A couple of years ago, my wife and I had to catch a flight immediately following a religious observance at our local temple. Minutes after the last ceremony ended, we jumped into a cab and raced straight to the airport. A testament to both the power of prayer and New York cabbies, we arrived with time to spare.
As the airline representative typed in our names, I noticed her fascination with our appearance. It was not entirely surprising: I wore a cream-colored dhoti and kurta--loose fitting traditional Indian clothes that most people simply call “robes.” My wife looked elegant in her sari, brightly colored silk wrapped so that the end came up as a head-covering. Around her neck she wore a flower garland, consecrated at the temple, now shedding rose petals wherever she stepped. Markings of bright yellow tilak, sacred clay used to anoint the body, decorated our foreheads. The final touch: on my way out of the temple, I had grabbed some magazines to read on the plane, and I now held these as if poised to start handing them out at any moment.
“Excuse me sir,” the representative finally said, “But I was wondering about your clothing. Is it part of your religion?” Here we go, I thought. I braced myself, looked her in the eyes, and decided to not pull any punches. “Yes. Actually, we’re Hare Krishnas.”
There, I said it. We’re Hare Krishnas. At the airport.
“Pardon me? Harry Christians, you say?”
I repeated myself, but it didn't ring a bell.
She couldn’t be serious. Here we were: flowing robes, flowers, even leaflets. At the airport. If there was such a thing as a Hare Krishna stereotype checklist, ours was well filled out.
“You know, as in the song?" I said, beginning to chant, "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna...” My wife let me sing a few bars before gently informing me that I was both off-key and making a scene. I offered a more subdued explanation of the Krishna tradition as the woman handed us our boarding cards.
Loved, hated, or--if my airport experience is any indication--simply unknown, the Hare Krishna movement has spent the last 40 years trying to find its place in American society. The movement represents the ancient Vaishnava faith, a monotheistic Hindu denomination, transplanted and brought to the West by Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The 70-year old holy man arrived in New York City carrying $7 in rupees, a trunk-load of scriptures, and a mission to introduce the Western world to Lord Krishna. The swami converted a Lower East Side storefront into one of the first Hindu temples in America, and in July of 1966 formally incorporated his fledgling organization as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Divine arrangement not withstanding, Srila Prabhupada’s American arrival owed something to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Reversing decades of exclusionary immigration policies, the act welcomed in a wave of Asian immigrants. My mother--then an unmarried, headstrong nursing student with dreams of studying medicine in the United States--was among a handful of early Indian immigrants who also heard, in the new law, whispers of opportunity calling across the ocean. And so, a few months after the swami had formed ISKCON, my mother’s first airplane ride brought her, ears popping and eyes wide with wonder, to the same city.
By the mid-1970s, Prabhupada’s mission seemed a success. He had opened more than 100 temples, published scores of academic volumes, and circled the globe 14 times to share devotion to Krishna with millions of men and women. My mother’s dream of becoming a doctor, meanwhile, took a detour: she got married and starting raising a family instead. When Srila Prabhupada passed away, in November of 1977, my mother was already pregnant with me, her second child.
Despite the similarity in their arrival dates, little else seemed to bind the swami and my mother. She had come here to learn, to soak in what it meant to be an American, and to create a financial foundation for herself and her future family. Prabhupada came to teach, to share with the world what it meant to be a devotee of Krishna, and to create a spiritual foundation for thousands. Through years of parallel existence, their paths never intersected.
Until, of course, I became a Hare Krishna.
I grew up trying to be a good Hindu-American—which probably would have been easier if anyone knew what that meant. Without the luxury of a definition, though, I defaulted to walking a tightrope between two seemingly incompatible aspects of my life. In public school I learned to celebrate the holiday season by making paperclip Christmas ornaments and spinning plastic dreidels. At home, we rang in Diwali, standing reverentially before our kitchen cupboard makeshift altar, offering diyas, ceremonial candles, to deities and garish pictures cut out of Hindu calendars--feeling tinges of guilt for offering the diyas quickly enough to run off and watch TV.