As we usher in 2012, ISKCON News takes a look back at ten stories that helped to shape the last twelve months. While it was tough to single out only ten, we tried to narrow it down by selecting those that had the most impact on the whole of ISKCON as a society, as well as those that demonstrated ISKCON’s impact on the outside world.
In 2011, ISKCON braved natural disasters; lost loved ones; made key societal and managerial breakthroughs; triumphed over oppression; made important social contributions; and found new focus on basic principles of Srila Prabhupada’s mission such as kirtan and book distribution. Below, in chronological order, we look at these defining moments of the past year.
1. Devotees Help Fellow Victims in New Zealand and Japanese Earthquakes(February-March 2011)
2011 was the year of earthquakes, and despite being affected, ISKCON devotees kept their faith in Krishna and focused on helping others.
In Christchurch, New Zealand, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake on February 22nd laid devastation to the city and killed a total of 181 people. It also destroyed the Christchurch ISKCON temple and Gaura-Nitai Deities, and several devotees’ homes, although luckily no devotees were killed or seriously hurt. In the aftermath, the congregation made a temporary home for their surviving Deities. They then set up a kitchen in one devotee’s backyard, from which they fed prasadam to hundreds of residents and rescue workers in the worst affected areas of the city every day.
Meanwhile in Japan, a gigantic 9.0 magnitude earthquake claimed nearly 16,000 lives and damaged or destroyed over 125,000 buildings. While Tokyo, where the ISKCON temple is located, was spared the worst, it was still affected. Devotees, headed by Food For Life Japan Director Shrikant Shah, responded by distributing prasadam to thousands in earthquake-ravaged areas, as well as by offering asylum in their temple to student refugees originally from Nepal. These efforts brought them heartfelt appreciation and recognition from both the then Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, and from the Nepalese Ambassador to Japan.
ISKCON News covered the initial Christchurch quake, the New Zealand devotees’ efforts to help their fellow citizens, and ISKCON Tokyo’s disaster relief efforts. You can also check out our larger piece about the history of ISKCON Japan and Tokyo’s new temple.
2. Dina Sharana Dasi Becomes Second Ever Female GBC Member (March 2011)
While many devotees rightly commented that it’s a shame it didn’t happen much sooner, Dina Sharana Dasi’s election as the second ever woman in ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission shows that the society is maturing and moving on from the unfortunate discrimination of the past.
A determined, practical and inspirational devotee, Dina Sharana’s extraordinary story tells how she battled sexism, stood for complete accountability and transparency in management, and helped bring her native yatra of Germany back from the brink of collapse.
3. Padayatra ‘Walk for Peace’ Braves London Riots: (August 2011)
On August 6th, a peaceful protest of 29-year-old Mark Duggan’s death after being shot by police in Tottenham, North London, turned violent. Local youth took advantage of the situation to begin kicking in shop windows and looting everything they could find, and the chaos spread to other cities in England including Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Nottingham, Salford and Liverpool. About 3,100 people were arrested, and £200 million worth of property damage was incurred.
Seen as the symptom of greater civil dissatisfaction, the riots generated much debate amongst political, social and academic figures. ISKCON, however, had a simple answer. Devotees headed by Parasurama Dasa, director of the Food For All charity, bravely ventured out into the most violent neighborhoods from August 12th to 15th with their decorated Gaura-Nitai cart. They sang God’s names, distributed prasadam, and handed out leaflets describing Srila Prabhupada’s peace formula that we are all God’s children and that peace comes from spiritual understanding and transcending the bodily concept of life.
The devotees were welcomed warmly by the majority of people, who appreciated their message of solidarity and peace. And Lord Krishna protected them—in Ealing, one of the most dangerous areas, they were flanked by a group of 200 Sikhs armed with swords! You can read about it here.
4. Kirtan Becomes an Unstoppable Force: (August 2011)
Within the past five years, since the first 24-hour kirtan in New Vrindaban, West Virginia in 2007, ISKCON has continued to focus more and more on the most essential principle of Krishna consciousness—chanting God’s names. 24-hour kirtan festivals have sprung up all over the world at different times of the year, with devotees reporting great inspiration and rejuvenation from the constant chanting.
ISKCON News reported on two of the biggest festivals last year. In Germany, the world’s first four-day kirtan mela was held, attended by 1,000 people including the largest roster of senior devotees and ISKCON gurus anywhere. Meanwhile in the largest ISKCON community in the western world, Alachua, Florida, second-generation organizers focused on creating a safe space to focus on the Holy Name, promoting the motto: “Experience kirtan with your heart.”
5. Siberian Court Tries to Ban Bhagavad-gita As It Is (September 2011)
When prosecutors in the town of Tomsk, Siberia, backed by the Russian Federal Security Service and members of the Russian Orthodox Church, attempted to ban Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is as extremist literature, there was widespread outrage. Not only ISKCON devotees, but also Hindus and free thinkers all over the world condemned the move.
Yury Pleshakov, a spokesman for ISKCON in Moscow, explained that the Bhagavad-gita has existed in Russia for 25 years and has never inspired violence or extremist activity. “On the contrary, this book teaches humane attitude towards all living beings,” he said.
Protests were staged throughout India, with even the Indian government eventually expressing its outrage. “I want to know from the [Russian] government what it is doing. The religious rights of Hindus in Russia should be protected,” said Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh.
The court case began in June 2011, and ISKCON News first reported on it in September, with steady in-depth coverage until the case was finally dismissed on December 28th. Followers of the Bhagavad-gita all over the world rejoiced.
6. ISKCON’s Midday Meal Program Goes From Strength to Strength: (November 2011)
On November 13th, ISKCON Food Relief Foundation’s Midday Meal program was named the “Best Organization in Social Work” at the D.Y. Patil Annual Achiever’s Awards in Mumbai. The prestigious event was attended by the project’s inspiritational leader Radhanath Swami and its national director Radha Krishna Dasa.
The Midday Meal program is probably ISKCON’s largest relief effort, and made stunning leaps and bounds in 2011, opening a number of new state-of-the art facilities. Working in conjunction with the Indian government, it feeds over one million meals of sanctified, nutritious vegetarian food every day to underprivileged children in ten Indian states. The program expects to have twenty-seven kitchens throughout the country by the end of 2012. Its efforts not only help millions, but also garner widespread government and public admiration for ISKCON.
As well as the Best Social Work Award, our coverage in 2011 included the Midday Meal’s opening of a new kitchen in Jharkhand that feeds 65,000 children. Meanwhile, our feature article in late 2010 provides a more in-depth look at the project.
7. Yamuna Devi Passes Away: (December 2011)
When Yamuna Devi passed away on December 20th, it truly seemed like the end of an era for ISKCON. The ISKCON pioneer, award-winning chef and much loved friend and guide was one of Srila Prabhupada’s earliest disciples, and is a defining character in ISKCON’s history.
She is known for starting ISKCON in England in the late 1960s and early 70s with her friends Mukunda Goswami, Janaki Dasi, Guru Dasa, Shyamasundara Dasa, and Malati Dasi. She sings on “Govindam,” which she recorded with George Harrison, and which moved Srila Prabhupada so much that he ensured it was played every morning at all ISKCON temples to this very day. Her 800-page cookbook Lord Krishna’s Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking was named International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year and called “The Taj Mahal of cookbooks” by the Chicago Tribune.
In later years, she was a spiritual inspiration and support for many devotees, especially ISKCON’s youth. ISKCON News ran an obituary, as well as a more in-depth article about her life and her memorial service in Alachua, Florida on December 26th.
8. The GBC Changes its Management Structure: (December 2011)
The Governing Body Commission (GBC), ISKCON’s top management authority, recently began introducing a completely new Executive Structure. Its new Executive Director, Tamohara Dasa, filled ISKCON News in on the details. The new structure is focused on increasing productivity, efficiency, transparency, and especially devotee care.
In our article, the GBC also shows a strong awareness that the general devotee public has been mistrustful of it due to past experiences and a lack of communication. It promises to put a face on the GBC with a new website to be launched soon, to better communicate its resolutions and plans to devotees around the world, and to provide contact details for devotees to express their concerns. It also wants to hear devotees’ opinions through polls, surveys, and focus groups.
“We need to hear from the devotees to be able to make better decisions,” says Tamohara.
9. A New Beginning for ISKCON Leicester: (December 2011)
Possibly the most heartwarming ISKCON story of 2011 is that of the devotees of ISKCON Leicester, England.
Back on September 3rd 2010, their temple was completely destroyed in a gas explosion, and the community was left without a place of worship. But devotees relied on Krishna and stayed positive, working together and continuing their efforts with weekly Harinamas and programs in rented halls. The result? Attendance multiplied manifold, and on December 15th 2011, they received the keys to a grand new building that dwarfed their old temple and impressed beyond their wildest dreams. Read about it here.
10. Book Distribution up 23% in North America: (December 2011)
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A common complaint is that while ISKCON’s distribution of spiritual books—one of founder Srila Prabhupada’s top priorities—was monumental in the 1970s and 1980s, it is practically non-existent now.
According to Book Distribution Strategist Vaisesika Dasa, however, that’s a gross exaggeration. Distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books in North America has seen a steady upward trend in the past five or six years, and 2011 saw the biggest increase yet, of 23%.
With a host of innovative ideas up their sleeves, temples like ISKCON Silicon Valley, Toronto, Washington D.C., and Laguna Beach have seen consistent dramatic success. 714,334 books have been distributed, and $959,689—very close to one million dollars—has been collected. After Vaisesika’s call to leaders to combine their temples as one team with one goal, the year 2012 looks set to see another 20% increase, and collections of over one million dollars to support further book production and temple construction. Read the story here.