Burning Down The Red Tent: My Interview With A Hare Krishna Monk
September 15th, 2012 | Other Published Work
by Darrah de jour
By chance and invitation, I attended the Hare Krishna Festival in Venice Beach last weekend, with my friend, SuicideGirls columnist and Zen monk Brad Warner. While there, in my cleavage bearing, brand-spankin’-new sundress, with my faithful dog Oscar Wilde trotting along in his new hipster T-shirt, we perused the vegetarian selections, caught wind of a Krishna-adapted stage play of The Wizard of Oz, and generally people watched.
As a woman, and as a non-believer of the Hare Krishna movement, I felt fairly safe avoiding the subtle, yet omnipresent evangelizing going on at every rest stop between the herds of hungry beach dwellers and spiritual devotees, migrating amid covered tentpoles with signs that bragged, “Questions & Answers,” “Vegetarianism: The Higher Taste” and “Pizza by the slice.”
Brad was dying to scavenger hunt at the literature table, fit with a menagerie of both spiritual texts, and some cool modern selections that I would actually buy, like Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World! A man in orange robes and face paint began disciplining Oscar, pointing a finger at him and saying, “Be good.”
“Oh, he is good,” I snapped back. Almost as if accidentally referencing many an ex-boyfriend, I added, “He can behave badly, I’m very tolerant.”
The man eyed Brad, then in what I assumed would be a much different retort, had I been a lone brassy woman at the festival, lowered his voice, and said something like, “Tolerance is spoken about in the texts.” He went on about humility and more stuff, that went in one ear and out the other as I bent down to feed Oscar water from the same Arrowhead bottle I drink from.
Taking cover in a shady spot on the grass, I quickly noticed a cute, shaved head dude standing behind the book desk. Effortlessly magnetic, he rested, arm up, palm clutching the tentpole like my ex did when he first cornered me to ask me out. He was electrifying and unavailable. My favorite kind of man. Brad approached me. I leaned in and said, “take a picture of me and that guy.”
“What?” he said, laughing. “He’s not gonna take a picture with you. I don’t even know if they’re allowed to.”
“Oh, he will,” I said.
I watched as the sexy man in the orange robes smiled broadly at one of the femmes eyeing the donation-requested-but-we’ll-let-you-take-one-home-if-you-really-don’t-want-to-give-us-five-dollars book choices.
“He’s so sexual. He’s oozing sex,” I observed, rationally.
“He’s celibate,” Brad reminded me.
I approached said man.
“I’m from out of town and came to the festival today,” I lied. “Will you take a picture with me?” I smiled nervously.
“For five dollars,” he spit out, almost as quickly as I could scan him from head to lower torso (the rest covered by the desk). This was the beginning of a crisp wit, I would have to throw myself on mute several times to catch; as I get overly-bubbly in the face of exciting men, and the smart ones rarely stammer — or repeat themselves.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
He came out from behind the veil of the tent, and stood next to me. “Can I touch you?” I asked.
He said we had to put our hands together in prayer. I did. He said we had to say, “Hare Krishna,” I did. He said he wanted Oscar in the picture. I leaned down, picked up my furry little baby, and clasped his paws together for the photograph.
A few days later, I called Yasodeva Das, to arrange an interview with him. After nine years of consecrated Krishna worship, the twenty-six year old Delaware native (who lived in New Zealand for nine years) now resides in L.A., spreading the good word of his God with the Hare Krishna Temple in Culver City. What’s more subculture than being a rock star for a religion The Beatles once called their own? The questions percolated in my head… I did research for a few days, which consisted of reading essays he’d written that were available online, watching videos of environmental activists in India, like Vandana Shiva (the Krishnas are strictly vegetarian and seem to be against GMOs), and scouring articles that introduced the layperson to the basic principles of Bhakti Yoga, chanting and their particular brand of new member outreach.
Yaso (pronounced Yah-sho), whose “mother name” is Nicholas, invited me to a kirtan block party at the temple that Thursday to help celebrate Krishna’s birthday. I brought Brad, a Soto Zen Monk, who has been studying the Hare Krishna religion for some time now out of sheer curiosity.
Yaso took me into an office of some sort, where we could escape the sights, sounds and delicious smells of Indian food, a mixed crowd of Hindus, whites, and Krishna’s swarming the stage area where they replicated the Wizard of Oz adaptation that showed at the festival (instead of “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” it was “aging, disease and death, oh my!”). Many parents dressed in traditional embroidered garb chased after their small children who had been seduced by the eery, lifelike statues of a man’s lifespan from birth to death.
I sat atop the wood ledge of a bay-style window, aside cymbals and pictures of gods I couldn’t name. He sat very far away in a folding chair, in the minimalistic room with hardwood floors, a towering bookshelf and not much else. I asked him to sit closer to me, and flipped on my recorder. The flashing lights of Dorothy and Toto and the reverb of their adventure played through the window, not unlike me and Oscar and our lives together, skipping along the yellow brick road. Searching for God, Bobby Fischer and the truth. Maybe this dude could help us, who knew?
After I asked him a few long-winded questions that cracked him up, like “how old is Krishna?” and “Does he use Botox to retain his youthful glow?” I unburdened some of my more complex ones… but first, a little history lesson:
Founded in the late-sixties in NYC, the Krishna movement gained momentum when the likes of Allen Ginsberg and George Harrison embraced “His Divine Grace,” a 69-year-old Indian swami named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Oft referred to by his followers as “Srila Prabhupada,” which means “at whose feet masters sit,” he was and is seen by his followers as a divine being sent by God from heaven to enlighten the world. He taught his followers – and they believe – that he and his teachings have been empowered by God to take over the world. Ginsberg and Harrison were swept away, and went on to sing about it. The movement adopted an acronym: ISKCON (International Society For Krishna Consciousness) and their mantra seemed to pop up everywhere, including the wild hippie beacon of stage play goodness, “Hair”.
However, ISKON went through a difficult period in the 70s and 80s, when boarding schools in India and the U.S. closed after allegations of child sexual and physical abuse (as is documented in the book Monkey on a Stick) forcing ISKON to file Chapter 11. Think of the teachers as robe-clad Sandusky’s and the schools as mini-Hindu Penn States.
How could something like this happen? Apparently, after Prabhupada died, all went to hell in a handbasket. Yaso assured me the movement has altered drastically since then, and in his seven years as a monk, the schools have undergone changes, which include new, trained staff and “because ours is a very intelligent culture and movement and philosophy, we’ve learned from those mistakes.”
I wanted to get from the non-consensual sex to the sexy-sex. Knowing he was celibate, but also that he was smokin’ hot, I was bummed to learn he was rattled by always having to talk about sex, or his lack thereof. He mentioned that attracting women was both his “burden” and his “curse.” I wondered aloud…
Religions tend to isolate sex as a sin and the body as something that’s desecrated through sexual relationships. Those same religions tend to obsess about sexuality, and create strict rules around what does and does not constitute sinful behavior. However, on the sidelines, many people that claim to be celibate are having sex with hookers in Mumbai or they’re raping their wives. Why is this?
Shit, here we are, back at the non-consensual sex. With sex-work sprinkled in for good measure.
“That’s a really good question,” he admits. But soon clarifies the Krishna stance. “First, that’s a little bit of a straw man argument in the sense that that’s not really our perspective; that sex is sinful, that the body is sinful. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita [begins speaking Sanskrit], which assuming you don’t speak Sanskrit, means: when there’s the sexual activity performed according to the principles of dharma, that’s none different from me. That’s a very lofty spiritual activity.”
Given I am SuicideGirls’ resident sex and sensuality columnist, plus, I disagree with the monk, I press on. Attempting to clarify, I remind him that what I’ve read assures me that sex within ISKON is for procreation, not sensual connection or physical gratification. Clit schmit.
“That’s ideal. I doubt that really happening en masse. The fact of the matter is that we live in a sexually charged culture and even devotees, they do it.” By it, he means fuck.
Phew, thank goodness. I breathe a sigh of relief, but as soon as I exhale… he continues, “What you’ve probably researched, which is the ideal according to the yoga psychology, is something called Garbhadhana Samskara. Which means, at the time of conception, if it’s actually done in a certain state of mind, which is not just to enjoy the aerobic exercise of humping and pumping….”
Wait up. Did the twenty-something hottie in orange robes sitting in front of a Hindu painting just say “humping and pumping”? Yep, he did.
“…but actually focused on spirituality, will attract an entity which is of superlative spiritual nature and consciousness. And, that has been proven.” When you wish upon a star, you’ll attract a super-baby from afar!
How you prove such a thing is beyond me. Movin’ on… I wonder if ISKON is accepting of those pesky other clubs, like Islam, Buddhism and Judaism? He says, in so many words, yes. But, admits a “whatever works” attitude is naive, and that in truth their religion is the best, most devoted and quickest route to the big Man Upstairs.
We banter about Occupy Wall Street. While many take the Dalai Lama’s a-political stance once they shave their head and attempt spiritually-infused castration. Not Yaso. He declares, “without any sort of spiritual principles behind activism, it’s just a matter of one person complaining about the powers that be, only because they want to have power themselves. That’s just hypocrisy… I think it’s laudable, but ineffective.”
Hmmm… I can take the man booing Islam. Booing OWS. I can even stand the preacher man pissing on recreational sex. What I can’t handle, however (and if you know me, you know this already) is systematically approved and sanctioned sexism, disguised as a paternalistic “Monk Knows Best” mentality. Ain’t gonna fly.
History Lesson Deux: Prabhupada translated the Vedic text for which the religion is based, the Bhagavad-gita, known as The Hindu “Bible”. He said that Krishna states that women are inherently “low-born” or “of sinful birth.” He has been accused of mistranslating the Gita. However, as the interview continues, I come to understand Yasodeva Das does not feel he did.
When I inquire about the role of women in the Hare Krishna movement, the ideology of feminism and the equality of the sexes, he swiftly answers, “the general tendency is that there are particular roles that are played in natural relationships… men are more comfortable and inclined towards a more predominant role.”
I shift in my seat. He continues, “On the spiritual level, we need to recognize that we are all equal. And that’s the measure of spiritual advancement. On the material level, we have to admit that we’re not equal. The natural position is that the man should have a more predominant, decision-making, leadership role in the family, relationship and community; they’re naturally inclined towards it, and the natural tendency of woman is that they are inclined toward chastity and servitude.”
I lose my shit. We go backward and forward, me trying to prove, in fact, that women are naturally confident, sexual, leaders and him scoffing at the idea. He points to a tower of yogic literature dating back, he says, thousands of years. This is his proof that women are servile and chaste. I offer my thirty years of lived experience. He doesn’t want to hear it.
The once-over he gives me when he drops the guillotine, claiming it’s “too late” for me (apparently, being a hot redhead precludes you from the sanctity of the monastic order) coupled with his sexist rant, providing merely old non-news in new non-clothes, deems this modern babe solo once again. My crush is over.
I cut the interview short and flip off my recorder. We play tug-of-war at the door, whereas I try to let him go first in an effort to be servile; he thanks me for my time and allows me to exit first.
By this time, I’m ready to scream, cry or leave the block party. I do all three. But first, I collect Brad.
When I get home, I come across a blog called Hare Krishna Women, which relays what Srila Prabhupada, the founder of ISKON, is said to have lectured:
“Generally, separation between husband and wife is due to womanly behavior; divorce takes place due to womanly weakness. The best course for a woman is to abide by the orders of her husband….”
After comparing women to a drum and a dog, he says: “If you become lenient, then she will be troublesome. So in India still, in villages, whenever there is some quarrel between husband and wife, the husband beats and she is tamed. In civilized society, ‘Oh, you have done this?’ Immediately some criminal case. But in uncivilized society they don’t care for court or civilized way of…”
Of a woman’s role in marriage, Prabhupada wrote: “you are married wife, so in that position you should serve your husband nicely, always being attentive to his needs, and in this way, because he is always absorbed in serving Krishna, by serving your husband you will also get Krishna, through him. He is your spiritual master, but he must be responsible for giving you all spiritual help, teaching you as he advances his own knowledge and realization. That is the Vedic system: The wife becomes a devotee of her husband, the husband becomes a devotee of Krishna; the wife serves her husband faithfully, the husband protects his wife by giving her spiritual guidance. So you should simply do whatever your husband instructs you to do, however he may require your assistance.”
These sentiments, along with many other archaic and simplistic and violent views toward women, are what ISKON and other male-centric religions worldwide are founded on, holding women and girls in utter contempt. A saving grace, so to speak, when it comes to Krishna Consciousness, is Radha. To devotees, she represents Krishna’s divine female counterpart, the original spiritual potency, and the embodiment of divine love. Not unlike Mother Mary in Catholicism, at least they acknowledge women actually exist, albeit, it is taught that we are entanglements to men, not to be trusted or given as much power as them.
Something Brad said, when we returned to the car, tears falling down my face as I shook with anger, moved me: “I could never be sexist, because that would mean I hated my mother. And I don’t hate my mother. And, I respect you, Darrah.” I know he does. And, I know many men respect, love, honor, cherish, lift up and support women everyday, everywhere. And, it is so appreciated.
As I transcribed this interview, something profound that Yaso said, became illuminated in my mind: “Revolution is not going to happen by some sort of legislative action. It only happens with a change of heart. A change of consciousness. By receiving ourselves and our relationship to the environment around us and the people around us in a totally different way.”
While I praise ISKON’s acceptance of the LGBT community, for them to insinuate that on the material plane women and men are not equal, and then perpetuate that inequality with adjoining texts that continue to offer ways in which to oppress women, is hypocritical at best, damaging at worse. I pray for them to employ a greater reverence for women (ya know the sex whose bodies they sprang from; the empathic, nurturing, caring, loving, intelligent, talented, deeply sensitive and spiritual sex), and to listen to women — not just read about them in books written by men. We are here, we are not chaste or servile, and we’d really love a front row seat to a religion that doesn’t appear to be a big fat boy’s club in orange robes pretending to be anything new. Spoutin’ the same ole rhetoric from 5,000 years ago is nothing liberal, accepting or righteous. It’s just plain old violence against women, only dressed differently.
It’s not just ISKON that’s to blame. Most religions are boys clubs, centered around a male God (it always confused me when “man is made in the image of God” came up, and given that women bear children, wouldn’t the CREATOR be a woman?) with his male desires and his male fallibilities. He determines how women should be, in essence, for his own benefit, not for the true growth of humanity as a whole, and not informed by how women actually are or want to be perceived. How we can have social change, when most of us cherry-pick our spiritual lives based on sexist, racist and divisive texts written thousands of years ago by mortal men, is beyond me. We need a new religion, a new spiritual subtext, that offers peace, unity and love among ALL people, regardless of race, creed, gender, sex, orientation of any kind and is inclusive of the wishes of all. One that inspires a sort of humanity that God might be proud of. I have no idea where it will come from or how it will be instilled in societies across the globe, but I would hope that it won’t include force, rape, pillaging or genocide. Perhaps, if we each just do our part to live peacefully, lovingly and unifyingly, listening before we impose our own beliefs on others and praying for the good will of ALL people, not just those that look and act and believe as we do, the world could come together in that famed way. Given that ISKON appears to be a somewhat progressive confederation, and that their founder’s lectures occurred in the late-60s, I have faith that they too, will come around. Whirled Peas for All.
Darrah’s Note: The title of this blog references the bestselling novel The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. It gave a voice, albeit fictional, to the women of the Old Testament.
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