Last night my cousin and I went to a Hare Krishna service at Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandir in downtown Brooklyn. The 6:00 Sunday service is called Sandhya Arati + Kirtan.
It's pretty much an hour-long incense-induced shoeless dance party, but hey, they have fun with their religion. And they get to wear robes.
Everyone faced a main stage, where an older gentleman in a white robe performed a series of rituals involving fire, water, and a large fan. The man leading the chants stood in the crowd next to a microphone, surrounded by boys and men with drums. The atmosphere was joyful. Little girls danced in circles. Here are some pictures (sorry for the poor quality):
Upon entering the room, each person got on their knees and bowed, some a little more dramatically than others:
And don't ask me who that guy on the couch is. He faced the stage near the back and remained unmoved for the entire service.
At one point a woman walked around with a flame on a plate. She instructed us to put our hands over the flame and then touch our foreheads. Next, a different woman came around with a bowl of water and splashed us with droplets.
After an hour of music and chanting that escalated into jumping up and down with hands in the air, it all ended with a quiet prayer:
Since walking blindly into the service didn't really reveal much about the Hare Krishna belief system (and my knowledge to date has been based solely on an episode of Mad Men), I dug a little deeper via their website. Karma, vegetarianism, and yoga play a large role, as do the following four principles:
1. Cleanliness: Of body, mind and soul.
This means the daily washing of the body, but also refraining from illicit sex (only sex for procreation within marriage). Celibacy, recitation of God´s (Krishna´s) holy names and studying the holy Scriptures help us to keep the mind and soul clean and balanced.
2. Mercy: To help living entities (materially as well as spiritually).
True followers of the Vedic (or any other) Scriptures are strictly vegetarians. It is perfectly possible to live healthily and happily without needlessly killing innocent animals. To kill our fellow living entities instead of protecting them, is against the laws of God.
3. Austerity: To take only what we really need, without greed or violence.
Intoxications like alcohol, hard and soft drugs, tobacco, caffeine etc. make someones mercy and friendliness disappear. Addictions are not only unnecessary, but also very harmful (to body, mind and to others). The best alternative for addictions is an awakening of our eternal relationship with God (Krishna) by living in accordance with His laws.
4. Truthfulness: Means that we should not lie or gamble.
Gambling destroys truthfulness because it is an attempt to bypass the laws of nature and obtain material profit without honestly working for them. An honest deed is the best gamble in the world and a sure winner.
But perhaps the largest part is what they call "Mantra Meditation," which is both individual and congregational. Individually devotees of Krishna perform a daily schedule of personal prayer and meditation. This is centered around the recitation of the names of Krishna (God) using prayer beads to count out the number of names chanted. The prayer, or “mantra”, that they repeat is called the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra.
“Hare”, “Krishna” and “Rama” are all names used in the Vaishnava tradition that refer to God and His energies. Because God is spiritual and all-powerful if someone chants His name then they will become purified – materially and spiritually. This chanting is also considered a form of prayer whereby the devotee is appealing to the Lord to please engage the devotee in the Lord’s service.
Overall, it was pleasant. The people were relatively welcoming but pretty much left us alone. I didn't get a cult vibe. And if I ever feel like dancing and touching fire and feasting on vegetarian fare, I know where to go.