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Closing Out Bhakti Fest West 2012, by TheBhaktiBeat.com

Is it just us, or does it seem like everyone is doing a “chant fest” these days? Or maybe it’s a “kirtan retreat.” By any name, big, little or in between, in your back yard or Bali, at the local yoga studio or a luxury spa, bhaktified music fests and mantra marathons are popping up everywhere.  Which is a good thing. Well, at least we think so…

When is a bhakti festival NOT a good thing, you ask? For starters, if it’s so expensive that only the wealthy can afford it, that’s a problem.  The mantra revolution that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (most famously) popularized in the 1500’s was about bringing yoga — which at the time was a means for spiritual salvation reserved only for the highest castes of society — back to the people. Bhakti yoga was the way. Its hallmark was that it was accessible to ALL.

That’s still the case of course.  Bhakti IS accessible to all.  Love and devotion can have no price tag, and all one has to do to reap the benefits of kirtan is open one’s mouth and chant.  But it’s a rare retreat that is offered up free, with good reason of course. These things cost money to run, after all. We get that. But a retreat that is only accessible to the wealthiest yogis has no business calling itself bhakti. There, we said it.

The point is, there’s a right way, and there’s a wrong way to run a festie.  And lots of ways in between.  We’ve seen ’em all. So, even though no one asked us, here are our unsolicited tips for how to do a chant fest right. (See disclaimer at end.)*

  1. Make it affordable. This is No. 1 for the reasons already stated. It shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to get to a chant fest! Build work exchange and scholarships into the business plan. Line up sponsors to defray the costs. Set up systems so people can contribute toward “Kindness Passes” for those with limited financial means. Get creative and make it accessible to ALL, in the spirit of the bhakti tradition.  (ISKCON, by the way, has perfected the affordable kirtan retreat, largely by collecting donations to subsidize the costs; the rest of the bhakti world could take a lesson from the Hare Krishnas in this regard.)
  2. Give back. Work in a charity component.  Collect donations or have a silent auction, and offer the proceeds to organizations that are making a difference in your community or field of interest, or put them toward scholarships for people with limited financial means.
  3. Pay the artists. Not just the rock stars either. If it’s a local community event or a charity benefit and the artists have offered their services for free, at least cover their expenses.  Take care of their housing and transportation. And please feed them. Well.
  4. Give them time.  Resist stacking a schedule with one band an hour. Two-hour sets should be the norm. (Three if it’s Jai or KD.) This goes for festivals of any size, local community to national multi-stagers.
  5. Sound matters.  Get it right, whatever it takes.  And please amplify the musicians.  All of them.
  6. Aesthetics count. Light the artists, not the room. And please don’t make them pink or blue. Give them a nice backdrop and a place to store their equipment cases so there’s not a bunch of stuff littering up the “stage.”
  7. Build in breaks.  Have a short guided asana practice or meditation in between sets. Set aside an hour for meals if it’s an all-day or multi-day event.
  8. Don’t make us choose.  Until we all have the siddhis to bilocate, could you please not have two or six things going on simultaneously?  Festivals of thousands may need options, but still…the best fests we’ve been to do things sequentially.
  9. Feed people.  Bring in local vendors to offer organic, farm-to-table, ahimsa-principled real food and drink.
  10. Consumerism Lite. Please sell kirtan CD’s.  And go ahead and showcase local artists, crafters and conscious merchants who sell things of interest to your audience.  Just don’t let the materialism interfere with the spiritualism.  Give it its own space and keep it separate.  No one wants to hear people hawking Lululemons in that silent space after a chant.
  11. Don’t be a douchebag. Any event that calls itself yoga or bhakti has an obligation to rise above the business-as-usual model of event production and promotion.  Treat people right. Keep your promises. Set a new standard for conscious business and marketing practices. Cultivate community.  Be nice.

*DISCLAIMER: Not intended to be used in place of a professional event organizer’s advice. We actually have no experience in running a chant festival.  We just know what works from the participant’s point of view.

Okay, that’s our two-cents worth on how to build a bhakti festival we can all love.  What would you add or change? Tell us in the comments please.


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