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An island in the sun

This article, "An island in the sun," was published in Tampa Bay Times, March 13, 1977, in St. Petersburg, Florida.


It is unlikely any of Howard Wellfeld's classmates at the University of Maryland would recognize him now, although he is only five years removed from campus life as the financially secure son of a prominent Baltimore surgeon. Even if one should recognize Wellfeld, 28, it is certain they would no longer know him. 

Wellfeld has removed himself to another world. Spiritually - and from all outward appearances, physically - he is not the full-maned, bearded and blue-jeaned jazz drummer who studied pre-med and psychology courses in the hope of following his father's professional footsteps. He is not even Howard Wellfeld now that he has been to India, the home of the spiritual master, and found Krishna consciousness. 

Call him Narahari Das, the identity he has assumed as a disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the wrinkled, 81-year-old Indian mystic who introduced the West to Krishna consciousness with his English translation of the "Bhagavad-Gita," an ancient scripture believed to be the actual word of God. Narahari now spends his life in monastic devotion to Krishna, chanting and teaching the dogma to a colony of 65 converts who have erected a temple in a pastoral setting 10 miles west of Miami. 

Narahari's head is shaven except for a knot at the crown that Krishna may one day need to yank his soul into everlasting life in the eternal abode. A daub of yellow clay runs down his forehead to a point between the eyes as a sign of his devotion. He administers the temple as president, sitting yoga-style on the floor clad in a burnt orange dhoti, a loose, long loincloth that is the male version of the Indian sari. He is barefoot except when he slides on a pair of sandals to go outdoors. A gold wristwatch is the only modern touch to his appearance. The air is heavy with incense. He doesn't enjoy talking about himself. 

"I had been interested in yoga for years, but the answers never came. Where did I come from? Where was I going? Why isn't everyone happy? Why is there suffering with so much material wealth? I could see only futility in continuing my academic career." After taking a degree in psychology, Narahari dropped out, moved to Miami and tried to live a simple life in the yoga tradition while supporting himself playing in a rock band six nights a week. He found the worldly temptations of the nights did not mix with the ascetic life he wanted to lead in the daytime. 

"I had smoked a little, and I knew drugs were not the answer," he says. The answer came when a friend gave him the book "Bhagavad-Gita As It Is," written by Prabhupada (pro-voo-pod). "I was very impressed. I was convinced that he was presenting yoga in a way that answered everything." Narahari visited the small downtown Miami temple and soon took what he says was an irreversible step. He joined the movement. Since then, he has made two pilgrimages to India to study and to chant, and to swim in the holy rivers, and soon will be off on a third. "I will see the Spiritual Master (Prabhupada)," he says, his deep-set blue eyes beaming. "There is no other life for me. Materially speaking, I had everything before - health, looks, intelligence, women, friends. But I was interested in higher consciousness.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna 
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare; 
Hare Rama Hare Rama 
Rama Rama Hare Hare 

The chant is repeated endlessly in the reflected light of the deity room, where two 4-foot porcelain images of Krishna stand side-by-side, wreathed in garlands of pearls and flowers. The cadence is kept by the beat of a two-headed clay madanga drum and the ching, ching, ching of saucer-size cymbals called kartals. The devotees stand behind Narahari, who calls the sacred words into a microphone, swaying slightly as he plays the madanga, eyes ever-fixed on the deities. 

Almost imperceptibly, the beat quickens. The chanters hop from one foot to the other, turning slow circles and clapping. The women form facing rows of four and side-step - three to the left, three to the right. Faster, faster, faster ... perspiration beads the faces ... eyes glaze over and smiles become breathlessly fixed ... the din reaches a frenzied crescendo and stops, resuming without pause at the slow, beginning pace. Again and again, hour after hour, the devotees chant their daily greeting to the Lord Krishna. 

The Hare Krishna movement (Hare is a complimentary form of address) began in the United States when Prabhupada opened a storefront office in New York in 1966. 

Hare Krishna followers govern themselves according to the 5,000-year-old Vedic scriptures, which they believe to be the absolute truth. The movement is described more as a spiritual science than a religion, in that it accepts the universality of God in all forms. The scriptures, as translated by Prabhupada, say there is neither birth nor death for the soul, which moves on, "like air carrying fragrance," at death. Those who qualify by the highest spiritual example reach the ultimate level of Krishna consciousness and find their souls, in the original body, returned to Godhead, the home of Krishna, for everlasting life. Those who do not achieve this level find their souls endlessly moving to other bodies. 

The Hare Krishna movement began in the United States in New York in 1966.


Prabhupada teaches it does not matter which religion one practices: "There is one God and nature's law. We are controlled by the Supreme. You may be a Christian, you may be a Hindu, you may be a Mohammedan - it doesn't matter. The Krishna consciousness movement admits anyone who wants to understand the science of God." Krishna is considered to be the same supreme diety worshipped by all religions. Prabhupada's role is being the temporal representative of God. 

The movement is dedicated to spreading knowledge of Krishna throughout the world "to convince people about the need for a spiritual life." Currently, it claims about 10,000 fulltime communal members in the U.S. and upward of 50,000 supporters. There are between 50 and 100 temples of various sizes. Precise figures are difficult to come by. Usually, questions are referred to Prabhupada's headquarters in India. The general secretary in this country, Boli Mardan, 28, told the Associated Press in December the society took in more than $2-million last year in sales of its magazine, Back to Godhead, and 55 books of Vedic scripture translated by Prabhupada. Narahari says he runs the Miami temple on about $20,000 a year and sends the surplus wherever he is told to send it. 

Happily, the work of spreading the word coincides with the society's chief revenue-producing activity - handing out literature in return for contributions. Two huge rooms at the Miami temple are stacked with Back to Godhead and other types of literature. Incense and flowers are also passed out. Devotees depart in groups daily to stand on the downtown streets, where they present a startling contrast to conventionally dressed pedestrians. More and more, they are covering their gleaming heads and putting aside dhotis for less bizarre attire, conforming for the sake of dollars. 

Although the society claims not to be an organized religion, in practice it is laden with religious taboos and cultic ritual. Members eat no fish, eggs or meat; single men and women are strictly segregated and celibacy is encouraged. Sex is permitted among the married solely for conception - only during the woman's fertile period. Marriages are arranged (and performed) by the temple president from among those who have expressed their desire to have children. To eliminate sexual distractions, husbands and wives sleep apart. This is also one of the purposes of the shapeless clothing. 

No building is entered without first removing the shoes, and on entering the temple the devotees are required to kneel, face the deities and touch their foreheads to the floor as a sign of obeisance. Chanting the mantra (a word that means mind-delivering) Hare Krishna 1,728 times daily is mandatory, beginning with the 4 a.m. service. There are specific bans on alcohol, drugs, tobacco and gambling. 

Yet while contending not to be a religion, the society seeks the tax-free status granted religious institutions under U.S. law and fights many of its legal battles on religious grounds. To this end, most temples retain legal counsel. On a recent day, Narahari was interrupted by an angry woman who demanded release of her young grandchildren, who were brought to the temple by their mother. The mother had abandoned a drinking, wife-beating husband, Narahari explained, and he told the woman he understood this was not kidnapping and the temple would "give her all the legal protection we can." The temple has been approved by Dade County authorities as a supervisory facility for young probationers because of its strict, drug-free atmosphere. 

The majority of the devotees are young adults (average age about 24) who found the movement before finding a niche in life. Some fled life into the movement, others drifted toward the security and purpose it offered when they had none of their own. Typical of the half-dozen married householders on the 8-acre property is Madana Mohan Das, 28, who four years ago was Marc Birenbaum, an unsatisfied graduate of the University of Baltimore. He and his wife and 16-month-old son live in a cozy, but threadbare, old trailer a few yards from the temple building. In return for their service, the temple provides most of their needs and pays him a $15 weekly salary. He was married in the movement and spent three months in India on his pilgrimage. 

Birenbaum says he got his paper (college degree) but wasn't qualified to do anything. "I started looking for what I was going to do ... I wasn't satisfied and I couldn't find anyone else who was satisfied." He was intrigued with philosophy, but disappointed to find "they all differed with one another. I wanted something absolute." His cell-like room in the back of the trailer is cluttered with Prabhupada's books and some 150 cassettes of Indian music and lectures on the scriptures, which he listens to nightly. (There is a single TV set on the property that is used only during major news events.) He will try to advance in the society by learning through various categories of Prabhupada's teachings. 

Each Sunday, the temple stages an outdoor "love feast" that feature; its pungent vegetarian fare. It is open, free of charge, to the public. Miamians who have been invited on the street frequently show up out of curiosity, lining up for heaping portions of food. 

The menu: cauliflower breaded with chickpea flour and deep-fried in ghee (clarified butter, a protein staple of the diet); potatoes boiled with sour cream and heady Indian spices; eggplant steamed in ghee solids and seasoned with turmeric, coriander, salt and pepper; steamed cabbage; potatoes and carrots deep-fried in ghee and seasoned with sour cream, rosemary and cumin; lemon cake with coconut frosting and eclairs, deep-fried in ghee and topped with an imitation chocolate frosting made of carob. The feeders and the fed mingle under the thatched roof of an open-air chickee while the house band - harmonium, madanga, tambora, flute, kartals and guitar - entertains with Indian music before an incongruous electronic amplifier. 

Visitors are greeted with the traditional garland of flowers and the words "Hare Krishna." There is no pressure to make a donation, but a booth is staffed with literature available for anyone in a generous mood. Later, as the shadows grow long, the devotees drift into the temple for the evening artika (greeting of the Lord Krishna) and some of the visitors follow, sheepishly removing their shoes. When the chanting reaches its frenetic pitch, many will succumb to the urge to dance and join the worshippers near the overstuffed throne at the back of the room reserved for a who-knows-when visit from Prabhupada. 

Not many will stay for Narahari's meandering lecture about entering the level of Krishna consciousness: "... traveling at the speed of the mind to another planet, passing trillions of years to capture a ray of light coming from a toenail of Krishna's lotus feet." Not even one of the faithful. She slid into an adjacent room, where she could be seen, a swishing figure in a sari, doing her weekly ironing.  

Photo 1: The chant, above. To the endless beat of a drum and ching of the cymbal, devotees whirl and chant the praises of Krishna. The daily devotion lasts hours.
Photo 2: Madana Mohan Das, 28, and his young son. Four years ago he was Marc Birenbaum, an Army veteran and unsatisfied university graduate.
Photo 3: During the Sunday feast, open free of charge to the public, a display of literature, honey, beads and other articles helps raise money for the temple.
Photo 4: After the frenzy of the chant, followers seat themselves on the floor for the lecture by Narahari, rear at microphone. Women thread garlands of flowers as they listen. 
Photo 5: A young devotee, clad in the traditional Indian sari, picks marigolds for distribution with the literature on Miami's downtown streets.
Photo 6: Howard Wellfeld: Living in a different world.
Photo 7: Porcelain figures imported from India represent Krishna in two symbolic forms. The deity room is the most sacred place in the temple.

Reference: Tampa Bay Times, Miami, USA, 1977-03-13