November 11, 2014

Photo Essay: The Dances and Dioramas of Hare Krishna in LA

I don't have the greatest associations with organized religion, having been brought up by a strictly Catholic father and a converted Catholic mother who blamed God for everything. After four years at Catholic school, a variety of sacraments (including confirmation), and a childhood of prayers unanswered, I became a bit disillusioned with the institution of Catholicism. If I was still so miserable, what was it good for?

In college I started studying other religions, reading the Bhagavad-gita and other sacred texts, exploring mysticism and trying to get some answers. I nearly minored in Philosophy and Religion, but then found something more practical and tangible in Biology and Animal Behavior.

Given that the Catholicism I was brought up with was a bit wacky – traditional practices like healing masses and the Blessing of the Throats giving way to more charismatic rituals like the Life in the Spirit Seminar and my mother claiming to speak in tongues – I've been a bit adventurous in exploring other religions, particularly since moving to LA. Here, I've been able to observe the worship of Santa Muerte, learn the beliefs of the Aetherius Society, celebrate Chinese New Year at a Buddhist Temple, and now, dance with the Hare Krishnas.

I must admit: I wasn't sure what to expect when I attended Sunday feast at the LA home of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Hare Krishna Cultural Center.

Much of my prior experience of Hare Krishna was with the dancing drum circles in New York's Union Square, and a few oddly Sanskrit lyrics of English language songs by George Harrison and from the musical Hair.

The temple room is relatively simple and plain on the inside, with a few banners and paintings along the walls...

...with an ornate altar featuring deities like Lord Jagannatha, Lord Baladeva, and Lady Subhadra (among others), which are dressed and decorated differently throughout the month depending on the day and time of day.

The Sunday feast is an arati, an offering of respect, welcome, or worship to an exalted person – in this case, the deities on the altar, and of course Krishna himself.

Hare Krishna, Hare Rama is chanted as people dance, and a water-filled conch shell, flowers, tail fans, and other offerings are made...

...including a flaming lamp of ghee (clarified butter made from the milk of the sacred cow), presented to Srila Prabhupada, founder of the Hare Krishna Movement...

...and passed around the room.

The Sunday feast also features a lecture (and food!) after all of the chanting of mantras has been completed, but we made our way over to the Bhagavad-Gita Museum, to learn more about the spiritual teachings spoken by Lord Krishna, upon which the Hare Krishna Movement is based.

This museum is a doozy – a delight in sights and sound – featuring figures of the sacred text made out of clay and straw in the 1970s, like Arjuna the warrior and Krishna, his chariot driver.

There are 11 dioramas total at the museum, including one particularly disturbing one that highlights our changing bodies...

...relating the rejuvenation of our cells and the aging process – being born literally a different person than when you die – to reincarnation.

You can see how Krishna resides in his own eternal Supreme Abode...

...but also how he takes on many different forms, sometimes terrifyingly so.

According to Krishna, our souls are trapped in an endless ocean of birth and death...

...until we can free ourselves through the devotional practice of yoga, which creates self-realization, a perfect link with the Supreme Soul.

According to the Bhagavad-gita, this message was first conveyed when Krishna descended upon Bengal (as he is wont to do now and then) in the 15th century in the form of Lord Caitanya, inaugurating the sankirtan movement (that familiar congregational chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Rama).

Is Krishna the God? A god? Is there any god? Why did I always get strep throat after the Blessing of the Throats? Who knows. But at this point, I will take the holy water, recite the benediction, and bow my head in honor of all of the deities, if it will help.

I will try to rid myself of anxieties. I will work on my karma. I will try not to come back to this damn rock as a lower being.

No matter what you believe, these are all good things.

You can watch the happenings at the cultural center on their live webcam here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Decorations, Wishes, and Faces of Chinese New Year
Photo Essay: Lake Shrine

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