IT WAY MY FAMILY'S representative at church on Sundays, while they slept late. The minister, a kind man, cajoled me into memorizing the Apostle's Creed and other prayers so that by the age of 13 I could muster for my Confirmation. In those days I prayed every night to "bring the boys back from Korea."
That Episcopal minister, Rev. Coleman, had weaned us from a wooden, prefab chapel to a respectable stone edifice before he was reassigned. His leaving coincided with my first year in high school when I came more under the influence of my friends; my interest in church activities diminished.
From 13 to 17, I competed with my peers for recognition and enjoyed simultaneous independence and protection from my parents, whose strongest admonition was to do what I thought would make me happy as long as I stayed out of trouble. Using the schedules in the newspapers, with my naked eye I spotted and trailed the first Sputnik as it glided high overhead against the innumerable stars. I wondered at the vast heavens and life's purpose.
I paid my way through George Washington University with money saved from boyhood paper routes and part-time jobs after classes. College was an opportunity for philosophical speculations with my friends and my capacity to wonder expanded.
After graduation I decided to go straight to what I thought was the heart of the material world - New York City - to seek out whatever was the highest truth. I ended up living around the corner from the first East Village "head shop," in the middle of the drug revolution of the Sixties. My job as a social worker didn't seem to really help anyone besides myself, but I planned to make it a career. Most clients I worked with weren't changed much by grants, counseling, training. Over the years they maintained pretty much the same basic mentally and habits.
I tried to give more meaning to my life by becoming a union activist, attending graduate school, visiting West Village coffee houses, going to Alpert and Leary lectures on "consciousness expansion" and reading yoga books. With my wife and small son, I paraded down Fifth Avenue next to Allen Ginsberg and thousands of ladies and gentlemen protesting Vietnam while people stood on the sidewalks jeering and throwing paint.
But I was bored and couldn't keep my wife and son happy. Within myself, I felt more and more intensely that my "normal" aspirations for a master's degree and a nice apartment left something about out. Something was missing. I heard about the "I Ching," a book that was supposed to chart a person's position in the material world. So I got someone to do a reading for me. The answer was: "Push upward through darkness." I took it as a good sign, a spiritual sign.
Then a friend gave me a book by a great Sikh teacher who wrote that there could be no higher knowledge without a spiritual master. A few months later I found myself in a tiny storefront listening to lectures from the "Bhagavad-gita" given by the eminent Sanskrit scholar, Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada Swami, who was destined to become the founder of the Hare Krishna movement in America.
A SHORT TIME LATER, by November, 1966, I was in a different parade, wearing an Indian dhoti and kurta (shirt), chanting Hare Krishna. Some of the people stood around and sneered but most of them looked the other way or pretended to window shop while listening to the chanting. Here and there were a few friendly smiles.
My co-workers saw me on TV and my boss threatened to fire for wearing the distinctive white mark of my sect on my forehead. But I told him that I had a devotee friend with the same mark working at another welfare center, and, fearing charges of religious discrimination, he backed off.
I was struggling to preserve my new spiritual identity and trying to leave off my old conditioned conceptions of life. My consciousness of God was flickering, but it soared far beyong the faith of my boyhood.
My wife and son have continued to follow me on this path.I am now director of the Radha Krishna Temple and monastery in Potomac and my wife does public relations work. My son is studying Sanskrit and Hindi in Vrindaban, India, the birthplace of Krishna. My parents have followed our activities over the years and they have been very sympathetic and encouraging.
Now I have to marvel at those opo psychologists and dry academicians who thinly disguise their atheism by trying to explain away truly religious experience as a variety of mind-control or brainwashing. (They remind me of bees licking the outside of a jar of honey, never getting a taste).
Two such "experts" have stated that the Hare Krishna rati (deity worship) ceremony is the most successful bit of mind-control they've seen. Wouldn't they be alarmed to see Vrindaban, the "City of 5,000 Temples," where 5,000 ratis go on simultaneuosly every sunrise!
Anti-cultists and deprogrammmers with their scare tactics, forced retentin and psuedo-legalistic and scientific jargon would love to have open season declared on devotees without waiting to be hired by parents or condoned by courts. They think they're great moralist, doing a great service to society. So did the Spanish Inquiosittor, Salem witch-hunters, Nazis, McCarthyites and many others whom history has condemned.
LIKE PILGRIMS who came three centuries before him, the founder of the American Krishna Movement, Srila Prabhupada, came to America in 1965 looking for a new field and a fresh start. Of the four great Vaishnava denomitions in India, only his, the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, has extended its missionary activities beyond India.
Vaishnavism, like Islam, Judaism and Christianity, is a monotheistic religion and means personal service to a supreme being.
In 1970, Srila Prabhupada appointed an international democratic body, presently consisting of 20 men. Just before passing away in 1977, he initially authorized 11 members of this body to take disciples. He did not designate an internatinal headquarters.
Srila Prabhupada had a vision of combining the best of Indian and American cultures for the material and spiritual benefit of the rest of the world, a world in which he saw masses hoping against hope that their leaders would find a formula for peace. But, as he pointed out in literary commentaries written in 26 languages, peace would depend upon becoming conscious of the proprietorship of God. Otherwise, as he put it, the struggle for world leadership would remain something like thieves fighting over stolen bread, each admonishing the other to be "moral" and not take more than a rightful share.
Our religion may not be mainstream America but it has been established for thousands of years. An ancient tradition can hardly be called a "cult," unless cult designates a phase that all the mainstream religions in America have gone through.
Before the Constitution was written, Quakers, Baptists and Jews were driven from the Massachusetts Bay Colony; Catholics were harassed by Protestants in the Maryland Colony. I'm sure that's why the first line of the First Amendment defends religious freedoms.
All the freedoms - speech, association, privacy, et cetera - will surely go down the historical drain if the "free exercise" and "non-establishment" of religion clauses are modified by judicial or legislative restraints to the point of becoming futile or even antireligious. To protect human rights, it seem more sober to measure by standard criminal codes any alleged illegal practices as distinguished from beliefs.
Members of established religions have not been harassed like us, with ex parte court "conservatorships" originally intended for the senile and mentally incompetent. America Krishna devotees are entitled to the same rights as Catholics, Protestants and Jews.
Christians and Jews were long ago accepted in India - without deprogrammings and conservatorships. If all genuine religion leads to one God (monotheism), which is the non-sectarian view, then there is ultimately no difference between one religion and another, except for the degree of faith and realization of its adherents.
Krishna devotees are not looking to convert everyone we meet; we are simply looking for reasonable people who are (or ought to be) interested in the purpose of human life. That's not a meaningless question to any normal person, but I think most people have been distracted from trying to answer it by the temporary promises of material advancement.
Because many people are avoiding formalized religon, we distribute books in public, assuming that a beautiful, high-quality book will taken home, kept and eventually read. Sometimes, the devotees are considered overly persistent in obtaining donations for the literature, although their tactics are no more agressive than those of insurance salesmen.
They talk first of the movements' activities before identifying themselves so as to avoid being rejected outright as a "cult," thus losing a chance to say anything else. This lumping together of religious groups as "cults" is largely due to an unbalanced media coverage which has intensified since the Guyana incident.
SOME CRITICS say Krishna devotees are dangerous, un-American, but to me it seems dangerous and against public interest to let government decide by regulations or restrictions where or what people should read or hear about religion, things which the Founding Fathers left up to the people's better judgement (notwithstanding any modern government distrust of that judgement or media influence upon it).
Of course, I can't claim to speak for everyone in the Hare Krishna movement, but i think a lot of us feel this way. Nor should I make excuses for my friends at our New Vrindaban farm project in West Virginia for their buying (non-military) weapons after being attacked in the middle of a service by gunmen. I know how they must have felt because I was in a group of Krishna devotees in Knoxville, Tenn., who were firebombed one night. Three were injured; one devotee was killed. The crime never was solved.
Nor can I apologize for the persistence and enthusiasm of devotees who are dedicating their lives to offer spiritual alternatives to broken homes, drugs, crime, abortions suicides and other social ills that plague our lives.
Personally, I realize the path I've chosen is a difficult from within myself than from without. But the soul-searching required is human life's prerogative. CAPTION: Picture 1, Robert Corens in 1960.; Picture 2, Robert Corens in 1979.