Sridhar and Shyamdas at Bhakti Fest

Sridhar and Shyamdas at Bhakti Fest. Photo by Mitchell Manz.

It Would Be Great If You Could Do That

The sun is setting on another 110 degree day in the Mojave Desert. Seventy-eight-year-old Bhakti Fest Founder Sridhar Silberfein storms in the front door dripping in sweat. For the past eight hours he has been out under the sun, digging ditches for stage pole covers, positioning 10×10 tents, testing generators, directing cube truck traffic, and otherwise micromanaging a festival set-up crew who have worked together for many years. He swore that this time he was just stopping by to survey their progress. Yea right.

Silberfein swoops through the kitchen, to taste-test tonight’s dinner. “Not too bad. Remembah – five plates without onions and garlic, 10 plates without dairy, and keep chanting ya mantra. Our minds should always be on God.” The young chef nods, appreciating the attention and instruction. En route to the shower, Sridhar pokes his head into the production office where he inquires about ticket sales, airplane flights, and the annual last-minute artist asks. “Yeah, and how many meal tickets they get outta ya?” The new coordinator freezes. Before she has figured out Sridhar is psychic, he is freshly showered, and hollering for everyone to join him on the back porch of his home, built for this very occasion.

Creating Community

The oppressive heat gives way to the cool calm of faintly sparkling stars. Wild coyotes howl in the distance. A  jackrabbit jumps onto someone’s cactus-punctured flip-flop. The sound of bells inside the backyard temple-space ceases as everyone scurries around the table into a circle. A burner on the build crew, still covered in Playa-dust, grabs the hand of the vendor-gal, who just flew in from New York. A young musician who has recently become enraptured with the Hindu god Krishna helps the head of registration adjust her suckling newborn, so she can hold the hand of the old-salty-dog stage manager from the Pacific Northwest. His other arm is wrapped around a 20-something kid with sunstroke who despite being warned, didn’t drink his gallon of water that day. The kid locks elbows with the former rock-star wife who utilizes her extensive knowledge of backstage protocol to run the green room. Her manicured nails are a juxtaposition to the rough hand she holds of the single dad just out of county looking for a second chance. He’s gratefully gripped by the Colorado River rafting guide who has never been to anything like this before and wonders how she got sucked into it anyway. Her silent inquiry is interrupted by Sridhar singing the meal prayer.

The Bhojana Mantra /Om Brahmarpanam Brahma Havir
Bhramagnau Brahmana Hutam / Brahmaiva Tena Gantavyam /
Brahmakarma Samadhinah.

This moment is never lost on me.

Friends of 40+ years, hand-in-hand with those who have just met that day. All inextricably linked through service, karma, and the fire of this revolutionary man.

Possessing Good Fortune

In his youth, Steven Silberfein showed a natural propensity towards spiritual studies. After graduating from CW Post University in Long Island, his aunt recommended he meet a teacher in New York City, referred to as “Rudi.” In a shanty studio space, where Rudi taught open-eye meditation, Steven received Shaktipat from a picture of Bhagavan Nityananda. He studied Hatha Yoga, philosophy, and kirtana with Swami Satchidananda at 500 West End Ave where he became one of Satchidananda’s senior teachers. He was given the spiritual name “Sridhar,” which means “Possessor of Good Fortune.”

By the late 1960s Steven Sridhar Silberfein – now known in the familiar as “Sri” – was a successful businessman and real estate agent. Cronies Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld sought his advice on an art and music festival they were producing upstate. Sri said to them, “Ya got some of the greatest musical acts in the world but what’s missing is the spiritual component.” With their to-do lists already in overwhelm, they answered, “Ok you deal with that part.”

Swami Satchidananda Woodstock


Chanting Mantra at Woodstock

As can be seen in the Warner Bros. documentary, on August 18, 1969, Sri petitioned singer/songwriter Richie Havens to introduce Swami Satchidananda. Still reeling from his legendary set, Richie gave him a “get lost kid” look. So Sri escorted Swami Satchidananda and his entourage onto the Woodstock stage to deliver an invocation. More than half a million American youth were in attendance – the largest peaceful gathering in the West at the time. Swami Satchidananda introduced the power of mantra, inviting the crowd to recite “Hari Om” and “Ramaramarama.” A moment of silence followed. Not even a camera clicked.

While still on stage, Sri whispered to Swami Satchidananda,

“Swamiji, wouldn’t it be great to bring this many people together to chant the names of God?”

Swami Satchidananda smiled knowingly and said,

“Yes, it would be great if you could do that.”

In the following years, a glass jar in Rudi’s studio accumulated enough funds to fly Swami Muktananda over from India. To welcome him, students hosted a retreat at Big Indian in upstate New York. This gathering included Swami Venkatesananda of the Divine Life Society, the Brooklyn psychic Hilda Charlton, and the just-back-from-India, newly-named Ram Dass. At the conclusion of the weekend, Swami Muktananda asked Sri and Ram Dass to organize his tour of the US. Thus, the three traveled together for most of 1973. At the tour’s conclusion, The Center for Spiritual Studies (CSS) was formed. A nonprofit foundation to make available the practices of yoga, kirtan, and consciousness to a wider audience.

The Topanga House

Located on the corner of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Fernwood Canyon Road, Sri founded California’s first health food store, “The Food Chakra.” Here, Silberfein was reportedly the original importer of tea tree oil into the US. He established Desert Essence (the one you can buy in Trader Joe’s today). Adjacent to The Food Chakra was the CSS Headquarters, a space to learn yoga, mantra, meditation and, in a pre-internet age, access otherwise obscure spiritual texts. When the groups got too large, Sri hosted them in his home. A place of counterculture folklore now referred to as “The Topanga House.” Those walls housed traveling gurus, saints, guides, and teachers. Record companies were forged. Now-famous kirtan wallahs fixed roofs and figured out harmonium chords. New Age icons instructed on Ashtanga and aarti, while cute yoginis clustered in the kitchen. They cooked kitchari, made chai, and experimented with the latest textured vegetable protein.

Sridhar’s eldest son Seth was raised in the Topanga House. Seth’s younger sister Shayne was born onto a set of Swami Muktananda’s sheets. Muktananda renamed the child “Mukti” – after himself. Thirteen years later his son Cody came into the world. Sri and his second wife were instrumental in the early tours of the hugging saint, Amma. The mahatma stayed at the house, receiving students and offering satsang. It’s believed She gifted the couple with a boon, the baby of the bunch, “Little Bella.”

Moving to Joshua Tree

A quick-manifesting Aquarian, Sri’s astrological chart shows the highest spiritual capabilities coupled with challenging interpersonal dynamics. A dharmic blueprint confirmed by the venerable Swami Kaleshwar who came to the Topanga House and asserted, “It has bad vastu for relationships; if you want to have a good partnership you have to move.” Heeding this advice and “feeling the heat” Sri moved to Joshua Tree, California. The expansive quality of the Yucca Valley allowed space for a persistent and nagging intuition to take shape. With Gen-X’s popularization of gatherings like Lollapolooza, the baby boomer kept thinking, “What if we did this without meat, drugs, and alcohol? What if people practiced yoga, chanted kirtan, and learned to meditate?” The prophetic words of Swami Satchidananda echoed through his head, “Yes, it would be great if you could do that.”

Bhakti Fest Main Stage

Photo of Main Stage at Bhakti Fest by Kristina Clemens

Saying YES to Bhakti Fest

Silberfein who has become known to many as “The Godfather” of spiritual life in Los Angeles, hiked with friends Narayan Mandir, Chris Morro, and the renowned kirtan wallah Shyamdas. He decided to share the seed of this idea. Before Sri finished, Shyamdas exclaimed “YES” setting the festival in motion.

On September 11, 2009, 40 years and three weeks after the auspicious exchange on the Woodstock Stage, Bhakti Fest was born. The first family-run Yoga and Kirtan Festival in the US. Its original incarnation was homegrown, with friends, family and the who’s who of consciousness contributing their energies to the collective bhav. The festival’s finale was like a modern-day “We are the World”, or Sgt Pepper’s album cover. The pioneers of yoga, kirtan, and metaphysical studies in America, singing the Maha Mantra, at the top of their lungs.

The Expansion of Bhakti Fest

Now in 2018, the festival has extended into two kirtan stages, three yoga halls, a workshop hall, a breathwork hall, men’s and women’s tents, multiple sound domes, endless break-out sessions, two healing sanctuaries, a Kidsland, vegetarian vendors, and consciousness consumerism. The September Bhakti Fest hosts several thousand seekers, while Spring’s Shakti Fest and in some years, Bhakti Fest Midwest, in Madison, Wisconsin, welcome about half that.

Newcomers routinely have their minds (and hearts) blown. They take up to five yoga classes a day. Individuals learn easy and intricate chants, receive revolutionary bodywork, keep their channels clean with high-vibe food, and plug into the power of nature. You’ll often hear someone say, “Bhakti Fest changed my life…no seriously….!” And then they ramble into some tangential story, ultimately proving the power of dharmic paths.

group photo at bhakti fest

Donna De Lory, Bhakti Fest Founder Sridhar Silberfein, Shiva Baum and David Newman. Photo by Kristina Clemens

The Cosmic Container of Bhakti Fest

Within this cosmic container, people regularly spark with soul recognition. Individuals meeting for the first time frequently exclaim, “I feel like I know you from somewhere.” Wishes are spontaneously granted, questions answered, and lives rerouted. Old hurts surface and release, hard shells crack, molten skin sheds, hearts burst with devotion, joy rises, souls meet, and no one leaves the same version of themselves that came.

With some 20+ festivals produced by the organization, attendees slip into a familiar rhythm. As the desert moon rises over the main stage, a former punk rock singer prays to Krishna before zipping up her merch-booth. The friends she sees just a few times a year who were snuggled inside scatter to the showers, food court, and campgrounds. Young kids ages four and seven zip past. Their mom and dad are about to sing together on stage.

An anesthesiologist from Palm Spring kicks off his shoes before finding a spot up front. He “randomly” wandered into the festival a few years back and since then has taken 500+ hours of yoga teacher training and opened his own studio. Back in the green room friends of 50 years skip over the small talk and current event catch-up to speak of recently deceased partners and changing times. A new crop of fresh sevites (volunteers), help the sound crew get the band set up.

Sridhar Behind the Scenes

As the opening prayer of this set begins, one of Sri’s sons races a golf cart back to headquarters. The other son tinkers with the audio-input cord for the livestream audience. His two daughters stride past with clipboards in hand. They’re reviewing tomorrow’s crew list, distributing checks, and cracking up with laughter. Old-timers, ex-girlfriends, and staff who have come and gone greet the patriarch at the front-of-house soundboard. He plunks down into a precarious plastic chair. Within seconds a grand-daughter jumps onto each knee. He closes his eyes, and joins in the mantra for just a moment.

Those close to him hope he’ll chill here and watch the thousands in front of him whose lives he’s affected sing, dance, and chant the names of God. But before anyone can catch their breath, he’s back on his walkie talkie, getting wrap-out reports from security guards about to go off-duty, checking fuel levels in the generators, finding out how many coconuts went into the dumpster despite strict orders to throw them in compost. He’s reviewing tomorrow morning’s breakfast menu, today’s ticket sales, and what was left in the lost and found. Some teens walk past and point to Sri saying, “I heard that dude produced a part of Woodstock.” And in every crevice of the festival grounds, the words reverberate, “It would be great if you could do that.”

Be Part of the Community at Bhakti Fest

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