In Vancouver, Canada, a group of young professionals have established a unique and non-sectarian Krishna conscious outreach program, with no goal to convert visitors.
Instead, the focus is on finding out what needs people have, fulfilling those needs, and building caring relationships.
The group of ten first and second generation devotees behind Kirtan Vancouver includes a school teacher, a holistic nutritionist, one member who works in the financial sector, and another doing their Masters in counseling.
“We’re just a group of really close friends who all love kirtan, and want to share it with the Vancouver community,” says Anirudh Kansal, one of the founding members.
Kirtan Vancouver began in 2010 as a single event, an annual outdoor kirtan concert in Stanley Park with an organic bazaar and food distribution.
Ananda Tirtha Das leads the kirtan at a Enchant program
Its organizers, who also organized the Vancouver Rathayatra festival, had noticed that with Rathayatra’s overtly “Hare Krishna” presentation, they were isolating many people who had a preconceived negative notion of organized religion.
“At the same time, many of these people were interested in spirituality,” Anirudh says. “So we wanted to create an event where we could offer kirtan and prasadam in a very simple way without opening with ‘We’re Hare Krishnas,’ and thus reach a broader demographic.”
Simultaneously, other devotees in Vancouver independently embarked on their own projects with the same outreach style in mind – a bi-monthly yoga studio kirtan event called EnChant, and a prasadam distribution program at Simon Fraser University called Veggie Lunch.
Realizing their similar goals, they all joined forces so that they could share resources, and Kirtan Vancouver was born.
EnChant is Kirtan Vancouver’s “bread and butter,” a kirtan, short talk, and prasadam at a yoga studio every second Saturday that attracts an impressive fifty to seventy people of all ages each time – some from different yoga paths, but many completely new to Eastern spirituality. Once advertised through Facebook, meetup.com, and physical posters, EnChant is now the most well-known kirtan event in the city, and is spread just by positive word-of-mouth.
Absorbed in the Holy Name at one of Kirtan Vancouver’s bhakti immersion retreats
EnChant is also most people’s first experience of Kirtan Vancouver – and Anirudh says that over the past seven years, he and his friends have learned a lot about how to deliver something that will be well-received.
To be successful at outreach, he explains, you have to know the needs of your demographics. “We have a tendency to present things that we want to present, in the way that we want to present them. But how do you know whether a person is going to receive and understand what you’re giving, if you don’t know where they’re at?”
People attending Kirtan Vancouver programs, Anirudh explains, are looking to add something spiritual to their lives, but are coming from different perspectives: some are into yoga; some are interested in Eastern philosophy; some just want to improve mental health.
From the kirtan, most are looking to get absorbed in meditation and leave their worries aside for a couple of hours.
“So we pick mantras and tunes that are very easy to follow,” he says. “If the tune is too complicated we’re isolating them, but if they’re able to chant the mantra back, then they get into it and become very attracted to kirtan.”
Bhaktimarga Swami, ‘The Walking Monk,’ Speaks at a Kirtan Vancouver event
As far as food, Vancouver’s rapidly growing vegan movement has people very health conscious – so Kirtan Vancouver finds that if they distribute healthy, vegan prasadam, it’s better received.
From philosophy, meanwhile, people are looking to hear something positive and uplifting.
“Rather than finding fault, telling people about the regulative principles and what not to do, we present things to people that will help them improve their life,” Anirudh says.
To make everything more accessible and comfortable for people with preconceived ideas of organized religion, Kirtan Vancouver members wear street clothes rather than dhotis and saris. They avoid words like religion and God, using words like spirituality, love, and the divine instead.
“We also train ourselves to speak in a way that doesn’t include ISKCON jargon,” says Anirudh. “It’s very difficult, because we’ve all been conditioned to hearing the philosophy presented in a very niche kind of way, using all these words that are not really relatable to the general public. So we have to train ourselves to speak in a way that people can understand at least 90% of what we’re saying!”
Listening at a Winter EnChant event
Kirtan Vancouver members also regularly get feedback from their guests on what is palatable to them and what order to present Krishna conscious philosophy in.
“For instance as devotees, we tend to really push the idea of karma and reincarnation, feeling that it will attract a lot of people,” Anirudh says. “But in Vancouver at least, we discovered that many people consider things like reincarnation to be really weird. So if we talk about these things at the beginning, there’s a tendency to scare people away.”
Of course, such topics are an essential part of Vaishnava philosophy, and are introduced later, when trust has been built and people are more open.
For those naturally interested in learning more, there are home events such as “Meet a Monk,” in which a visiting devotee shares philosophy in a way that new people can relate to.
There are seminar series based on the Bhagavad-gita, wherein a specific topic is selected – such as destiny – and people come and explore it for four to five Mondays.
The kirtan gets lively
And there are Bhakti immersion retreats, in which people take a whole weekend out of their lives to spend more time with Kirtan Vancouver members in a beautiful rural location, going deeper into kirtan and the philosophy.
Kirtan Vancouver also holds regular kirtan concerts; and its Veggie Lunch program, run by Kala Rupini Dasi at Simon Fraser University three times a week, serves $6 unlimited vegan prasadam plates. This program is a big draw, because while kirtan is playing as they eat and Prabhupada’s books are available, no philosophy is pushed on anyone, and Kala Rupini’s motherly nature makes them feel loved and cared for.
This, according to Anirudh, is the essence of Kirtan Vancouver. “More than anything else, we invest our time in relationships,” he says. “People come because they like us as people, they feel a mutual bond as spiritual seekers, they enjoy what we’re doing, and they want to be with us more. So Kirtan Vancouver, which started out seven years ago as an event, is now a community.”
Because Kirtan Vancouver is based on relationships and is completely non-sectarian, with no pressure to join a different tradition, people from many different traditions feel comfortable participating.
“We have Kundalini practioners, followers of Amma, and people from the Shivananda ashram coming to our practice and saying they feel like it adds to their love for God,” says Anirudh. “And this isn’t just specific to Eastern traditions – we have Christians coming and saying the same thing.”
Today the Kirtan Vancouver community has swelled to over 1,000 people. And its non-sectarian approach has taken off around the world, with Kirtan London, Kirtan Moscow, Kirtan Johannesburg, Kirtan Brisbane and Kirtan Dubai all springing up in the past few years.
“I would love to see all temples globally have a branch of outreach where Krishna consciousness is being presented in a very safe and non-sectarian environment,” Anirudh says.
He beams. “I love being part of a community where people love and support each other, more than expecting anything from each other. And I love that it’s being done with spiritual practice as the central focus.”