By Krishna-kripa Dasa
In post-apartheid South Africa, Krishna’s devotees are building a platform on which to fulfill the dream of racial harmony.
In my travels I try to maintain and expand ISKCON programs of public congregational chanting of God’s holy names. Knowing of my fondness for public chanting, Kadamba Kanana Swami, who teaches Krishna consciousness in various parts of the world, including South Africa, invited me to Pretoria, where devotees take to the streets three times a week.
South Africa has a history of racial strife and oppression, and soon after my flight lands in South Africa, I learn that despite high hopes, the brotherhood for which the post-apartheid leaders of the Rainbow Nation aspired is not coming to fruition. For example, David Smith wrote in the online London Guardian, December 10, 2009, “In 2006, 61% of South Africans agreed that ‘the relationship between the various races’ was improving, but this had fallen to 49% by this year.”
Why the Difficulty?
We learn from Bhagavad-gita (18.21) that human beings tend to discriminate on the basis of the race and other external considerations while the wise recognize that within, all souls are equal (Bg. 18.20). Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.17-19) explains that activities of devotion to the Supreme Lord, Krishna, elevate people to the higher realization. Thus, devotees of the Lord can help people come to the spiritual platform of unity by engaging them in acts of devotion (Bg. 14.26).
Mahaprabhu Dasa, a peaceful, gracious soul who cares for others, is one person trying to unite people spiritually. Always a seeker, he experimented with many religions before coming to Krishna consciousness. In the mid-1980s, he read Srila Prabhupada’s Science of Self-Realization and Bhagavad-gita As It Is. These books answered all his questions about the purpose of life. While attending the Sunday program at the Hare Krishna farm near Muldersdrift, South Africa, he saw a devotee cooking kitri (a mixture of rice, lentils, and vegetables) in an enormous pot. She said that the mass distribution of spiritual food was part of Hare Krishna practice. He loved the idea, moved onto the farm, and soon took over its Food For Life program in Johannesburg. At its height, the program delivered meals of Krishna prasadam to five thousand school children at twelve schools during the day, and then to local children in the evening. Now Mahaprabhu is focusing on his home neighborhood in Soweto, where he distributes food to public schools and conducts a Sunday Feast program in the temple of his home.
Soweto, the black township of almost two million on the southern side of Johannesburg, was once the main stage for tragedy. In 1976, a demonstration of ten thousand high-school students was met with government bullets, pushing the oppressed African population to the limit. The Hector Pieterson Museum, dedicated to a thirteen-year-old victim, stands to testify. Now the home of Nelson Mandela, Soweto promises to play a role in a spiritual revolution, just as it did in the revolution against apartheid.
Mahaprabhu explains: “What’s the use of gaining a reputation for distributing food on the other side of the Johannesburg when the people in your own neighborhood do not know who you are?”
But although Mahaprabhu wanted to share the blessing of Krishna devotion with his Soweto neighbors, they were at first suspicious of devotees. Prasadam distribution helped overcome the suspicion in two ways. First, because feeding others is universally appreciated as good work, the Sowetans assumed that the devotees must be good people. And second, the devotional act of eating prasadam elevated their consciousness. Krishna explains in Bhagavad-gita (3.13) that a person who eats food first offered to Him is purified of sins. Furthermore, a person freed from sinful reactions can serve Him with determination (Bg. 7.28).
“When I see how happy the children are to get the kitri,” Mahaprabhu says, “I am very satisfied.”
But Mahaprabhu is not just feeding bodies; he’s nourishing souls. He had been living away from Soweto but returned there in 1997 and started weekly programs on Krishna consciousness in his home. At least ten residents have become initiated Hare Krishna devotees, some now serving in leadership roles at ISKCON centers.
Srila Prabhupada wanted to give Krishna consciousness to the native black South Africans, who make up the vast majority (79%) of the population and often live in urban townships like Soweto. At present, 90% of the ISKCON congregation in South Africa is of Indian descent, although Indians make up only 2% of the population. Many Indians have a natural attraction to Lord Krishna and Vedic knowledge, an inclination to help the Lord’s devotees, and because of their piety and hard work, wealth to contribute. Thus from the beginning through the present, the Indian community in South Africa has greatly assisted ISKCON. In particular, they helped build and staff three temples. The principal one, in Chatsworth, near Durban, is famous all over South Africa. Architecturally striking from the outside, it is ornately decorated inside with depictions of the Lord’s pastimes. Another large temple is in nearby Phoenix, and the third is in Lenasia, near Johannesburg.
Indian students contribute to outreach by running most of the campus programs of the Bhakti Yoga Society, which brings the most new devotees, from all cultural backgrounds.
Rathayatra in Durban and Soweto
The Durban Rathayatra festival, some attendees say, is the most impressive outside India. It goes on for four days, with a variety of cultural programs and often a dozen ISKCON sannyasis providing spiritual inspiration. Last year, Mahaprabhu Dasa enlivened his Soweto neighborhood with a Rathayatra. After the chariot parade, a stage show provided Krishna conscious entertainment all day. Many Sowetans took part, and the dancing was so lively that the stage gave way near the end of the show.
Mahaprabhu hopes to expand the Rathayatra by involving local youth groups. He wants to create an uplifting community festival that everyone will feel a part of and not see as just “a Hare Krishna thing.”
“But it will remain a pure festival,” Mahaprabhu says, “without the degraded activities that proliferate in most public festivals.”
He hopes for a longer parade route to increase participation.
Mahaprabhu’s Soweto temple inspired Vraja Vallabha Dasa, an outgoing man in his mid-twenties and the temple president in Pretoria, to develop a commitment to spiritual life when he was a teenager. Madhavi, his wife, also attended the Soweto temple as a high-school student, attracted by the singing and Mahaprabhu’s lectures in the local language.
“How will Krishna conscious expand in South Africa?” I asked Vraja Vallabha.
“When the present African devotees take Krishna consciousness very seriously,” he replied, “then other Africans will take it seriously. That is how we became serious-by the example of other serious devotees.”
Enthusiasm for Congregational Chanting
What do the present native South African devotees take seriously? The dharma of the age: harinama sankirtana, the congregational chanting of the holy name.
Bhakti Narasimha Swami, ISKCON’s first South African sannyasi, says, “I think the Pretoria temple is the best in South Africa. Not the biggest, but the best. Nowhere will you find such a group of enthusiastic young brahmacharis.”
Their beautiful singing, their rhythmic drumming, and their dancing with leaps and twirls grace every temple kirtana and street-chanting session. As the joyous chanting party of smiling devotees makes its way through the crowded sidewalks of the capital city’s downtown, locals dance to the music-in the street, at fast-food counters, or while cutting a customer’s hair.
Witnessing the sankirtana one Sunday at the Pretoria temple, I saw another clue to a truly unified Rainbow Nation. In the morning, the scripture-study teacher Nrisimhananda Dasa, of Gujarati descent, led a quick-tempo kirtana with lots of dancing and running back and forth. Everyone took part. Later, at the Sunday Feast, former temple president Arjuna Dasa, of Afrikaans ancestry, led sweet bhajanas as the native Africans played drums. Finally, the local native African young men, including Vraja Vallabha, led an incredibly lively kirtana with all kinds of dancing back and forth and jumping up and down. Everyone was smiling in spiritual happiness. Whatever the cultural background of the leaders or the responders, the spiritual sound went straight to the soul, fueling its fire of love for God. I was reminded of Srila Prabhupada’s statement that talks of brotherhood will be ineffectual until we know God as our divine father. Through Krishna sankirtana we can discover brotherhood as we connect with the Lord by singing and dancing for Him together.
Books for Students
The South African devotees also take seriously distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books. Parthasarati Dasa, a former American soldier who taught Bhagavad-gita to soldiers in his unit in Iraq, trained an army of book distributors in Pretoria. He took the young men to a nearby university, and in two months, they increased from two hundred to eight hundred books a month. The book distributors know that if the students and professors can understand the philosophy in Prabhupada’s books, they will realize their identity beyond the body and come to the spiritual platform of unity.
Karate and Rap
Intriguing for me were novel ideas to connect people with Krishna through their interests in karate and rap. Prema Vikasha Dasa, an easy-going, friendly devotee with a fascination for martial arts, had friends who insisted he teach karate.
Reluctant to teach a mere material skill, he told them, “Okay, I’ll teach you karate, but I’ll do it in my own way-with God included. Otherwise it has no meaning.”
They agreed. Thus in his home township of Hammerskraal he conducts three karate classes attended by about twenty people altogether. The classes include a brief discourse on Bhagavad-gita philosophy, devotional chanting of Hare Krishna, an hour of karate practice, and more chanting, with music. Now about fourteen students have japa meditation beads, and four chant sixteen “rounds” on the beads, as initiated ISKCON members do. Three also attend a weekly scripture class. Some fearlessly chant japa during school lunch breaks. Sometimes Prema’s students organize their own street-chanting groups. In another village, his friend Jagat Guru Dasa runs a devotional karate school with five students.
Prema Vikasha and Bhakta Lyrix have another skill to offer to Krishna: rap music, which is especially popular in South Africa. They write spiritual lyrics for their band, Golden Age, and perform around town. One radio station plays their CDs. They performed at the Soweto Rathayatra. To soothing background music, they attracted people’s hearts as they rapped and added gestures, dance steps, and various facial expressions. As the lyrics “It’s my time to worship, worship, worship, it’s my time to praise” played in the background, many in the audience moved their arms from side to side above their heads, smiling and singing along.
To make Krishna consciousness more widely available, Prema Vikasha and other devotees plan to start small centers in several of their home townships. To prepare for running these centers and others, some devotees are studying Vaishnava philosophy and culture at ISKCON education centers in Mayapur, West Bengal, and Radhadesh, Belgium.
Reason for Optimism
Originally from the Netherlands, Kadamba Kanana Swami has been traveling to South Africa since apartheid ended in 1994. He overseas all the programs for presenting Krishna consciousness to black South Africans, including several that he has created. He is closely involved with the Pretoria temple, ISKCON’s first South African temple under African management, as well as smaller centers in Mafikeng, Hammerskraal (Pretoria), and Mlazi (Durban). Some of his African disciples serve in leadership roles. He is optimistic about the future.
“South Africa changed a lot in 1994,” he says, “and it is still changing, and changing rapidly. I think that Krishna consciousness will explode among the native Africans when we find the right way to present it to them. It expanded dramatically in the former Soviet Union when Communism ended there, and the very same thing could happen in South Africa among the African people.”
I saw a lot of devotion, sincerity, innovation, and youthful enthusiasm among the native South African devotees in their outreach programs, and I look forward to seeing Kadamba Kanana Swami’s prediction come to pass. When people take seriously the philosophy of Lord Krishna, when they eat food offered to Krishna, and when they chant Hare Krishna together, they will come to the spiritual platform. Then the dream of a Rainbow Nation will be realized, its members from different cultures working together with a unified purpose.