Thursday 17 June 2010


I would sympathize with you if you thought that the portrait above showed an advert for a circus coming into town with all its working attractions. But, as already the title indicates, this is NOT about cheap, albeit interesting, superficial attractions. We are looking at the real thing, one of the lions guarding the portal to supreme enlightenment, the Temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness on Stuart Street in Berkeley (the Berkeley Krishna Temple).

I passed by this portal many times at lunchtime when taking my usual promenade up to Telegraph Avenue and its cheap lunch stops and cafés, longing for company after the morning’s punching of laptop keys. It was a quiet place, almost hidden among the voluptuous greens and trees of Stuart Street (“Flowers dancing in the Rain”), but always adorned by a few, interesting looking and sounding, folks lingering about its premises. One man stood out among the few, if for naught else but his impressive stature, with his head ranging high above the others´. Slowly was he always striding back and fro’ on the sidewalk outside the lion portal, mumbling to himself in a subdued, but still portentous, voice and always presenting gentile nods to strangers passing by, such as myself. Whilst nodding back I oftentimes wondered: what business could such a man, clad in traditional clothing, have with an exotic temple, hidden within all this lush vegetation.

I knew of course about this temple and its religious inclinations. Already way back, when I lived in Berkeley for the first time, I had come in contact with its outerwordly beliefs. The first inkling had come when a young lady of striking appearance, of western looks but eastern cloths, had approached me on campus and tried, by gentle persuasion, to get me interested in a colorful book that pictured, on its cover, heroes on chariots, drawn by white steeds, engaged in gallant wars on behalf of their beloved princess. My curiosity had been kindled to such an extent that I had decided, on the spot, to buy this book of wonders. With me having been sadly out of cash at this very moment, the young nymph had nonetheless handed over this book as a gift for my spiritual enlightenment. The scripture had an exotic title to boot: “The Bharavadgita as it is” and appeared to be some counterpart to our own biblical testaments, albeit with roots in a more venerable age.

Taken aback by the youngster’s generosity, and overcome by curiosity, I have since glanced at pages of the book off and on, always admiring the flashy illustrations picturing noblemen and –women in illustrious costumes stemming from regions far to the East and times long past. Soon I have started to grasp that the young lady, who gave me the book, was a disciple of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. Subsequently, I have engaged in learning some more about this religious stream of ancient wisdom. So, here you have it for your consideration, my understanding of this intriguing line of thought and belief! But, before proceeding, you have to promise me NOT TO READ THE NEXT PASSAGE OUT LOUD, NOT EVEN MOVING YOUR LIPS WHILE READING IT! The reason for this will be revealed forthwith.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

The above rhymes that you have silently been contemplating, over and over again, do not represent a simple poem. Far from it! They form the most powerful CONVOCATION of them all, in short, the MOTHER OF MANTRAS. If sung out loud, with the right reverence in your voice and, preferably, in good company of friends dressed in nightgowns over pajama pants, head shaved but for a small pig’s tail and a yellow mark painted off the forehead and down the nose, it just might happen that the sound waves of your chanting reach their exact length implicating enlightenment, causing the universe to resonate in harmony with your song and OPENING A DIRECT CHANNEL OF COMMUNICATION WITH THE ULTIMATE GODNESS, KRISHNA.

What could be the content of the message that Krishna, whose inner essence we only can commence to grasp in the form of its manifold of avatars, commonly called “gods”, would care to convey to its humble invocator? Naught else but that the unimaginable joy of reunion of your very soul with this ultimate source of bliss, in short, sharing an infinite amount of godly power, glory and fulfillment with the originator of the Universe IS AT YOUR GRASP! All you have to do is to engage in a never-ending process of improving your inner spirituality. Once completely purified, your soul will with certainty enter into communion with the utmost Creator.

Complete purity of spirit will be impossible to achieve during your life-time, you say, almost despairing at the thought of infinite rewards slipping through your fingers? You do not have to worry, your limitations are understood by the Godness and it will convey to you its solution to overcome your worries: If you embark, diligently and with devotion, on the right path towards enlightenment, in your earthly life as human being, you are granted the privilege of being reborn in human flesh to continue on your journey. To be precise; an infinite sequence of finite human life spans are at your disposal to embark on a process of ever improving the purity of your soul.

But will my travails ever end, you might ask? Will I ever attain the goal of perfect purity of spirits? The Godness may choose not to answer this very question, referring back to its infinitely generous offer of a neverending sequence of lives to achieve the necessary purity. But do we even need an answer? Isn’t it obvious that, to achieve godlike purity of spirits, needed to partake of infinite bliss, naught else is requested but travails during an infinite sequence of life spans?

You are too impatient to labor and wait an infinitely long time to gain your ultimate reward, you say? Here the Godness HAS a clear answer for you to contemplate: if you slacken your efforts in improving purity, you may still be reborn, but who is to say you will be reborn as a human being? There exists an almost infinite variety of lives on this planet, not to speak of the Universe, all waiting for your soul to be housed within its flesh.

I trust you understand by now, why I asked you not to phrase the mantra with your voice, not even with your lips. A dialogue with Power Infinite may sound an intriguing offer at the outset, but it may prove far too overpowering for our limited faculties of comprehending and believing. You absolutely insist on opening the channel for a dialogue with Krishna, you say? Well, here below is a reference to practitioners of the chanting, allowing you to join in with fellow singers, all hoping to achieve communication with the All Powerful.
For us more earthly inclined, better let the story stay securely anchored in the present life span and location, on Stuart Street in Berkeley, revisiting the beginning of this post. I had visited the Temple, out of curiosity, already thirty years back, together with Hans Christian Cars, an old friend who is also a commentator on this blog. Albeit not yet having been touched by the infinite wisdom of its beliefs, we had been pleasantly surprised by the lushness of the temple’s interior and hospitality of its officiants. So now, when again staying in Berkeley, and passing by this hidden marvel almost every day at lunchtime, I eventually considered to pay it another visit.

Said and done! Back from lunch on a sunny afternoon, the detour was made and the holy edifice was in front of me. Whilst passing the courtyard, a sonorous voice accompanied me with the wordings: “At last he is daring to take the final steps, after weeks of hesitations!” Turning my head, I glanced the impressive stature of the stranger, described earlier, that was flanking, as usual, the temple from the sidewalks. He pointed with his whole hand at the entrance, encouraging me to make a final effort in reaching the portals and accompanied me through the opening as if to make sure that I would not retreat.

Once in, I was politely asked to remove my shoes and allowed to make a tour of the premises, on my own as it was, since the stranger returned to his usual outpost. The interior did not look like I remembered it. Instead of just one large hall, dominated by colorful statues of all kinds and sizes, I now stood before two smaller rooms. The one on the left was looking somewhat like the employee cafeteria of a smaller enterprise, but without chairs and tables. Herein lunch was still being served to, what appeared to me, needing people of the streets. I quickly went on to visit the other hall that seemed to invite me in for a closer examination. This larger room was somber and essentially empty, with just a lonely figure quietly meditating at a sidewall, reclining on a comfortable throne, illuminated by colored glass windows and some light bulbs.

Camera at the ready, I discreetly documented this patient supplicant. Dared I tiptoe closer and exchange a few words of politesse with the enlightened sage? Of course I would! But when approaching the spiritual master, it suddenly dawned on me that this was not a living philosopher but, rather, a statue representing, I gathered, the initial explorer of the aw-inspiring path to the all powerful Godness Krishna. My eyes were resting on no other than "His Divine Grace" Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. This venerable leader had single handedly, by his own means and efforts, translated the major Vedic scriptures into English and, travelling world wide during the last 15 years of his life, spread the gospel of Krishna Consciousness to millions and millions of new believers. A remarkable Magnus among Prophets if there ever was one!

It is a great pity that this "Divine" Leader died prematurely. The more we have to deplore that he exhibited rather bad judgement in choosing his succession leaders, all of 11 of them. They sorely disappointed his trust in their ability; deviated from the holy path to such a degree that rebirth in human flesh for them appears a distinct impossibility; and perverted the movement almost to its ruin along the way.

After contemplating the "Divine" Mentor with respectful aw for a while, I suddenly felt being observed in turn by questioning eyes on my back. Turning around, three exalted youngsters could be seen greeting me, two with hands raised as if invoking heaven to help enlighten this too forward visitor. The third, more composed, held the serene posture of a true believer, obtained through passing many life-times of diligent spiritual labors. Although still being of young age in his present life, his poise could most aptly be described by the phrase “edle Einfalt, stille Grösse”.

This hopeful disciple of the Grand Master undertook to show me around the premises anew and explain some more about the workings and raison-d’être of this venerable edifice. The temple, when founded back in the early ‘seventies, had had a large congregation of disciples and laïc followers. Missionary activities had abounded, with disciples prevalent on streets and campus, chanting the wholly rhymes and attracting attention with their promises of eternal god-like bliss.

Circumstances had changed considerably since these early founder days. The number of disciples at the Temple had shrunk, at present it could be counted at the fingers of one hand, but there remained a large congregation of laïc believers that visited this place of worship regularly to participate in the services, that is, every Sunday afternoon. I had witnessed this myself, seeing a considerable number of ordinarily looking people congregating towards the temple on Sunday afternoons, accompanied by the occasional Member of the “fringe society” longing for a free meal. Sunday service, as it has been explained to me, starts with a lecture and chanting of the enlightened rhymes. Thereafter, everyone is seated on the floor and dinner is served. It consists of mainly vegetarian ingredients, with milk products added. Digesting the food is in itself considered to be a holy act, much appreciated by Krishna and its avatars, so the Temple makes an effort not to turn off anyone coming for the food.

The belief of pleasing the Godness through eating, stemming from the ancient scriptures of Veda, is THE sympathetic trait of the movement. It provides the basis for a lot of good deeds, by feeding, without unnecessary restrictions, the needy in society who have no other succour for their sustenance. It has also led the Society to support, if not originate, an important welfare program, called "Food for Life", which explicitly aims at providing needy people with basic plant-based nourishment.

When exiting the Temple after this brief examination, and after receiving a gentile nod of farewell by its portentous “guard”, I returned home on the short walk along Stuart’s blooming villas, digesting the new information gained about this intriguing belief. It appeared to me that the Society had come far since its early days of shrill chanting on the streets to quickly gain a congregation of disciples; from its cult-like discipline and domineering of young and innocent initiates; from its discrimation of the better sex; and from its, I hope rare, instances of child abuse. At least to judge from my experience with the Berkeley Temple, the Society had gradually been gaining in maturity and developing in a direction similar to that taken by Christian Monasteries in their early days, as well as in their time of reform with the Franciscans entering the scene. 

It makes sense to me that disciples should form a small inner core of true believers; I cannot envisage many people having the extreme bravery of facing an eternity of labor to gain communion with the ultimate Godness in the fullness of time. Far better to reserve the title of disciple to those strong and brave few and having the remainder of the congregation forming a laïc support for their endeavours. The reward for the latter will always be the participation in uplifting Sunday services, with instructive lectures, exalted chanting and dancing and, not to forget, having an excellent meal and pleasing the Godness whilst enjoying it.

So, that’s it for today. But wait, we have still a question unanswered! Who was the mystical stature that so dominated the entrance to the Temple? The young disciple was only too glad to provide me with an answer. He was an ACTOR, part of the laïc congregation, memorizing his roles walking to and fro’ on the sidewalk in front of the temple. No mystery involved, just a man going about his ordinary day to day business!


kari_lantto said...

Become you own swami in the following way.

Reorder into:
Hare Krishna
Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna
Hare Hare
Hare Rama
Hare Rama
Rama Rama
Hare Hare

And synchronize your (out-)breathing to thinking these phrases

Repete until ...

If your mind starts wandering, dont get upset just return to the mantra

Repete until something wonderful happens - i.e you are a swami -
or, more likely, you fall a sleep.

HC said...

Dear Emil…,
of course, I remember our visit to this fancy temple some 30 years ago but had no idea that you would revive my memory at a time when my previous curiosity about such phenomena as Hare Krishna has developed into a disrespectful lack of appreciation – not for the people themselves – but for their kinds of religious imaginations.
I suppose you heard the anecdote about the stranded man, who had passed severeal months on a deserted island, when a young sexy woman suddenly appeared on the beach suggesting that she could offer him something that he had been missing for so long.

As you surely know, his answer was: “Oh my God, have you brought snuff?”
Obviously a reaction by a man heavily depending on nicotine. Had he been a Swedish alcoholic and brought up in the Hare Krishna tradition he might as well have extemporated as follows:

Har’u Cola
Har’u Cola
Cola Cola
Har’u Har’u
Har’u Rom
Har’u Rom
Rom and Cola
Har’u Har’u?

I am sorry Emil for having brought down your otherwise highly distinguished blog to this level of loathsome mediocrity.