While Thanksgiving meals typically feature a dead turkey as their central dish – something that makes ISKCON devotees’ hearts fill with sadness and compassion – the American holiday has other elements that fit with the Vaishnava mindset, such as the central theme of gratitude.
Meanwhile its reputation as a family holiday goes with ISKCON’s status today as a primarily family-based society. And going against the holiday’s tradition of meat-eating gives devotees the chance to embody another Vaishnava quality – mercy – and hopefully pass it on to others.
So it’s no surprise that today several ISKCON temples across the United States have begun holding their own spin on Thanksgiving, which fell this year on November 27th.
Turkeys are happy creatures at the Govinda’s Restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, where it’s been a tradition since 1992 to have a live turkey roam the grounds so diners can get an up-close and personal view of a bird slaughtered in the millions on Thanksgiving every year.
“They see he’s a docile, gentle creature who wants to live as we do,” says manager Sandamini Dasi. “Its a great opportunity for people to think about their eating choices.”
Govinda’s has become a go-to place for Tucsonans eating out for Thanksgiving, and this year around 300 guests enjoyed an organic, non-gmo prasadam meal of tofu “turkey,” quinoa and apple stuffing, mashed potatoes with carrot cashew gravy, and vegan pumpkin pie.
As they did, accomplished musician Krishnamrita Das performed devotional songs on his guitar, while devotees were on hand to answer questions about Mukti the Turkey, the prasadam dishes, and the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. Waiters also asked guests to write down what they were thankful for, with many citing Govinda’s, seeing a live turkey, and the spiritual atmosphere at the top of their lists.
More recently on the scene but certainly no less impressive is the Thanksgiving Day dinner at New York City’s Radha-Govinda Mandir in Brooklyn, which started five years ago and this year served up an unbelievable 34-course gourmet prasadam feast that took devotees two days to prepare.
Preferring to avoid turkey substitutes, the cooks did serve up some of the vegetarian American standards such as candied yams, hot apple cider, and cranberry sauce, along with a positively head-spinning list of dishes including quinoa stuffed peppers, roasted delicata squash, panir potato pepper kebabs, kofta, mini kachoris and samosas, cheddar basil biscuits, two kinds of salad, three kinds of chutney and and three kinds of drink.
For dessert, diners could tuck into lemon poppy seed cupcakes, chocolate cupcakes, vanilla blueberry cheesecake, Pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin pie, gingersnap cookies, Russian tea cake cookies, apple tarts, prune oat bars, and hazelnut vanilla burfi.
The 150 guests, including both devotees and members of the public, dined in Govinda’s Banquet Hall, where soft bhajan music, golden tablecloths, glowing candles and centerpieces consisting of fall crops created a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
“The excellent Krishna prasadam first conquers their senses, and then their hearts,” says president Ramabhadra Das. “One 92-year-old lady commented that it was the best Thanksgiving dinner she had ever had in her entire life.”
Drawing even more guests was Thanksgiving evening at ISKCON Seattle’s Vedic Cultural Center, where six hundred were served a ten-course multi-ethnic dinner of American nut loaf, Middle-Eastern style taboule, Armenian pilaf rice, Indian matar panir, Gujarati patla (fried collard greens stuffed with chickpea batter), cranberry apple sauce, candied sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and saffron sweet trice.
The event was part of a five-day festival during which Romapada Swami spoke on the sacred text Sri Brahma Samhita, and devotees worshipped the Deities of Sri Sri Radha Nila Madhava.
“It was a real festival of family fun for everyone from children to grandparents,” says president Hari-Vilasa Das.