Hare Krishna sect is alive and well

06/03/2013 07:06

Nestled in the verdant, bucolic foothills of northeast Stokes County is a tiny religious community.

CIT WSJ_0006_KrishnaIt's called Hare Krishna, and a closer look at its beliefs finds more similarities than differences between it and the world's other major religions.

Like Christians, the Krishnas believe in leading a life that pleases God. They believe in gathering to discuss and read the scriptures. They believe in souls, that there's more to life than the body a person inhabits.

They also believe in "congregational chanting," said Greg Church, 61, a Krishna since 1973. “And doesn't the Bible exhort Christians to ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: Come before his presence with singing’”? he asked, quoting Psalms 100.

Members of the Prabhupada Village Hare Krishna community, which was established in 1992, live and worship on 358 acres in rural Sandy Ridge, just outside Danbury. Uneven, unpaved roads lead to homes and fields and the temple, an impressive, imposing structure with a beige-tinted stone façade and situated on a plateau.

Church, who also goes by his spiritual name Sarvadrik (servant of omniscient God), said there are 15 families that make up the 35 or so members in the community. Services are held daily, and on Sunday visitors are invited. Recently, however, the open Sunday meetings were suspended until a measles outbreak, which flared in April, had subsided. A quarantine has since been lifted, according to the Stokes County Health Department.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the formal name, was founded in 1966 in New York City by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. According to the society’s website, the roots of the Krishna movement are in the Vedic and Hindu cultural traditions of India. Krishna's Bible is the Bhagavad-Gita, a 5,000-year-old text that documents the conversation between Lord Krishna (God) and his disciple, Arjuna.

“The text teaches that the goal of life is to develop love of God, or Krishna. Love of God is realized through the practice of bhakti-yoga, the science of devotional service,” the website explains. Devotees follow four principles: a vegetarian diet (plus no fish or eggs); no gambling; no alcohol or stimulants, like coffee, tea, cigarettes or recreational drugs; and intercourse only in marriage and then only for procreation.

Mike Rothstein, whose spiritual name is Madhuha Dasa (servant of God), bought the Stokes County site in 1992 with the goal of establishing an “agrarian” Krishna community.

Rothstein, 58, has been a member of the sect since 1973. He is from New York City and was practicing yoga there when he met Krishna devotees and discovered that they were “truly practicing what yoga is. Nowadays, so many things pass for yoga,” he said.

The Bhagavad-Gita is the Krishna's “handbook of yoga,” Rothstein said, and it explains that there are many different parts to yoga. “Not just the physical exercises that people do. ... The real yoga is a matter of controlling the mind, the senses and our whole body. To control the mind there's this process that we do called kirtan, chanting of the holy names of God: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare — Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”

But what convinced him that he had found his spiritual home was meeting the movement's founder, Prabhupada. "

“He really brought the whole thing to life,” Rothstein said, because he practiced what he preached. “That was a very important thing for me. Meeting Prabhupada, seeing him, reading his books, it became very clear that here is a living example of someone that's actually practicing his philosophy.”

Rothstein came to North Carolina looking for rural property for the sect. He looked in the areas where there were existing Krishna communities: Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Charlotte and Asheville. But he wanted a site where the community could be dependent on the land. The Stokes County property was available and more affordable. Rothstein purchased it with his own money, although he declined to say how much he paid.

The temple, which Rothstein said is 60 percent complete, was built by the members without outside financing and is debt free.

“The building itself is a symbol of the devotees' love for God. It's being built by the hands of the very people who are going to worship there,” he said.

Heidi Morrill, whose spiritual name is Harakanta, has also been a member of the Krishnas since the early 1970s. She said she was attracted to the movement because of its philosophy and “learning the purpose of life and finding out about God. And finding a way to actually serve Him and be happy,” she said. Morrill was part of one of the original families that helped start the community in 1992.

Morrill, a native of New Hampshire and a part-time employee at a garden center, is divorced with two adult sons. Both were raised as Krishnas and continue to be devotees, she said.

Church, a native of Portland, Ore., moved to the community with his wife, Sudevi, in 2009. They bought a contemporary home on seven acres at the end of a steep, cratered, unpaved road. There isn’t a community garden but the Churches' seems large enough to feed a small congregation. He and his wife proudly showed off the young vegetables and budding fruits sprouting in their sloping backyard. There's not much they need to buy from the store.

Church's father was an orthopedic surgeon and wanted his son to go into medicine, too. But "it really wasn't my calling," Church said, so he dropped out of college and in 1973 met Krishna devotees in Oregon.

"It wasn’t just the philosophy," he said, in response to what drew him to the religion, "although I never heard such cohesive philosophical statements. But it was also the people. The people I met there in the temple were the nicest people I had ever met. And I just felt a profound calling."

Church, who worked as a watchmaker and jeweler before retiring, has been to a number of countries teaching the Vedas (scripture) on behalf of Hare Krishna.

For some, the first exposure to Hare Krishnas may have been at airports, where devotees, in colorful attire, attempt to sell their literature. Church said he has participated in that activity and appreciates how difficult it is. He has been harassed and arrested.

"Devotees have been arrested and beaten, spat on, assaulted in various ways. ... (But) that's the history of religion. Whether you're Christian or Jew or whatever you are, there's a certain element in society that looks down on religion. I mean, they crucified Jesus, right?" he said.  WSJournal

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