Source: Hartford Courant
The modest house at 1683 Main St. would draw little attention during the week, but on Sundays, the unassuming yellow building attracts dozens of Hare Krishna devotees singing mantras, dancing, chanting and, finally, partaking in a vegetarian feast.
To many in the U.S., the words Hare Krishna conjure images of the 1960s and ’70s, long-robed devotees handing out flowers in airports, and musician George Harrison, but the movement has survived to celebrate 50 years since Swami Bhaktivedanta founded the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in the United States in 1966.
Temple President Pyari Mohan Prabhu, 68, said the East Hartford congregation has been steadily growing since he became president in 1981 and the temple was officially incorporated.
Established in 1978, the temple is the only one in Connecticut. Originally, the movement rented a house on Silver Lane but after a few years bought the 1909 house on Main Street.
“When we first started the building was also very rundown … and we were getting probably about 10 people coming, maybe 15, and now we’re getting at least 70 people on Sundays,” Pyari said. “If we had a bigger place, we’d get more people.”
Devotees are vegetarians and worship the Hindu God Krishna. They do not drink alcohol or have sexual intercourse unless it is to conceive children.
A typical Sunday feast starts at 3:30 p.m. with chanting, a lesson based on the Bhagavad Gita, more chanting of “hare kṛiṣhṇa hare kṛiṣhṇa kṛiṣhṇa kṛiṣhṇa hare hare hare rāma hare rāmarāma rāma hare hare.”
Music, played mostly on drums, castanets and small cymbals, follows the chanting and is often accompanied by spirited dancing. Finally, guests enjoy a free vegetarian feast of rice, a tortilla-like whole wheat flatbread called “puris,” curried vegetables, a dessert of condensed milk called “kheer,” and other dishes.
At the Sunday feast, there is no dress code, but everyone must remove their shoes before entering the temple. Some male congregation members wear the flowing robes that are iconic of the movement, while women wear saris, a traditional South Asian garment. Others come as they are in polo shirts, cargo pants, T-shirts, jeans.
Congregation member Amrta Keli, 38, said the temple in East Hartford attracts devotees from across Connecticut and the Springfield area.
“They come from all over the place. Primarily this part of Connecticut, but there are people who come from Norwalk, Fairfield, New Canaan, people come from the Springfield area,” Amrta said. “This is the only ISKCON center in Connecticut and here you’ll see people from different nationalities and different ethnic backgrounds.”
The temple also hosts a Krishna Kids Camp for children ages 6 to 14 from July 25-30 for $150. Children will participate in devotional activities such as the reading of the Bhagavad Gita and learn to cook, sew, dance, draw and make jewelry.
According to ISKCON’s statistics, 9 million people follow the Hare Krishna movement worldwide.
Pyari got involved in the Hare Krishna movement in 1971 when he was 23. He came to East Hartford 10 years later. He lives in the temple on Main Street with his wife and family.
“I spent four years in the Navy, I went to Vietnam four times and while I was in the Navy I started thinking about my life. I was born, went to high school, got a job in insurance and joined the Navy, got a girlfriend and we’d gotten engaged … and then I’d buy a house, have kids, send them to college and then they’ll have kids and I’ll be a grandfather and then I’ll die,” Pyari said. “And then I thought why? Why go through all that trouble just to die?”
Pyari said he was born Catholic but his family, based in Brooklyn, had never really practiced. While in the Navy, he started to read the Bible, but it didn’t answer the questions he had.
“I checked out all different religions and I got out of the Navy and I tried to find the meaning of life — hitchhiking around the country, living in the mountains and every time I found one thing wrong, I’d reject it. When I checked out Krishna Consciousness and I’d always ask questions when things didn’t make sense and I always got good answers,” he said.
Amrta said she became a devotee after looking for similar answers.
“When I came to ISKCON, it offered truly everything I was looking for,” said Amrta, who said she has two master’s degrees from UConn. “Am I supposed to use my mind to get more degrees, more MBAs, or is there something more? The music and the food were a big draw for me, as was the austerity to please the Lord.”
Other devotees got involved in the Hare Krishna movement for cultural reasons.
Gita Mala said she went to Maryland and then came to Connecticut from Bangalore in southern India nearly 40 years ago, and when she arrived she didn’t expect to find a way to connect to her culture back home.
“I thought, there is no Krishna in Maryland,” Gita, who now lives in Simsbury, said. “But there was a temple there. This wasn’t something new to me, it was my tradition. It was a reaffirmation of my faith and the things my grandmother had taught me.”
Gita did not join the Hare Krishna movement until she arrived in the United States and realized it was a practice composed of all the things her grandmother had taught her in India.
“It convinced me that it [Hare Krishna] wasn’t a foreign movement. I didn’t understand the tradition until I came here,” Gita, who has worshipped at the temple for 38 years, said.
Pancharatna dasa, 65, was visiting the temple in East Hartford from Maygpur, India, where he sits on the board of ISKCON. A Connecticut native, he has lived in India for 40 years with his family, and was visiting his mother, Helen Raisz, in Farmington.
He reflected on how the movement has changed since it began in the United States in 1966.
“It’s been a long ways. I’ve been with this movement since 1971,” Pancharatna said. “I’ve seen times when our movement was met with scorn. We’re reflecting on where we’ve had difficulties and our movement has not stopped growing.”
Professor Cynthia Humes, who teaches religion at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., said the Hare Krishna movement has transformed since it first arrived in the United States. She said it now appeals to many second- or third-generation South Asian-Americans looking to reconnect with their culture.
“Alongside the now aging converts from the Sixties and Seventies, non-resident Indians practice traditional devotionalism (Bhakti) with their families there,” Humes said in an email. “Instead of sites of conversion, the Hare Krishna temple serves as a cultural center to instill a Hindu identity in American-born children of Indian parents.”
Humes said that public perception of the Hare Krishna has changed drastically in 50 years, and that non-devotees are less likely to judge the movement.
“When Swami Bhaktivedanta first came, there were many who criticized him and his teachings. In particular, people called him a cult leader and the Hare Krishnas a cult. The philosophy taught was actually a very conservative philosophy, and the rules of behavior were also very traditional and conservative,” Humes said.
“There were many academics who publicly supported the movement in the Seventies during the height of the anti-cult movement, when public perception was very negative,” she said. “Today, Hare Krishna temples and congregants are probably not seen as any different than any other Hindu temple and congregants.”
Pancharatna dasa is hopeful that congregations like the one in East Hartford will keep growing.
“We’ve just kept on growing. So we’re encouraged that people still see benefits of our movement.”