I could run into Third Avenue, pull off the sari, and scream, Help, help!
The big, drunk Chicano in Horton Plaza who tried to rip off my Hare Krishna gown got to me so quickly I never even saw him coming.
Step into the yellow and white building at 1030 Grand Avenue, and it’s like entering some giant, booming drum.
By the time I realized what was happening, he had unwrapped the orange and maroon sari from my head. As he tore at it, his glazed, bloodshot eyes mocked me.
I remember futilely saying that he should let go and thinking of the ubiquitous police cars normally found patrolling the seedy downtown square. "A lot of good they are," I recall thinking bitterly. "What do I do if this guy tries to hurt me? I could run into Third Avenue, pull off the sari, and scream, Help, help! Look, I'm not really one of them!"
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama. Hare Rama, Rama Rama. Hare Hare
It never came to that. My attacker merely wrenched off a strip of the cloth, wrapped it around his head, and then left to gyrate drunkenly as the Krishnas and I chanted. But if, in my panic, I had repudiated the Hare Krishna people, I would have felt untruthful. After having spent time around them trying to gain some understanding of their lives, I hadn’t been converted to their religion, but that afternoon I realized that they had changed the way I see some things.
Badri Narayan das, the temple president, counts between 400 and 500 members in San Diego County.
I had noticed it earlier, in the rented Hare Krishna house on Hornblend Street in Pacific Beach, just one block away from the group's temple. One of the women had shown me how to drape myself properly to transform the eight-foot-long piece of sari cloth into the elegant Indian dress. We had joked as I’d fumbled with the pleats, and then she’d helped me to apply to my forehead the tilok, the clay paint which signals that one is a Krishna devotee. Then I had driven her and her son and two other women into the traffic downtown.
Candra: “I just thought they looked so happy in the midst of that chaotic city."
En route I’d realized that my persistent nervousness didn't spring from self-consciousness, but from feeling like a target — for police harassment (the Krishnas have been arrested in Horton Plaza for “blocking traffic” three times this year alone) or for random violence from any passing stranger. In the plaza, our group clustered on the hot concrete walkway in the northeast corner; a few derelicts were sprawled on the patchy grass around us. A crowd of curious pedestrians and drifters and waiting bus patrons gawked at us as they stood behind the black chain fence that surrounds the square, as if the fence demarcated the normal from the bizarre.
Goura with son Nita: “I decided everything else was a waste of time.”
I stared back over it at the hookers in high heels exposing their flesh to the sun. at men whose heavy bellies hung over their dirty trousers, at young toughs in white T-shirts who clutched bleary-eyed at liquor bottles concealed in brown paper bags. When one well-coiffed woman, malicious as a snake, finally strode past our group and hissed, “Freakos!” I almost laughed out loud at the irony.
At least there’s plenty of food: fried zucchini, salad, rice, a corn-meal dish, vegetarian meatballs, other exotic tidbits.
The Krishnas shudder every time they come down here; they shake their heads and talk about the surrounding “degradation.” But they come anyway, as a form of philanthropy — they think they’re doing plaza denizens a favor merely by exposing them to the words ‘‘Hare Krishna.” They come even though their chanting is swallowed up by the din of passing traffic; just a few steps away from the Hare Krishna people the music dissipates into a barely audible drone. It’s a shame that this is all most people ever hear of it. In the temple the familiar chanting takes on new dimensions. Step into the yellow and white building at 1030 Grand Avenue some time when the Krishnas are chanting there and it’s like entering some giant, booming drum.
Brajabhadu: “I could see that they were practicing what they were preaching.”
The steady beats of the mirdungas spread like waves throughout the big hall. The chinkling of the finger cymbals, the kartals, shivers through the room with crystalline resonance. The melodies, in minor keys, are exotic, and they mingle with the delicate smell of incense. You feel as if you’ve stepped into some transplanted patch of India.
Even married couples trying to conceive children have sex only once a month — on the woman’s most fertile day.
This building once housed a factory and then an Elks Club, but the local Hare Krishna group acquired it in 1977 and spent six months renovating the structure. Soft light now washes over the subtle pastels that decorate the central hall. Brown and white tiles cover the floor, and baby-blue trim accents Hindu arches sculpted into peach-colored walls. The lack of any furniture contrasts with scattered bits of opulence. Squares of red, magenta, and blue cloth embroidered with gold hang from just under the ceiling, and six glittering chandeliers help fill the wide space overhead. In front of the recessed marble altars, a fountain burbles sensuously; bas-relief cows, painted gold, dance above the baseboard.
The Hare Krishna devotees especially welcome outsiders here on Sunday evenings; in fact, a second major goal of their Horton Plaza missions is to pass out invitations to weekly “feasts” held then. At one of them I got my first serious introduction to their fourteen-year-old movement, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). When I arrived at about 4:45 p.m., the festivities were starting, as usual, with chanting, and several dozen people already had entered. Most stood swaying, riding the swell of the music, but a few outsiders sat inconspicuously on the floor at the back. Periodically, the rear doors opened and more people trickled in. When two blond surfers sauntered in and prostrated themselves in front of the altar (instead of joining the nonparticipants at the rear), I gave up trying to guess which newcomers were regulars and which were first-time visitors. By 5:30 at least a hundred people filled the hall, many draped in the dhotis (the baggy male garb with a “tail” that wraps between the legs) and saris (worn by the women). A surprisingly large number of participants dressed normally, however, and I later learned that many were temple members, though not full-time ones.
Badri Narayan das, the temple president, counts a total of between 400 and 500 members scattered throughout San Diego County, of which about sixty are “initiates” or “initiates-in-training” who have committed themselves totally to the Hare Krishna lifestyle (represented in San Diego since 1972). Initiates either live in the temple building (an upstairs room houses about fifteen of the celibate men) or in one of the fifteen or so Krishna apartments located within a two- to three-block radius. The remaining part-time temple members may adopt some or many of the features of ‘‘Krishna-conscious living” (for example, abstaining from “illicit sex,” or refraining from eating meat, or chanting occasionally with the group), but also continue to cling to what devotees call “the material world.” Explains Badri. “They may not feel like they’re ready to live full-time in the community. They may be attached to intoxication. Or they may have three girlfriends or something. Maybe they can’t give up Lawrence Welk. They just don’t feel ready to fully commit themselves.”
The temple president is a charming man of twenty-seven who joined the Krishna movement more than nine years ago. It’s easy to see how he rose to leadership. Even dressed in his white dhoti (he is married; only single men wear the famous saffron) and bearing the shaved head and sikha (ponytail), he still looks All-American. That Sunday, he easily commanded the crowd's attention. When the chants stopped. he launched into a rambling “lesson,” taking particular pains to argue that his movement is not a cult. Members don’t trust snap conversions, he asserted; instead, would-be devotees must go through at least six months of training before winning initiation. “The Vedic literature gives an injunction, that just like one is very careful before he gets married. so he should be so much more careful in accepting a spiritual master.” To encourage careful scrutiny of the lifestyle, the temple invites outsiders to (free) nightly vegetarian dinners as well as to the Sunday feats. Or interested visitors can come and live for three days (or longer) with the devotees. Later, when I ask to spend twenty-four hours with his flock, Badri readily assents, as polished and cordial as the manager of a large, elegant hotel.
So at 3:30 a.m. the next Friday, I haul myself out of bed. Outside, the blackness hasn’t even begun to thin in the east, and Mission Boulevard, Garnet, and Grand avenues all are eerily empty. But at the temple subtle signs of life mark the start of a routine morning. I kick off my shoes into an already substantial line-up of footwear on the porch. Behind me, a robed and shaven young man trudges, yawning, up the street. No sounds of the first chanting of the day leak out to disturb the stillness.
The building is partly soundproofed. The Krishna followers got their fill of battles over noise back at their old temple on Third Avenue in Hillcrest. Neighbors at that location, angry at being awakened in the wee hours of the morning, brought the devotees before the city’s noise abatement board several times. At the new site in Pacific Beach, with the Diving Locker on one side and a devotee ashram (dorm house) on the other, there is little chance for complaints. This is fortunate because the Krishna followers believe that this hour before dawn is almost magical. “The ether is very pure at this time,” one told me. “The demons aren’t around. And, I mean, who’s out there sinning then?”
Inside, the drums are throbbing slowly, like the heartbeat of an awakening sleeper. Despite the early hour, light saturates the room and splashing noises from the fountain float above the restrained chanting, heightening the sensation of separation from mundane time and space. About two dozen men, half of them barefoot, stand toward the front and shuffle to the music, while in the back a dozen women wear white saris trimmed with purple, green, pink. blue. Gradually, the music's tempo builds and its call seems to lure more devotees through the door. A few women spread out blankets on which they carefully deposit infants and small children; somehow the youngsters continue to doze peacefully.
The Hare Krishna followers use the same word, chanting, to refer to two distinct activities, and it doesn't describe either very accurately. One of the forms, jappamala, resembles the Catholic recitation of the rosary more than anything else. Devotees even use a long string of 108 wooden beads to help them keep track as they privately recite the mahamantra (the famous litany; Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama. Hare Rama, Rama Rama. Hare Hare) the required sixteen rounds (1728 times) each day. They say that the daily chore takes about two hours. The other form of chanting known in Sanskrit as the kirtan is the group singing, usually accompanied only by the drums and kartals. This morning a dark-skinned. Indian-looking man with a voice like silk leads the group. First he sings a verse, then the devotees repeat it in chorus. 1 can’t understand most of the words, since all are in Sanskrit or Bengali, but all the verses seem to lead inevitably to Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna!
In fact. I'm transfixed by the way the tempo builds, the way the pulsating drums speed up subtly, first sounding just on every third beat, then all of a sudden quivering to each one, then building in intensity to pound and pound and then to boom until it seems as if their shock waves alone should lift the roof off. As the crescendo mounts, the finger cymbals tremble ever more ecstatically; like the shattering of the most delicate glass, their sound finally slices continuously through the large room, a thrilling, icy counterpoint to the bellowing of the drums. And the devotees! They first sing the praise to their deity, then they yell it. finally they roar it, raising their arms overhead and twirling and shaking their bodies and inevitably jumping, straight up and down, leaping so frantically that it looks as if they’re trying to escape gravity and jump up to their heaven. Tucked away in a corner, I marvel at the spectacle, at these dozens of lean, sleepy celibates yielding, then submitting absolutely to the driving tumult, to be swept to orgiastic pinnacles in predawn Pacific Beach.
Then the frenzy suddenly collapses. There's a moment of silence and a new chant begins, quietly at first; the devotees look spent. But their ardor builds once more to a fever, then subsides and then builds again. About 4:30 the lights dim and the altar curtains open to reveal the objects of their worship. From where I sit in the rear of the temple with the group of Krishna women, the two central figures seem to be girlish dolls, dressed in gorgeous robes and topped with thick heads of glossy black curls. They look as if they’d make great playthings for some nine-year-old, but they’re peculiar candidates for gods.
Finally, the curtains close again and the lights come on at 5:00 a.m. It’s time for the Krishnas’ first “lesson” of the day. I learn that today the temple has a visitor, Swami Acyutananda. and that he's one of this movement’s luminaries. Thirteen years ago his name was Chuck Barnett, he lived in New York City, and he was one of the first American youths to cast his lot with A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement. Prabhupada was Indian. Educated at the University of Calcutta. he worked for an Indian chemical firm until retirement, then renounced the material world. He sailed to the U.S. in 1965, at the age of sixty-nine, armed with only eight dollars in his pocket and the conviction that he had a mission. Chuck Barnett had chanted with the swami in New York’s Tompkins Park; as Acyutananda he had risen in the movement’s hierarchy over the years. I learn that he spent about ten years living with Hare Krishna people in India, but now he has returned home.
A pudgy man whose robes only partly conceal his girth, he settles down on cushions in front of the room facing the temple’s life-sized statue of Prabhupada (now deceased). He translates literally a verse of the Bhagavad Gita, the movement’s bible:
- “Mad bumblebees with great humming / Joyfully, hair on the body, creepers / Trees lotus flowers world saffron / In all directions, growing away, air festival.”
I figure it loses something in translation. The swami lectures for a while, then begins to field questions. His tone is peevish. When a devotee starts a query with a statement, the swami interrupts. “Are you asking me or telling me?” he snaps. “You ask submissively and I’ll answer you. . . . Let’s keep a little order around here!”
“Can someone come back in human form even if he has eaten meat?” another devotee ventures.
“Don’t worry about how karma's going to be worked out. . . . These are not transcendental questions; these are mundane questions.”
So when the lesson ends and I receive word that the swami will talk to me privately, I hestitate. All I’ve got are mundane questions. But the temple president reassures me and I leave the main temple room where the devotees have an hour to work on individual chanting. Up close, Acyutananda seems friendly; he still retains a faint New York accent and his air is worldly. He looks about thirty-eight, but later he tells me, wounded, that he’s only thirty. He says he got fat in India.
Like Badri, he seems to assume that I think the Hare Krishna followers are cultees. It’s a real religion, he says almost plaintively, adding something that I’m to hear over and over today. He says that the great thing about going to India (which all devotees are urged to do) is that the experience proves that you’re not an isolated freak. “When you’re there you see millions and millions of people who all dress just like we dress. They believe as we believe. And they all know that this is a religion which is thousands of years old!”
That religion is Hinduism, of which the “Krishna consciousness” movement is one sect (among thousands). The sect’s roots go back hundreds of years before the birth of Prabhupada. Like all Hindus, the Hare Krishna people believe that humans are trapped in a cycle of reincarnation; one is condemned to be born over and over again in a multitude of life forms while one gradually works out one’s karma and learns higher spiritual values. The trouble with this world — the material plane — is that all pleasures are ultimately shallow; along with every happiness inevitably comes a big dollop of suffering. The point of reincarnation is to let humans drink of earthly joys until they finally discern the underlying bitterness. Then, say the devotees, one begins to yearn to go back to Godhead.
Unlike some Hindu sects, the Hare Krishna people believe in a very individualized god, Krishna. They boast that thier books tell them exactly what he looks like, in contrast to the vaguely described Christian deity. His skin is grayish-blue; he has cymbals on the bottoms of his feet and peacock feathers in his crown.) The Vedic literature (including the Bhagavad Gita, which the devotees accept literally, like fundamentalists) also promises an afterlife in which individuals retain their identity as they enjoy eternal bliss. To get there, one must merely turn one's back on the material world and fill one’s consciousness with Krishna. And so the devotees abstain from all intoxicants and meat; they sleep little and eat less. Most are celibate, and even married couples trying to conceive children have sex only once a month — on the woman’s most fertile day — but the occasion is almost overshadowed by the extra hours of chanting required. The chanting is what particularly distinguishes the Hare Krishna people; in fact, they believe it’s the highest form of worship and that their special mission is to unleash on the world the sound of their god’s names.
The swami tells me that the robes, the unusual haircuts, the forehead marks are all just symbols, declarations that the devotee is following a spiritual quest. “It is not the life of a brainwashed person,” he says irritably. “It is the life of a person who wants to use everything in his lifestyle to emphasize his philosophy.” He bristles at the suggestion that the devotees are merely enamored with an exotic culture. “We’re not Indian-philes,” he asserts. “We don’t listen to raga music, for example, because it’s mundane. . . . Nobody thinks that a priest’s collar is Italian." Badri is growing nervous; it’s close to seven, and a persistent bell finally interrupts. It’s time for “the greeting of the deities.”
In the temple, all the men have prostrated themselves and the women kneel, foreheads to the floor. The altar curtains slowly open once more and this time sweet, taped music fills the room. Another aspect to the Krishna religion is this deity worship. The prone young people believe that these primitive, brightly colored statues on their altars are more than mere stone and metal; they believe Krishna and the other deities are actually present within them. So for the last hour, behind the curtains, specially trained devotees called pujaris have been removing the gods’ “night clothing,” then ritualistically bathing the icons in milk and other more exotic liquids, then decking them out in splendid raiment for the day. Now, as the devotees chant in unison, yet more ritual unfolds. It occurs to me that I’ve already sat through more than an hour of chanting, yet it hasn’t begun to bore me because it seems that every minute something new is happening. On the altar, a bare-chested young man moves with the slow grace of an underwater diver, offering first food, then incense, then fire; then he fans the gods. At a side altar another devotee sways, wafting incense past the fiberglass nose of the statue of Prabhupada. Periodically, a young bramhacari (a male celibate) dressed in saffron drifts from one young man to another, sharing the sweet scent of some flower, then depositing it on a ledge or on the floor, a leftover for the women, among whom the ritual repeats. Always, in the background, the chanting grows and then ebbs and builds again. A particularly sensual display, it seems to me, for a religion which so denigrates the world of the senses.
At eight the devotees disperse for more individual chanting or for breakfast. Surprisingly, the swami invites me to eat with him; he seems eager for the company. As a white-robed male devotee brings us plates heaped with Indian dishes, Acyutananda gripes that the apple juice is tasteless, then stuffs the sticky food into his mouth Indian-style, using his right hand. He tells me about his forthcoming book. The Autobiography of a Jewish Yogi, which, he says nonchalantly, is being considered for a movie script. He seems long removed from the skinny Jewish kid who chanted in the lower East Side park with the penniless guru in the mid-Sixties. But he’s an urbane conversationalist and he regales me with story after story about India. When he describes how shells exploded in the streets during the Indian communists' rule of the state of Bengal, I have to stifle a sudden mad impulse to murmur, “Holy cow!”
Finally, a young woman named Kamatavi comes to fetch me. A six-year temple resident, she’s in charge of women trainees and the occasional female visitors. She tells me that most devotees are now going off to daily tasks. Some work at the temple on everything from cooking to floral preparation. Some of the men are constructing an addition to the building. Still others scatter to generate the temple’s principal source of income.
A few years ago the Hare Krishna people were required to file with the police department regular financial statements in order to obtain solicitation permits. Then in November of 1975 a series of articles appeared in the San Diego Union which charged that devotees were misleading the public (by claiming that money collected on the streets was going to help the suffering, when in fact only a small percentage of it went to help buy food for the poor). The stories also pointed up financial inaccuracies, and the attention prompted the city attorney’s office to charge the Krishnas with two criminal violations of the city code. The figures published at the time provided an interesting insight into the temple’s mode of moneymaking. During a sixteen-month period, members collected more than $250,000, primarily through solicitation and the sale of books, incense, prayer beads, and scented oils; they spent fifty-three percent of the money on operating expenses and thirty-eight and a half percent on “religious work,” with the rest going to a few other outlets. The city’s charges backfired, however, when the judge ruled it unconstitutional for the Krishnas to have to apply for a solicitation permit. They haven’t done so since then. (Ironically, all other religious groups that solicit on the streets — the Children of God, for example — still have to fill out the forms; the judge’s ruling applied only to the Krishnas.)
Badri, the temple president, says the bulk of the group's money still comes from the same sources, among them, the working members, who tithe fifty percent of their income. He seems braced for the charge that inevitably confronts him, that soliciting temple members hustle the public obnoxiously hard. Locally, that aggressiveness has driven employees at the zoo, the airport, Seaworld (favorite soliciting locations) almost to the point of warfare with the religious sect. Nationally, it’s even prompted a Congressional effort to curb the practice. Badri shrugs his shoulders and concedes, “It’s probable that a few devotees may be a little over-zealous, and we apologize for that.” But he soon waters down the apology. “Have you ever been out at the zoo when the muscular dystrophy people are out there on their roller skates? I mean, spare me, if you don’t give them a donation, they cleat you.” He adds that devotees have to be “forceful” to overcome the resistance of the material world. Something else even further belies his claim that the temple doesn’t urge members to employ strong-arm tactics: a morning announcement period when the temple president reads off daily “scores” from San Diego and elsewhere. “Mother So and so,” he reports, for example. “Four hours in the airport; one hour in Oceanside. Eight big books, fifty BTGs [Back to Godhead, the Hare Krishna magazine]; ninety points!”
“Jai!” the assembled devotees cheer after each score, like sports fans applauding the daily points won by favorite teams.
This morning Kamatavi leads me to one of the houses rented by the Krishnas, where she introduces me to Nitai, a three-year veteran of Krishna consciousness. She’s looking after her twenty-month-old son, Goura, then this afternoon she’ll deposit him in a devotee nursery while she prepares flowers for the evening altars. A radiant blond, Nitai pads around the bare rooms wearing a long white cotton slip and a white eyelet blouse which stops at her midriff. Then she plops down cross-legged, lifts up her blouse, and casually nurses her child. She talks about her pursuit of Godhead: “Well, my sister became a devotee before I did. And I was a vegetarian for a long time, five years. I was baptized a Catholic but I searched for a long time through a number of the Christian religions.” She’d become an atheist, then had explored religions like Buddhism and Taoism. “And I benefited from them, but I still felt like something was missing.” Finally her sister’s alliance with the Krishnas, and their vegetarianism, attracted her, so she started hanging out with devotees in the Los Angeles area. She began chanting as an experiment and “Krishna started ben-edicting me with realizations of the heart. ... It’s like riding a bicycle.” Soon she was chanting the full sixteen rounds each day. “I decided everything else was a waste of time.”
Ironically, marriage pulled Nitai through the last barriers of resistance. She says around the time she began chanting she met her husband, a lapsed devotee, at a juice bar in Hermosa Beach. He had been previously married within the Hare Krishna group, then his first wife had “blooped” — left the movement totally — and he also had drifted partially out of the strict discipline. As Nitai and he became acquainted, they hardly “dated.” yet their courtship still was more personal than that of Krishna couples whose marriages are arranged by temple superiors. “We would get together and make garlands or do something like that,” Nitai recalls of her unorthodox romance. “But always in the presence of my sister and brother-in-law. He [her future husband) could see that I was sincere in Krishna consciousness, and I could see he was, too. We liked each other.” Finally, the couple got permission to wed.
Nitai tells me that her husband is now up in Laguna Beach, preparing to rejoin her shortly. When I visit her again later, however, she is more candid. She confesses that he has blooped once more. “Sometimes devotees fall into the ways of maya [the material world],” she shrugs sadly. She says that when he began drifting away from the Krishna program (after they had been married for quite a while), she’d finally realized that his lapse was affecting her, so she moved to San Diego with his blessing. “For a long time he was just coming down on Sundays. He would talk to me after the service for maybe fifteen minutes, then he’d split.” She expresses confidence that he hasn’t slipped far from the path to Godhead: he still follows many of the devotee rules of conduct; only a passion for “riding the big waves’* ensnares him. Nitai brightens. She says he’s now returned for a visit and she's certain that his intense love for his son will attract him back to the devotional life. “That’s what he really cares about. Oh, he likes me okay,” she says happily . “But he just loves Goura. ”
In his absence, her life has been simpler than normal. She rises daily at 3:00 a.m. and chants about six rounds, then attends the morning program and class (as long as Goura sleeps). After breakfast she cleans house, bathes the child, shops; sometimes she takes her son to Mission Bay. I’m curious about how she can occupy all her time. The tiny house contains almost no furniture, just a cushion on the living room carpet, four plants, a bookshelf containing The Herb Book, Fascinating Womanhood, and a few dozen Krishna texts.
“Do you ever read anything other than religious things?” 1 ask her.
“If I read anything besides the Vedic literature, I find there’s just no taste. It’s all dry. You wonder, ‘Why did I even pick this up?’ There’s no juice!” She tells me that her husband's problem is that he has a capacity for enjoyment. She has almost none, she says cheerfully. The blond hair glistens: her nursing child tickles her free bare breast with his toes. She looks as if she should be promoting milk in some television commercial.
A tap sounds at the door; the visitor is Candra, a shadow-thin woman with a pixie face and the short-cropped hair of one who has renounced her husband. She joined the Hare Krishnas eight and a half years ago. She grew up in a strict Catholic family, a wild, rebellious child who ran away at thirteen. She saw the Hare Krishna people for the first time chanting on the streets of San Francisco. “I just thought they looked so happy in the midst of that chaotic city. I felt that in the future that was what I was going to be doing.” Her first visit to the temple there failed to impress her (she disliked the vegetarian cuisine and the devotees’ lack of erudition), so she eventually returned to her home and high school in the East, where she excelled but felt a vast sense of irrelevance. (“I’d ask, ‘How will this help me to know my purpose on this planet?’ They’d answer, Don’t worry about your purpose on the planet.’”) When she sought to transfer to a prep school, she wrote on the application that she was only interested in “chanting the holy names of God.” The school replied that it didn’t like her attitude, so she wrote the local Hare Krishna temple and asked if she could join. Two days later, devotees showed up on her doorstep.
Candra says her parents violently opposed the conversion at first. “Then they visited me and they were very impressed. They could see how happy I was. . . . Now my father chants ‘Hare Krishna.’ I can’t believe it.” She giggles.
Candra works at the large Los Angeles temple as a pujari, one of the altar attendants. She’s visiting San Diego to pep up the local deity worship. Eagerly, she offers to show me the tools of her work. She leads the way to a small room behind the altar in the temple. It’s little more than a long closet, crammed with racks upon racks of different outfits — the divine wardrobe. Most are shapeless vestments made of satins and velvets and silks, some sewn in India but others produced by devotees here. Candra proudly plucks out one costume after another, and they fairly drip with ostentatious ornamentation: gold and silver filigree, rhinestones, and spangles; the most elaborate embroidery imaginable. I reflect that one could clothe an orphanage with the hours of labor invested in these clothes for statues, then Candra interjects that the San Diego temple doesn’t compare to the one in Los Angeles. Next we view the deities’ jewelry; Candra. thin and large-eyed, looks as entranced as a child in a life-sized doll house.
Mealtime comes at about 1:00 p.m. around here; it’s lunch and dinner rolled into one, for the devotees consume only twb meals a day. Among those who straggle back to the temple grounds is Brajabhadu. whom I had noticed and wondered about at the ceremonies this morning. At sixty-five her hair is snow white, but her face is smooth and serene, and she wears her maroon sari with a grace matched by few of the younger women. She tells me that she was living in Mexico City when devotees on the street invited her to dinner there. A former Catholic-turned-Christian Scientist-turned-Unitarian, she immediately approved of “the joyousness, the jubilation, and the good food.” After two years of study, she became initiated in December of 1973. “I could see that they were practicing what they were preaching,” she says.
Now she lives with another female devotee in an apartment near the Grand Avenue temple. She spends most of her morning and afternoon hours walking from house to house, passing out literature. At her age, she’s an exception not only among the San Diegans, but among all the sect members nationwide; more than ninety percent of them have been estimated to be under thirty. Earlier, I had asked why. “It’s true that older people are not joining,” Badri had acknowledged. “Maybe it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”
New dogs that they are, ISKCON’s leaders have readily embraced modern technology, however. A little later, Badri arranged for me to view a devotee-produced movie called The Hare Krishna People; to show the film he merely pops a film cartridge into a gleaming Fairchild projector which he’s set up in one of the temple waiting rooms. The slick, forty-five minute documentary depicts the steady march of Krishna consciousness worldwide. Now the movement counts 10,000 members in 120 temples located in cities ranging from Hong Kong to Bombay to London to Mexico City.
The film also provides an interesting insight into the corporate dominion of the devotees. There are scenes showing Gurukula, the movement’s primary and secondary school system to which Krishna kids (all those over five) are sent to study the paths to higher consciousness. There are glimpses of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, which has grown since 1972 to become the world’s largest publisher and distributor of English- and foreign-language editions of Indian spiritual classics. “Everything can be used in Krishna’s service, including business,” the announcer intones, introducing the devotee-run Spiritual Sky incense company, headquartered in Los Angeles, which rocketed to status as America’s largest incense manufacturer. Even the computer that does Spiritual Sky’s billing “chants” Hare Krishna, the narrator declares, as a picture flashes on the screen of an electronic terminal displaying the venerated words.
Pure propaganda, yet, as always, artfully done. When I flip on the light switch and blink at the brightness, I keep recalling one final, lovely image. The film’s conclusion had focussed on the thousand-acre ISKCON-owned dairy farm in New Vrn-davana in West Virginia (which just won first prize for ice cream at the local county fair. Badri had boasted to me), and a particularly evocative Indian melody had welled up on the soundtrack. On the screen, the cameras had tracked — in slow motion — about a dozen cows running across the hillside. The big triangle heads had bobbed giddily, the tails had swung through the air gaily, the spindly legs had lifted the swaying bodies weightlessly off the ground, and the cows had looked for all the world like they were dancing.
After lunch a group of the men venture forth to chant the names of Krishna, usually downtown but also sometimes in La Jolla (in the village or on the beach) or on the Mexican side of the border crossing. While the men go every day, the women seem to have to scramble for cars, so today I volunteer to take a load of passengers. One of the women, Chris, is an old habitue of Horton Plaza; in fact she decided to join the Hare Krishna movement not long after a devotee in the plaza invited her to lunch one day.
She’s twenty-two years old and she tells me she now knows “there’s no happiness in anything that’s real.” The product of a strict religious upbringing, Chris was a “Jesus freak” in high school, “’but I was a phony and I knew that I was a phony. I only did it because I knew that only religion separates man from the animals.” When she left that religion, she sank pretty low. She says she did drugs, slept around, got hooked on cigarettes, bit her fingernails, and resisted bathing. Two months after her luncheon encounter with the Krishnas, “I just surrendered everything. I was having so much trouble in the material world.” Now she’s living in a bhaktin ashram for females in training, studying, and awaiting instruction, at which time she’ll receive her Indian name.
Chris still bears signs of damage from some terrible automobile accident. She limps, and the ghost of a jagged laceration still scars her forehead. Her smile has a peculiar intensity. She seems to talk of nothing but the glories of Krishna consciousness. If any of the devotees fits the brainwashed cultist stereotype, it’s Chris, yet her happiness is obvious and touching, and in the plaza, during the breaks between chanting sessions, I have to admire her placid innocence. Even though some of the passersby react to her with hostility or rejection, Chris plods up to them smiling, patient, and "vulnerable as she tries to pass out her literature. “My, that was blissful,” she declares when we head back to the car after the outing. “Pleasing God pleases me!”
Back in the ashram, Chris and the other women have some time for chores or study or a quick nap, but I’m frankly hungry, so I head for the 6:00 p.m. dinner program (the devotees abstain from eating). About thirty people sit on the temple floor facing little trays and mats which hold paper plates and cups. Most look young and scruffy, beach people taking up the offer of a free meal. Dishing it up are be-robed Krishna men, who swish through the rows and bend over at each visitor, slopping one spicy Indian offering on the plates at a time. If the service is perfunctory, at least there’s plenty of food: fried zucchini, salad, rice, a corn-meal dish, vegetarian meatballs, other exotic tidbits. For dessert we get chopped fruit and big, fresh-baked peanut butter cookies. I’m amazed to see so many empty place settings; the proselytizing doesn’t seem too intense. Devotees are sitting and chatting with no more than a quarter of the diners, support for Badri’s contention that his flock talks religion only to those visitors who seem interested. He admits the program is designed to spread the holy word, however. Committed freeloaders eventually face a gently rebuke. “If they come for like two weeks in a row. we usually ask them if they could only come a little bit to make room for others, ’cause we can only cook so much. We have to have some practical limitation.”
Most of the beach people leave as soon as they’ve eaten, and the devotee men whisk the plates away as quickly as they filled them, preparing the temple for the last rites of the day: another Sanskrit lesson; more chanting. Glassy-eyed with fatigue, I can barely hold my head up. but at the end of a sixteen-hour day. some devotees still manage to dance as frenetically as any party-goers. The chanting resounds as vibrantly now as it did in the morning.
Afterward, in the new women’s ashram , five of us women, including Brajabhadu. the aging devotee, curl up around a straw mat spread out on the carpet. Ritualistically, we sip warm, sweet milk from white styrofoam glasses and we read from yet another account of Krishna’s activities. Mercifully, it ends quickly. Within seconds, den mother Kamatavi has tossed out sleeping bags on the living room floor and I collapse into mine as unceremoniously as a hiker at the end of a long, hard day’s trail.
What seems like a deep, dark moment later, I awake at 3:15 a.m. The other women have warned me that any sound resonates through the apartment house and can wake the neighbors. So they creep about silently, easing doors open and stepping in the bathtub without moving a noisy shower curtain. This first cold shower of the day is a quick one. but others will follow. In fact, one of the odd things about the Krishna women’s bathroom is the absence of any toilet paper; instead of using it, the women wash themselves after urinating and take showers after defecating.
When I finally emerge, dressed, after my own warm shower, the other two women have slipped out to the temple, and I find Kamatavi in the bedroom, where she sits cross-legged, back to the wall. The only sound comes from the clicking of her prayer beads and a part of her whispered prayer which rhythmically escapes: "krish. . .krish. krish. krish.” the sound drills softly into the quiet room. Out in the street, we walk in silence toward the temple two blocks away, still groggy before the first stimulant of the morning chant. Then a flash of movement catches our eyes. It’s a young woman bicycling north up Cass Street, heading to the temple. She’s a devotee. wearing a sari, but she’s hiked it up over her knees; they’re pumping like pistons. She whizzes down the middle of the empty road. The part of her sari which should cover her head lies collapsed on her shoulders, and her long light hair streams behind her like a contrail. Under the blue-white light of the streetlamps, she glows like an apparition. Then she’s past us.
For blocks in every direction silent homes are sheltering middle-class occupants who are sleeping off the effects of thanking God for Friday. It will be hours before they stagger out of bed. No one will know that a young girl pedaled by at 4:00 a.m. with such wild abandon. In the distance, I can still sec the receding figure; she holds her body taut, nearly upright. I'm glad I’ve had this glimpse of her, safe at least momentarily from the demons, as she flees through the dark and heads for her divine dance.