On June 17, ISKCON Youth Ministry’s fourteenth annual Krishna Culture Festival Tour set off on a 16,000 mile epic journey, during which it will visit almost every state and province in North America.
Thirty-three excited youth were on board, down from last year’s fifty-five due to the damaged economy. But on the positive side, regular “bus tourians” have bowed out this year to make way for new faces from countries as diverse as Italy, Bolivia, Canada, Ireland, and even Taiwan.
As well as having the time of their own lives, they’ll be making a profound impact on others. Although bus tour youth were already performing at and helping to set up nine “Festivals of India” around the country, organizer Manu Dasa decided four years back to fill in the downtime by booking halls and putting on exclusive stage performances.
This marked a major increase in professionalism and in the contribution of the youth to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Before, they had simply been helping out and putting on plays at already established events. But at their Krishna Culture shows, the youth do everything save for some prior advertising by local devotees—they create and perform dance, drama, and music productions, cook a feast, and set up and man bookstalls, all on their own.
It’s during these festivals that youth often experience what Manu calls the “Aha! Moment.” “It’s common for kids who’ve grown up in ISKCON to place less value on what it has to offer,” he says. “But when they look out from that stage and see the emotion that their performance is rousing in an audience of “normal” people, the value of Krishna consciousness hits them deeply and they think, “Wow, I’m changing people’s lives.”
There are many practical examples of this. At the tour’s Vancouver show, Manu met Robert, a sixty-year old man who had recently become a Hare Krishna devotee. When asked what had brought him to this decision, he replied, “Two years ago, I saw young devotees from the bus tour dancing at a Rathayatra festival, and they seemed so happy that I thought, “I want to be a part of this family.”
Even the professional technicians who often come with rented halls are affected, despite being initially prejudiced. “At first they think we’re just a bunch of hippies,” Manu says. “But by the end, they’re eating the feast with huge smiles and begging us to come back next year. There’s a glow about these kids when they’re onstage that attracts people even if they don’t quite understand it.”
In some of the more remote performance locations—towns in Canada so far off the beaten track that a clear view reveals only mountains and forest—the bus tour youth are welcomed with the sort of enthusiasm normally reserved for celebrities. “We’ve had TV interviews in Regina, radio interviews in Halifax, and every time we visit Thunderbay, Ontario, the Mayor himself writes us a thank-you letter,” says Manu.
And there are new places to visit every year. “This summer, the youth will be performing in Boston and Portland, Oregon for the first time,” Manu says. “It’s amazing—we’re contributing to Prabhupada’s vision of ‘Every Town and Village,’ and I feel so lucky to be a part of that.”
The Krishna Culture tour also does its best to fulfill Srila Prabhupada’s dream of distributing spiritual literature everywhere. Each year, the show promotes a different book which is sold at book tables throughout the event. This year’s play “Krishna, Our Dearmost Friend,” which promotes Bhagavad-gita As It Is, will be performed at eighteen 300-person auditoriums, and on the evidence of previous years is expected to sell out.
In between shows, the youth get inspiration from special guests who often join the tour for anywhere from a few days to a month. Regulars include senior devotees Bhakti Marg Swami, who produces many of the extravagant dramas, and Jayadvaita Swami, while this year Radhanatha Swami will also join briefly. This year’s three-day retreat at the Canadian rural community of Saranagati will also be a highlight, with youth doing japa meditation and singing bhajans with legendary ISKCON singer Yamuna Dasi.
Of course, this is a youth tour, and mixed in with the spiritual inspiration is a bevy of thrilling adventure activities: there’s camping at Yosemite National Park, seeing the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, swimming in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, exploring Carlsbad Caverns, snorkeling in coral reefs, white-water rafting, and even bunjee jumping.
While some sterner ISKCON members are critical of these activities, Manu explains in his defense that they teach essential life skills. “The bus tour is all about stepping out of your comfort zone,” he says. “If you can do a bunjee jump, maybe chanting 64 rounds at the japa retreat is not so bad.”
Of course, it helps that the comraderie and fun of these experiences have attendees calling the bus tour, a predominantly spiritual experience, the best time of their lives.
Ultimately, though, the main goal of the bus tour is to inspire youth in Krishna consciousness. “The idea is to try and shift the focus from a life centered on pleasing ourselves to one centered on pleasing Krishna and the devotees by doing service,” says Manu. “That means finding the fun in service. Fun can be selfish or selfless, and for many, selfless fun is a whole new experience.”
The tour’s now famous temple makeovers are a perfect example of selfless fun. Last year, youth thoroughly cleaned the temple and accomdodation buildings at ISKCON’s Gita Nagari farm community in Pennsylvania, as well as weeding and mowing its grounds. In 2007, they meticulously repainted one side of New Vrindaban’s Palace of Gold. “When everyone sees the results after three days of working together, and the temple devotees show their deep appreciation, that’s a priceless feeling,” says Manu.
What makes this effort of the youth all the more impressive is that not only do they spend their entire summers volunteering on the tour, but they pay to do it. “Most Hare Krishna festival tours are run by volunteers who are supported by one or two generous donors,” Manu says. “But on the Krishna Culture Festival tour, the kids are not only the volunteers but also the donors, paying $1,500 each to go on the tour.”
It’s a sacrifice for the youth, especially in the current economic slump, and Manu invites well-wishers to subsidize the tour’s cost by becoming patrons to keep it affordable for everyone.
After fourteen years, it’s also a sacrifice for Manu and his wife and co-organizer Jaya Radhe, as well as the bus drivers and other volunteers, none of whom make a single cent from their endeavors. “Sometimes, I’ll start to wonder if I can do it this year because of responsibilities at home,” Manu says. “But after all this time, there’s still nothing more rewarding to me than the bus tour. So I keep doing it.”
In recent years, several second generation devotees, including Bhakti-Kalalayam Dance Academy Director Anapayini Dasi and her husband Radhanath have stepped up to help manage the tour. And of course, Manu always fans the spark of new talent. “We form teams with team leaders for every task on the bus tour, and we try to build character and leadership abilities. After the tour, I’ve had parents ask, ‘What did you do to my kids? Now they clean up after themselves, voluntarily do chores, and like everything I cook!’”
The future is bright for the Krishna Culture Festival tour, with organizers looking to start performing at larger capacity auditoriums and preparing to launch a fundraising campaign for a new vehicle. The proposed replacement for the current 16-year-old Greyhound bus is a stunning double-decker, the only one of its kind with a license for American roads. With more roomy sleeping quarters below, it will feature a custom-made temple room and extra resting space on the top floor. Manu looks forward to realizing this dream—the old bus has become a maintenance headache and has broken down just before a show three times in the past five years, another common bus tour adventure.
There’s no doubt that the bus tour is a risk, and that its every outing challenges natural laws and surprises onlookers. Every year, Manu and Jaya Radhe book halls without knowing if there will be any talented actors or performers on the tour. Every year, they have no idea if they will even have enough applicants for the tour. And every year, business people look at their finances and say that it isn’t possible to put on 26 festivals for $60,000.
“But somehow, every year, Krishna makes it happen,” Manu says. “And we just watch the miracle.”
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