Yoga Experience at the ISCKON Center - Sarah Luchini
At first sight of the ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) Center of Boston, I noticed two things: A message on the outdoor sign that read, “All Are Welcome” and an abundant pile of vacant shoes sitting upon the doorstep. Venturing inside, I found even more shoes scattered around, some neatly aligned against the darkly varnished walls of the small entryway, some thrown about in a chaotic manner. Surprisingly, a large percentage of the shoes were small and clearly those of little children. I would later come to realize that this intimate cluster of shoes – a seemingly small detail within such a beautiful center – enveloped all that I would come to feel for this peaceful and welcoming place.
With limited prior knowledge of this center, I was not aware that it was custom to remove one’s shoes before entering, but I did so, assuming as much from the shoe pile. When I entered, I was greeted with a complete frenzy of vibrant and lively energy, coming from people of all ages. Children were running all about, playfully bumping into anyone who might get in their way, giving me the impression that perhaps the children of this center were not just those of his or hers mother or father, but those of all the devotees. The strong sense of family and love and trust was thus present right from the beginning.
As I made my way through the entry hall, I noticed the high walls lined with several pictures of whom I could only assume was the center’s Acarya, or founder, “His Divine Grace” A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. At this point in my visit, I had very little idea of how important this man was in establishing the center, as well as in propagating knowledge and “[teaching] the science of Krishna consciousness throughout the English-speaking world.” (ISKCON brochure)
Getting more a solidified feel for the center, I found that the demographic of devotes seemed fairly diverse. Although I felt slightly ostracized due to my clearly Western heritage among so many that were of Indian decent, their welcoming smiles and kind faces made me feel much more at ease in the unfamiliar place. The clothing worn by the devotees was also an interesting aspect of my experience, as well as added to the diversity of the center as a whole. Some of the attendees wore plain street clothes, while others adorned the traditional Indian clothing. For the most part, it was the masters who wore only the traditional clothing, while some of the devotees wore a mixture of street clothes and the traditional kurta, pajama, and dhoti. In addition, the majority of all attendees also had a cream-colored painted emblem upon their nose bridge. There seemed to be a fairly even spread of middle-class citizens in attendance, and all seemed comfortable in their surroundings and with one another.
Because I did not yet feel comfortable exploring on my own and had some questions I wanted answered, I found ease with a smiling woman sitting at an informal desk heaped with brochures. She promptly offered me a stack of Lord Krishna prints, and when I, without thinking, asked if they were for sale, she looked both angered and confused, and shook her head. “No, no, just take!”
This interaction was a key turning point in my experience. I realized then that I had become so accustomed to our contemporary capitalist society and had forgotten the simplicity within a small gesture of generosity. This realization became just one of the many things I learned from attending the ISKCON Center – some about myself, some about the world of yoga and how it is presented in America.
Although I did not find much visual information regarding the history of the center, its website and brochure includes a great deal of information. According to the website, the center (currently also known as New Gundica Dharma) was one of the most prominent temples in the first years of the Hare Krishna movement. Upon voyaging to the Western world, Srila Prabhupada (A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada) is said to have “first set his lotus feet on Western soil” (ISKCON website) on Boston’s Commonwealth Pier in 1965, when he was 69 years of age. Here, he composed his prayer “Markine Bhagavat Dharma,” which “[entreated] Lord Krishna for the deliverance of the western countries” (ISKON).
Srila Prabhupada spent many prosperous years in Boston, performing the first Brahmanical initiations for ISKCON and all western men and women, as well as establishing his original printing press for distribution of his transcendental literature. Srila Prabhupada’s goal was to fulfill his spiritual master’s longing to spread the teachings of Krishna consciousness throughout the Western world, which, to this day, remains one of the purposes of ISKCON. During the twelve years Srila Prabhupada spent in America before passing away in 1977, he published over seventy volumes of Sanskrit translation and commentary on India’s ancient Vedic texts. One such volume of commentary was the Bhagavad Gita As It Is, Srila Prabhupada’s perspective on the Gita, a sacred Hindu scripture that is considered one of the most important texts in the history of literature ad philosophy (Bhagavad-vita). Bhagavad Gita As It Is became the principle text for the Hare Krishna movement, and so, the principle text for ISKCON.
In addition to his other accomplishments, Srila Prabhupada also toured the world fourteen times in his last years, establishing over one hundred temples, schools, and farms. He became the focus of more than 40,000 disciples. Although Srila Prabhupada has not been a part of this physical world for over thirty years now, his disciples and members of ISKCON continue to work toward his original mission. According to the brochure, ISKCON now consists of more than 400 centers and has distributed more than 400 million of Srila Prabhupada’s books in over seventy languages.
I found ISKCON’s mission to be very clear – to spread Krishna consciousness throughout the greater Boston area, as well as providing spiritual strength and inspiration to its members. As the brochure entails, one of ISKCON’S purposes is “educating all people in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life,” and to achieve “real unity and peace in the world.” Another mission of ISKCON is to unify all its members together with the “prime entity” Krishna, and thus develop the notion within the “members of humanity at large that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead (Krishna).” Thirdly, the center is committed to teaching and encouraging Samkirtana, a movement involving congregational chanting of the holy names of God, as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Samkirtana, or Kirtan, which is Sanskrit for “to repeat,” is a call-and-response method of chanting performed in many of India’s devotional traditions. It is one of India’s many yogic traditions that has traveled to the United States and adopted in many Western yoga practices. The person performing the chants is commonly known as a Kirtankar. The practice involves chanting hymns or mantras, which in the case of the ISKCON Center would be the Hare Krishna mantra, or the Maha Mantra (“Great Mantra”). This is a sixteen-word Vaishnava mantra that is intended to bring him or herself closer to Krishna consciousness or unity. It also envelops their desire to bring one another closer together “for the purpose of teaching a simpler and more natural way of life.” (Brochure) Because the Hare Krishna’s also follow a Karma-yoga philosophy, they believe we are all pleasure-seekers, and that we are all indirectly or directly seeking Krishna; therefore, by chanting the mantra, it brings us closer to Krishna. The mantra goes as follows:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
Despite having limited prior knowledge of this mantra due to my research before attending the ISKCON Center, the academic aspect does little justice to actually experiencing a roomful of masters and devotees chanting it. When I entered the Temple Room after being summoned downstairs by the sound of a soft horn (I had been checking out the small library within the lounge), it was filled with joyous devotees, smiling and dancing to the chanting and instrumental accompaniment. I tried, but I could not completely lose myself in the mantras. However, to close my eyes and take in the scent of burning incense and the sound of such a harmonious repetition of words was altogether a beautiful experience, one that I will remember always. As the center’s outdoor sign states, “Chant and be happy.”
Unlike other yoga theories, such as Swami Muktibodhananha’s commentary, under the guidance of Swami Satyanandra Saraswati, in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which states that the “body, mind, and spirit are not three, they are one,”
(Pradipika 9) the Hare Krishnas believe that the body is a “temporal materialization of the permanent soul.” (Chronicle) However, like the Hatha Yoga theory, the Hare Krishnas emphasize clean living and purifying the body. This is clearly at the forefront of ISKCON’s beliefs, for their bi-weekly feast is purely vegetarian and devouring meat is more or less considered sinful. They believe heavily in “going green,” so much that one of the main slogans on their website states, “Go Veg, Go Green.”
This is one connection to the rest of modern day culture, for within recent years, environmental awareness has been brought to so people’s attention it equates that of any modern day trend. Hopefully, however, this ‘trend’ will not falter.
All in all, what I stated in the beginning still holds true: all that I learned from this experience comes down to that intimate pile of shoes. At first sight, I knew it was going to be a place of comfort and hospitality, as well as a purely beautiful, welcoming environment. Some of the devotees were like the neatly arranged shoes, full of seriousness, purpose and devotion, while others were like the chaotically thrown about sneakers, brimming with energy and life and joy. Neither was better than the other, and only the two together could build such a pile.
http://dukechronicle.com/ (online article)
Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Muktibodhananha
ISKCON Center of Boston Brochure/Catalog