Barefoot, in an orange safran robe and with a short pony tail dangling from an otherwise bald head, a Hare Krishna devotee seems out of place opening the large oak door of a sober Victorian brownstone house on Commonwealth Ave. in Boston. Krishna devotees are commonly seen chanting and dancing on New York's Fifth Ave., or asking for donations in Harvard Square dressed in Santa suits around Christmas time. But this devotee stands on the threshold of Boston's Temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), three blocks from the Ritz-Carlton.
The Boston Temple houses 42 male and female devotees on its upper three floors and in an adjoining building. It is one of nearly 100 ISKCON centers around the world.
Dedicated to "propagating god consciousness for the benefit of mankind," ISKCON has tried to appeal to intellectuals by emphasizing the tradition and scripture of its movement, deriving from the Vedic literature, especially the 5000 year old Bagavad-Gita. Here at Harvard, Garuda Das, a Hare Krishna priest and Divinity School student, hopes to form a Harvard-Radcliffe Vaishnava Society dedicated to exploring the religion, philosophy and culture of India's devotional tradition.
The movement receives its financial support from revenues of the Spiritual Sky Scented Products Company, a manufacturer of incense and other scented products, and through public donations, Garuda says. These funds make the publication of ISKCON literature and the expansion of its programs possible.
The movement also hopes to appeal to citizens other than intellectuals by selling a monthly magazine, Back to Godhead, and by offering free Sunday dinners. Garuda stresses the movement's attempt to reach a wide audience because, "There's something for everyone in Krishna consciousness."
Arriving at the Temple for the Sunday service and dinner, you first kneel to remove your shoes in the vestibule. The shoe removal is required of everyone who wishes to enter a Hare Krishna Temple. The height of the devotee who greets you is magnified as he stands before oak-paneled walls. A vertically lined robe drapes his slim frame. He looks down and grins.
Devotees' dress, shaved heads and tilaka, the white clay lines on their foreheads, represent their spiritual devotion to Krishna. A shaved head is a sign of detachment from material pleasure, and the tilaka signifies that the body is the temple of God. A devotee's robes serve to remind others of the person's availability for spiritual guidance, though one may participate in the Krishna movement and wear conventional dress.
To become a devotee one lives in the temple, meditates to develop a love of God and abstains from illicit sex, intoxication, meat, fish or eggs, and gambling for a year before initiation. The average day of a devotee begins at 4 a.m. with four hours of prayer, study and classes. During the day, a devotee works in various preaching programs or at regular jobs. In the evening, the devotee attends classes and chants with the rest of the congregation.
Smoke from incense and frying vegetables replaces the musty stuffiness one would expect to find in a 115-year-old brownstone. The resulting atmosphere is enhanced by the rhythm set by devotees in far-off rooms ,clanging kartals and pittering mrdrungas.
The temple's chandeliers and yellow walls replace the dim lights and drab walls of the hallways. The chandeliers illuminate small red, orange and blue banners, spattered with sewn-in mirrors and paintings of Krishna performing miracles and embracing Radha, his lover. Stained-glass windows cover one of the smaller walls of the rectangular room and provide a colorful backdrop for a light blue throne surrounded by white chrysanthemums. On the throne, sitting on a red cushion, is a picture of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the spiritual master and founder of ISKCON. He faces an orange curtain on the far wall and watches over devotees and visitors as they sit on an apricot-colored floor made of linoleum.
Bhaktivedanta Swami, a former Bengali businessman and a follower of Krishna since 1933, established the first ISKCON center in a small storefront in New York 12 years ago. He died last November, leaving over 6000 full time ministers and students of Krishna Consciousness. According to Garuda, the ISKCON founder did not die but merely appeared in a physical form, then disappeared. "After all the body does not determine life, life determines the body," Garuda says.
In the temple the devotees sit along a wall playing soft music and chanting devotional songs as visitors sit cross-legged, some singing along, all of them with their backs to the wall. It is the bhajan, the time for prayerful, mellow song and the prelude to the lecture, the aroti and the prasada.
Agrani Das, the temple president, draws a microphone to his mouth and begins the lecture. "One must use the mind to get more than material objects like sex and shelter. One must use the mind to develop a greater relationship with God," he says. Devotees and Krishna followers filter into the temple. One devotee rings a large bell suspended before the orange curtain. Most of the entering congregation are Indians, but the group includes people of all races and nationalities. They all press their foreheads to the floor and sit cross-legged.
Agrani concludes his lecture and fields a question from the congregation of 200. Suddenly what sounds like a jubilant cow bays from behind the curtain. It is a devotee blowing a conch, signalling the beginning of the aroti, the offering of articles to Krishna. The orange curtain floats open. The congregation drops their heads to the floor, murmuring obeisances in Sanskrit.
Bright red figures of Hare Krishna and Radha stand in a large, jewel-draped case in between two smaller cases also containing figures. The cases are supported by a three-tiered, brown marble platform covered with white and yellow flowers, jade elephants and pictures of spiritual masters who have died, or left the material world. On either side of the altar are stained glass windows of Krishna and Radha.
The devotees fly to the altar clutching their instruments, the congregation swelling behind them. A devotee with a mrdrunga or drum, sets a slow simple tempo and begins to chant in Sanskrit. The congregation answers the leader's prelude and sways with the slow tempo. The devotees dance closest to the altar, beating mrdrungas or kartals, small high-pitched cymbals, and leading the rest of the congregation in the singing and dancing.
The mrdrunga pattering becomes a solid roar. Alongside the altar a devotee waves a large white-haired brush. The kartals crash as devotees bound to and fro, somehow avoiding a collision. They hop and leap, pony tails bobbing, mouths agape, chanting, "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare..." The energy ripples through the congregation. A man violently rocks from his waist up, glazed eyes bobbing above a limber neck. A swaying woman, dressed in a sarong, catches a red carnation. She closes her eyes, smells the flower, grins and flings it to someone else. A woman devotee bounces with her baby's face pressed in her sarong. Another child hops at her feet, his hands thrust to the ceiling. A devotee jumps from alongside the altar with a burning brass tin of ghee-soaked cotton. He dodges his fellow devotees, offering each the burning ghee, or clarified butter. Everyone passes his hand over the sweet smelling ghee and touches his forehead.
In the temple, the growing beat and deafening volume of the drums and kartals, the sweet incense and the glistening altar seem to inspire the devotees into uncontrolled gesticulations. They are thrown into a frenzy of twirling orange robes, red ribbons, flashing kartals and airborne sweat. The entire congregation leaps on the floor, shouting the mantra, "Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare..." At the end, they fall to their knees.
Once again they press their foreheads to the floor. They answer the Sanskrit words of a devotee, confirming their love of Krishna. Another devotee salves the altar with a wet cloth.
The prasada, or food, is sanctified by Krishna and brought into the temple in large, white buckets. The devotees top over the vats and ladle the food onto peoples' plates. The paper plates sag under an awesome spectrum of stewed, spiced, fried, mashed, sweetened or rolled vegetables. A smiling baby lies between its parents, who sit cross-legged, eating peacefully. A little boy with a short pony tail and white robe, a Hare Krishna miniature, collects donations with a wicker basket, directed around the temple by his mother.