On our arrival in Almvik I immediately found myself very busily absorbed in the final preparations for our upcoming Bhakti Sangam festival.
It was sceduled for seven days - from the 22nd to the 28th of July, and we were expecting wonderful sadhus to bless us with their association:
HG Krsna Ksetra Prabhu who hadn't visited Almvik for many years, and who has been serving as initiating spiritual master for more than twenty years, HG Dina Bandhu Prabhu coming all the way from Vrindavan in order to turn our Almvik village into Vrindavan village, and who had never visited Almvik before, HG Dhananjaya Prabhu, who had so much wonderful association with Srila Prabhupada and who was full of Prabhupada nectar, and HG Narayani Mataji who was well known to one and all for her relevant classes and humble demeanor.
This year more devotees than ever participated - around 120 coming from the neighboring Scandinavian countries of Finland, Norway and Denmark, and various parts of Sweden, plus the local Almvik devotees.
A few visitors also came from the Baltics, and even all the way from England!
Some former disciples of Harikesh Prabhu felt inspired to come, who had not been actively connected with ISKCON for many years - something I had been hoping for....!
This time I did not give any seminar myself, but simply played the role of the host: overseeing the entire festival, conducting the opening and closing ceremony, connecting with people and building relationships, and taking care of our honorable guest speakers and kirtaniyas.
Every day we were absorbed in hearing wonderful classes - this year we had a wonderful blend of different speakers: Krsna Ksetra Prabhu with his highly scholarly presentations on the importance of the Bhagavatam was in wonderful contrast to Dina Bandhu Prabhu's playful Krsna Katha coming straight from Vrindavan! And Dhananjaya Prabhu's Prabhupada Katha added a special sweetness, whereas Narayani Mataji's practical and relevant instructions on sadhana bhakti were very useful to the eager audience.
The late afternoons and evenings were spent every day in wonderful kirtans, with Krsna Ksetra Prabhu and Dina Bandhu Prabhu preparing the grounds for Madhava Prabhu and Govinda Swami to finally carry our minds and hearts away in chanting the holy name......
This year I introduced a revolutionary aspect to our Scandinavian Bhakti Sangam Festival: the abolishment of the prasadam fees.....!
It hadn't been easy for me to convince the devotees of the necessity to endeavor towards gradually taking away all these fees and switching over to conducting the festival on donation basis.
And the prasadam is always a good beginning, since it is such an important and prominent part of our Vaisnava culture: to feed the devotees!
We had spent many hours in discussions and communication via email, and there had been a lot of fear: what if nobody wants to give....?!
The only way for me to convince everyone was to firmly state that it will be my greatest honour and pleasure to feed everyone and all - if necessary for all the seven days.....!
My constant meditation is the Panihati Chipped Rice Festival - Ragunath Das feeding all of Nityananda's associates, and hundreds and hundreds of people, without discrimination.
The sure way to get the Lord's mercy is selflessly serving the devotees....
During the festival I periodically gave some little five-minute talks on the importance of prasadam-culture and Vaisnava hospitality to inspire devotees to participate in the mercy of feeding the devotees. Some evenings I announced the names of those who contributed, expressing my gratitude and inviting everybody present to give blessings by chanting the maha mantra.
And indeed, we managed to cover most of the expense by allowing everybody to give voluntarily and from the heart - as much as they wanted to give.
And the final balance I happily covered myself, being glad that some little service was left for me.....
The fact that the prasadam was not for a fixed price created a wonderful atmosphere. Previous years the local devotees were not taking prasadam with the guests but had gone home to eat - maybe to save money.
And there had been a somewhat stingy and miserly mood, with devotees having to chase after everybody to pay for each meal they had taken. Not really what Vaisnava hospitality is all about....!
Infact, charging fees, especially for prasadam destroys Vaisnava hospitality! It changes entirely our mentality when receiving a guest. When charging we receive him with the following words: how long are you staying, how many meals are you planning to take, and then we are giving him the bill!
But when operating on donation basis we are free to welcome him nicely, seeing to his comfort and care, offering a place to stay and prasadam.
There are many letters and conversations where Prabhupada instructs the devotees that there should be prasadam available at any time for an unexpected guest - what to speak of our own devotees!
And of course it is also part of Vaisnava culture that the guest feels so happy and moved within his heart about the nice reception and care he received, that he wants to reciprocate by offering in charity. This is the loving exchange. If we all follow our part of the culture, then there is no need to charge, and there is no shortage of anything.
In CC we don't read anything about festival fees and prasadam fees.....
Everybody simply serves the Vaisnavas.....
Now, on this year's Bhakti Sangam, since we did not charge for prasadam everybody ate together in the garden, on little tables - almost like a little summer cafe. The mood was inviting to associate with each other - something so greatly needed! And this had such a wonderful effect on the mood and atmosphere of the entire festival! And thus all the Almvik devotees were convinced that this was indeed the right direction to move forward.
On the last evening when conducted the closing ceremony I gave further visions of developing our Scandinavian Festival, and I shared some experiences of our Bhakti Sangam in Ukraine - the most amazing event in the universe......!
Bhakti Sangam festivals are spiritually nourishing on all levels: it gives upliftment to the general devotees, it gives nourishment to the local preachers who come and hear from more advanced personalities and associate with each other, and it gives nourishment to the honorable guest speakers and kirtaniyas, since they get a chance to hear from each other and associate during prasadam. Thus it gives the ultimate spiritual care for one and all - nourishing our faith in the process of devoational service. And further more: it helps us to cultivate the mood of service towards the devotees - otherwise it is simply not possible to pull such festivals off the ground.
I had arranged for a nice little personal gift for our respected guests: something practical and also Scandinavian: a pair of hand-knitted socks, with Scandinavian patterns, in all different colours and sizes. Some even had some Almvik elgs knitted into the pattern!
And I had been pondering over the question who should get which color......
The right color matching to each and every personality.....
I offered the little gift with affectionate words of gratitude to each of our beloved sadhus, while the devotees in the audience were smiling in amusement......
Now the Bhakti Sangam Festival is firmly established...!
It had taken several years......
When seeing off HG Dhananjaya Prabhu he mentioned that this festival was one of the nicest experiences in his entire life....!
All glories to HH Niranjana Swami who is the father of Bhakti Sangam, and the source of my inspiration......
On the 31st of July I flew off to Germany together with Margarita, for yet another transcendental adventure......
Your servant, Devaki dd