It is Tuesday afternoon and a day of rest. Peace and quiet reign beneficently over the Philadelphia temple as we recover from the hubbub of the holiday weekend. In this case the original meaning of “holiday” actually applies: “holy day.” For us, the holiday is the day we work the hardest. Since our hard work is exclusively for the pleasure of the Lord, however, it produces no karma. (In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna defines karma as work that generates future material bodies.) In this case, then, our karma-less holiday is a foretaste of the permanent vacation from mrityu-samsara, the treadmill of birth and death in the world.
Even so, the body and mind need a little recovery time.
On Sunday we celebrated the birthday of Lord Krishna, a day known on the calendar as “janmashtami.” The word literally means “the birth on the eighth day [of the waning moon].” The standard calendar the world now uses, of course, is based on changes we see in sun’s position. In contrast, our Vaishnava calendar of spiritual observances—of holy days (and weeks and months)—is based on the changes in the moon.
Consequently, an event celebrated every year on the same day on the lunar calendar—like the eighth day of the waning moon in the lunar month of Hrishikesh—ends up being observed each year on a different day of the solar calendar.
This year, Janmashtami in Philadelphia was scheduled to fall on a Sunday. I say “in Philadelphia” because if you want to calculate holy days on a lunar calendar with exactitude, then you must take into account your own latitude and longitude. In ISKCON, devotees have produced a computer program for this purpose, so that you merely plug in your location to generate the resulting calendar for your locale. (This can be done on online—you can also learn about the details of the lunar calendar and its calculations, if you are inclined that way.)
While Janmashtami this year fell on Sunday in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago, it fell on Saturday in Los Angeles. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust calendar gives the date for Los Angeles, and you have to look at the fine print for the alternative date for the East coast.
Yet even with Philadelphia itself, a variant date for Janmashtami made its appearance. Although the various traditions within the Hindu family all use a lunar calendar, expert pandits have debated among themselves for centuries about proper standards and methods of calculation. (The Mahabharata notes, with timeless wisdom, nasav rishir yasya matam na bhinnam—meaning, roughly, you cannot be considered an expert unless you disagree with the other experts.) No reason to be surprised, then, if the Hindu temples in our region all said Janmashtami fell on Saturday.
I didn’t learn this momentous fact until the weekend before last, when a number of Indian members of our congregation urged me to change the festival to Saturday, so we wouldn’t be out of the running. They told me that even the ISKCON temples in New York City and New Jersey scheduled their festival on Saturday to conform to common expectation; so should we in Philadelphia.
I said that on principle I wasn’t into changing the day, and practically it was too late to switch even if we wanted to. It would have to stay Sunday.
Celebrating Janmashtami on Sunday does have one drawback. The festival climaxes with an arati ceremony at midnight, followed by a feast. The whole thing doesn’t wind down until 2 a.m.. That’s rough for those who have to show up at work on Monday morning. Even so, we kept it Sunday. We stuck to our principles.
Sometimes you get credit just for that.
Given the concern that most Hindus in the region will think Saturday to be Janmashtami, we made arrangement to receive additional guests on Saturday night, with extra chanting and prasada. In the event, only a few people showed up.
I was puzzled by this.
• • •
We always work hard to get ready for Janmashtami. There are new day and night outfits to prepare for the Deities, special garlands, decorations for the altar and temple room, much work on the grounds, and a marathon of cooking. The crowds that show up every year exceed our capacity, yet somehow we fit them all in.
Our temple occupies the former Cresheim Arms Hotel, located on a two-and-a-quarter acre corner lot in West Mt. Airy, a leafy district in the northwestern lobe of our city. We purchased this property in 1977 for $165,000, and it is worth a great deal more now. But the two main buildings are very old—one built in the 1870s and the other in 1905—and the connecting breezeway, constructed to join the newer to the older building and make them into a hotel, is not long for this world. We have been working on renovating and expanding our facility, and after a long legal travail we have at last the go-ahead from the city. Or almost. All we need now is money.
And parking. One of the most potent mantras in America is “Ample free parking.” (If you are an American, close your eyes and say those words. Feel the power!)
Although we’ve increased the parking on our property, and there’s parking on the front and side streets, Janmashtami still presents a formidable challenge. We need volunteer parking attendants—ready to embrace immense austerity—to guide the cars onto the lot, fit them close together, direct them to form rows on the grass, and, most of all, to keep them from blocking others in. When there is no more room, the attendants must stop the cars at the entrance and direct them to the Valley Green Bank parking lot only a few hundred feet away. And then that fills up.
Cars come and go continuously, easing through narrow straits, from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m. May Krishna bestow his special blessings upon the attendants! They show that you can transcend this abject world of birth and death simply by parking cars.
And what about the cooks? And the pujaris! And the garland makers and decorators! And the cleaners! And the lawn mowers and hedge trimmers! As Sunday afternoon approached, I grew amazed at how much is getting done, and yet how much there always remains to do! Was there any end?
Then early on Sunday afternoon I became surprised by the numbers of visitors that began to arrive, and then simply kept on coming. The shoe racks flowed over, guests streamed steadily into the breezeway, and very soon the temple room was packed—yet more people always managed to get inside.
A little before seven o’clock I went into the backyard, dressed in shiny silk, to perform a fire sacrifice on the stage erected before the rear fence. The large yard looked like Philly’s 30th Street Station at rush hour. The chairs were all occupied, and a huge crowd milled behind them. After the sacrifice, long lines snaked through the yard as the first of the feast serve-outs began. The people in the lines moved steadily forward while the lines themselves kept on getting longer.
Our normal Sunday attendance of around two-hundred looked to be increase by a factor of ten.
It was becoming clear that this was the largest Janmashtami attendance we’d ever had. Finally, I had to stop worrying about parking, about bathrooms, about plates and cups, about shoe space and places to sit. Somehow Krishna was fitting everyone in, taking care of all of them. And so it is written in the Upanishads: The Lord is so complete, that even when he is utterly full, he can keep adding more and more . . . . On Janmashtami I saw it happening.
Afterwards, I had these reflections: It had surprised me when hardly anyone came to the temple on Saturday. Now I concluded that somehow or another, everyone got the word that the Philadelphia Hare Krishna temple was celebrating Janmashtami on Sunday.
On Janmashtami many Hindus—in India and now in America as well—are accustomed to pay their visit to several temples. That’s what must have happened in the Philadelphia area on Saturday. Had we observed our festival on that same day, we would have been one among many possible places to go. On Sunday, we were the only show in town.
That’s my theory.
• • •
On Monday morning we celebrated Vyasa Puja, observing the birthday of Srila Prabhupada. This is a sweet and intimate party, ending with Guru Puja and yet another feast. By noon a good crowd had gathered, maybe a hundred devotees—not bad at all for a Monday workday after a very late night blow-out. The real connoisseurs of devotion are sure to come for this celebration, because they know that Krishna enjoys the worship of his devotee even more than the worship of himself, and because for some time the word has been out that Prabhupada’s feast on Vyasa Puja is the very best of the year. And so it was.
I am resting today by writing these notes. They should have been posted by now. I had to interrupt my work this afternoon when fifty incoming divinity students from the Lutheran Theological Seminary, a little ways down the street, walked over to visit the temple. I welcomed them to “Colorful Mt. Airy,” the slogan of the area boosters. I said that we are a part of the local color. The students heard an introduction to bhakti-yoga, watched arati while we performed a little sankirtana, and then asked questions as they snacked on some burfi and sandesh.
During our first years in Mt. Airy, I frequented the library of the Lutheran Theological Seminary for research on my doctoral dissertation in religious studies. At that time, my head was unshaven and I dressed in mufti, yet the Lutherans discovered I was a devotee, and I learned that my presence was causing some consternation. Then one day I noticed by the circulation desk a long shelf of books on various sinister brainwashing cults—ISKCON prominent among them. The books were held on reserve for a course in pastoral care.
That was thirty years ago, and things have changed. Now every year the entering class of students is taken down the street to our temple for an introduction to Vaishnavism. We keep regular interactions. One professor from the seminary has joined our ten-year-long Vaishnava-Christian dialog held annually in Potomac, Maryland.
Gradually, we seem to be coming closer together. I recollected this history when, as the students were leaving the temple room this afternoon, one of the professors came up to talk with me some more. She was wearing an attractive silver and black sari.