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October 18, 2009

Gita Nagari Sri Radha Damodar

September 3 2009
Devotees from all over the country trickled into the temple room, one-by-one, to attend the japa retreat. Some were locals from Gita Nagari, some from D.C., others from Boston, Pennsylvania, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, and other various places, and even two devotees from Vrindavana Dham! Everyone was super excited—despite the exhaustion from the long hours of travel—to attend the retreat, to improve the quality of their japa, to be in the association of devotees, and to strengthen their relationship with Srila Romapada Swami Maharaja through the process of hearing.

The retreat began in the evening with a lecture given by Maharaja, which was entitled, “Welcoming, Entering the Mood of the Retreat.” In this lecture, Maharaja provided us with many points to help us enter the mood of receiving during the retreat. First of all, he said that Krishna is sending us an unending invitation to go back to the spiritual world and that we have accepted His invitation in the form of attending this japa retreat. During the retreat, he said, we would further develop our relationship with Krishna, particularly in the form of the holy name, and then the relationship would become more “warm, intense, and vibrant.” Maharaja explained that one of the elements for an effective japa retreat is taking a break from your everyday routine. By taking this short 4-5 day break, we were all able to simply focus on our relationship with Krishna and go deeper into that relationship.

In this lecture, Maharaja introduced the term “liminal space” which basically means a threshold. He applied this term to japa, explaining that by entering into this liminal space (the space between your side and Krishna’s) you can close the gap in your eternal relationship with Him. He also gave us a heads-up for the 64-round day: we will all observe mauna (silence) so that we can all be introspective in the serene Gita Nagari atmosphere. Part of an effective japa retreat is providing an opportunity for everyone’s spiritual well-being to grow in a safe, nurturing environment and we could only accomplish that through the observation of mauna in the natural setting of Gita Nagari. Something I particularly liked was when Maharaja said the temple room is a sacred space and because of that, we should not speak before Sri Sri Radha-Damodara. Along with this external sacred space, we have an internal space and by making this internal space sacred, our spiritual aspiration would become stronger and sharper.

After Maharaja finished his lecture, he invited Her Grace Prema-tarangini Mataji to lead an exercise related to our sankalpa (intention) of the retreat. She asked us to write down the answers to six questions:

1. Write down your sankalpa (intention) for the japa retreat.
2. Rate your japa on a scale from 1-10 (1 being dry, 10 being sweet).
3. What tools can you consistently apply in your japa?
4. What challenges do you face in japa?
5. What rating can you get your japa to if you give it your best?
6. What do you have to do in order to get your japa to your answer in question 5?

By engaging in this exercise, we were all able to introspect deeply—even on the first day! It called for a combination of thoughtfulness and self-honesty because without honestly answering these questions, we would not be able to improve the quality of our japa.

We ended the evening with light prasadam and ecstatic kirtan led by HG Govinda Prabhu, a kirtaniya who was trained by HG Aindra Prabhu and is part of the 24-hour kirtan group in Vrindavana Dham. Along with him was the super-excellent mrdanga player, HG Vrindavana Prabhu, who is also a kirtaniya in the Vrindavana Dham 24-hour kirtan group with HG Aindra Prabhu. The kirtan immediately transported the devotees to Vrindavana Dham, in front of Sri Sri Radha-Syamasundara, Krishna-Balarama, and Gaura-Nitai. Everyone was so blissful and happy to be in Gita Nagari amongst such wonderful devotees that they didn’t want to leave to take rest! But, exhaustion took over and led everyone straight to their rooms to gain energy for the rest of the retreat.

Friday, September 4:
Many devotees arose for the morning temple program, which started at 4:30 AM. Maharaja led the Guruv-astaka, which, as always, was very sweet to hear. After chanting japa and attending Guru Puja and greeting of the Deities, Maharaja gave his morning lecture, “Aligning the body, mind, and heart—part 1.” In his lecture, Maharaja said that real alignment is aligning our sadhana (practice) with our sadhya (goal). He also asked us to see sadhana as a practice or cultivation rather than as an event; it’s an ongoing process. Another point that really struck me was that chanting with the mood of “Krishna, please accept me” is begging Him to enter our heart, but before Krishna comes into our heart, we must first make it clean, just as you clean your home nicely before a guest comes. Towards the end of class, Maharaja said that chanting is not just all about feelings; from-the-heart really means that we have no other shelter than Krishna. This is the mood with which one should chant: feeling completely dependent upon Krishna and knowing that He is our only shelter. Answering a devotee's question, Maharaja replied that the heart refers to where our consciousness is; the heart refers to the seat of consciousness…it’s not circumstantial. After the lecture, we all went to honor breakfast prasadam and then had a little break with kirtan led by Govinda Prabhu.

Maharaja's second lecture on Friday was in continuation from his morning lecture on alignment. One of the first points he made was that inattentiveness is the root of all offenses while chanting, so if we just become attentive while chanting, we can avoid many offenses. Also, he mentioned that one of the blocks from achieving Krishna-trsna (thirst for Krishna) is asat-trsna (thirst for temporary, material things). Later, he gave us some factors for improving our japa:

1. time—when you chant (brahma-muhurta time).
2. pronunciation—one of the best ways to capture the mind when it is wandering is to pronounce all 32 syllables.
3. pace—chanting swiftly helps because it forces you to focus. You should chant at a pace that isn’t too slow, but not too fast where you cannot hear all 32 syllables.
4. posture—sitting straight leads to attentiveness; posture affects concentration.

Maharaja continued, saying that quality chanting results in quality hearing, reading, vaisnava (devotee) relationships, etc. During the lecture, he asked us to choose a partner who can listen to us chant and assess it—are we pronouncing all 32 syllables properly? Are we chanting at a reasonable pace? By doing this exercise, we were able to honestly express how our partner can improve their japa and, in return, we got feedback on how to improve the pronunciation and pace of our own japa. Another tip Maharaja gave us after completing the exercise is that it is best to chant aloud because you induce the mercy of the Lord and it also helps capture the mind. Something I was very inspired to apply was to take the mood of service we have and connect that with the service of chanting the holy name. Since some of us do not see chanting japa as a service, we can further understand it by connecting it with the mood of service we have experienced before. After the lecture, Prema-tarangini Mataji led another exercise by asking us to think and write down where our biggest gap/misalignment was so that we could work on that.

The devotees dispersed to honor lunch prasadam and later came back together for a lecture on faith and determination by His Grace Krishna Smarana Prabhu. After his lecture , we had another break with dinner prasadam and assembled again to hear the recitation of verses that glorify the holy name, which was a beautiful meditation for everyone. Following this, there was kirtan led by Krishna Smarana Prabhu, Govinda Prabhu, and Parama Rupa Prabhu, which was again very ecstatic! After kirtan, the devotees completed their services and took rest.

Saturday, September 5:
For the morning program, more devotees were present Saturday morning as compared to Friday morning, only because more devotees arrived on Friday. Again, after japa, we attended Guru Puja and greeting of the Deities, and then Maharaja gave a lecture on the “Foundational Principles for Japa—part 1.” A few points that he spoke about include: ignorance is the root of all suffering and chanting can get rid of it; your only eligibility to chant is being a spirit soul—anyone can chant; and that it is possible to direct the mind while chanting. He then invited Prema-tarangini Mataji to lead a very powerful exercise that he was going to save for the end of the retreat, but felt that it fit better at this time.

The exercise Prema-tarangini Mataji led started out with everyone closing their eyes, feeling the support of the ground, feeling the space around us, and feeling our heartbeat. Then, we were asked to picture our worshipable Deities and see Them in our heart. She said a few strong lines, such as, “Krishna is in your heart” and “Krishna knows everything.” We were then asked to invite our Deities to appear in front of us so that we can see Them standing before us. Once we did that, we were asked to begin chanting to our Deities while Prema-tarangini Mataji said short, powerful phrases, such as “Chant to your Deities; They’re listening to you chant” and “Krishna listens to you when you chant.” This struck a lot of devotees to see the relationship between Krishna and His Deity form—They are one and the same. Also, this helped many devotees understand that Krishna hears them when they chant, so they should pay more attention to the holy name while chanting, rather than being spaced out. This exercise helped reveal so much to some devotees that they were in tears the entire time—some tears of joy, some of regret, some of gratitude, and some of a combination of feelings. Overall, it was such an amazing experience that it was the only topic devotees could speak about during breakfast prasadam!

After breakfast, we had another little break and some kirtan with Govinda Prabhu and Vrindavana Prabhu. After kirtan, Krishna Smarana Prabhu gave a lecture on humility and immediately after, Maharaja entered to give the second part of the morning lecture. He told us that we can only claim one thing belongs to us and that one thing is our eternal relationship with Krishna. Maharaja defined surrender as “Krishna is mine and I am His” and said that there is a sense of surrender and shelter from chanting the holy name. He also said that we should chant because we want to get closer to Krishna and to gain purity, and not to chant to gain taste, because taste comes as a result of gaining purity.

Once the lecture was over, we went to honor lunch prasadam and had another break. After this, Krishna Smarana Prabhu gave a lecture on the relationship between chanting and devotee relationships. Dinner prasadam and a short break followed the lecture, and then we assembled in the temple room again to hear the second part of the verse recitation, continued from Friday evening. After the sweet verse recitation, we had yet another set of amazing kirtans with Krishna Smarana Prabhu, Govinda Prabhu, and Parama Rupa Prabhu. We all tried our best to take rest as early as possible since the following day was the long-awaited 64-round day!

Sunday, September 6:
Many devotees woke up earlier than the previous days, eager to begin chanting their 64 (or more) rounds! Devotees gathered in the temple room as early as 3:00 AM and began chanting. The morning program was the same—mangala arati at 4:30 and then japa, Guru Puja, and greeting of the Deities. Maharaja gave a lecture, entitled, “Awakening the Spiritual Heart—Illuminations on 64-round Day.” He gave us a lot of inspiration and strength to chant our 64 rounds. He mentioned that as you increase the desire to serve, your desire to please Krishna will also increase. Maharaja gave a beautiful example of baby birds and told us to chant like them: we should be completely dependent upon Krishna, just as baby birds are completely dependent upon their mother. Also, the birds have to put in effort in order to achieve their strong desire to eat—they need to stretch their necks and open their small beaks to eat. Similarly, in order to please Krishna and to connect to Him through our chanting, we need to put in effort and also depend upon Him at the same time. Maharaja also said that in order for taste to develop, we must have hope and then defined hope: shelter on one side and eagerness to attain it on the other side. Towards the end of the lecture, he told us that in order to chant in the receiving mood, we need to understand that we are not the doers, but that we are the receivers.

We all continued chanting throughout the day until we completed a minimum of 64 rounds of japa. Some devotees took a break to eat breakfast, but many skipped the meal to continue chanting. Even for lunch, some devotees just skipped over it just because they were so absorbed in chanting the holy name that they did not feel any hunger. The temple room truly felt like a sacred space—the moment you entered it, you could feel this strong, powerful energy which was filled with determination and focus on the holy name...it was something I have only experienced a couple of times before in a room full of devotees chanting during the Festival of the Holy Name. Some devotees took japa walks when they needed to and it was just such a perfect environment for a japa walk—a completely serene, natural setting with dirt pathways, grassy fields, shady trees, and a flowing river. As devotees completed their 64 rounds, they left the temple room to perform services or to take rest before the evening reflections. From the moment we woke up until the moment we completed our rounds, we all observed mauna (silence), as Maharaja instructed us to. Doing so helped focus the mind easier and it also helped all of us concentrate on the chanting of the holy name rather than on the usual distractions. Most of the devotees finished chanting by dinner time, if not long before. After honoring dinner prasadam, all the devotees gathered in the temple room for Prema-tarangini Mataji to lead a guided reflection of our 64-round day. Following this, we had our last amazing evening kirtan with Krishna Smarana Prabhu, Govinda Prabhu, and Parama Rupa Prabhu, and then took rest.

Monday, September 7:
Many devotees attended the morning program, as it was our final day of the retreat. For most of us, these four days flew by so fast that we just weren’t ready to head back home and go back into our daily routine again. Maharaja gave the morning lecture, which he called the “Wheelbarrow Session.” In his lecture, Maharaja reiterated the point that the place where you sit and chant your japa is a sacred space and should be very clean and should be treated with sanctity and respect. He also repeated the point that proper body posture while chanting helps the mind stay alert. We should keep the mind and body aligned so that we can take better shelter of Krishna. One short, but very powerful phrase Guru Maharaja said was, “Love begins with serving.” So, by serving Krishna through the service of chanting the holy name, love can develop, or rather, our dormant love for Him can reawaken. He concluded the lecture by saying that we should make our connection with the holy name so strong that all of our other services and duties will be enhanced and we can go forward on that strength. After finishing his lecture, he invited devotees to speak about their experience of chanting 64 rounds the previous day, which was very inspiring to hear.

After the lecture, we all honored breakfast prasadam and devotees who traveled from afar prepared to leave. It was very heart-rending to leave Gita Nagari Dham and the association of all of the wonderful vaishnavas, but all of us went home with our barrels full, hearts content, and memories to remember when we feel separation from the devotees. I cannot even begin to express how grateful I feel for being able to take part in this life-changing retreat. Srila Romapada Swami Maharaja has so many other services to take care of, but he is ready and willing to make huge sacrifices just to help us get closer to Krishna, one tiny step at a time. I would like to thank those who organized everything so nicely and made all arrangements for us to have an amazing and comfortable japa retreat so that we could just focus on the classes and our japa, rather than on our own comfort. Also, I believe that we all have so much gratitude in our hearts for Srila Romapada Swami Maharaja for arranging this retreat for us. Anyone who attended this retreat must have had a very powerful experience that makes them eager to return next year…I know I can’t wait! Also, I would like to thank all of the devotees who attended because by their determination to chant, I was carried through the 64-round day.

Thank you, Srila Romapada Swami Maharaja, for putting this together for us!