"Here is the remedy for eliminating all inauspicious things within the heart...

"Here is the remedy for eliminating all inauspicious things within the heart...
...which are considered to be obstacles in the path of self-realization. The remedy is the association of the Bhagavatas." -Srimad Bhagavatam (1.1.18)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Remembering Nitai...

On Wednesday, January 31, 2012, while walking out of my Sacred Geographies graduate seminar, I first heard the news that Nitai had been killed in a car accident the night previous. My heart sunk. I became disoriented. I thought, I should go to Krishna Lunch and tell the devotees. I began walking towards the plaza but realized that Krishna Lunch had ended two hours ago. Confused, I instead jumped on the bus and found myself sobbing uncontrollably to the point of gasping for air by the time I walked back to my apartment.

Over the next few days, as I thought about the friendship I shared with Nitai during the past seven years, the more it become evident to me that Nitai has shaped my life in extraordinary ways. The amazing thing is that this picture (see above) seems to have captured my first encounter with Nitai. This photo was taken in 2005 at the National Rainbow Gathering in West Virginia. You can see Nitai there, sitting down and serving prasadam out of a cardboard box. And myself? Well, let's just say I've always had an affinity for green tutus. It was at this rainbow gathering that I began having extensive conversations with the devotees. One year later, I moved into a women's ashram at ISKCON New Vrindavan in West Virginia in order to be closer to my new friends. I think this rainbow gathering was the first festival that Nitai ever organized.

Fast forward two years later. It's August 2007 and I'm stranded in Seattle, staying with old college friends after spontaneously choosing to leave Malati Prabhu's travelling sankirtan party. Several days later, feeling the gravity of my mistake and praying to Krishna to again reward me with the company of His devotees, I suddenly receive a phone call. "Hey, what's going on?" said Nitai in his dry monotone voice. He proceeds to tell me that he's on his way to Burning Man to set up Krishna Camp, that he's driving through Seattle, and that I should come with them. Two hours later, Nitai and Gadadhara pick me up in a huge U-Haul packed to the brim and off we go to Black Rock City, Nevada.

We drove all night. We drove all day. In the meantime, I realized that I was completely unprepared to spend the next week in a desert. All I had was a couple of saris, a pair of flip flops, and a trucker hat. Nitai decided we would stop at an army surplus store so I could pick up some clothes and he could buy some gas masks for the crew in preparation of the legendary, afternoon dust storms that take over the playa at Burning Man.

Eventually we arrived and began to set up camp. This, of course, was the second year Nitai had organized Krishna Camp at the Burning Man Festival. In the three subsequent years, Krishna Camp evolved into Krishna Kitchen and became the largest kitchen at the Burning Man Festival, responsible for feeding the leading organizers, staff members, VIPs, and artists of the event.

This was the first time I saw Nitai in high gear, the gear he liked best. The more intensity, the better. Sporting a cowboy hat, sunglasses, and beige crocs with a cell phone that never left his ear, Nitai went to work and I was thrilled to be part of his crew.

And so I worked my butt off, cooking, cleaning, serving, and chanting for one week straight and I can honestly say it was one of the most fun weeks in my entire life. I was dirty, exhausted, tired, and sunburnt, yet I was in ecstasy (because serving others who are on ecstasy is infinitely more rewarding than the synthetic experience of actually being on ecstasy).

At the Festival of Inspiration 2009, Nitai, Balaram Candra, Caitanya, Gauranga Kisore, Lacie and I were reunited, each having gone separate ways after our ashram days spent together at New Vrindavan. Because of their endeavors to organize Krishna Camp at the National Rainbow Gathering in 2005 and 2006, I had a chance to gain their friendship, indulge in Newman-O halava, wash Krishna's pots, and dance in kirtan. I remember thinking that these people were the coolest people I had ever met.

Over the years, although I was not able to return to Burning Man, I was fortunate enough to participate in several other festivals that Nitai began organizing. Each one was a transcendental adventure. The Mystic Garden Party in 2010 (pictured above) was no exception. That year Nitai introduced Thai coconuts to the menu, which soon became a big hit wherever Krishna Kitchen was set up. Kuva, Hari, Mahalaxmi, Govinda, Bhava, Mandali & crew rocked the kitchen as usual and hundreds of people left the festival with bellies full of Krishna prasadam.

So many stories, so many freakin' hilarious stories, so much fun, so much devotion, so much charity, so much sacrifice, so much work, so many arguments, so much driving, so many coconuts, so many samosas...this was what it meant to be part of Nitai's festival crew. The crazy thing is that Nitai was just getting started. Krishna Kitchen was just beginning to find its niche. For years he had been building contacts, networking with festival organizers and building strong relationships with everyone he worked with. Thanks to Nitai, Krishna has returned to pop culture and has become part of the collective consciousness of America's Generation X.

I last spoke to Nitai on December 30, 2011. I always looked forward to Nitai's phone calls. He would usually call every few months to tell me about what was going on, how the last festival went, which celebrities he fed, the next festival he was organizing, an update on Burning Man, news from Radhanatha Swami, and to ask if I could come help. During our last phone conversation, he shared with me some of his experiences with Radhanatha Swami at the Bhakti Festival this year. He explained that Radhanatha Swami arrived at the festival with a case of shingles and Nitai nursed him back to health. Generally Radhanatha Swami does not accept service from others, but due to his inability to reach his back to apply the medicine, Nitai explained that he was given special mercy to assist Radhanatha Swami in such an intimate way.

The conversation ended with a discussion of Nitai's plans to organize Krishna Kitchen at a big festival in Costa Rica this spring and him asking me if I could come down with them. I told him I would have to get back to him, not knowing what week my spring break would fall on. All I can say is that Nitai was no ordinary man. He was empowered by guru and Krishna, and Nitai meant business. I loved his straightforward manner of communicating with others, his monotone voice, his humor, his humility, his confidence, his dedication, his drive and his undying determination to give Krishna to others. May I again meet you in Samosaville, Nitai das. I owe you.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Need Help Making A New Year's Resolution?

I admit it. I'm obsessed. I'm a fanatic. I can't stop thinking about it. So I'm going to do something about it.

This year, I will beg, I will plead, implore, request, abjure, advocate, beseech, besiege, bribe, canvass, conjure, entreat, impetrate, importune, invoke, nag, obsecrate, obtest, petition, pray, press, requisition, solicit, supplicate, urge, woo, and ask all of you to PLEASE STOP EATING MEAT! (in between studying for my GRE's).

"Global Warming: the impact of meat production & consumption on climate change"

"India Tells West to Stop Eating Beef"

"People should give up eating meat to halt climate change"

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How to become a Catholic nun.

Vocation, vocation, vocation. Everyone's talking about it. But who's praying for it?

As is my tradition when visiting friends and family in my home town of Buffalo, NY, I take the opportunity to rest, reflect, and catch up on a year's worth of TV, movies, and multimedia. It's not that I don't watch movies, but with my full work, school, and play schedule, I find little time for HBO (does that channel still exist?). I suppose I've lived without a TV for over 10 years now, but I like to tune in once a year to experience what the average American spends roughly one fourth of their life doing. According to a Neilson report published earlier this year, the average American watches over 150 hours of television per month.

But the real finds have been found digging through my mother's Christmas video selection. So far we've watched a string of Bing Crosby flicks. I feel confident to announce that The Bells of St. Mary's is by far my pick of the year. To see an endearing clip of the film, go here.

Why can't you find any decent movies with nuns and priests anymore? The last I can remember is Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg, which doesn't exactly fall into the "decent" category. Still, I laughed. But isn't sad that practically our only opportunity to associate with a nun is via the Internet. On that note, you can listen to weekly podcasts, live from the convent, on a blog called A Nun's Life. Under a sidebar, there are a list of FAQ's along with a vocation forum and a "testing your vocation" article.

An unexpected find in the Christmas video category was Dr. Wayne Dyer's new film, Ambition to Meaning, released around Christmas last year in which the topic of vocation is also discussed. His Jungian approach is somewhere between physcological determinism and individuation, basically saying that if we surrender to God's original plan, then the path will be laid out in front of us. He questions us, "Do you live an inspired life?" He also introduces us to the popular Hindu term, dharma, and defines it as a spiritual principle that implies we have a spiritual purpose to our lives. This idea is discussed as teleology in academic circles.

Dr. Dyer quotes T.S. Eliot saying, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." Here, Mircea Eliade's theory of "eternal return," a religious archetypal nostalgia for paradise or a desire to return to the realm of the supernatural, can be observed.

What does this have to do with vocation, vocation, vocation? Not sure. All I know is that after watching that movie, my sister walked into the room frustrated with her new Palmpilot. I looked deep into her eyes and said, "Nicole, maybe it's time you let go and let God." She returned my noble act of compassion with biting scorn and a piercing glare. I carefully rephrased my proposal and suggested, "let go and let Todd?" (FYI Todd is my brother-in-law). We had a good chuckle.

Anyways, I hope you all get the opportunity to spend time with a real nun this holiday season. I am again looking forward to spending Christmas Eve with Father Dugan, a much loved, Jesuit priest and friend of the family. But I've got Christmas gulabjamons to start working on for Jesus Christ's Vyasa Puja, vegan pizza hors d'oeuvres, and a Christmas dinner to plan, so I better end now. Merry Christmas everyone and a token Hare Krishna in good spirit!

(PS. And if you haven't watched this Indianized version of Jingle Bells, it's a must see!)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Theology as if Animals Mattered

“Gracefully combining balanced scholarship with personal witness, animal activists Annika Spalde and Pelle Strindlund have written a book that will enable Christians of all denominations to rediscover the powerful tradition of creaturely compassion that runs throughout their religious history.”

—Reverend Gary Kowalski, author of The Souls of Animals and The Bible According to Noah: Theology as if Animals Mattered

“Many books about animals, diet, and Christianity have been written for a general audience, but this one is now the best. The authors mix personal stories with Biblical insight and passionate argument to produce a book that is as creative as it is earnest and focused. This book is beautifully written and carefully argued. It would be the perfect book for a Bible study or church study group. Warning: it is an enjoyable read, but it might change your life.”

—Stephen H. Webb, Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Wabash College, author of Good Eating and On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals

For more information about Christianity and vegetarianism, please visit the Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA) website.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Religion & Environmental Values?

On Thursday, October 29th, I represented ISKCON and participated in a panel, organized by graduate students in the UF Religion Department, discussing religious values and the environment. The other panelists included a representative of Islam, Professor Sarra Tlili from the UF Department of Asian & African Languages, a local Jewish rabbi, and another student from Campus Crusade for Christ.

Having an undergraduate degree in environmental science and as an environmental activist for the past 15 years, my personal conclusion is that Krishna consciousness is the climax and saving grace of any environmentalist's career. I emphasized in my introductory statement why vegetarianism and simple living are two of ISKCON's most relevant values when it comes to ecological awareness. As we strive to see all living entities with equal vision, embracing vegetarianism is an immediate symptom of higher consciousness.

Naturally, vegetarianism is also a symptom of ecological awareness. As the industrialized agricultural industry and meat consumption continues to expand, the environmental impact has been detrimental. I explained that by the end of our discussion, over 1.5 million animals will have been slaughtered in the U.S. alone. What this translates into is over 55 billion animals slaughtered annually. Thus, an unprecedented demand for petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides is needed in order to grow enough feed crops, which means more land to grow these crops, which demands one-third of the world's arable land and another 25% of the world's ice-free land to “graze” them.

I further explained that 5000 gallons of water are used to produce one pound of beef versus 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat or lettuce, and that last year, the UN made a statement that 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions were attributed to the livestock industry, whereas all modes of transportation, including cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships combined, account for a lesser 13%. I quoted manta one from the Sri Isopanisad, "isavasyam idam sarvam..." and concluded by saying that ISKCON sees the root of all sin as the deliberate disobedience of the laws of nature through disregarding the proprietorship of the Lord.

In summary, I felt the other panelists had much to say philosophically but few examples of "lived religion" or organized efforts of environmentalism in practice. An interesting point I observed was that every panelist commented on the environment as being under humanity's stewardship yet also existing for our enjoyment. After all the panelists presented their opening statement, the forum was opened up to questions from the audience. Approximately 50 students and community members were in attendance. The lively discussion that followed centered on vegetarianism, global warming, death rites, and war.

This panel is the first of a series of three. My professor, Dr. Whitney Sanford, who has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies with a specialization in north Indian devotional traditions, is very favorable towards ISKCON and recently attended the Vaishnavi Retreat at New Vrindavan. The following day, Professor Tlili approached a devotee on campus and asked for a copy of the Bhagavad-gita. In my opinion, ISKCON has an invaluable voice that must be strengthened and refined in order to be heard and understood by modern society and academia in regards to environmentalism. Yet, embracing or even discussing vegetarianism as a solution seems to be a truth even too inconvenient for Al Gore.

Monday, October 19, 2009

UF Homecoming Day Parade 2009

A year without words? I suppose it is time to fess up. I've caught a mild form of a highly contagious disease called avyarta kalatvam. Symptoms include: running around like a crazy woman, singing at the top of your lungs, washing pots at midnight, going to sleep way too early when others your age are just getting ready to go out, and saying words like "benediction moon." As you can see, this disease has rendered me utterly useless and miserable. Please pray for me.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

They call it Mellow Yellow?

Does your Pepsi lack pep? Is your Coke not the real thing? India's Hindu nationalist movement apparently has the answer: a new soft drink made from cow urine.

By Matthias Williams, Reuters

NEW DELHI - A hardline Hindu organization, known for its opposition to "corrupting" Western food imports, is planning to launch a new soft drink made from cow's urine, often seen as sacred in parts of India.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteer Corps, said the bovine beverage is undergoing laboratory tests for the next 2 to 3 months but did not give a specific date for its commercial release.

The flavor is not yet known, but the RSS said the liquid produced by Hinduism's revered holy cows is being mixed with products such as aloe vera and gooseberry to fight diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

Many Hindus consider cow urine to have medicinal properties and it is often drunk in religious festivals.

The organization, which aims to transform India's secular society and establish the supremacy of a Hindu majority, said it had not decided on a name or a price for the drink.

"Cow urine offers a cure for around 70 to 80 incurable diseases like diabetes. All are curable by cow urine," Om Prakash, the head of the RSS Cow Protection Department, told Reuters by phone.

Prakash, who is based in Hardwar, one of four holy Hindu cities on the river Ganges where the world's largest religious gathering takes place, said the product will be sold nationwide but did not rule out international success.

"It is useful for the whole country and the world as well. It will be done through shops and through corporates," he said.

The Hindu group has campaigned against foreign imports such as Pepsi and Coca Cola in the past, which it sees as a corrupting influence and a tool of Western imperialism.

The RSS was temporarily banned after a Hindu mob tore down a mosque in 1992 which lead to bloody religious riots.

The Shiv Sena, a hardline Hindu political party also known for attacking what it sees as threats to Indian culture such as Valentine's Day, started a similar initiative last year to appeal to its powerbase in Mumbai.

To promote the food of the native Marathi culture, the Shiv Sena said it was "making a chain like McDonalds" to sell a popular local fried snack.