Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
July 20th, 2011

Still Chanting, Still Smiling and Still Hare Krishna

Hare Krishna old-timers keep the faith

Here at Busted Halo® we think it’s important to cover other religions and approaches to spirituality and belief. In today’s world we’re surrounded by numerous philosophies and religions. We hope that when we learn about other religions we strengthen our own understanding of faith. — The Editors

Kusha Devidasi gaped in horror as her cat moved in for another kill. A vegetarian, Devidasi had tried everything to get him to stop devouring God’s feathered creatures, even putting a bell around his neck. Nothing worked.

As the latest victim struggled in her cat’s jaws, Devidasi — a recent Hare Krishna convert — turned to her budding faith for a miracle. She chanted, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna; Krishna Krishna…”

Suddenly, her cat let the bird go. “And he just flew away,” she says. “My cat never freed a bird before. Never.” Two months later, when she turned 18, Devidasi moved into the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) ashram in Hawaii.

That was 1969. Wearing a colorful sari and swaying with the music at a recent festival at the Los Angeles ISKCON center, this self-described former “motley hippie” with nose ring says she still hasn’t lost her ’60s groove and passion for Krishna. “My body may be older, but my soul is still adventurous and young in Krishna.”

And she is not alone. Today, thousands of 1960s and 1970s Krishna devotees — America’s first generation of Hare Krishnas — are still chanting, still smiling, and still “far out for Krishna.”

Krishna groove

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, an Indian holy man, founded ISKCON in 1966 in New York City. ISKCON beliefs stress the Hindu deity Krishna as the Supreme God, daily recitation of the Hare Krishna mantra and living an austere life — no intoxicants, sex outside of marriage, meat consumption or gambling.

“Yeah, we’re still far out for Krishna, but maybe just a little more pragmatic,” says Gordon Lamb, a devotee of Krishna since 1968. Lamb, who asked us not to use his real name, says he joined the Hare Krishnas as a hippie because they epitomized the romance of the era — a desire for spiritual enlightenment, world peace and an unconventional life.

Seated on a bench in Venice Beach and swathed in a saffron robe, Lamb says that more than 40 years ago, his parents told him as a young devotee that he was going through a phase and would soon trade in his robe for a business suit. Lamb then pulls back his robe to take an incoming business call on his chiming iPhone and says, “I guess they were half right.”

Lamb, who lives in Los Angeles and works as a national sales manager, says the devotees of his era have learned to reconcile their faith with modern realities. For example, though he wears a saffron robe to visit the temple, Lamb sports a suit and tie during the business week. “A lot of us [Hare Krishnas] from the 1960s didn’t sell out. We just had to get a job.”

But Naara Narayan Dasa Vishwakarma, 67, says today’s generation of devotees have lost some of his era’s passion. “In the 1960s, we chanted in the streets, sometimes for 10 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes through rain, sun and snow,” he says as he sits outside the Los Angeles family ashram, where Hare Krishna boys — children of the devotees, clad in jeans and Iron Maiden T-shirts — skateboard and roughhouse.

Vishwakarma says devotees were more pious in his time because their founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who died in 1977, was still alive. “Back then,” Vishwakarma says, “if you had a television in your apartment, you could be asked to leave. But today most devotees have cable and big-screen TVs, and they are not just watching Prabhupada films.”

But despite his qualms, Vishwakarma says Krishna has much planned for ISKCON. “And the good old days are yet to come.”

Member of the ISKCON Los Angeles Temple

Kosher Krishna?

“I got kicked out of the Yeshiva in grade school because I spat on the principal,” says Barry Zuckerman, 64, outside the L.A. temple, as saffron-robed and sari-draped devotees pass by. “I didn’t like Hebrew school.”

Sporting a gray-flecked ponytail, jeans and tie-dyed T-shirt, Barry Zuckerman — also known as Bhargava Dasa — has been a devotee since the late 1960s.

As a teenager, he says he was self-absorbed and agnostic. In the ’60s, he did drugs and chased women, he confesses, scratching a long gray sideburn.

But after a mystical experience on LSD and a later out-of-body episode, he knew something more existed. He set out on a spiritual quest that ultimately brought him to Krishna consciousness, with which he has stayed for 40 years.

Strolling the sweet jasmine-perfumed grounds of the Los Angeles complex — which includes a temple, restaurant (Govinda’s), museum and ashrams — Bhargava says that in the mid-1970s more than 300 devotees lived near the temple. Today, he says, about 150 do. In the United States, there are 100,000 devotees. But worldwide, ISKCON officials say, a million believers thrive.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, an Indian holy man, founded ISKCON in 1966 in New York City. ISKCON beliefs stress the Hindu deity Krishna as the Supreme God, daily recitation of the Hare Krishna mantra and living an austere life — no intoxicants, sex outside of marriage, meat consumption or gambling. Their central text is the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred book about Arjuna, a warrior prince, and his spiritual conversations with Krishna.

Bhargava says his “darkest hour” came after Prabhupada died in 1977, and he became disillusioned with the movement. “It got so dark,” he says, “that I didn’t even know if I believed God existed anymore.”

To find answers, Bhargava journeyed to a local canyon to mediate. “And after some time I opened my eyes and saw a fruit fly buzzing in front of me,” he says. Bhargava marveled at its incredible engineering — stealth-designed body, rapid wing movement. “And my faith returned,” he says, seated in Govinda’s restaurant below a painting of a beatific and blue-skinned Krishna, gazing down on him. “I saw the face of God.”

Don’t mess with the guys in robes

But if you think that the older Hare Krishnas are just a bunch of ex-hippie spiritual softies, think again, says Sthvira Bhakti, 55. “We’re not pansies,” he says, seated on a patio chair outside Govinda’s, enjoying a fruit salad.

Sthvira recalls an incident when a born-again Christian on Venice Beach punched him, ripping his shirt. “I lifted him off the ground with a foot planted squarely in his crotch. He went down, and I walked away,” Sthvira says as buoyant Krishna music filters over outdoor speakers.

Member of the ISKCON Los Angeles Temple

“We’re not pacifists,” he insists, rubbing an unshaven chin. “We will defend ourselves.” Sthvira, who teaches a Bhagavad Gita class at the L.A. temple, says that in the Gita Krishna even encourages Arjuna, a half-reluctant warrior, to fight.

Asked if he has had another altercation since, Sthvira shakes his head. “How many people are going to give me a problem?” He stands, smoothing out the saffron robe that drapes his 6-foot-10-inch frame. “When I get on a public bus, they don’t even smirk.”

Bhakti says one of his ex-wives believes he’s a Hare Krishna because he and others want to relive the ’60s. “Now, is that so bad?” he asks.

Call of the road

Seated on his bench in Venice Beach, Lamb watches the sun dip below the horizon, tinting the sky orange and gold. Beneath his saffron robe, his hand burrows into his japa bag, housing a rosary used to count recitations of the Hare Krishna mantra.

Watching a flock of gleeful seagulls lift off into the sunset, Lamb says the greatest time of his life was in the early 1970s when he toured the country with other devotees in a VW bus. “We just had a couple of sleeping bags, the open road ahead of us and the desire to tell the world about Krishna,” he says, as the soothing whish of the Pacific Ocean gradually replaces the din of departing Venice Beach tourists.

“I’d drop everything right now to be out on the open highway again,” he confides. Suddenly, his iPhone chimes, breaking the moment’s serenity. He checks it. His boss is calling. Lamb buries the phone under his robe, muffling its ring.

A blast of Pacific wind chills him. He wraps his robe tighter and stares back at the seagulls, now soaring higher over the water, disappearing down a shimmering highway of fading light that stretches to the horizon.

The Author : Anthony Chiorazzi
Anthony Chiorazzi writes from Los Angeles and is currently a graduate student at Oxford University.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Nityananda Chandra Das

    You mentioned “Arjuna asks Krishna what will happen to those good people who worship gods other than Krishna.” For those who are not very familiar with the Vedic understanding, angels are closest term to the sanskrit term ‘devas’. When referring to other ‘gods’ in Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna uses the term devas.

    Yes God is known as Adhokshaja, one who is beyond the reach of the mind and the senses. Therefore He appears as an Avatar and speaks the same eternal truth. When such truth is passed down by parampara, unbroken disciplic succession, we can have access to knowledge that is apursheya, beyond human knowledge.

    Would you accept a surgery by a plumber who read books on surgery? Probably not, because book knowledge is theoretical, by attending medical school we can see and learn the practical. Therefore Lord Krishna asserts that spiritual knowledge must be past down in an unbroken historical chain. But such linage is not the only concern, a teacher has to be a perfect example of what is being taught. That is called Acharya, a teacher by example, or Guru, one who is heavy with knowledge.

    You have claimed that all scriptures and presentations thereof human interpretations. How do you know this? Have you studied all scripture?

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    Hi, Nityananda Chandra Das
    Thanks for the info. However, I’m wondering why you brought up angels and whatnot; I didn’t mention them.
    In any case, I personally believe that it’s all conjecture. Even the best of scriptures (Bhagavad Gita, Shrimad Bhagavatam, Tao Te Ching, Patanjali Yoga Sutras, and let’s add the Bible for some people, or whatever sacred text from whatever religious/cultural tradition you want to name)– even the best of these are still human interpretations of something that is far beyond human understanding. So it’s a given that none can be totally accurate. We all just give it our best shot according to our understanding.

  • Nityananda Chandra Das

    Dear Julie Hagan Bloch
    Please forgive me, but what Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita about demigod (angel) worship, deva worship, He says in BG 7.23 that such persons go to the abodes of those mortal beings in higher status of life in this mortal world. He then states that those who wish to not remain in samsara, the cycle of birth and death, should worship Him, (or the conception of God, that can be Allah, Jehovah, etc) and such person will never have to take birth again. This is reiterated throughout the whole Bhagavad Gita. BG 7.19-7.24 BG 9.20-9.25, BG 5.29

    So basically if someone is sincerely seeking God, He does not discriminate and accept that loving attempt. However if someone approaches the various angels for material prosperity, as is the general mode of relationship with such deities, then such worshipers may get a some better facilities in life but will not get God, the source of real happiness.

    Nityananda Chandra Das
    Minister at the Texas Krishnas

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    Well, yes, I do mean that one possible translation of “hare” is the “O” part of “O Krishna”. But “O” can’t mean “O Krishna”, because then the chant would translate as ” O Krishna Krishna”, if you get my drift. And “hare” *can* be simply “O”, depending on context, and several translations of “Hare Krishna” do indeed translate it as “O”.
    Translation is tricky. There are often many possible synonyms for words, and it’s the translator’s job to pick the closest one. That said, different translators have different points of view as to the best word for the job.
    Why don’t we just give it a rest and say that it’s all good; intention counts for a lot, after all. Because, really, this isn’t the place for extensive discussion of what a particular word means. I do think we’ve covered it pretty well already.
    In any case, it’s a truly lovely chant; I’ve chanted it myself numerous times and had great experiences with it. It’s the love that counts most, in the end, eh?

  • Krishnadas

    If by “O”, you mean “O Hari” or “O Krishna”, then, yes, I would agree. But “Hare” isn’t simply “O”. There are other Sanskrit terms for “O”.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    Thanks, Krishnadas; I looked a little further (rather than just relying on my memory! :-), and found that the various translations of the word “hare” are:
    “O”, “Lord”, the vocative of “Hari”, another name of Vishnu, the vocative or Radha (Krishna’s consort), the energy of God, and “hail”.
    I rather suspect that it can be any and all of these, according to one’s inclination.

  • Krishnadas

    Not to nick-pick, but “Hare” is not simply “O”; it is one of the Names of Krishna. Other forms of “Hare” are “Hari” and “Hara”, all being Names of Krishna.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    Oops, darned tiny fonts; I meant to write “Bhagavad Gita” (which translates as the “Song of God”).

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    A bit of a correction: “hare” simply means “o”, as one might say, “O Lord”. And Krishna and Rama, while both honored as individuals, are both avatars of Vishnu. An interesting sidelight here, regarding different mantras (or prayers, if you will): in the Ghagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna what will happen to those good people who worship gods other than Krishna. Krishna’s response is beautiful. He says, in effect, that any longing for God is cool; it all works, no matter what name you use. It’s kind of like, God/Goddess doesn’t care what you call Her/Him, as long as you call. Makes sense. An omnipotent being, one with the power to create universes, wouldn’t be so petty as to fuss about something as silly as which version of Deity one favors. The differences are all human inventions. It’s really all one.

  • Frank Patrick

    This article is very interesting. The writer did a great job in putting a modern day perspective on a 60’s movement. The Hare Krisha mantra expresses devotion to the gods Hare, Krishna and Rama and is believed to bring about a higher state of consciousness when it is chanted, sung, or meditated upon. As a Catholic, we can repeat aspirations to our Lord by simply repeating the words like “I love you Jesus” or “The Lord is my Shepard there is nothing I shall want” and many others. As a Catholic, our relationship to God is much more personal than it is for the Krishnas, and we achieve our own “higher state of consciousness” with our many prayers and devotions and aspirations.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    Lovely! Nice to see you’re showing other paths. They’re all good, as long as they don’t try to push their beliefs on those who aren’t interested.
    Well done!

  • Suzanne

    Nothing to do with Krishna, but the opening reminded me of a cat miracle I experienced. Out walking late one night, I came upon a pair of tomcats howling horrendously and starting to attack each other. I walked right up to them and said, “Kitties, God wants us to love one another.” The cats immediately halted the hostilities and strolled off side by side, tails crossed in feline brotherhood.

  • jedessto

    As a (Catholic) American I am bemused by this article. I want to learn about other societies and I’m really, really glad that my country was so generous to others long before Hare Krishnas were chanting, but that’s just me.

  • Beth

    As a Catholic, I loved this article and found much value in it. I want to learn about other religions and spiritual paths and I really, really like that my church is finally reaching out to other religions, but that’s just me :) Thanks Busted Halo!

  • Weezer

    I agree with Schocked :)

  • Shocked

    Um….. why is a Catholic website glorifying the Krishnas???

  • J.A.

    I used to be afraid of the Krishna people too. they use to freak me out. but as I got older I don’t fear people that are just different. I agree with learning from other religions. you don’t have to agree with them, but like this article and video basically says — you can find a little good in anything if you want to.

  • Fred

    The Hare Krishnas have been around a long time; good to know they are still chanting… awesome

  • sean

    smart piece, i love eastern wisdom, and it is so cool to see a catholic place do articles like this, cool video

  • Johnny

    Nice article. I loved the 60s theme through out the piece. Nice work, and cool spiritual wisdom.

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