For LA's Hare Krishnas, The Way To God's Heart -- And Yours -- Is Through The Stomach
An hour into the sermon, the Hare Krishna with the Brooklyn accent starts to wrap things up.
"We've been kicked out of the spiritual world," he tells the Culver City temple crowd, and to return, he says, we need "the causeless mercy of the Lawd."
Patiently, I wait for the white monk with the shaven head and kurta pajamas to finish. I'm hungry. And for the moment, the promise of a free meal is more tempting than salvation.
I look around at the congregation gathered at the International Society of Krishna Consciousness temple on Watseka Avenue. Half are Indian, like me, dressed in business casual. The rest are as diverse as Los Angeles, modeling everything from saris and Nehru suits to plaid hoodies and cargo pants. I try to guess who's here for the faith, and who's here for the food.
That's because every Sunday evening, the Culver City temple puts out a "feast" for the public. Starting at 5 p.m., temple regulars and newcomers experience music, chanting and a religious talk.
By 6:30, it's dinnertime. In a hall across the street, people line up to be served. Volunteers fill guests' plates with Indian vegetarian food.
I count at least 150 people, double the crowd from the monk's lecture. Clearly, some just came for the food.
As a Hindu, I've always had a sideline curiosity in the Hare Krishnas' multicultural outreach, a contrast to mainstream Hinduism's distinct "Indianness." That's part of what drove me here.
But there's also the wet curry of peas and paneer (cottage cheese). My heaping plate also comes with a dry dish of slow-cooked butternut squash and black beans and a poori (fried bread). It's blissful.
In the Hare Krishna movement, meals are the building blocks of faith. Devotees choose food they believe will purify mind and body, guiding the soul back to God.
For the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, or "Iskcon" for short, the way to God's heart -- and yours -- is through the stomach.
HOLD THE SPICE AND PASSION, PLEASE
To get the dish on the Krishna diet, so to speak, I met with Kenneth Luna, a longtime acquaintance who teaches at Cal State Northridge.
"Many people in Iskcon will tell you they got in because of the food," said Luna, a linguistics professor.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Luna met the Hare Krishnas in 2001 as a UCLA student. He got hooked on the Indian dishes and sweets they handed out on campus. He was also drawn to the spiritual message.
"I'd always felt, in Catholicism and Christianity, I never got the answers I needed," he said. "For so many things, you just had to take a leap of faith. In Iskcon, I haven't found anything about life, about the world, they don't have an answer for."
Over 50 years ago, Bengali spiritual leader Swami Prabhupada founded the Krishna Consciousness society. Adapting Vaishnava Hindu traditions, the late guru focused his teachings on one supreme god, Krishna, and one ultimate goal, reaching the infinite bliss of Golok, Krishna's paradise.
Though once associated with aggressive recruiting tactics, along with their share of scandals, Hare Krishnas' image may have mellowed with time.
People are not forced to quit their day jobs or become ascetics, Luna said, based on his experiences. For nine years, Luna met casually with the Hare Krishnas and read their books before getting initiated. Now, he volunteers as a poojari, a priest's assistant, during temple services one night a week.
Like other devotees, Luna follows a meatless diet. For the Hare Krishnas, taking a life is the worst kind of karma.
"But you're always killing something when you eat," Luna said.
To eliminate the karma from the plants and microorganisms that even vegetarians kill, devotees offer everything they eat to Krishna through prayer. The food must be "fit" for God, meaning organic, fresh, no GMOs, no vegetarian "chik'n" nuggets.
Because, "you can't offer crap to God," as Luna put it.
Devotees also choose foods aimed at producing what's called a sattvic state of mind: clear, intelligent, peaceful. Spicy food? That's a no-no, because it's believed to spark rajas (passion and ambition). Eggs? They're off the table. They're believed to promote tamas (laziness and ignorance).
DINNER AT GOVINDA'S
While the Sunday feast is where the Hare Krishna cooks shine, the organization also runs a restaurant next to the Watseka Avenue temple. Open for lunch and dinner all but Sunday nights, Govinda's Buffet offers a smorgasbord of Indian and American fare for eight dollars, all Hare Krishna-approved.
My first time at Govinda's, I start with the corn chowder and couscous salad before enjoying an eggplant and zucchini pasta. The cauliflower and mixed vegetable curry isn't as tender or spicy as the Indian food I'm accustomed to, but that might be the point. Govinda's deliberately bland cuisine is supposed to calm the mind, not excite the tongue.
Dessert is where I have to pace myself. The rough but pleasing texture of the halva, a confection made from roasted farina with butter, chocolate and brown sugar, massages the roof of the mouth like soft bristles. The main ingredient in the sweet dish rotates daily, with the blueberry halva the winner of the three I tried.
Besides temple food and places like Govinda's, Hare Krishna devotees say they have limited options if they want to stick with dietary requirements.
"It's hard to eat out," said Radhika, 16, who is Mexican American and works in a gift shop above Govinda's Buffet.
But dining in has its perks, she told me. Radhika's mom, also a Hare Krishna, has mastered vegetarian Mexican cuisine. At home, her family always recites a mantra to an image of Krishna before digging in, Radhika said.
GOOD KARMA WITHOUT THE COW'S MILK
At the University of Southern California's Good Karma Café, Sarvatma Das has been sharing his twist on Krishna-conscious cooking.
Das is an Argentinian-born chef and former president of the Hare Krishna temple in Tallahassee, Florida. He runs Good Karma with his wife Divya. Even before they met thirty years ago, each had fallen in love with cooking in Hare Krishna ashrams.
Now, the couple prepares vegan lunches, a fusion of South Asian and Latin American cuisines, three days a week for an $11 suggested donation.
Since myths tell of Lord Krishna's love and respect for cows and their milk, devotees usually consume dairy, too. But in Das' view, present-day farming abuses violate the religious principle of ahimsa (non-violence).
Das doesn't use any milk products at the café, even when the recipe calls for it. He makes cheese out of macadamia nuts and almonds. His halva uses coconut oil for butter.
Das also likes to improvise in the kitchen and relies on instinct, since Hare Krishnas don't taste-test their cooking.
"If it's going to be offered to Krishna, it should be brand new," Das said. "You don't give someone Christmas gifts that have been used."
Das said his sense of smell has become so refined, he can tell if a dish has enough salt. And besides, he said, God's blessings will mask any imperfections in the cooking.
Word of Good Karma's tastiness, if not the holiness, has spread around campus. Most café regulars aren't Krishna devotees. Das said he won't force-feed Vaishnava philosophy to anyone, unless they ask.
"We aren't hiding our religion, but we're not proselytizing either," the chef said. "We don't tell people, 'Here, have some holy food!'"
FOOD AND LOVE
Outside the Culver City temple on a Monday night, I chatted with Sanjay Khosla, a software architect visiting from the Bay Area. I recognized his face as one of the other South Asians from the Sunday feast crowd.
When Khosla told me he no longer considers himself an "official" Hare Krishna, I asked him what keeps drawing him back.
He said he appreciates the temple's spiritual environment. And for the most part, he still follows the Krishna diet.
Khosla gave up meat 20 years ago. At home, he and his wife don't cook with onion or garlic. He believes meditating is easier without these pungent ingredients.
"The calmer your mind is, the more you can dive in," he said. "You'll never find pearls on the surface of the ocean. You have to go deep."
Khosla believes what the Krishna devotee should be hungriest for is a loving relationship with God.
"Internal desire to be with the divine supersedes the tools to get there," he said. "People have forgotten how to be in love."
Maybe a bite of divine food can help them remember.
Krishna Narayanamurti reported this story as part of a grant from the Luce Foundation to cover religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora.