This was the first Vyasa Puja celebration held in Chicago for His Holiness Romapada Swami Maharaja! The local devotees were all very excited to be able to host this most auspicious event, and to have many opportunities to serve the devotees. The mood of Vyasa Puja this year was very sweet and loving, and all of the devotees seemed to be extremely happy and blissful by the end of the weekend.
A large number of devotees had returned from the South India Yatra scant days before, and were trying to overcome their jet lag to participate in the Vyasa Puja celebrations with full eagerness and attention. In fact, most of them had less than a week to get over the exhaustion from constant travel, sickness, and jet lag.
The preparations began Friday, January 21st in the Kishore Kishori temple. Wherever one went, one would only see devotees happily engaged in service. A number of devotees were in the kitchen chopping, peeling, and grating vegetables for the huge feast on Saturday. Others were baking hundreds of cookies for Maharaja to pass out the next day. One devotee was baking and icing the rich, grand carob cake for Maharaja to cut the following day. In the temple room, a couple of Vaishnavis (female devotees) were stringing garlands for Maharaja and his godbrothers. In the basement, outside of the kitchen, was a private corner for the numerous, elegant flower arrangements to be designed. Right next to this abundant flower corner was a table on which the maha garlands for Srila Prabhupada and Maharaja were gardenias, roses, and carnations galore!
In the upstairs prasadam hall, a couple of devotees worked on creating the beautiful canopy setting under which Maharaja and his godbrothers would eat lunch on Saturday. The walls were decorated with stick-on embellishments, which were simple yet beautiful. The canopy was elegantly draped in blue and purple fabrics and the background incorporated peach and white into the color scheme. The table was covered with a navy blue cloth, and four places were set, finished off with a dainty vase as a centerpiece. Everything was coming together so wonderfully and seemingly effortlessly! Krishna really provided the strength and intelligence to complete so much efficiently.
That evening, Maharaja gave a beautiful lecture for the devotees present. He basically gave a summary of a couple of lectures he gave during the South India Yatra. Although many of us had already heard those pastimes not too long before, we still relished his amazing descriptions of the pastimes and the application points he incorporated. It is apparent that Maharaja puts his entire heart into his lectures, helping us get a taste for hearing and to strengthen our personal, individual, and unique relationships with him. After the lecture, Maharaja went straight up to his room while the rest of us dispersed to finish our services or to take dinner prasadam. By the time most of us completed our services, it was past 9 pm. The devotees baking cookies must have been in the kitchen until at least 11, if not later! We went back to our homes, hotels, or ashrams and tried to fight our excitement to get some rest.
On Saturday morning, the temple room was buzzing with devotees setting some devotees stringing garlands for Srila Prabhupada's Vyasasana (seat); some others setting up the abhishek (paraphernalia for worship) table; some doing wonderful kirtan; some setting up Maharaja's stage and Vyasasana; and others chanting japa or meditating on the beautiful Deities. To the outsider, this may have looked chaotic; however, to the devotees, it looked so happy, inviting, joyful, and blissful! Everyone was engaged in serving their beloved spiritual master in one way or another.
Once we were basically set up, we all took our seats, joined in the kirtan, and eagerly waited for Maharaja to walk in. One devotee sprinkled rose petals to form a path from Maharaja's room, down the stairs, into the lobby, and through the temple room, leading to his Vyasasana. It looked so royal and beautiful, and reminded us that a great personality—a pure devotee of the Lord—was going to walk before us. We were all there to celebrate the auspicious Vyasa Puja of our beloved spiritual master!
His Holiness glided in with such ease and elegance. He was offered a garland, then performed arati and abhishek to Srila Prabhupada, and sat on his Vyasasana.
One of his disciples, Nitai Prabhu, a local Chicago devotee, was the Master of Ceremonies (MC) for the day. He welcomed us and then requested Maharaja to give his Vyasa Puja Address. Maharaja emphasized the importance of hearing attentively, and becoming attached to the vani (vibrational) association of the spiritual master.
Maharaja was later presented his hardbound copy of the Vyasa Puja book. He was requested to read his offering to Srila Prabhupada. Following this, his godbrothers spoke in glorification of Maharaja, also emphasizing the importance of hearing from our spiritual master. Apart from having two of Maharaja's godbrothers personally present, we even had a few call-in appreciations from some other godbrothers and senior devotees. This was the first time that we have had call-in offerings for Maharaja, so it was a very special experience to hear senior devotees glorify Maharaja so sweetly.
The MC first asked for the meaning of Vyasa Puja essay to be read, and then invited Maharaja’s disciples to read their offerings. One by one, several devotees read their heartfelt offerings to Maharaja. Following the offerings, we offered pushpanjali (offering of flowers) and arati, along with four more garlands. Maharaja then began distributing the cookies that were baked the previous night, while the devotees offered their gifts to him in exchange.
After everyone offered their gift and received a cookie, the kirtan continued for a little while and everyone went upstairs for lunch prasadam. During the huge feast, some SoulConnection devotees performed kirtan for the pleasure of Guru, Krishna, and all the devotees present. Maharaja cut his cake and personally served it to the children. He then cut a slice for himself from a different cake and sat down to join his godbrothers again.
In the evening, he gave a lecture on Srimad Bhagavatam 2.9.4, answered several questions, and then we dispersed to have dinner prasadam. However, so many of us were still full from the wonderful feast we had for lunch, that we just skipped dinner and headed back to our homes or hotels.
Sunday morning was a big day for six devotees: they were getting initiated! Three of the devotees were part of the Chicago community, so it was very special for all of them to take their initiation vows in front of their beloved Kishore Kishori.
After the initiation ceremony, we had breakfast, and then our favorite part of Vyasa Puja began: the disciples’ meeting! Maharaja decided to have an open Q&A session before he opened his gifts, so it gave many devotees an opportunity to ask their questions. After the Q&A session, Maharaja opened his gifts and, as always, made funny comments and laughed a lot. It was such a sweet experience watching him open his gifts and appreciate the devotees’ efforts. He then passed out more cookies and sweets to all the devotees present, and then we had lunch. Most of the out-of-town devotees now had to leave, so the temple slowly emptied out, leaving a feeling of emptiness in our hearts. Maharaja stayed for the Sunday Feast program and gave the lecture that evening on Chapter 4 of Bhagavad-Gita, which concluded the most amazing Vyasa Puja weekend in Chicago!