Living with Krishna

Los Angeles Times/March 23, 2001
By Marcela Rojas

For 30 years, the often misunderstood Hare Krishnas have practiced their religion in a self-sufficient West Los Angeles spiritual compound.

At 4 a.m., when most of the city is sound asleep, several dozen pious men and women rise and come together to chant to their God. With wooden beads laced through their fingers, they pace through the whispering sounds of the temple. Only the lulled reverberation of the mantra "Hare Krishna" can be heard in this dimly lighted spiritual chamber in West Los Angeles.

Thirty minutes into the meditation, the sari- and saffron-robed devotees are summoned by the call of a conch shell at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

They stand like soldiers at attention as the altar doors open to reveal the colorful Hindu deity Krishna in his various manifestations, adorned with candles and yellow, white and pink carnations.

At once, drums and hand cymbals begin to play. With arms outstretched, devotees sing and dance while offerings of food, fire, water, incense and aromatic flowers are made to Krishna.

The ritual ends with a reading from the Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Lord), a 700-verse Sanskrit poem recounting the dialogue between Krishna and Prince Arjuna, a royal Indian warrior about to go to battle.

And then the chanting of Hare Krishna on their string of 108 japa prayer beads begins again. Each day, Krishna followers repeat the mantra 1,728 times--16 times for each bead.

For devotees, the predawn ceremony is the first of six aratis , or offerings, they will take part in throughout the day at the Hare Krishna temple, New Dwarka, named after one of the holy places in India connected with Krishna.

In between, congregants serve Krishna in various capacities, including the distribution of Krishna literature, teaching and cooking.

Devotees are not paid for these services; instead they receive free room and board at the Hare Krishna center, the spiritual core of a religious enclave that occupies much of the block north of Venice Boulevard on Watseka Avenue.

While some older devotees receive Social Security benefits, most balance their time between service and part-time jobs, including catering, tutoring, dance or yoga instruction and tourism.

Single men and women are required to complete 30 hours of Krishna service each week. "We call this bhakti yoga--to serve with love," said Arcita Dasa, 48, a Krishna devotee since 1973. "It is not enough to say, 'I love God.' We must develop that love and pay our respects to Krishna through helping others in the community."

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness in West Los Angeles was established in 1970. Some 225 devotees live in ashrams (apartments) on Watseka Avenue. But there are roughly 10,000 in the Krishna congregation throughout Los Angeles and its environs. Many attend the center's Sunday service.

The self-sufficient spiritual compound contains an elementary school, two dining facilities, a gift shop, temple and various rooms for spiritual instruction in dance, music, yoga and the Bhagavad-Gita.

Worshipers from the West L.A. enclave often can be found at Los Angeles International Airport, the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and various Westside schools.

Their biggest public event is the August Festival of Chariots on Venice Beach, which draws thousands of Hare Krishna devotees and onlookers. Moreover, their influence can be felt throughout their neighborhood.

Members of the community must strictly adhere to five basic precepts: chanting Krishna's name, vegetarianism, avoiding intoxicants and gambling and not engaging in illicit sex.

Newcomers must go through a screening process and are schooled in the sect's philosophies and modes of living. After about one year, following exams, new devotees are initiated.

"Some of us choose to live here because once you take on a life of Krishna consciousness, it is hard to live among others who smoke and drink," said Radha Gopal, 44, a musician who has lived in the Krishna community since 1979.

"You can identify better with others and yourself here because everyone is of a like spiritual mind. You feel more at home."

But Hare Krishnas do not discriminate and are accepting of all other religions, Gopal said. "All spiritual paths are a road to God," he said.

While other mainstream religions may not subscribe to their teachings, such as the physical manifestation of God, some find the Hare Krishnas to be a peaceful group that is often misunderstood.

"I would hardly call them a radical cult," said Rabbi Aaron Parry of Jews for Judaism in Beverly Hills. "I think the bad rap comes from chanting in front of airports. Others may find that disheartening. They are just people [who] really want to develop a personal relationship with God.

If more Americans followed that principle, we'd have a better society." Law enforcement and city officials said the Krishnas are a quiet group and do not cause any disturbances in the community.

"We've never run into problems with them," said Sgt. Rich Parks of the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division. "They tend to keep to themselves and mind their own business."

Krishna devotees are not the only ones who fill up the center and its commissaries. Many nonbelievers stop by for traditional fare and spiritual uplifting. Employees from motion picture stalwarts such as Sony and Warner Bros. also visit the gift shop, Govinda's.

This Krishna enclave is not shut off from the rest of the world, but rather it is a part of the surrounding community and all are welcome.

"I'm not a Krishna. I'm what you call a friend of Krishna," said Jaime Vega, 43, of Sherman Oaks, who runs an antiques delivery service nearby.

"I've been coming here for 10 years. You feel a special energy at this place. It's very peaceful. Nobody tries to convert you. Everyone is accepting."

Neighboring businesses say they are comfortable with the Krishna center. "We are very happy to have them in our community," said Raj Singh, a travel agent at Asia Travel and Tours. "They bring a sense of togetherness and peace to the area."

Sammy Lee, co-owner of the nearby Star Mini-Mart, agreed. "At first, I was a little freaked out by the ashes on their forehead and the way they dress, but now I'm interested in learning about their beliefs," he said. "They seem very peaceful."

The Hare Krishna movement was founded in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who at age 70 traveled from India to establish the culture of Krishna consciousness in the Western world.

Opening a bookshop in the Bowery area of New York City, the guru taught from the Bhagavad-Gita, a 5,000-year-old scripture that declares Krishna as God himself, and who appears periodically in this world to liberate all beings.

Rooted in the ancient religion of Hinduism, the Krishna philosophy teaches that a person is destined to grow old and die, again and again, until he or she breaks the reincarnation cycle through enlightenment.

In order to be freed from the material world, those who adhere to the Hare Krishna faith must devote themselves completely to Krishna so they may join him in the spirit world.

"We believe that your final thought in this life dictates the next," said devotee Dwarki Rani. "So if you're thinking about your cat when you die, guess what? You'll be a cat in the next. That's why we try to stay fixed on Krishna."

By his death in 1977, Prabhupada had some 10,000 followers. Many of these Hare Krishna believers were former hippies and beatniks of the 1960s.

During the early 1980s, many Indians began to follow the practices of the Hindi sect and now constitute half of the people worshiping in Krishna temples.

Today, there are more than 25 Krishna communities and about 90,000 devotees throughout the country. But over the years the movement has been met with much criticism.

Often shunned as a cult, many of its own members have left the movement, disillusioned by the community's moral purposes.

"It's difficult to apply the term cult to the Hindu religion," said Christopher Chapple, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.

"There are many layers of analysis that need to be uncovered. Historically in India, great respect and values are preserved for the guru. Parents are often replaced by spiritual teachers. Some Westerners are attracted by that."

In June, the Hare Krishnas received another setback after a lawsuit was filed claiming that more than 90 of their members nationwide were victims of child abuse.

After years of silence, these former students of the gurukulas (spiritual boarding schools), have come forth with allegations of sexual, physical and emotional mistreatment and are blaming the temples for hiring and allowing it to happen. The West Los Angeles Krishna branch is among the defendants in the suit.

"There was a child molester who was convicted and served a term of 15 years," said Karuna Gunn, head of the local gurukula . "During that time, there were a lot of reformed hippies joining the movement who just did not act on a professional level."

In 1986, Kenneth Capoferri, then 38, a caretaker at the center between 1982 and 1984, was convicted on seven counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with children under age 14.

The abuse came to light in August 1984, when one of the 18 children at the center told her mother about the incidents. Capoferri and his wife fled to Ohio after members of the Krishna group confronted them. Capoferri was arrested in September 1984.

Other spiritual leaders and members left the community during the time too. Former member Nori Muster wrote a book, "Betrayal of the Spirit," about her years in the late '70s and '80s at the West L.A. center.

Devotees who witnessed the problems then and have stayed with the movement liken the 1980s exodus to a spiritual cleanup in the community.

"Over the years, people have come and gone," said devotee Krsna Gauranja Dominguez, who has been at the Krishna center for 20 years.

"During that time, there were a lot of members and it was more difficult to control any illicit activities. There were some bad seeds in the bunch. So it was a matter of cleaning up and starting over."

Nowadays, with general interest in yoga, meditation, vegetarianism, beaded bracelets and Hindi garb flourishing, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has seen a newfound interest in its West L.A. community. Hundreds of people order the Bhagavad-Gita and japa beads from the center regularly and visit the dining facilities, Gunn said.

Devotees are happy about the attention from the outside world. "The lifestyle that came out of the 1950s habituated into a material culture that has perpetuated over the years," Gunn said. "But somewhere down the line, you always come around to say, 'Who am I? What is my purpose? How can I help others?'

"This community has evolved into a place that gives people, particularly on the Westside, an opportunity to take up a spiritual life and be among spiritual people."

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