How I joined a cult, and what happened next – Chapter One

I wrote a blog post where I pointed a finger and laughed at the Hare Krishnas.

Most people do that quite easily, seeing them singing on the street in their funny clothes, but when that’s been your life for many years, it’s a big deal. It was liberating, it changed me. I needed to show that I’m not afraid. I got quite surprising reactions back, some of which helped me to break the old spell even more, but more of that later. Much later. If I get that far.

How did I become a ‘devotee’ after an atheist upbringing in East Germany? How did I give myself entirely to serving the guru? This is how it started. If I can keep going, maybe I’ll get to how it ends.

Chapter One

Growing up in East Germany, religion is against official dogma – Lutheran Christianity is the ok, as part of the culture, but everything else is verboten. To me, as an idealist, Eastern philosophy is attractive. I don’t care about the gods. I love Goethe, Schiller, the Weimar classics. A few of the Weimar poets (Hölderlin) and later German writers (Hesse) explored Eastern philosophy in their search for ‘authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality’. It is something I am desperate to know more about. (None of them talked about Krishna.)

I can’t get any literature about Hinduism in libraries or bookshops, but I find a biography of Shri Ramakrishna somewhere on the bookshelf of a friend in Berlin. Ramakrishna was a sadhu (saint) who fitted in well with a culture where there is a place for religious madness – I have since learned that he might well been quite literally mad, and used his frequent ‘samadhis’ (periods of diminished awareness of the outside world) to just escape from things he didn’t want to deal with. Ramakrishna’s disciple Vivekananda is credited with putting Hinduism on the world stage as a religion in its own right. (He still wasn’t talking about Krishna though.)

The next book I find is an anti-cult book. The Hare Krishnas are described in-depth, their rules and regulations, and the mantra chanting. To me it seems the most regulated of all cult environments and as such it seemed the most effective. Because why would anyone put that many regulations in place, if they didn’t have some absolute knowledge of how to lift people out of ignorance to a place where they can understand and realise the self? I take all the information and a summer job on a holiday island in the North for a month, go vegetarian, and start experimenting with the mantra meditation, on my own. It doesn’t do much for me. I must be doing it all wrong. I am 18, I have just finished my publishing studies and in September I am going to start my first job at Berliner Zeitung. The year is 1989.

I have a boyfriend who is into exploring alternative lifestyles – well, at this point it’s correct to say ‘I had’, because he has just been drafted into the army. He had long hair and John Lennon glasses, but when he was drafted he shaved it, completely – that’s the kind of guy he was. Also, because he couldn’t get out of army service, he made himself sick. I visited him in hospital and brought him a cake the month before that summer job. He was not in a good state. The summer job is on the same island as the hospital he is in, but I don’t see him again that whole month.

So that guy, my friend Jens – it still feels more natural to say friend than boyfriend – he has been to the Hare Krishna Sunday lunch in East Berlin. He won’t give me the address, he says I am just going to join them – I find it strange he knows me so well when we weren’t exactly in the habit of having long conversations while we were together. But after all, he’s the person who got a record player he could set on repeat, just so he could listen to My Sweet Lord over and over. Later after I do join up, he will write me a letter full of John Lennon quotes about personal freedom, and implore me to not give away my independence. But I take after George, throwing caution to the wind and my belongings away, and take up the practice of ‘devotional yoga’.

Back in 1989 we are slowly edging towards November. I work as a typesetter at a big publishing house in Prenzlauer Berg and live in a very basic Hinterhof-flat. Hinterhof seems to be a special Berlin word where there are blocks of flats around square tiled courtyards, and those in a certain angle on the ground floor will never get any light or warmth. My flat is one of those, but I don’t mind as I go home only to sleep. Berlin is the big wide world for me, even before the wall comes down.

Which it does a few months later. I have broken my ankle on my way to work, so I’m off sick, recuperating at my mum’s flat, back in my hometown of Rostock. The wall opens and everything changes. My ankle heals up, I go back to work and try to not get lost in the general confusion.

On a walk in West Berlin I meet a Hare Krishna with books on his arm. I ask if he has a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, and where the temple is. He helps me with both. Afterwards he keeps telling that story for years – most of the East Germans flooding through the check points have no idea what those books are. They buy them anyways with some of their one hundred Deutschmarks ‘welcome money’ because the books are colourful and they have been trained to respect books.

The next day I take part in a peace demonstration, and after that it’s Sunday and I visit the temple. It’s quite a come-down – it’s a flat in Kreuzberg, with a tacky white and gold curtain behind the altar. I offer to help with the cooking and am instantly considered a natural devotee because of my service attitude. The devotees immediately see how much they can use me. The guy who sold me my first book makes me believe I need a full set of all the books, so I go and withdraw all my money and buy a full set. The temple president uses my bank account to put a lot of East German money which will be converted to West German (real) money 1:1 on a certain day. It’s a scam but I believe them when they say it’s all for Krishna. And believe me, it wasn’t the last scam I saw.

A week or so later I stand on the streets with books myself, because if that dude can sell them, so can I. I sell some books and am invited to join the other booksellers (‘distributors’) on a trip to the big ‘sankirtan’ party in Zurich over New Year. Of course I accept – I’ve never been anywhere. I use almost all my ‘welcome money’ to buy a saree from another devotee who pretends to be my friend. She is Bavarian and has a huge crush on the temple president who she doesn’t stop talking about. There is a strict hierarchy and his position must have made him attractive. She never got anywhere with him, I doubt he ever married. She also was very proud of having chosen those curtains behind the altar.

So I go to Zurich and it’s all very weird. I remember mostly darkness, I’m not very good with lots of people and that house is packed. Everyone is there who took part in that year’s crazy Christmas Marathon – a tradition of using the month of December to push out as many books as possible. I sleep in a sleeping bag on a thin mat, squeezed into a big room like sardines, very carefully separated by gender. Next to me was the personal servant of the big guru, Vishnupad, who runs the North European zone. [After the founder passed away, his most eager disciples divided up the world among themselves. Vishnupad is the one keeping the tightest reigns of all. He was involved in a scandal in 1998 and left.] I listen to the language while she speaks. It is Swiss German but interspersed with a lot of English words. She speaks about getting the mercy by being able to cook for the guru etc. It is a weird babble to me but she is so immersed in her bliss that she doesn’t notice I had only just dropped into the whole thing and don’t speak the lingo. She is a very beautiful woman, doing this service with her husband, I notice quite a lot of really beautiful women. I still don’t know if I want to be like them, I feel mostly disconnected. I can see the rush of mad devotion they all feel but it’s not me.

I go back to Berlin, back to my job, quite bewildered. Some of what the devotees talk about makes perfect sense. I had felt a disconnect from my body, a disenchantment from getting drunk and having random sex, and I had felt the need to put a stop to being looked up and and down and judged by men. So going and becoming a nun seems a reasonable solution. I look at the people and am not sure. They all seem to be ok, yes, but the culture seems restrictive. The rules that control everything from what and how you eat to how you sleep to how many times you take a shower to every other area of life seem to be made up to keep a person dependent on the group. I ponder a lot.

In the meantime I spend more time at the temple and also babysitting some children. I don’t really know much about children and feel out of my depth. I don’t feel used, it already seems normal to me to be of service even when I don’t really want to do that particular service. I learn that the ego will try to keep me from Krishna’s service, that’s what its role is. It’s also called ‘the false ego’.

I learn Krishna is the supreme God [Supreme Personality of Godhead is the phrase they use] and the reason none of the other sadhus I had read books about were talking about Krishna, was because they were mayavadins and bad people. In fact every page of the books I start reading states this important distinction. [much later I will find out that this doesn’t appear in any of the books the founder, I’ll shorten his name to ACBS – because like every truly humble servant of god he has a name that’s REALLY long – translated from, but is his own addition.] Mayavadins think the impersonal Brahman (nirvana) is where the soul goes after liberation. Every lecture, every opportunity is used to point out that this is wrong, and Krishna is supreme and the Brahman is his effulgence, and the people who deny Krishna his supremeness are the worst sinners.

So now we feel superior not only to the rest of the world who don’t know this absolute truth, but also to the rest of the Hindu world. ACBS even managed to make his disciples believe that the other disciples of his own guru, his godbrothers, were bad association. But I don’t know that at this point.

A little more philosophy: We are not the physical but the soul inside. The soul (they say) is Krishna’s minute part and parcel, and we have fallen into the material world because we have the desire to be god ourselves – we have some capacity to control and enjoy, but we can only really be happy if we surrender to Krishna. And that’s the ultimate goal of self realisation.

In practice, to surrender means to follow the rules and regulations the founder had laid down for his organisation. The basic rules are the 4 regulative principles – no meat, fish or eggs, no illicit sex [anything not meant for procreation, even within marriage] no gambling and no intoxication (this includes coffee and chocolate). Everyone is required to chant 16 rounds of 108 maha-mantras each, a practice which takes at minimum two hours. The temple programme sandwiches the two hours set aside for chanting, so by the time it’s 9am you have already spent 5 hours singing, chanting, listening.

I see this and it seems such a brainwash. I start chanting again, it still doesn’t do much for me. The devotees have all the right sound bites ready. I am too covered by maya, I cannot feel the taste of the holy name because I don’t surrender to it, I need to chant more to be cleansed etc etc. I finally go to the temple in East Berlin and meet a spiritual master, an enthusiastic guy from Hamburg. He’s lovely and his disciples, who aren’t very much younger than him, seem very devoted. There’s a beautiful Swiss guy named Cedric who seems to look me right into the soul. The swami likes young guys. In that culture that doesn’t mean much, it’s just so impossible for them to like women and I guess they need some company. We ride the U-Bahn together. I feel a need  become more purified. I’m not sure what that means.

I spend time at the East Berlin temple and I notice how much weirdness there is between males and females. I don’t so much notice it as fall victim to it. I feel that if I fall in love with any of the guys I will have to leave, so the next thing I do is fall in love with one of the guys – well, whatever goes for love. There is this feeling that attraction is the enemy, that I am the enemy if I don’t learn to control myself. I’m starting to really go for it. I feel bad about observing that other people at the temple aren’t perfect either, and I’m being told that offending devotees is the most dangerous thing I can do. But it’s true? Never mind, your senses are covered by illusion, and maya will try to keep you away from Krishna. You have to take shelter in the holy name.

The people individually seem quite mundane, but there is a strong group identity. I remember a program we had in the East Berlin temple where we had bhajans (sitting down chanting with music) and someone played the [Indian, hand-pumped] harmonium. Just a few notes but it seemed to add so much. I like that. I liked some of the Bengali and Sanskrit songs they were singing during the morning programmes. None of the texts were understandable but I was always good with dadaist poetry, so I learned. I start playing their instruments too and adopt their lingo. And I start inviting my friends around to ‘give them prasadam’ – food cooked in the temple and offered to Krishna. It is supposed to be purifying. Of course I never hear from them again.

Talk starts of someone driving to Heidelberg soon, the German HQ and biggest temple at the time, and if I want to really join I could catch a ride with them. This is only 2 months after Zurich, and now I’m not sure how I could fit that much into such a short time. I take 2 weeks off from work and accept the lift to Heidelberg. I never go back to the job.

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