I don’t always visit religious places, but when I do, it’s the ISKCON Headquarters at Mayapur. My visit went much better than expected and even though I was not allowed to take pictures inside any of the buildings, I have things to share about the place and about the activities of ISKCON.
This was not the first time I was in the main train station in Kolkata, but last time I didn’t take pictures.
On my way to the train station I was jokingly thinking that it would be very nice of Lakshmi to send me a monk or a devotee who was going to the temple so I could tag along. I was never a believer, but being seated right in front of a Krishna devotee for the whole trip is somewhat of a sign.
I actually got to talk to him very near to the final stop, when he asked what was I planning to do in this town and then he said that he’s actually going where I wanted to go and he can help me get there.
The trip from Kolkata to ISKCON involved a train ride of more than two and a half hours and this was my longest trip with a train in India so far. When travelling in a train in India you get to see all kinds of merchants selling things like, medicine, snacks, hygiene products and even clothes. Some people try to make a living with their musical talent:
After we got to the train station we had to take an auto-rickshaw of at least a half an hour, a short ride with a bicycle rickshaw and a ferry-boat:
I loved the fact that the water was clear enough to see through:
And even more, the price of the ferry ticket:
The first order of business when we got there was to get a place to stay, because neither of us had booked a room and it was a public holiday (Republic Day). Lucky for him (and even more for me) he knew a devotee there, who helped us get a room.
His friend actually had graduated from IIT and worked for Infosys before becoming a Krishna devotee with the haircut and all, and he had tried to explain some of the philosophy behind their religion. I had actually read one book about the Vedas while I was in Kolkata and found many parts of the philosophy (such as, the modes of nature) fascinating. And even though I knew some of the most important ideas I was happy to able to ask questions and find out some new things:
- The previous process of leaving the Karmic circle of life used to be worship of deities, but now chanting the mantra was the primary one, as Prabhupada had directed.
- Just by coming to the ISKCON temple in Mayapur you get a lot of good karma (ka-ching!).
- The reason the devotees say “Hare Krishna” instead of “Hello” and “Good Bye” is, because of the forgetful nature of man. See, apparently people used to be happy worshiping gods a long time ago, but at this age we had forgotten everything about that and that is why we are so unhappy and try to achieve happiness through material things (or other people), when all we need to do is to lovingly serve Lord Krishna. Saying the words “Hare Krishna” is not only service, but also a friendly reminder of why we are here.
We ended our discussion when a room was arranged for us and we parted our ways with the IIT grad. The place where we got the room looked like this:
Me and the devotee I had met on the train went to put our stuff into the room and then we went for a walk around the memorial of Prabhupada:
After a short walk, the devotee had to attend a lecture so I decided to go through the small local vendors and caterers to see what they were offering. It was a long time since I had pancakes so I had egg-less pancakes from a Russian devotee:
After my dinner I met up with my devotee friend again and we saw an evening ritual with elephants, fire and devotees singing. I didn’t know what they were singing about, but the tone of the song and the way they performed it was amazing.
After that it was time we went to bed, because as he told me, devotees always get up before 4:30 AM and then attend rituals in the main temple.
We got up around 03:20 AM and it was cold (even in India) and dark outside. The shower was cold as always and the devotee said that they always take cold showers, because sleeping puts you into the mode of ignorance and you need a jolt to wake you up, while a hot shower leaves you sleepy and lazy.
After dressing up and having fruit for breakfast we rushed out of the guest house to get to the main gate. It was then that I noticed the list of the guest house rules:
When we reached the main gate I was surprised to see a big group of people actually waiting to get in:
Also, I didn’t know that the main ritual building is actually not in the memorial, but a short walk behind the construction site of the Vedic Planetarium.
To get in (like most temples) you had to leave you shoes AND your iPod/phone/laptop/camera at the nearby deposit. We were the first ones there, because they let in real devotees before everyone else (another good reason to visit the place with a devotee):
After the safety procedures I got to participate in a series of rituals and events from 4:30 AM to 09:00 AM. The first one was a seeing of the gods on stage (the things on the stage looked like this), which involved singing the mantra while a priest walks around the figures of Krishna and his followers on a stage. It was almost like a concert except for the occasional sprinkling of holy water, kneeling and touching of a holy fire (they can actually be seen at an appropriate time at www.mayapur.tv).
Another reason why I was happy to have an actual devotee to tag along with, was that I could ask questions about anything related to his religion and so I found out why did they need to kneel. As it turns out, Krishna is the most powerful, wealthy and beautiful being in the universe. Upon seeing him, one would he would be so amazed that he would faint and so by kneeling they pay a tribute to his eternal beauty.
After the concert part, everyone was seated and given mala beads if they didn’t have them already. It was time for a mantra chanting session (kirtan), where you have to chant the mantra for each bead on the line (which is 108 times!) Since I was here to participate, I went with the flow. Also I performed a ritual on a Tulsi tree, even though I didn’t know the significance of that.
After the mantra session it was time for a Bhagavad Gita reading and Q&A session, where a guru would read a scripture in English and translator would translate it to Bengali or Hindi, depending on the audience. I find Vedic philosophy fascinating so I’m planning to buy some books from these guys.
One interesting thing to see inside this building was the depiction of Lord Chaitanyas’ (latest incarnation of Krishna) birth and life on the walls of a big hall. In short: Chaitanya was a reincarnation of God and by acting as a devotee of the Lord since he was a child, he set an example of what a devotee should be like. In his teens he decided to shave his head and by using his dancing skills he made even the rulers of the time, believe that he was the incarnation of Krishna himself. 48 years after his birth he disappeared.
Since after the rituals there was a big break, we came up with a plan for the rest of the day:
- To see the inside of Phabhupada’s memorial,
- get vouchers for lunch,
- get breakfast at the local Govinda’s and
- visit Chaitanyas’ birthplace.
While I was participating in the rituals, one other devotee chatted me up asking me where I’m from, if I’m here alone and then he ended up actually helping us get into the museum of the memorial before the opening time and getting lunch vouchers without waiting in line (gotta love religious people).
Inside the tomb there is a beautiful fresco and a museum (diorama) depicting the most significant moments of Praphupadas’ life. In short: he was born in a religious family, graduated from a Scottish Church College in Kolkata and supported Gandhis’ protest against the British. He started taking religion seriously when he met a spiritual master who asked him to translate some scriptures into English. Later he became a full-time Krishna devotee and got sent to America to spread the message to the people of the time, who were mostly hippies. Some people caught on and the religion began spreading into other countries and while he was responsible for governing the whole thing he also translated tons of Vedic scriptures into English and continued to do so until his last breath.
After the memorial visit, we went to a fancy guest house to get our lunch vouchers:
Getting the voucher didn’t take much time, because of our new devotee friend and so we went to eat at the vegetarian restaurant Govinda’s. To me, personally, Subir makes a tastier pack of Luchi’s:
After our second breakfast we set off to visit the place where Chaitanya was conceived; which was around a kilometer away:
For a religiously significant place it didn’t look much (then again, Jesus was born in a barn). There weren’t many people visiting the place, but what caught my attention was that there were many more temples along the way there and to ISKCON:
As my devotee friend explained, many temples appeared after the birth of Chaitanya and even though the devotees in those temples looked similar, only ISKCON stays true to the scriptures and attracts the most people. (I believed him on that one as in the birthplace of Chaitanya a devotee approached and interrupted us asking me where I’m from. After I told him he went away and after a while came back asking me if I know a person who could get him a VISA in Denmark and for this service he was willing to pay me “two thousand, five thousand, ten thousand UK Dollars – no problem”.)
I was happy to leave that place quickly and get back to ISKCON to look for souvenirs to buy. I ended up buying a bead bag (the simplest one I could find, without any pictures) for the beads which I got during the chanting sessions. Because they didn’t have the recommended books here and I didn’t want to burden myself with carrying a lot of stuff while on the train, I decided to meet my devotee friend next weekend at the ISKCON temple in Kolkata.
We had some free time before lunch so we decided to walk around the premises of the temple. My devotee friend had showed me the houses where devotee families live:
The devotees who live here come from different countries outside of India and while we were walking around in the neighborhood I heard devotee parents talk to their children in Russian and English. Also, my devotee friend told me that in the premises there is also a gurukul school where children are taught to read scriptures at an early age and they even have exams, for example, where they have to answer questions about Bhagavad Gita. Unfortunately, foreigners are not allowed to enter it.
In those two days I had actually seen a couple of devotees that I’ve seen before in Kolkata and this made me wonder how many members are there. My devotee friend said that in Kolkata it’s less than a 100 and when I asked him why so few, he gave me a very clever answer: “Not many people go to a diamond shop.”
Then, lunch time came. Even though we got the vouchers early we still had to wait in a huge queue:
The canteen was huge and efficient – clearly they’re used to receiving many people at a single time:
The food was quite good and I even took some pictures of it:
After the lunch it was time to leave ISKCON the same way we got there and by the time we reached Kolkata it was already 07:00 PM. I agreed to meet the devotees at the ISKCON temple in Kolkata before I leave India, to get some souvenirs and to listen more of what they have to say. For now, all you need to know is that in order to be happy you need to chant: