Same chants, new image
Hare Krishnas strike a softer tone when sharing their mesage
By BARBARA KARKABI
May 9, 2008
Dr. Hansa Medley wakes up at 3:30 a.m. once a week and walks to the
Hare Krishna Temple just around the corner from her small bungalow in
There she joins her mother, sister and three other devotees to
prepare the temple's nine deities for the day. Before the first Arati
ceremony at 4:30 a.m., they carefully lay out special outfits for
eight statues, choosing coordinating jewelry and face paint.
After the short service, they dress the deities, draping them with
fresh garlands that they've made of carnations. The routine also
involves ritually bathing four small brass deities in water or milk.
In the Krishna version of a church altar guild, the six have the
deities and altar dressed for the 7 a.m. service, the second of seven
held that day.
For priests like Medley and other high-level devotees, the early
morning services are just the beginning of their daily worship. She
will also join a morning scripture class or return home to study and
pray with the beads all Krishna devotees carry in a small decorated bag.
Only then is she ready for the rest of the day as a doctor of
"My faith is the basis of my life, it's what gives meaning to it,''
said Medley, 49, whose spiritual name is Guru Bhakti Dasi. "And it's
fun. When we try to serve God, he gives us the strength to do it. To
me it's very fulfilling and it's why I want to talk about it all the time.''
Hare Krishnas burst onto the American scene after 1965, when Srila
Prabhupada was sent by his Indian guru as a missionary to this
country. Americans of the '60s and '70s have vivid memories of young
Krishnas in saffron-colored dhotis dancing and chanting in airports
and on city streets, accompanied by drums and cymbals.
"We were very immature and a bit too pushy back then with our
literature," said Indradyumna Swami, an American who became a devotee
in the late '60s. The swami, a well-known traveling monk and teacher,
is based in Russia and Eastern Europe, where he sponsors a yearly
festival in Poland.
Chanting, dancing and sharing food still are an important part of
their faith. That's one reason Houston's Hare Krishnas prefer to do
their outreach today at festivals and interfaith events.
"By doing this, we make many friends and people better understand us
and our teachings," Medley said.
For the past five years they've rented a booth at the Houston
International Festival, selling vegetarian food, handing out
literature, performing spiritual chants and inviting women to try on saris.
This afternoon will find the Hare Krishnas at the annual Art Car
Parade with a food booth and a parade entry. Members of Jiv Jago, a
lively youth group band, will be among those on a decorated flatbed
trailer pulled by a small truck. The kirtan band recently made a CD
of their chants.
"Jiv Jago means 'awakening the soul'," said Anish Pillai, a
University of Houston student and one of the group's founders. "This
music brought us together and it's special because it's praising God.
It feels like we separate from our material existence. We forget
about what we're doing in school or work and we focus our minds on
God and the higher purpose of life. It's so enlivening and so powerful."
The Hare Krishnas are the Western branch of the Gaudiya Vaishnava
movement, part of the Hindu tradition that originated in Bengal, said
Jeffrey J. Kripal, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at
The tradition dates to 16th-century guru Chaitanya Mahaprabu,
considered an incarnation of Krishna, Kripal said. The guru taught
that Lord Krishna was the principal deity and that everyone could
have a personal relationship through group chanting of God's names,
especially the Hare Krishna mantra:
"Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama,
Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare."
A year after Prabhupada arrived in New York City by freighter, he
established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also
known as ISKCON. Even in the psychedelic 1960s, Krishna devotees and
initiates took vows to abstain from using recreational drugs and
alcohol, eating meat and having sexual relations outside of marriage.
"He did connect with the hippies and became one of the gurus of the
counterculture," Kripal said. "But what was unique about Prabhupada
is that he converted Americans and other non-Indians to this tradition."
One of them was Medley's husband Peter, who joined the Krishna
movement in the late '70s.
"I was raised a California surfer," he said. "I guess my parents were
some kind of Protestants, but I found it stuffy and I didn't feel
very comfortable. I never really thought about God until I got into college."
As a University of California, Berkeley, student, he learned yoga and
meditation, which eventually led him to the Hare Krishnas. A teacher
gave him a copy of Prabhupada's well-respected translation and
commentary of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu sacred text.
"It was a fun and intense time," said Medley, 59, a writer,
vegetarian caterer and temple teacher and priest whose spiritual name
is Sarvabhauma Das. "I started thinking about a supreme being and the
idea of reincarnation. We don't believe reincarnation is forever and
it's not the most important belief we have, but it made a lot of sense to me."
Around the corner from the West 34th Street temple, 50 Krishna
devotees live in 12 houses along one street. The Medleys and her
parents live in one of the homes. The 50 are among the most involved
members of the temple, which has about 4,200 people on its mailing
list, temple president Hasmukh Naik said. Other equally devoted
priests and members drive in from as far away as Sugar Land.
On Sundays, 350 to 500 people attend the main service in the building
that once was a Baptist church. A larger temple is under construction
at the 4.8-acre site that includes a meditative garden and culture center.
Priests and other temple staff members are all volunteers and many,
such as Hansa Medley, have jobs in the 9-5 world.
She was raised Hindu by Indian parents in the Fiji Islands. But she
always felt something was missing.
"I used to think that if God was so important, they would talk about
him in school," she recalled. "But they didn't so I thought it was a myth."
On her first day at medical school in India she was given a book
written by Prabhupada. She was so struck by his writing that she
decided to dedicate her life to the faith.
On Thursday nights, the Medleys open their home to devotees and
seekers. A talk and chanting are always followed by food and conversation.
"We feel we have created a place or safe haven for people trying to
find out about us and the temple," Hansa Medley said. "They can come
and see we are ordinary people. It's also a place for the devotees.
My sister coordinates the cooking and we feel good about serving people."