for The Houston Chronicle on May 10, 2008
Devotees in Houston take to the streets dancing and chanting the Hare Krishna mantra.
Dr. Hansa Medley wakes up at 3:30 a.m. once a week and walks to the Hare Krishna Temple just around the corner from her small bungalow in northwest Houston.
There she joins her mother, sister and three other devotees to prepare the temple's nine deities for the day. Before the first Arati ceremony at 4:30 a.m., they carefully lay out special outfits for eight statues, choosing coordinating jewelry and face paint.
After the short service, they dress the deities, draping them with fresh garlands that they've made of carnations. The routine also involves ritually bathing four small brass deities in water or milk.
In the Krishna version of a church altar guild, the six have the deities and altar dressed for the 7 a.m. service, the second of seven held that day.
For priests like Medley and other high-level devotees, the early morning services are just the beginning of their daily worship. She will also join a morning scripture class or return home to study and pray with the beads all Krishna devotees carry in a small decorated bag.
Only then is she ready for the rest of the day as a doctor of internal medicine.
"My faith is the basis of my life, it's what gives meaning to it,'' said Medley, 49, whose spiritual name is Guru Bhakti Dasi. "And it's fun. When we try to serve God, he gives us the strength to do it. To me it's very fulfilling and it's why I want to talk about it all the time.''
Hare Krishnas burst onto the American scene after 1965, when Srila Prabhupada was sent by his Indian guru as a missionary to this country. Americans of the '60s and '70s have vivid memories of young Krishnas in saffron-colored dhotis dancing and chanting in airports and on city streets, accompanied by drums and cymbals.
"We were very immature and a bit too pushy back then with our literature," said Indradyumna Swami, an American who became a devotee in the late '60s. The swami, a well-known traveling monk and teacher, is based in Russia and Eastern Europe, where he sponsors a yearly festival in Poland.
Chanting, dancing and sharing food still are an important part of their faith. That's one reason Houston's Hare Krishnas prefer to do their outreach today at festivals and interfaith events.
"By doing this, we make many friends and people better understand us and our teachings," Medley said.
For the past five years they've rented a booth at the Houston International Festival, selling vegetarian food, handing out literature, performing spiritual chants and inviting women to try on saris.
This afternoon will find the Hare Krishnas at the annual Art Car Parade with a food booth and a parade entry. Members of Jiv Jago, a lively youth group band, will be among those on a decorated flatbed trailer pulled by a small truck. The kirtan band recently made a CD of their chants.
"Jiv Jago means 'awakening the soul'," said Anish Pillai, a University of Houston student and one of the group's founders. "This music brought us together and it's special because it's praising God. It feels like we separate from our material existence. We forget about what we're doing in school or work and we focus our minds on God and the higher purpose of life. It's so enlivening and so powerful."
The Hare Krishnas are the Western branch of the Gaudiya Vaishnava movement, part of the Hindu tradition that originated in Bengal, said Jeffrey J. Kripal, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University.
The tradition dates to 16th-century guru Chaitanya Mahaprabu, considered an incarnation of Krishna, Kripal said. The guru taught that Lord Krishna was the principal deity and that everyone could have a personal relationship through group chanting of God's names, especially the Hare Krishna mantra:
"Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare."
A year after Prabhupada arrived in New York City by freighter, he established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also known as ISKCON. Even in the psychedelic 1960s, Krishna devotees and initiates took vows to abstain from using recreational drugs and alcohol, eating meat and having sexual relations outside of marriage.
"He did connect with the hippies and became one of the gurus of the counterculture," Kripal said. "But what was unique about Prabhupada is that he converted Americans and other non-Indians to this tradition."
One of them was Medley's husband Peter, who joined the Krishna movement in the late '70s.
"I was raised a California surfer," he said. "I guess my parents were some kind of Protestants, but I found it stuffy and I didn't feel very comfortable. I never really thought about God until I got into college."
As a University of California, Berkeley, student, he learned yoga and meditation, which eventually led him to the Hare Krishnas. A teacher gave him a copy of Prabhupada's well-respected translation and commentary of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu sacred text.
"It was a fun and intense time," said Medley, 59, a writer, vegetarian caterer and temple teacher and priest whose spiritual name is Sarvabhauma Das. "I started thinking about a supreme being and the idea of reincarnation. We don't believe reincarnation is forever and it's not the most important belief we have, but it made a lot of sense to me."
Around the corner from the West 34th Street temple, 50 Krishna devotees live in 12 houses along one street. The Medleys and her parents live in one of the homes. The 50 are among the most involved members of the temple, which has about 4,200 people on its mailing list, temple president Hasmukh Naik said. Other equally devoted priests and members drive in from as far away as Sugar Land.
On Sundays, 350 to 500 people attend the main service in the building that once was a Baptist church. A larger temple is under construction at the 4.8-acre site that includes a meditative garden and culture center.
Priests and other temple staff members are all volunteers and many, such as Hansa Medley, have jobs in the 9-5 world.
She was raised Hindu by Indian parents in the Fiji Islands. But she always felt something was missing.
"I used to think that if God was so important, they would talk about him in school," she recalled. "But they didn't so I thought it was a myth."
On her first day at medical school in India she was given a book written by Prabhupada. She was so struck by his writing that she decided to dedicate her life to the faith.
On Thursday nights, the Medleys open their home to devotees and seekers. A talk and chanting are always followed by food and conversation.
"We feel we have created a place or safe haven for people trying to find out about us and the temple," Hansa Medley said. "They can come and see we are ordinary people. It's also a place for the devotees. My sister coordinates the cooking and we feel good about serving people."