Chowpatty Devotee Care Program
ISKCON Chowpatty had a humble beginning of devotee care programs in 1986 when His Holiness Radhanath Swami came to Mumbai. Radhanath Swami was determined to create a community based on love and trust wherein every devotee is well cared for and provided well with physical, emotional and spiritual care. The strategy of the devotee care programs is to facilitate the ISKCON leaders to take care of devotees who have dedicated their lives for Srila Prabhupada movement.
Programs like Bhaktivedanta Hospital and ISKCON Food relief foundation provides devotees with physical care. Most important care that is mental and emotional care of devotees is addressed by several encouraging programs such as Grihasta counseling, counseling for elders, youth and children. Spiritual care is provided through various preaching programs. Apart from that the temple provides financial aid through Yamuna Kinara Credit Organization. Orphan devotees are taken care in Lady Northcote Hindu Orphanage. Devotees are provided with spiritual and healthy recreation in Govardhan Farm.
A more detailed description of the different angas of care are furnished below:
1) Counseling system
1) COUNSELING SYSTEM
When Radhanath Swami came to Mumbai in 1986, he had to deal with widespread corruption among the few brahmacaris and disoriented grihastas. There was a war between the two ashrams and a serious court case was on the verge of being filed. Living in this chaos Radhanath Swami was determined to create a community based on love and trust.
It is said that a community is the shadow of its leaders, whatever they give emphasis to, becomes the model the devotees strive to achieve.
Radhanath Swami: “Although the foundation of a building cannot be seen, it holds up the entire building. Without a strong foundation, in time, even the most glorious palace will crumble. The foundation of our communities is in our spiritual practices, our moral values and in our personal relationships.”
“When I was serving in a previous ISKCON community, the priority was given to projects with little vision toward sustaining a quality spiritual life for the people giving their lives to build the project. There was little priority given to educating or encouraging healthy family relationships. Everything was focused on work and sadhana. Any other consideration was labeled as maya. I began to realize that our so-called hard work and strong sadhana is superficial if we are neglecting or causing pain to Krishna’s beloved devotees. It appeared that the devotees were seen as disposable tools to build the project. Grand accomplishments were achieved in that place but without a healthy, caring community it was a building without a solid foundation.
In the course of fulfilling those incredible projects, many devotees’ hearts were broken. They felt uncared for and gradually the morale of the once thriving community disintegrated.
Over the years I witnessed too many people who had come to Srila Prabhupada’s society with innocent faith and enthusiasm only to later suffer emotional anxiety do to neglect, feeling they had been cheated or rejecting ISKCON in bitterness. What I saw broke my heart. I believed that our leaders needed to take serious responsibility, on Srila Prabhupada’s behalf, to be caretakers of his beloved children. “
Radhanath Swami emphasized, “The foundational priority of our leadership is to create a community wherein every possible need of a devotee was considered and tended. We should strive to give each individual an experience of genuine protection and inspiration. The aim is to ensure, as far as possible, that devotees remain happy, enthusiastic and grateful to serve Srila Prabhupada’s mission through every phase of life, until their physical departure. All of our policies and decisions should be built upon this foundation. Perhaps more than anything else we do, what will transform peoples hearts is to give them an experience of a caring community of sincere souls who are united through life’s joys and struggles by the philosophy and practice of pure Bhakti.”
From this principle came the idea of establishing a ‘counselor system’ wherein the counselor would humbly serve as a friend, philosopher and guide, based upon the teachings of Srila Prabhupada.
When this system was introduced, within the first two years it collapsed twice. The reason - devotees felt ‘Why give so much attention to this? We can get greater results by putting our energy into other priorities?’ But by the persistent efforts of Radhanath Swami, it was restarted and eventually it became the very fiber of Radha Gopinath temple. When the priority was fixed to ‘devotee care’, the imagination of devotees expanded and amazing projects unfurled.
Radhanatha Swami envisioned that senior devotees extend themselves to assist their juniors in such a way that they feel a homely, family atmosphere in Srila Prabhupada’s dwelling place of ISKCON. Without proper assistance, it becomes difficult for a leader to help a growing number of devotees. All too often devotees feel, ‘Nobody really cares about me or my family’. In an attempt to minimize this problem and keep the fire of devotion burning for the rest of their lives, this counselor system was introduced. Based on the simple principle of Rupa Goswami, “dadati pratingranati…”
The system was gradually divided into four categories:
Through the system devotees were trained in philosophy, etiquette, sadhana and the proper conduct for their particular ashram. Soon the joy of vaishnava seva became a living reality and we taxed our brains on how to better care for and engage every type of devotee.
2) GRIHASTHA COUNSELLING
In the varanashram system, the grihasta ashram is the stomach of the social body in that it nourishes all others. Naturally, maximum devotees choose this ashram. Household life is destined to conflicts, confusions, misunderstandings and other such obstructions to devotional service. With proper guidance these obstacles are far easier to overcome. Simple disputes, if left unattended, could lead to irreparable damage to a relationship. However, with the wisdom and care of experienced grihastas who have successfully passed through similar tests in their own marriage, a relationship can spiritually grow through the experience rather than dissolve. In a marriage lecture Srila Prabhupada taught that the grihasta ashram was meant to create a happy situation to practice bhakti. With proper understanding and interdependence between the husband and wife, such householders can prove to be great examples to the society, which is ridden with conflicts especially with regard to family life.
By witnessing the experience of many grihastas and hearing their spiritual, emotional and social problems, Radhanath Swami encouraged a few sincere grihasta practitioners to share their Krishna Conscious wisdom with younger grihastas.
We emphasize that one’s spouse is the sacred property of Guru and Krishna. Your husband or wife has been entrusted in your care to inspire them in Krishna Consciousness, protect them spiritually, emotionally and physically and thus provide an environment of happiness. We should be careful not to commit vaishnava aparadha by verbally or physically abusing or exploiting the sacred property of the Lord. Our counselors teach 5 principles to be shared between husband and wife that are essential for creating a healthy relationship:
Our system began with 4 grihasta counselors and as this document is being compiled we have 57 husband and wife teams dedicated to serve the vaishnava community in this special way.
In our system, a counselor is not an authority over people, not an autocrat, but a friend, philosopher and a guide.
3) BHAKTIVEDANTA HOSPITAL
In 1987, some young devotees studying in medical colleges of Mumbai started taking Krishna Consciousness seriously. They were ready to quit their education and join ashram as full-time devotees. But they were advised otherwise to continue their studies, get their degrees and use it in Krishna’s service. As these devotees completed their degrees and further specialization in medicine, seeing their psycho-physical nature they were encouraged to consider becoming grihastas. After graduating, each began their own medical practice.
Some time later Radhanath Swami encouraged them to start our own hospital wherein devotees of all different occupations can work together. In this way devotees with such skills as doctors, nurses, administrators, engineers, public relations, cooks, electricians, housekeepers, plumbers and gardeners could all earn their livelihoods together and through it all transform thousands of peoples hearts. It would also offer all of our ashram and congregation a lifetime assurance of health care.
It began as a small clinic and gradually devotees in the business world joined them to build the Bhaktivedanta Hospital. In 1998 it was opened. By the grace of Guru and Gauranga, their occupation itself became an impressive preaching field. Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakur dreamed of the day that judges would wear tilak. Here at least the doctors, who in India are often honored like saints, keep tilak, kanti mala and greet patients with Hare Krishna. In the front lobby is a life size murti of Srila Prabhupada on a flower decorated Vyasasana. His kirtans and lectures play 24 hours in every room and hallway. It is a hospital for the body, mind and especially the soul.
4) GOPAL’S GARDEN SCHOOL
In the monthly counselors meeting, the counselors were discussing the education of their children.
Radhanath Maharaj, in answer to this question, invited the congregation to start their own school and take the responsibility of running it. Over the years, hoping for a school, he had encouraged several high school graduates to prepare for becoming teachers by studying education in college. One of the leading devotees Krishna Candra Prabhu took this discussion to heart. He was not an affected party since all of his children had completed their education, but feeling deep love for the children of others, he financed it and formed a team to run it.
In 2001 the school was started in a rented apartment with only a few nursery students. Braja Kumari devi, an accomplished daughter of a congregational devotee and who was like a daughter to Radhanath Swami from her childhood, took the lead role of teaching and eventually became the principle of the school.
Today we have our own building. There are 28 teachers and 170 of our congregation’s children attending Gopal’s Garden School which goes from nursery to high school graduation. They gain both spiritual and academic education all centered in devotion to Krishna. Like the Bhaktivedanta Hospital this was another project that spontaneously sprung up from the atmosphere of devotee care.
5) YAMUNA KINARA CREDIT ORGANIZATION
Please take care of Väsudeva Datta’s family affairs. Become his manager and make the proper adjustments. [Caitanya Caritamrita, Madhya, 15.96]
When people come to the temple, rich, middle and poor class dance together holding hands. Relations between vaishnavas is beyond all external considerations.
Some of our more affluent devotees were very much affected by the virtue of vaishnava seva and devotee care. They witnessed the struggles of devotees with less wealth and deeply felt for them. In India unless you are quite wealthy you cannot get a loan. A large sector of our congregation seriously struggle to make ends meet and cannot get off the ground without financial aid.
Some devotees, who are experienced in financial matters, desired offer assistance to free devotees from the anxiety of such basics as a dwelling place, health and children’s education. These devotees came together and started a small bank wherein devotees who deposit money get back more than the commercial banks in interest. And devotees who could never get a loan get loans with far less interest than the commercial banks.
Although the investments are done like any proper bank, this is possible because it is non-profit and there is no overhead. It operates on Sunday in the accounts office of the temple. All employees volunteer without pay.
This is another example of how creating a culture of devotee care can lead to inspire devotees to create helpful projects. More than 200 devotees have invested in our bank and over a hundred devotees have been given loans with low interest and easy terms and conditions. In the three years the bank has served the community, due to sincere gratitude, not one of the devotees who had taken loans has ever missed a single payment. Radhanath Swami named it Yamuna Kinara or translated in English, The Bank of Yamuna.
6) CHILDREN’S EDUCATION AND CULTURE
More and more the Mumbai society is seeing the values of their children disintegrating by exposure to satellite television and a barrage of sensual forms of entertainment. This problem provided an opportunity to reach the school children, their teachers and parents on a regular basis right in their own classrooms with the universal message of Bhagavad Gita.
7) YOUTH PREACHING
In another place Srila Prabhupada said, “Young generation; you are the flower of your country and society. Practice this most sublime system, Krishna consciousness. Be happy and make others happy. This is the real mission of life.”
When Radhanath Swami first came to Mumbai, he told us that he was never a manager in ISKCON. All he ever did in his devotional career is Deity worship, take care of cows and college preaching. Since we had no deities or cows in Chowpatty at the time, he spent much of his time going by train or bus to the colleges to be with the students. He always emphasized youth preaching. He would share his thoughts, experiences and exciting incidents to inspire the preachers in Mumbai to boost their confidence to face the challenging youth of Mumbai.
The students were hardcore materialistic and ambitious. Brahmacaris and congregational devotees give much priority to college preaching. Satcitananda Prabhu, then a congregational student, preached to his classmates in college. Among them were Yudhistira Prabhu who is now the publisher of BTG magazine in India and Ananda Vrindaban, now a financial consultant who with his wife is a counselor and one of the main persons involved behind Yamuna Kinara bank. Another college student and friend of Satctiananda Prabhu, who took a dramatic turn in his life, shocking his friends and relatives, giving up his multinational job and deciding to dedicate his life in the mission of Srila Prabhupada is H.G. Devamrita Prabhu who became a brahmacari in Radha Gopinath Mandir. He is currently the president of ISKCON Krishna Balarama Mandir in Vrindaban.
The youth program intensified and they started Raja Vidya Institute wherein seminars were conducted within the temple like self-management, mind management and personality development. Seeing such topics, many young professionals started joining these courses where they heard the philosophy of Bhagavad Gita as presented by Srila Prabhupada. And two of such participants dedicated their life and now they are in the presidential board of the temple – Sanatkumar Prabhu and Shyamananda Prabhu.
Young students were getting enlightened by the regular association of devotees. Dozens began to dedicate their lives either as grihastas or brahmacaris. All of the original doctors at Bhaktivedanta Hospital came from college preaching. Other students took a different turn in their life and dedicated themselves as brahmacaris – Among many others Gauranga, Gaura Gopal, Madan Gopal and Rohin Priya are enthusiastically expanding youth preaching and Radheshyam Prabhu is now the president of the Pune Temple and is expanding youth preaching there in a phenomenal way.
In 2002, Radha Gopinath temple formed a special youth wing called ISKCON Youth Services. It expanded youth preaching with the financial support of inspired senior grihastas like Radha Giridhari Prabhu and Keshava Prabhu.
At the temple we hold two monthly youth festivals for college students. One for boys and another for girls. The boys festival called Prerna attracts thousands of students come to hear, chant and dance and take sumptuous Prasad. Similarly for the college girls, the Chetana festival attracts hundreds of girls.
Seeing the growing materialism in Mumbai and the lack of facility for students and working professionals to practice Krishna Consciousness in their work place, a need was felt to start the Bhakti Vedanta Academy for Culture and Education (BACE). They are ashrams near the colleges where serious students can live with devotees, have spiritual programs and Prasad while continuing their studies. At present we have 9 BACEs around Mumbai.
Today about thirty brahmacaris are dedicated to full time college preaching. Daily or weekly preaching programs are conducted in over 30 colleges in Mumbai. Among boys alone studying in colleges there is presently over 1,000 chanting at least 16 rounds and over 2,500 chanting at least four rounds.
We have found that it is Srila Prabhupada’s philosophy that convinces their intelligence. But something wonderful happens when the philosophy is combined with a genuine experience of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings on vaishnava culture and devotee care. The student’s hearts melt and they become inspired to dedicate their lives.
8) BRAHMACARI ASHRAM
At the beginning of Chowpatty a few brahmacaris were sent her. They were quarrelsome with each other and fought bitterly with the grihastas. Stealing, back-biting, breaking regulative principles were common. It was a total discouragement to the small, fragile congregation. The leaders of the ashram, who adamantly held their positions, would not allow Radhanath Swami to even give Bhagavatam or festival classes because they condemned him as being sympathetic to fallen householders and therefore disqualified to speak to them. It was a grueling uphill struggle for him.
To the handful of temple and congregation devotees who were sincere, he emphasized developing high standards in both sadhana and character. He constantly stressed a sincere service attitude steeped in humility, tolerance and compassion. He believed that the process of chanting and hearing in that spirit is like a blazing fire. Either it will burn away your insincerity and you become sincere or the intolerable heat of that fire would impel you to leave. It actually started to work, some left and some became sincere.
One of the challenges in developing brahmacari ashram in the beginning was conflict between grihastha and brahmacaris. Grihasthas felt the brahmacaris were useless and burdensome, and didn’t want them to squander their (grihasthas) hard earned money and in turn brahamcari openly criticized the grihasthas. Radhanath Swami stressed the need of all ashrams to be united for a healthy community. He highlighted the verse trinad api sunicena and gradually the sincere became stronger and the insincere were exposed by their own words and deeds. He stressed that as the standards raise we will attract more serious seekers and give them a deep spiritual experience. The situation gradually changed.
In the beginning the parents of full time devotees were alarmed. The brahmacaris were taught to keep respectful communication with their parents and senior devotees were encouraged to cultivate them. Now many of brahmacaris parents are initiated devotees or favorable and proud of their sons contribution to society.
As intensive training prevailed in early nineties, Radhanath Swami gave 10 instructions in developing the brahmacaris ashram. Those instructions became the basis for training and education.
The 10 instructions given were as follows:
9) VARISTA VAISHNAVA FORUM
In around 1990 two older retired devotees spent a lot of time in our temple with a desire to serve. They naturally felt out of place among so many young devotees. The leaders of the temple were encouraged to make them feel worthwhile and facilitate them in their last years. This would assure three things, (a) the older devotees would be confident of their utility and their desire to serve Krishna would increase, (b) younger devotees would serve needy devotees and get blessing of higher powers through vaishnava seva and (c) this will give the youth a sobering glimpse into to the inevitable fate of the body and a confidence that we have a society where they too will be protected and inspired in their old age.
The prosperity of the mission does not come by money and power. The prosperity of the mission comes from blessings. Special blessings come when we give attention to those who are in need. As young children always need attention, similarly older devotees need attention to prepare themselves to go back to Godhead. In the Mahabharata it is explained, when we make the weaker section of society cry by putting them in distress, then they have no ability to retaliate or resist. They simply shed tears. But the scripture says that these tears will drown the people in power. In course of time a society will suffer bitterly if it neglects the needs of its children, women and elderly.
In an attempt to provide our elderly members encouragement - social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual we established the Varishta (elderly) Vaishnava Forum.
It is a sangam of men and women in their late fifties and older. The temple provides them special facilities in such areas as resting at the temple, prasadam, on yatras, and health issues. When they are sick at home a group of devotees visit them or stay with them to take care. Many services are provided for them such as preaching, Deity worship, guest reception, garlands or management.
The forum meets every second Sunday of the month. Along with spiritual topics, they are given special courses on yoga, health and guidance on financial life how to invest and save money so that they can pursue Krishna Consciousness without difficulty.
It is beautiful to see how caring for the elderly unites a community on the basis of selfless service, the attitude we require to sincerely chant the holy names.
10) LADY NORTHCOTE HINDU ORPHANAGE
In the end of the 19th century there was a severe drought in some areas of Maharastra and Gujarat. Many died and hundreds of children became helpless orphans. A group of philanthropic Vaishnavas along with a British patron named Lady Northcote formed a trust and opened an orphanage called Lady Northcote Hindu Orphanage.
In 1986 Srinatji Prabhu (N.D.Desai) was unexpectedly given the position of the managing trustee of the orphanage. After some time, due to corruption in the previous management, the care of the children was given to our devotees. Both the congregation and the brahmacaris served together to care for the children. Gradually it became a gurukula. Many of the children have become devotees, and now grown up have graduated college or have careers. Many work at Bhaktivedanta Hospital. About a dozen got initiated. One of the orphans Rupa Raghunath Prabhu eventually became the head pujari of Radha Gopinath temple. And another Rupa Goswami Prabhu became the head pujari of Pune Temple. Rasik Murari Prabhu is working in Pune Patrons department and Mathuradev Prabhu is working in the Hospital Administration department. Madhavkant Prabhu is the general manager of a branch of our mid-day meal project taking responsibility of serving Prasad to 20,000 children a day and Gauranga Kumar Prabhu is now a lecturer in a college. All were destitute children when they came.
Presently, the orphanage is situated at Govardhan Farm (100 kms away from Mumbai). And about 50 children are residing there.
These children go to regular schools but they have spiritual programs in the morning, hear Srimad Bhagavatam class everyday and recite slokas when they come back from school. They do physical exercises and play. During the vacations, they travel for 15 days under the guidance of senior devotees to different villages and towns attracting many thousands of villagers, by harinaam, dramas, kirtans and discourses.
These ex-orphans now have Gopinath as their father and Radharani as their mother and they have many of aunts and uncles from the congregation and ashram as well.
11) GOVARDHAN FARM
Devotees acquired a farm land 108 kms north of Mumbai, just 2 hours drive in the morning hours. This place is utilized for our grihastha devotees to come whenever they desire, for the counselors to come with their counselees, brahmacaris to come with their students and conduct seminars on different subjects, japa retreats or studying Srimad Bhagavatam.
Actually the prime purpose of establishing this farm community was to pursue, according to our ability, Srila Prabhupada’s desire to care for cows and to demonstrate eco-friendly agriculture. We named it ‘Govardhan.’ We have about twenty cows from an indigenous Indian breed. Oxen plow the fields and we grow rice, varieties of vegetables and fruits.
Our fifty orphan children live there. And from the farm the devotees go from village to village having dramas, Prasad distribution and harinaam. 10 brahmacaris are staying in the farm. And about 7 devotee families are taking care of the cows, farm and the orphan children.
Although not very developed it is an attempt to serve our congregation by developing a retreat center for their spiritual nourishment.
12) ISKCON FOOD RELIEF FOUNDATION
The basis of the program is Srila Prabhupada’s compassion and the faith in Krishna’s Prasadam he instilled in his followers
13) BHAKTIVEDANTA ACADEMY FOR CULTURE AND EDUCATION (BACE)
Bhaktivedanta Academy for Culture & Education was started on 12 December 2004 under the purview of the ISKCON Board of Examinations to provide to the congregation devotees of ISKCON Chowpatty an institutionalized training in various aspects of Vaishnava studies. We are organizing the Bhakti Shastri course in 2 Levels. In Level I there are 3 Modules each comprising of topics from the areas of Sastra , Sadachar (Vaishnava behavior) and devotional skills. Level 2 consists of a study of the Bhagavad Gita – As it is.
Classes in vaishnava cooking, deity worship, ayurveda, spiritual business ethics, accounting, martial arts, playing of instruments, vedic ragas, yoga, raising Krishna Conscious children and other such skills are also offered in the syllabus.
Flexibility: Any devotee can take up any module and after completing it he can move on to the other Module. Fresh Batch begins every 10 weeks approximately.
Each module lasts for approximately 7 weeks i.e. 14 classes and the Level II for approximately16 weeks. Every year during the first week of September the Bhakti Shastri Exam is conducted and the successful students are awarded the Bhakti Shastri Certificates issued by the ISKCON Board of Examinations.
The foundation of this educational facility is an attempt to care for our devotees by providing each devotee with the opportunity to gain a systematic and comprehensive education in the philosophy and culture of Srila Prabhupada’s books as well as skills to apply the teachings in an environment that is practical in their daily lives.
One of the five angas of devotional service as propounded by Lord Caitanya is residing in holy places. Mostly Radha Gopinath’s congregation consists of working people who work at jobs.
Srila Prabhupada after watching one drama was so moved that he made the stunning remark, “This performance is better than my books.” He expressed his desire to travel with the drama group and preach Krishna Consciousness through theater.
Srila Prabhupada sometimes said that we are not just a religious movement, but a cultural movement. Therefore he wanted to present the Krishna Conscious philosophy through culture and education. Our predecessor acaryas such as Rupa Goswami and Kavi Karnapura, compiled many books on dramas like, Vidagdha Madhav, Lalita Madhav, Sri Caitanya Candrodaya, etc.
With this inspiration Radha Gopinath Temple has an annual drama festival. This is taken very seriously. There are usually four or five different dramas performed each year. Several hundred members of our congregation and ashram divide into groups. Writing scripts, rehearsals, props and backdrops, lighting, costumes and of course cooking prasadam for the practices bring the devotees together.
The crescendo of all of this hard work is the night of the performances where we rent out an auditorium and several thousand devotees eagerly come to see.
Some beneficial features:
16) ISKCON MARRIAGE BOARD