SUPER BOWL SUNDAY, and Boston is fixated on its Patriots. Yet, here, in the city's chic Back Bay neighborhood, I am with just about the only people not thinking of football. Here, as most pregame parties are starting, a horn sounds, and a familiar chant is repeated over and over: "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna...."
If you thought the Hare Krishnas faded away with bell bottoms and disco, the scene at 72 Commonwealth Ave. tells a different story. This former boarding house serves as the local temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)--the Hare Krishhas.
While the mantra may bring back memories of a past era, a look at the worshippers this Sunday makes clear these are vastly different Hare Krishnas than those once ubiquitous in American cities. Thirty years ago, this room would have been filled to capacity with devotees looking every bit the stereotype: white, young, wearing colorful robes, the men sporting heads shaved except for one tuft at the crown of their scalp.
That was then, but this is now, and these are the faces of Krishna in the 21st century. The robed monks are here, but fewer in number. They are worshipping alongside people dressed in jeans or other casual clothes. Maybe half the faces are white, with the rest belonging to Indian immigrants and their American-born children. They are students, pharmacists, computer programmers, stay-at-home moms. If they were not here, chanting in praise of a Hindu deity whose likeness graces the ornate altar, they could blend in easily at any of the Super Bowl parties going on throughout New England.
"It's entirely possible these days that a Hare Krishna could be living next door to you and you wouldn't know it," says Middlebury College professor Burke Rochford, who has studied ISKCON since the 1970s. "They're just now part of the culture in ways that the average person couldn't have imagined some 20 or 25 years ago.... Now we're looking at what I just think of as an American religious community."
If the Hare Krishnas seemed to capture the nonconformist zeitgeist of the 1960s, today's ISKCON likewise reflects the reigning cultural mood, with its emphasis on responsibility and balance--of career and family, of spontaneity and constraint, of worldly and otherworldly pursuits. Today's Hare Kristmas live as part of, and not apart from, mainstream American society. The overwhelming majority make their homes outside the temple, work in secular professions, get married, have children, and cope with all the accompanying anxieties, like paying rent, finding quality schools, and being solid citizens and good parents.
For support, they look to their religious community, putting ISKCON in a role it is not used to playing. "We're addressing the needs of their kids for Sunday School, and parking lots, and playgrounds," notes Anuttama Dasa, an ISKCON leader and spokesman. He speaks enthusiastically about committees and training programs and systems--just the kind of institutionalization early converts were fleeing.
"Twenty-year-olds who are single can live pretty simple," Anuttama points out. "You don't need playgrounds if your whole community is 20-year-olds. You may not need marriage counseling. You may not need to deal with a lot of the different kinds of social issues that churches and synagogues all over the country deal with."
It was not an easy transition, but without it, ISKCON easily could have faded away like so many flash-in-the-pan spiritual fads. That it is still here is testament to the dedication of its members and the attractiveness of its message. Yet, its history also provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of unbridled spiritual exuberance and what it takes to "make it" as a religion in the U.S. Four decades after its founding, ISKCON is both thriving and struggling, hopeful for a bright future while facing immense challenges just as it is getting its house in order.
It was on another Super Bowl Sunday, this one in 1992, that Paul Swinford fast stepped into a Hare Krishna temple. Thirteen years later, now known as Premananda Dasa, he is pastor of the Boston community. At 40, Premananda again is adapting to a major transition. After living in the temple for 10 years, he got married and moved to New Hampshire, where his wife, also a Hare Krishna, works for a financial-services company. He continues to work full time for the temple, so among other adjustments, Premananda has joined America's commuter class, now driving 90 minutes to the place he called home for a decade.
After graduating from college, Swinford worked in grassroots politics before joining the corporate world to pay off debts. He developed an interest in spirituality and was intrigued by the personal relationship with God promised by the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture central to ISKCON theology. After that first Sunday service, he started attending regularly and worshipping at home. He then took a step that increasingly is rare. His debts paid off, he quit his job to move into the temple. There, he eschewed bookselling--the occupation of most temple residents then--and instead assumed a variety of administrative roles: treasurer, secretary, congregational director.
Like ISKCON broadly, the temple is at a pivotal moment in its history. The temple was slapped with an anticult lawsuit by a former member in 1976, a common occurrence then. After spending more than 20 years wending its way through the system, the two sides settled for an undisclosed sum in the late 1990s. That financial burden removed, the community can look ahead for the first time.
"For us to have finally gotten to a point in the late 1990s where we had no debts, where we had all our invoices paid, this was revolutionary for us practically," Premananda says during a conversation in his temple office, the first time I have seen him in "Western" rather than devotional clothes. What will the...