Call them a cult, call them a religion, or call them a New Religious Movement if you’re feeling PC. Whatever they are, I won’t deny that spending a week with the Hare Krishna’s had a massive impact on the way I see the world.
The line between cult and religion can be incredibly blurry. The cults that took shape in the middle of the last century are infamous for tactics like brainwashing, physical intimidation, and preaching the revelations of a leader who claims to have been given divine instructions.
What I found during my week-long stay at the Hare Krishna Farm in New South Wales was far from the stereotypical cult. My friends and family were all very concerned or suspicious when I first told them I was going as a volunteer worker, which motivated me to try to learn everything I could about them during my stay. I wanted to believe they were just different, not scary.
The Krishna’s are an interesting (an ancient) spin-off of Hinduism, choosing to focus on one god (Krishna) instead of many. The ideology spread from India to the West fifty years ago, and became known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON. Today, there are temples and ashrams all over the world.
The Krishna complex I stayed at is registered in the WWOOFing program for Australia (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), which means that it is an officially recognized volunteer farming program. The idea is that volunteers work a certain amount of time (in this case five hours per day, six days per week) in exchange for food and board.
Because their program is in high demand, the dorm rooms were booked out for months in advance. I signed up to live in my tent, as a part of the small tent village they have on the property. With over thirty volunteers in any given week, and only a small handful of dorm beds, most of us were living outdoors in tents or camper vans.
An average day in the village was jam-packed full of activities. The work shift started at 6:15 every morning, with a break for breakfast at 8:30. The shifts ended around noon, and from then on the day was ours. We could stick around and eat the free lunch at 2pm and dinner at 6pm, or head into nearby Byron Bay or Murwillumbah for an afternoon on the town.
Besides free meals and a spot to sleep, the Krishna Eco Village provided lots of free classes throughout the day. If you were dedicated, you could get up for the “power hour” yoga class at 5am- otherwise, there were at least one or two other yoga sessions scheduled throughout the day.
Besides the 4pm daily yoga class, I attended almost all of the other classes that were offered. Those included Ayurvedic Body Types, Methods of Meditation, Philosophy of Karma, Life Coaching, and Ecstatic Dance (known by my friends and I as “hectic dance class”).
It didn’t take long to get used to the schedule, but it was a little tougher to get used to the numerous rules. The Hare Krishna’s take their faith very seriously, and the Eco Village is more than just holy ground- it’s frequently a place used as a retreat for people looking to escape from their stressful lives, or even from drugs or alcohol (though it is officially a yoga retreat, not a rehab center).
There was no smoking allowed (cigarettes or otherwise), no alcohol, no drugs. Because the Hare Krishna’s are mostly vegan (with the exception of their ahimsa dairy practices, explanation found here), no meat or eggs were allowed and dairy products were used sparingly. Swearing was also frowned upon, as well as any type of negative or unproductive speaking.
Down in the village, things were pretty relaxed. The temple, however, was a much more sacred place. It sat on top of a huge hill overlooking the property, and it was where we were served breakfast and dinner every day. As long as we followed the rules up there and remembered to dress appropriately (cover the shoulders and knees, non-sexual clothing to respect the monks and nuns who lived there full-time), there weren’t any issues.
The types of work assignments varied widely. Some of the volunteers worked in the large garden, some cooked lunch in the village kitchen, and some were on a construction team. They all worked down in the village for the most part, but my work team was the temple crew.
The five of us reported to the temple every morning, and our work included chopping fruit salad for breakfast, serving breakfast when everyone else showed up hungry around 8:30, and then either chopping vegetables for dinner or cleaning for the rest of the morning.
While the rest of the volunteer crew got a minimal amount of the Hare Krishna religion, we got an in-your-face dose of it every morning- all five hours of the shift. Most people have heard the Hare Krishna chant before (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, etc.); we were hearing it in our sleep after the first day.
We thought there were a lot of rules before, but the temple threw even more (and more complicated) restrictions our way. Everyone working in the village could dress however they pleased, but we had to cover our bodies appropriately at all times. We were not allowed to eat or even drink water in the kitchen area where we worked- we had to go out and around the corner, then come back and wash our hands before we got back to work. Yes, even to have a drink from our water bottles.
One morning, the cooks were baking some bread that smelled absolutely incredible. I walked back into the kitchen to properly enjoy it, and encouraged my coworker to do the same. We were then chastised for enjoying the smell of the bread before it had been served to Krishna in the daily offering in the temple (a small portion of the food needed to be blessed before the meal could be served to everybody).
We broke some of the rules. While the cooks in the main kitchen were perfectly happy listening to their CDs of Hare Krishna chants, we as a group of young women much preferred chatting and getting to know each other. Even though we knew we were supposed to keep talking to a minimum, and especially not speak negatively in the temple, sometimes we just couldn’t help ourselves. I don’t regret that at all; I got to know some truly kind and interesting people while we chopped veggies.
Although the amount of time we were spending hearing “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna” wore us down pretty significantly, the week still brought on an amazing change in our perspectives. From the first day, we were all completely blown away by how beautiful the land around us was. Bright green sub-tropical forests blended with grazing fields full of interesting-looking cattle, and several creeks cut through the property. The view from the temple on the hill was stunning, and we got to enjoy it at sunrise every morning as we went to work.
When you’re closed off from the outside world, and all the hectic noise that comes with it, you find yourself focusing harder on the things around you. We were obsessed with the scenery, but also with the food, and the cows, and all the little things that we encountered throughout the day. We were more than just enthusiastic- we were relentlessly grateful and excited about every little thing.
It soon became obvious that living life in the Krishna bubble had other less wonderful effects, though. There were devotees, monks, and nuns who lived full time in the complex, but there were also some volunteers like us who had been there for several months or longer.
We had Wi-Fi in the communal reading room, but lots of volunteers didn’t want to pay the small fee per week to use it and didn’t have reception on their phones. As nice as it is to par down the technology use for a week or two, disconnecting from the outside world for too long has its consequences.
We all noticed a few select participants who had been, as I like to say, “drinking the kool-aid” for a long time, and were starting to lose touch with the outside world. It’s an easier thing to do than you might believe; I didn’t buy into the core Hare Krishna philosophy, and I was only there for a week. Yet, when I left it was extremely jarring going back out into the world again. I can only imagine what it might be like after staying there for months.
As intense, emotionally complicated, and exhausting as the week was, it was also very educational and uplifting. I took yoga classes for the first time since I was twelve years old, and felt what it was like to actually listen to my body. I learned about the Hare Krishna’s gentle, non-violent philosophies, and saw how dedicated they are to their faith. I was given the honor of working in the holiest spot on their land, and got to pass on my “extra blessings” to the other volunteers while I served them their food.
I came home looking at life through a different lens, and although I slide back into my usual routine pretty easily, I’m trying to hold on tightly to pieces of that experience. I’ll continue to work on my yoga and meditation, and keep making an effort every single day to be grateful for everything I have.
There’s nothing like feeling pure joy just because you’re enjoying every single bite of your meal. Or starting the day with a clear mind because you meditated or did a few yoga poses before breakfast. And NOTHING beats letting go and getting super weird with your friends during hectic dance class.
In my mind, the Hare Krishna’s are unique. They walk a fine line between cult and religion, but I personally believe they lean a lot harder to the religion side. Yes, they chant the Krishna mantra before meals; but what good Christian family doesn’t pray before eating dinner? You can label them however you want to- cult, religion, it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, we’re really not all that different.