Kuli Mela: The Tipping Point

Darkness envelops the large field, save for a stream of light emanating from a stage at one end. The glow reveals hundreds of young people waiting eagerly for the next act to appear. When the band finally strides onto the stage, donning guitars and wielding drumsticks, the crowd erupts in an exultant roar, hands punching the sky.

Here is a generation of kids who love rock music. They gaze up at the rock stars in admiration, holding their lighters and glowsticks aloft during the gentle, melodious parts, then jumping, screaming, and moshing once the tempo picks up. But as soon as the singer belts out the lyrics, you know these kids are different. "Vande Krishna, Nanda Kumara, Nanda Kumara, Madana Gopala," they sing along in perfect unison, closing their eyes, calling out the prayer with feeling.

They are gurukulis.

Translated as "student in the family of the guru," gurukuli generally refers to students in a gurukula, a teacher's ashrama where traditional education is given. ISKCON ran several gurukula boarding schools for its children throughout the 1970s and 1980s, most notably in Dallas, Mayapur, and Vrindavana. Unfortunately, although many who attended hold good memories of friendship and spirituality, they also had to bear the brunt of much inexperience, fanaticism, and even abuse.

After the first gurukula alumni left these schools and went their separate ways, they began to search each other out and discovered strong bonds, both through their love of Krishna and understanding of Krishna consciousness, and through their shared experience of hardship. They began to hold reunions, and soon found a group dynamic, an international family they could rely on, people they could trust without ever having met them before.

In the 1990s, gurukulas began to decline. Most closed down and some turned into day schools as the social structure of ISKCON changed and devotees hastened to remedy the mistakes of the past. But the term gurukuli had caught on, and the new generation of Hare Krishna youth stepped into it comfortably, joining the family elder gurukulis had created.

The last power chords of the song fade away, and the crowd bursts into tumultuous applause. Now, in the new millennium, gurukulis from all generations have come together to see what they can do for their future.

Welcome to Kuli Mela.

A Mela Is Born

Every great idea has a birthplace. For this particular one, it was the 2004 gurukuli reunion in sunny Alachua, Florida. As usual, everyone was having a great time, swimming in the natural cold springs and partying late into the night. But one gurukuli, Baladeva Keilman, CEO of Commodore Gaming in Amsterdam, was looking for something more.

"I was thinking about how strange it was that people made such an effort to come to these reunions, flying across the country and even across the globe, with no real purpose but to hang out," Baladeva says.

An idea began to form in his mind. He called up his friend Kapila Monet, a business developer for a London publishing company. When he expressed his desire to provide a more vibrant, productive, and Krishna conscious alternative to reunions, it was as if he'd just flicked an electric switch.

"Yeah!" Kapila said. "We should have a huge festival with thousands of people, and an all-night Krishna conscious rave, and a helicopter showering lotus petals, and everyone drinking mango nectar! And I want there to be conferences, and seminars, and . . ."

"Whoa, whoa," Baladeva said, grinning on the other end of the line. "We'll see. Let's talk about it when I get back."

Whipping up a frenzy of preparation immediately upon Bala's return, the two talked about the project to virtually anybody who cared to listen, soon enlisting many other gurukulis. Govinda Gosh took on entertainment and food, Bhimasena Jones was key in operations and logistics, and Chaitanya Mangala posed the question "What are you going to do for our kids?" and then answered it by taking on the responsibility of a kids' camp himself.

The team bandied about different possible names for the event, such as Kulistock and Kapila's favorite, Kulipalooza, before the right one hit: Kuli Mela! Just as with the world-famous Kumbha Mela in India, they were holding a huge spiritual gathering of people from every corner - albeit, they hoped, with fewer loincloths and waterpots. What better name?

They drew up proposals, soon attracting the encouragement and financial support of heavyweights Gopala Bhatta Dasa, Ambarisha Dasa, Hari Krishna Dasa, and His Holiness Radhanatha Swami. Before long, they had raised $30,000, fulfilling their goal.

But things weren't all bright and breezy. They might have organizers and funding, but what was the point if no one turned up? They had hoped for an attendance of at least three hundred, with ambitious back-up plans for eight hundred. But to date, fewer than fifty people had registered on the website.

And there was only one month to go

A Snowballing Success

It's a warm blue summer's day in New Vrindavan, West Virginia. This reporter is at Kuli Mela to do a seminar on writing, and I'm now helping Kapila organize conference venues - or, more specifically, running back and forth manhandling flip-charts, tables, and plastic chairs - along with my namesake Madhava, a grinning Canadian gurukuli who I'm sure is at least eight feet tall. Gurukulis began arriving yesterday, June 14, 2006, and already it's as busy as an ants' nest.

"If anyone wants to organize an event like this, I'd give them one piece of encouragement," Kapila says, squinting in the sun. "These things snowball. We've already got 540 registrations, most of them in the last month. And I'm sure there'll be many more attending without registering. Govinda Gosh hasn't even registered yet - and he's one of our organizers!"

And that isn't the only thing snowballing. Before today, Kapila had no team for handling registration. But now, twelve gurukulis are sacrificing hours of their day for the job. Neither had he anyone for organizing conference venues, but now here we are, six dedicated workers and five helpers.

"Now that's what makes kulis different," Kapila tells me, pointing out the right room to a helper swaying under a colossal Leaning Tower of Chairs. "The ability to actually step up and say, 'I know what service is.'"

He's right. Over the next few days, an incredible two hundred people volunteer in different ways throughout the festival. Altogether, over seven hundred attend, each offering service in their own way, even if it's just taking part, expressing themselves, and giving energy to one another.

And what energy! Every evening, kulis applaud, cheer, and dance to their heart's content as a vast storehouse of artistic talent is mined to provide fifteen hours of drama, dance, stand-up comedy, a fashion show, and a host of varied musical artists.

Yet entertainment is just the beginning. True to the statement on their website, Kuli Mela is intent on "Exploring who we are and what we can accomplish materially and spiritually." Shifting the balance of gurukuli gatherings from hanging out to networking, connecting, being genuinely productive, and defining our material and spiritual futures, it offers a vast variety of ways to achieve these. Over four days, there are no fewer than sixty seminars, conferences, forums, and workshops, covering four main areas: business and career, arts and entertainment, community and spiritual development, and health and medicine. Truly caring for the future, there's even a kids' camp for the children of gurukulis, with storytelling, group games, arts and crafts, gardening, cow protection, and singing.

Gurukuli veteran Gauravani Buchwald is excited: "When we, the first generation of gurukulis, see an event like this, we know all that hardship and sacrifice we went through was for something, was worth something. This new generation of gurukulis has something we didn't have: a culture of people who are loved and cared for, and supported, and raised with heart. And we can help create that."

ISKCON guru and leader Radhanatha Swami is so inspired that he extends an open invitation: "There will be a Hare Krishna explosion in America if your generation just takes the baton. Don't wait for us to give it to you. Take risks and do it. And you will definitely be divinely empowered with great success."

But when I ask Kapila how he manages to cope with such stress and organize such a huge event, he replies simply, "There's a certain point when you realize that you can only do as much as you can, and leave the result to Krishna."

The Vision Behind the Mission

Kuli Mela had originally been planned as a one-time event because, as Kapila says, "Those have a much stronger dictate to attendance." But by 2007 the Kuli Mela spirit had spread, the psychology of what it means to be a gurukuli was beginning to evolve, and similar events were being organized in Los Angeles, Alachua, and as far afield as Radhadesh (Belgium) and Moscow. Kapila's idea of "The Tipping Point," lifted from a book of the same name, which discusses how the minds of millions of people can be changed with a single small concept that's sold well, was beginning to work. So this February, I met with Kapila, Baladeva, and Alachua organizer Govinda Syer to find out what, exactly, this concept was.

"I feel that gurukulis have a purpose, and I'm trying to find ways in which we can develop that," Bala says. "Kuli Mela was about coming together as a community, making us feel part of a common goal or purpose, and giving us a strong sense of identity. But it was also about finding out how the upbringing and knowledge we share can help us to become successful and happy people, how it can help us in our daily lives."

For most gurukulis, of course, daily life is, or will be, trying to be productive so that they can support themselves and their families. So how will Krishna consciousness fit into all of this?

"Chanting Hare Krishna really helps me to remember what's most important in life, and keeps my mind clear and more focused," says Bala. "It also helps me to remain detached in the cut-throat world of business. Things are always so up and down, but I know that whether I have success or failure, I'm not the one in control."

At the end of a particularly tough day at the office, Bala can sit down in front of his Gaura-Nitai deities and contemplate.

"I just look at them, and see that they're still smiling, and I think, ‘I know you're looking out for me somewhere in all of this. And all I can do is accept that, knowing that it's all part of Your plan for me, and there will always be something, some lesson, to be learned.'"

Govinda Syer, an avid businessman since the age of sixteen, also chants and prays to Krishna every day before he goes to work.

"I want bhakti to be part of my life in all areas, even business," he says. "I think that whatever we do, if we do it to serve Krishna, that makes it a good cause. So my overall objectives with my business are to create a place for devotees to work, to give myself the financial resources to do the spiritual projects I want to do, and to give my part to financial stability in the devotee community."

Financial stability is very important to this generation of devotees, determined as they are to "invite Lakshmi into our community in a functional way."

"Money is a tool we need to use, not reject. I feel that as a society, ISKCON has become too reliant on donations from stakeholders who are only loosely associated with the movement itself, and that can be quite fickle," Kapila says. "Whereas if we actually create a society of stakeholders within the movement, who are following through on their paths, ambitions, and determinations, and really seeing their own person flourish in a material sense, then they'll feel inspired to offer the results to the benefit of the movement as a whole."

As Bala points out, the parents of gurukulis left everything to give their lives to the movement, and this was a necessary move for Krishna consciousness to spread as much as it did. But now it's our responsibility to maintain what we have and begin a true varnashrama society with a perfect material and spiritual balance - this, as far as the organizers are concerned, is the essence of Kuli Mela, and of the future.

"If we imbibe that balance and pass it on to our children," says Bala, "then they'll be in the perfect situation, with Krishna conscious philosophy and the temple on one side, and a stable family environment on the other, one not disassociated from the outside world. They can then have the perfect balanced start in which to grow up and be well educated and live very successful lives."

This vision is also, ultimately, Kuli Mela's method of spreading Krishna consciousness.

"ISKCON and the Hare Krishnas are no longer novel," Bala says. "People have a stagnant misconception of who we really are. It's as if we've reached a certain plateau in how we're able to preach and infiltrate society."

And then his eyes light up.

"But we can change that. When people start meeting devotees who are successful artists and musicians, business people in the top layers of big companies, even presidents of countries, and see that they believe in Vedic knowledge and practice Vaishnavism, they'll start to ask, ‘What's this stuff about? How does it help?'"

"We're more intermingled in the world, and that leaves us no boundaries," says Govinda Syer. "And we have this knowledge. So let's give it out to everyone."

Boundaries begin to disappear this summer, as gurukulis all over the world take up the Kuli Mela mantle in their local area. The Los Angeles gurukuli reunion will be developed to include more networking, a stronger agenda, entertainment, and a more exciting location. Russia will kick off international action with a Moscow Kuli Mela this June. And Alachua, Florida, will have a five-day event with all the features of the original Kuli Mela, highlighted by a focus on the local community.

"We don't want it to be just like, ‘Oh, that was a fun event,'" says organizer Govinda Syer. "The idea is that there's actual serious action that continues on. So the event will give birth to spiritual study groups, temple participation, mentoring programs, after-hour education, business networking, and much more."

Meanwhile, European Baladeva Keilman is planning a Kuli Mela in Radhadesh, Belgium, for 2008, with an estimated attendance of four hundred.

"Europe is very disjointed because of community, culture, and language barriers," he says. "I want to have a festival that combines all the different nationalities and groups and draws all the estranged gurukulis back together."

In the end, his dream is to have every gurukuli who ever was attend at least one Kuli Mela event.

"Together," he says, "We can change the world."

Nodding in agreement, Kapila throws in his final two cents, hinting mysteriously, "Look out for a mega Kuli Mela one of these days."

I'll see you all there. Keep an eye out for Kapila - he'll be the one flying a helicopter over the four-thousand-strong crowd, showering them with lotus petals and pouring mango nectar into their open mouths.