Hare Krishnas in the 70′s

Back to Godhead - Volume 12, Number 07 - 1977

Two American Airlines jets were unloading at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the world’s busiest. I watched eight Krishnas gather eagerly to meet a crowd of passengers.

As the first stream of travelers came through, I observed tall Gadapati hold out his hand toward a sailor, and wondered how far he would get.

“Hi buddy, welcome to Chicago.” From Gadapati’s manner, one might have thought he had been sent by the Mayor himself. A lonely kid in a strange city, the young sailor seemed pleased to be greeted. He dropped his duffel bag between his feet in order to accept the yellow-jacketed copy of the Gita from Gadapati.

Just then, little Deva dasi, blond and smiling sweetly, deftly pinned a wine-red carnation on the lapel of an old gentleman.

Gadapati, another Gita in his hand, was showing the sailor the picture pages. “You believe in God?” he asked. “Oh, yes.”, he replied. “This is all about God.”

Day after day the young devotees diligently piled passengers with books or carnations, reaping thousands of dollars in donations.

Having learned that the temple had an open house at five every Sunday, I decided to attend. I drove to the converted YMCA building on Emerson Avenue one September afternoon. Painted yellow and with the Hare Krishna mantra in red letters across the front, the temple stood in sharp contrast to the small store fronts which flanked it and to the large new senior citizens’ housing complex facing it from across the street.

A clutter of shoes inside the entrance door induced me to remove mine. Unshod, I went painfully on callused feet into the large, rather bare reception room. Other than two easy chairs, there was a large table covered with the sect’s literature – the books and magazines were vividly illustrated with scenes from Hindu mythology.

A young male devotee in a saffron dhoti, called out “Hare Krishna,” to which I stiffly replied, “How d’ye do?” When he introduced himself he gave me his Sanskrit name and wished me a happy new-year. Was he Jewish, I wondered? By now, there were several other visitors. We were led down a flight of stairs into a brightly lit, high ceilinged hall which must have been the former basketball court of the YMCA. Its walls were painted cream, the floor covered with black and white tiles. At the north end was a dais on which stood a large framed picture of the aged founder and head of ISKCON, Swami Prabhupada. It was hung with floral wreaths and propped upon colorful cushions. The south end of the hall was screened by drapes. As there were no chairs, everyone sat on the floor. About twenty visitors, mostly young, a few with children, arranged along the east wall facing the center. Along the west wall were a few women devotees in flowing, gaudy saris. All the devotees moved silently and swiftly on bare feet.

A devotee came to the middle of the floor and sat down cross-legged before a microphone facing the visitors. His dark eyes were sunken; his high cheek bones, large nose, and shaven head gave a skull-like appearance. Introducing himself as Purana, he launched into an explanation of the Krishna consciousness movement. Meanwhile, more and more visitors kept arriving, until there was about fifty, half of whom were East Indians who came in family groups. With the exception of one black, all the devotees were white.

The speaker interlaced his talk with Sanskrit phrases. “We are not our bodies,” he began “We are atmas, spirit souls. Suppose I amputate my arm,” he proposed, making a motion of cutting at his left elbow. “There is my arm.” He looked at the ground to his left. “It is lying there rotting. Is that me? No. I am not my arm. Neither am I my body. That too will die and rot eventually. I must be something else, something indestructible which continues after I shed my body. That something is the atma, a tiny particle of the universal Atma, Krishna. When the body dies the atma leaves to enter another body and begin a new cycle.” He paused to let the thought sink in. “The real you is your spirit soul, your atma. It yearns to reunite itself with Krishna from whence it came. But the atma is burdened by karma, by its previous lives, by materialism, which is attractive to the body; by the senses, seeking self-gratification. Thus we find it difficult to get out of the cycle of repeated birth and death, samsara. We are doomed to continue on the wheel of birth, misery, old age, and death.

“This world,” he continued, “is maya, illusion. The real world, the one the soul yearns for, is Krishna, with whom there is eternal bliss. How can we become free from the cycle of samsara and reunite with Krishna? Through Krishna consciousness, the way taught by our spiritual master, who comes to us from Krishna Himself through a five-thousand year succession of spiritual masters. That way is not difficult. We have only to chant the holy name of God, Krishna, stop eating the flesh of living things, refrain from illicit sex, smoking, gambling and frivolous sports. In whatever we do we need to have Krishna in our thoughts; do everything for Krishna.”

He asked for questions. A young women with two children asked, “May we not be both body and soul?”

“The body,” he replied, “is of no importance. It is like a suit of clothes. When it’s worn out you take it off and throw it away.”

I raised my hand. “Perhaps this life is all there is to enjoy and once dead there is nothing else?”

“If you believe that,” he said, “I can tell you nothing.”

A young women, who said she was Catholic, asked why all the devotees were young.

“What do you mean ‘young’? We have some devotees over thirty; our spiritual master is seventy-nine.”

“Another question,” she continued, “how do you define illicit sex?”

“All sex is illicit, except between husband and wife, and then only for procreation. All our troubles are due to this material body which seeks to gratify itself through sex, animal flesh, empty amusements, drink and dope. If we give in we are bound to the cycle of samsara, to eternal misery, birth after birth without end.

He stopped, turning slowly to look at the Swami’s portrait and then back to the audience. “Our spiritual master teaches us to become devotees of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is far more beneficial than any of the material things we are conditioned to like. If a person overcomes this disease of his soul, he attains the Supreme Lord’s abode and never has to come back to this miserable, material world. He will have achieved eternal bliss.”

He dealt with their dietary rules which prohibit the meat of cows, sheep, fowl, even the eating of eggs. At some length he described the usefulness of the cow. He rhapsodized over a long list of dairy products from cheese to yogurt. “How do we show our gratitude to this wonderful animal?” he asked. “We murder it.” He concluded with a reference to the ceremony we were to participate in, after which we would have “prasadam, the remnants of food offered to Krishna.”

A devotee with a two-ended hand drum stepped up to the microphone and rehearsed us in the Hare Krishna mantra, the maha mantra. We chanted after him, phrase by phrase: “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare.” He interjected, “Our spiritual master teaches us that all we need to do to become blissful is to chant Hare Krishna and take prasadam.” He beat the drum slowly with his hand and we chanted after him. He took steps from side to side in rhythm; we followed. He sped up the chant and step. I had no stomach for it and after a few rounds stopped and merely looked on. No one seemed to notice, or to care. Most of the visitors, however, got into the swing; some who seemed to have previous experience raised their voices and stepped with verve.

More devotees appeared, mostly men. As they entered on bare feet they came to their knees before Prabhupada’s picture. The men were in the center of the floor, the women grouped along the west wall chanting dignifiedly, demurely stepping from side to side. They began to jig as the chant speeded up and the sound volume rose.

After fifteen minutes, at a signal from the drummer, the devotees turned to the south wall. The curtains pulled back to reveal a spotlighted scene of portrait paintings, flowers and fruits. The center picture, standing on brightly colored pillows, was a youthful couple, whom I guessed to be Krishna and his consort (their word), Radharani. On either side were pictures of Prabhupada’s predecessors. They were painted in the same style and colors as the book covers on the reception room table.

When the curtains parted, there was a heightening of excitement; the chanting increased in tempo and volume. The drummer at the microphone, from whom the chanters took their cue, varied the chant. The jigging had turned into dancing, becoming wild as the drummer increased speed. Some of the men at the very center leaped straight up, arms thrust high. A devotee, clanging small cymbals in time to the chant, ran madly around the room, head thrown back, shouting, his throat straining. The women members, graceful in their saris, kept up their side-step on the outskirts of the men’s group, adding their voices to the volume of sound. Several of the male visitors, all young, joined in the leaping, but none of the East Indians. They remained in their place, chanting and jigging.

When the leaping and shouting reached an unbearable peak, the drummer sounded a new variation in reduced tempo. It was a relief. But, as the new tune continued, the pace increased and again came to strenuous, ecstatic leaps. Sari billowing, a woman devotee stepped up to the alter, her hands making motions before the portraits. The pungent odor of incense saturated the hall. It was a signal for the sound system to be turned up. The din of chant, drum, cymbals, and at the climax, the wild cry of a conch shell, rose to such a level I had to cover my ears. The dancers faces shone with sweat, their eyes were frenzied. But when the chanting abated, they gradually assumed a normal mien. A half-hour had passed since the drapes had been drawn back. A voice invited us upstairs for prasadam.

A neighbor who worked in a health food store had given me the name of a customer who had recently joined the cult. I asked if Tom was here today.

“I was telling Joan at the health food store that I would like to know more about Krishna consciousness,” I said to Tom, when he was brought over to me. “She suggested I talk to you.” Barefoot and dressed in a yellow dhoti, he was cordial and invited me to come upstairs for food.

The room above the temple was of the same size but with a low ceiling. Paper plates with food were spread over the floor and alongside each plate was a cup of fruit liquid. My dish consisted of a scoop of saffron rice, an eggplant mixture, cooked fruit, and a fried dough cake. The eggplant was spiced with curry, the rest bland but too sweet for my taste. We ate with our fingers, the devotees licking theirs clean after every mouthful. Many went to the large pots at the front of the room for second, and third helpings.

Tom and I were joined by a big devotee, over six feet, and unlike others, paunchy. His plate was filled to overflowing; he caught the drippings and carried them to his mouth. Tom introduced him by his “Spiritual” name and, at my blank look, said, “Call him Don.”

Don did most of the talking. He was filled with proselytizing zeal and had difficulty talking and eating at the same time. Directly behind us was a black woman devotee passionately explaining her beliefs to a husky, young black man. All over the large room there were similar clusters of visitors and devotees. Sunday open house seemed to be the cult’s occasion for winning converts.

Don returned with a second plateful. “We are eating prasadam,” he said, “food blessed by Lord Krishna. If we eat prasadam and chant Hare Krishna, that’s the remedy for all the evils in this material world.” Tom listened with the eager look of the novitiate.

I’m Jewish,” I said, “and religious Jews also thank the Lord for their food.”

“But they eat meat,” Don said accusingly. “They don’t follow their own commandments: thou shall not kill.”

“Perhaps that commandment was not meant to apply to animals,” I responded.

“It’s killing though, any way you look at it, the taking of life.”

I turned to Tom. “How come there are no Hindus among the devotees?” He smiled wryly; it must have been a sore point. Don answered. “They say they know all about Lord Krishna, so they don’t have to join. They come only for the ceremony on Sundays.”

“And for the food,” Tom added sarcastically.

I asked if the center picture was a representation of Krishna and His wife. Tom started to answer when Don interrupted. An exchange followed which I couldn’t understand.

“That’s not a representation,” Don said, “that’s Krishna Himself.” I looked puzzled. We don’t worship a symbol, only the real thing. Those are deities you saw. The Supreme Lord Krishna and His Consort. I couldn’t love a symbol, could you?”

He stared at me for an answer. I was at a loss for a reply which would not offend. A thought popped into my head. “I read somewhere about a Greek philosopher who said that if horses had a god, he would look like a horse.” “A soul may go into a horse,” Don said solemnly.

“A man’s soul?”

“That’s right. at death it can go into anything, any other form of life, even an insect. You heard Purana earlier. The atma, that’s the soul, leaves the body at death and enters another form.”

“Unless you’re in Krishna consciousness,” Tom explained, “then the soul flies directly to Krishna’s abode.”

“Are children subject to the same laws?” I asked.

“Of course,” Don answered. Children are responsible for their own souls. The main thing is to teach them about Krishna, otherwise they don’t serve God and waste their lives doing nonsense. They become victims of sense gratification, movies, sports, TV.”

“What about learning math? Or the sciences?”

“When one has Krishna, he needs nothing else,” Don replied. “He may think he has everything, but without Krishna he has nothing. Prabhupada said it is our duty to teach how to love God and worship Him in our daily lives. All other aims in life are useless, temporary.” Don’s face glowed with conviction.

“Don,” I said, “you speak of God and Krishna using the names interchangeably. Other people worship God but not Krishna.”

“Such people are to be commended. But the Gita says, ‘Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me.’ Other ways of worshiping God are wasteful. One who is serious should come to us.”

“Tell me about Prabhupada?”

“He’s our spiritual master.” Don said.

“Like a Guru?”

“More than that–much more.”

“Is he your Christ?”

“Something like that,” Don said, “he gets his knowledge directly from Krishna.”

“The man who led the chanting said that all one needs to do to reach Krishna consciousness is to chant and eat prasadam.”

“That’s right. If you do enough chanting you won’t be troubled by the material world, by sex and other distractions. Chanting purifies.”

“How much is enough?” I asked.

“Well they say that Prabhupada chants all the time, even in sleep. But every devotee is required to chant the maha mantra sixteen rounds a day; a round has 108 beads, so your total is 1,728.”

I was amazed. “1,728 times a day?”

“At a minimum,” Don said.

“How long does it take?”

“To one who is proficient two, two and a half hours.”

“Children too?” I asked.

“We start them young. By the time they’re nine or ten they do the whole bit.”

“What does that do to you?”

“You’re repeating the names of God–Rama and Krishna. ‘Hare’ addresses the energy of God. You are fixing your mind on Him. If, for example, you are chanting His name at the time of death, you will get a spiritual life and never be reincarnated again. If you are thinking of a dog at the time of death then you will become a dog in the next life. If you are thinking of your wife you will become a women.”

“What’s so bad about that?” I laughed.

He did not share my humor. “Prabhupada says that women have half the brains of men.”

When I could not restrain a smile, he added, “You may smile, but it is a fact.” I wasn’t going to argue with him. “You cannot understand what chanting does,” he continued, because there’s no way to explain it in words. For instance if you’re thirsty and say ‘water,’ will your thirst be satisfied? Of course not. But when you say Krishna, He is actually present. We experience Him. We experience His qualities of eternity, knowledge and bliss in the sound vibrations of His name. He took in my incomprehension.

“You cannot grasp this intellectually; you have to experience its transcendental meaning for yourself.”

“How would I know if it’s working for me?”

“It would be self-evident,” he said with certainty. “If you eat a meal, you know when you are satisfied. Right? When you chant Hare Krishna, you will know beyond a doubt that it’s working for you.”

Corroboration came from Tom who had been listening avidly. “That’s right.”

“Are you suggesting I try it?”

“Why not?” Tom urged. “No one’s too old for Krishna.”

“Let me ask you this, Don. Purana spoke only of birth, old age, misery and death as man’s cycle on earth. What about joy? Surely everyone has some happy moments, even some great ones.”

Don replied, “The pig lies in the filth of his pen swilling garbage. He thinks to himself,’This garbage is great; I’m happy.’ Do you think he’s happy? People confuse happiness with sense gratification.”

“You suggest the pig as a comparison with our lives?”

“I’ve lived both ways,” Don said, “I should know.”

By this time very few were left on the floor. Still wanting to talk to Tom alone, I thanked Don for his explanations and for his patience. “We have a class at the temple in Bhagavad-gita,” he said, “visitors are welcome.”

“I’ve read the Gita,” I said.

“Have you?” He was delighted. “You’ll like the class.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said. Tom walked me to the door. Outside the night was warm and I suggested that we sit on the temple steps for a moment. Several devotees were standing around on the upper step; we seated ourselves on the lowest.

“Joan says that you no longer visit her food store,” I said.

“No need to now. I get my food here at the temple.”

“Tom, how did you get to meet the Krishnas?”

“I was on State Street downtown one Saturday afternoon, and I ran into them dancing and chanting. They looked so happy.” His face lit up at the recollection. “I hung around and talked to them. They invited me to the temple. I came the next day, a Sunday, to their open house. I came again the next Sunday. I began to look forward to Sunday’s; that used to be the worst day for me. Then I took a class. It got so I wanted to stay there all the time.” He talked readily like one who is glad to testify for his new-found religion.

“Were you employed?”

“I worked in Skokie for the regulator company.”

“I know their plant,” I said. “I was in real estate before I retired. I represented an investor group who bought sixty acres and developed them into an industrial park. Your company was just west of our park, it’s a big outfit.”

“Sure is; over a thousand people. You feel lost; a tiny part in a big machine.”

“Didn’t you have friends?”

“I wouldn’t call them friends, just people to say ‘Hi’ to.”

“What does your family think of you joining the temple?”

“Not much. My older brother visited me last week. ‘It’s your life,’ he said.”

“What about your parents?”

“My father died a couple of years ago. He was the only one I really cared for.”

“Was your family church-affiliated?”

“I was born Catholic, but it didn’t mean much to me. I didn’t know what religion really meant until I joined the Krishnas.”

“Can you explain your feeling?”

“Like Don said, it’s hard to put into words. Once during aroti–that’s the temple ceremony–we were sitting before the alter, a few of us, chanting under our breaths. I felt a strange sensation as if Krishna was present. It gave me goose-pimples.” He fell silent, sensing his mood, I too kept still.

A red thunderbolt powered down the street and came to a screeching halt before a red light. Inside was a young man with a girl by his side. The radio was booming disco music.

“At one time,” Tom resumed, “I would have given my right arm to be in his place. Now I have nothing and desire nothing. When I joined I turned everything over to the temple. It wasn’t much. Now I own nothing, not even these clothes. Everything belongs to Krishna. I eat what’s provided; sleep on the floor.”

“It must have been quite a change.”

“It wasn’t easy. It was rough getting up before dawn, cold showers, the change of diet. And the dancing! My feet are still swollen.” He looked down at his bare feet, wiggling his toes. “But they’re toughening.” “Do you have a temple job?

“For now, I’m setting up the library. It’s a mess. People borrowing; no records. I’m cataloging the books, setting up a loan system.” I turned our conversation to what was on my mind. “I saw a few children tonight, the boys with shaven heads.”

“We have some marrieds. They live in separate quarters.”

“Do their kids go to school?”

“They’re too young. When they are five they are sent to our Dallas school.”

“They’re sent off by themselves, without the parents?” I showed surprise. Tom nodded, “Kind of rough, I guess, at that age.”

“What of the older children, ten, twelve?”

“I think when they’re that age they are sent to our farms. We have one in Mississippi and another in West Virginia.”

The devotees who had been lounging above us had gone in. Tom was becoming restive. I liked him for his honesty, his willingness, on the basis of a tenuous relation to a mutual friend, to discuss his intimate thoughts. I wanted to know him better, to deepen our relationship. I desired profoundly to understand, if I could, the nature of his experience.

“I would like very much for my wife to meet you,” I said. “She’s in a wheelchair. Is there any chance of you visiting us? We live fifteen minutes away by car.”

He hesitated. “I would have to get permission.” Seeing my disappointment, he added, “I’ll tell them I’ll be spreading the word. That should do it.” I gave him our phone number; we shook hands cordially and parted.

(This is an account of the activities of the Chicago ISKCON temple adapted from Morris Yanoff’s book “Where is Joey”)

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