Jul 19, 2014

The Return Of A Cult Classic—Hare Krishnas Are Back

Bart Blasengame

May 1, 2014

The much-maligned Hindu sect has shed its freak-show status and, behind its yuppie-friendly pillars of yoga, meditation, and clean living, is transforming America into a postmodern ashram. Robes not required.

The past and present of Hare Krishna suns himself in the high-resolution glow of code as it scrolls down his computer screen. He is 31 and married to a doctor and, after five years as an architect, is making the transition into tech—working at the largest data-protection company in the world to study its market strategies, which he hopes to apply to the start-up he's planning to launch. He is just like you: career-minded and ambitious. He has a slim build, short-cropped hair, a vegetarian diet, and a dedicated yoga regimen. It's only if you happen to catch a glimpse of the string of tulasi-wood beads—a sign of devotion to Lord Krishna—tucked discreetly inside his collared shirt that you might become aware that Palaka Das is existing on a different plane.

He blends in now, but it wasn't always this easy. When he was 12 and went by his birth name, Paul, his disapproving mom led him through their Lansing, Michigan, home and into their former dining room, a place his father had transformed into a high, holy shrine upon his conversion to something called Hare Krishna. Inside the room were melting candles and orange daisies and pictures of blue gods with four arms and men in saffron robes with paint marks on their foreheads—trinkets of faith that, to a sixth-grader's eye, looked like something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. "You see that guy?" his mother said, pointing to a photo of a rapturous Bhakti Tirtha Swami, a Hare Krishna holy man. "That's the guy that brainwashed your father."

For a boy growing up in the Midwest, Hare Krishna wasn't exactly a ticket to the cool kids' table. Then there was Palaka's agnostic mom bemoaning his father's conversion and an aunt—a professor at Michigan State—proclaiming that the Krishnas were a cult that would run off with your firstborn. But when things got metaphysical? When you put down the Nintendo controller, crept into your dad's lair, grabbed his japa beads, started chanting "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama . . ." while focusing on a painting of Radha, Krishna's consort, and your body started vibrating—honest to God vibrating? Well, some things you didn't question.

Now living in a brick town house in Brooklyn, Palaka Das spends his time painting, playing pickup basketball, and working at the Hare Krishna temple in the Boerum Hill neighborhood, surrounded by hundreds of like-minded brownstone-dwelling devotees. "It's like my dad said," Palaka explains. "'Everyone has different paths to God. Some need a Honda, some need a Rolls-Royce, and some are just walking.'"

Nowadays, many people are flat-out running. Nearly 50 years after Srila Prabhupada journeyed from India to America to bring the new teachings of Krishna to a generation of Western burnouts, Hare Krishnas have moved out of the airports, into the streets, and into the cubicle right next to yours. The sect's once-exotic-sounding core practices of mindfulness and vegetarianism—the very beliefs that early on relegated it to the "freak" aisle—have spread virally, turning America into a postmodern ashram. We don't pray anymore; we go on Facebook to ask that good thoughts and positive energy be magically zapped to us. We don't plant our dead in the ground; we feed their ashes to the cosmos. We seek out veggie burgers and lie to ourselves about the deliciousness of kale while contorting our bodies into wordless physical devotionals. Yes, Christianity and Islam may have the numbers, but Hare Krishna—the little sect that could—is winning the culture war.

"All the things the gurus were pushing back then: simplicity, farming, sustainability—people get it now," says Raghunath, who has been singing the praises of Krishna-centric values since 1986, when he and his venerated hard-core punk band, Youth of Today, were sweating out songs about vegetarianism, community, and abstinence. In 1990, he formed the overtly spiritual band Shelter, which kicked off the Krishnacore movement. Now the 48-year-old, who lives in New York City, tours the country teaching yoga to fauxhemians and leads pilgrimages to India for thousands of dollars a pop. America, it seems, has finally come around to his way of thinking. "We all have to make a very simple choice," Raghunath says, "take care of the body or neglect the body."

On the surface, Hare Krishna's estimated North American membership of 100,000 doesn't seem that impressive. But that number undervalues the religion's ability to be consumed in à la carte fashion. With Hare Krishna—one of the youngest branches of Hinduism's 4,000-year-old tree—there is no commitment, just a loosey-goosey to-do list of daily chanting and meditation, a handful of no-no's (no meat, no illicit sex, no gambling, no intoxication), and a deities-welcome policy that merely holds Lord Krishna up as the CEO. The 20 million of us practicing yoga, the 7 million of us eating vegetarian, and the many thousands of us lost in meditation might not self-identify as Hare Krishna, but we are clearly getting a stiff secondhand hit of the group's gateway drug.

"Everything you do in life—work, school, parenting—can become a devotional meditation to the divine," says Keshava Sharma, North American director of communications for the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Hare Krishna's governing body. "This is something many young practitioners of yoga find appealing, as it presents the ability to add practical spirituality to their daily lives."

Behind the ornately carved dark-cherry doors of Yogamaya in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, shiny, happy, sinewy men adorned with head scarves, manicured scruff, and frayed-rope necklaces bend and breathe to the sounds of a harmonium and hand cymbals ringing from a room down the hall. In it, a swami is leading a discussion titled "Can God Be Blue? A Study of Krishna." "So many people just stumble into Hare Krishna, and it's almost always through yoga class," says studio director Bryn Chrisman. Glenn Riis, who opened Yogamaya after burning out on Wall Street in his forties, says that even if most of his students aren't proclaiming themselves Hare Krishna, they're definitely tuning in to its spiritual wavelength. "You see people discovering this ocean of new ideas," Riis says, "and then it's up to them to explore it further or not."

But while yoga and Hare Krishna—which demands devotees practice Bhakti yoga on a near-daily basis—might make obvious bedfellows, few would expect the corporate boardroom to open its doors to a religion built on selflessness and moderation. Rasanath Das, a Cornell University M.B.A., made headlines after he gave up his $170,000 salary at Bank of America to be a Hare Krishna monk. But far from being shunned by the financial community, Rasanath has become an in-demand lecturer for senior executives at banks from UBS to Citigroup. In a TEDxGotham talk, Rasanath echoed the message he brings to those "compulsive achievement machines": "Take a few deep breaths, place your hand on your chest, and really bring the sensation to your heart. See what you feel. . . . Remember, there is no right or wrong answer. Your experience is purely yours. . . . Feel the authenticity." Rasanath may be employing the stock language of modern self-help—fuzzy feel-goodery that could easily have been spoken by Joel Osteen or Tony Robbins or Oprah—but coming from someone who left behind a moneyed career to sleep on a monastery floor, it resonates at places like the Harvard Business School Club of New York.

That the wolves of Wall Street would one day be pawing at the temple door would have been unthinkable to Srila Prabhupada, whose initial foray into America was timed to capitalize on the rise of the counterculture. Propelled by hippie icons like Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles, Krishna had its first true "moment" in the late sixties, yet it failed to cross over into the mainstream. For every George who took up the sitar and recorded "My Sweet Lord," there was a John, a Paul, and a Ringo who just hung out at the temple for the chicks. (In Mad Men's recent nod to Hare Krishna, sad-sack Paul Kinsey turned to the religion only after bottoming out professionally, and even then mainly to get into a girl's robes.)

But a few generations of disillusionment and religious scandal later, almost one in five Americans identifies as "spiritual but not religious," leaving the window to our souls cracked just wide enough for something as user-friendly as Hare Krishna to slip through, unburdened of its baggage of airport proselytizing and scrubbed of its patchouli stink.

"Every single religion started out as a cult," says Douglas Atkin, the author of The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers. "There's a new idea, it gets some followers, and gradually it changes the culture in its own image. But you have to be different enough for people to buy into, while still managing to become slightly less different as you grow." Atkin cites Mormonism as the gold standard for a heretofore outsider sect that made the leap to the masses. Less than two centuries after being founded on sacred underwear, polygamy, and mysterious golden plates buried underground, Mormonism gave us a presidential candidate who won the votes of 61 million Americans. Considering Hare Krishna's relatively recent arrival in America, the extent of its infiltration is impressive. "Their religion hasn't succeeded yet," Atkin says, "but their ideas have."

"It can be a little off-putting to still be labeled a cult by some. But after nearly 50 years, the public perception of the Hare Krishnas has evolved," the ISKCON's Keshava Sharma says, "and we now have temples and communities which are flush with a wide variety of people of varying demographics." Alachua, Florida, is one such place. The tiny town of 10,000 is home to the New Ramen Reti, the largest Hare Krishna community in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 500 families—many of them white—call the 127-acre property home, but there's rarely any drama with the locals. Just down the road in Gainesville, at the University of Florida, the Krishna House sponsors a donation-based Krishna lunch on campus that attracts more than 4,000 students and locals a week.

"A lot more devotees are living what they call a 'householder' life," explains 25-year-old Hare Krishna Ramai Gaasbeek. Blond, lanky, and every bit as Scandinavian as his last name would suggest, he works as an IT specialist at the University of Florida. "We buy houses and hold down normal jobs and have wives—we don't just wear saffron robes anymore."

This month, Houston—a city where hotels place copies of the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text, beside the Gideon Bible—will see the opening of a 24,000-square-foot Hare Krishna temple, a castle with gold-tipped towers, a 90-foot-high dome, and a teakwood altar hand-carved in South India. Local members of the ISKCON—whose website urges you to "Get Krishnagized!"—expect 15,000 visitors for the grand-opening ceremony.

"When I was growing up, I was the weird kid, and now where my 4-year-old goes to school, half the kids are vegetarian," says Vineet Chander, a 35-year-old Indian-American who runs the Hindu Life program at Princeton University. "That's progress. But when it all just becomes about getting that yoga ass, that can be a problem."

Which underscores Hare Krishna's next challenge in its march toward the mainstream—transcending the mind-and-body angle, which remains its sustaining influence, to being embraced as a true religion.

"Sure, there are better reasons to practice yoga or meditate than to look good or ground yourself," says Raghunath, who's mellowed considerably since his days as a zealous Krishnacore frontman. "It's not the highest thing. But I believe that eventually, if you do it long enough, you're going to be led to something far more substantial.

"Eventually," he continues, "we'll figure out that the people in robes aren't the weirdos—it's the people in jeans and stilettos."