I arrived in India three days ahead of my luggage. The man at the baggage claim office did not seem concerned, however. “Just call the airport tomorrow,” he mumbled.

“But I have almost no money,” I protested nervously. “My credit card and traveler’s checks are all in my other bag!”

He wiggled his head from side to side in classic Indian fashion, signaling his underpaid empathy, and sent me on my way. While waiting in the immigration line, wondering how long the twenty dollars in my pocket would last me in a city that was internationally renowned as a metaphor for unadulterated evil, I met a tall American man who introduced himself as Bill. He was dressed casually, in a backpacker’s cargo pants and T-shirt, and sported an incongruous blond ponytail jutting out the back of an otherwise bald head. There were traces of yellow powder on his nose as well, which I mistook for the dried remnants of some kind of sunscreen. I told him my hard luck story. He said that he had friends in Calcutta, and suggested that I might be able stay with them.

As we left the airport and hailed a cab, he told me that he was a head swami from the Hare Krishna movement. His Indian name was Bhaktisedanta, which he told me meant “devotion to knowledge.” It had been given to him by his religion’s grand master, Jayapataka, whom I was to meet later.

As we got in the taxi, he started talking about how becoming a Hare Krishna had been the best thing he had ever done in his life. It had cured his epileptic fits and made him an infinitely better person, he said. Then out of the blue he quoted St. Augustine: “Seek not to understand so that thou mayest believe, but believe so that thou mayest understand,” and shot me a gaze pregnant with meaning.

“Oh man, here it comes,” I thought, rolling internal eyes as I realized he was trying to proselytize me.

“How do you prove the existence of past-lives?” he began, “Well, WHAT ABOUT MOZART? What about all the other child prodigies? They were OBVIOUSLY reincarnations of past masters! What about innate fears like acrophobia and claustrophobia? They exist because YOU DIED THAT WAY IN ANOTHER LIFE! And did you hear about that study done on the brains of the two most brilliant students of Oxford and Harvard? I mean, they had AN IQ OF LIKE 150! But do you know what they found? The scientists discovered that neither one of them even had a BRAIN! There was NOTHING there man! It’s called HYDROCEPHALY! Don’t believe me? You can check it out on the internet! It’s all there! This PROVES the Indian belief that the HEART is the seat of the soul, not the head! There’s all kinds of stuff out there the PEOPLE IN POWER don’t want you to know, man! Ever been to Cairo? Yeah? Know how they moved those PYRAMID blocks? Let me tell you: BY A MANTRA! MAGIC WORDS! A SPELL! And how do you explain the existence of faggots? The Indians believe that the different castes of the human race were constructed out of the body of an ancient giant. The priests formed the HEAD, the warriors the ARMS, the slaves the LEGS… Oh, you know the story? Well let me tell you something YOU DON’T KNOW! Jayapataka Swami has told me about a secret Veda that explains the origin of queers: They were formed FROM THE ASSHOLE OF THE GIANT!!!”

Bill had just returned from a trip to Nepal, where he had gone into the caves of sacred Mount Gandaki and stolen shalagrams, a kind of black ammonite rock fossil. The Hare Krishnas believe that an ancient society carved these, and they are statuary, not fossils. They are thought to be inherently holy and bring their bearers good luck. Strangely enough, the Nepalese government does not recognize the Hare Krishna claims and has decreed that nothing from this ancient archeological site may be taken out of the country, so Bill is forced to smuggle them out. Then he sells them to worshippers abroad.

“So what you do is illegal?” I asked.

“It is beyond legality. Beyond borders,” he said.[1]

He showed me a few of the rocks. Some of them had clear trilobite and other fossils embedded in them, and probably belonged in a museum. Bill had glued paper-mache eyes with long, thick golden eyelashes to them, as well as sexy, pouting, Betty Boop mouths and a flaming Hindu dot between where the eyebrows should have been. It was the most bizarre cutesification I had ever seen. I was to learn later that Bill’s associates would pay top dollar for these.

My companion paid for the taxi and showed me into the place we would be staying. The hotel was the Prabhupada Ashram, a cult resort that represented ISKCON: the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a worldwide movement with around five million devotees, and numerous international convictions for child sexual abuse, racketeering, and assassination, as well as international drug and arms smuggling. Every hallway in the building had large speakers that chanted a deep-throated 24-hour loop of the Hare Krishna mantra.

Bill quickly changed into his regular clothes, which consisted of five-inch elevated sandals carved to look like fish, a sturdy chest-high walking stick, a long pink toga, and a yellow horseshoe-shaped smear of sandalwood paste between his eyes.

Everywhere I went the devotees stared at me like I had walked in strapped with explosives. They immediately recognized that I was not one of their own, being dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, versus the pink robes, shaved heads and tilakas[2] of everyone else.

Over the next few days, I was to learn quite a bit about ISKCON. It is a Vaishnava sect that was founded in New York City in 1966. The devotees believe that Krishna, a character of the Mahabharata, and one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, is the one supreme personality of God. All the other gods of the Hindu pantheon are just aspects of him. Their divinity was reportedly born about 5,000 years ago, lived 125 years, was eleven feet tall, and had bright blue skin.

The original architect of the movement was an Indian man named A.C. Bhakti, who traveled to America and converted many hippies to his unique brand of Hinduism. He took the Bhagavad Gita, which is a chapter of the Mahabharata, and wrote a mammoth twelve-tome commentary on it, that is perhaps the driest read in the history of the printed page.

There was no dearth of reading material in the ashram. I read several of A.C. Bhakti’s pamphlets, where he declared that the spiritual power of his Hare Krishna festivals have prevented the spread of Communism, helped India defeat Pakistan, and that only those of a demonic nature could not understand the truth of his teachings.

Abortion and birth control were condemned as “rascaldom (very Indian, that turn of phrase),” while every cultural icon of the sixties and seventies from Peter Sellers to Clint Eastwood was claimed to be a devotee. I came across stashes of 40 year-old leaflets that read: “Stay high forever! A brand of ‘consciousness expansion’ that’s sweeter than acid, cheaper than pot, and nonbustible by the fuzz!”

My first day at the ashram, I met Jayapataka (“carrier of a victory flag”) Swami, the global head of ISKCON. He is an enormous Wisconsinite, about 6’3” and quite obese. He befriended me immediately, perhaps intrigued by my unexpected presence, and took it upon himself to show me around the halls of the ashram. We were surrounded by his obligatory cloud of matronly attendants everywhere we went, and devotees threw themselves constantly at his feet, stroking his robe and pleading for benediction.

“It’s important that you understand,” Jayapataka Swami said to me, taking a sweet offered to him by one of his adoring followers and looking at me sternly, “I’m not a god.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, unsure how else to respond.

“Well, sometimes not,” he chuckled softly.

He seemed very interested in talking to me and explaining what was happening. The reason he was there was because the next day there was one of the biggest annual festivals of the Vaishnava tradition, the Rathayatra, also known as the Juggernaut festival. That was why the ISKCON complex was so packed. I had arrived in Calcutta at a very propitious time, he said.

The following morning the swamis took me to a park to see a seething ocean of Hare Krishna devotees drag three large chariots around. The worshippers were arranged in lengthy sinuous rows, heaving rhythmically on thick ropes fastened to the carts, and others atop the unruly lurching vehicles threw fistfuls of flower petals on the pullulating swarms of faithful below. Inside each cart were images of Jagannath (yet another incarnation of Vishnu), his brother Baladeva, and his wife Subhadra. The images were painted pieces of wood and looked like Barbapapa cartoons. Previous to the wet-blanket British occupation, it had famously been a great honor to commit holy suicide by jumping under the wheels of the huge carts.

The park was a Hare Krishna circus. Proselytizing leaflets and books were everywhere. I paused at a particularly interesting stall. It had a large sign that advertised: “Medicinal Cow Urine from Purebred Indigenous Cows”

I picked up a vial of the yellow elixir and turned to the bald-headed, yellow-nosed man behind the desk. “Is this for drinking?” I asked.

“Of course!” he said.

“What is it good for?”

“It cures diseases!”

“Really? Which ones?”

“All diseases!” came the unwavering response.

I swirled the glorious panacea in the vial, watching the bubbles. I don’t remember the price, but it couldn’t have been too high. The stuff was selling like hotcakes! You bet people were buying it! By the gallon!

The next day, Swami Bill asked me if I wanted to visit the birthplace of his religion. I agreed, and that afternoon we boarded a train for Mayapur, a small village that sits on the banks of the Ganges river about 130 km north of Calcutta. This is the location of the world headquarters of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprahbu.

Chaitanya lived around 500 years ago and is seen by devotees to be another incarnation of Vishnu, who dedicated his life to the worship of his previous Krishna form. If that makes any sense. Sounds pretty narcissistic to me: God descending to earth as an incarnation only to worship another incarnation of Himself who had descended before.

We took a third class train and arrived within a few hours.

“The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is building the largest temple in the world in Mayapur,” said Bill as we walked down the path to the Mayapur ashram, “It will have a circumference of twenty kilometers!”`

“Wow,” I said, impressed. “How much of it have you built?”

“Well,” he hesitated, “Nothing yet. We are still negotiating the land to build it on.”

“Does ISHKON have enough money to complete the project?”

“No. Not yet.”

“So, how will you raise the money?”

“Yes, yes,” he broke down with a beaming smile, “It is physically impossible. But Lord Krishna will find a way.”

“I’m sure He will,” I reassured.

I stayed in the Mayapur ashram for several days, sleeping on the floor of Bill’s Spartan apartment, eating vegetarian prasadam, chatting with the locals and visiting the nearby temple. Many of the devotees at the compound had been there for twenty, thirty years, living in their little cells, chanting the name of god . All books, films and other outside influences were forbidden.

The second day, I accompanied Bill on a visit to a local Hare Krishna family. They were a young Russian couple with an eight year-old daughter. The parents were in their early thirties, and had been in India for about a dozen years. They spoke English quite well, but like every other foreigner I was to meet who had been in the country for decades, couldn’t speak a word of Hindi, Bengali, or any other Indian language. They only met with other members of their sect, and had no desire to mingle with outsiders.

The three of them lived in one cell of a huge beehive apartment complex they shared with hundreds of other devotees. We sat around a table on their balcony, looking over the nearby farmland, sipping tea.

I asked them about what was happening with the education of their daughter. She was going to a special Hare Krishna school with all the other local children, they said, where they didn’t teach the kids any “unhealthy doctrines.” I asked what these might be. Out it came. Evolution. Inappropriate history. Inappropriate literature. Most science and all comparative religion.

“What does she study then?” I asked.

“Scripture, mostly,” the father said. I knew that this could only mean A.C. Bhakti’s twelve mind-numbing tomes of “The Bhagavad Gita –As It Is.” I thought about what it would be like to spend the entirety of my youth studying the exegesis of a fifteen page poem.

I took my unproselytized leave of a disappointed Swami Bill a few days later, thanking him for his hospitality. It was only the first of dozens of similar encounters I was to have with quixotic occidentals in India, and as I waved goodbye to the American in the pink robe, I couldn’t help but think that the real appeal of the subcontinent to the western mind is the possibility of going completely, unequivocally mad there. And sometimes we get what we want.


[1] A German friend of mine was once induced by extreme poverty to join the ranks of the Hare Krishnas in Japan. He shared a large apartment for several months with six other members of the cult, who survived by shoplifting, pick-pocketing and various other illegal activities. Finally the day came when the gang decided it was time to pull up stakes and head back to the United States, where they had all been born and raised. The German asked where they would get the money for the plane tickets, and the Americans explained that money would not be a problem. Then they went together to the nearest subway station and began violently assaulting the people sitting on the benches waiting for the train. A huge brawl ensued, and the next day the Japanese government deported them, free of charge, to their homelands.

[2] Tilakas: These are the forehead markings of the various religious devotees in India. Vaishnavas (who worship Vishnu) have a tilaka of two white vertical lines of sandalwood in the shape of a horseshoe pointing up, with a dot between the lines. Saivites (who worship Shiva) have a tilaka composed of three horizontal lines, often using ash, and often red in color. As well, the Ganapatyas (who worship Ganesh) have an imitation trident painted on their forehead.

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