In the News

In the News:
Hare Krishna practitioner Sankirtana Das will speak on the movement at Shepherd College this week

by Crystal Schell
(Martinsburg Journal, 03/28/04)

Posted April 18, 2004

MOUNDSVILLE - Sankirtana Das, 56, doesn't hang out at airports peddling flowers and he doesn't live in a commune with other practitioners of the Vaisnava tradition, commonly known as the Hare Krishna movement. That, he says, was common of American devotees during the '70s and '80s. But as times have changed, so has the practice of its followers. "Devotees of Krishna come from all walks of life," Das says. "They don't have to live in a commune. They own homes and property, have jobs or professions and pay taxes like everybody else."

Das will speak at 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday on the second floor of the College Center in the Cumberland Room at Shepherd College. The lectures are sponsored by the Shepherd College Sociology Club and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and are free and open to the public.

The first session on Tuesday will be an evening of Ram Katha, or stories from India's epic "The Ramayan." Das says Ram Katha means to speak on the subject matter and stories of Lord Rama. "The day I will be presenting Ram Katha is the actual Hindu date celebrating Ram Navami," he says in an e-mail and telephone interview from his home.

The second session on Wednesday is titled "Journey of A Soul in Exile." Das will discuss the growth of the Hare Krishna movement in the West, the Bhagavad Gita, which is the text that the movement follows, and mantra meditation. He will also share personal experiences and read his poetry. Both sessions will end with a question and answer period.

Das, a New York native, was a film and theater major at New York University when he was first introduced to Hare Krishnas in 1969. "For a film project I did a short documentary on the Hare Krishna people in New York City," he says. "I got a very good grade on that. My contact with them spawned a desire to have a deeper understanding of the Bhagavad Gita, which is not only studied by Hindus, but many people seeking to understand both the material and transcendental realism." He says the Gita was first recognized in America by Emerson and Thoreau.

Before his project, Das says he knew very little of the movement. "(I knew) just that they were vegetarians and that they studied the Bhagavad Gita and I was interested in both," he says.

Prior to his meeting of the Hare Krishna people, Das says he wasn't interested in organized religions. But, with his understanding of the Hare Krishna movement, he felt more calm and found an inner peace.

He says Hinduism, like Christianity, has many different denominations, one of which is Hare Krishna. "The purpose of the Krishna movement is to inspire people and help them understand their eternal relationship with God," Das says. "Krishna is a name of God meaning 'He is all attractive'." He says Hindus have a prayer that they say that includes 1,000 names for God. Not for different gods, he clarifies, but words for the different aspects of God.

After college, Das and his wife, Ruci, moved to Nova Scotia. He says all they had were the Bhagavad Gita and a copy of George Harrison's album "All Things Must Pass." Because devotees meditate on prayer beads, like a rosary, the couple went to a local store and strung their own. During those early years, they studied the movement. "It was a transforming experience," he says.

In 1971 in Detroit, he met Srila Prabhupada, who was an Indian sadhu - a saintly monk, who at the request of his teacher, brought Krishna tradition to the West.

"My wife and I met Prabhupada on several occasions in the early '70s," Das says. "We both felt that here was an authentic representative of this ancient teaching."

In 1973, Das became Prabhupada's initiated student. Two years later, he received brahminical initiation. And in 1976, he and his family moved to New Vrindavan, located in Marshall County, so he could become artistic director for the theater program. New Vrindavan is the home of a Hare Krishna commune, but Das and his family own their own home in the town.

According to Das, one misconception Westerners have about the Krishna movement is that it's something new or concocted. "The Vedic literatures explain the subtler aspects of existence. Krishna consciousness represents the ancient Vaisnava tradition, which actually predates Hinduism. "He says a large percentage of Hindus consider themselves Vaisnavas.

"But the movement is nonsectarian. That means it seeks to inspire people in their love and faith in God, rather than converting someone from one religion to another," he says.

That's why, although the lectures are an open forum, he is there to just talk about Hare Krishnas and doesn't have an ulterior motive. "I am not there to proselytize, convert or convince," he says.

Das has continued to work in theater since graduating college. He wrote, directed and performed in several dramas that become popular in the movement. One popular drama was his solo performance of the aging poet/monk Krsnadas Kaviraj and the story of Bilvamangala Thakur, who blinded himself so he would not be allured by worldly temptations.

In 1987, Das and longtime friend and associate Locamangala Das, co-produced "The Mahabharata." "The Mahabharata" is the longest epic in world literature. "It's the story of five princely brothers who were cheated out of their kingdom and banished into exile. One of the chapters in the book is the Bhagavad Gita, wherein Krishna explains 'sanatana dharma' - the eternal teachings."

In the fall of '87, the pair opened "The Mahabharata" off-Broadway in New York City.

In 1989, Das focused his attention on storytelling. The result was Sacred Voices, a solo piece that showcased stories from a variety of sacred traditions.

"Essentially, religion is not about doctrine nor ritual. It's about story. Sacred Voices is a pilgrimage into some of the world's sacred traditions through stories, poems and meditations. I offer the audience an experience. There's a tremendous response and I feel that it's needed more than ever."

Storytelling has a link to the Hare Krishna movement. "Storytelling is vital to all religions and cultures. In the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas, the eternal wisdom is presented in the context of stories."

Das wants the lectures to be a learning experience. "I want my talks to be thought provoking - to have people look at their lives and the world around them from a new perspective."

Sankirtana das
304 845 6840

Crystal Schelle
Living Editor
The Journal
Martinsburg, WV 25401