Hare Krishna farm community of New Vrindaban gives instant karma

New Vrindaban, USA - There's a pinch of cold in the air, and it's well past our bedtime -- 10 p.m. -- which is dangerously late, considering that the entire lot of us will be waking up at 4 a.m. tomorrow, to make it to the temple by a quarter to five. But the rhythmic chanting and the clapping, and especially the dancing, rage on.

The Hare Krishnas call it a Kirtan, and like everything they do, from eating to breathing to sleeping, its solitary purpose is to glorify their Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. But to an outsider who knows almost nothing about the Hare Krishna philosophy, let alone the Hindu religion, it's little more than an open-air dance party.

Underneath a wooden gazebo, a tight cluster of men are draped in orange and saffron robes. Nearly all of them are shaved bald, but with just a small shock of hair sprouting from the back of their heads, and as they chant, they bounce lightly up and down on their toes, trancelike. One of the men, with closed eyes and a blissful grin on his face, is keeping the beat with a pair of kartals, the sacred finger cymbals that are also used during worship ceremonies in the temple.

Someone else is wheezing out a rhythm on an ancient harmonium, and another "devotee" is eliciting a deep thwump, thwump, thwump from a tabla drum. All around us, dozens of pilgrims who have come from all over the country to celebrate the birthday of the movement's founder are ecstatically shouting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare Hare Rama, Hare Rama Rama Rama, Hare Hare (O energy of the Lord / O Lord, please engage me in your service!)

I'm deep in the hills of the West Virginia panhandle, at a Hare Krishna farm community known as New Vrindaban, just outside downtown Moundsville, less than two hours from Pittsburgh.

New Vrindaban (pronounced "Vrin-DA-ban") has long been infamous among the Krishnas, many of whom consider it the "black sheep" of the community. During the 1980s, it was as much a crime scene as a place of peace and spiritual enlightenment. In fact, so many horrible things happened here, from child abuse to drug running and murder, that from 1987 to 1994 New Vrindaban was removed from the officially sanctioned list of Krishna temples and communities. (Thousands of Krishna communities are scattered across the globe in countries as remote as Uruguay, Azerbaijan, Suriname and Sierra Leone.)

Even the community's founder, Kirtananda Swami Bhaktipada, famously ran into trouble of his own in 1996, when he was sentenced to 20 years in a North Carolina federal prison. The charge was one count of racketeering, although Kirtananda was accused of being involved in the murder of two Hare Krishna dissidents as well. But tonight, as the charcoal-gray sky covers us like the dome of a snow globe and white stars wink as we dance, none of that seems to matter. Certainly not to the three teenage girls who have joined hands to form a circle; they're spinning and giggling like children at a playground. "Hari Bol!" (Chant the name of the Lord!) one of them shouts. And then the others follow suit: "Hari Bol! Hari Bol!"

Next to the gazebo, rows of stadium seating rise out from a lake that's roughly the size of a football field. Indian families who have flown in from across the country for the weekend celebration clap and sing along, most of them bundled in heavy parkas or fleece jackets. Some are dancing with their children, and others are looking out in anticipation over the water, where a paddle boat in the shape of giant swan is floating closer. Two children are inside the swan, wearing Indian saris and lazily fanning a small statue of Lord Krishna, and another of Radharani, one of the most important deities in the Krishna philosophy.

The energy of the crowd turns electric as the swan comes closer, and as the two deities come nearer into view. Shouts of "Hare Krishna!" and "Hari Bol!" echo across the lake and bounce back. Suddenly, a small fireworks display goes off in the distance, and the crowd erupts again.

The evening Kirtan at New Vrindaban actually happens once every week, but for the true "devotees" of Krishna Consciousness, as the followers are known, the novelty of chanting and dancing for God doesn't easily wear off. But just as suddenly as the Kirtan began, the musicians in the gazebo all stop, and the chanting of Hare Krishna comes to an abrupt halt. Someone announces that a special late-night prasadam of healthy vegetarian food is about to be served in the guesthouse, and we all shuffle away from the lake in a single file.

The starlight helps guide us away from the water and toward the complex. "Krishna gave us such beautiful weather today!" someone says, and then the group wanders slowly into the guesthouse and disappears.

The first thing I notice after driving down Palace Road, which winds through the New Vrindaban community and then past the Palace of God and then past Swan Lake, is the smell. Heavy clouds of sweet incense seem to be everywhere , and the overall effect of wandering its grounds is not unlike being in India itself, where everything -- not only the smells, but also the sights, and especially the people -- is entirely unlike anything you've ever seen before.

I came to New Vrindaban to spend five days living as the Hare Krishnas live: To sleep and bathe in the ashram; to rise at 4 a.m. every morning and bow before the deities in the temple and chant Hare Krishna on wooden japa beads; to take vegetarian prasadam twice a day with the devotees, and to do "service" whenever it was asked of me: maybe to cut vegetables in the kitchen, or to pick them in the field.

I'd been curious about the Hare Krishnas ever since I was an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, when small groups of devotees would drive down from West Virginia to perform harinam outside the student union and the Cathedral of Learning. Harinam is essentially a mini-Kirtan; at Pitt, some devotees would chant and dance for passing crowds, while others, usually disguised in baseball caps and street clothes, would wander the campus and attempt to sell copies of the "Bhagavad Gita" and other Krishna books to students.

But it wasn't until I met Meghan, who had lived and worked at Krishna temples across the country for years, that I first had a chance to experience the religion up close. Meghan had been living with her parents when she invited me to a Sunday feast, which is a weekly occurrence during which members of the local community are invited to have a meal of vegetarian food with the devotees in exchange for listening to a brief sermon in the temple. As Meghan and I drove back to Pittsburgh that evening, I wondered aloud what it would be like to live in the temple for an entire week. Meghan, clearly pleased that I was interested, assured me that it would be possible. A few months later, after she had returned from a spiritual trip to India and was again living at New Vrindaban, I sent her an e-mail.

"Do you want to stay in the guesthouse?" She wrote back. "Or do you want the full devotee experience? You can stay in the ashram for free, but you'll have to do some work around the temple."

"The full experience," I wrote back. "Definitely."

Three-day birthday party

A few weeks later I was in a friend's car, driving through the hills toward West Virginia and into Moundsville.

I had no idea when I showed up on a Saturday afternoon that New Vrindaban would be overflowing with Western devotees and Indian Hindus who'd converged from the across the country. When I'd visited during the Sunday feast months earlier, the temple and the grounds had been almost deserted, but now I'd arrived in the middle of a three-day birthday celebration for the Krishna community's non-deceased founder: His Divine Grace, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In the history books, he's known more specifically as the founder of ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

In September 1965, at the age of 69, and with nothing more than a trunk full of religious books and a few dollars worth of Indian Rupees, Prabhupada talked his way onto an Indian freighter that was traveling from Bombay to Boston. He knew no one in America, but stayed briefly with family friends in Butler before settling into a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he began teaching a group of new followers about Vedic philosophy, meditation -- even Indian cooking.

At the time of his passing, in 1977, he had published nearly 80 books. He had also translated the "Bhagavad Gita" into English, and had established more than 100 temples worldwide. Nearly 10,000 disciples had been initiated into the Krishna movement because of his efforts. Today, life-size statues of Prabhupada sitting in the lotus position are an important part of every ISKCON temple. Devotees consider him to be their ultimate spiritual leader, and they bow down before his likeness every morning and lay fresh flowers at his feet.

Prayer beads

It's just after five in the morning when Yahshua, an African-American devotee who's visiting from Chicago, slides up behind me on the temple's polished wooden floor. Yahshua is covered head to toe in the saffron robes of a celibate monk; he even has an orange hooded sweatshirt that covers his head and obscures most of his face. We met yesterday afternoon at dinner, when Yahshua explained how he had come to join the Hare Krishnas. "I was studying to be a dancer in New York," he told me. "Everyone I knew was into drugs. Hard drugs."

Not wanting to destroy his life with heroin and crystal meth, Yahshua found himself unable to sleep, confused and aimlessly wandering the streets of New York, unsure of what to do with himself. He ended up in a religious debate with a Krishna devotee one day in Manhattan, and decided that he liked what he heard.

"Do you have prayer beads?" Yahshua asks me. He's strikingly handsome, with high cheekbones and a strong, aquiline nose. He's holding out a string of the wooden japa beads, which are similar to Catholic rosary beads. Initiated devotees are supposed to use them to chant 16 rounds of the maha mantra each day. The practice takes about two hours, but Krishnas believe that when you chant the name of God, he is literally present on your lips. A similar idea can be found in the Christian Bible, in Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three are gathered in my name," Jesus said, "I am there among them."

All around us, devotees are pacing the floor of the temple, their right hands hidden inside the prayer bags that are slung around their necks, where their beads are kept. The maha mantra is meant to be chanted out loud, and as the voices mesh and interweave, the chanting begins to sound like one dull, steady murmur, with unexpected bursts of "Rama Rama!" and "Krishna ... Krishna!" Before getting up to chant his own rounds, Yahshua hands me a small card with three mantras printed on it, and with his name and e-mail address written on the back. "I check my e-mail all the time," he says, smiling. "I counsel people from all over. So if you ever have any questions ..."

Worshipping at the Palace

It's 3:55 a.m., and Meghan and I are hurriedly walking up the road that leads to the Palace of Gold, trying to make our way in the pitch-black night. With us is Kristen, a petite woman with nervous features who explains that she has a master's degree in poetry. Both Meghan and Kristen are draped in Indian saris that cover their heads and flutter behind them as they walk. We're running late. Mangala Arati -- the morning worship service -- starts at 4 a.m. at the Palace, 45 minutes earlier than at the main temple.

But worshipping at the Palace is something special: famously built in the 1970s by devotees who didn't use blueprints, the Palace was meant to be a home for Prabupada, and today it's one of the most visited tourist attractions in West Virginia. It was designed to resemble an authentic Indian temple and is luxuriously covered in gold leaf and inlaid marble. However, devotees generally don't worship at the Palace. Instead, one solitary caretaker lives by himself in a small room behind the main temple, and if guests arrive, he becomes a tour guide.

When we arrive at the Palace five minutes after the hour, it's as if we've stepped into another universe. Yudhistir, the temporary caretaker, has already begun the service and is standing on the altar and waving giant sticks of incense around the likeness of Prabupada, who is buried under dozens of flowers and bathed in a soft light. The rest of the small temple is still dark when Kristen and Meghan start dancing and chanting mantras in quiet voices.

When the service ends, Yudistir seems reluctant to let us go. Human contact is relatively rare at the Palace, which is somewhat isolated from the main complex, and I can tell that Yudistir is lonely as he gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his small world: his miniature kitchen, his cramped living quarters, even his bathroom. "It's always nice to have guests!" He hints, as we make our way to the main entrance to leave. He reaches his arm towards the door, as if to prevent us from opening it. "And you know," he says, "we have invisible guests here as well."

Kristen and Meghan turn to look back at Yudistir with faces of slight disbelief. He goes on to tell us that earlier that week, there was a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Curious to see who would be visiting the Palace at such an odd hour, Yudistir got out of bed, opened the door, and saw that there was no one there. He shut the door, and as he was walking back to his quarters, he claims to have heard footsteps, and then seconds later, the toilet flushed.

"Who would come all the way up here in the middle of the night to use the toilet?" he asks us, with a nervous laugh.

Kristen and Meghan both look at me, and we raise our eyebrows in unison and widen our eyes, as if to admit that we don't know what to believe at New Vrindaban. A cold chill works its way down my spine, and I can feel goose bumps raise on my neck and arms.

As we make our way down the temple's steps and head back in the still-dark night towards the ashram in silence, I decide to ask Kristen what she thinks about the energy at New Vrindaban, and about the rumors that ghosts and spirits still live here. "So many sadhus and holy men have come here over the years," she tells me, not making eye contact, but looking dead ahead. "And some of their energy has stayed. Many people come here and have very vivid dreams and very spiritual experiences."

During my first night in the ashram, in fact, I had a vivid dream of my own: I dreamt, in extremely colorful detail -- much more colorfully than my normal dreams -- that I was hacking people into small pieces in my sleep. Apparently, I had a proclivity toward young women. After I killed them, a god would descend from the clouds and chastise me for ending the life of someone who was so young, and who had so much promise.

The following day I told Meghan about my nightmare, and at lunch she told Archina, an Indian devotee who'd been living at New Vrindaban for years. "Where are you staying?" Archina asked me. "In the ashram?" I nodded my head. "I'm not surprised," she said. "Almost every newcomer who stays in the ashram has the same kind of dream.

By the time I left New Vrindaban, I had met most of the locals. I had spent an afternoon hauling bricks and picking string beans with Garunga, a young man in his early 20s who had grown up in the Hare Krishna community with devotee parents, but who seemed to be just as well-adjusted -- maybe even more so -- than your average college kid. I had met Balarama Chandra das, a former activist who told me that he joined the Krishnas after realizing that he was never going to change the world until he changed himself first. Today, Balarama das teaches a weekly class on Hindu philosophy and the "Bhagavad Gita" at Carnegie Mellon University.

I even met Tapahpunja, the second-in-command at New Vrindaban, who was unlucky enough to have a decades-old picture of himself appear in "Monkey on a Stick," a sensationalist book about the various New Vrindaban controversies that was first published in 1988. "Tapahpunja fled the United States after Steve Bryant's murder," the copy underneath his photo reads, referring to a devotee who had defected. "He is believed to be living in Malaysia." But the Tapahpunja I met, who proudly gave me a guided tour of his organic garden, was someone entirely different. In fact, the conversation we had about health and the Krishna diet was so reasonable and convincing that I haven't eaten an egg since. I've even considered giving up pork and beef.

"Your karma changes right away when you stop eating meat," another longtime devotee told me, smiling with self-satisfaction. "You'll feel the difference immediately."

Overall, it was the sheer normalcy of the Krishnas that shocked me more than anything during my week in the City of God.

I'll admit it: I half expected wild-eyed lunatics and religious fanatics. I assumed I'd see crazed zombie-like men and women who had obviously been brainwashed, and the truth is that at New Vrindaban, there are a few odd characters flitting about -- lost souls who probably couldn't fit in or survive anywhere else.

But as Swami Prabupada said, and as the Krishnas repeat ad nauseam when they're explaining their philosophy and their lifestyle to outsiders, "We are not these bodies. We are spirit souls. And we are suffering in this material world."