Thursday, November 29, 2007

What The College Students Really Thought About New Vrindaban



In October a group of about 25 students, along with their professors, visited New Vrindaban (NV). They were part of the Global Leadership Project at Ohio University. For their fall project, the students broke into groups of three and each group was assigned a devotee to interview and to write a paper on their devotee’s Conversion Experience. Caitanya dasa made sure that the devotees consisted of men and women, as well as older and newer devotees. Each group of students conducted several phone interviews with their devotee.

Also, for a month before their visit, the students extensively researched NV and gathered information from various sources. A number of students even read Monkey On A Stick. Then, for a weekend in October, the students actually visited NV to get a close up view of the community and also to meet their respective devotees.

Recently, professor Greg Emery forwarded me papers of the students’ reflections of their visit to the community. I thought the raw candor of their observations would be valuable to take a look at in helping devotees to understand how some visitors view the community. The following excerpts are from those student papers.

Please also see my comments in END NOTES after the excerpts.

In a few months, the papers the student groups wrote on their devotees’ Conversion Experience will appear on the Harvard Pluralism Project website at


Comments About the Devotion of the Devotees

“Touring the Temple and Palace I was able to see the result of pure faith in one’s God. I can only hope to achieve something as magnificent as a result in my faith in something.”

“The practices of bhakti yoga, vegetarianism, as well as many other nuances of the religion were apparent in every single devotees’ life.”

“They offered love and a genuine sense of care for your well being… Once you ask them about the religion, they won’t hesitate to talk your ear off.”

“I appreciated the session on etiquette… the discussion helped me see that the Hare Krishna’s were not much different than anyone else, and that was very important to me… I wish the devotees the best of luck in their futures.”

“I could see that Chris is truly devoted to his religion. It’s amazing to me how much he knows about it, and I have been a Catholic all my life and still do not know some aspects of it.”

“It was amazing to see how dedicated and passionate Tapahpunja was about gardening and agriculture.”

“Getting a tour and talking with a women (Jamuna) who seemed to have a great influence on the community and who had been there for a long time was nice.”

“The most enjoyable part of the trip for me was the meditation during Damodar’s yoga class. It seems that each Hare Krishna, just like everyone else, has their own way to worship and practice their faith.”

About Kirtana and Dancing

“We saw the devotees having a blast and decided to join in and just by our participation they were successful in getting us engaged in their religion.”

“I was a bit unnerved at the fact that devotees would pull in non-participating people and force then into kirtana with them… Everyone knew they were welcome to join in if they wanted to…The chanting and dancing was fun. The kirtanas reminded me of taking communion in my church… the Hare Krishna faith is not far off from Christianity.”

“The chanting and dancing was simply a blast… Megan had said that the chanting and dancing made the dedication to Hare Krishna real, and now I knew what she meant… I found people extremely dedicated to their religion.”

“I danced and chanted my heart out in the Lord’s name…it felt good to let loose…I felt a sense of disconnectedness from everything else in the world… I was in the Hare Krishna “zone. … it felt tribal… far different from anything I have ever experienced inside a Catholic church.”

“Christianity on steroids.”

“Listening and dancing brought me great joy.”

“The trip seemed like a camping excursion, just with a lot more dancing and chanting to sweeten the deal.”

“I liked dancing with the Krishnas. It seemed to bring the temple alive, and for a moment I felt like I could understand their faith….. like a really, really bad camp that was the result of your parents’ good intentions.”

About the Role of Women

“One must remember that the Hare Krishnas follow Vedic law, and as such, their ideas on women’s roles in society are not exactly up to date.”

“I was disappointed when I found that there was no real place in religious hierarchies for independent, forward thinking women.”

“I felt like the only purpose for the women in this religion is to procreate and nothing more.”

“Hare Krishna is a very male dominated religion. Many of the women did not take part in the dancing.”

“I found it frustrating that men could express themselves more freely then women. I could never live in a community like NV… Listening and dancing brought me great joy… I felt somewhat sad. We were leaving this exotic place to return to the ‘real world.’”

Students’ Reflections On Their Visit

“An unforgettable journey ripe with valuable life lessons, unique encounters and cultural education.”

“I have a respect for the Hare Krishna religion, favorable acquaintances with several devotees, and an understanding of the lifestyle.”

“At the Palace rose garden, Chaitanya das held a rose in his hand and said, how could something like this exist without God? A little seed, some water, and then it rises from the dirt to be one of the most beautiful things, with a wonderful smell unlike any other… it did make me look at the beautiful surroundings of NV in a new way.”

“I appreciated what the Krishna Movement showed me about discipline… self discipline is one of the most rewarding qualities to have…it has helped me to be more aware of what discipline can bring to your life… I was able to pet a cow, experience a variety of new foods, meet some interesting people – fun stuff…New Vrindaban showed me another religious walk of life and helped me to experience it…”

“I loved the visit because I was able to gather thoughts and opinions by myself without having anything pushed on me…I will always have a certain attraction for the movement, but the weekend showed me that it was not for everyone. Hare Krishna.”

“My experiences were both enjoyable and challenging. It seemed that there was nothing that was not mentally stimulating …Completely out of my comfort zone to be worshiping false Gods… Krpamaya’s explanation changed me from seeing the deities as elaborately dressed dolls to statues that held a certain amount of credibility… 85% of the time I felt generally “creeped out.”

“My experience at NV was stranger than any other experience I’ve ever had…I talked with one devotee about the possibility of converting to Hare Krishna…They are living a life style that I could never imagine for myself, and I greatly respect them for their dedication and patience.”

“Even though I do not believe in the Deities, the devotees’ devotion and apparent love for them was inspiring.”

“The constant lecturing which continued throughout the weekend was probably the part I disliked the most…The Krishna lifestyle provided stability to the unstable, spirituality to the skeptic, and love to the lonely…there were things I did enjoy about the religion…the trip was one I will never forget or regret.”

“The devotees are charismatic, charming and fantastic storytellers. I value many of their philosophies and appreciate their sense of happiness. Nevertheless, I do not find myself converting to become a Hare Krishna anytime soon.”

“I have gained a better understanding of the religion, its practices, devotees, and unique qualities… but I would not say I would give NV a ‘glowing report.’”

“I in no way want to convert, but was able to understand why it was attractive to some people. I am not sure if I had a spiritual awakening, but it definitely was a spiritual vacation.”

“I would have liked to have more free time to walk around and talk to people rather than sitting and listening to lectures.”

“I came home exhausted, hungry, sore, and desperately wanting to eat something that was recently alive.”

“Go ahead and ask my bank teller, she can tell you all about New Vrindaban!”

"I felt welcomed and accepted despite living a life in almost perfect contrast to theirs."

About NV’s Past

“So it was never proven that the people of NV actually killed someone, but even a suspected murder was enough to put fear in my mind.”

“No murders had recently been committed…”

“I have to admit, I was a little scared and really didn’t know what to expect at all… I have gained a better understanding of the religion, it’s practices, devotees and unique qualities.”

“I had my doubts about Hare Krishna and NV… while some doubts were subsided, many still remain.”

“The experience was something I both anticipated and slightly dreaded…a week before our visit, I started to get a nagging sense of fear and trepidation… despite the worry, I came away from NV with a totally different perspective….I still think the events of the 80’s and 90’s were beyond creepy, but I don’t think they define the religion. The people we met were so open and willing to answer all our questions about the faith… I never felt I was being judged nor that the devotees were interested in converting me to their religion.”

“Nothing gave me the impression of a “cult-like” community… you can’t be a moderate Krishna like you can with Christianity…. I developed a respect for the Hare Krishna religion.”

About the Prasadam

“Although I enjoyed the food, I found the taste to be relatively bland in much of it.”

“Some of the food was not good at all. I really expected it to be amazing, (because of what I heard about Balaram Chandra’s cooking class on campus).”

“The food and people were fantastic aspects of my visit.”

“The prasadam reminded me of Christianity…just like when you eat the bread and drink the wine in Church, you are taking Christ into your body.”

“They served good food and the people were friendly.”

“Pretty much lunch was inedible.”

About the Cows

“Though I am not currently a vegetarian, the man (Balabhadra at ISCOWP) who led us around was very convincing. I wish that people everywhere would treat animals the way this man’s whole philosophy was about just loving cows and treating them with respect.”

“I was enthralled to actually get to pet and hug a cow and felt relaxed in the presence of this gentle giant….Walking through the grove with the cows made me feel happy and like there wasn’t anything else in the world going on. The idea that the cows were so gentle because they were treated with love and kindness was such a great message to take home.”

“Seeing a cow that huge up close was awesome.”

About the Skit for the Students

“The ‘spontaneous drama’ was blatant and over the top… about as subtle as the broad side of a barn… I felt overly proselytized to.”

“The event that really put me off was the small skit the devotees put on…. I found it offensive the way they portrayed students as drunken idiots and liars. I didn’t appreciate they way they singled us out…. Overall, visiting NV was a positive, life changing experience.”

“I was offended by the skit. It was painfully obvious that it was directed toward the students.”

About the Slaying Of Ravana

“The slaying of the devil was absurd and meaningless to an outsider.”

“I found it disturbing.”

“It seemed very cultish when everyone started to dance around the fire and scream the mantra… Overall it was an interesting and insightful weekend.”

“I didn’t like it at all … the message to kill contradicts my understanding of Vedic beliefs. It reminded me of something out of Lord Of The Flies or the KKK burning of the cross.”

“It was so much fun.”


The majority of the students walked away from their visit to NV with a positive experience. I think, if nothing else, the students (except for perhaps one or two) accepted the movement as a bona fide and respected religious tradition. It was great to see how often the students mentioned “Hare Krishna” in their papers.

It’s important to understand that even if someone has a negative comment or attitude, it doesn’t mean that they are against the movement or don’t appreciate it.. Some students went from negative or suspicious to favorable (i.e. one student wrote: “I found it frustrating that men could express themselves more freely then women. I could never live in a community like NV… Listening and dancing brought me great joy… I felt somewhat sad. We were leaving this exotic place to return to the ‘real world.’ “).

So we shouldn’t feel threatened by someone’s negativity, or feel that we have to defeat that negativity with argument. Usually people’s remarks are not inimical, but are made innocently. It’s important not to be annoyed by it, but to deal with each person patiently. Just imagine how patient Srila Prabhupada was with us. Dealing with so many guests, the devotees here in NV are especially cordial. The students appreciated the devotees’ hospitality and many commented on this (i.e.: “I felt welcomed and accepted despite living a life in almost perfect contrast to theirs.”).

Prabhupada wanted devotees to present Krishna Consciousness (KC) to academia. We have to use our intelligence in presenting various issues so that we can truly help people to consider applying KC in their lives. Also, anyone you talk to will in turn go home and talk to numerous people about their visit (i.e. “Go ahead and ask my bank teller, she can tell you all about New Vrindaban!”).

Work out a strategy and make sure all the devotees are on the same page. It was embarrassing to have a couple of devotees with little theater know how try to stage an impromptu skit for the visitors. If its important enough to do, than take time to prepare it properly. We can see from student comments about the skit that throwing something together in the last minute is actually counter productive.

Engage people in KC experiences. On one hand two or three students commented about excessive lectures and talks, but when we did not sufficiently explain about the slaying of Ravana, many students were critical of the event because they didn’t understand it. I take responsibility for this oversight. We need to have a balance in giving people both a proper understanding and the KC experience. And lastly, make sure prasadam is first class since taking prasadam is an important KC experience.

In PART 2 I will address some of the students' concerns and questions.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Experiencing India

Another ad in the NY Times caught my attention. It runs for a full three pages in the Sept 25th issue, touting the glories of India’s contributions to the world. There’s a bold headline: Experience India In New York, announcing a series of cultural events and conferences. The ad has its token images of sitar players and Bharatnatyam dancers along with pictures of business exec’s in ties. The ad’s real intent is not to introduce Indian culture to the West, but rather to broadcast how India is adapting to Western culture so magnificently.

There’s no mention of Gandhi, India’s acknowledged greatest figure of the past 100 years. Of course, no one would want to mention that Gandhi urged his followers to burn their British made clothes and reject British manufacturing methods and have Indians spin their own clothing. When asked about Western civilization, he said that he thought it would be a good idea. Gandhi wanted to strengthen the rural economy and small businesses of India, which echoes the intent of Thomas Jefferson who felt that the strength of America lay in the small farms and small businesses.

Gandhi and Osama Bin Laden are probably on the same page in regards to the West’s decadent influence although they obviously differ in their methodology. Had Bin Laden adapted Gandhi’s non violent tactics he may have had a far more reaching positive impact. But I digress. Back to my main point –

When Mark twain visited India over a hundred years ago, he recognized India’s greatness. He wrote, “India is the cradle of the human race, the birth place of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only. ”

But it would have been impossible to tamper with the greatness of Indian culture had not first the Hindus themselves tampered with and perverted their own tradition. Srila Prabhupada, the noble ambassador and scholar of India’s spiritual culture, explains that the Hindu caste system is artificial and many who were designated as low caste preferred to become Muslims. India’s spiritual heritage was being diluted. After the Muslims came the British. Finally, the multi-national corporate culture appears on the scene, and it will leave India only as a hollow shell of what it once was. Even now many farmers in rural India are committing suicide because they have fallen into debt to a duplicitous and unforgiving corporate structure.

Unfortunately, the real India, the Land of Dharma, is being covered over, and to experience it, one must somehow probe deeply into dharma, the principals of spirituality. Prabhupada has provided a wonderful service to humankind by making the real India accessible to all. Prabhupada, in the 1960’s, in an almost mythical journey at the advanced age of 70, almost penniless and under tremendous personal inconvenience, arrived on these shores on a freighter from India.

Just like Bush, who thought he would take his war against terrorism to the front lines, Prabhupada brought the fight against materialism to New York, the capital and epitome of materialistic culture. But unlike Bush’s war, Prabhupada did not need any bombs or armored vehicles or vast sums of money to entice the people or pay mercenaries. Prabhupada arrived in America armed only with the Holy Name of Krishna, with the sacred teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and Bhagavat Purana, and with the blessings of the previous acaryas (spiritual teachers). He came to give us a true understanding of the soul, of who we really are as eternal beings, and to reawaken our eternal relationship with the Supreme Soul, Sri Krishna.

“This knowledge is the king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is the purest knowledge, and because it gives direct perception of the self by realization, it is the perfection of religion. It is everlasting, and it is joyfully performed.” Bhagavad Gita 9:2

“Sanjaya said: 'Thus have I heard the conversation of two great souls, Krishna and Arjuna. And so wonderful is that message that my hair is standing on end.' ” Gita 18:74