To Hare Krishna and back

Northeast Times - Pennsylvania/December 2004
By Elizabeth Stieber

With his head bent slightly downward, Pada Seva Dasa receives a set of chanting beads from a guru. His head is shaved, and around his bare chest rests a white scarf with red designs.

The moment was captured as a photograph during his first initiation into the Hare Krishna religion.

Above the picture reads the translation of his name - Servant of the Lotus Feet - on the cover of a white paperback book. The back cover, however, has a picture of the same man, only this time he has dark, slightly curly hair that is neatly cut, and he wears a plain black shirt. His current name, Gabriel Brandis, is typed below it.

The pictures are completely different, yet like the novel he has written, Brandis, the main character of this book, journeys from a life as a celibate Hare Krishna priest to autobiographer.

"I'm looking for people to be better informed about Hare Krishna and cults in general, as well as be entertained," Brandis said of his book, Servant of the Lotus Feet: A Hare Krishna Odyssey.

The autobiography describes Brandis' experiences in the Hare Krishna religious cult in the early 1980s and how he eventually escaped.

An India-based monotheistic religion with Hindu influences, Hare Krishna spread in the United States in the 1960s. It teaches that, by chanting its mantra, people can achieve salvation from the cycle of life and death, or reincarnation, which is the cause of suffering in the world, Brandis contends in his book.

According to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness Web site, the religion's mission is "to promote the well-being of society by teaching the science of Krishna consciousness" in accordance with Hindu-based scriptures. There are more than a million devotees worldwide.

Members follow a strict vegetarian diet, denounce material wealth, as well as their families, and follow gurus. Ironically, gurus often live a material life.

On the surface, the Hare Krishnas seen chanting and distributing literature for donations on streets of major cities around the world are kind-hearted people who genuinely believe in their mission, Brandis explains in his book, while the spiritual masters they serve are living lives of luxury.

Brandis, 43, a free-lance writer and Northeast native who now lives in Fox Chase, was inspired to write down his experiences over a six-year period while living in Colorado in the 1990s.

In those writings, he describes a search for spirituality that led him to join the Hare Krishna religion and stay with the sect for four years.

"As a child, I was a soul-searcher," said Brandis, who was raised in a secular Jewish household. "I was always looking for the truth."

Brandis found himself particularly drawn to Eastern religions. As a teenager, he was in the Northeast Regional Library one day when he first read about the Hare Krishna movement. Before he knew it, he was quietly chanting the religion's mantra. "That very instant changed my life," he said.

Brandis graduated from Northeast High School in 1979 and enrolled at Bucks County Community College.

The following year, he saw a group of Hare Krishnas while visiting colleges in Boston. Confused spiritually and already curious about the religion, Brandis waited nearby, hoping they'd approach him.

"I was ripe for the picking," he recalled.

After speaking with them, he was hooked.

Brandis dropped out of college and joined a temple in Connecticut. He spent about a year in New England before transferring to New York City, where he was a fund-raiser and a cook for the religious group.

Brandis even received a new name during his initiation - Pada Seva Dasa, or Servant of the Lotus Feet.

He lived as a celibate Brahman priest in an ashram, or monastery, with other Hare Krishnas and slowly gained more responsibilities to spread the word among prospective converts.

Brandis attended rallies and handed out information about the religion.

"I spent my life getting kicked out of parking lots," he said.

During his four years as a Hare Krishna follower, Brandis rarely saw his family.

"Communication with family is discouraged," he explained.

As he pursued his spiritual quest, Brandis did have his doubts about the course he was following - a course that at one point had seemed so right. About two years after joining the group, Brandis began to question his involvement with the Hare Krishna sect, citing various hypocrisies among its high-ranking members.

In the book, he describes a moment when, during his second initiation, he asked a guru a question that caused great disruption.

At that moment, Brandis said he realized, "I was psychologically locked in" to the cult. Slowly, he edged his way out of the group and, without his superiors knowing, took steps to sever the ties.

About four years after he joined the Krishna movement, Brandis received permission to visit his family in Philadelphia for Passover. While at home, his mother arranged for him to be "abducted" by counselors and deprogrammed for a return to the lifestyle he once knew.

The transition didn't take long. "I was ready to come out," Brandis said.

Eventually, he adapted to mainstream society again. While he doesn't consider himself "religious," Brandis is still a spiritual person. He also takes with him some of the more positive lessons he learned as a Hare Krishna, including leaving a place better than the way he found it and learning how to cook en masse.

Brandis isn't a vegetarian anymore. But he does shun red meat and tries to make healthier eating choices. He looks at that time in his life as a lesson, too.

"I know people are resentful and angry at the Hare Krishnas, and they have every right to be angry," he said. "I see it as an experience I needed to have."

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