How 100 “Hare Krishnas” transformed my Lonely New York City Experience.

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Those Hare Krishnas in the Big Apple: A Skeptic’s Tale.

People barely look you in the eyes in New York City. They’re trained to avoid it, either by toying with their iPhones or noticing something flashier. The subtext is: anywhere but here, anyone but you.

Unsurprisingly, loneliness has weaseled into my life. It manifests as a sense of fumbling through the day and needing to muster up energy to do anything. I’ve grown increasingly isolated, spending days in my pajamas, staring down at my toes and cursing the unreasonable price of a pedicure. The beginning of the year has been a series of weeks marked by strange body odors and the gnawing realization that N.Y.C. had turned out to be a worthy adversary.

Call it mind reading or call it intuition, but somehow, a friend of mine picked up on these vibes. She reached out to me and asked if I’d join her for a Bhakti kirtan. I knew very little about kirtan, only that it was vaguely linked to bald Hare Krishnas who I suspected bathed in patchouli. But perhaps a deeper part of me wondered what kept them so damn happy. Why did they chant every day?

So I told myself that I would approach the kirtan evening with an open mind, in that investigative journalist sort of way. I accepted my friend’s invitation.

On Thursday night, we entered The Bhakti Center and were greeted by three smiling “Bhaktinis.” One of them offered me a cookie on a white napkin.

“Thank you,” I said, and walked over to the front desk to pay.

“That’s sweet,” said the receptionist, “but kirtan is free.”

Free? Nothing was free in New York.

Still processing my confusion, I climbed the first flight of stairs. A woman took our coats and lined up our shoes with great reverence. She directed us toward the final flight of stairs, which led to a row of food warmers lined up in the hallway.

This was free, too? I thought. I didn’t understand; I didn’t earn any of this.

We reached the Radha Krishna temple, which smelled of feet—not especially smelly feet, but the odor of fatigue that marks people who walk the streets of New York City. There was a woman sitting in lotus, a college kid in dreadlocks, a man in a tunic, and then there was me.

At least I looked the part. I wore a red embroidered skirt with a cherry quartz mala. Quietly, I sat cross-legged, sandwiched between strangers. The people began chanting the same words, over and over. I closed my eyes like they did and tried to copy their sounds.

Kirtan is the singing of mantras or prayers, often accompanied by rhythmic drumming. Singers can invoke any deity they wish, but The Bhakti Center focuses on Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu (don’t get me started on the complexity of Hinduism).

Conceptually, kirtan is pretty simple: listen and repeat. The musician creates a melody with the lyrics “Hare Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Hare,” and the group responds in an identical fashion. I liked the feeling of singing with people, seeing as my theater career faded after the last high school performance of “Grease.”

As the volume grew louder, the temple swelled with energy. A man started dancing around me while a woman fist-pumped the air. A stranger shouted off-key and a toddler ran in circles. I looked around and wondered what we were building toward, why there seemed a sudden urge to chant toward some collective climax.

Did it matter what we were chanting? Probably not. We could’ve been shouting “pizza” for all I know, and it might have had the same effect. It was like no one really cared how we sang, only that we kept going.

It was then that my knee bumped against a stranger’s knee. I flinched—skin contact being the supreme invasion of personal space—but the woman remained composed. I clenched my hip flexors, ensuring that my knee remained elevated above hers. But after a minute or so of this, my body fatigued, and I realized I had two options: sit uncomfortably tense for the next hour, or surrender my knee against hers.

So I decided to let go.

The woman turned to me and smiled. I returned the smile, a tacit “thank you for letting me rest my knee against yours” successfully conveyed.

The truth is that I wasn’t sure if I was prepared to admit I needed her knee. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to admit that I was lonely. I couldn’t use the word “suffering” because that’s reserved for the “real” sufferers like the homeless, orphans, and abandoned veterans—so I found prettier, more poetic ways to describe my sadness.

But something happened that night that I did not expect: I started to remember the feeling of community. I realized that a separation had occurred, quite unconsciously, between my communing self and the isolated person I had become. I had chosen to abandon people because New York City had abandoned me—and by making that choice, I divorced myself from the chaotic mess of human beings.

The city had tricked me into thinking that people are all the same—that everyone is self-absorbed and indifferent to the suffering of others. But when I looked around the room that night, nothing could have been further from the truth. Those smelly, worn out feet were my feet; that loud, dissonant voice was my voice; and these strangers in the room were people who did care and who did believe a joyful climax was coming. That’s why they returned. That’s why they kept chanting.

It took me over a hundred “Hare Krishnas” to remember that I’m not alone. And as we chanted in unison, I quietly recalled that we’re all in this together—whatever “this” is.

Relephant:

Kirtan Anyone? The Transforming Power of Sacred Sound.

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Author: Julia Djeke
Image: Courtesy of the Bhakti Center
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron

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Julia Djeke

Julia Djeke is a 30-something writer, yoga teacher, and wanderluster. You can find her rushing through New York City, daydreaming, or learning about wine when she’s not in her pajamas. Julia harnesses her Virgoan sun and Sagittarian moon to mix pragmatism with adventure. Ever the idealist, she appreciates powerful language and its potential to inspire.

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Julia Djeke May 15, 2018 3:52pm

Thank you. And same to you! <3

Tulasi Devidasi Feb 1, 2018 7:21am

Great article, thanks! I know the first time I visited a Krishna temple I had this overwhelming feeling of finally coming back home. Yoga means to connect, and Bhakti yoga means to connect with pure love, pure devotion, specifically to our source and our Divine self. The more we chant these Divine names, the more we connect and become happy. Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. Anytime anywhere. They have great books too ie. Bhagavad-Gita etc. Best of everything on your spiritual life🙏🕉🎶😇🎁💝

Julia Djeke Jan 29, 2018 9:37pm

Great point! Yes, there's something very primal in chanting. It helped me get out of my head and into my heart. <3

Julia Djeke Jan 29, 2018 9:36pm

Thank you for reading :)

Nityananda Chandra Granger Jan 26, 2018 11:05pm

Fun read Julia about a first time kirtan experience, thank you very much! I also had the pleasure to attend a Thursday Night Kirtan in New York and it was great. I have been singing kirtan for about 25 years now. One thing that I love about kirtan is it accessibility. One does not need powerful mental control and mastery of the body and health as in the traditional but rigorous process of yoga meditation. Which, BTW, the ancient texts say that to be done right, must be done is solitude. No does it require one to be a scholar of Sanskrit for even a child can feel its special quality. It doesn't require difficult rituals that are only known to some priestly group or elite or nor does it require wealth. That is why I love it.

Christina Pablo Jan 26, 2018 5:28am

Way to press through the awkward and come through to the other side with such beautiful insights. Thanks for sharing.

Julia Djeke Jan 25, 2018 3:00am

This is so sweet! I plan to attend tomorrow's kirtan in fact. Thank you for creating such a beautiful community <3

Rukmini Priya Poddar Jan 25, 2018 12:50am

This is the most honest and insightful article I’ve ever read on the bhakti center Kirtans. Thank you so much 🙏🏽 Please come back again soon and I’d love to give you another cookie on a white napkin!