Although 2020 has been a tough year for us all, some have discovered silver linings amidst the challenges. When ISKCON New Vrindaban, West Virginia went into a two-week lockdown on Thanksgiving Day to keep the community safe, two women from opposite sides of the world found themselves in an unexpected quarantine. However the experience turned out to be a blissful one, as they learned new skills, nourished their spiritual lives, and forged a strong friendship.
Sharaniya Nathan, originally from the UK, had been living and working as a dentist in Sydney, Australia, and had received an exemption to COVID-19 travel restrictions so that she could attend a work conference in the U.S.
Meanwhile Sarah Ferrer from Florida had previously worked in substance abuse prevention, and was in a transitional phase in her life, pursuing a “grand adventure in Bhakti.”
The two had been visiting New Vrindaban when a member of the greater New Vrindaban community (not a temple resident) tested positive for COVID-19. As the community member isolated with their family, ISKCON New Vrindaban closed the temple property and buildings to the public and the rest of the community until further notice. All resident devotees tested for COVID-19 and remained in quarantine inside the temple. Continuing to wear masks and social distance, the greatly reduced personnel took on all the services required to take care of the deities and maintain the temple throughout the lockdown.
Sarah, who had never lived in a temple before, says, “Because it was such a small group of people, I was engaged in services that I probably would have never been engaged in otherwise. I feel like it was a personal gift from Krishna to show me what life so connected to a temple can be like, and all of the different ways one can serve Krishna.”
According to Sharaniya, management of the lockdown and resident personnel was handled very well by temple president Jaya Krsna Das, Communications Director Anuradha Dasi, and the rest of the management team.
“There was a great feeling of inclusiveness,” Sharaniya says. “If we weren’t confident in whatever services needed to be covered, they took the time to train and support us. And although we were all doing things we probably hadn’t done before, there was never any criticism.”
Anuradha also partnered devotees up as “service buddies,” helping to keep up their spirits, provide support, and make them feel like they were not alone.
“That allowed some great associations and friendships to develop,” says Sarah. “My service buddy was Sharaniya, and I think her participation and association in all of my services helped my personal sadhana grow and strengthen so much.”
In addition, Anuradha organized “enrichment courses,” which provided devotees opportunities to learn new skills during lockdown that would enrich their bhakti.
For instance, Sarah and Sharaniya systematically learned from Anuradha and Ekanta-sevika Dasi how to bathe, dress and perform arati for Srila Prabhupada, incorporating the right prayers, mood, and practical steps.
From main Tulasi Devi caretaker Moksha, they learned how to care for Tulasi Devi, Lord Krishna’s intimate servant who appears in the form of a plant, and resides in a beautiful new 600-square-foot greenhouse at New Vrindaban. During this course they learned how to chant the appropriate prayers to Tulasi Devi, how to pick leaves and Manjari flowers, how to make Manjari garlands for the deities of Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra, and more.
In the mornings, they attended Zoom Srimad-Bhagavatam classes in the temple room, broadcast on a big screen and featuring various guest speakers such as Brahmatirtha Das (Bob Cohen) of Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers, Vraja Vihari Das of ISKCON Resolve, and professor of philosophy and religion Gopal Hari Das. Also broadcast live on Facebook and Mayapur.tv, the classes benefitted not just the few devotees in lockdown in the temple, but upped morale among those in the greater New Vrindaban community who could no longer come for darshan and felt isolated from the temple.
Wanting to contribute to the Prabhupada marathon and Gita Jayanti Live to Give campaign safely from their quarantine, Sharaniya and Sarah received training from a resident book distributor and distributed books over the phone. Although ISKCON New Vrindaban’s goal had been 1,000 Bhagavad-gitas, they far surpassed it, distributing 4,600 Gitas through “tele-sankirtana.”
Finally devotees under lockdown also started a pilot wellness program, making green juices for devotees in the temple. The juicing, which Sarah says “helps one’s overall health, gives the body energy, and helps devotees focus on chanting and seva,” has continued beyond lockdown and may eventually grow into a broader wellness program.
Although ISKCON New Vrindaban has since reopened (with continued safety precautions), Sarah and Sharaniya take away a lot with them from the lockdown period.
“It was really nice to be able to work together with Sarah,” Sharaniya says. “To develop that friendship, which would never have happened otherwise, was really quite magical.”
Sarah agrees, adding, “Part of my takeaway is that this was a great real life example of how in times of stress, change and uncertainty, when people come together to serve something higher, and do it in a way that supports each other, then the process and the outcome can be amazing.”[ covid-19 ] [ new-vrindaban ]