The men stand ready. Draped in robes and faces marked with paint, they raise their arms towards the ceiling like steadied flagpoles. Eyes closed and heads back, the men sway back and forth in a seeming ecstasy, before dancers and acrobats appear to the sound of strings and drums in an East-West fusion.
This was the scene at the Hammersmith Apollo on Sunday night for the first act of this week’s nine-day festival organised by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness – better known “the Hare Krishnas” – which is celebrating 50 years since the formation of its first UK branch.
Back then, it was George Harrison of The Beatles who made this Hindu group famous in the heyday of the hippie era. The comedian Russell Brand is perhaps their most recognisable modern follower, crediting the group with helping him overcome drug addiction.
For most non-believers, the group may seem mysterious when they’re seen on a march through a town or city, when the sari- and dhoti-clad devotees sing and chant along to drums and cymbals. But the sect, founded in India in 1966 by a former chemist known as Swami Prabhupada, has a network of more than 80 temples across the UK and over 10,000 members.
Many of the Hare Krishnas here are converts, all devoted to the blue-skinned Hindu deity Krishna. But it is not an easy life. Devotees must abstain from all intoxicants, including tea and coffee. Meat, eggs, fish and even onion and garlic are banned. For those who have not renounced it fully, sex is practised solely for procreation.
In the temples, followers rise at 4.30am and chant their mantra thousands of times every day. In between chores such as scrubbing floors and preparing food, they must spread the word to the public and keep their minds in a constant state of fixation on Krishna.
Some members joined the group in times of acute crisis. Peter, or Haridas, became a follower after a three and a half year prison sentence for drugs trafficking.
“I was lost in the world of drugs,” he tells i. “While I was on remand, someone sent me a book.” It was the Srimad Bhagavatam, one of Hinduism’s foundational texts, and went on to change his life.
Others were simply disillusioned. Dayal Mora, 38, lives at the Soho temple and was called Dale in a former life. After studying mechanical engineering in Manchester, he worked in unfulfilling jobs including as a clothes trader, a casino croupier and an insurance executive.
“Looking out over the city from my office,” he says, “I was understanding just how corrupt everything is. People are suffering so much... When you stand by the ocean and the night sky you realise how small you are. How could you possibly understand?”
With the exception of two ex-girlfriends, Dayal says his relatives and friends have been fairly accepting of his new life. But some families are less understanding.
The Hare Krishnas’ reputation took a severe blow in the United States after allegations at one commune – led by a rogue guru in West Virginia – of sexual abuse, brainwashing, fraud and murder, bolstering arguments that it is a cult.
But members care little about past scandals. They continue praying, chanting and doing charity work. The London Temple’s Food For Life Initiative, for example, distributes 1,200 hot meals to local homeless people six days a week.
Celebrations of the group’s presence in the UK will continue until Monday. Until then, the Soho temple will be hosting speeches, classes and feasts. On the weekend it will hold a “book marathon” – a race to give away as many books as possible for a prize – and an attempt at chanting for 12 hours without stopping.
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