If you’d asked me a year ago if I would have attended a “fan club” meeting of a famous Hare Krishna guru-turned-book-author, I would have replied something like, “It’s not out of the question, but it’s unlikely.”
The unlikely seems to happen here in India.
It started with our neighbor and friend, Anita, who gave me a copy of Radanath Swami’s book, “The Journey Home,” last October. Many of my Hindu friends worship different gods and goddesses, and I knew through casual conversation that Anita worshipped Lord Krishna, the playful blue-skinned, flute-playing god.
I didn’t think much about it beyond that. There’s a temple nearby our house and we hear the bells regularly. Many Hindu homes and businesses—even street carts–feature small alters in this religious country. The sounds of bells and the smell of incense burning are common.
It was awhile before I could get to the book as I was re-reading Salmon Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.” When I did, I found that Anita had written a personal note to me inside. Above her inscription were the initials “H.K.”
It took a moment, but it hit me: Hare Krishna. Anita, my helpful and kind neighbor, was a Hare Krishna? Negative images immediately filled my brain. Weren’t those people quite strange? Didn’t they run around airports in orange robes, throwing garlands around people and shoving pamphlets into their hands?
I put aside the negativity and thought for a moment. So many things that are viewed as “weird” in the West, such as being devoted to yoga or believing that Om is the sound of the universe or that our chakras must be awakened, are simply traditional ways of life here. They aren’t considered strange at all.
It’s one of the reasons I love India.
The book starts about 40-some years ago, when 19-year-old Richard Slavin, a Jewish boy from Chicago, left for what was supposed to be a couple months’ trip through Europe. To the horror of his parents, he got swept up in the counter-culture movement and ended up hitchhiking through much of Europe and the Middle East. To make a long story short, he eventually felt called to go to India.
The swami isn’t a professional writer. As a reader, I could nitpick style and cadence here and there. But Richard-turned-swami tells remarkable stories of all the different characters, both good and bad, that he met during his journey. This includes everyone from addicts in a dark and smoky hashish den in Afghanistan and a sexual molester “holy man” from whom he had to flee to save his skin; to mystics and ascetics living off the land in the forests and hills of India. He ends up in the Himalayas, living the life of a sadhu, one who renounces all materialism in search of god. He meditates in caves and learns from various yogis and sages.
He once spent an entire month meditating on a rock in the Ganges River, eating only minimal food. Another time, he almost got stuck in quicksand. He begged for his food and wore only a robe and loincloth. Eventually, the hippy even cut his hair.
All throughout these experiences, Richard is trying to figure out his purpose in life, which he’s certain has something to do with serving God. He writes home regularly, and feels guilty about letting down his parents.
He meets some incredible people, from the world-renowned Mother Theresa of Calcutta to the humble and unknown Ghanashyam, an endearing old man who faithfully maintained a small temple in a closet in Vrindavan, India.
The story culminates when young Richard finds his true calling in worshipping Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. As such, Krishna is known as the supreme lord himself. Krishna’s birthplace, Vrindavan, is filled with Krishna worshippers. Not surprisingly, the community becomes Richard’s spiritual home. After a very long search, he ultimately becomes a disciple of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
If you don’t know who Prabhupada is, don’t worry; neither did I. But I now know that he’s the one who brought Krishna worship to the West in the 1960s–the Hare Krishna movement. It’s officially known as the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON. Famous people, such as the Beatles and the controversial Harvard professor Baba Ram Dass, were among Prabhupada’s followers (as well as some of those airport folks I mentioned earlier).
A few months after reading the book, Anita asked me if I’d like to come to Mumbai with her to hear Radanath Swami, now in his 60s, speak. I agreed, mainly because his book was one of those that you can’t stop thinking about long after you finish it. At times it comes off sounding like a sermon or a lecture, but mostly he writes with such sincerity and honesty that I thought hearing from him would be worthwhile.
We first stopped at a nearby Krishna temple in Mumbai. It was spotlessly clean and very well maintained. The deities were lovely statues, and included Lord Krishna and his consort, Radha. A group of devotees played music in the temple, including the staple mantra of Krishna worshippers, which I videotaped and put at this link: Hare Krishna
Devotees prostrated themselves on the floor upon entering the temple, which also featured a statue of the guru Prabhupada, who died in the late 1970s. They then sat or stood in front of the deities and prayed.
Monks were there, in orange robes and shaved heads. None appeared crazed. Anita and her friends are quite normal, too.
We then went to the venue to hear the swami’s talk. They first showed video clips that my cynical mind couldn’t help but think were too polished, too professional. “Aha!” I thought. “The guy is like one of these Christian televangelists in the US that I don’t like so much! They’ll probably ask me for money, too.”
Then different members of the fan club got up and talked (critical me thought “gushed”) about how much the swami changed his or her life. Then a diminutive man came up and began speaking in Hindi. A woman translated for me.
Whispering in my ear, she told me the man had read the book some 15 times and went in search of Radanath Swami personally. It sounded as if he became almost obsessed (critical me thought “stalker”). The man nearly got to meet the swami once or twice but eventually went home after several months of trying to find him, feeling defeated. He then said he had a realization that he didn’t actually have to meet the man to carry the love for God, or Krishna, in his heart.
The man, revealing his story to a group of strangers, became emotional. His story touched me. My inner critic fell silent.
Then Radanath Swami, a small man with a shaved head and clad in orange robes, got up to speak. He sat, cross-legged, and prefaced his comments by singing what I took to be a prayer. Then he just started talking…about his life, about his love of God, about his parents and family, and about India.
I related to his stories, especially when he talked about how much he loved India and the people here. On the drive to Mumbai, in fact, a young woman sitting next to me in the car asked what I liked most about her country. “The people,” I told her.
In spite of all the challenges this overpopulated country faces on a daily basis–inadequate sanitation and education, poverty, pollution, shortages in electricity and water, etc. etc.—so many of the people I’ve met in India seem to radiate joy, peace and kindness.
Radanath Swami told us that when he first came back to America after being in India, he lectured his parents about the true meaning of love and life, and criticized how they lived, especially the material possessions they owned. He had become a vegetarian and preferred sleeping on the hard patio outside instead of his soft bed. He eventually joined an ashram in the United States, continuing his devotion to ISKCON. In 1982 he was made a swami, a celibate monk devoted to serving god. He spends most of his time in India, but travels all over the world. He lectures in the U.S. quite a bit.
At first, he said his parents were baffled by his transformation. But they continued to love him and with amazing patience, accepted him. That unconditional love and patience had a profound affect on him. He realized that they didn’t have to believe everything he did or live the way he did; that love takes many forms. He said he eventually stopped lecturing them and realized he still had many things to learn from them.
They still had disagreements. Once, in an effort to try to understand each other, the young man told his parents, “come with me to India. Then you’ll understand.”
They did, and the experience changed their lives, and their family, forever. His parents came to be extremely proud of their son and became good friends with many people in India. The swami’s mother died just a few years ago, was cremated and her ashes were put to rest in the Ganges River.
As the swami spoke, he reminded me of Father Pat Bergquist, the former parish priest of St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Fairbanks. Father Pat is now at a church in Healy, but he continues to be a figure that looms large in our lives as a beloved and humble man to whom normal people can relate.
Swami also told a story of performing the marriage ceremony for his Jewish brother to a Catholic woman in America. He later performed the baptisms of their two children. He chuckled heartily at the irony of a Hindu Hare Krishna monk baptizing the children of a Jewish/Catholic union.
People in the audience shook their heads in wonder but, to me, the story is so American.
My husband, who is Catholic, married me, a Presbyterian-Methodist, in a Catholic church. An Episcopalian priest, a woman, performed our wedding ceremony. If anybody objected to the mish-mash, I never heard about it. It all felt quite normal.
After the speech I stood in line to ask Radanath Swami to sign my book. A number of his devotees bowed down and touched his feet. The sweet man who spoke in Hindi (ie, the “stalker”) presented him with a new orange-colored robe.
I’m not a devotee, but I did enjoy his book and would even call it inspirational. When it was my turn, I greeted him warmly with the usual “namaste.” He looked at me and said quietly, “I’m so glad you’re here. Where are you from?” I told him I was from America, like him, and he asked what state. When he heard Alaska, he raised his eyebrows in genuine surprise. “Wow. That’s far away.”
It sure is. As much as I’m loving our time in India, I’m so homesick right now my heart hurts.
I’m wondering, though, if I’ll somehow be able to bring a little bit of this “Indian spirit” back home with me when we leave. Or will it freeze and die off during the next long, cold, dark Alaska winter, when we all get cranky and a bit off kilter?
We’ll have to wait and see. For now, just know that nobody at the fan club meeting asked me for money after all. As for the stereotypical Hare Krishnas in airports? I didn’t see a single one.