The ISKCON Experience

By Julie Acharya Ray
Every month in Salt Lake City and around, ISKON has at least one home program. Somehow for the past several months we have been attending one or the other. I am not sure what draws me there: to listen to an interesting presentation or to be a part of the invigorating Hare Krishna kirtan or simple amazement at non-Indian people being such ardent lovers of Krishna.

Krishna DinnerEvery month in Salt Lake City and around, ISKON has at least one home program. Somehow for the past several months we have been attending one or the other. I am not sure what draws me there: to listen to an interesting presentation or to be a part of the invigorating Hare Krishna kirtan or simple amazement at non-Indian people being such ardent lovers of Krishna. Well of course, from the 33 million Gods that we sport, Krishna is known to be the magnificent enamourer and not many have escaped from his divine clutches. In trying to find out a reason for my attraction for Iskon, I embarked upon a journey that took me on a 50 mile tour where I followed one such soul that has fallen quite inextricably into the web of Krishna’s charm.

My first introduction to the Spanish Fork ISKON Temple was in October of 2008 when we moved to Salt Lake City, UT. Looking for some Indian faces, we visited the temple on India Fest Day on a wintry evening that year and were amazed to see how many non Indians loved India!! It was the beginning of a tie that would draw us to the temple celebrations of Shivaratri, Diwali and Holi every year. Slowly our kids began to perform at their festivals, I began to sing in the temple, blog about ISKCON and began bringing relatives and visitors over to see the Taj Mahal of Utah! Spanish Fork is a 50 mile drive from our home but distance did not seem to matter when I received a short email from this man who seemed to be completely at ease running a show for an audience of 15,000 to put forward the case of Krishna. With a smile that has never left his face and with a crease that has never appeared on his forehead, he seemed to be an encyclopedia on Hindu scriptures most often putting us to shame! He reaches out to strangers with extreme ease, remembers difficult Indian names and chants shlokas to every instance. His goal in life seems to be simple—I have to bring Krishna to you! I have never seen Caru Das tire of this goal.

This past month we hosted the home program in our house. As a child if you have read the stories of composed saints like Vasishtha, Agastya and Atri or impatient sages like Durvasa, Bhrigu and Parshurama you would have trepidations inviting priests home for a meal and discourse! I ventured out with faith and humility trying to remember everything that my pious mom would do in a situation like this! Fresh vegetarian food cooked the same morning after a shower, arranging the altar with our house deity Jagannath’s photograph, flowers, prasad, ghee wick lamps and a coconut adorned kalash seemed to give me some sense of peace before the arrival of the visitors. Ankith

The guests arrived in the evening as hot rotis were just turning out of the stove. Vaibhavi Devi, Caru Das’s architect-artist wife, Hanuman ji, the tuneful kirtan singer, his wife Wendy who keeps a fantastic rhythm on the manjira and Prem ji, a devotee from India, along with Caru Das were our visitors. Strangely enough, our house is full of paintings of Krishna and I became aware of their number when the Krishna lovers pointed that out!

As I laid out the food, I felt a sense of fulfillment akin not simply to feeding some pious souls but strangely as if I was feeding my ancestors. THAT is an odd feeling I thought. They finished their meals, praised the food and got up to wash their hands. Downstairs as Caru ji set up the AV system for the presentation, Hanuman ji set his harmonium facing the altar, sat down on an aasan and then did a very ordinary thing that sent a lightening stroke through my body. He took out a namavali gamcha (traditional Indian scarf with names of Gods written over it) and placed it over his head before beginning to sing. A very simple act, but in my heart I knew who I was entertaining in my home that evening. My most loved grandfather on my father’s side. Many times I have dreamt of this simple man, my father’s father, who spent several years with us in my childhood, before he died 20 years ago. Materially he never had much to give to his grandchildren but we loved him to death. On steaming hot summer afternoons in Bhubaneswar, we used to spot Bapa slowly walk down from the railway station towards our house with his head draped in a gamcha. And then I remembered Sant Tulsi Das’s verse “ Tulsi iss sansar mein sab se miliye bhai, Na jaane kis roop mein Narayan mil jaye..” (Tulsi says, meet every soul on earth with love and devotion, because who knows which form Narayan will take when he comes to meet you). Well my day was made!

Caruji gave a beautiful presentation that evening. We followed Hanuman ji on the kirtan. Everyone ate well and the first guests started to leave. While bidding them good bye Wendy and Hanuman ji said “Please let Caru and Vaibhavi Devi ji leave early, they wake up at 4 am in the morning and they can’t stay up very late’. Inspite of that Caruji and his wife could not leave early as everyone flocked around them with questions and queries: How to attain peace. And as simple as the dhoti and the kurta that he wore, Caru ji answered with a smile, “Think more of Krishna”. That’s tough, I thought!

Few weeks later I received an email from Caru ji inviting Ankita (my daughter) and myself to perform at the temple Diwali function. As always I agreed to go. A week later I received another email where Caru ji asked me if we could appear for a Channel 4 preview of the temple Diwali festival. I was excited and agreed to that too. The next email that followed revealed the time that we needed to be there at the temple for the recording. I was a little doubtful on that and didn’t reply immediately. Brian Carlson, the Channel 4 (ABC news) news caster wanted us to be present in full costume and galore at 6.45 am at the temple on a Thursday morning. The recording would be live and would last 10 minutes. We were free to leave after that.

I calculated the time I needed to wake up a 16 year old, get her into full Orissi make up, drive 50 miles from SLC to Spanish Fork, reach there on time for the recording and be back at Salt Lake for work and school. It looked like a bizarre 4.30 am weekday schedule! I expressed my doubts to Caru ji. Where there is Krishna, there is a way! Caruji came up with an unusual way to make the plan a success. He invited us over to stay at the ashram on Wednesday night so that we wouldn’t have to do a round trip on a single day. I thought it was a good idea although I kept wondering what it would be like. Another email followed from him: “we will give you the best room in the ashram, where you will be able to see peacocks and llamas from your window”. I replied in the positive and Wednesday night found the Ray family driving up to Spanish Fork.

As we got down from the car, it was already dark and empty at the temple. A few lights were up on the terrace but the temple was closed. Not a soul in sight. No llamas and no peacocks. As we walked around the temple, we spotted a lady Iskonite placing some food items in her car. She said, “The temple is closed”. I said “We are here to meet Caru ji”. Do you have an appointment? She asked. I was about to say something when the temple kitchen door opened a chink and Caru ji emerged with a huge macaw sitting on his shoulder pecking his nose, ear and coat lapels. It was quite a sight! “I didn’t see you people coming”, he said. Anu was very excited and so were we.

As we walked down to the ashram, the macaw said “Hi”. It startled me to hear such a good imitation of a female human voice! We crossed over to the ashram side, by opening an iron gate locked by a chain and a hook pretty much like in India. Caruji led us to the house. He opened the door for us and said, “On the right is the room we save for our special guests, you can spend the night there”. It was a beautiful room with pretty images of Krishna and Radha on a swing. There were 2 single nicely made beds with a chest of drawers and a few lamps and chairs. The kids occupied the adjoining room. Neela the cat came purring in and warmed our legs by brushing over and over again. As we were looking around, Caru ji said “I think you could come and see the sitting room of the ashram” and lead us into the central hall. As he lit up the lights there was the loudest screeeeeech you have ever heard. I was shocked. “That’s our self possessed cockatoo, Caru ji said, she doesn’t like you to look away from her. She wants 100% attention all the time. If you don’t do that, she raises a ruckus”. The large room opened to a sitting area with a Rajasthani style white sofa set with 3 large cages of talking birds. They kept saying “Hi” and “Hello” and even “Caru I love you”, in the most mellifluous of voices.

It was an amazing place to be in. The macaw continued his pecking at Caruji’s ears and he continued to pat him while talking to us. I noticed a small place on one wall that was veiled off with a turquoise organza curtain. As I looked at it in askance, Caru ji switched on a small light and pulled the curtains back. Lo and behold, there emerged from behind the curtains, the most beautiful clay idol of Krishna that you have ever set your eyes upon: tribhangi pose, flute poised gracefully and a beguiling smile on His face, He looked like he already had you in his clutches forever. “I will bring Krishna to you”. This soul was keeping its promise again, I thought. We sat for a while talking about various things while Krishna watched us and the cockatoo kept raising intermittent ruckus. It bothered me as the noise was louder than a train passing right under your nose with its whistle full blast. Anu kept watching my face “Mama if this were your child, I wonder what you would do to it”, she said.

It did not bother the Krishna-conscious soul though. There was a 6 foot curry patta tree in one corner of the room, a tulsi plant in a pot on the side and Caru Das talked about the clay that had been used to make the idol of Krishna—it was from the Ganges he said. Who is this soul? I thought to myself. What has he realized that millions of us haven’t?

We retired into the bedroom marveling at everything that we had witnessed that evening. Someone had switched off the hallway lights when I woke up at 4.30 in the morning. By the time Abhijit and I showered, woke up Ankita and got her into Orissi costume and make up it was 6. Abhijit went outside to load the car so that we could leave right after the recording. It was pitch dark outside. The sun would come up only much later. He came inside the room with a smile on his face. I asked him what was so amusing. He said “There are llamas in the open near the gate”. I did not think much about it as we had seen llamas in the enclosures when we visited the temple before. Anu would feed them through the wired enclosures. We packed all our stuff and walked out the ashram door to go to the temple.

As I stepped out into the cold morning air, and my eyes got used to the darkness, I spotted them. There were a bunch of llamas squatting right there in the open like huge boats in an ocean! Had it not been for a few beige colored ones I wouldn’t have spotted the black ones at all. Tintin comics! That’s the only place I had read about llamas and that they kicked and spat were the only thing I knew about them! I did not want a scene just before facing ABC news! We made our way gingerly towards the temple, Ankita’s bells ringing softly in the dark, the gate taking an infinite number of minutes to open while all that moved of those huge ‘boats’ were the white glazed eyes!

Reaching the temple we saw that ABC news van was already parked there. They had finished recording the lighting of diyas and sailing them in the lake. They were doing a run of the “Go puja”; two pretty gray calves, adorned with flowers and garlands were held by ropes, while a mother and daughter duo was placing chandan and kukum on their heads. Nandi, the bull was grunting very loudly in the background while Brain Carlson was explaining why Hindus worship the cow.

Caru Das was running back and forth ferrying stuff for the news crew. We went inside the temple and waited for our cue. Somewhere in between when the sun was coaxing the darkness of the night to make a exit, Caru ji rushed upstairs carrying a plate laden with sweets. He parted the wooden curtains before the deities, placed the plate before the idols and prostrated himself on the cold marble floor to offer his morning prayers and salutations to Krishna. After a brief run over of the scene, Brian did a very good interview with Ankita and 3 takes of Orissi for Channel 4.

Vakratunda Mahakaya Surya Koti Sama Prabha.. was still reverbating to the sounds of Orissi bells inside the marble Krishna temple, when the sun lost patience with the night and came up pink and red from behind the Rockies. It was a scene from the heavens.

We rushed down to the car to begin our drive to Salt Lake City. Caru ji came behind us with the plate of sweets, a serene smile on his face and placed in my hands a copy of “The Journey Home: An Autobiography of an American Swami (Radhanath Swami)”. I watched his face—the same beatific smile that said “I hope I have brought Krishna to you”. We returned to the city in a state of bliss.

Posted in Temple Diary.