About 20 years ago, Yamuna Jivana Das came to St. Louis for the first time to attend Saint Louis University after having studied abroad. Walking down Lindell Boulevard, he noticed a sign for an Indian vegetarian restaurant. Immediately, Yamuna became excited at the idea of having this restaurant nearby. Curious that no one had told him about it, he inquired about it with a friend. “Don't go there!” his friend said. “They talk about sex and drugs.” While he was somewhat off put by his friend’s remark, Yamuna starting going to this restaurant, which turned out to also be a temple called the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Now, Yamuna Jivana Das is a priest at this ISKCON temple in midtown St. Louis. Through spiritual sound, food, yoga and meditation, and community activities, ISKCON has become an integral member of the urban religious atmosphere in St. Louis.
ISKCON, or the Hare Krishna movement, is unlike many other religions. This movement is only about 50 years old and was founded in New York City by Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta (Cox, 1983). While it is new to the West, ISKCON’s foundation can be traced to an ancient Vedic lineage going back thousands of years (Cox, 1983). At the center of ISKCON is Krishna, who is the supreme being. Krishna is “the cause of all causes; that from which everything generates, is maintained, and ultimately destroyed; and the ultimately truth,” says Yamuna Jivana Das (personal communication, April 2, 2017). He adds, “There is the sun, and the sun is the same sun in every country. We may call it ‘sun’ here, ‘sol’ in Spain, in Afghanistan ‘lmar’. The absolute truth is that the sun has different names, and we call that absolute truth Krishna” (personal communication, April 2, 2017). While Krishna can take many forms and incarnations, ISKCON is completely monotheistic, as everything comes from Krishna. On the surface it may seem that ISKCON is vastly different from other religions, but in fact, it has many similarities. Such similarities with Christianity include: strong feelings of attachment and devotion to God; praising God through singing, chanting, and dancing; emphasis on joy of praising; emphasis on puritanical virtues; and emphasis on a future life in the Kingdom of God (Cox, 1983). Devotees are often attracted by the community, the lifestyle (including practicing vegetarianism), the teachings, the idea of the self as a spirit soul, and the ethical guidelines (Shinn, 1983).
At ISKCON, spiritual sounds are an important aspect of the tradition, and there are many different mantras that are chanted. One of the mantras is called the Hare Krishna. It goes, “hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa, kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare, hare rāma hare rāma, rāma rāma hare hare.” This mantra is chanted every time there is a group gathering and for worship events. It is “kind of like the elevator that helps us go from the material world to the spiritual world. The mantra cleanses the soul and the mind” (Y. J. Das, personal communication, April 2, 2017). Yamuna Jivana Das says that this mantra is universal, and that one needs not be a Hare Krishna to chant it (personal communication, April 2, 2017). These sounds are a means to achieve peace and self-realization and can be chanted by people of all traditions.
For Hare Krishnas, food is much more than just hunger and appetite. Instead, food is a way to love and worship God. According to Yamuna Jivana Das, “It’s like going on a date… The date is centered around food. You are trying to cultivate love for someone” (personal communication, April 2, 2017). By cooking for God (“God can do so many other things, why can’t he eat?” says Yamuna), one is able to form a better relationship with Him. The food is then given to Krishna in what is known as “prasad,” or a religious offering. Whatever is leftover from prasad is then accepted by devotees. Vegetarianism is practiced in ISKCON because in the Bhagavad Gita, which is an ancient Indian sacred text that became an important work of the Hindu tradition of literature, religion, and philosophy, much like the Bible. The word Bhagavad Gita translates to “song of the Lord.” Krishna explicitly states what food he will accept as an offering, and that is only wholesome, vegetarian food (Y. J. Das, personal communication, April 2, 2017). In addition to growing one’s relationship with God, cooking food with the intention of prasad allows devotees to share an intimate experience with each other. “It is a means of developing love for each other and God,” Yamuna Jivana Das explains (personal communication, April 2, 2017).
While the ISKCON temple in St. Louis no longer runs a fully operational restaurant, food remains an extremely important part of the temple. Every Sunday from 5pm-8pm, there is a Krishna Fest that includes a lecture on the scriptures followed by a feast in the restaurant area of the temple. The food is shared among all the participants and attendants of the lecture, whether they are Hare Krishna devotees or outside observers looking to learn more. During the feast, people move through the space to sit with unfamiliar faces and engage with them in casual conversation. It is a time to learn about how others came to the United States, how they became involved with ISKCON, what they do for a living, etc. It is a time of shared food, shared conversations, and shared experiences.
Another important aspect of ISKCON is yoga and meditation. According to Bhaktivedanta, Krishna talks about the importance of yoga in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita (1972). The purpose of yoga is to connect one’s soul to God, and the purpose of meditation is to focus the mind as long as possible on an object of concentration (Y. J. Das, personal communication, April 2, 2017). There are four kinds of yoga practiced in ISKCON, says Yamuna, but the most important and the most common is called “bhakti” (personal communication, April 2, 2017). This type of yoga is connecting to god through love and devotion. Similarly, meditating in the name of God means that God is beautiful, and it helps one feel the presence of God, says Yamuna (personal communication, April 2, 2017). Yamuna Jivana Das and his wife spread these messages of yoga and meditation through their weekly Youth Bhakti Yoga Club at Washington University in St. Louis. Yamuna’s wife is the yoga and mantra meditation teacher, while Yamuna gives a short lecture afterwards (personal communication, April 2, 2017). Whether it is through sharing food, chanting or yoga, we are searching for someone who can hear us and share in our experiences of suffering and happiness.
At the community level, ISKCON is very active. Currently the temple on Lindell has a limited staff, so there are not as many community activities or service opportunities as there used to be. However, ISKCON is involved in interfaith dialogue around the city, especially on college campuses and high schools, including at the Christian Brothers College High School (Y.K. Das, personal communication, April 2, 2017). Yamuna’s wife also runs a homeschooling group. Each month, says Yamuna, they visit a new religious site in order to accustom the children to different traditions and cultures (personal communication, April 2, 2017). Concerning community service, when their restaurant was running full time, any leftovers from the prasad would go to a homeless shelter, (Y.K. Das, personal communication, April 2, 2017). Finally, ISKCON’s relationship with the Hindu Temple of St. Louis creates an interesting dynamic in the city. One of the ISKCON priests also teaches a weekly class at the Hindu Temple and has good relations with the other priests there (Y.K. Das, personal communication, April 2, 2017). Additionally, every year in July, ISKCON partners with the Hindu Temple for the Rath Yatra Festival, or the Festival of Chariots. The parade starts at the Hindu Temple and ends in Queeny Park, and follows with a vegetarian feast and other activities (Bryant, 2016). This is a shared time among devotees to worship and praise Lord Krishna by dancing, chanting, giving prasad, and showing non-devotees the wonder that is ISKCON.
ISKCON’s use of spiritual sound, its emphasis on food as a means to grow closer to God, it practice of yoga and meditation, and its participation in community activities has made it an integral member of the religious urban landscape in St. Louis. While many still believe that ISKCON is a cult that brainwashes its devotees (see Audio File 2), in reality it is just another religion that emphasizes worship for God and living virtuously. When asked what he would tell someone that knows nothing about ISKCON, Yamuna Jivana Das said, “We are all looking for something that makes us complete… Any authentic tradition teaches love for God, and if you can get there, that’s all of our happiness” (personal communication, April 2, 2017). When one enters the ISKCON temple, especially for the first time, the devotees will tell you to come on in, grab a seat, and get yourself a plate of food.
Researched and written by Jadean Hoff, Juan Garcia, and Seema Kakar.
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