PORT ROYAL - Echoes of a song hum softly from a farm kitchen in Spruce Hill as a group of women prepare lunch for their families and visitors.
As they chop tomatoes or roll dough, some sing quietly to themselves as a way of devoting their daily task to God.
Worship is an active experience that involves more than just meditating at Gita Nagari Farm in Spruce Hill, explained Parijata Devi Dasi, who, with her husband, Dhruva Das, helps to run the project.
A priest at Gita Nagari Farm in Spruce Hill participates in a worship service at the farm’s temple Monday. The farm will host a public festival July 30.
Photos submitted by ORTRUN GATES and PARIJATA DEVI DASI
A washed chariot stands in preparation for the ISKCON festival Ratha Yatra, which will be held on July 30 in Spruce Hill, near Port Royal. The Hare Krishna community that organizes the festival welcomes the community to attend.
Raksha Authar, from South Africa, prepares lunch Monday at the Gita Nagari Farm in Spruce Hill.
Photo submitted by ORTRUN GATES
A chariot holding deities Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Krishna, and his brother Baladev and sister Subhadra is pulled through the fields of a farm in Spruce Hill during Ratha Yatra, or the Festival of Chariots, in July 2010.
Affiliated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, also known as Hare Krishna, the farm community is made up of a small group of people who center all of their actions around their faith.
Everything from milking and feeding the animals, to cooking and cleaning, managing and gardening is done as a tribute to God, Parijata said.
Rather than call their duties chores or tasks, the community refers to their actions as service, she said.
A monotheistic branch of Hinduism, ISKCON was introduced to the U.S. in the 1960s by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupda. The faith recognizes Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who has reincarnated in different forms throughout history.
Krishna devotees teach that people are not their material bodies, but are eternal spirit souls, and that all beings are interrelated through God, according to information on the ISKCON website, www.iskcon.com. Their goal in life is to develop their love of God through practicing bhakti yoga, or devotional service that spiritualizes all human activities.
To achieve this, they chant and meditate on the name Krishna with the mantra, "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare; Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Ram Rama, Hare Hare."
Roughly interpreted, the mantra means "Please, my dear Lord, please engage us in your service," Parijata said.
Worship is a way of life on the farm, her husband added.
"At the end of the day, we are a community that focuses on God as the center," Dhruva said.
The community abstains from eating meat, drinking alcohol or caffeine, gambling, smoking and illicit sex, Parijata said.
The 350-acre Gita Nagari Farm, bordered by the Tuscarora Creek, includes 75 acres of hay, 25 of corn and 1 of produce; the rest is pasture or forest land. It is one of only a handful of farming ISKCON projects in the U.S.
In last four years, the community has been more active in pursuing organic gardening and local outreach through a community supported agriculture program and other venues, Dhruva said.
One of their goals is to create a sustainable living environment on the farm, Dhruva said.
This year, they are growing spelt - an old form of wheat - for flour, corn and the other typical vegetable garden crops, a hay field, and herbs both for medicinal and cooking purposes, his wife said.
Recently, the farm received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to fix the barn and install a tank to collect manure and pipe it into the fields.
The farm also is the home to various animals, including 15 cows. The community believes the cows' purpose is to provide milk and work the land, not to be killed for meat, Parijata said.
They run an adopt-a-cow program that rescues cows from slaughter houses and gives them a peaceful "retirement" at Gita Nagari, she said.
Currently, five adults and four children live and work on the farm, though several other ISKCON families live nearby, Parijata said.
Often, they host visitors in their guest houses, which also are available for groups to rent.
Local business people and neighbors also frequent the farm to help with maintenance, construction work and crops. Parijata said they have friends among the locals, including within the Amish and Mennonite communities.
Parijata said their lives are not very different from other farming families - "except we don't eat meat," she said, chuckling.
They rise early to worship at 4:30 a.m., then take care of their morning chores and prepare for breakfast. Like a typical farmhouse, their entryway floor is lined with rubber boots and dirt from the fields. Fresh produce sits in buckets and baskets on the kitchen counters.
Outside, the rows of dusty vegetable plants stretch out in front of wavy hay fields. Plows and farm vehicles are scattered around the faded white barn.
Attached to the main house is the temple, kept bright and clean for the deities. Around the maroon walls hang colorful Indian-style paintings of deities interacting with humans, and portraits of important figures. Long windows bring daylight into the room.
At the front of the glossy wood floor is an altar of marble tile that stands behind doors that open like a stage. Elaborately dressed deities stand on the colorful altar, adorned with golden crowns, jewels and fresh flower garlands.
They bathe and dress the figures every day as a way to enforce that God is a person, Parijata said. "Our understanding is that God is a person, but a supreme person."
The deities on the altar represent God in his different forms, or relationships, Parijata said, likening the forms to roles one human can play as both a mother, daughter, sister and friend.
Ratha Yatra is a 2,000-year-old festival celebrated around the world. In India, the festival occurs during our winter months; but in the U.S., the festival happens in the summer, Dhruva said.
The Spruce Hill event is unique because of its country setting, his wife added. Typical U.S. festivals are held in major cities where there are larger ISKCON groups.
On July 30, the farm will host its 35th annual festival from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Vendors will sell Indian clothing, T-shirts, books, jewelry and more. A food court will feature Indian and western vegetarian specialties. There will be tours of the farm's organic garden and the temple, a milking demonstration, petting zoo, carriage rides and a log-sawing contest. Music, dancing and a free vegetarian feast will be held at 3 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call 532-5331 or visit www.gitanagari.org.
At noon, the highlight of the festival - a parade of the deities - will take place.
Every year, the festival goers pull a chariot ridden by Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Krishna, and his brother Baladev and sister Subhadra. Accompanied by instruments, dancing and singing, the chariot stops at the top of a hill where the followers offer arati, or items of affection, to the Lord, Parijata said.
The deity's unique form at Ratha Yatra, Parijata said, is explained in two ways.
The first tells of a queen who glorified him so reverently that his eyes widened, his limbs withdrew into his body and his mouth formed in a large smile.
In the second story, a king wanted a carving of God and commissioned an artisan to create the statue. However, the artisan made the king promise that he would not be disturbed during the process. Weeks went by and while the artisan was carving, the king's curiosity got the better of him. He peeked into the room and broke his promise. The artisan quit the job, leaving the unfinished God to be worshipped in his incomplete form.
Though incomplete, the followers continue to worship him in that form, Parijata said.
Two stories are told about the origins of the Festival of Chariots, Parijata said.
In ancient India, the culture housed a form of the deity in the temple and allowed only certain castes to view him. The Lord, however, wanted to make himself more available to all people. So, he asked to be brought out into the street one day for everyone to see him.
"The principle is that God is available to everyone beyond social, economic, race ..." Parijata said.
According to the second story, the deity catches a cold from being bathed and enters two weeks of convalescence; he goes away to recover, and no one is allowed to see him. On the 14th day, he returns healthy for the feast.
The waiting, absence from him makes his followers anxious, Parijata explained. They develop more affection for him in the period of waiting, she said.
At the end of the two weeks, his followers are overjoyed to see him again, she said.
The festival is meant to include people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Parijata said.
At Gita Nagari, Parijata and Dhruva said they hope to continue sharing an attitude of welcome and acceptance through the festival.
"We want to create a neighborly mood," Parijata said.