Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Telling Long Stories.... The Hare Krishna Temple, Part II

Just inside the door of the Hare Krishna building, a receptionist was waiting to direct traffic. I gave her my winning smile and said I was here for the worship service. She gestured behind her, where there was a huge room filled with about 150 pairs of shoes, and told me to put my shoes down there and to go on in.

In the central room, about 150 people stood, clapped, and danced in a loosely circular mob that was slowly rotating around a couple of guys singing into a microphone near the back corner of the room. One of these guys was white, a couple were Indian. They were also playing some good drums. The worshippers were probably 85% Indian (or Indian-American or whatnot) and the rest black, white, Asian, whatever. Nobody was wearing the orange robes that I associate in my head with Hare Krishnas (later it was explained to me that these were the monks, who have given over their lives to praying and proselytizing, but that the majority of practicioners don't live this lifestyle). Lots of kids were running around. A lot of the women were wearing saris and a few of the men were wearing traditional white tunics and little cloth bags on strings around their neck. The celebrants had all painted their faces with the same little mark - an elongated gold oval on the nose with two arching branches - like the horns of the Taurus zodiac sign - going up to their hairlines.

The room was big and high ceilinged, and it smelled like incense. Metal chairs ran along the sides. There was a big, shiny altar/creche thingy in the front - with sparkly statues of Krishna and his consort, flowers, colorful painted panels, and baskets full of fruit.

In the back of the room where we came in, facing the altar, was a giant throne, also multicolored and covered with flowers, and seated on the throne was a life sized statue of -- I'm not exactly sure who. Maybe the founder? A big white pillar, which wasn't attached to the ceiling at all, stood behind the founder and to his right, a little bit. Frankly, I found this statue pretty scary - it was a little too realistic. But then I used to get really freaked out by department store mannequins, so maybe I'm just over sensitive.

There were also yellow banners all over the walls, announcing the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Hare Krishna movement (1966-2006). These posters also displayed the official logo and what amounted to a brand name of the Hare Krishna movement, which is ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). There are local ISKCONs all over the country. They are registered nonprofits. There's even one in Hillsborough, NC, for all you Triangle Area readers...

The Companionable Atheist and I had just started to get a read on this fun dancing scene, when we got collared by a cheerful member of what looked to be the unofficial greeting committee. "Have you visited our temple before?" she asked. We said no, and she invited us to go over and sit with her in their temple office to get a crash course on what was going on.

As I mentioned, I hadn't done my homework, so she had to start from the very beginning. The upshot is that the Hare Krishna movement is a subsect of Hinduism, devoted to the particular deity Krishna. Krishna is their particular favorite god, though he also represents all gods.

They are also devoted to a particular worship practice, which is the reciting of their mantra:

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

Want to know what this means? Think it's maybe some big secret? I guess maybe I thought so at first, because I kind of laughed at myself when I found out it means "praise god." Hare means praise. Krishna and Rama are two names for God. They just say "Praise God" in more contexts than I say it. You know. To remember that they should be mindful and do everything for God. The usual reasons. At the Hare Krishna temple, they answer the phones "Hare Krishna." They say "Hare Krishna" when they hang up, and also when they greet each other. This is surprisingly contagious. The Companionable Atheist really slapped himself on the forehead when he called for directions, thanked them, they said "Hare Krishna" when they were about to hang up the phone, and he blurted it right back at them. These religions, they just get you sometimes.

The Hare Krishnas trace this religious practice and belief back to 1000 AD, but it really got revived by an older fellow in India who was involved in India's nationalist movement and then started getting religion. He began hanging out with the monks and soon received his calling - to go around the English speaking world to spread the Hare Krishna religion and practice to English speakers. (I bet this is somehow related to his experiences in the nationalist movement, but how he developed this idea in relationship to the nationalists I have absolutely no idea). So in the late 60s this monk, whose name was A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, went to the US. He ended up in New York, preached his beliefs, and served a free vegetarian meal to everyone who showed up for worship services (the practice continues to this day!) Whether due to the beliefs or to the vegetarian dinners, ISKCON has maintained a foothold in the US. Prabhupada continued to travel, set up ISKCON centers, preach, and translate the Vedas into English throughout the rest of his life.

Anyway, nice Geeta our guide took us back into the office, which was beautifully colored and covered with paintings of various Hindu deities in various situations. She was soon joined by her husband, who was the son of one of the local guys in charge so he really knew a lot. While we were talking, the guys in charge wandered in, chit chatted, wished each other Hare Krishna and wandered back out again. It was all a very pleasant, relaxed atmosphere, and where I usually get a little bit of the heebies when someone takes me into an office, I was totally fine with this happening here.

With the help of her husband, she explained everything from her life background (raised Hindu in Texas; only became a Hare Krishna participant within the last five years or so) to the forehead decoration (representing the leaf of a sacred plant connected to the footprint of the god) to this whole religious backstory, and several of the legends of Karna (one of the heroes of the Mahabharata) thrown in for good measure.

By the time they were done, the singing and dancing were done, and the white guy who'd been helping lead the singing was now giving a lecture, as all the participants sat on the chairs against the wall or on cloth mats on the floor. The Companionable Atheist was not so fond of these cloth mats. They had only the thickness of that kind of potholder that is too thin to keep you from burning your hand on the pot. People were wandering in and out with their kids, cell phones were ringing, you know, the typical modern religious experience. I kind of like it - I enjoy the chaos. Keeps everyone from taking themselves too seriously.

This story (of Karna's birth) was hard to follow as the guy was longwinded and soft spoken. It contained elements of the Virgin Birth (Karna's mother summons a God to be her "boyfriend" but then changes her mind; the God, annoyed to be summoned refuses to go away without impregnating her but agrees to do said impregnation by hands-off and Godly means), of Achilles (Karna is born with an impregnable suit of armor that he is tricked into removing, just as the prophets predicted at his birth) and of Moses (Karna's mother sends him down the river in a basket when he's born, and he's fostered by the king's charioteer and his wife). At the end of the lecture, the lecturer tried to cobble together a "The Moral Of This Story Is" but I didn't find it very compelling. It amounted to that Karna was a really good guy. Most of the time. He tried to do his best and not hurt people. So we should do that too.

Why is the story always better than the moral? The Companionable Atheist prefers the firm story arc and the straightforward morals of Aesop to the rambling and overlapping tails of the Mahabharata. I find that I have a preference for the latter - it's hard to draw any life message from these stories, but the characters are certainly compelling. And their messiness echoes the messiness of life.

Stay tuned for Part III: We eat the long-awaited vegetarian dinner and hold an impromptu religious trialogue...

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