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Palm Beach Post On Hare Krishnas, All Grown Up

submitted by Richard Wyndham, authored by Rachel Sauer, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Posted October 24, 2006


A universe of stories, beautiful stories about God on earth, scary stories of the demons he defeated, stories with a lesson. So many stories, and no more room for the parts that no longer are true. Click Here

No more room for the exploits of robed chanters in airports.

No more room for comparisons to Moonies.

No more room for a '60s sensibility that Eastern religions are so much cooler than other religions.

What is left, then, are the stories of a modern religious movement popularly called the Hare Krishnas. Forty years ago, an old man from Calcutta came to the United States and established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). He came from India, where the heart of the movement took root more than 5,000 years ago, and where it now is a fast-growing spiritual practice.

In the early days, "devotees," as they are called, with shaved heads and saffron robes took to airports and sidewalks to chant and hand out tracts. To meet a devotee today - at Publix or the park or a city council meeting - is to see a person who blends into the fabric of community. At the temple or at gatherings with other devotees, they most likely wear traditional Indian garb. But as part of a larger community, they now wear street clothes, have regular jobs, raise children and pay taxes, marching past the stereotype of vacant-eyed ragamuffins drumming on street corners.

The movement, said Vineet Chander, an ISKCON spokesman, has grown up. Like the devotees themselves.

Now, Chander said, the children of the original devotees are raising their own children in "Krishna consciousness." They're integrating their beliefs, he says, with daily life.

Some devotees congregate in certain communities, and Alachua, a small town near Gainesville, is home to the largest Hare Krishna community in America. More than 1,000 Alachua devotees work as professors and art gallery owners and lawyers in Gainesville and nearby, raise their children and gather at the temple to worship and feast together, and forge a spiritual community. Worldwide, Chander said, there are 400 temples and more than a million practitioners.

The Hare Krishna movement is small but, Chander said, strong. A belief system that loves its stories, perhaps it is best understood in the stories of those striving to live in Krishna consciousness.

*The Miami temple*

The air inside the Miami temple is heavy and hot. Each of the tall windows is open to lure in the fickle August breeze that barely ruffles the palm trees outside.

It is almost midnight. A suggestion of incense undulates through every corner of the cavernous room. The pale gray marble floor is cool under the bare feet of more than 150 devotees.

They have been at the temple for hours, and have looked forward to this day for weeks. Women from India and women from America are dressed in saris of crimson and fuchsia and emerald green, gold bracelets trilling on their wrists, kohl lining their eyes. Many men wear earth-toned tunics and loose yogi pants.

It is Janmastami, a holy day celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna, more than 5,000 years ago. Against a constant tapestry of music and chanting, devotees glide through the hours and minutes until midnight. They dance.

They line up to honor a representation of Krishna cast in metal and placed on a small swing decorated with marigolds and other flowers. Bowing before him, gently swinging him, occasionally weeping, they venerate God.

Later, they line up again to bathe small, carved representations of Krishna and his most beloved consort, Radharani, with water from sacred rivers in India. They hear lectures on the Bhagavad-gita, the most holy book of scripture to devotees. They throw handfuls of rice onto a small fire to symbolize cleansing and rebirth. They watch traditional Indian dance. They chant, they chant, they chant. Chanting, a gift from Krishna, they believe, and always done in Sanskrit. A way to connect with God, to turn one's heart to him, to learn to serve him.

Near midnight, as a devotee sitting cross-legged on the floor and playing the accordion-like harmonium sets the rhythm for a chorus of drums, the chanting gradually gains velocity. Subtly at first, then with more speed. Almost midnight, and devotees surge in front of the marble railing rimming the front of the altar. Maroon curtains are drawn in front of it, blocking off the alcove where stand various representations of Krishna's incarnations - as himself, standing on his lotus feet, with Radharani beside him; as Lord Chaitanya, who came to teach devotees how to live the Bhagavad-gita; as colorful Lord Jagannath, one of Krishna's most merciful forms.

Pulsing in front of the curtained-off altar, devotees chant and swoon. The drumming accelerates still more.

Just before midnight, the lights inside the temple flick off. The heavy, hot air, the fever of chanting, the rich scent of incense, the polyrhythms of the drumming - all conflagrate in that moment. Behind the curtain, two priests blow into large conch shells to signal midnight, the moment Lord Krishna was born.

With a dramatic flourish, the curtains sweep open.

Devotees gasp and weep and cheer.

The central representations of Krishna and Radharani are clothed in ornate pink garments, several dishes from the feast to follow laid at Lord Krishna's feet as an offering. The altar is draped with garlands of roses and marigolds, and everything sparkles as if new.

Lord Krishna is born. His devotees are reborn.

*The Christian convert*

Heather Gaylor, who drove down from her Lake Worth home, is dancing, her bare feet flying across the marble floor of the Miami temple. Her long skirt swirls around her ankles, and her 4-year-old daughter, Tulsi, flits around her like a butterfly. Curly brown tendrils have escaped her pony tail, and frame her radiant face.

Heather glows with perspiration and, she says, with joy. When she stops dancing for a minute, to catch her breath, to talk, to think, she laughs. Opening her arms wide to take in the temple, the devotees, everything, her movements imply a sense of surprise.

"How I was raised, this sort of thing was idolatry," she explains. "I would have never come to temple."

But things just happen, and the conservative Christian religion of Heather's youth was, she says, raising more questions than it presented answers. Her husband was dabbling in several Eastern religions, but Heather had yet to dip in her toes. They were living in Denver, home to a thriving Hare Krishna community. About eight years ago, she was walking one way down a sidewalk and a group of Hare Krishnas were streaming down the other.

They were dancing and chanting, she says, "and this one devotee was singing. It was so beautiful. I was drawn to it."

They gave her prasadam, or food that's an offering to God. It was fudge, she recalls, and she savored it.

"Five minutes later, I said, this is it, this is what I want," she recalls. "It triggered something in me that our souls are eternal, and that's so beautiful."

The path has not been easy, and she does not consider herself a full devotee, she says. But every day a little more - chanting, studying the Bhagavad-gita, pondering Krishna and serving him in all things. Or doing as much as she can, at least. She named her daughter Tulsi after the sacred plant that is holy to devotees. In their days at home together, she teaches Tulsi little lessons about Krishna, and tells her stories about his pastimes - grand stories of defeating demons and spending time with his 16,000 consorts and playing the flute. She frequently attends the Sunday evening devotional service and love feast at the Miami temple.

The reason? "Joy," she says. "This brings me joy. It makes sense to me. It gives me peace."

*The family in Greenacres*

If life today has a remote control, the fast forward button is stuck. Everything hyperspeed, busy, busy, busy. Not enough time for anything, and everything piling up like cars in an interstate crash.

So the Patel family of Greenacres stops. Just stops all the homework and errands and everything else.

Bina Patel stands at the bottom of the stairs and calls to her sons. "Nimai! Nitai! Come!"

The boys, 12 and 8, thunder down the stairs. It is early Saturday morning. Milky sunlight streams through the windows and spills onto the white tiles of the living room floor. Melodic chanting plays softly from speakers on the entertainment center.

Bina, originally from India, gathers her sons and leads them down a short hallway to the laundry room. There, husband Jagdip, also of Indian descent, is kneeling in a small alcove that for another family would be a pantry or storage closet. It is the Patels' altar.

The walls are painted sky blue. Garlands hang above the doorway. Holy items - a metal plate for food offerings, pictures of deities - adorn low shelves. Most important, small representations of Lord Krishna and Radharani stand on the shelves, gifts from family friends when Nimai was born.

Before the Patels moved anything else into their home, they assembled their altar and made offerings to Krishna.

Now, more than a decade later, their lives are busy. The boys, with their comet-like trajectories, gather speed - school and homework and friends. Jagdip works nights at the Winn-Dixie pharmacy in Mangonia Park. Bina maintains their home.

During the week, parents and children do their own devotionals at the altar. But on the weekends, when they insist time slow down, they are together as a family, venerating and serving Krishna.

Jagdip rings a bell to begin the devotional, his actions mirroring those of the priests at any Hare Krishna temple. Bina and the boys sit cross-legged behind him, their backs against the white washer and dryer. They play finger cymbals to accompany the chanting.

Jagdip venerates Krishna with sticks of incense, waving them in front of the altar as he chants, then turning to wave them in front of his family. He continues with the ritual, waving various sacred objects - a peacock feather fan to cool Krishna, a handkerchief to wipe his brow - first toward the altar, then toward his family.

Bina leads the chanting, then prompts both of the boys to lead it in turn. The small laundry room grows warm. They swing their legs around to bow toward the altar.

From the laundry room, the family adjourns to the screened patio off their kitchen. There, on a circular plastic table, is a tulsi plant in a pot. They finish their devotional with chants, bowing to the tulsi plant and walking around it several times.

And then it's time for breakfast.

*The University of Florida tradition*

"We're known as 'the kitchen religion,' " says Vasudeva Das, laughing. He is head chef at the Hare Krishna Student Center at the University of Florida, a place whose small industrial kitchen is "so clean, it's probably the only kitchen where you can walk barefoot," Das says.

Every day during the school, since 1971, devotees have prepared lunch for students at the university - more than a million meals, says Kalakantha Das, who directs the student center.

For years, the lunch was free. Recently, as food prices rose, devotees began asking for $3 for all you can eat, and the Krishna lunch's popularity didn't wane, Kalakantha Das says.

The lunch is vegetarian, since abstaining from meat, fish and eggs is one of the central tenets of Krishna consciousness. The menu varies between traditional Indian dishes to pasta to more American dishes. Wednesday, spaghetti day, is generally the most popular, Vasudeva Das says, and devotees serve about 800 meals that day.

On a recent rainy Wednesday, the line for the Krishna lunch stretches down the entire length of the library. Students are spread out on benches and the sidewalk and the grass, balancing plates of spaghetti, salad and almond cake on their laps.

Kalakantha Das sits nearby, available to students for chit-chat or religious discussion.

"Philosophical ideas are best espoused by action," he explains. The lunch, he says, is not prepared with students in mind, but wholly as an offering to Krishna, as prasadam. That the students benefit from this devotion is a bonus.

Devotees usually begin preparing the lunch at 5 a.m., after rising even earlier to chant in the student center's temple room.

Regardless of what students know about Krishna consciousness, they do know food.

"I eat here as often as possible," says Rachel Smith, 20, of Tampa. "It's good. It's convenient."

Tim Hussin, 21, from Palm Harbor, agrees: "It's cheap, it's pretty good, all my friends come here, it's close to my classes.

"And it's a good atmosphere, everyone sitting here eating."

*The Alachua school*

It's lunchtime, and the kindergarten class at the New Raman Reti School needs to burn off some energy. Teacher Radha Kunda Delaney leads them to the playground and asks them to line up several feet away from her. She turns her back and the children call, in unison, "Putana, Putana, what time is it?"

Putana is a witch who tried to kill Lord Krishna when he was an infant, and Delaney reads the story of how he defeated her to the kindergarten class that morning.

"It's 2 o'clock!" Delaney calls over her shoulder, and the children take two steps forward.

Again the children call, and again Delaney answers: It's 10 o'clock, it's 1 o'clock. Then... "It's lunchtime!" she exclaims, whipping around and chasing the squealing children.

Over and over they play the game, until devotees bring trays of vegetarian food from the Alachua temple's kitchen. Sitting on picnic tables under sky-scraping pines, the children eat rice and dal and a cauliflower dish. Standing nearby, wearing bright, flowing saris, are Jahnava Hausner and Jahnavi Briant, the school's co-directors. They watch the children eat and play, and they smile. Moments like these, they agree, are what make the school special.

Founded in 1990 and accredited with the state, the New Raman Reti School is a private religious school that this year had 35 students - children of devotees who think nothing of beginning their schoolday with a devotional to Krishna, who wear Krishna T-shirts and sometimes have the long lock of hair traditional to Hare Krishnas on the backs of their heads.

They play soccer and study math and roam the dozens and dozens of rolling, rambling acres outside Alachua that ISKCON owns, home to not only the school, but the temple, a public charter school and a small farm. "Our mission is we want to inspire excellence in Krishna's children," Hausner explains. "We want our children to have a well-balanced education and instill values and virtues so they can make virtuous decisions and give back to the community and to the world."

Several of the children are third-generation devotees, Hausner said - their grandparents joined the movement soon after ISKCON was established here, raised their children in it, and now those children are raising their children in Krishna consciousness.

Briant made comparisons to Amish culture, where teenagers and young adults have a *rumspringa*, a time where they leave the community and experience the world. She said some devotees leave Krishna consciousness for a time, "but we're seeing some who come back to it because they realize they miss the peace it gives them, and now they're raising their children in it."

Article in palmbeachpost.com