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Holi and the Mormon Spring Break

Submitted by on April 20, 2017 – 12:33 am12 Comments

By Spencer Dew, originally published at Religion Disptaches. The author was part of a group of scholars researching and conducting interviews at the Festival of Colors in 2015 through the University of California’s “Religions in Diaspora and Global Affairs” initiative, sponsored in part by the Henry R. Luce Foundation.

Despite explicit and emphatic reiteration of the metaphysics believed to be at play in the acts and the theology upon which such metaphysics are predicated, the Festival of Colors [at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah] remains a popular event for Mormons. How such distinctly non-Mormon religious practice can be understood as—and commodified as—wholesome entertainment with a dash of cultural education for Mormons makes the Festival of Colors a fascinating case for the study of religion.

Not only does the Festival of Colors illustrate the simplicity and thus limits of traditional categorical divides between, say, “commerce” and “ritual,” “religion” and “entertainment,” it also complicates conceptions of religious practice itself, particularly “proselytization.”

The Festival of Colors, to pass “the Mormon test,” relies both on a sense of Mormonism’s exclusive truth claims and a model of universalism in which all human cultures are worthy of appreciation—even as the “religions” associated with these cultures are understood as false. From the point of view of the organizers, the Festival is a success—it passes, one might say, the ISCKON test—due to a parallel model of ultimately exclusive universalism that actively rejects any recognition of its exclusivity, a set of truth claims about God and reality that are presumed to be factual and natural and at play regardless of belief.

Simply put, the organizers understand everyone at the Festival to be praising Krishna, while the majority of the Festival goers understand themselves to be at a fun dance party where they’re being exposed to elements of another (“Indian,” “Hindu,” “Eastern,” “Asian”) culture.

The organizers are utterly explicit about their mission. Das told the crowd in 2015 that they were at the Festival to “glorify and honor the Supreme Being,” and, switching to a more American vernacular, declared that the Festival was “a revival!” For him, Krishna is the universal deity, the Godhead’s most accurate and accessible form. All the scriptures of the world’s great religions contain truth, he says, but the superseding scripture is the Bhagavad Gita just as the superseding representation of God is as Krishna.

Krishna is “the same God as in the Old Testament,” Das preaches, but without the jealousy and wrath, without “the terrible swift sword.” As he puts it, Krishna is a God familiar already to Festival goes, but as Krishna “he’s in a much better mood.

Such theology—like the metaphysics of kirtan or teachings about the dangers of meat-eating and the true nature of the self—is, Das argues, not doctrine, not “religion” in the commonly used sense. As he compares himself to Mormon missionaries, he points to some parallel with Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, saying that he surely did not “come to start Mormonism” but “to break down the walls” of hypocrisy and exclusivity. “A lover of God is… inclusive,” Das insists, which is why Krishna descended, “to kill the hypocrites,” to liberate humanity from the strictures of religion and to raise consciousness to a higher level, such that those old strictures would become obsolete and extinct.

The truth offered by the Festival of Colors is a truth presented as fact, as natural, as always already the ways things are. You should accept it. Your life will be better if you do. But you are living it to some degree regardless. This is not a universalism that embraces all beliefs, but a universalism that—via an exclusive interpretation—coopts other beliefs under its name. And not a literal name, for Caru likewise eschews labels, dismissing both “ISKCON” and “Hinduism,” preferring to speak in the much broader register of “love,” albeit a love mediated by Krishna’s divinity.

And all those Mormon kids tossing colors into the air, practicing yoga postures, reciting mantras, getting their palms read, and perusing copies of the Bhagavad Gita for sale by robed mendicants?

For them—based on written reflections of past participants and an anecdotal sampling of attendees via interviews conducted at the 2015 Festival—this is a celebration of a very different universal God, a Christian deity in whose creation difference is ultimately a marker of sameness. Race, ethnicity, culture—these, within a Mormon perspective, are all aspects of humanity to be sampled and celebrated, but they are cosmetic—not cosmic—differences.

Chanting is no more metaphysical than cuisine, national costume, or language—all things the kids dancing on the lawn of the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple  will likely encounter first hand in the course of their global mission work.

To Mormon participants, then, the Festival is less “a revival” than “a rock concert with spiritual influences.” It is not understood to be “transformative” in the cosmic, metaphysical manner Das believes it to be, but merely in the social sense of bridging distance between cultures.

Religion isn’t being done because the “religious” elements here aren’t real, aren’t true—what’s happening, instead, is a demonstration of culture and, through that experience of difference, a celebration of a shared sense of universalism.

As one local college student put it, at the Festival of Colors, “everyone is just the same,”except, when it comes to understanding of what the Festival is, what it does, and what it means, this might not be precisely true.

This article was originally published at Religion Disptaches, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

12 Comments »

  • sastra-vani dasa

    I doubt what the organizers are trying to achieve by this festival.
    Spirituality is not about entertainment. The best spirituality the organizers can claim by this festival is of giving some ajnata-bhakti-sukrti to the participants by making them hear Krishna’s names (and giving prasadam if its part of the festival).
    Otherwise this festival seems to me a waste of so much effort, money, and time.

  • Brahma Das

    “One who chants the holy name of the Lord is immediately freed from the reactions of unlimited sins, even if he chants indirectly (to indicate something else), jokingly, for musical entertainment, or even neglectfully. This is accepted by all the learned scholars of the scriptures.” SB 6.2.14,

    • sastra-vani dasa

      Thanks for that quote, Brahma Prabhu.
      But that doesn’t mean that one should chant for musical entertainment, or other external purposes.
      That’s why I said that they get ajnata-bhakti-sukrti by such hearing or chanting, not uttama-bhakti of the Bhagavatam.

      And, freedom from sins which comes by such chanting is nothing compared to a desire for pure bhakti.

      Your servant,
      sastra-vani dasa.

  • Brahma Das

    I wouldn’t be so quick to downplay ‘ajnata-bhakti-sukrti’ because from what I understand that is where the path to uttama-bhakti begins.

    “This the grace of bhakti devi, who is very generous. She takes her seat in the heart of intermediate devotees, who in turn distribute her widely, avoiding only those who are envious. Such devotees create opportunities (sukriti) for people to come in touch with bhakti devi. As one takes advantage of these opportunities over time, both with and without knowledge, the cumulative result awakens faith in Krishna.” From Sanga–We are Students Forever.

    Distributing bhakti sukriti through entertainment (music-food-dance-drama) is a type of yukta-vairagya. Indeed Prabhupada encouraged such festivals and even put a theater in his Bombay complex for that purpose.

    As for being a waste of money and effort–Bhaktisiddhanta said that he would throw money into the Ganges if the act would bring people to Krsna.

    Otherwise, there is something to be said for good publicity and PR. The Krsna consciousness Movement in the west certainly needs it.

    • sastra-vani dasa

      Thank you for your comments, Brahma Prabhu.

      There is a difference between creating ajnata-sukrti and watering down the presentation of Krishna consciousness for that purpose to the extent that it doesn’t seem to be K.Con. any more.

      Distributing bhakti sukriti through entertainment (music-food-dance-drama) is a type of yukta-vairagya. Indeed Prabhupada encouraged such festivals and even put a theater in his Bombay complex for that purpose.

      There is a difference between chanting for musical entertainment and capturing people’s minds through musical devotional kirtans. They are two different things. The latter is desirable, the former is not. Although chanting for musical entertainment is mentioned in the Bhagavatam as a namabhasa (semblance of the holy name), its purpose in mentioning this is to differentiate it from suddha-nama (pure chanting of holy name). And although the pure chanting by the devotees may be listened by someone just for musical purposes, that creates an ajnata-bhakti-sukrti in the listener. It means that you don’t gather people to make them dance and entertain them with colors (relative to the article above), you gather people to make them hear and chant the holy names, and if someone in that audience just listens to it for musical purpose then its ok. I hope you get my point.
      And, the methods employed by Prabhupada like putting up a theatre were not for entertaining the people. They were for educating them in Krishna consciousness.

      “This the grace of bhakti devi, who is very generous. She takes her seat in the heart of intermediate devotees, who in turn distribute her widely, avoiding only those who are envious. Such devotees create opportunities (sukriti) for people to come in touch with bhakti devi. As one takes advantage of these opportunities over time, both with and without knowledge, the cumulative result awakens faith in Krishna.” From Sanga–We are Students Forever.

      It is not the mission of the intermediate devotee to create only ajnata-sukrti. His/her mission is to inspire others in Krishna-bhakti. In that process of preaching if someone is unknowingly touched by bhakti then that’s good also. It is not the focus of the intermediate devotee to create ajnata-sukrti in people by various methods.
      And, in this context, the focus of Prabhupada was not to distribute prasadam everywhere. His focus was to preach to people to awaken them to Krishna consciousness. Distributing prasadam was assisting this purpose.

      As for being a waste of money and effort–Bhaktisiddhanta said that he would throw money into the Ganges if the act would bring people to Krsna.

      This is the barometer: “if the act would bring people to Krsna.” If the people are attracted only to the music, dance, and food, and not to Krishna, then it is a failure. And, in order to bring the people to Krishna, the people should know to whom they are brought to. And this requires preaching and educating them. The music, dance, and food are to assist this main purpose.

      Thanks for this conversation, Brahma Prabhu. It forced me to think a little deeper.

      Your servant,
      sastra-vani dasa.

  • Brahma Das

    “There is a difference between creating ajnata-sukrti and watering down the presentation of Krishna consciousness for that purpose to the extent that it doesn’t seem to be K.Con. any more. “

    I haven’t been there but from what I’ve seen on the internet the festival looked Krishna conscious to me. It was held at the temple. Attendees had darshan of the deities. KC books were sold. Prasadam was distributed. Devotees were on stage leading the chanting. The crowd was chanting in return. Preaching-Displays–Chanting–Prasad-Good publicity–Good PR–happy people. Seems great to me. What more do you want?

    ‘There is a difference between chanting for musical entertainment and capturing people’s minds through musical devotional kirtans. They are two different things.’

    Not necessarily. People who come for music and fun might end up as devotees. It does happen. Actually most people who joined the movement in the west were initially attracted to KC for exterior reasons.

    ‘It means that you don’t gather people to make them dance and entertain them with colors (relative to the article above), you gather people to make them hear and chant the holy names, and if someone in that audience just listens to it for musical purpose then its ok. I hope you get my point. ‘

    Obviously the festival is held to introduce people to chanting and our philosophy, not
    just to have a party and throw around colors. I believe Caru dasa deserves a lot of credit. Some time in the early 80s he and his wife went to Utah alone–with no financial help from anyone in Iskcon–started a KC Radio show–and over time built a temple and a congregation. No small feat! Then he came up with this innovative idea to attract thousands of westerners to visit the temple and learn something of Krishna. No small feat again. This is what Prabhupada meant by “finding the ways and means to attract people to Krsna consciousness.”

    Obviously, for stated reasons (mass chanting-preaching-prasadam-book distribution–favorable publicity etc.etc.) I don’t agree with your opinion that this festival is “a waste of so much effort, money, and time.”

    Actually, if our sanga had the resources to put on a similar festival that would attract thousands of people to chant and hear about Krsna than I believe we could expect Swami to lead the preaching and Agnidev to lead the chanting.

    All the best, brahma

    • sastra-vani dasa

      I significantly differ from your views. I have mentioned my views in the previous comment, and I still hold them, unconvinced by your argument.

      Actually, if our sanga had the resources to put on a similar festival that would attract thousands of people to chant and hear about Krsna than I believe we could expect Swami to lead the preaching and Agnidev to lead the chanting.

      Of course Gurudeva would lead the preaching and Agnideva Prabhu would lead the chanting. But it would come out in a totally different way than this color festival kirtan. I am dead sure about it.

      Your servant,
      sastra-vani dasa.

  • Braja sundari

    Sastra vani, why do you think spirituality should be boring? 😉 I know many devotees who went to Woodstock festival or Indradyumna maharaja`s tour in Poland for musical entertaiment, then got association of devotees and joined. Some of them are even our Godsiblings. The cruel fact of this world is that most people DO NOT come because of philosophy, however good.

    • sastra-vani dasa

      Brajasundari, my point is simply that devotees should not put up musical or any other entertainment to attract people. By such entertaining shows you will only get materially motivated people, not sincere seekers or those who are in a teachable moment.
      I am not at all against musical kirtans, or big stage shows. (Indeed, you have seen me listening to classical musical bhajans some times). But devotees should put up these performances to showcase the teachings of Krishna consciousness, and not for merely gathering a lot of people on the grounds and making them feel good. If this purpose is not served then we have missed the point.
      Of course PR is also required for our movement, as Brahma Prabhu said. But better ways have to be found for that than such entertaining performances. Indeed, the “na janam”, “i don’t want public acceptance or following,” instruction of Caitanya Mahaprabhu also has to be considered by us.

      • Braja sundari

        I don`t understand where you got this idea from. Innovative preaching- this is what our particular parivara is known for. BSST was making diorama exhibitions for general public. How is it different from putting up a musical event nowadays? If people perming are devotees with idea of sharing Krishna with others, where is the fault? It doesn`t matter that Mormons think they worship Absolute from their point of view. I think it`s cool. They accept Krishna as manifestation of Absolute! We are not here to force anyone to follow our path. We try to charm them with the idea of God as Krishna and this charming may stay with them forever or just help them to attain their own goal. It is great that people go for fun to Krishna`s temple instead of bars and materialistic performances. It should be glorified.

  • Brahma Das

    ” devotees should not put up musical or any other entertainment to attract people. By such entertaining shows you will only get materially motivated people, not sincere seekers or those who are in a teachable moment.”

    The gita says that there are four types of pious people who surrender to Krsna– one of them is the materially motivated. Every conditioned soul is more or less materially motivated and here Prabhupada uses a touch of material motivation–the prospect of peaceful home, artistic sense, nutritious food, and musical entertainment, in his appeal to people to understand the importance of the Krsna conscious movement.

    “Convince responsible men of your country to understand the importance of this Krishna Consciousness Movement and how we are molding the character of younger generation by giving them peaceful home, philosophy of life, artistic sense, musical entertainment, nutritious foods: and above all these, we are giving them spiritual enlightenment.” Prabhupada letter 1969

    Srila Prabhupada sometimes referred to kirtana, drama, and prasadam distribution as our “transcendental entertainment program.” This means that any materially conditioned person who associates with devotees in any of these ‘transcendentally entertaining’ ways can by the grace of bhakti devi experience a Krsna conscious “teachable moment.”
    Why not?

    Must devotees wait until people are not being ‘entertained’ or in any other way ‘materially motivated’ before they try to teach them about Krsna?

  • Brahma Das

    “Of course Gurudeva would lead the preaching and Agnideva Prabhu would lead the chanting. But it would come out in a totally different way than this color festival kirtan. I am dead sure about it.”

    I agree with this statement in the sense that perhaps the Festival of Colors (good name) might in some ways be in need of adjustment. By one account there were 37,000 people in attendance and with so many people it must be hard to keep things from going ‘over the top.’

    But all considered, in that its part of an overall temple related preaching and public relations presentation, I think the festival is worthy of some appreciation and respect.
    Indeed, where else do you find 37,000 young Americans paying money to attend a drug and alcohol free Hare Krsna chanting festival?

    After all, Iskcon in America is now by and large an Indian-American organization. According to Vaish Prabhu his congregation in Silicon Valley is 98% Indian, and other
    Iskcon temples are similar. Yes, after the the Iskcon guru meltdown of the 80’s, when everyone left, Indian-Americans came in and financially saved the temples. For this they deserve credit. But still something has been lost that we should try to find again.

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