A young journalism student’s path to Krsna consciousness takes her from curiosity to conviction.
by Krsnamayi-devi dasi
It was 4:15 in the morning. On the north side of Chicago, not even the birds were up. But I was. And not only was I up, but I was chanting and dancing around a room with thirty other people, all members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
To most Americans, the scene would have appeared odd, to say the least. The men wore either white or saffron Indian dhotis, and we women were dressed in bright saris. On our foreheads we all wore tilaka, the white, V-shaped clay markings indicating devotion to God, and around our necks we wore strands of beads indicating dedication to God and the spiritual master.
Samsara davanala lidha-loka … It was mangala-arati, the ceremony that begins each day for Hare Krsna devotees. The men, filling the front of the room, faced the Deity forms of Lord Krsna and His consort, Srimati Radharani. Some men played Indian drums, producing exotic, throbbing rhythms. Others clashed small hand cymbals with a regular one-two-three, one-two-three. The women, clustered at the back of the room, clapped and danced to the rhythm of the drums, cymbals, and chanting. Vande guroh sri-caranaravindam . . ,
Several times that morning I asked myself, Why am I here? I was a “normal” college junior doing well in school. I wasn’t consciously searching for any kind of supreme truth, the way I’d always heard people did before they got involved with the Hare Krsnas. Yet, although it was spring break, I wasn’t in Fort Lauderdale or any of the other fun spots that cater to college students. I was at the Chicago Hare Krsna temple.
Why? Why was I involved in worshiping God, Krsna, in this way? Well, as yet even I didn’t know the answer to that one. I didn’t know if I was acting out a fantasy, if I was just curious, or if I really wanted to believe as the devotees did. All I knew for sure was that I enjoyed spending time with them and that I respected them for their strong faith and their courage in sticking with beliefs society frowns on as alien.
The story of my interest in the Hare Krsna movement goes back to when I was a seventeen-year-old freshman at Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale. When those strange-looking people with the orange robes and shaved heads first appeared on campus, I had no idea who they were. But I was curious. So I overcame my timidity and talked to them. Then I reported what I’d found to my friends, and a well-meaning roommate threw at me the frightening word cult.
But I, always the rebellious one in our family, wanted to see for myself whether the reported “brainwashing” would take place for me. It never did. And because I had expected a bit of magic, I was a little disappointed. But I did keep talking to the devotees whenever they came to Carbondale, and though their beliefs were hard to understand at first, after a year or so of questioning and studying the philosophy of Krsna consciousness, I began to find it more acceptable; it all began to make sense. And I found my admiration for the devotees growing—for their spiritual knowledge, their strength of character, and their high moral standards.
After two years of chance meetings with devotees, I learned that a small Hare Krsna center was opening in town. I was thrilled. I loved the prasadam (the spicy, sanctified food they served), the beautiful saris the women wore, and the feeling of being part of a worldwide, growing movement. The center soon gathered a few followers, including myself. But my following was only tentative, sporadic, and very cautious. Playing at being a devotee was fine, I thought, but I certainly wasn’t ready to give up my plans of being wealthy and worldly-wise.
Then, during spring break, the center’s director, Damodara Pandita, decided to take his wife and their two-year-old son to the Chicago temple for a week. A few people went with them, and I followed several days later with some friends.
The group of us making the trip got in late at night—late, that is, for devotees, whose days start at 3:30 a.m. Damodara Pandita was waiting for us at the temple and took us two blocks down an alley to the apartment we were to share with his wife. Since she was staying there just temporarily, it was bare except for bunk beds along the walls.
When 3:30 came, I was already awake. I excitedly jumped out of bed and took my turn in a quick shower, tied my hair back into a braid, carefully applied the clay tilaka markings, covered my head (as a sign of chastity), and stepped out into cold, predawn Chicago.
It’s one thing to be told that the early-morning hours are best for spiritual practices. It’s quite another to experience it. I could almost touch the stillness in the damp, thick air as we walked through the alley. The late spring air chilled us, and soon we were walking faster and faster, finally breaking into a run the last few yards before we reached the temple building.
After scurrying up three flights of stairs, we entered a dimly lit room as big as a basketball court. We clanged a bell hanging by the door to announce our presence to the Deities, sank to our knees and offered obeisances by touching our foreheads to the checkerboard marble floor.
The Deity forms of Radha and Krsna smiled down from a lighted chamber along one wall of the room. Ancient Vedic scriptures say that if the Deities are installed in the temple with the proper ceremonies, God will consent to reside within Them. But bowing down before the Deities is one thing some people can’t understand; it seems degrading. But I enjoyed it. Thanks to rituals learned during childhood judo lessons, I had never thought myself too good to bow to a superior. And God, I thought, is as superior as you can get.
When the mangala-arati ceremony was over, it was time for individual chanting. Each devotee carries around his or her neck a cloth bag containing a string of 108 japa beads, similar to a rosary. While turning each bead between the thumb and second finger, the devotee chants the mantra Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Hare means “O energy of God,” and Krsna and Rama are names of God. Chanting is a spiritual call for the Lord and His energy to give protection to the conditioned soul and engage him in the Lord’s service. And, since God is absolute. He and His names are nondifferent. I actually felt His presence while chanting.
When all 108 beads have been told, a “round” is done. Sixteen rounds are required every day from each initiated devotee. But I, with a poor early-morning attention span, was having a difficult time concentrating. I looked around at some of the older devotees, a few of whom had been in the movement for ten or twelve years, and saw them chanting easily and with pleasure. Some paced as they chanted, some sat still, and some rocked back and forth, but all had looks of deep concentration on their faces. Inspired (and not wanting to appear too much of a novice), I closed my eyes and began again. This time it was easier, and I started to savor the words of the chant.
I opened my eyes and looked around, feeling a warmth slowly spread through my body. The temple seemed almost like home. I knew that an outsider might see it as segregated—men were generally aloof from the women—but that was because distractions had to be minimized so one could concentrate on spiritual life. Both sexes seemed to want it that way. And when we did get together, to watch video tapes or to discuss the day’s activities, I sensed comfortable relationships without the strain of flirting.
After a ceremony in which we worshiped the guru, we had a forty-five-minute philosophy class on an ancient Sanskrit spiritual classic called the Srimad-Bhagavatam. The morning ended with a delicious breakfast of fruit, cereal, chickpeas, and hot milk.
After breakfast, a six-year-old girl devotee and I started walking back to the apartment together. Halfway down the alley, we were surprised by two little boys who popped out of their backyard and began to scream at us. “We believe in Jesus Christ,” they yelled, making faces, “not your blankety-blank old God!” The little girl looked at me, bewilderment and hurt glistening in her wide eyes. “But I believe in Jesus, too,” she said. I held her hand tighter. How do you explain religious prejudice to a child? “Don’t worry, it’s okay,” I told her. “Those boys are just envious because they’re not as happy as you are. They don’t look very happy, do they?” She agreed they didn’t, and we walked on.
The boys weren’t acting like followers of Christ, I thought. Where was the mercy, the compassion, the love he taught? I could see these clearly in the devotees, and they expressed them toward people of all faiths. I knew that devotees regard Christ as an empowered representative of God and that they actually worship him as a pure devotee, a spiritual master. It’s too bad most people can’t understand that devotees of Krsna aren’t enemies of Christianity.
Devotees don’t eat meat (following “Thou shalt not kill” closer than the vast majority of Christians), and they don’t use intoxicants, have illicit sex, or gamble either. What genuine Christian could fault the devotees for abstaining from these sins? I had to admire the devotees for their self-control, even though I wasn’t ready to follow all those regulations at that time.
All in all, I could see why the Hare Krsna religion was attracting so many admirers. Its purity, combined with incidents like the one with the little boys, made me want to defend it for all the goodness I knew to be there. I still had my doubts about parts of the philosophy, but just being around devotees made it easier to believe. More than anything, I realized suddenly, I wanted to belong to this movement. Maybe not just then, but someday.
At the end of my visit, as I expected, the devotees invited me to stay. But I felt an insistent need to get back to journalism school, my boyfriend, my job, and my plans. I just wasn’t ready to make that kind of commitment.
So I left. But even though I drove out of Chicago, I didn’t really leave the movement. I kept visiting the St. Louis temple (it was the closest one to Carbondale), and one by one my doubts and questions were answered, especially when on one of my visits I met my spiritual master, His Divine Grace Srila Ramesvara Swami.
Back at school I worked my way up to a position as editor on the student newspaper, and after graduation I went on to work for several professional newspapers in the Midwest. Krsna consciousness always remained a part of my life, and gradually the desire grew in me to make it even more so. Then, one day in St. Louis, I made my decision. I was confident that moving into the temple community and serving Krsna full time was the right thing to do.
Six months later, Srila Ramesvara Swami awarded me formal initiation and gave me the name Krsnamayi-devi dasi, meaning “servant of Radharani.” My parents and some of my friends were astonished, but I never regretted my decision. I haven’t given up my plans to be a writer—in fact, the first articles I ever sold to a national magazine were written after I had become a full-time devotee. Only now my writing is devotional service to Krsna, and it’s much more satisfying than writing for prestige.
Days still start before the birds are up. Only now I know why I’m up that early and why I’m chanting before the beautiful Radha-Krsna Deities at the Dallas temple, where my husband and I live with our newborn child. I’m not just pretending to be a devotee anymore; I’m living a life based on the deep understanding that I’m a servant of God and that all I do should be done with devotion as an offering to Him.
And that kind of life is becoming more and more satisfying every day.