Statue Swami Prabhupada, Pacific Beach Temple. "Before I go to bed, I listen to Prabhupada's prayers and chanting."
I first met Robert Morrill in 1979. He was 27 and had moved the year before to San Diego with his wife and two young children. The family had settled into a modest apartment on Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach, a few doors down from the Hare Krishna temple, where Morrill served as president. I was writing an article about the local Hindu religious group, which then was thriving. About 60 young Americans lived on or near the temple grounds, their lives dedicated to serving the god they referred to as Lord Krishna. Several hundred more temple supporters were scattered throughout the county. San Diegans saw a lot of the devotees. They ventured out into the streets every day, chanting the movement's mantra. They solicited money at the airport and tourist attractions. There was talk of passing laws to restrain their aggressive exuberance.
About 4:30 a.m. every day, devotees begin to gather in the temple. "We sing songs of praise to Krishna, and then we also engage in japa meditation."
Badrinarayan dasa (the Hindu name Morrill assumed when he was initiated into the religion) struck me as being down-to-earth and smart and funny, in a streetwise, self-deprecating way. He charmed me with a quote from Srila Prabhupada, the Indian mystic who had sailed to the U.S. in 1965, at the age of 69, to found the Krishna-worshipping sect in America. "Prabhupada said there's no such thing as bad publicity," the young temple president reassured me, explaining that any dissemination of the words Hare Krishna was beneficial. In that spirit, he welcomed my request to spend 24 hours living with his flock, getting to know them. I would see they weren't the brainwashed cultists that ignorant outsiders often made them out to be.
New temple in Escondido. ISKCON acquired the Rincon Avenue property for $560,000, and "The escrow papers were stamped and signed and recorded on Krishna's birthday in 1999."
And that was more or less what I concluded. The austerity of the devotees' lives amazed me. They arose at 3:15 a.m. every morning, then headed for the temple and hours of chanting. ("The ether" was very pure then, one informed me. "The demons aren't around.") Even married couples could only have sex for reproductive purposes. The women with whom I lived took cold showers -- and they showered every time they had a bowel movement. Talk of the "material world" repulsed them. Still, the reasons they gave for joining the movement made as much sense to me as those of any convert to a more familiar religion: they were seeking a higher purpose in their lives. They had come to believe that the creator of the universe deserved their full attention.
Statue of Swami Prabhupada, Pacific Beach Temple. "Prabhupada said there's no such thing as bad publicity."
After my initial story ran, I expected to visit the temple from time to time. The theology didn't entice me, but I'd been dazzled by the beauty of the services. I loved the throbbing interplay of the drums and the cymbals and the devotees' frenzied songs. Somehow, though, I never found the time. Decades passed.
One day, I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen the Krishnas out chanting. When I stopped by the temple to ask why, the polite young man behind the counter suggested I talk to Badrinarayan dasa.
He has since moved to another little house in Pacific Beach, I discovered, and is long divorced, his children grown. He is no longer the temple president. Instead, he serves as regional director for the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), in charge of overseeing the Hare Krishna temples not only in San Diego, but also Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, Las Vegas, Denver, Boulder, Boise, and Salt Lake City. He's one of the half-dozen Americans who represent the United States on the religion's international governing body, which meets once a year in India. Badrinarayan thus spends a lot of time on airplanes, and he wades through mountains of e-mail. But when I asked if I might get an update from him on the local religious group, he promptly agreed to meet me at the temple.
Every Friday night for six dollars visitors can fill up on Mexican or Italian or other vegetarian offerings. Another meal served Sunday evening features vegetarian food from India.
If it had changed since my visit in '79, I couldn't see how. Built in 1932 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the structure first served as a barracks, then later became an Elk's Lodge. When the Krishnas acquired it 30 years ago, they transformed the interior into something so opulent it seems like a trick of Hollywood. Awash in creamy tones — ivories and peaches and pale baby blues — and illuminated by six chandeliers, the hall gives way to three recessed altars bearing doll-like representations of the Hindu deity, surrounded by flowers and gilded statuary and heavy, glittering fabrics. Elaborate friezes carry the lavish exoticism into the main section of the room, where Hindu arches frame paintings of religious scenes. Along one wall, a canopy shelters a life-sized likeness of the movement's founder. Startling in its realism, the figure sits cross-legged, serene and ageless, as if some Vedic spell had frozen the gnomish Indian in time.
The Pacific Beach temple is the only one that does the puja [worship] in the strict, authentic way."
Time has wrought subtle changes in Badrinarayan. A tall, lean man, the skin under his chin has loosened over the years, and some gray has stolen through his short, dark hair. He's less dogmatic in his pronouncements than he once was. But he's still a cordial raconteur.
He was eager to tell me stories about the new temple the local congregation is planning to build. In 1999, when the leadership decided the need for a larger facility was "unavoidable," Badrinarayan was dispatched to Tirupati, one of the most famous of the holy cities in India, where "there are scholars who are very learned in Vedic sacred architecture, going back for generations." He says he gave them the San Diego congregation's wish list: a temple that would be twice the size of the existing one, a 7000-square-foot cultural hall, a couple of classrooms, a dormitory for the monks. He asked the scholars to help design the basic layout. "They asked me if we had the land yet," he recalls. "They said, 'Get the land first, because from the land comes the design.' " That made sense, the San Diego religious leader agreed. He asked if he should look for anything in particular during the search for property. "And they said, 'Well, there are a few things. Like, oh, it has to be cow-shaped, not lion-shaped. It has to be high in the south and slope down to the north. Single road in front. Open to the west. Open to the east. Five types of fruit trees growing spontaneously. Water flowing over it.' "
Badrinarayan says that when he returned and began giving realtors this shopping list, "I had people hang up on me. One guy said, 'This isn't funny, Charlie,' I guess I sounded like one of his friends, and he thought it was a practical joke.
"But here's the beautiful part," he continued. "One of our senior monks was visiting. He's an old friend of mine, and he said, 'How's it going with the land?' And I said, 'Well, we're not finding anything.' " When his friend asked for a car and driver to help with the hunt, "I thought, well...maybe. We believe in miracles. And it'll keep him out of my hair for a while." The first day his friend had no success. "Second day, they got lost out in Escondido. Instead of going down Country Club, they were going down Rincon, and they ran up against these hills and realized their error." Getting out to stretch his legs, the visiting monk noticed a sign announcing that a 24-acre site was for sale. "He said, 'Hey, wait a minute. High in the south. Slopes in the north. Single road in front.' He called me, and I said, 'Hare Krishna! Just stay there!' " When he saw the shape of the property, he realized it conformed to what the Indian pundits had ordered. "Lion-shaped means wider in the front," he explains. "A piece of property like that will cause you difficulty. They will gobble; they will eat. It will cost you money. And cow-shaped means it's thinner in the front and wider in the back, and it'll give milk. It'll be sweet."
When Badrinarayan later toured the land with a real-estate agent, "I didn't see any water flowing across it." Although he knew building a pond would rectify this, he thought he might negotiate a better price by pointing out the deficiency. "But she said, 'Come with me.' We went over these small hills into the back of the property, and there was a flume from Lake Dixon that runs across it there. So then I thought, 'Well, that didn't work.' And I said, 'There should be five types of fruit trees growing spontaneously.' She said, 'Well, check it out.' There were avocado s. There were olives. There were persimmons. There were oranges. There were lemons. Five types of fruit trees growing spontaneously."
Later, in accordance with additional Vedic instructions, Badrinarayan and some of the other temple members dug a hole on the property to the depth of an elbow. "You pour a little less than a liter of milk into the hole, and you chant the first line of a sacred prayer called the gayatri. And as you're finishing that mantra, the milk should have drained away. Not before. Not after. And it did that." He sent maps of his find off to India, and the pundits e-mailed him back: "Land all auspicious," it read. "Perfect for temple. Get at all costs."
Badrinarayan says ISKCON acquired the Rincon Avenue property for $560,000, and "The escrow papers were stamped and signed and recorded on Krishna's birthday in 1999. That was in August." The group then sought a conditional-use permit from the City of Escondido, and an extended battle ensued, with community critics complaining that the mass and scale of the project would change the rural character of their neighborhood, and increased traffic going to and from the temple would harm the environment. In June of 2000, however, the council gave the Krishna devotees a green light, and the architects in India began producing detailed drawings. They came up with "great elevations. Great floor plans. Great site plans," Badrinarayan says. "But, as they say, the devil's in the details. I'll give you an example of the kind of thing we went through. You have to do a complicated ingress/egress study that shows how the handicapped will have access to everything." The Indian architects' plans did this for all the changes in elevation that were more than two feet high. But for obstacles under two feet, "Nothing was detailed; it was as if they had never looked at it. So I called them in Delhi, and I said, 'You know this isn't going to work?' and their response was, 'Won't their friends help?' Which is kind of sweet, you know? And in India, it's true. There's no question. If someone is in a wheelchair, there'd be 15 people ready to help him. But I said, 'You know, it's a little colder here in the West. It doesn't work that way.' And there were just so many things like that, where they didn't quite put Tab A to Tab B."
Realizing, at last, that having the Indian architects design the new temple wasn't going to be practical, the congregation embarked on an extended search for an American firm. Early in 2005, they hired Hyndman & Hyndman, the Cardiff architects who oversaw the construction of the Mormon Temple on Interstate 5 and won a Grand Orchid award for the design of St. Gregory's in Scripps Ranch. "They're very competent. We couldn't be happier with them," Badrinarayan told me. Another delay in the project resulted when problems with water pressure caused the City of Escondido to impose a building moratorium. That has since been lifted, and the city has signed off on all the site plans. The religious leader says final construction drawings will be submitted to the City by the end of the year, and "We hope by the grace of Krishna to break ground by the spring or summer of 2007. But," he rolled his eyes, "it's a spiritual building. And sometimes Krishna has his own way of doing things."
When the new temple opens, the one in Pacific Beach will continue to operate. "There's already a congregation big enough to support this," Badrinarayan says. "We have a lot of people who live in South Bay or La Jolla or downtown. There's a lot of kids there — college students. They come to the temple. You'll see people on their way to work or school. People just stop in, offer some prayers, and go on." As if to confirm his words, a young Indian couple who had entered the temple and knelt before the altar rose to leave, greeting Badrinarayan as they passed him. They were tourists from India, the young woman said, but they loved visiting Hare Krishna temples on their travels. "Wherever you make a trip, you feel like your family is there," she enthused.
"Srila Prabhupada said it's like a spiritual embassy," Badrinarayan agreed. "In any country you visit, you have a little embassy from the spiritual world. Okay, you guys, stay out of trouble. Don't do anything I wouldn't do. That's a long list too!" The couple looked puzzled, but Badrinarayan assured them he was joking. "Hare Krishna," he bid them goodbye.
Fewer than two dozen devotees live in and around the Pacific Beach temple today -- a fraction of those who once made it the center of their lives. But the number of names on the local Hare Krishna mailing list has burgeoned over the years, according to Badrinarayan. That list now contains almost 2500 households, including everyone from daily worshippers to those who might only drop in once a year for a big festival. Badrinarayan says the zip codes on the mailing list have revealed that more than half the temple's supporters live along Interstate 15 in the North County. That's why the group was looking for building sites in Escondido. The leader says economic forces helped to drive the population shift, as home prices in Pacific Beach skyrocketed. Another factor has been the influence of local East Indians.
From a handful at the end of the 1960s, the number of immigrants from India living in San Diego County has exploded. According to Raj Chadha, many have been drawn to Poway and surrounding communities by the good reputation of the Poway school district. Born in Jullundur in the Indian state of Punjab, Chadha came to San Diego by way of Winnipeg, Canada. There he completed a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry and joined the University of Manitoba faculty before accepting a job at UCSD in 1988. The family now lives in a large, gracious home in Carmel Mountain Ranch. Chadha spends his days analyzing various compounds with X-ray crystallography at the Scripps Institution. He worships at the Pacific Beach Hare Krishna temple.
A short, balding man with deep-set, expressive eyes, Chadha says the Pacific Beach facility was the only Hindu worship center in the county when he moved here. On his very first visit, it captivated him. "I saw this beautiful deity, and the people were chanting hymns, and I loved that." Moreover, it seemed clear to the professor that the temple's religious practices "could not be more authentic. The deity worship is just as they do in Vrindavan — you know, the birthplace of Lord Krishna. They do it so much according to the scriptures."
Although the Hare Krishna movement began in the United States, Chadha says it was never viewed with suspicion in India. Prabhupada's movement belonged to the Vaishnavite religious tradition — the one to which the majority of the 800 million Hindus in India adhere. ("Vaishnavism" means the worship of Vishnu, of whom Krishna is one incarnation.) Monotheistic and personal, this tradition has roots going back thousands of years. It contrasts with the polytheistic form of Hinduism popularized in the United States in the late 1800s by Swami Vivekananda.
Chadha says his own father was a devout Vaishnava. "He used to get up at four o'clock in the morning, when we were all asleep, and all we would hear was the chanting of the hymns." When Prabhupada took some of those same devotional practices to America, "A lot of people in India were really appreciative that somebody had gone outside to give the message of our culture."
Today Chadha is involved in several aspects of the Pacific Beach temple life. Twice a month, he sings or plays the tabla at the devotional music program that takes place from 6:00-7:00 p.m. every Saturday. He also often attends the Sunday evening services that run from 6:00-8:00, and he sometimes drops in to pray on his own, since the temple is not far from his workplace. He and his wife have talked about one day taking initiation -- a more serious level of religious commitment that requires, among other things, chanting 16 daily "rounds" of the Hare Krishna mantra. (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.) Each round consists of repeating the 16-word incantation 108 times, a practice that the devotees keep track of with a set of wooden japa beads. "My wife chants more than I. She does 10 or 12 rounds a day. I just started. I'm at 2 now." Chadha cackled and added, "When we're both at 15, then we'll take initiation!"
Chadha pointed out that besides serving as his spiritual home, the temple also had influenced his social life. He met most of his friends there. By 1991, links forged in the temple had connected him with the majority of the 500 Indian families who were living in the county. Since then, however, the number of Indian immigrant families has multiplied by an estimated tenfold. "The influx has been so fast, I haven't been able to keep up." To serve them all, two more temples have appeared on the scene. One on Black Mountain Road opened in the mid-'90s, while another on Arjons Drive opened four or five years ago. "They also follow the mainstream Hindu culture, but they're more for socializing," Chadha says. "People who really want to do their serious spiritualism, they go to the Pacific Beach temple. It's the only one that does the puja [worship] in the strict, authentic way."
The man who presides over the Pacific Beach temple also is an ethnic Indian. Known as Sikhi Mahiti, his calm and serene demeanor contrasts with Chadha's animated friendliness. Now 36, Sikhi Mahiti lives with his wife Karuna in one of the little bungalows that adjoin the temple on Grand Avenue.
"Generally, we arise at four in the morning," the president told me. About 4:30 a.m. every day, devotees begin to gather in the temple. "We sing songs of praise to Krishna, and then we also engage in japa meditation -- the quieter chanting. This can be done individually. But when we sit together, we encourage each other," he said. A reading and discussion of sacred scripture consumes another hour or so, then the devotees disperse to attend to various chores. "We have the temple to maintain. It has to be cleaned. Someone needs to cook." Assisting the congregation requires attention. "Like today, someone passed away, so we have to give support there and perform the rituals and the ceremonies."
Sikhi Mahiti says some of the full-time temple residents work on outreach programs -- approaching people on the street and offering to explain the religion. But whereas street solicitation and sales of Hare Krishna literature once generated most of the temple's income, financial support nowadays mainly comes from tithing and member donations. A Krishna-run program that sells vegetarian food on the campuses of UCSD and San Diego State also brings in some funds, but the temple no longer operates the two "Govinda's" restaurants that were open for many years in North Park and Leucadia. They had trouble breaking even, Badrinarayan says. Serving food that's "prepared with love and devotion in a mood of offering to God" is part of the spiritual teaching, according to Sikhi Mahiti. So every Friday night the devotees set up tables and chairs and screens within the temple. They light candles on the tables. Within this café-like setting, for six dollars visitors can fill up on Mexican or Italian or other vegetarian offerings. Another meal served after the Sunday evening worship service always features vegetarian food from India. Food has proven a powerful magnet for interested newcomers, the temple leaders say.
I asked Sikhi Mahiti how he first learned about the Hare Krishnas. That happened in South Africa, he told me. Born in Durban of Indian parents, he was studying science and business at the University of Capetown in 1989 when he met some devotees who were running a yoga club. They taught him about the movement's beliefs. Through his parents, he'd had some exposure to Vaishnavism "in a general sense," but that felt more like a family tradition than a rigorous philosophical enterprise. "Especially if you're exposed to a very scientific skeptical tradition in the educational system, you're not going to do something just because your parents did it. That's not good enough. But if you really go deeply into what Srila Prabhupada presented, then you see that the core of the Hindu tradition is very, very deep and very, very appealing." To him, it seemed cohesive and practical and even scientific.
After graduation Sikhi Mahiti went to work for a company that had given him a scholarship, but he found himself getting more and more involved in the Capetown temple life. He says he came at last to feel he had a calling as a monk. "I felt it more fulfilling to be completely involved," he says. But for "the vast majority of our members," a less drastic form of commitment is just as legitimate.
If I wanted to talk to someone who had moved the other way -- going from full-time temple immersion to careers in the secular world -- I should contact Malcolm and Sylvia Perey, Mahiti suggested. I met the couple one evening at their home near Mesa College, where Sylvia served up tasty little cheese balls and her husband poured tall glasses of wild blueberry juice. Both look fitter than average for Americans in their late 40s, Malcolm a powerfully built man with a thick head of dark, gray-flecked hair, Sylvia a petite blonde with a high-wattage smile. A photographic print on the living room wall bears witness to a younger Malcolm in what looks to be another lifetime. In this photo he's shaven-headed and dressed in saffron robes, kneeling in a crowd of other monks a few feet from Srila Prabhupada. Sylvia's not in the picture, but she too once wore nothing but saris. The clay tilok painted on the forehead to signal devotion to Krishna was once her only makeup.
It was her father who first took her to the Los Angeles Hare Krishna temple; she was in junior high then. "He'd been a disciple of Paramahansa for about 12 years, and then my brother introduced him to Krishna consciousness. He immediately took it up." On those occasions when Sylvia accompanied her parent to the temple, "I'd see my dad dancing in the middle with them all." As much as she loved the music, "To tell you the truth, what I was really attracted to was the philosophy -- the stories my dad would read to me. I used to read Kahlil Gibran and all those philosophical books."
Despite that allure, she didn't fully embrace the Hare Krishna lifestyle until four years after she'd graduated from high school. She was married to her first husband by then, with two daughters, one six months old and the other approaching her second birthday. "I looked around, and I said, 'I've got to raise them in a little bit better situation.' " She and her husband moved to San Diego in 1980, renting a small home on Thomas Street in Pacific Beach. Even though she wasn't living within the temple itself, "Everything I did revolved around it. Everything." She helped run the temple's nursery and worked at the evening dinner programs, made garlands and distributed books, and dressed the deities. She attended multihour worship sessions before dawn and after sunset, and she worked her way up to the two hours of daily chanting. In 1983 she was initiated. Her guru gave her the name of Jayasri devi dasi ("servant of the goddess of fortune").
Sylvia's marriage didn't survive her spiritual odyssey, and she says that for a while the temple helped support her and her daughters. By 1987, she was earning a small salary from her work as the hostess at the Govinda's restaurant in North Park. That's where she met Malcolm. He too had a child from a failed marriage. His daughter was three in 1988 when they got married. Sylvia's two girls were about eight and nine.
Malcolm had been raised in Phoenix as a Lutheran. An avid reader, by 16 he'd developed "an unquenchable thirst" for works on yoga and philosophy and mysticism. When a friend stopped by his house with some literature he'd gotten from a Krishna devotee at the local food market, Malcolm suggested the two go and learn more about the sect. "I found out they had a small center in town, about three or four miles from my house." He became a regular visitor, and by the time summer rolled around, he was spending many nights in the ashram. He stopped eating meat.
I asked Malcolm how his mother and stepfather greeted this transformation. She was a devout Christian, he a retired dairy farmer from upstate New York. "Both were very supportive," he said, an attitude he helped to foster by keeping them informed about his soul-searching. "Even though I was young, I tried to communicate with them. I'd come home after the Sunday programs and bring them some of the nice foodstuffs." He tried to make sure they knew where he was.
He returned to his senior-year high school classes in the fall of 1975, but by early spring of the following year he'd decided to make a pilgrimage to India with the other local devotees. "I even went to some of my family members and said, 'Hey, can you pitch in to help me go?' " To make up the difference between what he collected and what he needed, he sold his bicycle and other possessions. The Indian travels lasted six or seven weeks and introduced him to Srila Prabhupada, and when he came back, Malcolm dropped out of high school, promising his mother he would later finish his studies. (He says he did eventually take some college classes after getting his GED certificate.) "I then joined up with some devotees who had a mobile home and different vans. We would travel to different places."
Monastic life suited him at first. "I was very young, and I had an appetite for study and the spiritual practices." He says he imagined he would spend his life living with other devotees and finding useful things to do. "I've always been a very ambitious and applied type of individual, so even within the Krishna society, I was always busy working on some project." He toiled on a Pennsylvania farm for a while, then moved to New York City and gained experience at both a Krishna-operated restaurant and a printing press. Eventually, back in Phoenix, he heard from another devotee about a new restaurant being planned in San Diego, so he traveled west and moved into the Pacific Beach temple. "We opened up the Govinda's in Leucadia. Later we expanded to North Park. I was the head cook there for a long time."
He started to think about moving out of the temple, a prospect that Malcolm said caused him no anguish. "You have certain aspirations when you're a teenager, and then in your early 20s, your mind starts maturing." Marriage begins to look appealing. "You start thinking, 'Okay, I've got to get settled in. I've got to get a good, solid occupation.' " Temperament also played a role in his decision. Life in a temple is austere, "And you're more dependent on the circumstances. I found that I wanted more independence." When he finally moved out, "It felt like it was the right thing to do. There was no feeling that I had failed or was stepping out of the inner circle or anything like that."
The transition to secular life wasn't traumatic either. "Sometimes people think, 'Oh, in the Hare Krishna movement you don't work.' But actually, I've always been pretty energetic, and I've always liked doing something. I think on my feet. I'm good with my hands, and I love interacting with people. And a lot of things you learn in a devotional life are transferable" to the workaday world, Malcolm argues. "You're on time. You treat other people respectfully. You're organized. You're clean. And obviously the temple schedule has deadlines and timelines."
After leaving the job at Govinda's, Malcolm found carpentry work in the residential remodeling company operated by another devotee. One job brought him to the attention of the Family Fitness Centers (now 24-Hour Fitness), and the company hired him to help maintain its facilities. That was 15 years ago. "I'm a divisional director," Malcolm told me. "I take care of 72 locations. We've got approximately 50 technicians and 7 supervisors who report to me. It's a great company to work for!"
Sylvia also sounded enthusiastic about her job as the assistant manager for a San Diego-based publication aimed at chiropractors. Maintaining the trim little house she and Malcolm bought in 2003 also keeps the couple busy, as do their commitments to the Pacific Beach temple.
"He's there a lot more than I am," Sylvia said.
"I try to help out where I can," Malcolm acknowledged. He's tried to structure a program for maintaining the building on Grand Avenue, and he says he and his wife also contribute money to the temple's support. Both chant, although Sylvia says she sometimes only manages a couple of rounds a day. Her husband, in contrast, still devotes two hours daily to reciting the mantra. He rises at 5:00 a.m. and at the little altar to Krishna that he's set up in his living room, "I'll offer some flowers and some incense and maybe a little dried fruit and water. I try to chant a little before we work." He chants when he's on the road and his cell phone isn't interrupting him. At night he chants some more.
Both Sylvia and Malcolm told me they don't go out of their way to tell strangers about their religion, but they're happy to discuss their spiritual practices whenever the topic comes up. "People like it, almost," Sylvia said. Years ago, Malcolm said, the news that he was a Hare Krishna devotee would sometimes repulse people, "but I haven't encountered that for a long time."
Someone who does run into open hostility from time to time is Tota Gopinath, whose full-time job is "outreach" for the local temple. Five or six days a week, "We go out. We distribute books. We do different college programs," he said. "Probably a good 75 percent of the people say, 'No thank you.' They refuse very politely." Only a "small percentage" are aggressive or negative in rebuffing him. Another "very small percentage" accept the religious literature with alacrity. "They'll say, 'Great! This is something I've been looking for.' " Those sorts often donate money, he says.
Although his name might suggest Indian heritage, that's deceptive. Tota Gopinath was born 23 years ago in the Utah Valley, a bastion of conservative Mormonism. "My parents were not on the very, very strict side," he recalls. "But a lot of my friends were. You grow up in that kind of environment and the influences are there, no matter what your family's like." Baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when he was 8, he attended Mormon services every Sunday until the age of 11 or 12.
By high school, he had lost his faith. "The dynamics of the culture there is that there's always a mood amongst the youth of rebellion. So yeah. I guess you could say I hung around with the wrong crowd -- not very religious people." He remembers talking with his teenage friends about why they didn't believe in God. The lack of direct contact with a Supreme Being fed Tota Gopinath's skepticism, he says. "I thought, 'If there is a God, there must be someone who has had contact with Him. Or I should be able to see or realize Him in some way.' Lacking such evidence, why should I believe there was such a thing? I saw a lot of hypocrisy in my surroundings -- people who professed to be very religious but acted in an irreligious way. That also made me cynical."
His life changed when he was about 18 and he spotted a Hare Krishna devotee passing out books at a punk-rock concert. He knew something about ISKCON because of the festivals mounted by the Hare Krishna temple in Spanish Fork, about an hour south of Salt Lake City. In the monochromatic cultural landscape of the Utah Valley, the temple's annual Festival of India stood out like a Moroccan bazaar, and Tota Gopinath's parents had taken him to it at an early age. "A lot of the people who live there just go and enjoy the entertainment, although they don't agree with a lot of the beliefs," he recalls. "They think it's an interesting thing to do." When he spotted the devotee at the concert, he approached him and said he had visited the temple. "He said, 'Wow, that's great.' He gave me a book and I made a donation." Later, reading it, "Everything just clicked for me. Everything made sense."
The book presented a series of conversations with Srila Prabhupada. The movement's founder sounded to the young ex-Mormon like someone who had experienced God directly and was able to put what that felt like into words. "Even though I was brought up with a religious background, I had never encountered that in anyone else." The guru seemed to know what the absolute truth was. "And that's another thing I didn't find growing up. No real analytical knowledge of who we are and why we're here." The young man followed up his reading by attending the next temple festival. "There I met all the devotees, and they killed me with kindness," he says. "I felt a big connection, a big awakening within myself."
He says he made a point to share with his family the direction of his evolving thoughts. "I would read to my mother different things, and she appreciated it." She'd been worried about the crowd her son had been drawn to, "So she was relieved to see me finding some kind of solace."
When, a few months after his high school graduation, he announced that he wanted to move into the temple and start down the path to monkhood, he says his parents had some practical questions. They wondered what he would eat, how he would dress. But the son says they came to agree that some people need to dedicate themselves to God.
He acquired the name Tota Gopinath two years later, when he was initiated into the religion in Los Angeles. The ceremony "takes place in a temple, and there's a fire sacrifice. There were a group of us. It's quite a joyous occasion. When you see someone dedicating their life and making a vow, it inspires you, so a lot of devotees come and watch."
Since then he'd worked in the Utah temple, then in December of 2004 he moved to San Diego. A sense of compassion had convinced him the proselytizing was important. He could see how embracing the religion had transformed his life. "And I can see how that kind of change is required for everyone. You shouldn't spend your life in illusion." He had come to think it was "a form of torture...a suffering condition not to know who you are and what's going on around you." If he could help alleviate that by enlightening people, that was satisfying.
His favorite spots for approaching people were Balboa Park and downtown, though Ocean Beach and La Jolla were also frequent haunts. In shopping malls, he'd found that "people are less inclined to hear some transcendental knowledge." They have their minds on shopping. "However, if you go to a university and say something like, 'What do you think about spiritual awareness?' they'll talk to you for hours. Actually, it's something that's on most people's minds. It may become covered over from time to time, but I think it's something everyone thinks about."
I asked Gopinath if he thought he would ever get married and move out of the temple. "If I had my way, I would prefer to just remain in the ashram forever," he said. He loved "the simplicity of things," and he felt he was missing out on nothing. "I have sufficient relationships with the people around me. I'm totally satisfied. That's a strong statement, and I probably shouldn't say it, but I do feel I'm where I'm supposed to be."
He allowed that "We have seen a lot of people in the movement who have thought the way I think now and have still gotten married later." If that happened to him, his training in the ashram would nonetheless serve him well. But it might not come to that; history had demonstrated that for some individuals, "It is possible to remain in a monastical life and be satisfied."
Badrinarayan appears to be such an individual. Monkhood was "a natural calling for me. I enjoy the simplicity and the austerity. I think it keeps a sharp edge on my consciousness." It also gives him a great sense of freedom. "[It] comes from not being controlled by one's senses. Like, I saw a T-shirt the other day. It said, 'Instant idiot: just add alcohol.' Or if you want to sell a car, you put a half-naked woman on it. What does a half-naked woman have to do with buying a car? There's a deep peace and happiness and satisfaction that is tasted when one is freed from all those things."
Raised in the Christian tradition, Badrinarayan by his mid-teens was wrestling with doubts about that belief system. "How do you explain evil?" he wondered. "How do you explain that somebody is born blind while someone else is born with sight? Why do good things happen to bad people? If God is all-powerful and all-merciful, then how do you explain the suffering of this world? Either He's capricious, or He's doing the best he can but he's not omnipotent." The brevity of one's worldly life within the Christian perspective also troubled him. "We only had one life, but how much of it did we spend conscious, but unconscious; you know, reading the back of the cereal box? And then if you didn't become a full lover of God, you would burn forever in hell? That didn't seem very fair."
He searched for answers in mystical sources ranging from the Rosicrucian manifestos to the teachings of Krishnamurti. But he says it was only when he read Prabhupada's translation of The Bhagavad-Gita that "everything fell into place, and I thought, 'This is what I'm looking for.' " The whole concept of karma -- "that there's a progression, and each life is a lesson, and people pick up in their next life where they left off in their last one" -- made sense to him. And if that was true, then cultivating one's consciousness and spiritual advancement was the natural purpose of life.
"But at first I didn't connect the Gita with the devotees," he recalls. Laguna Beach ("a wild place in those days") was home to some Krishna worshippers. "The first ones I ever saw were on a motorcycle. I'd been surfing, and I almost stepped across a red light and zoop! The devotees flew by me: saffron robes, shaved heads, ponytails flying. I said, 'Oh my God, I've been in the sun too long.' " He claims he would later cross the street to avoid groups of them out chanting. But one day his brother persuaded him to attend a feast at the little Hare Krishna temple in town. "He said, 'They've got a great vegetarian dinner. And we can go shoot pool afterward.' " Badrinarayan relented. "I thought, 'I can sit through anything for an hour. It'll be a sociological survey.' "
At the temple, he noticed a copy of Prabhupada's translation of The Bhagavad-Gita -- "which I loved! So I said, 'Oh, do you teach from this?' I thought maybe they used The Book of the Dead one day, this the next. But they said, 'Oh, no. This is the cornerstone book of our tradition. It's written by the founder of our society.' And I said, 'Oh! I'm saving my money. I want to go to India to meet him.' And they said, 'You don't have to go to India. He's on a writing retreat in Los Angeles.' "
Sixteen at the time, Badrinarayan says he wound up offering to drive a carload of devotees up to visit the movement's founder. That first meeting remains etched in his memory. "Before he even spoke, I thought, 'This is someone whose consciousness is deeply moored in something profound.' There was no question about it. And he had a wonderful sense of humor. He didn't like gossip. But he loved a great joke. Here was somebody who was definitely fully God-conscious."
Within a year, the young seeker had horrified his well-to-do parents by announcing he wouldn't be going to college but instead planned to devote his life to the movement. "If I'd been more intelligent and more mature, I would have dealt with them in a much different fashion," he says today. "But you know, I just renounced everything, and it broke their hearts." They in turn disowned him. "I got a letter from my father's attorney, saying, 'You're out of this trust. You're out of this will. You can't step foot on any of the properties.' " One line his father wrote in his own hand: " 'If I could take away your last name, I would.' " Badrinarayan comments, "That's fried."
In the decades since, he says his parents have become reconciled to his eccentric career path. "I think it's the trajectory of life," he speculates. "They've seen how other people have turned out. They see that I'm happy. That my kids turned out all right. And they think, 'Well, he's doing something worthwhile with his life.' "
Badrinarayan declined to talk about what had happened in his marriage. "It was a long, sad story, and it's sufficient to say that I got custody of the kids." He added that he didn't want to embarrass them or his ex-wife but agreed to ask his son and daughter if they would talk to me about what it had been like to grow up within the religion. Both assented.
I talked to Nila Morrill and his older sister Anasuya in separate phone conversations, but the two echoed each other's feelings about a number of things. They concurred that some of their earliest memories were of the Pacific Beach temple and its inhabitants. A major event in both their young lives occurred when they were sent away at the ages of seven and eight to the Hare Krishna boarding school nestled against the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. That "was a mix of some good and some bad aspects," Nila said. "At that age, it was really difficult to be so far away from my parents." The regime was strict. The children rose at four every morning. "We prayed," Anasuya recalled. "We did chores. We went to school Monday through Saturday," and religion and Sanskrit were required along with more mundane subjects.
"I know there were a lot of times that I probably hated it," Nila told me. "But at the same time, there was a lot of fun kid stuff too. We were up in the mountains, and there were some camplike aspects. That was cool." Furthermore, all their friends were at the school. "It definitely didn't feel like I was being sent off to this unknown thing. There wasn't anything strange about it to me."
Both Badrinarayan's children remember their entry a few years later into public schools as being a far more traumatic passage. Anasuya was in sixth grade when her parents' marriage broke up. For a while, she attended Orange Glen Elementary in Escondido. "That was a really huge shock, because I'd been so sheltered." Her lifelong vegetarianism made her eccentric, plus, "I didn't understand all the different dynamics, like how boys and girls relate to each other." For a year or more, she struggled. "And then, to be honest with you, I kind of merged in." She spent two years living in Florida with her mother, then returned to San Diego and attended Mission Bay High School, where she says she thrived.
Her brother didn't fare as well. The kids in public school seemed "harsh" and wild, Nila said. "Like, I didn't swear. There were a lot of things I didn't know about." Always a quiet boy, he remembers "being really shocked at the way people behaved and feeling, 'Oh my God. How am I going to handle this?' " He says his father asked him if he'd feel more comfortable changing his name to something that sounded more American. "And definitely, I didn't have any desire to do that. I think I felt that, 'I'm in this situation now, and I'm different, and yeah, it's not great. But I don't want a different name. I'm not going to become a different person.' " Nila sank into a depression and struggled with feelings that he'd "kind of been sold out. It was, like, 'Whoa, this is not how I was raised. Why, all of a sudden, am I here?' "
Nila followed his sister to Mission Bay High School, where he says he fell in with "kind of an outsider crowd. I hung out with punk rockers and whoever." After two years, he dropped out. His sister, on the other hand, was accepted to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and pledged with Kappa Kappa Gamma. "I'm as mainstream as it gets," she said. "If you met me, you'd have no idea that that was my background." But by the time she got to college, she'd neither lost nor had any desire to hide her religion. She never stopped being a vegetarian. She took boyfriends to the Los Angeles Hare Krishna temple. She decorated her apartments with pictures of Krishna.
After graduation Anasuya got a job as a consultant for Arthur Anderson for about five years. Now she works for Oracle on long-term sales strategy and planning. It's "a really cutthroat, challenging business environment," she said, "and the ability to believe in karma and reincarnation and the soul and a lot of the fundamentals of the Hare Krishna religion really helps." She married in 2005 (in both a Hindu Vedic ceremony and a standard American one) and says she carries a bag for her japa beads in her computer bag. "It's a cute one. You know, not necessarily as obvious as other people's. But I chant, and before I go to bed, I listen to Prabhupada's prayers and chanting." She never wears a sari to work, because "I don't think that would be appropriate. But when I go to the temple, I definitely wear a sari." In that setting, a sari is "socially appropriate and respectable attire." She's now more involved with the San Diego temple than ever before. "I actually volunteer on the strategy council where they're trying to figure out key issues and topics that are relevant for the [temple's] long-term direction."
Nila's life also sounds as if it has settled down. He eventually got a GED credential and today lives in South Park with a young woman he's been involved with for four years. A former Catholic, she too has become a Krishna devotee. "We're pretty average," he said. "We have a couple dogs. We have a pretty chill lifestyle. We have our jobs, and we pretty much hang out at home and spend time with friends when we can."
But, he confessed, he sometimes feels as if he has a split personality. "I can't sit here and say I don't want money in my savings account, and I don't want my car to run properly, and I don't want to be able to pay my rent. Of course I want those things, because this is partly the world I'm living in. But at the same time, I would love it if I didn't have to worry about any of that and I could just chant and read books. I have this real intense spiritual drive, deep down." He told me he once overheard someone ask, "Whatever happened to the Hare Krishnas?" and it made him laugh. "I thought, 'Oh, little do you know! You're standing right next to one.' Not all of us are wearing orange robes. But in a lot of ways, I feel like I could be an Indian from a village somewhere."
Even though his childhood might have been a bit "fanatical or unbalanced in some ways," he wouldn't trade it for anything. "I think a lot of people might say, 'Oh God, I wish I'd been just like a normal kid.' But that's one thing I've never felt. I think, really, this is who I am, and this is who I was supposed to be. And the philosophy is so important. I think if I didn't have that, I would feel really sad. It really is something very meaningful and very fulfilling." His sister used almost the same words. "I would never trade having the experience that I had. I love my beliefs, and I think they've given me a structure that I don't think a lot of people have. It's given me so much balance and perspective and faith and just overall feeling of direction of what I'm doing with my life and who I am."
Not everyone who grew up within the religion feels that way. Some of the children at some of the Hare Krishna schools came away bearing chilling tales of abuse. "They emotionally abused them, humiliated them," an ex-devotee named Nori Muster told me. "Punished them with really strange punishments, like locking them up in trash cans, scaring them, making them lick up food from the floors, making them wear signs that said things like, 'Kick me. I'm a dog.' " The children's caretakers "also physically abused them," Muster says. "Like, they'd line them up and slap them all across the head. Or they would beat them. And then they also sexually abused them. It was a whole range of sexual abuse."
Muster didn't experience any of this firsthand. She became involved with the Hare Krishna movement in 1978, while a senior attending the University of California at Santa Barbara. After her initiation in Los Angeles, she worked for the movement, first as a public-relations secretary, then later as an editor of the ISKCON World Review. In both those roles, she was supposed to help deflect criticism of the movement whenever it surfaced. And some of the bad news that developed during her tenure was pretty sensational, according to Muster's 1997 memoir, Betrayal of the Spirit.
In November of 1979, federal Drug Enforcement Agency agents disclosed an undercover operation that had implicated several of the Laguna Beach temple leaders in a drug-smuggling operation; the Orange County Register later described the ring as one of the largest in Southern California history, according to Muster's account. A few months later law-enforcement officers seized "ammunition and clips, rifles, shotguns, and a grenade launcher" at the Northern California ranch of one of ISKCON's highest leaders. In her memoir, Muster writes that she told herself these and other scandals were isolated aberrations. But struggles over the leadership of the organization in the wake of Prabhupada's death continued to disillusion her, and by the time Muster broke with ISKCON (in 1988), she was critical of everything from the organization's high-pressure fundraising tactics to its treatment of women.
She says she wasn't aware of the child-abuse allegations until the early 1990s, by which time she'd gotten a master's degree in youth counseling. Hearing about some of the alleged mistreatment at schools in West Virginia, Dallas, and India, Muster says, "I really went insane. I had never had any kids myself because the cult told me having kids was materialistic. So some of these [other] kids were like my own. I got in there, and I did everything I could to make sure this came out in the open." By 2000, she'd lost hope that ISKCON would do what was necessary to prevent future abuse. So she and two other ex-devotees contacted an attorney about filing a lawsuit against the organization.
A $400 million complaint resulted. It was filed in 2001, and a year later some of ISKCON's temples and other organizations were seeking bankruptcy protection. As part of the negotiations that ensued, the religious order agreed to advertise widely in an effort to identify additional victims beyond the 95 named in the lawsuit; more than 430 individuals responded. By May of 2005, both sides had worked out an agreement in which almost $10 million would be divided among various parties, with victims to receive a range of payments depending on the extent of the abuse they'd suffered. Besides publicly admitting its guilt, the Hare Krishna organization apologized and asked for forgiveness, a step that many observers lauded.
At the time I talked to Muster, she sounded less than impressed by the organization's response to the child-abuse debacle. She also said she thought the children of Hare Krishna devotees were probably no longer the subject of large-scale physical or sexual abuse. Living in Arizona and pursuing a real-estate license, Muster was still expressing a lot of anger and bitterness toward ISKCON. Among other complaints, she voiced rumors that had been circulating among some disaffected ex-devotees about Prabhupada being poisoned by a few of his early disciples.
"I'm very disinclined to believe those rumors," Larry Shinn told me. A religion scholar and president of Berea College in Kentucky, Shinn wrote the forward to Muster's memoir as well as his own book about the movement (The Dark Lord: Cult Images and the Hare Krishnas in America, published in 1987). He says one reason he's skeptical about the poisoning talk is because it didn't surface in the years immediately following Prabhupada's death. ISKCON was "a charismatic movement centered around a guru that became a religious institution. When you have that, you're also going to have a mythology that begins to grow up about the miraculous birth of your founder -- or the miraculous death. From my point of view, it's sort of a natural outcome of those who, for other reasons, are not happy with the institutionalized form of ISKCON."
Shinn says he respects Muster's perspective, but he points out it's a limited one. After "hundreds of hours of interviews with almost 200 devotees over a period of ten years, I honestly believe there are wonderful people who have found a religious path in ISKCON that they did not find [elsewhere]. I think some of them are wonderful human beings.... And the number of people in any church that would fit that description is not very many." As for the other recent problems, "I think in ISKCON right now there's a very clear seriousness about dealing both with the issue of child abuse and also the role of women.... They now have training sessions that they developed with external psychologists and other trainers for how [temple] presidents should work with women in the movement. And they have a whole set specifically for people who are going to teach children." Those are important structural changes, Shinn contends.
When Badrinarayan and I talked about the child-abuse scandal within ISKCON, he looked pained. "The idea that a devotee -- a monk! -- would abuse a child was..." He groped for words. "It was like expecting a Martian to land." In hindsight, that lack of awareness of the potential for tragedy was "completely stupid. We should have seen the signals, and we can be faulted for that. But all I can say is it was pervasive across the culture. And I think the real test is how we responded to it."
Over the years, the movement has become more realistic in many ways, he asserted. Back in 1970, when Badrinarayan first joined, "A senior seasoned person was 24 or 25. If they were 30, they were over the hill." The youthful zeal of the early joiners inspired some energetic missionary work, but "as you get older, you tend to see nuances in things. You see that everything is not black and white." Badrinarayan believes that a more accommodating and "user friendly" attitude has resulted. "I can take the spiritual life to the degree that's comfortable for me, for what fits my life. We have a little more of that flexibility."
"What about chanting?" I asked.
"We're for it," Badrinarayan said with an impish grin. If the devotees no longer make daily forays into the streets the way they did during their early years in San Diego, they still venture most Friday nights into the Gaslamp Quarter. "You know, it used to be a dive," the temple leader said, "and now it's a great place. Your tax dollars at work. Wide sidewalks. It's great for us."
One recent clear, warm evening, I joined the devotees there. By 8:20, a small cluster had assembled on the eastern end of Horton Plaza, and a van was disgorging several more. All but one were men, ranging in age from 20s to 50s, the sole woman a grandmotherly figure who wore her sari over a blue cotton T-shirt. The group didn't loiter but headed south on Fourth Street, then cut over to Fifth, singing as they went.
The devotees call this kind of group activity sankirtan, a Sanskrit word that sometimes gets translated as "chanting." But that's misleading. "Chanting" suggests something repetitive and monotonous, whereas the swelling, surging sound produced by the Krishnas out on the street is as musical in its own way as the output of a Baptist gospel choir. On the night I accompanied them, they carried a small accordion and two long drums and pairs of cymbals and tambourines. One monk pulled behind him a compact rolling amplifier attached to a microphone. This the lead singer used to issue the calls that were answered by the rest of the 18 participants. I was startled by the impact of their combined efforts on the street scene. Fifth Avenue on a Friday night is a noisy place, with car engines and laughter and conversation and music from the bars, and occasional police sirens contributing to the cacophony. But the pulsing interplay of melody and rhythm emanating from the devotees blossomed out, bigger than all that surrounded it. From the center, the Krishnas' music seemed to blot out the noise of the world.
It was a happy sound, and the devotees looked as if they were having a good time producing it. From time to time, they stopped to dance as well as sing, some merely swaying from side to side but others jumping up and down or wiggling or skipping or whirling each other around in circles, childlike, creating a joyful little vortex of turbulence on the sidewalk. It wasn't a sight that anyone standing nearby could have failed to notice, so it amused me to see how some passersby pretended otherwise. Their faces betrayed no reaction to the singing, dancing monks. They trained their eyes elsewhere, as if the mere act of seeing the devotees could strip them of their coolness.
More onlookers, though, looked glad to witness the passing spectacle. Some gazed on with goofy smiles. Some waved or raised a saluting palm or thrust a fist into the air. Some moved their bodies, and a handful joined in and tagged along. Among the latecomers was the white-robed Badrinarayan. He'd been parking one of the group's vans at Horton Plaza. He waved a bottle of water. "For 99 cents we can park there," he said. "We've learned a trick or two over time."
I teased him that I had thought perhaps he was too advanced in age or seniority to take to the streets at night. "Not at all," he said. After more than three decades, he still looked forward to it. "It's our way of keeping it real."
Once in a while the Krishnas miss a Friday night downtown because of bad weather or other commitments. When that happens, Badrinarayan told me people the next week will often ask, "Hey, where were you guys?" I got the impression he finds this gratifying. It's nice to be missed. And if you plan to be around forever, there are pleasures in demonstrating that -- despite the occasional interruption -- you will persevere.