They were different. That was the initial attraction.
The Hari Krishnas were not like the people who went to my grandmother’s church. They didn’t use religion to pat themselves on the back and demonize everything and everyone who was different from them. Unlike the Southern Baptists, the devotees of Krishna danced, sang, made noise, and it was a holy thing. I liked their music better. I liked their books better. I liked their god better. The Hari Krishnas were just better.
So I had imagined.
Actually, at the time, I had never met a live devotee. I had only read about them. I had written a paper on them for a high-school Comparative Religions class, and that was how my interest started.
The Hari Krishnas are a Western incarnation of a Hindu sect founded in the sixteenth century. Their founder went by the unwieldy name of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. I later learned that much of this name consisted of titles that Prabhupada had earned during his years as a religious teacher. His name was not meant to be as pompous as it first sounds.
Prabhupada was in his seventies when he left India in 1965 and came to New York in order to start a worldwide movement. This was to fulfill a promise that he had made to his religious mentor decades earlier. A year after he arrived, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) became a reality.
I would find Prabhupada’s books in used book stores and collect them. I really liked him. The Vedic stories were filled with many gods and magical beings and reminded me of Greek and Roman myths rather than the Bible. I liked and was amused by this god named Krishna. Being amused by God, instead of being told to be afraid of him all the time, was a new experience.
In an age that saw the rise of Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell—ministers who used religion for monetary gain and political power—I found Prabhupada refreshing. He came across as sincere and didn’t seem to care about money and power. It really was about God for him.
Sometimes, I did find his writings a little goofy. He was quick to criticize Western culture, although he didn’t seem to understand much of it. He questioned the reality of the Apollo program because the astronauts didn’t find the people and vegetation that the Vedas assured us existed on the moon. I contributed Prabhupada’s failings to eccentricity and decided to overlook them. In fact, for me, they added to his charm.
But, being a Krishna devotee is not easy. From my readings, I had a pretty good idea what was involved. You had to chant the Hari Krishna mantra 1,728 times a day (which takes about four hours). You accepted a spiritual teacher who gave you a new name. And, you took vows.
These vows are no day at the beach. For a Krishna devotee, there are no intoxicants, gambling, meat eating, or sex. I could do the no-gambling thing, but the rest were . . . problematic. No sex included masturbation. No intoxicants included that American staple, caffeine. Although I was sympathetic to the arguments for vegetarianism, I was from Kentucky. Life without fried chicken? Are you serious?
My interest in the Hari Krishnas could have ended there, going no further than accumulating an entertaining pile of books. But after high school, life threw me some curveballs. My parents were on their way to a divorce. I was spending lots of time in my room, staying away from the raised voices and slammed doors that had become daily occurrences. I dropped out of college; Dad and I had a major falling-out over it. It was time for me to get out of the house. I got a job as a temp and moved into a small downtown apartment.
There is a line in Doctor Zhivago: “Happy men do not go off to war.” Well, happy men do not leave home and immerse themselves in a monastic life either. I hated my minimum-wage job and hand-to-mouth existence. I kept searching for other options. After a few months of having my labor and poverty exploited only to come home and spend my evenings squashing roaches and scooping supper out of a tin can, being a Krishna devotee didn’t look so bad. I wouldn’t have to worry about money, and I would be living a spiritual instead of a materialistic way of life.
The closest temple was in Cincinnati, a two-hour drive. I got directions, made the trip, and, for the first time, met actual devotees. The temple offered free evening meals to the public with Vedic classes afterward. I stayed, sat around, and took everything in. Over time, I was given permission to stay a couple of nights a week.
I was not a natural fit. I had no background in dancing and was very uncomfortable performing kirtans (singing and dancing). I had to be shown some simple steps so I wouldn’t look the complete fool. The early-morning chanting turned out to be challenging. Getting up at four or five in the morning without the aid of coffee felt inhuman. Chanting while fighting sleep seemed self-defeating to me. I tried the no-masturbation/celibacy thing. All it did was make it hard to go to sleep, and it brought on wet dreams, which I hadn’t had since early puberty. I didn’t find this spiritually rewarding, but I stuck it out.
Prabhupada had died in 1977. There would be no initiation with him. I knew nothing about his successors, so I started to read their books. I didn’t like what I found. They weren’t like him; they liked to talk about themselves and came across as ambitious.
That wasn’t all. I had seen some devotees out in public dressed in regular clothes passing out stickers and pamphlets from various charities and claiming that they were collecting for those organizations. This had become a common practice for ISKCON. I was told deception didn’t matter as long as the money was used in Krishna’s service. I tried to see things their way but couldn’t. The practice was dishonest and unnecessary.
Long story short: after a year, I stopped my visits to the temple and severed my ties with ISKCON.
What did I learn from my experience? Well, I can state that attempting celibacy while I was at my hormonal peak is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. Only a person who hates himself and fears the natural urges of his body would attempt it. And that describes who I was then. I hated my life and where I had come from. I wanted to be someone else.
This experience did not make me an atheist (that came later), but it did turn me against religion. I had been brought up with the mindset that religion contained higher truths. I believed that my grandmother’s church had been an aberration, that it had betrayed religion. But, when I embraced what I thought was “true religion,” I only found a different set of games and deceptions. Where were the higher truths?
The world is not the way Prabhupada said it was. Once I got my head out of books and away from archaic traditions and started looking for myself, I didn’t see an ordered universe with a purpose to every action that the Vedas spoke of. Sometimes, things happen for no reason. It is the same for believers and nonbelievers. Absurdity is an everyday reality. I’ve accepted that and made my peace with it.
It’s not a time of my life that I’m proud of. But, at least, religion is out of my system.
Steven Gabbard lives in Frankfort, Kentucky. He has never learned to dance without looking the fool.