ISKCON 50 Gala Dinner in Washington DC
Many international religious and political leaders honored ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada’s achievements and contributions at a special ISKCON 50th Anniversary Gala Event in Washington D.C. on Tuesday September 13th.
The event took place in the Presidential Ballroom at the Capital Hilton Hotel on 16th Street. Three blocks from the White House, the Ballroom has hosted every president since Harry S. Truman and features a permanent eight-foot presidential seal on its wall.
Over 300 people attended the Gala event, seventy-five of them special VIP invitees including religious leaders, religious liberty experts, members of the media, government representatives and political leaders.
Among them were U.S. Congresswoman from Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts Joseph Kennedy, Nepalese Ambassador to the U.S. Dr. Arjun Kumar Karki, Community Affairs Minister N.K. Mishra from the Indian Embassy, and Deputy Chief of Mission Mahbub Hasan Saleh from the Embassy of Bangladesh.
There were also three rabbis including one from one of Washington D.C.’s most prominent synagogues; as well as the new chaplain of Hindu Life at Georgetown University, Brahmachari Vrajvihari, several Protestant ministers, and a representative from the American Jewish Committee.
Devotees and VIPs mingle at the Gala’s reception
From ISKCON, GBC members Malati Devi, Bhaktimarga Swami, Anuttama Das, Emeritus GBC Ravindra Svarupa Das and GBC Chairman Sesa Das attended. So did many devotees from New York, Philadelphia, Massachusetts, Alachua, Florida, Canada and beyond, including Prabhupada disciples Devi Deva Das, Guru Gauranga Das, Sravanananda Das and Yogesvara das, who travelled to Washington to attend the event.
The celebrations began with a special catered reception at 6pm with ordeurves and beverages in the Senate Room. The room was fitted with a display of Srila Prabhupada’s books that included twenty-five different translations of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, a full set of Chaitanya Charitamrita, a full set of Srimad-Bhagavatam, and signage explaining Prabhupada’s literary contribution.
There was also a beautiful display of art by Kim Waters, the well-known ISKCON artist and author of the book Illuminations from the Bhagavad-gita, demonstrating ISKCON’s efforts in preserving and promoting Krishna art.
During the one-hour reception, VIPs milled about, browsing Prabhupada’s books and Waters’ artwork, and networking with each other. They also had the chance to get their picture taken on a red carpet in front of a large ISKCON 50 logo.
At 7:10pm, the doors to the main Presidential Ballroom automatically opened, and all 300 guests moved into the beautifully decorated space, with its grand ceilings and sparkling chandeliers, to the euphoric sounds of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord.
The Presidential Ballroom, where the Gala event was held
As everyone took their seats at circular white clothed tables with orange and red rose centerpieces by Gopisvari Dasi, ISKCON of D.C. priest Manorama Krishna Das inaugurated the event by blowing a conchshell and chanting elaborate Sanskrit mantras to invoke auspiciousness.
M.C. Anuttama Das then welcomed everyone, and showed a four-minute trailer for the ISKCON 50 documentary film Joy of Devotion. Vaishnavas, the trailer explains, understand that God sends many messengers throughout history to bring his message of love and peace. And in 1965, Srila Prabhupada crossed the Atlantic Ocean to bring that same eternal message, ultimately impacting the lives of millions.
Following the trailer a series of eminent speakers delved deeper into these themes, beginning with Dr. Graham Schweig, Professor of Religion at Christopher Newport University, talking about Srila Prabhupada’s academic contributions.
Next Alfred B. Ford (Ambarisa Das) spoke about his own devotion to ISKCON and to Srila Prabhupada. He also discussed his great-grandfather auto magnate Henry Ford, an out-of-the-box thinker who believed he owed much of his skill and innovation to past lives, and would gift visitors to his Ford factories with reincarnation pamphlets.
Kristina Arriaga, an outspoken advocate of religious liberty from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom – a highly influential and prestigious organization – spoke about ISKCON’s contributions to the fight for religious freedom in America and around the world. When Hare Krishnas first showed up in America, she said, people thought they were brainwashed. But they didn’t give up their principles or faith – and today, they have grown to be respected around the world.
Alfred Ford (Ambarisa Das) speaks
GBC Chairman Sesa Das also spoke, identifying six key principles of bhakti from the Bhagavad-gita, and talking about how ISKCON is trying to uplift the world by teaching and promoting these principles – which include ahimsa, or non-violence, humility, and sama-darshina, or seeing all living beings with equal vision.
A break in the speeches saw Anapayini Jakupko of the Bhakti Kalalayam Dance School and her sister Komala Kumari Patel wow the audience with a fifteen-minute Bharatanatyam dance, depicting Krishna-lila and scenes from the Bhagavad-gita such as Lord Krishna’s displaying His universal form.
Before dinner Episcopal Minister and Founding Executive Director of the United Religious Initiative (URI), Reverend Charles P. Gibbs offered grace. He recalled his times with the late ISKCON leader Bhakti Svarupa Damodar Maharaja. He poignantly noted that Maharaja’s humility, intellectual depth, and devotion had impressed him with a profound appreciation of the Hare Krishna tradition.
This was followed by a special catered prasadam meal, served with an apparently unlimited number of bottles of sparkling apple cider. During the dinner, guests were treated to an entrancing slideshow of images of ISKCON around the world, projected onto a big screen. As they ate, watched, and networked with each other, there was a real spirit of camaraderie and joyfulness in celebrating ISKCON’s 50th.
After the meal, there was a brief video showing former British Prime Minister David Cameron visiting Bhaktivedenta Manor, and then the speeches started up again.
Islamic Scholar Sanaullah Kirmani, who met Srila Prabhupada in 1968 at Harvard University while a student there, spoke very glowingly about the impact Prabhupada had had on his life. He concluded with a short Bengali poem he had written in Prabhupada’s honor: “I was standing in the doorway,” he read out, “And you gave me a beautiful flower, which is still blossoming.”
Anapayini and Kumari present a Bharatanatyam dance on the Bhagavad-gita
Father Leo Lefebure, Professor of Religion at Georgetown University, spoke about the reform the Catholic Church underwent in 1965, and the Nostra Aetate declaration which opened it up to a broader vision of other religions and encouraged interfaith dialogue, respect and cooperation.
Maryland State Delegate Kumar Barve compared Prabhupada’s struggles with those of his own grandfather, who emigrated to the USA from India for freedom and opportunity. Barve reflected on how he was a member of the House of Delegates today because of his grandfather’s struggles; and how in the same way, ISKCON has blossomed into what it is today because of Prabhupada’s struggles and achievements.
N.K. Mishra of the Indian Embassy spoke of ISKCON’s many contributions in India, such as its huge food relief programs, and called Srila Prabhupada a great cultural emissary of India. “You can’t go to a major city anywhere in the world and not find an ISKCON temple,” he said, citing twenty international cities with ISKCON centers.
Prakash Hinduja, chairman of the Hinduja Group in Europe, expressed much appreciation for Srila Prabhupada, whom he had met personally. He then led everyone in chanting the Hare Krishna mantra.
Finally Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, the Keynote Speaker for the evening, spoke of her personal appreciation for Srila Prabhupada, Bhaktivinode Thakur and the teachings of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Quoting Mahaprabhu’s Siksastakam prayers, she explained that Vaishnavism is not sectarian, but that it appreciates the religious sentiment and expression of all people. She also offered her gratitude to Srila Prabhupada for all he has done in bringing the Vaishnava tradition to the West and all over the world.
U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speaks
The Congresswoman then picked up her personal stringed instrument, which she dubbed a “Guitalele” – a combination of the ukulele and guitar – asked the entire audience to get to their feet, and led them in a Hare Krishna maha-mantra kirtan. As she sang, Gaura Vani, Visvambhar, Purusartha and Srivani of kirtan group The Juggernatus joined her, adding mridanga, kartalas and bass guitar to the mix.
As they chanted, the audience began to sway from side to side, clapping, singing along, and raising their arms to the ceiling.
When Congresswoman Gabbard concluded her part, The Juggernauts invited the entire audience to attend the Chant 4 Change event coming upon October 8th on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and then chanted for another twenty minutes, ending the evening with an uplifting flourish of kirtan. ” (All are invited to attend this upcoming historic event. For more information or to offer your support see chant4change.com.)”
As the guests departed, they were all given gift bags containing either Mukunda Goswami or Yogesvara Dasa’s biographies of Srila Prabhupada; a 64-page commemorative magazine entitled “The Hare Krishnas: Celebrating 50 Years”; an attractive metal ISKCON 50 keychain; artful bookmarks by Kim Waters; and a beautifully packaged box of assorted prasadam sweets.
The response from the VIPs to the evening was overwhelmingly positive, with many commenting that they had been unaware of the depth of Srila Prabhupada’s scholarship, or the breadth of his contributions in spreading the Krishna tradition around the world. The ISKCON devotees present, meanwhile, were very inspired to see so many esteemed personalities appreciating ISKCON’s contributions.
“I found the event to be an unprecedented validation of Srila Prabhupada and his contributions to the world,” says Rukmini devi dasi, one of Prabhupada’s earliest female disciples. “To see so many important people appreciating him, chanting and dancing with their arms upraised, and thoroughly enjoying the experience, was just wonderful.”