Around 1,300 devotees from 41 US states will attend this year’s Sadhu Sanga Retreat from May 23rd to 26th over the Memorial Day Weekend.
The retreat will be held at the Art of Living Foundation’s International Meditation Center in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains in Boone, North Carolina.
A unique festival, it creates an immersive space for devotees to experience rejuvenating kirtan from morning till night in the company of many senior Vaishnavas who have a deep taste for the Holy Name.
The Sadhu Sanga Retreat is the new kid on the block as far as ISKCON festivals are concerned, arriving quietly and then becoming a huge sensation within just three years through almost purely word of mouth -- very little advertising is done.
It was launched in 2011 as a small, private event just for a few ISKCON gurus and their disciples at the ISKCON temple in Dallas, Texas, an appropriately central location. But when most of the other devotees in the Dallas community also attended, organizers made it a public event the following year. They also moved to a new location.
“Because we didn’t have a central location where devotees could stay that first year, they spent a lot of time travelling and weren’t able to attend all day,” says Ram Vijaya Das, a member of the organizational team. “So for the next two years in 2012 and 2013, we moved the event to a Jewish retreat center outside of Austin with a 100% kosher vegetarian kitchen.”
With all facilities, including accommodation and prasadam, available onsite, devotees were now able to completely immerse themselves and attend the festival in full. As a result numbers rose from 250 in 2011 to 450 in 2012, and then 700 in 2013.
Outgrowing its Texas location, Sadhu Sanga moved to the International Meditation Center in North Carolina this year, which has onsite accommodation for 1,000.
Compared to last year, when fifteen devotees had to share a cabin, this year will be positively cushy -- only four devotees will share a room with a private bathroom. There will be nearby motel accommodation for overflow guests.
Attendees will arrive throughout Friday May 23rd, and the festival will begin on Friday evening with three hours of kirtan.
The next three mornings will feature the full traditional temple morning program from 5am, including Bhagavatam classes by Sacinandana Swami, Giriraja Swami, and Radhanath Swami.
On Saturday and Sunday, there will be nearly non-stop kirtan all day in the Vastu-designed main hall, which will be decorated with flowers and panoramic views of holy places. The sound system will be provided by Dallas devotees, who will be the main volunteers for the event.
The chanting will be led by Sadhu Sanga Retreat regulars BB Govinda Swami with his jazz guitarist, harmonium player Bimal and saxophone player Surya; Indradyumna Swami; Ananta Govinda and Achyuta Gopi from New York; Badahari Das from Alachua, Florida; Madhava Das and Sacinandana Swami.
Joining them will be first-time attendees Radhanath Swami and Gaura Vani. Each chanter will lead for an hour, with one-and-a-half-hour stints later in the evening.
“So many exalted Vaishnavas coming together for one gathering is a rarity, especially in North America,” says Rama Vijaya. “This event gives attendees the opportunity to spend not just one day but three in the association of kirtaniyas who can help them get deeper into the mood of serving the Holy Name.”
In between the kirtan will be breaks for breakfast, lunch and dinner, prepared by head cooks from Kalachandji’s restaurant in Dallas, with volunteers from different US states helping with each meal.
While there will not be any scheduled classes apart from the Bhagavatam lectures in the mornings, devotees will get the opportunity to have spontaneous personal exchanges with the senior Vaishnavas during meal times and throughout the festival.
And there will be lots of them -- as well as the kirtan leaders, Prabhupada disciples such as Malati Devi, Ravindra Svarupa Das, Sesa Das, Rthadvija Swami, and Deena Bandhu Das will also attend.
On Monday, the final day of the festival, the morning Bhagavatam class will be followed at noon by the event closing with devotees sharing their realizations from the past few days.
“Last year I remember devotees leaving teary eyed and saying, ‘We can’t wait to come back next year,’ and ‘We don’t know how we’re going to last through the year without this association,” says Rama Vijaya.
Devotees also experienced improvements in their own personal japa after the festival. And for many, the recharging they get at the Sadhu Sanga Retreat keeps them inspired in their services throughout the year.
The organizers’ future plan is to keep upscaling the retreat and increasing attendance twofold every year, with a possible 2,000 devotees to participate next year.
“From our side, we’re trying to reduce the cost and fees as much as possible,” says Govinda Charan, another organizer. “We’re also working diligently with some devotees around the country who step up and sponsor other attendees. We don’t want financial constraints to stop devotees from being able to attend.”
He grins. “The more the merrier!”
For more information and to register, please visit sadhusangaretreat.com. Hurry, there are very few spaces left![ indradyumna-swami ] [ kirtana ] [ retreat ] [ sadhu-sanga-retreat ] [ sanga ]