ALACHUA – It’s 4:30 a.m., and while the rest of the world is asleep, the Hare Krishna temple in Alachua is softly lit and gently buzzing.
Women wearing ornate saris and men in white, flowing dhoti and kurta remove their shoes before stepping onto sacred ground.
They enter, bowing their heads and prostrating their bodies in the direction of the statue of Srila Prabhupada, the pioneer of their movement that began 50 years ago.
Beads in hand and eyes closed, they’re chanting the names of God and uttering the Hare Krishna mantra. This is all part of their ritual to seek Krishna and ask him to bless them before going on with the rest of their day.
Then the sun comes up, and the singing in the temple becomes louder as they raise their voices in joyful and unabashed worship.
The Krishna temple in Alachua was built in 1995, but the movement has been a prevalent part of the community since the early 70s, according to Krishna Keshava Das, a temple manager.
He said over 400 families within a 20-mile radius are affiliated with the temple and congregate throughout the week or to observe special holidays, such as the birthdays of Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya.
Krishna followers also take part in a Sunday Feast Festival once a week, a tradition that started at the beginning of Prahbupada’s movement.
“Srila Prahbupada wanted everyone to come and sing the glories of the lord in ecstasy,” Das said. “And once a week they do that,”
Das said the temple also gives allowances to the two schools that are nearby on temple property -- the Bhaktivedanta Academy and the Alachua Learning Academy.
The teachers at Bhaktivedanta teach standard academics while also incorporating lessons about Krishna, and the students at Alachua Learning Academy learn about Krishna during their afterschool program, he said.
Origins of the Hare Krishna/ISKCON Movement
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada founded the Hare Krishna movement, or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness [ISKCON], in New York in 1966, according to Das.
It all started when Prabhupada was a young man living in India and he and a friend were invited to a talk given by a revered spiritual leader.Prahbupada was initially skeptical and didn’t want to go because would often witnessed similar figures doing abominable things at night, many of whom were people his father would invite to eat at their home on some occasions.
Nonetheless, his friend persuaded him and they went.
“The lecture had already begun [when they got there],” Das said. “And the saint stopped the lecture and he looked at the two boys and said ‘You two young men, you’re very intelligent. Why don’t you spread this message of the Lord in the western countries in English?”
Prabhupada responded by asking how it would be possible to spread Krishna’s message in the western world while India was still under British rule.
“And the answer he got was that this message is so important for the world and people are dying every day in want of it,” Das said.
So, Prahbupada made his way to New York, where gradually people heard him chanting and preaching in the parks, Das said. As more people began to hear the message, they began branching off to meet in separate places.
Since then, the Hare Krishna/ISKCON movement has proliferated to 500 major centers, temples and rural communities, nearly 100 affiliated vegetarian restaurants and millions of congregational members worldwide, according to the official ISKON website.
What They Believe
Krishna means the “all attractive person” in Sanskrit, a Hindu language, according to the Bhaktivedanta Trust International website.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu Holy Scriptures, Krishna is God in the form of a 16-year-old boy with dark skin and bluish-black hair.
The book tells the story of this young man who attracts followers with his wisdom and charm.
Das explained that while the followers of Krishna believe in and worship the same God of Christianity or Islam, the movement differs from these because of the rich details about Krishna in the Gita that personify him, he said.
These details include where he lives – a beautiful Kingdom full of beautiful palaces made of valuable gems and wish-fulfilling trees, as described in the Gita – and what he does during the day.
“Every word is a song,” he said. “Every step is a dance.”
Conversely, Earth is considered a prison, where the aspects of the human experience, such as birth, disease, old age and ultimately, death are undesirable.
Followers of Krishna, therefore, strive to live a life of purity by chanting, meditating and doing bhakti-yoga every day in order to reach Krishna Consciousness, or an awareness and affection for Krishna.
Followers of Krishna adhere to four principles from the Gita: no meat eating, gambling, illicit sex or intoxication, Das said.
The consumption of animal meat erodes the compassion in people’s hearts that they are inherently born with, while gambling destroys truthfulness.
“When we eat [meat], it contaminates our hearts more and more,” Das said. “It destroys our compassion and destroys our mercy. We become now like an animal.”
On the other hand, illicit sex, or sex outside of marriage, destroys people’s cleanliness, as well as causing inevitable suffering in the long run, despite the temporary satisfaction.
Finally, he said intoxication destroys a person’s austerity, which could further contribute to society as a whole becoming a mess.
“If it’s very hot, we can handle it,” he said. “If it’s very cold, we can tolerate it, to a certain degree. As we lose our ability to become austere, then everything becomes a problem.”
He said the whole idea behind their philosophy is to become happy, which comes from the soul and is not derived from the outside world.
“Happiness doesn’t come from material things,” he said. “There’s temporary pleasure from material things… and they bring misery afterwards. So, real pleasure comes from the heart [and] when we are engaged in the service of the Lord.”
In the summer of 1971, Ragat Mika, who was formerly “Carol,” came home for the first time – except it was one she didn’t know she needed until she got there.
Mika grew up in Detroit, Michigan, one of 12 siblings in a Catholic household. Her father attended mass every morning before going to work.
Her sister became a nun, and as someone who was always seeking spiritual fulfillment, she decided to become one too, and joined the convent in Kalamazoo after graduating high school.
“[She thought] If God is one, and the message of God is absolute… Why should I put all my energy in to a teaching career that will bring people to become this religion as opposed to another religion?” she said.
“So, I thought, God is bigger than this, bigger than just one religion.”
She took some college courses, but decided to take an impromptu trip to New York to find herself and be exposed to the greatest number of religions and philosophies in one, she said.
She eventually landed a job as a typist at the United Nations and then worked for UNICEF. All the while, she continued on her spiritual quest – visiting different churches and bookstores to scour literature on various philosophies.
“I kind of turned my back on the Catholic Church,” she said. “But I still had this affinity for wanting God and connecting with God.”
She said she eventually stumbled upon a Krishna magazine called “Back to Godhead” and read an article that taught her about Krishna’s four basic tenets.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that really appealed to me,’” she said. “This is something substantial.”
She also remembers that on one particular Saturday, she was meditating in Prospect Park in Brooklyn with the hope of merging with the totality of spirit, she said.
Then, she became overwhelmed by an urgency she couldn’t assign a meaning to at the time.
“I thought, before I leave this world, I need to bring a message to summon my acquaintances,” she remembered. “I didn’t know what I was going to say [and] I didn’t have a concrete message for them. But I thought, I can’t just leave them behind.”
Shortly after, she met a Krishna devotee on the way to the subway and asked him if he knew where a Buddhist nunnery was located in New York.
He replied that he didn’t know where a Buddhist nunnery was, but he could say where Buddhism was.
“The Buddhists want to be liberated alone, whereas devotees of Krishna want to liberate others with them,” she said. “That was what really drew me.”
He then invited her to a Sunday feast at a temple on Henry Street.
She said when she got there, she arrived to find a lecture that spoke directly to her desire to spread a message to the people around her, and it brought her to tears.
“It just all started buzzing and waking me up,” she said. “Like this was really the truth.”
Then, she ate the Sunday feast for the first time; the appetite that overcame her was one that surpassed the physical. She said she couldn’t stop eating and had serving after serving.
A strict vegetarian at the time, mostly consuming a bland, microbiotic diet, she was ravenous for foods she had deprived herself of.
“Sweets and fried things and spicy things, it was all there,” she said. “Dairy, milk and cream – I don’t know, it was like I was just arriving home for home cooking after so many births and lifetimes.”
She said she stayed at the temple overnight, and the next day, she was out on Jones Beach, dressed in a sari and distributing “Back to Godhead” magazines with the devotees.
She now resides in Alachua with her family, and said she has dedicated herself serving her spiritual master, Prahbupada, by helping him in the publishing and distributing of his books.
And as the sun rises over the Krishna temple in Alachua, a melodious harmony resonates within its walls as devotees begin their day with worship.
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