|Publisher:||Brown Posey Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.51(d)|
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Meet the Hare Krishnas
There is a saying that says every journey begins with a step. Mine was a series of steps with synchronicities folded in. Sometimes God just gives us breadcrumbs to follow. You could say I was led to India, guided there, taken by the hand, given a plane ticket and told, "Go!" If my story was that simple, no one would believe me. So, in a slightly more complex, yet magical way, I was gifted with an opportunity to follow my own yellow-brick road.
My journey became "The Way," something pilgrims use to describe their journey on the El Camino de Santiago in Spain. I was certainly nowhere near Spain, nor on a Catholic's pilgrimage. Pilgrims who trek The Way are said to have a personal experience, where perhaps, they commune with God or find something in themselves.
Somewhere in my youth I had heard of the religious group the Hare Krishnas. All I knew about them was that they were robe-wearing, drum-playing, happy people. I still have this picture in my head of bald white men hunched over dancing, most likely from a newspaper article I read. I knew nothing of their spiritual beliefs, their history, or what they were singing about. I never questioned anything more about them, even though I spent most of my twenties studying various spiritual beliefs.
About ten years ago, my husband, daughter, and I spent a weekend on Toronto Island. In a large grassy area, underneath a large yellow tent, a group of men wearing saffron-colored robes were dancing and chanting. Indian nationals were all around. A man in a saffron robe approached my family and over the fence asked us if we wanted any food. The food was free. We declined politely and kept walking. I didn't think much about that experience again.
As life would have it, a few years ago I began taking free yoga classes one to two times a week from a man named Ken. Even though I had teachers at my own yoga studio, something drew me to drive thirty minutes to a business office where classes were held. It was here in this carpeted room where Indians and white people gathered to do yoga unlike any we taught in the West. It was simple enough (outside of the sun salutation), that even an elderly man sitting in a chair nearby could do it himself.
Ken talked the entire class. We laughed. People passed gas. Someone I knew said he had been to Ken's classes before and called it "Happy Yoga." After our asana practice, we would move into pranayama, followed by savasana, and then meditation. I grew to love this class and when Ken said that his temple had a special event and we should come, I was excited about the opportunity.
My husband, Matthew, and I discovered that there was a Hindu temple within a half hour of our home. When we arrived, people were busily unloading their cars and moving in and out of the temple. It took us about ten minutes or so to get the attention of someone to find out where we were supposed to go. We were told it was a celebration, but it sounded like they were preparing for a celebration opposed to holding a celebration and no one knew who "Ken" was., not having it that day. No one had heard of a "Ken," and no one had anything more to share.
Yoga classes had ceased and it took us about 2 years before we heard more about going back to the temple. It was Matthew who inquired, and, after reaching out to my former teacher, we decided to go.
We were given different start times. One said 6:30 p.m., while the other said 7:00 p.m. We aimed to arrive around 6:30 p.m. in hopes of not interrupting anything. When we arrived, only four other cars were in the lot. We nervously sat in my husband's red hatchback. That's what two ambiverts who are incredibly shy do. We were afraid to leave the car. We felt like we were crashing someone's party. By 6:50 p.m. we both mustered the gumption to leave the car and head inside. A few more cars had made their way into the lot as we walked up the steps.
We walked inside and took off our shoes in the little room to the left of the temple entrance. We headed upstairs where a small group was crowded around deities, chanting and moving a silver plate with candles clockwise and then counter clockwise. They passed the plate off to one another doing this for almost a half hour. The plate eventually made its way over to us. We were sitting in a row of chairs off to the sidelines. The gentleman looked at us with a big smile over his face. There was some money on the plate, so Matthew and I, not knowing what to do, looked at it and put money on the plate. The nice man said "No, no." But since we looked confused, he walked away. Growing up Catholic, we did what Catholics do. A plate? Candles? It's time to donate.
A few days earlier my teacher said that he would be there to guide my husband through the night, but we had yet to see him. A bald jovial man approached us, introducing himself.
"Are you Matthew and Susan? Your teacher mentioned you would be here tonight. Welcome! We are running late setting up." After him, another man, and yet another, came over to greet us. Around us, children were lovingly running around the temple showing each other games and phones and talking with one another.
"I brought my iPhone," one child said to another.
As little chairs for the floor were set up, we were told that the men sit to the right and the women to the left. Shortly after we sat down, people filled the room and mantras began to be sung. A table with deities, flowers, and incense had been completed. A woman sat near me and let me hold her baby. I became so attached to having this small human being in my arm, for it was the only thing I was comfortable with at that moment, that she had to ask for her child back.
Bhagavad Gitas were handed out, and a gentleman arrived to start the Gita discussion and Q&A. He sat in a low chair with a small table in front of him, where he placed his laptop with notes.
We read Slokah 17:11. He walked us through saying it in Sanskrit and then in English. This went perfectly with my nonattachment theme for this week, but also with my newly found Bhakti Yoga path. The reading discussed honoring and loving God without asking for anything in return. The speaker used stories we could all relate to. He told us it was equally as important to honor and respect each other as it was to honor and respect our guru. In the Gita, Krishna, a manifestation of God, says how he is in everything and everyone. This was a beautiful reminder to continue to see everything as God. To see God in everything, everywhere, at every moment.
After the Gita discussion, the floor was cleared with the men and women staying on their respected sides. The kirtan began. Kirtans are a call and response of mantras sung. The men and children began playing the mridanga and kartals that had orange fabric flowing from them. The men and women started to dance. They moved back and forth singing the mantras and clapping.
Tentative at first, I happily clapped my hands. Next, I sang back the Maha mantra, Hare Krishna. Since I have no ability to dance in a choreographed fashion, I avoided the dance movement and instead swayed slightly back and forth. As I continued to open my heart and let go of my fear, I felt myself swell with love. A big smile crossed my face. On the other side of the room, my sixfoot five, blonde hair, blue-eyed husband had joined a group of men dancing in a circle. I laughed to myself as it reminded me of the dance circle my Albanian family did at weddings and my Irish friends did at celebrations. Last time Matthew joined a circle to dance was at a Jewish-Chinese wedding his friend had in Toronto long ago. He beamed with joy.
A plate of candles made its way around the room. I watched the women near me move their hands from the flame to their third eye. It reminded me of the fire cleansing that is done with the Munay Ki Rites, a practice of the shamans of the Andes Mountains. Twice my hands scooped the essence of the flame to my forehead. Next, a little girl happily went around the women's side with a fuchsia carnation scented with what smelled like jasmine. We all took turns inhaling deeply.
After the kirtan was over, the room slowly bowed to the deities on the table. The crowd repeated "Jai," several times after something was said in Hindi. I looked across the room to Matthew. He bowed as well. I felt conflicted to bow as I did not know who I was bowing to. Certainly, Krishna was on the table. I felt once again like I was crashing someone's party and it would be dishonorable to bow not knowing what I was bowing to. And then I heard my friend Arabella's voice in my head.
A few years ago, she received a message for me. In this message, it was to rectify my relationship with God. To go to him like a child and supplicate myself to him. So, I bowed. I brought my body down, hands on floor, and paused, moving my body into a version of the yoga asana, extended child's pose. I felt myself move into a deep, utter peace. The inner conflict was gone. I was expressing my need to honor God.
As the evening wound down, it was time for announcements. The gentleman from earlier in the evening introduced us to the Krishna followers. Matthew was given a Gita of his own and kudos for being the first new devotee who danced his first time.
We had to leave before meals were eaten to pick up my daughter. We were not allowed to leave without taking home enormous plates of Indian food prepared by the group. Our plates were piled high while one of the women, who I suspected to be in her fifties with several gray hairs drawn back into her black bun, told me, "You have to eat the food. It is God's food. You have to feed yourself, so you feed God. I hope it's not too spicy for you."
As we left, Matthew said, "I want to go again next week."
Come to India
Several months later, Matthew and I found ourselves invited to a retreat by a devotee who was quickly becoming our friend. Krishna Kumar Das had told us his guru was going to be there and we might have a few minutes to meet him.
The entire morning leading up to the Lord Caitanya's Movement in the West retreat, I spent panicked that I didn't have the right clothes. I packed my bag with a skirt, a few camisoles, and two long-sleeve shirts and wore a dress with a long-sleeved cardigan. It bothered me that I didn't match, but at least I was dressed chastely for the temple at the Gita Nagari Farm, as per their request.
I could not excuse myself for not thinking further ahead and getting something that matched. I was not arriving in devotional attire which was listed as an option, a traditional sari for women and dhoti for men. We were running late because of the stress I was creating for myself in my own mind. I left the house and spent the hour and a half drive in a fitful state of mind. Matthew was kind, patient, and quiet. He happily drove, enjoying the beauty of Pennsylvania's countryside, even though the two detours made us even more behind schedule. I was worried that I wouldn't fit it in. I was not an initiated Krishna devotee. I was a woman with shaky spiritual beliefs, at best, who wanted to be a part of this weekend. However, I felt something auspicious was to take place. I figured I wouldn't understand what was happening during the weekend, seeing as at temple on Friday evenings I spent more than half the evening in confusion. Would this weekend be the same?
As if by hearing my pleas, a chipmunk crossed our path on the road. Silly? Perhaps. Since June, when my family and I were visiting my in-laws at their home outside of Ottawa, the innocuous critter had come across my path several times a week. This could be attributed to the time of year, but I didn't feel that was the case. In all my years living in this area, I almost never saw one. If I did, it was for a split second that happened so fast I questioned it. The chipmunk would evade me like a hummingbird. Now, they lingered. I could see them clearly for minutes at a time. At my in-law's house, they made their way into a bag of bird seed and snacked all day. They cared very little that I was yards away saying hello and snapping pictures of them. As a believer in signs, seeing chipmunks now became a symbol of joy for me.
From the inside of my blue minivan with a broken A/C compressor, I told the chipmunk to move. A truck was coming down the other lane. It listened and went back where it came from. I felt Krishna gave me a message that everything would be alright. Chipmunk symbolism means wishes granted. My only wish for this weekend was to meet Krishna Kumar Das' guru, His Holiness Radhanath Swami, if that was even remotely possible.
Why the sudden interest and longing to meet this guru? You mean beside the lack of gurus in Pennsylvania? A series of coincidences led me to learn about Radhanath Swami from a woman who did a kirtan at my studio. During the event, I was captivated by stories kirtan artist, Kamaniya Devi, shared out of the book in front of her. They were funny and moving and referenced the spiritual pilgrimage of a man to India. After the concert, Kamaniya showed me the book she was reading. She was in fact selling copies of them. The Journey Home was authored by her guru, HH Radhanath Swami. When the small group of people had left, her partner, Keshavacharya Das, had told me more about the Swami and the Hare Krishnas.
By the time of the retreat, I had read the book about two and a half times, had dog-eared and underlined portions of the book. Perhaps this man was the guru I had been waiting for. I, like many spiritual seekers, held a fascination with Indian culture and thought a guru was what I needed in my life.
HH Radhanath Swami was a young Jewish American from Chicago, who, in the 1970s, went on a trip with a group of friends to Europe. He was in search of something more. His travels drew him to India, where he gave up his clothing to the Ganges River, slept in caves and under trees, and became a holy man. He traveled throughout India studying with many swamis, gurus, and ascetics, until he committed to his guru, Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder for the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
We drove up Gita Nagari Road, the entrance marked by a fence with a sign below it and a few garden knickknacks and plants. Three hundred and fifty acres were dedicated to a cruelty- and slaughter-free dairy farm that made milk, cheese, and ghee. We passed by an orchard to our left and into open fields with cows wandering. We drove by a building marked "Yoga Studio," and a tent with a stage being set up for the initiation on Sunday. Camping tents lined the adjacent field. The parking area was full. There were other cars pulling up into the lot in front of us and behind us. We were late, but so were others. Indian culture has a beautifully relaxed attitude, at least from what I have encountered. They do not seem to be ruled by the stressful clock as Americans seem to be. As we registered, we were told the lecture had not even started yet. Maharaj was not yet there, and we were twenty minutes late. As someone who is chronically late for everything, including my own birth, I could just kiss this culture. I already fit in.
Like others, we slipped off our shoes outside of the temple. To my right and left were shelves that held more shoes, shelves that widened as they got lower. I stepped onto the polished dark brown floors of the temple and walked up the staircase to my right. I saw people prostrate on the floor before they entered the temple. I did the same. After, I made my way inside. Matthew sat on the men's side. I ducked into the women's side and sat comfortably in a half lotus pose.
An air conditioner was on, as well as three ceiling fans. It was hot, but not intolerable. Mantras were sung with hands tapping the two-headed mridanga while kartals clanged together. The voices of the growing crowd joined the instruments. Soon, HH Radhanath Swami entered the room. Then the room grew. For the next two hours, the space around me crept away to fit in more bodies, until the only space I had was knees to chest, ankles crossed (trying not to have my feet face the altar or Maharaj, out of respect). Mothers kept moving in and out depending on the needs of their children. The rising temperature left me feeling faint and dehydrated.
There's a reason why in hot places in the world, clothing is made from cotton and silk. It is breathable! Rayon, polyester, and other fabrics that I was wearing were not. I deeply regretted what I was wearing, having read days before that Krishna devotees stick to the breathable, natural fabric. In the temple, I did not drink since I did not see anyone else drink. It was probably against temple rules. I told myself that I would endure. My ears were doing their best to be peeled to the words of Maharaj despite the uncomfortable seated position and the unmistakable thirst. Instead, I allowed his words to be my source of comfort.
Excerpted from "Let Me Carry You Home"
Copyright © 2018 Susan Kiskis.
Excerpted by permission of Sunbury Press Inc..
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