On 50th anniversary, Hare Krishna faith growing in the suburbs
Jenny Zhang had everything and nothing. Big house, luxury car, loving husband, two beautiful daughters — but no happiness.
“I still felt something was missing,” she said. “I was close to 40, but I still didn’t feel happy. And you wonder what is the purpose of life. You go to school, study real hard, try to get a good job, try to get all the fancy material things. Now I have it. So why do I feel not satisfied, not happy?”
Five years later, Zhang traveled from her home in China to chant and dance at a Naperville Hare Krishna temple that is as low-key as the faith itself has been of late.
“Nobody forced me to come here,” she said. “But when I look at the philosophy and the devotees, they are peaceful and happy. Isn’t that what everyone wants?”
Zhang’s blue sari mixes with a swirl of bright colors and patterns others wear as she joins hands with fellow devotees. More striking is the broad the smile on her face.
On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the faith in America, longtime Hare Krishna devotees also are smiling. The faith, known for its orange soda-colored garments and famous chant, became a ubiquitous part of the counterculture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A child sex abuse scandal in the late 1990s bankrupted about a dozen temples and depleted the ranks of devotees.
Now Naperville is home to one of only two Hare Krishna temples in Illinois. On a Sunday in late July, people chanting and dancing spill into every nook and cranny in the room.
About 5,000 people come to the McDowell Road temple to celebrate the most important holy days. Plans to build an expanded temple on the site await city approval.
The Hare Krishna faith is ready for a reincarnation into a higher level on the suburban scene.
Part of the success of the Naperville temple comes from bringing the faith to where its core believers are. Nearly all who attend the weekly Sunday communal feast have Southeast Asian roots. Naperville’s India Day Parade and Celebration last month drew more than 15,000 people.
Also contributing to new growth are the core of Hare Krishna beliefs. At a time where racial and religious identities are creating new wedges in society, the Hare Krishna belief in one God who is capable of many forms offers spirituality without taking sides.
“The understanding is God is one, and we call him Krishna,” said temple President Premananda Dasi. “Someone may call him our Father in heaven. Someone may call him Allah, Buddha. Those are just different names, different incarnations of the same God.”
Dasi said it is that belief in the soul that erases any valuation of exterior qualities.
“Whether I am a woman or an Indian or a black person or a white person, it is all external identification. That is my bodily conception of life. But our true conception should be that I am not this body; I am the spirit soul. So there is no judgment in our belief system because there is no reason for judgment.”
Another reason for renewed interest in the Hare Krishna faith stems from the growing popularity of three main tenets: yoga, vegetarianism and meditation.
Large portions of the faith’s key spiritual text, the Bhagavad-Gita (As It Is), call for the practice of yoga to bring a natural balance to the body and mind.
Every Sunday, the Naperville temple’s kitchen heats up with a communal, vegetarian holy meal that is first offered to Krishna, then shared with the congregation. There is no meat-eating. Devotees believe all animals have souls with developed senses of consciousness. Plants also have souls, but their consciousness is undeveloped. And most plants are not killed when only their fruits or leaves are eaten.
Hare Krishnas are sometimes referred to as practicing “The Kitchen Religion” because of the focal point of the weekly congregation meal.
Meditation, in the form of chanting, also is an everyday aspect of the faith. Devotees have a beaded necklace, like a rosary, with 108 beads representing the 108 Vedic or Hindu spiritual texts. At each bead, a devotee chants, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
“When you are chanting, the purpose is not peace of mind,” Dasi said. “The purpose is to ultimately reawaken the consciousness. I am not this body. Please help me remember I am a soul. I am part of God, and my duty is to serve you.”
No more scandal
Chandana Paul grew up in India worshipping Krishna, chanting occasionally but never getting much out of it. She became an information technology engineer, managing the offshore division of her employer and 150 people.
“I was always anxious,” she said. “I was always worrying and planning. I could barely sit down and do nothing because I always felt like I should be doing something.”
About a year ago, the Naperville resident sought a way to become more committed to her faith. She received beads and a message to chant every day. It didn’t have to be 16 rounds, a two-hour commitment for many devotees. Just chant. She began waking up half an hour early to start her day with meditation.
“That really got me committed,” Paul said. “The chanting is basically meditation. You are meditating with the holy name of Krishna. And we’ve been told that’s the one way of deliverance. I have a perspective now that I have limited control. I may go through difficult times, but there is something I’m going toward. That has made me more relaxed. I’m not worrying all the time that it’s all me, me, me.”
But it’s not all chanting, dancing and eating at the Naperville temple. The challenges moving forward with the faith are about increasing the diversity and continuing to repair the damage caused 20 years ago when leaders acknowledged the molestation and beating of numerous children at now-shuttered boarding schools.
Five of the leaders who took over for the faith’s founder, Srila Prabhupada, were also excommunicated or jailed in various investigations.
Temple President Dasi, a trained child protection officer, said every temple has a child protection team with mandatory training.
“The reason is you don’t want to go through all of that scandal again,” Dasi said. “And we’ve gone through the whole circus. It was a disgrace. We know that everywhere there are scandals. It is human weakness.
“But that is no excuse. That’s why you do proactive things. You cannot inflict pain on any human being and get away with it. No. That is totally against the teachings. But if you extend love, you can get love in return. That is the belief. That is the lifestyle. There is nothing better.”