Hare Krishna farm community of New Vrindaban gives instant karma

New Vrindaban, USA – There’s a pinch of cold in the air, and it’s well
past our bedtime — 10 p.m. — which is dangerously late, considering
that the entire lot of us will be waking up at 4 a.m. tomorrow, to make
it to the temple by a quarter to five. But the rhythmic chanting and the
clapping, and especially the dancing, rage on.

The Hare Krishnas call it a Kirtan, and like everything they do, from
eating to breathing to sleeping, its solitary purpose is to glorify
their Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. But to an outsider who knows almost
nothing about the Hare Krishna philosophy, let alone the Hindu religion,
it’s little more than an open-air dance party.

Underneath a wooden gazebo, a tight cluster of men are draped in orange
and saffron robes. Nearly all of them are shaved bald, but with just a
small shock of hair sprouting from the back of their heads, and as they
chant, they bounce lightly up and down on their toes, trancelike. One of
the men, with closed eyes and a blissful grin on his face, is keeping
the beat with a pair of kartals, the sacred finger cymbals that are also
used during worship ceremonies in the temple.

Someone else is wheezing out a rhythm on an ancient harmonium, and
another “devotee” is eliciting a deep thwump, thwump, thwump from a
tabla drum. All around us, dozens of pilgrims who have come from all
over the country to celebrate the birthday of the movement’s founder are
ecstatically shouting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare
Krishna Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare Hare Rama, Hare Rama Rama Rama, Hare
Hare (O energy of the Lord / O Lord, please engage me in your service!)

I’m deep in the hills of the West Virginia panhandle, at a Hare Krishna
farm community known as New Vrindaban, just outside downtown
Moundsville, less than two hours from Pittsburgh.

New Vrindaban (pronounced “Vrin-DA-ban”) has long been infamous among
the Krishnas, many of whom consider it the “black sheep” of the
community. During the 1980s, it was as much a crime scene as a place of
peace and spiritual enlightenment. In fact, so many horrible things
happened here, from child abuse to drug running and murder, that from
1987 to 1994 New Vrindaban was removed from the officially sanctioned
list of Krishna temples and communities. (Thousands of Krishna
communities are scattered across the globe in countries as remote as
Uruguay, Azerbaijan, Suriname and Sierra Leone.)

Even the community’s founder, Kirtananda Swami Bhaktipada, famously ran
into trouble of his own in 1996, when he was sentenced to 20 years in a
North Carolina federal prison. The charge was one count of racketeering,
although Kirtananda was accused of being involved in the murder of two
Hare Krishna dissidents as well. But tonight, as the charcoal-gray sky
covers us like the dome of a snow globe and white stars wink as we
dance, none of that seems to matter. Certainly not to the three teenage
girls who have joined hands to form a circle; they’re spinning and
giggling like children at a playground. “Hari Bol!” (Chant the name of
the Lord!) one of them shouts. And then the others follow suit: “Hari
Bol! Hari Bol!”

Next to the gazebo, rows of stadium seating rise out from a lake that’s
roughly the size of a football field. Indian families who have flown in
from across the country for the weekend celebration clap and sing along,
most of them bundled in heavy parkas or fleece jackets. Some are dancing
with their children, and others are looking out in anticipation over the
water, where a paddle boat in the shape of giant swan is floating
closer. Two children are inside the swan, wearing Indian saris and
lazily fanning a small statue of Lord Krishna, and another of Radharani,
one of the most important deities in the Krishna philosophy.

The energy of the crowd turns electric as the swan comes closer, and as
the two deities come nearer into view. Shouts of “Hare Krishna!” and
“Hari Bol!” echo across the lake and bounce back. Suddenly, a small
fireworks display goes off in the distance, and the crowd erupts again.

The evening Kirtan at New Vrindaban actually happens once every week,
but for the true “devotees” of Krishna Consciousness, as the followers
are known, the novelty of chanting and dancing for God doesn’t easily
wear off. But just as suddenly as the Kirtan began, the musicians in the
gazebo all stop, and the chanting of Hare Krishna comes to an abrupt
halt. Someone announces that a special late-night prasadam of healthy
vegetarian food is about to be served in the guesthouse, and we all
shuffle away from the lake in a single file.

The starlight helps guide us away from the water and toward the complex.
“Krishna gave us such beautiful weather today!” someone says, and then
the group wanders slowly into the guesthouse and disappears.

The first thing I notice after driving down Palace Road, which winds
through the New Vrindaban community and then past the Palace of God and
then past Swan Lake, is the smell. Heavy clouds of sweet incense seem to
be everywhere , and the overall effect of wandering its grounds is not
unlike being in India itself, where everything — not only the smells,
but also the sights, and especially the people — is entirely unlike
anything you’ve ever seen before.

I came to New Vrindaban to spend five days living as the Hare Krishnas
live: To sleep and bathe in the ashram; to rise at 4 a.m. every morning
and bow before the deities in the temple and chant Hare Krishna on
wooden japa beads; to take vegetarian prasadam twice a day with the
devotees, and to do “service” whenever it was asked of me: maybe to cut
vegetables in the kitchen, or to pick them in the field.

I’d been curious about the Hare Krishnas ever since I was an
undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, when
small groups of devotees would drive down from West Virginia to perform
harinam outside the student union and the Cathedral of Learning. Harinam
is essentially a mini-Kirtan; at Pitt, some devotees would chant and
dance for passing crowds, while others, usually disguised in baseball
caps and street clothes, would wander the campus and attempt to sell
copies of the “Bhagavad Gita” and other Krishna books to students.

But it wasn’t until I met Meghan, who had lived and worked at Krishna
temples across the country for years, that I first had a chance to
experience the religion up close. Meghan had been living with her
parents when she invited me to a Sunday feast, which is a weekly
occurrence during which members of the local community are invited to
have a meal of vegetarian food with the devotees in exchange for
listening to a brief sermon in the temple. As Meghan and I drove back to
Pittsburgh that evening, I wondered aloud what it would be like to live
in the temple for an entire week. Meghan, clearly pleased that I was
interested, assured me that it would be possible. A few months later,
after she had returned from a spiritual trip to India and was again
living at New Vrindaban, I sent her an e-mail.

“Do you want to stay in the guesthouse?” She wrote back. “Or do you want
the full devotee experience? You can stay in the ashram for free, but
you’ll have to do some work around the temple.”

“The full experience,” I wrote back. “Definitely.”

Three-day birthday party

A few weeks later I was in a friend’s car, driving through the hills
toward West Virginia and into Moundsville.

I had no idea when I showed up on a Saturday afternoon that New
Vrindaban would be overflowing with Western devotees and Indian Hindus
who’d converged from the across the country. When I’d visited during the
Sunday feast months earlier, the temple and the grounds had been almost
deserted, but now I’d arrived in the middle of a three-day birthday
celebration for the Krishna community’s non-deceased founder: His Divine
Grace, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In the history books, he’s
known more specifically as the founder of ISKCON, the International
Society for Krishna Consciousness.

In September 1965, at the age of 69, and with nothing more than a trunk
full of religious books and a few dollars worth of Indian Rupees,
Prabhupada talked his way onto an Indian freighter that was traveling
from Bombay to Boston. He knew no one in America, but stayed briefly
with family friends in Butler before settling into a tiny apartment on
the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he began teaching a group of new
followers about Vedic philosophy, meditation — even Indian cooking.

At the time of his passing, in 1977, he had published nearly 80 books.
He had also translated the “Bhagavad Gita” into English, and had
established more than 100 temples worldwide. Nearly 10,000 disciples had
been initiated into the Krishna movement because of his efforts. Today,
life-size statues of Prabhupada sitting in the lotus position are an
important part of every ISKCON temple. Devotees consider him to be their
ultimate spiritual leader, and they bow down before his likeness every
morning and lay fresh flowers at his feet.

Prayer beads

It’s just after five in the morning when Yahshua, an African-American
devotee who’s visiting from Chicago, slides up behind me on the temple’s
polished wooden floor. Yahshua is covered head to toe in the saffron
robes of a celibate monk; he even has an orange hooded sweatshirt that
covers his head and obscures most of his face. We met yesterday
afternoon at dinner, when Yahshua explained how he had come to join the
Hare Krishnas. “I was studying to be a dancer in New York,” he told me.
“Everyone I knew was into drugs. Hard drugs.”

Not wanting to destroy his life with heroin and crystal meth, Yahshua
found himself unable to sleep, confused and aimlessly wandering the
streets of New York, unsure of what to do with himself. He ended up in a
religious debate with a Krishna devotee one day in Manhattan, and
decided that he liked what he heard.

“Do you have prayer beads?” Yahshua asks me. He’s strikingly handsome,
with high cheekbones and a strong, aquiline nose. He’s holding out a
string of the wooden japa beads, which are similar to Catholic rosary
beads. Initiated devotees are supposed to use them to chant 16 rounds of
the maha mantra each day. The practice takes about two hours, but
Krishnas believe that when you chant the name of God, he is literally
present on your lips. A similar idea can be found in the Christian
Bible, in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my
name,” Jesus said, “I am there among them.”

All around us, devotees are pacing the floor of the temple, their right
hands hidden inside the prayer bags that are slung around their necks,
where their beads are kept. The maha mantra is meant to be chanted out
loud, and as the voices mesh and interweave, the chanting begins to
sound like one dull, steady murmur, with unexpected bursts of “Rama
Rama!” and “Krishna … Krishna!” Before getting up to chant his own
rounds, Yahshua hands me a small card with three mantras printed on it,
and with his name and e-mail address written on the back. “I check my
e-mail all the time,” he says, smiling. “I counsel people from all over.
So if you ever have any questions …”

Worshipping at the Palace

It’s 3:55 a.m., and Meghan and I are hurriedly walking up the road that
leads to the Palace of Gold, trying to make our way in the pitch-black
night. With us is Kristen, a petite woman with nervous features who
explains that she has a master’s degree in poetry. Both Meghan and
Kristen are draped in Indian saris that cover their heads and flutter
behind them as they walk. We’re running late. Mangala Arati — the
morning worship service — starts at 4 a.m. at the Palace, 45 minutes
earlier than at the main temple.

But worshipping at the Palace is something special: famously built in
the 1970s by devotees who didn’t use blueprints, the Palace was meant to
be a home for Prabupada, and today it’s one of the most visited tourist
attractions in West Virginia. It was designed to resemble an authentic
Indian temple and is luxuriously covered in gold leaf and inlaid marble.
However, devotees generally don’t worship at the Palace. Instead, one
solitary caretaker lives by himself in a small room behind the main
temple, and if guests arrive, he becomes a tour guide.

When we arrive at the Palace five minutes after the hour, it’s as if
we’ve stepped into another universe. Yudhistir, the temporary caretaker,
has already begun the service and is standing on the altar and waving
giant sticks of incense around the likeness of Prabupada, who is buried
under dozens of flowers and bathed in a soft light. The rest of the
small temple is still dark when Kristen and Meghan start dancing and
chanting mantras in quiet voices.

When the service ends, Yudistir seems reluctant to let us go. Human
contact is relatively rare at the Palace, which is somewhat isolated
from the main complex, and I can tell that Yudistir is lonely as he
gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his small world: his miniature
kitchen, his cramped living quarters, even his bathroom. “It’s always
nice to have guests!” He hints, as we make our way to the main entrance
to leave. He reaches his arm towards the door, as if to prevent us from
opening it. “And you know,” he says, “we have invisible guests here as

Kristen and Meghan turn to look back at Yudistir with faces of slight
disbelief. He goes on to tell us that earlier that week, there was a
knock on the door in the middle of the night. Curious to see who would
be visiting the Palace at such an odd hour, Yudistir got out of bed,
opened the door, and saw that there was no one there. He shut the door,
and as he was walking back to his quarters, he claims to have heard
footsteps, and then seconds later, the toilet flushed.

“Who would come all the way up here in the middle of the night to use
the toilet?” he asks us, with a nervous laugh.

Kristen and Meghan both look at me, and we raise our eyebrows in unison
and widen our eyes, as if to admit that we don’t know what to believe at
New Vrindaban. A cold chill works its way down my spine, and I can feel
goose bumps raise on my neck and arms.

As we make our way down the temple’s steps and head back in the
still-dark night towards the ashram in silence, I decide to ask Kristen
what she thinks about the energy at New Vrindaban, and about the rumors
that ghosts and spirits still live here. “So many sadhus and holy men
have come here over the years,” she tells me, not making eye contact,
but looking dead ahead. “And some of their energy has stayed. Many
people come here and have very vivid dreams and very spiritual

During my first night in the ashram, in fact, I had a vivid dream of my
own: I dreamt, in extremely colorful detail — much more colorfully than
my normal dreams — that I was hacking people into small pieces in my
sleep. Apparently, I had a proclivity toward young women. After I killed
them, a god would descend from the clouds and chastise me for ending the
life of someone who was so young, and who had so much promise.

The following day I told Meghan about my nightmare, and at lunch she
told Archina, an Indian devotee who’d been living at New Vrindaban for
years. “Where are you staying?” Archina asked me. “In the ashram?” I
nodded my head. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “Almost every newcomer
who stays in the ashram has the same kind of dream.

By the time I left New Vrindaban, I had met most of the locals. I had
spent an afternoon hauling bricks and picking string beans with Garunga,
a young man in his early 20s who had grown up in the Hare Krishna
community with devotee parents, but who seemed to be just as
well-adjusted — maybe even more so — than your average college kid. I
had met Balarama Chandra das, a former activist who told me that he
joined the Krishnas after realizing that he was never going to change
the world until he changed himself first. Today, Balarama das teaches a
weekly class on Hindu philosophy and the “Bhagavad Gita” at Carnegie
Mellon University.

I even met Tapahpunja, the second-in-command at New Vrindaban, who was
unlucky enough to have a decades-old picture of himself appear in
“Monkey on a Stick,” a sensationalist book about the various New
Vrindaban controversies that was first published in 1988. “Tapahpunja
fled the United States after Steve Bryant’s murder,” the copy underneath
his photo reads, referring to a devotee who had defected. “He is
believed to be living in Malaysia.” But the Tapahpunja I met, who
proudly gave me a guided tour of his organic garden, was someone
entirely different. In fact, the conversation we had about health and
the Krishna diet was so reasonable and convincing that I haven’t eaten
an egg since. I’ve even considered giving up pork and beef.

“Your karma changes right away when you stop eating meat,” another
longtime devotee told me, smiling with self-satisfaction. “You’ll feel
the difference immediately.”

Overall, it was the sheer normalcy of the Krishnas that shocked me more
than anything during my week in the City of God.

I’ll admit it: I half expected wild-eyed lunatics and religious
fanatics. I assumed I’d see crazed zombie-like men and women who had
obviously been brainwashed, and the truth is that at New Vrindaban,
there are a few odd characters flitting about — lost souls who probably
couldn’t fit in or survive anywhere else.

But as Swami Prabupada said, and as the Krishnas repeat ad nauseam when
they’re explaining their philosophy and their lifestyle to outsiders,
“We are not these bodies. We are spirit souls. And we are suffering in
this material world.”


Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, USA
May 29, 2005
Dan Eldridge

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday May 29, 2005.
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