Devotees of the Hare Krishna faith celebrate the festival of Rathayatra on June 12, 2011 in London, England. Photo: Matthew Lloyd
When I was in Year Ten I was an Australian Army Cadet. That’s right, on Fridays after school, I chose to spend three hours in an unflattering khaki uniform marching around like a solider at an army base in the western suburbs of Sydney. Truth be told I did it because there was a very high ratio of boys to girls and I liked both taking and giving orders. It was like Girl Guides, with guys and without baking.
Apart from activities like making shelters called ‘hootchies’ from sheets of plastic tied to trees and wandering round the bush conducting search and rescues of lost hypothetical parachutists, we did things like attempt not to faint while holding Australian flags along the Pool of Remembrance on ANZAC Day and attending community events like the Granny Smith Festival.
It was at this celebration of apples, that I first met a Hare Krishna devotee. A man in orange robes gave me book called Chant And Be Happy that had two of The Beatles and a very cheerful Indian man on the cover. Fascinated, I pored over it with my friends (Corporals and Sergeants), only to be very disappointed that the book preached not only vegetarianism, but celibacy – two things that were about as appealing as hairy legs and bible study to a 15 year old in 1993.
Fast forward to the end of of first year university and my first trip to Byron Bay, on the CountryLink XPT with my friend James who lived in my suburb he skated, worked at General Pants, had tattoos and smoked pot. On the Saturday evening we wound up at the community centre, at the weekly Hare Krishna feast. I still have the little flyer that invited us to eat and chant stuck in my journal. I had no idea that what I was about to hear and taste would spiritually influence me more in an hour than 13 years at a Catholic School ever did.
The overwhelming feeling I remember having was of being awakened. Sounds clichéd? It was. The room was quite full of every stereotype of Byron hippie you can imagine standing, swaying, clapping and dancing along to the Maha Mantra - the great transformative sound that devotees around the world chant repetitively. My feet were cemented to the carpet, I was so self-conscious of moving and being moved that I couldn't find the courage to do anything but stand there. Internally I was rejoicing. I actually had a feeling like on the inside I was lit up. I’d discovered something buried, like a spiritual artefact accidentally dug up on archaeological adventure.
We shared in the vegetarian feast, another sensory explosion – as if I was tasting flavours for the first time in my life - then headed off to the Epicentre to listen to trance music and lick tabs of acid. The full Byron experience was complete.
Back in Sydney I found the local Hare Krishna centre on King Street in Newtown. I made friends with devotees, Lauren and Rachel who had both joined with their boyfriends in their late teens, as well as Malati, Jahnavi and Dhara - who had all grown up in the movement. Their parents were initial disciples of Srila Prabhupada – the smiling Indian pharmacist who had renounced his family life and travelled to the USA in 1966 as one of the first Hindu missionaries to the west. His timing was pretty auspicious, he landed in New York’s Tompkins Square Park and gathered original hipsters around him just as The Age of Aquarius kicked off and the counter-culture sought new resources for the New Age. Over in San Francisco and then London, the movement known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) spread and grew.
Put simply, the Hare Krishna movement is a branch of Hinduism whose followers have worshipped flute-playing, cow-loving Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu, who along with Siva is one of the most well recognised of the religion’s millions of Gods and Goddesses) across India for a few thousand years. The specific traditions are largely based on the 16th Century teachings of a Bengali social reformer called Caitanya Mahaprabhu - who, concerned that the caste system excluded low classes from spiritual practice, revived the worship of Krishna, recommending distribution of free prasadam (food that has been offered to the deities and blessed) and chanting of the Maha Mantra for everyone, openly and across the world. Over the centuries, the teachings have been passed down by networks of disciples and Gurus in succession directly to Srila Prabhupada.
I devoured the sacred texts (there are thousands of texts in the canon known as the Vedas), the philosophy, the rituals, the language, the rich history and succession of disciples, teachers and scholars - relishing the challenge of the alternative ways of thinking about life, death, the universe and everything. I kept my eyes fairly wide open at the same time, scouring the (still relatively nascent) internet for information on cults and sects, the history and corruption of the all-male governing body which was set up to keep ISKCON running after Prabhupada ‘left his body’ in 1977 (it now includes two women and a range of cultural backgrounds).
Happily I stopped eating meat and eggs, and volunteered at the Newtown Food For Life Centre during many of my lunchtimes at uni, rather than hanging out at Manning Bar. I spent weekends in the ashram at the temple, completing rounds of japa mala (meditative chanting on beads) and seva (volunteer work) which formed a part of the prescribed Bhakti yoga (devotional deeds). On Saturday nights you could find me alternatively at a Whitlam’s gig (it was the 90’s) or dressed in a sari chanting and dancing my way up and down George Street – a practise called sankirtan, public devotional singing – believed to purify and bring about higher consciousness.
My Catholic family were bemused, shaking their heads when Sanskrit phrases showed up as tattoos on my body along with a palm sized image of Lord Jaggantha – the beaming face on the ‘smile’ stickers devotees distribute across the world.
When my friends were taking initiation from their spiritual masters, and changing their names to Rati Keli, Radhika and Sivani, I was completing my degree and working in a video store. I struggled with wanting to completely surrender and fully ‘join up’ and maintaining my other interests in film, theatre and music. I wasn’t ready to pack everything in and distribute books on the street, though I did purchase a 5-acre property not far from the farm community in Murwillumbah with the aim of raising a family outside of the city. I travelled through India to Vrindavan – Krishna’s equivalent of Bethlehem – and other holy cities to study and practise yoga. India felt like home, I have never felt as content as I did wandering the streets of Rishikesh, patting cows literally for hours on end and sitting by the Ganga and doing cartwheels with local kids. When I landed back in Sydney and in an postgraduate education degree a version of ‘reality’ best described as the ‘daily grind’ cloaked me.
Slowly over time, my links to the community loosened. Like any organised religion, cracks in the management of the institution, especially the role and treatment of women, were obvious to me and my ability and interest to lobby and change them slipped away. I got busier, I started teaching in a demanding school and worked long hours, dated meat-eating boyfriends and started drinking. My friends got divorces and joined me at music festivals and clubs, instead of at temple.
16 years later I still have a network of wonderful friends who I met through my association with the Hare Krishnas, some are still active in the movement, others have moved on. We still love Krishna, his lilas (stories of his past times) and gifts, and have a shared background from which we understand the struggles of life as ‘spirit soul’ in a material world. I guess you can never really stop being a devotee of Krishna, I am just hoping that in the next lifetime I can be a better one.
Jocelyn is a psychologist and educator. You can follow her on twitter @jocelynbrewer