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Turkeys Most Grateful at ISKCON’s Thanksgiving

By: on Nov. 29, 2008
On November 27, families across America will gather around their tables to give thanks for their blessings, spend some quality time together, and, of course, fill themselves up with turkey. But at Govinda’s restaurant of Tucson, Arizona, the turkey won’t be dead on the table – she’ll be alive, sitting alongside her human friends and “gobbling” the vegetarian Thanksgiving meal.

A live turkey has been the guest of honor at Govinda’s for the past twelve years, although the restaurant has been serving Thanksgiving dinners since opening its doors in 1992. “Our current turkey, Curley Sue, has been with us for three years,” says ISKCON Tucson temple president, cook, groundskeeper and all around busiest-person-ever Sandamini Dasi. “She’s from Wilcox, a small nearby farming town, and is very friendly. She just sits out on the patio during the Thanksgiving meal, being fed by a circle of excited, laughing kids.”

Seeing the turkey as a loving living entity, a member of the family, tends to make quite an impression on the 50% of Govinda’s clientele who are non-vegetarian. Often they begin to reflect on where it would be if not for Govinda’s. “We hold a contest every year where we give away a free dinner to those who best answer the question “What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?’” Sandamini says. “People are often moved to write, ‘I’m thankful that the turkey is here alive, and not on someone’s plate.’”

The event also draws the attention of Tucson’s local TV stations, at least one of which will usually feature it on their 6 o’clock news, with a repeat at 10 o’clock. “Come on down to Govinda’s, where there’s a new twist on Thanksgiving – the turkey is the guest of honor,” they’ll report, giving out the restaurant’s address.

“Then they’ll show clips of the turkey running around and gobbling. It’s quite a draw,” Sandamini laughs. “Most city folk don’t even know what a turkey looks like – what to speak of getting a picture sitting at a table with one!”

Govinda’s all-vegan Thanksgiving dinner includes apple-walnut stuffing, mashed potatoes with carrot, cashew gravy, fresh cranberry sauce, green bean almondine, baked acorn squash with maple syrup, pumpkin pie, a full salad bar – and an organic tofu “turkey,” which is really just a farina casserole with crumbled tofu and saitan.

“If people see turkey on the menu, they might say, ‘Hey, why not try it?’ even if they know it’s vegetarian,” Sandamini explains. “And if we can stop even one person from eating meat for one day, and instead enjoy food that’s non-violent and offered to Krishna, we’re successful. And our customers often begin to get more interested in a spiritual lifestyle.”

Sure enough, people with no initial interest in Krishna consciousness have become ISKCON devotees after becoming regulars at Govinda’s. And for many of them, their first visit is on a holiday such as Thanksgiving.

In fact, 300 people eat their Thanksgiving dinner at Govinda’s of Tucson every year. “They come because they can forget about the hassle of cooking and enjoy a huge all-you-can-eat spread for $15,” Sandamani says. “And they stay because of the beautiful atmosphere. We have a walled in tropical area with a big koi pond, talking macaws, parrots, peacocks, waterfalls and fountains. And Gangamantri Dasa plays mellow guitar music as people eat, covering contemporary tunes as well as some Vaishnava songs.”

Tuscon’s Thanksgiving is also popular with devotees, who vist from Phoenix and San Diego to join the local residents and congregation. The event is nostalgic for many who have grown up with the Thanksgiving tradition. Mostly, however, they’re just delighted to see hundreds of people come to relish the sacred taste of prasadam.

“For devotees, Thanksgiving is every day,” says Sandamini. “Every day is a wonderful time to appreciate the unlimited mercy of Krishna both individually and collectively; to reflect on how he is the provider, maintainer and source of everything; and to think about the wonderful gift that Srila Prabhupada has given us. But Thanksgiving day can help to remind us.”

Believe it or not, more than one ISKCON center will be celebrating Thanksgiving this year – and each has a different style. While Tucson’s Thanksgiving is focused on attracting visitors, the festival in Alachua, Florida is a day for community members to connect and enjoy each other’s company in a casual atmosphere.

“Back in 1998, the management here decided that since devotees were observing Thanksgiving in their homes anyway, why not make a big event out of it?” says temple president Chaturatma Dasa.

He recalls, “It started off as a pot-luck affair – which meant if you were in the front of the line, you got all the goodies, and if you were at the back of the line you got all the mashed potatoes! But after some tweaking, we developed an effective program.”

This year, as in previous years, a nominal entrance fee will be charged per person. Devotees can then attend the noon arati ceremony at the temple, before tucking into a traditional Thanksgiving feast, complete with tofu mock turkey, at 1pm. At 2pm comes live entertainment, including a bhajan band, dance performances and more. Soccer fields, volley ball courts, and other sports and recreational activities will run throughout the afternoon, and a campfire kirtan will round off the evening.

Unfortunately, however, one of the classic staples of Alachua’s Thanksgiving will be missed this year – satirical rock/blues band The Blind Uncles. Chaturatma, a key member himself, describes it as “A bunch of aging guys who never made it as rock ‘n’ roll stars.”

“We wrote some of our own music, but mostly put alternative lyrics to classic rock songs,” he explains. “We would satirize ourselves and our lazy householder lives, singing about our attachment to TV, or how much we hated standing in the Sunday Feast line. One of our songs, set to the music from West Side Story, was about an old ISKCON in-joke: the phenomenon of everyone moving to Alachua. It was all tongue-in-cheek, and devotees loved it.”

But with Chaturatma now president of ISKCON Alachua, and other members Ekendra and Kalakantha pursuing a solo career and acting as president of the ISKCON Gainesville center respectively, the band hasn’t played for two years. “We’ve all grown up and are doing serious things now,” Chaturatma laughs. “But never say no to a revival.”

Blind Uncles or no Blind Uncles, the family holiday of Thanksgiving is a perfect fit for Alachua, one of the most clearly family-based communities in ISKCON. “Lots of temples try to tie in to the culture around them,” Chaturatma acknowledges. “But we have the cutting edge on incorporating family-friendly activities – a fun tent for the kids, sporty events for the teenagers and adults, entertainment other than just straight Hare Krishna chanting. Now, whether that’s a good or a bad thing, you decide!”

With at least a third of the 700-strong community attending every year, the Alachua devotees obviously think it’s a good thing. “It’s a very important event for families,” says Chaturatma. “It’s not easy to involve the kids in all the devotional festivals, although we try. But at Thanksgiving, there are so many things for them to do.”

Alachua’s Thanksgiving festival does have its critics, however. Over the years, some sannyasis and senior devotees have happened to pass through during the event, while others have attended specifically to observe and critique. “And they’re totally welcome to,” Chaturatma says. “But the point is that the lives of grihastas (householders) were never meant to be the same as those of brahmacharis and sannyasis (renunciants). We respect those who are renounced and adhere only to strict Vaishnava activities. But for those of us in family life, whose kids are in secular schools, we can’t avoid having to incorporate aspects of society at large anyway. So what’s the harm in Krishna-izing them?”

And there are other ISKCON communities that believe in “Krishna-izing.” In Dallas, Texas, 250 devotees are expected for Thanksgiving celebrations, starting with morning worship at 7am, and ending with a traditional dinner including “Curd Bird.” Thanksgiving weekend will see Dallas youth organizing a 100 devotee harinama (street chanting party).

In New York city, daily lunch club program Govinda’s Kitchen is organizing a special gourmet Thanksgiving dinner from 4pm to 7pm at Sri Sri Radha Govinda Temple. All proceeds from the twenty course buffet feast ($20.00 per person) will go towards the ongoing maintenance of Sri Sri Radha Govinda’s temple.

And there are many more similar celebrations.

In the end, as Chaturatma says, it is virtually impossible for the modern American Vaishnava to avoid interacting with Western culture and its holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July. So what better way to deal with this than to adapt them? After all, Ratha Yatra carts have featured in Fourth of July parades for many years.

“You certainly can’t pretend that Thanksgiving is a Vaishnava holiday,” says Chaturatma. “But its principles don’t oppose Vaishnava principles. When the pilgrims gave thanks for the bounty of the first winter in 1621, they established the basic premise of Thanksgiving – gratitude. And a devotee is always grateful for the chance to serve Krishna and to associate with other devotees.”
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