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THE HARE KRISHNAS // Coming of age

With their wordly possessions gone and their new spiritual names in place, the young Hare Krishnas did not think past life in their twenties.

They would always be celibate, living communally in the monasteries and temples that dotted the country. They would remain at Miami, O'Hare and Los Angeles international airports, pressing flowers and religious texts into the hands of travelers. They would thump the mrdanga drum and dance and chant.

Theirs would be a world uncluttered by possessions, uncomplicated by binding relationships to the material world. Their philosophy: Yukta-vairagya. Use everything in God's service.

Then they grew up.

Thirty years later, the devotees _ as the Hare Krishnas call themselves _ have had to merge the belief system they have kept with the demands of an American lifestyle they were never fully expecting.

"We had children that had to be taken care of," said Rasagamya Khurana, 43, who encountered the Krishnas as Michele Farrell, a college student in Michigan. "Like everyone else, we wanted to get out of the cities and purchase land."

And three decades later, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, as it is properly called, has grown up as well.

"It has gone from raw enthusiasm to a mature, responsible organization," said Naveen Khurana, executive director of the ISKCON Foundation, the teaching and training arm of the Hare Krishna movement now located in Alachua.

Although academic observers and devotees differ on numbers, both agree that the movement has survived a myriad of debilitating forces _ from within and without _ and is once again growing. Depending on whom you ask, anywhere from 25,000 to 75,000 people align themselves with the movement, which traces its spiritual lineage to an ancient Sanskrit text called Bhagavad-gita, or "Song of the Blessed One," and the book's speaker, Lord Krishna.

But the face of ISKCON has changed dramatically.

Gone are the renunciatory young people, giving up their lives to join the Hare Krishna movement.

Today's devotees are more likely married professionals, and degrees of commitment to the faith vary. Some still attend the daily 4:30 a.m. worship services and tithe 50 percent of their income, which is the recommended monetary pledge.

"We still haven't figured out how that works with a 30 percent tax bracket," said ISKCON spokesman Anuttama Dasa, whose birth name is Geoff Walker.

Others come to the temples only on Sundays and holidays, but incorporate the religion's four principles _ compassion, truthfulness, cleanliness and austerity _ into their daily lives. To uphold those principles, adherents do not eat meat, use tobacco or caffeine, have illicit sex, or gamble, all of which are said to disrupt physical, mental and spiritual well-being and produce negative karmic results.

"I go to work. I go to church on Sunday," said Bob Cohen, 47, an environmental consultant in Gainesville whose devotional name is Brahma-Tirtha. "I'm also a strict vegetarian.

"I have had a shaved head at various times. I don't have a shaved head now, but somehow nature is doing that to me."

Cult watchdog groups still regard the movement as dangerous, but say calls concerning ISKCON are far less frequent in recent years. Legitimacy may have been lent by Indian immigrants, who make up a sizable portion of newer devotees and recognize Hare Krishna as a branch of Hinduism.

More likely, though, academic observers say, the religion and its adherents simply stand out less.

"Your average Hare Krishna today is somebody who may be living next door to you," said Burke Rochford, a Middlebury College professor working on his second book on the movement. "They're working in the outside community, paying a mortgage, and trying to educate their children in a way that has some sort of spiritual content.

"They've found a certain degree of peace in the outside society, which is good because it's something they had to do."

That ISKCON has survived into middle age _ and even flourished _ might surprise social historians, many of whom saw the movement's success as part of a fleeting fascination with Eastern religions.

But those who remained say ISKCON was not just a fad.

"It had a very potent impact on one's life," said Rasagamya Khurana, a devotee for 19 years. "If one at all has a long-range vision as far as this life, and one is thinking about the next life, then most became convinced they should stay."

Americans' first brush with the saffron-robed, pony-tailed devotees came in 1966, a year after elderly Indian guru Srila Prabhupada arrived in New York's Lower East Side _ allegedly via a cargo ship and carrying only books, a supply of dried cereal and $7 in Indian currency.

But Prabhupada's message of anti-materialism and devotion to the Hindu God Krishna found its niche among the flower children, hippies and spiritual seekers of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury section. By the end of of its first year and a half there, 150 to 200 devotees had joined the movement, Rochford said.

Temples popped up in Denver, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Detroit and about 40 other cities. The movement spread to England, where it attracted former Beatles' guitarist George Harrison, who chants the Krishna mantra in My Sweet Lord.

For all of the movement's visibility though, at its height only about 4,000 devotees lived in the monasteries, said Rochford. Another 6,000 may have considered themselves Hare Krishnas.

A political power struggle following the death of Prabhupada in 1977 saw the movement spiral into decline. A spate of nasty scandals _ some resolved only in recent years _ didn't help either.

Further stunting ISKCON's growth was the anti-cult sentiment of the 1970s and '80s. Detractors saw an austere and regimented religion, and accusations of brainwashing and intimidation emerged. But devotees abhor the use of the word "cult" to describe the movement.

"The army is also very regimented," said Rasagamya Khurana. "So is the Naval Academy and the police academy.

"We were all in training for becoming lovers of God."

But it was irritation at the devotees' evangelistic fervor _ particularly in airports _ that saw public tolerance give way to ridicule.

An indelible stereotype emerged.

"In the early days there was overzealousness and that gave us a bad name," said Dasa, 41, a devotee since 1975. "We stepped on some toes and we're sorry about that but we were very young, new converts."

Devotees still dispense religious literature, although food distribution has become the primary focus of their outreach, adherents say.

"We're more careful now about how we train people," he said. "Training is the word of the moment."

Toward that end, about 60 devotees gathered in Gainesville last month for an annual international conference with an almost mainstream agenda. They consulted Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and discussed conflict resolution and leadership, fund-raising and congregational development.

"We used to be more into quick relationships with the average person," said Naveen Khurana. "We'd give them a book.

"But any organization grows on relationships, not just a one-time meeting."

They are also working to rectify the "short-term thinking" of the twenty-something devotees at the start of the movement, Khurana said. The gap in the ages of Prabhupada and his young followers left a vacuum in "wisdom and judgment" when the guru died, Khurana said.

"We didn't think carefully about how members would not always be celibate . . . and living in the monasteries," he said. "We could have started businesses and industries," such as health food stores and vegetarian restaurants, he said.

"In five to 10 years we'll have everything worked out," said Khurana.

And the movement that once welcomed anyone is now considering screening potential members for criminal histories and psychological problems, Khurana said.

A particularly ugly incident in the Hare Krishna's short history might have contributed to that consideration. In the late '80s, Swami Bhaktipada Kirtanananda _ also known as Keith Ham _ and his New Vrindaban farm in northern West Virginia were at the center of accusations of child sexual abuse, beatings, murder and fraud.

Ham is awaiting sentencing on racketeering and mail fraud charges. Another sect member has been charged with two murders and is in prison.

"Prabhupada predicted growing pains," said Cohen. "And the movement took a very hard stand. It was very painful though, like a family member who's wayward."

Girls stand, singing Hari bol _ sanskrit for "chant the name of God" _ when a visitor enters the classroom. They wear T-shirts or blouses with long, colorful skirts and study separated from the boys. ("They're better able to concentrate on their work," explains headmaster Ram Vigraha das.)

These are fifth- and sixth-graders _ second-generation devotees _ at Vaisnava Academy, a private school for about 110 Hare Krishna children on an ISKCON farm in Alachua.

New Raman Reti, as the farm is called, formed in 1977 with about five people _ devotees from nearby Gainesville who had been worshiping together since the early 1970s.

The community boomed in 1990 with the arrival of other Hare Krishna families attracted by the low land prices, rural lifestyle and chance to raise their children as devotees. Today, about 150 Hare Krishna families live on and around the 127-acre farm. Four other farm communities and about 20 city temples exist elsewhere in the country.

Only a handful work at New Raman Reti, raising day lilies, organic vegetables and dairy cows. Others don western clothes, assume their given names and drive to jobs as carpenters, publicists, real estate agents, lawyers and teachers in Alachua and Gainesville.

Merging the anti-materialist stance of their religion and the requirements of supporting families as adults has called for spiritual and professional accommodation.

"I consider my work as an attorney to be part of my service to Krishna," said William Ogle, 48, also known as Balavanta.

Law has a noble history in the Vedic texts, said Ogle, who has been a devotee since 1969.

But his beliefs meant he had to choose a firm carefully. After graduating from the University of Florida, Ogle found himself debating offers from large, prestigious firms where drinks and meals with clients would be a regular part of the job.

"I had to make choices," said Ogle, who settled into a small firm representing plaintiffs. "I had to select a firm that allowed me more freedom."

A Krishna community in largely Christian, rural north Florida might seem like a recipe for disaster, but the devotees are popular in Gainesville, where they have distributed free lunches since 1972. About 400 students line up daily in the Plaza of the Americas for plates of vegetable stew, potatoes, salads and eggless cakes.

They are also well regarded in Alachua. Many students leave Vaisnava Academy to attend public high school where they do well academically and dominate the school's soccer team.

At Vaisnava Academy, parents pay $125 per month for their children to learn regular academic subjects as well as sanskrit, yoga, soccer, the cultural heritage of India, and training in the Bhagavad-gita.

Teacher Sukhada Elsey, a devotee since 1974, came to New Raman Reti eight years ago, when her son was about to enter junior high school. A former teacher in the Michigan school system, Elsey left public education "disillusioned," she said, because she was "not allowed to talk about God."

"It felt so very limited to me," said Elsey, 46, who lives near the farm. "I wasn't a Hare Krishna then but I did believe in God. To not be able to bring that up was a loss to the education system."

On the surface, the school _ with its focus on creationism over evolution, mandatory temple attendance, a dress code that emphasizes chastity and the religious dedication of the instructors _ would please many conservative parents.

Except, devotees say, they are not mainstream. That, they believe, means they will always be suspect.

"Americans tend to not be as aware of cultures in other parts of the world," said Dasa, "Anything different is new and strange. But people were chanting "Hare Krishna' long before the Protestant Reformation. The Bhagavad-gita was here before Jesus Christ was on the earth."

Still, many Hare Krishnas see the tides changing.

When Elsey started as an "airport girl" in 1975, Pradhupada told devotees what they should expect to encounter on the job.

"He said at first people will laugh," said Elsey. "They'll think you're silly. The second stage is they will hate you because they don't understand. The third stage is they will love you."

"We may finally be entering that third stage," she said. "People are trying to understand."