In Alachua, Florida—home to North America’s biggest ISKCON community—two second generation devotee brothers have found that sports can be a healthy part of a balanced Krishna conscious lifestyle.
Samba Zaldivar, 36, and Raghunath Zaldivar, 31, have played soccer for many years and have found it a good way to keep the “temple of the body” fit, as well as to build community and contribute positively to the development of the next generation of ISKCON youth.
Raghunath, a father of two, has served as a P.E. teacher in the local charter school for nine years, where a large percentage of the students are devotees.
He began playing soccer while at the Gurukula day school in Gita Nagari, Pennsylvania in 1986 and ‘87, and when he moved to Alachua the following year, began playing in the city’s local recreational soccer league.
At twelve years old, his talent was spotted, and he was picked to play for a select team by the US Youth Soccer Association, traveling to cities throughout Florida to play other all-star teams until he was seventeen. At the same time, Raghunath—known to his friends as Raghu—made the varsity team at his high school, Santa Fe, and became its all-time leading scorer with 62 goals, a record he still holds.
“I had some really cool experiences there,” he says. “There was a whole bunch of devotee kids on the team. Once while we were on the bus, some of the other kids starting asking us what the Hare Krishna mantra was, and when we told them, they wanted to chant it. The next thing we knew, the whole bus was roaring out the Hare Krishna mantra!”
After high school, Raghu received a scholarship to play for Carson-Newman, a Baptist liberal arts college in Tennessee. Traveling to neighboring states such as Kentucky, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Alabama while playing for its soccer team, he established strong bonds with his fellow players and introduced many of them to Krishna consciousness too.
“They’d see me chanting japa, and would have many questions about it,” he says.
Graduating from Carson-Newman in 2002 with a degree in communications, and a minor in psychology, Raghu didn’t have to wait long to find a job. Upon moving back to Alachua, he was contacted by the head of the local charter school who asked him if he’d be interested in applying for the position of P.E. teacher. He did, got the job, and now, nine years later, he hasn’t looked back.
“I love my job,” he says. “I teach 165 students right now, about half of whom are devotees, from Kindergarten through eighth grade. We do warm-up exercises, stretches, the Presidential Challenge Physical Fitness program, rock-climbing, and tons of games—American football, soccer, and many games that I made up and the kids gave crazy names. There’s Raghuball, which they love—it’s a combination of Capture the Flag and Dodgeball—and Death Lane, which is also a type of Dodgeball. In this country right now, we have a big problem with childhood inactivity, obesity and heart disease—so many kids just stay inside and watch TV and play videogames all the time. Our philosophy is to make sure the kids have a really good time and learn to enjoy physical activity, so that they have a positive outlook on it throughout their lives.”
Raghu also seeks to give youth a positive experience of Krishna consciousness, and has contributed to his community by organizing a mentoring program and other schemes in the past. Recently, however, he has managed to combine sports and Krishna consciousness for a wonderfully unique offering to the youth of ISKCON Alachua.
Coach Raghu (back row, third from the left) with teachers and P.E. students from Alachua charter school
Every year, in October or November, Raghu rents the gym at the Alachua Recreation Center, and organizes a spectacular lock-in for thirteen to eighteen year olds from the local ISKCON community. The teenagers stay up all night from 8pm until 8am, playing sports such as soccer, Basketball, Raghuball, and a gurukula favorite called Dadhi Bandha.
Prasadam is provided for them throughout the night, and mixed in with this healthy, supervised fun are many Krishna conscious activities. Various devotee speakers from the community make presentations on Srila Prabhupada, the Bhagavad-gita, the Holy Name, and even local preaching efforts such as Gainesville’s Krishna House.
“They absolutely love it,” Raghu says. “As soon as one lock-in ends, we get kids asking us when the next one is for the rest of the year!”
Raghu’s brother Samba, who has also played soccer since high school, also uses sports to create a positive social and fitness experience for the local Hare Krishna youth, but in a slightly different way—he has his own soccer team.
“Back in 1996, when I was twenty-two, we started a team called The Pandavas, after the heroes of the Mahabharata,” he says. “Eighteen out of the twenty-two players were devotees, who would come out and play with shaved heads and sikhas. The community would show up to our games playing mridangas and kartalas. It was crazy.”
Although the Pandavas only lasted two seasons, in 2004, Samba decided to start a new team of second generation devotees. While the number of devotee players has sometimes fallen, today, there are fourteen amongst the twenty team members of “Real Alachua.”
“What’s special about it is that I also used to teach P.E. at the New Raman Reti school on our ISKCON property years ago, and now many of the kids I taught have grown up and are my team-mates,” says Samba. “The team chemistry is great, because we all know each other so well.”
Affiliated with the Gainesville Regional Soccer League (GRSL), Real Alachua has won six League championships and five tournament championships, and remains one of the top teams.
“If you look at our roster now, it’s full of names like Govinda, Krishna, Balarama, Mathura, and Uddhava,” Samba says. “That’s pretty awesome!”
Describing his team as keeping devotee kids engaged in a healthy, clean way, Samba adds, “Apart from me and my brother, who is also on the team, many of the others are between the ages of eighteen and twenty. So sometimes I’ll find myself coaching them. If they loose their temper, for instance, I encourage them to relax and remind them that it’s just a game.”
Raghu, whose priorities are bringing his children up in Krishna consciousness, contributing to his community, and doing Deity worship both at home and at the temple, agrees.
“In sports, as in life, we must remember to play the game, but not be attached to the results, as Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita,” he explains. “Sports are good for your body’s health, and can be a positive recreational activity; and I think playing them is fine as long as we always remember not to take them too seriously and loose focus of what’s really important in life—Krishna.”