A World Apart: My uncle is a Hare Krishna spiritual master

Scenes from the Hare Krishna community in Vrindavan, India, home of spiritual master Swami Bhakti Aloka Paramadvaiti.

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By Chico Harlan
Sunday, May 16, 2010

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I traveled from Washington to an ashram in northern India to meet my uncle, a holy man. Most people who meet him fall to their knees.

Until the days preceding my flight, I knew little about my father's younger brother beyond his name, or at least his most recent one. He had changed it twice, once when he left the family and became a Hare Krishna monk, and later when he accepted a vow of celibacy and became a spiritual master. He now goes by the name Swami Bhakti Aloka Paramadvaiti.

I'd met him twice before -- for a few hours during childhood and again six years ago when he came to Pittsburgh to visit my family. During the second visit, he refused my mom's cooking because it wasn't pure. He accepted only an apple and consumed it entirely. Seeds, core, everything. Whatever else happened, I remember only how a bearish, ponytailed man, wearing saffron robes and sandals, walked into my house and ate an apple whole.

My uncle has always kept his distance from the family. At one point, he didn't speak to my father for a decade. My dad, the older brother by 1 1/2 years, works as a warehouse executive, drives a Subaru Outback and doesn't mind a cold Yuengling when he gets home. For the past three decades, my uncle, now 56, has rarely spent more than three days in one place. He possesses almost no money. He eats no meat and drinks no alcohol. Those rare times when my father mentions his brother, the tales sound like hearsay: The man has an acute, almost seductive charisma and some untold number of followers. Devotees, rather. People who believe him to be the highest spiritual authority on the planet.

Once, Paramadvaiti went five years without speaking to his own mother. His love of Krishna often has overwhelmed his capacity (or his care) to deal with a family that does not share his faith. As much as my uncle admonishes the material world, though, he also needs to navigate it. As such, he carries a BlackBerry. And that's how he learned of my desire to visit.

In late September 2008, I e-mailed him and explained that I was a 26-year-old reporter who loved a good excuse to travel. I wanted to witness his world and learn about his life. Description of my daily animal protein intake was categorically avoided. About two weeks later, Paramadvaiti wrote back.

Dear chico, Haribol. That means: all glories to the supreme lord in Sanskrit. Yes, I am pleasantly surprised. You can stay with me, travel with me any time. That is a standing invitation. Some locations being more amazing then others. A pilgrims life. For details contact Kalki. In Miami... He is available in our meditation garden.

He sent me a telephone number for Kalki, his assistant, and links to a few blogs about vegetarianism. I booked a flight to India. Then, finally, I started asking questions about the uncle whose blood I share but whose world I did not understand. I wondered how he'd transformed, and to what end. My grandmother had learned to see the virtue in his radical life, because now, in their rare visits, the son who was so combative and miserable as a teen seemed "exuberant" and "very loving," she says.

Paramadvaiti's devotees view him as pious and pure, and they travel the world to meet him. But their absolute devotion raised suspicions in my mind. I'd always joked to my friends, describing my uncle as a comic figure, a could-be cult leader who doesn't have sex. But the reality was more serious. Was he selfless or a fraud? Was he peaceful or dangerous? And what did I, a bit of a wanderer myself, have in common with him?

***

To hear my family tell it, my uncle's world had always been two parts extreme, one part exasperating. Born Oct. 12, 1953, Ulrich Harlan almost always seemed bothered by something, be it asthma or chronic sickness or jealousy of his older brother. Ulrich was the second-born of four siblings, all raised in rural northern Germany.

Though close in age, my father and uncle were as much rivals as friends. My father, studious and compliant, gained the favor of his teachers. My uncle, wild-eyed with curly hair and a penchant for Che and Marx, drew the ire of authority. He ignored his father and paid plenty of attention to drugs. Once, the police arrested him under a bridge as a loiterer. He told his mother: "I just wanted to find out what it feels like when you have no money."


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