Connecting Devotees Worldwide - In Service Of Srila Prabhupada
Summer 1973. It’s 8am, and already Washington, DC is bustling with activity, as everyone hurries to work. A group of ISKCON devotees also leave their temple, crossing Q Street and heading towards Connecticut Avenue, a heavily populated business district. But their job is different: as they walk, they sing kirtan, an ancient Vedic call-and-response style of chanting God’s Holy Names.
Suddenly, a young fellow appears out of nowhere, a flute tucked under his arm and long red hair streaming out behind him as he runs as fast as he can, trying to catch up with them. The devotees are surprised and delighted.
Then, just as he’s almost reached them, the young man loses one of his flip-flops (A backless sandal held to the foot by a thong between the big toe and the second toe). The devotees indicate to him that he should go back and get it, they’ll wait for him. But he refuses. There’s no way he’ll risk losing them or miss out on even a few seconds of kirtan. He joins the kirtan party, and that very day, he moves into the temple.
The young fellow’s name is Eddie—better known to ISKCON devotees all over the world as Aindra Dasa—and from that day on, he never stopped chanting Hare Krishna.
Discovering the Music of the Spiritual World
Growing up in Haymarket, Virginia in the 1950s and ‘60s, Eddie Striker was a jack-of-all trades artist from early on, painting, drawing, and doing his own embroidery. But it was music that was closest to his heart.
His was a musical family—his father gigged with bluegrass groups, his mother played the harp, and his brother was a bassist. Eddie, for his part, loved Jimi Hendrix and was partial to the electric guitar.
So when his family broke up in 1971, and he moved to Chevy Chase, Maryland, it was the guitar that he turned to, playing with a number of bands and beginning to make a name for himself.
“But he always had a spirit that was beyond the mundane life he was living back then,” says his brother, John. “It wasn’t long before he’d seen enough of the rockstar life and what it led to—Jimi Hendrix’s death was a particular blow to him—and he knew that there was a hole that needed to be filled by the spiritual, not the material.”
Discovering the very different music of the spiritual world, Eddie moved into the ISKCON temple in Washington, D.C. And soon after, in February 1974, on the auspicious day of Sri Sri Gaura Nitai’s installation and Lord Nityananda’s Appearance, he was initiated by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada and became Aindra Dasa.
Although his father was angry at this drastic change in his life, Aindra’s little brother was happy for him and excited that he had found his calling.
“I was only nine or ten, but when he visisted, he’d bring me Bhagavad-gita and other writings, and these beautiful posters,” says John. “My room had Krishna stuff all over it. Several times he brought his drum and cymbals, and we would play together and chant. He was already a spiritual leader even then, because he made me aware of other things beyond the agnostic way we were raised, and opened me up to my own spiritual path.”
Back at the temple, Aindra became known as a rather erudite preacher—he joined everyone else in book distribution on the streets, loved speaking to guests at the weekly Sunday Feast, and was always looking for a way to spread Krishna consciousness.
His unique mood and love for kirtan also emerged early on. “Our neighbours used to complain about our 4am Mangal Arati kirtan,” says Jagara Dasa, who also served at the D.C. temple in the 1970s. “But when Aindra led the chanting—which he often did—he had the necessary constraint to keep the kirtan where it needed to be so that the police who sat outside would not come in and give us a big fine.”
Inaugurating the 24-Hour Kirtan
Later, Aindra became a priest for Radha-Madhan Mohan and Gaura Nitai, and would play around with the harmonium in between services, soon working out his first melody: Bhaktivinode Thakura’s short song Jaya Radha Madhava.
He continued to practice, and his skill and love for kirtan grew. Moving to New York City, he converted a truck that would open out into an ornate golden temple. He acquired sound permits and would drive to different parts of the city where he would set up his truck and perform kirtan for eight hours a day. His
performances were impactful, inspiring several people to join ISKCON.
Eventually Aindra decided he would like to try organizing a kirtan program in India. Travelling to Lord Krishna’s birthplace of Vrindavana in 1986, he learned the story of the Krishna Balarama Mandir’s 24-Hour Kirtan program. It had first been introduced in 1975 by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada—but without proper management, it began to fade, and by 1978, a year after Prabhupada passed on, it had ground to a halt.
Aindra decided to dedicate himself to the project. He began to soak up the atmosphere of Vrindavana, connect with other kirtaniyas, and learn Indian classical music or ragas, teaching himself the traditional melodies by ear. And eight years after the 24-Hour Kirtan had faded away, he reconstituted it as its own department, organizing a core group of kirtan enthusiasts to ensure its continuance.
Krishna Balarama Mandir’s 24-Hour Kirtan has been running non-stop, 24-hours a day, 365 days a year, ever since.
Someone Who Truly Cares
There was no denying the program’s austerity, and so Aindra chose men for his team that, like him, would stick it out through all conditions.
The temple room lay next to an open courtyard, and the “kirtaniyas”—mostly celibate students known as brahmacharis—had to endure Vrindavana’s unforgiving climate: its sweltering summers, with temperatures rising as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit), and its cold winter nights.
As the Department’s sixteen men still do now, they slept on the floor or on basic bunks in the Vrindavana International School, in rooms with walls plasted with cow dung. They kept all their personal items on one shelf. In those days, they didn’t even have air conditioning. All they had was Lord Krishna’s name.
And kirtan was their life. Full-time members did (and still do) six hours of kirtan every day, as well as chanting Hare Krishna on their japa beads for two hours.
They would each take two of the 24-Hour Kirtan’s three-hour shifts, which start at 1am and run continuously. The kirtan even ran during temple services such as arati offerings and lectures, with kirtaniyas softly chanting “japa kirtan” on their prayer beads.
Madhava Dasa, a second-generation devotee who now travels the world both solo and with his Gaura Prema bhajan band doing kirtan, was amongst the Department’s earliest members, joining when he was only eighteen years old. “Aindra Prabhu was everything to me: a father, a mother, a guru,” he says. “And he taught me so many valuable lessons. When I first started, I had a lot of energy and ego and thought I was the best mridanga drum player. He would chastise me about it constantly, for literally two or three hours a day. I thought he was being too harsh on me, and finally said, ‘Aindra Prabhu, you find another mridanga player—I’ll play kartals.’
“But he replied, ‘No, I want you to play mridanga, and so do Radhe Shyam. I’m only doing this for your own good—if you listen to what I say, you’ll go far in your kirtans.’ I agreed to try and sacrifice my ego, and after that, kirtan with Aindra Prabhu became very sweet. Some people didn’t like Aindra because he was very heavy, but I appreciated his straightforwardness and honesty, and lack of superficiality. When he was heavy with me, I thought, ‘Wow, here’s someone who truly cares for me.’”
The Kirtan Revolution
Aindra and Madhava became a tight-knit team. “Those were the best years of my life, the most beautiful kirtans,” Madhava says. “They were all about the proper mood. I learned from Aindra that kirtan is not to impress anyone—it’s our way to express our heartfelt feelings for Radha and Krishna and Srila Prabhupada, and our gratefulness at being able to do kirtan and connect with our only shelter.”
Madhava believes that this approach to kirtan was what made the albums that followed so powerful. First came the double album Chintamani Nama Parts 1 and 2. Next, came the first “Vrindavana Mellows” album.
“With the very basic technology available in Vrindavana, and the frequent power cuts, others might have gone to record in a studio in Delhi,” says Madhava. “But Aindra wanted to record Vrindavana Mellows in Vrindavana. He said that every kirtan held in Vrindavana is a thousand times more powerful than kirtan held anywhere else, and he wanted to give Vrindavana to devotees around the world.”
It took six months to record Vrindavana Mellows Part 1, but when it finally came out in 1993, it took the devotee world by storm and created what Madhava calls “a kirtan revolution.”
“Those albums changed everything,” says Madhava’s friend and fellow second-gen devotee Gopala Dasa, who has been part of the 24-Hour Kirtan since 2000.
“Before them, the old-school, 1980s, one-two-three style of kirtan pervaded. Vrindavana Mellows introduced a more classical approach in line with basic Gaudiya Vaishnava standards—one with more different varieties of rhythms, karatala playing, and raga melodies.”
Vrindavana Mellows Parts two and three followed in ’94 and ’95 , inspiring many devotees to join the 24-Hour Kirtan in Vrindavana and to take kirtan more seriously than ever before.
Possibly the most enthusiastic recipients of this gift were ISKCON’s second generation, known as gurukulis.
“We grew up doing kirtan—it’s in our blood,” says Madhava. “And we found in Aindra a kindred spirit, someone who loved kirtan as much as we did. But we also found someone we could take shelter of, a father figure. We loved him. There was always a bunch of gurukulis surrounding him, playing mridanga and kartals and chanting. He changed our lives.”
This love was also reciprocated by Aindra. After four more albums—the spontaneously recorded live album Kirtan is Our Bhajan, 1996’s Prayers to the Dust of Vraja, and 1998’s Vraja Vilasa Parts 1 and 2—and seven years with the 24-Hour Kirtan, Madhava finally went to Aindra’s room to tell him he would be leaving to get married and start a family. “There were tears in his eyes,” Madhava recalls. “He said, ‘I trained you up, and now you’re leaving me.’ I told him, ‘Aindra Prabhu, you’ll find someone else.’ He said, ‘Yes, but I’ll never find someone like you.’ Then he told me to chant Hare Krishna wherever I went, even if I had to sing to the four walls. And, because many gurukulis love kirtan but don’t like to chant their japa (meditative chanting), he added, ‘Make sure you chant your sixteen rounds a day, otherwise your kirtan won’t have any power.’”
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