by Sue Strachan (New Orleans Magazine)
On the outside, the building resembles a chalet, which is a bit of an architectural anomaly on Esplanade Avenue. As I walk up the steep steps, little children dressed in loose fitting, sari-like clothing are running in and out of the front door. I’m late, but one very polite child directs me downstairs for the Sunday festival of the Hare Krishnas (more formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON). I hear chanting and music – mainly drums – and as I push open the door it becomes obvious that the exterior has been hiding a room that is exotic and colorful, full of Hindu imagery (monkeys, the four-armed Vishnu and Ganesh with his elephant head). Most of the women – a mix of Indian, white and black – are dressed in bright saris (I, in my shorts and T-shirt, scream, “interloper”), while most of the men wear loose-fitting pants and tunics. Not one of them wears the orange robes or has the bare heads we have come to expect in our brief, don’t-look-honey-because-they’re-probably-hippies encounters with members of Hare Krishna.
Almost everyone in the audience is dancing and chanting in a language I don’t understand, but which I assume is some sort of Indian dialect. But what strikes me the most are two things: If I breathe any more incense my sinus headache is going to turn into a full-blown migraine, and I have finally figured out who inspired the shuffling, hopping, Grateful Dead/Phish stoner dance. Oh, yeah, and that everyone is really serene and happy.
You think you know them: the Hare Krishnas. Most famous for their orange-robed forays in airports (no more, alas) and on street corners, the Hare Krishnas have been misunderstood, probably since the movement was founded – believe or not – in the United States in 1965. The founder of Hare Krishna, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, was inspired by the religious groups founded in late-19th-century America: the Amish and the Mormons, to name a couple. On the fringe, maybe, but all are fervent in their beliefs and desire to connect more closely with God. Hare Krishna is considered a form of Vaishnavism, an orthodox, monotheistic tradition (belief in one god) within broader Hindu beliefs. And if you want to believe, you are going to have to get used to the slightly larger-than-life-size image of the swami in a lotus position staring at you while you worship.
The journey of Swami Prabhupada is important to understanding the founding of Hare Krishna. Born in Calcutta in 1896, the swami in 1922 met his spiritual master Bhaktisiddhanta Saravasti, a prominent religious scholar. In 1933, the swami became a formally initiated disciple and was asked to impart in English his knowledge of the Vedas, which are the scriptural basis that Hare Krishna is based on. In 1944, the swami started Back to the Godhead, an English-language magazine now published six times a year, and he wrote a number of books. But the banner year was 1965, when the swami came to the United States. He arrived via freighter (he stayed a day in Boston, then moved on to New York City), penniless and with no home. He chanted Hare Krishna in public places, and gradually a following developed. Within a year he founded ISKCON on the Lower East Side, and by the time he passed away on Nov. 4, 1977, the group had more than 100 asramas, schools, temples, institutes and farm communities worldwide. And today, with more than 1 million adherents in 400-plus communities, the Hare Krishnas are part of many cities and towns.
The aim of Krishna consciousness is to reawaken love of God, which can be dormant in people’s hearts, according to Anuttama, the communications director of ISKCON. Through meditation and chanting God’s name, this love comes forth. Simple living, renouncing worldly goods and focusing on spiritual activities become goals. The chanting is supposed to put us directly in touch with God through the sound vibrations of his holy names. Krishna means “the all-attractive one”; Rama means “the reservoir of all pleasure”; and Hare “indicates the Lord’s inconceivable energy.” So when you are listening to members chant, they aren’t just saying Hare Krishna, but a longer mantra: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare.” Believe me, it’s catchy, and the combination of chanting, dancing and incense makes for a surreal experience. I felt like I wasn’t in the basement of a home in New Orleans, but in a community of people getting in touch with God. And this comes from someone who hasn’t been to church on Sunday in a long, long time.
Members of the group also practice bhakti-yoga, as well as distribute spiritualized or blessed vegetarian food through a program known as “Food for Life.” It is the Sunday festival with its free vegetarian meal that draws hungry college students and others to the Hare Krishna Temple.
On a recent Sunday night, either the college students were studying or still had enough of their allowance not to swarm the place, because there weren’t as many there as I thought I would see. Probably due to past experience, some of the students make a token appearance during the latter part of the ceremony, perhaps to assuage guilty feelings for just showing up for the free food. The Hares, as far as I can tell, really don’t care.
The key is to leave the ceremony before the majority of the devotees do – I left about half an hour before the end – because if you don’t, you will have to wait in a long line for the buffet of vegetarian food, and they may run out of paper plates – which happened when I was there. The Indian dishes are mostly rice-based, not too spicy or heavy on the curry. The college students, as you would figure, pretty much kept to themselves, as did the Hare devotees. Me? I had a table to myself, and I hate to admit I was hoping not to speak to anyone because I was still under the influence of incense.
Oh, and two interesting things to note: the shaved heads and the orange robes. The robes are the traditional dress of a student or a celibate monk, and in the beginning of the Hare Krishna movement, young Western converts wore them. Married “devotees” (which is what members call each other) often wear the white robes. Most devotees have everyday jobs that require street clothes; therefore they don’t wear the robes. The shaved heads are generally for male students living in the temple. But then again, I like this story from the early 1970s: When hippies were joining the Hare Krishnas, the swami woke up one day and declared that all the men should shave their heads. Thinking that there was a profound reason behind this, an acolyte asked why.
“Because it is clean,” said the swami.
Whoever declared that cleanliness is next to godliness could have been a Hare Krishna.