Pushing the strange yellow and red foods around their plates, the students whined and grumbled” “This food is gross,” “It’s weird here,” “I’m hung over.” These complaints could have come from any freshmen over lackluster dining hall food on a Saturday afternoon.
But the food was traditional Indian fare, not burgers. Vegetarian, not fried. The students weren’t freshmen. They were members of Ohio University’s Global Leadership Center. And huddled around their plates as the wind whipped autumn’s first fallen leaves around them, they were certainly a long way from the dining hall.
GLC traveled three and a half hours last weekend through the multicolored autumnal Appalachian hills to visit New Vrindaban, a Hare Krishna farm or an oasis or an amusement park, depending on whom you ask.
From Athens to New Vrindaban
New Vrindaban resident Chaitanya Dasa sat cross-legged in his chair, passing egg-free cookies and roasted pine nuts around his office in New Vrindaban, a religious community in West Virginia made up of followers of Hare Krishna, an offshoot of Hinduism.
GLC, an internationally focused two-year certificate program, has been coming to New Vrindaban for several years, studying various aspects of life on the grounds. GLC hopes to submit Chaitanya’s conversion story and those of other Hare Krishna followers to the ongoing Pluralism Project, a Harvard University initiative to collect information on religious communities in the United States.
OU senior Anthony Chambers acknowledged the difficulty of probing people for the details of something as personal as changing religious beliefs.
“You want to be respectful, but you still have to get the information you need,” Chambers said. Clad in orange robes, 25-year-old Chaitanya was being interviewed by GLC participants junior Allen Dennis, junior Whitney Pesek and senior Nick Yinger. They wanted to know how and why he adopted Hare Krishna beliefs and moved to West Virginia.
New Vrindaban has been attracting converts and controversy since its founding in the 1968. The 1,500-acre complex includes a temple, an organic farm, lodging for guests and the Palace of Gold, an ornate memorial to Prabhupada, the movement’s founder.
Although smaller than in its heyday, over 100 followers of Hare Krishna still live on the grounds. Some have been living there for decades, but others, including 33-year-old Meghan Daum, are more recent converts.“Have you ever done something in your life, and it just fit?” Daum asked GLC participants Chambers and junior Olga Kooi over dinner. “You don’t know why, but it does.”
Daum had started going to Hare Krishna events and enjoyed them so much she just kept coming back. Later, she moved into New Vrindaban. There was no “big moment” when she decided to convert. Her decision was slower and more gradual.“I became (a follower) because it fit. It worked,” she said.
Hare Krishna lifestyle
Not only were GLC participants interviewing converts, but they were also learning about many aspects of the life at New Vrindaban, from yoga and temple etiquette to milking cows and even Hare Krishna religious services.
Several times a day, followers gather in New Vrindaban’s temple for worship services built around the Maha Mantra, a 16-word mantra said, chanted or sung to honor God. Prayer beads are used to recite the mantra for hours a day, helping to clear the mind of distractions, Daum said.
The Hare Krishna-focused life of New Vrindaban aids in followers’ spiritual journeys, Chaitanya told his GLC interviewers.“The philosophy and lifestyle can’t be separated,” he said.
GLC’s Pesek, who said she wasn’t raised religious, agreed that the surroundings at New Vrindaban were conducive to worship.
“You can’t walk into the temple and not have some kind of spiritual feelings,” she said.
During religious services, followers dance among the temple’s stained glass windows and 24 columns, swaying towards the altar adorned with Hindu deities and surging back to the quickening tempo of the drum beat.
Followers also raise and prepare organic vegetarian food, mostly Indian, on the grounds to keep with a self-sustained and environmentally friendly lifestyle. Under the weight of fresh milk, chai tea and homemade cheesecake, GLC participants’ complaints about the food faded as the weekend wore on.
“Oh, yeah, I forgot about the food,” GLC’s Kooi said by Sunday morning. “I love this place.”
The simple food and monastic lifestyle help focus followers’ minds on serving God. But life isn’t without its problems at New Vrindaban, Chaitanya said.
“In any place with people, there’s a level of hypocrisy,” he said. “What matters is the aspirations of those people.”
Fireworks and festivity
Saturday evening, GLC participants joined followers lakeside in the hills of New Vrindaban, the changing leaves hidden by the evening’s darkness. Immersing themselves in the experience, several GLC students even joined the procession from the temple, chanting the Maha Mantra and marching in costume toward the effigy built to commemorate an ancient Hindu story.
GLC’s Yinger marched with the procession as it circled the effigy. He was handed a bow and shot the effigy with a flaming arrow as part of the ceremony. The crowd cheered as the effigy began to burn and fireworks exploded over the lake.“This is what GLC does,” said OU junior Christina Conrad, one of the participants.
Dance and chant in the moonlight?
“Yeah!” she laughed.
“What do you think of all this?” Daum asked GLC’s Pesek.
Pesek paused, the fire’s glow falling on her face. “It’s fun,” she said.
A moment later, her friend took her by the arm and into the people dancing and circling the fire as chants of “Hare Krishna” rose into the crisp night air.
[ new-vrindavana ]