Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Visit to the Bhakti Center in New York

My trip to New York with Class 18 of the Humanist Institute included visits with many different houses of worship that I was only familiar with through reading or through interactions with people in my life. When I learned we were to observe and participate in a Hindu kirtan, or chanting service, at The Bhakti Center at 25 First Avenue, I was very interested as I have little formal experience with Hinduism. I was doubly excited to find out upon arrival that we were entering a Hare Krishna temple, for many odd and personal reasons.

Let me explain. My first experience with the Krishna's, aside from seeing them in pictures or on television (usually as some kind of curiosity or at the fringes of some hippie event) came in 1982 while working at a Deli on Hope St. here in Providence. At that time there was a house in the area that operated as a Hare Krishna temple and a young woman I worked with lived there full time. She was a wonderful person, and very pleasant to work with. She talked of the way her membership in this religion was so important to her, but she also had a sadness to her, as if she was running away from something. I remember having a hard time understanding her participation in what I regarded as a cult. She was the first vegetarian I had ever met.

She gave me a beautifully illustrated copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, and I loved the art. It was pop-art and airbrushed and colorful and comic bookish all at the same time. It was just brilliant to look at. But the English translation was tepid and the book did nothing for me. I don't recall even having finished it. I long ago lost contact with the young woman who gave it to me, and honestly I can't recall her name anymore, but I think of her sometimes because I think she was running from a bad family, and had found something better with the Krishna's. I hope she is well.

I eventually did read the Bhagavad-Gita, the remarkable translation by Barbara Stoler Miller that became the first piece of translated religious writing to actually move me in any substantial way. By the time I read Miller's version of the Bhagavad-Gita I had already read the Bible, the Koran, the Tao-Te-Ching and other religious texts, but I could easily parse all of them intellectually, and found no emotional connection with any of them. But the Bhagavad-Gita was different. The main protagonist, Arjuna, is about to go to war and do terrible things. He doesn't want to kill and slaughter millions, and in his desperation Krishna comes to Arjuna and counsels him.

I didn't really find Krishna's advice compelling. Krishna gave a kind of "duty-first, morality later" advice that I found rather unconvincing ethically, but I related to Arjuna's existential indecision and pain, and appreciated the fact that God, in the form of Krishna, might take the time to talk through the way the universe worked with those in desperate need. It seemed a very personal religion with an obviously emotional hook.

Of course, I knew The Beatles, especially George Harrison, had flirted with Krishna to varying degrees, and one of my guilty favorite German post-punk rockers Nina Hagen is still a practicing Krishna, having devoted whole albums worth of music to her religion (and UFOs.) Still there are accusations leveled at any cult, such as brainwashing, kidnapping, child sexual abuse and murder, and these are all, if Wikipedia is to be believed, true. I think it's possible to say that the Krishna's handled their child sexual abuse scandal somewhat better than the Catholic Church handled theirs, but the only way to win that game is, as the computer said to Matthew Broderick, not to play.

So I took off my shoes and entered the service with my classmates and mentors. I sat on a thin cushion and took in my surroundings. There were pictures on every wall of Krishna and Rama illustrating scenes from Hindu mythology. Of course, I call it mythology. When I asked the woman who was kind enough to speak with us and answer our questions about her religion if she believed the stories in the Bhagavad-Ghita and other Hindu texts to be literally true, she said that she chooses to believe that they are. To her, I suppose, they are not mythology.

Across the room was an altar of sorts, with awesome little Jeff Koontz style sculptures of Rama and Krishna. I was reminded of the It's a Small World After All Disneyland ride. But next to the altar, and even more startling in it's way, was a life size Madame Tussauds style figure of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of Krishna Consciousness. (You can see the figure at the one minute ten second mark in the video at the end of this post.)  It took me a long while to figure out he wasn't a real person engaged in meditation. In fact, I didn't figure it out until someone told me.

The room slowly, over the course of the kirtan, filled with more and more people. Mostly the people here were young and beautiful, brought together by this faith that obviously means so much to them. They greeted each other with smiles and hugs and real, meaningful eye contact. I was told later that this look into each other's eyes was to let each other know that the person you were seeing was the most important being in the universe to you at that time. This intensity and commitment to each other must ensure deep bonds while a member of the community. So much youth and beauty must certainly lead to sex, but I was told that Krishna's avoid illicit sex, which at this meeting was defined as anything that wasn't procreative.

I thought of the girl I knew long ago, who I suspected ran away from an abusive home, who had found in Providence a new loving family where the very idea of illicit sex was off the table. How could that not be appealing in those circumstances?

The chanting started in a call and repeat fashion, and we were all invited to join. A small, wooden hurdy-gurdy style piano was played as a young woman began the first of endless repetitions of the Maha or "Great" Mantra.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

These three words were sung by one, then repeated by everyone, over and over again, only the melody, or speed of delivery was ever changed. Others would periodically join in with other instruments: a drum, cymbals, a violin. The additional instruments would be added slowly, building the energy of the kirtan. Eventually the young woman gave up the piano to a young man in orange robes. After half an hour he handed over the piano to another young man. The same mantra endlessly repeated.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

I consider myself a scientist of sorts. I am not prone to mythology, or at least I'm not prone to the mythology of the kind on display here at the Bhakti Center, but I decided to get into the chanting with all my effort. I opened my mind as much as I could and I invited Krishna into my heart. I prayed and chanted and tried to chant myself out of my body, out of my mind, and connect with something deep and spiritual and real.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

It didn't work. I never felt Krishna's presence. He is, after all, fictional.

I left after nearly 75 minutes of chanting, and though it was fun and interesting and not quite as boring as I thought it would be, I know that I could not make such a thing a regular practice. I was told that Krishna's in this temple will repeat the mantra in this way for over two hours on a Thursday night, and sometimes arrange 12 hour kirtans on Saturdays. These longer kirtans may include mantras other than the Maha mantra, but the thought of engaging in this activity for twelve hours boggles me.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

In the hallway, outside the temple, my class engaged a young woman in discussion about her beliefs. She answered all our questions earnestly and honestly. When asked if the Hare Krishna religion is a cult she answered, yes, it is a cult, and it has had some terrible issues in its past, but that's all over and today it's a good cult, not the bad kind.

She came to Krishna because when she first encountered it, it instantly made sense to her. Not in a critical, higher mind, reasonable way, but on a gut instinct level. She had found in Krishna a community, a powerful community that served her as a family, united in love. She found personal meaning here, and was looking forward to either being reincarnated when she died or to shucking the endless cycle of rebirth to join with the Godhead.

There was much to like here among the Hare Krishna's, but there was also much I could never be a part of. The next day I was reading about the protests taking place in Russia over the extreme and dangerous sentence on the charge of hooliganism for the members of the band Pussy Riot. I was happy to see that the Krishna's there had joined the protest. On this issue, at the very least, Krishna's and Humanists and many other can find common ground.
If the mythology wasn't so wacky, what would really be so wrong with the Krishna's?

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