THROUGH ASSOCIATION with the Hare Krsna movement, many people move into its temples and significantly change their way of life. Some make their home into a temple, and others go to the Sunday feast every week. Still others give time, money, and energy to various projects.
People come to the Krsna consciousness movement even though it doesn't offer them monetary or other material compensation. The movement's leaders never promise that if you become a devotee the movement will send your kids through college or pay your mortgage. No. Still, people take to Krsna consciousness, sometimes leaving behind luxurious lives. Why do people all over the world from all walks of life join the Hare Krsna movement? What inspires them to do so? What is the secret?
My first glimpse of this secret came in 1983, on Janmastami, the appearance day of Lord Krsna. One of my friends coaxed me to go to the Atlanta Hare Krsna temple. Even as we approached the temple, I was attracted by the sweet sound of the drums and karatalas (small cymbals). My steps quickened to the temple room packed and utterly captivating! The devotees, absorbed in the chanting, danced in a circle.
I watched a tall devotee with glasses (Parampara Dasa) he had a smile from ear to ear. Every now and then he would raise his arms high in the air and lose himself in the kirtana. How happy he looked! I was moved by his expression of joy and devotion.
After some time the kirtana ended, and the next item reading from Krsna book brought back old memories.
My thoughts went back to my heritage. I was born and raised in a large family, rich in the tradition of the Sri Vaisnava Sampradaya, and my parents had taught me how to celebrate religious occasions such as Janmastami. We'd decorate the house with flowers, ghee lamps, and other items. My mother would draw tiny pairs of footprints with rice flour from the entrance doorstep to the altar to show the way for baby Krsna. We'd recite prayers and read Krsna stories till late at night.
We'd also sing songs about Krsna. My father would make a huge offering to Krsna of fruits, sweets, savories, vegetables, rice, condensed milk, and many other delicacies. Finally, we'd have the arati, and my mother and sisters would sing.
I never expected this in a Hare Krsna temple. The devotees did everything strictly in accordance with the Vedic standards I'd been used to. And what devotion they had for Krsna! So powerful that in a flash my long-forgotten training came lucidly back to my mind.
I'd been a victim of false propaganda by newspapers, movies, and people who had no clear idea of the Hare Krsna movement. This negative bias was soon to give way to a genuine respect for the devotees, who were truly representing the Vedic culture.
After I got married in 1987, my wife and I began visiting the temple more, and I was increasingly impressed by the devotees. They reminded me of my own early spiritual upbringing, which I had rejected in favor of satisfying my materialistic goals.
The Hare Krsna temple became our favorite place. We'd go there almost every weekend. There I was able to think of God peacefully. We loved the prasadam, the kirtanas, the Deities, the devotees, the books, the morning programs, the classes. And above all, we felt fortunate to be getting a full dose of our own culture, which we had left behind long ago. Who would have expected that the Hare Krsnas would perfectly adopt our culture and teach it again to us?
Years ago I had received spiritual initiation into the Ramanuja Sampradaya. I had taken vows to practice regulative principles of devotional life and try to remember Lord Narayana in all my activities. But because of dwindling spiritual association during college, I eventually forgot.
The devotees, aware of the illusory potency of the Lord, were sympathetic and explained how I could fulfill my earlier vows. They said Lord Caitanya was giving me another chance to taste the bliss of devotional service.
As we visited other ISKCON temples, whether in the midst of the bustling traffic of New York City or in the quiet woods of North Carolina or on the beaches of Miami, we found the same mood of devotional service to Krsna. Rising early in the morning, the devotees went about their devotional duties with great dedication. Sometimes we felt the spiritual aura for blocks around the temple.
Still, clouds of doubt would at times hang over my head. In spite of a good upbringing, I was having trouble maintaining my spiritual life. Yet these devotees, even though born and raised in a non-Vedic culture, seemed easily able to follow the path ofbhakti-yoga. How was this possible?
I tried to rationalize in many ways. Perhaps they were also more easily prone to fall down. After all, this was their newly discovered religion. So it wasn't surprising they were showing so much interest. They were like children enjoying a new toy. Surely, I surmised, in time they'd leave Krsna behind.
These doubts, and others like them, scattered as I read and heard Srila Prabhupada presenting the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. His teachings followed right in line from Lord Krsna, Brahma, Madhva, and Lord Caitanya.
Besides the philosophy, I couldn't ignore the devotees' deep commitment to Krsna and Srila Prabhupada. Nor could I ignore Krsna's personal reciprocation with His devotees. I was especially touched by the devotees' sincere efforts to spread Lord Caitanya's message. In return, I saw, Krsna gave the devotees the strength and intelligence to carry on with their service.
I soon realized that trying to under-stand the devotees' secret by guessing was like trying to taste honey by licking the jar. To understand would require humble submission. I'd have to go after the nectar like a bumble bee.
Soon my wife and I started chanting the Hare Krsna maha-mantra regularly, and our taste for devotional service grew. We found that the Hare Krsna temple provided a simple method for satisfying our senses in the service of Lord Krsna. Our senses were no longer satisfied by materialistic engagements. Gradually, by hearing from the devotees, our consciousness was becoming purified. And we knew we were hooked by Krsna. Whatever the secret, it didn't matter. We were going for it.
Today, as my appreciation for Srila Prabhupada's teachings keeps growing, I'm able to understand the secret of the Hare Krsna movement more and more. Strictly following the Vedic scriptures, Srila Prabhupada created ISKCON, a society for devotees of the Lord, to help them grow together in spiritual life. Recognizing that maya, illusion, is strong and the individual soul tiny, Srila Prabhupada, out of his great compassion, wanted to give us a chance to go back to God-head together.
Even though the Sri Sampradaya is much older than ISKCON, only because ISKCON provided a society of devotees in all parts of the world was I able to carry on. I find that in ISKCON even weak devotees become fixed in devotional service quickly by associating with strong devotees. Even the beginning devotee is able to act on the platform of purity and taste the nectar of devotional service.
Lord Caitanya's special oceanic mercy can make anyone chant the holy name of Krsna and dance in ecstatic love of Krsna. He freely distributes the holy name to everyone. And Srila Prabhupada is His specially chosen devotee. Through the Hare Krsna movement Lord Caitanya is pouring His mercy on all of us, without discrimination. This mercy is so powerful it can flood the entire universe with Krsna-prema, love of God. Perhaps this special mercy was what I saw doing its work on that Janmastami day.
Krsna Smarana Dasa (Krishan V. Pagalthivarthi) earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. After teaching at Georgia Tech, he was senior research engineer for Southwest Research Institute. Originally from South India, he and his wife, Krsangi Devi Dasi, are disciples of ISKCON leader Romapada Swami. Krsna Smarana is now vice president and development director of the ISKCON temple in Houston, Texas.