How I Joined a Cult
Used with permission of the author.
This article was written by Anke Holst (Anuradha dasi), who joined ISKCON in Berlin in 1990. She was part of an all woman group that opened a temple in Cologne and also spent time working with the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, ISKCON’s publishing house, in Sweden. Anke left ISKCON in 2009 and now lives in London, with her son, where she has built a successful career as Social Media Consultant.
Part One: All the way down
I wrote an inflammatory and cynical blog post, pointing and laughing about the Hare Krishnas. I was surprised at the amount of attention it received. Most of us see them singing in the street in their funny clothes and blissful faces and ignore them quite easily. But I was part of that and it had not been good for me. Pointing and laughing was liberating, it changed me. I needed to show that I’m not afraid. I got quite surprising reactions back, some of which helped me to break the old spell even more, but more of that later. Much later. If I get that far. How did I become a ‘devotee’ after an atheist upbringing in East Germany? How did I give myself entirely to serving the guru? This is how it started. If I can keep going, maybe I’ll get to how it ends.
Chapter One: Decisions
Growing up in East Germany, religion is against official dogma – Lutheran Christianity is ok, as part of the culture, but everything else is verboten. Tome, as an idealist, Eastern philosophy is attractive. I don’t care about the gods. I love Goethe, Schiller, the Weimar classics. A few of the Weimar poets (Hölderlin) and later German writers (Hesse) explored Eastern philosophy in their search for ‘authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality’. It is something I am desperate to know more about. (None of them talked about Krishna.)
I can’t get any literature about Hinduism in libraries or bookshops, but I find a biography of Shri Ramakrishna somewhere on the bookshelf of a friend in Berlin. Ramakrishna was a sadhu (saint) who fitted in well with a culture where there is a place for religious madness – I have since learned that he might well been quite literally mad, and used his frequent ‘samadhis’ (periods of diminished awareness of the outside world) to just escape from things he didn’t want to deal with. Ramakrishna’s disciple Vivekananda is credited with putting Hinduism on the world stage as a religion in its own right. (He still wasn’t talking about Krishna though.)
The next book I find is an anti-cult book. The Hare Krishnas are described in-depth, their rules and regulations, and the mantra chanting. To me it seems the most regulated of all cult environments and as such it seemed the most effective. Because why would anyone put that many regulations in place, if they didn’t have some absolute knowledge of how to lift people out of ignorance to a place where they can understand and realise the self? I take all the information and a summer job on a holiday island in the North for a month, go vegetarian, and start experimenting with the mantra meditation, on my own. It doesn’t do much for me. I must be doing it all wrong. I am 18, I have just finished my publishing studies and in September I am going to start my first job at Berliner Zeitung. The year is 1989.
I have a boyfriend who is into exploring alternative lifestyles – well, at this point it’s correct to say ‘I had’, because he has just been drafted into the army. He had long hair and John Lennon glasses, but when he was drafted he shaved it, completely – that’s the kind of guy he was. Also, because he couldn’t get out of army service, he made himself sick. I visited him in the hospital and brought him a cake the month before that summer job. He was not in a good state. The summer job is on the same island as the hospital he is in, but I don’t see him again that whole month.
So that guy, my friend Jens – it still feels more natural to say friend than boyfriend – he has been to the Hare Krishna Sunday lunch in East Berlin. He won’t give me the address, he says I am just going to join them – I find it strange he knows me so well when we weren’t exactly in the habit of having long conversations while we were together. But after all, he’s the person who got a record player he could set on repeat, just so he could listen to My Sweet Lord over and over. Later after I do join up, he will write me a letter full of John Lennon quotes about personal freedom, and implore me to not give away my independence. But I take after George, throwing caution to the wind and my belongings away, and take up the practice of ‘devotional yoga’.
Back in 1989 we are slowly edging towards November. I work as a typesetter at a big publishing house in Prenzlauer Berg and live in a very basic Hinterhof-flat. Hinterhof seems to be a special Berlin word where there are blocks of flats around square tiled courtyards, and those in a certain angle on the ground floor will never get any light or warmth. My flat is one of those, but I don’t mind as I go home only to sleep. Berlin is the big wide world for me, even before the wall comes down.
Which it does a few months later. I have broken my ankle on my way to work, so I’m off sick, recuperating at my mum’s flat, back in my hometown of Rostock. The wall opens and everything changes. My ankle heals up, I go back to work and try to not get lost in the general confusion.
On a walk in West Berlin I meet a Hare Krishna with books on his arm. I ask if he has a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, and where the temple is. He helps me with both. Afterwards he keeps telling that story for years – most of the East Germans flooding through the check points have no idea what those books are. They buy them anyways with some of their one hundred Deutschmarks ‘welcome money’ because the books are colourful and they have been trained to respect books.
The next day I take part in a peace demonstration, and after that it’s Sunday and I visit the temple. It’s quite a come-down – it’s a flat in Kreuzberg, with a tacky white and gold curtain behind the altar. I offer to help with the cooking and am instantly considered a natural devotee because of my service attitude. The devotees immediately see how much they can use me. The guy who sold me my first book makes me believe I need a full set of all the books, so I go and withdraw all my money and buy a full set. The temple president uses my bank account to put a lot of East German money which will be converted to West German (real) money 1:1 on a certain day. It’s a scam but I believe them when they say it’s all for Krishna. And believe me, it wasn’t the last scam I saw.
A week or so later I stand on the streets with books myself, because if that dude can sell them, so can I. I sell some books and am invited to join the other booksellers (‘distributors’) on a trip to the big ‘sankirtan’ party in Zurich over New Year. Of course I accept – I’ve never been anywhere. I use almost all my ‘welcome money’ to buy a saree from another devotee who pretends to be my friend. She is Bavarian and has a huge crush on the temple president who she doesn’t stop talking about. There is a strict hierarchy and his position must have made him attractive. She never got anywhere with him, I doubt he ever married. She also was very proud of having chosen those curtains behind the altar.
So I go to Zurich and it’s all very weird. I remember mostly darkness, I’m not very good with lots of people and that house is packed. Everyone is there who took part in that year’s crazy Christmas Marathon – a tradition of using the month of December to push out as many books as possible. I sleep in a sleeping bag on a thin mat, squeezed into a big room like sardines, very carefully separated by gender. Next to me was the personal servant of the big guru, Vishnupad, who runs the North European zone. [After the founder passed away, his most eager disciples divided up the world among themselves. Vishnupad is the one keeping the tightest reigns of all. He was involved in a scandal in 1998 and left.] I listen to the language while she speaks. It is Swiss German but interspersed with a lot of English words. She speaks about getting the mercy by being able to cook for the guru etc. It is a weird babble to me but she is so immersed in her bliss that she doesn’t notice I had only just dropped into the whole thing and don’t speak the lingo. She is a very beautiful woman, doing this service with her husband, I notice quite a lot of really beautiful women. I still don’t know if I want to be like them, I feel mostly disconnected. I can see the rush of mad devotion they all feel but it’s not me.
I go back to Berlin, back to my job, quite bewildered. Some of what the devotees talk about makes perfect sense. I had felt a disconnect from my body, a disenchantment from getting drunk and having random sex, and I had felt the need to put a stop to being looked up and down and judged by men. So going and becoming a nun seems a reasonable solution. I look at the people and am not sure. They all seem to be ok, yes, but the culture seems restrictive. The rules that control everything from what and how you eat to how you sleep to how many times you take a shower to every other area of life seem to be made up to keep a person dependent on the group. I ponder a lot.
I go back to my hometown for a weekend and spend an evening with another one of my friends. I know Andreas through Jens. He works with disabled children and young adults. Earlier that year, while unsure of what to do next ,I spent a day working in the institution with him. It was hard work and I concluded that I was not strong enough. This evening at his flat, I tell him about my decision to join the Hare Krishnas. He has read some philosophy and asks questions. I tell him about the rules and that I can easily give up sex because I don’t care about it. He doesn’t ask about that. We eat and drink and listen to his Edith Piaf records and I sleep over – we often quite innocently ‘slept over’ in those days. This night he takes me in his arms and asks the question without words. My body responds and just when it is clear how I feel, he says Ah. So you don’t hate it that much. I guess not, maybe I’ve only had bad, uncaring sex. It makes me ponder some more, but it’s too late to change my mind about joining.
Back in Berlin I spend more time at the temple and babysit some children. I don’t really know much about children and feel out of my depth. I don’t feel used, it already seems normal to be of service even when I don’t really want to do that particular service. I learn that the ego will try to keep me from Krishna’s service, that’s what its role is. It’s also called ‘the false ego’.
I learn Krishna is the supreme God [Supreme Personality of Godhead is the phrase they use] and the reason none of the other sadhus I had read books about were talking about Krishna, was because they were mayavadins and bad people. In fact every page of the books I start reading states this important distinction. [Much later I will find out that this doesn’t appear in any of the books the founder, I’ll shorten his name to ACBS – because like every truly humble servant of god he has a name that’s REALLY long -translated from, but is his own addition.] Mayavadins think the impersonal Brahman (nirvana) is where the soul goes after liberation. Every lecture, every opportunity is used to point out that this is wrong, and Krishna is supreme and the Brahman is his effulgence, and the people who deny Krishna his supremeness are the worst sinners.
So now we feel superior not only to the rest of the world who don’t know this absolute truth, but also to the rest of the Hindu world. ACBS even managed to make his disciples believe that the other disciples of his own guru, his god brothers, were bad association. But I don’t know that at this point.
A little more philosophy: We are not the physical but the soul inside. The soul (they say) is Krishna’s minute part and parcel, and we have fallen into the material world because we have the desire to be god ourselves – we have some capacity to control and enjoy, but we can only really be happy if we surrender to Krishna. And that’s the ultimate goal of self realisation.
In practice, to surrender means to follow the rules and regulations the founder had laid down for his organisation. The basic rules are the 4 regulative principles – no meat, fish or eggs, no illicit sex [anything not meant for procreation, even within marriage] no gambling and no intoxication (this includes coffee and chocolate). Everyone is required to chant 16 rounds of 108 maha-mantras each, a practice which takes at minimum two hours. The temple programme sandwiches the two hours set aside for chanting, so by the time it’s 9am you have already spent 5 hours singing, chanting, listening.
I see this and it seems such a brainwash. I start chanting again, it still doesn’t do much for me. The devotees have all the right sound bites ready. I am too covered by maya, I cannot feel the taste of the holy name because I don’t surrender to it, I need to chant more to be cleansed etc. etc. I finally go to the temple in East Berlin and meet a spiritual master, an enthusiastic guy from Hamburg. He’s lovely and his disciples, who aren’t very much younger than him, seem very devoted. There’s a beautiful Swiss guy named Cedric who seems to look me right into the soul. The swami likes young guys. In that culture that doesn’t mean much, it’s just so impossible for them to like women and I guess they need some company. We ride the U-Bahn together .I feel a need become more purified. I’m not sure what that means.
I spend time at the East Berlin temple and I notice how much weirdness there is between males and females. I don’t so much notice it as fall victim to it. I feel that if I fall in love with any of the guys I will have to leave, so the next thing I do is fall in love with one of the guys – well, whatever goes for love. There is this feeling that attraction is the enemy, that I am the enemy if I don’t learn to control myself. I’m starting to really go for it. I feel bad about observing that other people at the temple aren’t perfect either, and I’m being told that offending devotees is the most dangerous thing I can do. But it’s true? Never mind, your senses are covered by illusion, and maya will try to keep you away from Krishna. You have to take shelter in the holy name.
The people individually seem quite mundane, but there is a strong group identity. I remember a program we had in the East Berlin temple where we had bhajans (sitting down chanting with music) and someone played the [Indian, hand-pumped] harmonium. Just a few notes but it seemed to add so much. I like that. I liked some of the Bengali and Sanskrit songs they were singing during the morning programmes. None of the texts were understandable but I was always good with Dadaist poetry, so I learned. I start playing their instruments too and adopt their lingo. And I start inviting my friends around to ‘give them prasadam’ – food cooked in the temple and offered to Krishna. It is supposed to be purifying. Of course I never hear from them again.
I see pictures of about 6 living gurus and am told that I will naturally gravitate to one of them when I’m ready. All the living gurus are disciples of the founder, some of them put in this position by him, some later. The one I like has only been a guru for 3 years. I speak to one of his two first disciples, Vedanta Krt, in the kitchen. He’s calm and sensible and I seem to be doing some gravitating.
Talk starts of someone driving to Heidelberg soon, the German HQ and biggest temple at the time, and if I want to really join I could catch a ride with them. This is only 2 months after Zurich, and now I’m not sure how I could fit that much into such a short time. I take 2 weeks off from work and accept the lift to Heidelberg. I never go back to the job.
Chapter Two: Heidelberg
After a long drive in a van with the same people I went to Zurich with I arrive in Heidelberg. The temple occupies rented furniture showrooms above the bus garage. The women’s quarters are a row of rooms with bunk beds built out of chip board. The beds have no mattresses. Devotees sleep in sleeping bags on thin camping mats. They can be rolled up and wiped underneath every morning.
I learn about the mode of ignorance, the enemy of devotional service. Sleep, mess, dirt, time spent on your own not chanting, not showering every time you slept, or had a bowel movement – all the mode of ignorance and bad. The temple programme starts at 4.15am and everyone is showered and wearing clean clothes by then. I am a little shell-shocked. The programme is held before the altar. On the altar are two ‘deities’ – dressed up metal figures about 25cm high – and lots of pictures of saints and gurus. The women stand in the back, behind the men, with their heads covered. During the first part of the singing, everyone stands and sort of swings in one place from side to side, during the second bit everyone sits on the floor.
There is puja, a plate of things offered to the deities with circular movements- incense, flower, water, a handkerchief, a fan made out of the tail of a yak. There is singing and bowing down to the floor. Then there is a small plant, with a sequined skirt around the pot, brought in and everyone sings a song to it. There is walking around the plant three times and everyone watering the plant with a tiny spoon, and more bowing down and saying things in Sanskrit. There is a prayer to ask forgiveness for any offenses one might have committed against the devotees.
At five, the end of the first communal part of the programme, everyone starts their individual chanting of the mantra on beads. This is supposed to be loud enough so one’s own ears can hear it. The men stay in the temple room while the women go into the vestibule. The chanting is hard work while tired. Sleeping is really frowned upon.
The next bit of the programme starts at 7 with the puja to the living gurus. The song is in Bengali and more energetic than the earlier ones. Everyone stands and sort of rocks in front of a small row of pictures, someone in front is offering that plate full of things again. A drum is played and some cymbals. At 7.15, the deities are greeted. Everyone files into the temple room, the curtain to the altar is opened and a song from the album produced by George Harrison is played. The deities have been dressed in their day clothes in the meantime and are wearing fresh flower garlands. There is a huge operation involved in keeping them dressed and fed every day. (Yes we are still talking about the two small metal figures.)
This is all going on for a couple of weeks and I somehow manage to survive it. I take one or two walks on the Philosophenweg and take in some of the beauty of Heidelberg.
The temple is run by a ‘temple president’ and his wife. There are department heads and everything is very well organised. I again meet many beautiful women. I am shy and not very good with interpersonal skills. There is a lady responsible for all the new joiners. I never could get a grip on how I was seen by other people. I don’t remember talking a lot. I later find out there weren’t many who thought I’d make it.
People accept that I’ve made a decision re. the guru. I start collecting his lectures on tapes – there is a guy in the temple who sells them, so I get a few at a time. He has a nice voice and way of talking. I am encouraged to listen to his lectures – listening is a higher form of association than actually seeing him.
I help in the kitchen and am not very good at it. I wash a lot of pots. I meet a devotee called Padmanabha who takes my pulse and tells me to eat spices and honey because I feel sluggish. I liked Padmanabha, he had some good sense. He has passed away since. I have a massive cold. I go swimming once or twice.
There is a structured 3 months ‘bhakta programme’ I’m enrolled in so I can learn the basics. There are some other girls who joined at the same time. Another one from East Germany. I later learn she regularly has ‘meetings’ in the cellar with the guy who sells the tapes, and who is married. He is also slightly repulsive. There are some male devotees from Argentina I try to practice my Spanish on. It’s not going very well. I don’t remember falling for anyone.
I am accepted as older devotee by people who join after me. I remember a girl from Croatia talking to me in English about how puffed up and in ignorance she is. I have no idea what she is talking about. She likes me because we have the same guru. I still haven’t written to my guru.
We go to a different place deep in the Odenwald for a week or so. It’s a nice house with a Steiner feel to it. There are some other people but it’s much quieter than the central temple. There is some structured learning but also free time. I am so hungry that I eat all the nuts out of the breakfast müsli.
There is Tribhanga, one of the older devotees, and we watch him go up a hill. He picks up an apple from under a tree and eats it. We are shocked. We only just learned that everything we eat needs to be offered to Krishna. And here is this guy just eating an apple? Shocking.
Back in the temple in Heidelberg I am asked to design new stationery for the temple. Which I do, with a nice stylised lotus flower. It’s nice to have my own space to work in and peace for a few hours. I almost get respected.
I go to the Mitfahrzentrale to arrange a lift share. I need to go home to see my dying nan for the last time. She is conscious and I manage to say good- bye. The devotees said she was bad and will go to hell because she ate meat all her life, I think this is bullshit. I love my nan and she’s had a shit life but she took care of 7 children, on her own, after having lost everything during the war. All her children ‘made something of themselves’. I can’t even imagine how she managed.
I go home to my mum’s and try to live the devotee life. It’s not going well. I’m running around visiting friends with my hand inside a bead bag and people think I’ve hurt myself. I go back to the temple.
Later I find out people thought I had left. I wished I had.
The 3 months of bhakta programme are ending. I meet other disciples of my guru. There’s Vainateya, a tall dark artist from somewhere in Yugoslavia. I could fall for him but now there is the guru to direct all my love and passion to. I hear from Vainateya that he needs a van to travel and preach in. I set my mind on collecting money for him. I develop all sorts of ideas with making sweets and selling them.
Visvadeva, the very nice temple president, listens to me. I go back to normal temple life and a few days later there is another conversation. I am told that another devotee just had exactly that idea, only on a much bigger scale.
I am introduced to Asanga, a very senior devotee. She was traveling and selling books with her friend Rohini and had the feeling that wasn’t going anywhere. So she wants to start collecting money to open a new temple. I’m going to travel and sell stuff with her. I cut a deal that I get to keep 10 percent for the guru, I think I can do it. The love for my guru is very much encouraged. It will get me through everything. Maybe it will give them the chance to get me to do everything. But it’s love so it can’t be bad?
I finish my 3 months of training and get ready to go traveling.
Chapter Three: Traveling
Asanga is about 39, tall, sporty, blonde, very German. She got her first initiation from the founder, so she’s definitely very senior. In fact, she’s married, on paper, to my guru, an American, and shares his last name. It’s a purely transactional relationship. She tells me the story of how they physically got married – she was taken to the registry office in the back of a van like a dangerous creature, and the happy couple didn’t look at each other once. It must have looked funny. I guess sham marriages to Americans weren’t a concern back then. They’re divorced now. He sent her flowers to thank her.
She now becomes my authority, so we are not friends. Surrendering to Krishna now means doing what she says. She has been on the road selling books many years, she knows the business. She is from a village in the mountains outside Cologne, so she decides that her next mission is to open a new temple in Cologne. At the time, there are permanent temples in Berlin, Heidelberg, a community in Hamburg and a farm in the Bavarian Forest near Passau. Germans consider the Hare Krishnas a cult and don’t ever warm to them. There was a well-publicised scandal when the first people the guru sent to preach in Germany had a castle as a temple, and when it was raided by police, weapons were found. Since then, the Hare Krishnas are in the same category as Scientology, no matter how many nice Indian cultural events they put on.
We are joined by two other new girls, Hanna from Lüneburg and Ivana from Serbia. We pack our belongings into a red Toyota Hiace fitted with a high roof, storage space and a hob. We have sleeping bags and our mats. We get year planners and sturdy shoulder bags and set out to learn the business of selling paintings.
The paintings are ordered straight from Hong Kong where they are painted en masse. We carry them in a big roll under the arm and go door to door in offices and small industrial areas. The sell is that we are a struggling community of artists trying to open a gallery in Munich. I’ve never been to Munich but somehow I get by with this.
We all sleep in the van, two up, two down. We get up at five, shower at motorway rest stops. We chant for two hours, sometimes walking back and forth near the van, sometimes exploring the area. If I sit down I fall asleep so I don’t. When we are done with our sixteen rounds, we go back to the van and Asanga drives us to the place we are going work at that day. We’re in the Rhine area around Köln and Düsseldorf, so there is a lot of business.
While we drive, we sing the daily programme of prayers and when we arrive, we read from the books while Asanga cooks in the back. I usually fall asleep at some stage, sometimes in the middle of reading out loud. (Still, this kind of programme ends up working for me. I never do get used to the full temple programme in the end.) When we’re done, we have a massive plate of food. Asanga is a good cook and it suits me to eat like this. I take some nuts, dry fruits during the day, and buy juice. I don’t feel hungry.
Nine in the morning is an excellent time to start going door-to-door. The chanting is supposed to clear the mind. It shuts down something. I lose my skepticism but I also lose the voice telling me I can’t do things. So I learn to sell and communicate, and I learn it really fast. Asanga is a good teacher.
I do this for my guru. I get a catalogue from Fiat and decorate my planner with pictures of Ducato vans which is what he wants to get. There is dialogue with him in my head during the day. I have a walkman and listen to lecture tapes during breaks. Once a day I sit down to write to him into a diary. I am told that all this is perfectly spiritual and purifying. I do the paintings as my personal devotional service and because I don’t know Krishna, and sentimental love is not encouraged (of course not, it’s Germany), it is seen as perfect to learn to love Krishna by loving the spiritual master, and this love is practical. I am happy that I have found a situation where I can function and everyone seems to be happy that I am being useful. So I finally actually write to the guru and officially ask to become his disciple.
We go back to Heidelberg for the weekends to wash the van and do our laundry, and to visit the temple. We’ve been out and about all week, so we feel boisterous and elated now that we’re back. We get taken aside and told that we must be quiet and chaste and cover up else we might disturb the brahmacaris (monks). I don’t see that I might disturb anyone in such a way but I comply. Hanna is far more beautiful and intriguing, and Ivana is fiery and powerful. I still haven’t got a clue how I’m perceived. It’s probably changing from the sluggish person I was at first. There’s a big feast on Sunday and loud kirtans in the temple room in the evenings. The boys are back from the road too, the genders are still very nicely separated.
On Saturdays we sometimes go and sell books instead of paintings. Selling paintings for Krishna is just as much devotional service, but selling books is one step up, because it was the founder’s central and most important wish. We take a pile of books from the car and shove them into people’s chests in quiet areas of shopping streets, tell them about yoga and the self, and they buy them or not. I’m not good at it. For one thing I don’t think the books are very good, even as a full time completely committed member. They are cobbled together from transcribed lectures and are not very well edited. The devotees don’t care, because the main thing is that the poor lost souls hear the name of Krishna and read the words of the pure devotee. Another thing is that I am reserved. I learn to overcome my shyness and to use body language to change the dynamics between me and another person, touching shoulders or elbow, building trust.
It’s Asanga’s 40th birthday. I bake her cake and we have a party. We prepare a play for her. I saw a display in a pharmacy that gave me the idea. It was a little man being inflated and deflated through hidden valves, I don’t remember what it was supposed to illustrate, some cough medicine I think.
So we play ourselves, as we get inflated and more confident in our ability to sell and Asanga ‘giving us the Keule’ (club) frequently, deflating us, then building us up again. There is some plot to it and a lot of physical comedy .The actual ‘getting the Keule’ isn’t that much fun. I’m less tough than the other two.
I make marzipan and nougat for the cake and build it up to resemble the building we just bought for the new temple.
Twice a year we go to the festivals on the farm. Everyone comes there from all of Europe and again we sleep in big rooms on our mats. Some of the other people in the room are Hungarians. They seem to talk to each other a lot.
The farm has more intricate worship. There are two altars, two sets of morning greetings. There are hours of singing and dancing. By now the three of us have gravitated to our various gurus and they are sometimes there. Hanna’s guru is a pujari (doing the worship) on one altar, mine is on the other. We do a lot of service, sometimes through the night. There is fasting and then feasting.
Festivals are always a high, Asanga brings us back down quickly. We don’t waste time being happy, instead we stay humble and get straight back to work.
There is a Slovenian devotee with a flooring business near Köln. He becomes the practical uncle for us and helps with the renovation of the apartment building. I and the other girls don’t get involved, we just make the money. Asanga manages everything and he is at her side. They would have made a good couple but the practicalities of that didn’t work out.
A few months later, the two top floor flats are ready and we move in.
Chapter Four: Köln
The building we move into is on the wrong side of the river. There is a Turkish family in one of the flats below. I feel bad for them, but they all have to move out. There is a lot of bad feeling against us, that’s par for the course when you’re a Hare Krishna in Germany. Those who started it didn’t have much sense so those who came later followed that example.
At first, life doesn’t change that much for us. We get up, shower, chant, have a programme of singing prayers to the gurus, read together or one of us gives a lecture from the books, have breakfast, and go out to sell paintings. I take the fast train to Düsseldorf and systematically work off street by street. It’s a rich city and I have good results.
I don’t get 10 percent for the guru anymore. I sent 5,000 Deutschmarks and they got him a van, after that I was allowed to take 5 percent, but then it stopped. I don’t negotiate well. I now sometimes write letters that I send him, and he sends letters back. They are typed on yellow paper. I meet a lot of shop keepers and one interior designer lets me have bits of remnants. I sew a book cover as a present for the guru. At the next festival I see him use it. I’m so happy.
The house changes. The next flat is ready on the floor below ours and it is designated as a men’s ashram. A carpenter moves in to work on the ground floor. There is a restaurant and industrial kitchen planned. Other boys and women move in too. We’re getting a bookkeeper from Bavaria.
We slowly get more luxuries – thicker mattresses and desks to write on. We start learning how to drive. We go shopping for clothes once a year and if we need something small, we use the money from the paintings. We don’t need much.
I get into ‘science preaching’ – the founder considered modern science demonic and wanted his disciples to be able to prove his theories scientifically. So there is a Bhaktivedanta Institute and one of their people comes to visit us. He is American and very nice to listen to. I take one of their publications, Origins, where they disprove evolution and other theories, and start translating it into German.
It’s now early 1992 and we are preparing for a trip to India. The headquarters are there and devotees go for the annual festival in March, as they can afford it. We do everything together so I don’t make any decisions for myself. We get visas and buy things from a list. We have sarees already so we don’t need clothes.
In India, we are freaked out by the cities and just move on quickly to Mayapur, about 3 hours taxi ride north of Calcutta. I just follow what everyone else is doing. There is a walking tour of the places some saints in the tradition have visited and I sign up to it. My guru is there too.
There are about 800 devotees from all over the world on this walking tour. We have our bags, a bucket and water jug, which gets taken on a lorry from one place to the next. There are tents built for us where we sleep. We shower at wells with canvas walls put around us. We leave underskirts on. I don’t sleep well because the generator is loud and stinks.
We walk barefoot and there is a senior god sister of mine (disciple of the same guru) that I stick with. At this time there are only about ten of us worldwide, about 5 of them initiated. There are other gurus on this tour that have thousands of disciples. We feel a bit more connected. We sometimes literally walk in his footsteps. It’s all very spiritual and purifying.
There is a male disciple who is the personal servant of the guru. He’s Polish and seems to me a bit of a wet blanket. I mention that to Alakananda who I’m walking with and she admonishes me about Vaishnava-aparadha, saying bad things about devotees, the most dangerous thing in spiritual life. I feel guilty.
The facilities are laughable and most devotees have some stomach problems by now. I also get a cold because I don’t sleep and the mornings are chilly. But it’s all considered tapasyam, spiritual austerity, which strengthens and purifies. The souls of my feet are growing thick.
There are rousing kirtans everywhere we stop and the gurus take turns to tell stories. There is a tree where somebody surrendered to someone, there is someone else’s birthplace. I just want to be near my guru because it’s so peaceful there.
When we are back at HQ, I get a little lost. The guru isn’t always there but I try to run some errands for him. I spend time with the other girls but they have their own things going on. I have some problem and go back to Asanga and her friend comments that I am like a child because I’m in tears. They laugh. I’m confused. I don’t enjoy India much.
We go to the other big ISKCON temple in Vrindavan near Delhi. We buy lots of sarees and other things for the new temple. We take rickshaws, and the place is not very human. The water is terrible and the river has dried up. The temple is very opulent with white marble. We travel around a little and do more walking, it’s the festival of Holi and all inhabitants have strict instructions to leave the Westerners alone with the dyes. They mostly do but outside in a small village someone gets me with some sprays of purple. I have those spots on my bead bag for ages afterwards and am very proud of them.
We come back with our various bugs and I lose a lot of weight. It’s now April 1992. In May we go to the festival on the farm. I get my initiation the day after the big festival. Three gurus sit side by side on their thrones with their flower garlands, two Germans and my American, and the aspiring disciples sit on the floor around a fire pit decorated with fruits, flowers and coconuts. One by one we are called by name and go up to the guru, the guys prostrate themselves, we bow down on the floor from a kneeling position. We get asked a set of questions and answer with vows: no eat meat, fish or eggs, no gambling, no illicit sex and no intoxication. We vow to chant sixteen rounds a day. Then we get given our new names, there’s a rousing applause, and we take our seats around the fire. Then there is a fire sacrifice with a lot of mantra chanting, and at the end we all walk around the fire and get a little ash mixed with oil on our forehead.
I wear a horrible saree with silver and stripes, I can hardly make it stick around my body and over my head, and I definitely can’t walk in it. Style isn’t my thing. My hair is always just long enough to wear in a low pony tail and I don’t wear any make-up. Sometimes I have my eyelashes dyed black, because they are so light, but that’s the extent of my beauty routine. We all wear wooden bead necklaces, now that I’m initiated I get to wear three strands. Mine is messy, I don’t give it much attention. Once in a meeting with a customer I get asked straight out if I’m in a cult. Often people tell me I have to be more confident in my approach. But it all somehow works so I keep doing it.
I develop back pains because I’m carrying about 10 kgs under one arm for hours every day. There is a chiropractor in Düsseldorf who helps. I also meet a nice dentist who bought a painting. My teeth are bad because I wasn’t looked after well as a child. But it’s all much better now.
The temple is slowly coming together. The loft is converted into a temporary temple room and we have deities of our own now. They are the same kind as in Heidelberg. I learn to do the deity worship and bathe them once a week. There is a big ritual around this and I need to concentrate. I also learn to play the harmonium and lead the chanting more often. We start having our own Sunday programmes for new visitors. I don’t easily give lectures but I am happy to play and sing. I learn all the melodies from tapes of my guru, he is a very skilled musician.
Later that year I get my driver’s license. I pass the theory easily but the practical test takes two attempts. Hanna – now Harakanti – gives up and tries again later. I get given a car from our business man’s company and start driving rather than taking the train.
I am pushed into going on the road with my own party of girls. I don’t want to. I have no interest in becoming someone else’s boss. My guru gave me the name Anuradha and said that it’s a name of someone in the spiritual world who manages all the other girls. I’m thinking yes, maybe when I’m ready.
Not doing this is not an option so I take a van and some girls and go. It doesn’t go well. I get my period and just want to curl up and die. One of the girls leaves in the middle of the week, she’s phoned her brother to pick her up. I feel bad. They don’t try to make me move up the ranks again. I go back to paintings for a while.
Early in 93 the paintings stop working. I’m a little burned out, and the German economy is taking a turn for the worse. The temple now has a restaurant and I get involved there. There’s a cook and his wife and little boy. We have new people joining from around Köln and Harakanti now takes the role of their teacher. They are all boys and they hang on her every word. She’s beautiful and a little kooky.
A guy joined and brought his Clavinova with him. It’s in the cellar and I go play it sometimes. Then there is a guy called Michael joining. He takes me out to visit his friends sometimes. I must be very boring. I develop a crush on him.
I don’t realise how cool this all is. We have a temple that is quite naturally run by women. This in an organisation where women don’t get to become gurus or have any other say. Asanga still takes care of everything, with help from the Heidelberg president. She has bad migraines and sometimes can’t talk or do anything for days and just lies in her blackened out room. She takes strong caffeine tablets for it. Our relationship is a little more frazzled. She’s still the authority but we’re also good friends. Sometimes that doesn’t work.
I try selling candles instead of paintings. They are dipped in a variety of colours and carved while still warm. The devotees make them outside Heidelberg. They are too garish for people in our part of Germany so we try it down south in the mountains. I have a couple of weeks where I travel on my own in the Black Forest. I stay on camp grounds and have the van to myself. It’s the best time I’ve had in years. The candles are fragile and don’t travel well, so it doesn’t work.
I start working in the restaurant. An Indian vegetarian menu is still a novelty and we get a lot of interest, even though we are in a bad location and there’s hardly any parking. I also bake bread, grow herbs, have ideas for other things we can be doing, and sometimes I deliver food. I clean the kitchen floor every night. The kitchen is a work of art.
The last flats are empty and there is work on a temple room and a guru ashram for visitors. We pick out wallpaper and I get catalogues of furniture from people I now know. We get golden taps for the en suite bathroom. It’s all so beautiful.
My guru comes to visit. I’m so nervous. We cook for him and I run back to the shop about eight times to get things I forgot. I’m exploding with excitement. And when he’s finally there it’s such a high, because this is at I’ve been working towards all this time. I don’t actually remember anything he said but he must have liked it. Lots of other people come to visit and it becomes a part of the Krishna scenery in Germany.
We now have lots more girls. Linda from Denmark works in the kitchen and Shyama-Sakhi is out and about with us. There’s a lot of life. I don’t take the change from being outside to staying indoors too well. I also eat the leftover food from last night for breakfast which is never a good idea. I go quite sluggish quite fast.
One quiet evening I’m standing behind the counter in the restaurant when a party of eight or nine young American guys bursts in, hungry and excited. They are from a straight edge band called Shelter, all devotees, all vegetarians. I have no idea what just happened. We manage to find enough food for all of them. They stick around for a while and are quite an impressive presence. I quite like their drummer (Ekanath or Ekachakra?) but don’t let on – I don’t actually have the ability to flirt, I just have crushes. Shyama-Sakhi however takes a shine to a gorgeous Italian New Yorker called Vince, who used to be in a band with Zac, now of Rage against the Machine fame. She later goes to America and marries him, they have three kids and are lovely people.
A few months later some of us travel to some of their gigs. They are brilliant and it’s all fully bona fide because it’s about Krishna. I get some new energy from listening to them. I almost end up in trouble when we inadvertently cross the border into Switzerland and one of the girls in the van doesn’t have a visa. I manage to convince the border guard to just let us go back into Germany. That could have ended badly.
I’m back in the restaurant and the injection of energy doesn’t last. It becomes obvious that this is not going anywhere, the restaurant isn’t doing a lot of business either. I am not able to consider that I could just do something entirely different, even though on some of my sales trips I have met people running printing businesses where I could easily have gotten work. There is a call from Brahma-Muhurta, the Bavarian who runs the North European arm of the Hare Krishna publisher, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. He already wanted me to come to Sweden and work for them back in 1990 when I first joined, but it was decided to let me go on the road with Asanga first. Now in late ’93 I am burned out and a bit useless, the Germans don’t tell him that and let me go to Sweden.
I pack my suitcase and a box of my belongings, ask for travel money, stay long enough for the new year festival at our business man friend’s house, and in January I travel up to the frozen north.
Chapter Five: Stockholm
I go by train to the North of Germany and by ferry to the South of Sweden. I don’t have enough money for the whole trip so I find a lorry driver to give me a lift from Trelleborg to Stockholm. It takes about 8 hours. Someone picks me up from the station and drives me to Korsnäs Gård. It’s a 40 minute ride.
Korsnäs is a collection of buildings around a central manor. I am housed in a room over the kitchen in the central building. Another bunk bed. There is not much furniture in the room and the first conflict I have is when I ask for a little table and are branded ‘demanding’. I doubt myself because I thought demanding was bad. (Without humility we cannot get the mercy of Krishna etc.) Strangely, the person who called me demanding is later on going to be one of the few I will keep in touch with.
There are about 80 people there. My friend Linda, now Niramaya, is in Korsnäs, with her parents and sister, who works in the administration. There are other families and teenagers whose parents are devotees.
The main business there is book production. The director Brahma Muhurta, a stocky Bavarian, wanted me there because I can read Cyrillic and have trained as a typesetter. None of what I have learned is really useful in this setup so I get designated to work in repro. The couple running the office is not very personable. The lady is East German and was smuggled across the wall when it was still impossible to travel. Her husband is from former Yugoslavia. They cook their lunch in the back of the office, it’s the exact same meal every day. He has his toothbrush in the office.
The other German managing production is a skinny German with no energy. The kitchen manager is German too, the store manager is Indian but married to a German. They all are typical cult functionaries. They have absolute power and can decide over every aspect of someone’s life.
My work involves cutting out bits of printed text on foil and sticking them onto paper. We don’t talk. There are about 3 hours of daylight and the temperatures go down to 25. There is the same temple programme but I hardly ever manage to get up for the 4.15 start. There is strict control so I have to force myself. Then I fall asleep around 6 which means I have rounds to chant for the rest of the day. It takes two hours with full concentration and it’s a slog trying to complete it later on. If I don’t take a nap I’m dead tired for the rest of the day.
Korsnäs is mostly people scuffling from one building to the next. Everyone tries to manage. There is much more space for individuals than the places I have lived at before. It is also the HQ of the big zonal guru. Brahma’s wife is a beautiful Fin and they have a flat in a nearby town, where they keep backup books. They drive a nice car. Everyone is aware that we are at a constant war with the authorities and hide a lot of what is going on, so we can keep the charity status. Once I get sent into Stockholm to exchange some of the cash from the book distributors. I get asked for my passport and show it. They don’t send me again.
Then there are the guys. There are network engineers who manage the local network, and the global communications service called ‘COM’. A Serbian, a Croatian, a Belgian. (Later on I will find out the Belgian was involved in uncovering one of the ugliest scandals in the movement. He had good sense and a proper backbone. I’m proud to have known him.) The Serbian, a simple, big man, marries Linda’s sister. I really like the Croatian. He’s tall, lanky, younger than me, intelligent, calm, cultured, with a good smile. Anywhere else we would have been friends and everything would have been cool, but here where you either don’t talk or get married, I get obsessed. The other girls don’t get it. We all know about each other’s crushes. We call our crushes ‘min gubbe’ – my old man – and it’s very cute. I suffer a lot.
I forget the good things I did back in Germany. I very quickly lose the rest of my confidence. I also relax and have fun. We have parties where Linda makes pita breads and lots of dips. We watch the Sound of Music. I finally learn to wear sarees properly. In my room, I secretly read Scarlett, the follow-up to Gone with the Wind. One night I stay up after midnight and goon the computer. My gubbe has just logged in too. My heart nearly explodes.
I don’t manage the repro work very well. I am told there is one other service I can do. There is an old people’s home in the next village, 20 minutes’ walk away, which they just bought as an additional facility for Korsnäs. They have shipped in about 15 young guys from Russia to do the building works, and they need a driver. A job where I don’t have to use my brain! I say yes. The director makes it clear he considers me useless for anything else.
I get out even less than back in Köln and it affects my judgment. The thought of picking up and going somewhere else doesn’t enter my mind. I overhear the cook and the store manager talking about me. It’s not great. There is talk about marrying me off to one of the guys who do the worship on the altar. He’s Azerbaijani and lovely actually. I do some service in the kitchen so we’ve met.
He is asked but he hesitates. (Later on, about a year before the time of writing this, we will get in touch and he will tell me that he really liked me and was sorry that he hesitated.) In the same time, those Russians come over and I start driving them around. They find it funny to be driven around by a young woman. I start getting presents from them. I’m cool enough not to fall for that. The guy I end up talking to because there’s no such silliness coming from him, is the one who ends up writing me a letter asking for marriage.
I have no hope that things with the Croatian will work out. The Russian writes me mails that impress me. Later I will find out they were written for him and spellchecked.
I decide to stop waiting around and say yes to the Russian. As a married woman at least you’re not controlled by the vicious temple authorities. I decide for the Russian because at least it was his own decision, and not an arranged marriage like with the Azerbaijani. The guy who first called me demanding is now the manager of the new place. He is the only one who stands up and asks me what the hell I’m doing. My suitor threatens him with violence. He shuts up. It’s my life, after all.
My father comes and spends the summer in Sweden with his wife and my half-brother. We haven’t seen each other from the time my parents divorced when I was 5, until I went to see him in a saree when I was 23. Now a few years later we have an ok relationship. His wife is nice and their son is a teenager. My sister comes out too for a few days. She is married but doesn’t have kids yet. I have arranged a summer cottage for them, just a few hundred metres down the road from Korsnäs. It’s nice. V and I have only just gotten engaged.
In autumn I work on a project with my former gubbe. V is aware of how I feel and is so protective that he stays in the room with us.
I move to a room in the old staff building of the former old people’s home. My fiancé moves into a room in the main building. My former gubbe moves into another room in the same building. I still can’t talk to him. I’m still obsessing.
I now have a mobile phone I get called on if the guys need a lift, I have also started to do the flower arrangements for the altar in the morning. I have two hours from 5 to 7 to work on them. I’ve always made bouquets for my nan as a child, and we did flower decorations back on the farm at the festivals, so it’s something I am good at. I take day-long courses and learn more about it.
My fiancé and I get married on paper within the first 4 months of his stay in Sweden. He really only gets married for the visa. He takes my name because a Western surname gets him more opportunities. I’m insisting that we wait a year for the temple ceremony so I can change my mind. I’m also the one who initiates physicality. It’s been a long time – and yes I’m one of the few who kept to the vows. I believe everyone else did. I later find out not everything was as it seems.
My guru comes to Korsnäs. He meets my fiancé. He doesn’t speak out about how obviously idiotic this is.
We spend time together but keep our separate rooms. I still drive the shuttle. I teach V how to drive. His main service is painting and sometimes we go out and he paints landscapes. We start looking at learning Swedish. In Summer we go swimming nearby. I teach V how to swim too. On Thursdays we watch the X-Files on a little TV in his room. I wash and iron his clothes and cook for us sometimes. I’m a good Vedic wife and nicely submissive. V has gone and taken over my life, defended me from Brahma sometimes, is now managing me. V keeps me from my friends and after the year is over I don’t think about splitting up anymore.
We have the temple marriage ceremony in summer. My friends do my hair which by now is waist length. I wear a red saree. V is in white, pudgy, shorter than me. There is a fire sacrifice and we have a sit-down meal upstairs.
I get a new service: Transcribing lectures from the zonal guru. I’m very slow at it. I also waste a lot of time playing solitaire. I’m asked to experiment with dictation software. It doesn’t go well.
We decide to go to India. V doesn’t have any money so I work for a month in the restaurant in Stockholm. I get 4000 kronor at the end of the month.
We go to India with V’s mum. She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Russian. I try doing that walking tour again but it’s different. We have no money so we take the cheapest option for food and eat with the Bengali guests. Sometimes I don’t have food vouchers and the others bring a container back from lunch for me. V takes a lot of pictures of places with his mum posing. This time I get over all my illnesses in the first week and my health is good for the rest of the trip.
After we come back I enroll in an adult education college in a nearby suburb of Stockholm. Every week my confidence is coming back a little more and I enjoy using my brain and talking to people. I flirt a little. There are mostly people from outside Europe on the course, so I move up to the next level after 2 months.
In July I learn that I’m pregnant.
End of Part One