Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare

Prabhupada's Palace of Gold near Moundsville, West Virginia 
For much of my adult life, I was fascinated by communal living, and this led me to visit many interesting places. The second of these was a Hare Krishna farm (New Talavan, which still exists) in south Mississippi that I visited in 1980. I assumed that it was situated where it was so recruits could be brought out from nearby New Orleans. The men lived in a dormitory, and the women and children lived in their own little houses, sex being limited to the actual attempt to bear a child, which, as I recall, wasn't a decision that was made by the couple, although I don't remember who did make it. Everyone spent a lot of time chanting out loud while dancing barefoot in a concrete floored building, which, although I was still young and strong enough that health problems seemed like something that happened to other people, struck me as a really bad idea. The residents ate in yet another building which, because people were constantly coming in and going out, was full of flies. Hare Krishnas won't kill anything, so there was no way to keep the flies off their food, which bothered me considerably more than the barefoot dancing because I was eating the same food. 

The people repeated their sixteen word chant (mostly under their breath) over a thousand times a day (I forget the exact number), which meant that they spent nearly all day everyday chanting, no matter what else they were doing or who they were talking to. One other thing that stands out in my memory is that some of the men slept on the wooden floor beside their beds as a form of devotion, perhaps of penance. My only complaint was that everyone seemed somehow distant. Maybe it was because I was an outsider; maybe it was because of the number of visitors who went through the place; or maybe it was just due to the necessity of having to chant while talking.

A few years later, while Peggy and I were on one of our six week camping trips, we visited the big Hare Krishna temple near Moundsville, West Virginia. Construction was still in progress, and despite the fact that the work was being done by people with no building experience, the temple was beautiful. CBS reported, "The magnificence of the Palace of Gold would be hard to exaggerate." Life Magazine called it "a place where tourists can come and be amazed." The New York Times exclaimed "Welcome to Heaven," and The Courier-Journal of Louisville enthused, "It's hard to believe that Prabhupada's Palace is in West Virginia. In fact, it's hard to believe it's on this planet." The builders attributed the success of their work to "Krishna Consciousness."

We unknowingly arrived at the height of a festival, so there were, perhaps, a thousand people camped around the palace, which resulted in a fair amount of mud. Their guru, Swami Prabhupada, had died in 1977, but they tried to retain him as a living presence by venerating a life-size wax effigy. This effigy had its own "living quarters" and was treated as if it were alive. The devotees would gather before it and listen to Prabhupada's speeches while a couple of people gently fanned flies away from its face.

On our first night, one of the Krishnas knocked on the door of our Datsun truck camper and asked to borrow a flashlight, which he never returned. The theft added to my suspicion that America's Krishnas regarded people outside their group as fair game for exploitation. No one can denounce every aspect of their own culture (except its language) by the way they look, act, and think without harboring a hatred of that culture and, by extension, its people. I was also bothered by their practice of sticking flowers in strangers' shirt pockets at airports and on street corners, and then asking for a donation. Finally, I noted that their four "regulative principals" (no gambling, no intoxicants, no meat eating, and no illicit sex) were all expressed as negatives and made no mention of honesty or compassion, at least in regard to humans.  

We camped for two nights, ate with the Krishnas, and went away glad that we didn't have to eat their strangely spiced vegan food all the time. We were happy we had visited but even happier to escape the crowds and mud, yet our happiness was nothing compared to that of our little schnauzer, Wendy, who was SO glad to leave that it was comical. Her emotions had ranged from ill at ease to scared silly the whole time, leaving us to wonder if it was the ambiance of the place or the mixture of body odors and cooking odors that bothered her.

I chose the following recording of "My Sweet Lord" despite the relatively poor sound quality and the fact that it cuts off the chanting at the end. I did so because the photos indicate that the song wasn't just a fleeting appropriation of a religion, but that "Krishna Consciousness" was an important part of George Harrison's life (in one interview he talked about how high he got from chanting Hare Krishna three days running). George died of lung cancer at age 58. He was a gentle and sensitive man.