The six loving exchanges between devotees articulated in the nectarean words of Srila Rupa Gosvami do not discriminate by gender or relationships. Neither do the etiquettes of Vaishnava association further elucidated by Srila Prabhupada in the Nectar of Instruction. Advancement in Krishna Consciousness depends upon the attitude of the follower; that indeed begins with our attitude towards those who are closest to us.

Nestled amongst native wilderness, trees and a short walk from the Otaki River, the Riverslea retreat served as a contemporary banyan tree under which eager Vaishnava families took shelter to learn the essentials of Grhastha life. This is the second time that this charming country cottage served as the place of communion for a spiritual retreat attended by devotees from the Journey of Self Discovery group of ISKCON Wellington. Under the auspices of H.G. Ambarish Maharaj Das and H.G. Anang Manjari Devi Dasi, devotees spent an entire weekend in devotional activities such as morning programs, chanting, kirtan and discussion of spiritual topics. Priti-lakshanam would certainly be appropriate to describe this oasis of spiritual association in the midst of material life.

What began as a wet and cloudy Friday evening marked by long traffic jams quickly opened up into a pleasant, spiritually charged morning as devotees trickled in for Mangala Arati. After Tulsi Arati, the enchanting voice of Srila Prabhupada accompanied the devotees in the chanting of 16 rounds of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Devotees from all walks of life and age groups took part in the programs – from toddlers and teenagers to adults – all gracefully dressed in Vaishnava attire. While the parents and young adults attended the presentation and group activities, the children were engaged in storytelling, games, art and craft to teach them the values of patience and gratitude.

The interactive and enlightening presentations prepared by H.G. Ambarish Maharaj Das commenced with “Bridging the Gender Gap”, where devotees discussed the differences between genders and the aspects around leveraging them as assets in Grhastha life. This was followed by a group discussion on the consequences of family relationships for individuals, ISKCON and society as a whole. After a general overview of the four Varnas including the delights and sacrifices of each Ashram, the session delved deeper into the responsibilities and commitments involved in order to raise a Krishna-conscious family. Just as a tight-rope walker inches forward, eyes set on the destination while avoiding bewilderment by looking down, the ideal Grhastha shuns material conceptions and never loses sight of the ultimate goal of going back to Godhead. And the secret to fulfilling this journey is one key ingredient – balance.

Mid-day was marked by a delicious and sumptuous lunch prasadam planned and prepared under the culinary expertise of H.G. Anang Manjari Devi Dasi. This demanded a small trek down to the Otaki gorge where devotees, especially the children, relished the natural beauty around the river. The mid-day break was followed by a fun-filled afternoon dotted with yogasana and a spiritual version of dumb charades. Devotees expressed their creative and imaginative skills in trying to guess the words connected with Krishna katha and the teachings of Srila Prabhupada. What followed next was a little surprise for some.

Five couples were chosen to present mini-skits, demonstrating the core qualities of HEART (Humility, Empathy, Appreciation, Respect, and Tolerance) in a marriage. Portraying the daily life of Grhasthas, the couples demonstrated these five qualities of a happy married life, infusing their skits with humor and the realities of a material life. These sessions were wrapped up on Sunday afternoon with a farewell lunch.

Call it a celebration, rejuvenation or spiritual association, it was a marvelous display of team work as matajis, prabhujis and children seamlessly stepped in and out of the various services assigned to them to support this sprint of spiritual growth. As devotees drove back to their individual abodes filled with renewed vigor and many fond memories, it was a common consensus that this experience would have a lasting impact on the minds of all. Of course, the success of the program had a lot to do with the meticulous planning and preparation by the organizers, to make the entire event look magical and flawless. Nonetheless, it almost felt like an invisible master orchestrated the entire function, harmoniously synchronizing the various programs and activities.  Perhaps the invisible master was Lord Krishna Himself, always joyfully present in the hearts and minds of all Vaishnavas. All glories to the Vaishnava devotees. All glories to Sri Guru and Gauranga!

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