Cultivating a generation

The Alligator, August, 1999
By Matthew Boedy

Echoes of "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna" can be heard from a small tape player on the sidewalk on the Plaza of the Americas. In a spiritual sense, those echoes from UF's campus are in unison with another chanting in a marble-floored temple about 20 minutes south on County Road 235 outside Alachua.

It is here where The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, whose members are commonly called Hare Krishnas, walk their often misunderstood spiritual path and train the next generation to chant, love Krishna and live simply.

They gather on what one leader admits is a misnomer. It is a farm, but the devotees - the head-shaven, pink robe-wearing followers of Lord Krishna - don't farm much anymore. The few rows of plants and some vegetables growing in the front along the road are deceiving because behind them lay nothing but cow heaven.

The 127 acres of prized farmland is home to about 30 cows, a few trailers and one temple where the chants of "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna" echo off the marble floor to the ears of their God.

On any given Sunday, about 200 to 300 people bow down, shoeless, to idols laced with jewels and dressed in traditional Eastern deity robes. On this particular Sunday, the temple room is filled with about 75 worshippers, men on one side and women on the other. Each group sways, sings and raises its hands as leaders offer fire, water and earth to the ornate figurines, while one man records the events on a camcorder.

Watching from the back is HareRam Das, a gray-haired 40-year-old man, who admits he likes to dance but is caught idle for a few minutes. A computer programmer, he is down from New Jersey, home of the temple he attends, to take a look at what might become his new surroundings.

He tries to shout above the worship about his impending move, his wife and explanations about the figurines on the stage. The gods have been good, he says. That is why Hare Krishnas dress them, feed them and sacrifice the material world for them.

"It's a very good religion because it has all the aspects of human life," he shouts. The food - strictly vegetarian - and the dancing of Hare Krishnas are all part of the spiritual path, he says. The Spiritual Path Hare Krishnas are a monotheistic sect of the polytheistic ancient Indian religion Hinduism, which was brought to the United States in 1966 by then 72-year-old Srila Prabhupada. He started the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York City in July that year. The society has about 120,000 members worldwide.

At the back of the Alachua temple is a life-size statue of Prabhupada, which followers anoint with water as they walk by. Both it and the deities at the front are worshipped equally in the temple. Temple president Mother Nunda says while Krishna may be her Lord, Prabhupada is her master.

"We do worship our spiritual master because he has given us our Lord." Nunda joined the Krishnas in the early 1970s, after being raised Roman Catholic. While she admits there are some misunderstandings about the religion, it is clear - to her at least - Hare Krishnas only try to develop love for God.

"We want to remember we are servants of God. The ceremonies are ways to help us remember we are servants and remember to love God," she says. In the chant, hare means love for Krishna.

According to Krishnas' Vedic scriptures, Krishna has appeared many times in human form. To know God, one must follow a strict lifestyle to maintain Krishna consciousness. Gurus, a line of teachers traceable back to Krishna, propagate and exemplify the four pillars of Krishna consciousness - no meat-eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication and no gambling.

The strict rules, like corporal punishment, have been blamed for incidents of child abuse in the movement. In 1996, 10 former students confronted Krishna society leadership with their stories. In Alachua, Nunda says one particular former teacher is the farm's skeleton in the closet.

"You have to deal with it honestly. I would say we had a bad apple." The Next Generation Outside the temple, taking a break from the festivities, is a group of five in the next generation, mostly teen-agers. Four are children of Hare Krishnas, and they all agree their parents' religion is their religion.

"We're pretty much born into it. It's second nature," says Sam-Radha-Go, who just graduated from Santa Fe Community College. He admits he has trouble giving up the material world. His material world includes jean shorts, silver bracelets and a necklace.

"I have trouble. I haven't mastered my senses," he laughs. "I participate and pretty much follow the rules. I come here. I enjoy it. I feel good in there."

He talks about going to the mall or the movies later with Goura Riggan, the blonde sitting beside him. She has brought her best friend, Sarah

Avigne, to the temple for the first time. Both are 16 and both are wearing shorts, something they say got them strange looks in the temple. Avigne, who has strict Catholic parents, says she came to find out what Hare Krishna is all about.

"I'll probably come back, if my parents don't find out," she said. "I'm open to everything. I want to see what (Riggan) is involved with." On the other side of the temple is 17-year-old Gita Stevens. She is a daughter of 23-year Hare Krishnas, who just moved to Alachua to be near the largest community in the Hare Krishna movement. Her multicolored sari - the traditional Hare Krishna female dress - crisscrosses her body while a scarf waffles in the wind. She admits she does not usually wear her sari to school like her younger sister. Her material world includes a black and white necklace, which she never takes off because she believes it protects her from death.

She says, like the other kids across the temple, that she will raise her children in the religion but does not want to force anything.

"I like it a lot. If (my parents) hadn't been Hare Krishna, I would have joined anyway. It's exciting. I wouldn't be too interested if it wasn't fun." In the world, but not of it Stevens' daily schedule, like most Hare Krishna disciples, starts with worship at 4:30 a.m. in the temple. Devotees worship Krishna deities for half an hour. Next, japa time - personal prayer and chanting - runs until 7:20. Then worship centers on Prabhupada. Before breakfast, there are religious classes.

The farm runs two K-7 day schools, one for boys and one for girls. The farm has grown tremendously because of its new emphasis on education, Nunda says.

Across the farm are six new single-wide trailers being prepared for the first ever Hare Krishna-run public charter school, the Alachua Learning Center. The charter was narrowly passed by the Alachua County School Board for the Fall.

"The emphasis for a long time was on farming. The reality is that's not everyone's lifestyle," Nunda says. The simple spiritual life does not offer as much as the physical world. One growing trend for the movement is members living in the world but still clinging to temple practices, Nunda says.

Stevens' family does not live on the compound. Krishnas own homes, drive cars and work in the world outside. A separatist cult, Nunda says, Hare Krishnas are not.

Devotees always return to the temple for spiritual enrichment, though. But spiritual dissatisfaction is another growing issue for Hare Krishnas, an issue most churches and synagogues are dealing with.

"It's time and circumstances. You don't classify people in general as spiritual seekers," Nunda says. "They want to be entertained. They want to gratify their senses." It seems the world is taking over, and Nunda worries for the next generation, which she says is a little less eager to follow its spiritual fathers.

"All of the outside influences are telling them a different thing. They are telling them they can be happy," she says. "We are going against the whole grain of society. We talk differently. We eat differently. We walk differently. But the whole gist of it is we love God."

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