Once again I was on my way to St. Louis, grateful to be leaving my mother behind. I no longer considered whether or not I loved her; I just knew I had to get away.
When I arrived at the bus station I was greeted by some male devotees in the polite, formal way that was common in ISKCON temples. We were not allowed to make conversation but rather had to keep to the essential communication needed to complete our service. I had a quiet car ride to the temple, punctuated by the sound of japa, chanting the names of Krishna on our rosaries.
I had a meeting with Makanlal, our temple president, who told me that because there would soon be no women left in the temple, temporarily, I would be sent to Chicago to be with my godsisters Keli Chanchala and Atmarama, who were already there. Tilak, Makanlal’s wife, was going with him to India on pilgrimage. I would leave the next day by train, and stay for three or four months.
I was directed to the new women’s ashram, which was the room the men had formerly lived in. In the ashram I found Jagan Murti, who would be returning to the farm which supplied food for the St. Louis devotees. Later Ramakeli dasi and her sankirtan group arrived. They were visiting from Denver and doing sankirtan in various cities. (Sankirtan in this context means distributing books for money, rather than singing and dancing for Krishna on the street.)
Looking around the new ashram, I couldn’t find the things I’d left behind except for some items made by my estranged friend Carolyn, displayed on a mantel. She had used decoupage to put pictures of Krishna from Back To Godhead magazine on some oval forms, which were displayed on a little stand. I was happy to see them. Like my other things, I felt they’d be safer left at the temple. Expecting to come back, I left them there once again.
The next day I was on my way to the Evanston, IL temple. At the other end I was on my own to find the El and make my way to the temple. I went past the Evanston stop and ended up at the end of the line, lost. A nice woman let me use her phone to call the temple for directions. I was lugging around a suitcase and my sleeping bag, so she felt sorry for me. I finally made my way to the temple and was directed to the women’s ashram. The Evanston, or “Chicago” temple, was an old YMCA building and had a series of rooms in one half of the top floor that were devoted to single women and married women, some with children. The men were on the second, or main floor. (The devotees later moved to a new temple in Chicago.)
On the bottom floor, downstairs, there was a huge temple room with black and white tiles and three altars, one for Lord Jagannatha, Lady Subhadra, and Lord Balarama, one for Sri-Sri Kishora-Kishori and miniature Radha Krishna in the center, and one for Gour-Nitai. The men stayed to the left side of the temple room and the women remained on the right side, with a center area left vacant between the two groups.
Across the room from the altar sat a large chair with velvet and gold braid-work, and on that chair or vyasasana (Seat of Vyasa) rested a picture of Srila Prabhupada. During my previous visit Srila Prabhupada himself sat there while we offered him “guru puja” or worshipful respects to the guru.
I soon settled into a routine at the temple, with a full schedule of sewing for the Deities, making vases, writing letters for the membership program under Swarupa’s long distance direction, doing laundry, cleaning, washing the Deities’ plates, serving breakfast to the other women, and chanting my 16 rounds of Hare Krishna per day. I started out chanting ten minutes per round and got that down to seven with much practice. We were required to fit in japa, or chanting, throughout the day. Some could chant five minute rounds and I was so envious though I didn’t understand how you could hear or focus clearly if you chanted that fast!
Like all new devotees, or bhaktas and bhaktins, I was in awe of the “old devotees” meaning anyone who had already been a devotee for several years. Anyone who had joined during the late 60s was venerated as very “advanced” in Krishna Consciousness. We all anticipated that in about a decade at the most, we could become “pure devotees” like our spiritual master and always be in communion with Krishna throughout each day, absorbed in transcendental bliss. Our scriptures told us that if we performed devotional service, followed the teachings of a sincere and advanced guru, and spent our time thinking about, hearing about, talking about, remembering, and seeing Krishna then we could remove the material conditioning with which we were covered and see Krishna in all His transcendental glory, and truly know our relationship with Him. Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion, and pure devotion is what we aimed for, unconditional love of God.
If we venerated “old devotees,” we scorned fringe devotees nearly as much as we did karmis (non-devotees). It took me some time to figure out that one of the women who joined us every morning for the entire morning program lived outside the temple. When I asked why I didn’t see her during the day or evenings, I was told she had “blooped.” Bloop was devotee slang for leaving the temple. Bloop is supposed to be the sound a soul makes when it enters the material world. Blooped devotees were a special sub-type of fringe devotee who had joined the temple, maybe even long enough to take initiation, and then for whatever reason “fell down” and left. They were all assumed to be in “maya” or illusion. The only way not to be in maya was to join the temple, or so we all believed and taught others to believe. Perhaps this was the only way we ourselves could endure the austerities of temple life. For if there were joys, there were accompanying hardships, things we had given up and things we were required to do.
Every few weeks the Radha-Damodara sankirtan bus would arrive and the Radha-Damodara brahmacaris (single men) would flood our temple. It was their version of R&R, or shore leave, since they normally lived on a refurbished Greyhound-style bus, fashioned as a temple with living quarters that were extremely cramped. These were “fixed up” brahmacaris who were adamant about avoiding the association of women and never marrying, or so I was told. When they stayed with the Chicago brahmacaris, it seemed like their mood infected most of our temple. We all noticed that our brahmacaris were left with an attitude of disdain and even, for some, contempt of women.
This was conveyed by body language, sarcastic use of the word “mataji” or mother that they were supposed to call us, and generally making life difficult for us whenever possible. I recall once that a group of us women were making vases for the altar and singing songs to Krishna, and some men were trying to eat in the same room. One of them was sent over to ask us to please stop because it was “agitating the brahmacaris.” Wasn’t it enough, I thought, that we are covered head to toe in saris? We all looked at each other and rolled our eyes, but we stopped singing.
Once they allowed us to go on the bus to see the lovely brass Radha-Damodar Deities, unusual for Their size. Most brass Deities were small, like our little Radha-Krishna Deities that stood in front of Sri Sri Kishora-Kishori. We were grateful we had the chance to see Them, and we were allowed to stay for a bit and chant our rounds while gazing at the altar. In the close quarters the Deities were much closer than they would be in a large temple room, so we were very close and could see every detail. They were amazing. Later we laughed and said that they must have had to decontaminate the bus from our feminine presence.
As spring arrived, I was chafing under Keli Chanchala’s rule. She had an unpredictable temper and I never quite knew what would set her off. She never seemed satisfied with the service I was performing and always had a number of complaints. I began to feel like I could never win with her. I could never be Krishna Conscious enough, chant my rounds well enough, work hard enough, or perform a task well enough to suit her. I began to dread going back to St. Louis and spending much more time with Keli Chanchala. I knew we would be sent out on sankirtan together, and I was too shy to enjoy sankirtan. I much preferred the life of a temple devotee, engaging in Deity service. St. Louis was such a small temple, though, that we all had to go out just to survive financially.
One afternoon Keli Chanchala sent me out to do laundry for the St. Louis women. There were special items of hers in the laundry, including a bra with an underwire and a wool sweater. I had never done laundry before doing it in the temple, and usually we just had saris, our t-shirts, and underwear. Off I went to do laundry, and I put the wool sweater and underwire bra in with the other things, and then in the dryer.
When I returned with the laundry and Keli Chanchala saw it, she exploded into a chastisement of epic proportions. Apparently I should have known better than to wash her items as I did, and not to dry them in a dryer. I was careless and just treating the laundry as a mundane chore, being disrespectful of her, and so on. She could be heard yelling throughout the women’s ashram. I tried to protest that I simply didn’t know any different and was cut off, because “everybody knows” you don’t wash wool in hot water or dry it with heat. (One of the other devotees told me afterwards, sarcastically, that Keli Chanchala shouldn’t be so attached to her material possessions.)
This fight was the last straw for me. I was already unhappy with Keli Chanchala because she had gotten rid of most of my stuff when I was taken home, including my autograph book from school and my signed picture of Leonard Nimoy as Spock. These things were “maya,” she told me.
I decided to ask if I could remain at the Chicago temple. I’d heard that devotees sometimes went to different temples if they were not getting along at their current temple. I seemed to get along better with the Chicago devotees and worked closely with Subhada, doing vases and garlands.
Keli Chanchala wasn’t happy to hear that I was jumping ship and felt that I was ungrateful after all Makanlal had done to try to bring me back. She washed her hands of me and we gave each other a wide berth after that. Soon Keli Chanchala left to return to St. Louis with a visiting devotee, Jagaddhatri, to do sankirtan at the St. Louis airport. Jagaddhatri was a single mom with a son in Gurukula (the movement’s boarding school) and had to travel continuously to send money for his support as well as travel to visit him. I had spent a lot of time with her in Chicago. She had a great sense of humor and told wonderful stories of other temples and her beloved Dallas Deities. The Dallas Krishna Deity, for example, was discovered in an Indian murti shop acting as the doorstop! Constructed from black marble, He is famous throughout the movement and is over 500 years old.
I looked up to Jagaddhatri and used to give her back massages to ease the strain of carrying around heavy books all day on sankirtan. Now I realize I had a bit of a crush, but back then it hadn’t occurred to me to question my sexual orientation. I had come from a conservative Midwestern town to join an even more conservative religious movement. Looking back I can see that I didn’t think about marriage because I was enjoying living in a woman-centered environment, not out of some lustful attraction but more out of an appreciation for the energy and friendships I found there. These were my Godsisters and with them my loneliness was finally relieved.
I was surprised when a metting was scheduled for the women who were still single. The temple president, Uttama-sloka, was there, along with Sri Govinda Das, the former temple president. They wanted to talk to us about how they were planning to help us all find husbands, despite the resistance of the brahmacaris. Frankly I thought the talk was a waste of time. I couldn’t imagine wanting to marry any of these men.
I had observed some of the married women in the ashram and saw a little of how their relationships seemed to be with their husbands. For the most part they lived like we did, and their husbands occasionally visited their rooms, usually to chat and eat together. We all knew sex was forbidden to them unless they chanted 50 rounds and were deliberately trying to conceive, once a month during ovulation. I just didn’t see the point. I was still a virgin so I wasn’t missing something I’d never experienced. Nothing about the appearance of these semi-bald men inspired me to have so much as a crush, as I’d had on George Harrison or other celebrities.
One mornng a new face appeared among the brahmacaris in the temple room. He wore a kurta and dhoti like the others but he did not have a shaved head. He towered over them, I noticed, as if they were children and he was their teacher. I didn’t give much thought to him; it was simply strange that he didn’t shave his head. I figured he was just visiting.
Day after day he continued to appear, and still had that full head of hair down to his shoulders. These were the days of long haired men, and my crush on George Harrison had accustomed me to the look. I rather liked it. Still, I didn’t have much time to think about this new face. I had plenty of service to keep me occupied. I did run into him in the little room where we washed the Deities’ plates once, and he politely excused himself as he maneuvered past me in the narrow space. That was all the contact I had with him inside the temple.
Shortly after this I was assigned to a new “authority,” Bhaktirasa, a devotee who was to spend a lot of time with me and train me up “right.” Now that I was a Chicago devotee the powers that be realized I needed to be put under someone’s guidance. I found Bhaktirasa to be frustrating and reminiscent of Keli Chanchala but without the yelling. I suffered a new round of critiques and began to get depressed. My whole experience in the temple changed for the worse under her scrutiny. I suspect she was told to crack down on me.
When I was sent to do laundry, I began to look at the classified ads to see if there were jobs I could do or rooms I could rent if I left. I saw that there were live in helpers needed for people with disabilities, and live in childcare positions as well. I began to struggle between my desire to escape Bhaktirasa‘s criticism and my desire to remain in the temple. I was afraid of being on my own at 17. Returning to my mother never occurred to me for a second. About this time, one of the younger women left the temple and this only encouraged me.
One day I told Bhaktirasa that I was leaving and I had already packed my things. A blooped devotee named Suprabha had offered to let me stay with her until I got settled somewhere. She came to the temple for the Sunday feasts and we had been talking.
Bhaktirasa took me to see Sri Govinda, and together they talked me out of blooping. She seemed to be trying harder to be nice to me so for the moment I stayed. Soon after this, however, I got sick with the flu. I was running a high fever and I remember Bhaktirasa standing over my sleeping bag, lecturing me on how I was in bodily consciousness and I should get up and go to the evening program. That was it for me. I felt awful and I was being lectured? I had had enough!
Considering how I had been harangued the previous time I tried to leave, I packed my suitcase while the devotees were in the temple room, and shoved it in the closet. Anything obvious I left on the dresser so its absence wouldn’t be noticed. I planned to sneak out in the middle of the night and I didn’t want to arouse suspicions.
I still felt awful but I was determined not to spend another day under Bhaktirasa’s rule. I was sad to leave my beloved Kishori and the friends I’d made, but I figured I’d come to the Sunday Feasts and maybe do some service when I had time. I wasn’t giving up my beliefs. I just needed to be independent.
I crept out when everyone was asleep, past the sleeping guard near the back door, down the stairs to the ground level, and then over to the nursing home across the street. I hoped to get someone to let me in but no one came to the door. Finally I made my way to the laundromat and sat on the steps behind it until it was early enough for the El to start running, 6 a.m. I sat there quietly chanting my rounds, praying, not wanting to be in maya but not wanting to go back, hoping that I wouldn’t be found by an early japa-walking devotee. I huddled in my sleeping bag for warmth from the cold spring night, still feverish. I felt like I was at some sort of crossroads and I didn’t really know what to do. I had counted on living in the temple. If I couldn’t live in the temple, I wasn’t sure what to do or where I would end up. Going to Suprabha’s was just one step and I didn’t know where it would lead. I was filled with anxiety.
Finally it was time and I made my way carefully to the El stop, on the lookout for devotees. I boarded the El and sat down, all alone, looking out on the big city as we entered Chicago, wondering where my place here might be.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue.
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me. –E.Y. Harburg, Wizard of Oz