Summer of Transcendental Love

prayer beads known as japamala

Prayer beads used by all Hindus, called japamala they have 108 beads with an end bead to keep place. A mantra or prayer is chanted for each bead.

I was so relieved to be on the bus, headed for St. Louis. We passed through Hannibal, home of Mark Twain. I barely noticed because my mind was filled with memories of my brief visit to the temple back in November. I was also thinking back to the final few weeks with my mom, which had become very tense. In an effort to punish and isolate me, she had tried to yank my phone cord out of the wall, a phone I had paid to have installed. In the days before phones were portable and easily removed, it was a crime to rip them out of their wall socket. I struggled with her to stop, feeling that the phone was my lifeline and the only thing enabling me to survive living with her. Mom got a hold on the desk phone and hit me in the head with it. I managed to turn my head so it hit the side of my temple instead of my face. I ran out of the house and went to a neighbor’s and called the police, naively thinking they would protect me and tell her she couldn’t do that again.

When they arrived I was shaking like a leaf and could barely tell them what happened. My mother took over the conversation and told them that I had dropped out of school and wanted to join a cult and that I wouldn’t listen to her anymore. They looked at me with disgust and told me until I was 18 I had to do whatever my mother told me.

This took place just a few days before I was told I could go to the temple, in June 1975. I still had the painful lump on my head from the fight and was grateful for the miles the bus was putting between us. I had been so overwhelmed by her mental illness for so many years, alone in an apartment with an unpredictable woman buffeted by her many moods and fearful of her potential for violence.

One of the ways I survived was by writing poetry, and of course I began to focus on my spiritual journey in my writing. I still have some of those old poems and in one I wrote:

Within my heart I know He’s there
I feel Him when in silent prayer
Nothing else could be so dear
Krishna’s flute has dried my tears
He brought me back from misery
His love means more than life to me
He’s life, He’s love, strength and hope—
Without Him I just couldn’t cope

Looking back it is clear that while I was searching for a spiritual home and very sincere in that search, I was equally driven by a desire to put an end to my suffering, both in the short term and in the long run, escaping the wheel of death and rebirth in the material world.

I came to the temple with a lot of expectations and a few fears. What if I didn’t measure up? I’d already heard of devotees who joined the temple only to leave, failing to adjust to the austerities of monastic life. I felt like this was my only refuge and if I didn’t make it here, I didn’t know what would become of me. I didn’t see returning home as an option.

I arrived in the early evening and was greeted enthusiastically by Keli Chanchala devi dasi, who was in charge of the women’s ashram (quarters) in the temple. I was glad to see some of the women I’d met in November, such as Atmarama, Jagan Murti, Tilak, and Dakshinevari. Danta was no longer there and I was told she was in Los Angeles with her husband.

The temple building was a large brick building with two primary floors plus an attic and basement. The women’s ashram, or quarters, was in the attic. Our bathroom was just to the left of the stairs on the floor below. The men’s (brahmacari’s) ashram was on the second floor, and the grihasthas’ (householders’) ashram was in the basement. They spent time together there but didn’t sleep there.

On the first floor there was the temple room, the kitchen, and a storage area for Deity worship paraphernalia. There was a large hallway and foyer where we served the Sunday feast to our guests. Our yard had a rose and flower garden which we used for altar and Deity decorations. It was also a great place to chant our rounds of japa every day. We chanted the mahamantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Chanting the mahamantra is said to cleanse the heart. Lord Chaitanya’s verses about chanting the Hare Krishna mantra explain this in depth.

I remember my first night in the women’s ashram. I laid out my sleeping bag on the floor, as I would at home. Beds were an unnecessary luxury. It was very hot in the attic. I had trouble getting to sleep because I was so excited to be there. I remember looking out the window and seeing a red light atop a tower of some kind, perhaps a radio transmitter. Finally I managed to get just a few hours and next morning plunged into the routine of temple life.

We woke up at 3:30 a.m. and went downstairs to shower. My first surprise was that the light was broken and we had to shower in total darkness. I didn’t understand why there was no candle or flashlight. In retrospect I imagine that was due to Keli Chanchala’s effort to be frugal and austere. We used cold water only, crouching in a claw footed bathtub and using a hose attachment for a shower. I learned quickly to do everything by touch alone and remember where things were.

I was told to ignore the men chanting outside the bathroom and not to look at them or acknowledge them in any way. My introduction to chastity Hare-Krishna-style had begun. We also had to wear something modest to and from the bathroom that covered us from neck to ankle.

Upstairs we put on tilak, a paste of sacred clay in the form of a V for Vishnu (Krishna) with a mantra to recite for each mark. My first attempts were laughable and Keli Chanchala helped to improve the most visible one on my forehead. There was so much to learn! What I didn’t understand was that immersing one’s self in a foreign culture produces culture shock. I was about to experience the full force of that.

At 4:30 a.m. the morning program began, with Mangala arotik, a ceremony waking and offering the Deities various objects, such as a ghee lamp, water, camphor, a flower, and a fan, blowing the conch shell and accompanied by congregational singing and chanting in a call and response format, known as kirtan. We began with the prayers to the spiritual master:

tranaya karunya-ghanaghanatwam
praptasya kalyana-gunarnavasya
vande guroh sri-charanaravindam

The spiritual master is receiving benediction from the ocean of mercy. Just as a cloud pours water on a forest fire to extinguish it, so the spiritual master delivers the materially afflicted world by extinguishing the blazing fire of material existence. I offer my respectful obeisances unto the lotus feet of such a spiritual master, who is an ocean of auspicious qualities. (Verse 1, Sri Sri Gurvastakam)

The kirtan progressed with devotees breaking out into ecstatic dancing, jumping up and down and working up to a crescendo. Men were in the front of the temple room and women were in the back. Next we offered our respectful worship to a great devotee of the Lord in plant form, Tulasi Devi, dancing around her as offerings were made. Finally we sang a song to Lord Nrsimhadeva, an incarnation of Krishna known for protecting devotees. Then we chanted japa until time for the Greeting of the Deities, freshly bathed by pujaris (priests) and dressed in Their clothes for the day. Srimad Bhagavatam class rounded out the morning program and we were able to have breakfast.

We “took prasadam” or ate our sanctified food in the front hallway, served by one of the brahmacaris who worked in the kitchen. Indian food took some getting used to, coming from a bland Midwestern diet. I had trouble adjusting to the spicy dishes.

One day I got into trouble with Keli Chanchala, who was trying very hard to teach me proper chaste etiquette for a young brahmacarini, or single devotee woman. I dared to ask the brahmacari not to cut up my orange as he normally did, but to please leave it whole so I could take it with me on sankirtan (distributing magazines). When he left I was soundly chastised for speaking to a brahmacari when it wasn’t necessary! I didn’t even look him in the eye, but had kept my head down as I spoke.

I suspect that the temple president, Makanlal, was concerned that this 16-year-old girl would be a cause for brahmacaris to “fall down” or forget their vows of celibacy. Nothing could have been further from my mind than having sex with these mostly bald guys with the funny pony tail in back! Besides, I was still a virgin and not likely to be so casual about it anyway. Still, I was kept very separate from the men in the temple at all times. Women were fire, it was said, and men were like butter. Men were to think of all women as being like their mothers, and address them as such. This led to the funny picture of a twenty-something man calling me “mataji.” I soon found that this could be said respectfully, or it could be dripping with sarcasm or contempt. The St. Louis brahmacaris seemed respectful but that was not always the case in other temples. I was informed that I was to be considered an adult in Vedic culture and would be held responsible as an adult. Considering my life with my mother, I didn’t feel like a child or a teenager anymore so it made sense to me.

When I wasn’t out offering the public issues of Back to Godhead magazine, I was at the temple sewing for the Deities, cleaning brass, ironing Their Lordships’ handkerchiefs, or cleaning the women’s ashram. Whenever we were not actively engaged in service (work), we were chanting our daily allotment of 16 rounds on our japamalas. Our bead bags and japa beads were almost always with us. The only place we did not take them was the bathroom. I was learning all about Indian notions of contamination, using the right hand only for eating and the left hand for bathing, sensible in a tropical climate like India before modern sanitation.

When we were sewing or making garlands, we listened to tapes of our spiritual master, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. His accent was very strong and it was difficult to understand him at first. I soon learned to listen for an Indian version of British English and that helped immensely. Devotees hung on every word and many sentences began with “Prabhupada says.” I had been reading his books and now I felt honored to hear his words directly.

Ratha Yatra in Chicago, IL

Ratha Yatra in Chicago, IL

That summer we went on two road trips to other temples. The first was to Chicago for the Ratha Yatra Festival. That was an exhausting experience because we were there first to help prepare for the festival. The men were working on the Ratha Yatra cart, and we could hear the sounds of their building all day and into the night. We women were sewing, making garlands, and many other such tasks. I was assigned to garlands and I learned how to make different kinds, from carnation petal garlands to huge garlands of whole carnations, and garlands of other assorted flowers like marigolds and roses. I sat on the floor for hours with a cloth in front of me, making garlands. We were all sleep deprived. I remember once hiding in a closet to get some sleep.

The big excitement, however, was that Srila Prabhupada himself was there! He gave class every morning, and we had an ecstatic kirtan inspired by his presence. Once I got to hang out his clothes to dry (they fit in a paper grocery bag, very simple) and was amazed that I was touching his socks and shirts. We treated him like any fawning young girls treat a rock star. There was a group picture taken although it’s difficult to make out any individuals. I was in the picture, however, and I was so happy to be pictured with Prabhupada. I wondered what it was like for the “old” devotees who had known him more intimately at the beginning. All we new devotees had were stories of how great it was to talk with him directly, back in the late ‘60s, when there was just the New York and then the San Francisco temples. There were thousands of us in 1975 and it just wasn’t possible to interact like that anymore. Prabhupada was trying to complete his translations of Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Caritamrita, two important scriptures, and didn’t have time to oversee temples directly anymore.

Later that summer we went to New Vrindavana, West Virginia for Janmastami, Krishna’s Birthday. I remember it as very muddy and rustic. I lost a thong walking through the thick mud! The Deities, Radha-Vrindavana Chandra, were beautiful and the small temple room was very intimate. I didn’t know that New Vrindavana would become the setting later for murder and child abuse. It seemed like a very peaceful and transcendental setting for remembering and serving Krishna.

Soon after we returned to St. Louis I got a call from my mom informing me that I would have to return home, that my 60 days were up and she’d changed her mind. As difficult as temple life was at times, with the hard work and little to no personal time, and the fierce verbal discipline of Keli Chanchala, it was bliss compared to living at home. I had adjusted to my new culture and I wanted to stay. I was sobbing the day I had to pack my things and return home. I left a box behind at the temple, intending to return. One brahmacari, in charge of Tulasi care and knowing how much I loved Tulasi Devi, gave the temple president a picture of Her to give to me. I was touched. I didn’t know the men even knew I existed, much less that I particularly loved Tulasi. Since my name was Terilyn, I hoped that my initiated name would be Tulasi, since they often started with the same initial.

Finally, Mom and Aunt Gin arrived to take me home. Completely depressed, I said my goodbyes, looked back one last time at my temple home, and turned to follow my relatives to the car. I was determined to find a way back. Makanlal had talked about consulting a lawyer to see if it would be possible to challenge my mother for custody. I was very angry with her for going back on her word. I couldn’t believe I was headed back to Keokuk. The only bright spot was that I could see Carolyn again. She had stopped writing and I was worried about her.

Next installment: A war of wills and fight to return to the temple.

Tulasi seedlings

Sacred plant tulasi, related to basil, said to be a demi- goddess in plant form.


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