Bhakti for Dummies: What You Need to Know About The "Hare Krishnas."
I was first introduced to Bhakti by one of my first yoga teachers, Yogi Charu. In my 200-hour teacher training at Pure Yoga NYC, he would always talk about these parties that he went to on Thursdays where he chanted and played the harmonium. He had taught us a number of chants during our training, but they were all in Sanskrit, and I rarely understood what I was saying. That was in 2014 - basically 11 lifetimes ago for me. At that time, I was still trying to find my yogic path. It has taken almost 10 years for me to determine my path, and I'm still questioning if I'm on the right one.
Fast forward four years, and Yogi Charu, my first and only traditional yogic philosophy teacher, is living in Hawaii. I continued to practice asana, but I had lost connection with yogic philosophy without proper guidance. When I found my place at The Bhakti Center, I rediscovered the relationship between yoga postures and scripture. I have heard from multiple people, including Julie Pasqual, the leader of two of my community groups at The Bhakti Center, that to be a true yogi, you have to follow three rules: Learn it, live it, and teach it. I am completing these three steps slightly out of order, but I'm hoping Krishna won't judge me for it.
I stumbled upon the Bhakti Center again in 2018 when I was looking for ways to expand both my yoga practice and teaching by taking classes at studios outside of Pure. Pure Yoga became my home after I veered away from my Bikram practice, but I knew that I needed a different experience in order to diversify my skillset. I did some research, and I read about the Bhakti Center's reading group. My understanding was that you joined a group and read a book about yoga. This was perfect - I practically have a degree in book-clubbing (even if I didn't always finish the books). I reached out, and the person that I communicated with suggested that I begin my connection to the Bhakti Center with a Growing Bhakti course. I assured her that I studied the Bhagavhad Gita under Yogi Charu, and I did not need a beginner course in anything having to do with yoga. I had been practicing for years, and I was a certified yoga teacher. For the millionth time in a comparatively short life, my ego led me to believe that I was an expert in something. I realize now that a yogi knows that none of us are experts in anything.
I joined the community group, and read The Journey Within by Rhadanath Swami. I thought it was a book about introspection. It took probably 4 reading groups for me to realize this was not your average book club, and the Bhakti Center was not just a really big yoga studio. PEOPLE LIVE THERE. Who lives at a yoga studio? Everyone else in the group seemed to know what was going on. They all chanted with mala beads, (at least I knew what those were - I bought mine at Satya and they were gorgeous), but I had no idea HOW they were used. I was raised catholic, so I assumed that you just held them and “chanted,” kinda like how you pray with rosary beads whenever you're in trouble. It was maybe reading group number 6 where I realized I didn’t know anything at all about Bhakti or The Bhakti Center. When it was time to sign up for the next set of reading groups, I committed.
The reading groups were held on the same nights as those "parties" that I remembered Yogi Charu talking about. This was Kirtan. My reading group was on the 5th floor of the center, and the Temple where Kirtan was held was on the 3rd. Since it took actual months before I realized there was an elevator, I walked past that temple every Thursday and heard the chanting, but I never went inside. I didn’t have any friends to stay there with, and everyone seemed to know each other and what they were saying. I had no clue. I thought I was a yogi, but I was entirely missing this aspect of my yogic world. I was learning some of it and teaching some of it, but I wasn’t living it.
Then, one Thursday, I felt called. I walked into the temple alone, joined the group, and started chanting. It was one of the most magical and spiritual experiences that I had ever had. I stayed for about an hour, but knew in 5 minutes that I had found my new church. Like it says on the window of the Bhakti center, this would now be my “spiritual home.”
Since I have become more connected to the Bhakti Center, I have continued to question the meaning of Bhakti. Is it a yoga practice? Is it a religion? When walking through Union Square with some friends I recognized some devotees in a corner, and reflexively brought my palms together and greeted them. The friend I was with looked at me like I was nuts. “Are you in a cult?” I had no idea how to respond. Was I? If I stepped outside of myself, I had to recognize that I had changed dramatically. I didn’t drink much anymore, I was chanting, and I was reading spiritual texts daily. I was listening to Jai Jagdeesh in the car instead of Drake on repeat. It was reasonable to say that I was evolving, and in ways that people outside of the world of Bhakti couldn’t relate to. I knew that I needed to figure out a way to explain what I was doing, (and why), to the people in my life who had no experience with Yoga, never mind the “Hare Krishnas.” Thus, this blog post.
What is Bhakti?
My teachers all share a common thread in their definition of Bhakti - Bhakti means “Love.” The direction or focus of that love is what isn’t always as well-defined. “Rendering devotional and loving service to Krishna” is how Karuna Nimai, one of my teachers at the Bhakti Center, defines it. “Love basically means to please, and to please means to serve. If I want to love someone I should know how to please that person, and not do what I want to do, but do what that person wants me to do. The word Bhakti is specifically coined for devotees of Vishnu or devotees of Krishna. It’s also love but it’s different because it’s for the Divine.”
According to Rhadanath Swami, the word Bhakti means “unconditional love for the supreme being and deep compassion for others.” In The Journey Home, he states that “each of us, beyond the plethora of life’s distractions, is a unique vessel of God’s love, with the potential to recognize, give, and receive this love through our daily interactions.” Through love and service to others, we are loving and serving God. You do not have to be a yogi or practice Krishna Consciousness at the Bhakti Center to love and serve. We are all “beautiful soul[s] who seem to want only to love and be loved.” All of us know this. If we really look inside our own hearts, we understand that every action we take is to seek and/or provide love. When we collect material possessions - jewelry and cars and clothes - we are looking for love from our peers through status and prestige. When we collect people, lovers and acquaintances, we are looking for loving contact or devotion from other people. When we surround ourselves with children and grandchildren, we are looking to create a cocoon of unconditional love from our family, and to provide the same in return. Every single action we take is about love. Either we are practicing it, looking for it, or sometimes even running away from it because we are deathly afraid of losing it. Bhakti Yoga is about having a healthy relationship with love, and ultimately with God. “Beyond the differences that divide us - nationality, religion, gender race, appearance, health, or illness - lies the common essential quality we all share: the soul’s inherent ability to love.”
What is a "Hare Krishna?"
Bhakti yogis, or members of the are often referred to as "Hare Krishnas" because the Maha Mantra, or the Hare Krishna mantra, is chanted by devotees repeatedly, sometimes for hours or even days. While followers of this faith meditate on the mantra as a form of individual worship, they also believe that chanting in public increases the power of the meditation, and thus increases the devotion to Krishna. Though this branch of Hinduism was officially started in the 16th century, the practice of Krishna Consciousness wasn't introduced to the United States until Swami Prabhupada introduced it in the 1960's. He made it more appealing to westerners by providing women with opportunities for leadership, a role not granted to them by traditional Bhakti or Hindu sects in the East.
What are they singing?
If you're with me in New York City, you've seen Bhakti devotees walking around quite a bit, especially in Union Square. They are singing the same thing over and over again - the Maha Mantra. Mantra meditation is a practice shared by people who practice many religions and faiths. In catholicism, we would use the Our Father or Hail Mary prayer as "mantras," we just called them prayers instead. A mantra is the same thing - a focus for your meditation or worship. By repeating the names "Hare," the Divine Energy of Love, (Radha, the feminine), "Krishna," God Himself (Divine Love)," and "Rama," the source of pleasure, we are both internally and externally sharing our devotion to the Supreme. The sound vibration that is generated through chanting elevates the experience of worship. It's similar to how a particular song with a lot of base generates a physical reaction when you hear it, (we all have that song), the vibration that flows through our body when we chant a mantra over and over again creates a physical response. If you've ever been to Kirtan, you've probably experienced the "Kirtan High." If you haven't, try it!
who is krishna?
Krishna is God. To devotees of Bhakti, Krishna is the only God, and those below him are demigods that are not subjects of our devotion. What sets those who practice Krishna Consciousness apart from other sects of Hinduism is that they only believe in one God - Krishna, while other Hindus are generally polytheistic. His visual representation is blue, and there are a few reasons for that. Some say that it represents his aura, and rather than draw a blue glow, they depicted him with blue skin. Others argue that it's beyond human perception to understand the skin color of God, so in our human form, we see him as blue. If you have seen an image of an over-accessorized blue God, it was Krishna. You're welcome.
Are you in a cult?
I am not. In fact, I'm not even practicing a religion. Krishna Consciousness isn't a religion - it's an understanding that there is one Supreme soul from which we are all born, and that soul is Krishna. The teachings of Hinduism and its branches are based on Vedic literature, but in no way am I authorized to argue Vedic texts vs. Bible vs. Quran here, (thus the title of this post). What I do know is that every single Bhakti yogi has the same thing in common - the capacity for compassion at a level that I have experienced exactly nowhere else. When I look around that temple on Thursdays, I see representation from every imaginable demographic. Rich, poor, white, black, old, young, (an 11-year-old girl led our Kirtan last night); it is an indiscriminate faith that transcends both race and class. As a people, we are tied together by the same common thread, and that's the desire to love and be loved. That's what I really understand about Bhakti. Bhakti texts, including The Bhagavad Gita, (which I've read a few times), and the Srimad Bhagavatam, (which I need a few years to read), are actually not the center of my own Bhakti universe. What I love about Bhakti is that I don't feel guilty about that. When I walk into the Bhakti Center with my bleach-blonde hair and my tank top and my red lipstick, I never feel judged. Instead, I feel loved and therefore empowered to share that love with others through service. I have no free time, but what little time I find, I am increasingly inclined to spend it in service at The Bhakti Center. They do a pretty good job of loving me back, too.
If you have questions, please feel free to post them below. Chances are I can't answer them yet, but someone else can.
With Love and Light,