It all happened quickly. I began praying to Krishna: a blue boy playing a flute to a herd of sheep on a green hill, a small boy with a peacock feather in his hair and beads around his neck, lotus in bloom almost everywhere. I was thirteen. I burned incense and chanted the holy name waiting for a mystical presence to make itself known to me, for a sphere of blue light to radiate from my fingertips. I began praying before I understood anything about the teachings of Krishna. I only knew it was incumbent to close my bedroom door, turn off the lights, and seek protection from the world. It happened quickly. I was young. There was little opportunity for a family intervention. I simply came home one night with a shaved head. The difference between the three-inch mohawk I had when I left for school and the ponytail tuft on the crown of my head when I returned must have seemed a question of semantics to my father.
I should start at the beginning. In the 3rd century BC, somewhere in Northern India near the border of present day Nepal, Krishna, the Supreme Being, an incarnation of Vishnu, was born. As a young boy he played in the woods, protected the villagers, dodged assassination attempts, lifted a mountain, killed demons, and eventually found himself on an epic battlefield. Refusing to fight, he was a charioteer to Arjuna, the greatest warrior on earth, with whom he discoursed on a variety of topics including mediation and yoga, devotional service, and the nature of material existence. It is this conversation which would become the Bhagavad-gita, the sacred text for the Krishna movement.
5,000 years later, in 1965, the American beginning was marked when, on a religious mission to bring Krishna to America, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada arrived on the Lower East Side of New York City. A year later he established the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, which describes the religion in their current media kit as follows:
…People are not their material bodies, but are eternal spirit souls…. To achieve Krishna consciousness effectively, members chant and meditate upon the holy names of Lord Krishna…. Members also practice four “principles of religion”: compassion, truthfulness, cleanliness and austerity…. They are strict vegetarians, not eating any meat, fish or eggs. They also abstain from gambling and illicit sex, and do not smoke, drink, or take drugs.
Maybe we should start at my beginning, 1978, the year of my birth. I wasn’t baptized. The truth is, until my adult years, I’d only been inside a church twice. Once when I was seven for a cousin’s wedding, and once more when I was eleven. It was the morning after a sleepover at a friend’s house. His grandmother dropped us off in front of St. Joseph the Worker in Levittown, Pennsylvania, a town, according to the Saturday Evening Post, where, “Everybody lives on the same side of the tracks. They have no slums to fret about, no families of conspicuous wealth to envy, no traditional upper crust to whet and thwart their social aspirations.” In other words, a community in which everything was going to be ok. Jesus looked down, surrounded by Klee-like geometric stained glass in blue shades, from the main entranceway.
I followed my friend down the red carpeted aisle to the first row of pews. We paused at the empty seats, walked out the side door, and went to the mini-mart to steal cigarettes. It’s possible that an alternative series of events could have occurred on a rainy day, in which an invitation to a potluck dinner led to baking snickerdoodles for the church fundraiser. And it’s possible, if we had stayed, that twelve years later my friend would not die from an overdose. We can play this game with anything. If my parents would have had a daughter instead of three sons, there would have been no last attempt for a daughter, and I would never have been born the youngest son. But there I was.
In America, Krishna caught on quickly, or at least the chanting part did. Two years after the arrival of Prabhupada, the poet Allen Ginsberg was singing Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama and playing his harmonium at protests. Peace. Love. Freedom. Happiness. The religion received a shout-out of sorts in Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. And in 1970, George Harrison was topping the charts singing I really want to see you. Really want to be with you. Really want to see you lord, but it takes so long, my lord. It was a decade later in the movie Airplane!, that Krishna Consciousness was solidified as material for parody:
The Krishnas are approached by the Religious Zealot.
Hello, we’d like you to have this flower
from the Church of Consciousness. Would
you like to make a donation?
(shakes his head)
No, we gave at the office.
I should say I was an unhappy child. In our house, alcohol served the purpose of faith—that is, it provided a coping mechanism for the inevitable death lurking in all of us. My parents’ routine screaming matches were traveling at light speed towards divorce, and then there was the viciousness, the pettiness, and the sadness of the divorce itself. Experts report that during such spells of emotional vulnerability individuals are particularly susceptible to new religions, cults, and utopian societies. After the death of a loved one, a tragedy, or an upheaval of their daily routine, they may find themselves waiting for a sign, like the lunar eclipse marking the messianic end or heaven’s gates cracking open. I had a distinct feeling that at any moment, my family, my whole world, might just cave in. The tectonic faults and vibrations were just below the surface. At any moment there would be an unexpected rupture. There was no identifiable “earthquake weather”; certain cloud formations on a calm day are as dangerous as certain cloud formations on any other day. The needle rested until it tremored unexpectedly and I knew it was only a matter of time before the earth would open up and swallow me.
At thirteen I began the process of renunciation by becoming “straight-edge.” Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t fuck. It was a rigid motto to prop me up. I had fellow straight-edge friends, most of whom I had grown up with or knew from school because we dressed the same, skated the same empty municipal parks, listened to the same music, and were filled with similar suburban ennui. We acted out; found ourselves in crowded basements and garages, at fire halls with cheap speakers and guitar fuzz. We banged up against others dancing with anger, listened to hardcore music and shouted Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t fuck. Minor Threat. Chain of Strength. Burn. We marked the backs of our hands with thick black x’s that wouldn’t wash off for weeks.
In 1992, at a small hardcore club in Center City, Philadelphia, the lead singer of the band Youth of Today was headlining with his new band, Shelter. Teenagers with shaved heads wearing concert tees, chain wallets, baggy jeans, and messenger bags were throwing themselves against one another, against anything, on the checkered dance floor. I sang along: Security. How secure are we? Making our plans in a castle of sand as our dreams get dragged to sea. This was the first band of a new movement: Krishnacore.
There are those who, if approached at the right time and place, will convert to anything; perhaps, sadly, I was one of them. And, further, it is reported, these individuals will often experience a “relief effect:” a decrease in levels of stress and anxiety. That seems reasonable enough. I find it is important to note that I wasn’t alone. There were a dozen or so of us in my high school and we walked the hallways with shaved heads, wearing white undershirts dyed saffron. Our classmates called us the Krishna Mob. In the large cafeteria we bowed our heads over our ice cream sandwiches and chanted a Sanskrit offering to Krishna. I wore the saffron robes to attend my friend Erica’s junior high dance, and then refused to dance with her. I would only dance at the temple or down a crowded street selling books and roses. It was important others see me in this way, that the inner transformation was marked with an outer transformation.
At home, I offered Krishna a freshly washed apple. In the corner of my bedroom, I constructed a makeshift altar: a milk crate covered in a multi-colored Mexican blanket, a wooden figurine of Jugganatha (the round-eyed god seen on SMILE stickers sold by Krishnas), a jar of sacred sand from Vrindavan (the forest of Krishna’s childhood), a small bronze vase with fresh flowers, and a magazine image of Krishna clipped from the Temple newsletter. There were times I kept my right hand clean and my left dirty and did not wear the pendant of Narasimhavatarm into the lavatory. I hung the pendant on the doorknob outside the bathroom because such devotional items should not enter unclean spaces. After much adjustment and difficulty I learned to wipe with my left hand. The right hand should remain clean. Eat with the right hand. I looked in a mirror to apply tilak, a chalky sandalwood paste, to the middle of the forehead. Some say the space between the two eyebrows is a scared spot where the third eye—the sixth chakra, Shiva’s eye—appears. Some say the tilak has a cooling effect to aid concentration during mediation. Some say the mark is meant as a sacred distinction, indentifying you publicly from non-believers.
There were times I refused my body its wishes. Times I gave in to my wishes. Times I turned the wooden figurine toward the wall, as if an all-knowing deity didn’t have eyes in the back of his head. Times I could not pinpoint my wishes so I chanted a round: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama.
My father asked me very little about the religion, but I think he was happy to know my teenage acting out didn’t involve drugs and alcohol. I was home on time and calling to check in at regular intervals; that, it seemed, was enough. I closed my bedroom door when I burned incense, and though we didn’t eat our meals together he purchased microwavable vegetarian meals for me, or I made a special dish. I emptied half a box of Triscuits onto a plate, topping them generously with pre-shredded cheese and a little tomato sauce and melting it in the microwave for two minutes. I placed a small plate of the meal in front of a wooden icon of Jugganatha, prayed, added the offering back to the larger plate, and ate.
My father did draw the line at my spending the night at the Temple, but on Sundays I was permitted to attend the free weekend feast and lecture. It was an hour and a half trip. I took a southern commuter train from suburbia and transferred at the Center City transit hub. Families from around the tri-state area attended the free feast. The gravel parking lot filled up with lawyers, businessmen in khakis, people who worked retail jobs, people who most likely had savings in their bank accounts, hippies with tie-dyed shirts, some people with shaved heads, some people without, some people with kids, numerous Indian families in saris, and a few homeless men. All were welcome, all variety of shoes and sandals were left in the main hall. It felt more like a potluck for a progressive school than a religious gathering.
Taking part in the feast is itself a spiritual act. Prasadam, literally translating as gracious gift, is food austerely prepared and then offered to Krishna. Before the offering no spoon shall be licked to test the seasoning. Even lingering over the aroma is frowned upon. The preparation of Prasadam is a spiritual act and until the food is offered it should not be enjoyed carnally. There is really no other way to say this: Prasadam is no joke. It is vegetarian and absent of ingredients such as mushrooms and garlic—bulbs dug up from dark soil, ingredients from the Allium family said to breed ignorance and passion. Lord Caitanya, an incarnation of Krishna, says of Prasadam “one should know that the spiritual nectar of Krishna’s lips must have touched these ordinary foods and imparted to them all their transcendental qualities.”
Transferring spirit into matter, or vice versa? At one point, I understood this better. A devotee with a ladle and large metal pot made the rounds and dished out rice with green peas, chili powder, cumin, and cashews, along with a piece of naan. I remember being told that one could eat oneself back to Godhead, release oneself from the punishing cycle of karma, and the birth and rebirth of material existence.
I prayed to God cross-legged on a beige carpet in my father’s condominium with jasmine incense burning, waiting for thunder to release from my heart. Night after night with the lights out I chanted before sleep, but morning arrived like any other day, a disruption to my dreams of being elsewhere, of being transported to another life. I had inherited a household absent of religious practices and iconography. There was no cross above the doorway. No holidays for which we were corralled into the station wagon for midnight mass. I looked to the sky for answers in an attempt to make sense of life, to find an alternative solution in which I was not the only person I could depend on.
I drew lines of comparison. I’d read a Joseph Campbell book or two, and created my own personal visualization of all belief systems as a giant rope. Along the rope large knots were tied at equal distance, each one representing a distinctive tradition. I linked chanting the mantra with the garland of roses, linked 108 prayer beads to the 50 beads of the Catholic rosary; linked the act of offering food to Krishna to the Christian “grace,” linked a life of celibacy to monks in monasteries in Belgium and nuns in convents in Ireland; and linked the dietary restrictions and vegetarianism to my Jewish neighbors who kept kosher. The four regulative principles of Krishna Consciousness seemed less and less weird: No gambling. No illicit sex (or rather, sex was meant solely for procreation). No intoxicants. No meat, fish, or eggs. I was embarking on a life of purity. A round of chanting takes ten minutes. It is important to keep count, to surrender to the process. Devotees chant sixteen rounds daily. Sixteen rounds takes almost three hours. Three hours of service to the lord took less time than watching a James Cameron movie.
I wanted to believe there was only the moment before I was conscious of Krishna and the moment after. As is often the case, nothing lasted for long. One possible solution to the suffering of maya, or illusion, was replaced by another. It all happened quickly. The initial feeling wore off. I could chant the Maha Mantra ad nauseum and the world felt the same. The words I began chanting in 1992 lost meaning, and I started drinking in 1993.
Today, nineteen years later, I sit at my white desk and read Baudelaire by Jean-Paul Sartre. Above me on the wall is a framed photo of Vishnu. I’ve been sober for thirteen years. Someone once told me that the human body replenishes all its cells on a seven-year cycle. Cells and atoms wear down and disappear or are replaced; skin flakes into the dust that surrounds us, resting on the windowsill. If this is the case, I’m no longer the same person after thirteen years of sobriety. I am almost doubly different. If this theory proves wrong, I can fall back on having eaten the sacredly prepared food offered to Krishna, which guarantees reincarnation as a human, and opportunity to perform the next round differently.
I began the Sartre book in hopes of a close reading of Baudelaire’s work and instead, fifty pages in, Sartre is still developing his psychoanalytic portrait of the poet:
But the child who has become aware of himself as a separate being with a sense of despair, rage, and jealousy will base his whole life on the fruitless contemplation of a singularity which is formal. “You threw me out,” he will say to his parents. “You threw me out of the perfect whole of which I was part and condemned me to a separate existence. Well, now I’m going to turn this existence against you. If you ever wanted to get me back again, it would be impossible because I have become conscious of myself as separate from and against everyone else.” And he will say to his school-fellows and the street urchins who persecute him: “I’m someone else, someone different from all of you who are responsible for my sufferings. You can persecute my body, but you can’t touch my ‘otherness.'”
I bookmark the page. I could say Krishna Consciousness provided a framework, an “other” strategy to the chaos of my childhood, to Kali Yuga, the age of sin and vice lasting almost half a million years. Krishna Consciousness’ attractiveness falls within America’s broader fascination with other Eastern religions—the appeal of esoteric, the exotic, and prayer flags or bells. Krishna Consciousness sets itself apart—shaved heads, saffron robes, beatific faces dancing, playing cymbals, and chanting in an ancient language down Broadway at rush hour. It has all the signs of new-age crazy taking a wrong turn: Give up all your material possessions! Don’t associate with materialistic brainwashed family and friends! There is only one Truth!
I never quite experienced it that way. Of course there were rumors of cult-like brainwashing or Krishnas involved in gun-running in the 70s. There was, at one devotee initiation ceremony I attended, a bear skin rug (which was explained to us vegetarians as something that was used for swamis to sit on in India to keep snakes away) and there were swastikas adorning some devotional items (which, we know in the back of our brains, were originally an ancient symbol before their appropriation). I watched my friends drink water from a basin used moments before to wash a Holy Man’s feet in hopes some of his mercy or good will would be absorbed into their material form. These things happen in childhood. The transgressions and follies of youth are important to any life story: George Washington chops a cherry tree, St. Augustine steals a pear from an orchard, a boy runs off with a cult. I understand it simply: I was young, there was a blue god, there was music, the devotees were happy and fulfilled, and not in a glazed-over way, and there was delicious food. Ultimately, I felt no different in or about the world.
In the framed image above my desk Vishnu hovers above a lake, holding a lotus flower, a light haloing him. A crocodile backs away from the elephant he has left the pond to attack. The elephant’s leg is bleeding. In his trunk he holds a lotus. The elephant is Gajendra, the king of elephants. He was rescued from the crocodile because he is a devotee. In this moment of attack he prays to be saved not from the crocodile, but from this life of ignorance. He struggled, some say for a hundred years, and only after his family left him, thinking death was imminent, did he pray.
The moment before a plane lifts off, or before falling asleep, without thinking I chant the maha mantra like a lullaby—Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama—hoping the transcendental vibrations will still the psychological ones. It is a reflex. It is how my brain has been trained.