Michael was raised in religious schools both in the United States and in India. “I wasn’t around my parents much at all growing up, though there were periods where we were together for six or eight months. I went to India when I was almost 12 and lived there off and on until I was 16. When I lived in India I was treated — I don’t want to say like royalty, but I would go to temples in South India and instead of having to wait in line for hours, I would be taken on a personal tour by a Brahmin. And I saw some wacky stuff. At one point we lived in a place where things were disappearing, getting stolen, and the Brahmins used divining rods to hunt down the thief. They followed these sticks around, and an hour later they ended up in this place with this guy and there it all was, all the missing stuff. During the rainy season, cobras ran amok; they’d crawl up into the buildings. I remember walking into my classroom once and there was a cobra coiled up on the desk. My teacher, the Brahmin, came in, walked right up to this cobra, leaned his face close to it, mumbled something, and the cobra uncoiled and slid out a hole in the wall.”
For many years Michael’s father was one of the leaders of the movement. But he developed disagreements with the Hare Krishna movement, and finally he moved from India back to the United States and became a social worker again. “My father decided that he wanted to practice religion on a personal level, rather than being in a leadership role. To this day, he practices the tenets of the Krishna religion on a daily basis. But outwardly, he lives a normal life.
“Here in the States, as a Hare Krishna, you stand out like a sore thumb. It was a bit much for a kid to deal with. There are certain segments of my childhood that I really wish I hadn’t experienced. I didn’t need that to grow up. But then again, it’s part of the whole puzzle that makes up who I am. You can’t extract that out.”
I asked him if he talked to his parents about these feelings.
“I’m very close with my mother; we talk all the time. When I talk to her about those times, she’s sorry. She wishes that hadn’t happened, but I don’t begrudge her for it. If I begrudged anybody it would be my father. But he was a man ‘in search of,’ and he didn’t find the whole hippie movement appealing. It had different trappings, but it was still material. He was looking for something spiritual.”
Still, Michael’s upbringing among the Hare Krishnas left him with certain gifts. “My childhood made me mighty independent, probably headstrong, not necessarily in a good way. It made me resourceful. If I wanted to do things, I did them. I also find it interesting that growing up in what some consider a stringent religion has made me fairly tolerant and accepting of other people. One of the things I remember very distinctly growing up was that we were taught that whether you were a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian, the most important thing was that you dedicate yourself to God. And I think that idea has stuck with me the most. I don’t remember being taught explicitly to be giving or take care of people, but on my first trip to India I lived in West Bengal, in a very small town where the Hare Krishnas had built a very large temple. Twice a weekend we would feed thousands of people, on these plates made of leaves stuck together with sticks. There was a time during the refugee crisis in Thailand when my father and the Hare Krishnas in general started to collect money and food and send it to the refugees through the various humanitarian organizations. The idea was always that in times of crisis we fed people, as a very basic thing. I think having grown up in a very poor country made me see what I had, not overtly but unconsciously. I’ve worked for nonprofits and in politics all of my adult life, and I think it’s primarily because of the way I was brought up. Right now I work for a nonprofit helping the disabled.
“To look at me, people would not have a clue about my childhood. They might know I had an eclectic background if they looked at my house: Indian instruments and paintings here and there. I can’t speak for everybody, but I think that people who’ve grown up in the counterculture, they’ve lived it, they’ve experienced it, they’ve dressed it, they’ve eaten it. There’s sort of a feeling that you don’t have to outwardly demonstrate your feelings in that way any longer.
“I tell people pretty freely about my childhood now, but I didn’t used to. I had to gain a certain confidence in myself. I had to gain a knowledge of what the traditional Western society was like before I became comfortable telling people about my background. I’m not a practicing Hare Krishna now. I’m a vegetarian, but other than that I’m nothing. I just am.”
When he passes Hare Krishnas on the street now, what does he think?
“I haven’t been to a Hare Krishna temple in years, and I don’t plan on going. I’ve separated myself, and I really don’t want to be bothered by anybody. Where I live, what I’m doing: that’s my business. If someone wants to follow the tenets of the Hare Krishnas, be my guest. I think the people that are in the robes and live in the temples — it seems a bit naïve. When I see them I think, ‘I don’t want to be you. I’ve been you, and I don’t want to be you again.’ It’s not out of disrespect. I just have no particular desire. My life and what’s important to me are light-years different.”