It isn’t for everyone. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. Yet everyone can learn from it. Repulsion at restraining the senses and disgust at widespread cases of brainwashing and sexual abuse have made many people run a mile from any kind of New Religious Movement such as the Hare Krishna. And why wouldn’t they?
After the end of my first year in the movement I asked my parents to lend me some money to go do a stint on the ski slopes of Colorado to save some money for future trips. They reluctantly declined, quite to my surprise. Only later did I find out that a close friend had become estranged from a son who also happened to be in the movement. Tieless he traveled to America on a mandate from his maharaj (spiritual master) and never came back. In retrospect I can understand what it must’ve been like for my family and friends. I became disinterested in ‘mundane’ topics of conversation, ‘indiscriminate’ eating of meat products and ‘pointless’ activities like hanging out, dinner parties and watching movies. All I wanted to do was chant Hare Krishna and chant and chant. What was this all about?
I was a regular first year university student. Classes were skipped on schedule from hangovers and essays were written within the last few desperate hours before deadlines. I went out a few times every week and joined any club that looked cool; salsa dancing, aikido and creative writing. Then one morning on my way up the hill to the pretty University of Cape Town upper campus – nestled in the brooding folds of Table Mountain National Park – I stumbled across a monk from the ashram selling books neatly laid out among smoking incense sticks and oriental trinkets. He had a stack of the Bhagavad-Gita, literally the ‘Song of God’, the Hindu equivalent of the bible or Koran.
Set right in the middle of the greatest of Vedic epics and longest poem in the world – the Mahabharata- the Gita tells the story of Krishna – the Supreme Lord – and the great Pandava warrior Arjuna, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. According to legend the battle took place some 5,000 years ago, a little to the north of modern day New Delhi. It was a cataclysmic struggle between the forces of good and evil that would usher in the age of Kali, the last, shortest and most depressing period in the temporal cycle of yugas, according to Hindu cosmology. Arjuna is confronted with fighting against his loved ones, but Krishna steals the show and tells him not to stress over it, this is all just a passing play of actors with very, very short intervals. Just do your duty. But more than that, realize that any association you hold to clan, tribe, race, language, nationality, religion or whatever, is nothing more than a cultural construction bound in time and space and doesn’t reflect who you really are. All societal labels mean little in the end; they change constantly and don’t define us. The real deal is to realize your eternal nature as a divine spark of the Supreme. A drop in the ocean and the entire ocean in a drop.
Well the story blew my mind and I read the book – just 700 verses in total with annotations – in two days. I’d delved into some Buddhism before, the Dhammapada and various works by the Dalai Lama. But this was something else. Krishna talks about doing things for the sake of doing them and being completely there in the moment, unattached to the result. He speaks on not worrying overly about the desires of the body; more than a large pizza in one sitting is just not going to satisfy you much, and even if it does, it’s going to be short–lived. He talks about the good and the bad going hand–in–hand, both inexorably necessary for anything to exist at all. Be equanimous in happiness and sadness he tells us, one must pass in order for the other to pass.
This was far–out stuff and I had to find out more. Experience more. And the experience came in the chanting, the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra, known as the mahamantra, or great mantra.
Hare Krisha, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama Rama, Hare Hare
Just three words which may look like some kind of gibberish. Yet these words have a special power. And when recited or sung over and over again they draw you into a state of mindlessness and mindfulness, which leaves you without a strip of tension or apprehension about the state of affairs that you find yourself in. A sort of washing away of everything that gets you nervous, everything that makes you feel uneasy with the world and your place in it. Loosely translated, Hare is the female divine principle and the foundational energy of all matter in the universe. Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the all–attractive. And Rama is the pleasure principle of experiencing the divine within each living being. All three then are interlocked, interconnected in meaning.
I began chanting the mantra every day and just couldn’t get enough of it. It almost felt like unconsciously a door to another dimension began opening up, where it would lead was unclear. It was time to jump out of my own head a little and go see what these guys in orange sheets, face paint and funky hairstyles were up to. And so every morning I rose at 5am to walk the two kilometers from my apartment to the temple to attend morning puja, ceremonial prayer and meditation for two hours and then have breakfast with the devotees before hiking up the hill to anthropology and philosophy lectures.
Almost possessed, within a just a month or so I had thrown away the cigarettes and spirits and started seeking out spirit in a more austere sense. I wanted to stay at the temple for a while and see first–hand what the experience was like. Be a monk in city. The transition to before–dawn rises, sleeping on scanty straw mats and cold showers was easier than expected. Plus, meditating for two hours every morning was such a buzz that I really didn’t crave for too much else. The food was excellent, simple and wholesome during the week, sugary and oily on the weekends, while the dancing and chanting sessions were absolutely exhilarating. But what really hooked me was the service. Living a life a service. Putting the needs of others before your own and endeavoring to do small things every day to make small differences in the lives of others. Indeed, the very essence of the Bhakti teachings is to be a servant, a das. You just go about life like a regular Joe, but you’re focusing all the time on being compassionate and loving because well, that’s your nature.
I started out prepping and cleaning the prayer room for yoga sessions offered to university students twice a week. Next was helping with the meals gleefully served afterwards and introducing guests to the fundamentals of Krishna Consciousness. I didn’t have much idea about what to say really, but I guess platitudes around ‘conscious living’, ahimsa – Gandhi’s famous nonviolence – and peace, love and happiness must’ve piqued some interest.
Soon I was cooking breakfast and lunch for the temple devotees – some 25 people representing about five different countries – a few times a week and taking leftover food to homeless people on the surrounding streets. I would pack half–steaming rice and vegetables into polystyrene boxes and trundle off merrily into dimly–lit alleys to find forlorn faces with hungry bellies well after nightfall.
A Hindu fable tells of a family who was waiting for god to arrive at their doorstep. One evening a ragged, homeless man came to the family door and asked for food.
‘’Be gone you dirty beggar!’’, they quipped, ‘’we were expecting the Supreme to meet us on this night.’’
The next day another man came forward to the family, more desperate than the one before, quivering from hunger.
‘’Please my brothers and sisters! Give me something to eat and drink!’’, he supplicated. ‘’Get away from us you indolent fool!’’, the family retorted. ‘’We were expecting the Supreme to meet us on this night.’’
One the third evening another street–stricken man came hovering at the family’s doorstep.
‘’My dear friends, I ask humbly for some sustenance.’’
‘’Why do you beggars keep returning? Go away and stop pestering us! We were expecting the Supreme to meet us on this night.’’
In that instant the old man, wrapped in brown, torn rags burst into a bubble of a billion colors and displayed the sixteen splendid arms of Vishnu. The family, awestruck and rapt, instantly accepted the ascetic to be the Supreme Lord, Bhagavan Sri Krishna. The moral of the story – humorously told over roasted lentils and eggplant sauté – was to always treat your guests well. You never know when god might show up.
And so going out with home-cooked food for people on the street – of all ages and races – and sharing a few breathless moments with them was a truly breathtaking experience. It felt a form of intense immersion into just doing what you could each day to make a tiny impact on someone else’s existence. What else is there to do? Many a wise man has said.
And how could you not serve the ‘other’? How could you not look out for the person next to you every morning on the train or at a café? How could you not show kindness and compassion to every being around you? For what you do to them, is what you do to yourself. That’s what really grabbed me about Hinduism from the start; the idea that the knower and the known go hand–in–glove, the existence of one depends inexorably on the existence of the other. When you interact with someone else, what you’re doing is interacting with yourself. There is no difference between beings, except for the belief that we exist as separate beings bound by time, space and circumstance.