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Attracting Youth Here: Cult Of Chanters

This article, "Attracting Youth Here: Cult Of Chanters," was published in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 29, 1970, in St. Louis, Missouri.

By Connie Rosenbaum 
Of the Post-Dispatch Staff 

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS HAS COME to St. Louis. The chanting cult that separates the spiritual flower children from the drug-set hippies has recently opened a temple at 4558 Laclede Avenue. In the sparsely-decorated, three-room apartment, the sweet-smelling scent of burning incense mingles with monotonous drum and cymbal music as devotees sing a 16-word prayer that, they say, leads to the sublime life. 

Vamandev Das and his wife, Indira Dasi, opened their center, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, four months ago. The group, they say, is dedicated to achieving peace, happiness and spiritual awareness by repeating the prayer or great mantra. Members express their service to the god Krishna by performing kirtans - prayers and chanted rituals, they explained.

The poet-guru Allen Ginsberg recently gained national attention for the fast-growing cult when he recited the chant of words meaning God in the court of United States District Judge Julius J. Hoffman at the Chicago Seven trial.

Outside the Gary Theater in San Francisco last summer, chanters with shaven heads and saffron robes continuously repeated the same mantra. Inside, the actors in the musical "Hair" accompanied themselves with brass cymbals as they sang the chant that they say produces supernatural vibrations.

KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS draws its devotees from the same population that a few years ago was turning to drugs and dropping out in Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury. They are mostly affluent, middle-class, suburban young people. However, the life style of the robed chanters is rigidly puritanical. 

The cult's spiritual leader in the Western world is Swami Bhaktivedanta, who left India several years ago and established himself in New York. He has since moved to Los Angeles. 

For his followers to achieve a state of "true ecstasy." he insists on continuous devotional services to Krishna. He forbids the use of any drugs or stimulants that might induce a "false state of supreme joy." Devotees must refrain from alcohol, coffee, tea, cigarettes, meat, fish, eggs and poultry, as well as illicit sex and gambling. 

Despite these restrictions Krishna Consciousness is attracting many young people who have been disappointed with drugs and a permissive morality.  

"It's a lot different from acid," said a lean follower who had tried the chemical way. "Everyone wants to get high but chanting is the best way. It is legal, safe, free, and best of all, you don't come down."  

Bhaktivedanta has described the experience of "expanded consciousness" that many of his followers feel as an awareness of the soul's presence within the body. He has said that "it closely parallels an LSD-induced awareness of the spirit in all things as well as the euphoric state produced by the drug." However, he sees himself as a counterforce to drug advocates like Timothy Leary, and advises his devotees to "turn off, sing out and fall in."

Krishna Consciousness began in India 5000 years ago, it has heen said, when Krishna first spoke the Bhagavad-Gita (holy scriptures) to his disciple Arjuna on a battlefield. In 1966, Bhaktivedanta arrived in New York City to spread the word of the cult to the Western world. He set up a store-front temple in the Lower East Side that soon became a popular haven for the Greenwich Village underground. He also led chanting sessions on Sunday afternoons in Central Park which attracted an enthusiastic following, mostly of young people. 

Indira Dasi, who was then Iris Mendoza, was attracted to the group after attending one of those park sessions. The tiny, thin Puerto Rican girl married Vamandev in New York last fall and they moved to Columbus, O., to help start a temple. 

"We came to St. Louis last November because there were no other members here and it seemed like a ripe place to spread Krishna Consciousness," she said, "The Midwest is virtually untouched.

VAMANDEV was also a disciple of the swami in New York. Before being initiated and receiving a new "spiritual" name, he was Robert Pekala, a sophomore at the University of Vermont. He was studying philosophy and religion in the swami's class in September 1967 when he decided to do a research paper on the Krishna Consciousness temple in Montreal. Every Friday evening he would drive there to attend services and soon he was staying at the temple all weekend.

He read all the literature and learned the Indian prayers. 

After six months of study, he said, he decided to drop out of school and devote his life to the service of Krishna. He adopted the appearance of a religious student - a saffron robe and a completely shaven head except for a long topknot of hair (so that Krishna could yank him out of ignorance.) 

"We were all asking so many questions," Indira said. "They were the same that everyone wonders about: Where am I going? Who am I? What am I doing with my life? What does this world mean and where is my place? Why am I suffering and unfulfilled? I think we have found our answers by serving Krishna.

"In this present age, called the Age of Kali (hypocrisy and suffering), pure meditation is almost impossible because of the free mingling of the sexes and the distracting noises of the industrial environment," Vamandev said. "Therefore, chanting the mantra, three holy names of God, continuously is the prescribed method of liberating the body through the scriptures.

Adherence to other strict devotional activities, like reading scriptures and discussing them, aids in this process of self-purification, it was explained. Devotees also follow a carefully defined diet and eat only foodstuffs that are prepared as an offering to Krishna. 

"We fix what Krishna requests in the Bhagavad-Gita," Indira said. "He desires fruits, vegetables, nuts and rice. It is a good pure diet and many of the spiritual men have enjoyed long and healthy lives.

Prasadam, samples of this food, are distributed at the Sunday afternoon "Love Feasts" at the temple. Services are also held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 p.m. and every morning at 7. 

Last month, Vamandev started classes at St. Louis University on Tuesday evenings. More than 50 students enrolled in his "free university" course. He also lectures at Washington University on Thursday evenings at 7 p.m. in the Women's Building. 

High school and college students attend the chanting sessions most frequently, but Krishna Consciousness is also attracting young business and professional people who experience a release from tensions by singing the mantra with the group. 

Photo 1: Indira Dasi blesses prasadam, food for the Hindu god Krishna, at a Sunday "Love Feast." The painted markings on her face are a ritualistic telok. 
Photo 2: Vamandev Das (left foreground) and his wife, Indira, lead a group of chanters in the Hare Krishna mantra, or prayer. Their temple is an apartment at 4558 Laclede Avenue. (Post-Dispatch Photos by Richard Jamison) 
Photo 3: Vamandev reads from the Bhagavad-Gita (holy scripture) as Indira lights a candle. 
Photo 4: David DuVivier, a high school student, in front of a picture of Krishna. 
Photo 5: Indira prepares to beat a drum for the Hare Krishna chant. 
Photo 6: Cult members listen to a scriptural reading by Vamandev.

Reference: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Unknown Location, USA, 1970-03-29