami. “They live off the forest, and they have loving relationships. They are much happier than the people who live in the cities.”
With environmentalism such a hot issue today, Nitya Kishora feels that introducing such tribal people to Krishna consciousness is the way to save the environment in the long term – because it has the ability to help them find satisfaction in their simple way of life rather than moving to the cities.
“Krishna consciousness is the only way to make the youth as well as people in general appreciate what a life in the mode of goodness can offer,” she says.
And the ISKCON Tribal Care Initiative has only just begun. Some villages this December’s tour visited had never been visited by ISKCON devotees before, so those taking up Krishna consciousness there will require books in their language, instruments, and other devotional paraphernalia.
Further down the line, Bhakti Purusottama Swami and other leaders have plans to send devotee volunteers to train tribal people in Deity worship, brahminical culture and book distribution.
They’re also planning to build more schools and temples in tribal villages, and to provide medical assistance for those in need.
But despite all they’re giving to these communities, the ISKCON devotees are receiving so much in return.
“Each one of us felt so much bliss travelling to those places,” says Nitya Kishora. “Many of us shed tears of joy after seeing so many people from different cultures, backgrounds, languages and skin color united in chanting Hare Krishna. In those special moments, we could see the unity behind all the external designations. We could realize we are not the body, but the soul. And that the soul is eternally connected to Lord Krishna, in a loving relationship.”
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