Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Radharani in Brooklyn

The Queen of Vrindavan, Daughter of King Vrishabanu and Controller of Krishna's Heart can be found with her consort, Govinda dev, in Brooklyn, New York, in a temple located in a neighborhood of derelicts. Walking from the Subway station to the temple, one crosses by genuine down and out bag persons sitting on the pavement with plastic bags full of their only possessions. One poor guy has plastic bags for shoes. Just before you reach the temple there's a Bingo Hall where several black men are smoking and hanging out. Then, there is Iskcon.

For me, it was something of a full circle. The first temple i ever visited was in Brooklyn, on Henry St., in 1970. The devotees had just moved from 61 Second Avenue. Henry St. was in a middle class area, and the temple was quite large. It was full of young shaved up American boys wearing dhotis and young American girls in saris. I don't remember seeing a single Indian, other than the painting of Prabhupada on the Vyasasan. It was a shock to see so many contemporaries of mine dressed up as monks. Now the temple has a different kind of population. It is an Indian temple, with a few token westerners. Out of 40-50 devotees who had gathered in the temple at Noon for Radharani's celebration, there were maybe 4 or 5 non-Indians. I'm not sure if there were any Americans at all. What began 40 years ago as a counter-cultural movement of westerners, has now transformed into a movement of Indians. Maybe even the acronym, Iskcon, will become Indian Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Of course, the Indian devotees are nice-- nicer in their natural piety and simple dress than most westerners. The men in the temple were all businessmen and students, wearing clean clothing, short hair and carrying shoulder bags and brief cases. Some even had a little pouch on their belts for a mobile phone. The ladies all wore proper long skirts or saris. Much more pukka than how westerners dress.

The temple is decorated with cheap paper flags criss-crossing the ceiling, and those large varicolored paper balls you see at kids' birthday parties. Very kitchy. But the altar is first class. Radha Govinda are strikingly beautiful, large black marble Govinda and white Radha with reddish cheeks. Today they were clothed in deep teal dresses with orange and gold jari, wearing garlands of fresh yellow and orange roses. Around them are vases of large sunflowers and roses. I arrived during the abhisek (bathing ceremony) of the small brass deities. Again, it was an all-Indian group of male devotees doing the bathing, with another small group of Indian devotees singing kirtan. Leading the kirtan group was an old friend of mine from Vrindavan, Nanda nandana, a wonderful Bengali devotee who managed the Goshalla in Vrindavan for many years. I greeted him and we were very happy to meet each other, being reminded of Vrindavan. He immediately invited me to stay for prasadam. He is in New York because he has 2 daughters back in Vrindavan whom he needs to get married, and this is his only way to make a little money for their dowry.

When it was time to offer the bhoga, the devotees first hung a cloth in front of the deities and brought offerings under the cloth. But the offerings kept coming from the kitchen, until the entire front of the altar (outside the cloth) was also covered with preps. Then they brought a folding table in front of the altar, and filled that completely with more preparations. There must have been over 100 different items offered. No wonder Srila Prabhupada called Krishna consciousness a "kitchen religion." This is something the Indian devotees have mastered.

I stayed for part of the arotik when the kirtan started to take off: "Radharani ki jaya, Maharani ki jaya!!" Just like Vrindavan. And then the maha mantra. The kirtan was refreshing, not too crazy, and as it progressed, more devotees arrived and the enthusiasm increased. But i needed to get back to my apartment by 2 pm for some workers, so i left the temple before taking prasadam. One nice mataji offered me a mangal arotik sweet as i was leaving. She invited me back to the "big" program tonite, when Radha and Govinda will wear flower dresses. I thought about going, but it's a long subway ride and walking thru that neighborhood at nite would be dodgy.

On my way out, i asked an Indian gentleman sitting by the front door what time they hold the Sunday program. He said, "Yes, it's usually 5 or 6 pm, but don't worry, God will call you."

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