ISKCON South Africa

Tomorrow is the celebration of Nrsimha Caturdasi, the Holy Appearance of Lord Nrsimhadeva, the half-man/half-lion form of the Lord.  I have many wonderful memories of Lord Nrsimhadeva’s mercy and protection.  

Yesterday we had a wonderful programme at the Vedic City Project in Johannesburg, South Africa.  It was, in one sense, a celebration of Lord Nrsimhadeva’s Appearance.  The programme was attended by students from the University of Johannesburg and devotees associated with the project.  Rasika Sekhara prabhu led the devotees in sweet kirtan – which was, basically, the focus of the programme.

I remember celebrating Nrsimha Caturdasi in the back of the Sankirtan van in a caravan park in Kimberley in May 1998.  May is Autumn in South Africa.   Our VW Combi was so cold there was condensation on the roof.  We distributed books in the town during and cooked in the late afternoon.  I can’t remember what we prepared for Lord Nrsimhadeva, but I seem to remember that we made sweets.  Lord Nrsimhadeva is fond of sweets.  There was a picture of Ugra Nrsimha on the wall.  Patita Pavan, Nevil and I chanted Nrsimhadeva prayers in the Sankirtan vehicle.  Looking back now, it seems ecstatic.

Another poignant memory of Lord Nrsimhadeva’s mercy was on Sankirtan in Hatfield, Pretoria.  It was our habit to sometimes distribute books in the Hatfield Mall, which is near ISKCON Pretoria.  Devotees are not allowed to sell books in the Mall, but do anyway.  In fact, there has been a history of conflict between book distributors and Centre Security in the Mall.  I had been selling books in the Mall until I noticed a lady from a hair salon speaking to a security guard in the distance.  She was pointing to me.  I turned around and slowly walked around the corner.  When I was out of sight, I quickly ran out of the mall.   I crossed the road, and waited for about half an hour.  I read a random section of one of Prabhupada’s books, then started selling books to students at the main entrance of the Mall.  A few minutes passed.  Next thing a security guard approached me and, in a mild manner, asked me to follow him to the Management Centre to fill in a form.  I decided to co-operate with him.

His calm manner, however, was a deception.  Instead of leading me to the Centre Management, he took me to the security guards’ locker-room, situated in the underground parking.  Knowing the South African Law, I knew it was not within his jurisdiction as a security guard to take me there.  I questioned this action and asked him to take me to the management office. By this time his mood had changed.  He had begun to address me in an abrupt manner.  I was now surrounded by several guards.  The only thing I could thingk of doing was to reason with them.

I asked him if I could call my Temple President.  I thought that might help.  But he refused.  I was now in the basement locker-room.  The room was flanked with lockers and there was a single wooden bench in the middle of the room.  I found myself surrounded by five large security guards.  The guard who had led me into the room began to taunt me, asking me what was in my bag.  I showed him the books, but he was not really interested in them.  He accused me of trespassing and hawking and mentioned that I could get into trouble for that.  I told him that he was not allowed to arrest me, but this only made him angry.  So I thought it was better not to be too challenging lest I unnecessarily anger the guards.

He took out some handcuffs and asked me to give him my wrist so that he could cuff me to the bench.  Realizing that I would be trapped in the basement if they cuffed me, I began to try to reason with the guards.  ‘I am a fundisa [the Zulu word for ‘priest’]’, I said.  This didn’t seem to make a difference.  I showed him pictures of our Food For Life programme on my camera.  They seemed unfazed.  ‘Please can I call my Temple President.  This all seems to be a big mistake’.  Deadpan looks.  The main guard took a can of pepper spray from his locker and held it a few inches from my eyes.  ‘I am going to spray your eyes with pepper spray’, he snarled.  My heart started to beat fast.  I began to fear the worst.  I looked left and right at the guards around me.  I tried a rugby manouever, dodged two guards, and reached the door.  The last two guards grabbed my wrist.  I let out a shrill scream.  I did not want to scream loudly because I felt no-one would help me anyway.  This would surely anger my assailants.  He forced me to sit on the bench and cuffed my right wrist.  I was very scared.  I did not want to chant aloud, as I feared they would react badly to the name of Krishna.  This was the first time I feared for my life.  The room became very small.  The main guard pressed his face close to mine.  His face twitched with uncontrolled anger.  What would happen to me if they cuffed me to the bench?  I was trying, in terms of my own strength, to get out of this situation.  I figured the best thing to do was to remain calm.

The guard seemed to be really disturbed.  He said, ‘You could crack your head on the floor or leave here without an an eye.  What are you going to tell your fundisa friends?’  The hairs of my back bristled.  I had the stark realization that I was really in danger.

The guard snatched a business card from out of my bag.  Aside from unconsciously glimpsing the maha-mantra, he would have seen some of my credentials.  He said, ‘How do I know if this is true?’  He then asked if I had any money in my pockets.  I had R250 from my collection in my pockets.  I handed the Laxmi (money) to him.  He took it.  He then searched through my bags and took out my dog-eared copy of the Nrsimhadeva Kavaca (Protective Prayers Of Lord Nrsimhadeva).  He looked at the cover and said, ‘What is this?’  I said, ‘It is a scripture’.  He put it back in the bag.  After that he mellowed out.  The other guards also mellowed out.  The tension seemed to dissipate.  The guard handed me my book bag, and escorted me out of the basement and then out of the Mall.  I never thought of it at the time, but Lord Nrsimhadeva had protected me…in a very tangible way.

Lord Nrsimhadeva is the Protector of the Devotees.  Aside from physical protection, He protects the devotees’ spiritual lives.  When Prabhupada introduced the chanting of the Nrsimhadeva prayers in ISKCON – which is now an ISKCON standard – he introduced them with the intention to protect his society.  He was invoking spiritual protection from Lord Nrsimhadeva.  Lord Nrsimhadeva saved the great devotee Prahlada Maharaja from his abusive father, Hiranyakasipu. And, by the grace of Prabhupada, he helped me…even though I did not directly invoke his protection.

All glories to Lord Nrsimhadeva!  All glories to Prahlada Maharaja!  And all glories to Srila Prabhupada!

We launched HARI HARI’S VEGETARIAN OASIS at THE CODFATHER VILLAGE 1 1st Avenue, Morningside, Sandton, on Monday the 7th of December with a spiritually inspiring concert by devotional singing sensation KARNAMRITA DASI.

My dear friend Rupa-Raghunatha prabhu said something very pertinent to me on the day of the concert. He said that a lot of people think spiritual life is about themselves; spiritual life is, in actual fact, about everybody. And Karnamrita proved that with her open heart and her all-inclusive wisdom. Karnamrita was most gracious. She encouraged me by saying that, for a brahmacari, I had great sensitivity to detail. Karnamrita liked the venue: ‘It was sattvic, romantic, peaceful and private’.

Rocky informed me that his guest, a young muslim girl who is interested in Krishna consciousness, postponed her flight to hear the concert. Another gentleman, Kishan, saw Karnamrita’s picture on the flyer and could tell from her face and hand gestures that this was a very accomplished artist in the Indian Classical tradition. Our original intention was to host a small concert and restaurant launch, but there was so much interest in the concert that I had to, unfortunately, turn people away. It was a sell-out.

I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude, first and foremost, to Karnamrita Dasi. I honestly think you are the next major force in contemporary music. In saying this, I wish you well in your career. May you carry the wealth of Bhakti to whomever you may meet.

I would like to thank Robyn Higgins, from the Organic Markets, for always being there for us and for having faith in our ablilities. I would like to thank George and Mary-Anne Sinovich of “The Codfather” for providing the facility for “Hari Hari’s” and for providing the wonderful facility for the concert. I would to thank Mortaza Morton for encouraging us to arrange concerts for Karnamrita in Johannesburg. I would also like to thank Gaura Sakti Das, Jacques, Mukesh and Jerry for supporting Karnamrita musically. Rupa, you did a wonderful job as MC. And, thank you for fetching Karnamrita from Lenasia. Jacques, I would also thank you for providing the sound on a day’s notice (I’d also like to extend that thanks to Matthew Fink of The Black Hotels).

I would like to thank all the cooks and kitchen crew for providing wonderful snacks: Gaura Sakti, Madhumangal, Nicole, Vinodhani, Arne, Hansa, Estelle and Karabo. Thank you, Pralambari, for moral support and helping with everything. I would also like to thank Mary-Anne and her staff for assisting us on the night. I would like to thank Anil, Raj and Mala for sponsoring the greenpeppers for the kebabs and butternut for the pakoras. Thank you Urvashi and her husband for sponsoring the wonderful watermelons! Thank you, Charlie, for the wonderful sign-board. I am so stoked with the sign! It made my year! Thanks, Karabo, for the customized aprons. Thanks to the Zoo Lake club for loaning us their cushions; to Mynhart for pick-up, delivery and dry-clean (at discount); and to Paul for helping transport them from the venue (and for transporting the sign to the restaurant). Thank you, Rocky, for your constant support and encouragement. Thank you Prem-Kishore for your consistent friendship, emotional support and encouragement. The same applies to my dear friends and mentors, Govardhana and Tribhanga prabhus. Thanks to all our friends and well-wishers for being there (including you, Teresa). It is your journey too! Thank you all for a stratospheric launch!

All I can say is that Karnamrita’s concert was very touching and very soulful. She has actually re-infused my spiritual life with faith and spiritual longing and, for that, I am most grateful.

My facebook status summed up the concert for me: ‘Beaming faces/Nice to see/Karnamrita/Ecstacy’. Everyone was smiling. And everyone was happy with the concert and the snacks. Here is some of the feedback we received on facebook and via e-mail:

Yashoda Dulal – ‘Awesome Programme! Thank you for inviting us! Inspirational!’

Estelle Crowngold – ‘Thank you for a stunning night’

Reshma Mistry (to Karnamrita) – ‘What an Honour to have you here in SA! Thanks for such a beautiful, soulful concert on Monday Evening 🙂 I Loved it to bits!’

Jacques Fourie – ‘The Ritz would have been happy with a launch like that!’

Michelle Clifford – ‘Thanks for the lovely evening on Monday. Pete and I so enjoyed it!’

Rossana Pancaldi – ‘Thank you again for organising such a wonderful concert and lovely food last night. Please pass on to Karnamrita Dasi that the evening was truly inspiring and beautiful, and we will be sure to look out for her albums if they are available here in future…I also have a yoga teacher who is about to go to India for a short stay to study singing in the Carnatic tradition, and thought she might like to hear Karnamrita Dasi too. Thanks. Kind Regards. Rossana Pancaldi’


Thank you everybody.
We are here to serve you.
Mukunda Charan Das, Gaura Sakti Das and Bhakta Arne

First Programme of Vedic City Project, ISKCON Johannesburg North, Parkwood, Johannesburg, Sunday 22 February 2009.

Our project was born on Sunday 22 February 2009.

Prabhupada was fond of saying that Krishna had taken birth within the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. And this is how it feels with our little project in Johannesburg.

We are simply servants of Krishna. Not perfect servants. But servants no less.

Saturday afternoon was a little frantic. Thanks to Tirtharaja prabhu I was able to fetch our guest, Sankirtan das, from the airport in a car. Our previous guest had to navigate the back roads of Johannesburg with me from O.R Thambo International, Kempton Park taxi rank through a commodius vicus of recirculation to Park Station and environs. Am I getting too Joycean now? Anyhow, we basically schlepped back to the flat that time…

I heard Sankirtan was fluent in Chinese, but got a real taste of it when he actually spoke to a Chinese traveller in the car park. This wasn’t book distribution Chinese (ni hao, che che, ‘buy book’ etc.). This was the real thing. (Sankirtan, in co-operation with Chinese travel agents, takes Chinese yoga students on pilgrimages to India. He explains to them the spiritual dimension of yoga as expressed through Krishna consciousness).

Sankirtan set his baggage down at the flat and offered obeisances to the Pancha-Tattva and Garuda. To my delight, he gave me some Giriraja Saonpapri – a delicious sweet from Govardhana,in Vraja. We then took tea, bread and date syrup on the otherwise empty floor of our Temple room. That was special.

I was freaking out because our cushions had not arrived. Luckily my parents were on holiday so we got some blankets from their house for the programme (I hope you not reading this, Mom).

Where were we? Ah, yes. Sankirtan. We had put out invitations – mainly to people I’d met in the course of my wanderings in the shopping malls of Johannesburg. It was quite exciting though I was also in a anxiety over last-minute details. Would our books arrive in time? Would our cushions arrive? We had gone to much trouble painting-up the place. Rasika Rai had spent the whole week embellishing the Temple Room walls. I didn’t want anything to go wrong.

Sankirtan, however, was very relaxed. Not at all demanding. The last thing I needed was a fussy guest. There was just too much to do, too little time and too little money. Sankirtan had called me from India and we had made all our arrangements by e-mail. We agreed that he would speak on ‘The Yoga of the Self.’ I had mentioned to him that we were going to invite several members of the Yoga Fraternity to the programme and, since he had written a book on the subject for Chinese yoga students, it would be nice if we could speak a little on the topic of yoga. One of the main functions of the Vedic City Project is education so I was happy we were kicking off this way.

I spent the next day running around…looking for plastic covering for the toilet floor…looking for couscous and vegetables to offer to the Lord and our guests…looking for heaven knows how many other things. Looking. Luckily I had the supermellow Tirtharaja tagging along my crazy trail. Thank you for being such a calming influence, Tirtha.

So, while Gaurashakti cooked, Arne cut out patterns for the toilet-floor, Tamal cleaned, Sankirtan freshened-up, Tirtha looked for the karatalas, early guests arrived…I was on the phone seeing who was coming, who was not coming, and thinking of anything we might have left out.

The programme ran quite smoothly. We had 16 guests. Hansa, who owns a florist downstairs, kindly sponsored flowers for the programme. And the guests liked the walls! Paisley patterns and mantras of ‘Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya’ in Sanskrit and English.

The Programme

Tirtharaj led kirtan (congregational chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra) for 15 minutes or so. Then Sankirtan spoke.

Sankirtan prabhu spoke a little about the Centre and how it was for the guests and for the devotees. He spoke about devotional service and various things we could do in terms of service to Krishna and Krishna’s Centre. While he was speaking I was thinking of the spontaneous offerings some of the guests had already made. There was Hansa and her flowers and dhokla; Giridhari and Estelle’s contribution of spoons and cutlery; and Richard’s gift  of a beautiful framed picture of Ganesh, the Destroyer of Obstacles.

Sankirtan then asked us to introduce ourselves and to tell everyone something about ourselves. I said, ‘My name is Mukunda Charan das and I like making friends with people.’ Sankirtan looked at everyone and said, ‘Is this true?’ Lungile said he liked, as I would have known, Prabhupada’s pastimes in New York City in the 60’s. Giridhari said he liked reading Bhagavatam. Govardhana liked being with devotees. Hansa liked cooking. Richard liked the Vedas. And so on. Sankirtan handled the group well. Everyone appeared relaxed.

Since I was up and down seeing to guests, seeing to prashadam – basically managing things – I did not get to hear all of the class. And Bhakta Arne, unfortunately, only captured 20 minutes on his phone. But I did catch the gist of the presentation. There were many processes by which spiritualists approached God, including varieties of yoga practice. These practices, however, brought the practitioners to the platform of Bhakti or devotion to Krishna. Sankirtan gave a simple, though scholarly, analysis of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras in relation to Swami Prabhupada’s presentation of Gaudiya Vaishnavism or bhakti yoga. Patanjali’s sutras give clear teachings about the physical dimension of yoga. But they are wanting in terms of the actual goal of yoga which is to ‘link’ with the Divine or Krishna/God (that is the literal meaning of the Sanskrit term ‘yoga‘). Sankirtan also encouraged us to work on our connection with Krishna as opposed to connecting with the Temporary. His talk was encouraging. There was some debate over the purpose and usefulness of Christianity during the question-and-answer-and-comment session. I was in the kitchen at the time, but heard that it was resolved on the Vaishnava platform ie. everyone was in agreement at the end. We served prashadam and the guests slowly, slowly took their leave.

Srila Prabhupada Ki Jaya! Sri Sri Pancha Tattva Ki Jaya!

Dear Friends,

Just returned from three weeks in Cape Town. Reminded me of a poster I saw on a Chowpatty noticeboard that went something like this, ‘The Holiday That Turned Into A Nightmare.’  Ah, the “sand in the sweet rice” phenomenon….

Rupa Raghunatha prabhu’s car broke down in Hanover, 300km from Bloem. We sat on a koppie (‘small hill’) like those two lost soul’s in Waiting For Godot pondering our situation, the Boer War, British “scorched-earth” tactics, small towns, corrugated iron roofs, detachment/attachment and Krishna’s Divine Will.  I was amazed how calm Rupa was about the situation.

Anyway, Rupa called a friend who owns a towing company to see what could be done about about the situation. By Krishna’s grace his kind-hearted friend, Ashlin, towed us free of charge. I was thinking that Krishna was reciprocating with Rupa since he is so courageously campaigning for Him in Bloemfontein.

We decided if we would go to Cape Town if we could arrange the use of a vehicle there. That night our friend Mukunda offered us the use of his wife’s car. So we stuck with plan A. We took a bus from Bloemfontein on the 31st of August and arrived in Cape Town the next morning. We left our bags at the Desais’ house and collected Mukunda’s car from the airport.

I was happy to see Minny and Manu Desai because Manu has been very sick. I wanted to see them in person. I am like a son to them and was very concerned that he had been so ill.

We proceeded to Table View where we stayed with Rasaraja prabhu.  Rasaraja and his family hosted us for ten days. The next day we went to the Temple for the Sunday programme. Rupa prabhu led a fired-up kirtan…and Suell cooked a great feast.

We braved the awful Cape weather for the next week.  Seeing the north-west wind blowing across Table Mountain, I would say, ‘It’s either going to rain this afternoon or tonight. One hundred percent. When the north-wester blows that means rain.’ And rain it did.

The trip afforded me the opportunity to touch base with the devotees, friends and people I have met in the course of my preaching over the past 11 years. We also had the good fortune of celebrating Radhastami in Cape Town. The presence of His Holiness Kadamba Kanana Maharaja made it extra special. We had supper at Medhavi prabhu’s house and visited the Desai’s several times. Rupa and I returned the car to Mira in Pringle Bay. I dropped him off at Cape Town International the next day.

I also invited the brahmacaris over to Rasaraja prabhu’s place and encouraged them to distribute books and perform harinama-sankirtan. We had a beautiful harinama with the boys through Rasaraja’s neighbourhood. It was one of those light, bubbly harinamas that really lifts the spirits. I recited the pastime of Lord Vamanadeva – it was Vamanadeva’s Appearance Day – but kept it short because I could see the devotees were eager to honour prasadam. Suell prabhu said, ‘You must lead kirtan tomorrow at the Sunday programme.’ I said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ Well…I ended up leading kirtan. It was very blissful since I really love the Cape Town devotees. It was also very moving for me to chant before my worshipable Lordships Sri Sri Nitai Mayapurachandra.

During this time I was reading a very interesting book by an American Christian pastor named Rick Warren. The book was called The Purpose-driven Church. What a fantastic book! It gives some really wonderful insights into developing your ministry. I recommend it to all preachers. It also made me think of how I can better apply Prabhupada’s aims and purposes in my life as a preacher of Krishna consciousness.

I stayed an extra day for the Vyasa Puja celebration of His Holiness Bhakti Caru Swami.  This was on the request of my dear good friend Harishchandra prabhu. Harishchandra’s wife, Mamta, cooked a wonderful feast. She is one of the best cooks in the Cape Town yatra.

I also visited my friend Bhakta John Robbie who is managing a backpackers in Long Street. We spent quality time together, called some of our friends, and then carried on with our respective duties.

Yes.  Cape Town is my home.  Johannesburg is my office.  And Durban, home to Sri Sri Radha-Radhanath, is my place of worship. 

Hare Krishna
Your servant
Mukunda Charan das (ISKCON Pretoria, South Africa)