How to Be a Hippie #4: Hare Krishna

Interested in my journey? Before you move on, read the previous part of How to Be a Hippie. This is a series of articles that should be read in a chronological order.

A grey-haired man opened the door. “Hello,” he said. I smiled and replied with a ‘hey.’ “How did you find out about us?”

“Oh, I got that invitation today at the lake,” I said, showing him the little pamphlet I received from the monk at Lake Zurich.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “The celebration starts in an hour. You can wait in our garden,” he told me, showing me where I could rest.

“Great,” I replied. “Umm, can I smoke here?”

“No, but you can do it on the sidewalk.”

I left my backpack, banners, and the camera in the garden and stood on the sidewalk where I could appreciate the tobacco smoke in my lungs. I like cigarettes. They remind me that all pleasure is but momentary and bitter. They’re the perfect example that overindulgence leads to misery. Living the life I want to live, I like to keep that in mind, and remind myself of the tragedy of existence. Having done that, I got back to the garden and put a few notes in my journals.

Whoever crossed the gates of the temple smiled at me and bowed, as if I was a part of their cult. Women and men, young and old, entered the Hare Krishna Temple. Sitting in the garden, I saw a lady walking around the building. She did it once, then twice, and three times. All in all, she made five or six walk-arounds about the temple. Was it atonement, was it her own strange ritual? I’ve never learned.

The celebration was about to start in a few minutes, so I approached the front door of the temple. A little note on the door said: “Please ring.” So I rang – once, twice, three times. Another woman had just entered the premises of the temple, again smiling and bowing at me. I reciprocated the greeting. Pushing the door, she went inside. Alright then, I thought, and followed her into the temple.

Stepping into her footsteps, I left my banners in the hall and took my shoes and socks off. I turned around and saw a monk smiling at me. He was around twenty-five years of age, dressed in a white robe, with that weird hairstyle. His head was shaved apart from a circle at the top-back of his head, where the remaining hair was bound into a ponytail.

We chatted for a minute when another monk came down from upstairs. It was the same guy whom I’d met earlier that day, at Lake Zurich. As if we were old friends, we greeted each other. Indeed, like high school buddies, he introduced me into that world – the Hare Krishna temple.

A painting of male and female Krishna in a Hare Krishna Temple in Zurich
A painting of male and female Krishna

“The celebration will start in twenty minutes,” he said, “but we’ve also prepared a vegetarian feast. Are you hungry?”

Of course I was hungry. We went downstairs, where he showed me around the kitchen. Having given me a metal plate, he put all kinds of Eastern dishes on it: something dry, something spicy; some vegetables and some fruit; as a dessert, sweet rice. “You need to try it,” he said. “It’s delicious.”

With a plate full of food, we went back to the garden. Sitting opposite each other, we started talking about the dogma of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) and our background.

I told him that I was raised in a Christian family, but the more I learned about religion, the more I questioned it. Years of reading and contemplation led me to a pseudo-scientific/pseudo-religious conclusion: that all religions try to show you a way to be a good human being. This process opened my mind to unknown vocations and cults, trying to see humans as individuals, and not through the prism of their religion, or any other collective identity.

Another thing I believe, naive as it may sound, is that through development of the self we can truly change the world. The more I know about myself, the more I’m able to understand others. With that understanding playing on my mind, I’m able to help them. Ironically, I’m always one of the first to give people relationship advice (in fact, they often ask me for counsel). At the same time, I’ve got little to no practical experience. I’ve just read some books, watched a couple videos, and I’m always willing to share that theoretical knowledge with others. But life is more than just theory.

Experience will teach you the best theory. The monk didn’t intend to stay in the Hare Krishna temple forever, contrary to my presupposition. In fact, rarely do people stay monks for longer periods of time. My interlocutor told me that after the two-year period of praying to Krishna and getting a grip of his life, he then wants to go on, start a family, live in a house where he grows his own food and lives in accord with nature.

The vegetarian meal was more than fine. We went back to the basement, where I cleaned my own dishes. Upstairs, the ceremony was about to begin. I met some other monks, most of them were between 25 and 35 years old, give or take. We chatted about my hitchhiking adventures and their daily lifestyle: praying at 5 a.m., picking up food from a nearby organic farm, chanting and meditating.

I wanted to learn as much as I could. They told me about the Bhagavad Gita – their holy scripture. One of the monks was passionately describing to me how the Bhagavad Gita explains conception, the journey of souls, and basically all science. I was sceptical, even cynical at some point, but I listened. It was clear that he believed in it and was doing his best to convert me to their beliefs. Good luck with that.

An ornamental porcelain statue of a cow in a Hare Krishna Temple in Zurich
An ornamental porcelain statue of a cow

The ceremony was mesmerizing. In a spacious room, about thirty people were kneeling or sitting on the ground. In the corner a guy was singing and playing the drums, and a lady next to him sang to a microphone and played a pump organ. All believers were facing a shiny altar. In the central point stood two small statues: male and female Krishna.

As it later turned out, that day’s celebration was the celebration of female Krishna – the female energy. That morning before leaving Immenstaad, I randomly prayed to female Buddha. Buddha, Krishna, Yahweh, Allah – they’re all the same to me. Now, I’m not being ignorant, but rather following my hypothesis that all religions talk about the same notions, entities, whatever.

To explain it more clearly, I always use the example of fiction. I’m a storyteller, which is one of the oldest vocations in the history of mankind. As we evolved, we based our society on stories, which explained to us how to construct our tribes or nations based on morality, empathy, and reciprocation. Humans resonate with stories more than with plain rules. Hard to believe? Ask yourself, how many quotes can you recall right now? You’ve seen thousands of them, and they’re not too long to remember, right? Still, you can probably just recall a handful of them. Now, how many stories can you recall? How many books, how many movies? I bet you know a lot of them.

Telling people to “be good to others no matter their ethnicity, religions, or nationality” sounds vague. Nobody will be inspired by a sentence. But tell them the story of the good Samaritan, and they’ll remember it – and hopefully apply its message – forever.

However, from the “be good…” foundation you can create a plethora of stories. The story of the good Samaritan is linked directly to Christianity, but couldn’t the same conclusions be drawn from the idea of karma, the teachings of the Buddha, or simple atheistic morality?

A more modern example: consumerism. You can say that we live in a society where people try to manifest their personality through material goods. Sounds a bit lofty, but what about it? On the contrary, if you watch the portrayal of consumerism in Fight Club – now that is something that people will remember. The same single-sentence message can be delivered in a myriad of stories. On the surface, they may seem unrelated to one another. Yet, on a deeper level, they convey the same timeless wisdom.

I imagine it as a tree scheme – the leaves, the fruit, and the flowers may look different, but they all stem from the same roots. It’s as if all religions conveyed the same universal messages, and only changed the characters and settings of the stories to match their immediate culture.

Hence, to me, the female Buddha and female Krishna symbolize the same energy. Anyway, spirituality and predestination aside, it’s an interesting coincidence, isn’t it?

Believers gathered on a female Krishna celebration in a Hare Krishna Temple in Zurich
Believers gathered on a female Krishna celebration

At the ceremony, I sat in the corner, watched, and listened. One of the monks gave me a little book with the mantra so that I could chant too. I couldn’t but notice the similarities between the female Krishna ceremony and a Christian mass. People with similar values and beliefs gathered in an ornamented space, singing together, feeling the sense of belonging. In the end, they would stand in a queue to take part in an individual offering to Krishna – a custom that strangely resembled the act of Holy Communion.

Monks sacrificing food to female Krishna in a Hare Krishna Temple in Zurich
Monks sacrificing food to female Krishna

The main idea behind the celebration was closely knit to the cult’s doctrine. They believe in the journey of souls, hence they restrain from eating meat (that also being the reason for their stark opposition to abortion). Nevertheless, plants are also some form of life. In order to compensate for the rice, tofu, and beans they eat, the true believers have to sacrifice some of their food to Krishna.

Monks poring milk and honey on Krishna statues in a Hare Krishna Temple in Zurich
Monks poring milk and honey on Krishna statues

This sacrifice entails rubbing the vegetarian food into the statues of male and female Krishna. Then, the monks would pour milk and honey onto the statues to clean them up. The pulp would flow down into a metal cylinder, creating a sweet beverage (similar to the milk in which Cleopatra took baths), which we would then drink.

People chanting and playing the drums during a female Krishna celebration in a Hare Krishna Temple in Zurich
People chanting and playing the drums

The entire temple was full of books, ornamental Eastern decorations, and paintings. I left my sweet corner to take a couple pictures and chat with the monks. They asked me if the book with the mantra was helpful. “Actually,” I said, “I know the mantra. I’ve heard it already. Do you know Krishna Das?”

“Oh yes, he’s a popular musician. He paid us a visit once.”

“Wow, that’s great,” I replied. “I sometimes meditate to his songs.”

“So, if you say you know it – what’s the mantra then?”

As you can imagine, the mantra fell out of my head as soon as they asked me the question. I had to hum the melody of Waltzing My Krishna to recall it. It goes like this:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare

Basically, those are different names of Krishna and, of course, it’s just one of many mantras. You can see the pattern, can’t you? There’s countless melodies you can use to chant this mantra.

A man taking photos at the female Krishna celebration in a Hare Krishna Temple in Zurich
A man taking photos at the female Krishna celebration

After the ceremony, I had to ask them about the hairstyles. The only hair on their head was a ponytail at the top of their heads. Having read some Dan Brown in the past, it rang a bell.

“Alright, so I have a theory,” I said. “A hypothesis,” I corrected myself. For some reason I pay attention to the difference between these two terms. “When a child is born, it’s skull is not fully bone, there are certain places where the skull is soft, so that it can leave the womb more easily,” I began. I later found out that these soft spots are called fontanelles.  “One of those places is the top of the head. In certain traditions it is believed that this very place is the entrance to one’s head, as the last part of the skull that remains vulnerable, open. So your hairstyles are to protect that place for some reason. I just don’t know what’s the reason. Is that about right?”

The monk looked at me seriously. “Yes, you’re right,” he admitted. “The idea is that knowledge enters our head through the shaved parts of our heads and doesn’t flee away through the top.”

“Yeah, makes sense,” I nodded my head.

“Also,” said another monk, “there’s a more esoteric meaning to it. When you fall into the river of sin, Krishna can come from the heavens, grab you by the hair, and pull you out of the river.”

It’s incredible how many stories we can make out of something as plain as science. Nature, biology, physics – they’re an immense inspiration for storytellers.

I started packing and took a few things out of my backpack. Among others, there was my yellow copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. The title didn’t slip the monks’ attention. “Do you know what dharma is? It’s Hindu term for one’s predestination, the road of life.”

I nodded my head. I was aware of that. I decided to make The Dharma Bums my travel journal a year earlier, during my trip through Europe. And likewise, Kerouac was a great inspiration not only for my travels, but also for my writing. Were all my journeys just a chain of events that led me to that temple? Picking this very book, making an impromptu decision to hitchhike to Zurich, meeting the monks, praying to female Buddha? Well, maybe. Or maybe I was colouring my vision to see what I wanted to see.

Before I left, the monks gave me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita – the ancient Hindu scripture in a beautiful edition. I thanked them for the gift, said my goodbyes, and went out. I had to walk all the way down to the centre of Zurich and find my Couchsurfing host for the night. I left the temple contemplating the striking similarities between Eastern and Western religions, the meaning behind their fairytale stories. If peoples of Earth created stories based on the same foundations, maybe there was some fundamental idea given to us by God? Or maybe it’s the Jungian collective unconscious, certain archetypes hardwired in our psyche?

I don’t know yet, and I doubt I ever will. I also doubt that a female Krishna celebration or a Christain mass will bring me closer to finding the answers. However, walking down the hill, I was happy to be alive – and that’s all that mattered in that moment.

… to be continued.

Published by Dawid Tysowski

[writer]

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