My years as a Hare Krishna

Devotees of the Hare Krishna faith celebrate the festival of Rathayatra on June 12, 2011 in London, England.

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.

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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

34 comments

  • Sounds fair enough. Hare Krishna is not a cult, it seems, and the fact that it's a branch of a major religion gives it some substance. It also means that it is subject to the abuses and imbalances of power that seem to plague all major religions and even more so, cults. I couldn't cross the line to join an organisation that revolves around a belief in divine beings, even less so, cult leaders. At least it gives a sense of belonging, I suppose, and there is a way back to it if you want it, because it is well-established and continuing. I wonder how some who were adherants of defunct cults like the Orange People followers of Rajneesh in the 70s/80s feel about those times now?

    Commenter
    roto
    Date and time
    January 24, 2013, 9:09AM
    • I used to live over the back fence from a Hare Krisna house in Brisbane - 24 hour cycle chanting hare krisna, hare krisna, hare rama, rama rama etc. - so I got to know the words

      My take was it suited wimpy directionless people attracted to traditional conservative roles with an appearance of something special and different

      Recently I've observed the upbeat version walking around Sydney streets - initially with fake photographer pretending to be snapping news photos - and with a quasi-uptempo more syncopated 'exciting' beat - perhaps comparable to those pop music churches where people sing along to pretend pop music to feel like they're with it - but they're really not.

      Commenter
      not hairy
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      January 24, 2013, 9:32AM
      • haha, yeah i've been trying to codify my feeling about those "pop music" churches, but now i don't need to, y've done it for me. nice work.

        Commenter
        J.
        Location
        Syd.
        Date and time
        January 24, 2013, 11:29AM
    • @The Age/Daily Life editor: the Bible has a capital "B".

      @Ms Brewer, have you done many Bible studies? It's a joyful exercise, although not a particularly "religous" one.

      Commenter
      Edward
      Location
      Flemington
      Date and time
      January 24, 2013, 9:59AM
      • As a girl from a Indian Hindu Brahmin family, religion served to mould us into a good living pattern. But I also got learnings from other sources, from Catholic institutions (as a teacher) and living in Middle East exposed me to very liberal Muslims. Today, living in Sydney and raising two boys, my worry was that they would be drawn to cults of any sort. So I kept religious teachings to occasional visits to temples.

        One can read the chants and dance - but it is by living a regular life, the religious insights give you a burst of consciousness - as would any revelation. For example there is a story of Radha (mother of Krishna) chastises her son for stealing butter and demands him to open his mouth. When the child opens his mouth, she sees the entire universe within with the sea and all living creatures. One can take this literally - or live it as a mother - and flashes of your daily life give you an epiphany - about that story - it is infact what you see in your child - and you feel it is your universe. There are other times when Gita (sermon on the battlefield by Krishna) can give you the direction that you can follow in a current situation.

        All religions have a context to a period and sometimes that is forgotten in following a group or organised institutions. The fact that you took an experience based view in life and dropped out to savour alternatives is not something everyone can or should do. But well done and reading this first thing in the morning has enriched me.

        Commenter
        GoatLov
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        January 24, 2013, 10:38AM
        • sorry - please edit my previous post - Devaki is mother of Krishna - not Radha is the wife of Krishna

          Commenter
          GoatLov
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          January 24, 2013, 10:59AM
        • "Radha" was Krishna's beloved, and not mother. "Jashoda" was the mother.

          Commenter
          Correction
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          January 24, 2013, 11:02AM
        • I've read the Mahabarata - it seemed to me that the Hindu gods were a warlike group, constantly battling over power. I couldn't figure from there how it could be the basis for a major religion (Hinduism) that seeks to promote noble ideals such as peace.

          Commenter
          alto
          Date and time
          January 24, 2013, 11:09AM
        • @alto - the Mahabharata is not about God's waging war - it is about the soul of mankind swimming across the sea of delusion that is called 'life' (in the hindu faith). The mahabharatha expounds (by its numerous analogies) some very complex theories - it is not possible to understand its vagaries by a circumspect and basic literal observation. The depths require years of study. I know - I have a PhD in religious studies and have been teaching it for many, many years.

          The vedas and hinduism in general are so wonderfully rich and deep. It requires a lifetime of dedication to begin to understand (or years of meditation).

          I would recommend you re-reading it - slowly, many times over. Krishna's lecture to Arjuna (where he advocates what are seemingly good and bad acts) is an indication that life is based on a thread that is not wholly a case of moral decision making based on a mental construct but rather one based on a higher conscious realm that is accessed by pure living.

          That is but one of its many gems.

          Commenter
          FG
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          January 24, 2013, 1:28PM
        • @ alto, I am not sure to what extent you have read Mahabharata? Did you read in English? Was the author Western? Was the author more than just academic? Did you read a more romanticised version, often being depicted as gods and godesses or any other pre-conceived notions/bias ? These factors do affect one's preception or knowledge especially when trying to understand Eastern or non-European history/culture and its so called religions. A Eurocentrist perception (that doesn't necessarily mean the person has to be European) quite often leads to a reflection of European history where the historian is more familiar to start with or has a strong affinity to, an incorrect analysis to start with.

          With regards to your statement "I couldn't figure from there how it could be the basis for a major religion (Hinduism) that seeks to promote noble ideals such as peace." If you have read the Mahabharata thoroughly (again it depends your source), you should be able to notice that the war was the last solution, it went for years and years, when all other avenues for peaceful co-existence failed. Mahabharata is not about just war, you need to understand the events before it. Perhaps you were more fascinated with war, a very Eurocentric perception.

          Further, Hinduism as a religion doesn't have any history of conquering far away lands, destroying culture, languages or someone's beliefs. Unlike the history of Abrahamic religions that are based on absolute ideas, where it has a history of invasions, slavery and conversions all around the world right until colonialism, destroying on the way all other alien cultures or belief system systematically.

          Commenter
          pragmatic
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          January 24, 2013, 1:39PM

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