Krishna and Me

15 01 2009

Part I: An Evening at the ISKCON temple in Berkeley

In Berkeley, there are certain sights that you just take for granted after having been here a while. One of them is the now famous naked guy of over ten years ago. There was an equally eccentric gentleman known as the “Pink Guy”, who got his name from the pink unitard and cape that he would wear as he rode through the street on a unicycle. The day I came back to Berkeley, I was in Moe’s Books examining the selection of Spanish Baroque literature when a rather scraggly gentleman walked up and down Telegraph Avenue screaming at the top of his lungs like a wild animal. It was as if he was saying, “welcome home”.

Another such sight that is common are the dancing and singing of the Hare Krishnas. Every week at least, you will see their procession come up Telegraph, drums, cymbals, and all, frolicking about and making lots of noise. Again, something that would barely make the Berkeley dweller turn his head. At times, you would see other Hare Krishnas on the street corner trying to hock the Bhagavad Gita to anyone who will even stop for a second to look. For the cynical, they are merely another strange alternative in the market place of ideas that is the Bay Area.

In my case, though I am one of those cynical people, I still have a soft spot for them. Maybe it comes from the fact that I have always admired Hindu religious imagery, or I did my country report on India when I was in fifth grade, or that I spent much of my sociopathic teenage years in my room at night listening to long ragas. But of all the weird people around here, the Jews for Jesus, the leftists, the gutter-punks, and the rest, I have always found them the most endearing.

There was one time about twelve years ago when I was sitting on Sproul Plaza with a bad cold. I just needed some sun between classes, and was feeling all sorts of miserable. Out of nowhere, a very Mexican looking young man sat across from me. He looked a lot like the day laborers who stand outside of a Home Depot looking for menial work. Instead of selling paletas for a dollar, however, he had come to Sproul to do something different. He took out a pair of cymbals and began to slowly chant:

“Hare Krishna, hare Krishna, hare Krishna, Krishna hare. Hare rama, hare rama, hare rama, hare, hare…”

And the surprising part about it, he was actually quite good at chanting. It was like being treated to an early morning raga in a temple in India, except with Berkeley bums walking by. He must of went on for a half hour like that. I wouldn’t call it a “religious experience”; at the time, I was a died-in-the-wool Marxist who barely believed in his own mother. But perhaps it was one of the experiences that taught me that there is more to life than just the class struggle and justice; or rather, justice is a more cosmic thing that shines on all creation, and we all have to long for it as something beyond us.

To confess something that many might find rather odd, when I am riding to BART into the City every morning to work, while I am reading Plato, Aquinas, or some other author usually on Christian themes, I am blasting Hindu bhajans and kirtans in my ear. Walking to some place, I will usually take advantage to say the rosary, but when I stop, I usually have Hindu devotional music playing on my MP3 player, usually because the rhythm is appropriate for loud places. Does this make me some sort of secret pagan? I don’t know. I do know that I find their music exceptionally beautiful

So with AG out of town, and not much to do on Sunday night, I decided to go to the International Society of Krishna Consciousness’ temple here in Berkeley for their evening devotions. I knew that far from being just a temple of a sect, it is actually the major (only?) Hindu temple in Berkeley. I had been there before when their were no services going on. I thought the temple itself is nice in a sort of “omnes dii gentium daemonia” sort of way. The two deities, Krishna and his consort, are represented in the far left niche, while the middle niche is occupied with what appears to be a group of dolls with big eyes. I don’t remember what is in the right niche. In front of the sanctuary, there appears to be some sort of lotus fountain-looking thing, and on the walls various scenes from Krishna’s life are etched into the walls. Against the wall to the right of the sanctuary, there is a small shrine to the founder of ISKCON, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, life-sized and in seated position. The oddest thing about the temple area are the two “Barbie-doll” looking figures of Krishna and his consort (?), about eight feel tall and with long, fake hair hanging down their backs. If I were a kid, I’d be scared of them.

I arrived on Sunday night and could hear from across the street that the ceremony had already started. Homeless people were milling about since it appears they give out food to them on such occasions. I took off my shoes and entered the temple. There were about thirty to forty people there, some dancing and swaying, others just listening to the hypnotizing sounds of drums and cymbals. I stayed in the back watching the “priest” sprinkle “holy” water and other offerings on the deities. It seemed to be for me a lot like an incensation in an Orthodox church: first he would offer the things to the deities in the sanctuary, then to the image of the guru, and then to the congregants. I was sprinkled with the “unholy” water and refused pretty much every other offering of fire, incense, and the like (I take no communicatio in sacris very seriously).

Listening to the chanting was very pleasant, and it was hard not to tap along. It wasn’t the best Hare Krishna chanting I had ever heard, but live music is by nature better than hearing a recording, and listening to chanting in a temple is a whole other experience than listening to it on a train on the way to work at six in the morning. It was probably the best place you could be in Berkeley on a Sunday night with nothing better to do.

The chanting stopped, and everyone sat down for a short class on the Bhagavad Gita. I was tempted to leave at that point, but as I just said, what else did I have to do? I sat and listened as the guru and congregants chanted and recited a verse from the Gita in Sanskrit and then English. The sermon itself was something that was so common to religious discourse that if you substituted the word “Jesus” for “Krishna”, you would pretty much have a pretty decent Christian sermon on Sunday morning. He said that all we do in life, we must do for Krishna [Jesus], that the shortest way that we can achieve holiness is reflecting on Krishna [Jesus], and that Krishna [Jesus] must be the source of our life and happiness, etc.

There were a couple of amusing anecdotes that the guru gave to illustrate his point. Apparently, when they were making the ISKCON temple in Bangalore, one of the stone masons employed was a Muslim. At every blow of his hammer to chisel the pagan temple, he would utter “Allah, Allah, Allah”. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was so impressed when he heard this of one of the workmen that he went personally to meet him and told him how much he was impressed by his faith. (I just thought he was probably defending himself from the demons present there, but oh well.) The second was when the guru talked about how when people chanted “Hare Krishna”, it is like Krishna dancing on their tongues.

These are very good summaries of what is known in Hinduism as bhakti yoga. While many people in the West are fascinated with physical yoga and meditation, the guru spoke of how such methods are suited for the few and can lose focus from what is really important. (The young business executive who goes to her yoga class before a corporate meeting is the best example of this.) The most direct way in Hinduism to go to the divine is through bhakti, or devotion. In the case of the Hare Krishnas, even the uttering of “Hare Krishna” is a cosmic act, one the invokes the divine within yourself and the cosmos. The quickest way to get to God is to cry out to Him, it is even just to invoke His name and meditate on the syllables of what you are saying.

The sermon finished, and there were a few announcement, including one from a woman who was collecting funds for an upcoming festival. She was slightly upbraiding people for their stinginess, saying that she knew that times were hard, but they knew how much they could really give. They could lie to her in their tight-fistedness, and that was okay with her, but they couldn’t lie to Krishna, and it might not be okay with him. Gulp.

I didn’t stay for their free vegetarian supper but chose rather to go home. I had some cold pepperoni pizza in the fridge.

(to be continued…)


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One response

19 01 2009
John in Sallas

As a former Krishna-enthusiast turned Catholic convert, I am quite interested to hear the rest of this story.

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