KANSAS CITY, Mo., Nov. 21 -- The slender young man in saffron robes, head shaven down to a tuft in back, blows the conch shell. Incense is lit in a dim temple sanctuary.

It's time for evening prayer at Rupanuga Vedic College, the first and only degree-granting seminary of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Nine men in robes and bare feet dance and spin about, chanting rhythmically to the beat of a drum and the gentle tingling of tiny cymbals.

The smell of incense thickens. A small organ called a harmonium moans. The drum beat accelerates, and the men begin the mantra familiar around the world: "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare." Rupanuga, which takes its name from a Hindu spiritual leader, opened in January in an old brick and stone church here.

The college has no sports teams--the Hare Krishnas consider sports a frivolous diversion from worship--and no women, another bothersome distraction from spiritual pursuits.

Rupanuga's 15 students have come here from around the world for rigorous monastic training. It begins with chanting at 4:30 every morning and doesn't end until after a final evening class at 7:30.

Their study focuses on the Hindu sacred texts called the Vedas, designed to prepare them to become spiritual teachers and administrators of the Hare Krishna movement.

A sedate Midwestern town like Kansas City with relatively few believers outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream may seem an unlikely place for a Hindu sect to open a college. But the Hare Krishnas see it as a congenial and convenient location for their students.

"We wanted a place centrally located in the United States, a reasonable size city that didn't already have one of our centers, a city with a not-too-extreme climate, where people are open-minded," said Danavir Swami, president of the college and the International Society's global director of ministerial education.

Danavir has years of experience as a swami, or religious teacher, at International Society for Krishna Consciousness centers in the United States and in several foreign countries.

He arrived in Kansas City with a few of his students about two years ago, set up an outpost in a tiny bungalow, and began the search for a permanent home for the seminary.

The Hare Krishnas soon began their well-known sidewalk chanting, something not seen in Kansas City for nearly two decades.

On Sundays at 4 p.m., they open the college to the public for chanting, a discussion of their religion, and a free, 11-course vegetarian meal of traditional Indian food.

The Hare Krishnas' food is far tastier and more plentiful than their austere living conditions might suggest: Heaping servings of savory rice and potatoes, Indian flat bread, sweet and spicy chutney, rich desserts.

Krishna Consciousness is one of the many branches of Hinduism, an ancient Indian religion with more than 700 million followers worldwide.

The Hare Krishnas are devoted to Krishna, a heroic figure in Hindu literature who is seen as a human incarnation of God. Krishna Consciousness is a monotheistic faith, just as Western religions are, Danavir said.

"Our scriptures (of different faiths) all reveal the same things," he said. "The essence of them all is God is supreme."

A key belief is reincarnation, that upon death the souls of living things enter new bodies. What kind of body a soul acquires depends upon the accumulation of good and bad actions the soul has taken in prior lives.

"That explains why one person is born deformed and demented and in a poor family and another is born beautiful and in a wealthy family," Danavir said. "Otherwise (injustices) are hard to reconcile."

Krishna followers have to give up sports and gambling, abstain from illicit sex, swear off drugs, alcohol, and caffeine, and banish meat, fish, and eggs from their diet.

"We give up the pleasurable to give pleasure to Krishna, and in return get pleasure," Danavir said.

"The soul becomes completely satisfied spiritually and physically. A Krishna Consciousness person doesn't feel he's losing out on anything.

Rather, he feels he has gained." Danavir Swami was born Dane Holtzman, a California beach boy who grew up blithely indifferent to things spiritual. His conversion to Krishna Consciousness 30 years ago, however, was swift and unequivocal.

Holtzman was studying economics and sociology at the University of California-Los Angeles, playing on the school's championship volleyball team, singing in a rock band, and smoking a little marijuana.

"I wasn't looking for anything. I wasn't dissatisfied with anything," he said.

Then he met up with a friend who had recently joined the Hare Krishnas. He tried to talk him out of it, he said, to "bring him back to sanity."

"I asked, What kind of life are you living? I had seen them in Hollywood burning incense and chanting. They looked like they were high on something."

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