The 50th anniversary of the founding of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York City in 1966 by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada [1896-1977], was celebrated in Houston over four consecutive days, beginning with a formal gala dinner on Thursday, December 8 at the society’s state-of-the art new temple on West 34th Street. The Houston festivities were part of another major “ISKCON 50” celebration held in the U.S. in 2016, following the highly successful Washington, D.C. gala in November which featured a talk and kirtan led by Tulsi Gabbard, America’s first devotee-Congresswoman, along with an impressive array of senior devotees and political and interfaith leaders in the nation’s capital.
The possibility of an ISKCON 50 gala in Houston was suggested by Anuttama Dasa, International Director of Communications, on a visit to Houston in September. Guru Bhakti dasi, a medical doctor and director of the temple’s outreach programs, convened a meeting to see if the local devotees would be up to the challenge of organizing a sophisticated gala—an event which usually requires six months or more of planning—in an extremely tight time window. After the devotees and temple managers discussed the challenge, they decided to “go for it.”
Guru Bhakti dasi and a small team of devotees—headed by Madhava Charana dasa and a few others—began to invite devotee speakers, outside guests and VIPs. Although most of the devotee-volunteers had full-time jobs, they had to hash out innumerable details, to design and print invitations, VIP guest bags, sort out the gala menu, and make many decisions and plans.
The night before the gala, the devotees encountered a good problem: they had 350 confirmed guests, with 10 guests paying online within an hour, but only 300 seats! After closing registration, staying up all night the day before the gala making last-minute preparations, by Srila Prabhupada’s mercy, on December 8 the event came together and attracted more than 340 guests from government, business, education, medicine, interfaith/religious organizations, media, and entertainment as well as visiting ISKCON leaders. Featured speakers included Radhika Raman das (Dr Ravi Gupta), Director of Religious Studies at Utah State University (after being home-schooled by Krishna conscious parents, he graduated from Boise State as a teenager and became one of the youngest students to ever receive a PhD from Oxford University). Dr. Helen Ebaugh—who has taught World Religions at the University of Houston for forty years and has recently offered favorable critiques of Jayadvaita Swami’s new book, Vanity Karma and Radhanath Swami’s Journey Home—praised ISKCON’s participation in local interfaith dialogue, and Judge R.K. Sandill of Harris County’s 127th District Court—the first district court judge in Texas of South Asian descent—commended ISKCON’s cultural and spiritual contributions in places he has lived, including Toronto and its wonderful Ratha-yatra, London and Houston.
340 people attended the Houston Gala
Also speaking were Malati Devi Dasi, Srila Prabhupada’s staunch and dauntless senior lady disciple who pioneered ISKCON in London and Ohio; Sesa Das, acting chairman of ISKCON’S Governing Body Commission; Joshua Greene (Yogesvara das), author of Swami in a Strange Land, a new biography on Swami Prabhupada; Huber Hutchin Robinson (Hanumat Presaka Swami), General Secretary of NIOS (North American Institute for Oriental and Occidental Studies); and a representative for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a longtime supporter of ISKCON-Houston.
Special guests also included Harris County District Attorney, Kim Ogg; Pat Hallisey, Mayor of League City and his wife Janice; Dr. Catherine O’Brien, vice chancellor of San Jacinto College; David Williams, Principal at Seabrook Intermediate School; Matt Khan of Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, who remarked, “The hospitality was exceptional and I learned a great deal about the history of ISKCON.” Also attending were Rev. Gena Davis of Houston’s grace Episcopal Church, a certified yoga teacher who incorporates yoga in her ministry; Rev. David Carter of the Unitarian Church of Wichita, Kansas perhaps the first Gaudiya Vaisnava devotee to lead such a church and congregation; representatives of the local Focolare community; board members of Houston’s Rothko Chapel; and Dr. Zahra Jamal, Associate Director of the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance at Rice University. Representatives of Hindu organizations included those from BAPS, Voiceof Sanatan Hinduism, Hindus of Greater Houston, ICC, the Hindu Heritage Foundation, Ashtalaksmi Temple, Sri Sita Ram Foundation, Mahatma Gandhi Library, Banke Bihari Pariwar, the Indo American Political Group and the Youth Leadership Development Program (YLDP). The gala also featured art and devotional music (kirtan) by local devotees and a unique ice sculpture and rangoli (colored powder) depiction of the ISKCON logo.
ISKCON Houston temple
On Friday, December 9, a special musical tribute to the famous musician, George Harrison, was presented as part two of ISKCON 50. Yogesvara das (Joshua Greene), author also of the biography, Here Comes The Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison and acoustic guitarist/vocalist, Godfrey Townsend, also a devotee—and who has performed with rock greats including John Entwistle, bassist of The Who; Jack Bruce, bassist and vocalist of Cream; Dave Mason, guitar/vocalist of Traffic; and Alan Parsons Project—presented 90 minutes of fascinating audio/visual clips from George’s childhood through his musical and spiritual journey, and that, along with the superb, scintillating music—which included My Sweet Lord—earned them a standing ovation. Besides George Harrison’s love of India, the sitar, Ravi Shankar and his studying meditation in Rishikesh, George met ISKCON’s founder-acarya Srila Prabhupada, chanted the Hare Krishna mantra, put spirituality into his songs, donated $19,000 for the printing of Krshna: the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and he also donated the property that is now the site of Bhaktivedanta Manor, ISKCON’s largest temple in Europe.
On Saturday, December 10, Gita Jayanti—the appearance of the Bhagavad-gita—was honored as the third part of the ISKCON 50. Srimad Bhagavad-gita, India’s timeless classic: Saturday marked the actual day that Lord Krishna spoke Bhagavad-gita to His great friend, disciple and devotee—Arjuna. Co-sponsors of the auspicious event were Ashirwad a blessing-A Lifestyle Vedic School, the Mahatma Gandhi Library of Houston and Voice of Sanathan Hinduism. A Bhagavad-gita doll display by Amanni Krishnaswami, featuring Krishna’s universal form, the dice match and battlefield of Kurukshetra was presented. All 18 chapters were read—700 slokas—over four hours, and a fire sacrifice or yajna was performed. Chapter summaries were provided by ISKCON’s Bhakti Sundar Goswami and Radhika Raman Das (Dr. Ravi Gupta).
A children’s competition—“Gita Fest”—was held, with kids participating from ‘Ashirwad a blessing,’ the Ashtalakshmi temple, Goswami Academy, ISKCON Sunday School and many kids from the Houston area. Bhakti Sundar Goswami, Sesa Das, Radhika Raman Das and Mrs. Geetha Ravula served as the judges. 25 kids participated in three categories, with three winners in each category. Each child received a participants’ certificate. In the evening Hanumat Presaka Swami and Sesa Das discussed the essence of the Bhagavad-gita and its application in daily life. ISKCON’s Vrinda Boodram coordinated the event, which also featured kirtan by members of the ISKCON youth traveling bus party.
Sunday, December 11, day four of ISKCON 50’s celebration—a tribute to Srila Prabhupada—featured talks by Bhakti Sundar Goswami and Hanumat Presaka Goswami and ended with a special dance, slide show & contemporary rendition of Markine Bhagavat Dharma, Srila Prabhupada’s poem on board the boat – the Jaladuta, performed by second generation ISKCON youth Swathi Murali, Ramdas Shingdia and Gaura Klein.
After four wonderful days, everyone—devotees and outsiders or newcomers to ISKCON alike—got a tangible taste or understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s pre-eminent position and importance to ISKCON and the world, over the last 50 years + and for the next 10,000 years.