I can blame it all on George Harrison.
I and my friend Carolyn were teenagers of the early 1970s, devoted to the music of the Beatles and of George Harrison in particular. We were also searching for the meaning of life, like countless others before us. We combed the library for information on various religions and encountered books like A Soul’s Journey by Peter Richelieu (unfortunately out of print now). We learned about reincarnation, astral bodies, karma, and transmigration of the soul. This all made so much more sense to us when we thought about human suffering, far more sense than the mysterious “It’s all part of God’s plan” answer we usually encountered. George Harrison mentioned these concepts in some of his music and we listened with the intense focus of any teenage girl in the grip of a powerful crush.
George’s Living In The Material World album possessed the most frankly spiritual content and lyrics that couldn’t help but intrigue us. The interior painting of Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Bhagavad Gita was spoken, fascinated us with its unusual artistic style and the spectacle of a blue god named Krishna. We noted carefully that the photo was attributed to an organization named after Krishna: The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, ISKCON. We immediately wanted to contact this Society for Krishna and find out more, but no contact information was given in these olden days before Google.
George informed us that “I’m living in the material world/Living in the material world/I hope to get out of this place/By the lord Sri Krsna’s grace” and “Ommmmmm* My Lord/PLEASE take hold of my hand, that I might understand you.” George was clearly writing a series of prayers to be delivered from suffering in the material world and to see and understand God, seen as Krishna who was said to have incarnated 5,000 years ago in India. Not only were we learning about why we were suffering, here George was saying that there could be a permanent end to it if we had the grace of Krishna. (*Om is a sacred syllable that is said to be not just a name of God but actually God Himself in sound.)
I was living with a depressed mother who had attempted suicide several times. I really wanted to know how I could escape my suffering! I had tried to leave home by contacting social services but they had no suitable place to put me, like a foster home, so they could only offer an institutional setting called the County Home. It was a lot like going to juvie without having committed a crime. I gave up and asked to return home, where at least I had privacy and some autonomy.
Along with our reading, Carolyn and I began to make our own attempts to show our budding devotion to Krishna. We found some more books in the library that had translations of conversations between Krishna and the gopis, cowherd girls in Vrndavana who worshiped him. We found out that his birthday was in August but that it varied by lunar calendar. We chose August 10th and celebrated our first “Krishna Day” as we called it.
One day I picked up a package of incense in a “head shop” that had the label “Spiritual Sky” and a picture of Krishna on the front. George had written about the “Spiritual Sky” in his songs so I was very excited to see the phrase. On the back of the package there was an ad for “Krsna Book,” and an address for ISKCON. I could hardly wait to get home and tell Carolyn that I’d found them! I had a summer job so I immediately sent for the two volume set and waited anxiously for its arrival.
Carolyn and I were so excited when it arrived, full of beautiful paintings by ISKCON artists of Krishna and his associates and their pastimes. There was even an introduction by George Harrison himself, which legitimized the whole book in our eyes. George wrote:
Everybody is looking for KRISHNA.
Some don’t realize that they are, but they are.
KRISHNA is GOD, the Source of all that exists, the Cause of all that is, was, or ever will be.
As GOD is unlimited HE has many Names.
Allah-Buddha-Jehova-Rama: All are KRISHNA, all are ONE.
…I request that you take advantage of this book KRSNA, and enter into its understanding.
For the next few weeks we were busy reading the epic tale, summarized in these two volumes, of Krishna’s appearance on Earth despite every effort of his uncle, Kamsa, to kill him. Echoing the biblical story of King Herod, Kamsa was reacting to a prophecy that the 8th child of his sister would cause his death.
Somewhere amid the excitement of the tale and the beautiful pictures, there were various references to the social order of Vedic society (society during the time the Vedas, or Hindu scriptures, were written). I no longer have the direct quotes, but scattered through the chapters were mentions here and there of how women were to behave, be protected, how householders were regarded, and so on. I do remember that given my budding feminism nurtured by the women’s movement I did react to these passages with some apprehension. My attraction to this philosophy in so many other respects was challenged by this one aspect. I read the explanation that while we are spiritual beings, spirit souls, on a material level we had roles to fulfill in order for society to run smoothly and enable us to focus on achieving pure devotion to Krishna. On the spiritual level we were all equals. I put my misgivings on a dark shelf in the back of my mind and focused on the parts that resonated most with me. I never mentioned my doubts to anyone.
Carolyn and I corresponded with the secretary of ISKCON, Swarupa Dasa, and became registered members. We regularly received the magazine of the movement, Back To Godhead. In September we both entered our sophomore year of high school. We wanted nothing more than to join a temple, however, and it was difficult to make ourselves care about school. It had become mundane in our eyes, a waste of time and a distraction from our devotional service to Krishna. What did we need an education for if we were going to join the temple? We would learn everything we needed to know there. Swarupa Dasa supported us in this point of view but urged us to be patient until our parents allowed us to join the temple or we were old enough to leave home.
In November George Harrison went on tour in the United States. I had never been to a rock concert, living in a medium-sized Iowa town of 15,000. The nearest concert venue to us was St. Louis, Missouri. I had no funds to go—my mom and I were on welfare. I rarely saw my father and had never asked him for anything, but I got up my nerve and called him to ask for money for a ticket and transportation. I knew that I could stay in the temple in St. Louis since Swarupa and I had already discussed a visit in our letters. My father agreed and sent us a check to cover the expenses.
My fate was sealed when I set foot in the St. Louis temple for the first time. A wonderful scent wrapped itself around me, consisting of exotic spices and incense, a scent I tried to preserve in my suitcase for as long as possible after I returned home. The devotees were so cheerful and kind, and the women wore beautiful saris that seemed so elegant compared to my own clothes. The temple room was beautiful and the Gour-Nitai Deities on the altar were stunning. (In the various branches of Hinduism, God is said to enter into the form of Deities that are made according to scriptural instructions and then “installed” with the correct ceremony and prayers. This is said to be His kindness to allow us to serve Him. Gour-Nitai are two later incarnations of Krishna and his brother Balarama.) The music was very moving, both the pre-recorded music used for the greeting of the Deities and the singing the devotees did. Many of the songs were in Bengali or Sanskrit, so I had a lot to learn. The melodies were haunting. I still enjoy the music to this day.
I could barely tear myself away to go to the concert. One I arrived I was surprised that the devotees weren’t attending—I hadn’t yet learned about their practices of distributing literature—so I went in alone, a little overwhelmed by the crowd. I found my way to my seat, high above the stage and far enough away that George Harrison was almost ant-like. I didn’t care; I was in the same room with him, breathing the same air, wrapped in my teenage awe and fervor.
After the concert I made my way back to the temple and went to sleep in the women’s quarters, waking up early the next morning for the services and class. I was so sad that I had to leave; I had such a good time. When I got back of course Carolyn had to hear every detail. I was given some prasadam, sanctified food offered to the Deities, to bring back for her. Her family had become very frustrated with the time she was spending reading about Krishna and they were restricting her time in her room and forcing her to eat meat. I wanted to do something to support her and share in my experience.
My life became increasingly about serving Krishna and I was even more impatient to go back to the temple, permanently. Carolyn and I found a book by journalist Faye Levine entitled, The Strange World of the Hare Krishnas, about her stay in the New York temple. While I wondered if I could handle the austerities of getting up early in the morning (3:30 a.m.) and the many other activities of temple life, I was fascinated by the total absorption I imagined in devotional service to God. Surely it wouldn’t take long to achieve pure devotion to God if I lived like that every day! Look at how “Krishna Conscious” I felt after one short visit to a temple!
I was having more conflict with my mother than ever. She was increasingly disturbed by my involvement in Krishna Consciousness and my new dietary restrictions. I had become a lacto-vegetarian and she was convinced that I was not getting enough protein even though I drank plenty of milk. In retrospect, it amuses me that she never worried about my extreme crash diets when I probably wasn’t getting enough protein. She took me to a doctor so he could tell me that my internal organs could be consumed by my body to meet my protein needs! We were fighting more and more and at times she became violent. I was more anxious to leave home than ever.
I dropped out of school, tired of the bullying I had tolerated for years and seeing no reason to subject myself to it. I was old enough finally (I’d turned 16 in December of ’74) to make the choice. I was hoping my mom would get tired of the fighting and let me go. Finally, in June of 1975, my mom told me that I could go for two months and if at the end of that time I wanted to stay, she would sign over custody to the temple president. This was my grandma’s idea and they were both thinking that I would get tired of it and get homesick. I knew that I would miss Carolyn but that we’d write letters and keep in touch until she could join me. We had to sneak around to see each other anyway—her parents forbid her to see or talk to me.
I packed up what I felt I would need, knowing I could send for the rest, and got on the Greyhound bus. My mom and grandma saw me off with tears in their eyes but I could only feel excited and relieved. Soon I would be back in the temple, leaving the depression and the fighting behind. I could hardly wait.
Next installment: Adjusting to temple life and new customs and roles.