Bhakti Fest's 10th Anniversary Interview With Founder Sridhar Silberfein
By Ashley Shires
In honor of Bhakti Fest’s 10th anniversary, September 12-17th, 2018, SF Yoga was thrilled to interview the festival’s founder, Sridhar Silberfein, a spiritual pioneer in the West. Sridhar was given his name by Swami Satchidananda in the 1960’s, and he later stood on the stage at Woodstock with his guru in 1969, chanting the invocation for the historic festival. Sridhar has been instrumental in bringing Eastern spiritual studies to the West, from his participation at Woodstock to founding Bhakti Fest and Shakti Fest and his annual interviews with the luminary Ram Dass. It was wonderful to talk to Sridhar, to hear his unique stories and inside perspective.
It is amazing that you were on stage at Woodstock – how did it happen? What was it like?
At that time, I was teaching yoga for Swami Satchidananda at the Integral Yoga Center in New York; he had been teaching me yoga in the 1960’s. I was also hanging out with the producers of Woodstock. I told them: “you’re missing the spiritual element. We should have one of the swamis give the invocation at the beginning of the festival.” I told Satchidanda that Woodstock would be the largest gathering, the largest music concert, ever in American at that point, and he agreed to come.
We flew him up in a helicopter, and we had him back stage in a little green room we had set up for him. At that point, Woodstock was running late; the first group came onstage, panicked at the size of the crowd and ran off the stage – they had never seen anything like it. Richie Havens happened to be there, and the producers decided to put him on. I knew at that point that Swami would go next. We walked up to the stage and I saw Ritchie warming up. He was known for getting stage fright, and he was sweating, nervous. I asked if he would introduce Swami and he said, “get the (expletive) out of here” (laughs). Then the announcer came on the microphone and said that Swamiji would come out. He gave an amazing invocation. Standing there on the stage, I told him that someday we will have all these people together to chant the names of God.
What an incredible experience… and that was the inspiration for Bhakti Fest?
Forty years later, it came to me in a meditation. But I was tired at the time, and I didn’t want to do this work anymore. I had a 7-acre retreat center in Topanga Canyon and I hosted big performances and events. It was a gathering place where a lot of groups got their start, all these great artists: Krishna Das, Jai Uttal. A lot of people were interested in the idea of the festival, though, and kept reaching out to me about it.
The Joshua Retreat Center is an amazing venue for the festival – how did you find it?
In 2004, I left Topanga – one of my spiritual teachers told me I needed to move, and I relocated to Joshua Tree. I have been living here ever since then. The retreat center has been here for 75 years, an icon designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. They took a chance with us in the beginning – they had never done anything like that before. From that humble beginning, we put them on the map.
Can you tell us about that very first Bhakti Fest, in 2009?
We had over 1000 people – and everyone loved it, loved the fact that it was family oriented, no drugs, no alcohol, all vegetarian. It is a different kind of a concert – you come to this festival and go deeper inside your individual sadhana.
There was yoga at the first festival in addition to music?
There has always been a yoga component – I had relationships with Shiva Rea and Saul David Raye in Los Angeles. They all wanted to come and support. And later we added workshops – now we have 15 workshops a day in three different buildings. A couple of years ago, we instituted the men’s lodge and the women’s dome, taught by spiritual elders. What I found over the years is that a lot of women have things they want to talk about that they can’t talk about in front of men and the same with men. It’s working out great, packed houses. We also play our new Ram Dass video – every year I go to Maui to talk about spiritual subject matter. I just got back two weeks ago from our 10th anniversary.
And what about the music?
Krishna Das has been there since the beginning, and Jai Uttal of course, Dave Stringer, and Donna De Lory, David Newman. Later MC Yogi, Govind Das and Radha. We curate a lot of these groups and they are now well known. We like groups that are touring and traveling, spreading the word.
The vegetarian food at Bhakti Fest is amazing, too. Has that always been a priority?
We set up certain principles from the beginning, and that was one of them: teaching diet and wellness. Especially today with the environment and chemical poisoning. Give them a choice – give everybody a choice.
How has Bhakti Fest changed in the 10 years since the very first festival?
It’s been expanding – we now have three yoga halls and two music halls – the main one and the second one is the Hanuman stage, which was introduced in 2012. And at Bhakti Fest this September, we have great new great teachers! We have a very, very big name we’ll announce at Shakti Fest, someone who will be teaching and lecturing, someone who has never done festivals before. We are very excited.
We will also have Dharma Mittra from New York and Sri Prem Baba who is a sensation from Brazil, a spiritual speaker known as a famous guru. He packed classes last September and he’s coming back again; he said he had the best time of any place he’d been to.
Any last words you’d like to share with us?
It makes a beautiful story, a sincere effort. We are not doing this for money. We do it as a passion, as a love. Whatever we have left we give to charity. Come here and help volunteer, participate, be a part of the community.
To learn more about Bhakti Fest visit www.bhaktifest.com. We hope to see you all there!