We arrived in Delhi, India in the mid-afternoon. As I stepped out of the plane, a waft of heat blasted my face and whirled into my nostrils, waking my travel-weary senses. The surrounding horizon was dry, dusty, and shimmering with a reddish-orange radiance as if on fire. I am certain I heard the trill of melodic, ancient mantras resonating from somewhere in the far distance. Dark, leather-skinned, black-eyed men grappled and fought each other to help us with our bags, chattering loudly in Hindi, studying us curiously — these white people dressed as if they belonged in India. We wore our best saris and sandals, and we marked our foreheads with sandalwood-paste tilaka as is worn by Vaisnavites. We wore strands of beads made from the sacred Tulasi plant looped around our necks, and we carried our japa mala, sandalwood prayer beads, in little cotton sacks marked with Sanskrit letters. We looked like we could be Hindus, save the color of our skin. We weren’t tourists, but we definitely were not from India either.
We followed our leaders down the stairs, across the tarmac and into the terminal like little goslings. We had been chosen for this trip as a reward, a respite from the hard work we were doing in America — distributing books and soliciting donations. The pilgrimage was part of our spiritual journey, to expose us to the temples of India, to witness the culture, to visit the places of Krishna’s pastimes. The idea was for the excursion to help us gain a clearer understanding of what we ourselves were trying to emulate, to give us a better view of why it was important that we spread the word and help purify the rest of the population. As Bhakti Yogis, it was our role, our duty, to be of service to God and spread the Hare Krishna movement.
We were the young women of the Seattle temple, the girls who scurried back and forth across the linoleum floor of SeaTac airport to distribute literature and collect money. Six days a week following our morning rituals of chanting, worship, and scripture class, we dressed ourselves in civilian clothes, grabbed a quick breakfast, and piled into the Winnebago camper to hurry south. By 6 a.m., we were ready to welcome the first incoming passengers: Alaska pipeline workers coming home for a break and G.I.s traveling to and from tours of duty, all with pockets filled with cash, flattered by the attention of a pretty, flirtatious girl. We waited as the wave of passengers approached, picking the most likely givers out of the crowd, and we swooped in to pin flowers on their collars before they could protest. We handed the travelers a book, saying, “We’re with ISKCON,” pointing to our badges, then told a story about feeding starving children and printing books in thirteen different languages. “You know, the International Society for Kri——— Consciousness,” I would say if they looked quizzical, being sure to blur over the word ‘Krishna’ and hoping it sounded more like ‘Christian.’ We had been taught tricks. We would ask for large bills, explaining that it was unsafe for us to carry so many small bills in our satchels. Most often this worked. With a little coaxing, the traveler would hand over a twenty, a fifty, or even a hundred dollar bill, and we would give change slowly, stopping every few dollars. With a tilt of the head and a little smile, we would say, “You can leave it at that, right?” Each of us was assigned a minimum amount of money we were expected to bring home every day, and we took this seriously. Lately, I hadn’t been meeting my quota. I was tired. People were starting to catch on. They knew who we were despite our disguises and pretenses, and it was exhausting to be pushed out of the way and called a fraud. For me, the leaders hoped the trip to India would cure what they perceived as my lack of surrender. If this didn’t work, I would be matched with a husband.
In Delhi, we spent a few days shopping for saris, raw-silk fabrics, jewels for the deities, and temple paraphernalia. We rode around the city in a rickshaw, well-fed Americans pulled by a thin, barefoot man. The city buzzed with taxis and bicycles and rickshaws crisscrossing and running into each other, horns honking, bells ringing, and shouting people everywhere. Vendors whistled and called to us, luring us into their alcoves, jingling bangles and ankle bracelets, snapping open colorful saris and silks, offering sodas with ice. A snake charmer played his punji, coaxing a cobra out of its basket. A smiling woman offered areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves, her lips and teeth stained a deep red from chewing the nuts. Just on the outskirts of the marketplace, cows roamed freely, and women followed them, collecting piles of warm dung, forming them into large patties to dry in the sun, later to be used as fuel for stoves. Holy men clad in loincloths, their bodies painted with ash and oil, dreadlocks piled high on their heads and beards dyed yellow with turmeric, sat crossed legged on the stoops of temples, watching us pass by with deep, knowing eyes. The atmosphere was dizzying. The food was spicy and pungent, even for my sense of taste which I thought had acclimated to Indian food and spices over the past couple of years. Though we were careful about the water, we didn’t think about the ice, and I developed a mild case of dysentery. For several days, my diet consisted of white rice, Coca-Cola, and buffalo-milk yogurt that smelled of the dry, grassy field.
We ventured by train to Vrndavana, the holy land and place of pilgrimage where millions of Hindus visit yearly. Vrndavana is the town where the Krishna stories are based, where it is said that Krishna grew up and played with his cowherd boyfriends and girlfriends, where he danced on the head of the great serpent, Kaliya, subduing him and saving the villagers from the deadly poison. We stayed at the Hare Krishna temple that had been built there, one of many of hundreds of temples, but it was a temple revered by local townspeople. It was grand and opulent and clean, having been built and maintained with American and European money. It had become a tourist attraction, and parts of the temple were off limits even to us. The air in Vrndavana felt magically ancient; it was hot and filled with the smells of incense and cooking fires and spices. Peacocks fanned their iridescent blue and green tail feathers, whirring and singing to the peahens, their calls like the meowings of cats. Hundreds of little monkeys clambered up and down the roots of banyan trees and ran at us, grabbing at our belongings, hoping to snatch something from our hands. Beggars squatted on the roadside with tin cups held out, pleading. During the night, sentries sounded from rooftop to rooftop, signaling to each other that all was well. In Vrndavana, we were treated as Vaisnavites, as authentic devotees of Krishna, and we were permitted to enter places that were normally restricted from ordinary tourists.
We walked up the hundreds of steps to visit the temple of Radharani, Krishna’s favorite girlfriend. As we climbed, we stopped at dozens of tiny temples dug into the side walls along the stairway. These temples had dirt floors, cleanly swept, and were dark, lit only with candles, their altars displaying brass and marble deities of Radha and Krishna colorfully dressed and bejeweled. The priests offered us morsels of prasadam, food that had been offered to the deities, in exchange for donations. We visited the Radha Kunda, Radharani’s bathing pond, and touched the water, placing our wet fingers to our foreheads. It is considered to be the supreme of all holy places, containing the most pure and sacred water and is said to contain magical properties to heal. While there, we were accosted and circled by village children who were bartering strings of beads made out of mud from the base of the pond. They pressed the beads into our hands, signaling for something in return, pointing at our bracelets and hair clips. These children were happy to receive anything we might have in our possession. I gave a button with a picture of our guru, a bobby-pin from my hair, the rubber band that held my braid together. One of the women I was traveling with became indignant when she realized she was expected to give something in return for her gift, and she chastised the child, raising her voice and pointing her finger, “I’m not giving you anything. You gave this to me!” The child tried to pull the strand out of her hand, breaking the string and scattering beads everywhere. Within seconds, the adult villagers circled around us, pulling the waif-like children toward them, scolding us in Hindi. How ironic! This was the exact tactic we used at the airport at home.
It took a while to readjust after arriving back in Seattle from our pilgrimage to India. We were given a couple of days to get used to the time difference and recover from jet lag, but soon, we were expected to get back to our airport duties and fulfill our quotas. For me, this was impossible. My trip to India had jogged something in me, something deep and unnerving. I had a lingering and nagging awareness that, although I wore a sari every day, applied tilaka to my body, chanted the maha mantra, worshipped the Tulasi plant, sang in kirtans and studied Vedic scriptures, something about my practice was ingenuous, distorted, contrived, and forced. My deep-down sense was that I was brainwashed and imprisoned by a force I didn’t know how to battle. The life I was living as a Hare Krishna in America was nothing like what I had witnessed in India. I was a foreigner trying to be something that I was not, stuffing myself into someone else’s culture. I had been well programmed to push away any negative thinking, though, or any thinking at all, so I did as best I could. My days at the airport were becoming filled with more and more hours of hiding in bathroom stalls, trying to get my nerve up and force my concentration, but secretly I fantasized that someone would come and save me, deprogram me, and help me to think clearly and on my own. The temple leaders were becoming dismayed about my quota not being met. They forced me into cold showers, yelled, accused, and belittled me relentlessly. They gave me personal lectures about my inability to surrender and told me I was going to hell. When nothing worked, a marriage was arranged. But that is another story.